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If you pay any attention to this blog whatsoever, you've probably noticed that there have been absolutely zero updates on my car or racing status since May of 2017. That's because my car has been out of commission since June of 2017. I've experienced heart break after heart break with this machine, and every time I get to the point where I say "everything on this car is brand new - there's nothing left to break!" Guess what? That new thing breaks. Oldest part on my car last season was my 383 stroker motor with only about 30 hours on it. It broke. Car now has a new 402 motor in it, and it's ready to run. That's the Cliffs Notes version of what's transpired over the last year. However if you're a Corvette or racing nerd and care to hear the nitty gritty details of why my motor blew after 30 hours and what I went through to try and get the car running again, then read on.
So after a partially fun but partially frustrating season opening race at NJMP, having found and cured the issue that was causing my severe power loss, I was very much looking forward to the rest of the racing season. I brought the car to Palmer Motorsports Park for an open lapping day in June just to get some more seat time in the car. You may remember that the car was completely rebuilt after the Crash of 2016 so I needed a lot more time in the car to learn how to drive it properly. I trailered out to Palmer in a deluge hoping the weather-folk were correct that the rain would subside in the afternoon. It didn't, so rather than sitting around all day I threw my Hoosier Wets on to get in some rain laps (which I actually enjoy) and to practice driving a car that no longer has windshield wipers (not all that enjoyable). On my second session out I started to hear a rather disconcerting clicking noise coming from the engine bay, with a couple of strange and errant backfires from time to time. Getting nervous I pulled in to the pits hoping I had something stuck under my car that was hitting a wheel or something. I brought the car into the garage, took a video of the sound and sent it to my mechanic and he said words that no one who drives anything with a motor wants to hear - "Don't run it and bring it right over here."
So with two slow wet sessions under my belt, I loaded the car on the trailer and brought the car back to Pete at Autosport Fab to have him take a look and diagnose. It was quite obvious that something metal was rattling around in the motor, so a total tear down was needed to determine the damage. The motor came out, tear down began, and Pete found that one of my very fancy Morel lifters had broken a tie bar, destroyed the lifter bore in the engine block, wiped out the cam, destroyed the lifter, and judging by what was left of the lifter and cam sent a whole bunch of metal through the motor. A death sentence essentially. Time for a brand new motor after only 30 hours.
But was it? Is this thing cursed? Am I cursed? Maybe the sensible thing to do is to just sell the damn thing as a roller with all it's very fancy parts,cut my losses, and take up basket weaving.
I typed up a For Sale ad with everything that had been done to the car while Pete came up with suitable replacement engine options, still not sure which way I was going to go. I stared at that For Sale ad for a real long time. I came within a mouse click of putting the car up on Racing Junk and Bring A Trailer. I thought about selling the car and buying a BMW E46 to race in Spec E46. I thought about truck motors and junk yard motors - just putting SOMETHING in the car to make it worth more than just a heartless rolling shell.
In the end I decided to start over with a new motor. I make and sell parts for racing Corvettes. I love Corvettes. I want to drive and race a Corvette because that's my business and that's where my heart is. That Corvettes may not love me very much has still not perhaps sunk all the way into my brain but this motor, this LAST motor was going to prove to be different. Right? Maybe.
I made the decision to Go Big Or Go Home and enlisted the services of Golen Engines to build me a new motor. The owner Chad Golen was very helpful in trying to get me back on track with a solid motor at something that at least resembled a budget. So we were able to use some of the quality parts from my old engine (forged crank and rods and pretty much everything from the AFR heads) with a new LS2 block, pistons, and whatever other magic Chad and his team needed to throw at this motor with the intention of making very reliable power. The big power number was not at all a goal since I would be tuning it down to 380 wheel horsepower anyway. My wishlist was for a flat powerband and reliability to run at 6800rpm all day long. Chad and his crew routinely build 1000whp monsters so my needs were comparatively modest.
I picked up all my salvageable parts from Pete and brought them up to Chad in New Hampshire. It looked like a giant jumbled pile of parts to me, but to Chad and his crew they're just pieces of a relatively simple puzzle. They immediately put their plan to action and began putting together the 402 stroker motor.
Not three weeks later, Chad had my new lump breaking in on his engine dyno. Final horsepower and torque numbers were 597 hp and 562 lbs ft of torque at the crank to a 6800rpm red line. So much for a modest horsepower number. I'd hoped that by tuning the engine down to a pedestrian 380 horsepower that the engine will run a hell of a lot longer than if it's running within an inch of its life all the time.
When I picked up the motor Chad and I discussed the failure mode of my previous motor. His professional opinion was that the valve spring we were originally using in the heads had an inadequate amount of closed pressure. With too little pressure the push rod can actually add a few extra oscillations down into the lifters, which over time could weaken some of the mechanical parts of the Morel lifters, causing the tie bar failure. There were many theories floating around as to what may have happened, but coming from a pro like Chad I tend to trust his expertise. Yet another lesson learned the hard way.
With the motor in the back of the truck it was back down to Pete at Autosport to have the motor dressed (meaning all the stuff you need to actually make it run put back on it) and installed into the car. While the motor was out we chose to upgrade to a lightweight racing clutch and flywheel in order to handle all the power this motor is capable of, so we slapped in a 7.5" McLeod MagForce. The clutch and flywheel assembly alone took 25 lbs off the motor. The stock flywheel might as well feel like a boat anchor compared to the aluminum fly wheel from McLeod. The lighter setup will rev much more freely, improve shift times, and prolong the life of my brand new...
...MN6 transmission from Rick Kim at RKT Performance! Oh did I forget to mention that? Before the motor blew I contacted Rick for a new tranny as I really wanted to take advantage of the better road race gearing in the base C5 tranny as opposed to the shorter gears of the M12 C5 Z06 transmission. Sadly I had him build this tranny before my motor blew and had I known I would be incurring the expense of a new motor, well, I would have kept that money in my pocket. Oh well. Rick does fantastic work at a reasonable price, and I was able to sell the tranny in my car that he had already built for a good price, so the financial burden was lessened.
After Pete had the motor and clutch re-installed in the car, I trailered down to Rick's shop in Maryland to have him install the tranny. One great thing about Rick is because he's such a transmission pro he knows EXACTLY what's involved in swapping a tranny. I set up a time with him to drop the car off in the morning. I did some go karting at K1 Speed in Maryland while I waited for him to install the tranny, and 6 hours later I was back on the road to have the car tuned by my tuner in New Jersey.
At this point in the season I was still banking on the fact that I was going to be able to get 2 more NASA races in so I could qualify for the East Coast Championship which in 2017 was in Sebring, Florida. By this point I had booked my flight, coordinated with my sweet father who was going to tow my rig down to Sebring for me, booked hotels, and booked all the racing for the Championship so I was very much invested in going. So with a new motor, new clutch, and new tranny, I was going to have a very fast car to fight for the championship in Florida. This is where the story gets sad.
The car was dropped off with the tuner after a very long 2 days towing from New York, to Pete's shop in Connecticut, to Rick in Maryland, and finally to New Jersey for tuning. The tuner got to work and I was confident that he'd get me the nice flat power band I was looking for with this new motor. Right off the bat he ran into issues. While tuning the motor he quickly realized that the ECU was requesting random advances and retards in timing while running on the dyno. This really effects your power levels but more importantly too much timing can blow your motor. Too little timing makes absolutely no power and we were seeing cases of both. We were stopped dead in our tracks with this issue and the motor could not be tuned. The tuner suggested that the ECU in the car was probably going bad (it is a 14 year old computer after all) and that I should get a new ECU and bring the car down to try again in a couple weeks. At this point however I would not be able to race with NASA at Limerock - one of the places I've been desperate to race at for 3 years but just haven't been able to due to ongoing car issues. Turns out it wasn't going to happen this year either.
But that wasn't the end of the world, as I could still race at Watkins Glen in September and qualify for the race at Sebring. It would be a little less than ideal racing a brand new motor at The Glen and then basically heading right down to Sebring, but hey this is racing and not everything always works out perfectly. Or at all.
I sourced no less than THREE backup ECUs, and brought the car down to New Jersey yet again for another round of tuning. I had one ECU sent in advance so the tuner could "bench tune" it (hook it up to his computer outside the car and make sure everything was good) and had 2 more ECUs to try in case there was a problem with any of them. The bench tuning went as expected, so I dropped the car off and headed to a movie theater to catch some flicks while the car was being tuned.
I got a text in the theater hoping for good news but received the opposite. The car was behaving in the exact same way it was 3 weeks ago. Again random timing issues causing erratic and dangerous behavior on the dyno.
Out of time, out of money, and mostly out of will I decided to cancel all track plans for the rest of the season. No Watkins Glen and no Sebring. I had driven the car this season for a total of about 3 hours and now it was gonna sit in the trailer for the next several months while I came up with a plan of action.
After a long and painful season and off season of watching my friends and competitors having a ball on track, I was determined to join them in full force in 2018. The tuner was confident that with an appropriate amount of time he would absolutely find and fix the issue that kept us from getting back on track last season. So I brought the car down to him in February. This would give him a full 2 months to get it sorted before my first scheduled track event in New Jersey with my friends in the Audi Club in the middle of April. Piece of cake.
Evidently not. To his credit the man threw a lot of hours at my car trying to get this thing working. He checked every pin in the wiring harness for continuity. He checked every ground on the motor. He ran an oscilloscope to try and find some electrical noise causing issues. He found a bent pin in the OBD-II port which is the communication used to talk to the motor. Hoping that was the smoking gun he put it back on the dyno to try again after it was repaired. No dice. Finally he started taking water pumps off to check the cam gear to make sure we were running the correct piece for this motor and ECU. Yup, it was the right one. So after 2 months of investigation and failed attempts, I was right back where I started in August of 2017. In his defense my tuner had the flu for a solid three weeks during the time the car was at this shop, and he DID throw a lot of hours at it trying to get it sorted, but it just wasn't meant to be. Despite all the time he spent trying to fix a problem that I brought to him on a motor he didn't build, he didn't charge me a penny for all the time he spent on it. I really respect that. I know he's a smart guy and a good tuner but this one just defeated him. I would use him again in the future and have recommended him to other people since.
Over the course of a year I'd been explaining my plight to a buddy of mine who will remain anonymous in case he doesn't want basket cases like me beating his door down for help all the time. He had been making very thoughtful suggestions through out the year and spent a lot of time helping me to understand possible issues and fixes. After a year of pathetic failure this courageous and compassionate man took pity on me and just said "I'm relenting. Bring the car here and I'll fix it." Not all knights wear armor.
In addition to being an LS tuning guru he also has a dyno at his house. He'd be able to put the car on his dyno, replicate the issues, and either through tuning or hardware deduce and fix them. Of this he was 100% confident. I appreciated his confidence but having been thwarted for a year I was cautiously optimistic at best.
He did it. And the people rejoiced. Hell of the thing is, he didn't have any real trouble at all. He started with a bone stock factory GM tune, and just gave the motor what it needed to run the best that it could. He logged every data channel he could and found all sensors were working as expected. No weird timing issues and no weird hardware issues. It just worked.
Final result? 475 wheel horsepower for those rare instance when I'm running in an Unlimited Time Trial class and a very flat 380whp for the other 98% of the time when I'm racing ST2 or at HPDE events. I picked the car up on Friday May 11th and have a shakedown schedule for May 22nd at Limerock.
I couldn't sleep at all the night I brought her home. I guess there's an excitement about having a race car that actually works sitting in your trailer that keeps you awake at night.
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So happy to hear that she is back and alive Mark! What an ordeal. Your persistence is impressive. And as always thank you for your hard work and dedication to both the sport and to Corvettes. Good luck this year and I will see you at the track!