You know the quote, “Want to make God laugh? Make some plans.” Well, racecar drivers make lots of plans. We plan entire seasons to try to win regional championships and we plan the trek to the National Championships. I’m certainly guilty of that, if guilty is the correct term to use. In 2018, I planned on competing for the NASA SoCal Honda Challenge 4 Regional Championship and I planned on going to Austin, Texas, to the Circuit of the Americas to try to win the Honda Challenge 4 National Championship. I put all the dates in my calendar and made sure I had enough Toyo Tires RRs to get the job done. I made my plans. Then God started laughing.
Actually, early in the season, things were going perfectly to plan. I had already won two races that year and secured a trailer from Honda Challenge competitor Ryan Flaherty that would get my car to Texas in September. Things were looking good, really good. Well, they were looking good until I blew an engine in the Esses at Buttonwillow and my car caught fire. At that point, my plans weren’t so clear. You could say things were a bit smoky.
I didn’t have a fire suppression system in my car, just a hand-held fire extinguisher. As the fire grew, and breeched the bulkhead, I stopped the car near a corner worker and made a hasty exit out the window. The car’s interior was filled with dark black smoke. It was the first time — and hopefully the last — that I had to evacuate a racecar due to fire. The story of me bailing out of the car was featured in the October 2018 issue of Speed News magazine titled, “Got Fire? Get Out.” The video can be seen here.
The fire scared my crew who came running up to the fence. It scared me, too. But once we all realized nobody was hurt, thanks to the outstanding emergency workers at Buttonwillow Raceway, it was time to take stock in our situation. How bad was the car? Short answer: Bad. Every wire, hose, sensor, cable, and piece of plastic from the radiator to the fuel tank was a total loss. The windshield, the interior, and the metal of the car were salvageable. Everything else was cooked. Even the rubber around the lower ball joints was burned, and they threw grease all over the wheels and brakes. It was the end of June when the fire occurred. The Nationals were at the early part of September. That meant we only had July and August to completely rebuild the car.
Two months to rebuild a racecar may sound easy if your last name is Ganassi, and you have a race shop in North Carolina with hundreds of full-time employees whose day job is to fix racecars. Unfortunately for me, my team, Double Nickel Nine Motorsports, is the polar opposite of that. We have zero employees. Our team is a bunch of friends who like to drink craft beer and tinker with cars. The priority is usually beer before cars. We have regular day jobs that we are required to attend during the week. It was going to be tough to find the time and resources to pull this project off. A project we weren’t planning on or had budgeted for.
Even though it was looking pretty grim, we decided we weren’t going to let the fire hold us back. We wanted to win the National Championship at COTA. We weren’t going to quit. We would work on the car every second we could until the truck and trailer left the parking lot to head to Texas. We got back home and immediately stripped the car of the drivetrain to see what needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, every bolt we turned revealed more stuff that needed to be exchanged. The task was getting more daunting and more expensive every moment.
My partner in DNN Motorsports, Keith Kramer, saved the day when he found a running 1990 Acura Integra for $800. The donor car had almost everything we needed for the rebuild. This saved us countless trips to different wrecking yards chasing down small items like sensors, throttle cables or whatever. This was a huge step in the right direction because it saved us time and money.
We yanked the drivetrain out of the donor car and started comparing its parts to the parts from our No. 38 Acura Integra to see which ones were better. The shop floor began to fill up fast. We shipped our transmission to Synchrotech Transmissions in San Dimas, Calif., to have it rebuilt because we didn’t really know how hot the fire got and if it damaged some internal components we couldn’t see from outside the casing.
I took the blown engine and the engine from the donor car to T.E.M., and spent a few “vacation” days alongside Rich Olivier as he built a new Honda Challenge 4 B18 Honda motor. Honda Challenge 4 cars require stock cams and stock connecting rods so there isn’t a ton of things a machine shop can do for performance, but there are plenty of things to do to blueprint and balance the engine to perfection. These are skills I don’t have. The only things we were able to save from the old engine were the ARP fasteners.
Rich is the man, and I learned an enormous amount about engine building while watching him work in his craft. Machine shops don’t like “last minute” jobs, and we sort of just showed up at his door with a “last minute” engine build for the Nationals. Thankfully Rich and his crew found the time and built a perfect motor for us. With the motor in the back of my truck, I felt a sense of relief, but as I started heading home, I realized that the engine was just one of a thousand details that still needed to be done. The clock was ticking. The Nationals were fast approaching.
As we disassembled the car after the fire, we started shipping parts all over the country. We sent our axles to Insane Shafts to be rebuilt and have the CV boots replaced. We sent our harnesses to Autopower to be re-webbed. The fire never touched the belts, but the paint on the floor pan was bubbled from heat near the sub-belt. Webbing doesn’t like heat, so we figured better safe than sorry and sent them to Autopower. Some things were just too cooked to be refurbished. We needed new power steering delete lines from Devsport and a new fuel pressure regulator from AEM. I practically had my entire 16-digit credit card number memorized I used it so many times.
Even though the fire didn’t really appear to hit the case of the ECU, we knew that numerous wires were shorting out during the fire as things melted under the hood, and I wanted to make sure no harm came to the motherboard of the ECU. Honda Challenge 4 cars are required to use a stock ECU and we had no way of looking at the programming. The best thing to do was to send it to HA Motorsports, which refurbishes stock ECUs and make sure it was good. HA Motorsports said it checked out.
We knew the fire had hit the front spindles long enough to burn the lower ball joints, so we didn’t really know how affected our Motion Control Struts were or if the heat changed the strength of our Eibach springs. So, we shipped out more stuff. We spent a small fortune on shipping parts across the country. Eibach used its lab to verify the spring rates of our springs. The springs were undamaged by the fire and were spot on, each within 1-3 pounds of their published rate. It was the same good news from MCS, which said its shock dyno indicated our shocks were good. So, all of that work shipping turned out to be a waste of time and money. However, I was able to sleep at night knowing I was heading to the Nationals with good springs and shocks.
We removed any rubber plugs in the bulkhead and replaced them with welded metal tabs sealing the bulkhead with metal that won’t melt like rubber.
As the calendar clicked dangerously closer to September, boxes started arriving. All of our parts were coming back fixed and ready to assemble. We spent hours and went through enormous checklists to ensure we had everything we needed to put the No. 38 car back together. One of the things we couldn’t fix or steal off the donor car was a mil-spec wiring harness from Chandler Autosport and the numerous special sensors and wires that provided information from the powertrain to our Racepak IQ3 data logger digital dashboard. Without these things, I wouldn’t have a tachometer, an oil pressure warning light or a temperature gauge.
Cory Chandler at Chandler Autosport was a huge savior for our project. He prioritized our custom engine harness, and got us what we needed just in time. The engine harness deletes any unneeded stock wiring and is specific to our Honda Challenge 4 build, making the front of the car less cluttered and lighter. Racepak sensors and wiring are specific to Racepak, which means the only place to get those was directly from the source. The good news was the Racepak is an easy plug-and-play system, and simple to connect, so it saved us lots of time wiring and programming.
Olson Auto Body repainted my hood and front bumper cover, which had been damaged during the fire. We flushed the entire brake system hydraulics with brand new Prospeed RS 683 brake fluid to remove any fluid that may have been affected by the heat of the fire. We also installed brand new Carbotech brake pads on the front.
Our team owns a vinyl cutter, featured in the July 2017 issue of Speed News magazine, which meant we were able to replace all of the blistered stickers. With all of the refurbished parts finally arriving from different shops around the country, we opened lots of boxes and actually slapped the entire car together in one full 24-hour day. The following day, with no sleep, we headed to Buttonwillow Raceway for a shakedown test. We worked through a few teething issues on the new build and felt comfortable the car was ready for the Nationals, which was good, because the trailer was leaving the following morning. We hadn’t slept a full night in days.
We arrived at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, early in the week for the NASA test days before the Nationals. The No. 38 car was fast right out of the gate. Because we had replaced lower ball joints and rebuilt the entire car, we used Smart Racing Products’ Smart Strings and Smart Camber to verify our alignment on the smooth flat floors in the COTA garages. As a California team, our pump gas at home is 91 octane and our car is timed for that specific fuel, but in Texas the pump gas was 93 octane. We drained our fuel tank, filled up with Texas 93 octane and headed to the dyno to adjust our timing for the National Championship race. It was the first instance our car had been on a dyno since the fire and we were able to squeeze two more horsepower out of the freshly built T.E.M. Machine Shop engine.
We checked and rechecked every bolt on the car, worried that in our haste to get the car back together quickly we may have missed something that could ruin our chances for a National title. All our hard work paid off. The car was fast right off the trailer, qualifying on pole and winning the Saturday qualifying race flag to flag. All that was left for us to do was win on Sunday. Industry people from Racepak, Motion Control Suspension, Eibach, Toyo Tires, and Sampson Racing Communications were in the paddock at COTA and specifically in our garage available for any questions or concerns we had with our car. It was nice to have that sort of industry support at a major race. Thank you, NASA, for putting on a world-class event.
My brother Randy Krider was my spotter on the radio along with my crew chief Stephen Young. Both of them kept me cool and calm during the race managing traffic, timing gaps, and race pace during the 45-minute Championship race. The car ran perfectly and we led flag to flag, winning the Honda Challenge 4 National Championship. On Sunday, we made it look easy, but trust me there was nothing easy about it.
Not only did our freshly rebuilt car win the NASA Championships, but our other team car, No. 33, driven by Keith Kramer, also took second place. With lots of bottles of Tactical Ops Brewing Double Nickel Nine IPA on ice ready to drink, the DNN Motorsports team began one epic celebration in the COTA paddock. We never wanted that party to end.
I am immensely thankful to all of our industry partners who stepped up and rushed our much-needed parts back to us, and I’m extraordinarily grateful to the volunteer crew that makes up Double Nickel Nine Motorsports. Racing is truly a team sport and championships cannot be won alone. Our motto is never quit, and in 2018 we proved we live by those words. I’m planning for the 2019 season to be a lot less work, but I do remember that quote about making plans. …
Rob Krider is a NASA National Champion and author of the novel “Cadet Blues.” To read more, or to contact him, go to www.robkrider.com.