But even with their guidance, it took almost two hours to get the car through the NASA technical inspection and receive a logbook. We all know there is no sense arguing with a tech inspector, and many of the "suggestions" he made were valuable. But there also were times I wondered if he and I were reading rules from the same book. It was only after we finally passed inspection that we were told the Dodge was the first of 18 cars that had shown up for logbook tech to actually get one.

Well, we already finished first at something and we figured it was a good omen. We were all very wrong.

The cooling issue showed up early Friday. It was similar to one we had at Portland, where a new radiator cap seemed to fix the situation. This time it didn't.

We wasted hours on cell phones, talking to the engine builder and the GASS shop, trying to diagnose the problem by long distance. Nothing anyone suggested made any difference, and the problem seemed to be getting worse.

When we ran out of magic bullets, Troy Bates and Paul Smith, brothers of the car owner, and I agreed to pull the engine apart. At that point we had nothing else to lose, as the Dodge wasn't going to go out again the way it was.

We discovered the intake manifold bolts on one side were barely tight and about half the head bolts on both sides had lost torque. The head gaskets showed signs of breaching between the center cylinders, and there was evidence of gas leaking from the bores to the water jacket.

It appeared that sometime before it was bolted in to our car, the engine had run very hot . . . hot enough to expand the aluminum cylinder heads and compress the gaskets. When the engine cooled and the heads shrank, the bolts were loose.

In retrospect, it was something we should have checked before we left Portland for a race that was scheduled to go twice around the clock.

Working late into the night and before dawn the next morning, the engine team got the heads back on and the valves adjusted just in time to get the car gridded. Smith, the lead driver, was already in the car when it came down off the jackstands.

While it was in the air, we noticed a couple drips of oil from beneath the car, but nothing that looked bad enough to worry about.

Again, we were wrong.

On the pace lap, Smith radioed in "we've got a problem . . . the clutch is slipping."

By the second lap, whatever was on the clutch apparently had burned off and Smith was moving up the field, passing three or four cars per lap. Within a half hour he had moved up 43 spots.

Then it all went very wrong.

"I'm bringing it in, I've got no clutch," he said on the radio.

The couple drips from the rear main seal had turned into a substantial leak, coating the underside of the car in oil.

We wiped off the bottom of the car and used every kind of sealer we could find to try to cap the gusher. And then we crammed a couple rags in the bell housing to serve as a diaper.

But after another 30 minutes on the track, things had gone from bad to worse.

Smith brought it in a second time as we tried to decide how often we could repeat the clean-up and diaper process. Our hope was to give all five drivers at least some track time in competition. And that was when we discovered cracks around the gearbox tailshaft and signs that the rear bearing wasn't getting any lubrication. Without a spare gearbox, we had to admit defeat and end our 25-hour race after only 23 laps.

Everyone on the team was devastated: the four other drivers who got almost no time in the car, the crew that took time off from their day jobs to work on the Dodge, and the crew chief, who bore the responsibility for not double-checking everything on the car when it was delivered to the team. Packing up after that type of weekend is always a somber experience.

We loaded the tire and pit equipment trailer first and sent it and three drivers back to Portland about an hour before the rest of the team hit the road. But we caught up with them about three-quarters of the way home. Although the rig was headed north, their transmission went south, leaving them stranded alongside Interstate 5, about 100 miles north of the California border.

It simply added insult to our injuries.

"I just can't believe how many things could go so wrong in the same weekend," Smith said. "It has to be the worse race I've ever had. We drove all this way, spent all this money, and some drivers only got four laps in while scrubbing tires.

"Any idea when the next race is scheduled?"