By Andy Kress
As many of you will no doubt remember, there have been three local teams (two entered by AONE members) entering Alfa Romeo Milanos in the 24 Hours of LeMons series for used-up, $500 "race cars". In fact, one team — Scuderia Limone (Brian Shorey, Kevin Redden and friends) — has finished 3rd overall and then 2nd overall in the last two local races! Scuderia Testa di Spillo (Kevin Oliver, Ian Anderson, Mike Wrigley and friends) and Team Pro-Crass-Duh-Nation (Greg Sefarian and crew from Long Island) all finished in the top 10 at both!
At Stafford Springs this summer, the LeMons organizers announced a true 24 hour race "The Lamest Day of Nelson Ledges" at Nelson Ledges in Ohio, former home of the SCCA's 24 hour enduro "The Longest Day". I think that, even before we left Stafford, all three teams were in agreement that Nelson Ledges was a go.
A little research showed Nelson Ledges to be a very fast track. The ITS (SCCA IT class that Milanos would run in against cars prepared much like ours) track lap record was in the 95 mph range. Yikes! Even I could understand that, if the average is 95 mph, then lots of time must be spent at speeds above 95! I must admit that the thought of racing a $500 car for 24 hours at those kinds of speeds amongst other guys with similar crappy cars and limited racing experience was a little scary. Actually, a lot scary. It also sounded like a lot of fun, so we were all in.
All of the teams took a small hiatus after Stafford, but pretty soon the preparation began. I had been invited to drive with Scuderia Limone and agreed, as long as they did not get mad at me for being so slow. Our usual Wednesday evening prep sessions began in earnest with a thorough assessment of the car's condition and then the generation of the necessarily long "to do" list. Man-o-man, talk about scary — drive shaft donuts, bad. Transaxle mounts, bad. CV joint boots, bad. Steering rack had come apart — literally. Cooling system issues. Bell housing mount replacement (RTV can only hold things together for so long). Tie rod ends, lower ball joints. Fortunately, the Carbotech race pads were still in great shape with lots of material left. Similarly, the Brembo rotors were fine. And, most amazingly, the Hankook "race" tires were also completely intact.
One critical difference for this race was that, since it would actually run for 24 hours — on a track with no lighting — headlights became a critical requirement — which we would have to add back in because we had hacked them out for the last two races. The prior surgery had been of the "no going back" type, so an alternative mounting solution would have to be "engineered".
We also discussed things we could do to make the car faster and still stay in the $500 budget. There had been constant "discussion" on changing the Verde transaxle to the lower final drive unit from a 2.5L car. Similarly, we had discussed going to heavier torsion bars, rear springs, and shocks, because this car leaned in the corners. The team committed to making these changes. Interestingly (and thankfully), careful shopping and trading of parts led to a completely cashless transfer of hardware. Now all we had to do was make the swap.
The maintenance work took a lot more time than any of us had anticipated, but was nothing like the upgrade work. Sheesh. Many late nights and many pizzas later, it was time to put our used suspension parts in the car. Actually, it went pretty easily except for the torsion bar change — a prolonged struggle that will never be forgotten by any of us. I am convinced that the root of our problem is that the car might/must have been hit in the right front at one point, thereby making the torsion bar on that side a permanent part of the unibody. Hard to say for sure, but it looked that way to me — that is my story and I'm stickin' to it.
With the Milano up on the lift, a cursory exam revealed that the passenger side bar & mount was the least rusty and therefore the most likely to come out without a struggle. Brian was all excited about using his actual factory torsion bar removal tool — a first for him. That snapped off in the first 30 seconds. We all felt bad about Brian losing his genuine Alfa tool, but not as bad as we would feel about the whole frickin' job in a little while. We quickly went to Plan B — beating on the back of the bar with a drift and a hammer. We did not really have a drift, so we destroyed everything in Brian's garage that looked like a drift. We started with a moderate sized hammer, then a big frickin' hammer, and then the biggest sledge hammer we could swing under the car. First Lon hammered, then Brian, then Kevin, then Tom, then Greg, then me, and repeat. This went on for hours, and nothing moved. We tried drilling out the back side of the torsion bar. We broke every bit that Brian had and almost broke Brian's thumb when the drill kicked back. Put heat on the mount, hammered. Hammered some more.
Then, in a moment of inspiration, Lon decided that maybe we could drive the bar out the back of the mount, which meant cutting the torsion bar off close to the mount's front side. After looking at the bloody stump protruding from the front of the unibody cross member, it was clear that, at this point, we were officially and irrevocably committed to removing the bar. If we did not get the stump out, we were going to look pretty funny racing a three-wheeled Milano. Even with as much motivation as we had, the human spirit can only take so much abuse and we called it a night.
I came back the next Monday to work with Brian on this thing, convinced that there was no stopping us! Tonight's the night! I brought a bunch of new drill bits, a bigger torch, and a couple of real drifts. We drilled in an attempt to hollow the bar enough to relieve the stresses locking it into the mount splines. We broke drill bits, we dulled drill bits, we drilled and drilled. We hammered. We drilled. We actually made some progress in making a real hole in there. We hammered. We stopped for dinner. We hammered. We torched — it was lots of fun watching the car smoke up a storm, wondering where the FLAMMABLE line is, hoping not to cross it. We hammered. The bar did not budge. Can an inanimate object give you the finger? I think so. We gave up. I don't mind saying that, with the race ten days away, that was a pretty low moment.
You know how they say that, when the going gets tough, the tough get going? Well, it may very well be true that necessity is the mother of invention. Earlier on, we had spoken in general terms about the fact that early GTV6s had a different mounting scheme for these bars, with a cast iron cross member that bolts up to the unibody cross member, and the bars were actually about 3" longer than the Milano bars. Brian had been in favor of trying to adapt that scheme to the Milano. I must admit that the whole idea scared me and I resisted it. Now, it looked like there was no choice. Brian scored a used GTV6 mount to screw to the back of the unibody cross member, and, with the longer bars held up to the Milano floor, it looked possible.
On Wednesday night when the rest of the crew arrived, they set to. It was pretty ugly but, by gum, the idea worked. Yee-hah!!! Our car had four wheels again. Brian was sooooo pleased that his idea had worked. I was hoping the thing wouldn't fail and kill one us. Mostly, I was hoping it wouldn't be me. We set the final ride height and buttoned up the suspension. The last thing we did was to finish up the wiring for the lighting (the four $10 security spotlights that we bought at Home Depot). We all agreed that they were "awesomely" bright, and hoped we wouldn't get thrown out of the race for melting cars as we came up behind them. The car was loaded onto the trailer for a 10pm "shakedown" test drive in the Cisco parking lot and then the car was ready for its race car alignment.
Last-minute check lists were made and items checked off, travel plans were made, and we were all on our way Thursday morning. Fortunately, Lon had a new travel trailer, so we would have a base of operations at the track. Greg and Brian trailered the race car. I can tell you one thing — it is a long frickin' ride to Nelson Ledges! We got in around midnight and secured a large "paddock" for the three Milanos. As we rolled in, in pitch darkness, the track side sign was lit up and displayed the following in crude lettering: "Welcome 24 Hours of LeMons Crap Cans". Aaah, we were home!
Greg Sefarian rolled in around 1am. Mike Wrigley and Ian Anderson rolled in around 3am. It had been pouring all day and the paddock was muddy and soft, but we were all in, safe and sound. And cold. It was frickin' cold at night. Saturday night, during the race, it got down into the low 40s. Greg, Brian, and our race car came in about noon (they were smart and stayed at a local motel). One thing for sure — racing requires a lot of stuff. Our three-race-car compound had five trucks, five trailers, and one SUV. It continued to rain Thursday night and most of Friday. The paddock was a sea of mud — and cold. Did I mention that it was cold?
Mike Besic and his team came in that morning with their GTV6 — and a whole drum of fuel. Once we saw their car go, we were pretty sure why they brought their own fuel......
It rained on and off on Friday. We worked on the cars a little. Tech inspection was scheduled for two hours starting at 5pm. Talk about dreamers — the LeMons "management" budgeted two hours to inspect 119 entries (cars) and approximately 595 sets of driver safety equipment (figuring roughly five drivers per car). Chinese fire drill is an understatement. I think it's safe to say that the inspections were, ummm, cursory. All of the Milanos passed tech without any penalty (been there, done that, knew the rules). The Besic team got whacked 50 BS factor penalty laps — the poor guys were done before they even turned a wheel. However, I don't think anyone had a better time than those guys.
The 119 cars doubled the previous track record for an entry. Teams came from all over and included winners from many other LeMons races. It also became evident that the entry comprised heavily of real racers. The series' reputation for fun was drawing a higher level of competitor.
The official schedule called for mandatory nighttime practice for all teams. As I mentioned, the track is very fast and not lit. I haven't even been on a track in a decade, and never in a race. Now, I'm on a track I've never seen, in the dark, and with a little rain thrown in for good measure, racing (don't kid yourself — practice was racing). Excellent! We made it through practice, car intact.
All of us were extremely happy with the car. It seemed so much faster than the last time — the new final drive ratio really made a huge difference. We all agreed that there was nobody on the track we could not out-drag, or worst case run neck-and-neck with. The brakes were tremendous — really could out-brake everyone. In cornering, the car was unbelievably stable and seemed to have an unlimited amount of grip. It was balanced, smooth, completely linear and direct. The car could corner with anybody. I, for one, was really bowled over by the acceleration. I thought that the steering effort was high (with the power steering removed), especially when the front end loaded up in hard turns, but I was told to cowboy up and get on with it.
We all were very excited by what we perceived to be our prospects. Conversations with the other Milano teams revealed similar expectations. We knew the drill. Preserve the car, minimize and shorten pit stops. Keep it on the black part, no red mist. Drive by the rules — don't hit anyone, don't go off, no passing under yellow — keep the car on the track, and eat up the miles and laps. This time, we felt we had the speed to do that and still keep up with the bad guys. The car had a few minor issues that we cleaned up.
Then we waited for noon on Saturday. This was a good time to view the so-called competition. I can assure you that the LeMons tradition of ingenuity and imagination was upheld. My favorite was the Lada from upper Michigan. It was painted red, cage in gold, covered in script that looked Cyrillic. USSR flag from the trunk with loud speakers in back playing the Russian national anthem. Crew were dressed in authentic Russian Army uniforms. A fun bunch of guys — and they stayed out of everybody's way on the track.
Lucky Brian drew the first session, with all its starting madness and mayhem. The car was running well, and we were steadily moving up the standings. Kevin Oliver's Scuderia Testa di Spillo Milano was really moving through the field and, by the fifth hour, figured they were in first place for a little while. I think our team was in third place around midnight.
I was last in line and my first stint was from 6 pm to 7:30, so part of it was in the light and I actually got to see the track before it went pitch black. Here is what I learned in that first session:
I am a crappy race driver. It seemed like I was being passed by everyone but the Lada. Four, six, eight cars would dive-bomb me, outbraking me into the corners. Their momentum would carry them out and gone. To the rest, I had actually become a Ferrari club driver: hold everyone up in the corners and out-drag them in the straights to keep them behind me, good and pissed-off! I was having a hard time making myself go into the corners hard enough to keep speed up.
Also, I learned that all of the BS you read about the proper racing line and what they show you at the club time trial sessions is a useless load of crap for racing. Racing in conditions like this, you will never see anything that resembles "the line". Nor will you ever see anyone using it. In a crowded class like this, racing is a constant banzai session.
It is amazing how aggressive the fast drivers are. Scream into the corners as hard as you can, shove the car into whatever hole appears and turn the wheel. Get on the gas as hard as you can and hope for the best. Amazingly, it seems to work on a fairly regular basis. I did my best to let the other Alfas go through unhindered. I would never admit to blocking, but sometimes guys chasing them had to put on their brakes suddenly when they caught up to me. I guess my car got real wide after Alfas went by — must have been swollen with pride in its fellows.
When I finally came in, I was not a happy camper — disappointed in my performance and slightly sick from the exhaust fumes mixed with oil smoke coming into the cabin. At that point, I was having serious second thoughts about this whole effort. As the night wore on, drivers started taking their sleep turns, and our car circulated pretty uneventfully.
Greg Sefarian's car came in unexpectedly, complaining of misfires and sluggish throttle response. They popped the hood and my first impression was that it looked like a NASA control center — plenty of gauges and electronic stuff, the function of which I had no idea. Greg was able to determine that his fuel pressure was scary low. While he fiddled with that problem, someone else opened the air filter box — it looked like someone had swept his driveway and dumped everything into the air cleaner. Never did figure that one out. It turns out that his fuel system was contaminated with a huge amount of crud that had blocked up his filters. He is pretty sure that the track fuel wasn't clean and it cost him a lot of time.
Brian went out for a double shift from midnight to 3 am. At about 1 am, he radioed in, panicking: "The hood is lifting up — missing hood pin on the driver side". Also, Brian reported that our "awesome" $10 Home Depot spotlights were absolutely F&&%*G useless. They were pointed up in the air, in the trees — in fact, everywhere but at the road. Plus, screw Einstein — the light seemed to stop about ten feet in front of the hood. The low light had really slowed Brian down. It turns out that it is difficult to drive real fast when you can't see. That took some time to fix and we sent him back out.
My next stint was 3:30 to 5 am. Roused from my shivering slumber (did I mention that it was FRICKIN' COLD?), I was ready at the appointed hour. By then, I had accepted my reality of being a Ferrari club driver, got used to being dive-bombed and passed, and started to enjoy the race. I had my moments (I passed someone, I am sure of it), but mostly it was business as usual.
Then disaster struck. About halfway through my stint, in the middle of the S turn leading to the back straight, the engine just quit. No cough, no stutter, just all quiet and dead. I figured it just got embarrassed and pissed off about going so slow. Radioed in, got pushed into the paddock. It was 4 am, and the sleepy crew was staring at a silent engine bay — now what? Wiggle this, wiggle that. Try it now. Pushed, poked, pulled off leads, reinserted leads. Try it now. Swap this, swap that. Try it now. Finally, miraculously, the engine started and ran strong and clean. Drop the hood and go. No one knew why it stopped and no one knew why it was working. No one expected me to make a full lap.
The car ran like a train the rest of the night. I turned the car over to Kevin and it kept on running and running. Unfortunately, between the two incidents, we had probably lost close to 45 minutes. That, combined with Brian's midnight laps in darkness, pretty much meant that our race was over.
I was scheduled for the last session. I actually got a little extra time because, about twenty minutes before my turn, Lon got caught up in a group spin and was black flagged. The penalty was a driver change. Fortunately, I had my suit on, but had to run back to the camper to get my helmet and gloves. That cost us more time, but we were near the end now.
It was during this session that I started getting used to racing. About halfway through, the Besic GTV6 went by me in one of the turns and it occurred to me that they must not have spent one dime on suspension parts, because the car was leaning over so hard that I thought it was going to fall over on its side. They were just driving the wheeee out of it. That encouraged me to drive harder. Plus, we were near the end and everyone else had had their two turns, so I figured there was less to lose.
Then, just as I was really beginning to enjoy myself, disaster struck AGAIN! The engine quit in exactly the same place on the track. Another radio call, another push. More head scratching. Then Greg made the diagnosis: bad hall effect sender on the distributor. Quick distributor swap, the engine was renewed and I was back out on the track. Another twenty minutes lost.
That last break seemed to be a turning point for me. I became more confident, more aggressive, faster even. I started driving into the corners harder, braking later, not moving over for anyone. On the gas earlier and harder. I started dive-bombing the other guys and, if they wanted by, they had to pass me the hard way. Not too many did. Now this was more fun!
Those last twenty minutes on the track were a ball. The Besic crew set up on the footbridge over the front straight waving their giant Italian flag as the Alfas went by. I really enjoyed that. As luck would have it, when the checkered flag was waved, I happened to be behind the guys in the first two places. That was fun too! As everyone circulated the track on the cool-down lap, the corner workers and track staff lined up and waved as we drove past. Really a pretty cool thing.
It was over. We had such high hopes and a really good start, but the unscheduled stops did us in and we finished 25th.
Team Pro-Crass-Duh-Nation came in ninth in spite of their fuel problems. Their car was very fast and reliable. Outstanding job.
Kevin Oliver's team, Scuderia Testa di Spillo, had their moments of excitement too, most of which I missed. They strove to drive a clean race, but stuff happens. Kevin got a penalty for two wheels off when he tried to avoid another car. The judges kicked him out of the car thinking he was overtired, but he was really just cranky because they didn't know what the penalty was for. He got another penalty that they had no idea about, so they sent him back out. Lots of time lost pointlessly.
I guess I missed the best part whilst sleeping. During Kevin Oliver's night session, the isostatic shift linkage came apart. Stuck in one gear, he made it back to the pit. Mike Wrigley diagnosed the problem: the nut had come off the ball joint in the middle of the shift linkage. Nice. This part is completely hidden from all view, never mind access. To get at it, you have to drop the exhaust, drive shaft, the transaxle and the cross member. That method was not for Michael — hey, this is LeMons racing! While Kevin waited, strapped into his seat, Mike took the sawzall and cut down through the cross member and floor of the rear seat until he could get at the ball joint. He installed a new nut, verified actual shiftage, and sent Kevin back out. To top it all off, Kevin's teammate Chris suffered from a stomach bug during the last stint (thankfully) and his driver suit will never be the same. LeMons racing is not pretty. In spite of all that, they did really well. They were in first (momentarily, but we'll take it) after 5 hours, in the top 10 for the next 10-12 hours, dropped to 19th after the linkage repair, and then, driving hard, scraped back to finish 14th.
Interestingly, the teams that gave us so much trouble at Stafford Springs (like the Kielbasa Kids Civic) were never a problem at this race. They were faster than us, but seemed to have lost their heads and spent a lot of time off the track in the penalty box. Interestingly, a club member happened to have some business dealings with one of the Kids' father. In the course of conversation, he mentioned that the Kids' business is selling Honda tuning parts — and there is nothing in their catalog that is not in that car. It is a real Frankenstein of mix-and-match parts from all the hi-po Hondas. No wonder the frickin' thing is so fast. I suspect that they are not alone in that mode of operation.
All three New England Alfa teams had a ball. In spite of their "moments", the cars really did hold up well. The Milanos are competitive, and the fast track suited them and challenged us. Running a real 24 hour enduro race is a different sort of affair. You have to husband the car and the crew. Kevin said that their whole team probably got a total of four hours sleep — combined. I think Lon said it best. He got called out of an all-too-brief deep sleep to take his night turn a little early. Half asleep one moment, the next moment he was "Rocketing into Turn 1. Too fast! Too fast! Too fast! Into turn 2. Too slow! Too slow! Crap — 10 minutes ago, I was sound asleep. Now I have to be a hero. HELLLPPPP!" So much fun!
The LeMons "management" has already announced their schedule for 2010, and Nelson Ledges is not on it. However, there is a race at Summit Point the weekend before the Alfa Convention, and we are all on for it. Can hardly wait! Hope we see you there!