FFffff-rozen at Celilo

Got a text last night saying Big Winds was going to do a repeat of the infamous Hellfire run of a few years ago. The wind prediction for today was off the charts in the east end of the gorge. This presents a conundrum. Unlike other years I kind of quit downwinding early. I haven’t done a SUP downwinder in over a month, and it’s been almost a month since I even just paddled OC6 with the HROCC. I’m headed to Maui in about a week. The river temperature is down, the air temp is way down, and I had an appointment to have my teeth cleaned.

My head wasn’t up to the brutality of a 45+ mph downwinder, and I had all my excuses in order when I got a text from Joel Yang saying he was going to do either a Viento or a Celilo to Maryhill run. Either should be a touch less grueling than Arlington, so I blew off the teeth cleaning and went.


When we got to Celilo it looked like an easy money deal. I volunteered to stick with the boards while Joel, Russell and two nice folks from Seattle whose names have been frozen out of my feeble brain took shuttle vehicles to Maryhill State Park. By the time they got back the wind had built from 25mph to well over 40. The tops were blowing briskly off the tops of the swells. All the trees in the park lost their leaves in fifteen minutes. At that point, I should have shed my compression tights and paddle jacket and put on a 3/4 full suit. But I didn’t. Why not? Because I’m as dumb as a bag of hammers.

The folks showed up, there were many excited whoops, and then we launched. It was immediately a lot more serious. I rode a few hundred yards glued to the tail of my Bullet 17 V2 and thought “I have way too much board. I should be on a surfboard. Or I should be home sitting on a soft chair reading murder mysteries. I could have had my teeth cleaned!”

I hung out a while in an eddy and got blown off my board sideways. Russel Peart showed up and got blown off his board just standing there. Literally blew off. Russel is light. We all headed up the river at Mach 2.

If you’re going to do a Celilo run there are two ways you can go around Miller Island. You can take the less scenic but more open, less current, low drama route to the Oregon side, or you can go through the narrower, nuttier Washington funnel which includes a little narrow section at the end called Hell’s Gate. No particular reason for calling it that. Naturally, we went through the current and wind funnel.

Very challenging. Even more challenging with surprising current (they must be doing something funny with the dams) and the ridiculous wind, which was mounting steadily, rising from 40 or so to something much nuttier.

I cleared the ridiculous part without a lot of drama, just a few falls that chilled me to my dumbass core, and then we hit the main river, just as the wind went from nuclear to What The Fuck Is This?

We were all sticking together, but I was getting cold so I didn’t want to sit in the open. I was pretty far in the lead, and I wanted to make sure Joel and Russel didn’t need help shepherding their slightly less experienced but quite capable friends. So I sat down on my board at the entrance to the little hook you see on the map, and promptly got blown into that little cove. No big deal thinks I, so I got on my knees and tried to paddle clear. No way.

Everyone else was much too smart to get blown onto a lee shore in the ridiculous wind, so they sat out a way, undoubtedly wondering “what is this fool doing” while I flopped around trying to get back out.

The cove is shallow, so I stood up about thigh deep and started wading. Even though I had my board wind vaned away and was holding it by the tail, the wind got under it and tossed it through two somersaults to the end of the leash and beyond. I collected it, and this time it only made two and a half flips with a twist and shot back at me. I decided to hike across the point and relaunch. Little did I realize that the hike was about half a mile and the other side was cliffs. I scouted to the left and found a feasible launch spot that required me to carry the board over rocks in blistering, shifty wind, but didn’t include a blind fifteen-foot throw and jump. I spotted Joel and Russel and waved that I was OK. Made my way to the spot just as Russel arrived to help me stabilize the board. It would have been a lot more ugly without his help.

By now I was shaking badly. I figured I was wandering into hypothermia territory even with my built-in Orca suit. I got back on the board and charged like a madman, hoping the added exertion would warm me a bit. Instead, I took a couple of nice cooling headers off the board when I buried it in head high water ditches. I can’t call them waves. The waves were blown flat. These were ditches.

Naturally when we hit the Maryhill Bridge the water under it looked like a whitewater thrill park. Somehow I got through it cleanly, though it took a hell of a lot of effort. I paddled up a way to some calm-ish water on a cobble beach, sat sideways on my board and waited for the crew so I could find out where the blessed takeout was. While I was waiting I watched a particularly big wave head straight towards me. I thought “oh n…” and it rolled me off the board backward in a foot of water. Thanks, I needed that.

We got to the takeout with no further drama. Russel took one look at me and ran to his car. Started it, turned the heater to 11 and ran back with a towel for me. I might have looked a little cold. I recovered enough in Russel’s truck on my way back to mine to be reasonably sociable–as much as I ever am.

It really was a great run, always beautiful, and I would have been happy as a clam if I’d slipped on the 3/4 technobutter full suit I had stretched out and toasty warm in the back seat.

Edit: Our fellow adventurers were Tony Phelps, and Jill Robinson Russel Peart shot some great photos of both of them. I’ve scalped a few but the rest are on the Stoke On The Water page


Wiring for Solar

This is going to be tedious stuff, but necessary knowledge if you don’t want your solar installation going up in smoke. The voltages of most solar/battery/inverter installations are relatively easy to manage, but the currents used are not. I’ve seen all kinds of errors in installations, even from supposed professionals. I am NOT a professional, so you can rely on me to make some dumbass errors of my own. What I’m writing is the result of my research. Before you take my word for something, confirm it for yourself.

Let’s start with fuses and breakers. Most of the fuses and breakers you can pick up at the local hardware store are a bad idea for large amounts DC power–especially the breakers. Remember that alternating current passes through a 0 voltage, 0 current point 60 times a second. If the circuit breaker trips and an arc forms between the contacts it’s going to last at most for about 1/60th of a second unless the voltage of the next alternation is so far above the rating of the breaker that it can reinitiate an arc along the ionization path. Breakers have arc-quenching structures inside them to minimize the damage of opening a circuit under full fault load, but AC breakers are designed to take advantage of the short period the arc will last even if the quenching doesn’t work immediately. That doesn’t happen with a DC breaker, so the arc can persist, melt all the guts and catch the housing on fire. That’s probably not what you had in mind. Some AC breakers have a DC rating, but unless you’re prepared to dig deep into breaker specs you should simply choose a properly rated DC breaker. Which will probably be about five times what an AC breaker costs. That’s a small price to pay for not turning into a crispy critter because a cheaper breaker popped and flamed out while you slept.

I’ve also discovered that Square-D makes a series of breakers called AO or AOB that are DC rated up to 125VDC. I haven’t tried these but the price is in the $20-30 range.

Fuses also have DC issues. A fuse with too short an air gap after the fuse wire vaporizes can also turn into an arc ball. Make sure you choose a fuse that is rated for the current and voltage you are trying to interrupt. Don’t assume a 50 amp 125VAC fuse will interrupt 50amps at 40VDC. It’s not uncommon to see a 125VAC rated fuse downrated to 32VDC. Don’t guess at this.

You should fuse each set of panels on the positive leg. If you are connecting panels in series you need one fuse appropriate to the current and voltage on the combined positive leg. Panels connected in series flow the same current as one panel–only the voltage increases. In the example of my six 310 watt panels, I combined each pair in series. A single 310-watt panel with an output voltage of 40 volts delivers 7.75 amps (amps = watts/volts). Two panels in series yield 80 volts and 620 watts, but it’s still 7.75 amps. I used 10 amp in-line fuses in my installation.

It’s common to use a combiner box to house the fuses and bring all the rooftop wires and connectors into two power leads that go into the cabin and to a solar controllers. No additional fuse is required between the solar controller and the combiner box since each leg is already fused. Since I’m using two solar controllers I connected my six panels as adjoining pairs in series with the resulting three positive wires and three negative wires going directly to the solar controllers. The MC4 connectors that are typically attached to solar panels leads make it easy to connect pairs in series. Just connect one panel’s male connector to the second panel’s female connector. the remaining two leads will be one positive and one negative. You can connect prebuilt extension cables to these leads to reach your combiner box or solar controller. Most installers leave the factory-installed connectors in place and just coil up any excess wire. Cutting the wire may void the warranty. I’m not too concerned about the warranty so I made them fit with minimal wire runs to neaten things up and reduce wire losses, and added new MC4 connectors as necessary.

Wire Guage
The current-carrying capability of a wire is a function of it’s diameter. As we mentioned earlier, increasing the voltage doesn’t require heavier guage wire, though in some cases it might require better insulation. It’s unlikely you’ll encounter those cases unless you connect a lot of panels in series. The Standard UL 4703 Solar Panel Cable used for prefabbed panel wiring and extension wiring used for connecting solar panels to the controller is is rated to 600VDC. It has water- and UV-resistant insulation and connectors (MC4) suitable for exposed outdoor installations. Extension wire is generally sold as double-ended, terminated with male and female connectors. If you need two pieces 5 feet long you generally buy a 10 foot extension of the proper guage and cut it in the middle. But if you want a little color coding in your life you can buy red extension as well as the more somber black. The red extension generally has a female MC4 connector since the panel Plus side is a male connector. Extension cable is typically sold in 16, 14, 12 and 10 AWG sizes.

My panels have 14 AWG wire, which has plenty of capacity for the individual panels. But at 8 amps I’ll see a 2% voltage drop with only 4.5 feet of wire run. There’s one good reason for keeping those cable runs short. I used 12AWG for my extension cables to reduce the wire loss even though it’s not necessary for current carrying capacity.

So I have four panels feeding one MPPT controller connected to a 24 volt battery (two 12V batteries in series) and two panels feeding the second controller. The four panel set delivers 15.5 amps at 80 volts (1240 watts) to the controller . The controller converts the voltage to 24 volts and therefore delivers 51.5 amps to the batteries (1240 watts/24V = 51.5 amps) disregarding any losses. We need 6 AWG to carry that current to the battery. Note that 6AWG wire at 50 amps has a two percent voltage drop in just 5.5 feet. Got to keep those wire runs short or invest in really heavy wire.

I’m using DC breakers for the controller to battery connection. One for each of the controllers.

The battery to inverted connection is even uglier. My inverter is 6000 watt with peak watts or 18,000 watts for 20 seconds. The battery input to the inverter is 24 volts. sizing just for non-peak loads that’s 6000 watts/24 volts = 250 amps. That’s right off our little chart into /0 guage territory.

This chart doesn’t show voltage loss figures. The lengths listed are probably ten percent voltage loss numbers. I’ll be using 3/0 wire if I can keep the runs to less than ten feet, and 4/0 if I can’t.

Worse yet is the potential peak load, which is more important for fusing than for wire sizing. The most likely source of a high starting current is the air conditioner. The rated locked current load for my Mach 8 heat pump is 63 amps at 115 VAC. That’s 7245 watts, which translates to 302 amps at 24 VDC on the battery side of the inverter. It’s certainly possible to see that peak while other high-draw appliances are running, so I’d add another 100 amps to that figure to cover another 2400 watts of load, meaning I should probably fuse this wire with something like 400 amps. Or maybe more likely 300 amps of slo-blow since it should be a momentary load. I’ll also add soft start to my air conditioner.

I’ve also considered adding an ultracapacitor bank to the inverter input to smooth out demand on the batteries and give the wiring a break. Some of these whackier ideas will probably wait until I need to solve an actual problem instead of just getting out in front of one.

The next post will be about batterys and their management systems and I think I’ll be done unless people have other questions.




Solar Power for RVs

I’ve had a few questions about how and why I’m doing a solar/battery system for Fritz, what I’m using and how I chose it. This is going to be a fairly long post with a bit of math, so if you’re interested, get a cup of coffee and settle in.

Fritz is an extreme experiment. If I can make this system, sized in this way, work for Fritz, then it can be done almost anywhere. Fritz is a 1978 GMC motor coach. It’s not designed for this kind of stuff in ANY way. I’m using this coach because I appreciate the size, build quality, brilliant design, and overall character of these coaches. They’ve never been equaled. But it’s an insane platform for this experiment–which makes it perfect.

RV appliance and comfort systems haven’t changed much since the 70’s with pretty good reason: The systems work. A quick review will help the inexperienced, you veteran RVers can skip a few paragraphs.

A typical RV has a refrigerator, stove, a water heater, a furnace, and an air conditioner with propane tanks and a generator to make everything work when shore power isn’t available. The water heater is often dual-mode, gas/electric, as is the refrigerator. The furnace and stove burn propane, and the air conditioner is purely electric and may have an electric heating element to do double duty for space heating. With a few minor exceptions, all the electric components use standard 115V alternating current, just like your house.

In general, this system works fine, and many people are satisfied with it. There are some inconveniences and a few dangerous aspects, but it works. It’s good. But it’s not great, and it’s possible to do much better. Let’s start with propane. If it hadn’t been used for the last 50 years, with well-established appliances readily available, there is simply no way it would be introduced as the ideal fuel for appliances in confined spaces. It’s acceptable because it’s deployed and readily available. Lots of energy in those bottles, readily available–but also toxic and explosive. You’d have to be a little nutty to go ripping out all your propane-fueled appliances just because they might kill you, and that’s not really why I did it with Fritz, but yeah, I’m that kind of nut.

And then there are generators–gas or diesel. Generators suck. End of discussion. If you didn’t need one you’d never have it. They’re noisy, they stink, and they use a lot of fuel. It’s feasible to operate without one today, even if you’re boondocking. So that’s what I intend to do.


I think the future for RV’s is all-electric, even the drivetrain, but it will take quite some time to get there. To my knowledge, there is one low voltage compressor-type refrigerator available for RV’s, the Nova Kool refrigerators from Canada. They represent a tiny fraction of the number of adsorption-type refrigerators sold today for RV use. They are ideal for all-electric use, drawing 2.6 amps at 24vdc.

There are no commercial alternatives to propane stoves, so that little carbon monoxide headache you get after cooking dinner is likely to persist a while. I’m replacing mine with induction plates–portable, efficient, versatile and cheap. Mine can be controlled from a smartphone and serves as a slow cooker and sous vide systems with temperature control of the contents of your pot via an attached thermometer. They draw 1600 watts at 115V. We also installed a Breville Smart toaster/oven that serves well for baking. At 1800 watts (80 amps at 24VDC) it’s a nasty load. My system can accommodate it, though we’re unlikely to do much baking without shore power.

The biggest issue most people question is the air conditioner–and rightly so. AC is a near requirement for the small space of an RV, and it’s a consistent load. You can decide not to bake a pie because you don’t want to use up your battery reserve, but who wants to swelter? RV air conditioners are 115VAC systems–no one has seen fit to build a DC one yet. It’s clearly feasible, but there isn’t a market demand for it. So my system needs to accommodate that AC load. A typical Coleman Mach8 heat pump draws 16 amps at 115VAC, or 1840 watts. Ignoring small inverter efficiency losses that means 76 amps at 24VDC. Starting current is around 60 amps at 115V, so 6900 watts or 290 amps at 24VDC. Yikes. Of course, a soft-start capacitor will help with that, but I’m sizing my inverter and system to accommodate that very hefty momentary load. More on that later.

Water heating is pretty straightforward. It’s not a continuous load and the water heaters in RVs are small and reasonably efficient as long as you don’t try to use much hot water. I’m simply not going to use the gas side–electric only. Mine takes 1400 watts. Another hefty load, but you can decide when and how to use it, and even if you just leave it on all the time, the load is only what is required to make up for hot water use and heat loss. I’ve taken advantage of eliminating the gas and required venting to substantially improve the insulation.

For heat, I’m using the AC heat pump, and I’ve added an electric strip for those occasions where the outside air temperature is too low for the heat pump to work. I’m a warm weather type, I don’t think Fritz is going skiing so I don’t think this is a big concern. I could be wrong.

Summing up the appliance loads:

Continuous and Semi-Continuous loadsDC load at 24V (ignoring conversion efficiency)
Refrigerator 24VDC/2.6A = 62 watts2.6A
Heat Pump 115VAC/16A = 1840 watts 76A
Lighting: LED –trivial
Occasional loads
Stove (Induction plates) 115VAC/14A = 1600 watts67A
Oven 115VAC/16A = 1800 watts 75A
Water Heater 115VAC/12A = 1400watts58A

Turn everything on at once and it’s about 280 amps at 24V,  which is 6686 watts. That’s why I installed an AIMS 6000 Watt low-frequency pure sine inverter that can handle peak loads to 18,000 watts for up to 20 seconds (no, I’m NOT going to test that claim), and why my battery to inverter circuit is fused for 300 Amps. And obviously, this system is going to depend on a lot of solar power, and some big lithium batteries. I could do this with AGM batteries, but who would want to? Lithium batteries will last much longer with these loads, are much lighter, and are ultimately less expensive. There are some legitimate concerns about Lithium batteries, especially for those who live in the frozen north, and we’ll talk about those later.

Anyone undertaking a similar project, even one of more modest ambition, can make the same kind of calculation. Decide what the minimum size inverter should be by adding up all the loads that could be put on it. You can choose to limit the loads by having electrical distribution sub-panels that provide inverter power only to those loads you choose, or you can go for broke and size your inverter to supply everything, worst case, as I have. Big low-frequency inverters aren’t cheap, but they aren’t the monster expense they used to be. My 6000-watt inverter was about $1300.  That’s for a highly-rated inverter charger that supports multiple battery chemistries, provides automatic power transfer with a 10ms switching time, hibernates at 25 watts, and has built-in GFCI and battery prioritization. In other words, a top of the line, feature rich inverter that could provide uninterruptible power to a small house. That might not seem all that exciting to most folks, but it sets my geeky heart fluttering.

The calculations for solar panel requirements, controller size and type, and battery bank require a little more work. We’ll get to that.

Solar Stuff
The underlying rap about solar power is that it’s expensive. People still apparently think we live in 1985. The current cost per kilowatt for solar panels is about $1.00 per watt, and if you don’t simply buy panels from the handiest source they are less. I paid $126 each for nine 310 watt panels. That’s $.40 per watt. Six of the panels are going on Fritz and three will go on my Airstream race car hauler–eventually. These big panels are not typically used in RV installations–the 100-watt panels are easier to handle and install–but I’m doing something a bit different anyway, I’m not installing a few hundred watts of solar, my Fritz installation is 1860 watts. You can get good quality 100 watt panels for about $100, which is $1 per watt, and that’s a pretty remarkable price. I have no trouble remembering when panels were $20 per watt–I was working at nuclear power plants at the time and people were saying solar power was the future. I thought they were morons. Oops.

If you’re trying to do a simple installation, these are not the panels for you. They require substantial fabrication to install.

Most modern Class A RV’s have a lot more roof than a 1978 GMC motorhome. It’s feasible to do a flat installation of several thousand watts without getting too creative. And on those big flat roofs, you could avoid shading just with positioning. You could also install a tilting system to improve the angle of the sun’s rays and substantially increase panel output when the sun is not overhead or in winter months. For Fritz, I simply raised the entire installation above all the roof-mounted equipment and covered the entire roof. I could make some of the panels tilt, but the improvement in low sun angle performance would come at a cost in complexity that would only work with the rig pointed in particular directions. If I find it’s necessary, I can retrofit tilting mechanisms, but for now, I just settle for a lot of cells.

If you’re doing an installation directly on your roof you need to map out how the equipment will shade potential locations for installation. Based on that map, you’re not only going to need to make decisions about which panels sometimes get shaded, but also which to connect in series or parallel. If one panel in a series string gets shading you lose most of the output of the entire string. That doesn’t harm anything, but it means a little shade takes a big bite out of your charging rate. There are good reasons to connect some of your panels in series, and yes, we’ll get to that soon. But if you have two panels in series, and one is shaded, neither will do you much good. If they’re in parallel and one is shaded, the other will still deliver power.

Charge Controllers
Here’s an easy one–get an MMPT controller. If you don’t want to know why, you just want to know how to select the right size, then skip the next few paragraphs.

Back in the old days of solar a typical panel generated about 16 to 18 volts and not a lot of amps. You could connect them right to a battery and just charge it. With typical use, the battery would never overcharge. If you didn’t draw enough power off, the system would overcharge the battery and slowly boil the battery dry. The earliest controllers simply opened the charging circuit when the battery was fully charged. PWM (Pulse width modulated) charge controllers do this a bit more gently, changing the amount of time the solar panels are connected to the battery. If the battery voltage is low the connect time is long. When the battery voltage gets higher the connected “pulse width” gets narrower, until it stops charging the battery almost completely. The voltage coming out of the PWM controller doesn’t change–just the amount of time the panel is connected. That’s fine for panels with lower cell counts, but today’s 60, 72 and 90 cell panels put out much higher voltages. The controller will be effectively averaging the output voltage of perhaps a 40 volt set of panels to something around 14 volts, so you’ll lose about 50 percent of the panel output. Of course, no one actually does that, most PWM installations match the panel voltage as close as possible to the battery charging voltage, but that means heavier wiring and more resistive losses for a similar system with an MMPT controller. The typical efficiency increase of an MPPT controller over PWM in properly sized systems is likely in the 30 percent range, but that’s still too much to give up.

MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) controllers are dc to dc converters that convert the panel voltage to the optimum charging voltage of the battery. The panels can operate at the most efficient voltage while the output voltage of the controller stays relatively constant, delivering as many amps as the solar cells can produce. The most sophisticated controllers can accommodate multiple battery chemistries, charging profiles, and output voltages. You can also use series connected cells, which means you can use lighter wire and suffer less energy loss in the wiring from the solar panels to the controller and from controller to batteries. The electronics are more sophisticated, so MPPT controllers are a little more expensive, but that’s changing as the MMPT controllers become the standard and are produced in larger quantities. MPPT will completely replace PWM in the near term.

Choosing and Sizing
All you need to do is pick the right controller. Yes, you can buy a properly sized kit, but you should know how to figure out something this simple. MPPT controllers are sized by output current. A 60 amp controller handles 60 amps of output, regardless of whether the output voltage is 12, 24, or 48 V. If you choose to have a 12 V system output and you have 720 watts of solar panels you need a 60 amp controller (720watts/12volts=60amps). If you have 24 V system output and have 720 watts of output you need a 30 amp controller (720watts/24V=30amps) and obviously, for a 48V battery at 720 watts you could use a 15 amp controller.

You also need to pay some attention to the input voltage. For an MPPT controller to be happy, the output voltage of the solar panels should be substantially more than the battery voltage, but not so high that the system can’t handle the voltage conversion. That’s a highly variable number that the manufacturer will supply, but a decent starting point is at least double the battery voltage and not much more than four times the battery voltage.

In Fritz, I’m using two MakeSkyBlue 60 amp MMPT controllers. I have six panels, connected in series pairs. The open circuit voltage of my 72 cell, 310-watt panels is 40V, so each series pair puts out 80V and about 7.75 amps. Typical practice is to connect rooftop panels into a combiner box which usually contains fuzes on the positive lead of each panel set and then combines the leads into a bus for the positive and negative sides. These combined connections are then lead into the cabin and to the controller through a single lead each for the plus and minus connection. I hope that makes sense, it was a little torturous to write.

I’m not doing that. I used inline fuzes that connect to the positive MC4 plugs and I ran all six panel connections–three positive, three negative–down to the two controllers.

Each controller has two sets of panel connectors, so two sets of connectors go to one controller and one set go to the other. Doing it that way gives me more options for output voltages and battery chemistry. The capacity of a single 60 amp controller was in the ballpark for connecting all three sets of panels to a single controller, but I would have been pushing the capacity limit. The controllers are about $150. For that price, having some redundancy, more flexibility, and more capacity margin seems like a bargain.

Well, OK, we’ve got solar power flowing to the controllers. This is getting ridiculously long. Let’s end here for now and I’ll do the rest in a few more posts.

Equipment Sport

Fritz Getz Solared

The big plan for Fritz is for it to be all electric and capable of extended dry camping, meaning no campground, no plugging in to handy electric outlets, self-contained–and still comfortable. That’s kind of a big requirement to pull off without propane, but I think I’m in the ballpark. Most RV solar installations put a few 100-watt panels on the roof, squeezing them in between vents, air conditioners, and other roof stuff. The panels often get shaded, so the system output varies a lot. The biggest rooftop solar RV installation I’ve seen was 800 watts with tilting panels to optimize efficiency. That’s on a huge modern motorhome. I’m installing 1680 watts worth of PV on dinky little Fritz. Only one way to do that–build a raised frame and cover the entire roof.

Most RV air conditioners are very tall, and I wanted to keep this installation as low profile and streamlined as possible. So I replaced the original perfectly serviceable air conditioner with a new Coleman Mach8 Ultra low-profile heat pump. The marketing literature says it’s just eight inches tall. They lie. It’s more like 9.5″, but that’s better than the 13 inches of the original system. And since I’ve ditched the propane furnace, the highly efficient heat pump makes good sense. I borrowed a scissor lift, and with a little help from a friend, got the air conditioner on the roof. I didn’t realize the installation framework and the ceiling unit were not included, so I had to wait a few more days for that. I suspect that DIY is not prevalent in the motorhome world. Everything seems aimed at professionals installing yet another air conditioner, not some goofball like me doing it for the first time. But I did it, and it’s fine.

Well maybe not completely fine, the solar cells are in close proximity to the air intake for the condenser fan, and this sucker is loud. I may need to do a lot of re-engineering. I’ll see if we can live with it before I jump into that, but I have some ideas I think are good.

My first design for the solar framework called for everything to be bolted together. I put it all in place, installed the first panel, and discovered it wasn’t rigid or strong enough. Back to the drawing board. I needed reinforcement in the middle of the frame, and I decided to weld the perimeter and the cross-braces together. That’s a lot of aluminum welding and takes a big space, but I want to get better at TIG welding aluminum, so I cleared space in the metalwork part of the shop, set up a lot of sawhorses, assembled the frame and started welding.

This is what it looked like before welding with one solar panel in place. Note the bowing of the front crosspiece

Here’s the front support in place. This is also the center rib of the wind deflector I’ll be adding later. I don’t need to be turning the coach into a MoHo version of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, or stressing the panel joint enough to turn them into frisbees.

The rear support is somewhat visible in this photo. Prior to adding it the rear crossbar sagged about four inches. Not good.

Here’s another shot. Kind of looks like I’m aiming for a little batmobile fin. It just kind of turned out that way

With all the panels in place and a middle support to hold the panels clear of the air conditioner, Fritz looks like this. I know that looks like a drone shot but it was just me on the top step of a shaky stepladder.

With everything bolted into place the rack is rigid and stout. No wobble at all. Nothing like a lot of aluminum and hours of welding to stiffen things up.

Here’s the middle brace. The welds are getting better. Some.

I decided not to use a combiner box since I’m using two controllers, and each controller has connections for two set of panels. My panels are connected 2S3P, meaning two panels in series, each at about 40VDC adding up to about 80VDC and 3 of those in parallel, 620 watts per set at 80V delivering 7.75 amps per set, 23.5 amps at 80 Volts total. 80V times 23.5 amps = 1860 watts. I added in-line 20 amp fuses to the MC4 connectors and ran them in through the side of my somewhat unnecessary refrigerator vent. My new refrigerator is a DC compressor type that doesn’t require outside venting. I’m using the vent to keep the toaster oven cool and I have two small vent fans that are thermostatically controlled above a plate warmer/food warmer shelf above the oven. They will probably never run.

I measured the output of my panels dumping to a big purely resistive load. I know motor loads are different, but lots of people have told me my panels will put out less power than they are rated at. Full Oregon sun at noon–2468 watts. I take that with a grain of salt, but it’s pretty tasty.

The first shot at installing the controller boxes up close to the top of the refrigerator in a handy cupboard space was unsatisfactory. Too much torque on the wires leading into the box, and no room to work. The batteries were going to be much lower in the cab anyway, and their wiring needs to be much stouter than the wiring from the panels.

The controllers will combine all the panels at 80V and 22.8 amps and put out 24V at 70 amps. Actually, one panel will put out 24V at 23 amps (being fed from one series pair) and the other will put out 24V at 47 amps. This controller (Make Sky Blue) has balanced output on two lines, so I won’t have to use huge wires going to the batteries. They also have adjustable battery chemistry, so I might use AGM batteries for the motor being managed by the two-panel controller and lithium for the house batteries being charged by the four-panel controller. The motor batteries are exposed to the elements, so AGM might be a better choice. Lithium batteries can be damaged by charging or discharging them at very low temperatures. I’m not likely to need to worry about that, but why not make the best engineering decision.

The previous owner had a plethora of combiner and isolator switches installed. I might be able to make use of some of that. Perhaps run the inverter from the lithium batteries and house 12V DC from AGM. I’ll figure it out. I can’t simply connect the batteries together since they would operate at different voltages and I’d get some whopping equalizing current that did nothing good for anyone.

I decided to install the controller in also-unused refrigerator heater bay. I have this slick, new Glowforge laser cutter that I haven’t done much with, so I decided to make the controller panel with laser-cut maple plywood. I’d usually make it from aluminum, but this was kind of fun.

Cute, huh.

The side panels for the wind deflector are riveted and flanged to the top of the coach. It took a couple of tries to get a pleasing shape, but I’m kind of there.

The deflector plate will attach with stainless button screws to rivet nuts on the ribs. I want to be able to remove the panels for access. The enclosure cargo doors along the side will work the same way. I plan to cover the roof with EVA foam–basically yoga mat stuff–and have vented cargo doors along the side–storage space for outdoor stuff, surfboards, foil boards and maybe a downwind board. We’ll also be towing Archie, our dune buggy, and it’s roll bar can carry surfboards. If only so it looks cool.


Fixed my Flange

No, it’s not a medical condition. As I mentioned in the last post I stripped one of the bolts on the driver’s side output flange. I ordered a rather expensive TimeSert kit to repair it. At least it wasn’t the $400 these kits used to cost–a more reasonable but still stiff eighty bucks.

Expense aside, the kit works very well and saved me from having to weld up the hole, drill and tap a new one. And I’m not sure what alloy the part is made from, so distortion or damage from welding is always possible. The drill grabbed some while I was removing the threads. I had some concern that the hole might not be properly aligned, but the tap stood straight.

The finished insert is flush to the surface, the small shoulder ensures it won’t turn out when the bolt is removed in this application, and the alignment is perfect. The chip inside the threads is just a chip left over from tapping the hole.

I’ve reassembled the driver’s side suspension and temporarily bolted up the flange with standard 3/8 X24 bolts, now I’m just waiting for some new ARP bolts to torque into place. Everything looks great and now it’s back to the 500 other things that need to be done.


Fritzing Away The Summer

Fritz has taken up a HUGE amount of my time this summer. It’s not a terrible thing since I’m enjoying the creative work, and the grunt side–the mechanic-ing–is familiar and comfortable.

The interior design is basically complete, though anyone looking at it might find that a surprise. It’s sparse. Diane and I really don’t like the cramped feeling of most motor homes–the dinette that takes up a huge block of space and leaves you edging your way down a narrow aisle. The heavy overhead cabinets, the cramped kitchen. So yeah, it’s simple and open.

Here’s a hugely distorted panoramic view of the interior:

The refrigerator is really great compressor type made by Nova Kool. It has the singular advantage of not bursting into flame as the absorption type occasionally do. It’s also very efficient in both  DC and AC mode. I made the decision to have no propane in this coach–all-electric. We’ll be cooking on induction plates, which can be used both inside and outdoors. They store under the counter with the pots and pans, leaving the counter space unencumbered. Above the refrigerator is an electric toaster oven. Very useful and fairly efficient. The heat from the oven warms the open rack above it, useful for both keeping food warm or warming plates.

The pantry shelves are all ultralight. The shelves I removed totaled over 120 pounds. These are less than ten pounds each

This is the over-counter light and vent fan for the kitchen. It also houses an outlet for the induction cooktops. The shelf above is for food prep. It includes a fold-out extension for supporting platters. The cooktops we are using are made by Tasty and include a thermometer and smartphone control, which lets them be controlled remotely or programmed for complex cooking sequences and can be used as a slow cooker.

While I was doing all this I also added a towbar/bumper to Archie, the dune buggy we plan to use as a dingy for Fritz.

The Propane tanks in the background are for my next really stupid project–a giant smoker in the style of Austin’s justifiably famous Franklin Barbecue.

These shelves are more high-tech than they seem–honeycomb aluminum panels covered with faux stingray shagreen and trimmed with aluminum edges. Turns out you can’t weld honeycomb aluminum–made a mess, and now we know, eh? The box below houses the water heater to the left, and a 6000-watt low-frequency true sine inverter charger and two 100AH 12V lithium batteries. The batteries currently are my own design, using LiFePO4 cells and a 12V BMS. I may switch to commercial LiFe batteries if my BMS continues to give me fits.

Ultimately I’ll have somewhere around 6-800AH (7000-10,000 watt/hours) of Lithium batteries, depending on what we determine is required. We want to be able to “dry” camp, meaning, no connection to power or water, but still cook and run air conditioning and heat as necessary. Which brings me to the massive solar array I’m sticking on the roof. Six 300 watt panels covering the entire roof–1800 watts of solar power. In full sun I should be able to run the air conditioner and still juice the batteries a little. The panels go over all the vents and air conditioners. We’ll have roof storage for some stuff, and of course for surfboards and foil equipment, but it will be under the solar panels. I’ve built the brackets for the raised rack and I’m waiting for some additional angle aluminum to weld up the rack frame. I’ve ordered a Colman Mach 8 low profile air conditioner to replace the tall one now in place. When the rack is done it will have a streamlined front cover and doors on the sides to allow stuff to be put on the roof. I’m going to cover the entire roof in EVA–basically yoga pads.

You might notice that there are no front wheels. The GMC coach in stock form weighs between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds and has the front end out of a 4000-pound Tornado. It looks as under-specced as that sounds. I’m installing a kit from Manny Trovao that replaces the lighter components with those from a 1 ton Chevy 4X4 truck and spaces the front wheels out even with the rear bogies. When I drove Fritz back to Hood River from Northern California I noted numerous handling flaws. I think this modification will eliminate a lot of them. I’m very glad that I did the tear-down, a lot of the front suspension was poorly assembled or had simply worn loose. The nuts holding the ball joints to the lower A-arm and control arm were finger-tight instead of 100 and 40 foot-pounds respectively. The passenger side control arm taper was beaten out by the ball joint working loose. The driver’s side lower A-arm had some kind of butchered modification or repair done to it. Seriously ugly.

Since I’m an idiot, I welded the seams of the suspension arms. Probably completely necessary, but I have all this cool welding equipment, so…

And of course, once you’ve welded the seams you need to clean them up and paint the parts. Am I just MAKING work for myself???

Here’s the front end with everything ripped out.

Kind of empty in there.

Here are the new knuckles, bearings, and disk rotors. Much meatier. The bearing are sealed and should be good for many beaucoup miles.

The instructions said to use a crowbar to hold the wheel while torquing the CV joint flange. I found that unhandy.

So I whipped this simple thing up. Much ho bettah.

Works for torquing the adapter onto the disk rotor as well.

Unfortunately, when I was torquing the last bolt on the driver’s side CV flange the bolt stripped out of the flange. I tried like crazy to convince myself it would be OK to just leave it, and it probably would. But I can’t do that kind of stuff. I’d think about it every time I drove. So I took the flange off and I’m waiting for a Time-sert kit to be delivered. The inserts will take full torque if installed properly. As it turns out the instructions have an error in them. With the original flanges and bolts, the passenger side bolts are longer than the driver’s side, and they are torqued to 75 foot-pounds. The driver’s side bolts are shorter, and they should be torqued to 55. The bolts Manny Trovao provides are all short, and he told me after I’d screwed the pooch that I should only torque them to 50 pounds and use red locktite. Ok, will do. I’m going to fiddle a bit with the bolts to get maximum engagement. Since I’ve had to take everything apart I might as well. It should go back together quickly once I get the new bits.

More on that later.

I still have a lot of wiring to do and a dashboard to build. But I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I think.


Ponohouse is for sale

I should have posted this long ago, but for some reason I neglected to. We’ve decided to sell our fantastic home in Maui. We love the place, and we’ll miss it when it’s gone, but we’ve had it for nearly twenty years, and it’s time to change things up a bit. Living in Hood River and Maui is pretty great, but I want to see more of the world, and even more of Hawaii. I don’t like short vacations–I like to stay long enough to get a real feel for a place. I want to surf more of the famous breaks around the world, and that always takes time to get used to the nature of a spot. It doesn’t make sense to just leave this place empty, and it’s too special to rent–the thought of a renter living here without taking as much care with it as we do is not pleasant. So it’s for sale, and it’s been on the market for a while–which is a huge surprise to me. I think people looking to buy a high-end home here focus on the west and south sides. A huge mistake. The tourist side of the island has no privacy, the only places that are quiet are gated enclaves, and even there the beaches are not private. It’s hotter, drier, and dusty from agricultural dust and pollen. All of our friends who live there keep their windows closed and air conditioners on. Their water bills to maintain little lawns and a bit of landscaping are more than triple what our are, as are electrical bills and property taxes.

Ponohouse is quiet, private, and comfortable, and has no air conditioning or heating–and no need for it. The prevailing breeze blows across 2000 miles of ocean–there’s no dust or pollen in it. It sits on the inside curve of a gulch, 250 feet above the ocean. There bay it overlooks is unspoiled–there are no building on it at all, and nothing between Ponohouse and the ocean but trees so far below they look like bushes. We have a 180 view of the ocean and sky. Here’s a video of the property:


And I website I built to show it off.





All Aluminum Tour

Pretty Peyote

Peyote came back from Horizon Racing looking like it just rolled out of Bill Ames’ garage in 1959. We decided since Peyote was approaching it’s 50th birthday that it should be restored to look as close to what it did in 1959 as we could manage. Tony did a magnificent job and I couldn’t be happier.

This is the last post from the All Aluminum Tour website. In fact, this post didn’t exist–just the pictures. From here I have a lot of work to do. I have a huge library of the history of Peyote, both from previous owners and my racing from 2007 on. I’ll add to this online record as I can. I want to get as much as I can stored in one place instead of scattered around my shop and in my head.

All Aluminum Tour

Vinnie Comes Home

November 2008
My Vincent has been away a long time. The bottom end bearings were toast and I didn’t feel competent to replace them. Crankshaft work is notoriously tricky on a Vincent, as is nearly everything. Remarkably complex motor. So I brought it to a guy who does a lot of motorcycle restorations. He hung onto it for about two years and didn’t get much done. I took it back from him and brought it to a specialist and it took another two years to get it back. But at least this time it’s back together and runs nice. Still needs a few things done but it’s nothing I can’t handle.

It’s a pretty thing.

All Aluminum Tour

Tony’s Nose

After I dropped Peyote off the stands and discovered a bevy of new problems the air kind of came out of my sails. Tony Garmey and Horizon Racing to the rescue. I asked Tony if he’d be willing to “finish up” Peyote, which has to be the worst thing you can ever ask a talented fabricator and mechanic like Tony. When I was a motorcycle mechanic my nightmare was the guy who rebuilt his motorcycle but now wanted me to “finish up” by doing little things like getting it to start.

Who knows what crappy work lies inside? How could a guy who can rebuild his engine not be able to time it? And if you touch that little tar baby and something goes wrong, guess who is now responsible for making it right?

To my surprise,  Tony was willing to do it. So Peyote is at Horizon Racing, getting it’s rear suspension sorted out, the extreme camber in the front right corner fixed (hey, it hit the wall dummy, didn’t you think the upright might be bent?), and the very ugly fenders I made replaced. As any of you alert readers recall, I was nervous about making the fenders. With good reason: they looked stupid.

If you need work done on your race car, you can’t go wrong talking to Tony. He does everything right. There’s a good reason SOVREN just voted him Mechanic of the Year.  Here’s a couple of pictures of the nose Tony has mocked up in carboard. Looks wonderful. He’s even willing to do what he can to save the original tin.


Peyote is coming along nicely at Tony’s shop. I haven’t been up to visit the ailing patient, but Tony sent some pictures. Pretty cool looking.

A bit too pretty for Peyote, though this is exactly what I was aiming for when I made those ugly fenders.

All Aluminum Tour

AA Recap to mid-2008

9 July 2008

There has been a lot going on, and I haven’t posted here for a dogs age. I’m going to start again since I’m doing stuff to both Peyote and Peyote’s little brother–the Ambro 001 that I’m calling Mescal.

For those of you saying “Huh” I should explain that Bill Ames, the guy who built Peyote teamed up with his friend Dewey Brohaugh about a year later (roughly 1960) to start building fiberglass bodies to sell–a popular thing in the early sixties (Devin, Kellison, Meyers, etc.). When the first body came out of the mold they built a car for Dewey from a TR3 donor. This is that first car.

So why did I buy a car so similar to Peyote?  Mainly because I was thinking about building one anyway. I have an Ambro body that I bought a few years ago, and I used to have a spare frame (before Peyote needed it) and a lot of TR3 and TR4 parts to construct a modern Ambro. the owner, Doug Karon, wanted a pretty aggressive price for the car, but considering what it would really cost me to build a fake, the original seemed like a rational deal. OK, yeah, I paid way too much for it, but that’s done.

Since Peyote was still not ready for the Northwest Historics and the Portland Historics (I took it off the stands and was disappointed to find the suspension was seriously screwed up) I decided to race the Ambro and get a benchmark at the two tracks I race at the most: Pacific Raceways and PIR. To make a long story short, I found that the car was very heavy, didn’t handle very well, and lacked power. But it was pretty.

I turned a respectable time in the main race at Pacific Raceways, starting the weekend with times in the low 1:50’s and finishing in the 1:45’s. At Portland I did better yet, determining that the tire pressures I was using for Peyote (About 15 PSI cold) was way too low for a car that weighs 250 pounds more to start with  (1800 vs. Peyote’s 1550) and a driver that has somehow gained 15 pounds since leaving Maui (might be all that food I ate).

I started in the back of the pack, turning 1:40’s and after a lot of tire tweaking and a new set of Hoosier Speedsters running 24 PSI and a bit of tweaking, got down to 1:35: something finishing 5th or 6th overall. Still five seconds slower than Peyote, but a respectable showing.

So now Mescal is disassembled in my shop. There are a lot of simple things I plan to do. First is to put that original body into storage and mount the new one I bought. It’s at least 200 pounds lighter. I can’t lift the original nose by myself, and I had to drag the rear body section off the car–can’t lift it at all.  Clearly it’s the first body they built and they must have thought they were building a sailboat. Or maybe “If a little glass is good, more is better. Lots of glass and LOTS of resin. It’s weak and heavy, and it’s also original, so I don’t want to take a chance of damaging it.

Next is reworking the roll cage. The cage is similar to Peyote’s except for the way the rollover bar and bracing works. It has all the weight of Peyote’s cage with fewer benefits. The rear end of the car is as floppy as a stock TR3 frame–which is EXTREMELY floppy. When I put a jack under either rear corner I can lift the wheel way off the ground before the other wheel even comes up on it’s springs. With Peyote, if one rear wheel lifts the other comes off the ground with one more pump on the jack.

Also the car was lowered by extending the shackles a lot. That’s got to account for some of that rear end wobble. It feels like the car has a hinge in the middle. It’s got an ugly panhard bar setup that can go away, but it needs radius arms. The Armstrong shocks have all the damping of a screen door closer.

In the front is a plumber’s nightmare–a secondary radiator, remote oil filter, and lots of plumbing for the accusump. All that can go away. I like to plumb the accusump directly to the oil gallery. The second radiator supplies water to the #4 cylinder. A worthy idea, but one that can be accomplished with one pipe instead of a tangle of plumbing and an extra radiator. I can probably eliminate 100 pounds in the engine bay.

It’s also got an overdrive transmission. Lots of people love these for race cars. I’m not one of them. A four speed dog box is more my style and will probably drop another 30-50 pounds.

Finally the motor lacks beans. I can fix that. I’m tempted to ditch the SU carbs, but I might keep them just for historical reference. I hate ’em, and I have a nice set of webers on the bench–tanned, rested and ready. But they might stay there.

I’ll shoot some pics of the guts, and post some pictures from the races next time.

All Aluminum Tour

AA Back To The Future

14 December 2007

I’m making pretty good progress on Peyote. Okay, it’s more like three steps forward, two back, but it’s coming together. I made a set of decisions that were kind of painful. Mainly, that I would try to use as much of the damaged body as possible since the frame couldn’t be saved. It’s a kind of silly thought, since Peyote has been reskinned at least three times that I know of–four if you count Peyote MkI, so it’s not like I’m preserving much of the original body (though there are three pieces of metal that I’m fairly certain come from the original incarnation). But the body skin from the roll cage forward is from the Peyote that I’ve had so much fun with over the past eight years, so I’m determined to save as much of that mojo as I can. Turns out of course that saving original bodywork with a new frame is twice the work of simply reskinning, but I’m glad that I’m trying to do it.

Here’s the new frame with some rear skin on. The old rear skin was too thin and oil-canned badly. I made this out of .040 aluminum and rolled a little crown into the aluminum with my new english wheel. You can barely see the crown but it makes the panels much more rigid and makes the entire structure far stronger. I’m not very good with the wheel yet, so the metal looks like an aluminum bag full of walnuts, but for now it’s done and in place so it’s going to stay.

Original nose skin laid in place. As you can see, there’s not a lot to work with here, but I’ll make it come together.

My el cheapo harbor freight English wheel. I reinforced it with a lot of added steel and it’s still one fourth the cost of any other source I found. It’s amateur crap, but hey, I’m an amateur.

Borgeson steering shaft with telescoping section–no more Zulu spear pointed at my chest. I did a very careful job building the steering. I’ve had an incident in the past when the steering wheel got disconnected. Not fun.

The “wideboy” chassis. These tubes used to be straight back to the rollbar which resulted in a seating position tilted to the right. Just like my politics–rigid, but uncomfortable. Now I can put a seat in that points down the track instead of driving down the track sideways.

I checked”everything” on the front suspension for bends and cracks, found one lower arm was bent, no cracks. When I installed the suspension the right side (the one that hit the tire wall) I could feel binding and the lower arms moved apart when I stroked the suspension. Turns out the lower trunnion axle was bent. So now I’m waiting for a new one. Late TR4-TR6 trunnions (with 3 degrees of caster) are not interchangeable side to side, so my big stack of TR3 suspension stuff was worthless. I do, however, strongly endorse caster in TR3/4 race cars.

Someone needs to clean this shop. Ah well, back to it. More pictures later. I’m getting kind of frantic, I only have until Jan 3rd, and there are a few days in the middle when I can’t work–like Christmas, and a trip to Yosemite for a ridiculously decadent dinner put on by a good friend.

All Aluminum Tour

AA New Bones

27 November 2007

I’ve been super busy, I thought this time before the holidays would be nice and lazy, instead, I’m working my tail off. I don’t know if I’m going to have Peyote back together before we leave for Maui. I’ve got the new frame done. Now I need to paint it and start building. I tried hard to save the old frame, but it was just too far gone. And once we cut some of the tubes to straighten the TR3 part of the frame I discovered that the original roll cage to frame welds were not well penetrated, the tubing wall thickness was a bit on the skimpy side (.860 everywhere), and the rust monster had been hard at work. I’m glad I never stuck this thing on its lid. I’m pretty certain the roll cage would have collapsed, or at least been compromised, in any kind of rollover.

The new frame weighs about the same (28 pounds heavier). We went down a little on the tubing diameter (to 1 1/2″ from 1 5/8*) and used .134 wall for the roll hoop, brace, and driver’s side intrusion bars. The rest is 1 1/2″ .860 wall. I made the driver’s compartment a little bigger by cheating the side brace out with a curve at the end, and added footwell intrusion protection. My little friend in the Corvette demonstrated how important that is. Another inch or so and my feet would have lacked wiggle room.

Yes, there’s a TR3 frame under all that tubing
It’s not exactly a birdcage–more like a bearcage
A little jog to accommodate my girth
The skinny tubes support the body. In the original Peyote these were made of conduit. That might be a little lighter but a pain in the butt to bend precisely and to weld.
Temperature guages. How cool is that? I generally just splash some temperature indicating paint on to show if the transmission has been toasted.
Gorgeous transmission, inside and out.

Thought you might also like to see the new transmission Tony Garmey (Horizon Racing) built for me. It’s almost too pretty to stick in a car. Dog box guts. I like the little temperature gauge labels. Much prettier than my usual splash of temperature sensing paint.

Brother Dave Says:
December 14th, 2007 at 3:21 pm e
Just so you know that someone is STILL paying attention.
I couldn’t tell but is that a new subframe too? Lots of welding and fabrication. Are you doing it all freehand or do you have a jig of sorts?
Speaking of MOJO and keeping it in place, I’m positive this latest Peyote revision will be as fun, and as forgiving as the last one.
And speaking of keeping on, when is the Infineon (sp?) race? I need a plane ride.

All Aluminum Tour

AA Watkins Glen Epilogue

Thanks for all the supportive emails and comments, and the offers of rides at both Road America and Sovren’s Fall Finale. I’m not taking anyone up on that kind offer. I’m not comfortable racing other people’s cars, but most of all, now that I’m on the way, I’m pretty excited about being home. Four months in the front 16 feet of a trailer is a long time.

One phone caller was not so pleased, I heard from Carl Jensen, the competition director of SVRA. He was pretty pissed that I said in my post that it was the stewards that would be making the decision about any sanctions (they don’t, he does), that I expected politics would be involved, and the reason I hadn’t heard any result was so the decision to do nothing could be announced after everyone was safely gone.

Not only did Carl make his determination before the end of the race weekend, but he also came looking for me to tell me about it. It must have been fairly late on Sunday, I was at the track until almost noon. The decision was a penalty for the Corvette driver, none for me.

I took another look at what I said and how I said it. I was talking about my assumptions. They weren’t unreasonable, but they were wrong. I’m not going to change the article because then this apology wouldn’t make sense: I’m sorry Carl, I shouldn’t have sold you short. And I should have come looking for you or called before I made assumptions about how you run your show. Thanks for getting in touch with me and giving me the chance to set it straight.

I don’t know what penalty you assessed, and I don’t really care that much. I remain unimpressed at the character and integrity of the driver, but how you deal with him is your business. All the best.

Incidentally, the sour ending aside, SVRA runs a pretty neat event. All the races went off on time until it started raining insanely hard. The off-track re-enactment tours were great fun, very well coordinated and handled (I know firsthand how hard that is), the registration and logistics were flawless and painless, and they got people pretty much into the right groups (though I’m still wondering about those MGA’s in group four). Watkins Glen is definitely one of my favorite tracks to race. Next time I’ll try to bring a little more horsepower so I don’t give away so much in the straights.

All Aluminum Tour

AA Punted at Watkins Glen

“Nooo, you idiot” I groaned as the Corvette bashed into Peyote’s left rear corner, pivoting the car sideways onto its massive bumper. I slid along sideways at sixty MPH and I stared up the hood five inches from my elbow. The big car was pushing me towards the tire wall. I had just enough time to think “you jerk”, and then I hit the wall. Peyote’s right front wheel smashed into the rubber, aluminum crumpled and I could actually see the wheel move backward as the suspension mounts bent. I knew the All Aluminum Tour was over.


SVRA’s Zippo U.S. Vintage Grand Prix is a big event at a big track–Watkins Glen. Tony Garmey says Watkins separates the sheep from the goats. I’m not exactly sure what that means–Kiwis talk like that–but I get the drift. Diane and I left Limerock Monday night and got to Watkins Glen on Wednesday, only to discover they wouldn’t let us in until Thursday morning. We used my iPhone to find a nearby campground and found one near Bath, NY, which turned out not to be as close to Watkins Glen as it looked. Once we dumped the trailer we spent the afternoon driving around Keuka Lake and had an excellent dinner at the Esperanza Mansion, a remarkable place overlooking the Lake.

We got back to the campground after dark, and as I was backing the truck close to the hitch my phone went off, distracting me for a second. Crunch! I gave the new electric jack a bought a few weeks ago a good whack. I made temporary repairs the next morning and made the hour long journey to the track. We set up in a good area with electricity and water, and I tried to repair the jack. After a lot of fiddling I gave up and used the iPhone to find the nearest RV parts store. You guessed it–Bath, NY.

Driving back from Bath the second time in one day we passed a KOA campground about half a mile from Watkins Glen. Perhaps Google Maps isn’t quite ready to replace the yellow pages.

On the plus side, we had a nice lunch in a tavern in Hammondsport and got to see this great Curtis seaplane being launched. Hammondsport is where the Curtis museum is, and it’s one of the cradles of aviation. Not much else there but some beautiful old buildings and a nice lake. I guess that’s quite a lot when I think about it.

I got to help launch this thing–only because I was the tallest guy on the dock and could catch the wing when the plane got blown around. The guys launching it were pretty casual about the whole thing–lots of crunching noises when they started pushing it off the cradle that would have given me a heart attack if it were mine. I don’t know if there was any damage. This plane must have taken a huge amount of effort to restore. The pictures don’t do it justice. I’ll put the rest in the gallery I’m building that will hold all the pictures from the trip.

Lots of Friends of Triumph pals showed up at the track–some racing, some spectating. We’ve really appreciated belonging to the FOT on this trip: We have friends everywhere. In the trailer next to us was Steve Groh–a FOTer and fairly new Triumph Spitfire racer. Down the pit road a few spots was Henry Frye–always a pleasant guy to have around, and his wife Helen immediately bonded with Diane. Bill Dentinger and Bob Wismer were pitted far away from us though I saw them both at the drivers meeting. They were having clutch problems. I rode my bike around looking for them to offer help, but couldn’t find them. I ran into Cornell Babcock when I was doing tech. I don’t know of any direct family connection, but we both have the same nose, we both race LBCs, both of us love TR3’s, and we both think it’s important that our trailer has three axles. How much of all this stuff that makes us up is learned and how much is hardwired into our genes?

Cornell was driving his meticulously prepped TR3. Rich Rock brought us some sweet corn and a huge delicious tomato. Our Philly FOT buddies Ed and Bruce showed up–they’ve been to at least five of the twelve races we completed on the All Aluminum tour. What a great bunch of folks. Please forgive me if I forgot to mention your name–it was a long and eventful weekend. And of course, my memory sucks.

Thursday I got on the track for a timed practice and a qualifier. I was running in Group Four with a lot of big iron–Listers, a very fast Chapparal, a blisteringly fast and very well driven Lotus 11 Le Mans, various other sports racers, some corvettes, and inexplicably, a cluster of MGA’s and Big Healys. My times were okay–2:29 the first time on track, 2:22 the second. I figured I could get down to 2:21 (as I did the first time I was at Watkins Glen for the HSR event in early summer) and perhaps even to 2:20. My times were putting me in the front of the pack–third if the relative times held up. Watkins Glen is a horsepower track but Peyote makes up time in some of the corner combinations and I can carry a lot more speed than the big cars do coming onto the straights. For example, from the exit of turn one to the “bus stop” chicane Peyote is flat out in fourth, threading a very precise needle with not even a lift. Most of the big cars brake for at least two of the three turns between, especially the scary bridge turns with their big steel rails and no runoff. I noticed the Lotus 11 wasn’t braking either, though his light weight gave him more horsepower parity.

Thursday night we did a barbeque in our pits and invited everyone hanging around. Lots of roasted sweet corn, a big platter of fat slices of local homegrown tomatoes (“only two things that money can’t buy, true love and homegrown tomatoes”) with basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar (Diane said the fresh Mozzarella I bought a week ago was spoiled-I’d have tried it) and some chicken. People hardly touched the chicken–they filled up on corn and tomatoes. I think it would be easy to be a vegetarian in the summer.

On Friday morning my brother Dave was in the paddock when I climbed out of Nero at 6:00. He’d gotten to the track about four ayem. He had enough fun at Limerock to make him want to take the long drive from Boston to Watkins Glen. I think he’s got the bug pretty bad. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in a vintage car sometime soon. I should probably tell him how much all this stuff really costs. It ain’t the car, buddy, it’s everything else. And the cars aren’t cheap.

Dave and I went to breakfast at Tobe’s in Watkins Glen, leaving Diane to catch up on her sleep. Friday I was only on the track once, but the times counted towards qualifying. I pushed hard and did 2.23. The front end was pushing pretty hard. Time to look for new tires. I also checked the camber and found the left side had about a degree too much. The class rules at Limerock required me to switch to rock-hard vintage Dunlops and the bias ply tires require that I set the camber to zero, so I probably miscounted when I switched back. The big horsepower cars were giving me fits–they’d eat me up in the straights and then tiptoe through the turns. sometimes it felt like we were barely moving. There are a few good places to pass, but most of them lead to chutes where I’d just get re-passed on horsepower anyway.

Friday evening they do a re-enactment of racing on the old Watkins Glen road course. There were more than 500 cars registered for the race and they only take 150 for the enactment. I wrote an eloquent plea for Peyote’s inclusion that turned out to be unnecessary–they had less than 150 cars apply.

Diane wanted to go, but Peyote has no passenger seat. I tried to make a case for fabricating something on top of the fuel cell, but the tech guy just kept saying “so you’re telling me you want your passenger to sit on the fuel cell?!?” Fortunately Henry Frye had an empty seat in his car since Helen didn’t want to go. Diane snapped up the opportunity and went to buy appropriate accessories–goggles and a leather helmet. Cute.

Diane and Henry in his TR4

Peyote looks kind of little. We had a police escort from the track to downtown, then we parked the cars on both sides of the main street so the crowd could look over the cars (and I could grab a brat–a damned good one), we did two laps around the track with a police escort and then headed right back to the track. Slow in some spots, but fast enough to get the adrenaline going in others. The guys that did this fifty years ago with minimal safety equipment had enormous courage–or little imagination.

There were 50 thousand people on the street. The sidewalks were packed. Along the route, there were people at every place that might have a little drama. One group had a table set with a white tablecloth, nice wine glasses (looked like a Cabernet) and a nice cheese and fruit tray (at least as far as I could tell from my 50 MPH vantage point).

I made the mistake of wearing shorts–there’s a lot of heat coming up the footwell of this little car. I was roasted by the time I got back to the track.

Saturday we had a warmup in the morning and a qualifying race in the afternoon. I got two new Hoosier Speedsters for the front (two was all that Woodman had left), scrubbed them in in the morning session and felt an immediate improvement in the handling. In the afternoon we had a qualifying race. I was gridded third behind the Chapparal and the Lotus 11, with a wad of Listers, Devin SS’s, and Corvettes behind. When the pace car turned onto the straight the pace was glacial. I really needed to shift to first, but didn’t dare because I’d run the risk of getting smacked when I had to shift right away. The starter waved a very early green and we were off. A lot of cars passed me as I tried to accelerate, but I went to the outside going into turn one and passed all but John Harden’s Lister and a white Corvette. The Chapparal and the Lotus were wailing away out of reach. I settled down to try to pass the two big cars that had gotten by me.

Of course, it was nearly impossible. I was bottled up behind them in the turns, going painfully slow, and then they’d pull ten car lengths on me in the straight and I’d have to run up on them again. It’s hard for a momentum car like Peyote to get daylight on a point-and-shoot horsepower car at a track like Watkins Glen. Every corner complex is followed by either a long chute or a straight.

I kept working on them, but I was somewhat resigned to finishing behind them since they were bunched together and much too wide to pass as a pair. But since they were battling each other they were slowing more than usual in the corners, and the Corvette was sliding around a lot. Behind us was a Lister and Devin that we had pulled a good lead on, but they started catching up. I don’t think we were turning anything better than 2:25, maybe even slower. I knew if the cars behind us got within five car lengths that they’d pass me on the straight.

On the last lap, the cars behind were still closing, but I reckoned I had enough lead to hold the position. As we entered the long carousel-like turn after the chicane, John’s Lister pulled a good lead on the Corvette, and the Corvette driver blew the apex by at least five feet, going very wide. I kept my speed up, tucked inside him and passed. As we entered the left-hander they call the chute I turned in for the apex and saw the Corvette coming straight at me. He smashed into Peyote’s left rear corner and the car immediately pivoted onto the front of his car. I watched his big ass ’57 Corvette with the hood at my elbow push me through the corner sideways until I crashed into the tire wall, crunching the right front corner.

I sat stunned for a moment, then got out of the car, and walked behind the wall, pulling off my helmet and gloves. When the driver of the Corvette came behind the wall I said: “what the f@*k was that about”. He said, “that’s what I want to know.” I stared at him and started to reply but the corner worker stepped between us and started asking me questions. Either the corner worker was looking the wrong way and didn’t see the wreck, or he saw murder in my eye and was defusing the situation. Either way, I realized I’d gain nothing by talking to the guy–anyone that can hit a car in the rear end and then pretend it wasn’t his fault isn’t anyone I need to talk to.

Not only did he wreck my car, but he could also have killed me, all because he didn’t want to get passed, pure and simple, and tried to bully his way through a hole that wasn’t there. A particularly stupid move since there’s no way I could have held him off in the uphill straight after the boot.

They took me in an ambulance to the medical center and checked me out thoroughly–I hit the wall hard. On the way to medical, I saw Diane walking fast towards an official, looking pretty frantic. I tried to get the EMT to stop so I could reassure her, but they said they needed to get me to the med center. I checked out fine and they released me once my blood pressure came down. I caught up with Diane close to the paddock. She started crying when she saw me but calmed down pretty quickly.

The tow truck was pulling out as we walked to the paddock. Peyote had already been unloaded. The car looked so forlorn I got a lump in my throat. Twelve events this summer, on tracks we’d never been on, racing with people we mostly didn’t know. Never a scratch, and the little car performed so gallantly against overwhelming competition. Now it was over because of ruthless, reckless, talentless driving.

I have no problem forgiving errors in judgment, I make too many of them to be stiff necked. But I’ve got this silly honor and integrity hangup. The guy never apologized, didn’t even have the guts to say something noncommital like “sorry your car got damaged” or “glad you weren’t hurt”. Instead, he did his best to make the stewards believe it was my fault. He knows he’s lying, and I know he’s lying. Of course, by now he’s lying to himself too.

I’ve been on the guilty side of an incident like this about ten years ago, and though it was a less clearcut than this incident (I hit a Lotus 7 in the right front fender of his car when I couldn’t brake in time as he turned into a chicane on the start), I stepped up and apologized. How could anyone not? Even paid for the guy’s damage though I think it’s wrong to do that and I’d never look for it–we all assume the risk of damage or injury when we choose to race.

I’ll fix my own car.

The stewards didn’t “decide” on their action, which I take to mean they wanted everyone cleared out before they decide to do nothing. They were already making noises about “mitigating aspects” when I talked to them, despite clear evidence like a big punt mark in the back of my car, the fact that my car got pushed a couple of hundred feet down the track on the front of his car (kind of hard to get there if you’re side by side), a video from Doug Karon’s Devin, and lots of people that saw the incident. Of course, I know “witnesses” see what they want to see and there’s always another story, but this one is pretty clearcut. I assume politics will take the forefront.

They were even talking about my duties as the passing driver and whether or not I had completed the pass before I turned in. Excuse me? I get hit in the back end hard enough to push my subframe into my tire and we’re talking about my pass? My pass was over in the previous corner, the Corvette was the overtaking driver. End of story.

David surveys the damage.

“Did you complete your pass”? Is there some other way to get in front?

free bumper ride

bent frame on the right front from hitting the wall

If I did such a bonehead thing I’d expect to get suspended, but this guy has run with SVRA for years and I’m just a guy from Oregon that they may never see again. They’re the ones that will have to race with him, I certainly wouldn’t set a wheel on a track with him again.

A lot of folks dropped by to sympathize. It started raining like heck and I couldn’t get Peyote into the trailer until I cleared it out. Made me feel bad looking at it sitting in the rain, all crushed up, but I decided to wait until the next morning to load up. Burt Levy came over to cheer me up. He told me he had known the guy for years and he was a stand-up guy. I told him you couldn’t prove that by me and opened a bottle of nice provencal Rose’. We sat and shot the shit, talked racing and the tracks I’d been to on the tour. The bottle magically emptied, and so did another. I wound up going to dinner with Diane, my brother David, Henry Frye and Helen. The food tasted like sawdust. I don’t think it had much to do with the cook.

It rained like hell all night. I couldn’t sleep much–too worked up. David got wet in his tent that attaches to his Aztek (AZTEK!). We were a pretty sorry sight the next morning. took Dave to Tobe’s again, then I got Peyote loaded up, packed everything, and we hit the road, headed home. It was raining hard when we left. Thunder and lightning–old testament stuff.

I’m not particularly upset about missing the last two races. I’m not even that upset about Peyote–I can fix it, and I will. What I’m really chapped about is the simple lack of honor and integrity. I expect it, from myself, from other drivers, and from any organization that claims to have rules. Even the ancient Greeks understood that for an organization to survive its rules had to be enforced without regard for status. (yes, Kas, I’m listening to the Greek civilization CDs on the way back home). When people weasel around and refuse to take responsibility for their actions, they just make me want to puke.

Anyway, the racing part of the tour is over. I’m making my way back across the country to lick my wounds in Portland. we’ll do a little sightseeing on the way back and stop in Geneseo to pick up my motor from Uncle Jack. I’ll let you know what I see on the way.

All Aluminum Tour

AA 30 Babcocks

9 Sept 2007
Well, not all Babcocks, but thirty relatives showed up at Limerock to watch Peyote and I do our thing. I’m originally from Boston, and the only black sheep to actually leave the east coast permanently. So my brothers, sisters, and Mom planned to come to see me race, and it blossomed into a mini-reunion and campout with wads of nieces and nephews as well. My daughter Cassie and her two boys James and Shea drove down from Michigan.

Twenty-one adults and nine kids. What fun. It was great to see them all, but I didn’t get to spend as much time as I hoped to catch up because…

…Naturally Peyote had its first serious mechanical problem of the entire trip. The quartermaster clutch and Saab throwout bearing I use in Peyote packed it in.

I assumed I was screwed, but I asked around the paddock to see if anyone knew where I could get parts. It turns out J.R. Mitchell of GMT racing had some–at his shop in Danbury, about 40 miles away. Off I went, and amazingly they had exactly what I needed. What a shop by the way, and what a great guy J.R. is.

I started to reassemble the clutch but a helicoil in the flywheel backed out. I fiddled with the helicoil trying to reuse it, but in the process, a second helicoil backed out. Turns out I had a bit of metal stuck in the third thread of one bolt. A little more pit scrambling and J.R. helped me find a guy that had a full set of fine thread helicoils and insertion tools. My only regret is that J.R. is on the wrong coast for me to give him regular business–not that he needs my piddling custom, his shop is full to the rafters with exotic iron.

I replaced all the helicoils and found the bolts wouldn’t thread into them.

Quit for the night, mumbling and cursing. About 1:30 AM I woke up realizing I hadn’t chased the holes with the helicoil tap and crud in the threads was shrinking the minor diameter. Sure enough, chased the holes, refit the helicoils and the bolts turned smoothly in. I was in biz. Sort of.

I had lost reverse a few weeks earlier, and since the transmission was out I decided to pull the cover and see what was happening. I could immediately see that the reverse shaft was floating around. In the Limerock swap meet that was going on a few steps away was the very knowledgeable owner of Quantum Mechanics, a transmission shop that specializes in old British stuff (those of you that know my lame compensatory circumlocutions know that I can’t remember his name). He told me my wayward reverse shaft meant the retainer that holds the layshaft and reverse shaft in place was probably broken. I swiped the one from the spare transmission I have (which was otherwise useless since it’s set up for a different clutch and a conventional throwout system) and got that replaced, though the extraordinarily helpful but unnamed owner of Quantum Mechanics told me the retainer usually breaks because the layshaft outer bearing is going bad. Pleasant thought.

When I put the transmission back it wouldn’t press home the last quarter inch. I pulled it back out and could see that the center hub of the clutch was very close to the diaphragm spring. The throwout bearing pilot tube was fouling it. Inspecting the broken clutch parts showed that was the case with it as well. And the pilot tube showed hard rubbing wear.

Turns out I didn’t space the throwout bearing guide bushing appropriately when I assembled the transmission to the engine, and it was pressing hard on the hub of the first clutch plate (I use a quartermaster double plate 7.5-inch clutch). Over time the hub broke away from the plate and I had a single plate clutch that dragged a lot. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the throwout bearing came apart too. With all that stuff screwed up the clutch still worked middling well through more than fifteen events until Friday when the splines spun out of the second hub.

Bingo–a box full of neutrals.

I changed the spacing of the annular bearing, put it all back together, took a long cold shower in the Limerock shower facilities, and drank a bunch of beers.

Good thing they don’t run on Sunday. What first seemed to be a one hour job took all of Saturday afternoon and almost all of Sunday.

I took brother Bob down to the local lake to let him try my Starboard Stand Up Board. He’s interested in learning to do it, and I think it would be good for his balance issues and general health if he could manage to stand on the board. Bob had a tumor removed from his auditory nerve on one side and it’s played havoc with his balance. Turns out he can do standup paddling just fine, in fact, a local reporter caught his maiden flight on Video. I was so pleased for him that I gave him my Starboard SUP board and paddle.

Monday morning I prepped the car and did the warmup. It ran fine though it shifted a little rough. For the feature race, I was gridded dead last (19th)–no qualifying time on Saturday. I figured I’d have my work cut out for me, lots of high horsepower and high-performance cars in Group four. A very fast Elva, lots of Loti, two birdcage Maseratis, three Listers, a Lola and Peyote’s big brother, the Filson Falcon as well as a few other specials. I got a decent start, passed a Tipo 61 and a Lister coming into turn one, and started working on the field.

I had to pass most of the cars twice since most had more beans than Peyote. They’d be too far ahead at the end of the straight to pass them in turn one, so I’d chase them down in the tight stuff and pass them about turn three or four, then they’d repass me in the straight, but I’d be close enough to repass in turn one, then I’d have enough lead by the time we got back to the straight so they couldn’t repass. In this “ahead three, back two” manner I worked my way up steadily until I got to John Harden in a Lister. I was all over his tail but couldn’t slip by. He admitted to me later that he was “getting a little wide” in the corners. I absolutely don’t blame him, I wouldn’t make it easy for a bucket of bolts like Peyote to pass me either.

While John was holding me up, Mike Silverman in another Lister caught up and started working on me. Since I couldn’t go fast where I was faster, he finally got me in the straight. John wouldn’t let Michael by either, and on the last lap I repassed Mike and took seventh place. I actually hesitated before I passed Mike. I know he would have been tickled to beat Peyote. I must be getting soft. He’s improving dramatically as a driver and there will come a day when he kicks my ass. Of course, I should point out that in the end, I DIDN’T cut him any slack.

A very fun race and a good result for a thoroughly broken car. The turn workers invited me to their party after the race. I thought it was because of all the hard work I did, but it was really because they liked Diane and Sam. Figures.

I couldn’t have gotten all that work done (and redone, and redone) without my two brothers, who helped out all Saturday and Sunday. Even though it turns out that their memories and organizational skills are actually worse than mine. Hard to believe.

It was really fun having all the family there. I wished I could have spent more time with them, or had more time to talk with all the Friends of Triumph folks that dropped by, but I was elbows deep in busted Peyote all weekend.

After the race, I went into Nero to change into shorts and came out to a huge crowd of cheering Babcocks. I guess they liked the show. Thanks for coming you guys, I actually misted up for a second there.


Brother Dave Says:
September 10th, 2007 at 6:52 am e
I learned a lot about historic racing at Lime Rock. First, it’s a whole lot of fun. With friends, competitors, other racers, joining together for advice on how to fix things, help to locate parts, offering encouragement, and even grabbing the occasional tool to help put an injured race car back together…’s a close group, with lots of great people…….but as Bill wrote, they still won’t cut you any slack on the racecourse.

Secondly, having been a mechanic in a previous life….I sort of enjoyed thrashing with my brothers for two days of replacing a destroyed clutch, installing helicoils, fixing leaking hydraulic lines, and removing/installing a transmission around a half dozen times…….well, the last one I could have handled better just once, but when a racing car burps parts, it always seems to be one thing leads to another.

Historic racing seems to be exactly that…racing one minute, fixing the next, and then racing again……going to have to talk to my wife about doing some of this, should I ever hit the lottery!
And lastly….despite the roughness (some will say ugliness) of Peyote, this crude little race car draws a big crowd…..most want to know what it is…..some who recognize parts (like the subframe, or the engine) want to know how it goes. To that my answer is “it goes pretty good” Bill will tell you it’s the car that is the reason it runs well, but because he won’t say it, I will, “Bill drives extremely well, and is a talented driver” He and Peyote consistently take on more powerful, more sophisticated, purely designed race cars, and not only give them all they can handle but also beats their $500,000 exotics pretty regularly…..which as you can imagine, pisses them off a great deal.

So to a little underpowered 4 cylinder ugly Peyote, and to a brother that is all of the above other than 4 cylindered, but drives his car with enthusiasm, courage, enlarged testicles, it was a blast to race with you, thrash a transmission alongside you and Bob, and spend the weekend with an excited, extended family, getting most of the hillside above the Limerock esses cheering for not only #222, but for the underdog driver in his little exciting race car.

See you in Watkins Glen…..but we’ll save that story til later.

All Aluminum Tour

AA The Good, The Bad, And the Awful

29 August 2007
So we left the Chicago Four Seasons on Monday, headed for Limerock Raceway in Connecticut. Last time I saw Limerock I was about fifteen and it was a dust bowl as I recall. Pretty spiffy looking now. The roads leading south out of Chicago are not exactly scenic, we drove to Indiana to pick up Nero and Peyote, then headed for Connecticut. I wasn’t particularly sleepy or hungry so we pressed on, finally stopping in the outskirts of Toledo, Ohio for dinner at a Lebanese place. It wasn’t bad, but I ate a little too much. So once we hit the road I started getting the nods. We were on a toll road, so there wasn’t much to choose from for places to stay. We finally wound up stopping at a travel plaza and just crashing in Nero. Sometime in the night the parking lot filled with big diesel, including one that parked about ten inches from Nero, idling it’s engine all night.

You don’t want to crash out in these places. The combination of diesel fumes and noise woke me about 4:00 AM. I wiggled out the door–there was literally no space to open the door and get out of the trailer. I pulled out then shoveled Diane and Sam into the back of the truck. I briefly thought of “tagging” the truckers window–something terse like “asshole” spelled backward. Then hit the highway. This all felt like deja vu all over again (yeah, I know it’s redundant, it’s a joke). Nero’s first trip to Sears Point started the same way.

I resolved not to get the same lousy uninspired chain restaurant breakfast. So about 7:00 AM I started looking for restaurants and finally found a likely looking place called something like “Mama Jeans Home Cooking”. It looked right. The room had a robust looking group of farmers having breakfast. The placemats advertised two separate county fairs. I sensed a good breakfast. Then the food came.

I haven’t seen such an uninspired mess since Mackinac Island. Instant Oatmeal. Biscuits from Costco or someplace like that. Overcooked eggs. Corned Beef hash straight from the can, and not a good can. Frozen “homefries” warmed in cheap cooking oil.

Mama Jean needs her butt kicked–she’s too lazy to cook water. Diane was going to ask for peanut butter for her English muffin, but in the dirty restroom a plunger was shoved into a big plastic tub that previously held “Economy Peanut Butter”. Yum.

How did it happen that people came to accept warming prefab crap as suitable restaurant fare–anywhere. How much effort does it make to make a great breakfast? Why would anyone go to all the work of running a restaurant and not do it well?

We left the food mostly untouched and headed down the road grumbling. We talked about ways to improve the simple food scene in America. Maybe a rating system that helps good places thrive and bad places die. Diane suggested a name for the effort: Simple Quality. I like it. I’m starting to plan to build a website to enable that–probably something wiki-like that lets people praise the good and condemn the bad. I don’t like to just bitch about something and not try to fix it. I don’t care about chains or fast food–they can’t improve beyond the mediocrity embedded in the three-ring binders that run the places. I’m talking about places run by people who might have something to contribute to better experiences.

Like the HUGE surprise that lunch was. We were hungry of course, so when we saw a sign for a historic district in the town of Milford, PA (which is very close to Middle of Nowhere, PA.) our interest was cautiously piqued (Gatlinburg is too recent a memory for it to be other than cautious). One establishment that was tastefully advertised was a historic Inn/Restaurant called Hotel Fauchere. We drove through the town, noted several interesting-looking restaurants, and parked Nero on a shady street with beautiful houses and a stately city hall. Everything looked carefully cared for except one very interesting-looking structure that stood boarded up and condemned.

Hotel Fauchere proved to be an elegant-looking Italianate building. I thought it looked stuffy and dreaded over-sauced pseudo-french cooking. The entry of the hotel and all we could see of the formal main dining room reinforced my impression. Diane was more optimistic, so we entered and took the elevator down to Bar Louis, expecting heavy faux antiques and a hamburger menu. To my astonishment the restaurant had a light contemporary feel, engaging artwork on the beautifully paneled walls and pleasant, comfortable furnishings. The feel was integrated, detailed, clean and pleasant.

The menu was straightforward but promised good ingredients. Locally smoked ham, artisan breads, french fries with truffle oil. I had a Croque Monsieur which is nothing more than grilled cheese and ham–but what a sandwich. Wonderful brioche bread, the ham was as good as the menu promised, cooked perfectly so the outside of the bread crunched and the inside melted into the cheese. The truffle fries were crisp and delicious. Diane had mussels and handmade potato chips that were amazing.

A simple meal, cooked extremely well. A little good wine, some great coffee, and we were off again, marveling at the difference between lunch and dinner. Truth is, you could do that anywhere. The only difference is the effort. If you’re ever within fifty miles of Milford, PA it would be worth the trip: . From what I can see on the website, the main dining room looks pretty spectacular too, and the rooms appear comfy. If they’ve put the same effort into the rest of the hotel that they put into the small dining area (and why wouldn’t they) then it should all be great.

We continued on towards Limerock, enjoying an increasingly scenic ride. The area around Limerock is really pretty. We found some farmers markets on the way in that we’ll be hitting before the weekend. Beautiful big tomatoes, squash, string beans, fruit, nice looking sweet corn. I’m going to try to get some very fresh corn though, it starts changing as soon as it’s picked.

The track looks beautiful, but the layout is really simple. I’ve heard people say Limerock is challenging. Doesn’t look that way to me, but we’ll see. We got a good paddock space. We’re camping in Nero, enjoying this cozy and simple space. What a great trailer.

Good night.

All Aluminum Tour

AA What I’ve Learned So Far

29 August 2007
So it’s 3:54 AM and I’m compelled to write. I woke up at two with all this stuff in my head. The only way I’ll get some sleep is to reel it out of my mind and onto “paper”. Driving around the country endlessly is a serious education. Most of what I’ve learned I don’t like much. We have a wonderful country and we’re doing a lousy job with it.

I’m going to excuse one group from this rant: Farmers. Great job guys. Not only are most farms beautiful, but they also appear to be run with pride, not only in the product but also for the land. Remarkable, I’m honored to have seen your work.

The rest of you I’m not so impressed with. The level of mediocrity in most of the US and Canada is simply stunning. Mackinac Island. where we took our grandsons for a little vacation, is a fine microcosm of it. Here the bar is set so low it’s a tripping hazard. And yet the usual whipping boys–chain stores and strip malls–are completely absent. Instead, there’s a wonderful environment going to waste with hideous food, lousy accommodations, silly practices, pathetic marketing, and copycat merchandising.

The hotel we stayed at has food that would embarrass a prison. I don’t know who is cooking the scrambled eggs, but they manage to make them taste like overdone dehydrated eggs–and I had better-tasting examples of those sitting in Tonkin Bay on the aircraft carrier Enterprise. Here we are in the land of Dairy, and the cheese is the cheapest, nastiest pre-shredded plastic looking crap I’ve ever seen.

Is the assumption that these are just tourists we’ll never see again? A performance like this guarantees it. We haven’t had a single meal here that honored its basic ingredients in any way. But it’s not just the food. They’re silly about everything, and no one appears to think or take initiative. In ninety degree weather, the heater in the pool was on full blast. Bicycles are the basic mode of transportation, and somehow they’ve fixed the price so high that people only rent them for short periods (clearly a manipulated price–anyone that broke ranks would own the market). The horse taxi system is impenetrable–I never did figure out how to rent one. I tried to hire an idle taxi to take us back to our hotel and he could only take us half way. Then he parked and sat. He was still there fifteen minutes later. And the price to take us halfway was the same as taking us all the way. Hello–I’d pay more to go where I wanted to go.

The streets are full and the stores are empty of customers. Nothing to buy. The most dispirited, copycat crap I’ve ever seen. How many fudge shops does a half-mile commercial area need? Five? Ten? Did anyone answer 14? I gave the boys twenty bucks apiece to buy something to remember the trip. Took us hours and they wound up with stuff they could have gotten anywhere. Not because they are so fussy, but because even a ten-year-old kid can tell when he’s looking at crap.

I’ll bet the average length of stay on the island is declining. There’s not much to do and the food sucks everywhere. I don’t mean that it’s the usual mediocre mid-America crap–it’s a lot worse. I’m a guy that likes a bratwurst as much as anything. I had one at the hotel. Eight bucks for a petrified little dried-up thing cracked down the middle, that must have sat on the back of the grill for an hour and then got nuked. Stuck in a stale bun and hidden with sauerkraut. You can’t complain when you’re presented with such a bad level of performance, you just leave. They have to be in the ballpark to justify a complaint, otherwise, you’re just wasting breath. We cut our stay short by a day, should have left sooner and looked for something better.

I’m not sure how it happens, but performance only seems to go in two directions: Spiraling up or spiraling down. When people settle for “good enough” the downward spiral starts. I remember when food on the Oregon coast was about as bad as you can find anywhere. Then one day I found the Blue Sky Cafe in Manzanita. Spectacular food, prepared with love, genius, and unstinting effort. We ate there every time we could, and so did everyone else. The town seemed to blossom around this single restaurant. Of course, the talented lady that ran it burned out, and it’s a shadow of its former glory, but the bar went up and up.

Without that example to follow and seek to improve on, the food quality everywhere on the coast has started to decline again. It’s hard to get a good meal there now. Maybe there’s more to it than the Blue Sky Cafe, but I know for a while the Oregon Coast seemed very special, and now it’s not so much.

Portland and Seattle are examples of an upward spiral. As the bar rises, the consumers get more educated. They require more effort, more talent, more quality to serve. The expanding market attracts talent, but even more important, chefs and waiters and even fry cooks learn to be better, to respect their ingredients, to balance, to try harder. You can get a better meal in a greasy spoon like “Stepping Stones” in Portland than you can in most of the “upscale” restaurants I’ve found in all of the Midwest.

Here’s the exception: Marie Catrib’s in Grand Rapids. Diane and I went there for breakfast one morning and wound up driving fifty miles back to the restaurant TWICE from the racetrack. Not because it was fancy, or fussy. It was simply excellent. Fresh ingredients, prepared with care and attention. We finally met the owner and congratulated her on a spectacularly good restaurant. She said “we don’t make a lot of money from this place, but we love it. We make the food we like to eat, that we want our grandchildren to have”.

See–it’s a simple thing.

By the way, when we went the first time the restaurant was nearly empty–it was a late breakfast mid-week. But we thought “my god, don’t the people around here know how good this is”? On subsequent visits, we waited in line for a table. People aren’t stupid. Lazy maybe, but not dumb.

All Aluminum Tour

AA Grattan and Grandkids

27 August 2007
This is out of sequence, I wrote it last week but didn’t post it.

We had an interesting race weekend at Grattan. The track is fun, bumpy and swoopy with lots of elevation changes and some interesting corners. The weather looked threatening, and ultimately cut my participation short, but we had a good weekend.

My daughter Cassie joined us at the track, along with grandsons James and Shea. They were camping in a tent, which seemed like an iffy proposition considering the threatening weather and Cassie’s bad back. But it’s less than an hour to their house, so it wouldn’t be that much challenge if it didn’t work out. As it turned out, Cassie’s back was fine and their tent was snug.

Saturday night she moved it under Nero’s awning just in case it rained. About four in the morning the awning was making nasty noises in the wind, so I got up to change the angle more downwards. I discovered the awning was bellied with rainwater so I carefully lowered one corner and the water poured in a torrent onto the ground. I thought it was all gone, so I lowered the other end a little less cautiously, and got ten gallons of ice cold water right in the kisser. Soaked me to the bone and left me gasping.

When we arrived on Friday our paperwork said we were running in Group 2, with the Triumphs and Porsches and such. That sounded great to me, a big part of this trip is meeting fellow Triumph fans, particularly the FOT (Friends of Triumph) which is an internet organization of people who race Triumphs. I practiced all Friday with group two and discovered I would have a good race in the group, with a Lola and an extremely fast Porsche 356. My times were mediocre but I knew I’d be bringing them down. The Lola was running away from me on the straight, but I figured even that would improve as I figured out how to carry speed on the last corner exit.

Turns out the paperwork was wrong, they really wanted me in Group 6, but I talked my way into staying with the guys I’d practiced with. I knew I’d have a good race in that group.

On the last practice on Friday, I swapped cars with Tony Drews, driving his fast TR4. I struggled with the car and it’s overdrive, winding up in the wrong gear more times than the right. The car felt solid but didn’t have the quick turn in that I’m used to with Peyote. I suspect I turned lousy times though I passed a few cars. Tony was relatively unimpressed with Peyote. I think he expected a lot more of the car, but his times were very good (his Mom had a stopwatch on him). It takes a couple of times on the track before the odd dynamics of Peyote start feeling good.

On Saturday I qualified third with greatly improved times. In Saturday’s race I got a good start, went on the inside at the first corner and got past everyone. I held first for a few laps, aided by the Porsche and the Lola battling out who was going to chase me down. I got a little lead, but once the Lola got free it evaporated in half a lap and he was right on me coming onto the straight. I coaxed every bit of exit speed out of the corner, but so did the Lola, and at the end of the straight, his nose was inside and in front of mine at the turn in. I could have braked a bit later and possibly snaked him on the outside, but a pass was inevitable so I decided against taking the chance.

I stayed on his tail for three laps, hoping for a mistake, but his driving got smoother and smoother as he extended the lead to a few car lengths, so I figured on second. That’s about when the Porsche started really chewing on my tail. I’m not used to that from a 356. There are some fast ones in the Northwest, and if I’m off my game or they’re having a good day they can make a race of it with Peyote, but it doesn’t happen often.

This guy was a very good driver, smooth as glass, and the car was extremely quick. He was all over me for the last few laps, and in a good position to pass me down the straight for the checker, but Peyote had him by a car length. I’m fairly certain he thinks I was blocking him, but that thought never enters my mind when I’m racing. I was just pedaling as hard as I can. Peyote slides around a lot, and I certainly never cede a corner–you gotta take it. Our times were within a few hundredths of a second, and more than a second faster than qualifying times, so we had a hard race. But I’m sure he was planning to avenge his car’s honor the next day.

Unfortunately, he never got the chance. We woke up to a soaked track on Sunday, with every indication being that the rain would get worse as the day wore on. I’m not racing Peyote in the rain on this trip. First I’m not carrying tires for that, and second, I don’t want to take a good chance in whacking the car into a wall just to drive slowly around a greasy track.

Sunday morning I put stuff away in Nero and we watched movies on my computer with the grandkids. Wonderfully cozy and snug on the couch with two grandkids and lots of blankets watching “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” ,”Herbie the Love Bug” (the original version) and “The Absent-Minded Professor”

Most everyone decided against racing, and the Paddock started clearing out. When the group two race was called there was only one guy on the grid–Bill Dentinger and Ol’ Blue, his trusty Triumph. We went to the fence and watch Billy drive around sportily. They gave him a checkered flag for the victory lap which he took proudly and smartly. The corner workers got into it, giving him full on flag waves at every station. Very cool.

So now it’s off to Chicago to drop Diane off at the airport for her Girl Trip. I’m going to miss her. I’m staying at the Four Seasons to mitigate the pain, though the pain of Four Seasons prices will be pretty acute at checkout time.