Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Congregation Grows

Things got real busy for me right about then, but most of the things that happed were good news.
A friend of ours, Mike Norton, is one of the owners of Bull’s Corner, our usual watering hole and about the best eatery in LaPlace. He had not been around the day we brought Hugh’s car back from Florida. We had stopped by for a cool one on the way to the house (and maybe to show off just a little). Keith and Pat who are both diehard racing fans were there and rushed out side to take a look.
Hugh’s car has a very tight cockpit and it was way too small for Keith who is a really big guy. Pat jumped right in and made himself at home.
Any way, Mike heard us talking racing over the next few weeks and decided it sounded like fun to him. He had raced a Porsche in the past and wanted to get back into the sport. We helped him find a car and next thing we knew he bought it.

It is a Zink C4 that a couple of guys in Virginia had found in a barn and restored enough to use it to go through drivers school and run for their first season. The only problem was that it was in Virginia and we were not.

As it happened I was about to make one of my regular trips to north Florida for meetings related to a house I had designed for my Aunt Louise. Hugh was planning to go with me and we were going to make a side trip to Milledgeville for a quick visit with our cousin Marion. (Marion is the author of Their Last Lap at Indy which was published under one of her pen names, DeNonie Barber) It was also sort of a nostalgia trip for Hugh since he had attended Georgia Military College in Milledgeville and would have a chance to see what forty five years had done to his old campus.

I had talked with Bill Coursey, who was selling the car to Mike and discovered that he had family in Macon which is near Milledgeville. Bill is neat guy, and like most Vee people was more than willing to go out of his way to help other Vee drivers. He is the headmaster at a private school in Virginia and was taking his vacation during the summer break period. He also was planning to visit with the family in Macon. Since the car was being sold with a trailer, we had timed out trip to coincide with his and he dragged it down and met us in a parking lot on Hugh’s old campus.
He and his racing partner, Rick Krason, had obtained the Zink and cleaned it up nicely. Rick is a veterinarian and a neighbor of Bills. I think they are buying another car and will continue to race Vees.

We drove back to LaPlace and got in touch with Mike. The next day we delivered the car to the new home he and Bonnie were finishing out. I would give my eyeteeth for the garage space he has under the house. You could put six cars in there.

So here we were, less than six months after we started this thing and already we have three cars in the class. I have just heard from Barry Boussard that he is buying another C4, so that will make four.
If Gregg and Tom get the one they are looking at then it will be five. With five running it will not be long before we have a real field.

Who said I couldn’t preach?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Adapting to the Environment

It took a few days and a lot of shifting things around. The bass boat came out from under the carport and took up a new station in the driveway with a "for sale" sign on it. The golf cart, also a former carport resident, was sold and gone. Now there was room for two Vees in the single file stall. This way at least they were under cover, shaded from the sun and protected from the rain. Mine went in first because it would probably be there the longest before it's next outing. Hugh's was closest to the gate in the front. I stripped off the top of the body and began a careful study of what I had. The first thing to do was to see if I could fit in the car. I am larger than your average rabbit.

My broad butt is simply too wide to fit in the molded fiberglass seat. I took the seat out and tried again. I could, if I used the fuel cell cover as a backrest, fit snugly into the cockpit. My shoulders would be firmly braced against the topside rails and under the roll bar braces. There would be no lateral movement during cornering….good deal. It might take a little adjustment of the pedals but that was not too bad. A bigger problem was that the steel straps that supported the steering box cut painfully across the tops of my knees, Have to do something about that.
There was also a bar across the car about where my bottom settled. I’m not sure what its purpose was but it was wrapped in a foam pad and would render the submarine belt unnecessary. My tail couldn’t slide forward if it wanted to. On one hand if I cut out the bar my knees would change position. On the other hand, if I changed the steering I had a secure bottom brace that would hold me firmly in the car during hard cornering. Its little things like that make it interesting. Every tiny little change affects every thing else.For a car that had been in storage for as long as it had, it was not in bad shape.
The steering box was shot. It took half a turn of the steering wheel in either direction before you got any action from the pitman arm, so that would have to be replaced. The brakes were frozen up. Could be master cylinders, or slaves, or rust; have to check that out.I replaced the battery, drained and replaced the oil in the crankcase and changed the oil filter. I removed and cleaned the sediment out of the oil cooler. I added a little gas to the fuel cell and with my heart in my mouth hit the start button. Shortly I saw gas in the fuel filter and suddenly it fired. It was a little ragged, but it fired. It was running rich, but it fired. The elevation change from Buffalo to sea level could account for that but mostly it sounded like it could be healthy. I could breathe again and I didn't even know I had been holding my breath,I checked all the gauges. The tachometer and oil pressure gauge worked but I could see no reaction at all from the oil temperature unit. I may not have had it on long enough to make a readable change, Have to check that later. All the switches seemed to work. I tested the fire bottle and got no reaction on the test light but a full green on the battery check. Need to have it recharged most likely.

The front beam was as stiff as a board. Lots to do there. All in all it seemed fairly sound. It needed a lot of cleaning and caressing but it looked OK. . Now, I had some thinking to do. I spent the first of many days just sitting on a stool looking at various aspects of the car. I was trying to imagine what happened when I changed one thing or another. It’s a lot easier to do it once rather than rush in and have to do it over because you didn’t think it through.

* * *

If you live in southern Louisiana, the weather soon teaches you some valuable lessons. You begin to realize that the Mexicans are not crazy.When you go on vacation, like to Mexico, you usually take your own schedule along with you to judge the world by. When you see the locals knock off at ten in the morning, just when you are getting started, you wonder what kind of lazy people Mexicans are.

If you are there long enough you begin to see that they started their workday at six in the morning while you were still asleep. By ten the day is almost half over for them. It is also reaching the sweltering hot part of the day. At ten, they go home, have a nice lunch, play with the kids, take a little nap and maybe have a cool bath and get ready to come back to work at two or three so they can finish the rest off the day and knock off at seven or eight. They are not crazy. You just did not understand the realities of the climate and a logical adaptation to it. Not all of the world is air conditioned.In the delta swamps where we live, you work out doors early in the morning and late in the afternoon. During the heat of the day you go inside where it is air-conditioned. This because, like the Mexicans, we also have ninety plus degree temperatures. To that we add eighty percent humidity. Us old farts are not crazy either and retired old farts take naps. We’ve earned them.

There is another aspect of this two part daily schedule that I did not appreciate at first. The break in the middle of the day gives you an opportunity to think over what you did in the morning. Sometimes you find that this mornings decisions were not the best. The afternoon gives you a chance to make corrections. It keeps you from looking stupid later.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

My Turn (Or - The Grinch That Stole My Socket Wrench)

OK. So here it is. My brother is getting racy. I’m crew chief for a car that is all dialed in and ready to run. It only requires maintenance and set up. The rest is up to the driver. The cosmetic aspects are Hugh’s. It is his car after all. I had no real problems to solve. Nothing was broken and it didn’t need fixing. Where is the fun in that?

I was still preaching the Formula First doctrine and getting some interest. Especially since Hugh had put the car on the track and done surprisingly well with it. A lot of people were looking. The idea of fast fun at a reasonable price was beginning to set in. We needed another car or two to set the hook.

The other part was that I want to get back in myself.

So now it was time to think about what I would go looking for. Where were we headed. Formula First. Right. But what did that mean and how would we get there.

The SCCA had put out a set of rules to use as a trial Spec in the Central Division, where FST is a being tested. So let’s use that as a basis. Basically a Formula Vee but with specific changes allowed.

You could use:
- Rack and Pinion steering rather than Volkswagen steering box
- A 1600 cc engine instead of 1200 (requires a restrictor plate on the intake manifold)
- Only one Carb and it is specified as to make, type, and mfg.
- Ball joint type front beam is acceptable.
- Front shocks are free and don’t require the original shock tower.
- Disc Brakes are allowed instead of drums.
- Wider tires are allowed but use a spec tire.

I figured we could take older cars, picked up at budget prices, and work our way in that direction, while building a class of competitive cars. Plus we get the fun of messing with the cars.
I had a direction.

I had been keeping an eye on Ebay, the SR Racing Sales Board, the SCCA sales list and other places for potential cars in my low budget price range.

I found one on Ebay that looked as if it could be brought around with a bit of work and put in a bid on it. It was a former VEE, which had been converted for Auto Cross some time in the past. It had a 1600 cc engine but nobody knew any thing about it. There was even a small trailer. It had been purchased sight unseen when some a guy in Jacksonville bought container contents which had been in storage until the owner had failed to keep up his storage payments. I bid on it and lost out to a higher bidder. Scratch one.

There was another one in Texas that looked even more promising. The front brakes had been converted to disc, had a 1600 race engine and some decent bodywork. It looked like an older Lynx chassis or at least a Lynx clone. I lost out on that one also.

Then I came across a car someone called a "Grinch". It was being sold by Sal Iannello in Buffalo, New York. Just the car and the body moulds. No spares, no trailer, but it looked pretty good.
The pictures of the car showed a body in an older design style that was pretty clean.

The chassis was straightforward. It had a gimmicky steering system that showed where someone was trying to out think the FV rules. It also had the cable type droop limiter that was used on the first Formula Vees in the sixties. It already had a remote oil cooler, a fuel cell and on board fire system. It was perfect. It was tinkerers dream and the expensive pieces were already there.

I started email correspondence with Sal in April. He had a couple of interested parties but we were finally able to come to terms that were acceptable to both of us. That took almost a month. I must say that Sal turned out to be a really nice guy who was very helpful and cooperative.

I did estimates of what it would cost for me to drive up to Buffalo (which turned out to be near Niagara Falls on the US/Canada border) and decided it would be less expensive to ship the car. It was a long way from New Orleans.

It took a while for find a shipper who would give us a reasonable bid. Nobody had tried to ship a racecar and they were afraid to take it on. Another problem was the body moulds. Sal came up with the idea of strapping the moulds to the body and shipping the whole thing as a package. It worked out just fine.

We had a slight delay with the shipper picking the car up but finally, on June first, I got an email from Sal saying the car was loaded on the trailer and on the way. A couple of days later the Grinch arrived and was sitting in the front yard while we tried to figure out where to put it.

So now I had a car and was faced with the proposition of having to put up or shut up. After all the talking I had done about being able to take an older car and make it respectably fast I had the job to do.

The next race at No Problem was scheduled for October. That was my target date. About a week later, I got a package from Sal, which turned out to be the cars logbooks and a stack of pictures. That set off another adventure.

Monday, August 21, 2006

New Numbers, New Paint

One of the things that happen when you get a Vee is that you have to mess with it. It is a condition you catch from the car. As soon as you are the owner there are changes that have to be made.

Passenger cars are like static things. You get in one and the first thing you do is adjust the seats, the steering wheel and the mirrors. The car stays the same.

Racecars are not like that. They don’t have adjustable seats and steering wheels. What you do is adapt the car to fit the driver. This is the first stage.

Maybe you have to change the pedals to fit the length of your legs. Or make changes to the roll bar so that it is far enough over your head. There are lots of little things to do, but when you are finished, getting into it is like a putting on a snug glove. All the parts and pieces fit smoothly around you. Your hand falls easily on the shift lever, hard places are padded to keep them from bruising you. That trite old phrase about you being part of the car could never be truer.

Then there are the other things that you just have to fuss with. Maybe you want to make it look like it is yours rather than the previous owners. Maybe some neat racing stripes will make it go faster (or at least make you feel faster).

It doesn’t matter that you may not be a brilliant mechanic. It doesn’t matter that you don’t even know how to set it up yet. It doesn’t matter that the previous owner spent years honing the car so that it performs like a Swiss watch. You just got to mess with it. Change things. Fix things that are not broken. It’s a rule.

As soon as Hugh could keep both feet firmly on the ground after his first outing in the car, his hands began to itch.

We had already made some basic modifications to fit the car to him. We changed a roll bar brace, shifted some straps, and relocated the mirrors. Little stuff. The car came to us basically race ready. It was just tweaking that was required to adapt it to a different driver.

But he didn’t "own" the car yet. He hadn’t made it his. So it started.

He bought some Bondo and started smoothing out some nicks in the nose cone. (Nose pieces always get the worst of it in open wheeled cars. They are constantly blasted with small rocks and track debris, and when there is a crash, you can count on repairing or replace one) Then he started peeling off all the old numbers and the advertising from someone else’s sponsor. Stuff like that.

Then came the sandpaper. I slept late one morning and when I woke up he was on the back porch with some spray cans going at it like the happiest elf that ever existed. It was your basic fifty / fifty paint job. (Fifty feet away at fifty miles per hour it looked pretty good.)
The next week we were back at the track, ready to run his novice race in the "open wheel" group. New numbers, new paint, and it was finally his.

Even the track photographer got a shot of him in action.

My little brother was becoming a racer: at the age of 65.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Once You Get The Bug.....

When I retired at the age of sixty-seven I had sort of assumed that my racing days were over. I was now a "used to be" driver. I still had the interest but as far as I knew the closest place to race was College Station, Texas about eight hours away. That’s a long way to drive to attend races on a regular basis.

Tom Walter, who lives about three doors down the street, told me about a little track down near Donaldsonville. I didn’t know at the time but Tom was heavily involved and often functioned as course marshal during events. When he wasn’t doing that, he was building Corvettes to be driven by his brother or working with a crew racing a Porsche. While the tracks main functions are involved with drag racing they do have a road racing course laid out off the back section and they are working with the New Orleans Race Drivers Association to get a regular road racing program established. A track, less than an hour away, was an attractive proposition. The next time they had a race I went down and volunteered to work corners.

The track was called "No Problem Raceway". Don’t ask. I don’t know why either.

It’s a nice little course; 1.8 miles with eleven turns. All paved. Mostly 40 feet wide but the section where you run down the end of the drag strip is 60 ft. Good run off (read spin out) areas. Flat. No big topography changes. Three straights, one at 1900 ft, second 500 ft and the third 800 ft. When you look at the track map it is hard to figure out what they mean by straight but that’s what they advertise.

The bulk of the road racing is sanctioned by NORDA rather than the SCCA. They put on what they call "The Grand Bayou Road Race Series" and stage 6 to 12 races per year. It’s a real "run what you brung" deal. In an effort to get some competition out of small fields they do what they call bracket racing. If you run laps between X and Y you are in Green bracket. If you are a little faster you are in the next bracket. If you are sand bagging and run faster than your bracket you get bumped up to the next bracket automatically. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive you fit into one bracket or another. The result is some strange combinations. You might see an F production Midget racing a street stock BMW and a 944 Porsche. There are even guys who drive to the track, tape the headlights and go racing. It’s like being back in the fifties when that sort of thing happened a lot.

There are a couple of exceptions of course. They have enough Spec Miata’s to make a field so they get to run by themselves. So do the Formula Mazdas.

The rest of the open wheeled cars get dumped into an "open wheel" group. There is no racing there because the cars are so different and run at such different speeds. The average open wheel field might be a Formula SCCA, A vintage Brabham, a Formula Ford, a formula Mazda, a vintage Cooper and a Club Ford.

For a year I worked corners at the track for NORDA events and for various Porsche, BMW and Ferrari club track days. I even got my brother to come out and work with us when he retired. He was getting a big kick out of it and although I didn’t know it was getting the bug to go racing.
I started preaching the Formula First gospel to any that would listen. A quick, low cost class would be ideal for that track, especially if we could get several cars out quickly. To do that, we would have to find a bunch of older formula vees and do the conversion. The good part of that of that there are a lot of older cars around that could purchased cheaply. Ebay always has a couple and so do several other reliable sources like SR Racings sales board.

The next thing I knew Hugh was looking for a car and found a good one. Carl Wartel was selling his extremely evolved Warrior. It had recently come back from the SCCA National Championships where it had acquitted it self well.

In late Feb. we made the drive down to south Florida to pick up the racer.

Hugh got the car, a truck bed full of spare parts and a trailer for a very reasonable price. In the process we got to know Carl and found a friend as well. We have been on line with him several times since then to ask questions or just to shoot the breeze.

A couple of weeks after we got back they had a track day. We got Hugh ready loaded the car on the trailer, and headed to "No Problem". We also took the Porche so that he could get some seat time while we were waiting to get some track time for the open wheeled car. They don’t like to run open wheel cars with ones with fenders. I think it embarrasses them.

Hugh put in three sessions in the Porsche, with his lap times dropping slightly with each lap, before thay finally called a break and let him take the open wheeled car out. His very first lap in his new car was a couple of seconds faster than the best he had been able to do in the Porsche.

When he came in he had a little grin on his face that didn’t go away for several days.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Lesson For George, The Sailor

You may not have been aware of it but after Cunningham stopped racing cars in the early sixties he stepped back into his earlier interest. He built a 12 meter yacht called the Columbia which he skippered it in defense of the America's Cup. He won. He was later inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Motor Sports Hall of Fame ten years later. So far as I know he is the only person to be in both.

Formula Vee also has a link to sailing. Bill Duckworth and Col. Smith were both sailboat racers prior to becoming involved with sports cars. It was the idea of single design racing classes, fairly common in sailboat racing, that was behind the concept for formula vee. When they happened on to Enrico Nardi's design for a VW based formula junior (which had been commissioned by a car dealer in Miami) they thought they had it locked. They wanted to take a single design and make it a "drivers" class rather than just buying the "trick on the week" in order to be the fastest. The SCCA wanted it to be a bit more open than that and set the rules so that everyone had to run to the same basic formula and had to use the same stock Volkswagen parts, but could make variations with in the rules. It worked and more than 40 years later, FV is still one of the largest and most competitive racing classes in the world. (The attached picture is the actual restored "Nardi" that was the basis for the "Formcar", the first formula vee ever produced (in Orlando of all places)).

The only real difficulty now is that it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to find the required pre 1964 Volkswagen parts required for the Vee ( A new racing engine for a vee is $6000 (55-60 hp) where a new engine for a First (85-90hp) is $3500). As a result formula first, which uses parts from later versions of the bug which are still available and still being manufactured in various parts of the world, is coming in to being. It is not so much a replacement for formula vee as it is an evolution.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Why Not Give It Your Best Shot?

OK, I am an addict. I love car racing. All forms but of it, but especially sports cars. I’ve been this way for a long time and I am not interested in any ones twelve step program to cure me. I like it this way.

I grew up in a pre air conditioning, pre television, pre Disney Orlando. Daytona was seventy miles away and Sebring not much further. It was a great place to live. I was a teenager and a car nut.

Over in Daytona a young guy named France was organizing stock car races in a new way. They ran partly on public highways and partly on the beach. It caught the attention of the news reels and became a fascination for the country. Folks were used to seeing cars make land speed record runs on Datyona beach but this was different. These ran in circles. Marshall Teague and his Hudson Hornet and Lee Petty became nation wide heroes.

Bill France was doing something else too. He was trying to convince the stock car drivers that they could make a real living as drivers. He would go on to turn the south eastern stock car circuit into NASCAR. He would also build the first super speedway. That is when NASCAR really came to life.

In Sebring they were starting to organize sports car races. The guys coming back from the war in Europe had brought with them an interest in sporty little cars like MG, Austin Healy, Triumph, Morgan and Jaguar. With sport cars the next step is to race them.

I saw my first sports car race when I was in high school in ‘53. My Dad had been transferred to Albany, Georgia to open a new Winn Dixie store. There was a Strategic Air Command Base on the outskirts of town.

Curtis LeMay was the big cheese in SAC and he was also an avid sports car racer. Using the thin disguise of creating a charity event for the Airman’s Relief Fund they held a big sports car road race on the runways at the base.

LeMay entered his Cadillac-Allard. Brigs Cunningham entered three of the Chrysler hemi powered cars he was building in West Palm Beach Florida. Lots of other people I’d never heard of showed up with lots of cars I had never heard of. Like Ferrari and Porsche. They had a D type Jaguar that didn’t look like any XK120 I had ever seen. As the weekend wore on I was astounded by the assemblage but when a Ferrari clocked a hundred seventy one on the back straight I pledged my allegiance. Ultimately the three Cunningham's finished first, second and third driven by Cunningham, John Fitch and Phil Walters. Later that year he would also finish third in the Lemans twenty-four hour race with the same car.

My active involvement with sports car racing came in the late fifties while I was in the navy and stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. I became a member of the local sports car club and through the club met some racers. It was not long before I was crewing for one of them and later going to driver’s school. That was when the addiction set in. I have never lost it.

In ’58 I became the owner of one of the first Bug Eye Sprites in the country. It cost about eighteen hundred dollars and I traded in a one year old Hillman Minx coverable to get it. The Hillman was the more expensive car but I still had to pay a little extra to get the Sprite. My car payments were twenty five dollars a month for a year. I had to take a part time job to cover them.

When I left the Navy I left racing for a while as I headed back to school to finish my degree. I attended races whenever I could but usually as a spectator and occasionally as a crewmember for a friend. I would not return to the track actively for twenty years.

In the early eighties Formula Vee was one on the largest racing classes in the world. It was inexpensive, simple, fast enough and very, very competitive. I loved it. I still do. I raced Vees until I moved to Hawaii. They didn’t have any wheel to wheel racing over there. When I returned from the islands I did not get actively involved again. I was too busy chasing a life and a career.

Then I retired. Now I have the time to spend the hours doing all the work required to put cars back together.

Like the Blind Mule if you can’t see it can’t be done why not give it your best shot.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Welcome to the blog site of the blind mule racing team. The ramblings of a bunch of Lambs trying to find their way back to the race track.