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Friday, August 9 2013 – The Tow and Arrival

Me: “We’re out of gas.” 

Dad: “What?”

“We just ran out of gas. We’re coasting.”
I start to aim for the shoulder and squeeze on the brakes.

“No no no. keep going we’re almost there and it’s all downhill!”

“Ok.”

Here we are, ~12,000lbs of truck, trailer, and racecars coasting north on Rt. 7A with Arm-Strong power steering and Leg-Strong power brakes. We roll ‘round a bend in the road and there’s the tollhouse parking lot for Mt. Equinox within our reach! As we coast closer, we see that the parking lot is blocked by other vehicles and so we aim for the shoulder across the street. There’s plenty of room to park but slowing it all down without power-assist is a little iffy, even at our reduced speed.

“Wow.”

“Yeah, wow.”

“That worked out well.”

“Yup.”

You may have noticed, Dad and I don’t have to say much to get our point across. We’ve worked and played together for so long that grunts, sighs, and mumbled half-words, are enough to convey whole complex situations. What we understand from the conversation above is that the 9-7X really means business when it tells you that you are low on fuel. Ignore it at your own peril. Especially when towing two racecars through mountainous terrain, mostly uphill.

It is a portentous beginning to a weekend that had an uncertain couple of weeks leading up to it. We’d been struggling to repair the air conditioning in the 1995 GMC Suburban that is our primary tow vehicle. We ended up waiting on parts delivery and it wasn’t ready in time. Our backup plan for towing to the Vintage Sports Car Club of America’s 2013 Mt. Equinox Hillclimb was Dad’s Saab 9-7X. It has the power and the brakes to handle the double-decker trailer with two cars on it, but it struggles a bit in the stability department because the wheelbase is short-ish and the assemblage being towed weighs more than the vehicle towing it. Still, we figured it was do-able.

It was. It handled the tow better than expected except in the singular department of fuel mileage. That was a little bit of a surprise.

We did arrive safely, if only just.

I walked across the street and found some friends. Yes, that is our rig parked perfectly over there but also yes, it is out of gas, and yes, we coasted the last mile and a half, and of course yes we would appreciate a ride to the gas station and oh by the way did anyone happen to have an empty fuel can?

An hour or so later we were all set. The cars were unloaded and parked under our canopy and the 9-7X had 2.5 gallons of fresh fuel in it. We’d brought Dad’s two best hillclimbing cars. His 1959 Lotus 7 and his 1968 SAAB Sonett. We have run both cars here in the past and we know they are good up the hill.

It was time to eat and meet so we jumped into Dad’s 1959 Lotus 7 and drove to the top of the mountain to take part in the opening festivities at the newly constructed visitor’s center. We enjoyed wine and hors d’oerves, got reacquainted with old friends, and explored the new visitor’s center. There is a corner of the building dedicated to the hillclimb, originally run in 1950 and having been run by the VSCCA since 1973. There’s a picture on the wall that was taken last year (2012) on the summit of the mountain. It shows the folks who made it to the top on the final day and there’s me and my Dad in the photo! When I consider the cars and the famous drivers who have raced and there in years past I am overwhelmed by the privilege of inclusion in this place of honor.

The place of honor

Saturday, August 10 - Day 1 of Racing

The weather on the mountain is splendid on Saturday morning and the paddock is soon engulfed in the roar of race engines from the early 1920’s up through the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 1960’s. Soon enough Ben Bragg puts the hammer down in the Old Grey Mare and leaves two spanking new burnout marks on the start line. Things are truly underway!

My runs go so-so. I’m reminding myself about the rhythm of the mountain and paying attention to where the bumps are, and if they have moved over the winter. The Sonett is struggling through some of the corners. Something isn’t right with the fuel pressure and its relation to the fuel’s action in the carburetor float bowl. The engine wants to die in the middle of the corner after braking hard and turning in. I can’t tell if the engine is choking on too much fuel or gasping for a lack of it? The symptoms are the same either way. It will pick back up if I leave my foot on the gas and wait, but it certainly isn’t helping my progress up the hill.

On my first run, in the heaviest breaking area after the fastest sector of course, I hit the brakes HARD. The nose dives. The rear end comes unglued. The back of the car is suddenly going faster than the front. I automatically dial in all the counter-steer I have but quickly realize I’ve completely lost it. I’m still going straight up the road, so I pull it out of gear (I can’t hit the clutch because I use left-foot-braking in this car) and hit the brakes as hard as I can to lock all four wheels. After 270 degrees of rotation I end up stationary, completely blocking the road, and looking out into the woods. The engine is still running so I put it in reverse, then 1st, then reverse again, then back to 1st and finally (the road is very narrow here) I take off back up the hill. The car is fine but I think I will adjust the brake bias a little more to the front all the same.

Once back at the bottom of the mountain I try to fix the fuel and carburetion issue. I reduce the fuel pressure a little after each run and make things better, if not perfect. I don’t really want to pop the top off the carb and get into the fiddly bits right now. My sense is that it safer, meaning that I am less likely to make things worse, to stick with simple and quick adjustments.

The rest of my runs go smoothly and get better and better. My Dad’s runs also go smoothly and he is starting to knock on the door of the 5-minute barrier. Saturday's runs are over and we are more than ready for the customary food, drink, and festivities at Johnny Seesaw’s.

We sit at a table with a mix of old and new friends. Some of them have been running this mountain for decades, while another is attending his very first hillclimb. The newcomer is asking all sorts of questions about how to drive his car (a 1959 Lotus Elite) on this mountain. In the process of explaining to him what he can do differently, I end up analyzing my own approach and giving some serious thought to how I might do better. I’m fairly certain that getting under the milestone 5-minute mark will be out of my reach. I have about 5 seconds to pick up and that feels like a lot. 

Still, thinking it through, given the running issues I’ve been fighting and also my car’s lack of “grunt” compared to the Corvette that was holding the fast time at the conclusion of Saturday, I am convinced that apex and corner exit speed is the key to improving my time. My usual late-braking technique is very handy for passing on a road circuit, but on this mountain it doesn’t buy you very much. Good cornering speed and a smooth exit translates directly into higher straightaway speeds. After a few beers, some champagne, and some desert, I decide that I have a plan.

To implement the plan I will have to maintain a higher mid-corner speed. I will have to get on the power earlier in the corner. Finally I have to be extremely careful about wheelspin as I exit the corner. The Sonett does not have a limited slip differential so the way to moderate wheelspin is through a sensitive right foot and by getting the wheels turned straight up the hill as soon as possible. Given the bumpy road surface and extreme incline of most of the turns, this is a tricky plan to put into practice. The Sonett’s soft, compliant suspension and significant front weight distribution does work in my favor though.

Sunday, August 11 - Final Attempt

My first run goes well, improving my time a little bit over my best from Saturday, but I am still trailing the Corvette. Dad’s time also improves and is very near to the 5 minute mark. For our second runs, Dad takes off three cars ahead of me. A few minutes later the next car leaves. I roll closer to the start line and can hear the radio communications with the corner workers on the mountain from where I wait. As the last car in front of me races off up the hill I start to hear some worried voices over the radio. 

Car #37 is “missing” and hasn’t passed by the final corner station on the mountain. It isn’t visible from any of the corner stations and they don’t know where it is. It seems like the finish line radio isn’t working and other radios are having difficulty understanding messages. From where I am sitting I can tell that communication is breaking down. They tell me to wait but I’ve already switched off the engine because I can tell they are having difficulty and the noise from the Sonett’s straight exhaust isn’t helping matters any.

Our friend Cynthia Baker comes over with an umbrella to shield me from the sun, put a hand on my shoulder, and wait out the suspense with me. They tell the corner workers at station 10 to start walking up the mountain and from station 11 to start making their way down until they find car #37. Some of the people working the radios down here at the start know that #37 is my Dad, but others don’t realize the significance and of course the folks up the hill have no way of knowing that I can hear the whole radio conversation. This is one of those things that happens in racing. A car doesn't come around the next lap or doesn't pass the next checkpoint, and no one knows why. You wait. There's nothing else you can do.

Maybe my sense of time was a little warped by the tension but I think it took about 10 minutes to confirm that yes indeed car #37 was pulled over by the side of the road between stations 10 and 11. The driver was OK, had been given a bottle of water, and wanted to know if he could get a tow to the top of the mountain. The car appeared OK but had no drive.

“Phew!” Now I have to settle back into my routine. I have to get into the state of mind where I concentrate only on the run up the mountain and think of nothing else. I do my best, but I can tell I’m just a touch “off”. I improve my time yet again but it isn’t a big improvement and it isn’t enough to beat the Corvette's time. At the top of the mountain I get to talk to my Dad. He tells me something in the driveline broke. We don’t know if it is the gearbox, driveshaft, differential, or what? You can move the shift lever through all the gears and there are no grinding noises when you roll the car forward and back, but there is also no resistance to rolling it back and forth when it is in gear. Something has definitely snapped.

Dad's Lotus, prior to something going snap

When we return to the bottom of the mountain, David Baker (Cynthia’s husband) offers to let my Dad drive his Lotus 7, as he is curious how it compares to my Dad’s. David’s 7 has a completely locked read differential and a higher 1st gear than my Dad’s car, so David tells him that he MUST spin the tires on takeoff to avoid bogging the engine down. I walk over to get a good view of the start line so that I can watch Dad deal with the unfamiliar car… Plenty of wheelspin and a clean takeoff. No problem!

I ready myself for a final attempt. I’m still not really considering that a sub-5 minute time is within my reach, but several people give me a 4-finger signal indicating that they think it is. I put it out of my mind and concentrate on maintaining my pattern of consistent improvement. I use the setup from my previous run, preferring familiar quirks over some potential, but not uncertain improvement. I check the tire pressures, but make no changes. I check the oil and coolant but leave the fuel pressure right where it is.

I make my usual aggressive tire-spinning start. It might not be the fastest way off the line, but it gets me in the right frame of mind. I accelerate at full throttle well into 3rd when I have to lift slightly for the second corner. The necessity of that throttle lift tells me that I’ve made a good start and the car is climbing well. 

My foot is flat to the floor from there up through a few gradual and very fast turns. The engine is screaming at redline, around 7800 rpm in 3rd gear, as I hug inside line through the fast left and bounce off of the bump that launches the car all the way from the left side of the road to the right! Almost immediately I start braking for Crusoe’s Corner, the late-apex right that catches so many drivers out and transitions into the mountain’s first hairpin left turn. I hit my apex and make a good exit, climbing fast to the next hairpin where I make my only real mistake. I chose 1st gear on the exit, but should have used 2nd. It probably lost me half a second or more.

Running through redline in 1st, redline in 2nd, and climbing steadily through the revs in 3rd I reach the sweeping right where in prior runs I have been flat out, but now I have to lift a little. Again, this tells me that I've made a good exit from the previous hairpin and my speed is excellent. I moderate the throttle through the corner so that I run out near to the edge, keeping a good six inch margin of road between my tires and the gravel. With nice exit speed there, the next corner requires an increased degree of finesse over previous attempts with a very small throttle lift necessary to hit my chosen apex. This leads into the only downhill section of the course, which I brake and setup for very deliberately since it is such a rhythm breaker. It is a downhill with a sharp turn at the bottom. The car compresses on the suspension into the turn and it can be taken faster than it looks as a result. I enter it conservatively in 2nd gear and make a clean exit.

Now begins a series of four hairpin turns known as the “W's”. They are critical to a good time and complete the lower 3 mile course. Each one is extremely steep and is taken in 1st gear. They are so steep that last year they destroyed the aluminum radiator scoop I'd fabricated for the Sonett. For this year, I'd rebuilt it 1.5” shorter. I hit my marks in each one, exiting cleanly with my wheels as straight as possible and as little wheelspin as possible. The last one sets up the long straight climb where the highest power cars can hit over 100mph. I get a clean exit and make a deliberate shift up to 3rd gear. I can't use 4th gear as the engine can't pull it. It is that steep.

A few hundred yards up the straight, the pavement changes and it becomes as bumpy as a cobblestone pavé.  Most cars are bouncing all over the road. The Sonett however, with its near-standard suspension is laughing at the bumps. My head is bouncing and the steering column is vibrating in my hands, but the car tracks smooth and sure to exactly where I point it. About 2/3 of the way up this straight, the road crests and all you can see is sky. The mantra is “keep left and hope the road hasn't moved”. I put my left side tires right on the edge of the grass and launch out onto the section called “the Saddle” where the scenery falls away to either side as you race along the ridge between the summit of Little Equinox and “Big” Equinox mountains.

This is the highest speed section of the course. The Corvette was clocked at 99 mph here. The Sonett and I manage a screaming 87 mph! After a full 1 minute and 15 seconds of flat out straightline climbing, I hit the brakes for the final section of three tight switchbacks. Each is extremely bumpy and the front tires bounce from bump to bump trying to find traction. The gradient is so steep that I use only 1st and 2nd gears, crossing the finish line right at redline!

I thought it was a good run, but when I saw 4:56.30 on the clock I couldn't believe my eyes. I whooped with joy and you can even hear it in the video despite the interference of the helmet! That was good beyond even my highest expectations!

The time would stand as the FTD (Fastest Time of Day) for the event and shall stand for a long time as one of the highlights of my little vintage racing career. It was made all the sweeter because my father, and so many of my friends were at the top of the mountain eager to needle, kid, and congratulate me on the accomplishment.

I'd like to thank Johnny Stiteler for riding his motorcycle out to Mt. Equinox to spectate and for stopping by to say "hi". It is a thrill to get to see the people we mostly know from the internet and I thoroughly enjoyed his company. See you next year!? 

Anyone reading this who would like to come out next year, drop me a line and I will happily let you know when and where!

You can see the video on YouTube at this address: http://youtu.be/7alBUcKR3Ew


Andy Greenberg's Aston Martin DB4GT

Dad and I ride down the mountain on Friday in the clouds

Dad, back at Johnny Seesaw's

Jeff Jacobson tries to impress Dick Waite's granddaughter with the three-wheeler

Dan Leonard (left), our club president John Schieffelin (center), Ed Callo III (right) 

Morgan Trike with JAP Twin, supercool

Dan and his grandson

Tom Ellsworth's 1935 Ford Amilcar has Gauges!

Marc Cendron's pretty Alfa

The two Donick Allards that were so fast.

As we were packing up to go home, this cicada hatched on my camera bag!


Thanks for reading,

-STEFAN