As our NachoFriend Racing Team’s 1985 Celica idled on the grid Saturday morning waiting to be released, my nerves were on edge. In the racing seat of our Toyota was our 17-year-old daughter, about to compete in her first race – The 2021 24 Hours of LeMons Sears Pointless in Sonoma, California. To pass the time, she chatted up drivers in cars near her, challenging one fellow competitor in a 4th-generation Camaro to race for pinks. He declined, claiming our car was too slow. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, the cars were released for parade laps. Much to my relief, Reagan didn’t stall the Celica leaving the grid, because she can’t reach the starter button (at least not with her finger.) Later in the race she would discover the technique of starting the car with her foot.
We put Reagan in car to start the race with the expectation that she would get a few parade laps before the green flag dropped. She is our only driver to never have raced at Sonoma (she has done a track day at The Ridge, as detailed here) and driving some laps at less than racing speed should help reduce the chances of any surprises. My wife and I waited for her to complete her first parade lap and then just as she entered the straight, the green flag dropped. I guess one lap was better than nothing. She responded, hit the throttle and could officially be called a race car driver. The race started at 9:30 am that Saturday morning. At 9:56 am (according to the time stamp on the picture) she came in for her first black flag. Apparently she carried a bit too much speed into a tight turn, resulting in a spin. She ended her driving stint with two black flags and some very respectable lap times.
Our team had arrived in Sonoma (actually our house was in Vallejo) on Thursday. Our rental house had ample room, a garage and a hot tub. Polar bears would describe the temperature of the water in our shower as “a bit chilly”, but other than that, the house was fine. Brandon hauled the trailer, which we took to the track that night. For the first time, I decided we should rent a garage space for the team. This offered several advantages to us including electrical power, added room, a view of the track exit so we would know when to expect our car back at the paddock and an assigned spot for which we would not need to jockey for position. The garage space does come with a price ($500), but we would soon learn how valuable it was. Five stars. I would book again.
Tech inspection on Friday was scheduled for 2:30. We made use of the waiting time by wiping our car’s black rattle-canned paint off the lower section to reveal the factory red. Many cans of Brakleen® and sheets of Scotch Brite™ were used to achieve our new splash of color. At 2:30, we lined up for inspection, successfully passing tech. The BS judges pet our dogs, took our beverages and, thanks to promises of nachos, they stuck us in class C with no penalty laps (where we belong). We rewarded our successful tech day with a meal al fresco at the HopMonk Tavern, where the dogs rested after a hard day’s work at the track.
After Reagan’s above-described stint in the Celica on Saturday, we cycled through our usual array of drivers, all of whom have driven at Sonoma Raceway – Brandon, Andrew, Max and Nash. The car ran fine. The new sways bars added a welcome level of stiffness, the water temperature was around 180° to 190°, right where it should be and the brakes were stellar. Despite this, our lap times were about five seconds slower than the last time we ran this track, which confounded me. I asked a garage neighbor how their lap times compared to previous races, and he let me know that the track was lengthened and that turn 11, after a long straight, was way past where it was last time. This added about eight seconds to lap times. “Well thank God”, I thought as I turned to check our lap time book.
At 3:30, with one hour left of racing on Saturday, thoughts turned to the evening, dinner and getting some rest. I imagined enjoying a nice Napa cab with a burger, sitting out on the deck of our rental. Yes, this would be a good evening. At that exact moment, our Celica appeared at the end of garage row. “Nash got another black flag, I guess” was my thought. Then I heard it. Tick Tick Tick Tick. The unmistakable sound of rod knock. So much for burgers and cabernet sauvignon on the deck.
We had a spare engine. We had an engine hoist. We knew what to do. The kids (anyone more than twenty years younger than me is a kid) got to work immediately on getting the old engine out and the new in. The hood flew off, and they were going to town. This was a long process. There were many complications that had to be overcome, bellhousing bolts that needed much persuasion to release and engine mounts that didn’t quite match up. Some of our team went back to the house, made dinner and brought it back to us (along with alcohol). At least I got burgers and wine, though not on the deck. Some teams offered up tools if we needed them, other teams offered to borrow our engine hoist, to which we obliged. At some point well after midnight, a man with a whiskey bottle wandered into our garage space and provided some tasty rye. At around 1:45 AM, we were ready to fire the engine. And fire it did, almost immediately. I was in the racing seat, pressed the starter button and hope radiated from the engine bay. After it started, Andrew was asked to tell me not to rev the engine, to which I, after having consumed a bottle of a decent Napa cab and a couple of glasses of whiskey, responded “F&%k you, Andrew, I’m revvin’ the engine!!” We had oil pressure and a water leak that was fixed by tightening something. “Tightening something” almost never fixes water leaks, but I saw this happen with my own eyes.
We buttoned the car up as best as we could and left the track at around 3:30 AM, leaving a couple of minor tasks for later in the morning. After what seemed like about six minutes of sleep, we were back at the track ready to race the next day. Winning was off the table, but our main objective (racing fun) was within our grasp. Brandon took the track first and immediately posted lap times that were comparable to the previous day’s. We had oil pressure, the water temperature was where it should be and the rod knock that ended our Saturday was gone. Most of the drivers posted their best lap with the new engine. One of the main benefits of the new 22RE is that it didn’t burn oil (the old one went through oil at the rate of one quart every hour). We finished in 8th place in C class, 66 laps behind our class-winng garage neighbors – Flaming A-Holes and our drivers got in a full day of racing. That 4th gen Camaro that wouldn’t race us for pinks because we were “too slow”? Yeah, we finished way ahead of them with a quicker best lap.
Replacing the engine at the track is something I hope to never have to do again, but I am glad we had the opportunity to do it once. We lucked out in that the engine broke at the first race to which we brought a spare. Going forward, our Celica stands a good chance of finishing races without breaking and I intend to leave it largely as-is for the next race so we spend more time driving and less time tuning.
Oh, and I bought a car. More on that later.