How to (mostly) Build a Racecar in Two Weeks!

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Petty Cash Racing is certainly a Jeep-centric organization (I use that word loosely), but at the end of the day we’re just petrol heads and car enthusiasts. Which bring us to how a BMW 325i came to have our logo emblazoned along its flanks, and the beginning of this story. A couple years ago I towed our #430 Cherokee out to Denver for a 24 Hours of LeMons race, a not insignificant 1400 miles each way. I did this because my sister and her family live out there and her husband and their teenage boys are also car geeks. A race trip and family get together all in one? Perfect!

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As predicted, everybody had a great time and my brother-in-law, Kevin, was bitten by the racing bug. This was all part of my plan, of course. If I could get Kevin to build a car in Denver, it would save me having to drag my car back and forth every year. And, well, more cars is always good, right? After the June ’12 High Plains Raceway event, the talk got serious and we delved into the fun conversation of “what kind of car should we build?”

The obvious answer was another Cherokee, but Kevin wanted something “fast,” even though #430 finished 6th overall at the previous Denver race. He wasn’t interested in the odd-ball cars that LeMons attracts, he didn’t want to have to reinvent the wheel (though he is a very talented engineer), he “just wanted to go fast.” His mind immediately went towards the big hp V8 powered Detroit cars, Mustangs and Camaros.

While it is possible for either one of these platforms to be very fast on a LeMons budget, they’re rarely reliable at that pace. I gently steered him away from the thundering V8 options and towards a platform that is hugely represented in LeMons, and for good reasons. The BMW e30 series of cars (318i, 325e, M3, etc) was sold in huge numbers in various guises all over the world from 1982 through 1994. The aftermarket support is massive as is the knowledge base and they’re just plain fun to drive.

With that settled, we began the hunt for the pick of the e30 litter, a late model 2-dr 325is. Months of scouring Craigslist finally yielded fruit (lemon joke), a 1989 325i 2-dr. The body was straight, though it had a salvage title from hail damage and a theft at one point in its life…and it didn’t run. Still, for $350 we had our shell. I figured we’d toss in a junkyard motor, sell off some of the interior (check out the bitchin’ seat covers!) to offset the cost, slap some paint on it and go racing. So I flew home to Seattle.

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Over the next few months Kevin and I corresponded about various cars he was finding on Craigslist, what basic modifications we would need to do to the race car to get it track ready, etc. It was only when I flew to Denver to spend Christmas with them that I realized I might have created a monster. Rather than buy a junkyard engine, he’d purchased 4 other e30s as parts cars. Here was the sight I was greeted with:

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Oh God, what have I done? Kevin claimed they were just “too good of a deal to pass up! I even got the convertible for free!” Turns out in my absence and left to his own devices Kevin had tapped into some hitherto unknown hoarder personality. But, he was right, we did have all the spare parts we would need, and true to accurate LeMons budgeting he was selling off unneeded parts to offset our costs. He traded a gas tank and a front fender (which the buyer never bothered to pick up) for a set of cheapo lowering springs. The rest of the family was less enthusiastic (okay, that’s not true…the boys loved having a fleet of BMWs, it was my Sister, Shannon, who was beginning to get suspicious).

To boost morale, we spent a day cannibalizing the fleet and turned one car into something less horrible. The battery was held down with plumbers strap (sticking through the body work), it had no rear bumper, just the shock posts sticking out like automotive Punji sticks, and BFG Radial T/As that were older than me. To top things off, it was an ’86 325es, the gutless “economy” model, saved only by the “s” in the name indicating a limited slip diff. We took it to High Plains Raceway for a track day to get everyone in the family some passenger-seat time and reinvigorate the race car passion. We got some strange looks in the paddock with our super-hooptie Bimmer, but it ran around the track all weekend, albeit 4-5 laps at a time before the brakes would fade away completely. The nautical levels of body roll made it pretty fun to throw around on track. Getting point-bys by track day heroes in newish sporty cars was highly satisfying.

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Befitting a several hundred dollar car, some Hoonage was in order on deserted farm roads on the way home from the track:

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I flew back home a couple days after the outing to the track with the admonishment to Kevin that it was time to stop buying cars and start building the one we were planning to race in 6 months time. If you’ve ever built a race car, you know how quickly your heavily padded schedule can disappear. All of a sudden 6 months turns into 6 weeks…and the car is still sitting on jack stands. So it was when I returned to Denver 5 months later, three weeks before the race to oversee the final race prep. Here is the (still not running) car I found in the shop:

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No big deal, all it needed was brakes, wheels, tires, a roll cage, kill switch, a gauge cluster, seat, steering wheel, paint, decals, exhaust and a thousand other details. Pretty standard. After a weekend in the garage banging our heads against the wall hunting down loose or broken connectors (Pro Tip: It’s good to race a car you’re already familiar with), we finally got it running…exactly 13 days before it would make its debut on the track.

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I admit, it doesn’t look like much, and certainly not like a track weapon milled from enriched Cheatonium-430 (this is an element we made up; all e30 racers get accused of cheating because the cars are so easy to make fast, so we just owned it from the beginning). Next step would be the cage. With only a couple weeks until the race, we turned to our friends at DSquared Racing to bail us out. They said, “Sure! Bring us some tube and we’ll whip something together for you!” So I did, using the only vehicle available to me, an early ’90s Nissan pickup. This is not its intended role.

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To say that is was terrifying is a putting it mildly. But a few days later, we had a car with a cage in it. Next step, making it look like a race car.

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Just because it’s a $500 car doesn’t mean it has to look like a heap of crap. Further, this BMW was going to serve as more than just a racecar; the plan all along is to keep it street legal so it can be driven to the track for lapping days, to car shows, to work, who knows. So making it look decent was up there on the priority list. Now, before everybody grabs pitchforks and torches, here’s the “paint booth” we sprayed the car in. I assure you, it was very LeMony:

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The first of the Petty Blue going on.

The first of the Petty Blue going on.

Finally, a glimpse at what all the hard work will pay off as.

Finally, a glimpse at what all the hard work will pay off as.

With a week to go, things start to get tricky. Our original plan was to get a set of Falken Azenis RT-615Ks that would fit the stock “Bottlecap” 14″ wheels, but after a call to Falken, we found out they were on back order. Oh well, we had wanted to go to 15″ wheels anyway, but hadn’t really budgeted for that expense. I made a call to 425 Motorsports, a PNW based speed shop that supplies Petty Cash Racing with all of our safety gear, to ask for advice. They pointed us in the direction of Team Dynamics Racing 15×7 wheels. These wheels are very popular in spec racing because of their affordability and light weight, and I think they look great. We were lucky to get the last 6 in the Western US.

They arrived on Tuesday before the race, and the 205/50R15 Falken Azenis’ arrived Wednesday. We’ve been running these tires on the #430 Jeep for a couple years and have been amazed at their grip, longevity, predictability and wet weather performance. We’re true believers. A run into the local Les Schwab tire shop and they were mounted and balanced.IMG_0767

We were also very lucky to get connected with BBD Graphics so we could get the car’s numbers and associated stickers. Tammy at BBD was great to work with; I already had some of the graphics files and I knew what I wanted the car to look like, but I needed a pro to put it all together for me. Tammy worked through the night to get us what we needed (and team shirts!) in just two days. Putting the stickers on the car is always a special time, because it’s when everything comes together, it’s the payoff. And boy, did it pay off!

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Finally Thursday evening, we were ready (ok…not really, but it was time to leave) so Kevin saddled up in the very graciously loaned Samuel Engineering 1/2 ton pickup towing a camp trailer and began the 100 mile drive to the track. I would be driving the race car there, and hopefully, back.

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Kevin and I camped outside the gates of the track and took our first deep breaths in weeks, aided by a little Burbonium (as we came to call our favorite booze, Bookers). Friday morning came sooner than we hoped (“did we really watch ‘Days of Thunder’ last night?”), but the car still needed to pass tech and we wanted to put some track miles on it to sort out any last minute bugs.

I tested the car in the morning open track session, and somehow wound up in the “fast group.” This included an ex-Ferrari Challenge F430 and some other six-figure weapons-grade cars. The Bimmer held its own against some much faster machinery. At noon the track went cold for lunch and we headed to Lemons Tech Inspection to see if we’d crossed all of our i’s and dotted all of out t’s. Further, we’d be going through “BS Inspections,” the time when the LeMons Supreme Court decides rather arbitrarily if you’ve exceeded your $500 allotment. To distract them from all of our cheatiness, we put together a spread of my family’s famous shredded beef tacos.

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The car passed tech inspection and was fairly assessed as being in “A-Class” with no penalty laps. We were quite pleased with ourselves as Friday came to a close. In the late afternoon the track went cold and we cracked the beers, just in time for our 4th driver and secret weapon to arrive from the airport. Anton Lovett is a name anybody in LeMons knows, because he is the single most experienced LeMons racer in the series’ history with something like 38 races under his belt. We recruited him to drive with us both for his speed and his never-say-die attitude; he’s an asset to any team that lists him on their roster.

We woke up Saturday morning with an attitude that if we just didn’t screw up, we might just be able to win this thing. I would get in the car for the first few hours, then pass it over to Anton. After that we would be rotating in our two rookie drivers, Kevin the builder and Russell, Kevin’s 19 year old son and my nephew. Things did not go as planned. I’ll now rattle off a list of the things that went wrong in no particular order, followed by lots of pics of us in the pits wrenching on the car:

-Lost freeze plug on track, replaced with one from a blown engine from another team at the track; we used JB weld to hold it in
-This resulted in chronic over heating all weekend
-Factory LSD began making more and more noise
-Wheel studs kept backing out
-Wheel bearing dust cover came loose and began to spray grease, requiring a bubble gum and pop can fix
-Driver side camber plate kept loosening up
-Airbox fell off
-Clogged fuel filter
-Lower radiator hose
-Upper radiator hose
-Both motor mounts
-Both trans mounts
-Carrier Support Bearing
-Steering wheel bolts backed partly out
-Steering wheel disconnect bolts backed partly out
-Seat came slightly loose from slider
-Seat slider came loose and wouldn’t lock in place

I’m sure there was more, but it’s all a blur. We’d go out for 4 laps and something else would go wrong. Then 30 minutes on track, then back in and an an hour to fix something else. But we kept at it, all day Saturday until we lost the driveshaft carrier support bearing surround; this failed because the two brand new motor mounts sheared off, taking the trans mounts and CSB. This was a weekend-ender.

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Literally a bubble gum and bailing wire kind of weekend.

Literally a bubble gum and bailing wire kind of weekend.

Our "custom" motor mounts.

Our “custom” motor mounts.

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If you wave your hands around, it makes you look like you know what you're talking about

If you wave your hands around, it makes you look like you know what you’re talking about

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That's a look of determination if I've ever seen one

That’s a look of determination if I’ve ever seen one

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Kevin was starting to get a little loopy towards the end

Kevin was starting to get a little loopy towards the end

That is, until Kevin drove the 200 mile round trip back to the pile of parts cars to scavenge a new CSB, which he cut out with a torch. We manufactured new solid motor mounts using a Sawzall, cutoff-wheels, 1/2″ drills and random bolts, and the trans was literally bailing-wired in place. We got all this done in time to take the green flag Sunday morning. Amazingly, Sunday went nearly perfectly! We turned laps all day and dragged ourselves out of the bottom of the standings, our fast lap times were within a couple seconds of the fastest cars leading the race. This bodes well for the future of this car.

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Despite all the setbacks, we were able to take the checkered flag and we weren’t DFL. Here’s a video of me expressing my enthusiasm on our cool-down lap:

And here’s the team celebrating in our usual Petty Cash style, a post-race spray down with cheap beer:

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We were very happy to have finished a 15 hour race, especially in a new car essentially built in two weeks. And the car would be driving home under its own power, with no race rash, no damage, etc. The triumphant crew:

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Now for the icing on the cake; despite finishing down in the standing from where we expected, the sheer enormity of and volume of failures we’d had to overcome in order to finish earned us the coveted “Heroic Fix” award. Words don’t express the pride in the whole family/team effort.

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Our hard-earned trophy.

Our hard-earned trophy.

We turned 610 miles on a race track all said and done between three days, about half as many as we’d hoped. But just like our team motto instructs, we’re staying flexible. Semper Gumbi; the next race will have a different, more positive outcome in terms of finishing order, but it’s hard to imagine a better ending to our first race with the Cheatonium-430 Bimmer.

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3 Responses to How to (mostly) Build a Racecar in Two Weeks!

  1. Sabrina Hill says:

    Your in car footage looked real smooth.

  2. Ray Stanier says:

    Great story guys! Quite an inspiration. Can’t wait to hear more stories from the team.

  3. Max Duda says:

    Awesome! I love the new car guys.

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