Project Frankenmiata – Failure is ALWAYS an Option



Not crashing in a LeMons race is easier than it seems. You avoid crashing into other cars by paying attention to where they are, being in control of your car, and having the patience to wait for low-risk passing opportunities. You avoid having other cars crash into you by staying away from the ones that look like trouble.

Look at it that way, and getting T-boned about an hour into my second stint was totally my fault. The E36 BMW that hit me was so obviously trouble I knew about it a FULL DAY before he actually hit me. Several of our other drivers, and drivers on other teams had complained about this one E36 that was a frustrating combination of fast and totally out of control. I knew the reputation the second I saw the car, and confirmed it within a few corners. He was driving every corner at 11/10ths, locking up brakes, sliding through corners with tank-slapping exuberance, and weaving all over the track through packs of intimidated traffic. 

The problem was, he was fast enough to keep up with us when he drove this way. If our wastegate was hooked up, I probably could have turned up the wick for a few laps and made him disappear. As it was, I should have just slowed down for a lap and let him go crash into someone else. But I didn't want to…

With a fast car like ours, most of LeMons is weaving through traffic by ourselves, passing 20 cars per lap with no challenges. Occasionally, when we're lucky, we'll sync up with another fast car and an actual race will break out. That's what was happening here.

I had pulled onto the track directly in front of Colin Drobnis in the MetroGnome and instantly the race was on. We chased each other, never more than a few car lengths apart, for about half an hour before we picked up a few other fast cars. Eventually we had a four-car pack, lapping faster than any other cars on the track, and doing so without ever thinking anyone was going to hit anyone else. Until the E36 appeared. Even though I knew I should drop back and let him make a mess elsewhere, I wanted to stick with Colin and the 4-car party.

Eyesore Racing Frankenmiata - Failure is always an option

Suddenly we had 4 fast, competent drivers and one spaz trying to shove our way through 130 slower cars.  Something was going to happen, and this is what it was: The C in Cotton Corners, above, is the crest of a hill. Spazmo and I crested that hill side by side while catching up to a dramatically slower BMW 2002. There might have been another slow car or two there as well, but the 2002 was all I was focused on. With the E36 on my right, I made the split-second miscalculation to go around the 2002 on the left, which meant I would be door-to-door with him as I hit the word Grapevine on the map above.

The Cotton Corners hill makes your car really light, and if you carry any speed over it, you'll drift well out onto the exit curb on Grapevine. I was doing exactly this while the 2002 was headed for the same curb. Not a good place to pass, but the mistake was already made, so I just went as wide as I could to make room for the 2002, hanging half my left tires off the edge of the curb, and hoping the 2002 driver would see me and have enough reserve grip to avoid me. 

He didn't, and he gently tapped me into the dirt. That's when I heard all the squealing tires and looked over to see Slidey McSpazerton do a giant mid-track tank-slapper, overcorrect, shoot across the nose of the 2002, and plow into my right front wheel as I cruised through the dirt.

Eyesore Racing Frankenmiata - Failure is always an option

Our upper control arm was bent, and my neck was sore. I wear a DefNder neck brace, which has side tethers for just this kind of hit, but I probably need to tighten mine up a bit. I also need to do some yoga and limber up those muscles. I would be fine a few days later, but at the time I was too banged up to pick up a wrench, so I sat and spectated as the rest of my team borrowed a control arm (this was probably only the third time we'd gone racing without a spare, and the first time we'd ever needed one), cut the old bent control arm bolt off, and bent the subframe back into something resembling the right shape. Then I stood around, looking really manly, as a pregnant woman torqued our lug nuts.



The head gasket was holding, but with the piston damage we had seen, there was little doubt this was our engine's last race. So when Sarah radioed in an accurate and detailed description of rod knock, we didn't respond with our normal level of caution.

“How much oil pressure do you have?”

“45 psi.”

“Fuck it, keep racing!”

About an hour later she radioed back, “Its down to 30 psi, should I be worried?”

That did seem worthy of some action, so I wandered over to the Model T GT camp to borrow some Red Line Shockproof gear oil. A quart of that stuff in the engine should cushion that rod knock!

The second I picked up the bottle, though, there was a bang, a fireball, and one less Miata on the track. For the first time ever, the Frankenmiata would finish a race in the pits. 

Eyesore Racing Frankenmiata - Failure is always an option

That chunk in Sarah's hand is the biggest piece of engine block we found, but not the only one to disconnect itself. The block was ventilated on both sides by the #2 connecting rod. #1 ate a screw. #3 had a visible piston ring, and #2 was the one that wanted out. Go figure.

If all this carnage makes our little beast look fragile, think again. The first engine lasted 10 endurance races and never actually failed. It just started burning oil so fast we thought it might run out of oil before running out of gas. The second engine had 180,000 miles on it when we bought it for $50. We put our old crankshaft in it (a damaged crank had lowered the price to $50), doubled the power, and then hammered the everlovingchrist out of it for roughly 130 hours of racing before it finally started blowing up.

Swallowing a screw had no discernible impact on its performance, neither did having a head gasket repaired with JB Weld, or having a piston ring completely exposed. When it finally did start to have a bearing failure, it made loud, obvious rod knock for over 90 minutes before finally shitting fire. 

And even then, it wasn't dead. At the end of this very long day, the engine still started (on three cylinders and with oil pouring out the bottom) and the Frankenmiata drove onto the trailer under its own power.

Fuck. Yeah. 

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