Life is Like a Monza Wall
TRYING TO SEE TOO FAR AHEAD GIVES YOU A STIFF NECK, EVEN IF YOU DON'T CRASH...
Preface: We often hear from those who engage in risky sports that they do so because it’s during such adventures they feel most alive and connected, which they generally attribute to the physical “rush” they experience at such time. Personally, I tend to think they misunderstand the wellspring of their feelings at such times. For I am firmly convinced it is the raw physicality of such activities — whether boatbuilding, sailing, rock climbing, or auto racing — which generates the existential connection between us and the real world. Hence, this rememberance of the last.
BTW, some of the auto-racing talk in this piece is somewhat technical. It is not, however, simply pretentious jargon. I've included it not only for those who are true, dyed-in-the-wool auto-sports enthusiasts, but for others as well, in order to convey a better sense of the sub-culture and the milieu of the time. — PLF
In my early twenties, when I still lived in Chicago, I raced sportscars. Not professionally, but in what was known in those days as "club racing".
Club racing enthusiasts were "amateurs". That is, they were unpaid and earned, at most, trophies and kudos for winning. They paid for, owned, transported and, for the most part, maintained and repaired their own cars. Their pit crews were composed of wives (or in some cases, husbands), parents, siblings, friends and others who were dumb enough to want to do a pile of scut work on the off-chance of being treated afterward to a hamburger and a beer.
However, make no mistake. Club racing was serious wheel-to-wheel competition, car against car, not one of the milder forms of autosport that pitted car-against-clock, like hill climbing or gymkhana racing. And while club-racing drivers were technically amateurs, they pushed to their cars and themselves to the limits most of the time — and occasionally, beyond.
I held competition tickets (licenses) from both the Midwestern Council of Sportscar Clubs (MCSCC) and Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). And I competed mostly at midwestern tracks, including Wilmot Hills in Wisconsin, Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and Meadowdale International Raceway in Carpentersville, Illinois — all "road courses".
Road courses are those with both left-hand and right-hand turns, S-curves, slaloms, 180-degree switchbacks, hills and irregular-length straightaways. This in contrast to oval tracks, where racing is in a counterclockwise direction, with all left-hand turns in a basically flat elevation.
The local "paid professionals" were generally found on oval tracks, in stock cars, dirt track cars, and midgets. But some pros and semi-pros could be found on road courses in open-wheel "formula" racing — Indy cars, Formula 3, Formula America, and the biggie, Grand Prix Formula 1.
I began my racing sojourn in a Triumph TR-3...
The TR-3 was a two-seat, front-engine, rear-wheel drive roadster built in Britain. It had a 2-litre inline-4 engine, and in its factory stock form, employed British variable-venturi S-U carburetors. It was a fun car both to drive and race but had one troubling characteristic. For some unfathomable — unfathomable, at least, to me and my cohorts — the TR-3's front wheel track was a bit more than 1% narrower than its rear wheel track. Pushed too hard and too deep into a sharp turn, it had an admittedly unconfirmed tendency to trip and roll over.
I cannot say with certainty whether the perception among club racing drivers was correct, but on two occasions TR-3s against whom I was racing did roll in similar circumstances. Which convinced me that prudence was the better part of courage and...
... led me to the love of my relatively brief racing life, a diminutive Austin-Healey "Bug-Eye" Sprite...
The Bugeye Sprite had a tiny 947cc inline-4 OHV engine. Yep, you read that correctly, less than 1-liter displacement. The engine was so small that when we needed to service or rebuild it, two of us could simply hook a spreader bar and chain to it and manually lift it out of the engine compartment.
Rated BHP was 43 @ 5000 rpm. Which does not seem like much until you consider that the car weighed, in racing trim, less than 1,300 pounds — barely more than many large motorcycles.
Club racing was "class racing". That is, cars raced primarily in designated classes against one another. But because a full field could rarely be made up of a single class, a number of classes usually raced at the same time, with the bigger, faster cars (with better qualifying times) being placed at the head of the starting pack. There would be "overall" winners — first to finish out of all the cars on the track — and "class" winners — first to finish in their respective designated class.
I raced my Bugeye in G-production class, which allowed me to make certain modifications to the engine, drivetrain, and chassis. I had the cylinders of my Sprite's engine bored out to their maximum diameter and fitted with oversize pistons and rings. The crankshaft was hardened by shot peening, lightened and balanced, as were the connecting rods. Intake and exhaust manifolds were polished and ported (passages enlarged and polished to reduce turbulence in the flow). Heavy duty hardened valves, pushrods, and extra heavy-duty double valve springs were fitted (to raise the limiting point of "valve float" from the stock 5000 rpm redline to better than 7000 rpm, with an attendant increase in horsepower production).
Weber carbs were fitted because they had multiple "barrels" for enhanced fuel/air delivery, and "accelerator" pumps that shot a jolt of raw fuel into the carb barrels when you stepped hard on the accelerator. Both air-intake and exhaust systems were "tuned" for maximum efficiency by taking advantage of the back and forth pulsing of gasses intake mixture coming into the engine and exhaust gasses leaving it.
I also fitted the live solid rear axle with a locking, limited-slip differential that overcame any loss of propulsive power due to an inside rear wheel lifting or losing traction in the tight turns. And for short courses, switched to a differential ring gear that yielded a final gear ration of 5.37:1 (as opposed to the standard 4.22:1), whilst for the longer courses, switching to a ring gear that yielded, if memory serves, a 3.85:1 final drive ratio. Higher ratio number for better acceleration on the short courses, lower ratio number for better top speed on the longer courses.
The result was that, at the bottom of "The Chute" at Meadowdale, a long, steep downhill straightaway, my diminutive slightly "improved" G-production Bugeye could, in the right circumstances, clock 130 mph.
The Bugeye was truly a roller-skate of a car, with tremendous agility and cornering ability due to an exceptionally low center of gravity and a relatively wide track. And although the Bugeye was not stunning when it came to raw speed, it performed much better than you might expect on a road course. Primarily because you did not have to slow much at all in the turns. And it was not unusual for one to slip past a faster, more powerful car in a tight 90-degree turn or a 180-degree switchback.
The maneuver in a Bugeye went like this. You hung about six inches back from the bigger car's rear inside fender coming up to a tight 90-degree or better turn and waited for the driver of the bigger car to pick his line into the turn. You downshifted, followed him on the same line into the turn and waited for the heavier car to slide somewhat toward the outside, pushed by greater mass and centrifugal force.
As soon as you saw the slide start, you broke off the bigger car's line and aimed the Bugeye. pedal-to-the-metal, straight toward the apex of the turn. If you did it just right — and if you had good tires and your engine was well-tuned and you picked a gear to give you redlined rpm — you'd slide by the bigger, "faster" car with the Bugeye feeling as though it were on rails. Man, there was no better feeling in the world !!
Unless it was running — and surviving – the Monza Wall at Meadowdale Raceway...
The "Monza Wall" at Meadowdale International Raceway was a high banked 180-degree switchback turn, named in honor of a similarly banked turn at the world-famous automobile racetrack in Monza, Italy.
A banked road surface enables fast moving cars to take advantage of centrifugal force to improve, rather than detract from traction when in the turn. Thus, race cars can generally maintain higher speeds in banked turns. They can also use a momentary downward line on the bank to pick up a tiny margin of speed and momentum in the process of trying to blow past another car. All of which makes for excitement among race fans — and, I suppose, drivers as well.
The problem is that, in a 180-degree highly banked turn, when you look forward in the normal fashion, what you mostly see is road surface. And not too much of it, at that.
In order to see far enough ahead to be aware of developing trouble — a car spinning out or hitting the outer wall or blowing a tire or whatever — you have to look up over your head. But if you look too far up, you can't see what's going on closer in front of you. And that could lead to just as much, if not more trouble.
The drill was to size up the relative positions of all the cars already on the wall, as well as those running with you, as you headed into the 180-degree turn. Then pick your line, put the accelerator all the way down as you entered the turn, and concentrate on rapidly shifting your gaze back and forth from, more or less, straight ahead to looking "up" for the longer view. It felt like I imagined riding a tiger would. And I was personally happy just to get through the Monza Wall turn without getting into a dust-up with another car or cars on the track, never mind making an advance in race position.
I ran on the Monza Wall only twice during my sportscar racing years, once in a drivers school session and once in a race. By the end of my first season, a couple of serious race accidents on the Monza Wall led race club officials and raceway management to stop using that part of the track for club races.
For my part, I was happy to have made my bones by running on the wall — which you had to do at or near top speed because it was the centrifugal force generated that held your car up high on the banked surface and not slipping sideways toward the infield. But I was not exactly crushed to hear the Wall would not be used for the future races in which I was going to drive.
Years later, I was writing a piece and scanning through my mental library of metaphors. And wham! There it was right before me: The Monza Wall is a metaphor for Life!
Keep the pedal-to-the-metal, pick your line, then go like hell. Don't look just at what's directly in front of you, but also don't try to look too much or too far forward into the future. For if you do, you're likely to crash.
— Phil Friedman
Author's notes: The Triumph TR-3 and the Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite shown in the images are not actually the cars I owned, although they are dead ringers for them, even if not. Actually, I suspect (but do not know for sure) that the little red Bugeye with the white stripe in the photo could very well be the very car I owned, raced, and later sold — the color is right and the other details, right down to the distinctive roll bar I designed, built and installed; the front-hinged bonnet with draw-clip hold downs; and the repeatedly bashed and hand-straightened front grille.
My personal photos and records of those days were lost somewhere along the way during a transition I made many years later, from living on land to living and cruising aboard an 18-ton motor-sailing yacht I built in my boat shop in Rexdale, Canada. Consequently, I've used library photos to help tell this story. (The tale of my excursion into 7-years liveaboard cruising is another story for another time.) — PLF
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Copyright © 2017-2023 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
This piece originally appeared in my Chicago Stories series on beBee.com (https://us.bebee.com/producer/life-is-like-a-monza-wall)