I lay in bed, a bit over 24 hours after the end of Global Time Attack’s Super Lap Battle 2017 event, reflecting on how crazy the race went. The team came so prepared, with the goal firmly on setting the fastest lap of Buttonwillow ever. The last 8 months have been nearly 7 days a week work on the car to prepare ourselves to the highest standards possible. The chassis was thoroughly reworked, 200 pounds lighter than before, a whole new suspension front and rear, revised brake system, sequential transmission, new aero, a fresh engine, fresh turbo and the best driver, all in the efforts of putting our mark into the history books. But alas, the racing gods had different plans.
For those who didn’t get all the details, here’s what happened. The car arrived on Wednesday, early in the AM, ready to be unloaded, checked and shaken down to prepare for Jeff Westphal’s arrival. Spirits were high and easy going all day. All system checks were uneventful and last minute additions to the car were installed smoothly. I, Dan O’Donnell, would take the car out on old tires just to make sure everything felt normal and was working well. The car had performed so well at Speed Ring and the new engine was so good on the dyno, expectations were that things would go smoothly. Once on track for the shake down, things did go smoothly. On our lowest boost setting, the car felt great, handled well and worked flawlessly. We’d eat dinner, swap over to some fresh Hoosiers, adjust the seat for Jeff and then get some rest for what should have been a pretty solid morning. Just before bed I looked over the data from my lap and noticed the oil pressure was reading a little lower than it had been, but the pressure sensor had been moved and the pressure readings weren’t alarmingly low, so no warning bells went off in my head.
The next morning, we would skip the practice session to reduce the chances of having any on track issues with the extra traffic that comes from an open practice and wait for the first timed session to have Jeff get a feel for the car before letting him loose. In that first timed session, disaster was to strike, with the number 4 rod letting go and destroying our freshly built engine. We aren’t sure what happened, but reviewing data later showed oil pressure slowly trending downwards, pointing towards a spun bearing. Expanding my review of the previous day’s data to include more than just the fastest lap I had driven, but also to include the warm up laps showed that oil pressure started off as it had with our previous engine, normally in the 90 psi range, but by the end of the warm up lap, in the 60 psi range. The change of the oil position sensor wasn’t the cause of the new, lower readings, a mistake I should have caught, but I am not sure it would have made a difference.
What was to happen next was going from throwing in the towel and feeling like packing up early, into Road Race Engineering having an engine sitting available and a willingness to delivery it along with any seals, parts, gaskets, ect… needed to make the install happen at the track. Ziggy from Zeitronix was a big part of orchestrating this plan and RRE, which had just fixed my Miata clutch a week earlier, came to save the day again. Mike and Grant had the old engine out and disassembled within hours, as we waited for our replacement engine to show up around 9:30 pm. Remarkably, the cylinder head and oil pan, both absolutely critical in our build, had apparently survived mostly unscathed and ready to be put back into service.
With the arrival of the engine, an amazing amount of hands sprung into service. Ronnie Solomon and the RS Motors crew helped from start to finish to get the new short block mated to our old head, then attached to the trans and finally back in the chassis. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such hard work with such good spirits and attitudes. Despite all the troubles from earlier in the day, I might even describe this time as “fun.” At around 2 am, we were ready to fire up the car, with a chance to even get a few hours of sleep before having to be ready in the morning! Everything was going to plan, the car started up fairly easily, but then it was obvious that one of the cylinders wasn’t working and sure enough, it was number 4, something wasn’t right.
Earlier, Grant had tested the valve seals for any leaks and everything checked out fine, but sadly, that wasn’t the case. The valves were bent and we had no compression for that cylinder. A closer inspection of the broken piston showed witness marks on the exhaust valve side. As the positive attitude of the team and the RS Motors crew started to sink, Ronnie casual mentioned that he had a brand new, stock cylinder head sitting around and we were welcome to use it. As the guys hemmed and hawed over the idea of swapping in a head that really wouldn’t work for us in countless ways, I asked him to just leave it and we’d give it back in the morning if we didn’t use it. As we sat around, bummed and ready to call it a night after we wasted so much time, energy and resources on an engine we couldn’t use, I casually brought up the idea of just swapping the exhaust valves from Ronnie’s head to ours. Grant’s eyes lit up, looking exhausted, Mike realized what was going to happen, there would be no sleep ahead.
At the time we didn’t know if the intake valves were good or not and Ronnie’s intake valves wouldn’t work, only the exhaust valves would fit our head. There was only one way to find out… by pulling the head and then pulling the valves… without a spring compressor. A few more hours of work went by and at around 5am, Grant and Mike had the head off and a herculean effort of strength and ingenuity went into removing the exhaust valves from the engine. Sure enough, they were well bent and not sealing properly. The intake valves would have to be removed as well, but talk had switched to taking it to a shop because it would be safer to work on Ronnie’s head using proper tools. No need to risk damaging more engine components. I would head to sleep at this time, as I needed to grab my clothing from the hotel and make sure Jeff was looped into what was going on.
About 2.5 hours later, I showed back up to the track to find Grant reinstalling the intake valves into our head. They had survived and were good to go. He had built a tool to remove and install the valves, he hadn’t gone to sleep, MacGyver would be proud. Ziggy assisted Grant in installing Ronnie’s exhaust valves into the old head and she was re-installed on the block and ready to go within a few hours. The engine smoked pretty bad, sounded a little off, but was otherwise doing ok. The smoke turned out to be one missing bolt that didn’t get transferred over from the old engine, so a quick and easy fix. I would then take the car out on an abandoned road and do a few tuning pulls for Tony Szirka from UMS tuning.This way, he could look over and tweak the computer to make sure everything was safe. All looked good and we were ready in plenty of time for the 2pm Group A session.
Jeff was sent out on a lower boost setting, but with fresh tires, to see if he could set a banker lap and do a systems check. He ran a 1:42, came into the pits, reported all was well. We topped him off with oil, turned up the boost and let him go back out. Unfortunately we didn’t account for how thirsty the new engine was and he ran low on fuel about halfway through the second lap. He was up about 1.5 seconds on that lap, meaning a 1:39-1:40 was easily possible. Back to the pits to check everything over, spirits were cautiously optimistic again as things were ok.
In the garage Jeff looked over his data, Tony and I tweaked the tune for a little more power on the existing boost setting, but added a final setting for a chance at a record lap if we thought it was possible. Everyone stayed busy cleaning and preparing the car and we watched the clock tick closer and closer to 4pm, the last chance at a good lap this year.
By now you probably know what happened. Jeff was on pace for a low 1:39 lap, maybe even a 1:38, when right before the final turn, the second engine failed on cylinder 1. It looked like a rod bolt failure, just a fluke, nothing we could have done. This caused a fire, which damaged some bodywork, but most importantly, Jeff was ok. The team was gutted and frustrated. Why this event seems to kick our ass so bad is beyond my comprehension. Yet, I still come away extremely confident in the potential speed of the car. Jeff only had a handful of laps and was still knocking on the door of the record. We learned from the event, there are things we can do to improve and really crush that time. I don’t know what more to say. I’m excited for how well our friends did, I wish we could have spent more time being social with them. I’m excited to see teams still improving and I know we are too… just terrible luck this year.