Thursday, May 3, 2012

Team Pony Express: The bumpy road to crapcan racing

Team Pony Express' Ford Escort poses for some glamour shots before the team's second race weekend in 2011.  (Team Pony Express photo)

Portland International Raceway always seemed damp, but on October 30, 2011, track conditions were no worse than what Team Pony Express had seen in two previous ChumpCar World Series weekends at the circuit. What set the weekend apart was not even the crumpled bumper and junked radiator, the result of driver Zach Jackson collecting a spun Camaro with the team's Ford Escort during the previous day's 12-hour session. It was instead the stubborn brake system that kept the mostly Seattle-based team off the track Sunday. They could have thrown in the towel completely, but the team chose instead to make a day of it, enjoying the race and making friends in the paddock.

When they noticed the neighboring Japanese Auto Tech team were running "crummy all-season" tires on its '88 Toyota Corolla, driver and chief Pony wrangler Aaron Samuelson generously offered the team Pony Express' grippier Dunlop Direzza Star Spec Z1s. The Auto Tech team initially refused, but Samuelson would have none of it. When the Corolla next pitted, Samuelson promptly jacked the car up and started removing its wheels. The Auto Tech drivers noticed immediate results on the different rubber.

"When their guy went out with our Star Specs on instead of street tires--their thought was that street tires would work better in the rain and surprisingly they don't--the guy radioed in that the car was more stable," Samuelson said. "[The team] radioed back to him that he was 10 seconds faster in the rain on the two-mile lap."

To share in the camaraderie that so defines crapcan racing, the Auto Techs insisted that Samuelson take a turn sawing at the Corolla's wheel and scooting their newly stabilized racer around PIR.

For some teams, it would seem unlikely, but for the amicable and fun-loving Team Pony Express, it was just another example of what they enjoy about the crapcan racing spirit.

A big bump toward Chump

Team Pony Express' story begins with an ending in the form of three words no racers--especially rally drivers--want to hear: Did Not Finish.

The Pony Express drivers are mostly Subaru enthusiasts who commonly participate in Time Speed Distance rallies. At one 2009 Monte Carlo-style event, several drivers received the dreaded DNF and retreated to a restaurant to await the remaining competitors. While there, they compared rally stories, which included driver Zach Jackson and navigator Ryan Phee that day inadvertently launching over a "Double-caution: big bump." The duo had rushed to make up time on a forest service road after a missed turn but had unwittingly outrun the pacenotes in the process.

"We found out about [the big bump] when the back end came up; the front end just made a big 'bump' sound and jarred our teeth, but it sent the back end of the car up probably three feet," Jackson said. There was no permanent damage, although Jackson earned the unofficial title of "Unintended Airborne Vehicular Activities Guru" from Samuelson and co-driver David Johnson, who were in the car behind.

The exact originator of the conversation remains uncertain, but the dinner discussion eventually turned to the then-new ChumpCar World Series and the drivers quickly hatched a plan to assemble a team.

"I remember we wrote stuff on paper napkins, just like any great idea." Phee said. "It's like in the movies; that's how it happened."

Team Pony Express elected for an opulent look in the cockpit to appeal to the car's target market of luxury-seeking crapcan racers like Nate Waddoups (pictured). Actually, the instrument panel may or may not be made from the top of an old desk. (Team Pony Express photo)

Saddling the steed

As it turned out, Aaron Samuelson already owned a car the team could use: a 1991 Ford Escort Pony. Samuelson bought it for $200 several years to use as a daily driver. It came with a blown engine, so Samuelson replaced the original 88-horsepower 1.9L CVH engine with the 2.0L CVH motor from a third-generation Escort, giving the car an extra 22 horsepower (on paper, at least). He then turbocharged the car, but blew out the differential "having too much fun." The car sat in his driveway for several years in the interim until the fateful day when a handful of TSD rally drivers made it a ChumpCar entry, ditching the turbo parts in the process.

The Rusty Hub thinks the Pony Express Escort looks as good in 2009 as it did on the factory floor in 1991. (Team Pony Express photo)

It may seem like an odd fit for Subaru guys to throw their hat into the ring with the "other blue oval," but the team featured experienced Escort owners in Samuelson and Kyle Kuhnhenn.

In preparing the Escort for its first race, the team replaced the original struts, which were all blown, with those from a ZX2. Ebay springs fit onto the corners through "Chump-style" modifications involving very large washers as spacers. They supplemented this with custom strut braces made from horseshoes and square tubing. The team opted to use the stock rear drum brakes rather than perform a disc swap, since the rear discs wouldn't do much braking and the potential for warped rotors wasn't worth the work.

Horseshoe strut braces bring a subtle thematic element to the Pony Express Escort's underhood landscape. (Team Pony Express photo)

Preparations for the first race included an attempt to gain engineering bonus laps, which ChumpCar awarded at the time for creative attempts to improve performance. The Escort sported a pseudo-airdam in the open hatch, ostensibly to create downforce from the air flowing through the open side windows. It was more form than function, as was the car's underbody aero kit, which Samuelson made from the corrugated aluminum of an old shed and from bent license plates to act as diffusers. While the underbody aero setup didn't provide much aerodynamic advantage, it accomplished three things, according to the team:

(1) "It makes a big difference because it makes a lot of noise while you're trying to drive," Samuelson said.

(2) "It keeps the grass out of our engine bay," Jackson said.

(3) "All of our motors have leaked oil from somewhere at some point and it catches the oil so we aren't putting it on the track," Samuelson said. To which driver Kuhnhenn joked, "Instead, we put it next to the exhaust manifold."

Samuelson and driver Johnson got their feet wet by volunteering with ChumpCar to work pit out for part of the 24-hour race at Spokane County Raceway in July 2010. While they sweated under triple-digit heat, they also found out what they were getting themselves into and got acquainted with another area team, the Squirrels of Fury.

To put the car through its paces, Samuelson kept the car registered and drove it around on the streets regularly. Naturally, a caged and painted race car generated a lot of interest on the road, but it was not always snickers from commuters and furrowed brows from the local law enforcement.
"[An older woman]--I think she was wearing an oxygen mask--she was driving a minivan and she hollered out the window at me that she thought it was cool I was driving a race car on the street," Samuelson said of one encounter. "Her family had done some dirt-track racing way in the past and [she said] the car looks great. It made my day for sure."

Before its first ChumpCar race, the Escort also ran at Pacific Grand Prix, a large go-kart track near the team that has track days for passenger cars. The experience proved invaluable as a means to push the car in a safe, racetrack environment and to prove that the car would work in an endurance race.

Ryan Phee gallops the Pony Express Escort down a straight at a Pacific Grand Prix shakedown while some hopeless fool in a toy car tries to catch up. (Team Pony Express photo)

Now, after several races and modifications, they feel the car is on its way to running with the leaders and finishing regularly in the Top 10.

"We think [the car can compete for a win]", Samuelson said. "It's got a more-than-two-hour fuel reserve now that we built a gas surge tank. The engine is reliable and the car handles and brakes really well."

[Editor's Note: Read the team's build thread here.]

Scrape-up at the PIR corral

October 2010 found Team Pony Express venturing to Portland International Raceway for the their first ChumpCar race. As it turns out, they were as well prepared as most other teams. Bringing an enclosed trailer and a motorhome--courtesy of Samuelson's father-in-law Steve Rambo--and lugging a generator, a welder, and most of Samuelson's garage rendered them one of the best-equipped teams at the track. After the gratifying experience of unloading their real race car at a real race track, the team breezed through tech inspection Friday.

On Saturday, first-stint driver Tommy Huebner radioed to the crew shortly after the green flag that the car could seemingly outbrake anything else on the track.

"I'm sure everybody says this, but I honestly believe that we can brake as late as any ChumpCar we've raced with, no matter if it's a Miata or what," Samuelson said. "We brake so late. It's absolutely fabulous."

However, it became apparent that the car's SOHC 2.0L motor was far down on power compared to the rest of the field. Yet the poor straightline performance combined with the car's braking ability actually made for good racing

"We were further down on power and there was a lot of times where I'd pass somebody in a turn, they'd blow past me, I'd pass them in a turn, and they'd blow past me," Jackson said. "That made racing really fun because I'd feel like, 'I'm a better driver, though you may have a bigger motor.'"

Driver Nate Waddoups experienced a similar phenomenon:

"There's a pair of turns at PIR--Turns 6 and 7--where Turn 7 is a hairpin and coming out of Turn 6 is the widest part of the track. I was having trouble finding the quickest line through these turns and eventually somebody passed me because they were going down the middle of the track coming out of Turn 6 and into 7. And I thought, 'I have to try that...'

"And then I'm on the back of this Crown Vic for like three laps in a row and we're very evenly matched; I can't get around him. We came to 6/7 and I'm like, 'I'm gonna try this' and I got around him. And then he got past me on the straight. We came back to 6/7 again and...he moved to the inside so that I couldn't take that line. And he went off into the weeds because he couldn't turn as well as our car. So I had a good laugh about that."

A few minutes later, Waddoups pulled the exact same maneuver in the exact same spot with a second Crown Vic, achieving identical results: another Panther platform gone mudding.

"I laughed all the way to Turn 12," Waddoups added. "I found a good line that our car could do that not every car could do and I lured two cars into the weeds."

Unfortunately, the car's fantastic brakes called out driver Nick Lipsky while he diced with the Squirrels of Fury's Audi 4000, a crapcanized version of the S1 Pikes Peak car. Entering Turn 1, which is part of the famous Festival chicane, Lipsky broadsided the Audi. The impact caved in the Audi's passenger side door a remarkable amount.

"The only upside of it was that [the Audi] was an ex-dirt track car so the cage on the passenger side was next to the driver," Johnson said. "So he had a three-foot-deep crumple zone that Nick took advantage of."

The Pony Express Escort left a large impression on the Squirrels of Fury's Audi 4000. While the body damage was mostly cosmetic, the impact also damaged rear suspension components. The Audi eventually returned to the track. (Team Pony Express photo)

The team spent some time rearranging the front of their car and sent it back on track. The guilty Pony Express drivers then helped the Squirrels repair the Audi's bodywork and some rear suspension damage that resulted from the incident before the faux hill-climber returned to the circuit.

The contact was not isolated, as the Escort looked more and more haggard each time it returned to pit lane. The entire race was marked by some bumper car-type incidents and lots of off-course excursions. The rain carried some of the blame, but the some incidents also resulted from a gaggle of new teams fumbling their way through a first race.

"The series was brand new; there wasn't a whole lot of people with copious amounts of track experience," Johnson said. "That race in particular was notorious because of the rain and because it was only the second time they'd run at that track...We got more damage in that one race than we've had cumulatively since."

The Escort's body panels beg for mercy after a two-day drubbing at Pony Express' first race weekend at Portland International Raceway. (Team Pony Express photo)

The car finished halfway through the field on Saturday's race (36 out of 72) and climbed up to 17th of 51 starters for the Sunday session. [Editor's Note: Chump Car events at PIR have all been two-day events with a separate race session each day.] 

Fluorescent pink can save you money

The Pony Express returned to take some more lumps at PIR in April 2011. Gone was the useless wedge of a spoiler in the trunk and in its place was a plywood replica of the Escort Cosworth wing used on Ford's early '90s World Rally Championship entries. Like the wedge before it, this was mostly useless, although it was marginally heavier and provided a minute improvement to the car's extreme front-weight bias.

The car remained down on straightline speed, but the weekend's first race found the car reliably turning laps. Despite being the seventh-slowest car by fastest lap time in the whole field, Team Pony Express finished 11th of 71 entries. Had the team purchased charity laps that ChumpCar sold at the time, they could have finished as high as seventh.

"We were down there [on lap times] with  Ford Pintos and all the crap that was really out on the track," Johnson said. "and a Chevette that the guys had bought off a dirt track racer and gotten some tires from a barnyard that were just in terrible shape."

Aaron Samuelson gives the thumbs up, indicating that the car is not on fire. Note the license-plate diffusers on the rear of the car. (Team Pony Express photo)

Race two of the weekend found the team puzzled in the middle of the day by a sudden lack of scoring, despite the car turning laps. When Lipsky pitted, the team noticed the car's rented transponder had gone missing with no apparent damage to any part of the car's front.

The drivers opted to throw the car around for the race's last three hours with no pressure other than the transponder's sizable replacement fee hanging over their heads. The team officially finished a disappointing 40th, but the car had turned laps consistently. When the track went cold at session's end, Johnson and Lipsky promptly hopped on bikes and took to the track in hopes of finding the missing transponder.

"Suddenly, around Turn 7, we were looking at the pylons and we noticed there's a couple of missing pylons," Johnson said. "I see some pink duct tape about 10 feet out buried in some mud. Fortunately, we'd had the foresight to cover all the important stuff on our car--like where the hood latch goes, places to not bump your head on the rollcage--in fluorescent pink tape, just to know where it was at night. Sure enough, that saved our ass because the transponder was glowing pink in the middle of a big mud pit."

Like any other racing team, Team Pony Express' pit stops are busy. Pictured are (back, l. to r.) Kyle Kuhnhenn, Nate Waddoups, and Nick Lipsky; (front, facing away from camera) Ryan Phee and (in car) Aaron Samuelson.  (Team Pony Express photo)

The team soon figured out that Lipsky had clobbered the pylon head-on, but its only damage had been to dislodge the transponder from its mounting place in a very narrow gap in the front bumper. Regardless, Johnson enjoyed the experience of biking the track.

"That was just a blast, riding around the track on a bike after being out there for the day" he said. "Just cruising the track at slow speed."

Intimate Camaro moments

The team's third race weekend in October 2011 reassured Team Pony Express that they were capable of being competitive. Gone was the 2.0L CVH engine and in its place was a rebuilt DOHC 1.8L Escort GT motor. The power bumped up another 17 horsepower to 127 (those are factory numbers, anyway). They also ditched the plywood spoiler and placed an upside-down snowboard on the rear of the car to resemble a pseudo-touring-style wing.

The evolution of the Pony Express Escort's spoilers: (l. to r.) the original wedge, the Cosworth replica wing, and the "touring style" snowboard. (Team Pony Express photos)

Early in the weekend's first race, the Pony Express riders soon found themselves in first place with Ryan Phee at the wheel.

"[Ryan] did a really good job," Samuelson said. "There was a lot of red and yellow flags and he was just slowly consistent and kept us in the lead."

The joy would be short-lived, though, as Pony Express soon became part of the wrenching masses. During his stint, Jackson collected a spinning car in the Festival chicane.

"Lovely Zach decided to visit a Camaro very intimately," Johnson said.

(From top) Nick Lipsky, Nate Waddoups, and Aaron Samuelson inspect the damage after Zach Jackson's not-so-sexy Camaro encounter. (Team Pony Express photo)

The impact knocked several of the team's rally-style lights off, scattering them in pieces on the track. But more importantly, the crash destroyed the car's radiator, ending their Saturday session.

Samuelson purchased a radiator from a parted-out Escort found on Craigslist, but in removing it, he damaged the automatic transmission cooler lines. The team attempted to fix it with bolts and JB Weld, but the Pacific Northwest's pervasive dampness prevented the JB Weld from curing properly. Other team members then obtained two junkyard radiators of unknown quality and the team soon fitted one that worked enough and sent Samuelson out to the track on Sunday.

However, a new problem cropped up: Samuelson found the brake pedal unusable. He pitted and the team bled the brakes. And then they bled the brakes again. And again while they tried to diagnose the problem. They swapped calipers, swapped drum shoe pistons, and bled the brake system enough to go through three pints of brake fluid. After at least two hours of examining every inch of the brake system, they figured out that the master cylinder had gone and their race was more or less done, though their tires would carry on for a few laps attached to the Japanese Auto Tech Corolla.

Bleeding the brakes is never fun, but Team Pony Express got a lot of practice at PIR in October 2011. (Team Pony Express photo)

With only a few minutes left in Sunday's race session, Johnson nursed the Escort back to the track to see the checkered flag. But all thoughts of limping over the finish stripe vanished when he noticed his compatriots leaning on the pit wall.

"It was really satisfying to see the look on all my teammates' faces as I buzzed the wall on the last lap going as fast as the car could and braking really late for having no master cylinder into Turn 1," Johnson said. "and then hearing all the stories about how freaked out they were that I was about to bite it."

Johnson managed to return Pony Express' steed safely to the stable to race another day. The car finished the weekend's second race with 10 laps, good for 50th of 54 running cars (29 cars landed on the Did Not Start list).

A well-deserved rest

The team opted out of running this spring's race at PIR, though several team members volunteered to help Chump Car, including marshaling pit lane, running pit out, and handing out the stop-and-hold penalties. While helping, they also saw the complexity of running a race.

"I have a huge appreciation for how much coordination, how much work goes into making the race run well," said Phee. "The track officials know what's going on all around the track because all the volunteers know and all the turn workers know."

But Team Pony Express will soon be back on the track and have plans to give the car more straightline speed, though they swore The Rusty Hub to secrecy on the power source [Editor's Note: It's not Kinetic-Energy Recovery System...or is it? No, no it's not].

The characters "EL4NFZT7" grace the Escort's livery in several places. Know what it means? There's a prize in it for you if you do. (Team Pony Express photo)

They've tossed around the idea of a replacement car--including a number of off-the-wall, garage-engineered crapcan projects--but for the time being, the team will run the wheels off the now-veteran Pony.

"I think the reality is you're going to see this Escort out on the track until it gets crumpled into a very tiny ball," Samuelson said. "We'll cry for about five seconds and then we'll come back with another car."

"...right here and now"

Like any other experienced team, the Pony Express drivers offered up their best advice to noobs. The team can't recommend enough that if you're interested, get involved.

"The biggest piece of advice for a new team is to just get out and do it," Waddoups said. "This is so much fun. If you have four friends who like to work on cars or who, like me, are interested in working on cars, it's fun. You don't have to be super-experienced."

Bring spare parts, big and small, to the track. Don't forget fuses, extra fluids (you never know when you'll need to bleed the brakes for two hours), and zip ties (which can be used to fix throttle linkage in a pinch). Bring every part you can fit in the trailer or just bring a second complete car if it's in your budget.

Two of these cars have absolutely no racing pedigree. Thankfully, the third car's spoiler and gold wheels make up the difference. (Team Pony Express photos)

As for budgeting, be prepared to spend $4,000 to $5,000 for a whole team to race, including consumables, entry fees, tires, fuel, and other unexpected costs. For a first race, expect to spend a bit more to cover personal and car safety equipment, which you'll then have paid off forever (or until it gets too old/covered in fire). And if you're not interested in taking that kind of money and essentially setting it ablaze, you may not be ready to enjoy the experience fully.

"When we went to our first race, it was really hard on our car," Samuelson said. "Honestly, I was sick to my stomach when I saw my car--I call it 'my car' even though I sold it to the team and it's co-owned--coming into the pits every stop with more and more damage...It did hurt a lot, but since then, I've learned to let it go. Sure, it sucks when body panels get beat up, but that's why we buy parts cars."

Johnson added to Samuelson's sentiments.

"Go into it with the expectation that you can lose the car at any moment," Johnson said. "Don't get too attached to it. You kind of have to realize that all this time, all this money could just go down the drain if something goes haywire. And you have to be OK with that. And I think if people are OK with it, it makes it a lot more fun because you realize you're in it for the experience right here and now...It's just a hell of an experience."


Lightning Round - 5 questions answered kind of fast

Team Pony Express: (Clockwise from car's roof) Aaron Samuelson, Nate Waddoups, Ryan Phee, Nick Lipsky, David Johnson, Kyle Kuhnhenn, Zachary Jackson, and (in car) Tom Huebner. (Team Pony Express photo)
[Editor's note: This is a brief feature in which The Rusty Hub asks five questions that may or may not be relevant to anything with the intent of prompting quick answers. Or whatever.]

The Rusty Hub: Question #1 is a hypothetical, so here it goes. Unlike the rest of the world, you are privy to the pending zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately, you only have $500 to spend on a car to escape the hordes. What kind of car do you buy?

Dave Johnson: Honestly, I'd say some sort of V8 something or other. Not a high-strung four-banger or something we'd have to run at nine-tenths to get a sizable chunk of power out of.

Nate Waddoups: A Suburban would be great.

Kyle Kuhnhenn: There's a team that runs a Jeep in [the 24 Hours of] LeMons: Team Petty Cash.

Johnson: I don't think the tiny four-cylinder that might be able to outhandle everything on track will be so useful at the end of the world.

TRH: Second question: How many WRC manufacturer's titles did the Ford Escort 1800 win?

Aaron Samuelson: The 1800, huh? Is it higher than 10?

TRH: It is not. This is manufacturer's titles for the season.

Samuelson: I'm going to go with three.

TRH: The correct answer is one, in 1979. The third question is kind of related: What the hell is Billy Corgan singing in the chorus of Smashing Pumpkins' "1979?"

Johnson: Wow.

Samuelson: I'm going to pass on this one; I don't have a clue. Can we phone a friend?

Jackson: [To Aaron] You have Billy Corgan on speed-dial? 

Johnson: Can I go on Google?

TRH: I always just try to throw in a random question, sorry. We'll just move to the next one. Complete this analogy: Rain is to Portland International Raceway as the Team Pony Express Escort is to _______.

[Long Pause]

Jackson: Formula 1? Slower, but it's still a lot of fun.

Johnson: I might go the slightly sappier route and say "Saturdays with friends."

Sameulson: I was actually thinking that exact same thing. We have so much fun hanging out together in this garage. We come up with the craziest ideas like our bedsheet front-end aero, our brake ducts, our underbody aero...all this craziness. I'd almost say that I enjoy it more than being out on the race track.

Johnson: I'm inclined to agree with that statement also.

Waddoups: Totally onboard with that. That's another thing a new team should keep in mind. If you're forming a new team, working on the car isn't so much work; it's an excuse to get together with a few friends and BS all day and make fun of each other and make cool things happen.

TRH: Final Lightning Round question: If your car could speak for five seconds, what would it say?

Johnson: My god, why do you keep doing this to me?

Ryan Phee: What are you doing to me?

Jackson: Holy s---, can we do that again?

Johnson: Put the effing hammer down.

[Editor's note: Team Pony Express wished to express their gratitude to team transportation expert and crew guru Steve Rambo, without whom they'd be driving their heap to and from the track. Or at least to the track. They also gave a shout-out to Joel the Scrap-Metal Man.]


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