Catching Up On 50 Years

The gap in time between when I sat watching those early broadcasts of Indy and NASCAR races on my family’s black and white TV and when I finally got into a race car is about 50 years, which is also the age of the car I now race. And by race I mean endurance road race, and Bonneville salt flats race, and car shows, and museum exhibits, and cross-country jaunts. After 50 years with my car life on hold, I have a few things to catch up on, and I’d start by racing the Tinyvette.

For me, racing was always out of reach. Too busy, too broke, too small a tool box. Then one day, a chance meeting with friend Alan Brattesani at a local tire shop. I joked that we should get an Opel GT, dress it up like one of the Corvettes that are doing so well at Le Mans, and race it in Lemons. We laughed and continued on with our days, but an hour or so later I had an email from Alan about an eBay GT in our area. Five days and $500 later I had two stinking field-find GTs stuffed into my one-car carport. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s when my life took a serious turn.

The next morning the two of us stood there, looking at the cars. The blue one had less rust. Lets go with that one. Okay. Now, where to start? Let’s check the front brakes and bearings. I guess they looked okay. Putting them back together was a different story. It’s a good thing we had an intact parts car nearby to serve as our guide. That’s where we were back then in terms of wrenching skills.

Two weeks later… (to be continued)

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Two weeks later we had vacuumed out 8 gallons of rat and rot and had taken everything off the car we weren’t afraid to touch. We celebrated the end of the “breaking rusty bolts” phase about the same time we put the first part back on the car, and a week later we celebrated again when the engine started and ran. We were so lucky. We knew next to nothing about engines at the time.

Another two weeks later and the car was caged and had a fresh gas tank, brakes, wheels, and tires, so we took it to Thunderhill for some testing and came back home with a long list of things to fix.

A few weeks later, it was crunch time. Our race was on Saturday and we leave for the track on Thursday. It was Sunday evening and I had just rollered on the first coat of primer. It was gorgeous, if only because the car was now only one color. The next morning it got another and that night it got paint, glorious Rust-Oleum Sunburst Yellow, more or less just like Corvette Racing’s cars. The next morning, after gently sanding the dead bugs off, it got a second coat.

On Wednesday I worked through the night finishing the electrical system, taking care not to rub up against the still soft paint. Shortly after sunrise Thursday the guys showed up to help pack. By mid-afternoon the car was on the trailer, and just after daybreak on Friday it was in our pits at Thunderhill Raceway. Just nine weeks, from hantavirus-infested heap to a reasonable approximation of a race car. We had made it. Now we just needed to race it.

To be continued…

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Tech and BS inspections went better than expected, probably because of our bribe. Jay Lamm took one look at the car, still lacking numbers or any decals whatsoever, shook his head, and said, “It’s an Opel.
There’s nothing you can do for these. Just tell me what you spent on it.” With that I gave the signal and the
headlights flipped, delivering a nice single-malt Scotch. Jay forgot his question and signed off on our car.

The race was, well, a race. We started, and we finished, both of which are in themselves a big deal. We were also overheating like crazy, one tie rod end had gone bad, power was cutting out in left-hand turns, and some liquid, later determined to be gasoline, was misting the windshield. Our transmission failed in the first half hour so we swapped in another, and it was almost as bad. We had two offs and got dinged once for passing under the yellow and for our amassed infractions we had to sit out the last half of Saturday. But we finished on Sunday, and we were hooked.

We’d go on to compete in nearly 30 races, racking up over 20,000 miles on the track. Along the way there were engine rebuilds, suspension repairs, a complete rewire, and a fair bit of body work to do, and we did it all ourselves. My tool box had grown a bit in those eight years. In that time over 20 different people have piloted the Tinyvette in the rain at Infineon, the snow at Reno-Fernley, the heat of Buttonwillow, and the Guinness World Record 220+ car race on Thunderhill’s brand new 5-mile course. Together we learned how to wrench and drive and before long we had won our class, twice, then got promoted a class. Now we are in the hunt for a win in our new class, and we’re trying to do that not by making the car faster, but by becoming better drivers. Since then we’ve managed a third in class twice. I’m pretty sure we can do this.

To be continued…

This racing thing, 50 years dormant in me, has taken over my life. My carport got stuffed with engines and parts of engines. Two-foot square pieces of plywood on the tops of stacks of tires and totes full of parts served as work benches. After hours the tools were stowed in the kitchen and parts could often be seen in the dish drying rack. Don’t ask me how I cured paint. At the outset I had sworn to myself that this would not happen. It was just one, little, race car, not a racing business. I had been so naive. Eventually I had to move to a bigger place, one with a garage. Now I have 10 transmissions here, and eight motors, two parts cars, spare doors and windshields, and even more totes filled with Opel parts. All I can say is it’s a good thing I am not married.

And along with all this racing, Opels. Before all this started I had seen only one Opel GT. It was my college
roommate’s. I remember thinking “Those silly Japanese, they’ll copy just about anything.” Now I have three of them and have been racing the yellow one for eight years, and will continue to do so as long as I can swing it. I also edit and produce The Blitz, the Opel Motorsport Club’s newsletter/magazine, and I help organize national Opel events. And to think I once saw this car as a little joke.

Sports cars are fun, and racing, if you do it right, is really fun. But when not racing or fixing the car, what do you do? Well, I had never been to a car show before, and now the Tinyvette gets driven to both local shows and shows as far away as Tacoma and Las Vegas, and it has been shown in venues as big as the Sacramento International Auto Show and the San Francisco International Auto Show. And of course the car gets to the Concours d’Lemons when possible, and even Monterey Car Week’s Legends of the Autobahn if I can find an affordable place to stay for a night. But local shows are the best. Kids love getting to sit in a real race car, and between the battery cut-off and the fire system being secured, what could they hurt? It just made their day and their parents are so grateful.

What else can you do when you have a street-legal race car in the garage? I had never been to Bonneville before, so we packed it up and joined the fun at The World Of Speed, competing in the 150 MPH Club event. Sure, we burned a hole in a piston, but not before completing two 117 mph passes and coming home The World’s Fastest Lemon.

Between October’s and December’s race I had some time to think, and one day I thought about the Cannonball Run, how it would have been so cool to have been part of that. Wait, why can’t I be a part of that now? I’ll just do it myself, in the Tinyvette. So one drizzly day in November co-driver Don Michaelson and I set out for the Red Ball Garage in New York City, making our practice run before resting up and streaking back to the west coast. Temperatures would drop to 12°F outside and 28°F inside as we crossed Pennsylvania and New York, and the heater we bought at a truck stop didn’t help at all and anyway it died after an hour. We wrapped our legs in blankets and stuffed heat packs in our shoes and collars, but we still froze. Rest stops, as a result, were pretty long, adding hours to our cross-country times. But we made it to New York okay, and once at the Red Ball we stretched our legs, grabbed a bagel and schmear, and without so much as a nap we headed west again, arriving at the Portofino just shy of 48 hours later.

Y U RUNE KLASSICC? This is a catch phrase in the Lemons community where Wartburgs, Pacers, and
Corvairs compete against faster but so very boring Miatas, E30’s, and Mustangs. That’s the reception we got from the Opel community when Alan and I announced our plans to race in Lemons, but before long that changed. Now the Tinyvette is well-regarded and stands as a testament to the fun and adventure one can have in a classic if you dared to take a few chances with it. In my book, Horrible Idea, about our Cannonball adventure, I open with the hypothetical scenario that in your garage sits a beautiful classic that occasionally gets out to a car show or cruise, and while you’ve already done the post-retirement motor home travel thing, you still feel the lure of the open highway. If that is you, then get out and do your own personal Cannonball Run, or make a four-corners run, or do all fifty states, or all of the national parks. If you can tolerate a little salt damage, consider doing Bonneville. Or, how about here to Dead Horse and
back? We’re working up to that.

Whatever you do, I doubt you’ll have as much fun as I have had with the Tinyvette, but you should still try. At the very least don’t wait 50 years before you get started.

I didn’t manage to reach 150 mph, but at least I can check Bonneville off my bucket list.

This would be our home for the five days it took to complete our double-Cannonball. Note to self, race seats are hard.

Cannonballing through Pennsylvania, on our way to the Red Ball in New York City, where we’d turn right around and head back to California.