Friday, January 15, 2016

A new motorsport adventure Pt3....Short Circuits on a Long Course Off-road Race…..

In my last installment I described, in what was probably excessive detail, the self-imposed ignominy of my first professional off-road race. That event turned the light on for me in regard to how serious this whole desert racing thing is and what the true level of investment is. Not only the financial investment from Steve & Tony who own and run the team, but the personal investment of blood, sweat, tears and time of every guy and gal who works on these buggies to get them ready for us to race. 

The process for preparing an Unlimited class Truck or Buggy (Trophy Truck / Class-1) doesn’t vary much. In most cases, after every race the vehicles are completely stripped down to their chassis. Every inch of tubing and every weld is inspected for damage and repaired if needed. All the suspension bits are magnafluxed or x-ray inspected to look for the beginnings of internal structural failure. Every ball joint, heim joint or other suspension pivot bearing is thrown away and replaced. The shocks, the massive King Racing or Fox Racing multi-bypass shocks and coilovers must be completely torn down and rebuilt. Engine, transmission and clutch? Rebuild them as well. All told a team racing at this level will spend no less than $15,000 and often upwards of $30,000-$50,000 just to prepare a Truck or Buggy for a race. That’s before tires, fuel, food & lodging for the team registrations & insurance etc…..

Add to that, the time that the guys and gals in the shop put in. The weekend days and late nights working on the Truck or Buggy, the days away from “regular jobs” to go to the races and it all adds up to one conclusion for me. This isn’t just Steve, Tony, Mickey and I going off into the desert to have a good time. This is a team sport, and there are a lot of people who have a lot of themselves invested in this thing and I’d better damned well start taking that seriously. And I did….

I mentioned previously that I’d gotten in better shape this year and after Caliente I doubled down on that effort. I put in roughly 300mi a month on the bike through the summer, mixed that with a bit of weight training and a bunch of work on the bleachers at a nearby High School football field. I spent hours upon hours searching YouTube for every bit of film I could find of the course and while I know that in no way can video prepare you for the physicality of desert racing, I wanted to at least know what type of terrain to expect and when. When August rolled around I was in pretty darned good shape for a 45 year old Silicon Valley desk jockey and as prepared as I could be at this stage in my experience for the longest off-road race in the United States.... 

The Best In The Desert Vegas to Reno.

The race began in the early 80’s as the “Frontier 500” ran by the late Walt Lott and the “High Desert Racing Association” and was taken over by former competitor Casey Folks’ “Best In The Desert” organization in 1996. The race uses a number of different routes depending on the year but usually starts in either Beatty or Alamo, NV (about an hour North of Vegas) and ends in Dayton, NV  (about 20min East of Carson City). The courses are usually 500-600 miles in length and the winners usually finish in roughly 9hrs give or take depending on overall course length. Teams qualify on the Wednesday, run through registration & tech on Thursday and the race starts on Friday morning and there are often competitors still filing into the finish after sunup on Saturday. 

For the 2015 running, we’d planned to have the buggy in Vegas in time for qualifying but issues with getting the new engine installed required that we skip qualifying and start from our draw position which wound up being pretty close to the front of those who didn’t participate in qualifying. The upside was that the team had a chance to do more testing in Parker, AZ on the way to Vegas than they would have if we’d been at the qualifying session. 

I cringed a bit when I found out where the host hotel was for the race….North Las Vegas…hoping that nobody in the area read and was offended by my account of my brief visit to North Las Vegas in the last installment my buddy John and I set off from Mountain View for the race. 

We didn’t encounter any stories of murder on this trip, and the only issue encountered was BofA shutting off my credit card because I bought gas in two states in one day….huh? We arrived at the hotel a day ahead of the team, had a good dinner and a few drinks and called it a night. 

The next day John and I drove down South of Vegas to observe the qualifying sessions near Primm, NV. You couldn’t see much of the qualifying loop from the spectator area but we did get a real sense of what kind of speed these Unlimited class trucks & buggies are capable of. More astonishing than that though was the size of the operations in support of the guys at the pointy end of the class.

Crews for the trucks belonging to Bryce Menzies, RPM Racing and Rob MacCachren numbered in the 30’s with all manner of haulers and support vehicles in tow, and this was just for qualifying. Each of the teams, ours included would have at a minimum 4 chase vehicles following along during the race and leap-frogging the race vehicle and each other on the paved highways then dashing a short distance into the desert for pit stops in remote spots in the desert.

The following day was technical inspection, contingency and the drivers meeting at the host hotel in North Las Vegas. Luckily, it began at noon…in Vegas…in August. So it was only about 115 outside. I’m pretty sure I drank ½ my body weight in water over the course of the day. Why they don’t do this after sundown was completely lost on me and damn near everyone else I spoke to.

For tech and contingency the teams unload their race vehicles and push them through a maze of vendor booths where race officials and manufacturer representatives verify the equipment on the vehicle for contingency payout after the race if you place well. If you run parts from company “x” and you do well, they pay you a bit. How much depends on how well you finish, your class, and the contingency pool offered by the manufacturer. Tech is fairly simple for an Unlimited class vehicle, essentially verification of the requisite safety equipment since there are so few actual rules for the class.

After this was complete we re-loaded the buggy onto the trailer and headed to the drivers meeting. There were just under 900 drivers and navigators representing over 230 teams in the room and we were all entertained by the affable Casey Folks and his collection of “Folks-isms” during the meeting. A number of competitors suggested a drinking game or BINGO card for next year.

The biggest drivers meeting I've ever seen...
Just a few of the different course markings we had to look forward to....
We did learn during the meeting that the Northern part of the state had been hit the previous week with some seriously heavy rains and that the course would be according to Casey “rougher than I’ve ever seen it” in the last 1/3 of the race and in the middle 1/3 there were places with over a foot of standing water and numerous dry lakebeds and dry creekbeds that were far from dry. So we had that to look forward to….

Final nut & bolt check in the hotel parking garage while an evening thunderstorm raged outside...
770hp of Small Block Ford...
Our plan for the race was to have Tony & Mickey (who have the most race miles under their belts) start the race in Beatty, they’d run the first 1/3 of the race and hand the buggy off to Steve and I at pit #5 a bit South of Tonopah. Steve and I would race the middle 1/3 at a conservative pace to not hurt the buggy and then hand it back to Tony & Mickey at pit #10 in Mina, NV. After that Tony & Mickey would run to the finish in Dayton.
This is actually happening isn't it?
On the morning of the race everyone but Steve & I got up quite early to get to the start. Tow rig with the buggy and all the fuel went to the start area. Four chase trucks each with 2-3 mechanics, fuel jugs, spare tires and various parts each went progressively further north to their respective first pit stops. Each would wait until the buggy passed or stopped for service/fuel, then dash out to the highway, meet the tow rig to top off their fuel jugs then haul ass ahead of the other three chase trucks to the next spot where they’d encounter the buggy. Each team had a specific set of pit stops that they’d be at.

The tow rig had to be there at least 2hrs before the start in order to find a spot to unload, get the buggy warmed up ad into the staging line in time. Steve and I left Vegas about 2hrs after the tow rig and planning to arrive at the start about 15min before the first racer departed.

Making our way from Vegas to Beatty provided some interesting sights along the highway. The first of which was Creech Air Force Base. If you aren’t familiar, it’s the central hub of the USAF drone program. Somewhere on that base is a kid, sitting in a room, flying a Predator Drone that is actually over Afghanistan. However you feel about the practice of remote warfare, the technology that supports it is pretty staggering and kinda fucking awesome. Here’s hoping one of those kids is sending a “message” to ISIS today.

After that we passed a number of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen in Nevada…..low-end brothels……HELL NO WE DIDN’T STOP! Now, all I know about brothels is what I’ve seen on that show on Cinemax. That place seems at least reasonably tidy. These places though….wow. I’m talking a dirt road off the highway leading to a trailer in the desert….not even a double-wide…usually painted pink or red to keep things classy. Some pretty creative signage on a few of them though. Most featured the words “trucker friendly”….does that mean  there’s room at the end of the dirt road to turn a truck around or does it mean there’s a shower for the trucker in question to scrub off 3 days of highway swamp-ass before his dalliance? I don’t know….nor do I wish to. The best sign though is below....

I nearly barfed....

I shudder at what kind of souvenir one might take home from such a place….and at the amount of antibiotics one would need to get rid of it…..

I fought back the nausea and drove further North to the start…

We were unable to get anywhere near the start due to the traffic in the paddock area but even from the shoulder of the highway we could hear the howl of the first few Trophy Trucks and buggies departing the line.

Steve and I then made a dash to pit 1 to wait for Tony and Mickey to go by. In this first pit each of the Unlimited class racers that we were up against had a chase truck in wait. Most of the racers wouldn’t be stopping here as it was only about 30mi into the race. Quite a few though had already encountered trouble. One of the TSCO trophy trucks had blown an engine before even making it to pit #1, Steve Strobel tossed a drive belt off his engine and had to stop for a quick repair and frequent pole sitter Dale Dondel had an extended pit stop due to what sounded like an ignition related issue on his Roberts Racing Trophy Truck. There were a few other vehicles that broke down in the first 30 miles and after a while, Tony & Mickey came through, the buggy in perfect shape and having picked up about 5-7 positions on the course.
Pit #1 and all's well....
We were feeling pretty good as Steve and I hopped into the truck and made our way toward pit #5 where we’d be getting in. We got there, had a snack and laid out our race gear consisting of a back brace, head/neck restraint, helmet, fire suit, gloves and a catheter.

A what?

Yeah, one wears a catheter on your junk so you can relieve yourself during the race without pissing in the seat. Thankfully it’s not the type of catheter that they put up into your urethra if you are bed-ridden in the hospital. Instead it’s like a really thick condom with a 4’ long tube on the end. Instead of lube, like a normal condom this one has an adhesive on it so it sticks to your schmeckle and seals to your skin.

The tube runs down your leg, out the leg opening of your firesuit and empties through the floor of the buggy. I'm not going to include pictures, but if you're curious HERE 

Yep, it’s just as comfortable to wear as you might imagine. The real prize though is removing it.

Not glamorous.

About 20min after we arrived at pit #5 the buggy made it’s way to pit #2. They had a small oil pressure issue that was quickly rectified by adjusting the dry sump pump and they were on their way without losing much time at all and still having picked up a few more positions in the race.

About 15min later my cell phone went off with a text message from Mickey.

If your asking yourself, WTF is Mickey doing texting you from the buggy in the middle of the race you’d be asking yourself the same question as I was at the time.

Mickey had to use his phone to text me because the buggy was absolutely dead. No power. Electrical system completely dead. Nothing, nada, zilch. He and Tony were stranded on course roughly ½-way between pit #2 & #3 and about 5mi off of the nearest paved road. Had they been in a location were they could be easily towed to the next pit we might have been able to attempt repair and continue but their location was not conducive to that. The options were for them to fix the buggy where it sat and continue or accept a tow off the course and get a DNF. Due to the nature of the electrical failure, option 1 wasn’t an option. We were done.

The team made it’s way to the ranch road along the highway that the course marshals said the buggy would be towed to and waited. When they arrived we found out that Mickey had struck out on foot and walked back on the course over a mile each way (August, Nevada, 115 degrees, in a firesuit) to retrieve a battery from a Trophy Truck that had blown an engine on the off chance that a freshly charged battery might get the buggy restarted and limping on its way to the next pit or a spot to be towed there from…no dice.

223 Trucks & Buggies and 113 motorcycles & quads would start the race less than ½ would finish. So at least we had company……..

This series is all about the experiences and what I’m learning in my introduction to professional off-road racing. I’ve been in involved in grassroots sports car racing for years and had my share of disappointments caused by mechanical failures large and small. The experience in this case for me is one of incredible build up and anticipation. Excitement at a level I’d not yet experienced about an adventure that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to take part in. That and incredible disappointment, but not for me. I felt horrible for those guys and gals who put so much, for so long into that buggy to get it ready for that race only to have it end so soon after it had started.  I’ve learned, that even in professional racing with professional, paid, full-time support staff one little thing, outside of your control can end your day just as easily as it can for some programmer auto-crossing his Miata on the weekends.

After we loaded the dead buggy on the trailer and the team left to head home to Phoenix John and I continued North heading home via Reno. We wound up staying in the same hotel as everyone else was and ran into Jason Voss’ team having their victory dinner, their third in a row for that race. It didn’t hurt as much as it inspired.

As I write this, it’s cold, rainy and the desert racing season seems as distant as Tonopah, NV is from Mountain View, CA but even still I’m feeling the urge to get back to it. To continue to experience, measure myself against the challenges, improve and chase our first victory.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A new motorsport adventure Pt 2, Of Bourbon + Bumps & Bile ….

I left the US Coast Guard fifteen years ago with nearly 3000 hours of helicopter flight time. In that period I had occasion to fly in some of the most beautifully perfect and horrifically miserable weather conditions imaginable. Not once in that period did I puke.

This was an oft-voiced statement in the months leading up to my first real race with “Patent-It! Racing”…..and at this point I’m betting you can see where this story is going but we’ll get to the self-deprecation in a bit. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Farce And Failure Of The DeltaWing

I’ve had a couple of guest posts on this blog and here is another. The background here begins with a years long discussion of the Deltawing Racing Program on a motorsports related message board that I frequent. The members of this board are a pretty tech-savvy lot and have highly tuned BS detection faculties. Over the years we’ve watched this program and marveled, not at it’s achievements but that it continues to exist despite an utter lack of them. Matt Miller explains further herein……

The Farce and Failure of the DeltaWing

A Guest Post By Matt Miller

The 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans included some amazing technology and competition among very different LMP1 prototypes.  It also included the first racing of the Nissan GTR-LM, a car designed by Ben Bowlby that is waaaay outside the box.  Against this backdrop, it’s a good time to re-examine another Bowlby design that also diverged severely from general practice: the DeltaWing.  To eliminate all suspense, I will say at the outset that this car is both a miserable failure and a farce.  Now, let’s see why.

IndyCar Roots

To understand the DeltaWing (DW), you have to understand the original intention of the car in 2010: it was supposed to be the next IndyCar.  It was intended to attract attention to that form of racing, which had been losing its fan base and which become a spec-racing series with an old-tech, open-wheel Dallara that was pretty boring.  Bowlby proposed a dramatic new car with only 300hp and which weighed far less than the Dallaras.  It was dramatic because of the shape: with a front track of only 24 inches, the car resembled a slimmed-down Space Shuttle in planform.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A New Motorsport Adventure…”You Want Me To Race What?”

I’ve been involved in amateur Endurance Racing for over ten years. In that time, as a crew-chief I have been a part of a class win and two podiums at the 25hrs of Thunderhill, two NASA Endurance Championships and a bunch of Endurance Series race wins. It’s something that I deeply enjoy. It satisfies my need to measure my performance against my past and against my competitors, identify areas for personal and team improvement and see measurable results of those improvements. 

I’ve long held the desire to participate in a top tier racing class and I thought that opportunity might come in the form of a chance to help out with a team headed to the 24hrs of Daytona or 12hrs of Sebring. Heck, I’ve even told a few acquaintances that hold professional racing licenses that if they ever get the chance to race at Daytona, Sebring or….be still my heart…LeMans, that I’d pay my own way to the event just for the chance to help in any small way. Though that opportunity has yet to materialize, I thought until recently that it would be my best opportunity to participate at the highest levels of motorsports.

Until recently…..

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Canoeing Culbertson Lake, CA a well earned silence...

Canoeists in California don’t generally have access to the sort of trips that those in the upper Midwest do. We have no “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, no Algonquin or Boundary Waters or Quetico, and save for the Lower Colorado no long lazy rivers through deep wilderness. I’ve long held a desire for a multi-day trip that would take me through a number of lakes but that’s pretty tough to find. Most lakes in California are either man-made water storage reservoirs in the foothills around urban areas or in the low Sierras or man-made reservoirs for power generation in the high Sierras. The latter has provided a for a few of my trips in the past ( Hell Hole & Iron Canyon ) but given the terrain that they reside in most do not allow one to paddle a lake, hoist your canoe onto your shoulders and hike a reasonable distance to the next lake and repeat. 

But there are a few exceptions if you look really high into the Sierras. In areas where glacial forces long ago carved divots out of the landscape that now hold runoff from winter snows. I’ve found a few chains of these glacial lakes that I wanted to check out and when some unexpected time off presented itself last year I jumped at the chance for a few days away from the Valley, email, cellphones and noise.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Future Of Mountain View: Art, Science, Technology & Big Thinking vs NIMBY's & City Government

Yesterday Google & LinkedIn and a host of other Mountain View companies launched a shared initiative for the growth and development of the North Bayshore area and it's surrounds.

I grew up in this valley and have lived all over the country before moving back in 2000. One of the great failings of this area is our utter lack of creative, innovative or even generally good looking architecture. SF has the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower and little else. The South Bay's most architecturally interesting structures are Hangar 1 (built in 1933) and a pedestrian footbridge over 280 near Wolf Rd.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Last Fall's Harvest, This Spring's Sunday Dinner.....

I harvested a very nice deer last fall in the Sierra and have been enjoying various ways of preparing the amazing flesh from that beautiful animal. I've avoided though the smoker. I'd never smoked wild game and was worried that I'd ruin it and it'd come out dry and tough. Most of the recipe's I'd found either called for wrapping the meat in an armor plate of bacon or in some way braising it in the smoker. I wanted this stuff to still taste like venison, not bacon.

Decided to give it a whack this weekend though with a roast that had a fairly good bit of thin silverskin running all through it. I didn't label it when I butchered the deer so I don't recall if it came from the shoulder or hind 1/4. I figured if I kept it low/slow long enough I could get that stuff to break down and contribute some moisture.