The Downpour That Won
Yellow Dog Racing - 2, Snowflake - 2, Weather - 1???
Racing is ALWAYS and adventure...
I'm still happy with Second Place, though.
All videos are from the 2003 race - I've just taken clips from that video to highlight what I'm talking about in this tale of Desert Race
After the fiasco of the last race and now having four years of learning under my belt, we went to Snowflake better prepared, setup and ready to race than we ever have.
I spent the week prior to the race at ATV Racing going over the Dez.
Before the race, the Dez had some major issues that needed to be repaired:
For starters a new tranny had been installed. The old one had snapped the brake side output shaft during my last test session back in the spring. When I got inside to replace the shaft, I discovered that the gears were worn out and one of them was missing a few teeth (which were now ground up and in the bearings). Not only were the gears worn, but the cases were so hammered from the abuse it's seen over the past four years that press fit bearings would fall out, so it was time for a replacement. This install was done about a month ago while still in Ohio. - I got in some small test time, but nothing worth while to check things out. There's just no place to run the car.
One thing I did discover during the little amount of test time I did get in was that when the output shaft broke it took out the caliper. Now that the Dez was back in Phoenix, the rear brakes were re-worked (again) and a new caliper was installed. For the first time in memory, I actually had rear brakes that worked. I've been chasing brake issues since the beginning, so every time I seem to get them fixed I get excited about it... This time I had to dial in the bias between the front and rear master cylinders so I had enough front brake to match the newfound rear braking. Cool!
The axles and CVs were completely disassembled and gone over. One was replaced and the other three were cleaned and they were all regreased. (Neil says he charges $150.00 for this service - he's not charging enough!)
Every shock, steering, suspension bolt and nut was replaced: A total of 30 Grade 8 bolts & Stover nuts. Stover nuts are a deformed lock nut - and they lock down extremely well. Let's just say they're a bitch to turn, both removing and installing and you can't get an impact wrench on about half of them. Ugh...
The engine was also gone over. Since the Arctic Cat ingested the damn V-Farce reeds in Mexico, I've had problems with it. It developed a strange coolant leak, I couldn't get the jetting to come around and it just didn't work correctly. It would backfire on odd occasions and it wouldn't rev out. It was also loosing coolant.
The first thing done was to find the coolant leak. A pressure test showed that one of the hoses had a small leak - no problem to fix. It now seemed to be holding pressure, but after a quick run up and down the street out in front of ATV Racing, (testing the rear brakes again), the coolant level was still dropping - and it still was running like crap. This time I put the pressure gauge on the radiator and ran the engine with the gauge in place. The pressure came up a little bit and then dropped quickly. I had a leak inside the engine somewhere. A plug check confirmed that the center jug was leaking - the top of the piston was clean and the plug was dark black. The other two pistons showed carbon on their tops and the plugs were a nice tan. I went ahead and pulled all three heads to check flatness. One required nothing more than a few light passes on a lapping table to clean it up. One took about five minutes and then there was the center one. That one was warped BIG TIME. What doesn't make sense is that the right side jug is the one that ate the reeds. It didn't show ANY sign of wear or the reeds doing damage - in fact, it's the one that took the least amount of head lapping time. This is the jug that should have been the problem child, but it wasn't. The other two cylinders were perfect also - but the center head was warped badly - about .015" - .020" worth. The o-rings weren't damaged or pinched, so that sort of ruled out the idea of a leak letting the jug hydraulic lock and warp the head during a rotation. It was the warp that was letting the coolant leak into the cylinder instead. Neil and I are still scratching our heads on this one. We considered machine error when they were cut, but were able to rule out that - and the warp would have been even and concentric - it wasn't. I spent two hours lapping it and it wore me out! To finish it up, a brand new set of STOCK reeds were installed, carbs & filters were cleaned and one last pressure test was run, which passed with flying colors.
The only thing I didn't have the chance to do, engine wise, was change the ignition to the spare engine's setup. The original (now ported and installed) engine is a 2002 and uses a digital ignition. It has throttle position sensing and a totally different setup than the regular CDI setup of the 2000 spare engine I have. This ignition's been a pain on occasion - not wanting to shut down with the kill switch, funky idle characteristics and a couple other oddities that have shown up over time. On the other hand, the non-digital ignition that the spare engine uses has proven bulletproof and very reliable. I wanted to change out the stator plate and control boxes, but I just ran out of time. Oh well.
By the end of the week, the Dez had been inspected from nose to tail. All in all I'd spent four full days prepping it for the race.
On Friday night the usual Yellow Dog Desert Racing Crew of Jay, his brother Jimmy, James, his boy Chase and I loaded up into the Big Blue Beast and headed to the high country of Arizona, ready to race on Saturday. Just like in Mexico, James is now the co-driver and Jay's in the pits. We also had a new addition with us - a Bombardier quad and boy are we glad it's now part of the crew.
Forecast for Saturday - Possible Spotty Showers
Saturday morning was pretty normal, going through the motions of last minute prep: Check tire air pressure (bead locks almost never hold air for more than a couple days - just the nature of the beast), top off the fuel tank, go through registration and tech (they ALWAYS find one thing that needs to be done - this time it was safety wire the tie rod bolts at the steering rack - I'm beginning to think they make up stuff each time). After tech I took the Dez on the jetting loop to see how the carb tuning was going to be. I had my "Snowflake Jetting" in the car already - 270 main jets. The run through the jetting loop said I was rich in the mid range (no throttle response) and the top end looked just about right - 1140 degrees F on the EGT on a wide open throttle run. I went back to the pits happy with the top end performance and I dropped the needles one spot to lean out the mid-range and get the response back.
As a general reference for jetting, I use an air density gauge. It shows the relative "thickness" of the air. Down at sea level on a nice cold day, it can show a density of 110% to 115% and I have to jet up (310 - 320 mains). Up at Snowflake's 6000 foot elevation, it usually shows closer to 75% density. This morning, it's showing 64% - THIN AIR! (I've never seen it below 70%) Since I prefer to let the engine run on the rich side and with possible showers in the forecast, we figured that the air density would get a bit better as the day went on. We were wrong; It bottomed out at 61%. Can you say NO HP??? The Dez sure did.
At 11:00, Whiplash held the driver's meeting and after that we went on to staging to wait until noon for the Sportsman classes to begin racing. Conditions looked pretty good - stiff breeze would help keep the dust to a minimum and for once they put the Unlimited class as the first group off the line. I was in position number four. It was time to race.
James said he was a bit nervous... He had about 11 seconds of racing under his belt from the Mexico fiasco, he knew this was one of the faster courses, he'd seen the results that Jay and I had two years ago running the power lines, he's ridden with me at Happy Valley during testing (and we lost rear brakes) and everyone had given him a lot of grief for playing co-driver. Still, James said he was looking forward to the race.
So was I. I know the course really well and I like it a lot. In fact, it's probably my favorite. I promised to take the first lap fairly easy and let James get an idea of what to expect. The icing on the cake was that we were running the exact same course as last year (the map is of last year's race). Six 27.5 mile loops of fun for a total of 165 miles of racing. Stop on lap three for twenty gallons of fuel and we'd make the distance with no problem.
We were the fourth car to leave the line. I absolutely love the Snowflake start. It's fast, it snakes out to the desert and it's a blast to rip though just as fast as the Dez will go. I'm telling James what's around the next corner and what to expect over the next ridge and such. The Dez felt good, but a bit on the rich & weak side. Still, I'd rather have a rich car instead of a lean one...
As we leave the line, I'm starting to describe the course in front of us to James. "Sweeps left, right, then to the jump before we leave the pit area and head out." The last couple of years, I've been able to swing wide and blast the jump. This year, the course is marked so I have to let off more than I like - and I promised that I'd be good on the first lap too. We hit it at a medium clip and headed on out into the desert, me still describing the things ahead to James.
The course was dry, fast and dusty. The cars in front of us were moving pretty quickly too. Usually I'm on someone by five to six miles - we're usually behind the Class 5 guys off the line. Here we were at mile 10 (where I broke during my first race here) and we were just starting to catch the guy in front of us. The Dez felt good, but the power was definitely down - and it seemed to be slowly getting worse. We moved along, still gaining, but nowhere near as fast as usual. Bummer! We got to the power line road and I slowed WAY down at the top of the dreaded drop off and we could now see the car in front of us. We got into the trees and sneaked up on him some more. After a couple more miles, we were finally able to make the pass and run in clean air for a while. One down, two more to go.
Over the course, there are a handful of spots that have to be approached carefully. As we'd approach each section, I'd tell James about it. Sort of a combination of warning and just letting him know that we had to stay on our toes.
The first one is just a couple miles from the start. You come up into a very tight, very rocky left hand corner. Run about 50 yards or so and make a very tight right. As you exit the corner, you cross a deep wash and then go up the side and make a tight left. It's not a hard section to get through, but if you screw up on the right hander, you'll find that it's about a six to eight foot drop off the edge of the track, into the wash. Not good. Our second time though this section, we see a truck sitting on the left of the course, just after the rocks on the straight shoot. The two racers give us a thumbs up meaning that all was good. (I'm guessing they just broke something, not crashed) Going into the right hand corner we see a road hazard triangle. Huh? As we make the corner, there's a buggy, backed into the upper part of the wash's bank and the driver's waving his arms letting us know the course was partially blocked. He'd broken a drive axle, but he appeared to be all right.
Three or four miles on down the road is a fast section that runs along side a fence. There are four water bars that cross the track here. The first one is short and fairly tame. No need to let off the throttle. The second one is a bit more serious and requires a bit of throttle feathering - I kept thinking that the second one was the nasty one, so we slowed down quite a bit the first time over it. It does require a bit of letting off, but it wasn't the one I was remembering. The third one (notice the down arrows in two spots) is the ugly one - it doesn't look that bad in the video, but trust me, it is.
Last year as Jay and I were in the heat of battle with another car, we were running along this section of the track somewhere around 70 mph in the dust, right on the guy's bumper. I'm concentrating on the dust light in front of me, since I can't see much else. Suddenly the dust light seems to go about ten feet high and the dust instantly clears. We can see the entire bottom of the chassis of the car in front of us. Uh-oh. About half a second later Jay and I are airborne and looking at the ground in front of us. The water bar we'd just crossed is pointy and wants to throw the back of the car over the front. Not good at speed. I wasn't going to repeat this move again, so throttle down and make note - THIRD BAR IS BAD. The last bar is sort of cool. It's on a down hill and not too far from a tight right hand corner. It's fun to sort of jump off the bar, down into the corner and let the suspension's rebound help me set up the corner.
A little farther down the road, back in the trees a bit, are two wash crossings. They seem to change a bit each year. This time both of them were sort of brutal, but not as square edged as they were last year. The first time through them, I took it pretty easy. The full load of fuel tends to make the Dez bottom easier. The second and third times through them we went faster; in fact, we were able to sort of double jump out of the first one. It had this little kicker that would hop the back end up and over the edge of the wash as we left it. It wasn't smooth, but it was definitely effective.
The next thing is the corner that got us during my very first race, right at the 10 mile marker. It's a tight left hander with a very large bowl shaped berm. You come in fairly fast, it's a loose surface entrance and right in the middle of the berm (on the outside) is what's left of a tree. Seems like this corner bites someone every year. On our second lap, there was a black truck, nose in, laying on the driver's side. Everyone was all right, but it sure looked ugly. The truck wasn't there the next time past, so I'm guessing they got it righted and continued.
About eighteen miles into the course is the power line section. No need explaining this section if you've read any of my reports. I knew EXACTLY which ridge NOT to go over fast this time. I told James, as we approached it, "This is the bad one, I'm slowing down!" - we did and he mumbled something about being glad we did. The dreaded down hill will NEVER get me again.
There's really nothing too terrible for quite a while. There are a couple corners that can be a bit tricky - hit them correctly and you can rip through them, hit them wrong or get set up wrong and the Dez wants to push through them. Not a big deal, but it's nice when you get set up and flow through them correctly. I'd tell James about them as we'd approach and then managed to blow two of them pretty badly. He started keeping count of screw-ups then. About twenty miles into the loop or so is one last wash crossing that's nasty. It sort of drops off onto a little flat then drops off again into a rocky wash bottom. The exit is fairly steep and doesn't have much transition. Needless to say, you slow down to get through this one. Then again, we HAD to hit it hard our third lap. More on that in a minute.
Just after we finished our first lap, the dreaded vibration from the back end happens and boom, there goes a belt. James hops out and gets it changed nice and quickly. We get passed by a car that we'd passed just a few miles back. Not a big deal, just means we'll have to pass him back again. We catch him in a couple miles and get the job done. The rest of Lap Two is pretty much just go through the motions and run as hard as we can - and we're now seeing more and more dead vehicles along the course. Snowflake does seem to eat vehicles pretty well...
The Dez has developed a couple issues, though. First is the engine - it's laid down really badly. No throttle response and I had to feather the pedal to get it to wind out. I think it's about half way due to the weather conditions (no air up here at 6K feet) and half due to the ignition - but that's speculation. It made it difficult to get the Dez to squirt out of the corners hard, but it also made me work on carrying my speed. We didn't loose much time either. My first lap was 34:03 (fastest Class 12 lap and second fastest Class 10) - my second lap, even with the broken belt, was a 35:10. Not bad if I don't say so myself. The second issue is that I'm loosing back brakes. I've not abused them, I'm not dragging them, but tried and true, the Dez just doesn't like seem to like to keep it's back brakes. I'm now forced to constantly pump the pedal before we come into corners and braking areas. It made for a couple interesting moments. This rear brake issue HAS to be solved. I'm going to replace the entire brake line the next time I get out west and work on the Dez.
Lap Three was the interesting one.
As we started Lap Three, I start to feel a vibration in the back of the Dez again. I tell James that we're gonna loose another belt. He says he's ready. The vibration doesn't get any worse and the belt, for the time, stays on.
About mile 12, the drive train lets go. We had just come out of a short twisty section in the trees and entered a wide open flat area. As you leave the trees, the last corner is a cool left hand rise that peaks and then drops away and fades wide on out to the desert. I love this corner. Set up on the inside line next to the trees, get on the throttle, let the car drift to the middle of the track over the ridge and then float down the back side of it towards the right side of the track. The whole car is sort of weightless over it. As the car settles down back on the ground I get on the throttle; bang, there goes the belt. We were expecting it. I coasted to a stop, making sure that I stayed on the upwind side of the track to keep us out of the dust as other racers went past us. James hops out again to change the belt and then walks up to my side of the car with a good belt in his hand. "The belt's fine. The driven clutch is what let go."
We were ready for something like this, though. This year, we had a quad for support! I dug around and found my cell phone (radio system doesn't work quite this far out, but Verizon does!!!) and gave Jay a call.
"Jay! We lost the driven clutch. There's a spare under the sink in the truck. We're about two miles past the corner that killed us on the first race. Bring a couple wrenches."
Jay said no problem and that he'd be there as soon as he could.
We pull the tool bag out of the Dez and work on getting the driven clutch removed. It's broken all three of the towers that keep it together. With nothing to do while we wait for Jay and Jimmy to arrive, James and I kick back and watch the other racers go past. I decide that I'm going to get comfortable and find a nice dirt mound to lay down on. James has climbed back into the Dez and is watching the cloud cover start to thicken, making comments about it.
"Hey, check the clouds. The wind's coming from the right, but the clouds are moving from the left. This doesn't look good."
He was right. They were dark, getting low and it looked like they may be dropping rain in the distance.
During this time (about 30 - 40 minutes), we watch a dozen or so vehicles go racing by - including some of our Class 12 competitors and, of all things, a Honda Pilot running in Class 10!
While we're sitting there waiting on our rescue crew, the wind dies. From a fairly good breeze to nothing. A truck goes past us and the dust sort of hangs in the air for a long time. Now the wind starts to very lightly change direction and the dust is creeping towards us.
The first few drops of rain weren't a big deal. It was just a very light sprinkle. I was thinking it wouldn't be bad; it would knock the dust down, cool things off a bit and hopefully make the air a bit thicker, giving us some more hp. We finally hear the quad coming across the land out in front of us. There's Jay at the controls and Jimmy behind him clutching a bag of stuff. As they get to us, James and I notice that it looks like they've been hit with a fire hose. Both of them are soaking wet. Jay gets off the quad, lowers his arms and water pours out of the sleeves. Hmmm... Interesting! It seems that the clouds between our location and the pits have absolutely opened up and were dumping massive amounts of water on the land.
We get the Dez put back together (changing the clutch is nothing more than two bolts and a brace) and as we do, the rains that Jay and Jimmy had gone through caught up. It's starting to rain - hard. Jay and Jimmy head back to the pits, James and I get back in the Dez and start racing again.
At first, it wasn't bad. The rain was coming down hard, but the track was still in good shape and the dust was knocked down to a minimum. It didn't stop there, though. The farther we went, the harder the rains came down and now the track was starting to get a bit muddy and messy. Puddles were starting to form and the surface was getting slick. I tried to avoid what I could.
We have approximately fifteen miles to go from the point we'd broken down. I never, in my wildest dreams, figured these would be some of the wildest miles I've raced. The rain is coming down in buckets. The track is no longer a track, it's a small river. The driest (as if there was anything considered dry) way was to put two wheels in the center of the track and two wheels on the side. Puddles are now getting deep and every time I'd hit one, James and I would see a wall of water appear in front of the Dez. Water's coming into the car from all directions and visibility would drop to nothing in an instant. The mud and muck seemed to find my face shield and it wasn't long before my hands were so soaked and muddy that trying to wipe the shield clean just made a nice chocolate milk smear. We're both sitting in water (seats were holding it nicely), soaked to the bone, colder than snot and laughing about the conditions. We're also seeing vehicles starting to drop out of the race and they're littering the side of the track more and more. Nobody was doing well.
The race was supposed to be six laps. James and I decided that our main goal was just to make it back to the pits. We were done and didn't have any intentions on even attempting a fourth lap. - in fact, nobody made six laps. The winner of our class went four, a couple Class 10 guys managed five. If we'd not spent the better part of an hour sitting on the sidelines, I think we probably would have run five, but that's pure speculation.
What James and I did notice was that the majority of the cars that were still on the track were moving VERY slowly. We actually got laps back from two Class 12 cars. One of them pulled over and let us by. The other guy probably couldn't see us and I finally got around him in the trees when he blew a corner. We'd followed him for a couple miles in the woods and I was able to stay right on him, but every time he'd step on the go pedal, he'd roost the crap out of us. I drove a lot of this section looking out one nickel sized sort of clean spot in front of my left eye. Made it very interesting.
In spite of being soaked to the bone, cold, miserable and just wanting to get back to the pits, James and I did have a couple funny things happen. The first one was with a truck.
We caught up to the truck at the end of a tree section and he was doing the same thing I was - driving off line to stay out of the rushing water the best he could. He knew I was behind him too. We came out of a tree section to a straight that was probably 3/4's of a mile long. As we got to the clearing, he went to the right side of the track, I went to the left. The race was on! Both of us were determined to beat the other guy to the next set of trees. I wanted nothing more than to not have to follow someone through the tight stuff again. It's bad enough to deal with the water and splashing of your own vehicle, but having to follow someone just adds insult to it all. By this time, the track is pretty much a running river all on it's own. The dryer line (as if there was one) was to drive in the grass along side the track. The ground beside the track was standing water, but at least it was sort of clean. I was able to get right along side him as we raced along. I looked over at him and noticed that he was watching us too. So here we went, full throttle on, both vehicles bouncing in the puddles, no real control - just sort of try to keep the rear end behind you type of driving, as it was SLICK, and keep the pedal down. I got lucky and was able to squeeze in front of him just as we ducked back into the trees. Whew. James and I laughed about it for quite a while.
The other one was the last wash. As I described it earlier, it was sort of a double step down and then a steep bank. Now it was a single step down and then a rushing river. The only way to make it across was to attack it and hit it hard. We did.
The Dez made a HUGE splash as it hit the water and then hit the bank hard. We bounced out of the wash and then drove through the wall of water we'd just pushed out in front of us. The Dez didn't like this at all. It had taken a deep breath of water filled air and protested immediately. From decent engine revs down to cough, sputter, cough. We rolled to a stop just past the crossing, still in the middle of the track. The engine wasn't about to move us. Luckily, I was smart enough to drop the tranny into neutral and step on the throttle. She protested a minute and then started to pick up revs again. WHEW! Dodged a big one there. What was funny about it was there were three other cars on this side of the wash, along side the track - all drowning victims of the wash. Two guys in a truck were just off to our right watching the show. I got the engine to clean out, put it back in forward and as we pulled away (slowly, but moving), the guys by the truck gave us a big thumbs up and smiled. They knew just how close we'd come to being done and seemed to appreciate the fact that we were able to keep the Dez going.
The pits were just a couple miles down the road from here. As we came through them, we could see that there was at least three inches of standing water everywhere. I told James that we were going finish the lap so we got credit for it and then we were done. We got through the start/finish line area and headed back to the pits. I drove the Dez right up into the trailer and we called it done. Jay and Jimmy were still not back either. Our race was done, but our day sure wasn't.
James was frozen - he climbed out of the Dez, went straight into the Big Blue Beast and worked on getting cleaner and dry. About ten minutes later, Jay and Jimmy show up on the quad, both frozen and muddy. They put the quad in the trailer and headed into the BBB also. I figured, since I was in three layers of fire suit and the only one still dirty, that I'd work on getting the stuff secured and put away. We cleaned up our pit area and started getting ready to leave. I asked Jay to back the Beast up to the trailer so we could hook up and leave. It wasn't to be.
The three inches of standing water had made the desert floor one slicker than snot surface that went down about three or four inches. The Beast moved backwards about a foot and started to spin the wheels. Jay pulled forward. No good. We decided to try to get the truck out of the mud and then see about getting help with the trailer. After about five minutes of forward & reverse, the truck was pretty much stuck. It wasn't bottomed out or anything like that, it was just stuck in the fifteen foot long ruts. Damn. The day'd just gotten worse.
Fortunately for us, there was a white Dodge 4X4 watching all this happen. He came over and asked if we needed or wanted any help. Hell yes!! He hooked up to the back of the Beast and started pulling. After half a dozen tugs, he got the van moving backwards nd Jay followed him to higher, rocky ground. One thing free, one to go.
The trailer is a 20' enclosed tandem axle unit. It's not light. We hooked the truck up to it and the truck just sat there spinning all four wheels. Crap. By this time there were a few spectators. One of them was in a Ford 4X4. He decided it was time for him to join in the fiasco and see what he could do to help. We hooked him up to the Dodge and with the two of them throwing roost from all eight tires, the trailer was pulled from the muck and on out to the road.
About two hours after James and I came in from the race track, we finally got everything hooked up and headed back towards Phoenix. What a day.
I had no clue where we finished in the race. James and I were just happy to have made it back under our own power. It wasn't until about a week later that I checked Whiplash's web pages and discovered that we'd taken second. Not too bad, considering all the crap we'd gone though.
As always, this Desert Racing stuff's proven to be an adventure. When I first started doing it, I had the motocross track mentality. Run laps, finish the race, bench race about it all. I now know that's nothing what it's like or what it's about. It's about going out and having a great time with killer friends and trying to beat the elements. Not being stuck out on the track somewhere and making it home is considered a win against the track. Making all the laps is a victory against the race and placing anywhere in the top three is just a bonus. The desert's a very harsh mistress and she's not easy to beat. I can't wait to do it again!
Once again, thanks to all the guys that have helped me do this crazy stuff. Jay and Jimmy for great pit support, James' boy Chase for just being there, James for riding along and enjoying the ride. Thanks to Neil and ATV Racing for letting me use the shop for home base and to the people at Whiplash for putting on the races. Couldn't do it with out them.
|Sportsman Unlimited||Car Number||Laps
|Total Time||Lap 1||Lap 2||Lap 3||Lap 4|
|GARDNER, JOHN L.||1233||0|
All photos Copyright I Shoot Horses, etc. & Kim Cook - Thanks Kim!!!
9/16/05 - video updates 11/06/05