Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Weak are Killed and Eaten

Special thanks to my friend Greg, who gave me this shirt for Xmas. I am determined to wear it to every single racing event I attend this year. Yes, it'll look to my autocross friends as though I'm a filthy, unwashed philistine. Or at least like I have no other clothes, because I spend all my money on racing. Which isn't far from the truth.

To be imprecise, I spent more than $650 on parts for my Miata on the 2 weeks following Thanksgiving. A mere 3 days after I replaced my broken differential with a fancy-schmancy viscous limited slip one ($220), the clutch failed. I took a day off of work and my dad and I replaced the thing along with the rear main seal. I also found out that the oil pan gasket in the area just below the rear main seal was leaking, and had been improperly repaired before with Permatex gasket maker spread over the area of the leak. Once I found out that dropping the oil pan for a proper repair involved basically removing the entire engine, I opted simply to clean off the old stuff and reapply. It's actually working. ($200, including various chemicals and supplies)

After this, I put on my snow tires (with heavier 14" steel wheels) and am reminded of the scary vibration at higher speeds. Specifically, at 70+ mph. I had previously tried to chase down this problem only to get tired of spending money after balancing all the wheels, replacing a wheel bearing, and replacing an axle. I knew the vibration was coming from the rear right corner, but I couldn't figure out what component had failed until the day I was doing the clutch. I wiggled that rear wheel, and there was play at the top/bottom, but not left/right. And I could see the axle move with the play, whereas the upright was staying still. This could only mean that the bore for the wheel bearing was distorted. I ordered a new one. ($80)

The following week begins, and my car needs a jump to start at any temperature below 40 degrees. I replace the battery. ($100) Starting improves, but its still very slow to crank and not exactly confidence-inspiring. I replace the starter, fearing sub-zero jump starts. ($60) Starting is solid.

My dad had picked up a new clutch slave cylinder for me sometime during all this, because while replacing the clutch, we noticed the boot on the slave was destroyed. My brother, Brian, helped me install the clutch slave on the same day as the starter. ($50, but my dad paid for it)

My family had Xmas early this year, on the 19th. My dad got me a pair of subframe braces from 949Racing. After the festivities were over, he and I went out to the garage, replaced that rear-right suspension upright (also called a hub assembly) and installed the rear brace. I'll find out for sure once I hit the interstate if the vibration is gone.

That's been the big maintenance lately. Posts coming soon regarding a brake job on the ZX2, my new not-made-of-a-wire-hanger-and-duct-tape radio antenna, and my brother's car crash. Don't worry, he's OK. The car is definitely not.

For a few more photos and details on the differential and clutch job, click the picture below.

diff and clutch

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Broken differential

The pinion gear on my differential broke on Thanksgiving Day, about 2 miles from my parents' house. It made a god-awful noise. I slowly drove it the rest of the way home, and with my dad's help, dropped the thing and put in a viscous limited slip unit to replace my open diff.

I'll have more details later, but I'm pretty exhausted and have no pictures to show right now. Suffice it to say that Blake is my savior.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Leather steering wheels disintegrate

My Miata came with a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Which makes no difference to me, except on warm, humid days. Especially on dewy mornings in the spring, summer, or fall; even worse if I left the top down overnight.

What happened? Well, the leather (I think it's leather, anyway) would get moist and start to come off on my hands. I could merely grab the wheel and gross black shit would stick to my hand. It would look like I had an afternoon under the hood, but without the thrill of actually swearing at every stupid bolt under the hood fixing something. Once dry, everything was fine.

My attempt at a cheap repair involved, easily enough, baseball bat grip tape. This stuff is sold at most sporting goods stores as exactly that, though it also works for sports injuries. They label it "athletic tape," and it comes in a small variety of colors, about $4 a roll. I suggest something bright and garish. Amanda bought me one in orange. One roll is enough.

This stuff is easy to use and looks fairly good when you're done. I suggest getting a full overlap as you wrap it: The black shows through with just one layer.

Since it's also made to attach to body parts, you can remove it later on when you get tired of the color without destroying your steering wheel. It's a good low-buck upgrade, and it'll keep the black shit off your hands.

UPDATE: Looks like it lasts about 20k miles before getting 100% nasty.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For Your Consideration

I met Andre at an SCCA event earlier this year; we gridded near each other. He's got a very beautiful blue second-gen Miata. His autocross goals are different than mine, but we both have been attacked viciously by the racing monster. We've become good friends. One day we'll be racing 24 Hours of LeMons together, but now it's the off-season and it's time for snow tires and blogging(?)

So, I've added his blog to my newly added blogroll, at the right of the screen. Pay the man a visit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Raceland Windblokker (windblocker)


I bought a cheap windblocker from Raceland at the same time as the header. Their brand name for it is Windblokker. Whatever.
I bought their "V Style" windblocker because it's $10 cheaper than the standard model. One of the features of this windblocker is that it tilts down flat, and I thought the V-style, which comes in a bit at an angle on the sides, just might give me enough clearance to get past the rear braces on my Hard Dog Hard Bar Sport roll bar.

Unfortunately, it won't tilt down far. The rear roll bar braces still get in the way, so I do lose that functionality. Other than the tilt though, it fits just fine. It's not really a big deal. It's so stupidly easy to install anyway, I could just remove it if I need to. Click the picture above to see pictures and read details on the thing.

The windblocker does its job well. I can drive with the top down when it's 40 degrees out. It's significantly quieter in the car, and I don't get blasts of air shooting into my right ear. When Amanda called me on my cell phone, she had to ask if I was driving, because it was unusually quiet. I'd call that high praise. If I had to do it again though, I would probably have splurged on the more expensive model. It would probably look better, and work better.

Update: I've rigged up a bracket to give it enough clearance for full functionality with the roll bar.

Cobra replica at Farm & Fleet

Factory 5 Cobra

I went to the Woodstock Farm & Fleet to pick up a few things, and spotted this in the parking lot. It's a Factory 5 Racing roadster, a Cobra replica.
Strangely enough, it's not the first exotic car I've seen at Farm & Fleet. I've also seen a Lotus Elise, an Acura NSX, and a Lamborghini Diablo 6.0, among other less-exotics.

I took several pictures. Click the photo above to see the whole set.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Raceland header wrap & install

Updates at bottom.
This weekend, I installed a new header in my Miata. I bought one of the very inexpensive ones you can find on eBay, though I went through their Web site. (I also bought a windblocker; details on that later.)
For the incredibly low price of $80, I felt like the Raceland unit (part number RO-HMX5NA-1.6) was worth the gamble. I also bought some generic header wrap on eBay for $25, and a new oxygen sensor on to accompany this project. This modification is legal in the SCCA's autocross STS class, which means I have nothing to lose.

The installation, unlike nearly every other major project I've taken on, went without a hitch. I had no major difficulties, outside of one bolt I had to snap off. Nothing was too difficult to get at, or too hard to remove. I didn't even have to run back out to the store. It was surprisingly painless. I've heard that the 1.8 liter models have more fitment issues, but everything was fine on my 1.6L engine.

Click the photo above to go directly to my Web photo album. There are some close-up pictures of the header, details and tips for the installation process, and a surprise crack I found in my original header.

It's quieter at cruise than my OEM header (probably thanks to that crack), though it sounds racier at WOT and at higher revs. It's also smoother and stronger in the middle and top end. I won't attribute all of this to the header alone; the new O2 sensor and the wrap probably helped a lot too. All in all, I'm very satisfied. If I had spent $450 on the Racing Beat or Jackson Racing headers, I don't think I would've been as happy. This is a significant improvement for a little price. Kudos, Raceland.

Update: The header wrap didn't seem to like snow very much.

Update 2: After little more than a year, the thing has rusted -- yes, rusted! -- badly enough to break apart.

Update 3: Raceland honored their 2-year warranty and sent me a new one.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cleaning plastic convertible windows

The picture above was the view out the back window of my Miata. It's an aftermarket top with a zipperless window. It's nice to be able to drop the top in seconds, but damn if it didn't get ruined quickly. Backing up is sometimes an exercise in faith. Since my new very cheap windblocker will be arriving this week and will undoubtedly diminish my rearward visibility at least a little, I thought I should finally clean this thing up.

The above is what it looks like after a cleaning inside and out. A bottle of Meguiar's PlastX, a cheap applicator, cheap towel, and probably about 10 or 15 minutes. It's obviously not perfect, but it is greatly improved. If I had a little more daylight (I started at dusk) or I had eaten dinner beforehand, it could probably look better still. But for now, I'm satisfied.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

200K Mile Autocross

Last Friday, on the way home from work, my Miata rolled over 200,000 miles.

That weekend, I treated myself to a precision alignment. I went to Archer Alignment in DeKalb. I got the job done on a laser machine, spot on to my specs for a mere $80. The guy was smart and friendly, too. Highly recommended, especially considering many people pay upwards of $150 for a precision, custom alignment. Archer is a deal.

I also recently had to de-power the steering rack due to a bad power steering leak and an inability to find the correct parts (I did it the quick & dirty way). It's a little stiff in parking lots, but otherwise perfectly livable. I was, however, somewhat concerned about steering weight in autocross. Lots of turning + relatively low speeds + heavy steering = potential disaster.

Last Saturday, I went to my first autocross since that eternal first number on the odometer changed, since the alignment, and since the depowered steering rack.

I had on a set of Goodyear Eagle GPS tires, which are made solely for Wal-Mart stores. These tires are cracked and old, and I thought I ought to get some real abuse out of them before reselling them for the rims (a set of 14" NB alloys)I left the Toyos at home because it was supposed to rain that day and I figured I'd be better off with the all-season rubber. Sadly, the track was dry by the time we started our morning runs, so I was an absolutely horrific 4 seconds off pace for my class. I was really astonished at how awful those tires were. I was blowing way past the grip limit on my first run, really sliding all over the place. They're very scary in the rain under normal driving, too, but I was able to keep pace with the guys on Falken Azenis once the track got wet.

...was surprisingly light. I was even able to palm the wheel! Not bad at all. I can't say I'd be able to do this immediately after removing the power assist though; driving daily with it for 2 weeks certainly helped build up my arm muscles. I will say that after a couple weeks, you don't really notice the lack of power steering anymore, at least not on a light car like a Miata. The next test will be to see how difficult it is with wider, grippier tires and probably heavier wheels.

And that's all I remember; it's been a weeks since the event.

Next weekend, I'll be at the final SCCA Chicago event with my Toyos and grippier brake pads. If I place well enough, I might pull myself up from 6th of 11.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Speaking of bikes

Who says you can't carry anything in a Miata?
I strapped the bike to my roll bar with a couple bungee cords, and had Amanda come outside (before she finished drying her hair, even) to look at my handiwork. That's true love.

Totally gross

My first (?) off-topic post here . I went to ride my bike recently, and saw a cicada crawling out of its shell while attached to my rear bike wheel. Up-side down, even.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The scariest thing I've ever seen on a road-going vehicle

(click to enlarge)
This was on a Cavalier, in the parking lot at Ben's apartment complex. I don't know if the owner was still driving it, but that single remaining lug nut wasn't held on by more than a couple threads. If he drove it anywhere, it wouldn't be far.

Note how the vibrating wheel actually slotted out the lug holes. This was driven on for far too long.

I was afraid to get near the car. It's absolutely unbelievable to me that someone out there is oblivious enough to let this happen for this long. I just can't fathom it.

Clogged catalyst

So, my catalytic converter clogged. It was a strange experience. On my drive home, I noticed the car made less power above 4k RPM, and started sounding like a trumpet. Yes, a trumpet. As my commute wore on, it got progressively worse -- to the point where I could barely maintain 80mph (welcome to Chicago tollway speeds). I put my headlights up and my speed dropped. That's how on-the-limit I was with regard to available power.

I should note that the cat had been making a rattling noise for several weeks before this happened. When this happened, the noise stopped.

So I went straight to my dad's place, jacked up the car and dropped the exhaust. Sure enough, the chunks of catalyst remaining in there had rolled into the back of the cat and got lodged in the pipe. We broke it up and got it out.

This is the stuff.

(Never mind the Taz floor mat, we use it on the garage floor.)

Yeah, I figured there would be a lot more, but no. Apparently most of it had already blown out.

So, my car no longer sounds like a trumpet, it has all its power, and a nonfunctioning catalytic converter. I'm technically no longer STS-legal, but I'll worry about that if I ever go to nationals. In the mean time, I don't care.


On a side note, I picked up a set of tires on 13" Ford Escort steelies today, 175/70-13. (Yes, the 13" do fit over the calipers, though barely). Two are practically new, the other two have somewhat more than half life. Different brands for each pair, but it'll serve. And where else can you get a set of wheels and tires, mounted and balanced for $40? I got a new scissor jack out of the deal too, one from a Saturn. Heavier duty than mine, and it came with a handle. Mine did not have a handle, which made jacking a pain in the ass.

Yes. Jacking.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Style points

For nerd cred and to show off a bit of my national pride, I painted my calipers green and yellow: colors on the Brazilian flag.

My car is white, so that's covered, but where's the blue? Have a look:

Yup. Angry eyes in painter's tape. Win. Number of Jalopnik points gained: Zero. Total Jalopnik points: 126.

(For comparison, the ZX2 earns 25 points, the former Benz earns 70.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Various things I've seen on the road

All of these are my photos, not pulled off the Internet. They were all taken with my cell phone, hence the crappy quality.

Sarah Palin 2012 bumper sticker. Funny, since 1. she never announced that she was running, and 2. she just resigned from her governorship, presumably because of all the investigations against her.

You have to look closely, but you'll notice the license plate reads: LARDINE. I don't know if that's her actual name, but it's certainly not a flattering one.

I never thought about it, but of course a limo won't fit on flatbed. How else would you tow one though? It would be way too long to pull behind.

Since the car color is clearly not what they're referring to, "RED DEUCE" can only mean they have bloody shit. TMI, people.
Hello Kitty + Jeep Wrangler = Failure.

I've seen several of these before, but these MAXI DUMP trucks and trailers always make me laugh. I love poop jokes.

Simply the best license plate ever.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My obsession with Ford Escort Wagons

Amanda and I have decided to go camping for our vacation this year, and it got me thinking about how much I love Ford Escorts -- specifically how much I miss my '93 Escort wagon.

It was my second car that actually belonged to me (third, if you count the '71 Plymouth Satellite I owned for all of 3 months), the first being a '91 Escort Pony that I still owned during and after the time I owned the wagon.

It was like my hatchback but with a stronger engine, air conditioning, no broken springs, much less rust, and a lot more room. And, like all the cars I loved, it was stickshift.

For my 21st birthday, my friends and I loaded that car as tightly as we could and took off on an 8-hour road trip to Garden of the Gods, a scenic spot in the middle of Shawnee National Forest, in what we dubbed the crotch of Illinois. (Look at it on a map. Illinois has a crotch.)
On that trip, it carried a fallen tree from the road to the campsite, a tree that was longer than the car itself. I slept in it the first night.

When I was in college, my roommate was threatened with a knife by another roommate the night before my last final exam of a fall semester. Not feeling safe sleeping in that apartment, I drove my wagon out to the NIU parking deck, hopped in the back, folded down the seats, unrolled the sleeping back I kept in there, and slept until my morning final. It wasn't terribly warm, but it kept me out of the wind.

It hauled wood, doors, giant art projects. I got stoned in it regularly, listened to way too much public radio in it, and drove it through several snowstorms, one of which was so bad I couldn't see more than 10 feet in front of me at times. I really did everything in that car, and I loved it to its all too early death.

It started on fire. One day, out of nowhere, a recalled part that was never repaired failed. A mandatory recall too, so Ford notified the (previous) owner. They just never took it in. The wires to the fuel pump pulled enough current to melt the insulation off, and, naturally, the fuel pump stopped working. I coasted into a parking lot that happened to be a repair shop, and the rest is history. Not a very dramatic fire, but still technically a fire, so it was covered by insurance. And, of course, it was totaled. I wish I could've kept it.

To this day, I still sometimes itch to get my hands on another one. This camping trip with Amanda got my mind rolling with the possibilities, and they're very tempting. "Get it for a winter beater," I tell myself. "It would be a great commuter car," I say. "The Miata doesn't need the miles; the Escort would be more comfortable and better on gas." I scour Craigslist and dream of the possibilities.

I'm still dreaming.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The magic of Dymo labels

I love Dymo labels. So does Amanda. I've had this toggle switch in my car since I bought it, and it was (gasp!) unmarked!

So, once I remembered that Dymo labels exist, I took it upon myself to mark the switch. What does it do? See for yourself.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Parking Lot Repairs

A brief bit of catching up: I sold the Mercedes. It was an awful car. It was stately and beautiful, but painfully (painfully!) slow and problematic. Daily commutes tested my patience. Not a day goes by that I'm not glad it's gone.


The Windy City Miata Club autocross comes highly recommended by Sean, the guy I bought my Miata from. I went to their first event this weekend and brought my friend Mike with.

(Pictures courtesy of Bill, my instructor at The Learning Curve.)

Lined up for the first run
Mike is riding shotgun.

Coming around the first carousel

And a hard left around the second carousel.
Notice how, even with stiff springs and shocks at the highest settings, she still leans pretty far.

All in all, it was a great time. Running with the WCMC is better than the SCCA in that you get a lot more runs in a day, and they're a little more lax about the rules. You can, for example, have someone ride with you who isn't registered as a driver for the day. They just have to sign the waiver.

The people are really cool too, though as with any group of people, there's a few douchebags here and there.

So, I finished my 5 afternoon runs, handed the car off to Mike, and went out to corner 3 for cone duty. A few cars go by, then Mike goes, far more controlled and stable than he was in the morning runs (and not lost among the cones). This turned out to be his best run of the day.

And his last.

About a minute after he went by, I heard a call on the walkie-talkie: "Alan at corner 3, come to the grid. Alan at corner 3 to the grid." Well shit.

I sprint off the track and across the parking lot. As I approach the grid, I see the hood up and people gathering around my car, and I see a big puddle under it. These words keep repeating in my head:
"Please don't be oil. Please don't be oil. Please don't be oil."

Once I'm close enough, I see that the puddle is bright green. A relief.

The Miata radiator has plastic ends on it. It cracked where the plastic meets the aluminum core, apparently all the way across the top. A few guys help me push it off the grid and into the parking lot. Sean lends me his tools, I call around to area parts shops, and Sean's brother Aaron drives me to a Pep Boys in his NC Miata.

(My picture, cell phone.)
I changed the radiator in the parking lot, collected my prize for winning in my class, and went home. The prize, by the way, is a glass beer stein with the WCMC logo on it. Mike got a ribbon for placing 3rd in class. (No, we're not that awesome at racing; it was the novice class, and the car is pretty fantastic.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hairy Farts

I got this e-mail from Amanda the other day:

Subject: My car got weave

The strangest thing happened.

I got an e-mail from another girl in the office this morning, saying "Have you looked at your tailpipe? It appears it needs a shave."

I went outside, and there was about a 1.5 feet of grey/white/silver HAIR (HAIR!) hanging from the exhaust. Like, inside of it, spilling out. I pulled it out with my foot. It's a huge pile and it seemed to be stuck in there and possibly like there's more. It looks like the scalp of the singer from Dinosaur Jr. I'll go out at lunch with a flashlight and make sure nothing's clogged and maybe get a picture if the weave pile is still there.

Do you have any idea what this is? How it got in there? It's definitely LONG and human looking, so not an animal or a bird or anything like that.

It is BIZARRE. I want to brush my teeth now and wash my hands compulsively. Buh.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

SCCA Autocross, Event 1

I attended the SCCA's Learning Curve in the beginning of April. It was raining, so cold that I couldn't use my race tires, and generally awful weather all-around, but I had a good time and learned a lot about racing.

Last weekend I put on my race rubber and went to the first real SCCA event of the season. I placed 2nd in class.
Yes, I'm in 71st, but keep in mind that there were plenty of cars there that weren't street-legal, i.e. open-wheel race cars, plenty of people with a lot more experience than me, and plenty with faster cars. So, I'm happy with my standing.

I'm especially satisfied considering the 1st place in my class (STS) was a well-prepared 91 Honda CRX driven by a man with 30-some years experience in racing. His son, who also drove the CRX, was well behind me.

All things considered, I'm happy with my standings, surprised at my own skill, and I think the sunburn was entirely worth it.

I'm going to see about joining the Tri-State Sports Car Council and the Windy City Miata Club so I can attend more autocross events. This summer is gonna rock.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Spelling fail

Ah, the wonders of wanting your car to be awesome, while making it clear that you're completely hopeless.

The car didn't have rims, though it did have sweet Altezzas.

Faucet: 1, Escort: 0

Amanda backed the car into the house. Unfortunately, rather than just scraping the paint a bit, she hit the house where the outside faucet is.

These pictures are post-op. The bumper cover was torn almost completely off; we screwed it back in place. The hole the faucet gouged into the car we filled with expanding foam insulation. I later sprayed over the exposed insulation with undercoating.

Notice how the foam, once it squeezes itself out of the hole, begins to form testicles. Better than truck balls!

I hacked them off the next day with a hatchet.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Roll bar has arrived!

This is by far the biggest package I've ever had delivered to me. Despite its size, it's actually pretty easy to move. It's only 40 pounds. It's a roll bar for the Miata: the Hard Bar Sport model made by Hard Dog Fabrication. I hope to have it installed before I attend The Learning Curve, a 2-day instructional class through the SCCA of Chicago.

This is my first significant modification/upgrade to the Miata since I bought it in December, with hopefully many more upgrades to come. I'll have pictures when it's installed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The complications of washing a lowered Miata

I tried to take the Miata through a car wash on my lunch. It's been winter here (as in most places in the northern hemisphere), and I've been driving that car through 100+ miles of heavily salted Illinois roads every day for the last month or so. It's finally above freezing today, so I decided it was time.

There's a gas station down the street. I filled up and paid for the wash at the pump (20 cents off/gallon with wash) and went around the back. Woops.

It was a brush wash. That wasn't a bad thing in and of itself, but the mechanism is. It has one of those tracks that pulls your car along, and on either side of the track is a rail that keeps your tire from hopping out. And sure enough, the rail is about 6 or 8 inches high.

I pulled my car up to it very slowly, and heard a bump. Rolled back a little, got out and looked under the car. Sure enough, my steering rack was starting to ride up the inside rail. There's no way in hell I was gonna let my car get dragged along its underside for 50 feet just to get it washed. Turns out my car is no more than 5 inches off the ground.

By this time though, 2 trucks had lined up behind me. I had to ask them to back out, which made one guy unhappy, but oh well.

I went into the gas station and asked for a refund. The guy looked at the receipt and gave me $7 in cash.  I got to keep the gas discount, but my car remains covered in salt.

Spark plugs - ZX2

Yes, spark plugs are routine, and especially easy on a DOHC 4-cylinder. But it was a learning experience for Amanda, and it confirmed for me personally the problem with those fancy Bosch 2+ electrode spark plugs.

Amanda did most of this job herself. I replaced the first spark plug to show her, then she did the rest. She is slowly learning everything, as each job comes up. I'm impressed at her tenacity to continue learning this art of grease-monkeying. Also, her willingness to get (somewhat) dirty.

She has yet to bust her knuckles or be elbow-deep in grease and dirt, but those days will come.

About the Bosch plugs:
It's well documented on (the most populated and active ZX2 forum) that the best plugs for Ford's Zetec engine is the OEM Motorcraft platinum plugs. Some members specifically say to avoid the Bosch Platinum +2 or +4 spark plugs, that they work fine initially, but cause misfiring after a while. Me, I replaced the plugs when I first got the car, before I was a member of that forum and aware of this problem. Wanting high-quality plugs, I bought a set of the Bosch +2.

And sure enough, after 60 or 70 thousand miles with those plugs, the computer threw a CEL. The error code? P0303 - misfire on cylinder #3. We replaced them with Motorcraft Platinum.