One Lap of America

One Lap of America 2006

Read about the 2006 One Lap of America!

Another Lap of America

The Rice SAE 2007 One Lap of America Log Book
as told by Nikolay Kostov

Just a brief introduction of the key players in this adventure before I begin:

For team Alfa: Damen Hattori (club president, junior), David Carr (senior), Nikolay Kostov (freshman); for team Isuzu: Kevin Hirshberg (sophomore), Lucas Marr (junior), Will Pryor (sophomore).

Tuesday, May 1
I arrived at Garica Alfa Racing in Houston at 6 p.m. after taking my four finals in three days. It didn’t look very good. The ’89 Alfa Romeo Milano was sitting on jack stands with the engine out. The engine had blown a headgasket for the third time in the last two years. Because we were leaving the next day, the only thing we could do was swap the engine with a different one. As usual, Andrew Garcia was generous enough to let us “borrow” a 3.0 liter S-spec engine from one of his Milanos. By 4 a.m. we had bolted pretty much everything on the new engine and after sorting out some minor problems started the car. Relieved and very tired we went home. My overly optimistic American friends planned to finish up everything in the morning, take the car to an alignment shop and go to the track to fine tune the extra breathing potential of the new engine before we leave in the evening. I was too tired to argue.

Wednesday, May 2
Realizing that we would have to drive for 18 hours that evening, Damen let us sleep in. He and David came to pick me up at about 11 a.m. and we went to Garcia’s to finish up the Milano. As it turned out the minor things left to do took quite some time and we also had to install a new engine temperature gauge as the old one (mechanical) was destroyed during the swap. After taking all the junk out of the car we were finally ready to go to the alignment shop and check the car, as it used to pull seriously to the right. It was already 5 p.m. so we were a bit behind schedule. Luckily, with new tires mounted and the wheels balanced the car did not pull anymore and the alignment shop confirmed that our suspension settings were okay (and didn’t take us any money for checking the car which was great). Being done with all the mechanical stuff, we went to campus to pick up our luggage and meet up with the guys from team Isuzu. At 9 p.m. we were all in a parking lot in Rice University. Unfortunately, the Alfa had some exhaust leak problems, so we took the time to fix it and also seal every opening of the body, so that we could drive for more than 15 minutes before someone would get a carbon-monoxide headache. With all that fixed, the entire luggage in the trunk and as many tools as we could think of, we were ready for a great journey across America. We left Rice near midnight and the GPS gave us as ETA 6 p.m. on Thursday for our 1200 mile drive to Indiana.

Thursday, May 3
This was my first drive around Texas and around the country in general, so I was quite excited. Regrettably it was dark and I could hardly see anything; the rain wasn’t helping either. However, the Alfa was doing pretty well. Apart from the car being ridiculously loud there were no major inconveniences. The headlights were working pretty well, the windshield wipers were doing their job, the defogger the team made was working great, and the rear seat felt surprisingly comfortable. Damen drove the first part and covered a great deal of the way out of Texas. Apart from stopping for gas and food from time to time we were going at a pretty good pace. After Damen it was David’s turn to drive and he took us out of Texas and into Arkansas. Eventually it was my turn to drive and of course I got the greatest number of cops on the way, but we were doing the speed limit so there were no problems. Eventually we crossed Missouri and went into Illinois heading towards Chicago. During this time we switched drivers once again and at some point it was my turn to drive. The whole time we were going together with the guys in the Isuzu with either them or us driving in front. While I was driving behind them I noticed some smoke coming out their car and they immediately pulled over from the highway. Apparently their exhaust tip had rattled off and the hot exhaust gases had put their rear bumper on fire. We pulled over at the nearest gas station looking for a cheap solution (and after a comical situation with some stranger walking by who told us that as race drivers we should use our heads) and the guys from team Isuzu came up with the brilliant idea to use an energy-soda can (the so called “Big Rig”) and a hose clamp as an exhaust tip. Fortunately it worked rather well and we managed to get to South Bend in Indiana by 10 p.m. The Alfa had started the journey well without showing any weaknesses. Registration was early the next day morning so we all fell asleep as soon as we were in the hotel room.

Friday, May 4
We went to the Tire Rack parking lot at about 8 a.m. just to realize that the competition had gotten even more serious (well that’s what the guys who had been before told me). Walking around it was clear that we were seriously underpowered, but we weren’t ready to give up yet. The other crews were very friendly and we talked to many of them about their cars. Some knew our team from previous years and were happy to see us again. In our class – Mid Priced Sedan – we were against highly tuned Subaru Impreza STis and Dodge Neon SRT4s. Those cars had several times our horsepower, but not that much more weight. There was also a nicely tuned BMW 330i, a couple of stock “Police” Crown Vics and a Dodge Charger. The situation with the Isuzu Impulse was even worse as it was in the same class as a very high horsepower Supra and several other high horsepower boosted cars. For the registration we basically had to show up, put the sponsor stickers on (which David and I managed to mess up) and pass tech. Fairly simple, but took us nearly all day long. However, by 3 p.m. team “Racing Owls” and team “Big Rig Racing Owls” were officially part of the 2007 One Lap of America. As soon as we were done I had to go get a haircut and Damen and David decided to go and tune the engine. Unfortunately, they forgot to take their tools with them which unavoidably resulted in the car having some technical problems: the starter did not disengage after the engine had started. The quick fix was to hit it with a jack stand which solved the problem temporarily. As expected the engine was a bit lean at higher rpm which they easily fixed with the GoTech EMS. Next, there was the opening ceremony featuring Brock Yates’s speech and the opening dinner which was near the hotel. As we had Jaegermeister as a sponsor of the event there were free drinks for everyone, so we went to bed happy and enthusiastic about the journey which was ahead of us.

Saturday, May 5
Events started early in the morning as we had a busy schedule: wet skidpad, a quarter mile oval in South Bend, a drive to Joilet, Illinois to race on the Autobahn Country Club race track and finally a drive to the hotel in Pacific Junction, Iowa. Damen was our race driver, but everyone was allowed to drive the skidpad, so David got prepared for his first time out to drive the Alfa at its limit. He did really well and we got a .709g lateral acceleration which was good enough for 57 overall (out of 85) and exactly the same as what the BMW 330i got (but he got 58 as Alfa is before BMW in the alphabet). Next was the short drive to the South Bend Motor Speedway where Damen nearly put the car into the wall, but miraculously saved the Alfa and probably his own life even if he had survived the crash. However, this cost him quite some time from the total of three 1/4 mile laps, so we got 71st place. The Isuzu had some problem with one of the turbo hoses, but as they seemed to have everything under control we left to Illinois without them as there was no time to spare. We arrived in Joilet a bit early and were really surprised to learn that the Chicago Alfa Romeo Owners Club (CAROC) was having its track day at the other track from the Autobahn Country Club. Many people came to see the car and gave us some useful advice and encouragement. It was great to meet some fellow Alfisti. Next, we got ready for the race. Damen did a really good job and got us 59th place. The BMW 330i was in front of us, but this was soon to change. We were sure that an Alfa Romeo V6 3 liter will prove to be superior to its straight six rival from Munich. After all in a race you need competition. The drive from Joilet to Iowa was interesting for me as I got to see a lot of the country side. I was the last to drive and I got the part after midnight. Unfortunately, less than an hour after I started driving the weather got pretty bad and it started raining cats and dogs. It was actually raining so hard that the semis were pulling over or driving really slow with their hazard lights on. However, I really like driving in the rain and the Alfa was performing superbly, so I almost didn’t slow down. The very good roads helped a lot as well as there was almost no standing water. It was getting close to 5 a.m. when we finally arrived at the hotel and I was so tired that I nearly hit a car while parking in reverse, but people were too tired to make fun of my poor driving skills.

Sunday, May 6
Waking up at 8 a.m. after going to bed at 5 may be familiar to many college students, but we were still really tired in the morning. We went to the race track to find out that due to the bad weather the afternoon heat was canceled, so we would run only in the morning and then drive 1000 miles to Tooele, Utah. As the track was wet in the morning we adjusted the rear sway bar to the softest setting, so that the car would be a bit safer in the wet. However, we were in one of the last groups to run on the track (based on our standings in the overall ranking) so by then the time was dry and Damen managed to place really well and got us to spot 33. Next was the long drive to Utah. As it turned out, the bolt holding the side exhaust on the passenger side had rattled off on the racetrack, so now the exhaust was vibrating really badly against the chassis. Whoever put that bolt on was definitely not paying attention. As it turned out it was me, but rather than wasting time accusing Eastern Europeans of poor quality production we went to Home Depot and got the hardware to mount the exhaust “properly”. After this minor delay the drive to Utah went pretty smoothly. I really liked the endless fields and meadows in Wyoming and Nebraska. Also I was amazed to see sections of straight road without any sort of turns going for more than 70 miles. That is something that is really unimaginable in Europe. The drive up the Rocky Mountains was exciting and fascinating. However, the lack of a heater and any sort of insulation meant that inside and outside temperatures were getting equalized rather quickly. The open hole in the dashboard where the heater used to sit was not helping either. At some point it was so cold that it was impossible to drive and we stopped at a gas station to get some hot drinks, blankets and a mini heater. I drove the last section again, but at some point I got so tired that we had to switch again. We were actually driving along with some other One Lap cars for quite a while and managed to make up some time as they were going a bit above the speed limit. Still, we arrived at the hotel at 5 a.m. Looks like that’s the way the event was designed. As it was written on one of the cars: “No rules. No sleep. No problem.”

Monday, May 7
We arrived at Miller Motorsports Park at about 9 a.m. and got ready for the race. We readjusted the sway bar and also lowered the tire pressure a bit. The engine had the valve guides bored to an incorrect spec (rather large), so we were burning up some oil, but nothing serious. We got used to checking it before every race and on each second stop at a gas station. As we were running in one of the last groups again we had a chance to walk around. Miller is a very nice modern facility. We ran on the race track in two configurations, one in the morning and one after lunch with the second one having a really long main straight (3500 feet), so our lack of power did not help with the ranking. Still Damen managed to get us to place 56 in the morning and 60 in the afternoon. Our friendly competition with the 330i was still in progress as he was 65th and 47th respectively. The Alfa was definitely doing better in the corners, but it lacked some brute force. We finished the second event at about 3 p.m. and got ready for the drive to Pueblo Motorsports Park in Pueblo, Colorado. I drove the first section through the Rocky Mountains and it was definitely one of the most beautiful drives I have ever had. As the sun was setting in the back the color of the mountains changed to a glowing purple. Also the car was feeling really agile around the twisty curves and even the warnings of aerial police control couldn’t keep my right foot of the throttle. As soon as we reached the highway my third of the drive was over and David took over the wheel. Damen drove the last section, but by then I was already asleep in the back. I remember that I woke up at some point and saw that we were going rather quickly along some mountain road with snow everywhere around us. The idea of driving with performance summer tires at sub freezing temperatures made me fall asleep again rather quickly. Later I learned that Damen wasn’t going that fast, but he said the car felt rather stable in the turns despite the cold tires. We arrived at the hotel in the early morning hours again, around 6 a.m. this time. However, the people at the hotel thought that we wouldn’t show up and had canceled our reservation, but eventually we got a room and a chance to have some sleep in a bed and a shower.

Tuesday, May 8
By now we had realized that there is no point in going to the race track really early as we would run with one of the last groups, so we stayed in bed some extra 30 minutes (a serious increase if you look at it as a percentage) and were at the race track at about 9:30. After having our morning breakfast we all got in the car with David driving. He somehow forgot how delicate the transaxle gearbox is, and put the car in reverse without fully depressing the clutch. This resulted in some serious grinding noise which really woke us up. Afterwards whenever you would put the car in reverse there would be a periodical clunking noise coming out the gearbox, but after all it’s a race car. Who needs reverse? Pueblo turned out to be a great track for the Alfa as the entrance to the main straight is rather wide, so you can carry a lot of speed through the turn, yet the high horsepower cars were afraid of the close proximity to the wall on the corner exit, so they would not go as fast as they could through there. Of course, Damen kept his foot down and this immediately reflected on the rankings. We were 43rd in the morning, beating some serious cars like the supercharged Lotus Exige S and a supercharged BMW M Roadster. The 330i was just a spot ahead of us. We ran the exact same track in the afternoon, so Damen had learned the track a bit by then; unfortunately, so had everybody else. He did his best and took spot 46, but the 330i had some problems and went down to 66. In the overall standings we were really close together. There seemed to be a problem with the transaxle as there was some whining coming out of the back. After calling Andrew Garcia we got the suggestion that probably the pinion gear was not shimmed properly, but we shouldn’t worry as it should last. Well, we did worry. After the morning accident and the whining now we were getting extremely careful with the gearbox. Not really a problem on the highway, but this definitely slowed the car down on the race track. Also because the brake pedal had way too much travel even with the throttle pedal bent down Damen wasn’t able to heel-toe, so shifts were really careful on the track. After Pueblo we had to drive to Jennings, Oklahoma. The drive through Oklahoma was relatively straight forward (or simply straight). As we left rather late we drove in the dark most of the time. We pulled over at a gas station at some point and it was my turn to drive. As soon as I started the car it died. Tried again, but didn’t start. Sure enough there was spark, but no fuel. We listened to hear the fuel pump – nothing. Really bad. Checked the voltage at the fuel pump and there was nothing. Well, at least it’s not the pump itself. Rather than trying to find where exactly in the stock harness there was a loose connector the other guys (both electrical engineers) decided to just run a new wire from the fuel pump relay to the fuel pump (as there was voltage at the relay). I had no idea what was going on, so I just tried to stay out of the way and bring them tools as required. With the new wire installed the fuel pump was working and engine started immediately. Unfortunately, we had lost nearly an hour and the ETA from the GPS moved from a rather relaxing 3 a.m. to a very depressing 4 a.m. Determined to make up some time on the straight roads of Oklahoma I was a bit heavy on the throttle for some time, just to get pulled over by some friendly police officer doing 108 in a 65. Well using my Eastern European charm I got away with a warning, but sure enough there was no speeding afterwards. At some point we switched drivers, and Damen drove the last section. Unfortunately, the GPS was giving us some wrong location for the hotel and on top of that Damen made a left turn on a red light (he went on green which was for going ahead only, and the left turn had a separate light). Sure enough we saw some flashing lights behind us, but thanks to his West Coast charm Damen got away with a warning and even got the officer to tell us where the hotel was: “Just go straight at the light where you made the left turn.” Imagine that. End result of all this: we were at the hotel at 4:30 a.m. Another short night.

Wednesday, May 9
We arrived at Hallet at about 9 a.m. with some camera crew from CMT following us on the way there. At Hallet we met with Prof. Andrew Barron who is our faculty advisor for the SAE club. He has some serious experience on the track and gave Damen a very detailed description of how to take each turn. Apart from the transmission whine the car was holding up pretty well, so just rotated the tires, topped up the oil (borrowed some from another team as we were out of oil) and checked the tire pressures. The car ran really good and we placed 49th overall. Prof. Barron had some more advice for Damen and it really payed off. In the afternoon we got place 45 and the Alfa was looking really good on the track. The Dodge Charger which was in our class was running in front of the Alfa, but Damen was steadily gaining on him and it looked like he would overtake him within the 3 laps of the competition. It seemed like the guy got scared of being overtaken by an 18 year old Alfa and on one of the blind corners totally missed his braking point and ended up in the ditch with not so minor body damage. Well, he got overtaken alright. After Hallet we were ahead of the 330i in the overall standings and we were going against some really serious cars. Being in the middle of the pack against such cars is a serious achievement. Of course the club is evolving every year, so we have even higher hopes for the future. After a successful day at Hallet we had to say goodbye to David, who had to go back to Rice to graduate (which some say is more important than racing). With only the two of us left in the Alfa we had one more long drive from Oklahoma to Indianapolis. Fortunately, it was a rather pleasant drive and we did not have any issues with either car. We arrived at the hotel at about 4 a.m. and had the usual amount of sleep (or lack of).

Thursday, May 10
The O’Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis features a race track and a drag strip with the drag strip being part of the main straight. Again a horsepower track, but Damen managed to rank pretty well in the Alfa. He got 49 in the morning and 56 after lunch which was pretty good. The fight for the first place which was going on between the Hennessey Dodge Viper and a Porsche 911 Turbo (996) got settled on this track as the Viper blew its clutch and finished with a DNF in the second event which cost the Hennessey team way too many points to keep the lead after winning nearly all events up till then. Well, on One Lap reliability is everything. That’s why we run an Alfa. As the track events were running behind schedule there was no time to have both an ET drag and a bracket drag, so the bracket drag was canceled. Great… The drag race was ET only, so no reaction time counted. The rankings are solely based on the times. Although we knew we would place pretty badly, it still was a lot of fun. The best out of two was taken. For the first run we happened to line up against a 70s 911. It turned out to be a really interesting race as we ran a 15.974 and the 911 got a 16.001 so it really was a photo finish. Second time around we happened to line up against a twin turbo small block Chevy Viper which won 2nd overall in the event. After the Alfa launched the Viper waited for about 4 seconds (reaction time 4.5 sec) and still managed to beat the Alfa at the line with an ET of 11.864. We were 65th out of the 73 cars which were left by then. By the way the 330i was 62nd with a 15.817, so it was not that much faster at all. Well, straight line racing is not what Alfas are for anyways (but that’s what BMW drivers say as well). The drive to Mid Ohio was less than 250 miles which by then I considered a “short distance” and we actually arrived at the hotel the same day! Finally some real sleep.

Friday, May 11
Even after some sleep I felt really tired. On the way to the track we missed a turn, so by the time we arrived they were already calling us to line up (actually this was the first time when they were calling us to line up with the cars that were around us in the ranking and not much later). By then we had perfected the unloading of the car and were ready to line up within minutes. Damen did not have much time to study the track though. However, he still managed quite well having in mind that there were very long sections of the track where you could go flat out and some cars were reaching serious speeds. Damen managed to rank 53rd in the morning and 56th in the afternoon which was pretty good, yet the 330i managed to get close to us in the standings though still behind. With the dry skid pad left nothing was certain yet. The drive to South Bend was a really short one and we were at the hotel at about 8 p.m. After dinner we all got into one room for an interview with CMT. At some point the director said that we should go outside and film next to the car. At first this seemed rather strange as it was already dark outside, but as soon as we got out we realized what the deal was. Some of the guys from the other teams had arranged to have the Alfa covered in flowers and “Just Married” flags. It was a really funny sight and a very creative prank. We found the “guilty” ones in the hotel bar, but after a few drinks all was forgotten. Or was it? Well, not really.

Saturday, May 12
Really early in the morning the guys got up and went and covered the Mercedes Benz CLK 500 of on the guys from the last night’s prank with Post-it notes. Every inch of it. Pretty funny indeed; unless you have to drive the car. Well, don’t mess with Alfa drivers. At the Tire Rack we took some pictures with all cars together and some very serious military helicopters which had come to “visit” us as one of the racers was flying one of them. At the dry skid pad the Alfa did really great and Damen managed to pull a .918g cornering force for a 39th position overall. Despite the 330i’s .922 and 35th spot it did not manage to make up enough points to catch up with us. The final results were 54th overall for the Alfa and 57th for the 330i. For next year we plan to go against the serious engines from Bavaria – M power. After the skid pad we watched some of the more serious horsepower cars destroy their tires while drifting the skid pad or just doing donuts. Amazing what some people do to their own cars… There were some parties starting immediately after the event, but we had the long 18 hour drive to Houston ahead of us and we had to clear our dorm rooms by the next day, so there was no time to waste. Roughly 18 hours later we were in Houston. There were no problems with the Alfa the whole way and the only inconvenience was that both the Alfa and the Isuzu got pulled over when we entered Texas and I got a ticket for going 63 in a 55 and Kevin got one for going 64. Well, I guess I had no charm left. When we come back to Rice after the summer the next stage of the preparation of the Milano will begin. The supercharger kit is ready, so all we need is brakes, suspension, an engine, and tires. Doesn’t sound like a problem at all!