Lapping it Up: Giant-Killer Valiant Scores Again in the One Lap of America
We did it again. Yes, for the sixth straight year, the slightly loony Mopar Action team ran the equally bonkers Car and Driver One Lap of America. Why loony, you ask? Well, who, in their right mind, would subject themselves to 6 days (and nights) of boring interstate driving for the privilege of three minutes of racing at 11 road-race venues? Who, but the slightly insane, would live on a steady diet of animal fat and carbohydrates consumed while dodging 18-wheelers and motorhomes at extra-legal speeds? Who but the definitely demented would submit to sleeping in the "back seat" (a loosely applied term if ever there was one) of a Dodge Omni with 300 pound-per-inch spring rates and packed to the roof with tools, tires, and parts? Who would challenge professionally driven AWD Porsche Turbo Carerras and ZR-1 'Vettes in a near-stock 1969 Valiant? Us, that's who!
In fact, so many of us were psyched to run this deranged deal that we argued about whose car to take! In the end, the quarrel was quashed not by compromise, but by banging heads: we ran both Dave Zelkowski's Omni and your brain-faded tech editor's 1969 Valiant. Now, all kidding aside, there had to be some reason why we were all jumping on the One-Lap bandwagon. No, head honcho Brock Yates wasn't promising an all-expense-paid trip to Tahiti to the winning team, it was, instead, some thing equally enticing: this year's 'Lap route was to include stops at no less than six Hooters restaurants, where we could sample foods cooked with that outrageous Jackaroo Barby-Q Sauce served by equally saucy lasses. Never in recent memory has a 'Lap promised such tasty and tantalizing treats to spice up our otherwise insipid highway hauls.
Due to the untimely closing of Motown's Race Rock diner, this year's start was moved to a high-rise hotel in Dearborn. For whatever the reasons, the turnout was amazing—and a bit scary, at least if you're competing in a Valiant and an Omni.
Besides no less than five ZR-1 'Vettes and a megabuck 1996 AWD 911 factory Porsche Carerra, there were more M3 BMWs, Turbo Supras and 300ZXs than you could shake a stick at. More importantly, there were scads of manufacturer-entered cars with paid professional hotshoes behind the wheel.
To us in the Valiant half of the team, we were surprised to find that the musclecar class had grown to include no less than eleven entries, including the Accel/ Echlin Camaro, a tweaked 1984 Vette with a fresh all-aluminum mill, the more-than-a-little nutso Panther Pink 1970 Charger R/T of Hinton, Alberta's Wightman family (the former Mike Ulrich car), now with an even-hairier Muscle Motors 451-inch stroker 400, and a 1979 Buick Regal, reputed to be an ex-Nascar stocker civilized for the street. Still, only one "muscle" entry really concerned us: the GM engineering / Lingenfelter / Summit Racing '69 Camaro. Summit's Chief Engineer, Mark Stielow, has fine-tuned his car's performance to the nth degree, much as we've done with the Valiant (see sidebar: Built to Last.) We expected no less from Mark, a true competitor if there ever was one; however, Mark threw us a real curveball this year: instead of handling the driving chores himself, he brought along a top gun: pro racer Stu Hayner, whose list of credentials makes F. Lee Bailey's look pale by comparison. In other words, we were worried!
True, we had agreed to let our newly graduated hotshoe, Kevin Wesley, handle most of the track events, based, mostly, on his performance last year and positive comments from his Car Guys instructors, but, like, he hasn't won the 24 Hours of Daytona (yet!)
Over at Team Omni, it looked like an easy win in the econobox class, the primary competitors being Yates, Jr., in a tweaked Shelby Charger, and perennial One-Lap entrant Mike Roberts in his heated Honda Civic, said to be running a 150-hp nitrous setup (which rumor was later found to be false.) Still, with a fresh-from-the-dyno 305-BHP 2.21- "Super 60" mill, new coil-over suspension, and fat link-type swaybars, the Omni looked to be a shoo-in.
Our first venue was to be Road America, near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Once at the track, we emptied the trunk, checked the fluids, and sent Kevin to the staging lanes, figuring he'd be just so much fodder to be ground up by Stielow's Camaro. The Chevy had been assigned car number 35, and we were 36, meaning that at each track he'd be started 15 seconds ahead of us.
Imagine our surprise, then, when he finished a few seconds ahead of the 6- speed, 4-wheel-disc Camaro. Seems that Hayner had looped the Camaro briefly on lap one, at the last turn before the start/finish line, allowing our Valiant to sneak by. Kevin took first in class and 12th overall. Yes! Actually, we finished even better than that, but, in typical One Lap fashion, the scoring was haphazard at best: the timing crew neglected to record the pass, so the time we crossed the line was recorded as the Camaro's, and vice-versa. Anyway, although the victory was sweet, it was even more gratifying since Dave Zelkowski piloted the Omni to a first-in-class also, recording a respectable 27th overall!
Our second race was a short jaunt south, right on the Illinois-Wisconsin border: Blackhawk Farms. While this track is run in a clockwise direction, as is Road America, it has an unusual layout that presents three fairly high-speed left turns in rapid succession. This configuration uncovered a fatal flaw in the Valiant, one that had not been discovered in our track testing. We knew our near-stock oiling system was marginal at best, and our welded pistons (!) were the molten-metal equivalent of spit and bailing wire, but, still, we expected it to last longer than this. Kevin was entering the third of the three lefts, screaming the stroker 340 to 6500, when it happened. Clouds of blue smoke. Big-time.
Kevin rolled the Valiant to a safe stop behind the fencing. Later, he'd report that, just as the mushroom cloud of smoke billowed forth, the big red oil light came on and stayed on. End of story for the Valiant. Victory was sweet, but shortlived. Oh well, at least Joe, piloting the Omni, was again kicking butt in the Ebox class, going so far as to lap the last car in his group. Smokin', Joe!
After nearly everybody had departed the track, we finally were allowed to cross the track and inspect our wounded warrior. Cheez, look, there aren't any rods hangin' out of the block. Like, wow, the oil's still full and clean. I disconnected the coil wire, and cranked it over. Holy cow-a nice, even, ruh-ruhruh-compression on all eight! Maybe we can limp this heap of junk into town, instead of having to thumb a ride to the U-Haul rental place.
I reconnected the wire, and started the mill, expecting to hear some very expensive noises. Instead — a quiet idle, and lots of oil pressure. No smoke whatsoever. I shut it off, momentarily at a loss for words (a very rare occurrence, trust me.)
After a team powwow, here's our diagnosis: The combination of the large stroker crank's counterweights and the long-duration 1-g lifts had filled the right valve cover with oil, and emptied the pan. Since the PCV valve was on the right side, it was able to suck oil into the intake, resulting in the blue smoke. Of course, the empty pan caused the big red light, not a good thing. Luckily, Ray Barton had anticipated just such an occurrence, and had ion-nitrided our crankshaft, allowing, amazingly, a few seconds of damage-free, no-oil-pressure running.
The third event on the schedule was a checkpoint in Des Moines, lowa — a 300mile jaunt. Luckily, Yates had allowed ample time, so, with a "Hi-Yo Silver," we headed west, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. While cruising some neat back roads to avoid rush-hour interstate traffic, we discussed ways to prevent a reoccurrence of our DNF [Did Not Finish]. About all we could think of was to overfill the pan and disconnect the PCV, replacing it with another breather cap.
Heartland park was to be run in a mode unique for the entire 'Lap: run it once, take a few hours off, and run it again as a separate event. Kevin did well at the first run, taking second in class. Unfortunately, we were in danger of getting black flagged: the overfilled oil was blowing out the breather cap and onto the hot exhaust manifolds. In fact, if it weren't for the synthetic Mobil 1 oil, I'm pretty sure we'd have had a fire. Only some fast talking by Grubelich convinced the officials to let us out for round two, which was a near-disaster. The oil continued to spew from the fill cap, oiling the tires. Kevin considered himself lucky to again take second in class, since he dropped to 22nd overall. Clearly, we needed some more backyard engineering.
Over on the Omni side, things were even bleaker: just prior to run one, the second fuel pump (which had been rigged to supply race gas at the tracks) decided to lay down and die, forcing Joe to run with pump gas — and less boost. Still, Joe managed to smoke both Yates Jr.'s Charger and the ever-present Honda. Back in the pits, the team began troubleshooting the fuel system, where the trouble finally turned out to be the pump itself. After wondering where to get a replacement for this one-of-nonebuilt piece, Mark, our "Grubby" rocket scientist, stuck his two cents in: "Smack it with a hammer, why dont'cha?" Voila! No more fuel pump troubles for the remainder of the trip.
Back at the line for the second event, the Omni died again, resulting in a DNF. After much head-scratching, the trouble turned out to be a cooked ignition coil. Luckily, half of the local Shelby Dodge club membership was on hand, and the guys helped our teammates score a coil from a local dealer. In short order the Omni was on the road again, but the DNF had dropped the team well down in the standings. Plus, they were three hours late on their jaunt to the next venue, Hallett Motor Racing Circuit near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Only some "very spirited" highway driving got them there on time.
Meanwhile, cruising down US 75, the Valiant team was mentally designing a breather system to eliminate our oil problem. After picking through the blister packs at the local "race car parts" emporium (Pep Boys,) we cobbled together a system of heater hose and an empty gallon jug which permanently ended our oiling-system difficulties. So equipped, we met up with our 4-banger teammates at Hallett.
Kevin was psyched for Hallet, and it showed. With a clean run, he scored another second in class, good enough for 10th overall. Dave's half of the team designated Joe as the driver again, and Joe easily took the class and scored thirty-sixth overall. The bad news was that Dave was trackside during Joe's run, and swore he heard some detonation as Joe screamed down the straight. In a highly stressed Two Two, any detonation really is a death rattle. After the race, the Omni seemed okay, so both teams packed up and headed for our first really fun stop-Hooters in Tulsa. Here, the TV crews were waiting, and everybody had a blast. Except Joe, Dave and Ted. Minutes after the Valiant half of the team left Tulsa, the Omni boys cranked it over and-wow! Clouds of blue smoke! It was crunch time.
Sensing impending doom, Dave, Joe, and Ted decided to leave the official route and head to the nearest FWD Mopar speed shop, which happened to be Lambros Race Engineering in St. Louis. As an amazingly fortuitous happenstance, Joe had equipped the Omni with a super-trick satellite (GPS) navigational system from an outfit by the name of Liikkuva Systems International (800-997-3845). This uses a 2-inch flat satellite "dish" to display your position on a laptop computer screen as a blip, moving on a full-color map of the US! Even Dick Tracy would be impressed. With the navigation chores now simplified, they were able to quickly limp the car east, where the engine's internal health was diagnosed as A-okay. After some more head scratching, the malfunction was diagnosed as excessive axial endplay in the turbo's bearings, allowing oil into the intake system. Calling the Mopar Performance boys back in Motown, a new Super 60 hairdryer was located at Mancini Racing. Joe arranged for the Muscle Motors gang in Lansing to pick up the turbo, and have it waiting at Ted's house m suburban Detroit. Yes, while the Valiant half of the team was heading towards the next event at Memphis, the Omni was returning home!
Memphis is another track much like Topeka-a dual-purpose setup where the entire drag strip, from the staging lanes right through the end of the shut off area, is the front straight. Hotshoe Kevin rocked again, scoring tenth overall and second in class, good enough to smoke most of the GT cars, even John Buffum's factory BMW M-3.
Next up was Atlanta, a much-needed layover, allowing us 12 hours to regroup. We swapped in some fresh Mobil 1, and. much to our amazement, our magnetic drain plug came out spotless. By 10 o'clock we were all trying to sleep, although it was tough without the rear-end whine, exhaust noise, and solid lifter clatter to which we had become accustomed.
By early the next morning, we were lined up to run at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Without a doubt, this would be one hairy high speed run. If you can envision a 1969 Valiant, no cage, dicing with NASCAR stockers, and giving them a good run for their money, you have some idea of what Atlanta was like. Fassssst. Kevin, though, stayed cool as a frozen cucumber, even as he was clocked at 140 halfway down the front straight. Good enough for another second in the class, and 9th overall. Of course, by this time, it was obvious that Stielow's Camaro, with his $20,000 engine, 6-speed, and $20,000 chassis, driven by his pro driver, had us badly outclassed (even though he had beaten us by only one second a lap!) We decided to stop worrying about the Camaro, and concentrate on moving up as far overall as we could. Second was ours, the Accel Camaro being so far back that we could have gone home and still had the trophy. Our plan was simple: humiliate as many ZR-1 Vettes, BMWs, Porsches, etc., as we could.
The next two events were basically replays. At Charlotte and Summit Point we maintained our second-in-class finishes, slowly moving up though the overall standings. (The DNF at Blackhawk had dropped us as far back as the mid twenties overall, despite our consistency at all the other events.) The Omni, much to everybody's amazement, reappeared at Summit Point, and took eighth overall, leaving everybody wondering if the turbo had been slightly awry from day one.
Next up was Watkins Glen, in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York. We arrived in plenty of time, and Mark and I busied ourselves prepping the car, while Kevin said he needed some time alone to get himself mentally dialed in. When our car number was called to the line, Kevin had disappeared. Look! There he is, curled up on the grass behind the Valiant, wrapped in blankets, shivering. And it's 95 degrees. My gosh, he's sick as a dog, and I'm gonna need to be the driver. One problem, and, if you've ever driven at the Glen, you know what I'm talking about: the place is lined, end to end, with 4-high Armco barriers. It's like a luge run in a car. Not my idea of fun. Kevin, here, ol' friend, take some aspirin, will ya?
Mark and I physically "installed" him behind the wheel, and belted him in. "Drive!" we commanded. And, ya know what? Even burning with fever, Mr. Wesley rocked, finishing 11th overall, besting 73 other hot 'Lappers, including Nancy Becker's 1995 Mustang Cobra. (Nancy defected from a quick Neon team last year.) See Ya!
After another Hooters fun stop in Buffalo, it was west to Nelson Ledges, Ohio. We arrived at the crack of dawn, and prepped the car as usual. The track was damp, Kevin was sick and threatening to expire at any moment, and nobody else wanted to drive. Kevin decided to go for broke during the recon lap (again, you're allowed exactly one warmup lap before your two timed laps.) Unfortunately, he explored the limits of lateral wet traction-right into a tire wall, doing a bit of cosmetic damage, and, mainly, wrenching his back bigtime. Even with the dual agony of the fever and bruised vertebrae, Kev poured the coals on when the clocks were running, keeping our position secure. The crowd went nuts as Killer Kev passed a ZR-1, having to go way off-line to get it done. Joe also rocked in the Omni, but was bested by the Honda on the slick track. He reported massive wheelspin out of each and every corner.
The completion of Nelson left but one event: the tight suburban course at Waterford Hills, Michigan. Here, Kevin, still cooking both mentally and physically, went right for the jugular. He wanted that Gamaro bad, real bad. I told him to cool it, and just protect our second-in-class position. (And, mainly, keep the Valiant intact for my drive home the next day, thank you very much!) He "yessed" me to death, then went out and hammered the hell out of my once- primo baby. Our awesome Goodyear Eagles were wearing thin, which meant they were about right for the hot macadam. So, get this: he kept it on the track, and finished third overall! Beat the Camaro by three spots, too! Revenge is sweet, yes? Especially since it happened on the one track where the Valiant's handling and Kevin's driving mastery couldn't be overcome with raw megabuck power.
Meanwhile, Dave blasted in the Omni, taking the class here, and moving the Omni slowly back up through the standings.
So, here's the final tally. The Valiant took 16th overall, and second out of 11 cars in the class. The Buick Grand National challenge never amounted to much, and we beat the third-in-class Accel Camaro by almost a thousand points (and 15 places overall.) We blew away four ZR-1 s, (including one piloted by a very serious Steve Ahlgrim,) a BMW M1 (worth a cool $1/4 million!) and three M-3s, every Caprice cop car and Impala SS (there were a bunch,) and even Steve Beddor's megabuck RUF 911 Carerra-and his brother's RUF too. Both 427 Cobras were dusted by the Valiant, as well. But, probably the sweetest victory for the Valiant team was besting the new Z-28 of Fairway Chevrolet Co., since these guys had made a point of belittling our "plain Jane" car when we were required to stop for a checkpoint sticker at their dealership in Hazleton, PA.
The Omni team, unfortunately, didn't fare as well, having to settle for third in class and 47th overall. Still, even with three zero-point DNFs factored in, the Zelkowski team managed to beat two ZR-1s, a'95 C36 Mercedes, several 'Vettes, and a Taurus SHO. Dave's team also beat both Cobras. Making the medicine less painful was the knowledge that the Honda was beaten by Yates Jr.'s Shelby Charger for the class win.
Considering that the total worth of both of the Mopar Action entries is probably less than a pair of fenders for the winning Porsche, and that us "regular Joe" bucks-down privateers showed 69 other teams the fast way home, we're all standing tall. And, mainly, planning our revenge for next year! Ray Barton has promised us lots more horsepower, and...