Fast Talk with Jeff Smith: Adventures on Asphalt

In an earlier column entitled “Tangled Up With a Race Car” was the introduction to my involvement with a ’98 asphalt Late Model Monte Carlo road race car that my buddy Tim Moore bought for a song. Near the end of that column we had suffered a minor pinion seal failure and I ended confidently that we had kept the shiny side up and hadn’t broken anything expensive.

It didn’t take long for that statement to at least partially become optimistic. The car remains shiny side up thankfully, but we’ve suffered our share of setbacks. First, we decided to spin the engine a little higher and it wasn’t long before oil was dripping out of tears in the bottom of the dry sump tank and there was oil in the water and water in the oil. A few exhaust valves tagged the pistons and we exploded the engine.

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It broke so badly that we managed to save the crankshaft, the dry sump pump and pan, the intake manifold and carb and the valve covers and that’s pretty much it. A piston exploded and took out the block, jammed the cam in place, sheared the gear right off the cam and mangled the rest of the valvetrain.

So our race car needed a new small-block. Luckily, I had a 406ci engine that had been used as a dyno mule for the last few years and would bolt right in – or at least we thought it would bolt right in. Have you ever seen a small-block block without the holes drilled and tapped in the front where the old ’55-’57 Chevy motor mounts used to bolt?  My block didn’t have those holes so we had to very carefully drill and tap those positions and not hit the water jacket in order to have the mounting bolt holes needed for the dry sump pump.

Next, our clutch uses the smaller, 153-tooth diameter flywheel but the starter pad on the 400 block was only drilled for the larger 168-tooth flywheel pattern. So we had to find a starter with both patterns and again carefully drill and tap for the starter motor mounting hole. Tim did a great job of marking a perfect pattern and the starter motor spins nice and free. Much of this was outlined in another column entitled “Disasters That Befall Us.” That title was prophetic.

After we finally managed to stuff the 406 in the car and get it running again, we went back to the track. Right away that bigger stroke showed up with much more torque and the car just about leaps off the corners now. It’s bigger than a legal engine but for now we’re going to leave the engine in the car because it’s just so much fun to drive.

We’ve also hooked up with an organization called V8 Road Racing West that’s run by a great guy Mike Cohen (V8roadracingwest.com). The next race was coming up at Buttonwillow, a track that I had run a few times but hadn’t seen in probably 15 years. We managed to get our car to the track and made about 20 practice laps and everything was working well. The brakes had begun to chatter a little bit but we figured we would replace the rotors after this race. In hindsight that was a bad decision.

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We had bought new tires for the car and had them mounted at the track and put them on right before the last practice session on Friday. Qualifying would begin on Saturday morning.  On my second warm-up lap, the right front brake rotor exploded, thankfully entering a slow turn. The rotor disintegrated the brake caliper, punched a hole in the fiberglass hood, sheared the spindle, punctured the tire, bent the wheel, mangled the upper tubular control arm and generally caused lots of damage. I was not hurt but the car was done for the weekend.

So now we’re staring at an arms-length list of things to repair. The new Wilwood calipers arrived today from Summit Racing in just two days (thank you!) and hopefully the new spindles and upper control arms from Bryans Racing Enterprises (BRE) in Santee, California will be forthcoming soon. Owner Travis Bryans has been a great help in getting us dialed in with the new parts we need. We’re learning something new every day and while it’s getting expensive buying new tires, suspension, and brake parts, it’s still fun.

A friend of mine used to work for Koni shocks a long time ago and he once told me “We don’t really pay as much attention to the drag racers because they will bring us a shock to update that they bought ten years ago. We much prefer the road racers and dirt guys because they tear stuff up almost every week!”

I’m beginning to see his point.

About Jeff Smith

A clue into how long Jeff Smith has been writing technical automotive stories might be his following of second generation readers. Writing continuously for nearly 40 years, his focus with Xceleration covers all things technical. His collection of cars includes a bevy of Chevelles and El Caminos. When not writing about cars, he likes to spend time with his wife Valerye, children Amber and Graham, and granddaughter Celeste.