One Lap of America 2006

One Lap of America 2006

6,000 miles. 4 college students. 1 1989 Alfa Romeo Milano.

In January of 2005, the Rice University Society of Automotive Engineers in Houston, Texas procured a 1989 Milano 2.5 Gold through Andy Kress of Performatek in Massachusetts. Over the next few months, with the help of Andrew and Michael at Garcia Alfa Racing, they made it road-worthy enough to campaign in the 2005 Cannonball One Lap of America. With no performance modifications, the team of engineering students placed 85th out of 94 entries- severely outgunned by the 500+ hp WRX STiís and Mitsubishi Evoís in their mid-priced sedan class.

Determined to place higher in the 2006 event, the same group of students dove into the project again as soon as the 2005-2006 school year started. With the help of key sponsors Performatek, Garcia Alfa Racing, Brooks Speed Garage, and Salinas Valley Precision, the car was upgraded with a full roll cage, all polyurethane suspension bushings, prototype adjustable sway bar from Performatek, limited slip differential, shift linkage rebuild kit, new brake calipers, stainless steel brake lines, brake proportioning valve, racing seats and harnesses, Momo steering wheel, new Autometer gauges, cold air intake, and rebuilt 3.0L motor with a lightened flywheel. With all this new equipment, the car also was entirely stripped to bring its final weight to 2,670 lbs. Equipped with 225/50-15 size tires all around, the car proved much stronger at test sessions at a local road course, but exhibited some cooling issues. The car would reach about 215 degrees after only 3 laps on the track.

With only a few days until the 2006 One Lap of America, the team dove in to solve the cooling problem. With some help of Andrew at Garcia Alfa Racing, they figured out that the coolant reservoir cap was faulty, so there was no pressure in the cooling system. With a new cap, one of the students went out to test the car and it cooled perfectly! For about 10 minutes, and then the temperatures shot up again. Bringing the car back to Garciaís, they opened the hood to discover coolant pouring out of the #2 exhaust port. Fearing a cracked cylinder head, they pulled the passenger side head and took it to a local engine machine shop. The only issue the shop could find is that the head gasket hadnít sealed properly around the #2 cylinder and water jacket, so coolant was leaking. Relieved that it was only the head gasket, but somewhat nervous that there could be a bigger problem, the team replaced the head gasket the day before the event.

With the new head gasket, the motor was running better than ever, so on Wednesday May 3, the team left Houston to travel to South Bend, Indiana for the start of the 2006 One Lap of America. Thatís when the fun started.

At midnight, the guys were driving into Baton Rouge along I-10 across one of the 18 mile bridges that span the Louisiana swamps when the motor just cut out. Steering it to the shoulder of the bridge, the car wouldnít start again. So that meant no fuel or no ignition. Unable to get a hold of any Alfa experts at that time of the night, they tried enough things to determine that there was no spark. But without the proper tools and knowledge, the team called a tow truck. The truck took them into a hotel in Baton Rouge, but there was no vacancy due to Katrina refugees still occupying the place, so all three guys slept in the parking lot until sunrise.

The next morning, a local Alfa guy showed up with tools and a factory manual, and eventually they discovered that the Hall Effect sensor in the distributor had gone bad. The team replaced the distributor with one from a parts car and, after a 14 hour delay, was back on the road to South Bend.

Mid-afternoon in the middle of Mississippi on I-55 north. Boom. The freshly rebuilt 3.0L blew. When the guys pulled the car over at a gas station, they found oil and coolant splattered all over the engine bay and pooling under the car. Without many options, they filled the car with stop-leak and went to limp the car back to Houston. Unfortunately, the charging system in the car died at some point, so the car wouldnít turn over. The three guys got really good at push-starts. Stopping overnight in Jackson, they were able to get the car to the Texas-Louisiana border- getting about 30 miles to the quart of both oil and coolant! At the border, they met up with the 4th guy (who was going to meet them in South Bend as he had to take a final on Friday morning at Rice) who had brought a trailer and truck to take the car back to Houston. At that point, they had pretty much called it quits- between the blown head gasket, the bad distributor, and the blown motor they figured it just wasnít meant to be.

Saturday morning, the club president received a series of calls that added up to: if the team could perform a motor swap in the next 36 hours, they could meet up with the One Lap of America group at No Problem Raceway in Baton Rouge. Andrew Garcia had a 2.5L motor in a car that he was restoring at his house that he offered, so the team kicked it into high gear and removed the dead 3.0L out of their car, removed the 2.5L out of the donor car, and installed the 2.5L into their car. In 24 hours straight. In a parking lot. With a set of Craftsman hand tools. Taking a couple hours to get ready again, the team of all four guys left Houston at 3 a.m. on Monday with a new motor in the car to meet up with the event in Baton Rouge.

They made it, but even after some tuning the 2.5L was considerably slower than the 3.0L they had removed. Oh well, at least they made it and missed only 2 out of 8 tracks. The competitor cars this year were even more powerful than last year, so the Rice team was looking to finish about the same as 2005. After finishing at No Problem Raceway, the guys got on the road at 5:00 p.m. Monday to head to Roebling Road in Savannah, GA, over 700 miles away. It was going to be a long night of driving as they had to be there by 9:00 a.m. Tuesday.

Somewhere along I-10 in New Orleans, LA, an iron bar (part of an expansion joint) on the freeway ripped apart the rear part of the exhaust and proceeded to wrap a portion of it around the passenger side half-shaft, shred the CV boot, and dispense all of the grease out of the CV joint. Pulling over in one of the worst parts of New Orleans, the team spent 3 hours sawing off the old exhaust (there was no other way to get it off because of how it was wrapped around the half-shaft), jerry-rigging a generic CV boot replacement kit from Advance Auto parts, and then duct taping the whole thing around to keep as much grease in as possible. Back on the road, now without a muffler: quite loud.

Along the route in Alabama, the Rice team hit a tremendous thunderstorm and discovered that the car was nowhere near watertight: within 10 minutes, there was a half-inch of water on the floor, everyone was soaked, and it was literally raining inside the car due to condensation on the bare roof. After stopping to let the storm subside, the team made it to Georgia by 10a.m. and didnít miss their run group. They finished low at the horsepower-favoring Roebling Road, and over lunch were able to get the car to an exhaust shop that at least put a straight pipe out the back of the car so exhaust fumes werenít being dumped right beneath the car.

It was relatively smooth sailing (albeit very wet) to Virginia International Raceway, but during the last lap of the last session, the down-pipe on the passenger side broke cleanly, leaving a 1 cm gap in the exhaust, making more a lot of noise and fumes. Thankfully Andy Kress of Performatek had given the guys the contact information of a local Alfa guy in Roanoke, VA, Les Bowers, who would be able to provide parts. Stopping every 30 minutes because of carbon monoxide headaches, the team eventually made it to Roanoke, where they spent four hours replacing the down-pipe and catalytic converter section of the exhaust. Back on the road to Putnam Park in Mount Meridian, Indiana: 600 miles away.

They made it to Putnam Park in time (but again with no sleep) and placed very well due to bad weather for the fast guys which cleared by the time the Rice team drove. The rest of the trip brought no further catastrophes, but again the Alfa was entirely out of its league among the rest of the pack. They finished 81st out of 88 entries, but have big plans for the car next year and have every intention of running the event again.

Thanks to the outstanding Alfa community, especially Andrew Garcia, Michael Keith, Andy Kress, and Les Bowers, without whom the Rice SAE would never have made it as far as they did. For more information about the event, see www.OneLapofAmerica.com.