A couple weeks back ex-Jalop legend Murilee Martin was judging the Buttonwillow Lemons race, when he texted me some sad news. The car I helped build and run back in '08 finally met its end.
An overzealous driver flipped the car on one of the turns. No one was hurt, but the ex-Make:Way car was no more. But I'm not here to bury a car, I'm here to tell you how to turn something as wimpy as an old Escort into a reasonably competitive race car.
I had pretty mixed feelings about the news. This was the first (and so far only, but I'm not going to admit that) purpose-built racecar I'd had a part in creating and running, so I had a lot of sentiment tied up in the car. On the other hand, I'm still a bit stunned the thing has been raced consistently since our run at Altamont in '08. This is a good death for a racecar, especially one as improbable as the Escort. I'm sure 99.99% of the of the automatic four-door 1993 Escorts met or will meet their ends rusting and molding away, forgotten in some alley. A death on a racetrack mid-race is the most exciting, honorable death any econobox can dream of.
The slushbox Escort's 2 liter mill made a very nostalgic 88 lazy horses. It was owned by a former high school music teacher (we found a conductor's baton in the car) who drove the car pretty gently and gave it up after a small accident convinced him he was too old. This car was, in no way whatsoever, a good candidate for a racing car.
What it was, however, was $300 and in remarkably good shape. I was being sponsored by Make: magazine, so they were more interested in playing by the rules and the process anyway, so we figured something as boring and common as that Escort would actually be perfect to show that you can race anything if you really want to.
We knew the car wouldn't ever really be fast, given our time, skill, and budget constraints. But that was okay, because in an endurance race like the 24 Hours of Lemons, there's another way to make a decent showing even if your car is slow as mucus sliding down drywall: stay on the track.
So that was our plan. If we were going to have a tortoise, that turtle would keep on going, no matter what. We'd do what we could to make the most out of the power we had (lighten like hell, unrestrict intake and exhaust) but our big hacks and mods were all about durability. And, for a race at Altamont in the middle of summer, durability means keeping cool.
Heat kills hard-working cars, and endurance racers are certainly being worked hard. Automatic transmissions are especially susceptible to death by cooking, meaning we had two big hot metal lumps to try and keep cool. Here's the hacks we used:
• Ventilate the hood, add fans: The Escort was an entry-level econobox, and not designed with specialized cooling ducting or anything exotic like that. As my teammate Tom said of the stock airflow "the stock fan sort of mashes the air in, like an infant shitting its diapers, until it leaks out around the leg openings."
We gave that air a map and a shove. We cut big holes in the hood's skin and installed wire mesh to keep the squirrels from getting mulched. On top of the hood we added two more big fans, in addition to the radiator fan. The radiator fan sucked air into the engine, the hood-top fans sucked it out. Even stuck in slow race traffic on the hairpin or at the chicane, our car would have plenty of cool air, and hot air would be asked to leave, firmly.
• Don't overwork the water pump: We thought two radiators would be badass and solve everything. We were stupid. The stock water pump can pump water to the single radiator in its stock location, and if you try to move it an inch more it'll fold faster than a robot origamist.
• Make an overkill transmission cooler from an A/C condenser: This was our big hack, and the one that likely is responsible for the car's long racing career. The stock tranny cooler is this joke of a little loop of pipe inside the radiator. It'll never get really cool, because it's already inside the hot radiator, and all it really does is let the transmission die a much slower, dignified death. We would have fried that slushbox the first day with it. What we did was pipe in a condenser from a car's air conditioning system. It's much, much bigger than the stock trans cooler but not quite as big as a full-size radiator. It's perfect for this, and you can use the input/output of the original inadequate trans cooler. We mounted ours right on top of the hood, with its own fan to suck air up through it.
We installed a temperature sensor on the hood, and checked the temps mid-race with an IR thermometer. Everything was right in the middle. It wasn't even getting hot, and we were driving that car harder and longer than it ever had been driven. It was great. We were only off the track for mechanical reasons once, when I lost a front left tire in a turn. The center of the wheel just ripped out, and I just kind of stopped.
With our spare on, we kept racking up lap after lap, ending up in 33rd place out of a field of nearly 100 cars. Not too bad for a boring and slow old Escort.
We had some other good hacks as well. For example, want a huge, Chaparral-style wing for your car? Try an old surfboard. It's light and easy to work with. Need to protect and insulate long runs of wiring? Use a garden hose. We relocated the wiring harness inboard on the car, to protect from the frequent contact with other cars. We used old, slit garden hose to insulate and protect, and it proved incredibly durable.
That car had a very boring life that got exciting fast. After we raced it, and before we sold it to the other team to keep racing it, it had a bit part in the wildly popular OK Go Rube Goldberg video, which one of my teammates, Brett, worked on.
I'm sure everyone's Lemons car is packed full of great hacks, and I'd love to hear about them. But today, let's decant a quart of 10W-40 on the ground for a fallen friend. I'm sure she's keeping faster cars back in the afterlife's next-to-crappiest racetrack now.