I blew the Alfa's head gasket on the track

I feel like I could tell the story of what happened today just with rejected headlines for this post:

  • I took 2 cars to the track and only broke 1.5 of them
  • Boom goes the head gasket
  • I blew a head gasket and boiled a clutch
  • Peeing in a bottle in a storage unit was not the worst part of my day
  • Old Italian car comes over all old and Italian
  • I guess it is time to LS swap the Alfa
  • I blew my head gasket and boiled my clutch
  • One car down and the other wounded
  • Well at least I got a hot lap in before it all went wrong
  • This is why I can’t have nice things
  • I found another thing I’m not very good at
  • Track day really blew
  • Track day got all hot and steamy
  • It has been a doozy of a day

And it indeed has been a doozy of a day. A Real doozy.


The day started at 6:10AM when my alarm went off, telling me that is was time to get off my lazy ass, feed the dogs, and drive the Alfa the forty minutes to Hallett Motor Racing Circuit for a private, Alfa “only” event. The organizers had made some changes to the format that seemed to make the safety of the event acceptable, so I decided to go.

On the way in I was briefly behind a white, rental spec Malibu which promptly drove through some roadkill and flung a chunk of viscera onto the windshield, just out of the range of the wipers. Watching a fresh chunk of a former animal flap in the breeze for the next twenty five minutes felt like a omen.


I tried not to read into it.

I arrived on time, against all odds, and set about catching up with people and chatting with a friend, Brady, who I’d invited to pad out the numbers. Shortly after 8:30 we had an overly brief safety meeting, and began the the day.

ignore the “In-Lap,” it didn’t trigger correctly.
ignore the “In-Lap,” it didn’t trigger correctly.

Due to some drop-outs because of weather, Brady, myself, and another Series 3 Spider were in group three of four. When our turn came up we did some pace laps with “Mad Mike” running in front of us in lieu of the usual in-car instruction.


After a few laps we were set loose, but shortly thereafter our time was up.

About an hour later it was time for another go, and this is where things went south.


I was posting good lap times and the Spider was running well. After an overtake of the other S3 Spider, I noticed some water on the windshield which seemed... odd. As I was passing the pit lane I realized the volume of water was increasing and also coming from my car.



I did an emergency dive for the pit lane, sadly not my last of the day, and returned to my paddock.

When I popped the hood I was greeted with an all too familiar sight: Coolant had squirted out of the (non pressurized) overflow tank. I took temperature readings with an IR thermometer but the car didn’t appear to be overheating, with the hot side of the radiator reading 190F, which isn’t terribly abnormal.


Still, my temperature gauge was slightly higher than normal.

I consulted the Alfa expert and his best guess was I had too much coolant in my overflow.




Since I’ve had similar problems before when the system was vapor locked, I went ahead and opened up the bleeder to make sure there weren’t any bubbles.

There were not.

At least not in the bleeder.

However when I started the car for the bleed, a different Alfa expert noticed bubbles in my expansion tank.


A lot of bubbles.

That.... isn’t normal.


The now constant stream of bubbles paired with the small oil slick in the overflow reservoir led everyone to conclude the head gasket had failed or, more likely, has been bad for years but the hard driving today finally caused it to become a major problem.


Since this was right around lunch, the oil in the engine was still oil-colored (no milkshake), and the car appeared to be OK under normal driving, I took off towards home like a bat out of hell, heater cooking my feet to mid-well in an attempt to keep the engine temps down.

Before I hit the highway I called my partner and asked him to meet me at my storage unit with the Volvo keys in forty minutes. Confused and alarmed, he agreed.


Forty minutes later a Jeep and an Alfa met outside a dingy storage facility, keys and hugs were exchanged. I stuffed the Alfa in storage, top still down, and sped off back to the track in the Volvo.

The good news is past Akio left me with a full tank of gas in the Volvo. The bad news is some time since I last put the Volvo in storage an unseen windshield chip turned into a massive windshield crack. The nebulous existential dread news is I had no idea how well the C30 was going to track. It has been maintained by my mechanic to the usual Volvo maintenance schedule. I had no idea what the condition of the brakes or brake fluid was... or really any other wear item.


Still, I was probably only going to get one or two runs before the end of the day so... I motored.

I arrived at the track right as my group was finishing their run, and proceeded to clean all of the daily driver trash out of the Volvo in perpetration for hooning it.


And then I hooned it.

Yes I turned the traction control off, even though it would have turned itself off after a couple laps anyway
Yes I turned the traction control off, even though it would have turned itself off after a couple laps anyway

This gave me several very new experiences:

Illustration for article titled I blew the Alfas head gasket on the track
  1. Driving the Volvo in anger
  2. Driving on a track in a car with a roof
  3. Driving on a track in a car with AC*
  4. Driving on the track in a front wheel drive car

*Yeah I probably could have turned it off, but the Volvo has a WOT AC cutout so I figured it wasn’t hurting my lap times too bad. Also it was hot out!


That last one was the real kicker. I mean... going from the Alfa to the Volvo was bound to be weird. One is a RWD convertible with manual steering and the other a FWD hatchback with electric power steering. Overall the Volvo was, of course, faster, about 15 - 20 seconds per lap, but a lot less predictable and not confidence inspiring. It just didn’t feel as composed and was actually slower in some of the tight corners, making up its time in the straights.

The temperature did creep up a bit here and there, but quickly went down on some of the longer curves or easier sections.


Then I boiled the clutch.

Which I’ll be honest I didn’t think was an option.

On the last lap, right as I was seeing the checkered flag (signal this is to be your last lap) I went to grab 2nd for the main straight and the clutch pedal didn’t fully return. While I was still accelerating like a blue rocket, I figured this was a great way to turn a clutch into smoke, and ditched at the start/finish line.


Turns out if you boil the brakes on a manual Volvo C30 the clutch goes before the brakes do? I’d call that a feature because I’d much rather not have a clutch than not have brakes.


And there ends my track day.

Luckily after sitting for a few the clutch came right back and I was able to drive again. I pulled into my paddock for the last time and, as is the tradition, cracked a celebratory beer while packing up.


Forgetting of course that I’d skipped lunch... and breakfast... so that beer was now making up approximately 50% of my consumed calories for the day...

The drive home was uneventful. I stopped by the storage unit to visit the stricken Alfa, connect it to a battery tender, put the top up, and grab my dash cam.


Then I went home and wrote this post.

Current mood:

Illustration for article titled I blew the Alfas head gasket on the track

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