Not only did I enjoy reading Art Evans’ column this month on his first race as a competitor (click here to read), but I have to say that it triggered a trip down memory lane for me, as well. One of the many things that Art’s column reinforced for me is that, like so many other “first time” experiences in our lives, there is so much fantasy and anticipation in the lead up to the “big day,” that by the time it happens, it rarely lives up to our lofty expectations.
My first race was out at Phoenix International Raceway. Anxious to start racing ourselves, a friend and I had decided to build a Triumph TR4 together and share the driving duties. Recipe for Disaster no. 1—building a car with a partner. Recipe for Disaster no. 2—starting your budding racing career with the first car of your own construction.
Since neither my partner nor I had ever built a racecar before, we were perhaps slightly optimistic in our time estimate of how much work was left to be completed the week of that first race. As such, come Thursday evening, we were not only packing up the unfinished car, but boxes of still-to-be-installed parts and every power tool either of us ever owned. “No problem, we can finish the wiring and the plumbing at the track on Friday evening after the rookie orientation.” Right.
And so it was, Friday evening, 10:00 p.m., that my friend and I huddled over the car, two flashlights between us, trying to finish assembling the car in a pitch-black paddock. Never dawned on us that there would be no power for the 80,000-watt floodlights we brought!
After much cursing and no sleep, we finally got our car out to pregrid for our first session. I was to drive first, which made me the guinea pig for the weekend. As I pulled out onto the track, I was experiencing my first ever lap on a racetrack, in the first racecar I had ever built, which had never so much as turned a wheel until that morning. I’ve lost track which Recipe for Disaster this brings the count up to.
Needless to say, I don’t remember a whole lot about that first session other than being fairly scared out of my wits and figuring that the whites of my eyes had to have been big enough to be seen from deep space. However, my partner’s first run in the car I can remember in excruciating detail.
As I strapped him into the car on pregrid, I told him that I thought the gearshift from second to third felt a little stiff, so he should try to take it easy. He nodded with that same thousand-mile stare that some men have as they’re being strapped down onto the gurney for their lethal injection.
I nervously watched as he accelerated away to complete his first lap as a racecar driver and probably the car’s tenth. I went and watched from the pit wall, as my partner completed his first lap in our new car. The car looked good I thought. I’m sure with a few more sessions under our belts we’ll gain some badly needed confidence. A minute or so later I watched our car re-emerge onto the front straight and accelerate toward the start finish line. What happened next, I can still see in my mind’s eye like a slow-motion sequence from a bad spaghetti western. Halfway down the straight, I saw an enormous puff of blue smoke come out from underneath the car as it started to rotate. My vision was dominated by horrific images, the first being incredible amounts of mechanical bits coming out from underneath the car as it proceeded to make countless rotations, right down the center of the track. Along the pit wall, people started yelling to get down, as OUR car spun its way toward us. But like a deer seeing the headlights of the oncoming Freightliner, I stood motionless…watching my beautiful new racecar spin down the track, scattering little bits and pieces on the ground like a demented flower girl at a wedding.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the car eventually came to rest in the middle of the track with not so much as a scratch on it. My partner, however, looked like he had just taken the Ghost of Christmas Past tour with Jacob Marley.
We had plenty of time to analyze what went wrong as the track had to be closed for the next hour as everyone walked the front straight trying to collect all the debris. According to my partner, “The minute I grabbed the gearshift lever to shift from second to third, it was pulled out of my hand!” Apparently, it disappeared right down the transmission tunnel like the Andrea Dorea on a cold dark night. After we collected all the shrapnel—which it turned out came from the transmission—we were able to determine that second gear had coughed a tooth, which at that precise moment, wedged itself between a pair of gears, thus locking up the mainshaft as tight as a drum. With the engine screaming away and the wheels still spinning, the transmission had no choice but to call time out, splitting itself in half and spilling its guts all over the track. So endeth our first weekend of racing with our new car.
Ah yes, they say you never forget your first time. Thanks a lot Art, I could probably have done without that trip down memory lane!