BY RICHARD EHRENBERG with MARK GRUBELICH. Copyright © 1995 Richard Ehrenberg. Used by permission. Written in 1995.First printed in Mopar Action
did it again. For the sixth straight year, the slightly loony Mopar Action team ran the equally bonkers Car & Driver One Lap of
America. Why loony, you ask? Well, who, in their right mind, would subject themselves to six days (and nights) of boring interstate driving
for the privilege of three minutes of racing at eleven 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 COrvettes 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. 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 pro racer Stu Hayner. 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,
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
recurrence 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
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
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,
The previous One Lap of America trip in a Plymouth Duster!
More by Rick Ehrenberg!
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