Crossing the Line on Labor Day Weekend Felix Wong

Vroom vroom. The sun is hardly peeping over the horizon on this crisp and cool morning when Goldie and I find ourselves surrounded by two beautiful white supermachines, a 1990 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet (say that 3 times fast) and a ’98 Vette. The cars, owned by Melissa and Cheryl, are pure in spirit, unquestionable in purpose… read: fast. And today, Goldie, my faithful B from a bygone era, will be trying to keep up with them today.

“This is going to be so much fun!” we all say, nearly in unison.

Ah yes, today is gonna be a big day, autocrossing in our own cars at Mather’s Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova. It’s our first time. Melissa was especially excited because she was going to go to a racing school in a few weeks, and Cheryl was excited because she just traded in her Z28 convertible for the Vette. And me… well, I’ve just always wanted to do some race car driving.

To round out our lot, Melissa and Cheryl’s friend Dave soon pulls into the McDonald’s lot that we agreed to meet at. He is driving a van that’s pulling a modified ’96 Vette on a trailer. Dave, I hear, is really good, as in the dominant points champion of some autocrossing series. And the trailer… well, Melissa mentioned the day before that “it would offer an margin of safety.” I didn’t think about it at all at the time, however. Maybe I should have…

The Drive to Mathers

So there we are, driving down past the barren yellow “hayfields” of the central valley in our little sports car. Goldie I take the spot in the rear, which has the best view. I am following Melissa pretty much the entire way. Her Porsche is totally cute, esp. with the spoiler that pops up at 55 mph or so.

It’s a two hour drive, only interrupted by a rest room/gasoline stop. Already this early in the morning it’s becoming awfully hot. Ugh, definitely something I don’t miss about the Central Valley.

But finally, we arrive at Mathers Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova. It is in the middle of nowhere. We check out the cars in the lot: mostly Vettes, Miatas, and Acura Integra Type R’s (must have been a club or something?). There were a few Porsches and Lotuses, too.

After we pay our $25 registration fees, sign a release form, and increase the air pressure of our tires, we walk around the course while Dave gives us some tips. “Around those corners, swing wide, hit the apex, and swing out again. You want to literally be *two inches* away from those cones.”

Sounds simple enough. But in a few moments when we actually get to practice that technique, I would discover that it’s more difficult than it sounds when you’re racing at the limit.

Autocross Time

It’s time to line up. There would be three rows of cars to await their turn, while one or two cars would be on the course 30 seconds apart or so. Most people are “feeling out” the course the first time around, and most times range from 1:05-1:20.

Finally it’s my turn. Woohoo. I am shifting pretty well through the gears and using the throttle to steer in quite a few corners. Tires are squealing all over the place, but is benign enough that I still feel confident and in control. This is fun.

But reality check comes when I see my time on the clock: 1:26. Funny, it didn’t seem like I was going *that* slow. I will have to be more aggressive next time.

Meanwhile, Melissa and Cheryl are doing pretty well in their sports cars coming in at one-minute-and-teens. Dave came in at 1:06 but didn’t seem too happy with his time.

But we would all have many more chances to improve. The next two laps I was decidedly being much more aggressive, doing four wheel slides around cones. Unfortunately, a few times my heel-toe downshifting at the limits was not adept enough, the result being 1) I would not be braking hard enough before the turn, and hence would be braking *during* the turn, 2) I was in neutral for too long in the turns, and hence would not be able to steer the car with the throttle, and 3) I would slide *off* the course as a consequence of (1) and (2). A couple of times I would spin the car over 90 degrees, but at least I got practice straightening out the car by following the advice of steering *into* the skid (it really works.)

My times during both of these two runs: 1:23. Ugh, still pathetic, but what can one expect when he’s going off the course so much?

“How ’bout taking a ride in Dave’s Vette?” Melissa suggests. All right, someone who can show me how it’s done.

Dave’s Corvette is cool with a custom air intake in lieu of the front license plate cutout, roll cage, and really sticky tires. And of course, Dave is an awesome driver. He takes me around the course, pretty much either at full throttle or brake, doing seemingly *impossible* maneuvers around the cones and through the slalom. It was pretty unnerving to see him frequently take both of his hands completely off the steering wheel to let the car straighten itself out, but he definitely knew what he was doing. During the 1:03 on the course, the lateral g’s would be slamming my head into the window or roll cage a lot, and I was totally holding on to door handle. Man, what a ride. Wow.

“Good thing I was wearing a helmet,” I say to Melissa after we stop. Hehe, okay, so now I know how it is to be going *really* fast. Hehe, but as Melissa would muse after she rode with Dave, I don’t think I’d ever want to drive that fast.

I return to Goldie, who engine temps were running pretty high on this 100 F day. The next two laps I am determined to just stay on the course, which I am pretty successful at. This time, rather than letting off the gas or breaking during/out of corners, I was pretty much just mashing the throttle. Woohoo, Goldie was still drifting sideways a bit, but at least her orientation was in the right direction. This was so fun, but my times are still laggin’ at 1:19, both times. Well, at least I am getting better.

My sixth attempt, however, wasn’t so hot, however.


This time, I am determined to really take Goldie at her limit, even revving her engine past 4000 rpm which I have rarely ever done in the three years I have owned her. (She seems to make most of her torque at 1500-3300 rpm.) I concentrate on “straightening out the corners” as much as possible this time, too. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much opportunity to practice this as around turn 2, I heard a ghastly… CRUNCH.

It definitely came from underneath the car, and at first I thought the muffler had hit a bump in the road. Goldie is really low after all, always hitting speedbumps. But in a few moments Goldie was really vibrating. “Oh no,” I thought, “either an engine mount came loose or it’s the U-joints.” So I slow down, turn on the blinkers, and pretty much coasted it. I don’t either bother looking at the clock, but I imagine it must have been at least 2:00 or so.

So that’s it for Goldie for the day. I drive slowly around the parking lot, and she seems okay now. But there IS a clunking noise while shifting the gears, and now I am pretty sure that it’s the U-joints. Memories of my little “U-joint failure” in 1996 come to mind. I try to think of a way to tell my friends that I could have a problem…

I walk over to Cheryl, who’s now watching the other cars, and I’m quiet for a few moments, before finally saying, “Um… I think I broke my car.” Doh.

Finally I resolve that I better make sure I have a real problem, so I decide I must climb under the car to check out the U-joints. Dave lends me a floor jack and jack stands and even turns the rear wheels when I check out those joints… thanks Dave. The rear U-joint looks okay. But the front one… man, is there a lot of slop. Oh no, one of the four bearing caps have completely *FALLEN OUT*. How the heck did that happen?

Anyhow, a discussion ensues on how I intend on getting home. I am optimistic that even though the joint is only held in 3 places now, I probably could limp home all 120 miles, and Dave agrees. Besides, using Dave’s trailer is not really a good option because of liability issues, as someone (me) would have to drive the Vette back to Fremont, which sounds enticing but I (nor he) wasn’t to thrilled about risking a ~400hp mega-$ race car on the highway. So the plan is set: I would drive Goldie back, albeit slowly, and hope for the best.

Back at the Track

The day isn’t over, however, as the others are still eager to take a few more shots at the track. Melissa and Cheryl generously take me a ride in their cars, which are both really awesome. I am just amazed at how fast the cars could go around the corners without sliding… in fact, with Melissa’s Porsche (which had its top down this afternoon… yay Melissa =)), the tires never even squeal. Simply amazing…

Afterwards, I just sat back and watch Melissa and Cheryl duke it out in their little “competition”, and watch how the other cars did. Most people still at the track are coming in at 0:55 (e.g., the Lotus Elite) to 1:07 (Integra Type-R’s). “Unconventional” vehicles include a four-door Saturn (~1:07) and a huge Chevy Impala (~1:15… still better than I.) I was esp. iimpressed with the Miatas (~1:02) which were beating several of the Vettes. Watching vehicles like these, along with Melissa who had just volunteered to wave the green flag (she is having such a blast. =)), helps keep my mind off the question, “will Goldie successfully make it home?”… but the question never really leaves my mind.

Back to the Bay

Well, it’s time to give going back to the Bay Area a shot. Cheryl and Melissa would take the lead, while Dave would be following me just in case, um, something happens. We’ll regroup at the AM/PM from earlier today. Sounds like a plan…

So I gingerly shift through the gears, trying to apply as little power as possible to get up to a respectable speed. What speed “respectable” was is not something I can say cuz, of course, Goldie’s speedo doesn’t work like all true Brit cars. =) But I’d guess it was around 50-55 or so.

But around 45 mph, Goldie is really vibrating the mad. How the heck are we going to go up the Altamont Pass with this problem, I think? No, change that to: How the heck are we gonna *get* to the Altamont Pass?

But soon even that question becomes a little too far sighted. A more immediate problem is a stop light ahead. I knew that once I stopped and had to go through the gears again was when Goldie’s U-joints would be most vulnerable.

And sure enough, after a gentle shift from 2nd to 3rd… KLUNK. Whoops, there goes the driveshaft.

I turn on my blinkers and coast to the shoulder. Dave, who is right behind me, does the same. I think, gee, Goldie was only able to go ten miles, and now there’s 100 or so to go. It doesn’t really help that we are in the middle of nowhere.

What do we do now?

I explain the situation to Dave and we just scratch our heads for a bit. Unloading the Vette from his trailer and loading up the B isn’t really an option, since we’re on a busy highway and wouldn’t be able to push the B up the trailer by ourselves anyhow. I then think of my AAA membership and tell him that I’ll just have to get a tow cuz Goldie can’t go anywhere with her own power now. He agrees to that and we drive off in his van to the AM/PM Mini Mart to reach a phone and to meet Cheryl and Melissa. I feel bad for having to inconvenience everyone now, but am really thankful that Dave was back there to follow or else it would have been a 6 mile walk in boonieland just to find a phone…

We get to the station and I am just shaking my head as Melissa approaches. “Where’s your car?” she asks. Hehe, like 6 miles back on the side of the road, I respond.

So I make the phone call to Triple A and Cheryl drives me back to my B in her Vette so we can meet the tow truck driver. The plan now is to have Goldie towed back to the gas station, where we’ll do a swap of Dave’s Vette and my B on the trailer. Hopefully, we think, with 5 people we can push the B on the trailer. I know that Dave isn’t too fond of the idea driving his Vette, and I’m not too comfortable with the idea either, but the alternative is a $600 tow which neither of us wants me to have to do, so we decide to risk it.

Tow Time

The tow truck guy is already there when Cheryl and I arrive, and was just about to leave. But Cheryl honks her horn and pulls over, and I run over to the guy. We got here just in time.

And thank goodness the tow truck driver is cool, unlike quite a few of the other ones I’ve gotten in my life. Chris is his name, 21 is his age (although he looked at least 30), and enthusiastic he is. He loves his job, even though he works 18 hours a day 4 days a week. He was into old VW Bugs, and could appreciate my ’69 B. Not to mention Cheryl’s Vette, too.

He hooks up Goldie to the truck and notices all of my grimaces during the entire process, which indicated that I was concerned his magnetic lights or whatever were going to scratch up my car, etc. He is really understanding, however, and I don’t have to voice my concerns. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says. He exercises extra caution which I appreciate it immensely… like I said, cool guy.

About 30 minutes later, we are back at the gas station. Dave’s Vette is still on the trailer, and I wonder what that could mean. Could it mean he’s given up on the plan? Or was there simply a beter way?

Melissa to the Rescue

Anyhow, I run into the station to get some cash to pay Chris for the uncovered extra miles of the tow (my AAA plan only gives me 5 miles free), while Melissa talks with Chris. I come out, and everyone is all smiles.

“I have Triple A Plus, which you can use,” Melissa says. Wow. And Chris confirms that this is something we can do. Totally awesome.

You see, Triple A Plus gives the member 100 miles towing free. That would cover most, if not all of the tow to Fremont. It was a plan I had tried to sign up for but was denied because it requires at least 1 year continued memborship and no more than 3 calls a year. But Melissa has it, this is so great.


So it’s yet another adventure with a happy ending. Goldie was towed back home without incurring fees that would normally take a car from California to, say, Oklahoma, and Dave and I were spared the discomfort of having his Vette driven by a non-owner down the highway.

And of course, special thanks goes to Melissa, Cheryl, and Dave. Melissa, incidentally, had saved me 2.5 years ago, when she lent me her luggage rack for my ME103 bicycle rack project when my car was in the shop due to an accident. And this time, when the line was crossed when I certainly was going to need some help to make it through the ordeal, she was there for me again, like the true friend she is. So thanks, all… my gratitude for your help is enormous, and this is one episode I shall remember for a long time.

[Author’s note: And yes, I did successfully replace the U-joints a few days later.]

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