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Race-ready Golf Part 3: Broken cars build character

Oct 15, 2004
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0411_01z+1985_volkswagen_gti_coupe+front_right Photo 1/8   |   Race-ready Golf Part 3: Broken cars build character

Right from the start, we said we were going to report on the trials and tribulations along with the glorious successes of our Project Race-ready Golf. Unfortunately, the trials have been persistent while the glories have been non-existent.

Indianapolis Raceway Park

My next outing with my Improved Touring Class B (ITB) 1985 VW Golf was the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Double Regional race at Indianapolis Raceway park (IRP). I arrived on Friday afternoon in order to get the car through its mandatory technical inspection and to set up a spot in IRP's sandy and gritty paddock. Compared to the NASA race at Mid-Ohio, where everything had been laid-back and friendly, the tension among the SCCA workers was very high, with everyone seeming to take their jobs so very seriously. Although my car was fifth in line for the technical inspection it took an hour and a half before the inspectors finally reached me and then some additional time trying to sort out who was authorized to sign my car's racing logbook. Everything finally ended up as it was supposed to be, but I was left wondering why it all needed to be so difficult.

First Session, Three Laps

The next morning my group of IT cars took to the track early. IRP is a strange track, consisting of a long drag strip, an interesting series of high-speed corners, a trip through a parking lot and a ridiculously tight corner between concrete walls back onto the drag strip. It's the kind of track where you need to get lots of laps before you begin to feel comfortable. I got three before I was black flagged because my muffler was dragging on the ground under the car. It was my fault; when I rolled the car off of the trailer the night before, the muffler hung up on the way down, hitting the edge of the trailer. I didn't bother to check and now I was paying for it having been knocked loose. Because there was only one practice and qualifying session before the afternoon race, my three laps would have to stand as my qualifying effort.

0411_02z+1985_volkswagen_gti_coupe+interior Photo 2/8   |   Race-ready Golf Part 3: Broken cars build character

In Between

Between sessions, the astute racer will have his crew carefully examine the race car to ensure everything is ready to go. Except, when you are at the track by yourself, it's all up to you. Fixing the drooping exhaust required a clamp that I found at a nearby auto parts store. The car had seemed fine other than that and I checked things such as lug nut torque (65 lb-ft) and oil level. Despite only three laps, I hadn't qualified dead last and there were at least a few cars behind me, probably those with even more trouble than I had experienced. Finally the cars were called to the grid for my race and I strapped in and joined the 35 or so cars that were lining up for the race.

The Race (Sort of)

0411ec_projgolfpt3_03_z Photo 3/8   |   Top: Just like the NASCAR guys, I have added a Safety Solutions head and arm retraining net on the right side of the seat to keep everything in place in the event of a big crash. Above: This is the used motor I bought at a junkyard for $150

There is a sense of excitement, sitting in your own race car on a race grid, after the 1-min. signal has been given. Engines have already roared to life and family and crew give the driver a last pat on the helmet before scurrying to the sidelines. Finally, the field moves away, pulling onto the track and splitting into two rows past a marshal standing in the center of the track.

Now is the time to bring the engine and gearbox up to temperature. Now is the time to scrub the tires and pull the safety belts a bit tighter. Now is not the time to hear a loud bang and have the car fill with smoke. It happened at the second turn, with the engine turning no more than 3500 rpm. I quickly veered off the racing surface and onto the grass to avoid spilling oil onto the track. The car coasted to a stop near a corner station and I unbuckled and climbed out.

A quick check under the hood showed the distributor was lying on its side in the engine bay. Hmmm, that didn't seem right. Meanwhile, word came that the field would have to run its first lap under yellow behind the pace car until the turn-two workers cleaned up the oil I had laid over the track. It ended up being three laps. It must have been a lot of oil, but under the hood, everything looked fairly clean. I was perplexed as I watched the field finally take the green flag and have a quite good race.

Game Over

They hauled my stricken Golf back to the paddock on a flatbed, so that it wouldn't drop any more oil onto the track. Under the hood, with the help of several other racers, I began poking around to find the problem. Then looking at the backside of the engine with a flashlight I suddenly realized that I was looking at the crankshaft. A hole had blown through the side of the cast-iron engine block and the connecting rod for the number four cylinder was lying broken in the bottom of the oil pan. My weekend was done.

0411ec_projgolfpt3_04_z Photo 4/8   |   The crux of the problem. The hole in the engine block was caused by stretch rod bolts on the number four cylinder

What Happened?

I now had a broken race car. Putting a brave face on it, I realized this is exactly what could happen to any of our readers who might also be racing in Improved Touring. After pulling the engine out of the car and examining the broken parts carefully, it appeared that the rod bolts had been stretched to the breaking point on the number-four connecting rod. Thinking back, I realized that on one of my three trips down IRP's long drag strip, I had shifted from fourth to fifth gear, but fifth hadn't engaged. I zinged the motor to some incredibly high rpm, before finding the gear and continuing on.

Had I, in that instant, stretched the rod bolts? From then on, had I been driving a ticking time bomb? Or could it have been, with many races on the engine's bottom end, that it was just its time? There was no way of knowing the exact answer, and besides I had to come up with a solution to get back onto the track.

What to Do?

0411_05z+1985_volkswagen_gti_coupe+engine Photo 5/8   |   The blown engine is ready to come out. On an A2 Golf, the engine comes out easiest from the top.

Faced with a grenaded motor, the Improved Touring racer has several options. First, I was fortunate enough to have a spare engine block and enough pieces that had come with the car to build a fresh engine. This would require machine shop work, new piston rings, new main and rod bearings, new hardware and gasket sets. I figured the total to go this route would be at least $700 to $900. But for the same amount (around $700), I could buy a fresh short block from an engine rebuilder. A short block is everything below the cylinder head and would come with new parts and gaskets. But the quality of the work is inconsistent among engine rebuilders and I wasn't sure who would build one good enough to take racing. The next option, some would say the best one was also the most expensive.

There are several companies around the country that specialize in building Improved Touring race engines for VWs. These are pretty much bolt-in units that have been built and massaged, using all of the legal tricks that the engine builders have devised. The cost for a full-up ITB engine would be around $2,500, plus shipping. That seems pretty reasonable, given that you are bolting in reliability and proven horsepower. Certainly, for Project Race-ready Golf, that would be the most rational option. Except, not everyone has $2,500 to spend on their $4,000 race car.

I decided to go a route that several racers on the Improved Touring Web site (www.improvedtouring.com) had suggested, and one that, to my mind was fully in keeping with the philosophy of low-cost fun racing that IT was supposed to embody. I went to a junkyard and bought a used motor from a 1985 GTI for $150.

0411ec_projgolfpt3_06_z Photo 6/8   |   In with the new junkyard motor.

The engine had been tested for compression and oil pressure before being removed from the car and both had been fine. I pulled apart my greasy new lump and replaced parts such as the oil pump ($40), timing belt ($7), lower gaskets ($25), head gasket, ($47), rod bearings ($49) and various bolts and hardware. I reused my cylinder head, after looking at it carefully to ensure that it was undamaged. The total came to $224, on top of the $150 I spent for the engine. For less than $400, I had a partially rebuilt ready-to-go engine in my car. Unfortunately, my trick baffled racing oil pan from the other engine was peppered with holes as though it had been hit with buckshot.

A new baffled pan from BSI Racing (www.bsiracing.com) cost me a cool $200. The risk was, I didn't know how long this junkyard engine would last nor how badly things like the rings and main bearings were worn. It was a gamble, but one that IT racers on a budget must make regularly. Was it a gamble that would pay off, or was I deluding myself by being such a cheapskate?

A Safety Valve

0411ec_projgolfpt3_07_z Photo 7/8   |   I hope this Pertronix Digital Rev Limiter will help keep the junkyard motor together. Wiring was simple and the rev limit can be adjusted by setting the switches on the end plate.

I was concerned that perhaps I had over-revved the engine and that this had caused my problems. After all, VW engines from the A2 have a well-deserved reputation for strength and durability. To ensure that this wouldn't happen again, I installed a digital rev limiter from Pertronix (www.pertronix.com) for $119. The rev limiter interrupts the car's ignition system as the preset engine speed limit is reached. It would keep me from zinging the motor on those missed shifts. The unit was easy to install--connecting across the positive and negative poles of the coil--and is set with a pair of switches on the back panel. I chose 6200 rpm as my rev limit and put the car onto the trailer as I got ready to take it to a local sports car club's test day.

Testing, Testing...

0411_08z+1985_volkswagen_gti_coupe+engine Photo 8/8   |   All back together and ready to go testing with VSCR.

Vintage Sports Car Racing (www.VSCR.org) is a club in Minnesota that conducts monthly "test days" for its members at a local police training facility. The format is simply "run what you brung," and there is a fast and a slow group. There is more track time than anyone could want, split into 20-min. sessions. It seemed like the perfect chance to test out my new engine and make sure all was well. It wasn't.

After several on track sessions where the car ran well and the new rev-limiter proved to be working, I noticed a large puddle of oil forming under the car. It was transmission oil. One of the axle flange seals was leaking heavily. Rather than oil down the course, the car went back onto its trailer and later the next week I spent a few hours replacing the seal along with the drive flange, which was showing significant wear. Still, it was better to find the problem on this low-pressure and nearby test day than it would be to discover the problem hundreds of miles from home during a race weekend.

Next Time

Project Race-ready Golf has proven itself to be anything but race ready. These are the risks you run when you buy a used racing car. It does seem like it has been one thing after another and for all of my efforts, I really have only a finish at the one-hour endurance race at the NASA event at Mid-Ohio to show for it. That was not the idea when I decided to take the plunge and buy a race-ready car instead of building one from scratch. The myriad problems has made it difficult to test other products on the car, as was my original intent with the project. I have been able to sample several organizers so far, from the laid-back attitude of NASA and VSCR to the regimented and strict officials of the SCCA. Hopefully, my next race, a regional SCCA event at Road America will end on a happier note.

Project Race Ready Golf Costs

IRP Race Entry (Double Regional) $295
Junkyard Engine $150
Replacement parts $224
BSI Competition Oil Pan $200
Pertronix Rev Limiter $119
VSCR Test Day entry $55
Axle seal kit $12
Used axle flange $20
TOTAL $1,225

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