Ed note: Picking up from last month, Cheston Chiu breaks down the second part of our final Castrol Syntec Top Car story and our upward journey to the Buttonwillow Raceway for the showdown between our Nissan 350Z and our fellow competitors. Whose cuisine reigns supreme? Read on.
After I finished rebuilding the car, I headed off to Riverside to drop off the Z at K&N. I was the first car there, and a bit anxious to see the other competitor cars. I had seen all their bios on the Castrol Syntec Top Car Challenge website and was particularly excited to see Martin and the AMS Evo 8 as well as Ryan Gates with his Time Attack Evo X. I have an Evo X daily driver, so to meet these guys was like comparing the time when I met the Secretary of the Air Force (yeah, so it might not mean a lot to you, but it was pretty cool for me, ok?). To top it off, the bios stated that a 500+ hp Low Rider was going to be in the big show. Wow. Impressive. This was going to be an interesting event.
The next day started pretty early and I started getting butterflies when we pulled into the parking lot but I knew I had to calm the hell down because it would be one full week of craziness. All the contestants were there early, and I got to introduce myself. Everyone's car was magnificently put together. My Z likes cold weather, and being first on the dyno was nice. Strapping the car down to the dyno wasn't so nice. Since I have a rear diffuser, I had to remove it so that the rear tie down straps could be installed. They spun up the car and immediately shut the car down. The operator was complaining about a weird noise coming from the rear, so they rechecked everything and when I asked about what the noise was, it turned out they mistook the tire roar of my R888s as something wrong with the rollers. The car now had been running and warming up and they did a pull. The numbers were ok, but were lower than what we saw during dyno tuning. Then I looked at the front of the car, and none of the fans were on! Doh, they had pulled the car with no airflow going to the intercooler or radiator. I know its not much horsepower difference, but with every progressive dyno pull, the car gets hotter and power gets sucked up. So I made note of it and immediately they put these huge fans to blow air toward the engine bay. All three pulls were relatively close, with pulls 2 and 3 lower than the first one. It wasn't a great start to the day, but it was still OK. After the dynos were completed, all we had left to do was head up to Buttonwillow. By now the temps were in the high 90s and to make matters worse, it was peak traffic time in So Cal. I'll spare you the boring details of the drive, but we arrived at the Buttonwillow and met up with my friend and driver, Billy Johnson and Taylor Brooks, the crew chief for his race team.
The second day of competition would be the Braking and Quarter-Mile challenge. I know my Z can stop, thanks to my sticky Toyo R888 tires, massive four-wheel Stoptech 14" brake kit, and Hawk DTC pads but it was the quarter-mile that I was afraid of. After the braking competition, we went back to the pits to set the car up for the dragstrip, softening the rear so that it can squat and get maximum traction. We had another idea of disconnecting the rear sway bar endlinks to soften the rear up even more. We didn't fully remove the endlinks, just unbolted the nut from the sway bar and took the bolt out of the eye hole. This later turned out to be a bad idea. When we lowered the car back on the ground, we heard a snapping noise, which I thought was just the dust cover on the rear coilovers snapping into place. "Toot toot" goes the failboat on its first departure. In reality it was both endlinks getting caught on the rear suspension bar and snapping.
We lined up the car for the dragstrip, and went in order of how the cars showed up to the grid. Since we took a little bit more time than the other contestants, we were last in line. The running order was taking longer than normal, and the car was literally baking in the now 106+ degree heat. I tried to spray down the intercooler with water I had brought in a pressure sprayer but it wasn't doing much good. Billy took the Z and started to warm up the tires. We checked tire pressure and ready to go. Our first and second pass was fantastic. I've never seen my car put down quarter-mile times like that. I was pretty stoked. I thought about calling off the third pass because the first two were identical times, but maybe Billy could pull off a miracle and get a better time. The third pass was indeed faster, by only one tenth of a second, but at the end of the run, we all saw a puff of white smoke from the rear of the car. We saw Billy turn to follow the track, so I had thought it was him drifting the corner or a little bit of brake lock/tire scrub since by then he'd be into the triple-digit speeds. Little did I know it wasn't either case, although I wish it would have been, God would I wish it would have been.
When we got back to the pit area, Billy was reporting that the car was extremely hot, water temps and oil temps were very high (220 degrees and 260 degrees, respectively) and worse: after every shift a puff of white smoke would be coming out the tailpipe. Howard thought perhaps one of the piston rings had seized and was now stuck so that oil was blowing by. My brand-new engine, with less than 300 miles, was pwn3d. Billy said he didn't hear any pinging noises under WOT and it felt good up until that point.Obviously, I was glad it wasn't a catastrophic failure with a piston exploding out of the block in glorious fashion, but I felt devastated every time I saw the smoke. But what can you do? No time to fix it, we had to go on and finish. The car still was making decent power but we had to deal with the cooling issue for the next day's time attack.
On the way back to the hotel from the track, I was thinking of how to get the car run cooler. I already had a Power Enterprise radiator, a massive Setrab Oil cooler and a vented hood, but it still wasn't enough in this heat. My C-West long nose bumper has a small opening for air flow and I thought to try to direct air toward the oil cooler since those temperatures were rising faster than water. The nearest Home Depot was over 30 miles away, and by the time I would get there it would be closed. So I did what any other typical engineer would do in a situation like this: become MacGyver. Taylor and I walked around the hotel trying to find anything I could use for ducting, and my first stop was the laundry room. There was an "OUT OF ORDER" sign on one of the dryers and I pulled it aside. I was looking for the hose attachment to the wall. BINGO, still there. I 'borrowed' the 4" diameter x 2 feet flexible hose and all the miscellaneous aluminum fairings there and went to the hotel room. I'd make the duct first thing tomorrow morning after we got to the track, since by now it was dark and we didn't bring enough flashlights.
The next morning we got to the track early and went to work right away. We attached the hose to the front bumper with zip ties and snaked the other end to right before the oil cooler and using the aluminum fairings and a bunch of duct tape, we had our ghetto air diverter. Now it was time to set up the KW Clubsports for the track. Billy knows Buttonwillow like the back of his hand from his many racing events here, so he has a particular setup in mind. When we jacked up the rear of the car to get to the compression adjustment, it was horror. This is when we found the cause of the cracking noise the day earlier. The endlinks were sheared off and now I was up the creek with no paddle. Where the hell was I going to find endlinks for a 350Z in the middle of po-dunk nowhere? Taylor and I went around to the other teams and asked if they had any spare endlinks that we could use. This is where true sportsmanship comes in. Martin's AMS Evo 8 also had issues with their endlinks, they removed it from the car during the dyno, and forgot to tighten them back up from the drive up from Riverside and they fell off. So he had a set of stock Evo 8 and a set of adjustable endlinks express mailed from Chicago to Buttonwillow and it would be there that day. He graciously offered the set that he wouldn't use to us. It was definitely worth a shot since something was better than nothing. When the package arrived, they ended up using the adjustable endlinks and I prayed that the stock Evo 8 links would fit, and you know what? It did! Wow. Can you freakin' believe that? At least something was going my way.
It was like 106° F when we started the time attack practice. Billy had gotten the car adjusted the way he liked and it was time to see what we could get with a blown piston ring and the heat soak. After a few laps, he immediately came in and reported that the car was overheating and the temps were very high. He also said that the fuel pressure warning light on my Defi VSD X was displaying low fuel pressure. We called off the rest of the practice and tried to address the issues as much as we could. Howard raised the fuel pressure on the auxiliary FPR near the fuel tank, and I turned down the boost to be on the safe side. We were running at 18psi, so I turned it down to 14psi. I played MacGyver again and with the help of Chris Marion of KW, we rigged up a mesh in front of the intercooler to so that we could shove ice cubes in front of it and behind the radiator. By now, we were desperate to keep the temps down. When it was our time to do the actual lap, our strategy would be to do one warm up lap, one flying lap for the time, one cool down lap and pit in for 15 minutes to ice everything down and go again for it again. We knew what the competitors were getting and I was confident that Billy could get the Z in those time ranges. So after the flying lap was completed, the lap time was pretty impressive and the Z pitted in for our 15 minutes of ice down. All of us on pit lane were shoving ice into the bumper. Everyone thought the car was on fire since we were frantically running around and throwing what seemed like water into the engine bay. The heat from the engine was melting the ice cubes almost as fast as we were packing them in. As soon as we reached the 15-minute mark, Billy took off and did the warm-up lap and soon started the timed lap. I was keeping time on my stopwatch and watching the time corresponding to where he was on the track and he was BLAZING. At the pace he was at he was going to beat the previous time. He disappeared from view as he rounded the chicane and I was waiting for him to come down the straightaway but nothing. When the stopwatch continued to count up and there was no Z in sight, I knew something was up and our chance to beat the previous time was done.
You try to do everything you can to prepare yourself for situations like this. You keep your expectations a bit lower than normal, tell yourself "if it's meant to be, it'll happen" but still it was hard to see the Z limp into the pit much much later than expected. The fuel pump had started to give out, and to quote Billy "the car fell flat on its face and just wouldn't go anywhere." Thankfully we did have at least one timed lap in the books in the 20-minute session, but still, all the hard work (and money) you put into a car to do well at the track, it felt to me that I had somehow failed my sponsors and I couldn't do a better job of representing them in the way that I wanted to. It was only because of their generosity that I could have gotten the Z to be selected in the competition, and to not do as well as you hoped, was hard to swallow.
In the end, even after all the craziness I had endured during the competition, I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. Yea, of course I was bummed to see my pride and joy hurt, but seeing the other cars compete against was awesome, I mean, this is why we build cars! Not so that they look pretty but because they have a purpose and function. The Z is getting repaired as I type this, and hopefully it'll be healthy soon. Driving my bone-stock Evo X is getting pretty boring! To sum it up in one word would be: epic. No way in hell am I going to forget using that dryer hose.
I would like to really thank everyone that helped me out: Howard, Richey and Tadashi at Techno Square, Ken at Cosworth, Eddie at Performance Nissan of Duarte, Howard at StopTech Brakes, Chris at KW Suspensions, Tom at Lucent Auto, Nestor at K&N, Steve at S&A Designs, Rick at VIP Status, Mike & Stan at Toyo Tires, Brian at Mackin Industries, Sean at OS Giken, Noah at GTSpec, John & Jesse at Finish Line Autocraft, and a special thank you to: Billy Johnson, Taylor Brooks, Steve Mitchell, the Super Street staff and of course my awesome wife Angie.