Friday, May 18, 2012

The Killer ZomBee, Part 2: Q&A with the drivers

The rise of British sea power at Sears Point 2012: The ZomBee leads Spank's Austin America through a soggy turn. (Murilee Martin photo)

[Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of The Rusty Hub's Killer ZomBee interviews. Click here to read Part 1 with ZomBee builder and caretaker Pete Peterson.]

It's all well and good to discuss the ZomBee with its creator Pete Peterson, but The Rusty Hub wanted some more perspective, so--with some help from Pete--we wrangled up interviews with four drivers who have recently piloted the Bee: Monte Miller, John Betts, Cregg Cowan, and Andy Packard. As The Rusty Hub was experiencing technical difficulties, we interviewed them separately and made a composite interview (with a few digressions), hence the sometimes strange flow of the interview.

However, you can read in the interviews a reverence for Pete Peterson that borders on awe and--if you'll allow The Rusty Hub to editorialize a bit--three things became apparent in the course of these conversations and the one with Pete himself:

(1) The ZomBee and Pete's trusty RV Brownie have as much character as probably any other car in the crapcan world. They are both team members and you can see this when, at one point, one driver mentions that "we" were driving on the track--referring to the ZomBee and himself--before correcting his pronouns.

(2) Pete is an extremely special and generous member of the crapcan world. Nobody seems quite sure how he does the things he does, but the life of the ZomBee is wholly remarkable and truly Pete's labor of love. We're not sure anybody who's run across the pair can imagine one without the other at a 24 Hours of LeMons race.

(3) Pete Peterson is someone so in tune with the pulse of the series that he may well be considered its heart.

But enough of our pontificating; we'll let the ZomBees take it from here.

The Rusty Hub: Why don't you start by telling me how you ended up with Pete and the Killer ZomBee?

Monte Miller: I've kind of followed LeMons online casually for a year or two and for whatever reason--good or bad--I ended up buying a 1970 MGB GT as my daily driver. And so I'd seen Pete's car online, but I didn't know he was a local or that he was anywhere near me.

So I drove the MG down to the hardware store and, it's kind of funny, I pulled in and saw this Porsche 911, a white one, and thought, "I'll just park next to this Porsche to check it out." So I pull into the parking lot and turn my head and, lo and behold, there's the Killer ZomBee sitting there in all its flipped-over glory. I almost crapped my pants because I had no idea he was local and it was one my favorite LeMons I'd seen.

Of course, I scooted right over there and parked my MG next to it, which is the same color, but it's a hardtop with significantly less body damage. I stood there and gawked at it for about 20 minutes with my roommate. Pete came out and we got to talking. I knew just about nothing about MGs, so he offered to give me some pointers. We got to talking a couple weeks later, one thing lead to another, and the next thing I know I'm racing at Sears Point in the Killer Bee.

John Betts: I'd been looking for--I live in Boise, Idaho--I'd known about LeMons for a while and tried to get some people around here to form a team. We're just far away from the tracks--not that far, but not that close...and I was just trying to get some people and just wasn't finding a whole lot, because Boise's not so big.

So I posted on the forums that I was looking for a ride at the Reno race, which was one of the closer tracks to me last year, and got a message from Pete and spoke with him a little bit. He told me about the ZomBee and coming in, it just sounded like a good group of guys and a good fit. That's how I hooked up with them. That was just last year for the 24 hours of Reno, Goin' for Broken.

John Betts meets the ZomBee at Reno-Fernley in 2011. (John Betts photo)

Cregg Cowan: In February of 2011, Pete posted a Craigslist ad looking for drivers. And I'd heard about LeMons from some other Triumph club members. And in his ad, Pete suggested that knowing something about British cars would be helpful, so I responded very quickly and he answered a few questions. Within a few days, it seemed like something I really wanted to do and that was that. So I first drove the Bee in March of 2011 at Sears Point.

Andy Packard: Cregg Cowan, who's a good friend of mine in our Triumph club, I think somehow got in contact with Pete through Craigslist and had a couple of experiences that were a lot of fun and shared with me at the meetings. I kind of drooled a little because I'm a big autocrosser with my Triumph and wanted to play race car driver. And this was kind of the most racing for the dollar that you could get into. Pete met me at a meeting one night and I drove the car around the neighborhood. I felt embarrassed because I drew attention from all the neighbors with the race car muffler and all that.

And then there was an event where he did not have any space available, but I went out on a Friday and ran a 25-minute test session with the car and helped do just general preparation for the following day. I didn't participate in that weekend, but it kind of opened the door for me to be next in line for a gap and that was this last event. It was not my first experience with Pete but my first actual LeMons event and my exposure to the ZomBees.

I know the team has both Triumph and MG guys, so I'll further that divide by asking: Could a Triumph have ever lasted as long as the ZomBee?

Monte: That's a loaded question; that could really piss some people off. [Laughs] But the correct answer is no. No vehicle of any kind should last as long as the ZomBee has. I think my favorite part about it is racing in the dark [at Reno] with the original Lucas electric system and Lucas driving lights and having nothing go wrong somehow. I don't know how that works, but I'm afraid to question it too much because it might run out of luck.

Cregg: Oh, you're asking a Triumph guy, so of course it could. [Laughs] Pete's ears are probably burning right now.

Andy: I still have never seen The Flip on tape--the rollover that the Bee recovered from. That would be the big question I would have. British cars, it's amazing how long they'll run, even if they run poorly. They'll just go and go and go. So who knows? Maybe someday our Triumph club will kind of spawn from the Killer Bee experience into a Triumph entry that we can have a good time with out there.

John: [Laughs] That's a good question. My background is kind of more in the German side of stuff--Porsches and BMWs--but I think you could see a Spitfire or something similar doing some lappage and whatnot. You know, the Bee is just so cool. I think it's been on its roof a couple of times, it's been whacked. I've been punted off the track by somebody. It just keeps coming back for more; the name is very accurate. It's like a zombie; it just goes out there and runs and runs and runs. We ran the Reno race and we had, like, two broken throttle cables and that was it. And we wailed on it. [Laughs]

Andy Packard drives the gently used ZomBee at Sears Point. (Cregg Cowan photo)

What's it like to drive the ZomBee?

Monte: It's a very forgiving car. Pete said, before my first stint, "If it ever gets sideways and you think you're going to lose it, just take your hands off the steering wheel and it will fix itself." Which sounds crazy. But we were coming through--I was coming through the--Carousel at Sears Point [Editor's Note: Turn 6]--this kind of long sweeper, off-camber, very fast turn--and every time, I'm getting a little bit faster, getting on the gas a little bit harder and a little earlier, getting quicker and quicker and getting my confidence up.

And finally I reached the point where the Bee was just like, "No, you're done." So the back end starts to break out and I start to fight for just a second. And then Pete appears, Obi-Wan Kenobi style: "Just let go of the steering wheel." And I'm going around if don't let go anyways, I might as well. I let go of the wheel and boom: The car immediately steps back in line, corrects itself, and we're off. [Laughs]

I think the hardest part of driving the car is that you never get to look out the windshield. You're constantly looking in the rearview mirror for who's trying to pass you and usually driving with one hand and your knee, because you're usually waving guys with your left hand and trying to shift with your right. So the whole time you're watching the parade past you, but it's still racing and you're going as fast as you can. It feels like you're going fast until the [Model] T GT goes blowing by you at a thousand miles per hour. It's a pleasure to drive that car. It would be cool to go faster to see what that's like, but I don't think I'd want to drive anything else.

Cregg: Well, it's not a fast car. It's fun; definitely everybody does it because they enjoy it; there's no other reason to be out there. Being a slower car is a little bit unnerving, because you get blasted by the faster cars. Up until [LeMons] enforced their sound restrictions, it was a little frightening to have a loud car go past you. Usually, they come up on you at the corners, and so you don't really hear them so much until they come out of the corner and they're right by you at 100 percent throttle. And that can be quite unnerving the first few times it happens.

But it's a fun car; it handles well within its limits. I will say that I'm used to driving independent rear suspension cars and live-axle cars feel a little squirrelly to me. So part of driving the Bee is getting used to that.

John: It's just like most race cars. It's loud and, unlike other race cars, it's a little sketchy. [Laughs] It's like you're driving a slightly beefed-up tin can that is being powered by hamsters on steroids. With a good measure of added lightness in the Bee, that kind of helps.

It's highly tossable. You know, you get passed by the Camaros in the straights and then you outbrake them in the corners and go around them or go under them. Yeah, it's a hoot. That car is very predictable, which makes it really, really nice to drive, too. Unless you're a complete dumbass, it's not going to bite you. It's not the fastest car out there, but it is one of the more entertaining cars out there.

Monte Miller first met Pete and the Bee by chance in a parking lot. He took the opportunity to introduce himself to the world of racing possibilities, courtesy of the Bee's patina. (Monte Miller photo)

Andy: We didn't have a good top end [Editor's Note: This was at one of the Sears Point races when the distributor was having issues.]. You couldn't wind it out and really get up to good speed very quickly. So that was really frustrating. The first time I drove it, it had better acceleration even though I was only in it for about 20-25 minutes on that test day. What I found was that the braking is really good. The car is pretty light and the brakes are pretty solid, so you could go really late into a turn and of course it handled well in the turns. And then you would just get run down by those who accelerate faster.

Because we didn't have that where we could really go high revs into the turn or to get you out of the turn, it was really "What's the path of least resistance with all the cars around me?" A lot of us thought "Stay on the inside" so people on the inside don't drift out on you. There seemed to be a lot of people who would dive in on you on the inside and take that away, so "Hold your line and do something predictable" is what I tried to do. And I got hit in the chicane--9 and 9A--a guy dove in on me in the first part of the turn, but of course that means I'm on the inside for the second part of the turn. And he just cut across like he thought I'd disappeared or something and clipped my right front.

I felt bad for the car and for Pete, because he takes it all on himself to prepare the car and repair the car. It's not like probably a lot of other teams where you have four or five guys or family members team up to put the car together and everybody shares the responsibilities. For him, it all falls to him. That's a little bad about that, but that's just the arrangement that Pete is more comfortable having.

He seems to be able to fix an MG about as well as anybody could fix it, from what I've heard.

Andy: That's when he's really in his element, when you're in there with something wrong with the car and you want to get back on the track. You look pretty quick just to help in any way you can and you don't take any harsh words or loud words personally. Just respond and when that's done and the adrenaline goes down, it becomes, "Ok, that was cool. Nobody's offended, we're good."

Do you have a favorite memory with the car?

Monte: I've only gotten to do one race with the Bee; I've been out of the country for the last two but will be back for Arse-Sweat at Buttonwillow. I thought it was funny my first race at Sears Point, everybody gives MG--really any British Leyland product--crap for being unreliable, which they deserve. So we're sitting there at the end of the first night and the MG has run fine all day. It's been popping out of third gear, but everything else has been great. And so we're having a barbecue and the MG is just sitting there content. And we're surrounded by Toyota MR2s that have blown out various parts of transmissions and motors and they're up on jacks. And we, the British team, are sitting amidst them without a single flaw. [Laughs] We all thought that was funny: Our Japanese rivals are blowing parts left and right and, for some reason--probably because we're so slow and unaggressive--we're still A-Ok.

John: I got kind of punted off earlier in one of my stints and so if there's any contact--even if it's not your fault--you're coming off the track. And they actually they thought I'd spun the car out, but somebody has hit me. In fact, the video's on YouTube if you search "ZomBee's Love Tap."

So anyway, I got off the track and that was earlier. Around 3 [a.m.], Pete says, "Hey man, I feel bad that your stint got cut a little short so why don't you get back out there?" So it's 3 a.m., the lights are so dim on that car. You've kind of got the track memorized more than seeing what those little lights are showing you and you're just getting into your groove and watching the light come up on the horizon. Just feeling there's nothing like racing and especially nothing like racing in a $500 beater at dawn with a bunch of other nutters out there on the track.

Monte Miller prepares for a turn at the ZomBee's wheel at Sears Point. (Monte Miller photo)

Andy: It was pouring down rain at Infineon--Infineon is one of the more technical tracks to start with, I'm told--and it was just really, really wet out there all day. It just never let up. My one proud moment was that I was the only one who didn't spin the car. It's probably because I was going so slow, but I guess I was going just slow enough.

Pete didn't drive the car the first day and he got in first the next day and came back in the pits and said something's just wrong with it. And it turned out that all the rear leaf spring mounts could all be tightened up by about 3/8" of thread on the bolts, so the back end was so twitchy. We'd all gone through the previous day in those wet conditions and with that problem.

It was eye-opening being out there in that car. I might have passed two cars out of 170 or so. It takes some getting used to, where you're driving 30 percent of the time looking in your rearview, if not more. It was a lot of fun getting my wish fulfilled of getting to play race car driver, putting on the clothes. We had a good time and we stayed on the track for the most part and just hung in there.

Cregg: Well, yeah, it's not just about the Bee. It's sort of about me and the Bee and Sears Point. On the end of my first stint in 2011, I managed to spin and go into the tire wall over around Turn 10. And our Triumph club is talking about using Sears Point possibly in 2013 and we were chatting with them. I mention to them that I had this experience there in Turn 10. And they say that they've got this low spot in Turn 10 that they can never get rid of. And I don't remember hitting any low spot.

Well, March 2012 at Sears Point, the same thing happened, the same spot. I didn't go into the tire wall this time and I thought, "Well, I'm just not doing this very well." And then I started seeing on YouTube, other people were having trouble with the same spot. So what's happening is, the low spot she was talking about--the Infineon staff member, that is--the tires get unloaded and have no traction on that side and Turn 10 is a very fast turn. You're applying throttle and losing traction to one side, so that's what makes you spin. It happened to lots of people. So I learned to stay away from that part of the track.

The reason I go [to the low spot] is that the Bee is kind of slow and you want to get to the inside of Turn 11 so the fast cars can go on the outside. And I was getting over too soon and was hitting this spot that I should just stay away from.

So it was learning to drive within the car's limits and within the track's limits?

Cregg: Exactly, learning the track, because you know a slower car takes a different line to stay out of the way of the faster traffic. So this is a line most people stay off of on purpose. And I was purposely getting on this line. But no more.

One more note on the Bee: My son and I had a hotel room the night before [the Reno-Fernley 24-hour race], so we could try to get a good night's sleep before this 24-hour stint. So the night before, we get ready to go to the hotel room and the Bee's running fine. There's just a few last things to do; Pete's got to wire up the headlights and aim the headlights, so we leave about 10:30 or 11:00 and everything's going good.

Two legendary crapcans battle in the dark at Reno-Fernley: Team Tinyvette's Opel GT and the Killer ZomBee. (Murilee Martin photo)

We get back to the track the next morning--more or less in time for the driver's meeting--to find out that Pete had discovered right after we left that the "engine-off" test had killed the alternator. So no alternator. So we're running around like crazy looking for a Lucas alternator. Well, Spank's Mr. Bean team loaned us an alternator. We're walking back through the paddock and I'm holding the alternator and I say, "Pete, is the alternator supposed to rattle?" No, it's not supposed to rattle.

So we had to disassemble the borrowed alternator, disassemble the dead alternator, scavenge parts out of it, get the good one together, and get it back in the car. So the green goes down--sorry--the car's go to line up for the race; we're still putting the alternator on. And I think we got our first driver out before the green flag fell or not long after that.

We looked at each other and said, "How long is this Lucas alternator going to last?" We thought about an hour, but it ran the whole 24 hours, no problem. It powered, you know, 100 watts of lights on this Lucas alternator. Amazing.

That you guys had rebuilt in the paddock, basically.

Cregg: Yeah, exactly.

One thing that shows up in a lot of Pete's tales is Brownie the RV. What have your experiences with Brownie been like?

Monte: [Laughs] I had the pleasure of sleeping on the couch in Brownie...Brownie sounds awesome, to start with. If you've never had the pleasure of hearing him open it up, it's got a...Hemi 440 in it. He's got the same motor in his Polara. Brownie sounds awesome, looks awful, it's filled with shag carpet, and every time you walk past it, you expect to see Cousin Eddie from "Christmas Vacation" walk out. And then Pete comes out and you're like, "Well, that's pretty close, I guess." [Laughs]

John: Brownie the RV... [Laugh] Brownie's amazing. Seventies...I don't know, probably Dodge or something like that. Kind of another "What's the epitome of LeMons?" Kind of shoestring, little dodgy, little worse for the wear, but it's home when you're at the track. I've gotten on the sofa there and taken refuge from elements when it started sleeting [at Reno-Fernley] . It's just another thing that's been around the block a time or two and still ready to come back for more and drag the Bee around the country. That stove still works. Pete makes a wicked bacon macaroni-and-cheese on it. 

Mt. Shasta gets a chance to enjoy the breathtaking sight of Brownie and the ZomBee. (Pete Peterson photo)

Cregg: Brownie? Well, it's a great asset to have a place to hang out after your session or get dressed before your session. It's just a great place to hang out. It's a crappy old RV, but it gets there. It's sort of a good match to the Bee, actually. They make a good pair; they've both been around a long time and both show some wear and tear but still keep going.

Andy: I did not spend the night in Brownie or anything. But we did take the battery out of it to use in the Bee at the last race. [Laughs] We found out that the alternator wasn't charging and the car was running so poorly because the battery was so low that it could barely fire the ignition. So Pete goes, "Oh, wait! We have an extra battery." Sure enough, you go out to Brownie and the hood's up and there's no battery so we can race on Sunday.

Do you think it's possible that this car is ever going to die?

John: I doubt it. I really do. I think it would have to really, really get bent for that to happen. I don't think so, no. Pete keeps feeding it brains and motors and parts and the Lucas wiring. The God of Darkness has been held at bay, so far. I don't think it'll ever quit running; it might need a little work here and there, but it just keeps making laps.

Monte: It'll die yeah, but Pete won't let it remain dead. As soon it gets any body damage, the man just starts taking body panels off and throwing them in the grass and wailing on it with his magic hammer so that it's sort of in the right shape to go back on the car. I have no doubt that it will die, but it won't be permanent because Pete won't give up on it. [Laughs] I don't think he'd ever consider driving another car. I could be wrong; I know he'd like to drive something faster. But the Bee is the Bee and that's the spirit of LeMons; you just can't give up on something like that.

Andy: I think Pete's enthusiasm is going to keep that from happening. It's going to get pretty darn close, but somehow somewhere, some essential element of that car will live forever. Whether the engine gets replaced or the rear suspension is replaced or maybe just one piece of sheet metal that lives on. [Laughs]

I like Pete's openness. What's amazing is that he has this time and energy into the car and he invites people he's never met before to ride it on a race track. And things happen. People he's just met have blown his engine up or smashed it into walls. And he just shakes it off and moves forward. That's pretty amazing to not have somebody blow up. It's more important for him to find a fit for his, kind of, little community rather than just be the best driver or whatever: Figure out the spirit of the event and embrace it. Don't be an asshole and think that this is the Indy 500 and you're the star driver of the team or anything like that. Just his acceptance and tolerance for others people's screw-ups is pretty amazing.

Cregg: [Laughs] Not as long as Pete is pushing it. This is clearly a Pete Peterson production. He has a lot of enthusiasm and skill and as long as he's behind it, the Killer Bee will never die. Of course, I hope I'm not in it if it gets hit bad enough to die.

Pete Peterson (on the ground, left) works to diagnose some temporary malady with Lane Cowan (on the ground, center), John Betts (on the ground, right), and Cregg Cowan (standing). Erik Torgeson of Free Range Racing assists in the car. (Murilee Martin photo)

Right. It's funny you say that because Monte said almost that same thing. I believe he referred to Pete's Magic Hammer as the fixer of all things with that car.

Cregg: Exactly. When I hit the tire wall in 2011--this is the end of the first hour or two of the race; I was the first driver on that event--I am feeling really terrible, getting towed in and I've just destroyed the car. The other guys aren't going to get to drive.

Pete takes one look at it and says, "I've got this. No problem." He gets out his hammer and starts hammering out--because I got this from both ends; I got the tire wall in the front and while I was sitting there in the grass, another car hit the bad spot, came over, and hit me. So I'd gotten hit in the front and in the back. We had the car back on the track in less than an hour.

[Laughs] Is Pete actually Thor? Is that how that works?

Cregg: I think it might be. The hammer looks a little bit like Thor's hammer, yeah. In October 2011, my son drove with us again at Sears Point. And there was traffic in front. There's a blind spot coming from the esses and down to 9/9A. So you go over a blind hill and traffic stops there. Well, he got stopped. The car behind him, they were on the radio when they came over the hill and wasn't really paying attention, smashed the Bee with my son driving. So once again, it got towed in, Pete got the hammer out, and I think this one was more like 30 minutes to get the car back on the road that time.

So, yes, definitely a magic hammer.

[Click here to go back and read Part 1 with Pete Peterson]

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