This racing thing sure is an up-and-down deal. I guess it's a lot like golf in that respect. You can have problems that convince you you're going to quit right there and take up another sport, but it only takes one thing to go right, and you're reminded why you love it so much and can't imagine doing anything else.
Going into night five of racing at Perris Auto Speedway, we carried the burden of four DNFs (did not finish), all related to power steering problems. It was becoming demoralizing. My dad, Earl, tried a few more fixes before race number five, and we headed to the track with an underwhelming amount of confidence.
It's a good thing we weren't expecting much, because the power-steering belt came off on the second lap of practice. I simply drove the car back onto the trailer. I wasn't going to spend another night thrashing around to try to fix something we hadn't been able to repair at home.
Then John Handzel stopped by to see why the car was on the trailer. We told them our racing night was already over because we were suffering from the same problem for the fifth consecutive race. Handzel said, "Hey, if we (Handzel had brought his ace mechanic friend, Karl Tollman) can fix it, can I race it?"
Well, no one has ever raced the Saturday Night Buildup car before. Plenty have asked, that's for sure. Some have asked more than once, and my dad has always said no. His explanation has been, "I don't like fixing the damage my own son does to the car, so I really don't want to fix things someone else does to it." My dad was so disgusted this night, however, that he said, "I don't give a damn what you do." Then he walked away.
"Johnny 5" and his buddy jumped on the trailer and got to work. They tried to bend and shim out the power-steering bracket, but eventually they took off the bracket and beat on it. When they put it back together, it was better but still not right. Of course, Dad couldn't just watch, so he helped too.
There was no time to continue working, however, as the heat race was lining up. Johnny borrowed a driving suit from buddy Kenny Mann, jumped in the car, and tore out onto the track in a cloud of dust.
He started at the back of the eight-car field (we never seem to draw a good number for starting position in the heats) and quickly moved up. He was one spot away from the fourth-place transfer spot after only five laps when the power-steering belt flew off. Since the power-steering belt usually knocks the water-pump belt off at the same time, the car got hot quickly, and Johnny (keeping a close eye on the gauges) brought her in. Of course, with the steering quickener on the car, it's just about impossible to drive the car at speed without power steering.
Johnny and Karl jumped right back into the fray and beat on the power-steering bracket some more. They just barely finished in time to go out for the last-chance semi-main. Again, Johnny started from the back and was passing cars at a regular clip. He went under, around, and in-between enough cars to be about two spots away from the transfer spot for the main event with five laps left. It was a rough run, too. Cars turned down and drove into the side of him, turned right in the corners, and more. Now, I'll be the first to say that Johnny sticks his nose into situations I've learned to stay away from; I thought he ran a pretty clean race but still returned with a staggering amount of damage to the car. In the end, it was for nothing as the belt came off with four laps remaining.
I'll say this: What was going to be a boring night turned into a wild and woolly affair that got our pulses pumping. It was a bit odd to watch my race car go around the track. I was able to see that the car is definitely slow off the corners compared to the other cars, but the Saturday Night Buildup car handled beautifully in the turns and could run any line imaginable.
After repairing the damage to the car, we focused on the power steering. An aftermarket power-steering pump kit from Speedway Motors (using a Profile pump) was ordered and in our hands in just a few days. It was easy to install and really boosted our confidence for the next race.
The power-steering worked just fine, and the belts all stayed in place. There was just this one problem we hadn't expected: The engine blew up!
In practice, the engine grenaded, and the night was once again over too soon. Now we will have to go back to our GM crate engine we started the project with. Of course, that will make for an interesting comparison. Stay tuned.