Not Enough Zip at the Zippo!


Watkins Glen Historic Grand Prix

September 10-13 2009

Time flies as they say and it is now a year since we upped sticks and relocated to upstate New York.  A year ago I made my first visit to the historic track at Watkins Glen and was lucky to have a brief go courtesy of Rick Carlino.   This year I was back but this timed was armed with my own cars.

Well to be slightly more accurate I had one of my own – The McLaren M1B – and one car sent over by good friend Frank Lyons.  This one was a 1975 Chevron B29 Formula 2 car powered by a 2-liter Hart BDG.  The car had not been run for several years and therefore we were not expecting great things especially.

The Glen is a special track and a bit like Goodwood in the UK remains pretty much the same today has it was for the last few decades.  In the case of Goodwood it is all about very fast sweeping curves and earth banks.  For Watkins Glen the special features relate to being surrounded by the famous “blue bushes” – namely old-fashioned double level Armco barriers circa 1970.  In those days of course the drive for safety determined that cars should be kept away from the crowds by using proper barriers as found on motorways.

In 1973 at the US GP the unfortunate Francois Cevert – teammate to 3-time World Champion Jackie Stewart – was fatally injured by these barriers in a horrific crash.  These days we realize that safety is better served by wide run-off areas rather than barriers but unfortunately for the most part this is not possible at Watkins Glen because of the terrain.

Enough of the history lesson then and on with the racing!  The story of the Chevron was one of on-going work all weekend to make it work.  Basic problems included not having a seat, trying to make the fuel system work and struggling with useless shock absorbers.

What this meant was that on the Friday – it would not run at all on the Thursday test day (!) – I could not fit well enough to see out and reach the pedals at the same time!  The dependable Seamus Nolan set about things with various layers of foam padding and eventually I managed a position that was OK for height and length.  We still had no lateral support but for that we will need another day to make a proper seat.

The fuel system was another matter.  These cars traditionally start on an electric fuel pump and when properly on the go the engine-driven mechanical pump takes over.  Not on this machine though!  Long story short meant that we had to remove the electric pump and start the car on a fuel squirt directly into the engine and take it from there.  Worked OK as it happens!

What about the McLaren then?  Regular readers will recall that at St. Jovite the car was boiling its rear brakes, didn’t stop properly and had a terrible gear change.  For this weekend we had made some progress on all fronts.

New pad material stopped the boiling and improved stopping power.  The gearbox however was initially still terrible and impossible to use top gear, which was a real problem on the fast straights at the Glen.  Over three days we discovered that the pad were fouling on their retaining plates and not moving freely.  Furious filing has probably improved that.

The gearbox was treated to new dog rings and at the same time it was noticed that one gear had been fitted incorrectly so there was great hope for better performance by the time the second set of races came around on the Sunday.

The action then.  The McLaren was in Group 5 along with early to mid-sixties sports racers – where it should be.  Slowly but steadily we got up to speed and managed faster times in the top five all weekend.  The car was faster than any of the Lola T70’s present and even managed to see off a modern re-creation of a Ford GT40 – all without fifth gear!  Being 8th fastest out of 60 qualifying cars for the Governor’s Cup was quite pleasing especially as that morning the gearbox had allowed fifth be used for the first time ever.

Hoping for a class win I set off in the 20-lap race and got into a tussle with the GT40 again.  All was well for about six laps and then it happened.  As the car climbed up from the toe of “The Boot” it suddenly went bang!!  This was instant with no drive and I coasted to a halt at the next corner parking up the slip road.  Obviously a drive shaft had failed – or so I initially thought because there was no smoke or oil to be seen.  A few minutes later though there was plenty of oil evident as the car simply bled to death in front of me.

Back in the safety of the pits the diagnosis was not obvious.  However, since then, the engine has been stripped by ace engine guru Ted Wentz.  Basically the carbs look good!!  The camshaft broke and took with it the con rods and engine block.  Nothing that a totally new engine won’t remedy I guess.  Another car destined for a very quiet winter I assure you!

The bitza Chevron however didn’t let us down!  It might have been cobbled together over the weekend but it actually ran like clockwork and beat a whole bunch of later ground effect cars and all its contemporaries bar one.  The lack of lateral support meant I was struggling in the corners because remember that by 1975 aerodynamics were now working a bit.  This car runs on slick tires but has wings that actually work.  Over the weekend I simply went faster and faster while trying to find the cornering limits – I never did which means that there is more speed there with better gear ratios, a better seat and more belief.  Seeing as this is the only car I have in the USA that does not have a blown engine (!!) I think I might well invest in a decent seat and some new shockers eh!

Funny weekend story?  During first practice with the M1B I managed a simple spin.  As a came to a halt I looked in the mirror and saw billowing impressive flames from the engine bay.  For the first time ever I pulled the fire extinguisher and started to get out.  The flames went out by them selves I am delighted to say and were nothing more than un-burnt fuel in the exhaust pipes.  And the extinguisher?  It squirted pathetically over my left foot and at the back managed to freeze the rear wheel comfortably missing the engine bay completely!  By the next day we had a new bottle and better nozzles!

Overall though apart from the shattering disappointment over the McLaren engine this was a good weekend.  US racing still remains strange to me but not as strange as the cars right now.  Without the wonderful work by the Connecticut gang - Lee Chapman, Seamus and Ray all worked tirelessly and skillfully to make sure that the cars were on then track as required and just as importantly kept making them better and better - engine explosions aside of course.  Many thanks to them. 

On to the Goodwood Revival now – Huffaker and Lola Mk1 in the Chichester and Lavant Cup events. 


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