Featured photo for Crossing the Line on Labor Day Weekend

Crossing the Line on Labor Day Weekend

Vroom vroom. The sun was hardly peeping over the horizon on this crisp and cool morning when Goldie and I were surrounded by two beautiful white super machines, a 1990 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet and a 1998 Corvette. The cars, owned by Melissa and Cheryl, are pure in spirit, unquestionable in purpose—read: fast. Today, Goldie, my faithful MGB from a bygone era, would be trying to keep up with them today.

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

The day had come to autocross in our own cars at Mather’s Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova. It would be our first time autocrossing. Melissa was especially excited because she was going to racing school in a few weeks. Cheryl had just traded in her Camaro Z28 convertible for the Vette. Me… well, I’ve just always wanted to do some race car driving.

To round out our lot, Melissa and Cheryl’s friend Dave pulled into the McDonald’s lot that we agreed to meet at. He was driving a van that was pulling a modified 1996 Corvette on a trailer. Dave, Melissa told me, is really good, as in the dominant points champion of some autocrossing series. As for the trailer, Melissa mentioned the day before that it would “offer an margin of safety.” I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Maybe I should have.

The Drive to Mathers

We caravanned past the yellow hayfields of the Central Valley in our little sports cars. I took the spot in the rear, which had the best view. I followed Melissa the entire way. Her Porsche was very cute with the spoiler that pops up at 55 mph.

It was a two hour drive that was only interrupted by a stop for to fill up on gasoline and use the rest room. Already this early in the morning it was becoming awfully hot. It was something I don’t miss about the Central Valley.

The Mathers Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova was in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived, we checked out the cars in the lot: mostly Corvettes, Miatas, and Acura Integra Type Rs. I suspected most of the latter were from an auto club. There were a few Porsches and Lotuses, too.

white 1990 Porsche 911 Carrera Cabriolet with black top and a row of Porsches next to it on an airport base

After we paid a $25 registration fee, signed a release form, and increased the air pressure of our cars’ tires, we walked around the course while Dave gave us some tips.

“Around those corners,” he said, “swing wide, hit the apex, and swing out again. You want to be literally two inches away from those cones.”

It sounded simple enough. But when we actually got to practice that technique, I discovered that it’s more difficult than it sounds when you’re racing at the limit.

Autocross Time

There were three rows of cars awaiting their turn,while one or two cars were on the course 30 seconds apart. Most people were “feeling out” the course the first time around, and most times ranged from 1:05-1:20.

Finally it was my turn. Woot! I was shifting pretty well through the gears and using the throttle to steer through a few corners. The MGB’s tires were squealing all over the place, but was benign enough that I still felt confident and in control. This was fun.

A reality check came when I saw my time on the clock: 1:26. Funny, it didn’t seem like I was going that slow. I resolved to drive more aggressively next time.

Melissa and Cheryl were 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.

We had more chances to improve. The next two laps I was being much more aggressive, doing four wheel slides around cones. Unfortunately, a few times my heel-toe downshifting at the limits was not quick enough, the result being:

  1. I was not braking hard enough before the turn, and hence would need to 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.
  3. I slid off the course as a consequence of (1) and (2). A couple of times I even spun the car over 90 degrees, but at least I got practice straightening out the car by following the advice of steering into the skid. That actually worked.

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

“How about taking a ride in Dave’s Vette?” Melissa suggested. Good idea.

Dave’s Corvette had a custom air intake instead of the front license plate cutout, roll cage, and really sticky tires. And Dave was an awesome driver. He took 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 somewhat unnerving to see him frequently take both hands off the steering wheel to let the car straighten itself out, but he definitely knew what he was doing.

The lateral g-forces caused my head brush the window or roll cage a lot while I clung onto the door handles for dear life. We rounded the course in 1:03. What a ride. Wow.

“Good thing I was wearing a helmet,” I said to Melissa after we stopped. Hehe, okay, I knew now how it felt to be going really fast. But as Melissa would muse after she rode with Dave, I’m not sure I’d ever want to drive that fast.

I returned to Goldie, whose engine temperatures were running pretty high on this 100F day. The next two laps I was determined to stay on the course and was actually successful.

Rather than letting off the gas or braking during or out of corners, I was pretty much just mashing the throttle. Goldie was still drifting sideways a lot, but at least her orientation was in the right direction. This was so fun and for the first time, I got my times below 1:20. In fact, 1:19. I was getting better.

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

Oops

This time, I was determined to really take Goldie to her limit, even revving her engine past 4000 rpm which I have rarely ever done in the three years I have owned her. (Her engine is is sufficiently torqueq between 1500-3300 rpm.) I concentrated on “straightening out the corners” as much as possible this time. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much opportunity to practice this because around Turn 2, I heard a ghastly crunch.

It came from underneath the car and at first I thought the muffler had hit a bump in the road. The MGB was really low after all, always hitting speedbumps. But Goldie was really vibrating.

“Oh no,” I thought, “either an engine mount came loose or it’s the U-joints.” So I slowed down, turned on the blinkers, and pretty much coasted in. I don’t either bother looking at the clock, but I imagined it must have been at least 2:00.

So that was it for Goldie for the day. I drove slowly around the parking lot, and she seemed okay. But there was a clunking noise while shifting the gears, and now I was sure that it was the U-joints. Memories of “U-joint failure” in 1996 came to mind. I tried to think of how I would explain to my friends that I had a problem.

I walked over to Cheryl, who was watching the other cars, and I was quiet for a few moments before saying, “Um… I think I broke my car.” D’oh.

Finally I resolved visually confirm that I had a real problem. Dave lent me a floor jack and jack stands and even rotated the rear wheels while I checked out those joints. The rear U-joint looked okay. But the front one had a lot of slop. In fact, one of the four bearing caps had completely fallen out.

We discussed on the best way to get home. I was optimistic that even though the joint was only held in three places, I could probably limp home all 120 miles. Dave agreed. Besides, using Dave’s trailer was not a good option because of liability issues, as someone (me) would have to drive the Vette back to Fremont and neither he nor I wanted to risk that 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 wasn’t over and there were still opportunities for the others to take a few more shots at the track. Melissa and Cheryl took me for a ride in their cars, which are both really awesome. I was amazed at how fast the cars could go around the corners without sliding. Melissa had the top down on her Porsche and yet I never heard a single squeal from the tires. Amazing.

Afterwards, I watched Melissa and Cheryl duke it out in a friendly little “competition.” I also observed the other cars. Most of the remaining folks were coming in between 0:55 (e.g., the Lotus Elite) to 1:07 (Integra Type-R’s). “Unconventional” vehicles included a four-door Saturn SL2 (1:07) and a huge Chevy Impala (1:15). I was especially impressed with the Miatas (around 1:02) which were beating several of the Corvettes.

Watching those vehicles and Melissa—who had volunteered to wave the green flag and was having a blast doing so—helped keep my mind off the question, “will Goldie successfully make it home?” At least momentarily

Back to the Bay

Finally, it was time to depart. Cheryl and Melissa took the lead and Dave followed to in case something were to happen. We planned on regrouping at the AM/PM convenience store we met at earlier in the day.

I carefully shifted through the gears and tried to apply as little power as needed to get up to a respectable speed. What speed “respectable” was is not something I could precisely ascertain because Goldie’s speedometer was broken, typical of many British cars with Smiths gauges. But I’d guess it was around 50-55 mph.

Around 45 mph, Goldie was vibrating like mad. “How the heck was I going to go up the Altamont Pass with this problem?” I thought. That thought changed to, “How the heck am I going to get to the Altamont Pass?”

A more immediate problem was a stop light ahead. I knew that once I stopped and had to row through the gears again, Goldie’s U-joints would be at their most vulnerable.

And sure enough, after a shift from 2nd to 3rd: clunk. There went the driveshaft.

I turned on my blinkers and coast to the shoulder. Dave, who was behind me, did the same. We made it 10 miles out and there’s still 100 to go. It didn’t help that we were in the middle of nowhere.

What do we do now?

Dave and I discussed solutions for a bit. Unloading the Vette from his trailer and loading up the B isn’t really an option because we’re on a busy highway and wouldn’t be able to push the B up the trailer by ourselves anyhow.

Ultimately, I decided I’d have to get a tow cuz Goldie can’t go anywhere with her own power now. I had AAA membership for such an occasion. Dave gave me a ride to the AM/PM Mini Mart to reach a phone and to meet Cheryl and Melissa. I felt bad for having to inconvenience everyone, but was really thankful that Dave was back there to follow or else it would have been a six-mile walk through the middle of nowhere to find a phone.

We got to the station and I shook my head when we saw Melissa. “Where’s your car?” she asked.

“Six miles back on the side of the road,” I replied.

I called AAA and Cheryl drove me back to the B in her Corvette. The plan now is to have Goldie towed back to the gas station, where we’d do a swap of Dave’s Vette and the MGB onto the trailer. Hopefully, we think, with five people we can push the car on the trailer. I know that Dave isn’t too fond of the idea driving his Corvette, and I’m not too comfortable with the idea either. The alternative was a $600 tow which neither of us wanted me to have to do, so we decided to risk it.

Tow Time

The tow truck guy was already there when Cheryl and I arrived, and was just about to leave. But Cheryl honked her horn and pulled over so I could over to the guy. We got there just in time.

The tow truck driver was cool. His name was Chris and he was 21, but he looked more like 30. He was very enthusiastic and said he loved his job despite working 18 hours a day, 4 days a week. He was into old VW Bugs, and could appreciate my 1969 MGB. Not to mention Cheryl’s Corvette, too.

He hooked Goldie up to the truck and noticed me grimacing during the process. He was really understanding, however, and I didn’t have to voice any concerns about scratching up the car. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. He exercised extra caution which I appreciated. Like I said, cool guy.

About 30 minutes later, we got back at the gas station. Dave’s Vette was 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 better way?

Melissa to the Rescue

I ran into the station to get some cash from an ATM to pay Chris for the uncovered extra miles of the tow since my AAA plan only covered five miles of towing. Meanwhile, Melissa talked with Chris. I came out and everyone was all smiles.

“I have Triple A Plus, which you can use,” Melissa said. Chris confirmed that we could do that. Wow. Totally awesome.

Triple A Plus provided the subscriber 100 miles of free towing. It was a plan I had tried to sign up for but was denied because it required at least 1 year continued membership and no more than three calls a year. But Melissa had it and was able to use it to help me.

Conclusion

Goldie was towed back home without incurring fees that would normally provide enough fuel to power a car from California to Oklahoma, and Dave and I were spared the discomfort of having his Vette driven by a non-owner down the highway.

Many 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. She saved me again. What a great friend.

I successfully replaced the U-joints a few days later. I also never autocrossed the MGB again.

[May 2, 1998] I had graduated a year ago and was living in Fremont, but Goldie was a still great parts runner for fixing Venus' Merkur in the Stanford parking lot.
[May 2, 1998] I had graduated a year ago and was living in Fremont, but Goldie was a still great parts runner for fixing Venus' Merkur in the Stanford parking lot.