It's impossible to tell the whole legend of Pete Peterson's Killer ZomBee MGB, but a basic Google search will give the key points:
- The once-smooth Killer Bee's bone-crunching flip and unlikely resurrection as the ZomBee
- The 1,400-mile round trip to a race with just the car and a handful of spares
- A second apparently crippling accident caught in a series of photos, again resurrected with Peterson's will and a BFH
- The painfully slow British car's Class C victory in its 12th crapcan race
- Hooniversal Car of the Year award in 2011 for some, maybe all, of the above-mentioned reasons (and more)
And that's only some of it. For the unfamiliar (or the familiar), check out the ZomBee's résumé:
|[The Rusty Hub wasn't sure if Pete had a résumé for the car, so we made one, borrowing Steven Cavalieri's gorgeous rendering of the car.] (Steven Cavalieri image)|
If you've got some time to spare, read Pete's own account of how he got tangled up in the crapcan world. The first part can be found here and you should read all parts of it.
So much has happened to the car and to Peterson since he began that it would take dozens--maybe hundreds--of hours to get the whole scoop. As it was, Pete very generously and humbly gave The Rusty Hub 45 minutes of his time to talk about the Killer ZomBee, learning experiences, the Prince of Darkness, and what's truly rewarding about the crapcan world.
[Editor's Note: This interview is Part 1 of the story. Check back tomorrow for interviews with four members of the Killer Bee's driver roster in Part 2. You don't want to miss it, trust us.]
The Rusty Hub: Could a Triumph have ever done what the MGB has done?
Pete Peterson: Never! [Laughs] Triumphs have beaten us just about every race, as far as being faster, but they can never come back from the dead like an MG can.
Your car is called Lazarus because it won't die, is that right?
Correct. Well, we originally called the car the Killer Bee--you know MG-"Bee"--and then, of course, it died. Do you know Eyesore Racing?
One of their drivers actually suggested the ZomBee theme. So I said, "Yeah! It's perfect."
So why don't you talk a little about how many times this car has come back form the dead?
[Laughs] OK. Well, there's a long, convoluted story behind that. When I first bought the car, I was looking for an MGB. I had a dream at a previous race and I said, 'Hey, why don't I just do an MG?' So I went looking for one and found a yellow one. When I went to get it, it was at a shop up in the Berkeley area. And I got to talking to the guy and said "Will you take $500?" and he said, "Sure." I got to talking to the guy and mentioned one of the judge's names--the LeMons judges--and the guys said, "You're not going to enter this car in that crazy race he's always talking about, are you?" So I said, "Uh...what?"
The guy told me the story of the car; the car's name was Lazarus, because he'd known the original owner from the day it was purchased, and it had been hit by a garbage truck and some other things. It kept coming back to life. So when the big incident happened on the track, that was our second race. So I knew that if it was at all possible, I was going to have bring this car back to life one more time.
|In a sea of tired old cars, Pete Peterson's ZomBee is very conspicuous. Yet, the 1977 MGB always appears both exhausted and excited to be racing once again. (Murilee Martin photo)|
And you did that with just hand tools and ingenuity pretty much, right?
Yeah, I did it with a chain, a scissor jack, two 2" x 4"s and an engine pulley, and a big hammer. [Laughs] And that was it.
Is the car still running on a borrowed motor?
It is. I think it was just over a year ago, we'd blown up a fresh motor. One of our drivers, I think, missed a shift or something and kablooy'd it, blew out the oil pan. The very next weekend, we had a big MG car show. So the day before the show, I snuck out onto the street and stole my wife's motor from her street MG. It's still in the car.
So what's in her car?
It's sat in the driveway ever since and...yeah...As a matter of fact, her parents offered to have me do some chores around the house for extra money on the condition that I get her car running again. [Laughs] Hint, hint.
We're already building a new motor for the ZomBee, so she'll be getting hers back real quickly.
How many motors has it gone through total?
Let's see...there's the original motor that came in the car and that was a piece of junk when I bought it and I knew it. And then I had the motor that I stuck in it that was earmarked for another MG I was restoring in the garage. And that one has blown up twice now. The first time it blew up, it was actually on the way to the--I don't know if you remember the story about the big dyno faceoff at Evil Genius Racing...
Yeah, I was on the way up there to smack down a certain Sunbeam and we lost a couple of rod bearings on the way up. We think that was residual from the big flip. With a week to go, I came back and stuck the old motor back in it. We ran it to see how far it would go at the first Sears Point and we went three or four hours with zero oil pressure.
Yeah. It's a big lump; I can't even get the oil dipstick out of the engine anymore.
It just kept going.
|Pete pulled an all-nighter swapping the engine from his wife's streetcar MGB into the Killer ZomBee. The car has run several races on "Super Spouse's" engine but will be giving it back soon. (Pete Peterson photo)|
Is that one of the selling points for you for running an MG? That they're supposedly pretty easy to fix and they'll take a beating?
Yeah. I've run MGs since, I guess, almost 20 years now. So I knew them pretty well inside and out. Broken down on the side of the road, I have confidence I can fix just about anything if I have enough duct tape. I actually had a hard time with...what's the right word for it...entering a car to its death in LeMons, especially an MG, because I'd save any car I could. But there was a conversation I had with Steven Cavalieri--he does all the artwork for LeMons--he said, "You know, it doesn't have to be like a demolition derby thing anymore; it's kind of like a last hurrah where it can go out and have some fun and play."
So I thought about that and I'd always wanted to make an MG race car anyway, so my original thought was to build a cheap car, get my feet wet racing in it, and eventually turn it into a real race car. In any case, that night, our car didn't show up for the race--it was the exoskeleton Jag fiasco. It never showed up to the race and that night at the hotel room, I had a dream about the Killer Bee. It was all preordained, I think.
So you foresaw all this in a dream. Is that right?
Yeah, it was the weirdest thing. [Laughs] I woke up in the middle of the night and said to my wife, "Killer Bee!" And she said, "What? Go back to bed."
I remember back in the day, they used to rally these cars. And if they hit a tree or a rock or something, you know the front end of the car is so stout and overly built, that all they would do is cut the sheet metal off, weld on a new front clip, and go racing again. I knew the front end was strong enough to handle it, but the rear is kind of a weak spot for us.
Well, you've lucked out in that all the major impacts have been on the front end, haven't they?
The biggest one was on the front end. We've been hit twice in the rear, one by the--they've both been at Sears Point as a matter of fact--the big, uh...
It was a [Nissan] Z, wasn't it?
The Z hit us and that shortened the car by several inches. And then we got tagged by an Alfa, which nearly put the car out of commision.
Your accidents have been very photogenic. Is there a key to that?
[Laughs] I think it's the antenna balls. When you see ball coming down the track, you're just mesmerized and the cameras all train on them.
Makes as much sense as anything.
We actually put the antenna balls on there as a joke in the first race. And then we realized that the car is so small that cars can actual tell where we were from those things floating in the air. And we now use them as kind of a warning sign: "Here's where we are." And they react to the G force so they know which way we're going.
|Compared to later races, the Bee looked showroom-shiny in its first outing at Reno-Fernley in 2009. (Murilee Martin Photo)|
[Laughs] Yeah, you guys run on lots of tracks with elevation changes, so you can probably see them over crests and stuff.
Yep. Long before you see the car. I think at one of the races, we were the tallest car out there.
Really? That's kind of ironic, isn't it...So your initiation to LeMons came as part of Lou Brero Jr.'s Jaguar disaster weekend. Can you give us a short version of that story? I know it's several hours long, probably.
[Laughs] Well, the short version goes, I enter [a Datsun roadster] into a car show and the guy who runs it kept talking about LeMons and was all excited about it. So I looked it up and decided to start my own team. And everybody kind of wimped out when it came time to actually buy a car. And this happened several times and I missed a couple races.
I got on the Internet in frustration and happened to see Lou's ad on Craigslist. So I called him up and looked him up on the Internet and saw that he was some famous guy and thought, "Oh, cool. I can't go wrong!" [Laughs]
Turns out he was a really great guy and I learned a lot and that from those meager beginnings, things could only get better.
I think it was probably the best intro to LeMons that someone probably could have had. I had no expectations.
The story is that he basically spent the whole weekend...he showed up with the car not ready and spent the whole weekend building it. Is that pretty much how it went?
I think that's how it went with about every race he was in. With ours, he was still building the car Saturday morning in the Berkeley area. It finally showed up [Saturday] night. Sunday morning, it went through tech. Jay [Lamm] pulled all three of us drivers aside and said, "This car is not safe; I wouldn't drive it. This guy is a friend of mine, I'll let him on the track, but if you die in it, it's your ass." And the three of us look at each other and we're like, "That's good enough for us." [Laughs] It was a great experience.
Not like a great great experience but more like a learning experience?
Learning experience, yeah. The good thing was that it was priceless in the people I met and the information I picked up. It's one thing to build a car and show up and do everything wrong and be panicked all weekend, but I actually got to sit around all weekend and rub elbows with all the core LeMons people and learned a lot.
How many races have you run since then?
The ZomBee has completed, I believe, 13 races. I get confused because I ran two races with the competing [ChumpCar World Series], which one was an utter disaster.
Were they both in Portland? I know you ran one in Portland.
The disaster was in Portland. Yeah, people are still mad at me up there, I don't go up there very often. [Laughs] The other was in Buttonwillow--no, not Buttonwillow--Streets of Willow. That race, we actually had our first race that was successful. Out of 106 cars, I think, we finished like 39th or something. We were surprised we finished. And then the next race we flipped, the next race we blew up, the next race was Portland and we couldn't run.
The Streets of Willow race finally vindicated the car. And it's been pretty good ever since.
|The Bee projects an air of sadness after The Flip. Later in the paddock, Peterson would bang the bodywork back into good enough shape to be able to tow the car home. (Pete Peterson photo)|
I think I read somewhere that [ChumpCar founder] John Condren built the car's first cage. Is that right?
Yeah, he helped me weld it together.
Did he help with the second one, too, after you rolled it?
No, the second one I took up to Evil Genius [Racing]. You know, it's all fun and games until you actually flip. [Laughs] And then you're like, "Oh, boy we're not playing around anymore."
Yeah, that's kind of sobering I guess.
But the first cage was actually a purpose-built cage that they use all over the place. Or a purpose-bent cage from like Autopower.
It did its job.
It did do its job and a lot of people--you know, there was a big hoopla on Jalopnik about whether or not it failed. You may have seen the pictures where there's some cracks around the welds. If you really look closely--I don't know a whole lot about welding--but it looked to me like the welds themselves held and the metal around it ripped. But that's for the professionals to look at.
Alright. So among the Killer Bee's many exploits, you won an award at the Concours d'LeMons, an Organizer's Choice, [Index of Effluency], Hooniversal Car of the Year, and a Class C win in December, right?
Which one is your favorite award or was maybe most rewarding to you?
Most rewarding...that's a tough one. I think they're all special for their own reasons. But for sheer stupidity, the IOE, driving up to Portland and back. That was quite the accomplishment, I must say.
Yeah, can you talk a little bit about that trip? That's one of the most unique experiences I've heard from LeMons.
And again, that's another story that can probably be told in hours, but can you give maybe some of the highs and lows of it?
Sure. Well, it was actually kind of the mother of necessity. The tow rig we have is a really old RV called Brownie--the World's Crappiest Old RV™--and it gets about 6 miles per gallon on a good day. I was looking at the race and I couldn't really afford to get up there, but my family is up there and I'd love to be up there.
And then two things happened. First off, the people from--Paul and Judy from Stick Figure Racing, the people who did the MRolla, that's our sister team--they didn't have a ride for the race. And a guy named Mike Harrell was running a crazy Saab for the race. So he invited me on his team. And I thought this was perfect; I'll drive the Bee up there with a trailer full of spares, let those guys drive my car, and I'll be on his team. And of course, all the trailers I have only happen to have one wheel. The scene just kind of wrote itself.
|After a few hours getting intimate with Peterson's hammer, the MGB returned as the Killer ZomBee. (Pete Peterson photo)|
Yeah, you decked it out like the Oregon Trail, if I remember correctly.
Yeah, "You have died of dysentery."
[Laughs] Did the car die of dysentery? I seem to recall it breaking down on the way back.
Yeah, on the way up, it started running funny about 20 minutes outside of Portland. It started missing really bad and I had to pump the accelerator just to keep it from stalling. When we got to their house, it was running on two cylinders. You know, like five miles per hour going "Dumpa-dumpa-dumpa."
So the next day, I pulled the head off and one of the spark plugs was just beat to smithereens and completely gone. I did a spark plug change and it looked OK, but it just wouldn't start. So for the last two hours of the trip, I actually had to tow it with my dad's little pickup. And for the race, suddenly, it ran great.
And as soon as I left Portland, I got to the same area and I ended up burning a valve. Luckily, I had a spare motor in the passenger seat. I went to pull the head off that engine to swap on real quick, and it turned out the exact same valve was burnt on that motor.
Yeah, so I high-tailed it back to...what's the name of that town...one of them Oregon towns where a buddy lives. He let me use his garage and the next morning when Harbor Freight opened up, I went and got a valve-spring compressor, worked on the valve real quick, and nursed it home.
That's quite an adventure. And you won the IOE in the middle of that.
Correct. Two best things about that whole trip-well, three things: My nieces and nephews, they got to see the car race. And winning that trophy during that race was, like, pretty special. But the trophy itself is an upside-down Gremlin and that was a joke in my family that my first car was a Gremlin. It had a story almost as bad as the Bee, as far as being beat up. When they saw the trophy, they all freaked out.
I read a little bit of your blog and you mentioned how you accidentally learned how to drift in a Gremlin.
[Laughs] Yeah! That's the car.
How did that car meet its end?
Two things happened: I hit a couple cedar trees and ripped the suspension out. It was right in front of a neighbor's house and he had two Hornet race cars in the back, so he went out behind and cut off the suspension for me. We rolled it out and I put it on the Gremlin with a hammer, vice grips, and a screwdriver. [Laughs] And it actually rolled one other time.
And then when I joined the Navy and went overseas, I left it at a friend's house. And some neighborhood kids were using it as a snowmobile jump. And one of them actually went through the windshield.
Yeah. When I came home top pick up the car which I thought was in safe storage, they told me it had been taken off to the junkyard. I was crushed.
|Peterson and the ZomBee roadtripped to Oregon in 2011 for the Pacific Northworst event, where the Bee captured the coveted Index of Effluency with an 11th place finish. (Murilee Martin photo top; Pete Peterson photo bottom)|
Apparently, so was the car. Wow, that's a crazy a story. I don't know even how to follow up that.
So Hooniverse apparently loves your car and you guys were voted car of the year last year. What was that like? what was the feeling from that?
Actually, I take my previous statements back; I think the Hooniverse Car of the Year is my favorite award. And that's out of 20 years of car shows.
Nice. Just because you kind of got recognized for all the stuff you'd done last year?
Yeah, a little bit for the recognition, but mostly because it's a group of people that "got" it, you know. Like-minded people I consider my peeps and my friends, even though I haven't met most of them in person--I have some. Just to have such a good group of people like the ZomBee was very gratifying. It was very humbling, too.
Very cool. You mentioned Brownie earlier; is Brownie still around?
Yeah, he's out in the driveway. When the Killer Bee won't start, I drive Brownie. [Laughs]
You commute in it?
Somewhat. It's kind of hard to find parking for it. There's nothing like the sound of a 440 roaring to life.
A friend of mine had one in high school. I know that sound well.
Yeah. And this is...Brownie is a very special RV. You know, people always talk about cars being 1 of 1 or numbers matching, blah blah blah. Well, supposedly, they quit making the 440 one-ton chassis in 1978. And Brownie is actually a '79, which I thought was just a leftover chassis that they sold the next year or was made by the manufacturer. But I checked out the VIN number and it's actually a bona fide '79 VIN, so it's one of the very last of the 440s.
It's not worth more than $500, but it's a cool story.
You could put that on the next Concours show, if they ever do another one.
There you go: Rarest Mopar.
Do they even have one scheduled this year?
I haven't heard anything. Last year's was kind of strange. It was cool, it was done with all of the other shows, but I haven't heard anything lately.
Hmm...that's kind of a bummer. I always liked the coverage from that. So can you tell me a Killer Bee story that not many other people know? Like do you have any kind of crazy, secret stories about the car?
A crazy, secret story...Um...let me think about that.
Or maybe a race story that's not told as much. You know, everybody knows about the rollover...
Oh, yeah, the same old stories get told... [Laughs] Oh! This one wasn't really well known. But after the very first race, I stuck the lights and turn signals back on and the passenger seat and said to the wife, "Hey, let's go get some hamburgers." So we drove it down the street and, after racing over 800 miles up in Reno, the car got five miles down the road and blew up.
That was the only time she's ridden in the car. She refuses to get in it. Actually, the engine didn't blow up; the oil pipe blew. Luckily, the oil drowned out the distributor, which kept the engine from blowing up.
|This photo documents just one of many times that the Bee has hauled an engine in the space that used to hold a passenger seat. (Pete Peterson photo)|
So it was actually a fortunate failure.
It was very fortunate, right. Self-healing.
You've had a lot of luck with Sir Lucas, have you not? Is that just experience over the years with how to deal with the Prince of Darkness?
Yeah, you just get kind of get used to it. We've had electrical issues just about every race, but none of them has been significant. I've learned to charge the battery before we leave for the race. If--I should say when--the alternators fail, you still have juice for the whole race.
Gotcha. When the alternators fail...it's an eventuality then...
Right. And I had a stack of alternators, but I've used them all up. I now have a stack of dead alternators.
You also have a huge stash of spares of just about everything, don't you?
I've got a wall of transmissions, I've got the market cornered on SU carburetors. Basically, what I did was, anything that you'd put in the trunk for a long trip--things that have failed in the past--I just bought a bunch of everything.
Where do you find them? Just Craigslist?
Big pieces on Craigslist. They're getting harder and harder to find; MGs are starting to become collectible. Original spares are getting hard to find. Consumables, you can still get the Moss Motors or whatever, but the quality is kind of dubious most of the time. But if you can find the original part, you'll be much better off most of the time...I'm a hoarder.
Is the ZomBee ever going to be retired?
I don't know. That's a good question. We've kind of gotten the whole slow-car-make-it-to-the-end thing down pat now. We're going to start to go a little faster. I think that even if the car does get retired as a race car or gets so bad that we don't want to drive it anymore or whatever, it will end up like the Toyota on Top Gear: Enshrined somewhere.
I'd love to see that.
Or maybe just become my daily driver.
You've mentioned a super-secret project on the forums. Any chance you can tell me what that is?
We gonna die.
You're gonna die?
We gonna die.
Anything beyond that? I know there's a T5 [transmission] involved.
There could be a T5. Yeah, we're looking for...we don't want to be the slowest car--well, we're never actually the slowest car; we're usually the second-slowest or the third--but we want to keep up with the pack now.
We're--this next race--we're building a slightly warmed-over B motor--the stock motor--just to show everyone that we can. But here in the next few months, we're going to have a secret weapon. And that's all I'm saying. But it's not what most people think.
|The ZomBee drives at Sears Point in its first race after The Flip. (Murilee Martin photo)|
The only hint I will say is that it is on Phil Greden's list of engines he wants to see. [Laughs]
Excellent. I could guess, but I won't.
Good deal. The thing is, he kept pestering me to do this and it was actually already in the works.
You beat him to the punch then.
We picked up this motor--this secret weapon--from another team for $50.
Any chance you can tell me what team or does that give it away?
That would give away way too much. The people who have been hanging out at Second Saturdays, they can probably put the pieces together and figure it out pretty easily. We've all been talking.
It seems like the crapcan community is pretty conducive to all kinds of crazy ideas.
Oh yeah. I've finally found my people.
What's it like to drive the MG on track? Besides slow at the moment?
When the car is actually--I should say the distributor--is working correctly, the car is actually not that slow. I've actually chased down some of the MR2 teams and they've come up to me after the stint and said, "What the hell did you do to the car? I couldn't shake you." But unfortunately, I also have a stack of dead distributors. We're usually the slowest car...wait, what was the question? [Laughs] "What's it like to drive?"
I started dreaming about going fast again...The reactions I get from new drivers are, in a word, terrifying.
In what regard?
They'll go out and do a lap or two and come back in and say "Something's really wrong with the car." And then we'll check it over and everything's fine and send them back out. There's a lot of vibrations and noises and things rubbing against each other and squeaking and stuff. That takes a little bit to get used to.
When they learn the car, they learn the handling is completely neutral and they can drive it by the throttle. It's almost like a point-and-squirt kind of car. It's pretty awesome.
That's what they've always been known for, isn't it? It's just not something everyone's familiar with, I guess?
Most of them are used to newer cars like the Miatas and stuff. The biggest complaint I get from people is that it has no brakes. They're used to grabbing newer power brakes and not used to having to mash down on stuff.
Does it have power anything?
This car does have power brakes. If we had an earlier year, they'd be really screwed.
It's a '77?
|The Killer Bee in its earlier life was known as Lazarus for its unwillingness to perish. How prophetic that seems now. (Pete Peterson photo)|
The rubber bumpers?
Yeah, those rubber bumpers, after the first race I took them off and weighed them. The back one was 50 pounds and the front was 75. Taking them off just totally changed the car.
So another thing I noticed when reading through your old blog entries was you mentioned the Yugo at Arse-Freeze in '08 and how there was some conspiracy about what happened to it. Can you elaborate on that?
[Laughs] The Yugo that rolled?
Right, let me remember. I don't want to get the story wrong...I think they've actually admitted what went on, but one of the 914 teams actually gave them a little kiss and helped them along. And they came back in the pits and were like "Oh my god!"
Yeah, because the story I've heard is that the [Yugo] just tipped without any help...Anyway, is there a particular track that you've run that you really like? Just the layout or even the facilities?
I think my favorite track for the ZomBee thus far has been...oh, that's a tough one. I really like Buttonwillow; the car's--other than the incredibly long straightaways when you're in a slow car--a pretty fun track to toss around. But I'd say my favorite track thus far has been Reno.
Reno-Fernley, yeah. It's a long track, takes a long time to get used to, and there aren't so many straightaways where the higher horsepower cars can just walk away from you.
And you ran a 24-hour race there, right?
How was driving at night?
It was pretty cool. A lot of guys were complaining they couldn't see. The funny thing was we had a stock Lucas electrical system. Our alternator blew the night before, so we borrowed an alternator off of Spank's Mini team and ran the race on a borrowed alternator, which we had to put back together before we ran it. We had two Lucas driving lights, one of which worked. [Laughs] We went the whole night without a hitch.
What's the experience like compared to driving the same track during the day? Is it disorienting or do you get used to it real quick?
It is at first. I grew up in the mountains, so I'm used to driving curvy roads at night. Once you fall into the groove and you've got the track figured out, it's not that different than driving through the mountains with a whole bunch of other cars. It's less racing and more just trying not to do something stupid. It really puts a different feel on the race; when you finally finish the 24-hour race, you kind of feel a kinship with the real Le Mans people.
I can understand that for sure.
It's a very special feeling. Terrifying but awesome. Watching the sun come up at like 5:00 in the morning while you're still racing is...you just can't describe it.
Lightning Round - 5 random questions answered kind of fast
|Pete Peterson at the helm of his beloved Bee. (Pete Peterson photo)|
The Rusty Hub: (1) When you were 10 years old, what was your favorite car?
Pete: That would have been a 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 convertible. I was obsessed with that car; I'm still obsessed with that car.
(2) The first MGB was built 50 years ago in 1962. What date did the first one roll out of the factory?
I do not know. I wanted to say April 12, that was the number that popped up in my head, but I don't think that's right at all.
It's not. It's actually May 22--next week--but that's pretty close.
Ah! Fail! I'm gonna whip myself for that; I'm an MG guy.
Do you know what else was special about it? There's something else special about it...I just looked this up today; you probably already know it.
I know it came out after the Datsun Fairlady. [Laughs]
That's also true. The first one they built was left-hand drive, actually.
So says the Internet, anyway. I'll link my source and that way...
As a matter of fact, I think that's true.
I'll take your word on it over the Internet.
[Laughs] It rings a bell. That might have been something I read 20 years ago.
(3) What one tool could you not live without?
Half-inch wrench. You can rebuild an MG with a half-inch wrench. Almost everything on that car is a half-inch or 13 millimeter. Or close enough.
(4) Complete this sentence: The Killer Bee is in its element when ________.
...we're in the corners.
(5) If the bee ever happens to die--which is very much an "if"--what will its epitaph be?
"I will never die!" How's that?
That's pretty good. Even if it dies, it will still be around.
It'll come back. It's already a zombie. "It's just a flesh wound?" I don't know.
[Editor's Note: Click here for Part 2 of the story, in which we talk to four of the ZomBee's recent drivers.]