Sakai Racing Team – 24 Hours of Lemons – RustBelt GP 2020

This is a summary of the Sakai Racing Team at 24 Hours of Lemons – RustBelt GP 2020 race this past weekend (July 26-28).

It was a furious two weeks of preparation before the race that  led to an epic all-nighter Wednesday night before the race.  Neon 2 (2.0 DOHC) had been running smoothly for over a month after the engine replacement but that was not the car we wanted to run.   We tend to get in trouble because of its soft suspension so we want to run a Neon with coilovers and the 2.4L engine swap (Neon1 or Neon3).

Neon3 had the Independent Throttle Bodies which were 100% custom – so every little bit of the setup was custom – making and debugging a custom fuel rail took about a week and a half.  I spend the last two weeks painting body panels for Neon 3 so it at least looked like a Sakaiger.  We knew it would be close.

Since Neon3 was too close – Scott and Chris started working furiously on the stalling problem in Neon 1.   The car was running great except it would stall after 5-20 miles and not restart for 20-30 minutes – then start right up.  We had checked everything – we put a 100% rebuilt wiring harness into the car – and still intermittent stalling.  For the two weeks prior to the race we would test run it with a chase car and then try to guess what went wrong.

On the  last weekend before the race we zeroed in on the O2 sensor setup – we only had hooked one up and had put it into one of the header tubes.   So we installed two new bungs in the header collector, so we could put both the upstream and downstream sensors in.  Once that was done, Scott and Chris discovered that the new wiring harness had put an upstream connector on both the upstream and downstream wires.  Then since the sensor moved about 18 inches further toward the back of the car, the (very high temperature) wiring needed to be extended.  Also running with a missing O2 sensor had caused it to lean out and the sensors themselves were cooked – and we did not have time to get new ones.   So some adaptation was done – taking more time.   Wednesday evening it started working and about 10PM I heard a loud engine pull up to my house.   Scott had driven Neon1 20 miles to my house with Chris in the chase truck and it had no problems.  They went back and wrapped things up – I got my last email of the night from Scott at 4:38 AM:

The oxygen sensor and new injectors cleaned up the air fuel mixture problem almost entirely. The car runs much better with far more power, smoother acceleration, idles better and the air fuel stays in range. I drove it hard around the block and it never showed dashes. I am removing it from double secret probation. Not a totally clean bill of health but very close. Chris is going to work on a thermostatic fan switch in the future. For now no extended idling. So it was late when I dropped the T-trailer off at Jake’s. I forgot the tie down straps. We should drop them off in the morning.  I also need to pick up a tire from Jake that I dropped off for him to work on clearance. Neon 1 currently has one mismatched wheel. We need to load tools for tire changes and other stuff in the morning. We need to load tents and stuff you want as well. We need to load 4 gas cans for neon 3 so Jake can tune it on 93 octane. After he is done we could put on 100 or 110 octane from the track and see what Jake can tune it to if we wanted, Meh. I picked up the trailer at Doc’s and forgot to drop off some parts for him. We could/should drive by Docs and pick up your Grand Prix. Drop your Volt there and we will trade back when we return. I would like to drop some parts in the back of the truck off at Doc’s as well. I say get here fairly early. Load up go to Jake’s then Doc’s then head down 94 to Gingerman’s or Lane’s or whatever. Shoot for 11 to 12 am arrival at Gingerman. Maybe earlier.
I do not think Jake will have Neon 3 ready at noon or until I get there and discuss the fuel problem with Jake. He is missing the clip on the top of the fuel injector that clips to the fuel rail. I will have to machine a slot in the rail and grind two tabs off a bunch of clips I have hanging around and use these clips to hold the injectors to the fuel rail with a death grip. I just realized I never dealt with a rail that did not have these clips. There is 50 PSI above each of four injector totaling over 1 square inch of surface area. There could be upwards of eighty pounds of total force upward on the fuel rail and zip ties and plumbers tape will not cut it in that application.

So Wednesday morning we had a running Neon1 in the trailer and started our journey.  First we took a look at the fuel rail problem with Neon3 – by the time we got there, Jake had solved it with aircraft-grade stainless steel tie wire.   But Jake was waiting for some JB-weld to seal up some pin-holes in the radiator so it would take about an hour before Jake could start the car.  Also the fire suppression system was totally discharged so we needed a new one.

So Scott and I took off for Gingerman with Neon 1 in the trailer and me driving the Pontiac GXP in hopes that I could get to Lane Automotive and buy the fire supression kit and then Scott and I would meet at Gingerman for the track day.  Lane had one fire suppression kit so I bought it and made it to Gingerman around 2PM.

We pulled Neon 1 out and started running it in each of our 20 minute track slots.  It ran great.   Fast, sticky.  Scott was timing me and I set a new team lap record at 1:58 – of course having so few cars on the track helps lap times.

Mid-afternoon Jake texted and said that Neon 3 had started and run great – and they finally got to 178HP at the wheel – and the transmission ate its own lunch – so Neon 3 was off the table and Neon 1 was our only hope.   But all day Thursday Neon 1 ran excellent so we thought our stalling problems were behind us.

I developed a driving technique where I decided to see how well I could run without leaving fourth gear.   You lost a touch of pop coming out of turns – but I just started accelerating earlier and I set my own personal best lap time driving with only one shift into fifth on the back straight – the rest of the lap I would just use 4th as if it were an automatic.   The nice thing is that when I was using 3-4-5 the water temp got up to 220 and if I did the 4-5 only the temp stayed around 200.   Since overheating was the cause of all of Neon 1’s catastrophic failures – I made a team decision that we would “use the fourth” as a driving approach to save the car so we could finish a complete race.

Friday morning was a Lemons track day and Greg and Mark each got stints in Neon 1 that went flawlessly.  So we retired early (no bars because Covid) and got a decent night’s sleep for Saturday morning start.

Saturday morning we let Greg start the first run.  He ran great – car ran great – several sub-2:00 laps – this time with traffic on the course.   After about 90 minutes Greg came in because he felt that a tire was letting go – which it was so he came in and we put on new tires.  When we put Mark in to go back out, the starter was dead – sheesh.  We had to teach him how to pop the clutch to start the car and sent him out.  After about 30 minutes, Mark called in on the radio – he was dead on the side of the road and needed a tow.  The stalling gremlins were back.

By the time Mark was towed in the car again started perfectly.  We decided that we might just give it another try – the O2 sensors were looking really good and it ran great.   So I suited up and went back out.  After 1.5 laps I was on the side of the track stalled again.  I was on the inside of turn 10 well off the track and it was a great place to watch the action in a fire suit + cool suit + roll cage.  All the cars were accelerating on the backstretch so I saw a lot of good racing.

When I finally got towed in, we called Scott (who was already driving back to Jackson to get more tires) to bring Neon 2 back to the track.   He decided the quickest way was to drive Neon 2 back to the track – he did not have a GPS so he got lost and got back around 3PM.  Interestingly Neon 2 had a nice set of tires so we got another set of tires as well.

When Neon 2 arrived, we put Matt in the car.  He went out and started doing laps.  After about an hour he got in a wreck caused by another super aggressive driver.  He had to come off for an inspection but things looked good – so we sent him back out to finish the race for the day.

About 15 minutes before the end of the race, Matt called in – something let go and oiled the track in turn 1 and about five cars spun off the track.   It was such a mess that they stopped the race 15 minutes early.  We assumed that it was a another thrown rod.  But after he came in and things cooled off – we realized the transmission blew up.  The engine started and ran perfectly.

That was weird – two (quite reliable) Neon manual transmission failures within 24 hours.

At the end of the first day we were shell-shocked.  The day had started so optimistic and just like last October by the end of day 1 – we had one car with stalling problems and one car that had a hole in a part “where the rain came in”.  We just sat around and had a beer – it looked like we were packing up at the end day 1 and going home for the second time in two races.

Scott brought a starter from home – we installed it in Neon 1 and no start – so we took the starter out of Neon 2 and it did not fit.  Then we tested the starter we took out of Neon 1 and it was fine but when we tested the wires the voltage seemed wrong – so we started back tracking – checked all the fuses – and replaced a starter relay from Neon 1 and then just fiddled with how the wiring was hooked up and then it started.   We fiddled so much that we have no idea what actually fixed it.

Then we started to think more about the stalling problem and came up with three hypothesis:

– I pulled the codes and saw a (P1493) battery hot code – it said that the ECM detects hot battery and slows charging.  Interestingly we did not have a battery sensor because the batter was in the back.  But it threw a code anyways.  Which was weird.

– I was sending OBD data to a live web site and Greg wondered if the OBD reader (Carista) was overheating and confusing things

– Greg also had a problem in another vehicle he owned where he had a marginal battery with an internal structural problem that would bounce and  momentarily short inside the battery killing the engine

– Scott had brought back the original Syked ECU – so we swapped ECUs as well

So we decided that we would remove the Carista, find an temp sensor, plug it in and zip tie it somewhere there was cool air and swap batteries with Neon 2.

We drove home Saturday night, with Neon 2 in the trailer, and dropped it off at the transmission shop at midnight, then got to Scott’s about 12:30 and I went home.  While I was driving Scott figured out that the temperature sensor was not likely to be in stock anywhere – but it might be at the O’Reilly store in South Haven.  But he also woke Chris up at 1AM to look at the Mitchell’s and figure out how to make a fake sensor from a resistor which he decided that a 10K was the right choice.  You can’t buy resistors in a store any more (sad to see Radio Shack go) – but Chris had one in stock.

So bright Sunday morning at 7AM – Scott went and got a resistor and drove two hours to the track.  I drove to the O’Reilly’s and found they did not have the temperature sensor.

We go to the track, installed the temperature sensor override resistor and removed the Carista.  We also quickly installed the cool suit pump / reservoir since it was going to be a really hot day.

We sent Matt out and he drove for the morning session from 9:30 – 11:00. And the car ran great – but about 10 minutes before the end of the session – the exhaust got really loud and Matt came in.  We had lost all the bolts from the header to the the exhaust pipe. I borrowed some grade 8 bolts from a neighbor and we had the car back together about 11:30.

Still during the 11-12 break, Scott and Matt changed the camber because we kept wearing the insides of the tires.  Why we did not do this earlier I will never know.

When the race restarted at noon, I went out – I loved the new camber and was doing solid laps and having a great time.  I drove for about 90 minutes and then came in for a driver change to Mark.   Mark drove for about an hour and we came in for a driver change and let Scott drive about an hour and take the checkered flag.

Normally during the last driver shift we start to pack up all the stuff – but we were just so worn down from all the changes / failures of the past three days, we just relaxed and counted down the last few laps.

It was a heck of a weekend – I was so bummed at the end of Saturday – I wondered if we should just give up racing all together.  But at that same moment – we might have brought all our minds together and solved the “ghosts in the wires” of Neon 1.   So Saturday was the worst of times and Sunday was much better times.

We need to replace the transmission in Neon 2.   I think I will put coil overs in Neon2.  Neon 2 needs body work – which I will get done.  We will take Neon 1 to every track day we can and drive the crap out of it – to see if we can get it to stall again.

My hope is to have Neon 1 and Neon 2 race ready.  I am starting to think that Neon 3 will never see a Lemons race – because it is too “one-of-a-kind” and I won’t be willing to have it wrecked.   So it might just be my track-day show-off toy.