Lap 27

 

Liz and I were at a Chicagoland meeting one night that next winter, talking to another long time Chicagoland member. This was a fellow named Pat, who had won the Midwestern Councilís EP championship in an MGB the year before. I was lamenting the fact that I had no car to race and could not afford to buy one, even though I now had a better paying job.

I had left the law firm and my clerking duties behind when Liz and I got engaged. I had also dropped out of law school. I had taken a job managing a fleet of railroad tank cars for a petrochemical company. I had also bought a new car the year before. Actually, Liz had bought the car because I was still in law school and working as a law clerk at the time. It was a nice, blue Datsun 510, which made a great rally car. Several other Datsun 510s around the country had been converted to very competitive racecars.

I had liked the car ever since I had seen John Morton drive the Peter Brock-prepared 510 to victory in the Two-Five challenge race at Road America. However, converting my 510 into a racecar was not yet an option for me because we needed both Lizís Dodge Dart and my 510 to get to work. Liz was still working as a buyer in the Purchasing Department at UIC in downtown Chicago, and my new job was in Des Plaines.

I was somewhat stunned when Pat said, "Why donít you race my MGB next year?" He explained that he wanted to take a year off and figured, why let the car sit? We discussed the issue and I agreed to race his car. I would pay all the expenses, and Pat would teach me the mechanical side and help me as much as he could. This was a good deal, since Patís profession was that of an instructor at a school for auto mechanics. On top of that, his car was fast! After all, he was the defending EP Champion. Besides, my first car had been that British Racing Green MGB I bought while in college, so I had a soft spot in my heart for MGBs.

Liz and I were living in an apartment in Bensenville, so I had no garage for the car. My Dad solved that by letting me keep the racecar in their garage. We put a hitch on the venerable old Dodge Dart and drove up to Patís place in Northbrook to pick up the car. Patís car was fast, but it was also ugly. The fenders and body, including the trunk, were a sickly looking pale yellow, and the hood was a faded British Racing Green. The car had been involved in a garage fire and the fenders were full of dents and undulations caused by heat damage. I quickly dubbed the car "Old Yeller".

I asked Pat, "Why didnít you ever put some new fenders on and give it a nice paint job." Pat smiled and said, "Iíll tell you why. When I go inside someone in the corner and they are in their shiny, beautifully painted racecar, they will look over and see this ugly yellow car with the rumpled fenders and think to themselves, ĎThis guy does not care if he hits meí and they back off and let you through. Besides, pretty cars are not necessarily fast cars. Racecars need to be fast - not pretty."

Old Yeller

Although the car was definitely not pretty, I can tell you that everything under the hood and under the body was so clean, you could eat off of it. As Pat told me, "Dirt is a racecarís enemy!" After every race, Pat would methodically go through the engine compartment cleaning everything. Then he would crawl under the car and do the same thing with the suspension and drive train. He would take a couple of wrenches with him and make sure everything was still nice and tight.

I had managed to maintain my competition license by co-driving a couple of the longer races, so I did not have to go back to driverís school. I had even gone so far as to purchase my own driverís suit and helmet. I vividly recall the day the package from Simpson arrived, containing my new Nomex driverís suit. Naturally, as soon as I had it out of the box, I was trying it on. I checked myself out in front of the full-length mirror in my parentís bedroom, and thought I looked quite dapper in my shiny new, flame-resistant threads.

I knew I would have a steep learning curve in my first race because of another unique feature of Patís MGB. He had converted it to right hand drive. He felt that since road racing is done clockwise around the track, there were always more right hand corners than left, a fact borne out by Blackhawk Farms, which has 5 right hand corners and only 3 left. Pat figured it would be an advantage to have the driverís weight on the right side in those right hand corners. This would help the car stay level and thus make the suspension work even better.

The only problem was that this meant the driver had to shift with his left hand. That may not seem like a problem until you realize the shift pattern, though unchanged, now seems backwards. Pat assured me this would be no problem for me, but I was a little skeptical as I put the car in gear and headed to the grid for my first practice. After my first couple of laps, I was even more skeptical because I was concentrating so hard on my shifting that I was missing my line and nearly drove off the track a couple of times.

Finally, I got the hang of it, picked up my line and began to go faster. Then, only a couple of laps further into the practice, the engine died and I coasted to a halt on the inside of 3A. I looked under the hood but could not see anything obvious. The practice ended and soon this dirty white Ford Bronco shows up with Big Al grinning from ear to ear. He wrapped the tow strap around my roll bar, told me to hang on to it and then towed me back to the paddock. Once there, he retrieved his tow strap and with a flourish and a big grin handed me his card. I had been "had by the vulture".

We soon found the problem with the car. The battery, which is behind the driverís seat, had a cable come off. This was an easy fix even for me and we were ready to race, but still had one more problem. We had arrived at the track late that morning and missed the first practice for my group. I had completed only four laps in the second practice. Council rules say you must complete at least five laps in order to qualify to race. But as with many rules, this could be bent. I went up to the bridge and asked the Chief Steward for permission to race with only four laps completed. He approved my request but required me to start at the back of the field for the five-lap qualifying race.

At that time in Council, competitors kept their own lap times and would record their fastest time on a slip of paper and take it to Timing and Scoring. These timing slips were then used to set the starting positions for the grid races. The grid or starting positions for the feature race were determined by your finishing position in the grid race. Did people lie about their times, since it was done on the honor system? Usually not, but I am sure there were a few with a fast pencil. Most did not really care, for as the saying goes, "When the green flag drops, the bulls--t stops!" Any lies on the timing slips would soon be apparent on the track.

As I took my place at the back of the field for our grid race, Pat gave me some advice on the start. "When they drop the green flag, move to the middle and stand on it all the way to one!" I nervously nodded my head, wondering what I would do if everyone else did the same. I was also wishing I could go to the bathroom even though I had just been there before getting in the car and could hardly coax out more than a drop or two. But I was belted tightly into the car and there was no time for that any way. I told myself I really did not have to go - it was just nerves.

As the field turned out of seven on the pace lap and headed for the start line, I remembered Patís advice and was determined to try it. After all, as the defending EP champion, he should know what he was talking about. On the other hand, he rarely started this far back. There were about 25 cars ahead of me. I had barely gotten the car straightened out on the main straight when I saw them wave the green from the bridge. I stomped on the gas and moved to the middle and was amazed! The field parted before me like the Red Sea! I was passing cars like crazy partly due to the fact that the back of the grid was made up of F, G, and H Production cars - all technically slower than my EP mount.

As I came into corner one, I dove inside another MGB, a very pretty blue one. I saw the driver look over at me and, to my amazement, he backed off and let me through! I vowed then and there to never paint this car! I must have passed over a dozen cars by the time I got to corner one. I continued to pick cars off one at a time and when the checker flag flew, I was up to fifth place. I was thrilled. Dang, this car was fast!!

I climbed out of the car and was pulling my helmet off when Pat walked up. "How did you like that start?" I asked. Pat said nothing. He just walked to the front of the car and looked it over. Finally he looked up and said, "I donít know, couldnít have been that good - there are no new dents."

The race itself was kind of anti-climactic since I had plucked all the low hanging fruit in the grid race. Those four guys up front proved to be a bit more difficult. Sure, I lapped several cars during the race, but lapping cars is not nearly as satisfying as passing for position. I did manage to get past one more car and finished fourth overall.

I had plenty of competition in EP that year. There was Bob, in his devilishly fast 356 "bathtub" Porsche, and Ed in another very quick red MGB. Thus, it was with some surprise that I found myself in the lead in my next race. I can tell you it was a thrill to come down the straight and see one of the starters change the lap counter as I went under the bridge. Sadly, it all soon came apart as I blew a head gasket and collected another card from a grinning Big Al.

At the next race, I was prepping my car when Ed walked up and asked me how things were going. I said things were fine and asked about him. "I am done," he said. I asked why and he said he had a hole in his radiator. I said, "I have a spare. Do you want to borrow it?" "Really!" he said. "You will let me borrow it?" I said sure, dug it out of the spare parts box and handed it to him.

That is the big thing about Council and amateur racing in general. Everyone helps everyone else. I can recall countless times when competitors banded together trying to get another guyís car on the track. After all, we were in this for fun and if we won, all we got was a great deal of satisfaction and a $10 trophy. There is no satisfaction in beating a car that is on the trailer.

The other nice thing about Council was that you did not have to lock up your tools and stuff in those days. I remember looking around for my torque wrench one day when the guy across the way walked up and handed it to me. He said he came to borrow it, but I was not around. He borrowed it anyway, figuring I would not mind. I didnít. Things have changed now and recently at the June Sprints I even heard the PA announcer reminding competitors and spectators alike to lock up their stuff if they were going to leave it for a while.

Ed took my spare radiator and went out and won the race with me trailing well behind him and Bobís Porsche. After the race, he brought my radiator back and thanked me. What the heck, at least one of my spare parts took a checker.

For the race at State Fair Park, I was thrilled to find myself on the pole. This was in spite of the fact that I had trouble with the left hand shift for the first time. At Blackhawk, I only had to downshift from fourth to third. This was easy as all I had to do was move the gearshift forwards from fourth to third and back again. State Fair Park has a very tight hairpin turn in the infield section that required second gear. That was more difficult since to get there from third, I had to shift down, over to the left and back.

That does not sound too bad except that reverse in an MGB is to the left and back, next to second gear. More than once, I took the shift lever too far to the left and heard the sickening sound of mashing gears as I hit reverse instead of second. Luckily, I was never able to get it into reverse or that would have meant an expensive sudden stop.

The Author and Old Yeller on the pole at State Fair Park

I found the State Fair Park to be an exciting track. I did not much care for that darn hairpin, but driving the oval was enough to make up for it. This was the fastest I had ever gone. When I came up onto the oval and headed south, I would shift into fourth and keep my foot into it. As I approached the south turn, I had to keep an eye on my tach or I would red line the car. Hence, just before the turn, I had to lift off the throttle a bit to keep from blowing the engine. Once into the turn, I could put my foot down again, but I must admit it took several laps before I was confident enough to take the south turn flat out. I gained new respect for the Pros who go through that turn twice as fast as I was going. But then they were not driving an MGB with old tires.

To save money I would buy used tires from an SCCA National driver. He would buy new tires and only use them for one or two races. I bought his used ones and raced all season on them. This was real amateur racing after all and we needed to save money anyway we could. The guys who ran up front at spectator nationals like the June Sprints were often given tires by the tire companies like Goodyear. No such freebees for us little club racers and racing tires are not cheap.

When the race started, I took the lead from my pole position and was well away from Ed and Bob both of whom had trouble in qualifying. I managed to stay there for several laps when suddenly - it happened. As I went into the south turn, steam erupted from the engine compartment and I could hardly see to steer through the corner. Knowing this was not right, I dove right for the pit lane. My brother, Greg, and Pat were there and put up the green hood. A radiator hose had come loose. While Greg and Pat struggled to put the very hot hose back on, Edís crew members ran to get water for the radiator. We put the water they brought into the depleted radiator and I rejoined the field, but was down a lap or more and out of it.

Old Yeller takes the lead into corner one at State Fair Park

Our next race was back at good old Blackhawk. After the last practice, I changed the oil in the car and got ready for the race. We went out on the pace lap and as we were coming into corner seven, I noticed my water temperature going up rapidly. Then I saw that my oil pressure was almost non-existent. I peeled off from the field and turned into the pit lane. As I reached to shut the engine down, I heard a loud "BANG" followed by expensive silence.

We put the car up on jack stands and crawled underneath to see what we could see. To my disgust, I saw there was no oil plug in the oil pan. I had apparently not tightened it enough when I had changed the oil and it had vibrated out on the pace lap, dumping all my oil on the track. There was also a small hole in the bottom of the pan and Pat put a screwdriver up in the hole and rotated it. We could hear metal being moved around by the shaft of the screwdriver. Pat looked at me and said, "That is not good." No kidding. Even I knew that!

That was the end of my racing for awhile because I could not afford to rebuild the engine right away. I took it home to my parentís garage and Greg and I pulled the engine, and hauled it up to Patís. He pulled it apart to see what we needed to replace, which, as it turned out, was just about everything. Over the next few weeks, I slowly acquired the necessary parts when I could afford them. Finally, I had everything we needed and hoped to finish the rebuild and race the next weekend.

Saturday, Greg and I went to Patís place and, while he supervised, we rebuilt the engine. Of course, things never go as easily as you want and we ran into problem after problem. We finally arrived back at my parentís place around ten pm and proceeded to bolt the engine back into the car. Since this was the first time we had done it and Pat was not there to supervise, it took a long time. Finally, about 5 am, we went into the house to get some much needed sleep.

A couple of hours later, we got up, loaded the car on the trailer and headed for Blackhawk. The practice sessions had already started when we got there and we had to wait on the access road on the outside of the track at Main Gate till the next session ended. We took advantage of this wait to time the engine while the car was still on the trailer. We had not taken the time to do that the night before. I was very pleased when we tried to start the car and it fired right up and sounded quite healthy.

Once we got into the track and unloaded the car, we quickly went through our pre-race checklist as my practice session was only a half hour or so away. We had to make that session because we had missed my groupís first practice that morning. All seemed well with the car during the practice and the engine seemed to be as strong as ever. After the practice, I tried to get a little more sleep in the car before the race because I was exhausted, but had no luck.

When the race started, my adrenaline was pumping so I was wide awake and thinking this was going to be ok. The race was a long one, lasting an hour compared to the normal Ĺ hour events. Shortly into the second half of the race, I noticed I was having trouble holding my head up in the carousel at three. Then I noticed that the lap times Greg was showing me were slow and all over the place. I could not drive consistent lap times, a sure sign of fatigue. I finally gave up even trying to hold up my head in the carousel and let the centrifugal force have its way.

Mercifully, the race finally ended and Greg and Liz had to help me out of the car. I was totally spent and could hardly stand. The lack of sleep, the heat from the engine and outside temperatures in the 80ís, not to mention three layers of Nomex driverís suit, had done me in. Add to that the stress of driving at speed and the G forces encountered in cornering, even in a little EP car, and you have an exhausting combination. Anyone who thinks racecar drivers are not athletes is very much mistaken. In fact, professional race drivers are among the fittest athletes in the world. My lack of sleep had a lot to do with my condition in this race and I vowed that I would never do anything like that to myself again. I had not had any fun and it was dangerous. If the car was not ready at least a day before the race, I was not going to race.

After the season Pat, decided he wanted to sell the MGB and since he gave me a good price on it, I bought it. Liz and I had also bought a house in Bensenville not far from where Greg and my parents lived. This house had a nice garage that became the new home for "Old Yeller".

Now that we had our own house, Liz and I decided to have a housewarming party and invited all our racing and rally friends, along with family members. Almost all of them came to the party. Jerry and Lynne even brought Mary Ann with them. It was a good party and gave Bunky another chance to see Mary Ann. He had first met her at that June Sprints when he drove her out of my tent. He had seen her a few other times at races, but that was all. I noticed Bunky was spending a lot of time with her and she did not seem to mind.

Bunky had moved back to his hometown of Dixon, Illinois, were he had landed a job as the principle of a grade school. A year or so after meeting Mary Ann again at our housewarming party, Bunky talked Mary Ann into applying for an opening for a teacher at Bunkyís school. He knew she was in need of a job at the time, but I suspect he encouraged her to apply mostly because he wanted to be closer to her. She was hired and moved to Dixon. I was not surprised when, a few months later, I got a wedding invitation in the mail. Bunky and Mary Ann were married on May 17, 1975 and Jimmy served as best man. I feel I had a hand in this pleasant turn of events, for had I not asked Bunky to go to the races with me, he surely would not ever have met Mary Ann.

Jerry had brought his guitar to the housewarming party as usual, and Jack saw it leaning next to the couch on the back porch. He picked it up and strummed a few cords. Lizís brother, Ed, was sitting across from him and commented on Jackís strumming, saying it sounded good. Jack asked, "Do you play?" Ed replied, "A little." Jack, who had reached the limit of his virtuosity, handed him the guitar. Ed, who is an accomplished guitarist, took it and began to play. Jack stared at him for a few seconds and then got up and said "F____ you," and walked away.

Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen

 

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