Well, for the fourth year in a row, I ventured to NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky for the Optima Search for the Ultimate Street Car event. This is event is a must-do for the pro-touring community in this area. It typically sells out in hours, thanks to the central location and the quality of the facility.
Longtime followers of this blog will know I’ve had my share of issues at this track:
2016 – electrical issues fried the ECM and my fans, left at end of Day 1
2017 – Completed the event, 10th in GTV
2018 – Completed the event, but had transmission issues, 9th in GTV
2019 – ??? Keep reading!
So, here we go again. After picking my crew chief up from school (I took the rig through the car-rider line at the school!), we had a completely uneventful tow down to the track from our home base in Louisville. NCM is just 100 miles door-to-door from my house, which makes this an easy trip.
Once we got there, we unloaded the car, had it tech’d, checked in, and then promptly got really wet. A small cell unloaded on the track. The wind blew the unlatched trunk open and filled it with water. It was a mess.
Thankfully, this would be all the rain we got for the rest of the weekend. The weather for the remainder of the event was fantastic. Mid 80s, mostly sunny. None of the oppressive heat and humidity we usually find at this location this time of year. It was absolutely wonderful. Whatever Chinese Weather Hoaxer Jimi Day hired for the weekend delivered the goods.
The only real changes to the car since my first few autocross events was slightly softer rear springs and new front upper control arms. The 250lb AFCOs I put in over the winter turned out to be too stiff. The rear end wasn’t biting like it should because the weight wasn’t transferring. So I swapped in a set of 200lb AFCO coils, and I adjusted the Watts Link to compensate for the lower ride height.
I also replaced my Delrin-bushed upper control arms with a new set of rod-end equipped UMI Performance upper control arms, since I kept melting the Delrin out of the my old arms. The new arms allowed me to get 7.3 degrees of caster in the front!
Saturday, as always, is autocross, Design and Engineering, and the Road Rally. No mistake about it, Saturday was a good day. The rear end changes worked. My first run I clicked off a 31.407, which launched me into third in GTV. By the end of the day, I had slipped to 7th as others managed to find more time. That said, my best of a 30.551 was just 1.937s behind the first place car. Being within a cone penalty of first is never a bad place to be. I was doing well enough the MAVTV crew put cameras on my car for two runs, so stay tuned for when the TV show for this event comes out, there could be some swell footage.
The coolest part, though was my crew chief. Armed with an infrared thermometer and a notebook, she dutifully took my tire temps each time I got back to grid. The data allowed us to fine tune the pressures until we were reading within 3 degrees across the tread on all four tires. That’s never been possible for me before. I always ended up with the outside of the tire 15-20 degrees hotter than the rest because the suspension just couldn’t keep the front tire contact patch level to the ground.
They’re running level now. The tire wear during the weekend appears to have been completely even across all four tires. This is going to pay huge dividends as the year moves on. Fewer flips required, and overall longer tire life should be in my future.
Design and engineering was as D&E always is. I came prepared with a list of mods to talk about. This year they extended the format: instead of two minutes to yap, we got four. This presented some challenges regarding scheduling, as each car took longer than last year. I delivered my spiel and got all the way through the list with nine seconds to spare. Then I hopped into my car and drove straight to the autocross course just in time for my last two runs. I cut it close, and was rewarded with… not going faster. Doh.
In the end, I scored pretty well considering this event attracts the best of the best. 17th in class, and looking at the results, the cars ahead of me were nicer. Better paint, more doo-dads in the interior, cleaner engine bays (’80s car, way too many hoses), and junk in the trunk (my trunk score was by far my weak spot, maybe I need to replace the spare tire with a righteous subwoofer box?).
The Road Rally was just dandy, out to the Holley Headquarters and back. Except the car was running really low AFRs, and the map signal was too high. Hallmarks of a vacuum leak. Nevertheless, the ECUGN adapted, kept the car running well, and got us back to the track, where I quickly found the line going to the charcoal canister had come off. A little tape to hold it in place later and all was well again.
We ate dinner at the FireAde welcome party, and headed back to the hotel to collapse.
Then came Sunday. Sunday has always been a challenge, because this platform was never meant to go through what Sunday at an Optima event puts a car through. The Speed Stop? Eight runs of WOT starts, a 180 degree turn, and then a hard stop inside a box. For a streetlight bruiser like the Grand National, it should be easy, right? Nope. It’s never easy. Speed stop makes things break on my car. This year turned out to be no different.
And then there’s the road course segment. Thrilling and terrifying all at the same time. I have moved up into Intermediate A from Novice this year. Faster group. I planned to hang out at the back while I feel the car out.
Speed Stop? My first runs were respectable. Then on the second batch the car bogged badly once it got into boost. Back in the pits, I heard this horrible ticking sound and my stomach dropped.
Alas, it was simple. One of the spark plug wires had come off the coilpack. The tick was the arc from the terminal to the freely hanging plug wire end. Easy fix. Back out.
The third batch resulted in my best times of the day. I fiddled with the launch control and found out I could get it off the line harder doing it myself, so that feature will need some tuning. The TCS was also a bit too aggressive, causing a backfire a couple of times. I made some minor adjustments to it during the day that appeared to have dialed that out.
But then the intake tube slipped out of the coupler. I slipped it back in and tightened all the clamps. It stayed for duration of the event.
On to the road course.
I wish I could say I was the hero this year. But I wasn’t. Our first session was black flagged due to another guy spinning. As soon as I hit pit road, the transmission temperatures spiked due to lack of airflow, so I went ahead and went back to paddock. Sadly, we were flagged before we’d even crossed the finish line, so I didn’t get a lap the first session.
The second session, I ran a 2:34.8. Essentially identical to last year. My transmission warning light work perfectly and came on at 200F, and into the pits I went.
The third session was much the same. Managing the throttle a little better resulted in lower transmission temps, so I was hoping to go for more laps. I thought I was smoother, but I wimped out heading into turn 6 and wasn’t aggressive enough with the braking in turns seven and ten, so I went slower. Midway through the second lap, I didn’t like the oil pressure numbers I was seeing. So I pitted and put it on the trailer.
Further examination of the data later that night showed what was happening:
As the car warmed up during the session oil pressure fell off nearly linearly. Not cool. All my confidence in the car evaporated. The fact the pressures come right back up as it cools down indicates there’s likely nothing seriously wrong. Either the oil is thinning out too much, bearings have some wear and the clearances are opening up too far, the pump cavity itself is expanding with the heat and increasing the clearances, or possibly a combination of all of those.
All told, I only had three timed laps on the road course Sunday, which was disappointing.
Overall, I ended up 12th in GTV out of 22. Which isn’t the top ten I was hoping for, but I didn’t have the Sunday I was hoping for, either.
But the event overall? Fantastic. The FM3 crew pulled it off once again. Well run. Everything stayed on schedule, everybody had a good time. I even saw people with broken cars still smiling, which is a hard thing to do. These events are something to behold.
My next major event is the Bristol Match Tour at Bristol Motor Speedway the first week of July. Before then, I’ll need to drop the pan and inspect the bearings and replace if they’re showing wear, and I think I’ll install a high-volume gear set in the oil pump.
The one good thing is all this instrumentation allowed me to see this. This won’t turn into an engine out overhaul. Hopefully.
That bad thing is I think this car might be done with track work. It’s been a four year effort, and I can say that tracking one of these with the V6 is possible, but it’s hard work, and it’s expensive, and the oiling system really isn’t up to the task at the end of the day. To really survive, this thing needs a dry sump with an external pump and a lot more holes in the hood for cooling, and I’m not sure I’m up to the additional effort and expense right now. We may pivot away from the track work and focus on autocross for the rest of the year. Stay tuned!