Thursday, June 21, 2012

Q&A with Marc Labranche, pioneer of airplane-engined race cars

Marc Labranche's radial-engined Toyota MR2 has run a grand total of 21 laps in two races at the 24 Hours of LeMons and earned two trophies along the way. The Kinner engine was originally designed to power the Ryan PT-22, a lightweight primary trainer aircraft in World War Two. (The Rusty Hub photo)

It is very hard for us to explain Marc Labranche's engineering exploits in brief. It really is. We find it inadequate to say "He put a World War Two-era radial engine in a race car" because that only tells the part of his story about his wild idea.

The interesting part is the part about his incredible execution of the idea, where he painstakingly undergoes an exhaustive process of design, trial-and-error, redesign, re-trial-and-error, and eventual triumph.

That part of the story takes much longer to tell. In fact, it takes about 1,400 posts and 56 pages on the 24 Hours of LeMons forum topic to tell just part of the story. We highly recommend you read through that forum topic either before or after you read this, because it's captivating and truly innovative stuff. This video Labranche made to demonstrate the drivetrain's second version speaks volumes about his skill and innovation.

But for those with a goldfish's attention span, here's the "short" version: Labranche spent more than a year designing and working on his Kinner R-55-powered Toyota MR2. He debuted it in LeMons at Michigan's Gingerman Raceway in the notorious snow-filled race in April 2011; the car ran one lap and then suffered calamitous and irreparable failure. His one lap earned him the "I Got Screwed" trophy. Labranche took some time off to try a new approach at the car and redesigned the drivetrain in the process. Earlier this month, he brought the revamped radial-engined MR2 to Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, IL, for a second try with it. This time around, he ran eight laps on Saturday before breaking a shaft; he spent about 90 minutes fixing the shaft and the rest of Saturday sourcing a seal that he ended up having to order. It arrived and was installed Sunday, when he ran an additional 12 laps before another irreparable drivetrain component broke. But it looked and sounded great on the track. His efforts earned him the coveted "Heroic Fix" award. That more or less brings you up to speed. Except his next big plan is to power the car with a turbine. But we'll get to that.

In between attempts with the Kinner car (and before them, as well), Labranche has campaigned a first-generation MR2 powered by a 2010 Toyota Camry 2.5L four-cylinder engine, finishing as high as 16th overall at the October 2011 race at Autobahn. Unlike the radial-engined MR2--which is mostly Labranche's solo fabrication and driving project with some paddock and moral support from David Budd, Joe Batt, Chris Wingate, and Cliff Johnson--the Camry-powered MR2 (the CaMRy?) is a team effort with the aforementioned, Budd, Batt, Wingate, and Johnson. The team have an eye on an overall win and have some tricks up their sleeves to try to make that happen.

This week, The Rusty Hub caught up with Labranche, who was on a layover while traveling for work, by phone to talk about outlandish engine swaps, the technical readouts of his battle station, somewhat-more-tame engine swaps, flexible budgeting, and more outlandish engine swaps.

[Editor's note: We unfortunately have a medium-fidelity-at-best recording setup and were recording our side of the conversation in less-than-ideal circumstances. As a result, it was somewhat difficult for Labranche to hear our questions. So if his answers occasionally seem a little off, the pattern of digression is probably mostly our fault because he was answering the question he thought he heard from us. We've apologized profusely to him already, but we'll say it again: Sorry Marc.]

The Rusty Hub: Why don't you kind of talk me through the process of how you decided to put a five-cylinder radial into an MR2?

Marc Labranche: [Laughs] Sure. Actually, that's a whole lot less involved than you think it is. It was one of those things; one day, I saw the video--I'm not sure if you've seen it--of the Goggomobile, I think it's a guy in Germany that did it. I saw that video and said "I think I can do that." A quick search on Craigslist later--actually that day--there was that Kinner R-55 for sale. Not being too worried about being able to do it, I called up a couple of my friends because I figured I'd need help lifting the engine and everybody's up for this kind of craziness, so everybody says "Yeah, let's go."

And it was only about an hour away. The guy lives in Guam, but he's apparently a pilot and he has all sorts of stashes of stuff like this all over the world, not just all over the country. So that was about a 90 percent complete motor. As best I can tell, it had been rebuilt and the date on it was 1942. It had just been stored, but somebody at some point had taken the No. 1 head off of it so the No. 1 and the No. 4 [cylinder bores] were rusted from the water kind of leaking through and just completely seized. But he had a replacement head. The replacement head didn't look nearly as good. It looked like it had run its allotted 500 hours before rebuild, but I wasn't counting on it keeping me in the air so it didn't really matter.


So I went ahead and picked it up, got a killer deal on it, and kind of soaked the whole thing in transmission fluid for about a week. That stuff is fantastic at freeing stuff that's probably been sitting for 50, 55 years or so. And sure enough, within about a week, some gentle turning on the crank--without even using a cheater bar, just that 10-inch diameter prop flange--it was free. So that's how I came across a motor that was almost runnable.

One of Labranche's first challenges was finding a way to deliver power from the Kinner radial engine to the Subaru transmission, which was mounted below the 540 cubic-inch, five-cylinder motor. (Marc Labranche photo)

From there, I think there was about a month or so where I didn't post anything on the forums about it. I was getting that motor up and running, which I thought was going to be the complicated part. So from there, I figured out that the missing carburetors and the missing magnetos were actually rather available, but unfortunately they are used in planes and engines much more popular than the one I have. Unless I was willing to pay antique prices for the magnetos and carburetors, I wasn't going to be buying any. So that was the decision to go fuel-injected, actually. I'm not a big fan of carburetors, but certainly I wouldn't have gone through this kind of trouble if the parts were available.

Actually, I missed something in there. Just before going to pick it up, I sent Jay [Lamm, LeMons' creator and chief perpetrator] an email and said, "Hey, I have this idea and I need to know if you'll let it run if I can't quite fit it in the budget. What can you do?" So he says, "For all matters this crazy, we refer to Phil [Greden, LeMons' head judge]." And I'm paraphrasing; I don't remember exactly what he said--I can probably dig it up--something along those lines. Phil, of course, I didn't even have to write anything--he was copied on Jay's email--and within minutes I heard back "That's OK because any radial engines are completely exempt from any BS laps."


So that happened within like a 24-hour period: From having the idea, having the approval of Jay and Phil to having the motor in my hands.

At that point...or I guess at what point, if ever, did you look at it and say, "Huh. Well, what do I do now?" Did you kind of have a plan laid out or did you make it all up as you went along?

Well, at first, I kind of dove into it perhaps a little more blind than I should have. I had assumed there would be some kind of belt or some kind of chain drive that would just kind of bridge the gap, so the distance between the engine and the transmission didn't really matter too much. And I kind of went ahead, because the engine needed to be assembled in the chassis. Despite all my looking to find as big of a chassis as I could--I tried old American Iron and whatnot--well, it turns out all of those cars are made for pushrod V8s. Pushrod V8s don't get much more 28 inches wide or so, even if you put complicated headers on them.

The engine bay of a second-generation Toyota MR2 is enormous. The transmission and adapter were placed like so to demonstrate the huge area Labranche had to work with. (Marc Labranche photo)

So that's how I ended up with that Toyota MR2. Well, it didn't hurt that I already owned three of them, but I went and measured the engine bay and, sure enough, if you removed the trunk, you have an engine bay that was like 43 inches wide, 55 inches long--give or take a couple inches, I'm going from memory here. It's absolutely enormous; you just can't match that with anything. Maybe the Chrysler Turbine Car, but that's about it.

Right. Those are a little harder to find here.

Yeah, exactly. There's, what, two that haven't been crushed? [Jay] Leno's got one and he's not getting rid of it and Chrysler's got one and they're obviously not going to get rid of it. [Laughs]

You ultimately ended up going with chain drive on the first attempt. What ended up failing? It was the sprocket, is that right?

So shortly after starting that first attempt--like starting the work on actually getting it done--I figured out ahead of time I would need about 3:1 ratio increase, but then I figured out I would actually need a rotation reversal. Not because the engine spins backward; it's actually quite to the contrary. What you consider the front of the engine is actually the back of the engine and then everything spins correctly. All the accessories are on what you think is the back; well, those are normally on the front of the engine. So it actually spins the right way, but when you have to mount it above your transmission, you have to have direction reversal.

That's about when--I forget what his name is...[Editor's Note: Tim Taylor]--the Angry Hamster team said they were getting rid of that box, their reversal change. I looked at it and he gave me all the drawings for it and everything so that was a great head start. Of course, he had only been putting about 60 horses through it, but I figured, "What the heck?" They were NASCAR quick-change gears so I figured there was a good chance the gears would be up to it and, after all, the bearings had to be sized fairly big just to fit the shafts anyway.

Now, the downside is that the shafts were just machined shafts and he told me he made them out of stock that he had lying around and he was pretty sure it was 4130, but he didn't know for sure and he was putting 60 horses through it, so it didn't really matter. He gave me that box and I had to re-machine...I actually made a new backside to that box so that it would allow me to tension the chain at the same time. I changed the gear ratio in it; he had it running 1:1. I ended up running that at 1.7:1 step-up, so there was 1.7:1 in that box and then there was another 1.7:1 in the sprockets on the front of the motor to get about that 3:1 and then the direction reversal.

With the engine mounted above the transmission, Labranche had to reverse the direction of the engine's output. Tim Taylor of the Angry Hamsters team in California provided an adapter box (see pre-destruction photos of it here, halfway down the page) originally used on the Hamsters' motorcycle-powered Honda Z600. Labranche adapted it for his purposes but was astounded to find eventually that the box was full of sludge and both shafts in it were broken from the car's first attempted race at Gingerman Raceway in April 2011. (Marc Labranche photos)

And what failed--and all that's kind of come around to what failed--there's two shafts in that Angry Hamster box and they both snapped. [At the time,] I didn't know they both snapped, but there's a big bearing and then a gear, a nut, and the shaft kind of tapered down because you had to have threads for the nut. And then that smaller bearing on the end. Well, before it gets into that bearing, it snapped at the shaft right there. And at the time, I thought it was only the top shaft that had broken because of all the side loading on it, but it turns out both of them did break. The bottom one wasn't really detectable because the [bellhousing adaptor plates] were so tight on that flywheel, it could only rock about two degrees out of straight and then it was hardened steel on aluminum, which actually makes a pretty decent improvised bearing for a short amount of time.

I actually think, looking back and looking at the failure mode, I think that thing might have failed before I ever showed up to Gingerman and just worked its way out of the case [during the first lap] because everything's tight and everything held its position no matter what. That chain, you have to stretch it to get one of those sprockets out of alignment. Obviously, it wanted to stay in alignment.

Labranche points to the chain sprocket that had broken off after one lap at the Gingerman race in April 2011. (Murilee Martin photo)

I know you were pretty bummed out after it failed. I saw you at Gingerman; you were not a real happy camper.

[Laughs] Yeah and I can explain that. I wasn't bummed because it failed because, honestly, I was expecting that. I was expecting more than one lap; I wasn't expecting it to survive. What bugged me was that Phil had basically been egging me on all weekend saying that I had a chance at [Index of Effluency (IOE)] to keep me there. If you remember that race, that Saturday got called for blizzard conditions because the corner workers couldn't see the cars anymore. And at the time, I didn't have the trailer that I have now so I was in a tent in a blizzard with a bag that certainly wasn't rated for it because I wanted to stick around to get IOE.

About an hour before the checkered flag dropped on Sunday, Phil just broke it to me when I asked: "There's no way in hell you're getting IOE with that." Really? What am I standing here for? That was what I was really aggrieved about, not the fact that it had broken down or anything. I did get the "I Got Screwed" award for that one, but I did not stick around to receive it. I got a call from Nick [Pon of LeMons HQ] about two hours out on the road telling me that.

After that, you mentioned on the forums that you were considering just scrapping the whole idea. What made you come back to it?

Actually, my wife. I know that's the last answer you'd expect, but she saw that it was bugging the heck out of me that I didn't succeed at that thing and she told me that I should get back to it. The deal was that I wasn't allowed to set a hard date for when it would be done, but she wanted me to work on it. So yeah, how's that for an unexpected answer? [Laughs]

Now, at the time--it was maybe a month or two after that race--is when my first child was born. Well, first and, at the moment, only.


That was why it was a lot longer to bring it out the second time. Basically, there was six months of no sleep so there was no way in heck I was going to spend another 40-60 hours a week working on a car.

This five-cylinder vacuum manifold for the MR2's power brakes is just one of the myriad of parts that Labranche fabricated for the radial-engined MR2 project. (Marc Labranche photo)

Right. So at that point, you kind of rethought the process and re-engineered it, more or less, is that right?

It was obvious that the kind of failure that had happened was not something that needed incremental improvement. It needed a complete revamp. Now, I was very happy with the transmission position, I was very happy with the engine position. In fact, the engine really couldn't move and the transmission could only go down and I only had two inches of clearance there. So I figured "What can I get to fit in the spot?" I still need about 3:1 and I need to reverse the direction and I need something that's rated for the torque and rated for the continuous use. Of course, that's easier said than done.

So I kind of pulled on some parts I had looked at before. I forgot what the project was, but I had actually bought a Goldwing box [Editor's Note: A final-drive for a Honda Goldwing motorcycle] previously to look at for a different project.  I didn't end up using it for that and actually had to scrap it, but I remembered what it looked like. I figured that could solve most of the ratio increase and it would give me 90 degrees so all I needed was another 90 degree turn.

Right away--and I don't think I even talked about this on the forum--what I started looking into was the MerCruiser inboard/outboard drives. They use helical-cut bevel gears again. I've got a friend who's got a boat that needs just so much work, it's always apart so I'm familiar with what the insides looked like and I know that the low ratio wasn't quite 1:1, so I could push it either way to get a slight underdrive or slight overdrive than what I needed. And actually those gears would have worked great for me except I would have had to make a whole new case for it. It turns out buying those gears outside of the case, I mean, you can get them for $150 with shafts and everything. But if you want it in the case, you know, you were looking at $500-$600. And that was more than I was willing to spend.


So I started looking at other things, maybe splitting the ratios between both boxes, not using the Goldwing box. With the Toyota experience I have, I figured "Well, they've got those transfer cases." But the problem is Toyota actually just uses a ring design--ring-and-pinion design--which drives about 3:1. So there's no way you can combine 3:1 up and down to get 3:1 total. And of course 9:1 was too much and 1:1 was too little.

So I started looking more along those lines and that's when I came across the Mitsubishi boxes [Editor's Note: Mitsubishi 3000GT transfer case]. It looked like they had a pretty severe issue wearing out the splines, but other than that, people weren't breaking them. So I figured they'd be available for cheap with busted splines, which wasn't very useful to me anyway. And sure enough, you know, that's one of those times when obviously nobody's going to give you any specs or dimensions on that, you just have to order one. It was $50, I think, and I ordered one. I looked at it, kind of took it all apart, and figured, "Well, I think I can make that fit." And it did.

The revised drivetrain included a 55-pound flywheel (far right) turning a rubber BMW driveshaft coupler (a giubo) into the Mitsubishi 3000GT transfer case (left and top with a vent on top of it). From there, it turns a very short driveshaft that runs into the Honda Goldwing final drive (bottom left). After a few adaptors, a flywheel, and a customized clutch setup, the power finally gets to the Subaru front-wheel drive transmission. Simple enough, right? (Marc Labranche photo)

There was a bad decision in there, too. I figured...if you look at keyway drives, they really don't appreciate a whole lot of back-and-forth motion, reciprocal motion. That engine, it's not turning in reciprocal motion, but because the power strokes are so intense--I figured after driving it the first time it would be driving, coasting, driving, coasting; I still don't think I was wrong on that--the thing just hits like a sledgehammer. And...sorry...lost my train of though, give me a second here...

Oh, right. Because I had to shorten the input shaft--well, what was the output shaft--on that Mitsubishi case, I wanted to put a proper spline on there because the keyway drive just wouldn't last. I mean, you just look at the specifications and there's just no way. So that's why I welded on that E153 output shaft on there and just kind of machined down an overdrive gear and hooked it onto the BMW flange. Actually, those were some of the welds I was--not questionable because of the quality of welds--but questionable because of the weld's surface area, but those were not the ones that let go. But what I should have in retrospect was just use a keyway on that shaft. I could have added a seal and keyway and then I wouldn't have had a welded shaft to deal with and it would have lasted longer.

Who knows how long that Goldwing box would have lasted? When I get back from Brazil here shortly, my plan is to take that Goldwing box apart and see how much metallic snarf is in there. I know after eight laps that Mitsubishi box, it looked like metallic paint that was pouring out of there, the high-dollar metallic paint. It was just dust; there wasn't even chips, just dust. And I expect to find the same thing in that Goldwing box.

That 3000GT box is only driving 0.851 whereas the Goldwing box is driving around 3.5:1, I think, it's around 3.5:1. That kind of ratio change can generate a whole lot of heat, especially when your input is about 800-plus foot-pounds of torque. The torque was multiplied by the 3000GT box because I couldn't get the right ratios. RPMs actually dropped in the 3000GT box and then increased tremendously through the Goldwing box.

Labranche starts the radial-engined MR2 at Autobahn Country Club during the car's second race. Notice that the car's customization extends to the interior, where Labranche fabricated a custom steering column, gauge cluster, and ignition switch. We can't help but suggest that its spartan appearance somewhat mirrors the simplicity of the PT-22 cockpit. (The Rusty Hub photo)

That seems like it would probably atomize the whole box, the interior of it.

[Laughs] It does, it does. It didn't give me any problems; I actually brought two spares with me and I didn't have to use it. Now, had it gone more than 20 laps, who knows? Maybe I would have had to use them. I'll have a postmortem on that in probably about a week-and-a-half or two, but nobody will ever know how long it really would have lasted.

So you ran 20 laps with it, which was pretty much your goal, is that right?

The reason for that is that was Phil kind of said as a quick thing--I'm not sure how much it was true--you know, 20 laps and that thing has got a chance for IOE. My goal is to eventually get all of the trophies available in LeMons. IOE, I figure, is a hard one to get and I wanted to get that one. Plus, it doesn't hurt that it comes with $1,500. Not that it comes close to covering anything. [Laughs]

Do you have any disappointment about not getting it at that race?

At the second race? No. First of all, I got another trophy that I didn't have, the Heroic Fix. And I got a dumbfounded look on Jay's face, which was absolutely priceless. I wish I could have gotten it on camera--he wasn't there at the Gingerman race. And they announced mine before they announced IOE so I was kind of a little on edge and wondering, "Well, who the heck can beat this thing?"

But I was so busy working on my car all weekend that I didn't really see who else was at the race. When I saw that it was that old Volkswagen Squareback that won it and apparently they had run three-quarters as many laps as the number one place, I had no problems not getting that IOE. They obviously worked harder and they got it.

Labranche exits to the track to pit in while the Index of Effluency-winning Volkswagen Squareback turns laps at Autobahn in June 2012. All of the drivetrain components--including the 330-pound engine that produces upwards of 600 ft.-lb. of torque--are hard-mounted to the car's chassis. As a result, Labranche says that driving it is like sitting in a paintshaker full of bolts. (The Rusty Hub photo)

Yeah, I think they finished 15th overall, which is phenomenal.

Yeah, it was impressive, especially [because at] tech on Friday, that thing sounded like it was falling apart.

One of the things I've noticed from the build forum is how much input--solicited or unsolicited--you got from the community and how much encouragement people were giving you. Was that helpful in any way?

Most of the advice was fairly useless, but there was a few gems in there. And I mean, that's one of the reasons I posted. It's the same reason why. People will get stuck on a certain thing; people kept wanting me to put a CVT--a snowmobile CVT--completely ignoring the fact that you wouldn't even get high enough RPM to engage the main belt no matter what springs you put on because you have input of 2000 rpm plus you have the direction reversal. That one seemed to keep coming up, that and supercharger belts. I looked into those big cog supercharger belts and they're just not rated--I mean, they're not even close to rated--for the kind of...and it's a little annoying that people refused to listen to that stuff. So I look at it and I investigate it and it's just not feasible.

It's like this turbine stuff; people keep prodding me about going electric. Well, a generator weighs an absolute ton. In some cases, the generator literally weighs a ton. To that point, that's a safety concern, that much additional weight in your car. So now you're beyond the initial chassis loading; if you crash that thing, it's not going to be any good. You're beyond the shocks, the struts, everything. It's like taking Toyota MR2 and hooking my trailer up to it.

I think overall, it's worth continuing to post these things. I'm sure there will be a few gems that will come out in the turboshaft. In fact, just since I've started, I've actually met two people who actually design turbine engines for a living.

Oh nice!

So that's rather valuable resources and I believe that the videos that I posted on YouTube are actually the reason why the person I'm working with now to get my turbine in exchange for the radial engine, that's how I met the guy. So I certainly can't discount the value of it.

This is kind of an obtuse question, but I'll ask it. What was kind of the ultimate payoff for you with the radial-engined car? What was the end result for you and how do you feel about it?

Well, I don't think the end result's come yet. In the other side of my personal life, I get a lot of interesting opportunities that come up by networking with people you wouldn't expect to network with. And the ultimate result is this allows me to meet a whole lot of people. And that's actually where you help me, by spreading the word of the results out of this and Phil is also making a Car and Driver article.

So I've met a lot of interesting people so far and I think I'll meet a lot more and that's really the goal. Some people are interesting and some people lead to interesting opportunities; it doesn't matter, I'm going for both.

Despite the way it appears, this photo--taken at Gingerman after the car's first attempt at racing in April 2011--was not staged. The massive radial engine poking out of the engine bay has a way of drawing smiling and flabbergasted spectators to the MR2. (The Rusty Hub photo)

Can you speak generally about how LeMons isn't just about racing but about LeMons as a venue for engineering creativity?

You're talking about the LeMons atmosphere?

Yeah and just how ideas like you've generated are not just tolerated but encouraged, I guess.

That's a big reason why I do LeMons. Frankly, with some of these builds, I wouldn't be any further behind if I did Spec racing of a couple different types. You know, Spec Miata is actually pretty cheap to get into.

But it's the atmosphere; I always make it a point--even when I wasn't going to be running practice day last weekend--I showed up Thursday because it's just a three-day long party with some racing sprinkled in. Jay and Phil and Sam, that whole bunch of people, I think they strike a very good line between keeping people safe and just making sure that people generally have a good time and figuring out a way to annoy the wet blankets so they don't keep showing up. It's a heck of a skill and I don't know how they do it, but I think they strike a heck of a balance.

Unfortunately, some people are getting mad at them; recently, they've been kind of ramping up the safety requirements again. I completely agree with that, at least the sentiment. I'm not sure about the new killswitch position, but I don't think it's hurting anyone either. In fact, I suspect that one was mandated by the insurance company because that Camaro--I guess it was about eight or 12 months ago now--got hit pretty hard after somebody accidentally tapped its killswitch. Well, that should've never happened; nobody should have the killswitch in a location that could have gotten hit in a contact that wasn't an accident that disabled the car.

So that causes rules like that and I can respect that. They've got to keep safety black and white; it makes the whole thing interesting and safe. Because the day that the insurance company says they don't want to insure us is the day that LeMons stops.

The first time I ran across you and your team was in April 2010, which is when you were running an MR2 with a 2010 Camry engine in it. I don't know if a lot of people know about that build, but it was pretty involved, wasn't it?

No. [Laughs] No, I didn't post anything about that build. That car legitimately should have deserved a couple dozen laps. The first time I brought it out, I got 500 laps. [Laughs] But they realized quickly that it was just terribly slow and it didn't matter. But that's not why I built it; I built it because it was reliable. And that's why that car's really keeping me...I've got over 4,000 miles of endurance racing on it and all I've done is change the oil.

Labranche and his team have also regularly campaigned a 1988 Toyota MR2 powered by a 2010 2.5L, four-cylinder Toyota Camry engine that Labranche scored at a junkyard. At the car's first race at Gingerman in April 2010, the engine had only 1,500 miles on it and Labranche found some quirks with the not-yet-broken-in engine's tune. The bottom photo depicts Labranche (left) and teammate Joe Batt trying (unsuccessfully) to convince the judges thusly: "This old thing? Just a stock four-cylinder Camry motor..."(Murilee Martin photos)

Before the next race, I finally put enough heat in the header that I cracked it so I've got to build a new header for it. Whatever. That build literally went from parts I had collected to installed in two days.


That was a trivial swap. And that includes all the work to get all the electronics working. That's what I do for a living, automotive electronics. I usually write the software side instead, but I still deal with the hardware side of it a lot. Looking at modern wiring schematics and figuring it all out, blending the 2010 with the 1987, it wasn't a problem at all. The car that was crashed was so new, on the ignition key, it still had the tag that said what code was on that key so that you could get a new one made. Because most people get an extra key when they buy a car so a third one to stick in a drawer at home is great. It only had like 1,500 miles on it.

Now, of course, pricing didn't hurt. The junkyard I bought this from, I had just bought $20,000 of engines to send to Europe. So when I saw that extra car, it was back in 2009, [I said]:

"Hey, you've got an engine that's 2010-plus with a manual transmission in a Camry. That transmission's only in the Camry and it's only in the 2010-plus. You know as well as I do that you're going to sit on that car, on the drivetrain anyway--the body parts, the body hadn't changed between 2009 and 2010, you're going to sell a couple of those--but you're going to sit on it until it's completely seized and then you're going to sell it and they're going to take it back because it's seized."

So after talking some sense into the junkyard and the fact that there was another, unrelated but very close-in-time sale, they gave a great deal on that whole drivetrain.

Is that the car that you finished 16th with last fall at Autobahn?

Yeah. Well, that motor's now been in two chassis. We rattled that first 1988 chassis apart; the spot welds were breaking everywhere. But now it's the one that's black. We always run as #97 and I think we're the only person that's ever run #97 in LeMons so you should be able to find all sorts of pictures about it.

#97 was actually in honor of--we're all a bunch of programmers on the team--and #97 is the biggest two-digit prime you can get. We've got a guy who's just a math nerd. [Laughs]

There's always a reason behind everything, so that's nice.

Exactly and sometimes you need to make a decision and it doesn't matter how silly the reason is if you've got a reason that makes you laugh about it.

The Camry engine eventually found its way into a 1987 MR2 after the team had beaten the '88 MR2 up too badly to keep running it. They quietly finished 16th overall out of nearly 100 entries at the LeMons race at Autobahn Country Club in October 2011. (Murilee Martin photo)

And LeMons seems like it's kind of all about inside jokes so that's just an inside inside joke, I guess.

Yeah. I wish Jeff [Bloch]--Speedycop--lived a bit closer because we were talking and we almost bought a Cadillac--I forget which one it was--but it was the Biarritz trim package, it had the 350 diesel in it with the TH425, the transmission they put in the Toronado. So it was a front-wheel drive diesel Cadillac with a high trim package. It was available for about a grand and Phil was all over it.

Yeah, I believe that.

That didn't end up coming together. I'd still like to run one of those 350 diesels because I can. Because they're that terrible.

So your next project is obviously the turbine car and you're still kind of figuring that out, what the plan is at the moment, right?

Yeah, I'm actually kind of going back and looking for a different turbine. I'm looking for an Allison 250. The radial was kind of fun, but it was kind of terrible that I couldn't put plates on it and just drive it around for fun because I didn't dare drive that thing anywhere that wasn't in range of a tow truck I didn't have to pay for.

So I'm looking to make something more reliable. The turbine I've got a deal on--actually, it's out of my hands--but the output spins to 12,000 RPM and you can't frankenstein existing automotive parts together, anything, that will deal with that kind of RPM. So you're looking at a lot of engineering and you miss something by a couple thousandths [of an inch] at 12,000 RPM and now you're generating massive heat. So you've got all kinds of different problems and I think that something that's using that free-power turbine would be better.

The radial-powered car's second race saw the opposite extreme from its first attempt. Instead of 40 degrees and snowing, this time the weather was 95 degrees and sunny. While attempting to tune the Kinner's fuel injection system, Labranche found some temporary shade to view the laptop screen, leaving crew member David Budd (left) to soak up the sun. (The Rusty Hub photo)

And you're still looking to obtain that; you don't have that yet, so it's a ways off?

No, there's two that I keep finding for sale. One of them is by Avon [Aero]; they have it for sale, but they want $27,000 for it. And that's not unreasonable because it still has its papers and that engine is flight-worthy and it's still in active use. There was one that I think was $8,000 that was a high-mile engine; it sold probably about six months ago, but you can still see the ads here and there. That's the kind of thing I'm looking for: something with high hours--I said "high mileage," I meant "high hours." So after you get to a certain number of hours, the FAA says "You can't fly that anymore." The margin at which they say you can't fly it anymore is way below "You shouldn't pull power out of this anymore" so I think it's just a question of waiting for the right engine.

I've got two other cars scheduled to build right now so I think I'm just going to wait on the turbine and wait for the right deal to come along and then I'll go ahead with that build. I'm not stuck on that Allison 250, but I want something that doesn't spin more than 6000 RPM on the output and puts out that 250-plus horses and has a free-power turbine.

What are the other two builds or are they secret?

Oh. [Laughs] One of them is a bet between a buddy of mine--he's on the team--we're having such problems keeping that MR2 together in terms of suspension. He thinks we'l get better times in a front-wheel drive so he bought three Accords, I kid you not, for $400 total. I actually got two trophies in one of them. We did some dirt-track racing--full-contact dirt-track racing--and I got two first places out of three we've done with them. So I figured "This thing seems reliable, let's race it."

Then we've got a slightly newer, I think it's '91, Accord. So it's got the F22 motor that puts out 150 horses instead of the 97 from the older ones. We'll probably put that together so that's nothing special. We thought about maybe jamming two engines in there, but that suspension seems just too good so we think we want to run it in stock configuration.

Compare the two drivetrain setups: The chain-drive system from the car's first race is pictured at the top, while the reversal-box system of the second race is shown below it. (Murilee Martin photo, top; Marc Labranche photo, bottom)

It might get you a chance at an overall win there.

With that one, we might get a Class B or Class C win out of it if we push it hard enough. The other idea I've got is--again, followed by the inability to keep the suspension on the MR2 together--I picked up, on a whim, a Corvette C5 chassis. It was a rolled chassis and it had a drivetrain in it. It looked like someone had bought it with visions of grandeur and it was right near the holidays, like five or six days before Christmas. Did I mention I have a really understanding wife?

Yeah. [Laughs]

So it was--I don't have the numbers in front of me--it was a little over $5,000. And if you look, the drivetrain alone sells for about that price. So I figured it was worth the risk; I went and I bought it. I put it for sale on the local forums with some of the guys I know and it sold within a couple days. I actually got $100 more for the drivetrain than I paid for the entire chassis. So I'm in for $0 now on a proper suspension that will last and that thing should be able to completely dominate. It will be a question of convincing Phil that it truly is a $0 C5 chassis, but he's done enough parts trading that he understands that buying a rolled chassis with a drivetrain that the drivetrain is all it's worth.

So that's the other idea. I have a 4.2L Audi engine that I want to stuff in the back of there.

In the back?

Mid-engined. Those 4.2L V8s put out about 300, 350 horses and they cost about $300.

Is there a reason that they're cheap?

Yeah, Audi put them in everything. There's a ridiculous number of them out there and Audi owners tend to not be the kind of owners when the car blows the engine, they don't care to put another engine in it. So you've got no demand for the engines, you've got a ridiculous supply. You can pick them up all day long; if you're careful, you can pick one up for about $200.

That's crazy and awesome. Mostly awesome.

In fact, I'm surprised those engines don't get campaigned more in LeMons. I even talked to Phil about it. He knows those engines are dirt cheap so I'm not expecting to catch hell for the engine. I'll probably find some cheap Audi front-wheel drive transmission. Most Audis are all-wheel drive, so if you find a front-wheel drive one, there's no demand for it. It should be a lot of fun; I expect to start campaigning that one early 2013.

While testing the car for the first time in Spring 2011--just a few days before the car's first race--Labranche found that one of the custom-made axle shafts had snapped. He considered skipping the race but thought better of it and rushed to fix it.. (Marc Labranche photo)

Sweet. Do you have any advice for anyone embarking on, I guess you'd call it, an "atypical" build.

Advice for a typical build?

Yeah, something out of the ordinary. If someone's going to start down that path, what would tell them?

At first when you started your question, I was going to say "Get a Neon. Get a Neon." It's the best car available for LeMons. And I feel dirty saying that, by the way. [Laughs]


But for people looking for an atypical build, it doesn't have to be complicated. There's something like just changing the position of an engine in the car, changing the orientation, going to a center-drive car; just all kinds of little things you can try...grafting a completely different car's suspension on there. You kind of have to know what your skillsets are.

If you've just got a bunch of people just crazy about electronics, maybe you want to roll your own ECU, put some anti-lag in there. Figure out how to get a turbo to reliably push a whole lot more horsepower. Or get even crazier, get one of these new direct-injected engines--if you look at the price at the junkyards, there's a couple of them that are dirt cheap because people aren't needing them--so if you rolled your own ECU, you could go crazy with them. They can make insane power and they're super reliable if you put a turbo on them. If what you've got is a couple of old-school fabricators, then put a small-block Ford or Chevy into a small Honda or something.

The big thing is if you're wanting it to be competitive, you need to have a decent suspension and you need decent fuel economy. Fuel economy wins over power, but you need to kind of pick what you're going for. If you're going for an IOE or if you're going for a win--A, B, or C--then even better, bounce these ideas off Phil. He loves talking about this stuff; he'll talk to anybody about this stuff.

Another build that would be fun to do that Phil would let fly is the Datsun 510. He really wants to see a Datsun 510. You can have a lot of fun with it; it's a solid rear axle so you can put just about any transmission in there as long as you're willing to redo the transmission tunnel. It's not hard to make a turbo setup look ghetto.

Especially if Phil doesn't know who you are. The more outlandish your build is, there's kind of a curve. You have to spend just $500 and if you spend more, you start getting penalty laps. But if you look like you're insane, you'll get a free pass.

That seems like the way it goes; the crazier you are, the more leniency they have.

Yeah and look at what's won IOE. If you look at IOE, it's unfortunately not the crazy builds like I've done. It's the Geo Metros that somehow go out there and keep turning laps. It's that Volkswagen Squareback. But you just have to have a hook and Phil will help you find a hook; just bounce some ideas off of him.

Phil's going to hate reading this when he sees it, but the truth is that the $500 budget is really kind of flexible so don't get too stuck on that...I'm totally going to get BS laps for saying that.


Lightning Round - 5 Random Questions Answered Kind-of Fast

The beautiful backdrop of Joliet, IL, is the perfect place to campaign a Frankenstein machine like this. (The Rusty Hub photo)

(1) Besides your own car, what's your favorite unusual LeMons build?

Are you talking ones I've seen or ones that I want to see?

Ones that have been done so far, not necessarily that you've seen in person.

That Squareback VW, the Angry Hamsters Z600. I really like the older cars that have completely different drivetrains shoved into them. That's kind of my soft spot.

(2) Ryan Aeronautical--who built the PT-22 that [originally] had the Kinner R-55 in it--after World War Two, they weren't making any money. Randomly, what did they build and sell to keep their doors open until they got more contracts with the government?

Oh, I have no idea. I'm not an airplane guy; somehow I got tied into putting airplane engines in cars. But I have no idea, honestly.

That's alright, I always just throw some random trivia in there that nobody will know. They actually built coffins for a couple years to make ends meet.

Oh, really?! [Laughs] I didn't know that.

(3) What do you think the original Kinner engineers would say about your car if they saw it?

I think most of the engine technology they were working on at the time, some of the internals in there, it's impressive. It's obvious those people were all about pushing the limits so I think they'd actually be kind of happy to see the motor live on, especially in 2012 from a motor they designed in 1936.

I'd like to think they'd be happy and that kind of goes for everybody overwhelmingly. I've had a few people tell me I'm destroying an artifact when the truth is that the museums that care to have one of these, have one of these. And then I didn't destroy the motor. Overall, the response is positive: "Hey, it's really neat to see one of these old engines running, to hear it." You know, that's the kind of stuff you don't get to see at a museum.

(4) You probably have to estimate this unless you know off the top of your head: How many one-of-a-kind parts are on the radial-engined MR2?

Oh my goodness...enough that I was swearing at some point saying, "Why can't I just buy one of these parts?" Wow, everything from the axle shafts to that prop flange was completely customized. Uh...probably somewhere north of 35 parts.

Wow. I had no idea it was that high, even.

Oh, yeah. Everything, I mean. You've got five motorcycle throttle bodies on there and you have to link the vacuums so that you have power brakes working. Well, all of a sudden, you're making a custom vacuum manifold because you need five ports, not six, not 10, not four. So the little stupid things. Some of the parts weren't complicated, but there's just a crazy amount of them.

(5) What one piece of fabrication are you most proud of?

I'd have to say the pieces you can't see: the bearings I had to make inside the engine to bring it back to life. I know it doesn't sound like much and frankly they weren't the most complicated parts, but the fact that I was able to make the parts to bring a World War Two engine back to life, that's what I'm proud of.

[Editor's Note: Marc is still looking for a cheap Alison 250 (T63-A-700) turbine. Feel free to contact him if you have one or have a line on one:]


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