Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!
It rained again and the drizzle continued until we left the motel. This offered a very watery pit and a delay in the racing to dry out the track and the water coming up through the track expansion cracks.
While setting the valves, I saw a crack in the hardwelding on the #1 exhaust cam lobe. This crack went all the way across the lobe and then down to the base metal of the cam. This had the potential to come off and destroy the cylinder head. So into the trailer for another camshaft. Installing this required valve adjustments as did the intake cam need its usual resetting of the clearance shims. Finishing up the servicing, we got the call for first round of eliminations. We fired up the bike and something didn’t sound right. It was flat toned and idled much slower than normal on the warm-up alcohol. Switching to nitro only made it worse. Having just finished the valve work in the top of the motor I had this horrible feeling I may have messed something up, whether it was cam timing or installing an incorrectly labeled camshaft itself, even though it was all checked and rechecked. Talk about a stomach ache from worry!
We had no more time and had to get to the line on time. The huge break we got was that as #1 Qualifier in an odd numbered field we had a bye run that first round, meaning we ran alone. Running down the track to push back, I was waiting to see if by some chance the bike started running right, in which case the normal routine would ensue.
If not, all Sam had to do was stage the bike and break the beam at the starting line. Standing out there in the sun, I had a hard time seeing what was going on back in the waterbox, but as soon as the Mike pulled the alcohol away and Sam turned on the fuel, I could see it firehosing nitro out of the exhaust pipes. I stayed there and Mitch joined me in case he did go down the track, but then I saw Sam stop at the starting line and light the first staging light. Right then I knew I didn’t want to be in front of even a sick-running top Fuel Bike and headed for the sidelines and jumped over the retaining wall. The second bulb came on and there was a bit more thrashing about in the vicinity of the bike. As I walked by the starting line Sam had shut the fuel off and the motor was winding down. I looked at the starter and asked if Sam had broken the beam and he said yes. This was a very important factor because if he hadn’t, Sam would have needed to push the bike, unassisted, far enough to do so. I looked to Mitch to verify he saw the starter’s response and he head locking in our trip to the final round.
Once we got back to the pits, it was time to Sherlock out the cause of the poor running. After re-verifying the motor’s health with a leak-down test again, we needed to look at other sources of trouble. It had never sounded that way before and so we went after the ignition as the most likely culprit. Replacing the ignition coil and the primary control box (“points box”) we restarted it and it sounded the same, if not a little worse. Next was the magneto head itself. This required the removal of the exhaust to access it and the pipes being hot added yet another dimension to the fun. Restarting it after the swap sounded the same. Not having spare spark plug wires, we looked around and then remembered that Dennis Bradley, whom Sam had just finished a bike for was here with his bike right next door. Off they went to pillage and sack. Returning with the cap and wires, installation was yet another bust with it running more terribly still. Puzzling over things, I took the valve cover off the motor to verify the fact that I had put in an exhaust cam and that it was properly timed and valve clearance existed. You can imagine a mixed bag of feelings when I saw it was in fact correctly installed, but disappointed that it wasn’t the cause.
We grabbed a bit of lunch and cooled off and collected our thoughts. Mike Dryden was thinking a bit and then asked Delvin Clark if there was any boost when running the bike today. Delvin checked the data and replied “no”. Mike then closed his eyes and revisited the starting and running earlier that day. He then said he didn’t remember the normal humming and vibration the bike made during the warm-up. Pulling the blower belt off and spinning the input pulley had no resistance, where there would normally be at least some. Off came the blower drive to inspect it. Lo and behold, the shaft came out in two pieces!! The next challenge was replacing it, as Sam didn’t have a spare, as it normally is not a wear item. On closer inspection, the failure occurred where the shaft was necked own to the minor diameter of the drive splines, and there we discovered a sharp internal edged, making for an extremely effective stress riser (like scribing glass for breaking). This was a part that we were assured was “bulletproof”. So much for that.
Once again, Dennis was gracious enough to provide the needed parts and luckily Sam made the two interchangeable. Off to Dennis’ truck (which by now was mighty hot!) to pillage and sack one more time.
Returning with the part, we installed it and then felt the expected resistance when turning it over. Belt installed and tensioned, a squirt of lube in the blower gearbox and then everyone held their breath………..
Cranking it up we were rewarded with the right idle speed, requisite hum and when switched to nitro, the usual canopy-lifting result from tapping the throttle!!
A last process of clutch tuning and changing the oil after all the unburned fuel that had gotten into it, and we were ready to go.
I have to thank Larry and Steve McBride at this time for their help and support. As our opponent in the final, they could have pushed for an earlier time to race, but waited until we were ready. Their offer of any parts needed was yet another example of their and other Top Fuelers’ sportsmanship.
Getting to the starting line, a last adjustment of tire pressure and frame air pressures and down the track I went. I knew there would be a push back this time.
On startup, the familiar thunder of the beast echoed out of the cross-over bridge. Larry fired up and the burnout processes began. Sam came out first and Mitch and I caught him and pushed back to the starting line. We were in our preferred left lane, and Larry was in his right side lane choice as his previous round e.t. beat our break the beam.
Pushing back it was all adrenaline as the heat was taking its toll on everyone.
Sam rolled up, lighting the first stage light, Larry following suit. Then the second bulbs were lit by both, a flash of yellow and out they went. I held my breath, waiting for smoke to come from our rear tire. The blower was spinning 8% faster due to the lack of pulley choices and it was a gamble as to whether the arm weight adjustment and Mike’s careful attention to plate clearance was going to be enough.
After what seemed forever, Sam was 150 feet down track and still no smoke. Larry came into view and suddenly…… smoke! It started, Larry snapped the throttle shut to try and recover, but Sam was just plain gone. The 6.22 @ 234 and change wasn’t earth shattering, but it was enough.
The funny squelching sound is someone walking around on the starting line area. It is sticky enough to pull your shoes off sometimes.
The relief on the crews’ faces was visible.
The end of a long week end, hot thrashing, and a superb result. Waiting by the trailer it was all cheers for Sam on the bike as he rolled to a stop, clearly spent. Mike and Mitch gave him the water bottle “champagne bath” and then we started the debriefing for data and feedback. A lot of oil had come out of the blower drive and coated the right side of the bike and Sam, so it may have had a bearing issue or a bit too much oil in it. Cleaning off the bike for the Winner’s Circle photos was the next item and it took a while to do that as the oil blew all over.
Getting everyone and the bike cleaned up took a bit of time, but you know, it’s worth it. You can see in the photos, everyone was pretty happy.
The load up to travel home always takes twice as long as the unload and twice the effort. Staying until it’s done is important, as errors here can destroy a lot of stuff bouncing around in the truck and trailer. It was getting dark, but I saw Sam sitting in the back of the golf cart looking at the sunset and he certainly looked tired and peaceful. I let him sit while I gathered up the waste oil pans (another delightful task) and then went over. He looked at me and I mentioned what a huge step the clutch program took at this race and he was agreeing. Guardedly optimistic, I mentioned Rockingham and he said that a good showing there could segue into a successful season. I couldn’t agree more.
So off I went to clean the oil drain equipment and dump the oil. It was waaaaaay down by the finish line and I pulled up in front of the huge tank. It was then that the lid slid off the top of the pan and one of the cans of cleaner blooped into the oil. Nice.
Returning to the trailer it was the last of the load-up and as it went completely dark the big white semi headed back to the motel and we headed home, 11 hours away.
Rockingham is the next race, in September and then six days later I hop in the truck and to BONNEVILLE we go.
This week I heard news from the Bonneville test and tune that motorcycle streamliner pilot Sam Wheeler was killed in a testing accident on the salt. I had talked with a crewman of his at the Memphis race and Sam was really anticipating this event. Godspeed Sam. This news helps keep in perspective the danger involved for any type of exceptional endeavor, whether on the asphalt or salt, and thoughts always go through your mind on the starting line.
Cheers to all!