Many decry the effects that social media has on culture today. Too many people see society as a whole developing a worsening ability to deal in person versus an online persona. Here’s the thing: social media has the ability to bring like-minded people together. Case in point: this last weekend, when a random check of my Facebook wound up putting me behind the pit wall as another set of hands of the ex-Playboy Cup #76 2006 Mazda MX-5 being raced in the American Endurance Racing series within the matter of an hour or so. How the hell did this happen?
Go back to when Lohnes and I went up to Maine to cover Red Bull Frozen Rush. Many journos were there to check out flying trucks on a ski resort, battling it out in the powder, and one of the names and faces that stuck with me was Bozidar “Bozi” Tatarević, who can be found writing for The Truth About Cars and pairs off with his brother Bojan for the Boost Brothers YouTube channel. While I was waiting in line at the parts store for items needed to keep working on the Imperial’s engine, I do what I always do…quickly check Facebook to see if anything new or notable has popped up that I need to make note of. Sure enough, there’s Bozi at …NCM? My neck of the woods? Cool…I shoot a kind of “welcome to my hood, what are you up to?” message and he shoots back an invite to stop by and check out what’s up as RTF Racing qualifies for the race this weekend. I can make time for that, no problem.
I show up and immediately understand that something’s up, because NCM’s Matt Busby is chatting it up with Matt Farah from The Smoking Tire. That’s…not my normal. But ok, I’ve got a quick question for Busby anyways that will affect the Cadillac limo and this winter’s plans for it’s demise. While I’m getting what I need, a guy rolls up to me on a scooter and introduces himself as Bozi’s agent. This would be Bojan, the equally smart and equally capable other half of Boost Brothers. Bozi is out on the track and will be back in a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t check out the garage.
The next introductions: a long-haired, excited individual who is very pleased to be at the track and a blonde next to a modified, street-going MX-5 that I swear I’ve seen before…I think. “You’re the guy with the Mustang, right?” What? Mustang? “You know, the meet last month…” Oh. That was the same day I was covering the Optima deal, and I remember these two blocking the Great Pumpkin in for a moment while they were doing some work on the car. This would be Jack Baruth and his wife, Charley. Over the next bit of time I would learn that in addition to the Tatarević brothers, the Baruths and Farah, I’d be joined by Kevin Madsen, Chuck, Curtis, “Mental” Ward, and more. And I’m now being offered a spot on the team if I’d like for the weekend to assist in fueling the MX-5 during laps. I’m not shutting that down, even if I need to keep wrenching on the 360.
But early on, a problem presented itself: the fueler needs to wear a full racing suit that is fire-rated. The only thing I have that could work are a pair of Army aviation gloves and my helmet, which is a motorcycle piece, not even legal for road racing. Crap. The helmet would fly in this situation, but the lack of a firesuit would not. Luckily, Baruth had a spare and he’s close to me in height, so we might be able to make it work. Or, at least, that’s the idea. I’m a touch too tall for the suit, but we are able to get it on and zipped up. I now look like an overstuffed sausage in the casing. And speaking of sausage…well, let’s just say that there is a very radical difference in inseam between me and Baruth. But I clamp down, and will press on, regardless. I head off while they bring the MX-5 in from qualifying to do some pre-race checks and preparations.
Ditching my jeans for a set of basketball shorts that would allow the casual observer to figure out my religion just on sight and a loose T-shirt was my best bet against any unnecessary damage, so with a change of clothes in hand, my helmet in the backseat and my cooler filled with ice and water to combat the Kentucky heat and humidity, I arrive in the morning and find out that the cars went hot about an hour before I appeared. (I did arrive well before I was told to, so no harm, no foul.) Shit, I need to get in gear! I ditch the Chrysler and run in to get changed…and the suit, which I had folded up and left near the garage door, is gone. I search the garage to no avail, so I go to the pit itself. Mercifully, I would not have to wear the suit all weekend. Bozi needed a firesuit and it appears to fit him a hell of a lot better, anyways. This means I’m not fueling the car, but it also means that I can support Bojan during refueling stops by handing him the six-gallon jugs over the barrier. For this race, whenever a car pits in, from the moment it passes an RFID scanner at the top of pit lane until the moment it leaves through the second RFID scanner at the entrance to the course, a minimum of three minutes must pass. Doesn’t matter if you’re just checking something out or you’re doing the full-kill fuel and driver change. When we have to hold the MX-5 up to make sure we make three minutes after swapping drivers and fueling, that’s all right and my usefulness is proven. Sweet.
Most of the time spent is downtime…fuel counts, temperatures, and other data are logged in a notebook while a spotter keeps tabs on fuel consumption. Generally, we were getting about eighty minutes out of a driving session, and with each driver we got to see different styles. Farah is deadly consistent and aggressive without being dramatic. “Mental” is just as on-kill and works to earn back advantages. Chuck is a calm and solid driver who isn’t so much aggressive as he is reliable…he’s the guy you want to keep the car in one piece and to stretch out a stint’s fuel use. And in endurance racing, that’s a good thing to have. This is chess with exhaust notes…if you can stretch out fuel and tires long enough to make a rival team pit first, you gain that upper hand. If you botch a pit stop or the car suddenly becomes bitchy and problematic, any advantage goes away. Throughout the morning, the MX-5 dices with a couple other Miatas, including one sporting a Honda K20 swap, a Honda Fit, and a slew of BMWs that are in a different class. An older Shelby GT500 is doing mild laps, and a Porsche 911 that is built to kill is being modified to be legal for NCM’s sound limits nearby.
In the afternoon the problems start. The MX-5 develops heat spikes in the engine. The 2.0L naturally-aspirated four is happiest somewhere between 207 and 215 degrees. Temperatures in the 240s are not good, and when they creep towards 260 while Madsen is out, the call is made to shut down the Miata and to let the tow truck bring it back to the pits. The coolant reservoir tank is devoid of any water, the engine is hotter than Hades, and there is only splatter to determine what the hell happened. We let the MX-5 cool down and start feeding it distilled water slowly, trying to figure out what happened. Brains are racked as the entire group tries to figure out what happened. Did the radiator cap call it quits? Is the thermometer stuck closed? Did the water pump pack it in? Parts are sourced and the Mazda retires, down but not out, with Bozi, Bojan, and anyone else nearby spinning wrenches. There’s always tomorrow. Just don’t tell that to the Porsche guys, who have met the wall so hard that suspension groups are completely ripped off. I’ve never seen a brake rotor of that caliber broken in half before.
Forget the Chrysler, I had to bring the Limo to the track…if for nothing else, a good laugh. During the night, the Miata’s cooling system got a thorough going-through…the water pump, thermostat assembly, coolant cap and serpentine belt. The roadster was even left in a nose-up stance on jackstands during the burping process to make damn sure that there is no way in hell that the little baby-blue screamer should have an overheating problem. Buttoned up and back on track, the MX-5 is cranking out the laps, hanging around the 2:30 mark and clipping a best of 2:28.861. There’s no stopping the car…except that was was originally suspected to be a temperature sensor having troubles turned to a reading of 419 degrees Fahrenheit on the dash and the car really packing it in. Great. The car is once again towed in, and once again we dig in and get to work on diagnosing. Bozi is sweating buckets over the hot engine, doing his damnedest to figure out what’s going on. Meanwhile, Farah’s Instagram account offers up a potential problem and solution: the coolant reservoir itself. A little heat, a little flexing and the stock plastic tank can open up enough to let some steam out. That’s when someone looks at the red street-going MX-5.
With a very nice looking coolant reservoir.
When in racing, you do what you have to do to win, right?
The borrowed tank in place, the system fed and burped, the car checked over and over to make certain that we aren’t going to nuke the four-banger and that we are not dealing with a potential head gasket, and we shove Baruth into the MX-5 and send him out, and he proceeds to put the “flying” into flying lap, battling with BMWs that are well above his class. With the day winding down and the checkered flag dropping in about a half-hour, we perform a driver change and get Charley into the car for some laps. Two laps from completion, she loops it at the entrance to the “Sinkhole” corner, but we later see in the footage that she does one hell of a job from keeping the Mazda away from tire walls and Armco barriers. She finishes, and the Miata, wearing some new scars courtesy of a meeting with another MX-5, smelling like hot radiator, is done for the weekend. Parts are loaded up, thanks are given out and everyone heads home.
The MX-5 isn’t dead. It’ll be getting a new coolant tank, probably in metal, and will probably get a check of the head gasket, considering how many times the car got properly hot before it makes an appearance at Mid-Ohio in October. Handing off fuel jugs during refueling might be a small token of work considering what everyone else was doing, but any useful hand on deck is a welcome thing, and whether I was assisting with the wrenching, cleaning up after a pit stop or just lightening the mood with the “Boogie Nights Limo” in view had to have some source of merit. Thanks to all of these guys for the opportunity to join the fun, the amusement, the jokes, the food, and the experience and lessons…it’s interesting to see the operations of an endurance team versus autocrossing or stuff like King of the Heap or Track-X where you make a quick run and get to shake the car down for the next lap.