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How quickly can you recover when you’ve really lost your head?

This is part two of a two-part post, a throwback from 2000 courtesy of my dad (originally published in the October and November 2000 issues of Roundel magazine). After I buzzed the engine of our old BMW during race 1, my dad recalls how the team worked to get it running again for race 2 less than 18 hours later at a remote track far from home.

By Dave Farnsworth, “The Navigator

Those of you who made it through last week’s post [Part One] may be wondering about “the rest of the story,” especially if you’re of a mechanical mind. For those of you who missed that post, I’ll bring you up to speed, so to speak: I wrote about the thoughts that go through your mind when the racer you’re cheering for doesn’t come around the track when expected. The racer I talked about last week was my son, Matt, racing at a twisty little track in western Michigan. He had coasted to a stop out of sight―hence the ensuing tension as to his fate. Once I found out he was all right, of course, the relief was immense. But you may be wondering about the car as well.

As Matt held the tow strap around the roll cage, the wrecker pulled him slowly and ignominiously through the entire paddock before allowing him to coast to a halt by our pit. I could almost feel the frustration (and maybe a little bit of embarrassment) he must have felt; after all, we’ve all been there. The car, however, looked okay, so how bad could it be?

The first inkling we had that something more ominous than, say, a loose coil wire had occurred was when Matt crawled out of the cockpit and announced that he thought he’d run out of gas. Odd, I thought, and checked the gas gauge: third of a tank. Not good. Howard Rauch, our car’s patron and chief mechanic, lifted the hood and told me to give it a crank. The high-pitched whine of the starter erupted from the bowels of the engine bay… and that was it. No compression―really not good. A quick sniff confirmed that we had gas; this was getting worse. In a few minutes Rauch had the rocker cover off. The timing chain was intact. Another crank on the starter produced more of that high-pitched whine as we all gathered around to watch the cam spin merrily, but it had no effect. Rauch leaned in a little closer and laid the diagnosis on the gathering group. “Rocker arm’s broken…no, wait: two. No…” he paused, “four rocker arms gone.” A long silence followed. “Must’ve hit about twelve grand, “ he said―and all eyes turned in slow synchronous sweeps to my son.

“Gee, Matt, did ya hit the wrong gear?”

“No,” he answered fervently, “I just went to shift, and the car died.”

“Hey, stuff happens,” I assured him―although I don’t think I actually said “stuff.”

Matt endured some good-natured ribbing―part of the novice driver ritual, I suppose―and reluctantly accepted his new nickname: Buzz.

Rauch turned back to the engine. Within minutes of his pronouncement, the cell phones were fired up, and less than an hour of phoning later, Chris Simon―part of our team of BMW racers, Tired Dog Racing―had located another head for the engine lying in the vast collection of BMW bits and pieces belonging to Ben Thongsai. But he was over 150 miles away and really couldn’t get to the track. Back to the phones.

Meanwhile, Rauch was already starting to take the engine apart, as he and Jim Waldman―founder of Tired Dog and currently giving the Porsches fits in an ITS 325i―discussed how quickly a 2002 head can be replaced. A tarp was laid across the roof of the car and Rauch began neatly arranging bolts, clamps, and hoses on top of it.

As the head was lifted off the block, Simon announced that his dad, Bill, would be willing to make the four-hour trip around the bottom of Lake Michigan and bring up the necessary head and various gasket the next morning. In the midst of all this activity I was marveling at how complex jobs become demystified when you immerse yourself in this car stuff: While the rest of the world bemoans even minor stuff like the need for brake pads, here, at a remote track in central Michigan, Rauch was performing a major repair between the end of the racing on Saturday and the beginning of racing on Sunday… and you could tell he was loving it.

As the sun broke over the momentarily quiet racing encampment Sunday morning, we were all eagerly waiting like a team of transplant surgeons. As soon as the donated organ arrived, Rauch, the head surgeon, looked it over. It was a little gunky- well, okay, it was very gunky―and the cam lobes were coated with a fine patina of rust, but it was serviceable, so we went to work. Old studs were coaxed out, old gaskets shaved off, intake and exhaust manifolds roughly fit into place, as one team of surgeons worked from above while another worked from below. Gaskets went on and headbolts were torqued down as the whole project came together.

Out on the track, our practice sessions came and went. Another hour and a half went by. Qualifying was approaching as Rauch worked quickly but methodically. The carburetor went on, fuel lines were connected, and the magic moment arrived. A couple pumps on the gas pedal, power turned on, ignition twisted, and the once-moribund patient belched to life. Out came the timing light as the clock marched mercilessly forward. I rushed out for the last lap of my qualifying session, but only got half a lap before the engine began stalling and coughing: obviously a fuel problem. I coasted into the pits, and Rauch replaced the errant carburetor jet as the checker fell on my session. The car was ready for Matt’s run. He took it easy, but the car ran fine; he brought it back in one piece in plenty of time for a few more minor adjustments.

So how did my race go, the race I never should have been able to run? Well, having no qualifying time, I started in the back, nineteenth on the grid, sixth in ITB. When the checkered flag fell thirty minutes later, I was third overall- and first in ITB. Then Matt ran a great race in Vintage, and when the car came off the track all four BFGs were nicely and evenly corded; if we’d been able to run all our practice and qualifying sessions, those tires never would have lasted through the race. I suppose in some perverse way the fates buzzed that engine. But Matt still gets the nickname.

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