Gresstale, Jun09


“Shit, the engine died AGAIN?   Oh god now what?  <insert tone of frustration> Christ, they’re going to have to tow me off the track again?” <growl thru clenched teeth>

 There I sat in the grass near the exit of Road Atlanta’s turn 7, wondering why my engine just crapped out again.  And also hoping that no one spun on the exit of 7 and collected me, at 80mph, en route to the wall.

 The week before Road Atlanta, one of the most famous tracks in N. America, had been a hard one.  Heck, the 2 months before Road Atlanta had been hard.

  My engine’s bearings had failed at a race in April.  But the motor had ran pretty strong, vindicating the months of work fighting thru various goatscrews….Diagnosing the engine’s troubles, getting an expensive new head, diagnosing it’s troubles, getting it repaired.  Twice. Then ultimately installing the new head.

 In the weeks that followed the April “Uh oh, my bearings are toast” race,  I schemed, planned, cajoled and purchased my way to a relatively complicated adventure that was intended to ultimately result in the most fabulous BMW engine the world has ever seen.   Parking the race car in the front driveway, where it would remain high up on jackstands for a couple weeks, I removed the engine, dismantled it and took the bare block to a local machine shop.

 I’d never done all this by myself, so I was a little intimidated.  But there were lots of race buddies to call on if I got stuck.

 Meanwhile pistons, bearings and what-not were coming in from various places around the country. 

 While that was being done I worked on creating an incredible oiling system such that my bearings would last until the eventual heat-death of the universe.  I was irked about having to replace engine bearings twice in 2 yrs.  The plan for the new system was looking like a relatively complicated affair with stainless steel hoses going all over the place to support a big new oil cooler and a big 3qt “oil sump” that would push oil into the engine when it’s oil pump started sucking air in 1.3g turns.

 If you’ve always wanted to know more about race car oiling systems you’re welcome to spent the next 10min at:

 I’d also gone crazy on gauges and warning lights.   I put in 18 bezillion temperature and pressure sensors, switches, gauges and warning lights.  I installed sensors for so many warning lights that all the flashing lights in the cockpit would, at the first sign of trouble, look like a 70’s disco. And it that’s what you’ve always wanted to know more about, it’s at:

 I even spent time testing a mess of amber and red warning lights and leds such that I could determine which ones were bright enough that they would catch my attention in broad daylight in the crazy environment of a race car.  Since the oil pressure warning lights were critical, I used 4 high intensity led light bars on top of my dash so there was no way I could miss warning of an oil pressure drop.

 Weeks later, at night, I turned the key in the car’s ignition.  Starting the car at night is unusual.  And the oil pressure led light bars strobed on and like half of a flashbang grenade.  They were so damn bright it felt like my eyes had been blasted out of my skull. Oh the pain of genius. 

 The engine block then went to a local race shop for the assembly of the “bottom end”, which is to say putting the crankshaft, pistons and bearings into the block.  The shop had agreed to let me assist.  Not having built a bottom end before, I didn’t want to attempt tit on my own because there’s just no tolerance for error.  But assisting a competent engine builder would result in me learning how to do it, so I figured.

The way it ultimately worked out, I did almost all of the work by myself. They just charged me as if the engine builder did it all. Which was irksome.  Ultimately the builder did most of the first build and there was a bearing clearance problem.  I did the 2 follow on builds and the problem went away. 

 Then I took the motor home for final assembly.

 A dark and rainy Friday night a buddy and I struggled to mate the motor with the transmission.  I spent hours under the car lying on the wet, muddy and oily driveway trying to coax the motor to mate up.  We fought it all evening, but we just couldn’t get it done.  We couldn’t seem to beat the last inch of getting the motor connected to the transmission and no amount of jiggling, repositioning or cajoling was going to get it done.  We were defeated.  I was frustrated and sober.

 With beer and keyboard I started looking for a solution. To sobriety first, and to mating up with the transmission second.

 The next day, still raining, I pulled the motor up and away from the car and carefully eyeballed the clutch alignment.  I also called around town to buy or borrow a clutch alignment tool.  I’m here to tell you that on Saturdays there are no BMW clutch alignment tools in Savannah GA for love or money. 

 Eventually I was able to figure out a way to spot that the clutch’s alignment was indeed off by a couple mm, and I carefully fixed it.  Then I moved the motor back into the race car’s engine bay and a couple minutes later I’ll be goddamned if I didn’t have that engine nicely mated with the transmission.  All by myself.  In the rain.

By the end of the weekend the motor was fully installed and ready to start.  After half a day of weak knees, I forced myself to take the plunge and it started up just fine.  I was sincerely shocked.

 But in the days that followed, I started to notice that the engine had a clanking sound.  I finally decided that I couldn’t ignore it, I did some more research, asked folks on the forums more questions and even called up an Internet buddy in Los Angeles and stuck the phone next to the engine so he could hear.  The consensus was that there was a problem. 

 This was bad because I had 36hrs before I was supposed to be leaving for a weekend of racing at Road Atlanta.  Early the next morning I loaded the car on to the trailer and took it to the race shop.

 The shop spent all morning trying to figure out what the problem was.  By lunch they seem to run out of motivation so I went to the shop and pulled the head off of motor.  By carefully studying the head and the #6 piston we were able to figure out that the head had shifted a little and #6 was ever so slightly whacking the head.  Not enough to deform any metal, just enough to polish the surfaces.

 And it was my fault.  I’d not bothered to install a certain pin that went between block and motor.  It’d always been missing on this motor and I’d just gotten used to it.  That pin helped precisely position the head during installation. 

 The next morning, with a pin pulled off of my spare engine block, I returned to the shop and put the motor back together.  And no clanking sound.  I was now 8hrs out from having to leave for Road Atlanta and I was good to go.  I was very pleased, in a thoroughly exhausted sort of way.

 In Friday’s race the motor ran terrific for 2hrs 45min.  In a 3hr race.  I was all kinds of proud that the motor I’d removed, rebuilt and then installed, was screaming thru lap after lap…strong as a bull it was.  And then it died.

 After getting towed in at race-end it became clear that I’d lost a big gear that is attached to the front of the motor.  And as it broke free it holed the radiator.  As usual, it was my fault.  I’d not tightened it’s bolts enough.

 To my vast good fortune there is a German auto junkyard just down the road from Road Atlanta and with 3min to spare before closing I got to their shop and pulled the parts I needed from junkyard cars. 

 The next morning, proud that I’d done some significant repairs by myself at the track, I headed out on to the track for race Qualification.  And half lap later my motor died again.  “Shit”, I thought, sitting in a relatively vulnerable position near the exit of turn 7, “what is it now”.  I patiently waited for my friend from the previous day, the tow truck driver, to pull me back in to the pits.

 This time though it was bad.  My timing belt had torn and as a result the camshaft stopped.  When a camshaft stops on most engines, things bend and break.  I had things that were bent and broken.  My weekend was done.  All I could hope for is that I hadn’t put a hole in a piston.  Replacing a piston would be a pain in the ass.

 When I got home I pulled the damaged head off of the engine and sent it to the shop in MO that built it.  They called me back a couple days later to tell me that the head was missing a critical little piece of steel about 1” square.  We had a long conversation about how the heck my head could have been missing the widget. They didn’t think that it was their fault, of course.  They were comfortable that when they’d sent the head to me (both the first time and the second time) the widget had been there.  But, of course, I wasn’t so sure.

 That night I wracked my brain trying to come up with a scenario where a 1” square piece of my motor could just flat-ass disappear.  And I decided that it had to be the local shop that charged me for 6hrs of labor troubleshooting my clanking sound.  They spent those 6hrs with that little part right in front of their noses.  There was no way that they could have missed it’s absence.  So I sent an email to the shop in MO that discussed my theory and essentially absolved them of responsibility.

 What I didn’t know is that the shop in MO had been getting a raw deal from customers over the past 6 months or so and was getting kinda down on human nature. 

 The owner of the shop called me up at work and said “Scott, I’ve got some bad news.  Your head is a total loss.  It’s scrap metal.”

 My eyes went as wide as saucers.  It’d been a difficult couple of months.  I’d spend most nights in the garage until 2AM working on the car, there’d been huge frustrations, it’d been terrible expensive, Sarah was pissed at me for ignoring the family, and frankly I was exhausted.  I couldn’t afford another $2k for a head.  This might be it for me.  I sat there at my desk and kinda felt like I was in shock.  I couldn’t believe that lady luck had hosed me so badly.

 I told him “Jim, this is bad. I can’t afford another head.”

 Then the owner said, “well it might not be so bad.  Let me tell you a story.”

 Apparently the owner’s wife made copies of my email and, in a meeting with the 5 grizzled old machinists, handed each a copy of my email.

 They all read it, and, somehow, perceived it as so refreshingly different from the ration of shit that they’d been getting lately, that it helped restore their faith in humanity.  The owner told me, and I’m not exaggerating, “we all stood around, read your email and got the sniffles”.

 Imagine 5 grizzled old machinists holding my email in their hands and having a group cry.

 You just can’t make this kind of thing up.

 “So”, the owner continued on the phone, “we all said, we need to fix this guy up.  Lets build him a head for our cost.  He needs it fast, so lets come into work Saturday and Sunday to do it”.

 And that’s what the owner of the shop told me.  The finest shop in the world for this particular BMW motor.  Sometime good guys do finish first.

 My head is supposed to be back Wed.  I’ll work all night to put the motor together, pack up on Thur and head out to Road Atlanta for 3 days on the track.  At least that’s the plan.