My mentor in Pro Racing told me to make a promise with myself that I’ve never forgotten: “To be involved in motor racing, you need to either be making money, winning races, or having fun. You have to have at least 2 of the 3 at all times, or it’s just not worth the hassle.”
I left Pro Racing at the end of the 2001 Indycar season when all I had to show for my efforts was a healthy bank statement, nothing that looked remotely like a trophy, and a wealth of frustration. Only 1 out of 3 applied, and I left.
With the Car & Driver 25hr team, I managed to violate my sacred rule; I didn’t notice, and didn’t mind. I didn’t make any money, we sure as heck didn’t win (unless finishing 559 laps down to the leader is considered winning), yet shared wonderful company and had an absolute blast. Only 1 out of 3 my 3 promises were satisfied, but I’m ready already counting down the days to the 2005 NASA 25.
363 days to go…
Stepping back to a few days before the event, I received and email from Tammi Hull a week before the 2004 NASA 25hr Endurance Race was due to start, and she informed me that some friends of her really needed help organizing and managing their 25hr effort. I’d been the Team Manager of Tammi’s ’04 25hr effort, but with dire motor problems keeping us from participating, I was unexpectedly free to help her friends. As it turned out, her friends happened to be the Car & Driver 25hr team.
I spoke with Tony Swan, Executive Editor of C&D (and veteran of twenty eight 24hr events, no less)—they had a few people with import tuning experience, but were lacking crew with race experience and someone to manage the team. Understanding that I was facing an uphill battle, and not always being smart enough to say no to such battles, I gladly offered to help.
Knowing that he’d planned to attend the 25 to distribute literature about JustRacing.com, I asked Mark Dadgar if he was also insane enough to help me with the C&D effort on such short notice. He picked me up sometime shortly after 6AM, and we made it to Thunderhill by 9AM—2 hours before the race was due to start.
Moments before we arrived, I noticed that I had a voicemail waiting for me; Tony left a great, if not comical message: “Hi Marshall, it’s Tony Swan. We’re in dire need of organization, and the car might not race. Seems we might have a problem with the rollcage. See you soon!”
There’s nothing like wondering if one’s last dash efforts to help organize a team could be over before it started, or just beyond futility.
So, with he clock counting down towards our mandatory placing of the car on pre-grid by 10:30, I wandered into a swirling scene of bodies in a disjointed flurry of rapid motion: someone was welding our rollcage to meet NASA’s rules, the front inner fender wells were being relieved to allow the tires to turn left and right with contact, graphics were being applied, the front bumper was being reinstalled, a variety of electrical switches were being mounted and wired in the cockpit.
At first, I was afraid to ask if we’d even be ready to take the green flag to start the race. As I would soon find out, the only thing we were lacking was indeed a bit of management and steering towards the 10:30 pre-grid mandate.
The Vishnu Tuning group, responsible for preparing the former “Press Fleet” Mitsubishi Evo MR for the event, were both focused and driven to meet our call to grid. The driving team of Tony Swan, Editor-In-Chief Csaba Csere, Technical Director Larry Webster, and Skip Barber Driving Instructor Paul Gerrard were also flashes of activity and energy. I’m not sure what word to use to describe the fine line between panic and professionalism, but we were straddling that fine line rather heavily.
As it turns out, the car had been received with almost no time to prepare for the 25. If there was little time to prepare the car for a 25 hour race, there was surely no time to consider testing it before the event. Vishnu had gutted the interior, fitted a 44 gallon fuel tank, mounted sport suspension, a transmission cooler, a racing harness and seat, and a rollcage. With exception to the fuel tank, the safety equipment, and moderate suspension upgrades, our Evo MR was near stock.
After being introduced to the Mike Goodfellow, the chief mechanic, and Shiv Pathak, owner of Vishnu and builder of the Evo MR (his 1st racecar), I quickly inventoried all of the current and outstanding tasks needed to be accomplished to meet our deadline. With more than a bit of trepidation, I asked Tony if we’d practiced pit stops, refueling, or driver changes. He answered “no” with a wry smile, and also mentioned that we had yet try fueling the car from the fuelling rig. While I was trying to provide solutions to problems such as these, I kept telling myself that other teams might be having an even harder time than ours. Apparently, I enjoy lying to myself.
With an hour to go, we had yet to assign pit stop duties, practice those stops, determine if the refueling rig worked, test to see how fast the driver’s might be able to swap seats, or even decide what order the drivers would run. As I pondered if I should gather Dadgar, pile into his truck, and sneak out of the paddock to drive home, I asked myself if things were really that bad.
Normally, in a situation like this, a Team Manager will either start laughing or start crying. I chose to start laughing. This wasn’t a laugh at anyone’s expense, but rather a quick and easy method to reset myself and prepare to forge ahead. The other common reaction is to lose one’s temper, and become “short” with the crew.
It was at this point, barely an hour into the C&D adventure, that I had a great sense of calm come over me—our greatest asset and most rewarding aspect of the 25hr Enduro became vividly clear: we had a crew of mechanics, barring Mark and Mike, that were raw and inexperienced—they didn’t know to quit or be tired. Both Mark and Mike did have racing experience, and if anything, they were even more committed to fill in the large gaps of racing knowledge needed to help get us on track. Brilliant.
Looking to our pilots, we had a driving team that had done too many 24hr endurance races to give in or lose spirit. Rather than look to the crew to finish the car, they pitched in to help complete anything they could. Between getting each other fitted to the car, adjusting each other’s belts, the testing of radios, helping to assemble our pit space, or simply adding graphics to the car just before the race was set to start, the C&D driving team distinguished themselves as racers first, and drivers second.
With such camaraderie and determination amongst everyone involved, I knew we could tackle any obstacles that were thrown our way. Little did I know that 13 hours worth of fastballs and curveballs would be hurled at our heads.
Mark Dadgar had the unfortunate distinction of being the only person I properly knew, so I asked him to assume the most precarious yet important role: refueler. It had been a while since I had seen a friend look at me, and with a single stare of mixed emotions, ponder what caused him to consider me a good choice to call “friend.” Mark’s expression managed to think about inquiring about alternate transportation for the long ride back to Oakland.
Mike Goodfellow was perfect to task with the execution of all pitstop work and coordination of mechanical work with the assembled crew. With Mark poured into a firesuit that appeared to be tailored for Paris Hilton, and seeing as how he couldn’t bend over or walk too far (without either doing a “Frankenstein” impression, or risking permanent sterility), Mike was the only racing veteran able to maneuver the variety of pit stop duties that were required.
So, I had assigned the necessary pits and pit stop duties to our crew, we successfully fueled the car before it was driven the pre-grid, had sorted out a driving schedule for our 4 pilots, and figured we’d had 25 hours of racing to figure out the fastest way to change drivers, change the tires, and fuel the car. I asked Shiv if we could supply me with a list of Evo service items, and recommended service intervals after the race started.
As we would soon find out, the Evo was kind enough to supply us with her own suggested service items and intervals.
With the mighty #50 C&D Mitsubishi Evo on the grid with 3 minutes to spare, and well after I took my first deep breath, the rest of the crew took a moment to realize that they had indeed finished the car on time, and succeeded in accomplishing a feat that a battle hardened racing team might not have bettered.
I had only known these guys for 2 hours, but was incredibly proud of their efforts.
A few detail items were still left to do on the grid; we fashioned our “ES” enduro class stickers out of extra sponsor graphics, cable tied the timing transponder to the front grill (Tony Swan must have been trying to make my crack under pressure—with another wry, sarcastic smile offered, he walked up to me with less than 10 minutes before the race start, held out the red timing transponder, and asked: “So, you think we should put this on the car?”).
I’m laughing about it again as I write this. Some people only regard the spraying of champagne or taking press photos in victory circle as the good times in racing. The champagne eventually goes flat, and photos eventually fade; little things like Tony’s perfectly timed sarcasm and wit make all the hard work and frustrations worth bearing.
At the 5 minute signal, we herded Paul into the car to drive the first stint. I also took a moment to drill our drivers on the preferred method of pit entry and performing driver exchanges. It was a rather silly notion, but I figured that if any of my pit stop advice was retained in the rush to make the start of the race, at least something would go according to plan.
The green flag was waved at 11am, and Paul proceeded to hold his 5th place starting position into the first turn. It wasn’t long before he began to work his was forward. It also wasn’t long, lap 12 precisely, before Paul radioed in to me to mention that the power steering had failed.
On sticky Yokohama racing slicks, the car was nearly impossible to turn without power steering. Unfortunately, the loss of power steering didn’t occur until the end of a long straight, and Paul was unable to keep the car from going off track. In addition to the power steering problem, we had managed to slightly crunch the front splitter. I fixed the splitter with duct tape in 30 seconds. Shiv and the Vishnu team had much bigger problems with the power steering.
Our first impression was that the power steering pump had seized, and in doing so, the pump pulley had sheared from the pump drive shaft. The power steering/alternator/water pump belt was missing, and the pulley was broken beyond repair. The only option the Vishnu crew had was to rob a power steering pump off of one of their personal cars. I’m not sure what the discrepancy was, but there was some difference in the pump/belt arrangement that required extensive swapping and fitting. While this was going on, a runner had been sent into town to find spare belts to replace the missing one.
12 laps in, and we were already looking at a 2 hour mechanical fight in the paddock. Unlike the competitive and successful 2003 Car & Driver effort, the ’04 C&D team was fixing problems under the hood before most other teams had gotten their tires up to temperature.
I’m not sure if the crew or drivers found it the least bit funny, but I insisted that I had planned the power steering failure, claiming to have wanted to get the adversity out of the way as early as possible to allow us to run the rest of the race uninterrupted. If nothing else, I’m good at making an ass out of myself in times of stress and pressure…
Although Paul had only gotten a handful of laps in the car, with the few hours of repair time that had elapsed, we chose to put Csaba Csere in the car. Csaba had been feeling ill, and it was important for us to get him in the car before dark, and while he still had his energy.
I called Csaba in after 4 laps to check to power steering pump and belt; everything seemed to be in great shape, so we sent him out for his stint. He was back in after 4 more laps, complaining of a loud “clunk” in the trunk. We found a large nut that had unscrewed itself from the rear shock tower brace, but he insisted that is was far too small to match the loud sound he’d been hearing.
Dustin, one of the Vishnu technicians, gave the tip of the exhaust a good push with his shoe, and found that the rubber exhaust hanger had broken: the large stainless muffler and exhaust was banging against the chassis under hard cornering.
With no immediate repairs available, and knowing that while annoying, the exhaust wasn’t in jeopardy of falling or being damaged, Csaba was sent back out.
It had taken a few attempts to get him out for more than 4 lap runs, but Csaba was finally able to settle in and give the Evo a proper try. Mired in traffic, he still managed to set times that were within the top 5 fastest of the entire field. Larry Webster, 3rd on the driving order and C&D associate of Csaba’s, was thoroughly impressed by his immediate effort and pace.
I was equally impressed—anyone that’s willing to hop into a car that has lost power steering, had nuts/bolts come loose, had the exhaust break free and rattle within 20 laps, and drive it quickly without concern, is worthy of everyone’s praise!
After a dozen laps, Csaba informed me of some sort of fuel stumble, reminiscent of the car being out of fuel. By my calculations, we had another 30 laps of fuel left, but I decided to call him in to top off the tank and see if that cured the problem. Silly things like malfunctioning fuel tank baffles or jammed fuel vents can cause such problems, and the act of topping up has been known to rectify those kinds of niggling problems. I’d soon wish that topping off was all we needed to solve our problems.
We had only circled the track 40 or so times, been in the pits or back at our trailer 4 times, and were beginning to wonder if the C&D 25hr effort was meant to be 25 hours of R&D. Back on track, Csaba called in with more of the same fuel stumbling problems, and also noted that we were running with a distinct lack of turbo boost.
We looked at all turbo hoses and ducting for holes and broken connections, but found the plumbing to be in perfect shape
Shiv had set the Evo to run something in the neighborhood of 20psi of boost; the MR was only generating 10psi. To compound the power plant issues, the car only encountered the suspected fuel pressure problems in left hand turns.
Seeing as how 11 of Thunderhill’s 15 turns are left-handers, we needed to pit immediately.
Looking at our combined running time, Paul started the race at 11Am, and was in before 11:30 for power steering pump replacement. With that fixed, Csaba was back out on track at 2:15. He was back in the paddock shortly after 3PM for fuel/boost concerns. It would be 5:50 before we would get back out.
After removing the heat shielding, turbo, and intake plenum, nothing stood out as being faulty. Thankfully, the Vishnu squad wasn’t ready to give up, and proceeded to remove the front bumper to allow greater access to the intercooler and induction system.
With the engine bay exposed, the true problem was easily found: the actuator lever arm that opens and closes the turbo wastegate had broken. In left hand turns, the wastegate would open, allowing a large portion of our boost charge to hit the atmosphere unabated. Like a balloon losing all its helium before it can shoot sky high, the Evo was dumping half of its boost in 11 out of 15 turns. Not good.
It took a good while to decide on the most effective repair—should we try and weld the broken lever arm, add extra material to it in the hopes of making it stronger, or should we install the fresh spare turbo and wastegate unit we had waiting? Our fabricator had genuine concerns about further weakening the lever arm if we attempted to weld it, so Shiv opted to mate the spare wastegate to the existing turbo manifold.
Taking into account the time to find the wastegate problem, swap all the induction components around to make the car run again, and reassembly of all related items, we lost nearly 3 more hours.
If this sounds like a long time, I’ll only mention this—from the time it takes to let the orange glow of the turbo reduce to a light reddish color, the need to let the metal cool and return to normal tolerances, and all of the other ancillary parts that had to be exchanged or removed, the Vishnu team worked a minor miracle in those 3 hours.
Sitting in the motor home and talking with the C&D staff, we all gave Larry explicit instructions to avoid breaking the car. Granted, neither of the 2 previous drivers had been at fault for their failures, but with Larry being the youngest member of the driving team, it only seemed natural for us to threaten him if anything should break while he was driving.
Barring Larry, it was a double standard we all thought was entirely fair…
So with the car fixed and darkness set upon us, we put Larry in the car. Csaba was cold and sick—we’d need him in the car in the morning, and thanks to him mentioning it, we both agreed he’d be better served to climb into the motor home to warm up and rest. The temperatures were in the mid-forties during the day, and creeping towards the low thirties as it got darker.
Larry was fired up to drive, and I was fired up to let him loose on Thunderhill. Being a realist, and taking into account our myriad of problems, I knew that sticking to the “take it easy for 25 hours” approach was long gone. We’d had so many unforeseeable problems in our first 6 hours, I wasn’t convinced that asking Larry to treat the car gingerly was going to stave off future problems.
Of all the bizarre problems to crop up, when testing the car radio with Larry strapped in, every time he pressed the radio button while the car was running, the car died. The radio harness isn’t powered, and isn’t connected to the Mitsubishi wiring in any way, so we were all thrown for a loop on this one. I could talk to Larry, but if he tried to talk to me, the car would go to sleep. Would this kind of stuff ever stop?
Larry was only happy to get the green light to drive the car as hard as amused him, and in complete darkness, he set our fastest lap of the race. Back on pitlane with the C&D crew, I ventured over to the timing and scoring monitor. With barely 50 laps completed by the C&D team between 11AM-6PM, we were only 217 laps behind the leader.
Despite the famous catch-phrase “ I love it when a plan comes together” from the TV show “The A-Team” running through my head at this time, I indeed had no idea how I could concoct a plan to recover 217 laps for our team. It was also obvious that our plans for winning the 2004 25hr race weren’t going to come together.
Larry hadn’t been out for more than a dozen laps before he radioed to tell me he had a flat tire. Not only was the tire flat, but we had just put fresh rubber on the car after Csaba’s abbreviated stint. The tires that came off after Csaba’s stint were blistered, missing chunks, and beyond salvaging.
We also moved the radio button away from the steering column to the parking brake—we thought the proximity of the radio harness to the steering column might be causing some sort of frequency problems for the Evo’s electrics, causing to shut off. It worked initially, but began causing the same problem before too long.
With no testing time prior to the event, the team was forced to guess at a proper setup for the Yokohama tires. The tires were incredible; our setup wasn’t. On a frigid track with minimal tire temperatures, our slicks weren’t capable of running more than one stint. At that rate, we’d have consumed close to 15 sets of new tires during the entire 25 hours. Yokohama only had 5 sets total for us. This was another problem to overcome.
A new tire was changed rapidly by Mike, Dustin, and Mark (in a newer, more *liberating* firesuit), and Larry was sent back out again.
It was now just after 6PM, I had been up for 12 hours, the C&D/Vishnu crew had been up for equally as long, and it was time to start rotating crew out to eat and rest. Shiv, Dustin, and most of the other Evo gurus had suffered countless cuts, burns, and were covered in Mitsubishi lubricants after hours of being elbow-deep in the MR’s engine bay. It took a lot of persistence, but after insisting the he and his crew got some sleep, the Vishnu squad slowed down for the first time.
Temperatures were creeping closer and closer to the forecasted low of 32 degrees, so with the Vishnu team sleeping, and our C&D drivers instructed to stay warm in the motor home, I kept a skeleton crew on pit lane with me to keep an eye on Larry’s progress.
Just as Larry had started to find a good groove, and began passing most of our competitors decisively and with ease, I hear an all too familiar report come through my headset: “I think we just had another power steering failure. See you back at the motor home in a minute…”
With our resting crew having barely caught a moment of peace, and hands still sore and dirty, they opened the Evo’s hood and found another seized power steering pump. The pulley had sheared identically to the first; same problem, same pump configuration. Luckily, we had one more Street Evo that had made the trek to Thunderhill for us to plunder.
It was obvious that we had the spare parts to get the racecar back on track. It wasn’t completely obvious as to how some of the crew would be driving their own Evos home.
A lot of troubleshooting took place amongst the entire team—with two identical failures in less than 75 laps, I wasn’t about to let us just replace another power steering pump without looking for a proper solution. Had we simply replaced the 2nd failed unit with a newer 3rd unit, we would have had no reason to expect the 3rd unit to last any longer than the others.
Granted, I didn’t have a solution of any relevance to offer, but I did know that pushed to find an alternate fix, the C&D/Vishnu team was plenty smart to come up with something.
Our C&D Mitsubishi was built to run without A/C, but as our mechanics had noticed, the street Evos with A/C seemed to have much better alignment of the power steering/A/C/alternator/water pump pulleys than our non-A/C pulley configuration. It seems that without the A/C unit and requisite longer belt, an excessive amount of lateral force was being placed on the power steering unit. Under this exceptional lateral strain, the power steering shaft and pulley were being ground into the pump housing.
This swap required a bit more work than the previous power steering pump swap, and we didn’t get Larry back out until 8:15. It took very little urging to get the Vishnu crew to take a nap this time—they were only happy to oblige.
Excluding the obvious goal of winning, all endurance racing crews operate with one goal in mind during every long distance race: to achieving complete and utter boredom.
Boredom might not sound exciting or seem like an attribute to be associated with motor racing, but in an endurance event, all a team wants is for their car to stay out on track for the entire event. If the car has to come in for an unscheduled stop, or for a problem needing attention, the race is likely lost, and the crew is anything but bored.
Like a fine watch that requires winding only once, endurance teams strive to wind their car up at the beginning of a long race, and let it run around the clock without having to touch it again.
After Larry got back out, and with an even smaller crew on pitlane consisting of our fueling assistant Nick, from Vishnu, myself, and helper Donna Seeley, we finally achieved the elusive state of boredom.
In my original plans to help organize and manage the Car & Driver team, I was supposed to have left at 5PM to make it home for birthday plans my fiancé had made. With the plight of our team compounding by the hour (or so it seemed), Mark and I opted to stay for as long as the car was running.
It’s a good thing the cell phone coverage at Thunderhill is notoriously spotty, or else I might have heard all of the curse words that came my way when I called home to inform my lady I’d be a little late in getting home…
Because I hadn’t planned on staying, I didn’t bring clothes to suit the night time weather. Luckily, Donna had an old blanket in her trunk and retrieved it for me. Settled into my chair in our pits, and with her blanket wrapped around my lower half, I’m sure I looked like someone’s great grandmother.
All I was missing was a needlepoint project and a copy of *Cat Fancy* to fill the role perfectly.
I had been up for more than 14 hours, was on my feet for better than 12 of those hours, our car had only run for a combined 3 hours of the 9 hours of the race had been underway, and I was having a great time. Seriously.
Yes, it was freezing, we had nothing but problems, and there was no chance of winning, but between the joy of fellowshipping with the drivers, crew, and stubborn dedication of the entire team, I was already thankful for the experience. Again, I don’t claim to be the most sane person in the world.
After running for nearly an hour and a half without interruption, it was getting close to call Larry in to swap with Tony Swan. During Larry’s extended run, Mark had the intelligence to decide to run to the local Wal-Mart for overnight supplies.
Recalling the sage wisdom from watching the “Band of Brothers” mini-series many times, I thought of the “Bastogne” episode where trapped in the snow for a month, the key advice given to the soldiers was for them to keep their socks dry. I don’t know why this occurred to me at this point—it might have been hallucinations. Such oddities and hallucinations are an accepted part of sleepless endurance races.
Regardless, asking Mark to bring back a pack of tube sock seemed to be the only thing that mattered to me. He got back just before Larry pitted to refuel and put Tony in the car, and armed with 3 layers of socks now on my feet, I had a renewed sense of motivation to change drivers, change tires, and fuel the car as fast as possible.
We were about a year behind the rest of the field, but it didn’t matter to me—I wanted us to do our first hot pit stop to the best of our ability. It was not 10PM, we were doing our first problem-free pitstop, and our worn crew performed beautifully. We weren’t blazingly quick, but for doing our first stop under pressure, I had no complaints for anyone.
With Tony in the car for the first time, and his first time driving the Evo at night, we agreed it would be best for him to take a bit of time to play himself in slowly. He was rather hard on himself, and felt obligated to apologize for his lack of immediate pace. I don’t know what he expected of himself, but I was more than happy with his intelligence and willingness to get up to speed incrementally.
Within 10 hot laps, Tony was nearly matching some of the faster times run by his teammates during the daytime. It had just moved past midnight, and my headset offered a message from Tony that I really didn’t want to hear:
“Marshall, the power steering is dead”
Tony brought the car back to the motor home, we woke the Vishnu crew, and knew that having used all of out store bought belts and stolen all the belts from the crew’s street cars, we’d have to wait until morning to find a replacement at a parts store. Or so we thought. At first sight, the power steering pump and pulley looked to be in good working order. It seemed that the belt had simply failed.
Upon further inspection, Shiv had noticed that indeed the belt was fine, albeit buried deep at the back of the motor and out of immediate sight. The real culprit of our belt failure was laying at the bottom of the engine undertray.
While doing his best to preserve the car, and putting in laps that were quick, but not taxing, Tony had the idler pulley snap off of the block, throwing the serpentine belt out of sight and ending our race proper. Initially thinking we were just in need of finding a belt in the morning, I sent Tony back to the hotel to get some sleep and asked him to be back by 9AM.
After 13 hours of trying to keep a dying patient alive, performing what felt like 3 heart transplants, a few blood transfusions, jump starting the poor bastard with electric paddles a few times, and refusing to let the thing die, when I called Csaba and the rest of the C&D drivers to inform them of the idler pulley that couldn’t be fixed, it seemed like I was calling them with the unfortunate news that we’d finally lost the patient.
In the interest of finishing the Car & Driver story about the 25, and in an attempt to save whatever face we had left, Shiv and the Vishnu crew were left to devise a plan to come up with a belt and pulley combination that could power the water pump for 2 laps: an out lap, and the final lap of the race to cross the finish line. We really needed a picture of the car taking the checkered flag.
No matter how long the race, or how many laps or hours you are behind, crossing the finish is the only goal every team will not concede.
After we packed everything up to protect our equipment from the rain that was expected to fall in the early morning, I sent everyone back to the hotel to get some rest. Everyone was due to come back in the morning to see what repairs could be engineered to get our car across the finish line.
Mark and I packed our belongings, and by 11:45, started the drive home. I’d already missed my plans at home but figured there was no need to compound things by hanging around to watch 2 laps take place. I’d done all I could do—it was up to Shiv to work his magic.
Mark must have thought I’d thrown a belt, as I just couldn’t stop laughing again. If the A-Team mantra and Bastogne references were any indication to my fragile state of mind, I’m sure my laughing spell were proof positive that I’d lost it.
What he didn’t immediately know was that I wasn’t laughing out of exhaustion of delirium, but rather, after being up for almost 17 hours, fighting an evil Evo for 13 hours, and breaking my 2-out-of-3 promise for making money, winning races, or having fun, I couldn’t believe how rewarding the experience was.
Broken promises and broken parts were a fair trade for the new friends, new stories, and anticipation for the next NASA 25hr race. It do it again tomorrow.
362 days to go now…
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