Thursday, May 10, 2012

Pardon Me: Q&A with Sean Foege of Gray Poopon

Sean Foege pilots the Gray Poopon Civic en route to a Top 10 finish at Gingerman Raceway in April 2012. Note the front lip and sideskirts crafted from garden edging. The headlight filler and spoiler were made from Good Stuff spray foam insulation. (Gray Poopon photo)

For most crapcan teams, the first race is an adventure, a roller coaster of unpredictable ups and downs. The loosely controlled frenzy of wheel-to-wheel racing becomes an addictive rush and most teams are wired for several days straight, even while they try to overcome beginner mistakes and unexpected mechanical failures.

For 24 Hours of Lemons competitors Gray Poopon, their first weekend at Gingerman Raceway's now-infamous April 2011 snow-mageddon was an utter disaster. In a 64-car field, the Poopon's Honda Civic finished a dismal 59th. But they stormed back three months later with a new strategy to capture a 20th place finish at the same track that had so recently burned them. Within another three months, they'd finished 19th in a much larger field at Autobahn Country Club.

Just a few short weeks ago, the suburban-Chicago-based squad--which has included different driver rosters made up of a combination of Sean Foege, Luke Satterfield, Vic Jasko, Daniel Cotton, Rodney Elder, and Bradley Bishop--improved yet again to a seventh-place finish at Gingerman.

The Rusty Hub caught up with Gray Poopon's Sean Foege recently to talk about improvement, Chinatown, investing in tires, Pontiac Azteks, and when to stop upgrading your Civic.

The Rusty Hub: You guys are the Gray Poopon team for the time being, but the way I understand it, [24 Hours of LeMons Judge] Phil asked you to re-theme.

Sean Foege: He did. He said actually there are already a lot of poop-themed teams around the country and he was getting tired of it. While I thought we did it pretty well and very tastefully, he disagreed and said it's time to change.

Have you guys decided what you're going to change it to?

We're throwing out all kinds of options and theories. There's even a vote up on our Facebook page, so we need to get more people to vote because we have too many good ideas and we can't decide which one to do.

From what I remember--I ran into you guys at Gingerman in 2011--and your race there in the Spring when it was all snowy, it was kind of rough. But you guys finished seventh in your last race [Gingerman in April 2012]. Can you explain a little bit about how you've come from having a really rough race to finishing Top 10?

You know, I don't know if I really can. Last season was our first season with any of us doing actual wheel-to-wheel racing at all. We all have come from an autocross background. A few people, you know, have done some open track days. The first time ever I was on a track was the first time I was in the middle of the race at Gingerman. So it was a lot, just being thrown into it. In our very first race, we lost the engine halfway through and had gotten a bunch of black flag penalties. We had three black-flag penalties the first day and lost the engine on the second. So that didn't go well for us, for the team.

 After the team's third penalty at their first race, the judges told the team to park their heap and to enjoy some salty snacks for a few hours. (Top) Sean Foege mugs for the camera with  his snack of choice while (l. to r.)  Bradley Bishop and Vic Jasko prepare to get comfortable. (Bottom) Gray Poopon--(l. to r.) Aaron Foege, Bradley Bishop (facing away), Luke Satterfield, Sean Foege, and Vic Jasko--in mid-snack form before the snow arrived. (Murilee Martin photos)

But some of our teammates had an old Civic Si engine sitting around. We knew we had to get more power, so basically he bought his way onto the team by donating his engine to us. And while the engine had a few more horsepower, the increase was not quite as dramatic as we'd hoped. But it definitely helped. It was definitely better than whatever it had in it [before], pushing 105 horsepower or was a real monster.

So that and, for the very first race, we did two basic mods to the car. We had replaced the rear drum [brake] setup with rear discs. Otherwise, the only big change we did to the suspension was we got some...somebody basically gave us some what were probably once $50 adjustable coilover Ebay specials. They gave it to us for free. We don't even know what car it was for; clearly, it's not for this. If you raise the car up in the air, it has about an inch-and-half of free play before it even contacts the spring. And they're so stiff that the tire compresses before the spring. So basically it handles like a go-kart. But actually that's pretty nice on very smooth tracks.

Initially, we ran all last season on--I don't even remember what tires they were--but they were more all-season high-performance tires. They weren't the Direzza Star Specs we're running now that everyone else is running. And the car, with those [all-season] tires had a horrible lift-throttle oversteer problem. Like uncontrollable, spin-you-off-the-track. Adding to that problem was the wet track in the first race.

Anyway, we kind of kept fine-tuning, not so much the car as, you know, our basic driving and our understanding of what the race is about. I think the biggest thing we realized is that the race is about staying in the race; it's not about having the fastest laps. It's not about having the fastest car or one really fast driver; it's just staying on the track and being consistent and not getting penalties. So that's kind of our motto now: Drive 85, drive 90 percent. There's no need to win in that corner. Keep going and keep it out there.

The Civic managed successfully to avoid the tow truck for duration of their last race, netting a seventh-place finish after consecutive Top 20 results. (Gray Poopon photo)

We've more or less timed it and we have two hours and twenty minutes of fuel. We pushed it to two hours and twenty-eight minutes on the last stint of the last race in which we finished seventh. We didn't want to come back in and refuel because we were so close to being bumped to eighth or ninth. But it all worked out. And actually, the funny story about that is we got the car home and got it off the trailer. The next day I went to go move it to its parking spot and it was out of gas.

Wow. To the fumes...

Yeah, it was that close. We probably wouldn't have made it one more lap.

I guess, really, it's more fine-tuning of understanding what we do for the race as a team. And also having a little bit of luck, which, you know, the car has been pretty reliable. That's part of why we liked getting a Honda. That and the parts are dirt cheap for it.

I would say--thinking about our seventh-place finish--we actually probably could have been in sixth. The first day, our alternator went out. Actually, it wasn't so much the alternator as its bracket, so the belt became really wildly loose. So every now and then, it would spin for a bit and then it wouldn't spin; the battery light would come on and it would charge itself again. We actually all managed to forget our communications systems, so nobody had a functioning communication system for this last race. So you had to come in for one quick lap and then just yell, "Go buy an alternator!" and then go back out on track and just hope the battery would last long enough. I came back in half an hour later when the voltage started hitting the 11, so we threw [the new alternator] on and had it back out in 15 minutes. So that was our bad luck, but, considering we did that and still pulled off seventh place, we're just really amazed by that.

You mentioned teamwork and how that was kind of part of your fine tuning. Can you talk about the teamwork and just being a team and how that plays in?

Absolutely. I think one big thing that makes our team work well together is that we're all nice guys, we're all realistic, and there's noegos on the team. Nobody has to just have the fastest lap on the team and nobody just has to win. We all obviously have varied backgrounds and styles and even desires for what we want to do to the car.

But it somehow comes together. Somebody has a crazy idea, somebody else kind of likes it, and then one of the more realistic team members--which I'm going to go ahead and say is me--says "Let's just not do that; that's crazy. Let's keep the car reliable; we don't need to put a turbo on it, it's good." Things of that nature. But we're all pretty understanding and we all just take the least-aggressive route. It's worked for us.

Sure. Where did you get the car from? Is there a backstory or is it just a Craigslist find?

There's a fantastic backstory for that one. So one of our team members, Luke--well, Victor as well--both work near the Chinatown/downtown [Chicago] area. I don't know how it all exactly worked out, but Luke had this friend who owned a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. So our car actually spent its entire life as the Chinese restaurant's delivery vehicle. It spent its whole life in Chinatown; it has an actual bullet hole in the rear fender.


...prior to us owning it...Anyway, apparently the car started running really bad. I think it still ran at some point but ran so horribly that he just--the owner of it--parked it. And Luke was telling him about this race and he was like, "Oh, I have a car. You can have it. Have it for free." So we said that's fantastic.

I remember it was a cold, February or early March day, we went to Chinatown and towed the thing home when it wouldn't run at all. The battery was dead. It was just nasty, you know, waterlogged inside. We managed to tow it home and the first thing we did was we took it apart to look at it. We checked the oil level on it and the oil level was full. And when I say full, I mean that you open the oil filler cap and the oil was to the top of it. So what we had there was a preserved engine.

The Gray Poopon fellows are generating a new theme, though it's unlikely they (or any other team) will surpass the Gute Bier Mazda MX-6 in the theme department. (Gray Poopon photo)

[Laughs] Alright.

So it had been running for who-knows how long with it filled to the top of the head with oil.

Right. So it ran like that, maybe, at some point?

At some point it lasted like that for awhile. But perhaps that was what killed it. I'm not sure. But we obviously emptied it and flushed it a whole bunch of times and it actually did pretty well.

[Editor's Note: At this point, Foege had to step away for a bit to run an errand. Our interviewer took the moment to have a glass of water, in case anybody was wondering. Sean called back a few minutes later.]

As just a tiny bit more on the back story, I just wanted to say that we gave that Chinatown story in the first couple races and the judges always loved that. So we think that got us out of a few BS laps here and there when there going to kind of stack us for the suspension.


But other than that, that's pretty much the life story.

That's one of the better ones I've heard. You know, usually it's just "I got the car on Craigslist" or something.

I was really happy when I got the car because it's such a great story. [Laughs] It actually made it worthwhile; that really embodies the LeMons--the crapcan--spirit. The car had already been abused its entire life.

Yeah, with the bullet hole in it and all that. Did you find anything interesting in it when you were stripping it out? Or just grossness?

I think the oil was really the only interesting thing. And you already know about the bullet hole.

There's kind of a Big Three in the Midwest in LeMons with Skid Marks Racing, Bucksnort Racing, and Clueless Racing. Do you think you guys can compete with them and beat them?

Well, we managed to beat Clueless, I think it was, this time because they had an unfortunate event with one of their pistons. We were thinking we could possibly compete with them or beat them because they're also running a Civic as well. Of course, they have a little tiny CRX Si that's totally stripped to the gills and some of them have a professional racing background. Or most all of them do, I think, including professional racing mechanics. You know, I think it'll be quite a challenge. They're always a little faster than us, but now and then you get a little bit of luck on your side, I guess--bad luck, I guess it was for them.

They're all running a similar platform to what we run and we were talking to them and they were helpful, giving us a lot of hints about our car, ideas on what to do. I don't know. Do I think we're going to beat them? Probably not in this car. If you look at our seventh-place finish, we did come in seventh in laps, but on lap times, we were 35th or 40th or something.

Even successful races come with caveats. At the July 2011 race at Gingerman Raceway, the team had to fix a leaky oil pan after the Saturday session. (Gray Poopon photo)

I don't feel that without getting at least a little bit better lap times, you know a little more power from our car is where we're limited a lot to be competitive with them. We would need a fuel cell, we would need a little bit more power. But I think if we had those things, then we could be.

Is that in the plans eventually?

Well, we actually had a meeting last night. We got together and talked about it for awhile and wanted to talk about what our future could be. And we decided we're not going to do any more huge mods to the car. We kind of feel like the platform is kind of maxed out, in our minds, without going way overboard. We all come from a rear-wheel drive mindset and we all kind of want that again. We're looking at potentially getting a--well, we have, basically, an offer--to get a Miata for $400 or so. I don't know if that's in the near future. We're probably not going to happen it this season. But we'd like to switch over to that and potentially run two cars and rent some spaces to kind of fund our racing, as well. I don't think we're going to do any huge upgrades anymore to the Civic.

The Civic's inaugural race began on a frigid, rainy Saturday in April 2011. The rain turned to snow later in the race, but the Gray Poopon's day had ended by that point, having earned three quick black flags. (Murilee Martin photo)

Gotcha. How'd you end up getting into LeMons? I don't know; I used to autocross with Luke, that's actually how I met him. And at some point--I knew about the race--he had been talking about it with this friend. I think he told me that he had a car for it and that suddenly sparked interest, like "Maybe we could actually do this." So that kind of all came together in a matter of a few months. We started talking about it at like New Year's a couple years ago and we had the car by February and it just kind of all went downhill or uphill from there, however you look at it.

[Laughs] That's a great way of looking at it. You just kind of end up falling down the rabbit hole and you don't know if you're going up or down.

Right. That's exactly true. You know, for some people, they like the fun or the spirit of LeMons. They've done other series and done all they can do and like the whole idea of it. For us, it's poor man's racing. It's the cheapest way we could possibly get into actual racing. [Laughs] None of us necessarily care about the whole $500 car thing other than it keeps things a little bit more fair for us since none of us are wealthy or even close to it. We've been scrounging up pennies to get where we are.

Is that why you have an Aztek [tow vehicle] instead of a big truck?

[Laughs] That is correct. I am the only owner of anything [on the team] that could remotely tow anything. So yes. And while the whole team always like to make fun of the Aztek, I will maintain that it is in incredibly practical vehicle. And it does the job just fine.

If Pontiac had taken this advertising tact, would people have liked the Aztek? We don't think so, either. But, as Sean Foege points out, "It does the job just fine."  (Gray Poopon photo)

Do you throw all the toolboxes and everything in there? Will it take everything?

It does, you know. I tow a boat around with it all summer and it has no trouble with that. Once you take out the back seat, there's a pretty good amount of space back there. We did learn that its biggest limitation is probably the weight loading. We have to be careful how we load the weight in it, putting stuff on the trailer or toward the back. But it's never really had a problem at all; I've been surprised. I've always laughed at Azteks, too, but ever since my wonderful wife decided to get a small SUV, I looked into it. And there's nothing that really compares; nothing has that much space and gets that good gas mileage with that power for that price.

What other races are you guys going to this year? Both Autobahn races?

That is our plan currently. We're definitely signed up for the next Autobahn [in June] and we're planning on doing the October Autobahn. And we're debating--maybe leaning against--doing the Road America race. We just heard that it's kind of a boring track for slow cars. I've never been there, but some of the guys have. A bunch of other teams have told us the same thing. Trevor [Kindlon] adamently is against it--the guy from the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers [Volvo]. He said he's done it before and it's not that great. He's been doing this a lot longer than I have and that counts for something.

Do you have a favorite memory that you've gone through with the team or the car or on the track?

I think it's been kind of a steady, you know, happiness. Just continuing to get better. I don't know about any specific great memories. I certainly remember our first race was pretty horrible; people kept spinning out and the car was sounding bad. That whole race, from start to finish, just got worse and worse and worse. We obviously didn't even finish our first race because the engine died on us.

Luke Satterfield drives the Civic down the main straight at Autobahn Country Club's South Course in October 2011. The team finished 19th in a 99-car field. (The Rusty Hub photo)

But I was an amazing achievement to get to seventh place. Actually, the end of this race was amazing, because we were following the live timing stuff on our phones and basically, this guy with a much faster car than us--almost ten seconds a lap faster than us very consistently--we were watching him and they were watching us. And they actually finished 20 or 30 seconds behind us. And he would surely have passed us and bumped us up to eighth. It was definitely a nail-biter at that last race getting to watch that moment, I guess. [Editor's Note: Eighth place at the race was the "Don't Mess with Lexas" Lexus LS400, which ran a best lap of 1:41.573 to Gray Poopon's 1:49.602. Full results here as a PDF.]

It's kind of crazy that like 14 hours of racing comes down to 30 seconds sometimes or even less. I think the race this weekend, second and third place were separated by seven seconds or something. the hell was I going to ask you...My next question I had what's your worst memory, but you already took care of that for me.

I think the worst memory must be that first race when Victor pulled the car in and said it's not running right and it was making horrible noises like it had thrown a rod or spun a bearing very badly.

Yeah. And you swapped that engine out for an Si engine?

[Crickets...the phone beeps twice, but The Rusty Hub is staffed by idiots who don't know that means the call dropped.]

You have another call? Hello? [Pause] Oh. Looks like I lost him.

[Editor's Note: The last "exchange" above took place over about thirty seconds.Most editors would omit this part, but we find it funny in retrospect. Sean called The Rusty Hub back shortly.]

I only had a couple more questions. If you could go back and give your team one piece of advice when you started, what would it be?

It would be kind of technical advice, I think. I alluded to whatever the tires were that we ran last year. Initially, those had come off of Luke's Miata at the time...I'm still trying to figure out what they were. Anyway, they were 195/50/15s and you remember I talked about the horrible lift-throttle oversteer that we had going on.

Team member Vic Jasko swaps on the difference-making Star Specs at Gingerman in April 2012. (Gray Poopon photo)

This year--this race that we did--we spent the extra money and got the Star Specs and also upgraded the size to 205 and to say that it transformed the car is really an understatement. The oversteer was gone, it was beautifully balanced, and absolutely no problem taking corners much faster. I feel much more confident and safer in the car than I ever did with the other tires on there. So I think I would have said shell out the extra $100--$30 a person--to get the Star Specs for last season. That would have been a huge improvement to the car all last season, I think. It's better not being afraid of the car.

Yeah, that's probably not a great thing to have happen when you get in the car is to be completely mortified of it.

We were absolutely terrified. Really, it was bad. You just couldn't lift at all; we all kept our distance a lot more in corners from any other cars because we knew if something happened in front of us and we had to lift, we'd be spinning off the track. In so many ways, just switching to better tires--whether or not they're better or just somehow work better for our car--made a huge difference in our car and I guess in our morale.

Sure. If somebody you know was starting a team, what would you give them advice-wise?

Hmm...I'd definitely say it would really help to invite other local teams over for a beer and have them look at your car before you start tearing things apart. Just get a little guidance, because we truly did this sight unseen; we knew nobody that did this at all. Which I think is what gives us confidence in how far we've come in that we're just fairly young, inexperienced guys and getting to where we are now.


Lightning Round - 5 questions answered kind of fast

Vic Jasko (l.) and Dan Cotton toast to Gray Poopon's Top 10 result. (Gray Poopon photo)

TRH: The first question is 'What current production car would you want in 20 years as a crapcan?'

Sean Foege: Oh, boy...hmmm...that is tough. There are so many little compacts out there. What just jumps to mind is that Nissan Juke. It wouldn't be a great race car; it's a bit tall for that. That's just a weird thing. But I'm going to stick with that, either way.

The headlights on that car really bother me for for some reason.

It's because it just isn't right. It's like a modern-day Aztek but not as practical.

The second question is 'The U.S. factory that made some fifth-generation Civics--which is the same as your car--was the first to use water-borne paint and the first to use laser welding. Do you know what state that is in?'

No, I don't know. I could guess, but that would be useless.

Take a guess.

I'll say, uh...for some reason, Georgia pops into my mind, but I'm sure that's not right.

No, it's not. It's Ohio.


Third question: When does your car's VTEC kick in, yo?

We wish. We just had a long conversation yesterday wishing we could have VTEC and if we could possibly find a way to have VTEC. Obviously, we could switch out the engine or the head, but it's too much work and not worth it for this Civic. So it never kicks in. We wish it did.

Fourth question: This is an old interview question that my brother-in-law used to use when did interviews and it's not really a question: Say something nice about me.

[Laughs] You're very pleasant to talk to.

I'll take that. I'll take that, for sue.

What, do you people often say mean things about you?

No, no. It's just that my background is in journalism, but I was mostly an editor doing proofreading and stuff. So this whole reporting thing is not really my specialty. I'm still figuring out how to do it right, so I apologize if it sucks.

No worries. I'm not an experienced report-ee, as it were.

The last question is going to be pretty tough. Can you write a haiku about your car? Or about LeMons or crapcans or whatever?

I'm sure I...could. [Laughs] What is it, 5-7-5?

Yep. 5-7-5.

Oh, wow. I don't know know where I pulled that one out of. Hmm...let's mastery of words is not so good...this could take hours...

That's fine. I've got time.

...but this is the lightning round, so I'm just gonna start busting it out. Ok:

"Honda Civic slow"

That's a good start.

"Makes racing dreams come true." Is that seven?

Umm...That's six.

"Makes our racing dreams come true." How about that?

There you go.

I've got to finish strong here; I can't let it die..."Common man rides again." Or something..."Common man can drive." Let's go with that:

Honda Civic slow
Makes our racing dreams come true;
Common man can drive .

I like that. My suggestion for the last line was going to be "Please don't catch on fire" but "Common man can drive" is also good.

[Laughs] It's not a Gremlin, come on.

1 comment:

  1. Vic here - The tires we used all of last year were Fuzion ZRIs. You can mainly blame Luke and Me for this choice because while the star-specs are an awesome tire, they are absolutely useless as temps get down to about 35, and are quite possibly the worst tires ever made in rain. We chose the Fuzions because the weather was looking pretty grim for that race, and then just stuck with them the rest of the year as they felt like they were doing well out of fear we may make the car much worse. (It also helped that they cost half of what the Dunlops do) We didn't fully realize how much they were holding us back until this race, and will probably never go back.