The ole 323 GTX was doin pretty good at Summer Sno-Drift until it wasn’t. Sums it up pretty good actually.
The last time we checked in was after the team’s appearance at Sno-Drift where we managed to survive a wearing gearbox – of famed fragility – and come in 3rd in Open Class. We’ve had a fairly bad run of luck and circumstances and finishing both days in respectable positions was a good bit of positive reinforcement in what can be a brutally disappointing sport.
Our next run at the 100 Acre Wood Rally in the Ozarks of Missouri didn’t go so well. We had approximately 7.5 miles of fun before the transmission totally gave out. (And about half of those were done with a water bottle sliding under all three pedals – lots’a fun. Let me tell you!) We spent the rest of our time hanging with locals, drinking funny smelling stuff out of mason jars, and hanging out on top of a Multifuel M35 Deuce. As much as I love going to the races this is why spectating a rally is so much more of an undertaking and ultimately, more rewarding. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of fun, but it wasn’t driving.
The summer was spent fixing and installing the car’s dogbox from back in its hill climbing days out in Colorado. 5th gear’s engagement hub was shot an’ disappeared along with the differential whose spider gears had given up, went to F’n’University, and took the rest of it out with them. So in a parking spot in downtown Detroit a friend and I proceeded to tear apart the transmission used for Sno-Drift, extract the diff and the 5th gear set and took them to the transmission guy to replace the broken bits.
All was well! The transmission made another huge leap for the car. The short gearing is fun and keeps the 1.8L engine in the torque curve even though we now top out just shy of 100mph. There is very little bogging down and I have confidence in being able to floor it even in higher grip situations, though I still don’t launch it… Once this is gone it’s gonna be gone so might as well try and make it last. Learning to drive it was fairly easy if, as the transmission specialist told me, you think of your arm as an actuator. No need to gorilla the thing, just shift quickly and precisely with one fast, fluid motion. I messed it up once out of habit, the sound it made was so terrible i will never do it again. One and done.
So at this point it was just making sure enough air was flowing through the intercooler and intake and we were good with weeks to spare! Of course, this is #LilredGTXLife and things did not go to plan. Something in the trans was wrong, came undone, broke itself, enrolled in F’n’University and came to a halt.
I tore it apart, found the problem, found the replacement part, drove back to the transmission shop, stayed the night, had it fixed (under warranty), and drove home. Reinstalled the engine and trans with a few days to go.
So there’s the story of the buildup to our Summer Sno-Drift. Peaks and troughs, peaks and troughs, but the car felt good, was running well, and was ready.
There are moments in racing/rally where you know that everything is correct. Every vacuum line has been replaced, the tune has been examined over and over, everything is torqued, checked, cleaned, torqued, again and still through the sweat and dirt maybe you manage to miss something.
The first stage was so much fun. Summer Sno-Drift is an old school rally meaning that we have no recce and only run on tulip notes more akin to what you’d find on a Time Distance Rally than an actual performance rally. It is fun and lets the drivers really get on it with just their sight to guide them. The co-drivers still play a pivotal role but it is seemingly reduced and much more vague. Instead of “300, L3, over crest, into R4 don’t cut, 100, crest, 200, crest R6 Tree inside, 100… etc.” you’ll hear “No notes for 1.7 miles.” 1.7 miles later… “Medium left in about .5 miles.” You get the point. Personally I like it and we are going to try working on more descriptive notes in the future rather than actual numbers.
The stage went well aside from a couple slip ups from both seats and once we established a rhythm it felt pretty good. At the end though I couldn’t help but notice that something was a little off. The alignment had changed just a tad. Things seemed tight as I moved it around and at the next check out I got out to check that the wheels were tight and do just a general shake n sniff before we kept going. Things seemed fine. We’d check and tighten everything at service.
Second stage again was a lot of fun though I drove with the knowledge that something may have been off. Short and fast with a couple of deceptive turns. The car still felt tight and we seemed to be catching the car up front.
The third stage was a repeat of the first. Things were going well, the rhythm and flow was finally getting established and then on a fairly fast right hander something let go.
We pushed through some deep sandy ruts as the car gently oversteered I corrected, and then the car fainted to the left and dove to the right. The steering wheel spun out of my hands taking my thumb with it (THUMBS OUT!) as the car pitched itself into an embankment.
We got out, did the ritual of setting up the triangles and getting out the OK sign as I inspected the damage, pacing up and down cursing like a sailor. The ball joint had shaken itself loose, the wheel let go swinging outward and ripping the axle in two. The right side of the car was pretty well jammed into the sand.
Now this was stupid. The roads were rough and bumpy but they didn’t seem that rough and bumpy and I knew I had tightened those bolts down… right?
We got picked up and taken back to service. After looking at our somewhat limited parts bin it appeared that we actually had a spare front left axle… Ho-ly shit. Dan (crew chief), Milo the rally dog, and I threw everything into the car and made our way back out to the stricken 323, alone and broken in the woods. Dan popped in the spare, tightened up the ball joint with our freshly gotten bolts from the hardware store and I drove the car back into service sans a bumper. (It fell off along the way and I ran it over...) That. Is. All. The car was fine. We petitioned to restart and at the very last minute with help from rally friends we got the car back out ON TIME (ish) for the stage after service. Again, Ho-ly shee-it.
We took the next two stages pretty easy. It was safe to say confidence was not high and we were just after stage miles and experience at this point. We did catch another car on stage but the dust was so bad that I couldn’t get close enough to make our presence known or make a pass.
At the start of stage 7 Kate looked at the AFR Gauge and it was FULL LEAN. No numbers, just a little red dot pinned to the right side of the gauge face and a couple little dashes of death. I, in my infinite wisdom, started off thinking maybe it’ll get better. We made it about a quarter mile before I turned the car off and coasted to a nice little side road and met the locals, borrowed a phone, and got towed back to the trailer. Our rally was done. On closer inspection the downpipe had rattled itself off of the turbo housing… Why was it reading full lean? Oh, because it was ONLY GETTING FRESH AIR! Of course, I mean what else could it have been?
So there you have it. The car is fine. The hand sprained pretty badly but fine. The pride is a little hurt but fine. The 323 GTX was great. This time, a triple bolt check and more Loctite was clearly the answer. Check, double check, and triple check. In the run-up and putting the engine/trans in and out things were checked, double checked, but the triple? The luck we had for them to come off on a particularly innocuous corner was incredible. We just happened to come apart at probably the widest and sandiest part of the stage. We were able to scrub speed (though as a passenger) due to the sand and hit a mostly sand embankment. We were lucky.
The car is improving, the notes are improving, and even the driver is improving. If we hadn’t rattled apart I think we’d have had a pretty good battle with some competitors. As ever, now’s the time to reflect on past mistakes and take steps to correct them. We are in one piece and so is the car.
We will be at the Empire Hill Climb Sept 24th and then the big one - the Lake Superior Performance Rally. This year will feature a night stage in DOWNTOWN HOUGHTON under the bridge. It should be very cool and anyone with any interest at all should come, say hi, and lend a hand.
As always a big thanks to our sponsors MFD Classic Motors, Mr Hoxie’s Garage, Quigley’s Custom Carpentry, and Bahle Properties.
And check us out at our Facebook page! Just About Right Racing’s Facebook Page
POR and keep keepin those thumbs out.