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8 Hours of the Cascades

(preceded by the Northwest Mini-Enduro Series 2-hour season finale)

17 October 2015

For reasons I won't bother going into (ugh, money, what else?), I'd only planned on doing one race in 2015, so that I could keep my car number and primarily to keep my license current. I had talked to a team about running the fall enduro in Portland, but then decided that, between the cost and the fact I'd only run twice over two seasons, there wasn't much point. In September, though, I got a surprise query from Eric Krause asking if I wanted to run a stint in the enduro for basically seat-filler money. I knew (and he was pretty clear about it anyway) that there was a good chance we'd DNF the race, considering he wasn't likely to get the car repaired from the fire until the last minute, but it was a chance to get the "enduro experience" for less money than what had caused me to decide not to. Also, in an interesting twist to "just" doing the fall 8-hour race, joining the team would also get me an entry in the Casa Bella 300 (run concurrently with the beginning of the enduro) and a stint in Scott Norton's new-to-him Camaro SS in the two-hour, season-ending, mini-enduro series race. Who can say no to all of that?

Aside from the potential issues with Eric's 968, now with a Chevy V8, I would only get a tiny amount of time to familiarize myself with Scott's car before I'd have to get in and race. Oh, and, due to the fixed seat-back brace in his car, both Scott's and my seating positions would be compromised by having to pick one position for us both. And Scott's five inches taller than I am, mostly in the leg...

The drivers and crew:

Friday

As is typical when it works out for both of us—we only live a couple miles apart—I was going to get a ride down to Portland with Eric. I arrived at his house just as he was getting the car ready to load into the trailer, which was also my first opportunity to hear the car with its new engine and see it post-fire. If nothing else, it looked good and sounded fantastic. We got the car loaded up, along with my fuel jugs and fuel pump, and then repositioned some equipment in the trailer to redistribute the weight a little better. When we were done, we noticed that the rear tires of Eric's Yukon XL were looking a bit stressed with all the tongue weight of the trailer, so we dug out his brand-new electric air pump and pumped them up a fair bit.

We got on the road only a little bit later than we'd intended, but still ran into the typical Friday afternoon slowdown through Bellevue, Newcastle, and Renton, and then a crazy-long slowdown from downtown Tacoma to well past Joint Base Lewis-McChord. We then settle in for the long, but easy, tow the rest of the way to Portland... right up until we ran into the slowest slowdown of the whole trip, near Chehalis. We ultimately discovered it was caused by a large U-Haul truck next to the highway, upside-down and mostly in a storage pond. As I commented to Eric at the time, I sure hope it wasn't full of the guy's worldly possessions, which would now be wet as well as jumbled all over creation.

We rolled into the paddock and were directed to our paddock space, between where Scott and Cam were already setting up and the cut in the pit-lane wall. On the other side of Scott's trailer was Mike McAleenan, and Jerold, TJ, and Nathan from Lowe Group Racing, preparing to use the 2-hour mini-enduro as a test session for the 25-hour race at Thunderill in December.

Once we got registered and ran cars and drivers through technical inspection, we headed out for a team dinner at Hooter's, of all places. (My first time.) That was... interesting (our waitress actually carried out two mugs of beer, stacked on top of each other, on her head, with no hands), but far and away the best part of the evening was listening to Bruce tell stories both from his racing career and about his collector auto and vintage racecar dealership. They were fascinating, frequently hilarious, and supremely entertaining. In fact, I will take this opportunity to repeat what we all told him multiple times that night and again the next day: this is a man that needs to write these things down and get them published.

Saturday

With no pre-enduro "Test 'n' Tune" on Friday, we only had a one-hour practice session in the morning to shake down Eric's car and also get a couple of people at least some experience in cars they'd never driven before. Making things a bit more interesting, we'd had a decent rain overnight and the track was quite wet. Rain tires were definitely the order of the day, at least until things (hopefully) dried out.

Pre-race

The plan was that Eric would start the practice in his car, since he'd only driven it around his neighborhood since the rebuild, and then I'd get in for 10–15 minutes to get used to the new engine and pedal setup (not least of which, unboosted brakes), before swapping over to Scott's car for the final half-hour of practice. This would be my "familiarization flight" before I'd have to start the 2-hour race 15 minutes after the practice ended.

First things first, though, and after getting our paddock spaces ready for the day, we headed off to the drivers and crew chiefs meetings. The drivers meeting, as they sometimes do, went on WAY longer than it probably needed and really cut into the time we had to make sure the cars were ready for the day. For Eric, among other things, this meant cutting off the unneeded brake pedal bracket that was getting in our way. (The new engine meant there was no longer enough room for the brake booster, so he'd swapped over to a floor-mounted Tilton pedal setup.) For Scott, this meant picking up and installing a set of rain tires he'd had mounted while we were in the meeting. The bummer was they went on a set of new-to-him wheels that, it turned out, wouldn't actually fit within his front fenders with the tires on. We didn't have time to swap the tires on the wheels, so we'd be running the practice and possibly the 2-hour on a mismatched set of wheels and dry-weather tires.

Speaking of "time," we suddenly realized we were out of it, and Eric and I scrambled to get changed into our gear. Scott and Cam, meanwhile, were still getting the tire situation and some other issues worked out. Already, we were off our day's plan...

Eric took his car out for about 10 minutes or so, and then brought it back for my orientation laps. With a wet track, lots of torque, and a car I hadn't driven much (and not at all in a while), I don't mind saying I was a little nervous, especially since the car had just "returned from the grave." Before I went out, Eric described the track conditions and mentioned he was running in really high gears due to the conditions, exiting Turn 7 in 4th, for example, instead of the usual 3rd.

(Note: For clarity when naming corners at Portland, I always use the same numbers regardless of whether the chicane is in use. For non-chicane races, as this one, that means the first corner at the end of the front straight is Turn 4.)

As I usually do when using an unfamiliar clutch for the first time, I had a rough start getting the car moving and earned myself a somewhat-severe look from Eric in the process. (I'm always twitchy about lighting up the drive wheels, which is purely a street-car concern, but I haven't yet been able to shake it.) I did eventually get it going, though, and immediately noticed two things: 1) at low revs, the new V8 is really quiet and is still, essentially, a street-car engine; and 2) I wasn't sure if it was the shifter, or the 5-speed gearbox Eric had put in as a temporary replacement for the 6-speed (lost the ring-and-pinion gear), but I thought shifting gears felt really mushy and uncharacteristically vague for this car. Preview?

As well as getting used to the car's new horsepower and torque, and the different feel to the gearbox, I was also going to be getting used to the new Tilton pedal setup. I adjusted to the bottom-hinged clutch and throttle quickly enough, but the unboosted brakes were really challenging. I was really surprised at the level of physical effort required to get any kind of performance out of things, which then led to back-of-the mind scenarios of insufficient brake pressure in a faster-than-I'm-used-to car on a wet track. Not fun, especially when you're as generally out of practice with racing as I'd become over the last couple years.

In terms of throttle control on the wet track, Eric was absolutely right about Turn 7. It was quite easy to brake the rear end loose on acceleration in 4th gear, and once I even managed to get it loose in 5th gear, which I tried using for a few of the wetter laps as a way of minimizing the effects of a heavy foot.

I was just starting to get some confidence in things when I got the radio call that it was time to come in and let Bruce get a turn, as he was going to be starting the 2-hour race and needed to check out the same things (pedal setup, V8, surface conditions) as I did. I needed to swap over to Scott's car anyway, as I was going to be starting a race in less than an hour in a car I'd never driven, but all I could think about was that I really needed more time in Eric's: I was going to hop into it mid-race of the 8-hour and I was wondering how I could avoid spending the first 30 minutes figuring out how to drive it fast while adjusting to the different brakes.

Due to the delay caused by having to swap tires again, Scott hadn't gone out in his car until well into the session and he was still circulating when I got out of the Porsche. I think there were about 20 minutes left when Scott finally pulled in for my turn. I immediately realized that the shared seating position we'd decided on was pretty unpleasant, given how much I had to stretch to reach the pedals, and even that was with my toes. I couldn't even heel/toe to match revs while downshifting under braking, something that wasn't that big of a problem at the tentative pace I was using, but which could be an issue later in the race. All that aside, and helped in no small part by driving well within my limits due to the slow drying of the track, I found myself getting comfortable with the car more quickly than I'd expected. (Fourth-generation, F-body Camaros look awfully big, but drive one for a bit and you quickly realize the chassis is relatively small, making them more maneuverable than you might expect.)

You'd be excused for thinking that list of challenges was quite enough, but unfortunately you'd be wrong. We were using Scott's radio setup at Portland for the very first time and, while I was happy that the radio harness swap I'd done from old to new helmet was successful, it also meant that I was getting an earful of painfully loud interference from crossing channels with someone else's radio. Other than that, I could hear Cam okay and he could hear me, but definitely something we were going to need to correct. Oh, and did I mention that the practice session was doing double-duty as the qualifying session for the 2-hour race? As if the environment wasn't challenging enough, there was all kinds of vehicular chaos going on around me, especially as the session wound down. I saw more than one car slide off the track, including one that smacked into the wall at Turn 10 and two that smacked into each other. Crazy.

Once I returned to the pits, I also discovered that the seating position was more than just unpleasant, it simply was not going to work: aside from the heel/toe thing, it turns out I wasn't actually able to depress the accelerator all the way to the firewall. After my seat fitting on Thursday evening, Scott had had doubts that we'd actually be able to share a seating position, and so decided to drill another hole in the seatback brace, which would allow adjusting the seat more specifically for both of us. While that would help me with a bunch of things, heel/toe was still going to be out of the question, due to the isolated location of the accelerator compared to the brake pedal. (Turns out, because of ankle injuries when he was younger, Scott doesn't heel/toe anyway.)

As part of my debrief, I mentioned that I thought I'd felt a weird shimmy in the rear of the car on acceleration out of Turn 7 onto the back straight, but Scott and Cam both seemed to think it was normal for the car on a wet track. I still had my doubts, but they knew a lot more about the car than I did.

Race 1: 2-hour

After the issues both Scott and I had in the practice/qualifying session, it came as no surprise to me that we were going to be starting 16th out of 22 cars. With my limited experience in the car, and knowing that some of the front-runners were still battling it out for a championship (remember, the 2-hour race we were doing for fun was actually the finale to a season-long "mini-enduro" series), I was perfectly content to start near the back. I'd be less likely to get caught up in any opening-lap shenanigans and I'd also have time to get into a groove before starting to work my way up to where I thought the car should be running.

As if things hadn't gone far enough off the rails already, I almost "missed my ride:" I thought I was going to get into the car at the pit stall and drive the car to "pre-grid" (for this race, just lining up at the end of pit lane), but Scott and I got our signals crossed and I ended up jogging down pit lane in full gear, chasing the car as it drove down to our grid spot... pretty funny.

What was significantly less funny was quickly discovering that something had gone wrong with the radio and, while I could hear the pits, they couldn't hear me. This was especially challenging as the fuel sender in the Camaro was incompatible with the fuel gauge, the only way the guys were going to know I was ready for a fuel stop & driver change was when I radioed in that the car had already started to stumble. That had been our plan, but now my only option was to do something like flash the headlights and hope they figured it out.

I discovered that the track was still pretty slick off the dry line, especially for everybody (including us) who had moved to dry-weather tires, when an E30 in the row ahead of me spun off the track exiting Turn 6 during the pace lap. It didn't look like it had taken much in the way of acceleration, either, and not that I needed any more reasons to be skittish about traction in a car with a torquey V8 and different tires front to rear.

I couldn't see much from way back in the pack to indicate why, but the first start was waved off. We got a green flag next time by and, although I was following my plan to take things easy for the first few laps and running mostly in 4th and 5th gears, I was still able to keep away from the cars that started behind me and even pass a couple from in front. We moved up even more positions when something like four of the cars from toward the front of the pack got too aggressive and spun off.

As the race went on, each lap saw me getting a lot more comfortable with the car and my ability to drive it, putting in progressively faster times each lap, partly due to things like braking later and finally using the "right" gears for each corner. Although I was feeling pretty good and was starting to really push things in more sections of the track, those faster cars that had spun early in the race had worked their way back through the field and two had passed me, while another was slowly gaining on me. One of the two hadn't gotten more than a couple corners ahead of me, though, as my pace was getting closer to what it should be, given the abilities of the car.

Between the one just ahead and the one that was catching me up, I started to push even harder. Perhaps inevitably, pushing hard in an unfamiliar (and uncomfortable to drive) car on a less-than-perfect track, I had an incident: very aware of the "fast" car behind me, I really wanted to put an E30 BMW between us before I got to the end of the front straight. This was do-able, but only by staying on the gas just a little bit longer and getting onto the brakes for Turn 4 a little more aggressively than I had been to this point. The pass went fine and I was only slightly off my preferred line to transition from the brakes back to the gas for the apex of the corner when the back end of the car suddenly snapped to the right with no warning whatsoever. I suddenly found myself staring at the grille of the green BMW (sorry, #226!) as I slid off backwards and into the grass.

I've seen several cars go off here over the years, and every single one that's gone off like this in the wet (and quite a few in the dry) has ended up hitting the tire barriers. I stood on the brake pedal as hard as I could and stared in the rearview at the big tire bundles that were about to munch the back end of a car I did not own, but, somehow, I only traveled about a car-length off the racing surface before coming to a stop. The car had stalled but I quickly got it re-fired and back out on track. I wiggled the car around a bit to clean the mud and grass off the tires, and also to see if anything had broken, but all appeared well.

I continued to take it relatively easy for about half a lap before I got back on-pace. Two laps later, again going into the braking zone for Turn 4, but this time with a red, NASCAR-style Camaro right on my rear bumper, I had a major lockup of the rear tires and dumped a HUGE cloud of smoke in the Camaro's face (sorry about that, #68!).

On the following lap, on the opposite side of the course, I braked at the end of the back straight for Turn 10 as usual, but then had no drive when I got back on the throttle for the apex. Thinking I'd just put the car into 6th by mistake instead of 4th, I very specifically put the car into 4th car but still wasn't getting any drive. It was about this time, as I rolled through the apex for Turn 11, that I heard what sounded like a rock hitting the bottom of the car, but with somewhat of a metallic sound.

It's just a short chute between Turn 11 and Turn 12 leading onto the front straight, so I downshifted to the usual 3rd gear for the corner, but still no-go. It was pretty clear that something was amiss, so I stuck my arm out the window to signal that I was staying track-right and heading for the pits, and really wishing that the radio was working so I could let the team know what was going on. As I coasted into the pit entrance, I also discovered that, in addition to the lack of drive, the engine was on the verge of stalling, and revving it didn't help. I finally coasted (so slowly...) off pit lane, through a break in the wall, and into the paddock, where the car immediately stalled. I could smell fuel, but didn't see any smoke or anything, so I just tried to fire it back up in the hopes I could drive to our paddock space. Meanwhile, someone from the pit stall closest to the pit entrance came running toward me, saying that there was a lot of fluid dripping from under the car. For a brief moment, I thought maybe the block or oil pan were holed, but then I put two and two together and concluded that it was probably fuel that was leaking... I threw the master switch to kill the fuel pump and all the electrical systems, noticing that Adam "Trunk Monkey" Jacobsen was walking over from Safety 2 with a fire extinguisher. Fire bad!

It was about this time that I looked back down the pit lane and was very happy to see the guys had run down from our pit area, having somehow figured out that I was having a problem. They pushed the car back to our paddock space and quickly discovered that A) of the two bolts attaching the torque bar that connects the rear axle to a cross-member near the transmission for additional longitudinal stiffness, one was loose to the point of uselessness and the other was completely missing (maybe this was the "rock" I'd heard in Turn 11?), and B) the internal plastic clips in the Russell fuel line adaptors used by the OEM fuel system had failed and had been dumping fuel all over the driver's side of the engine until I'd switched off the master. As this was the same part that failed in Eric's car in August, turning it into a rolling fireball, I was just a touch skittish for a while...

Unfortunately, while Scott found another bolt in his massive pile of random spare parts, he didn't have any nuts to fit it or the one remaining. We could disconnect the bar and continue with a lot less stability when braking or accelerating, but neither Scott nor anybody else he asked had spare AN fittings we could use to repair the fuel line. And so, after only 40–45 minutes of running in the 2-hour, we were done. The positive takeaway for me was that I'd worked up to 7th overall and 2nd in class before the suspension issue started causing problems.

Meanwhile, over on the Eric & Bruce side of things, their race had also gone sideways: I'd heard they'd had some kind of shifter issue, where the nylon cup for the ball at the base of the shifter had cracked, which then allowed the shifter to move out of gear at random times. As mentioned above, I'd thought it felt a bit mushy when I was driving during practice, but I wasn't sure what it was supposed to feel like. They'd wrapped an O-ring around it and taped it up as tightly as possible, but there wasn't nearly the same strength as with the cup. Later, while checking the oil during one of their pit stops shortly after we retired Scott's car, they noticed some smoke in the engine bay, which turned out to be caused by a pulley rubbing against the power steering hose and cutting it slightly. Given that the 2-hour had always been intended as a test session to check the state of the car after the rebuild of the car after the fire, they decided to pull the car behind the wall to fix it. Then, in another "good news, bad news" situation similar to what I'd experienced with the suspension and fuel line, and while Bruce was sitting in the car in the paddock, waiting for the next round of repairs to be completed, the brake pedal went straight to the floor. For the remainder of the 2-hour, the entire lunch hour break between the races, and for the first few hours of the 8-hour race, we (mostly people other than me... I do a lot of my own maintenance, but I was the least-useful mechanic on both teams put together) bled the brakes several times, bled the clutch, replaced the master cylinder at least twice, replaced the front calipers, and did a whole lot of messing about with the Tilton box in an ultimately futile effort to get a firm pedal again.

Not only was Eric's car done before the 8-hour even started, but Scott's car had been intended as our fall-back vehicle for just such an eventuality...

Race 2: 8-hour and Casa Bella 300

The first 300 miles of the 8-hour also counted as the Casa Bella 300, so anyone running the full race could also enter it and essentially run two races at the same time. Sadly, for us, both our cars were sitting in the paddock during its entirety.

While the thrashing on Eric's brake system was happening, and with no chance of fixing Scott's car, I got something to eat and hung out with Mike McAleenan, Jerold Lowe, and TJ and Nate from Jerold's shop, who were doing the 2-hour as pre-race testing for the Thunderhill 25-hour in early December. I mention this because, when we first discovered the fuel line issue, Scott had asked everybody but Mike if they had any fittings that would work. They had checked and not found any, but I was talking with Mike later and he said he was pretty sure he had the proper AN fittings. He dug around and, sure enough, he found some we thought would work.

While Cam and Scott started experimenting with things to see if the car could be repaired, I ran down to check with the stewards and registration to see what would be required to switch our 8-hour registration from Eric's car to Scott's. As it turned out, not a lot, so it was all down to whether we could get one of the cars working well enough to get going again.

Cam got under the car to fix the suspension while Scott and I started in on the fuel fittings. After much fussing around with various connectors, elbows, and other adapters to find something that would work, we eventually ended up with more pieces connected than we probably needed just to find a combination that wouldn't leak. (We decided later we might've been working with a defective piece in the "shorter" version.)

Finally, with roughly half of the race remaining and a determination that Eric's car wasn't going anywhere, we sent Scott out to get things rolling. Although there were some niggling issues with the car (nothing to do with our fixes), he was able to run a full fuel stint. After pitting for fuel, we sent him back out and calculated that, at the pace we were running, we had a pretty good shot at getting third in class (a super-fast RX-7) and at least getting close to second place (a turbo-powered, front-engined, rear-drive, pseudo-Pontiac Fiero), since both those cars seemed to have developed issues.

At one point, Scott had radioed in that the car had shut down (yes, we got the radios working again), which he thought was from bumping the ignition in the dark during a gear change. It cropped up a few more times, when he knew he hadn't done anything, so he decided to come to the pits to have the fuel pressure checked. We were getting close to a scheduled fuel stop, and I was getting suited up to take over, but it was a mad scramble to get ready for this unexpected visit. After poking around and failing to find anything obvious, and with Scott having already experienced the dangerous situation of a full shutdown in the dark with a car just behind him, the smart decision was just to park it until the race was nearly over. That way, at least, Scott could experience the thrill of "buzzing" everybody who crosses pit lane to stand next to the front straight for the last couple laps.

All told, our planned 8-hour race spread across four drivers saw just one driver run for a little under 2 hours.

Post-race

With pretty much nothing else to do while Scott did his laps, there was plenty of time for Eric's trailer to get packed up. After returning from watching some of the finishing drivers get their trophies, it didn't take long to get Scott's trailer loaded up, too. With the track infield off-limits in the morning (there's typically a track event the next day), we moved everything over to the south paddock where Mike's motorhome was parked for some beer and kibitzing. I think I got back to my hotel room around 12:30 or so; for not having done much racing (or any repairing, for that matter), I was surprisingly exhausted. Disappointment'll do that you, I guess.

(Some weeks after the race, Eric would do some experimentation and conclude that a failure of the ABS pump had caused the soft pedal.)

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