In Bocca al Lupo

24 Hours of LeMons Alfa Spider

Parte Seconda — The Build
"... The Bad ..."

After dropping the car at Jim's, our ardor cooled a little. There was a LeMons race scheduled for Loudon at the end of October and I really pressed to get the team going. It would be good to sustain momentum. I felt that, if we busted our butts, we could make it. Even with a reduced scope, i.e. just get what we had working (never mind any razzle-dazzle hidden hardware), I was under no illusions. It would be tough to get the car built in time. In addition, to meet this schedule, things would have to go smoothly — like not finding any hidden catastrophic damage (how likely is that?). But there was a shot that we could do it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. In addition, I was worried that if we did not at least start to work on it, the car would be in the same state in the spring and we'd have no chance to make any of the early events.

Unfortunately, both Jim and Jonathan were heavily committed to riding in the Pan Mass Challenge (a 200-mile bike ride fundraiser for cancer research) at the end of August, and neither had even taken their bikes out of storage yet. They could see a little time devoted to the car, but most of their free time had to be spent in preparing for the Pan Mass. That put the October event out of reach. Not encouraging; nevertheless, we did spend some time on the car.

In reality, a project like this is a major undertaking, and deep down inside we knew it. It is axiomatic —reviving old cars that have been sitting for a long time are giant time sinks. They are going to cause you much frustration and expense, and then more frustration and more expense. They become an exercise in serial diagnosis and repair. Find a problem (easy), find out what is causing the problem (not always easy), fix it only to find that the next item in line in that system also is broken or stuck or missing or otherwise nonfunctioning. And repeat. And repeat. Stubbornness is a really useful character trait for this sort of thing.

Of course, not only were we faced with bringing back an old dormant car of unknown mechanical history, but we also had to build it to the race sanctioning body's rules. And there are A LOT OF RULES. Pages of rules about everything from roll cage to ID numbers. So much work to do, most of which, honestly, we severely underestimated. Then, of course, there is reality — sometimes it is not the last owner who screws things up. We made plenty of mistakes, most of which came back to bite us good, slowing progress even more. All of which I am very sorry to say, but ya know, it is what it is.

The first order of business was to see if the engine would turn over and run. It really was critical because, if the engine was hosed, it would definitely affect our plans — in a bad way. We really needed to make sure it would turn over. If the gearbox would turn, that was even better.

As "delivered", the car had no fuel system (up to and including gas pedal), no exhaust headers (or any other part of the exhaust system), no coolant or cooling system, no alternator, no battery. Pffft, no problem. It did have an ignition switch and a key, so we're good. In order to run the car, we had to put in the fuel system so we could get gas into the engine. Tank, filler neck, wiring, pumps, hoses, filters, gasoline. The engine came wired up (at least it looked complete) and a cursory check said the wiring was okay. We did have to find and install the timing sensors on the bell housing. We plumbed up all the vacuum hoses on the plenum and throttle body. Installed plugs and wires. We put oil in it, hooked up the battery. Good to go.

Step 1 — It turned over by hand easily, so that was encouraging. Sigh of relief.

Step 2 — Great anticipation — "FIRE IN THE HOLE!". Hit the key — dead silence. RATS! There was a severe voltage drop, but NO ENGINE TURNING AT ALL. SURPRISE! I have to admit that I really did expect it to fire right off, so I was disappointed. No matter. A little time with the DVOM and we knew we had switched 12 volts everywhere up to and including the starter. That meant the starter was frozen. Rats again. Yanked it out of the car and, while Jim and I started discussing what/where we would get new starter, Jonathan ignored us. He took the LeMons approach, and got Medieval on it. With the starter on the garage floor, with cables hooked directly up to the battery, and the starter HUMMING in an ominous way, Jon started whacking the solenoid and body with a hammer. Pretty soon that starter was turning in fits and starts and jumping around on the garage floor like it was possessed — a really funny sight. Just the way Bosch drew it up, I'm sure. Excellent! Our starter was "fine". Put it back in the car, hit the key, and the engine turned over nice and strong.

The engine did not fire right off, which was no surprise. There is not much you can do on an Ljet system to influence that. We were getting fuel. Ignition timing is fixed by the system. Nevertheless, we fiddled with what we hoped would help. At top dead center, the rotor looked like it was in a correct orientation. Cap and rotor looked fine. Coil was acting properly. Checked all the grounds, reseated connectors, checked to make sure we had fuel pressure, and kept grinding away. Then, the engine coughed and started to run, spat, and died. YES! A little more wishful thinking and key turning and it finally fired and ran. It revved. It ran like home made crap, but it ran. Woo-hoo! IT RAN!

It ran ... for a little while. It would not idle and would not rev to any high numbers — but it ran. We were ecstatic. It ran! We'll get to the details and sort it out. No telling what had been done to it before we got our mitts on it, but we'll get it running right (more on this anon).

Starting at this point, the car lay dormant through the summer and into the fall. Jim and I started working on things like brakes — rebuilding what we had and finding parts we needed. Then one day I got an email from Brian Shorey pointing out to us that there was an ex-LeMons racer for sale in Vermont for very little money. A Geo Metro — with a NEMO theme. Jim and I actually remembered seeing it at Loudon before (FYI, a 1-litre 3-cylinder with a 3-speed automatic is a really slow and awful race car, just in case you were wondering).

Why do we care about a Geo Metro race car? Because it has a driver seat, harness, and fuel cell in it! Plus, for sure there will be other bits and pieces that will be useful. We needed a race seat and harness. The fuel cell was a bonus, and they are very expensive. I was having real concerns about running the stock fuel tank. LeMons rules allow it, but the thing is located right at the very edge of the driver side rear quarter. I mean, there is NO protection at all for it in case of contact. You can be sure that there will be contact sooner rather than later, and I could envision 11 gallons of fuel spewing all over hot and sparking electrical stuff. This followed by a big ball of flames engulfing everything (like me). It just seemed really unsafe. Stupid is as stupid does — but we ain't that stupid. A fuel cell would be sooooo much safer, plus it looked big, which was a good thing for an endurance racer.

Jim contacted the Metro's owner. Of course, there was a story (there always is), but the owner assured us it was his car to sell. The upshot was that it was still for sale, and it had a 22 gallon tank — exxxxcellent. No title, but everything was fine. Well, one thing that was not fine was that one of us was going to have to go get it. How? None of our friends had a trailer free. We talked to UHaul and a truck with trailer from them was really expensive.

Then I got to thinking — what am I going to do with a Geo Metro carcass in my driveway? The town is already mad at me. Once I got the thing apart, I'd have to figure a way to get rid of it. The whole deal was starting to look less and less attractive to me. Then, a lightning bolt: "Jim, ask him if we can just pluck the stuff we want and not take the car." Turns out the owner was happy with that idea — and was willing to take a little less cash to boot. Awesome.

So the next Sunday — a nice cold, raw, rainy November Sunday — I drove to Vermont with my tool box in the trunk and a pocketful of cash. Close to 250 miles each way. While the Patriots struggled with the Dolphins, I started taking Nemo apart. The cell, along with some plumbing, pump, and filter, came out with a little persuasion. Battery, harness, shut-off switch, fire extinguisher, some other yada-yada.

Then, just when I was good and tired and the rain started to pick up, it was time to tackle the seat. For the life of me, I do not know how they got the thing mounted in the car, but for sure it did not want to come out. It took hours, upside down, struggling to even see the fasteners, never mind get a wrench on them. Finally it yielded, and I packed the car and headed home.

That pretty much was the end of our build for the winter of 2012/2013. In the spring, we slowly started to get cranked up again. Nick Fonte agreed to help us and maybe drive. It was pretty clear that he was not enthusiastic about risking his butt in this thing or in this series, but he was happy to help us where he could and maybe he'd drive. Lon Barrett, who had been a member of Brian's Milano team, had interest. He is a BMW guy, but he freely admits that racing Alfas is more fun than he has had in any other car. He is a fast driver, good with a wrench, and a good teammate. Plus, most importantly, he had recently purchased a new truck and a impressive trailer. He has a welder and knows how to use it. Things were looking up.

Jim and I took up where we had left off on rebuilding stuff. We talked to Ian Anderson about helping us with some of the body work things that needed to be done. He agreed to reinforce the seat (required by LeMons rule), make up the seat mounts, and work to ameliorate the many sheet metal issues the car had.

It was our plan to run the car as we found it (mechanically), but as we started delving into things like the cylinder head, that started to look like a less and less attractive proposition. Tappets and cams were basically toast. A couple of the cam cover mount studs were marginal to bad. Etc., etc. It was not looking good, but we pressed on.

We never could get the engine to run any better. Compression was okay-ish, at about 150psi hot and numbers even across the cylinders. No evidence of disaster there, so Jim and I decided to check the cam timing to make sure nothing weird had been done by any of the DPOs. Well, after a day of screwing with this — most of it due to tools that were not adequate and our own fatigue — we managed to screw up good. While rolling the engine through TDC to double check timing for the zillionth time, we caught the #1 exhaust valve on the TDC indicator and wedged it in good. We got it all apart — but now what? Did we do any damage to the valve? A munched valve seat would leak like crazy. A bent valve would have a short lifespan at 7K rpm. Do we dare run it that way and risk major catastrophe on the track? That prospect had very little appeal. There really was no choice so, we bit the bullet and plucked the head. Ian stripped it for us. A machine shop pressure-tested it and did a minor shave to ensure that the head was flat, and then back to us.

Hmmmm —Jim had some semi-exotic cams in his garage — non-VVT. Nick encouraged us to go whole hog on the rebuild ('cause that's the kind of guy he is). We were a little uncertain how a non-VVT cam would work with engine management that expected VVT — rumor had it that this would not be a happy marriage. Okay, executive decision — no more VVT. Nick did the rebuild with some of his secret sauce massage. Finally, we put the head back on, timed it, and managed not to repeat the screw up. By now, we were getting pretty good at this cam timing thing.

Ian was working on his assignments at home. Finally, the day came when he showed up at Jim's. The seat fit fine and it had all the reinforcements required by rule. Rockers, floors, front "wings", all of this stuff came together quickly.

Meanwhile, I had reserved time with a local cage builder. In July, Kevin Oliver (who had raced his own LeMons Milano with us in the beginning) volunteered to drag the car over to Chris Howard's place. I knew Chris a little. He had built the cage in my Super and had put the cage in Kevin's GTV6. I was confident that he would do a good job; I think the others were still a little unsure. Everyone came by to talk to Chris and inspect his GT3 Miata race car — built entirely by him right from the ground up. Tube frame chassis, starting from chalk marks on the garage floor. Fiberglass body built from molds he took from a Mazda that he borrowed from a friend. The work was stunning. Elegant, minimalist, clean, solid, strong like bull. It was abundantly clear that this guy knows what he is doing. Everyone came away impressed and confident that our cage would be awesome — something you could bet your life on. From that point on, I sensed that Nick was a little more comfortable with the whole idea.

As an aside, it is interesting that there is not ONE item on that car that came from a Mazda. Even the engine is a Ford engine (who shared with Mazda on several chassis). Either Chris made it or it is aftermarket generic race hardware. Mazda does not seem to care. It says Mazda on it and they are happy to pay him contingency money for every victory. But I digress.

We also tasked Chris to build the support cage for the fuel cell. He also welded the quick-disconnect steering wheel hardware onto the steering shaft. While he was cutting the trunk out of the car for the cell, we asked him to cut out as much metal as he could get at. He took a lot out. His comment was that there was a lot more metal in the rear of the car than he had anticipated. He actually was a little impressed at what Alfa had done. While he was at it, he completely gutted the doors, and then welded the top of the door skin to a small tube support between the A pillar and B pillar. We had to guess how tall to make the cage. LeMons rules are the same as SCCA in that the top of the driver's helmet has to be at least 2" under the top bars. Not sure who the tallest driver (or, more accurately, the one with the longest torso) would be, so we made a SWAG and he cut tubes. It came out, errr, a little tall. Mike Wrigley said all we need is a Loran antenna and some tuna outriggers and the look would be complete. It did open up a new theme possibility that we had not contemplated previously.

Anyway, the cage really is awesome. It is a big-boy roll cage. Stout as can be, which is good both for our safety and for increasing the structural rigidity of the chassis. The fuel cell structure was elegant and strong. "Oh, BTW, this is only a 15 gallon fuel cell. And you'll need all this other hardware to make it work" … why am I not surprised?

Chris dropped the car back at my house and the Spider settled into its new home in my garage. Imagine my wife's surprise! "Honey, didn't I mention it to you? No? I'm sure I did." Yeah, there were a few moments, but she seems to be okay with it now.

Again, we had our eye on the Halloween LeMons weekend at Loudon. We didn't actually have a complete (never mind running) car. However, the team had made a commitment that, if the car came back in July, we'd enter the Loudon event and get the car ready, so now the pressure was on. Hey, we didn't even have a team name or theme. I have to admit that I am a bad namer and totally lame on theme stuff, plus the rest of team was not enthusiastic about a theme. The pressure was on for a name because we had to have one to make an entry and the deadline was nigh. Lots of back-and-forth — most of them lame and/or vulgar (hey, it's LeMons racing — the whole thing is supposed to be puerile).

Finally, Nick suggested "In Bocca al Lupo", which is an idiomatic expression referring to good luck. Clearly, we were going to need as much of that as possible. It is a good name, but how to work that into a theme was beyond me. Nevertheless, "Everyone in favor?" "AYE!" So we had our name.

One significant event that occurred in August helped cement both Nick's and Lon's participation. We were invited to drive Greg Seferian's Milano at the New Jersey LeMons race. What a weekend. Lots of ups and one REALLY bad down (when the flywheel blew up in practice on Friday — a whole 'nother story). The net was that we had a ball. Nick and I had uprated and set up the Milano's suspension two weeks before and the car was absolutely beautiful on the track. If I were a Brit, I'd say, "Brilliant!" Responsive, balanced, and grip like crazy. Nick commented, he could put it anywhere on the track and it was stable and smooth. It was very competitive and the racing was excellent. According to Nick's calculations, given our gearing, banging on the rev limiter at 7500 rpm, Angelina was doing 128mph — in 4th. Not me, I never went over 7300. The whole racing experience was wonderful, and Nick was in with both feet after that. Lon could hardly wait for our car to be finished.

Now we had to make a race car. The suspension went together quickly. We removed everything that had been installed temporarily, rebuilt it properly, and reinstalled. Changed a few things in the front suspension, torqued everything to factory specs. Lon spent a lot of time doing the things we needed to meet the LeMons rules. Rear stop lights, radio install, fire extinguisher install, battery install. This list kept growing. He worked on lightening the trunk lid (those things are REALLY heavy). Lon plumbed up the rear brakes, with a little help from Ian Anderson. We spent a lot of time (and brake fluid) trying to make the old brake hardware work. Something always leaked, and we could never get a pedal. Finally, Ian made us a new set of rear brake lines with new fittings and the problems went away. That was one Ginormous time sink. We changed all the clutch hydraulics. The original master was frozen solid, so in for a penny, in for a pound.

I put the numbers on the car: 105, baby.

Jonathan built a dash gauge cluster. He and I worked on the wiring, including our razzle-dazzle shut-off switch (mandatory). I struggled with the fuel system plumbing — all new to match the cell and integrate inch hardware into metric plumbing. At one point, in a panic over fittings that did not fit, I called Ven Fonte and he generously buzzed the stuff we needed on the lathe at his home shop.

Every night and day that we worked on the car, we tried the engine. It never got any better. Try a little of this and a little of that — result the same. Il grande stronzo grigio was really starting to get on my nerves.

We snuck in a set of Performatek headers and then Lon and I took it to get the under-car exhaust built. I was a little worried about this part. I have driven a number of Milano racecars and exhaust does come into them. Spiders have an awful reputation (well-deserved) for exhaust gas coming into the cockpit, and the accepted solution is to make sure all the gaskets in the trunk lid and tail lights are secure — we have none of these things. Well, we have a trunk lid, but no gaskets or tail lights of any kind. "Sir, would you care for a little nausea with your racing?"

Jim had an idea — exit the exhaust to the side, behind the wheel. Hopefully, the air flow would drag it away before it could get sucked back in by the Kamm tail. So the exhaust dudes cut a hole in the lower valance after the tire and let the tailpipe poke through there. It worked beautifully.

No matter how much work we got done, it seemed that the work list never seemed to get shorter. Shoot, Sisyphus had it easy compared to us. Over everything, the car still did not run right — not even close. Jim and I struggled with that. So many frustrating hours. We chased down every ground, we measured the output of every sensor. We reworked all the vacuum hoses and connections. We fiddled with the idle O-ring. We rang out the Ljet harness and connectors. We screwed with the air flow meter. He robbed his own (running) Spider of coil, distributor, air flow meter, and every bit of engine management hardware in it. We swapped them one by one. NOTHING made any difference. It started hard. It needed 1500+ rpm just to "idle" and even that was crap — and not very sustainable. Sometimes it would not rev past 3800 rpm. Sometimes it would go almost to 5K-ish. All the while, running rougher and rougher as it warmed up. It was maddening, plus time was running out and panic was starting to set in. You cannot race a car that runs like this and the race was only two weeks away!

I bet the last guy bought this car cheap because it would never run right! AAARGH! Then, a breakthrough. I "know" you cannot adjust the ignition timing on an Ljet Spider ... but it runs like the timing is waaaaay advanced. So I says, "Jim, let's throw the timing light on this POS and see what we have." Whilst "idling" at about 1800 rpm, I kept adjusting the advance on the gun until the TDC pointer and crank pulley Punto mark lined up — 71 degrees of advance! "Holy spark advance, Bat Man. That can't be!" Did it again. Dropped the idle to 1500 rpm — 63 degrees of advance. "C'mon — what is going on here?" To be honest, I did not know the engine would even run with this much advance. Shut it off and start drinking heavily.

The next day, I was telling my tale of woe to Santo Spodaro at Domenic European Car. Without a moment's hesitation, he said, "Someone put the flywheel on wrong. They did not align the flywheel timing marks with the marks on the block, and the flywheel (and its timing studs) is advanced one bolt hole."

"Nah — no one has done that," says I. This engine has not been apart. But really — how would I know what one of the DPOs has done? It all made sense. Misalignment by one bolt hole would advance the ignition timing by 60 degrees, which is what the timing light showed. The numbers don't lie. Maybe someone had changed the clutch (at 58K Miles?) and botched the replacement. "NOW what?" says I. Only ten days left to the race. I did not want to pull the engine and clutch, R&R the flywheel, and put it all back. Plus, the way this project had gone so far, there was a high probability we would break something or find something that was really marginal, adding even more time to the effort. No way. It just seemed too daunting.

Santo — "Simple, just put in a points distributor".

Me — "You mean, run it like you had carbs or Spica? Will it work? Have you tried it? How? Just disconnect the Ljet from the coil, take the ignition side out of the loop?"

Santo — "Yep, works great".

Brilliant. Easy peasy. Santo generously lent us a working points distributor (I know, it is hard to believe that none of us had one). We threw it in the car, set the timing and the car fired up and ran perfectly. The engine still idled high, but reasonably. It would continue to idle, and pulled smoothly right up to 6K+, no problem. No backfiring, no stalling. Sounded like a real Alfa engine should. What a relief! Now we were starting to believe we were going to make it. BTW, an important safety tip for those of you trying this at home: Put in an old-school coil as well. The high output EFI style coil burned up the points instantly, so that was something else we got to do over again.

Last stop before packing for the track, we needed to set up the suspension to balance the chassis and then, finally, set the front end alignment. Again, Nick saved the day and invited us to Ven's shop to set the car up. These are always long nights, but fun, and really productive. It is funny — people are comfortable with the idea that engines need to be tuned, but never think about suspensions. Of course, they need to be set up as well. The factory spent a lot of money to set the car up properly for their projected needs. Then the owner (in this case, us) changes everything and expects the car to work well right out of the box. NOT!

Once the new setup is optimized in the shop, it will be very close to right. Then, track testing to set the shocks, tire pressures, etc. and you are in the sweet spot. Drive fast, have fun. Doing it right is not a trivial task but the payoff is real.

Okay! Ride heights set. The car weighed about 2300 pounds with 200-pound driver weight and a half of tank of fuel. More than I thought it would be, but not bad. We ended up with the front corners about 15 pounds apart and the diagonals pretty close. Front end camber and toe were where we wanted them for a first pass. We never could get the caster we wanted, but we got it pretty close, so, all-in-all, not bad.

While we worked on the car, Ven was in the garage working on his own projects. I think he was a little taken aback by what we rolled into his garage. "This is a racecar?" Yes. "Are you sure?" Yes, but the rules state that the car cannot be worth more than $500. Pause ... "A $500 race car?" It was all pretty clear that none of it made any sense to him. All through the night, as we wrestled with one aspect or another, Ven would poke his head over the milling machine, look at us, and shake his head ... "A $500 race car?"

Now we were "ready". We were heading up to Loudon on Friday for tech inspection and open track day for our shakedown runs. The plan was to find out what we had for a car and give everyone a little track time in it to get acclimated before we actually had to race it against 140 other cars. After all this time intimately involved with the car, it had never actually been driven except on and off the trailer (another part of the master plan that slid by, as just getting the basics ate up all of our time). Hours on your back under the car is not the same thing as winding the bejeezus out of it on the track. This thing was one big ... no, GIANT unknown, and anything we could do to ease that before the race was valuable.

The other elephant in the room that we had been dancing around all this time was LeMons "legitimacy" — can there be such a thing? Pre-race inspection is broken into two parts: One is the official tech inspection, which basically relates to actual safety items — seat, harness, fuel system, battery and cut-off switch, cage, etc. Stuff like that. Stuff you need to keep yourself alive if it all goes horribly wrong. Then there is the BS inspection where they look for cheating.

LeMons rules are quite clear. Anything you do to the car (except safety-related) has to come in under the $500 limit. If they believe you have substituted racier hardware or, in general, just plain don't believe you could buy that car for $500, they punish you by assigning BS laps — negative laps. Since victory is determined by the car that completes the most laps in the allotted time period, negative laps are a BAD THING. The number of BS laps is directly related to their perception of the egregiousness of your offense. If you are a bad limonista, it is possible to start the race 10, 20, 50, 100 or even more laps behind everyone else on the grid.

Our car had lots of aftermarket hardware on it, almost all of which came with the original purchase. But ... you hate to poke the bear if it's not really necessary. Yellow, fat, short springs — they don't stand out much, do they? Konis? No one would notice those, would they? We did slip in a set of Performatek headers — they look just like crappy cast iron Ljet headers, don't they?

I had my argument all worked out — photos of the stuff on pickup day and the plaintive bleating, "Whaddya mean? Are you telling me that we're being penalized for careful shopping?" Bullet-proof arguments, those. No doubt.

Lon has had some direct experience with the LeMons "organization" and, as the build progressed, on random occasions, he'd just stop and shake his head. "We are so boned. You guys are crazy, we're going to get a hundred BS laps."

I had been keeping Greg Seferian apprised of our efforts. "You are so boned. You might skate, but be sure to keep all your records. This first race is just a learning experience anyway."

The weekend I was working on the numbers, Brian Shorey had come east for work and stopped by to see the project. He looked the Spider over in the cold garage. "You guys are so boned. They'll never let this stuff slide. Keep your records. But you are so boned."

So we had that to look forward to. A little extra agita but, to tell the truth, everyone was so burned out, no one cared. It is what it is, and we'll deal with it as best we can. Besides, no one had any illusions about actually being competitive, so for this weekend, BS laps — who cares, knock yourself out, bring 'em on.

Our mental state was now in the "Acceptance" stage. Thursday night, 11pm, trailer loaded up — hopefully (a forlorn hope) with everything we'd need. Looking forward to tomorrow.

One last job — I was up 'til 3 am working on the book with our theme and all our documentation.

Basta.Tiny Quadrifoglio

The first engine firing!

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Stay tuned for Parte Terza — The Race, coming soon!

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In Bocca al Lupo