The following is a true story about my most successful race car—one of the most successful race cars of all time—at least, dollar for dollar…
Back in the day, CCE had a robust racing team. It was not at all unusual for twenty Corvairs to show up at an autocross en masse—talk about an entrance! The other car clubs watched in envy as we arrived, prepped our cars and got down to the serious business of beating the snot out of our cars. We were good, too; the highly competitive Corvair classes typically turned out times that ran with the far more powerful and expensive cars on the field.
Naturally, an open course with long sweeper turns and long straightaways favored the Mustangs, Corvettes, Camaros and other powerful cars, while tight courses, with sharp turns close together preventing a buildup of speed gave the edge to cars with short wheelbases, like Lotuses, Mini-Coopers, Fiats, and the like.
Our ‘Vairs ran with all of them.
I had been racing my ’68 Monza Coupe, with a built-up 140hp/4spd—headers, cam, .060 overbore plus a few other tweaks.
This car was also my daily driver, which would prove to have repercussions that were rather predictable.
Loss of valve seats was a common occurrence in the 140 and Turbo cylinder heads, particularly when the engines were driven hard (which, you may recall, is kind of the point!) and when I dropped a seat on my last head (not a good thing, ladies, as this is not a reference to toilet etiquette) I was somewhat bereft.
Fortunately, the parts guy at Ridgeway Chevrolet in Lansing, IL had heard of a local citizen who was looking to rid himself of a Corvair in his garage, and I went to take a look.
I did not just go unprepared, as I took along Professor Nash Claypool, to ascertain the value and condition of the car. (Interestingly, the Professor has a lot less time on his hands, nowadays.) In the gloom of the garage lurked a clapped out, dented, rusty, Butternut Yellow ’66 Monza coupe with 110hp/Powerglide.
Starting the car up, Larry noted a broken rocker arm (meaning the car ran on five cylinders), a tank of regular gas (this in a premium gas 110hp) three flat tires, and the coup de gras, the radio had been removed by the owner’s son—without unplugging the wiring harness, he elected to use the expedient of cutting the wires. Well, the car did run…
I offered the owner $35, to which he replied, “Well, that’s $35 more than the junk man will give me.” I mentally kicked myself for not starting with $25.
We replaced a tire that would not hold any air, aired up the other tires, fired it up and nursed the car to the nearest gas station to top it off with premium. We then brought the car back to the Vair Shop, where we replaced the offending rocker arm and restored functionality to the sixth cylinder.
The next day was race day!
To be continued…
Last month, I began the saga of the most successful race car in history, dollar for dollar, (at least, to the best of my knowledge) my Amazing Beater, a 1966 Corvair Monza coupe, that I purchased for the princely (miserly?) sum of $35.
The day after said purchase was RaceDay! Back in those days, CCE was a major participant in the Tri-State Sports Car Council, along with clubs like Motorsports Club of Chicago (Fords and Mustangs), Chicago Region-SCCA, Chevy Corps (Camaros), Lotus Corps (guess what?), Thee Royal Steeds, et al.
The particular event on this day was held at the Regional Headquarters for Union 76 Oil Company in Schaumburg, IL, a site that is now a large IKEA store.
The actual name for this autocross site, at least as far as we were concerned, was “Curb City”, so named because of the layout of their parking lot, a series of circular parking lanes centered on two axes separated by tall concrete curbs. This rather peculiar parking lot gave the organizing club many different options for setting up an autocross course, but WOE! to the errant driver.
I put my newest competition car through tech inspection, wheel bearings—OK, brakes—check, steering play… well, it passed.
I launched the car into the first heat, and it promptly started spitting and backfiring, leaving clouds of black smoke. I successfully negotiated the course with a less than impressive time, and determined that this car needed a tune-up rather badly. I got a lift over to the Sears Roebuck store at the nearby Woodfield Mall, and purchased a set of sparkplugs and points, which I installed before the next run.
Now the car ran significantly faster—I threw this car into the corners with abandon—the back end slewed around very satisfactorily and the next thing I knew, the car suddenly lost significant power—it barely made it to the finish line.
What to do? Once again, I called upon the diagnostic abilities of Professor “Nash” Claypool (to this day, I call him “Nash”—a story for another Airhorn article) and he quickly determined a plugged main jet, no doubt the result of the accumulated crud at the bottom of the fuel bowl being stirred up by the high “G-forces” I was now generating on the autocross course. Letting the car idle on the one working carburetor, he revved up the motor and slapped his hand over the non-functioning, dramatically increasing the vacuum, which proceeded to suck the dirt through the main jet and restoring its operation.
At least until the next run. I got further through the course before it plugged again, however, and posted a pretty good time, enough for third place finish!
After Part One of this story appeared in the Airhorn last month, long time CCE racer Ivan Lundin called me and informed me that he had some racing results from that era and he sent me a couple of them—one of which was a first place finish in class. I will provide more details next month…
As previously reported, I had purchased a “beater” Corvair to fill in when my “good” car broke—a fairly predictable eventuality when you race the car you also drive to work. The Beater was a Butternut Yellow ’66 Monza coupe with 110HP and Powerglide for which I paid $35. Pretty beat up and rusty, it was what it was, plus a little…
While my “real” racecar was laid up with a dropped valve seat, I campaigned the yellow Beater in Tri-State events. Curious onlookers stopped me to ask how I did as well as I did with such an, er, unassuming vehicle. I had made some interesting discoveries about the car as I adapted my driving style to its peculiarities—for one; the anti-sway bar was disconnected in front. There was no oil in either of the front shock absorbers—I demonstrated this to amazed observers by grabbing the lip over the headlights and bouncing the front end of the car until I was able to get the wheels six inches off the ground!
I am sure that the GM engineering staff never contemplated the performance benefits of such modifications, but the Beater was surprisingly predictable and controllable, once you knew what it would do under certain conditions. It oversteered more than an early model, but I could stop the back end from swinging around with the proper application of the throttle, and I could break the back end loose in a turn with a quick stab at the brakes.
I once had an opportunity to see how others reacted to the Beater out on the autocross course. It was 1976, and I drove the Beater to Philadelphia PA for the CORSA Convention. Just before I left, the brake pedal dropped to the floor—I blew a brake line on the right rear. In a hurry, and not to be deterred, I grabbed a pliers and folded the end of the steel tube, crimping it securely, and, after refilling the reservoir, I drove to Philadelphia with three wheel brakes.
After arriving in Philadelphia, I asked Larry Claypool to give me a hand with replacing the offending line. In short order we had fully functioning “anchors” on all four wheels.
Of course, such a good deed must not go unacknowledged. I offered “Nash” an opportunity to compete in the autocross using my beater (Larry had driven out to the convention is his Greenbriar, the “AbsurdoVan”), and he readily accepted.
We watched other competitors racing through the course, and we quickly realized that most of them were unfamiliar with pushing Corvairs to their limits (in fairness, most of the experienced racers like Warren LeVeque were scheduled to run later), as the drivers would floor their cars up to a turn, slam on the brakes, creep around the corner, them floor it again, only to repeat the procedure at the next turn.
I decided to let Larry take the first run in my car, and he did not disappoint. Roaring up to the first turn, he threw the Beater into a hard left and….WHOOOOOOAAAA! the back end slewed around (in Larry’s words) “like a hammer on the end of a string!”
Larry, of course, is a graduate of “the school of crummy cars” and immediately compensated by cranking the wheel hard right (to keep the front end of the car pointing forward) and four-wheel drifted through the turn.
I was stunned by the reaction of the crowd; whereas up to now, they had watched silently as the Corvairs had motored around the track—they suddenly stood up and cheered Larry on as he powered around the course, mostly sideways!
My turn was a bit of an anticlimax after that, but we did take first and second place in our class (yeah, OK, Larry took first!) and provided both amusement and inspiration to the crowd—the other drivers had taken note and adjusted accordingly, going much faster than before.
I was going to end this saga at this point, but a conversation I had with Rick “The Kid” Herda about another incident changed my mind.
More next month.
Many years ago, before the advent of the Orphan Auto Picnic, CCE used to get together at our annual summer picnic. We would reserve some local Forest Preserve—usually with a pavilion, bring out the brats, burgers and beer, and proceed to party!
These events usually included pastimes similar to other groups—but with a flavor all our own. The games would sometimes include softball, egg tosses and the like, but often we would veer off into something a bit more car oriented.
One such was the game of “Tahr”—the pronunciation borrowed from our Southern cousins. Tahr consisted of taking the spare tire out of the trunk, and rolling it uphill with one mighty swing, the winner being the tire that rolled the farthest before running out of momentum and falling over. This proved quite an entertaining event, with significant competition, until Bob Kremer pulled out a racing tire on a rim about 10” wide—so wide, in fact, that the darn tire would NOT fall over—all the rest of us could hope for would be for the tire to roll back downhill…
So… this story is titled “The Amazing Beater,” and you ask what is this all about?
Well, in addition to being a successful racecar, off-road vehicle, rallycar, and generally reliable work car, the Beater turned out to be even more versatile.
Larry came up with the idea of a “Pit Stop” game. Here were the rules: parking the car at the far end of the parking lot, Larry would futz around in the engine compartment, messing with something that would affect the operation of the car—crossing a couple of spark plug wires, disconnecting the throttle linkage from one carburetor, minor things of that nature. The driver would then floor the car down the lane to the designated pit stop and the following items had to be addressed by the team: determine what the mechanical problem was and fix it, change a tire, clean the windshield, give the driver a swig of beer (hey, I didn’t say we were politically correct, here!) and drive away, all while being timed. Naturally, I volunteered the services of the Beater for the game.
All went well for two or three teams, and the timing was competitive. Now, however, it was my team’s turn. Judy Lape (Schoenher) was our driver, I was one of the mechanics, and my memory fails me as to the identity of the other two team members. Perhaps that is just as well, for their sakes…
Larry had just finished fiddling in the engine compartment, Judy sped, er, rather slowly down the lane and she stopped the car in the pit area using the parking brake—as I could determine by the ratcheting noise of the brake lever. While my other teammates jacked up the car to change the tire, I handed Judy a beer, getting ready to open the engine compartment to find out what Larry had messed up, when Judy stopped me, “The brakes don’t work!”
As my mind was focused on solving a mechanical problem in as short a period of time as possible, I started going through what the possibilities were; what could Larry have done to the brakes from the engine compartment?
I quickly remembered (well, it seemed quickly, I had been quaffing beers myself) that there were NO brake components in the engine compartment of a Corvair. At the same time, it occurred to me, game or no, Larry would NEVER under any circumstances compromise safety by disabling the brakes of any car.
I signaled that the game was interrupted, and called Larry down from his position at the starting line. What to do?
A widening puddle just forward of the left rear wheel was all the clue we needed. We pushed the car off to the side and contemplated what our next step would be. We had no floor jack, but that was of little import to us—I already knew that four reasonably strong guys could easily lift one side of a Corvair, and with six it was almost no effort at all. Having no jackstand, we simply kept lifting until the car sat comfortably on its right side, exposing the perforated brake line. Of course, I had a sealed battery, otherwise I would have removed it prior to the lift.
Someone provided a pair of diagonal cutters, we snipped the offending metal line, and folded it over and crimped it (after all, that was the same procedure I had used the previous year before driving to the Philadelphia CORSA convention). I still had front brakes (I reasoned) so it should not be any problem to make it home that night and perform a proper repair the next day.
“Should not be any problem.”
I asked several attendees to run to the nearest town (we were at the Willow Springs Woods) and procure some brake fluid, since the master cylinder was now empty. No problem, right?
Think back to 1977. How many auto parts superstores like Pep Boys, Autozone, or O’Reilly’s were there?
Auto parts stores were almost never open on Sundays. Sometimes you could find a Sears Auto center, but there was none such nearby. Our “missionaries” all came back with the same message—none to be had.
Now I had a problem. I had to get home that evening, to Larry’s shop the next morning, and then to work the next night, but that wasn’t going to happen if I could not stop the car. I needed to find some substitute fluid.
One thing of a liquid nature that we still had in abundance was beer. I briefly thought of the old apocryphal story about the guys in the desert whose radiator ran dry, and they had several cases of beer, but were unwilling to waste good beer, so they drank the beer and peed into the radiator until they were able to complete their trip.
I was unwilling to do that, because I was not in the desert and I had already had enough beer. Besides, I was the one who would have to drain the fluid and did not relish the thought.
Decision made, we filled up the master cylinder and bled the brakes as best we could. I began my lonely sojourn home.
I soon discovered that the beer-infused brake system had its limitations. I could get one or two good stops before the beer overheated and my brakes suffered what can only be called “Beer Fade”. I would then have to wait until the beer cooled and the brake function returned. I got home; traveling slowly on lightly traveled back roads, well after dark. The next day I (also slowly) made it to the Vair Shop, and, with Larry’s help, completed the repairs.
There were many more stories about the Amazing Beater, but I often find myself being reminded by old friends about them, as I haven’t stopped to think about them for so long. Perhaps we can dredge up a few more, not necessarily about the Beater, but others as well. We had a lot of fun in those days, and it would be a shame if the stories were lost to time.
Let’s hear about yours…