24 Hours of LeMons - Button Turrible - Day 2

by Toni 6/21/2014 23:31

Didn't sleep all that well last night - partly because it's a dirt-cheap hotel, with a less than super-comfy bed and some noisy neighbours, and also due to some excitement (and anxiety) over what I'm about to do today: real wheel-to-wheel racing, on a real track, with a real car! Hit Back after viewing an image.

After the quick trip up I-5 back to the race track (and showing my myriad of wristbands to various people) I was back in our pit area, where Chris and Ryan were mounting a fan behind the radiator, as a last-minute thing to check off the pre-race list. We had about an hour before the race was due to start, so we worked out our strategy - Ryan is a mechanic, and the person who put the new engine in the K Car, so he would go first, and suss out whether there were any issues or not; next Neal (left of the picture), who is a seasoned K Car driver, would go next, and put a good number of laps on the board for us; finally, I'd go out third and try not to break anything. Then we'd repeat the rotation and that should get us to the end of the day.

As the start of the race got closer, the cars began lining up down the pit lane - it was pretty much first come first served in terms of your starting order. Being in C class, and hence one of the slower cars, there didn't seem to be a lot of point in getting at the front of the pack, so we waited a little while before strapping Ryan into the K Car and lining him up.

While all 120ish of the cars were working their way out onto the track, the whole track is under a yellow flag, which means slow down and do not attempt to pass anyone. This went on for about ten minutes, by which time all the cars that were going to make the start were on the track.

It was pretty cool to see all the different shapes and sizes of cars out on the track. There are very few limitations as to what you can race, other than the $500 value the car has to be mass-produced and not exceed about two tons in weight, and that's pretty much it. If you like, you can read the full rule set here.

And they're off! The green flag is waved, and the racing begins in earnest! There are about 120 cars on a 2.5 mile track, so as you can imagine, there's plenty of traffic trying to pass and being passed. Truthfully that's the bit that worries me the most - playing nice in traffic.

Every car on the track gets to see the green flag, which also starts the logging from the transponders attached to every car to record lap times and counts, so the green flag is waved for about three whole minutes at the start of the race. I have my fingers crossed things go okay for Ryan, and his 1.5 hour stint goes smoothly ...

Realizing there was no clock or timer in the K Car, let alone a radio, we planned to alert the driver that their stint was up by waving a large pink beach towel trackside, in lieu of a pit board. It worked well, and Ryan brought the K Car in. On his way in, the Judges indicated that numbers on the side of the car were too difficult to read, and we needed to fix that. Back in the pits, we refueled the car, re-painted the numbers, and Neal went off to do his 1.5 hour stint. Ryan indicated everything seemed fine with the car, and we were off to a decent start!

During Ryan and Neal's stints, I generally made myself as useful as I could, and being mindful of the warning we were all given during the Drivers Meeting at the start of the day, made sure to drink plenty of water and Gatorade - it certainly was getting quite warm, and the double-layer fire-retardant suit did not help you to stay cool!

And then it was my turn! With the roll cage having door bars, getting into the driver's seat of the K Car was not a graceful affair, but I managed it without too much pullava. We had already refueled the car, and it was my turn for a 1.5 hour stint. I really had no idea what to expect, but was determined to bring the car back in one piece - that was about all I could promise Ryan :-)

Right about here is where I realized I had no video-capture device! Argh! There's no GoPro in the K Car, and both my handheld cameras were in my bag, presumably not even charged - a major lack of planning on my part, but it was too late to worry about that, as Neal and Ryan ensured I was strapped down. And then I was ready to roll!

When you leave the pits, there's a track worker who checks you're an 'official' driver by making sure you have a yellow wristband - and now it made sense why the organizers made sure to put it on my left wrist - much easier to stick that out the window than your right arm. At that point, I was on my own, rolling out of the pit lane, in a 1986 Plymouth Reliant, and about to get on a race track with over 100 other cars! It's really tough to put into words the sheer exhilaration and nervousness I was feeling as I gassed the car and merged into traffic doing about 60mph.

One of the reasons I'm really sad about not having any video is because honestly it's really tough to remember everything that happened! With robot combat matches, there's only three minutes of 'blur' before you come back to reality - here I did a full one and a half hours of the same level of concentration. One thing that is really easy to remember, though, is how amazingly awful the K Car's mirrors were! The center mirror had been installed this morning, and it had been bolted to the dashboard, so basically all you could see was the tailgate, and another car only when it was right on top of you. Due to the 'bouncy' nature of the track, and the car on it, the wing mirrors had gotten waaay out of alignment, and so the only time they were of any use was while you were going through a corner - you had a split-second to check them both, and mentally calculate where the cars were behind you in relation to your position, and guestimate how long it would be before they were passing you, so you could stay out of the way!

Luckily for me, a couple of laps into my stint the whole course was under a yellow flag, which meant I could slow down a bit, and use the time to learn the track. I think the full yellow lasted about five or six laps, so by the time it was lifted I had a pretty good idea of where I was going, so when we were back up to racing speed I needed to learn how fast to take the corners asap.

Starting slow and building the speed with each lap was a good idea, even if it meant I spent a lot of time 'pointing' the passing cars by me, and doing my darndest to stay off the racing line. After what I was guessing was about an hour, I felt confident enough to try and get some 'real' laps in, and so putting together what I'd learned in the first two-thirds of my stint, I gave the K Car some more gas!

In the next half an hour I passed quite a few cars! Including a Porsche. Twice. :-D True, I was still being passed by a lot of cars, but that was to be expected, as the majority of the field were not only more experienced than me, but they were also in higher classes (i.e. faster) cars. Still, I did manage to pass some of our C class competitors, and that felt amazing.

I saw the pink beach towel, and brought the K Car back to the pits, very satisfied that I had put in a decent stint, with no black flag penalties, and even passed a few other racers! It was awesome! We refueled the car, and Ryan went out for his second stint, while I sat down, tried to calm down, and bump the hydration level back up. That was a fantastic experience, and well worth the early flight, high temperatures, and seat fee to get into a car known across the LeMons universe, and actually race it!

During Ryan and Neal's second stints, I once again tried to be useful, gassing cars, bolting drivers into their seats, and doing miscellaneous tasks Chris could find for me. Mentally I was preparing for my second stint, which should take us to the end of the first race day.

Sure enough, Neal came in, we topped up the K Car, and I was sent back out onto the track, for round two!

Which didn't go quite as well as the first outing. Beset with confidence, about forty minutes into my stint, I saw a black flag with number 122 beneath it - oh no! That's me! :-( I rolled around to the pit lane, and drive myself into the penalty box, wondering what I'd done.

Up came two of the Judges, and they asked my why I was in the penalty box. I responded that I didn't know, that this was my first ever day on a track, and whatever I was in for was undoubtedly my own doing. I think they liked that answer, and said I had put all four wheels off the track. I apologized, and reiterated that I was a total rookie and it was highly likely I made a mistake like that. They also informed me I ignored the black flag for pretty much a lap and a half, to which I could only apologize again - without the number, and being in traffic most of the time, I didn't realize it was being waved at me. This was the K Car's first penalty of the day, though, so they let me off with a warning and I was okay to go back out on the track.

Just as I was about to pull out of the penalty box, one of the Judges stopped me and said there was a wire hanging out of the bottom of the car, and to go to the pits to have it removed or repaired. I agreed, and drove over to the pit area straight away. After reiterating my tale to Ryan and Neal, Ryan snipped off the offending wire, and then noticed a few drips of something on the ground under the engine bay. I stayed in the car, while they checked various fluids, and finding nothing obviously wrong, closed the hood.

It was too late, though - between getting a penalty, and baking in the K Car while it was sitting in the pits, my confidence had taken the rest of the day off, and I asked Neal if he wanted to get back in. He didn't, but standing in the pit was Steve, one of the former owners of the K Car, and who happened to be suited up in race gear. He said he'd happily take the car back out, and so we traded, strapped him in, and sent him on his way.

There was now just half an hour to go in the first day of racing, and there were mutterings that the K Car was actually doing well! Of course, right at that point, I happened to look out at the track, and saw the K Car on the side of the track, being hooked up to a tow truck! When Steve and the car got back to the pit and were detached from the tow truck, Steve explained that just a lap or two into his stint there was a bit of a fireball from the under the bonnet, and the car died. In looking at it, the engine had had something forcefully pushed through it, which turned out to be a part of the clutch, and was now only being held in the car by one bolt and the remainder of the clutch. It was terminal.

It was gut-wrenching too: at the end of the seventh hour, the K Car was leading C class, with the most laps, and also the fastest lap! But there were no repair options, and so despite having been in the lead, the K was out. After the checkered flag was dropped on the day, we found some time to commiserate with a beer, tidy up a bit, and then I had to head back to the hotel - totally exhausted, totally drenched in sweat, but totally hooked on this experience! The K Car may be dead, but tomorrow is another day - time for food, sleep, and then back again tomorrow for the second half of the race ...

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