Fast Talk with Jeff Smith: Tangled Up with a Race Car

Sometimes your friend’s enthusiasm spills over and you get pulled into the vortex of it all. About a year ago, my buddy Tim Moore calls me on a Saturday morning and said “I’ve done something very bad. I bought a race car.” He had originally driven up to Lancaster, California to attend a motor home auction. Once he got there, he immediately noticed two fiberglass-bodied circle track race cars that were also at auction. No one bid on either car and Tim ended up with one for the ridiculous price of $3,500.

The car is an ’88 Monte Carlo body with a Port City Racecars chassis with a small-block Chevy 355ci, a Super T-10 four-speed, and a floater 9-inch in the rear with a three link. The car was complete except the valve covers and rocker arms were missing. I brought my trailer up but the car wouldn’t fit so we borrowed one from another friend and dragged the car home.

Somehow, I’ve become a minor partner in the car investing in several components. One of the first things we did was yank the engine and trans and that’s when we noticed that the input shaft to the transmission was nearly blue from heat. It didn’t look good and turned out it wasn’t. We eventually mocked up the existing bellhousing to check for alignment and discovered the bellhousing was off by over 0.070-inch! Since the spec is 0.005-inch, we knew we had a problem.

It turned out that the previous builder had stuffed a engine mid-plate between the bellhousing and the block but had not used longer bellhousing dowels. This bellhousing was just barely in touch with the dowel pins and eventually elongated the bellhousing holes. We ended up working with the guys at Quartermaster clutches with a whole new steel bellhousing and 7.5-inch clutch assembly. When we checked the Quartermaster bellhousing, it was only off by 0.003-inch! The clutch now works like a champ.

Tim eventually rebuilt the engine – after we invested in new JE pistons but the rest of it was all good with a very nice Cola steel crank, Manley steel rods, a decent mechanical roller and iron heads. The rest of the engine went back together pretty easily. Tim removed the spool and replaced it with a new 9-inch Eaton TruTrac gear style differential. Tim retained the 3.89:1 gears which seem to be working very well.

It wasn’t long before the car was back together but we didn’t have a trailer. So Tim found a company out in the desert who would build a trailer for him for a decent price if we supplied the axles. I bought the tires and soon we had this road racer and new trailer all figured out. The first couple of times we loaded the car on the trailer it took some work since the car is so low, but now we’ve got the drill down to almost a science.

Along the way with my investment, I’ve become the designate driver. A week ago we decided it was time to test the car just to see if anything would fall off. We loaded it up to my old GMC pickup and headed for the desert north of Los Angeles and out to Willow Springs Raceway. This is our closest road race course and soon we were unloading the car alongside some guys who were testing a spec V8 road racing Chevy pickup.

Our first laps were basically just to make sure nothing fell off and to watch the oil pressure and water temp. Climbing into the cockpit counted literally as roughly the fourth time I’d ever sat in the car and only the second time I’d fired the engine and let the clutch out. It immediately became obvious that you sit very low in these cars and it only took one lap to realize that there were two pretty important corner apexes on the track that I literally couldn’t see. I knew roughly where they were, but in the first six or eight laps they were hidden somewhere beyond the right front fender.

I learned after a few laps that if I jammed my left leg into the floor, I could push up slightly in the seat and see the apex, but this required me doing left foot braking, scooting up in the seat and steering in quick succession. We’re now working on making some seat inserts that will help raise me up in the seat so I can see a little better.

This was my first time around Willow in probably seven or eight years and the track is very fast with two long straights. The last turn is definitely intimidating as exiting Turn 8 requires patience to wait a long time before committing to Turn 9 to get it right. I think in my 10-12 laps I got it right once. Turn 9 is important because it leads to the long front straight. So exiting Turn 9 properly allows you to get on the throttle earlier. I have a long way to go before I’ll feel comfortable in getting that right. We pulled some acceptable lap times for a brand new car and inexperienced driver, hitting roughly 135 mph at the end of the front straight.

That was our second time out and I was frankly surprised that as of yet, we had experienced no difficulties. With our third shot out on the track, the issues immediately made themselves known. After a tire warmup lap, exiting Turn 1 I heard a pop and the power steering went away and within a few moments I could see faint smoke and could smell it as well. Our day was over when a power steering bolt loosened and jammed into the power steering pulley and immediately killed the belt. The oil smoke turned out to be a failed pinion seal on the rearend. It was really as we expected.

We didn’t break anything expensive, we kept the shiny side up and overall the car handled pretty well. This was my first experience on bias ply slicks and the grip is really great. The car seems to snap oversteer on hard corner entry and we haven’t even started working on dialing in the chassis. So for a couple of road racing rookies when it comes to tube chassis race cars, It went pretty well. There’s a new organization forming out here called V8 Road Racing West and we will probably participate in at least one of their races this year.

It’s great fun –banging gears at 6,500 rpm is a thrill. Tim wants me to take it to 7,000 next time out and we’re already planning our next test session. But I am still trying to figure out how I got involved with all this. I think it’s guilt by association.

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