There I was... flying down the straight after turn two at Pocono Raceway, pretending to draft Mathias, who was driving his recently purchased 1987 Porsche 944. As we approached the turn in point, I got on my brakes and downshifted into third from fourth. The straight-piped inline four shrieked as it hit what seemed to be over 8000RPMs, and that was my first big mistake of the weekend.
I continued to follow Mathias around the track for one more 'paced' parade lap. My 944 was running quite well and surprisingly enough, I didn't notice any negative changes in performance after my thunderous downshift on track either.
Being concerned about my car's health, after my final laps of glory I immediately returned to the paddock, shut the 944 off, pulled the hood release cable (the one that regularly slides under my feet) and raised the hood. My eyes swarmed in an attempt to find oil gushing out, or a blown piston, or a hole through the head, or just something broken. But nothing. The 944 seemed the same as it did just half an hour ago. Old, slow, decrepit, but working.
I left the 944 to join my Triple C Racing teammates. Most were resting up between their qualifying runs and chowing down on some cold cuts, but my friend Marc decided he needed a quick break from the track and asked if I could help him scout some local Tinderellas with the 944.
We left the track and began exploring the sideroads of the Poconos. After going about a half mile from the track, it was obvious something wasn't right, the car wouldn't accelerate. Before I could even make up an excuse for the 944's poor performance to Marc, there was "pop", I lost all power, and white smoking began pouring through the A/C vents in the cabin and everywhere else in the 944's vicinity. I immediately turned the ignition to the accessory mode and coasted down the road to a safe stopping point. Once we came to a stop, Marc looked at me and said in his hilariously Irish voice, "the fuck was that?!?", to which I was without words.
I didn't know what happened. Maybe the timing belt snapped and valves bent? Did the clutch disc shatter? Possibly the transmission dropped? Of all these not so great options, none were the case.
Marc and I began investigating. We opened the hood and found nothing out of the ordinary, but it wasn't long till Marc found the long trail of fluid that followed the 944's path down the winding country road.
Marc walked the trail and returned with this.
He showed it to me and told me it was from my car, I shrugged, but examined it. It was still warm and oily, it had to be from the 944. We then rolled the car back to see if we could find where the (quite literal) missing piece of the puzzle went and where the fluid was coming from.
Under where the motor was sitting might as well have been a tiny, level three, EPA petroleum disaster. It was bad. But I still couldn't see any motor damage or severe oil leakage.
Rather than calling AAA for an immediate roadside tow. A tow that probably could've saved me loads of money, time, and stress. I decided I would be better off bringing the 944 back to the paddock at the track to diagnose and hopefully fix the problem there. This was my second mistake.
The team came with the trusty race truck and some makeshift tow straps. Mathias crawled under the 944's front end to attach the makeshift tow straps but struggled to find the appropriate tow points. We decided on the control arms and sway bars but I lacked confidence that everything would go smoothly.
I hopped in the 944 to steer and brake. It was on me to get the 944 back to the track without slamming into the tow hitch and shiny rear bumper of the race truck. I had to ride the brakes and not let the straps drag or retain too much tension. Everything was going as smooth as possible until we got to the first full stop, halfway back to the track. The truck and the 944 simultaneously came to a full stop, but when truck began to take off, it pulled the left sway bar link right out and snapped the tow strap that it was attached to. Aside from telling the guard at the track that the car was 'for parts', the rest of the trip back to the track was rather short and uneventful, thankfully.
When we returned to the track, Mathias and I began scouting leads for a new motor. I ran around the paddock bothering the two teams that were running 924's, while Mathias began a search across all relevant websites and message boards.
I returned to our garage hands empty, but thankfully, Mathias greeted me with the promising sight of a two local 944 motors for sale on Craigslist. One was out of question, as it was a newer, more powerful, and more expensive 944 motor, but the other one was perfect. Recently pulled, well used, turned over, local, and cheap. I immediately phoned the seller and began the ever so familiar process of buying something found on Craigslist.
After explaining to the situation to Al, the Craigslist seller, he explained his situation to me. He was a trucker and was about to take off on another trip back to the mill in Indiana, he couldn't stay and wait for me to pick up the motor. But he did have a friend who owed him a favor, and who could stay and meet me with the motor. After negotiating with Al and confirming the details with his friend, Mathias and I scrambled to find a motor hoist.
With a little help from my Triple C Racing teammates, we were able to convince the guys at Windsor Customs to let us borrow their motor hoist. After loading it in the bed of the race truck, we left the track, I dropped the guys off at the house, and Mathias and I started our journey west to collect the motor.
Unfortunately, another problem became prevalent. The motor was over an hour and a half away from the track, and it took us nearly an hour and a half to source the motor hoist. When I spoke to Al and his friend, I told them that I would be meeting them no later than 9:30PM to pick up the motor. That phone call took place around 7:30PM and it was just 9PM when I got on I-80W from the Western Pocono region. To top it all off, the friend I was meeting didn't own a cell phone, so I was unable to have any further direct contact with him. Despite our concerns, Mathias and I continued onward.
Over an hour into the journey, we were forced by hunger to make a quick pitstop at Sheetz (similar to Wawa, I guess it's a Pennsylvanian thing, but definitely a new crowd favorite). But after that, we were nearly there.
It took us nearly three trips up and down the seller's street to find the correct building number and house, probably because there was no actual house to be found. The driveway that matched the address I was given seemed to be nothing more than a tight dirt pathway up the side of a steep hill. Picture the sight of a GMC Sierra 3500 with duallys climbing a dirt trail, that probably had less than two feet of extra clearance on each side, in the darkness of night, with no one around. But, it had to happen. I engaged 4high and hoped for the best.
Thankfully, when we got to the top of the 'driveway', it opened up and the 'new' motor was in sight. But not much else.
The seller's 'friend' was nowhere to be found. I immediately called Al. That phone call went something like this. "Hey… I know I'm nearly two hours late and no one's here. But I do see the motor and I think my friend and I could probably manage getting it on the truck by ourselves if that's cool with you. I'll even leave the money under a stone or something". Surprisingly enough, he hesitantly agreed. I swung the truck around and we began unloading and constructing the motor hoist.
Mathias and I soon learned that building and maneuvering an engine hoist on soft, uneven dirt was not easy. If we could barely move it around without a motor attached, how would we be able to do it with the motor?
Well we didn't. We placed the motor hoist in the proper position to lift the motor, and after attempting to move the loaded hoist around, and almost getting crushed by a swinging motor, we decided it would be smarter and easier to just move the truck under the motor hoist. Thanks to our good thinking, we quickly had the motor placed on the rear left corner of the truck's bed, and we began to tie it down appropriately.
After Mathias downed a cold Diet Pepsi in a celebratory fashion, we tied the motor down and began our trip back to the track.
When we made it back to the track it was probably about 3AM. We waved to the guard at the gate and head directly to the garage where I left the 944 and the work began.
Mathias pulled up the motor removal guide from Clark's Garage on his phone and I started to help by doing all the little things that only required minimal thought. Fluids began to drain, wires became disconnected. We were making progress.
Thankfully, Mathias was able to catch some sleep on the way back from the motor pickup, but I was still running on fumes. Around ~5AM, I cut out and head to the truck to nap, while Mathias continued to soldier on.
By 6:30AM, it seemed as if things were still coming together, but it was now time to return to the house and pick up the rest of the team so that they could get their race day started.
After collecting the teammates and finally putting some food into our systems, we returned to the track. As I walked into the garage, I was greeted by Triple C Racing's garage neighbor, he was actually running a 924 himself. Before my motor went, Mathias and I helped him with a few things on his 924, and we spoke a bit about racing preparations for the car. Unfortunately my parade of bad news continued with what he was about to tell me. "Hey man… they're freaking out about that 944 over there (my 944). You might want to go talk to them (scca/track officials) and just be sure to be really apologetic…"
Startled by this news, I slowly walked over to my car on the other side of the garage. The 944 was surrounded by a lake of speedy dry and there seemed to be a woman searching the car for ownership documents. I approached her and she asked if 'this' was my car, I reluctantly said 'yes'. In response to that, she just looked around and yelled 'SECURITY'.
A man in blue approached me and directed me to the SCCA office, then I was directed to speak with people who worked for the track. After being bounced around between people that were not happy with me or my actions, I was finally approached by someone who actually seemed honest and happy to help me. I was told I would have to pay for the 'oil spill kit' that the fire department was forced to drop under my car to contain the leaked coolant, and also that I would have to pay for the garage space I was using. Of course, I was more than okay with this. The total was only $108 and I was just happy they didn't ban me from the track. I was also told that I would have to be out of the paddock by 7PM that day.
Mathias wrenched on while I tried to do my best to help with the small stuff on the Triple C Racing cars. I didn't want the guys to feel like we abandoned them, and I figured it was the least I could do after stealing their truck for the night and borrowing half their tools.
As the race day went on, the stress level grew higher. It was almost lunchtime and we still weren't able to pull the motor. I couldn't even get the bell housing off the new motor to prepare the clutch to be switched.
It wasn't until ~4:30PM when the motor began to come out of the car. Mathias was exhausted and so was I.
Shown above: Mathias passed out on the creeper.
Most of the teams around us that were actually at the track to race were already packed up by when the motor came out. There was no way we could go on, and definitely no way that we could get the new motor fully installed in three hours. It probably would've taken us three hours just to switch the wiring harness'. So we began to clean up and I called it quits for the day.
I spoke with the guy who was doing the towing for the weekend at Pocono and convinced him to take not only my car back to his shop, but also the two motors, so that my stuff wouldn't be stuck in the paddock taking up space, and so I would be able to pick it up on a later date. After some final cleanup, Mathias and I left the track and started back east.
Originally I planned on transporting the 944 back from Pennsylvania the friday after the incident occurred, but I soon realized there was no way this would be able to happen. It wasn't until nearly two weeks later that I got everything together and began making preparations to get the 944 back from Pennsylvania.
With the approval from the CCC overlords, I took off early one afternoon. The plan was to rent a Uhaul auto transport trailer and truck on out to Central PA. but when I called Uhaul to reserve one, I was told that there were none available for several weeks, in the whole State of New Jersey.
Again, things were not going as planned. I ran down a mental list of Uhaul alternatives but nothing sounded promising except for one possible 17' trailer from Fusco's Rental World in Central NJ. They told me I probably wouldn't even be able to pick it up that day because it was approaching their closing time, but I was determined, and I knew it was now or never.
I commandeered my mother's rarely used 1998 Dodge Ram Conversion Van and head directly there. There was no room for error. I had only an hour to get there and they were nearly an hour away.
A little background on the van: Rarely driven, not enjoyable to drive, not a towing machine, battery doesn't hold charge, windows no longer retract, zero visibility.
With only my (possibly) reckless driving to thank, I arrived At Fusco's five minutes before closing and the workers were more than happy to rent me the trailer, until they saw what I was pulling it with. They warned me the Ram wouldn't be able to pull the trailer but at this point, I had no other options and I ordered them to drop the trailer on the van's hitch. On top of the van not having enough power to pull the trailer properly, we soon learned that it was not equipped with the correct taillight/brake hookup. Great ! But of course, we took off with the trailer attached, and by 7PM we were approaching the Pennsylvania border crossing.
Thanks to Waze, I found myself driving on some incredibly beautiful roads, in probably the worst vehicle possible. It was dark and I was in the boondocks, climbing mountain roads with an enormous trailer. Oh and did I mention I've never pulled anything before? The situation was not ideal, but I had only myself to blame.
We arrived at the tow truck driver's lot around 10:30PM and we immediately got down to business. The tow truck driver, Tim, pulled his truck around and dropped the two motors directly onto the bed of the trailer, then brought the 944 around. Tim dropped the 944 directly onto the bed of the trailer from his flatbed while Mathias and I held the wheels in the correct angles so we could align the 944 properly on the trailer. Thankfully everything fit and the weight on the trailer wasn't even giving the van a rake in the suspension.
When it came time to pay, I followed Tim to his office. Though, it did take him a while to find his invoice papers because of the amount of random items on his desk, including a random pistol mag which he gracefully placed to the side. That one caught me off guard. Once he found the invoice papers and wrote me up, I was reminded that credit card was not accepted and was told to take a trip back into the town to an ATM. Unfortunately, the funds I needed weren't available because of the security deposit that was placed by Fusco's for the trailer. Thankfully Mathias was kind enough to lend me the required $300.
After delivering the cash to Tim, he took off and left us to strap the 944 and the motors down to the trailer. To do this, we had to go to the local Wal-Mart and actually buy tie down straps, because we didn't bring any. I went in to the Wal-Mart while Mathias stayed in the van to make sure no one would take it. That's when we learned of the serious exhaust leak that seemed to cause a decent amount of carbon monoxide to enter the cabin of the van. Once the van nearly killed Mathias, we stopped at Denny's for a midnight dinner then head back to the trailer to tie everything down and begin the journey back.
After being tossed around by speeding tractor trailers on I-80 Eastbound for what seemed to be hours without end, at ~5:30AM, we arrived at the 944's
final resting spot.
We began unloading the trailer by unstrapping the 944 and attempting to roll it off the pivoting bed, which it did not do. To get the bed to pivot, I had to grab a forklift and actually lift up the front of the trailer bed while Mathias got in the car and held the brakes. I left the forklift in a stationary position and held the front 944 wheels to steer and force the car to roll backwards. The 944 came off without any further issue and I was also able to fork the motors off the trailer without issue. It was time to return the trailer and get myself back to the Classic Car Club in time for another day of work.
Learn From My Mistakes
1. Don't push your car on a paced lap.
2. Don't engine brake at extremely high RPMs.
3. Don't drive a car without a tachometer.
4. When your car dies on the side of the road, unless it's a simple fix, don't try to bring it somewhere and fix it. Call AAA and let them tow it to where it can stay for an extended period of time.
5. Don't pull a car using tow straps.
6. Don't pull a car from the sway bars (I knew this one was a bad idea).
7. Don't buy car parts found on Craigslist in the middle of the night.
8. Always ask for permission and or guidance when you're unsure of something at a track. Don't assume.
9. Don't attempt major automotive surgery in a workplace where you aren't fully comfortable or where/when you don't have the ability to complete the surgery.
10. Don't attempt night missions after a full day of work.
11. Always keep cash in your wallet.
Special thanks to Windsor Customs, Tim's Towing, Triple C Racing, Zac M, Starr from Pocono Raceway, Clark's Garage, Fusco's Rental World, Al from Craigslist, Mathias, and everyone else that has helped me along the 944 journey to hell.
Aaron Brown is an employee of the Classic Car Club of Manhattan. Not long ago he decided to buy a semi-decrepit Porsche 944 to hoon the hell out of, but that plan backfired on him and now he is looking for a Subaru 2.5RS to hoon the hell out of. Aaron also attempts to attend any and all relevant automotive events within 400 miles of his home, but without the 944, this has become impossible. Follow Aaron's shenanigans through Twitter and Instagram, and no, he doesn't actually have all those followers.
Photo credit: Aaron Brown, Mathias Rios.