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It’s Straight!

Owing to an uneven fender overhang that’s existed since I bought my Grand National, I’ve always been suspicious as to whether or not my car was straight or had been in an accident before I got my hands on it.

Even after I replaced all the body bushings and yanked the car straight (as far as my measurements could tell), the uneven overhang persisted. It finally bugged me enough I called up a body shop here in town known for frame work and building race cars, and had them put it on their frame rack to measure it all.

Turns out the car is straight as an arrow and square as Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The fenders themselves are misshappen. Good ‘ol 1980s GM quality.

So the overhangs will remain, but the chassis is 100% healthy, even after all the racing I’ve been doing with the car. I have just a few things left to get installed before the season starts: a brace to keep the engine from rocking over too far under load, and new oil cooler lines. Both are in my possession and likely will go on this weekend.


2016 Racing preparations!

Well, the 2016 racing season is fast approaching. Interlaced with the work on the basement I detailed in my last entry were preparations for this year’s autocross season.

The Buick was re-classed into CAM-T for 2016, which moves me away from modern supercars like the Camaro SS/Z28 and the 2015+ Mustangs and toward old buckets turned into supercars, like Mary Pozzi’s amazing Camaro.

Mary Pozzi’s split bumper Camaro at the 2015 CAM Challenge East in Peru, Indiana

That staring me in the face, the car was definitely in need of some improvements. It had issues with tire scrubbing at high steering angles, which caused some horrible understeer, and the transmission needed some reinforcement. I also found a cracked brake rotor.

My first Christmas present to myself was a set of SpeedTech front control arms. These replaced my ghetto-fab combination of SPC adjustable upper arms an truck ball joints. I’d always had concerns about the ball joints breaking on me. The tuck balljoints didn’t quite fit the taper of the spindle. The arms also ended up being

New SpeedTech control arms and a home built bumpsteer compensation kit

asymmetric, which caused the car to dive to the left under hard braking and turn-in was inconsistent. I also combined the arms with lower ball joints that are 1″ taller than stock. This keeps the higher effective spindle height and the improved camber curve I got with my old truck ball joint, lowered the front of the car an inch, and the arms allowed nearly an additional degree of caster along with nearly one degree of negative static camber. Using a taller lower ball joint required some bumpsteer correction. Kits to do it cost $150 from places like RideTech, but I managed to piece it together using parts from Speedway Motors for about 2/3 of the RideTech price.

The ride of the car with the new arms is much better than it was on the old setup, I’m anxious to see if they actually improve things.

A power steering cooler has been added, sandwiched in between the A/C condenser and the radiator. That operation resulted in a broken reservoir nipple, so I had to replace the reservoir. I also adjusted the lash on the steering box hoping to tighten up the steering.

A cracked brake rotor has been replaced and front bearings have been re-packed with fresh grease.

Cracked brake rotor. Eeek!

Lastly, a CK Performance shift kit went into the transmission. This kit reprograms the valvebody and eliminates the 1-2 and 3-4 accumulators to firm up the shifts and improve kickdown. This kit came highly recommended by the Boost Crew Motorsports.

All the fluids have been replaced. New Royal Purple 10w30 in the crankcase, Valvoline synthetic in the transmission, Amsoil in the rear end, and Wilwood Racing fluid in the brake system.

The one major modification that’s missing? Tires. I’m holding off on those until the “go-to” tire for 2016 is identified. That may not happen until May. The new arms also give me enough clearance in the front of the car to run 275mm tires, but those sizes would require new wheels. We shall see how that pans out over the course of the season.


A busy winter!

Been awhile since I’ve posted, not that anybody noticed. Nevertheless, it has been a very busy winter. Car stuff, house stuff, people stuff. Lot’s going on. So I’ll start with the house stuff.

When I bought my house, there was a “finished” room in the basement. It consisted of four walls, three doorways (without doors) and some nasty carpet. The walls and ceiling were “finished” with some really cheap and poorly done 1/4″ drywall panels. It worked for awhile as a playroom, then an excercise room, them I moved my computer down there and used it for an office, then it turned into a mess. Just a place I walked through on the way to the laundry area. The carpet was ripped out after it was waterlogged. Mold started growing underneath the wallpaper. It was poop.

The first step was, of course, demolishing the room as it stood:

Old drywall torn down

Tearing this drywall down uncovered several issues of an electrical nature. The wall outlets in the basement has simply been spliced in at an old box. I found numerous other issues buried in the walls: a junction box with no cover stuff full of insulation; two circuits run down the same three wire run (two hots, one neutral, no ground!). I ended up rewiring no just this room, but the room above it all the way back to the panel.

Once demo was done, I installed some doors:

New doors to furnace and laundry areas

Then I called a guy to come do the drywall for me. The results were fantastic:

Dyrwall up and mudded

The drywall was quickly followed by paint and wall fixtures for a home theater:

The TV wall. Electric and terminals for HDMI, Ethernet, and Power, plus right, center, and left speakers

Then the ceiling. A finished ceiling was a challenge. Not only was the floor of the basement not level (it slopes towards a floor drain), but the floor joists above were also far from level. It’s an old house. I also needed access to wiring, so a drywall ceiling was out of the question. A conventional drop ceiling would have provided a ceiling that was simply too low.

The answer turned out to be a snap-together system that used drop ceiling tiles. I had to shim it quite a bit to get the ceiling level, but I got it:

Snap-in ceiling system and new track lighting

I managed to use a laser level to set a datum on the wall, then worked across the joists. The results were fantastically acceptable.

Some cabinets were next. I had originally envisioned a bar, but there just wasn’t enough space. A cool drink fridge finished it off nicely:

New cabinets and refrigerator

And finally, the electronics:

New TV, existing speakers moved from upstairs.

For the nerds, the TV is a 55″ Vizio UHD. I got a new Pioneer recievier and a Sony 4K Blu-Ray player to go along. The Pioneer sounds much better than the old Sony I had upstairs. All the components are behind the TV wall, with an I/R repeater passing remote signals through the wall to the components. The front speakers are Paradigm, and the rears are vintage 1974 Bose Interaudio Model 1’s. The rears belonged to my grandfather. They were passed to me with rotted out surrounds on the woofers, which I repaired myself to bring the speakers back to life. It all works beautifully, though I can’t turn the volume up too much without clipping the rear speakers. They’re only rated for 40 watts and the new receiver is 110w per channel.

The room is now a cozy home theater. I’ve also added a couch and recliner, and the fridge is stocked. It was well worth the time spent.


Positive Ventilation Part 2

Well, really not part two, because I’m not changing anything, just reporting back.

I am happy to report that after this past Sunday’s KYSCCA Event at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, my PCV solution works. The car did’t puke any oil out of the breathers. Victory!


Tensioner woes

The 1984-1987 (and 1989 Turbo Trans Am) engines had something that was relatively new to GM in the 1980s: A serpentine belt with a tensioner to drive the accessories. All the other G-Body powerplants (305 V8, 231 non-turbo V6, and the 4.3L V6) used multiple V-belts, with the tension set by feel.

The Grand National, with its fancy fuel injection and turbocharger, required something new. So, instead of a bunch of V-belts, it got an inch-wide serpentine with a tensioner to maintain tension on the belt instead of prying at accessories with a screwdriver.

This was all well and good, until my tensioner started making noise. Terrible noise. And it wasn’t the bearing in the tensioner pulley, no. the spring-loaded tension mechanism was popping and grinding and making a terrible racket. It needed to be replaced.

Problem: they don’t make it anymore. GM discontinued it. All the parts store no longer had them in stock. Turns out the tensioner assembly was unique to this engine, so it’s NLA. Thankfully, the good people at White Racing has created this new billet tensioner to replace the discontinued stock unit. It’s expensive considering the OE tensioner used to sell for $60, but this is an old, niche car. Gotta pay to play.

So I got one.

New tensioner on left, old and busted on the right

The first thing you notice is it’s shiny. The second is the massive amount of metal around the bolt holes compared to the stock unit. Where the stock unit has thin cast-in gussets, this new piece has been machined leaving as much material around the bolt holes as possible. This was done to alleviate a nasty habit the stock pieces used to have: they’d break. A popular thing to do with the Buick V6 was to put an eyebolt through the alternator, then hook that eyebolt to a ratchet strap that was attached to a hole in the frame. This kept the engine from rocking over to the passenger side and breaking the driver side motor mount. The problem came when people started making big power, all that force got transferred through the alternator case to the tensioner (which the alternator attaches to). The tensioner would then break. Not good. This tensioner is manufactured with a lot more metal hoping to avoid this situation.

Installation was pretty straightforward. Disconnect the battery, take the belt loose, get the intake tube that runs from the MAF to the turbocharger out of the way, unbolt the alternator and swing it out of the way, then remove the two remaining bolts to pull the old tensioner. Installation is reverse of assembly.

After installation, all of the undesirable noises and vibrations that had been coming from the front of my engine are gone. That includes not just the popping, but a persistent click that I had assumed to be a lifter. It was the tensioner all along.


Positive Ventilation

Turbocharged Buick V6 engines are famous for many things. One of them is puking oil out of every possible spot when the engine is under boost. They blow the dipstick tubes out. They force oil past the rear main seal. They spray oil out the valve cover breathers.  Mine even was forcing oil out of the PCV valve grommet under the intake plenum. They can be a huge mess. Even my newly rebuilt engine is doing this. It’s blowby. Gas getting past the rings when the engine is under boost. My first few autocross events, I was coming into the grid smoking after my third run from oil escaping the valve covers and pouring onto the exhaust. It was embarassing, it made a mess of the lots we race in (BAD), and made a mess of the engine compartment. I have been determined to fix it. After several attempts, I think I’ve nailed it. I’ve come up with a system using two catch cans and an industrial strength check valve. It goes a little something like this:

In this first picture, you see the passenger side of the intake manifold. Down underneath the plenum is an OEM PCV valve. The Goodyear hose runs to a catch can bolted to the side of the intercooler, then back up and through that brass check valve. The check valve is rated at 400psi, and is there to prevent manifold pressure from getting into the crankcase when under boost. Without that check valve, positive manifold pressure would easily overpower the OE PCV valve and pressurize the crankcase, which forces the oil out and makes a mess.

Now, the stock set up simply had a hose running from the PCV valve to the PCV inlet tube you saw the check valve attached to. The catch can keeps oil from making it to the check valve and gumming it up, as well as keeping the oil out of the intake tract.

But, there has to be another part. The stock PCV system had a vent in the passenger side valve cover that was connected to the turbocharger inlet. That set up mostly worked, but once you turn up the boost, that single vent simply isn’t enough. I’ve added a second vent.

Instead of one vent line, I ran two. Each valve cover has a Mr. Gasket breather cap on it and a 5/8″ line coming off of it. The lines go into a tee just behind the alternator, then run to another catch can.

From this catch can, we run out to a fitting that’s been screwed into the inlet pipe ahead of the turbo but behind the mass airflow sensor. This is important and I’ll explain.

PCV systems are basically a tuned leak. A port on the intake manifold provides a vacuum source, and a vent in the valve cover/intake tract provides a source of fresh air. Engine vacuum draws air into the vent, through the crankcase, and into the intake manifold where the crankcase vapors are burned in the cylinders.

In a computer controlled vehicle, this poses a problem. If you vent to atmosphere, say as if you’d used an open breather element on the valve covers instead of the closed ones I used, you would get extra oxygen in the cylinders that hadn’t been metered by the MAF. On a Buick using the stock computer, this extra oxygen is detected by the O2 sensor, and the computer adds fuel. In the Buick’s case, it adds WAY too much. So much that it washes out the rings, contaminates the oil, and eventually ruins the bearings. I didn’t want this to happen.

So, the vent is plumbed into the intake tract after the MAF. This ensures the air entering the crankcase through the vents has been metered, so when it shows up in the intake manifold via the PCV valve, the computer has already taken the air into account. It keeps the mixture correct, and doesn’t kill itself.

Under boost, the check valve on the manifold side closes, and the turbocharger inlet should draw out the crankcase gases via the breathers. In all cases, pressure should not build up inside the crankcase. It shouldn’t leak, and any atomized oil will condense in the catch cans and not foul up the turbocharger. All the air in the system goes through the MAF, and all should be happy. So is it?

Yes. In the screen capture below, you’ll see a grid on the right side. That is the Block Learn Multiplier (BLM) table. It’s basically a fuel trim table. If everything is absolutely perfect (70 degrees F, no leaks, perfect engine), all the numbers would be 128.  They’ll vary with conditions (temperature, whether the gasoline is RFG or not, etc.). If you have a vacuum leak to atmosphere, like you would with a PCV system vented on the valve cover to the air, you’ll see BLM numbers above 150, and that’s bad. These are all in the low 130s, which is pretty good.

The PCV system isn’t leaking in air from the atmosphere. I’ve already found a very slight amount of water/oil mix in the smaller catch can after a 20 mile drive, and I’ve got no leaking oil running down the valve covers or collecting under the intake plenum. Preliminary indications are positive, and I’ll report further after my next autocross event to see if this system stands up to competition.


New Seats!

So let’s talk about seats for a bit. Seats are important. Seats keep you in front of the steering wheel while you’re driving. When you turn, seats, combined with the seat belts, keep you from shifting around inside the car. In a crash, seats and seat belts keep you from getting crushed, either by slamming into the rear seat (or the passengers that might be there) or eating the steering wheel. They’re very, very important.

That said, the seats that came in GM products of the ’80s were designed to meet safety standards of the time as well as the desire of the typical ’80s customer for a smooshy, compliant seat. While the Grand National got a decent set of buckets for the period, the foam is still smooshy and the bolsters are set up for a person much wider than me. In a recent autocross, I was using my grip on the steering wheel to keep in place, and the tilt mechanism gave out. The wheel dropped into my lap, and I nearly spun the car out. Not good.

Not too long after that, an acquaintance of mine was racing his Malibu in Lexington, and his entire column failed, and he actually did spin the car. No bueno.

So I bought some seats. What I chose were some black buckets from NRG. I got the pair at Amazon for $299. They’re a ripoff of the Recaro bucket seat you could find in the 2000 Honda Integra Type-R. I picked them because I remember my friend’s Type-R and how well I fit in those seats. Honda made them to fit smaller Japanese customers, not fat Americans, and I fit in them perfectly.

Step one was removing the stock seat, and vacuuming up all the dog hair that was under them.

After removing them, I bolted down the brackets I sourced from Wedge Brackets. These things saved me gobs of time. Fabricating brackets would have taken me hours, and Wedge makes brackets and sliders for OEMs, so I have a bit more confidence in the safety of these in a collision that something I would have made myself.

Next step is getting the sliders bolted onto the seats. The NRG seats came with their own double-locking sliders, so I used those.

The NRG seats showed their Chinese-ness here. The bolt holes for the sliders were covered by fabric, I had to locate them by feel, then use an awl to punch holes in the fabric for the bolts to run through. Annoying.

After that, it was a matter of bolting the seat/slider assembly to the car.

Thoughts on these seats? They’re cheap. The fabric isn’t top-notch. The foam is very firm. In fact, I’ve gotten a new appreciation for how stiff my suspension actually is. The old seats sucked up a lot of the smaller bumps. The lack of squish in the cushions also means I’m sitting slightly higher in the car than I was. I may need to swap out for thinner sliders. The bolsters are fantastic. My skinny posterior fits perfectly and they upper bolsters seem to contain my shoulder and midsection pretty well. I’m able to take corners at speed with just fingertips on the wheel, and that’s using just the three point seat belt. Final verdict on how well they hold is reserved for the next autocross. I’m hopeful I can get away without a harness, because I need my back seat to remain usable.

These are also light compared to the stockers. With sliders, they’re 25 pounds each. The brackets are about 2-3 pounds. The stock power driver seat was over 50, and the passenger seat was close to 40.

But the best benefit? My irreplaceable stock seats are now wrapped in plastic and in the basement, safe from sweat and spilled drinks for the foreseeable future.

Wrapped for storage!



A clean garage means a clean mind

After a year of wrenching on this Buick, I’d let the garage get away from me. It was a mess. Such a mess that it really wasn’t a good idea to do any intense work, and I have some intense work planned for this winter. Things like replacing the body bushings, measuring all the suspension points and plugging them into some suspension software to see if I need to fix any of the mount points, a shift kit in the transmission, and new seats/restraints.  All of that requires a clean floor and plenty of space around the car.

After two days of work, I’m happy to report the garage is ready:

Floor is clean, tools are all put away. I still have stuff on the floor on the sides that I need to get hangers for, but:


Both cars fit, and I can walk all the way around both of them and open the doors with the garage door shut. My next installment will be a new PCV system for the Buick. A new PCV system that will hopefully end my issues with oil being forced out of the valve cover vents. Stay tuned.


My fastest run from the CAM Challenge




CAM Challenge East

I had the honor of participating in the first Speedway Motors CAM Challenge East, hosted by the SCCA at Grissom Air Base in Peru, Indiana, this past weekend.

To say it was a blast is an understatement. The course was fast, the cars were incredible, and the people were fantastic. The contrast between this event and the National Tour event I ran way back in 2003 was astounding. These CAM folks are fun to be around. Everybody enjoyed themselves. The “ringer” cars that whiney people said would show up and clean everybody’s clock showed up, and some clocks were cleaned, and NOBODY GOT UPSET. Because this crew appears to show up to have fun, not win. That is a novel concept for a national-level SCCA event.
The G-Force! from left to right: Andrew Scott, Lance Hamilton, Dave Nutting, James Bishir
One of the highlights was meeting up with some fellow G-Body owners. We had four: Myself, Lance Hamilton, Dave Nutting, and James Bishir. James is especially notable because this was his first ever autocross event. He was the perfect n00b. He asked questions, he talked to people, he listened, and he improved every single run. His first run, he was ten seconds off pace. By Sunday morning, he had beaten me by seven hundredths of a second.

Another treat was getting to watch Robby Unser and two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. up close. They were both running in beautifully engineered machines built by Speedway Motors, and they were both blisteringly fast. But much to what should be the consertnation of the CAM doom and gloom crowd, the Unsers didn’t prevail in CAM-T on Saturday. Nope. They showed up with pit crew in professionally built race cars, and themselves were professional race car drivers with multi-decade careers. On Saturday they got beat by a kid – Cody Mason. And nobody was mad.

Takeaways for me? I need more tire. A lot more tire. I was running on 245mm tires, and was probably on the narrowest tire of any car at the event. Dave Nutting was also on 245s. James Bishir was running 275 in the front, 295 rear. Lance Hamilton had 275 all around, and everybody that beat all of us was on 305-315mm tires. Steamrollers. Thanks to being able to eyeball Lance and James’ cars, I can start planning on what I need to do to run similar sized rubber next year.

Here’s a link to my Google photo album from the weekend: