Sunday, September 14, 2008

Equipment - Race Car

Or Race Day Car, to be precise.

I realized recently that I have to put the car away in a bit and that made me wistful and write something about it. Plus there was that guy at the NE Velodrome - he eyed my car suspiciously because it seemed there'd be no way a bike would fit in there. Before he let me register for the racing he asked me, "You have a bike?"

Back in 2002 I started looking for a car to replace the one I had at the time. It was a fun car but the timing chain had let go, something I didn't know happened. I thought timing belts were bad, timing chains were good (I didn't know about timing chain tensioners and such). Anyway it turned my very fun VR6 into a not very fun VR2.

Or, as my good friend put it, "Dude, you got no compression in four cylinders!"

I found another engine, replaced the busted one, and drove it perhaps 100 miles. I used the shop time to install springs, shocks, brakes, and some other stuff. I drove it home and then, poof, it just stopped starting. My mom had recommended that perhaps I should buy a car with a warranty, one whose engine wouldn't spontaneously chew its internals up.

What a concept, right?

So, with my typical frugal mindset in place, I started looking for a nice, frugal, warrantied car.

I started out looking at new cars. Most off-lease cars come with warranties but most of them are also automatics, and I wanted a "I_shift" car, not an "It_shifts_on_its_own" car. I'd settle for something unusual - like the Toyota MR2's sequential shifter (think motorcycles or rally cars). At the time the VW's DSG (think Formula One speed shifting) wasn't available, but that would be high on my list now.

Anyway, I realized I needed to think about what kind of car I wanted to have. I came up with a few things:

- handles well
- reasonable gas mileage
- some semblance of safety (air bags, anti lock brakes, stuff like that)
- reliable
- warranty

I started looking at Honda Civics, Nissan Sentras, Toyota Corollas. I learned there were some interesting versions of those cars, sportier than I imagined. The 2.5 liter Nissan S-ER Spec V stood out in particular - 200 hp, 6 spd, big brakes, even a decent sound system.

Since I like rowing through a set of gears, listening to music, and feeling "acceleration", I updated my requirements appropriately, along with bumping up the budget (it needed to be bumped if I wanted these cars to fit it):

- 6 spd manual
- nice sound system
- at least 200 HP (the VR6 was a bit below this number so I wanted to graduate into the 200s)

All this did was eliminate the more practical cars. I briefly contemplated the Mini Cooper S but due to its (perceived) lack of performance it came off the list.

I have to admit that the whole time I kept a little section of "alternative vehicles" in mind. The main one was a duallie pick up truck (haul around Bethel stuff) which would be a diesel (20 mpg instead of under 10). Another was an old police cruiser (and put aside the substantial change to maybe buy an older-than-new duallie as well as the aforementioned Spec V).

I kept some weird cars in mind as well. Some of my thought patterns were as random as the following:
- Golf TDi, hop it up, use biodiesel when I could, try and get 50 mpg.
- Buy a few Geo Metros and just rotate them out as they needed servicing.
- Subaru Justy AWD, ditto with rotating them out.
- Impala SS.
- Mid 80s unwanted domestic sedan with a V8, $500 a car, donate it if anything goes wrong, buy another one if that happens.
- ex-race car (I was looking at a Ferrari 288 GTO in particular which wasn't really running at the time.. but it didn't fit the "reliable" bit, nor the "I can afford to maintain it" bit).
- build a car (Factory Five Racing...)

Then came the kicker. My then boss walked by my desk, saw my pile of (practical) car brochures (I think the Golf TDi was currently my favorite at the time), and asked if I was buying a car. When I replied to the affirmative he casually said, "Oh, you should check out the new Z from Nissan."

I looked at him like he was insane. I'm a frugal guy, just the fact that I'm buying a new car is one step from unbelievable, and to think I'd go look at some kind of fancy car?

Forget it.

To humor him I looked at some car magazines that had the 350Z, bought them, read them, and left them on my desk. And the car grew on me.

I realized that for about $5k more than the Spec V I could get the Z. Sound system. Warrantied. 6 speed. Rear wheel drive. Almost 300 hp! 0-60 in 5 point something seconds, depending on who you read.

I updated my requirements yet again, accompanied by yet another budget bump.

- 0-60 in under 6 seconds
- 0.9 Gs or so in corners
- rear wheel drive

You can see how this kind of "shopping" can lead to paralyzing the process, or, from a different perspective, "project creep".

With my updated list of requirements and corresponding budget bump I also realized that a used "super car" would work too.

The Lotus Espirit came to mind, the S4S the hottest version I could afford used - turbo 4, 300 HP, handles like a go kart. I think it came in a 5 speed but since it did 0-60 in about 4 seconds, I figured the extra gear was worth 2 less seconds. As a bonus I'd gotten rides in a couple Espirits, did a portion of a valve job on one (the worst part of owning a solid lifter equipped car is machining the lifters regularly, and I got to machine the lifter cup things on all 16 of a 16 valve Esprit engine), and got a chance to see a bunch of them at a friend's garage. At some point one guy even offered to sell me his very nice S4S for about my budget, but I think that was after the fact.

I also contemplated the biggest, baddest car around, the Viper. I could only afford the first generation version, but a V10 with 450 hp, well, boy, that would move. It would move everything - the car, the rubber off the tires, the pavement off the road, the gas out of the gas tank, and money out of my wallet.

It took a while but I eliminated the Espirit after my friend's customer sank another $10-15k into his car (after which he offered to sell me the car - he wanted to buy the V8 version). And the Viper, well, it didn't have a roof which meant I couldn't commute to work in it during the winter. Okay, I did contemplate buying a heated driving suit, full face helmet, and a cover so only my head would be sticking out in the air. But that didn't seem too practical, and it might attract a lot of law enforcement attention. Plus the rear tires cost something like $450 a piece. So that was out.

I finally settled on seriously checking out the Z but there was one critical thing left to check. I almost forgot about this but I quickly added it to my list, making it an absolute must.

- my bike fits inside of the car

Although one may question the sanity of choosing a car based on whether or not one's bike fits in it, it is a very reasonable requirement for someone who likes to race bikes. In wet weather, in sketchy neighborhoods, and when traveling long distances, having a bike on a roof rack (I haven't really gotten myself to trust trunk racks yet) is less than desirable.

(Also, I figured that I'd get a second more practical car after the Z, and that would have room for lots of bikes and such.)

I brought my bike to a dealer and asked if I could see if my bike fit inside of it. It barely did (I couldn't close the hatch all the way) but I didn't want to scratch up a new car and I decided that I'd be able to figure out a way to get the hatch to close. I decided it'd be okay.

I got the car, ultimately at a different dealership (that's a whole story in itself), and, with the future missus driving me, went to pick up the car. The car took care of a lot of firsts for me.

- First new car. At an almost mid-life crisis age, with a girlfriend in her 20s (the future future-missus). Some marketing person somewhere is laughing at me because I fit his "customer type" perfectly.
- First car over 200 HP.
- First car with 6 speeds (forward ones).
- First car that actually handles well, doesn't just slide around in a predictable manner.
- First car I owned where I looked at the rear trailing edge of the hood, not the top.
- First car where I felt like I was sitting in a deep bathtub, or maybe a miniature bunker.
- First car where I learned what "blind spot" really meant. The view out the rear was spectacular - spectacularly small. I learned the hard way that I can't see flashing roof lights in the rear view mirror, and with major blind spots on the side, my sideview mirrors are adjusted so I can't see behind me with them either. Twice I've failed to move over quickly for police cars simply due to the fact that I didn't realize I had a police car behind me (neither time was I the object of their emergency, but I must have gotten a dirty look as they flew by me).

Anyway, I got the car home, and at some point tried to get the bike in. I took both wheels off, struggled with pedal at the bottom or top of pedal stroke, shoved the thing all the way into the car, under the built in rear suspension brace, and slowly, carefully, lowered the hatch.

The hatch wouldn't shut.

I had a moment of "Oh, crap, I have to sell this car." Then panic. Cold sweat. And then I calmed down, pretended the world was about to end, and I had to close the hatch on the car without rendering the bike inside of it unrideable or else everyone would die.

Put like that, I came up with a solution in about 30 seconds.

I had to loosen the bars and rotate them down to get the hatch to close. Fortunately, at some later point, I figured out something and suddenly the hatch fit without using any wrenches, just taking both wheels off the bike.

Bike racers, I've since learned, will go to some extreme lengths to get their bike to fit inside of their car of choice. One local drove, for the longest time, a Porsche 911. For some reason he refused to put a rack on the roof, so he stuff his bike in the back seat of the car (!). He put a quick release for his seat post so he could remove the post as necessary.

As I got more experience with the car, I got better at dealing with its idiosyncracies. For example, now I know to shift a bit before the redline. Apparently the needle lags a touch behind so you slam into the rev limiter as you push the clutch in - as I found out to my embarrassment the first time I floored it after the break in period. I also know that the car corners so well it defies belief - I've pulled over 1.0 Gs in turns and worried more about my sore neck than the car or the road. I've also learned to deal with the tiny rear view when backing up (slide up the seat about 6 inches), the huge blind spots (point mirrors at them), and the notchy shifting (shift firmly).

I also made the car work so I could drive it to races. Much more fun driving this than either of the two Civics we have, unless we need to pack more than just a day of race stuff.

At this point I've gone to races with two sets of wheels (race and spares), my big gear bag, a cooler with various cold drinks, helmet, floor pump, a folding chair, and even cups of coffee and such.

And, most importantly, I've kept the right seat completely clear so the missus could sit there without feeling like an afterthought.

Bike in the trunk, both wheels on top. A second set will fit too, as well as my gear bag, floor pump, chair, cooler. Yeah, I have 5 quarts of Mobil one and a filter in there too. I need to change the oil.

With my recent (okay, it was last year) laptop and more recent wireless broadband purchases, I now use my laptop as a glorified semi-automatic navigation system. Best used when the passenger seat is empty, I used it to drive to Philly a couple times as well as navigate to closer locales. It's a bit fancy, I forgot to take a picture of it, but it goes something like this:

1. Laptop bag on passenger seat, used as a "riser".
2. Laptop open on laptop bag, higher up thanks to the bag. Plugged into the 12v power supply (behind and between the two seats), courtesy some adapter thingy.
3. Phone in dashboard, hands free device in my ear.
4. MP3 stereo playing tunes.
5. Dash computer thing set to mileage. I got about 31+ mpg for the trip down to Philly, maybe 35 on the way back.

The laptop on the seat thing seems a bit iffy, like maybe a cop wouldn't be very impressed with my potentially distracting seat mate. The laptop is especially obvious at night because the screen lights up the inside of the car pretty well - I can even see my face in the mirror.

So one night, when a pair of headlights in a familiar looking profile rolled up behind me, I briefly contemplated slamming the laptop shut. But since I didn't see the car until it was near me, I decided that whatever happened happened. After all, I had to follow my first rule of driving - looking guilty is the first step towards getting pulled over.

I looked left as the state trooper drove by. Interestingly enough his face appeared to be glowing.



He had a laptop in his car too, and it was on, and it was lighting up his face.

I relaxed and kept driving.

I've modified the car a bit since I got it because that's the way I am. When a friend told me that he knew someone that bought an M3, my first question was "What did he upgrade?". My friend replied that some people, unlike me, leave their car alone.


Anyway a cold air intake ended up on the car so I can hear the engine breathe when I accelerate. I put on some big (front) brakes after the original pads and rotors wore out, allowing me to make multiple hard "slow downs" in a row without experiencing brake fade. At some point some cold forged wheels and really wide tires ended up on the car so I can go for my 1.02 G record (scored on stock size albeit all season tires). Because of that last thing replacement tires will cost about the same as the Viper (drat!). Finally an updated the stereo (to replace what is affectionately referred to as the "Blose" factory set up) so I can listen to MP3s. Of course, like any other never-ending project, I have a host of "to do" things to really finish it up, having to do with ICE (in car electronics), suspension, rear brakes, some other things.

Wheel and tire visible behind my bike. Although expensive rear tires helped beat the Viper out of the budget, I now have almost twice as costly rear tires. Go figure.

Alas, with fall fast approaching, it'll be garaged soon, hibernating until next year. But for now it sits in the driveway, eager for its next jaunt.

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