In the first installment of this story you read that yes, somehow the team was able to get the car out on course for the start of the race, and to everybody’s surprise everything felt good. As previously mentioned, the car was performing quite well. Due to the LeMons standard “get everybody out on track then wave the flag” start procedure, we technically started in 47th position. With the Jeep’s new found handling abilities, I was able to slice my way through the field with alarming pace. At lap #10, we were in 29th overall…that’s 18 spots in 10 laps. Apparently the Jeep squeezed a can of Popeye spinach on lap four because I was able to get by 13 cars on that one lap alone.
I was having so much fun, I totally forgot it was a 24 hour endurance race. When I got the call from Rich McCoy (our dedicated talking-to-the -racecar-guy and general jack of all trades) that it was time to come in to swap drivers I was momentarily baffled…other drivers? When we pitted on lap 38, the Cherokee was in an amazing 8th place overall. Even though I was pouting over having to give up such a fun ride, I turned the car over to Dave Cole and gave the Cherokee a pat on the roof; good girl.
Dave went out and immediately showed that his experience in desert racing and rock sports also translated well to road racing. This was only his second time in the XJ (at the Sears Point race in March the motor let go early so his experience with the car was minimal) but his lap times certainly didn’t reflect it. He was only a couple seconds off the blistering pace I set, and that was probably because, unlike me, he was trying to save some for later…a much smarter approach. Unfortunately, yellow flags aren’t something one typically deals with in the desert, and because Dave slipped up a couple times and passed other cars under yellow flag conditions, the team spent some time in the penalty box. No worries, at this point our high-tech sophistication, preparation and pit strategy will make up for it:
Still, when it was Jesse Bauman’s (our Crew Chief and the guy we all look to when something needs to be fabricated) turn to get in the car we were sitting in 29th overall and third in class C. By lap 110, he had worked his way through the field back into 23rd, but it was then that disaster struck. I was sitting in the pits talking race cars with our pit-mates, the guys from the Model T-GT when I heard over the radio from Jesse: “Fudge, Fudge, Fudge!” (That’s not really what he said, but this is a family friendly blog) My heart sunk; Jesse is not prone to exaggerate…I knew something was bad. I waited a moment to call and calmly ask what had happened.
With a solemnity to his voice and what sounded like the weight of the Jeep on his shoulders he said, “I broke it. We’re done.” By this time I’d run out to the pit wall and could see the Jeep off course at turn one. Still trying to get a grip on what we were facing, I again asked Jesse what had gone wrong. At this point, I figured we were out of contention for a class win but hopefully we’d be able to get the car back out on track and finish. Busy dealing with the tow-truck guys it took a moment or two for Jesse to respond, “I hit reverse.” What?! He hit a car going off track backwards? Or…no, he couldn’t have…accidentally put the transmission in reverse? Yup.
I walked back to the pits and threw down my cowboy hat, ripped off my sunglasses and slumped down in a chair. Every eye in our pits were on me. “We’re out of it,” I told everybody. In my head I was doing the damage assessment and came back with this list: Transmission, drive shaft, ring gear in the axle, wheel studs, axle flange adapter, motor mounts, etc. I didn’t really know what we’d find, but I didn’t see a way to get back in the race. We had brought a spare 2WD transmission (quite rare), but nothing else on my worst case list. Nevertheless, we got the spare tranny out and ready to swap.
When the Jeep finally got towed in by the wrecker we noticed the axle was not where we left it. Almost before it was unloaded all the way, I had my head under the Jeep to inspect for damage…and I couldn’t find any. The leaf spring hangers hadn’t come off the frame (really just boxed sheetmetal because the XJ is unibody), the tranny wasn’t split in half and belching fluid, the drive shaft was still attached at both ends, everything looked okay. Amazingly, the only thing that was affected by the 85 mph accident and ensuing off pavement excursion was a single 5/16 bolt, the centering pin that keeps the individual leafs in their proper place in the pack.
With our spirits bouyed and help from paddock-mates Dave and Fish from the Model T-GT team, we tore into the leaf pack and quickly made a new centering pin. At one point we had a crowd of at least 20 people watching us, and 5 or 6 different teams all offered any help we might need. But within 25 frenetic minutes of the Jeep arriving in our pits, it was fueled, a new driver installed and our Cherokee was back out on track. Just under an hour for the entire pit stop…I was pretty proud of everybody at that moment. With veteran Petty Cash racer Tony Husted now at the wheel, I wandered off to relax and find something to eat. It was then that I realized we still had 19 hours of racing to do. What the hell had we gotten ourselves into?
Around dusk, Tony brought the car back into the pits to refuel and look things over as well as swap drivers. I’d be getting into the car again, and I was more than a little worried about being able to see and remember the long and complicated Reno-Fernley race circuit. The length and multitude of complex corners isn’t the only reason Reno was an interesting race track; there is also a herd of wild horses that occasionally makes it’s way through the grounds. And a large whore house only a few miles away. The mental image of small bands of prostitutes astride wild ponies wandering into a blind apex and getting plastered by a bright blue Jeep Cherokee road race car is one I’ll never be able to get out of my head.
You know what kicks ass? Racing at night!
After a couple hours, I again turned the car over to Dave Cole. Things were going so well in the night hours, I even slinked off to the trailer with the intention of taking a 20 minute cat nap…2 hours later I woke with a start to discover is was light out. Up until this point, I’d been awake for a few days with very little sleep and a lot of stress and exertion and it was beginning to show. I can’t describe how grateful I am to my entire team for ignoring my wishes and letting me sleep.
While I was having a vivid dream about hookers and wild horses, however, it began to rain. Then it began to snow. By the time I stumbled out of the trailer about 5:30, it had stopped snowing and was just cold and miserable. Despite my 20 degree rated sleeping bag, I was shivering. Some blessed soul slapped a cup of coffee in my hands and I started to get my bearings, just in time for me to get the radio call that Tony had looped the car going into turn one.
The fact that he hadn’t done it every lap was what was amazing; keeping the Cherokee from returning to its roots as a dirt borne racer takes a firm hand, and in the wet it’s damn near impossible to keep on pavement. He came into the penalty box and apologized to the Supreme Court Judge on duty, but LeMons staff had made an edict that if you go off track and you’ve been in the car for more than an hour, you’re out. So with a still respectable hour and a half under his belt, Tony turned the car back over to me…having just woken up. With a light drizzle falling and still shivering, I suited up and got belted into the car.
Tony claimed the Jeep was doing great in the rain…based on my two previous times driving the car in similar conditions I was incredulous at this. My experiences were a blend of terror and sheer terror; just so everybody is finally clear on this point, the Jeep is 2WD. As in, the back tires are the only ones that get power. And, no, the fact that it’s a Jeep has not historically helped it handle inclement conditions. To make matters worse, we’d been told that our new Falkens would try to kill us in the rain. Awesome. So it was with a reluctant and hesitant mind set I took to the track for the second to last stint of this epic adventure, my only goal to keep it between the white lines and not die.
To my utter and continuing astonishment, the Jeep was phenomenal. I can totally attribute this change in character to the new tires. Dear Reader: Stop what you’re doing. Go to a tire store. Buy a set of Falken Azenis RT-615Ks. Bolt onto whatever it is you drive. Profit.
For 2 hours and 48 minutes I had the drive of my life. There was literally not a single car I couldn’t keep up with, including the race leaders (though not for position, of course). There was nothing I asked the Jeep to do that it didn’t happily comply with and was an utter joy to drive, even more than in the dry. The now nearly bald rear tires (1000 race miles and 22 hours will do that) allowed more slip angle and gave the illusion that the 4.0 had enough power to kick the ass end out on demand. So much fun.
With the fuel finally expended and the motor coughing in high g-force corners, I reluctantly brought the Jeep into the pits and turned it over to Dave Cole to take us the rest of the way. For the next hour and 10 minutes, Dave stayed out of trouble and even passed the next car in the standings, the #66 Mustang of the Clueless Party Vikings. This put us in 14th overall, and second in class when the checkered flag fell at 10:02, 24 hours after the Jeep first took to the track. We’d done it; actually finished the race and not embarrassed ourselves in the process. Unfortunately given our sheer exhaustion, profundity was tough to muster and we were all just happy it was finally over.
We couldn’t help feel slightly let down; the Jeep had done so well, the team had performed amazingly, and yet we hadn’t won…anything. It was with this slight feeling of disappointment we made our way to the awards ceremony to watch the other teams get their trophies. Naturally, we were happy for all our fellow racers, especially Pete with his MGB finally winning Judges’ Choice and the twin engine MRolla taking home the Organizers Choice award. We were all standing together, mentally preparing for the long slog home when LeMons’ top official for the weekend Nick Pon started to describe the team who won the grand prize, the coveted Index of Effluence.
“This team has been racing in LeMons for a while now, in a truly terrible car not at all suited for road racing.” Okay…that describes most of the field.
Nick continued, “They come from a long ways away, but always come out and put on a good show and demonstrate a Lemony spirit. They overcame a pretty bad breakage to still finish well into the top of the field. Their car was startlingly quick, so fast that we even had other teams complain to us about it.” Could he be talking about us? Naw….
“We’re very happy to award Petty Cash Racing and their Jeep Cherokee the Index of Effluence!” And the crowd goes wild….
I can scarcely remember what happened next, except that my face nearly broke from smiling so wide and my back was sore from being slapped by our fellow racers…there was even a slight moistness near my eyes. This was the result of nearly three years of hard, thankless, often greasy work, the ultimate affirmation by our peers that we were doing a good job. It’s rare that I’m as totally surprised or at such a lack of words to accurately describe something. But there I was, holding onto the trophy, surrounded by friends, a bottle of Windex hanging out of my jacket pocket, teary eyed and overjoyed. For the first time in a week, I wasn’t tired.