24 Hours of LeMons – On The Track

It was Friday. Our 1985 Toyota Celica GT-S was at a race track. This, alone, seemed like an accomplishment. We slaved hard for that last week to make this happen, and our race car was sitting amongst other race cars, ready to go to tech inspection. I was a bit apprehensive about the tech inspection. My checklist indicated that the car should pass, but there’s always that thing one doesn’t expect.

I started the car to head over to inspection. Starting the car was not an easy task at this point. We had zero time to tune the car, and since the distributor had been removed during the timing chain install, the timing was off. Turning the ignition (with a flathead screwdriver) would result in the car starting, but the driver had to find the sweet spot of the engine stroke in order to make the car start. We managed to get to tech, where a judge asked me to rev the engine to 3,000, at which point he turned the kill switch to “off”. I was confident it would shut off, because I’d practiced this multiple times to ensure that it worked. The engine shut off. Excellent, no drama.

The inspector asked a few questions about the fuel system, looked over the interior and engine bay and then Jay Lamm, the LeMons head honcho, looked over the car briefly, stated that we had a decent platform and that with the 22RE engine, we should still be running at the end of the day on Sunday. He opined that we would not be fast, so we were in the “B” class. I quickly calculated the odds of Team NachoFriend running at the end of Sunday at approximately 12,500 to 1, accepted our tech inspection pass gracefully and gave the judges their bribe of copious amounts of tequila. Our “Bribed” stencil on the hood of the Celica was worn with pride.

Friday was a test day at the track. Since none of us had ever driven the Celica further than on and off the trailer, we decided it might behoove us to get some laps in. Our neighbor, Kevin, suited up and headed out on the track with some much faster cars. At the end of the 20 minute session, the cars came off the track. No Celica. Where’s the NachoFriend car? We eventually spotted it at the end of a tow strap being pulled off the track. Lifting the hood revealed that the brand new radiator had blown its plastic top off. Apparently, China was plotting to end our racing weekend. Kevin reported that the car was down on power and extremely slow before spraying coolant (which was just water) all over the windshield.

We immediately set to sourcing a new radiator. The only one we were able to locate was in Tacoma, about 90 minutes away with no traffic. It was Friday afternoon, rush hour, which meant our radiator was three to four hours away (one way). We sent our seventeen year old to the junkyard across the road from the track. He made friends with the yard’s pet raccoons, but found no radiators that would fit a 1985 Celica. He did report stacks of Porsche 914s, should anyone seek such a commodity.

We used this down time to do a little diagnosis on our Toyota. We rotated the engine to top dead center on the compression stroke and saw the rotor was pointing nowhere near the number one terminal on the distributor. I removed the distributor, adjusted the rotation, and re-stabbed it. “This should be a lot better”, I thought.

Two of our drivers, my wife and our 26 year old, were stuck in traffic on I-5, making their way down to Shelton, when we were informed that there was a mandatory meeting for all new drivers at 5:00 PM. They would not make a 5:00 PM meeting. Our team members Kevin and Ken begged and pleaded and they eventually said that if we relayed all of the information to our other team members, they would let it go – crisis averted. I recorded the meeting on my phone, where they covered what the flags meant and other miscellaneous newbie topics, and showed it to our absent team members later that night.

Our team met for dinner at a local casino/hotel, after which two of our drivers – the 26 and 17 (now 18) year old drove off to the 24 hour a day AutoZone to pick up our new radiator. This was quite the cultural experience for them. Apparently, the AutoZone in Tacoma is the late-night hang out for junkies. They were yelled at by a woman high on something, before claiming our radiator and a few other miscellaneous parts and hoofing it out of there and heading back to Shelton.

We left for the track early Saturday morning to install our brand new radiator. It went in without a hitch and didn’t leak. Also, the car started up  immediately, so our newly timed distributor fix apparently worked. We sent the first driver, our 26 year old, out onto the track with instructions to run a few laps and then come back in. We had very little idea how many laps our car might complete at this point, and thought it best to inspect the car so as not to scatter broken metal parts on the track.

Our team had one true black flag this day. Kevin, our neighbor, was run off the track by a faster car and mistook a black flag for a red flag (black means you should exit the track and report to the judges, red means stop where you are). Our team had a talk with the judges and was allowed to return to the track without punishment. A bit later, our car returned with the 17 year old in it. He said he had received a black flag, so we all reported to the judges with the car. “Black flag? We don’t know nothin’ ’bout no black flag!”, the judges told us. Weird. Gamma kid swears that flag was waving at him. Later in the day, the car came back into the paddock with the same kid at the wheel. Once again, the judges swore there was no black flag for our car. My wife, being a conspirator herself, floated the theory that we were being tested to prove that we had learned what a black flag was. It seems we passed with flying colors because this was to be our last ghost flag of the race.

On our first day, driver changes mostly involved bringing the car back in to the paddock to inspect our Celica Eventually, the team realized this was a waste of time and that we should change drivers in the hot pits right off of the track. Our Celica was a tank that could not be stopped, so we let go of this nonsense of looking at the car.

On the track, the car handled predictably. Its best asset was the brakes. The racing pads were consistent lap after lap, with no fade. They were very efficient at scrubbing off speed at the end of the front straight. Handling was good. Oversteer could be easily but controllably induced. The tires did a good job of keeping this in check. The car floated and bobbed, but once it took a set in a corner, it could hold speed through a turn.

The greatest weakness of the car was also an asset that would see us through the weekend. The 22RE engine was one of the least powerful on the track. Revving the engine over 5,000 made more noise but not power. The benefit, however, was that while the rotaries were in the paddock diagnosing low oil pressure, our 2.4 liter Celica was plodding around the track, waiting the the next corner to make up ground. Though the lack of power could be frustrating at times, this was the right engine for our first race. All of our drivers enjoyed lots of track time.

We arrived bright and early to the track on day two to find our car wouldn’t start. After some quick diagnosis, we discovered one day of racing had done in the starter. Fortunately, 22RE starters are easy to remove and install. Even more fortunate is that they are as common as a Tony Romo interception at the 5 yard line when the game is on the line. We sent the 17 year old (he’s 18 now, happy birthday!) out to pick up a new starter and only missed one hour of racing this Sunday.

Our team was really starting to get the hang of LeMons racing on this day. Driver changes were quick and coincided with refueling. The two kids were battling for the best lap time, all of the drivers’ lap times were improving, everyone was having fun and the car would not quit. The car’s reliability was gratifying. My goal was to provide a ride that could last the weekend, a car in which every driver could get plenty of track time, and we were able to achieve that, despite numerous setbacks.

As the day wound down, the team insisted that I get the checkered flag. Yes, our 1985 Celica GT-S was still running strong at the Northworst Grand Prix. We were the second car to take the flag, in 48th place out of 72 cars. The course workers all gave the thumbs up as we cruised around for the cool down lap. Exiting the track, all of the teams gathered around and applauded the drivers.

The organizers handed out awards soon after completion of the race and though we didn’t receive any, our reward was completing 213 laps. We overcame a few mechanical challenges and our inexperience to turn in a respectable performance.  Our team unanimously enjoyed the experience and interacting with the other teams. We will take what we learned and apply it to our next race – in Sonoma on December 3.