02 December, 2016

There could be no greater end than this

Alright, raise your hand if you predicted Nico Rosberg would retire from Formula 1 today.  Anyone?

I think that broadside was shared by everyone in the sport today as this year’s World Drivers’ Champion collected his trophy and announced his ride off into the sunset, but you can hardly blame him.

Well, most people can hardly blame him.  There are undoubtedly some out there who will attack him for what some claim is a cowardly retreat, in their eyes proving his title a fluke that even Rosberg knows would never happen again.  There really isn’t a way to prove either side objectively right or wrong, but to simplify the German’s legacy into such binary viewpoints is doing a disservice to a supremely talented driver.

How does one quantify or qualify such a career, though?  It would be all too easy to let this season (or even the last three) define Nico Rosberg merely for his battle with Lewis Hamilton.  Careers aren’t just made of the rivalry, or at least the rivalry’s most recent incarnation.

Remember, Lewis and Nico go back to their karting days as young children, both banking on a dream of a racing world that they could barely comprehend---Nico knew some of it because of his father’s involvement, but there were undoubtedly aspects of international Grand Prix racing that a father best leaves unsaid to a child whose aim is the stars.

The rivalry had always been relatively friendly between them, but the walls they would build between each other grew with every ascent up the racing ladder.  The divergence came to a head over the last three seasons in equal machinery, but don’t overlook their individual merits before they shared a constructor, either.

Rosberg’s GP2 championship, the first for the new series, solidified his talent to the naysayers who saw his ascendance aided by a steady hand from a former World Champion who happened to be his father.  He stood on the podium in nearly 50% of the races that year, winning five of them.

His fortunes seemed to flip when he retired from 50% of the races in his inaugural F1 season.  He would add a few more DNFs the next year, but then things seemed to look up.  Since 2008, he never finished outside of the top ten in the drivers’ standings.  His bold switch to the new-again Mercedes team netted him an emotional win in the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix, all while being paired with the un-retired Michael Schumacher.  This fact shouldn’t be forgotten either, but let’s not take it out of context.

His battles with Schumacher were noteworthy, especially since he bettered the legend in career wins at Mercedes while they were together (albeit 1–0), but look beyond the head-to-head.  Schumacher was undeniably more experienced and still very quick, but the two drivers’ feedback ultimately did more for the team in the long-run than who beat whom.  Rosberg proved his mettle against the seven-time champ, no doubt, but these were drivers on the opposite ends of their career to one another.

His time with the team would be used against him when Hamilton joined the squad and immediately set out beating the German.  Lewis, a World Champion in just his second season in F1, had already gone toe-to-toe with Schumacher’s last rival, Fernando Alonso, when they were together at McLaren.

Despite being with the team for a few years, Rosberg’s lack of speed in comparison to the Briton had to be frustrating.  That had to add to his annoyance as Hamilton shot to his second and third world titles---both of which were won over Rosberg in a car that he helped develop ever since the team returned to Formula 1.

So if you couldn’t already tell, this season’s triumph had a great deal of history behind it, and that’s saying nothing of the past collisions, verbal sparring, cap throwing and talk of conspiracies.

And that’s exactly why Rosberg chose today to announce his retirement.  In his message to the media at the FIA Prize Giving Gala, he spoke of the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship as his ultimate goal throughout his 25 years of racing.  That was the top echelon for him, and he achieved it.

What made this decision right, though, is the timing.  If Rosberg had won the championship in his first year against Hamilton, I have no doubt we still would have seen the German racing in F1 the next year.  He would have been a different driver than what he ultimately became, but he would have been hungry for a second title.

What the last three years did to him, instead, was put him through an emotional ringer while destroying a friendly rivalry that existed since childhood.  It brought out the best and worst in him at a time when he started a family, and that took its toll.

Because of the struggle, because of its nastiness, because of his growth as a person and a driver, this championship was the perfect storm, an experience to fuel a lifetime of stories and perhaps nightmares.  The cumulative saga only sweetened a pot that already seemed pretty tantalizing.

And so, with his peers and the world’s media surrounding him, Rosberg knew that the perfect time to announce his retirement was when he held the championship trophy at long last.  His trophy.  His championship.  No worry of title defense, no questions of ongoing rivalries, no uncertainties about next year’s regulations, no endless cycle of globetrotting flights.  The journey was complete, and there could be no greater end than this, leaving as the champion of the world.

24 August, 2015

Justin Wilson

For the second time in four years, a talented British driver's death will overshadow the end of the IndyCar season, and tonight the racing world is heartbroken after losing a gentle giant in Justin Wilson.

I don't have to tell you what a great guy Wilson was or expound on his talented on the track.  What I will say, though, is that his spirit and passion for this sport certainly impressed me, and that should never be overlooked.  So often we hear stories about drivers who lose their racing seats and disappear, or they get told they're too old for a team to take a chance on them.  Or in this case, maybe they're told that they're too tall.

Justin Wilson experienced all of these things and more throughout his racing career, but he just kept fighting.  You don't have enough money to get into F1?  He sold shares of himself to raise money long before crowdfunding really became a thing.  Your racing series is coming to an end and joining with IndyCar?  He immediately made the switch from ChampCar and dove straight into Indy, undeterred in his desire to race.  You lose your seat?  He switched teams, aided by his amiable personality and undeniable talent.

Perhaps in this last fact we can get a great appreciation for the person he was.  His reputation as a driver and a human being preceded him, certainly helping him network and continue to pursue a full-time drive.  And teams took note, knowing full well that he was a consistent, fast, intelligent and personable driver suitable for any team.

With every threat to his career, Wilson found a way to keep going.  Just this year he faced the proposition of a 2015 without IndyCar, but Michael Andretti felt comfortable enough with Wilson's reliability that he provided another car for a partial schedule until more sponsorship could be found.  Wilson delivered on this opportunity just weeks ago with a second-place finish at Mid-Ohio.

But Justin wasn't always smiling.  Put him in a race car, whether it's in Formula 1, IndyCar or Le Mans, and suddenly he was all business.  His intensity shone through his helmet, and it wasn't hard to tell how much he wanted to win—something he did seven times over the course of his American open wheel career.

When he got out of the car, though, the smile would return, the intensity would subside, and he would go back to being generous, tall, soft-spoken Justin, ever the British gentleman to his fans.

We can go on for as long as we want about his character, but the sad fact is, there's a wife and two little daughters grieving tonight.  There's a brother pouring out his soul and admiration for his best friend on Twitter with one heartbreaking tweet after another.  And there's a worldwide racing family mourning and wondering what to do.  After all, we're less than five days away from the first practice session for the final race of the year.

When Dan Wheldon was killed four years ago, at least it was already the final race of the year.  We had an entire offseason to collect ourselves, to be sad and to come together as a confused and distraught family.  But as so often happens in this sometimes cruel and complicated sport, it must go on, and seven days after the accident we'll be back at a circuit to decide the title.  I'm not really sure which is better for healing, honestly, but I'm glad we haven't had enough of these instances for me to decide.

One thing I do know is that the pain and loss will serve a purpose, whether or not we know it yet.  We race every week in IndyCar with the safety measures developed in part by Wheldon in a car bearing his initials.  The Brazilian contingent and many others will tell you that growing up, they wanted emulate the racing exploits of their hero, Ayrton Senna, whose presence can still be felt at tracks around the world after his 1994 death prompted a worldwide revolution in racing safety.  Many race with carbon fiber reinforcement in their helmets after Felipe Massa's near-fatal injury at the Hungarian Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2009.  The list goes on.

Many often criticize racing for only reacting after these incidents occur, but I'm not ready to go into that debate just yet, whether it be about oval racing or closed cockpits.  We can discuss that later, after we've mourned, after we've paid due respects.   It deserves a conversation, no doubt, but now is not the time.  Now is the time to be sad for Justin's family and to send our prayers for his daughters.

This week, let's come together just like we did after Dan, knowing that we were lucky to be able to watch Justin do what he loved.  Know that his loss is being felt around the globe tonight as the news has trended worldwide on Twitter for a few hours now, aided by the thousands of tributes and messages of sympathy from drivers and fans alike.  Know that the racing world will never forget this gentle giant from Sheffield.

"The brave and the fearless accept the risks of what they do because for them Life is Challenge," Steve Matchett said tonight.  "Their great courage teaches us to be strong."

Godspeed, Justin.

29 July, 2015

On his birthday, a look at Fernando Alonso's future

Fernando Alonso spoke candidly last week about having his interest piqued by other racing series around the world, as the Spaniard continues to be mired toward the back of the pack in his ailing McLaren, even after scoring a rare double-points finish on Sunday.  Finding his disenchantment with Formula 1 growing, I can't help but think that the double World Champion's feelings speak not only for himself but for Jenson Button, Nico Hulkenberg and even quite a few F1 fans around the globe.  The sport's supposed shortcomings could fill several blogs, but what interests me most are the complex factors acting on Fernando Alonso right now and where his future may lie.

The Oviedo native is 34 years old today with 15 years of F1 experience to his name (neither of which I can really believe; his successes at Renault seem like they happened a few years ago, not a decade).  Winless for two years, a man whose peers have repeatedly voted him the best driver on the grid has had plenty of time to do some soul searching lately, retiring from no fewer than five races in 2015.

For Alonso to battle the rest of the grid is tough enough, but in the last couple of years he's had to account for a pair of factors relatively unfamiliar to him:  An awful car, and age.

The foibles of McLaren are maddening enough to test the most resilient of drivers (and believe me, Jenson is proving that with every positive interview he manages to eke out), and it's been far too many years since Fernando has had to grapple with a car this bad.  In fact, some would argue that he never has.

But what complicates his fight even more is an ever-increasing number beside his name.  You'd be forgiven for failing to brush off a mental image of a 25-year-old Alonso, but he's different now whether or not you can picture it.  He's wiser, he's more composed, and he's weathered vast amounts of good and bad since then.

Throughout it all, his passion never seemed to abate.  Even in the worst of times at Ferrari he knew the car was capable of springing an upset, and the outflow of emotion witnessed after his home victory proved a palpable outlet for what had been a long pent-up (yet unrewarded) optimism.  Although a few hairs had grayed since those days at Renault, the spring in his step remained, the fire in his eyes burned furiously.

Nearly two years removed from that Ferrari win in Spain, we see a different Alonso unafraid to admit that his situation and outlook on the sport are far from ideal.  Hampered by countless factors already, a further planned reduction in testing next year has only added more uncertainty to McLaren-Honda's efforts to lift themselves out of the back rows.

Between the disappointing outlook, unfavorable rule changes and the knowledge that time may not be on his side, Alonso is right to consider other outlets regardless of if he admits it.

Nico Hulkenberg's Le Mans win stirred the paddock into a small frenzy, both thrilled at an active F1 driver taking the 24 Hours and excited to discuss the possibilities of future crossovers.  When it emerged that Alonso had nearly followed suit to La Sarthe, this revealed the Spaniard's hand slightly.

Now we know that the World Endurance Championship is a viable outlet for his efforts.  We know that he considered it, and it is highly unlikely that whatever desire that drove him to investigate WEC has disappeared.  Given the growing fanfare surrounding it this year, why not add Alonso to an already impressive lineup of world class drivers?  The allure that pushed Mark Webber to transition is not that hard to understand, but here again the 2005/2006 World Drivers Champion may be battling the clock.

What if the WEC proves to be a dead end, though?  Of the stages outside of Formula 1, it is arguably the biggest in the racing world right now, but let's say a deal could not be had with the likes of Porsche or Audi.

DTM once occupied a similar niche as WEC, seeing the likes of Mika Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher leave F1 in search of fresh competition and winnable races.  It seems less popular now, but I would hardly say it's not a viable option.

Formula E is also gaining steam (er...electrons?), but despite the presence of Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld and Vitantonio Liuzzi, this burgeoning series seems keen to maintain an air of youth and newness.  While I'm sure FE would welcome a legend like Alonso, I don't think such a deal would be high on their priorities list.

Alonso could do far worse than exploring his options in IndyCar, too.  Already a noted viewer of the Indianapolis 500, he was joined by Sebastian Vettel this year in saying that it would be fun someday to try the 500, perhaps when their F1 days were over.  (At this point it would have to be since Monaco and the 500 are due to clash yet again next May.)

Alonso would certainly be taking a gamble, though.  As the first F1 World Champion to enter IndyCar in quite some time, he would probably be a hot commodity.  Known for his brilliance on road courses, he is wholly untested on ovals, but the benefits may outweigh the disadvantages.

He would probably be able to emulate Michael Schumacher's experiences here by enjoying a quieter life in a country where far fewer people will recognize him on the street.  A less demanding schedule that has a shorter season, fewer races and barely any of the travel miles would certainly be a plus, but not every IndyCar transition has been as successful as Juan Pablo Montoya's.

Look at Rubens Barrichello, for instance.  A Formula 1 record holder and 11-time race winner, Barrichello arrived on the scene eager to get back in a winning car after an unbelievably long career in F1.  Friends with Tony Kanaan and a media darling for the Brazilian press, Rubens tested and drove for KV Racing in 2012 with much anticipation.  Despite earning Rookie of the Year honors at the Indy 500, the affable fan favorite scored just two top-five finishes en route to P12 in the championship.  Unable to find a drive the very next year, he returned to Brazil to compete for Peugeot in stock cars.  (He would win their championship in 2014—his first of any series since 1991.)

What if Alonso finds himself in the same situation, though?  Or even worse, what if the same thing that nearly forced him into a pseudo-sabbatical this year happens again?  What if an ill-timed breakdown in bargaining leaves him high and dry from any racing series?  Some would argue that he wouldn't be worse off than he is right now, haplessly and single-handedly pushing his wounded car back to the Hungaroring's pit lane on a 90°F day.

And even if the monetary element of the deal could go through, every year brings Alonso closer to a time when a prospective team may say "I'm sorry, but we'd like someone younger in our seat."  Aging may be delayed, but it's never halted.  Reflexes eventually slow, fitness proves harder to achieve and recovery times extend.  It's inevitable, regardless of the athlete.  Even for Fernando Alonso.

But what if he chooses to stay in the sport and finish his career with McLaren?  How will the annals of history look back on this stretch in his career?  The almost magical finish on Sunday certainly helps, possibly as a harbinger of things to come should the team continue to improve.  But I'm almost certain that few people watched Alonso celebrate his second World Championship back in 2006 and thought "That's that.  He'll never win another one."  I know I didn't.  In fact, everyone I knew said quite the opposite, that we were just beginning to see the potential and brilliance of this brash new champion.

Even so, all that time without winning another title will do nothing to his legacy.  Some may lament or show surprise that he didn't win again during that stretch, but his race victories and near misses at season finales will maintain his stature.  Pairing that with his grit and determination in perennially-struggling Ferraris shifts the focus from what could have been to what may have been wasted.  His time at McLaren only cements that chapter of his career in review, pending a momentous turnaround next year.

I can't help but think that people will now look back at Alonso's past and think "He made all the wrong moves at all the wrong times.  He left McLaren when he should have stayed.  He stayed at Ferrari when he should have left.  He left for McLaren when he should have stayed at Ferrari."  And since we'll never know what could have been had he made those alternative decisions, you'd be hard pressed to prove them wrong.

Much like overtaken cars in your rearview mirrors, though, what's past is past.  For Fernando, that which cannot be rewritten must not be overthought.  The only thing he can do is to decide how he moves forward.  If that's staying with McLaren, so be it.  If it's exploring a different lifestyle in IndyCar or pushing hard for wins in WEC, then I certainly wish him the best.

Either way, for a team like McLaren, one good result does not rescue an entire season, so while Fernando may be all smiles heading into the three-week break before Spa, it's a bit premature to put on rose-colored glasses and be content with his situation.

11 June, 2015

A Maxwell isn't a Maxwell when it's just an engine and frame on wheels

After a long time away from both this blog and The Garage, I'm happy to report that I'm back on track with both.  So much has changed in my life in the past few months (mostly for the better), but it hasn't been until recently that I've gotten back to work on the Maxwell and my other projects.

The left side back moulding on the old body.
Skipping all the non–car-related stuff, excitingly, the Maxwell is much closer to having a body again.

As you may recall, when I last left this blog in dormancy, I had been working on transferring the moulding pieces from the rusted hunk of the original lower body onto the new pieces of sheet metal that I fabricated.  The moulding surrounds the bottom of the door area to the front seats (since the 1910 Q3 didn't have physical doors up there), and they're separate metal pieces that flare out at the top and halfway act as supports for the front seat (and a visual coupler from the vertical angles of the extreme front of the body with the concave back half).

My issues were twofold in making the transplant:  First, the mouldings were secured to the old body with difficult-to-remove rivet-like pieces that were very flush with the body (I would later have to grind these down with a Dremel from the inside).  Second, I didn't have a very effective way of hooking them onto the new body since I wouldn't be using the existing horizontal holes.

These are some of the rivets (seen from the back) on the
right side of the front seat crosspiece.
Instead, I had experimented with using the countless vertical holes that dotted the pieces.  I drilled through the new body before placing nails through the holes from below.  After clamping and adjusting, I soldered around them before cutting off the excess and then smoothing the whole thing.  This proved fairly solid, especially when I applied solder into other gaps, but solder doesn't always hold, especially during vibrations.

So I finally bit the bullet and bought a hand rivet gun, hoping to use it to secure both the mouldings and the crosspieces for the front seat support.

The spirit had moved me after inspecting the old body, noting the seven rivets on each side of the crosspieces and seeing that the outer heads had been smoothed over with some sort of filler 105 years ago.  This would still preserve my goal of fixing the car without cutting corners and welding, and it would avert the crisis of overpowering the metal by burning right through it while attempting a weld.

Right back moulding now free.
I initially bought both 1/4"-long rivets and 1/8", but for the moulding, 1/8" is the perfect thickness.   (The diameter was 3/16", by the way.)  This may prove to be too thick for the crosspieces, but maybe I'll put a second piece of metal on top of the joint to increase the pressure.

The rest of the process has been very smooth, though.  The driver's side (which is right on the Maxwell) is completely done and smoothed, and I've presently affixed the front piece on the passenger side.  I've managed to free the last piece, and hopefully tomorrow I'll get that measured and riveted.

The whole endeavor has been somewhat tedious, but it's extremely exciting to see the pieces of this metallic jigsaw puzzle fall into place.  With the actual moulding in hand, though, I can figure out how far the lowest point of the cutout stays straight (which is easy to bend).  That allows me to hang the piece on the metal, making sure the top flare is perfectly even with the top of the body.

Right lower body ready to be cut to shape.
From there, I can pencil around the bottom of the piece, roughly noting where the spine of the metal bend needs to occur.  Then I come out about half an inch (to allow for the lip), and I'll bend a few inches at a time, shaping and finessing the angle with a ball-peen hammer.  I then check the fit and hammer down any high points until the tops are level, and then I can mark the holes for the rivets.

After the piece is secured, then I use a Dremel to smooth down the rivet heads.  A little bit of filler and primer completes the look of a perfectly smooth piece, and it now looks like the part has always been attached.

Cut and bent, holes drilled, ready for the moulding.
I must say, I absolutely loved seeing the driver's side panel sitting on the car.  For the first time since I set the old body on it long ago just for looks, the old girl seems like an actual automobile both in form and function.  It's been a century since smooth, sturdy pieces of metal separated the inside from the outside, helping to create the car's identity, differentiating it from every other pair of frame rails out there.  For when you take a step back and see the car as a whole instead of the individual parts, a Maxwell isn't a Maxwell when it's just an engine and frame on wheels.

Instead it's just another anonymous vehicle borne in the era of horseless carriages, when the wheels numbered four and the a round steering apparatus had replaced a tiller.  It was part of an ever-standardizing design that had the driver sitting on the right (to see the edge of the dirt roads) with pedals for movement and braking dancing at his feet.

The completed right side with the incomplete left, behind.
But aside from the giveaway "Maxwell" written in script across the radiator, the car does not assume its true identity until the shapely body sits behind the firewall.  The cutouts at the front, the relatively novel doors on the rear, the space for three people in the backseat that gives the Q3 its number, all of it combined makes a Maxwell a Maxwell.  The brass filigree is merely a boast, confirming a growing status that the little car from Tarrytown—which would later become a Chrysler—was an eager player in the automobile market.

But instead of factory workers bolting everything into place, I'm doing it myself, alone in The Garage.  And instead of the work signalling an emergence into the working world, today it signifies an emergence back into the light, back onto a road that differs greatly from the last one this little car saw 80 years ago.

24 June, 2014

Sitting patiently in the rafters for 50 years

It's days like today that reaffirm my love of The Garage.  Sometimes, unexpectedly, that old stone structure springs something on me that I couldn't have seen coming, even if it fell from the rafters.  Despite the never-ending battle against dust, the constant necessity for cleaning and the bevy of rusty implements that always threaten to drain me of my blood, sometimes The Garage just blows me away.

The magneto gear.  Note the cutouts.
I have been extremely busy working up there lately, namely on the Maxwell, but partially on cleaning and organizing.  I put the mag on the car in a dry run only to learn that I was missing a crucial piece that marries the magneto shaft to the magneto gear (which is inside the crankcase).

This is a very unique part, and I'm absolutely positive that we have nothing like it.  Held in with a D-shaped pin, the little metal sleeve fits around the magneto shaft and is held onto it by the mysterious nut and split washer that I've mentioned before.  The little sleeve has two wings on the end closest to the mag, and these fit into notches on the center sleeve of the larger magneto gear.  Between these wings and the D-shaped pin, this is what allows the spinning of the car's engine to spin the magneto and thus distribute the spark.

The magneto shaft with the nut and split washer.
A World War II vet in California graciously sent one of his to me from his Maxwell Model G, but thankfully it's the same size.  So with that, I turned it over to my father.  He took it to some men who can use their machines not only to replicate this part but to train others in the machine's operation.  It's a win-win!

In the last couple of weeks those men have scanned the piece into a CAD program, measuring it to the third decimal point before using another calibrated machine to corroborate their numbers.  They were actually impressed at how this small, well-machined piece could have been made 100 years ago, so they're going to try a couple of different methods to recreate it---I'll let you know what they find if they are successful.

In the meantime, I learned that the Maxwell spark plug wires (which should be 7mm wires, but can be nine if need be) were brown, not oak like I originally thought.  Using some old shoestrings, I figured out how much of the wire is needed to reach the four plugs as well as the coil.  Assuming I want some extra, here's what I found:

  • The first two spark plugs require 36 inches of wire to reach them.
  • The back two plugs need 28 inches of wire apiece.
  • The coil wire, of which there is only one, can be 20" in length.
  • This adds up to 148 inches in total.

Figuring out the distance to the coil was tricky, though, since I didn't know where the coil attached to the car.  Consulting another member of the Maxwell Registry, I found that the part I figured to be the coil holder was, in fact, the coil holder, and it attaches using two bolts to the front hole on the left firewall support bracket.  The top hole goes on top of the bracket's front hole, and the bottom part of the bracket sits on the bottom lip of the frame rail.  This way, the coil is hidden under and angled floor board and is not that far away from the magneto.

This is what the left rear frame looked like.
I'm also waiting on the measurements from this same gentleman on the Maxwell's oil tank.  Holding just two quarts of oil, the tank is relatively small and shouldn't be hard to make, but my lack of a sight gauge is a bit difficult.  If nothing else, I'm thinking of taking cardboard and mocking up a tank to see how it fits in the engine bay, and I can adjust the measurements from there.  The original tank was sweat soldered together, which is something I presently don't know how to do, but we can work on that later.  If I have to weld it, I'll weld it, but I'd prefer not to (given that there isn't a weld on any other part of the car).

I should qualify that last statement, I suppose.  There are now welds on one part of the car, and I'm fairly proud of it.

The plate is now gone, so I can make a new one.
The left rear corner of the frame, to the keen-eyed who may remember, was incredibly rusty and full of holes, and one of those mysterious plates that may have been used to square the frame was nearly gone.  After considering my options, I figured that I could not only fill the holes but also replace the plate with some leftover sheet metal from the body I made last summer.

I measured the remnants of the old plate before knocking it out, finding it was a triangle that was six inches long on one side and seven on the other.  The longer of the two rested against the rearmost crosspiece, but not smoothly.  There had been some repairs done sometime in the past to this area, so I had to make cut-outs in the new piece with a Dremel tool after tracing around the obstructions.  This was mostly trial and error, but eventually I got a suitable union between the two, so I clamped it in place and began the welding process.  Using relatively small rods with a medium-to-low setting on the welder, I was able to fill in all the holes and, by doing so, affix the new plate to the frame rails.

The new plate with cutouts.
I used this opportunity to fill other deeper holes in the back half of the frame, and after grinding it down and laying some smoothing filler over it, the entire back half of the frame looked brand new!  Even though it will be covered by the lower body, I felt this was an important thing to do not just for aesthetics but also for the strength of the metal.  Hopefully my work will stand the test of time, but that remains to be seen.

With the holes filled, for the first time in over a year I put the back half of the lower body back on the car.  Along with the fenders, which were already in place, I put the new front halves of the lower body onto the car and stepped back to admire the gestalt.  For the first time in a long time, the Maxwell was truly looking like a car again.

Here's after the first (messy) round of welding.
So while I wait for the integral components to getting it running (the wires, the oil tank measurements, etc.), I thought I would tidy up some more of the bodywork---namely the running boards.  By focusing on these key pieces of the car, I would finally have an idea about exactly where the fenders sit in relation to the frame.  A correctly-installed running board would allow me to correctly line up the fenders and finally get them hooked to the car (instead of just sitting/hanging on the tires and fender supports).

From my research and from other Maxwell owners, the running boards were either ash or oak, 3/4" thick.  Using the fenders and the arm that holds the board, I determined it should be nine inches wide.  After fiddling with the fenders and getting them lined up (which was tricky without hooking them on), I estimated that the running board should be around 48 inches long, though this was meant to be an overestimate.

So all I had to do was call up the local lumber yard and order the wood, right?  If only.

Done for now!
They first quoted me a very cheap price for pine, which was in the ballpark of $7.00.  I told them that I need ash or oak.

"We don't carry ash," they said.

"What about oak?"

"How long do you need it?"

"I need two pieces around 48 inches in length."

"We don't have that size.  You can either get two feet longer or two feet shorter than that."

"How much is the longer one?"

"That will be $80.00."

Ouch.  Needless to say, I quickly said no to that.  That was a ridiculous amount for something that is a relatively common building material.  So I called the local Menard's for the same order, which they quoted at $62 of oak (they didn't have ash, either).  That was still a bit high for me, so we looked online and found a website that had poplar (which was commonly used for the floorboards, not the running boards) for $30.  This was going to be our plan, and we would probably order it later in the day.

So in the meantime I went back to work in The Garage cleaning a seldom-seen corner that houses a cabinet full of parts from a closing store my grandfather acquired back in the '50s.

My father soon got home from work, and I told him of my troubles at ordering the wood for the boards, and I asked if he could help me line up the fenders to double check my measurements.  As we stood there between the Maxwell and the old Farmall tractor, we began looking above us for some reason, perhaps out of boredom or curiosity.

Incredibly, directly above our heads was a beautiful, dusty, dark board stretched across the tops of several rafters.  Buried beneath a pile of plywood, chrome mouldings from old cars and my father's childhood toboggan, this long, broad board stared back at us.  Extremely out of place with the other pieces of wood around it, neither my father or I had ever noticed this nearly perfect piece of hardwood, looking down like the Cheshire Cat smiling from a tree branch high above our heads.

I climbed up onto the wheel of the tractor and slowly maneuvered the board from under the pile, careful not to upset a late '50s Oldsmobile grille that rested quietly on the object of interest.

When I climbed down, this amazingly out-of-place piece of lumber stood upright, propped against the tractor for us to inspect its dusty surface.  It looked like it was oak, and this was confirmed after I cleaned off all the dust and bird droppings from its wooden skin.  It was 3/4" thick, one foot wide and six feet tall.  It was exactly what I needed for a strong running board, and we were left dumbfounded by its presence.

I took it outside where my father and I cut it down to size.  One end had a split right in the center of the board, so I cut this end off when I sought to make the board 48 inches in length.  Improbably, what I just cut off was actually a very suitable piece of wood for the angled floor board that covered the magneto and the coil.  Even more amazing, after I measured how much of that floor board I would have to remove, I found that the split would be completely cut off with less than half an inch to spare.  It was like this random piece of oak was made for the Maxwell, sitting patiently in the rafters for 50 years while it gathered dust and waited for the day I would call upon it to become part of the old car.

Perhaps my grandfather saw the same potential in this wood that I did, which is why it was placed in the back of the garage nearest to the Maxwell.  Perhaps he put it up there with no purpose in mind, but the voice in our heads that told my father and I to look up today knew that we would get the message now.

I cut the running board to its correct width, and in doing so I was left with a narrow sliver of oak that can also be used as a regular floor board when that time comes.  Amazingly, only a few inches of this piece of oak will not be used, and I'm still blown away whenever I think about it.

Before I left The Garage today, I walked with my newly-hewn lumber and placed it on the car.  For the first time since 1910, the little Maxwell got a new running board, and damn did it look good!  I positioned the fenders to rest on top of the board, and in doing so I saw them slide a bit closer to their correct location---something I will measure and mark and photograph before I begin the attaching process.  Then I will take those measurements and apply them to the other side, whenever I get around to finding another piece of suitable wood.

I stood back to admire our work, and I thanked whatever or whoever put that board up there.  I folded up some rags and took off my gloves, setting them gently on the red paint of the Farmall before turning to leave.  As I did, I shot one more glance skyward, partly out of curiosity, partly out of amazement.

Hanging four feet from the board we just discovered was another one just like it.

23 June, 2014

Letting the cauldron boil and bubble the rust away

What a busy last few weeks it has been, toiling away in the old stone Garage.  In a very short time, the Maxwell looks like a car again, and I'm starting to realize that this folly of an adventure may actually lead to a working car.  There are many unknowns, but it's wonderful to see.

I'll update you more completely in a future post, but I want to touch on a topic I've mentioned in passing several times this summer without a proper explanation:  Electrolytic rust removal.  Yes, I can hear the droves of people (probably all four of you) heading to the exits at this point, but stick with me!  I promise this can be a helpful topic.  If nothing else, hang around to see how many times I've shocked myself by trying to mix electricity with water...

Here's the test item hanging from the board before cleaning.
My delving into electrolytic rust removal actually started a while back, after reading about the topic on countless restoration websites.  They say it's a hands-off way of removing all of the rust from the surface of metal without the messy grinding, naval jelly, WD40 or other wives' tales of how to get something clean.

Let me preface this by saying that the process works, and it works really well.  But how?

I don't want to bore you with a sciency explanation of what regular, red rust is and why it's bad, because believe me, I could (and I would probably be the only one enjoying it).  In order for you to understand electrolysis, though, you have to know some things in a metal nutshell.

The point is, after getting weathered over time, a chemical reaction takes place at the surface of a metal object, and the process of the metal being eaten away leads to rust forming from the new compound---iron oxide.  This happens when metal is exposed to water and carbon dioxide.  The iron acts as an anode, which means it gives up negatively charged electrons, while other parts of it act as a cathode, which is the opposite.  This is what usually can be brushed off or flakes off when the part is handled.  Underneath is basically newly-formed magnetite, or "Black rust," which is what we're working to reverse (I swear this knowledge will come in handy later).

Here's my initial setup with rods and wires. It's not high tech.
In most cases, when water hits the metal, whether through rain or humidity in the air, the water and carbon dioxide that makes up a portion of our atmosphere (0.04%) combine to make an acid.  The oxygen component of the acid reacts with iron and oxidizes it (which means that the iron loses electrons.  The opposite to this is called reduction, which is gaining of electrons).  The electrons go from anode to cathode, or from negative to positive.  Think of it like how one end of a magnet is only attracted to the opposite end of another magnet.  Like charges repel, opposite charges attract.

So, once we know this, how can we reverse the process?  The metal underneath the outside corrosion should still be okay (unless it's really rusted all the way through), so we need to remove the rust without hurting the underlying metal.

So let's use electricity and water---two things that you normally shouldn't combine, but since this is The Garage, why not?

Alright, ready to connect!
To set up your electrolysis, you'll need a five gallon bucket, five gallons of water, some washing soda (this is different than baking soda), some metal wires, a battery charger and some pieces of metal that you don't mind getting really rusty.

After filling the bucket with five gallons of water, add five tablespoons of washing soda and mix it in.  Washing soda is not baking soda.  The former is sodium carbonate and the latter is sodium BIcarbonate.  Long story short, the former makes the process go faster than the latter, but if you can't find washing soda, baking soda will work, just not as quickly.

Using the wire, connect all the pieces of sacrificial metal together in a series, but do NOT close the loop, as your battery charger won't appreciate it (one of many ways that you can upset your charger).  Set these pieces of metal (rebar works extremely well and is quite cheap) into the water, but make sure one of them sticks up above the water so you can connect the battery charger.

The next step is to submerge the item you want to de-rust in the solution.  It is extremely important that you don't let the object touch any of the metal rods, or else your battery charger will get very angry (thankfully this is easy to avoid depending on how you wire your rods together, which I swear is not a euphemism).

The way that I first did this was to set a piece of wood across the bucket (since wood does not conduct electricity), then hang my part from it using a separate piece of wire.  You can also submerge your metal part into the water if part of it stays above the water line.  Then you can clip the battery charger here instead of the wire.

Either way, when you're ready to start, hook the positive lead from the charger to one of the rods (or to the wire connecting them).  You need to make sure all of your connections are tightly wound to the rods and the object, or else this won't work.

The negative lead will attach to the object/the wire suspending the object.  You can check the connections in the rods by lightly brushing the negative lead against each one to see if there's a spark.  If not, readjust the wires and make sure they are wound tightly around the rods.  It may also help to run the portion of the rod where the wire wraps around it under a wire brush to make sure you have the cleanest contact possible.

When your connection is solid and the charger shows a current is flowing, you should notice tiny bubbles coming from the metal part and around the rods.  Congrats!  It's working!  But why?

By adding sodium carbonate to the water, you're giving the newly-made solution a way to carry ions between your anode and cathode, creating a current.  Sodium is positive, so it will move to the negative connection (the part), whereas the carbonate is negative, so it moves to the positive.  This helps create an environment where the black rust can be reconverted into iron.

So once the part is cooking, you can leave it for several hours, and it should be fine.  Just as a heads-up, use only regular iron pieces in the solution.  Trying to de-rust any plated metal or stainless steel or anything won't work very well, and it will release dangerous gases (which are never good).  Also, don't spend a ton of time breathing in the gases from the regular process, either, and avoid sparks or open flames while you're doing it, too.  The process won't suddenly explode, but why take a chance?

The pick head after it was taken out of the solution.
After the piece has been in the solution for a while, you should see its surface turn black in places, meaning that the process is actually working.  When you remove the part, IMMEDIATELY wipe the piece dry, removing that black coating and staving off the corrosion from starting right away.  You can even run the part under the wire brush after drying it off, and this should yield a brilliant, bare metal finish.  But know that this bare metal is again susceptible to rust, so either prime and paint the piece or oil it right away.

So has this worked for me?  Absolutely!  I tried cleaning a random pick head that I found in The Garage a while back.  It didn't have a handle, and it was rusty, so it seemed perfect for an experiment.  I hung it from a wire and dipped it in the solution, letting the cauldron boil and bubble the rust away.

Oh, hello Beale Brothers logo.
When the day was done, I removed the piece and wiped it dry, suddenly noting the wonderful manufacturer's logo on its side.  I had never been able to see it before!  From this information (and in true Garage fashion), I found that the pick was 100 years old and produced in Alton, Illinois, by the Beale Brothers Company, which ceased existence well before 1920.  Go figure!

I have also cooked several Maxwell parts in the solution, from the coil holder to the brake rods and exhaust manifold.  With each of these, I let the piece stay in the solution for several hours before wiping it off, running it quickly under the wire brush and priming it (except for the manifold, there).  I'm always amazed at what brilliantly shiny metal awaits under the black coating, and I know with certainty that rust will not suddenly spring up from under my primer and paint, since I eliminated nearly all of it in the process.

So yes, electricity and water together are normally dangerous, but as long as you pay attention and make sure your setup is sound beforehand, you will soon have the most thorough solution to rust problems, and it won't even require grinding, lathering on naval jelly or being covered in dust after wire-brushing the rust away.  This novella of a public service announcement was brought to you by Woodsie's Garage.

07 June, 2014

Of Horses and Men

For those who are still riding the emotional wave of the Belmont Stakes, I figure now is as good a time as any to go on a horse racing kick, especially in lieu of the strong comments made by Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome's owner directly after the race.

His remarks on trainers sending horses to race specifically at Belmont (and thus to spoil any Triple Crown attempt) really got me thinking about which side was the best, and I'm honestly not sure.  The more I've thought about it, I can see both halves of the argument.  So, to make sense of it, I'll try to tie it into motor racing.

Steve Coburn, one of the co-owners of California Chrome, has had quite the year.  His little horse, who was purchased for just $10,000, was told that his thoroughbred was not of high enough quality to compete for the Triple Crown.  Many said he had no chance given his lack of prestigious lineage, and several weeks later he leaves Belmont Park just under two lengths away from being the first winner of the three majors in over a third of a century.

California Chrome
But his defeat did not sit well with Coburn.  Beaten by a few horses which were trained specifically for this event, the spurned owner pulled no punches in saying that entering horses with the sole purpose of spoiling a Triple Crown bid was "the coward's way out."  He said that it was "unfair" to the quality horses and to the millions across the country who wanted to see the drought end.  For horses to be sat out of the three legs of the Crown then go against horses who are trying to win it the 'proper' way is not right.

His wife tried to poke him in the back on camera to tell him to calm down, but he turned around to tell her that he would have none of that.  His assault on the owners of horses like (Belmont winner) Tonalist continued, and as it did, I began to wonder if he was actually right.

The cynic's argument would be that if your horse was truly the best, it shouldn't matter who it faces; it should still be able to win the race against whichever horses are tired, fresh or are Belmont specialists.  It should be able to win like the other 11 horses in history who have won all three.  But even this statistic makes me wonder:  Was the trend of sitting horses out of certain legs a commonality even before the 1980s (when the Triple Crown drought began)?

Look at the stretches of winners over time.  In the '30s and '40s, Triple Crowns weren't very uncommon.  Heck, sometimes it was only a year or two between the feat was accomplished, and I imagine it was almost an oversaturation back then.  Even in the seventies, when we had our last winners in Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, they were four and one years apart, respectively.  Think about that, two Triple Crowns in two years.  Then something changed.  It wasn't anything in particular, mind you, it was more of an intangible.

Horse racing today is not horrendously different than it was back then.  Horses today are faster (although Secretariat's records from 1973 still stand at every Triple Crown track) but are far more fragile than days of old, partly due to specialized training methods, different nutrition and technology to assess the health of the equines.  But for 36 years, no horse has won the American version of the Triple Crown---capturing the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in the same year.

The previous longest drought between champions was broken by Secretariat (another record he currently holds until a horse breaks through some year), becoming the first horse to do the feat in 25 years (Citation, who won in 1948, had a wonderful pedigree that included two brilliant European horses, one of which was undefeated in its career).  We're now sitting at 36 years and counting since Affirmed, and I start to wonder how many more we'll see.

Since Affirmed, 13 horses have won the first two majors before coming to Belmont and seeing their dreams disappear.  Sadly, I remember watching half of these.  Most of those horses were beaten by entrants who skipped one or both of the prior Triple Crown races, but I don't know the exact number (since I wasn't old enough to keep track of some of those things).

If we look back at the last four to accomplish the feat, some wonderful stories emerge.

In 1978, Affirmed essentially won the Triple Crown over another horse who would have won all three races were it not for Affirmed.  Alydar finished second in every event, but the talent of Alydar unfortunately happened to coincide with the brilliance of Affirmed.  Separate them by a year (let's push one of them to '79 since Seattle Slew took care of '77), and we would have one more Triple Crown winner.

When Slew had done it a year earlier, he faced some challenges throughout the three legs.  He won the first over Run Dusty Run before meeting Cormorant at Pimlico.  Some had challenged back then that Cormorant would be a quicker horse and would stop Slew's bid, but down the stretch Cormorant faded, and the race turned into Seattle Slew beating Iron Constitution by a length and a half.  By the time the Belmont came around, the horse faced several new challengers, but he still won by four lengths.

Secretariat's dominant Belmont win - 31 lengths
Secretariat's year is a bit of an oddball given the sheer dominance of this horse.  He is, undoubtedly, the strongest Triple Crown winner in history.  In his three major races, Secretariat's biggest competitor was a dark bay thoroughbred named Sham.  An anatomical oddity, Sham's heart was twice the size of an average horse's, and he found success wherever he went.  A Santa Anita winner, Sham finished second to Secretariat in both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.  In fact, he was even leading at times until the stretch.  Two and a half lengths was as close as he would get to the legend in those events, so his trainers were eager to take him to Belmont to challenge again.  Here, though, at the scene of Secretariat's most crushing victory, Sham led early before finishing last.  The distance, and perhaps the great rivalry with the Triple Crown winner, was too much to make all three races.  He just couldn't do it, but he was still an incredibly successful horse.

The big difference in the ages is highlighted best, in my opinion, by the 1948 Triple Crown winner, Citation.  An unbelievable force in horse racing, he was the first equine to win one million dollars, and he once won 16 straight races---most horses today don't even race that many times in their entire careers.  After his strong victories in the Derby and the Preakness, Citation actually won the Jersey Stakes before winning at Belmont.  Think about that.  He ran a whole other race between the second and third legs and still became the eighth horse to win all three majors, doing so in record-tying time at Belmont Park.

So where do Coburn's statements fall in all of this?  Is there a history of horses losing their bids to Belmont Specialists?  And if so, what does that mean?  The answer to the former is "Yes," but the answer to the latter is tricky.

Part of the structure of horse racing is that there isn't a cumulative points championship with the goal of a world title at the end.  Skipping out on one Grand Prix would lose millions of dollars and a chance at the World Drivers Championship in Formula 1.  In horse racing, though, you're letting a living creature rest and eliminating the chance for injury in another race.  On that front, I don't mind letting them sit out sometimes.

But a Triple Crown bid is different.  It's one of the few things in the Sport of Kings that spans more than one event.  It's a long-term goal in a sport that deals with things one race at a time in the limited span of a thoroughbred's third year.  But in a way, a Triple Crown bid can also be a one-race thing.

Funny Cide fell just short in his bid back in 2003.
Losing the Derby opens up a wide range of possibilities as a trainer, but if you leave Churchill Downs with a blanket of roses, you will have to head to Pimlico since you are expected to try for the Triple Crown.  As a result, you don't see horses win the Derby and then not try to make it two-for-two.  Even if you plan on coming back for the Belmont, no one skips out on the Preakness.

Also take into account that when a horse has lost the second leg, many choose not to enter it in the Belmont (which is why there has not been a single horse in 20 years that has won the Derby and the Belmont without winning the Preakness).  This is for preservation of the horses for obvious reasons.

But what about the first situation, where your horse doesn't win the Derby?  As an owner or trainer, who owns a horse to win and make money, you severely decrease your chances to win the Belmont (the longest race of the three) if you try to run the Preakness as well.  Especially if you think your horse tires easily, it doesn't make business sense to try to run all three when all you'll be left with is a tired horse and no wins.

This year's Belmont Stakes purse was $1.5 million, and that's a hell of a lot of money to be dangled in front of owners.  If you had a chance to win it, why wouldn't you do whatever you could to increase your chances?

But on the flip side to this, in Coburn's case, he's obliged to run all three because his horse could legitimately win all three.  The test schedule for California Chrome existed the moment he won at Churchill Downs, and while his owners could have sat him for the Preakness, the ridiculousness of doing so is extremely obvious.

What Tonalist did today was not with dishonor.  He ran a wonderful race and could not be challenged.  Commentators spoke beforehand that he loved this track and had won here before.  He was, in every sense, a Belmont specialist.  And does that decrease the feat of what he did?  To some, like Coburn, absolutely.

Let's say that there was a team in Formula 1 that wanted nothing more than to win the Monaco Grand Prix.  They sat out the entire year, not traveling to the other races and not challenging for any other Grands Prix.  Instead, they spent their time running laps at Monaco and focusing only on it (never mind that it's in a city and you can't do that...just go with me here).

So when the Monaco Grand Prix came around and the teams that had been dominating F1 racing all season came to the principality, that's when this particular team showed up.  While some were fighting for the World Championship and the Constructors Championship, this team took pole position and won the race, celebrating madly afterward.  Should their win be accepted the same as a regular team like Mercedes winning the Grand Prix because they were only focused on this race while others were looking at the long-term?

That's a question I can't answer, but I imagine many of you will have different opinions.

To a purist in the sport, their win is rather shallow.  Like a golfer who only played the same course over and over, then won when the professional circuit came to town, should we be surprised by such a win?  Not really.  But to a businessman or businesswoman, this is smart.  This is the best way to increase one's chances for victory.  And as a result, in a business sense, the payouts from the win taste just as sweet as those you could collect by winning an otherwise unwinnable major.

From a fan's standpoint, they may not think about this.  The casual fan may only tune in for the Belmont Stakes upon hearing that a horse may win the Triple Crown, and that's it.

Is this an issue that needs to be addressed in some way?  Perhaps.  Will anything come of it?  I doubt it.  Splitting the fields (horses running all three versus standalones) or holding a longer-term championship may do it, but racing is steeped in tradition, and those changes may face some opposition.

Was Coburn justified in what he said?  Absolutely.  But was he right?  That's a whole other debate.

29 May, 2014

At the time using a giant, sparking machine from the 1960s

Just as the seasons slowly cycle around the calendar, so too does the school year that inevitably brings me back to summer.  The massive dichotomy of the stress and difficulty of school versus the casual, thoroughly enjoyable summer always gives me mixed emotions---I know that the wonderful freedom of break will allow me to get back in touch with myself and my true loves in life, but I also know that it will end sooner than I'd like.

It would be detrimental to sit and mope or dwell on the finite summer, since doing so guarantees that it will only pass quicker.  Instead, I choose to relax on my break by getting as exhausted as possible.  My mantra has always been to sleep when you have to, and in the meantime do everything you possibly can so that one will leave this summer tired (but in the best kind of "tired" possible).

That's why most nights at home I'm actually up later than when I'm at school, yet I continue to get up at the same time as during the academic year.  This is doable since I'm far more active than during med school, so the urge to nap always fails to creep up on me when I'm at home.

This year was awful, to put it simply.  But the purpose of this blog is not to waste your time reading about my troubles, it's to talk about cars and rust and history and racing.  What I will say is that I had several one-two punches throughout the semesters, for a while I grew quite resentful and disheartened with med school, and I have reassessed my desire to stay in this profession more than once.  I have also learned quite a bit about myself, I've grown as a person, and I've been attempting (but failing) to enjoy the single life for the first time in my adult existence.

This has also meant that my work in The Garage this summer is far more therapeutic than normal, and I'm excited for the progress that I hope to make in the ensuing weeks.  Some of that progress began just a few days ago.

Unfortunately, just as spring turns to summer, it seems that every winter The Garage's interior explodes in a mess of dust, clutter and disarray.  That usually translates to the first couple days of the summer being cleaning days, putting The Garage back together so I can use it regularly.

So after the initial sweeping, folding of scattered tarps, reorganizing of the work bench and getting stung by a wasp, I had to decide what I wanted to do first.

Magneto almost secured behind the engine.
Since the end of last summer, the Maxwell had been reassembled and tucked away quietly in the corner, buttoned up with its new body and freed transmission.  Today I brought the Splitdorf Model F magneto up and put it on the car, although through correspondence with a WWII vet out in California, I learned that it's missing a little piece that allows it to interface with the magneto gear (which runs off the engine spinning so that it can deliver spark in the correct order).  I'll either have to make one from my imagination or have him send me one of his so I can make a replica.  Either way that's probably doable, as I already have an idea of what the interface will look like.

Part of the reason I think this is doable is because of a random (and, for anyone else, probably unfulfilling) gift I received for Christmas:  A small welder.  Over the past few days I've been brushing up on my welding skills, although I admit they were never very developed in the first place.  Still, in the decade or more since my last welding experience---at the time using a giant, sparking machine from the 1960s---I imagine I've lost some of my touch for fusing metal together.

Here's my shoddy---but effective---setup.
So using very thin pieces of metal left over from when I made the lower body last year, I have been fiddling with the settings on the fun little welder.  Ideally this will prepare myself for when I join the body I made with the one that was made in the past.  I've burned through the material several times, but in the past two or three days I've gotten to where I can make pretty steady lines, and I've developed a much better feel for getting the arc going.  It doesn't help that the sticks I'm using are probably 30 years old and soggy, but once I get them hot they work just like they should.

Another project of mine has been running in the background of my garage work for the past couple of days.  After thinking about trying it with the '72 Honda's gas tank for a couple of years, I finally began to dabble in electrolytic rust removal.

And here's the "before" picture of the pick.
After seeing it the other day on Reddit, I set about to make my own setup in a five-gallon bucket.  I'll explain the full process in another post (this one's getting long), but it's been fascinating to see it work, both on a Maxwell part and on a pick head that I determined was over 100 years old.

Anywho, this summer is off to a good, productive start, and I hope to keep that up.  So stick with me as I get back into the swing of writing these blogs and working on the Maxwell (and my countless other projects).  In the meantime, take care and thanks, as always, for reading!

24 November, 2013

For the first time in ages, Mark Webber felt the wind blast into his face as he drove a race car

The end of a Formula 1 season is always a downer, but the promise of a new season and the inevitable joy that arrives with the next year's first practice session is often enough to get me through a long off-season.  But this year's campaign ends on a sad note with the departure of one of my favorite drivers, Mark Webber.

You know his story and his history, and you know that he's leaving the sport to become a proper number-one driver for Porsche in endurance racing.  But for one last time today, he was an F1 driver with a job to do, hurtling the most technologically advanced race cars on the planet around a soggy Interlagos circuit in the heart of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Starting P4, Webber had one more outing to complete his time in single-seater Grand Prix racing, and he was brilliant.

He admitted on his slow approach to the starting grid that it would be tough for him getting in and out of the car before the race, but he assured his team that all would be fine once the visor was closed, when the world was shut out and the race had begun.

As the changeable conditions looked to shake up the grid, the foretold deluge of rain never came (the paddock got today's share yesterday when a monsoon delayed Q3 of qualifying by 47 minutes).  Mark dutifully put on a masterful charge, and even got a front row seat for the team actually making a mistake on one of Vettel's pit stops instead of his own.  Webber's car never burst into flames.  Its KERS never failed.  He didn't have to short-shift.  Yes, the delay on Vettel's stop delayed his own, but he exited the pits in relative reach of his teammate, securely chasing Sebastian from second place.

The team's assurances on the radio that everything was fine around him on the track meant that he could enjoy his last few laps in an F1 car, and Mark made the most of it.

Crossing the line for yet another podium in his lengthy career, Webber's time as a Grand Prix driver came to an end.  One cool-down lap, and that would be it.  He's not exactly sad to leave the sport, but he's sad to leave the challenge.

For so many years he plodded on with the hope that someday he would find himself on the top step of a podium, knowing he would have to endure long days in underpowered Minardis before he could live that dream.  He went from being mentored to being a role model, serving quite proudly as the head of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.  As a senior member of an ever-changing sport, Webber's old school style and blunt honesty certainly won me over, especially as I watched him when he was a 20-something driving that gorgeous green Jaguar years ago.

He was a great driver, but like Jenson, he couldn't win.  Ever quick in a race car, Webber's talents were akin both to Nick Heidfeld's consistency and win rate.  Everyone loved him except the top step of the podium.

However, his ascent to Red Bull set him on a path that few could have ever dreamed.  A quiet, unassuming Aussie standing next to an equally respected, strong-chinned Scotsman in David Coulthard meant that Red Bull started the cogs in motion that would give them a dream team half a decade later.  But Coulthard's F1 swansong in Brazil saw him punted off the track on the first lap---something I vividly, sadly remember.  Webber's fate resulted in a much more beautiful, satisfying end.

As his seething hot RB9 coasted around the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace one last time, he furiously clawed at his gloves, yanking them off one at a time.  Then he lifted his iconic helmet---a symbol of one's existence as a driver---from his head and placed it in his lap.  For the first time in ages, Mark Webber felt the wind blast into his face as he drove a race car, providing an uninhibited view of the emotions unfolding before him.

He wanted to take it all in, and he wanted the fans to see his appreciation not through a common wave or a nod.  He wanted them to see him, to see on his face the passion that drove this steely Australian for so many years (and will continue to drive him toward that elusive victory at Le Mans).

He wanted to feel the wind and hear the engine, and he wanted to do so in his own, personal style.  There's no way he could have done that still buttoned up in his fire suit and helmet.  When the visor goes down, the world is gone.  But even when he's been in sole control of his car, it's never been just him out there.

Riding along in spirit have been all of his supporters over the years, all of his family and friends and those who respected him.  It's been all of his fans, many of whom have probably never seen him compete in person.  It's an entire world of racing that he never hears over the roar of his phenomenal engine.

Except for this time.  The helmet, and the symbol it represents, were removed, thus Mark Webber the human---not the race car driver---piloted his machine.  He could hear the cheers and see the crowd's strong, sincere farewell to a driver so revered and respected in F1 today.  The visor wasn't closed.  The world wasn't shut out.

Webber leaves Formula 1 on his own terms at the height of his career:  Two Monaco Grand Prix victories, nine wins, 13 poles and 42 podiums in 215 starts.  He leaves with a legion of fans thrilled to have witnessed a driver earn the success he had deserved for so long, and he'll be missed in our sport, especially by me.

Thanks for a great career, mate, and best of luck leading your team to Le Mans.

This was my realm. This was my sport.

It's been three months since I last wrote on this blog, but certainly not for lack of want.  If I had the time to devote to writing my thoughts and experiences, I would, but instead medical school has consumed my life even more so than last year.  And I didn't think that would be possible.

What started inauspiciously enough soon turned into the most relentless semester I have ever had in any form of schooling, and to complicate that, countless out-of-school things have been seriously affecting me as well.  Unfortunately there hasn't been a ton of good in my life lately, but I can't despair too much since I'm still alive and my family is also alive and healthy, too (the latter being rather pertinent in the last couple of months).

Still, the combination of school and life has made my existence pretty exhausting and lonely.  And as one thing builds upon another, I find myself spiraling downward into getting busier and busier, getting more and more determined to dig myself out of the hole of a setback that I'm in.  With that determination, though, comes worry.  For the first time in my life I find myself unable to get the worries of school out of my head.

I went to a football game on Saturday, yet all I could think about was school.  When I hang out with others (which doesn't happen terribly often given my schedule), my mind rarely wanders away from school for very long at all.  It's been awful and not something I can see myself shaking until this semester is over.  I hate it, and I hate that med school doesn't allow me the time to deal with things, so I just have to keep going, which really sucks.  But this blog post isn't supposed to be a complain-fest of sad stories and worried parlance.

One of the few bright spots in the past few months, as foolish as it may sound, has been racing.  I've mentioned before that it's one of the only things I have allowed myself to enjoy in school, and as problems and concerns have mounted this season, and as I've whittled more and more things away from my life, F1 has remained.

Nowhere was this more evident than the epic trip we took to Austin last weekend for my birthday to go to the US Grand Prix.  The journey and our stay in the Lone Star State was incredible, and so many times it seemed that the stars aligned for us to make for an even better, more unbelievable weekend.

We got tons of free stuff; we met wonderful people from all over the world; we stood next to Niki Lauda, Damon Hill and Johnny Herbert; we were personally shown an actual helmet worn by Ayrton Senna the year we were born (1988); I met one of my Twitter followers for the first time after he had been working on a vintage racecar; we got interviewed by the track entertainment personnel and were broadcast on the big screens in front of 113,000 people; we got to invade the track and made friends with some members of the Lotus F1 team (who gave us some brilliant team hats); and so much more.  I couldn't believe it.

I also couldn't believe that for over two days, I almost never thought of med school.  Heck, when we were at the track, it never crossed my mind.  Only in passing after we left the track each day did it ever enter my mind, and it was wonderful.  I felt like a person again.  I felt like an actual human being who could have passions and had a hobby to which I could devote time.  For once people were asking ME questions, and I was the only one who could answer them.  This was my realm.  This was my sport.

Looking back, I'm amazed at the transformation in me as I got nearer to Formula 1 last weekend.  Even on the way back, in the middle of the night several hours into our 14-hour drive, I was feeling so tired.  I was around 110 miles into my first or second stint, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to go much longer before switching with my friend.  While he slept in the backseat, the only other person awake in the car started asking me about F1.  We talked about "Rush", we talked about Bernie and his legacy, we discussed the recent history of some of the sport's luminaries, and we speculated on the future of Grand Prix racing.  In no time at all, I had taken us over 220 miles and was feeling rather refreshed.  For the first time in recent memory I could speak about something with confidence and excellent recall, and there wasn't a question I couldn't answer.

Over the course of the weekend I ended up driving over 1,100 miles, and I was beyond exhausted.  But it was worth it.  For one weekend I felt alive again, so strikingly refreshed that I could breathe in the sport's nuances and feel them in my blood.  I was no longer lonely, for once being completely surrounded by people who shared a common love with me that every other day of the year draws confused looks and erroneous comparisons.  It was one of the most memorable birthdays I've ever had.

Fast-forward one week later, though, and the teams are celebrating tonight in Sao Paulo, Brazil, capping off a long season whose twists and turns reach back to a warm March day in Australia.  They bid adieu to V8 engines, another year of Red Bull/Sebastian Vettel domination, Ross Brawn at Mercedes, and one of my favorite drivers.  Mark Webber's surprisingly emotional end to his Formula 1 career went by far too quickly, although he tried to prolong it as best he could.  But that's a whole other blog post.

Tonight I'm wondering what the next few months will be like for me, and it saddens me to know that something that was such a big part of what little life I had left is going to be absent for a third of a year.  I would be lying if I said that worries of the coming finals for med school aren't creeping into my head tonight as a result, but I'll live.  I always have.  The end of seasons always make me a little sad, but with everything else that has gone on this year, it's difficult not to take that loss a little harder.  Still, I can reflect on a brilliant season, and I can look forward to the changes that will hopefully shake up the sport for the better.  While I remain skeptical on some of them, others I think will only do good things for Formula 1.  Only time will tell.

So tonight I join hundreds of millions of F1 fans around the world to say goodbye to the 2013 season, hoping that my life next March will be accommodating enough to let it back into my everyday enjoyment.  But for two and a half more hours tonight it's still race day, and earlier this morning a Grand Prix was run in front of some of the most storied and passionate F1 fans in the world.  Life was good.  Let the offseason begin tomorrow.

15 August, 2013

I could enjoy many an afternoon in this wonderful place

It's been a busy last couple of weeks working on this car, so I'm happy to report that the little Maxwell is closer than it's ever been to starting.

When we last spoke, I had just rebuilt the oil pump and reattached it to a freshly-lubed engine.  The firewall was off the car for the first time in my life, as was the cowl.  Best of all, I had done a ton of research online and through talking with a couple of fellow Maxwell owners, thus filling in a spreadsheet I have created to address the lingering questions I have about the car.  At some point I'll plug all that information in here.

Anyway, the car has been cooperating relatively well after that steering mechanism quagmire.  I found plenty of bolts to match the ones missing from the top plates on the gearbox and crank case, and I've now smoothed and primed the entire engine.  This required special engine primer (that can withstand heat up to 500F) and the taping off of the bare areas on the crank case.  What's left is now a wonderfully homogeneous engine color (for the first time in at least half a century), and it's started to show me how brilliant the power plant will look when it's painted.

From the right side, cylinders 3 and 4 are primed.
Speaking of which, that's another thing I learned.  Contrary to the paint that currently adorns the T-heads, the color of the Maxwell Q3 engine was black.  This means the primer caps and the spark plug caps will stand out even more when they're re-brassed.  This also means choosing the spark plug wires themselves will be even more important---a decision with which I'm still wrestling as I type.  As of tonight, I'm between the classic "oak" lacquered finish with black and red dual tracers or the yellow with black and red tracers.

The hoses also need to be correct, and I feel like I shouldn't order the spark plug wires until I know what color the hoses will be (heaven forbid their colors clash).  My father believes some of the brass cars had black or even red hoses, but he's not sure; thus, I will have to investigate further.

Once I get the type of hoses and color of plug wires down, I'll measure out the lengths needed to get to the cylinders, plus a couple of other wires to go back and forth between the mag and the coil, the battery and the coil switch, and the coil and the coil switch.
On one of the engine mounts, I found original blue paint and
some red that apparently adorned the car after a re-spray.

Thankfully any modern 6-volt coil or battery one can buy today is much better than the kinds that were available in 1910, so then the issue is disguising them to look period.  Supposedly an empty can of Metamucil is the exact size of the old coil, so the modern coil can be hidden inside of it and mounted on the bracket (I just need to figure out where the bracket mounts).  The battery sits directly under the front passenger seat, I'd say.

A major issue I have is the absence of a Splitdorf coil switch.  This was the 1910 version of an ignition in a modern car.  One would keep the switch in the "Off" position until it was ready to start, then the switch would be moved to the "Battery" position.  Once the car was cranked and running, the switch would be moved to "Magneto" since the mag is powerful enough to keep the spark going, whereas it's not strong enough to start the car.

I have a strong suspicion I can fashion a coil switch that would work, but I'm not sure how to do that (and it would probably take a bit more electrical knowledge than what I currently have).  Ideally I want to get the correct Splitdorf one, but I know that's a slim chance.  In its stead I just want to get one that looks correct or is of a similar vintage.

Speaking of fashioning things, I talked to the head of the Maxwell Registry, Vern Campbell, and he's sending me pictures of his 1910 Q2's oil tank.  Mine is missing, but I believe it's something I'll be able to make at some point (or have it made).  It's a little rectangular tank that sits on the engine side of the firewall.  Rectangular at the top, the bottom comes to a point where a shutoff valve sends oil to the pump and then to the drip gauge on the dash.  It's painted black, and on the other side of the firewall, a brass and glass sight gauge shows the driver and passengers the oil level in the tank (the capacity of which is just two quarts).

While I can make the tank, the brass sight gauge will be a bit more tricky.  It wouldn't be impossible for me to make this, though, but it wouldn't be easy.  We'll see.

I also spoke to the only other person in the world (who I can successfully contact) who has a 1910 Q3 like mine.  Howard is a jovial man who was working in his garage when I called him.  He doesn't seem to do email, so he's going to take some pictures of his car for me and send them by mail.  I asked for him to take some pictures of the rear body/doors, and I think some of the engine, too.  Either way, anything he sends will provide a wealth of information that I currently don't have.  I never would have imagined seeing pictures of a car exactly like mine someday, so that will be thrilling.

Both heads and side panel painted, this time from the left side.
I finished making some new linkages for the brakes and clutch, and now those are on the car.  I continued smoothing and priming the frame, and I also WD-40'ed the heck out of the tube that runs across the frame to move the internal and external brakes.  I asked Campbell how he got his loosened up, and he chuckled, noting that was literally the only part of his car that he did not disassemble during restoration.  He did what I have done by spraying it and moving it around, and that loosened up the brakes.

Sadly, talking to Howard, it appears I'm missing the interior brake shoes to the car.  I thought I just had that diamond-shaped parking brake, but he tells me there should be a second set of shoes inside the drum (almost mimicking disc brakes).  I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

Here's a busy shot from the rear of the car with the newer body sitting to the left.
Today was also an interesting story.  Yesterday I had taken the existing body off the car (the new steel lower body that someone had started to make on the rear) and made measurements for the front part of the lower body.  Despite the rear end flaring outward, which would have been extremely difficult to make, the front half is straight and vertical, with the transition taking place where the body is its thinnest---in the three inches under the rear door frame.  This leads me to believe that I can make that front half, since we have some rusted remains of the original at the back of The Garage.

I scribbled down some drawings with measurements galore, and in the end I was convinced I could fabricate a body.  My father, who has dealt with metal for the better part of 40 years, figured that the original bodies used on Maxwells were around 20-gauge steel, but the newer one that sat on the back of our car was 18-gauge.  For strength's sake, I decided to go with 18-gauge for my lower body.

Armed with my drawings, my father and I headed out to the local scrapyard this afternoon for what he intended to be a reconnaissance mission.  The heaps of rusted treasures that greeted us were enough to pique my interest to the point that I could enjoy many an afternoon in this wonderful place.  It also tells me that we're going to need the truck to get this stuff home.

When we found that they had suitable metal, most likely from coil ends, the gentleman offered to cut it to size for us with a plasma torch.  I figured this would be much quicker than the Dremel tool I planned to use, so we agreed, but we needed to go home and get Black Beauty first.

(If you don't remember, my mother has been wanting a vintage truck for years, merely for the purpose of "hauling stuff."  My father found a monstrous 1979 Ford pickup in a nearby town for a few hundred dollars, so we got it.  The truck, which has a massive engine, a lift kit and mudding tires, is affectionately called Black Beauty, due to its eggshell black finish [which included a green tailgate, a Lariat door on a non-Lariat truck and diamond plate running boards].)

After a few cranks, the old truck roared to life, presumably burning a gallon of gas in the process.  Lumbering and rocking its way down the road, we made it back to the scrap yard 15 minutes later.  Despite my father's concerns that she may not start when we went to leave, we headed back into the building to get the metal.

Here's the fellow using the plasma torch to cut the new panels.
The gentleman who would go on to help us stood by a large saw, cutting some angle irons for another man who was making some targets for a shooting range.  We talked about the Maxwell, and he relayed the fantastic story of the "Field of Dreams" in Pierce, Nebraska, where loads of new Chevrolets were left in a field in the 1960s.

While we conversed, the man helping him came back into the room.

"Is that your Ford out there?" he asked us.

"The black one?  Yes, that's ours."

"Nice truck!  Is that a '70 or a '71?  Those custom taillights were only made for those years."

"It's a 1979, but it's a patchwork of several trucks," I laughed.

He went on to tell us how his brother had a truck just like that years ago, and how it was a wonderful machine.  Black Beauty had an admirer.

The gentleman cut our panels to my specifications, and in the end we had spent just $20 for sheet metal that I intend to turn into a Maxwell body.  Despite the fact that I've never done sheet metal work, this one should be interesting.
And here's the finished product.  I can't wait to start fabricating!