The WeatherTech International Challenge–Road America, Elkhart Lake, WI

It’s what makes golfers come back to the course, try again, and again, and again. Hack away for 17 holes but, hit a 250 yard drive straight down the middle, a bunker shot within inches of the hole, or a long putt into the hole, and they come back, hoping to capture perfection, or something close to it, just one or two times more during their next round. Without one or two good shots in a day, most would quit the game.

I felt this way as I pulled my Lola into its paddock space and under my much needed sun-shielding canopy. Engine off, all quiet, exhale. The eight lap feature race at Road America, the iconic road course just outside the quaint little town of Elkart Lake, Wisconsin, was now complete and it had gone well.  What a relief after what had transpired in the days prior.   By weekend’s end, in the feature race, I had hit that long and straight drive, sank the long putt.  “And that’s why I come back,” I said out loud, to myself, in the privacy of a by then very sweaty helmet. “That is why I will do this again.”

The weekend had not started well.  Not well at all.  There was a point of despair at which I was ready to give up, sell the car, and accept only spectatorship as my future involvement with motorsport.  I’d search for solace at that tavern of despair that must exist somewhere where golfer, racer, and any number of other once impassioned competitors drink, sadly commiserate, and ponder what might have been, having walked away from the sport they thought they loved or had hoped they would fall in love with, never having felt that pit in the stomach feeling of satisfaction when things finally go well.

8 am Thursday morning; the first of three 25 minute practice sessions during which I would learn the track, merging simulator experience with the real world. Lap three, a gearbox (transmission) full of neutrals. I shift from second to third and get nothing but rpm, and too many at that. No acceleration.  Back to second? Fourth? Nothing. Not even first. No drive. The shift lever feels as though gears are being selected but somewhere the drive train is disconnected.  A convenient access road presents itself and I coast off the track, around the Armco barrier and to a slow stop. Engine off and all is quiet, save for the lucky bastards with still working cars who whizz by me on the other side of the guard-rail as I sit anxiously considering what part of my car has failed. Sweating in the still air of a motionless car, I waited for the tow of shame.  Thankfully, my full face helmet provided welcomed anonymity through the throngs of spectators strolling the grounds of Road America and along the road to my paddock space.

Out of the car, two bottles of cool water, driving suit off, time to take stock of the situation. And get help. Thankfully, the folks from Taylor Race Engineering were there with a trailer full of gearbox parts and a boat load of expertise and experience with Hewland racing gearboxes and transaxles. Whew!

Early diagnosis suggested that there might have been a failure in the ring and pinion–the two gears in the transaxle that change the direction of power coming from the engine from longitudinal to lateral. The clutch could also be the problem. Only exploratory surgery would yield a definite answer.

9 am Thursday morning; I set about removing the transmission. Wheels off, suspension bits disconnected, half-shafts separated, oil tank removed, upper and lower frame cross- members off.  Bloodied hands, three or four pounds of water sweated slowly away into the hot and humid Wisconsin air, and on a breakfast-less, lunch-less stomach, at 2 pm I hoisted the car’s transmission onto the work table. Nothing obvious yet.

IMG_2662
The car, sans gearbox, clutch off.
Looking back at the car, and at the now exposed clutch, still attached to the engine’s flywheel, the failure was obvious; the hub of the clutch’s friction disc had completely separated from the surrounding clutch plate. “That happens, sometimes,” said Jay Ivey, of Ivey Race Engines, and the builder of my Lola’s engine. He, too, was there, (Whew, once again!), and lent his vast expertise and hands to help me get underway once again.

IMG_2706
Two pieces that should be but one.
9 pm Thursday night; a new clutch disk, pressure plate, pilot bearing, and while things were apart, oil cooler mount, had been fitted. It could have taken less time, no doubt, by a more expert individual, but never having done this before, it was 12 hours of non-stop effort. And it would have been more were it not for Mick’s help, too, from Taylor Race Engineering.  Gearbox back on the car, suspension bits and all of the above parts mentioned back where they were, more or less.  Wheels on, too, and the car back on the ground. Tools sorted from the pile that had accumulated during the frantic repair and once again ready, finally, for Friday morning qualifying. Only two bolts and three nuts left over. Hmm, where do you suppose these were supposed to go? No matter, things seemed right.  Still no food so off to Taco Bell, the hotel, a shower, and bed.  It was I who turned the lights out at Road America Thursday night.

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The back end, as it should be, once again.
Friday morning practice and the car was solid. So many things could have been forgotten, gotten wrong, yet we got it all right and the car was good.  Tried not to think of the post-surgery leftover nuts and bolts.   The gearbox shifted well and the new clutch engaged like a racing clutch should with a solid, almost digital connection–in or out and nothing in between. Excellent. With little track time though, a disappointing 12th in afternoon qualifying. The next qualifying session, a chance to improve. But no, it rained. No chance to improve, but a big chance to crash the car. After four laps I pulled off, parked the car, intact, readied it (cleaned it) for Saturday, and then joined the evening festivities in Elkhart Lake, riding into town in my paddock neighbor Jimmy Hendrix’s Porsche 914-6 IMSA GTU car.

Along with 100 other race cars we whistled by thousands of spectators lining the public roads leading into the charming town of Elkhart Lake as they cheered when Jimmy allowed a gap to develop between us and the 911 RSR ahead and then put the hammer down, briefly, letting the flat six shriek to it’s 7000 rpm redline.  The greater the burst of speed and noise, the greater the cheers from the street-side crowd.  Great fun.

During the second qualifying session held Saturday morning, my car continued to run well. Still learning the track I motored carefully about, increasing my speed bit by bit and shaving seconds off my first times from Friday morning. Still only 12th quickest.  Others had gotten faster, too.  And the same result for the afternoon qualifying race, a rather lonely experience as I quickly gapped those behind me but could not keep those ahead in sight.  But confidence was building and things were becoming fun again.  I hadn’t yet hit that long drive, but the eternal optimist in me thought that the “I’ll do this again feeling” might be just around the corner–perhaps corner one, or four, or 14.  It won’t matter which, as long as it comes.

And come it did in the feature race.  Gridded well back amongst a mixed class of racers that included faster Formula B and Formula Super Vee cars, I managed to get passed five cars in five turns of the first lap, and then had a serious tussle with a determined competitor whom I managed to pass once and for all before the checkered flag.  Confidence was high and the car was working as it should, as far as I could tell, even missing a couple of nuts and bolts–I guess they just weren’t that important.

Tremendous satisfaction on lap 8 of 8 from a top 10 finish.  Not too much to brag about, truthfully, but obstacles had been overcome, despair put aside, and a solid effort logged.  I had hit that one good drive and the reward had exceeded the effort.  When can I do that again?  Sooner than later, I hope.  And where will it be?   Watkins Glenn in September?  Sonoma in October?  Circuit of the Americas in November?  Stay tuned.

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