People often look at racing organizations like Formula 1, Indy Car and NASCAR and have this notion of how race cars are built. Visions of multi-million dollar, CAD-generated, heli-arc’d, TIG-welded, titanium and 6066-T6 aircraft aluminum gleaming in an operating room-clean, sound-stage-audio, color-correct lit room filled with technicians whose hands are cleaner than an OCD, germaphobe surgeon in the hygiene aisle at CVS.
Well, that my friends, is a fantasy. Those rooms exist, but people who work in them
get dirty. They spill oil and coolant all over themselves. Their hands and knuckles get cut up like they boxed The Shredder for 12 rounds. The real process involves a lot of back-0f-the-napkin blueprinting and this-will-probably-hold engineering. Like the time I welded 2 bolts together to make a longer bolt for someone’s alternator. Or the time we got a monster truck running in the middle of a show with a plastic Coke bottle and sledgehammer.
The real story plays out millions of times a year all over the U.S. of A., with varying degrees of success. But, always with an indescribable satisfaction. If you’re not a gear head this will help describe the process. If you’ve turned a few bolts, regardless of the racing discipline of your choosing, this will upturn a corner of your mouth as you recall the struggles in a rosier shade than they were when you flung that 3/4″ wrench at the wall with a force that would make the Big Unit jealous.
1. Dream Big
You’ve set out to build the world’s first 3.5-second street legal car. Or perhaps the first home-hot-rodded-middle-class-budget corner-carver to tear the ‘ring to ribbons. You let every car forum on the internet know your intentions. It will be a shiny, sleek, aesthetically perfect creation with a meticulously assembled mechanical heart that’ll make the space program blush. Yeah. And I’m a Chinese jet pilot.
Realization your budget allows for precisely 1/1,000th of what you have imagined. You bargain with yourself. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that pretty. OK. You start digging for parts on ebay and Craigslist. You figure out where you can cut corners. Maybe you don’t need to deck the block at a machine shop; if you’re really careful you can probably do that shit with an angle grinder, a sanding block, and a steady hand.
3. Cognitive Dissonance
You’ve realized what you initially imagined is in all practicality impossible. This sucks, although you still believe your 1996 Mazda Miata is a denizen of the paved surfaces (no, it’s not). But you believe that shit, hard. The twin-turbo LS v8 swap is approximately fifty times your entire budget–for the next 20 years. This causes stress and anxiety as you settle for a new set of plug wires and a polished radiator cap. You put an SCCA sticker on your back window and call it a night, crying yourself to sleep with whatever the opposite of a boner is.
4. Debt Funding
This Camaro is going to be so fucking savage once you have those fully ported Air Flow Research heads with a 77-angle valve job You don’t even know. It’s performed on a machine which simultaneously uses a 7-axis CNC tool while feeding the operator a Twinkie and jerking him off with life-like feminine hands. You rationalize, you don’t really need to eat that badly. Hell, you could probably stand to lose a few pounds anyway. So, you drop the four grand on the heads, machine work, and hand-o for the machinist. Then marvel at them on your coffee table with your friends for six weeks while you try and figure out how to bolt them onto your rusty, grease-caked 305 with stock fuel injection and cast exhaust manifolds without having to index them.
5. The Build
And so it begins. It’s time to build this fucker. This starts on a Friday night with three to five hours of staring at the car figuring out the optimal way to jack it up before any bolts are turned. After ordering pizza, drinking a beer and getting the entire vehicle 12 inches off the floor, you get out air ratchets and disassemble all of the things.
You realize that you don’t understand half the shit you’re looking at, and that there is a third, fourth-dimensional type of bolt head that is neither metric or SAE, which cannot be turned by tools present in our universe. Swearing ensues. Seventy-five percent of the parts don’t even come close to fitting correctly. Dremel tools and angle grinders make them fit in a self-nullifying cycle where parts companies have no incentive to make anything truly “bolt-on”; they know gear heads will just “clearance” shit to make it fit.
Staring blankly at things so fucking wrong, all newtonian mechanics and quantum theory must be bullshit for 3 hours, you decide to go to sleep. You wake, restored by sleep, to discover that you had everything on the wrong side. You vow never to stay up until 2 a.m. working on the car again.
7. Goddammit, It Won’t Start
2 a.m.–All the bolts are (mostly) tight, the coolant is topped off, the fuel pump sounds like it’s working, and you can’t imagine a single fucking bolt on this entire car you haven’t turned, so it must be ready to start.
Fuel, air and spark. That’s all that’s required for an engine to run. You, however, may choose only two. After starting a flamewar on the car message board of your choice, you discover you’ve connected the ignition to a circuit that’s hot in “run” but not in “start.” You fruitlessly try and crush your voltmeter in anger, then rewire the whole thing. With the engine hopelessly flooded, you wait for the 3 gallons of gasoline now residing in the combustion chambers to evaporate.
It’s 3:30 a.m. The car has no exhaust–just open, long-tube headers. After praying to a pagan deity, promising your unborn children to Chthulu and pledging your soul to any hell-spawned demon who will have it, you crank the car over for 90 seconds and blip the throttle three times.
With a sputtering cough and a roaring reminicscent of Manowar playing through Spinal Tap’s concert audio, the engine staggers to life. The deafening roar is exceeded only by your evil cackling, likely screaming something like “It lives! Ahahahahaha!” While trying to hide the massive, awkward boner from your friends you rev the shit out of it, and hold it at about 6000RPM/+200db until the temperature gauge reaches 250. A joy only experienced by those enraptured or who’ve just slept with a porn star washes over you and you go to bed to await the complaining phone calls from neighbors, knowing full-well that it won’t start tomorrow.
8. Dyno Disappointment & Race Day
You agree to pay an hourly fee equal to the GDP of a small Baltic nation to strap your car to a set of giant steel rollers to measure how little power it makes. After four hours of
making it worse tuning, you have managed to eek out approximately 50% of the power you told everyone it was going to make on the internet, and blown a head gasket. You declare victory and vow to “dial it in” at the race track where it will run approximately three seconds slower in the quarter mile than you thought it would.
10. Cruise Night (probably three years hence)
You’ve got it all shined up, it looks good and sounds much faster than it is. It rarely overheats. You head off to the local summer evening cruise night to hang out with other people who’ve been through the struggle. While parking, you unnecessarily rev the car in neutral–at least twice–before you turn it off. You spend the rest of the evening engaged in overly contrived, unnecessarily technical, rehearsed bolt-talk with other gear heads, telling each other lies about how much power it has and how fast your respective vehicles are.
You drive home, full of coffee and/or ice cream experiencing a joy that only someone who has gone on such a quest and lost all feeling in their knuckles can experience. Cajoled to a dull grin by the symphony of valvetrain noise and supercharger whine in 4th gear, you secretly hope nothing is on fire.