Assorted Nuts from Rocket J. Squirrel

by Rocky Entriken on February 23, 2010

Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug.

Last year I had a fantastic season, five FTDs in 10 local events, regional driver of the year, yada yada       doo-dah doo-dah. This year? I can’t seem to get out of my own way.

But y’know what? That’s racin’.

I bought my ’64 Spitfire as a street car in 1966 when I was still in college at KU. It was great fun but developed a bad habit of breaking down every October, which was usually just about the time of the MiDiv Solo Championships. MiDiv was the first SCCA Division even to have a divisional solo championship and of course I had to be there.

After the third such breakdown, I limped the car back to Lawrence where my brother Buck had a repair shop, and also was into road racing with his MGA. That MGA, by the way, was the first car I ever drove in anger, back in ’65 when Buck lived in New York and was autocrossing every weekend somewhere in the NY metro area. I came home, bought the Spitfire, and the rest is 44 years of history.

Anyway, I told Buck to turn the Spitfire into a race car (and I bought a Pinto — my first-ever new car) and to go race it for a couple of years, then I’d take it back. Actually he raced it three years, took it to the Runoffs twice, then I got it back for $1500 — which was $200 more than I’d paid for it in the first place but still a bargain. Now I had a Real Race Car to take autocrossing.

By then I’d been autocrossing the Pinto, even took it to the first Solo Nationals and did a season of Showroom Stock road racing with it. Ex-wife got it in the divorce — I had to choose between two cars and I chose the Spitfire’s tow car.

But when I got the Li’l Blue back I also developed a basic philosophy for running a race car. It’s not a question of IF it will break down, but WHEN. Thing is, when you make these cars stronger, faster, meaner, you also make them more fragile. Things are taken out to the limit of their capability and it’s not that far from better to broken. You just hope the breakdown is not at one of the more inconvenient times — like in the middle of a 100 mph corner. Yeah, I’ve done that too, on the 4th gear Carousel turn at Memphis when the left-front suspension decided it didn’t want to suspend the car any more. Tow 11 hours to Memphis and then gotta figure out how to put the car on the trailer for the long tow home (ended up using someone’s used-up throwaway slick tire under the car in place of the suspension spring). Or like at the National Solo Championships.

This year [sigh] nothing but trouble from the get-go. First couple of local events it was niggling engine things. Chasing after it I found probably six or eight little — I mean, little — issues, any one of which would hardly slow me down but taken all together meant a car that just would not run right. That was the April and May events (since March got snowed out), and by June it was up to our Divisional already.

Okay it was finally running right and then POW! Blew the differential out at the Divisional. I mean, really blew it out. Ring gear had maybe four teeth left. Fortunately I had spares, which in this case meant the separate pieces to build a new one. Just happened to have a carrier the right size (takes the big axles). Just happened to have a couple of spare 4:55 gearsets I bought from Canley Classics in England when people on this side of the pond were saying they were flat unavailable.

Put a new rear end together and took the car to the Divisional in Neosho, Mo. — my longest tow of the season and oboy, I get to use a Divisional as a test session again.

Neosho turned out to be the high point of the year. Car ran great, I won the class and the points there meant I only really needed to start the Divisional finale in Lincoln, Neb., to win the MiDiv GP Championship.

So we tow up to Lincoln, but it’s still not running right. We re-set the valves (and I burn myself on a hot rocker arm). Second day the car seems to be running better until, just coming around the final turn on the second run, the engine goes blaaaaah. Passed on my final run and put it on the trailer. Still not sure what it was, but at that point I called my engine guy up in Michigan. He already had my other engine for a rebuild and told me earlier it was basically ready to go. Crate that sucker up! With two weeks between the Divisional and Nationals I got the new engine back and stuffed into the car. It’s supposed to be a little stronger too.

Back in Lincoln for Nationals, in the paddock I start it up, sounds good and strong. Go out for my first run on the first day, and I’m just going through the opening offsets and the engine’s roaring until … sudden silence. I’ve heard that sound (or lack thereof) before when I blew one up, but this time it was a simple fix. The rotor inside the distributor — the little springy thingy that spins around taking the spark from the coil wire and distributes it to the four sparkplug wires, had broken into four pieces.

Yes, again, I had a spare. Also replaced the distributor cap just to be sure, and went and did my last two runs (but apparently distracted enough by all the chasing back and forth between grid and paddock — glad I rented that golf cart! — I drove like a doofus and ended up next-to-last for the day. Yuck!

Okay, let’s do better on the second day. Lined up on the East Course, fired out and again the opening sequence was a series of offsets, then around a big 180 curve when blaaahhhhhh from the engine again. Not so easily diagnosed this time. I drove Bill Cutrer’s Fiat X1/9 on my last two runs. Always wanted to try Bill’s car. Very responsive. That was fun, the high point of the Nationals week, and managed to pull up three positions from the first day.

Back home I’m just too busy with post-Nationals work for SportsCar Magazine for two weeks to go look at the Spitfire. Thank you Bill Dayton for letting me drive your Cobalt, and thank you Dr. Swenson for letting me have a turn in your Miata.

Finally last weekend I have time to look under the hood. Called my engine guy a couple of times. Ran a compression check. Tried starting it with no luck. Then for some reason I touched the little “chopper” inside the distributor that interrupts the light beam that fires my electronic ignition. It was loose! Probably got knocked askew when my distributor rotor blew up.

Put it back on the distributor shaft tight, where it should be, rough timed the engine and hit the key. Varoooom!
(Sigh).

But that’s racin’. And worth it because when the Spitfire is running right, it’s a LOT more fun.

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