Monday, September 20, 2010

Ernie's (in)Famous Car (mis)Adventures

No matter how much I attempt to educate myself on a given procedure, a successful outcome is for the most part heavily dependent on past experience. A couple of decades making foolish mistakes and learning about the strange workings of the automobile are invaluable to my current car hobby. Every now and then, while navigating my lithe 2 ton barge through traffic on the 880, I have a flashback to simpler, younger times...So, just for fun, I decided to travel back in time and compile a list of some of the more memorable auto-related mishaps in my life.

The case of the flying oil filter. It is sometime earlier this decade; I've gotten bit by the autocross bug. I was beginning my quest for a trophy in the bottom-rung H-class with my (kick-ass) 1995 Infiniti G20t (limited slip, 140HP 7500RPM SR20DE, front suspension from a 300ZX, HELLZ YEAH!). It was a nice and breezy Sunday afternoon at the North parking lot in Golden Gate Fields. I had arrived at the grid late (they run in reverse order so that the early gridders benefit from a nicely scrubbed surface) so I ended up being the first one out on the pristine course. A stranger asks for a ride-a-long (a customary practice to gain some advantage -- they are rewarded with an early look at the course from inside the car). Course walk: check. Tech inspection: check. Seatbelts: check. Helmet: check. Proper seating position: check. Proper staging in the gate: check. I tach up to 4500RPM for a perfect launch, and the flagger drops the green. I'm off to a great start, really in the zone. About halfway through, I notice something funny with the rear end which is fishtailing abnormally. My passenger yells, "Red Flag!" pointing at the course worker frantically running toward me furiously waving his flag. "Pull off course, kill the motor!!" I proceed off course, and when I see the white smoke coming from the motor it starts to sink in: I dumped oil all over half of the autocross course before ANYONE (and I mean like 50 cars) has had a chance to run. Needless to say, the rest of the attendees were amazing (even though I'm sure they were cursing me under their breath): they spent about 30 minutes scrubbing the oil off the track and helped me push the car back to the paddock (and even offered me oil!) My passenger was not as forgiving (he was giving me bad looks and never really said a word to me).

Lesson learned? Never have Jiffy Lube change the oil in your car...I had given the oil change monkey the wrong oil filter, which blew off the housing at high revs. If I done the oil change myself, I would have realized it didn't fit properly and would have sought the right oil filter.

The aspiring parking attendant. Before I was in high school, my father trusted me enough to move the car in and out of the garage to wash them. Back then, we had three cars: a 1979 4-cylinder Ford Mustang coupe a 1981 Ford Fairmont station wagon, and a 1984 Dodge RAM 250 custom conversion van. I was the oldest of 3 kids, so I was a bit ambitious when it came to doing things by myself. I think this comes from my Dad -- case in point: he and my Mom thought that a water softener was a neat little product. However, the cost of installation was a bit high. So my father decides to embark on installing the entire water conditioner setup himself with me as his trusty assistant (he was quite the handyman). He and I spent several nights installing the piping on the system. There was a big tank outside the garage wall which held the salt water, and then there was the conditioner hardware on the inside of that garage wall right next to the water main. I helped him measure and cut the mass of jumbled pipes, even got my hands pretty darned hot holding the pieces of copper tubing while he soldered them using a propane torch. All in all, it was quite educational.

But I digress.

So on said day, the Fairmont was in the right side of the garage, and the Mustang was behind it on the driveway. For some silly reason (that I can't remember anymore), I thought that I could pull the wagon out of the garage without moving the Mustang out of the way from behind it. I remember standing there, surveying the situation, and coming to the conclusion that, "hey, I could do this...I have enough room!" I proceed to back the wagon up, cranking the steering wheel (it had no power assist), then creeping it forward, then backing it up, then creeping it forward, slowly making progress. Then something happens and the car lurches forward...right smack into the water softener. Pipes break and water is spraying EVERYWHERE. I forget what exactly happens next, but my Dad ends up removing the water softener system (by this time we had had it for a while and learned about the ill effects of running salt-treated water through home pipes, so my parents were already thinking about getting rid of it -- my mishap just accelerated the process)

Lesson learned? Yes, there *are* easier ways to do things, you idiot.

Mods! The first new car I ever purchased on my own was a 1999 Nissan Maxima SE. Oh, what a blast that was to drive...the 190hp VQ30DE when hooked up to the 5-speed manual was a shining jewel of a motor. The motor was silky smooth and delivered so much torque from right above idle all the way to redline. It was in the Maxima that I have driven the fastest (~130mph) and set a personal speed record from San Jose to San Diego (6.5 hours) that I've never broken. If I remember correctly, I racked up about 60K miles in less than 2 years.

When I was still living in San Diego, a few months after purchasing the car, I was reading up on some performance mods that others have done. Back then, there were no automotive forums like there is an abundance of now; I was on an email-based mailing list of Maxima owners, and folks were sharing tips on modifications they made to their cars. One of them was a stiffer rear anti-roll-bar, which would "improve handling". I was quite new to the physics of car handling, but I relished the thought of a better handling car. After installing the bar, the improvement was noticeable. Turn-in was quite responsive. I was out on a drive one late night westbound on Miramar Road, approaching the 805. Those of you familiar with this section of road back then should remember that once you clear Camino Santa Fe, there's a fairly decent stretch of asphalt that leads into La Jolla. That night, I decided to nail it. On these late night drives, I never really have a direction, I just went wherever I felt like. And on that night, I decided to take the 805 Northbound. The freeway onramp was coming up *fast*. So I took a glance at my speed: BIG MISTAKE. The speedo registered about 105, which sent me into freak-out mode...if I remember correctly, that onramp was a posted 45mph right hander. The worst part, it had an elevation change (down). Even worse, I decided to lift the throttle and steer right, at the same time. And even worser: the rear anti-roll-bar was at full stiff. Say it all with me now: S-P-I-N. Luckily there was no one around, and the only thing hurt was my ego and a blown passenger side tire that nailed the sidewalk. Make no mistake...doing two full rotations in a 3200lb 4-door at over 90mph is NOT fun. I was darned lucky to walk away from that one.

Lesson learned? DON'T LIFT.

And for those of you who think I didn't learn my lesson: "you shouldn't be driving that fast on the street!" Don't worry, I eventually learned that and toned done my driving quite a bit. But I will tell you this: not dropping throttle mid-corner or in a panic situation is one INVALUABLE piece of learned behavior...throttle management and managing the traction circle is central in accidence avoidance maneuvers.

It's late.
I'll have to continue this in another blog posting...

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At 3/03/2014 7:05 AM, Anonymous Jason Yu said...

nice article!


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