Memories of My Career in Motorsports – Part II

Part II:     To continue from Part I… 

I came up with other nifty plans while working at Doug’s Mazda-Suzuki-Hummer that did not work.

To promote the Mazda 4 door pickup I did a co-promotion with Cycle Barn, thanks to knowing the owner from two summers of effort behind the parts counter seven years earlier. We parked a Mazda pick-up on the Cycle Barn showroom floor with a motorcycle in the back, and Cycle Barn provided a go-kart to display in the bed of a truck at Doug’s. Special pricing was available for “two-fer” sales.  This concept fell apart almost immediately, as the trucks sold so fast that Doug’s needed both of them available so they could be sold.

Another brainstorm of mine involved taking a used Miata and customizing it.  I would drive the result at Miata Club and other events until someone fell in love with the car and it sold.   And then we would do it again.  My concept was that Doug’s would be seen as a place where you could have your own custom Miata designed and created for you.

I was given a budget of $12,000, which created some room as the dealer purchase price for a Miata in those days was about $6,000.   I had a silver one to work with, and I ordered all sorts of goodies for it – a roll bar, custom wheels, tonneau cover, etc., and I also designed a custom paint scheme. All the goodies arrived and were stashed at a custom shop down the street. Before I could get the car there, it sold!  Undeterred, I moved on to another one, and the same thing happened.   I was forced to give up and all the “goodies” were sent back.   A pity.

Along came a foreign car bracket drag race at Pacific Raceways. Great!  I took a Miata with 110,000 miles on it (it’s almost impossible to break a Miata) and off I went. In the morning you get two runs to decide on what time to write on the windshield. I went with 16.2 seconds or thereabouts. I won the first round and advanced.  My opponent in the 2nd round was some punk with a backwards baseball cap and an obscene expression written across his back window.  For some reason this conjured up students that had caused stress over the years, and I went to the starting determined to show him up. I proceeded to do the best launch of a Miata – ever, and spun the rear wheels just enough to act as a perfect secondary clutch. Spun the wheels a tad on the shift to second, which was a surprise, and then again into 3rd, which was amazing.  At ¾ track I took the time to look in the mirror and saw that I was stomping on the punk by 200 yards.  I eased off the throttle and coasted the last 100 yards or so, lest I go too fast and “break out,” which is when you run under the time you wrote on the windshield. Too little, too late; I was under by .02 of a second.  Two hundredths!  I was done, and spent the rest of the day in the pits sulking.   The next week that car was sold to a 77 year old gentleman. The salesman did not mention the racing history, but no matter. The car could have made passes all day with no issues.

I also took a Miata to a drag race at Bremerton airport.  A friend from Juanita High days had invited me to come and see the Mercury Comet her husband wrenched on. His brother drove it. By the time Susan and I found the time to attend, I’d forgotten the details of the car.  Strolling through the pits we came across the car and the school bus yellow paint was only the first eye opener.  It also had a Ford 429 V-8, no radiator, skinny front wheel, full roll cage, slicks, and a B&M “slap shift” automatic. In other words, a very serious race car.

The husband greeted us and said he was off to the control tower to see if they could shut the track down so I could make a pass. I was writing for a local sports car magazine at the time, and this would make a great article.

I turned around and saw Susan standing there, her face pale as an Arctic white out. “You’re not going to drive this thing, are you?”

“Well gosh, it would be rude to decline,” I replied. “Besides, I have my helmet in the trunk of the Miata.”

The brother came back with the go-ahead – now. I got in the car and faced a row of several toggle switches across the dash, none of them labeled. The next part was comical, as the wrench leaned in the left window and the driver the right and they both explained what various switches did at the same time.  Mind spinning, I asked if I could drive it through the pits to get used to it. I was told no, as the engine would overheat.

As Susan stood there trembling, which is what I’d have been doing if I’d had time to think about it, I started the engine and lurched ahead. I turned the wheel and it virtually spun in my hands, as the front tires had almost no resistance to turning inputs.

I arrived at the starting area and was directed into the water box, where you hold the front brake on and spin up the rear tires until smoke pours out of the wheel wells to heat the tires for better traction. You then release the brake and stop the car before it crosses the starting line.

My burn-out was, in a word, lame. Susan took a picture and you can see smoke coming off the rear wheels – barely.  I then compounded my errors by crossing the start line, which would have disqualified me if it was a race.  But it was not, so I backed up and staged the car. The “Christmas tree” lights came down and I launched with a mediocre reaction time.  The sound was amazing, and then I noticed something in the corner of my right eye. They’d neglected to tell me that the T handle top to the shifter was loose, and it was now spinning like a helicopter rotor.  I put my hand on it to stop the spinning and then noticed an odd popping sound. Er – that would be the engine popping off the rev limiter!  I slapped the shifter into 2nd and we accelerated again, and once again into third. Near the finish line it occurred to me that I’d never tried to stop a car from speed with skinny front wheels and almost flat slicks on the back, so I left off the gas and coasted for a while before slowing the car gingerly.  Really did nothing to promote Doug’s, but it did make a fine article for the magazine!

A night time off-road rally was coming up, and taking a used Hummer seemed like a good idea. Doug’s had a used one in black, with an intimidating snorkel air inlet that ran up to the roof and a pair of extra spot lights above the windshield.  It looked mean.

I’d previously been trained in how to drive a Hummer.  The original Hummers were 80” wide; the legal limit. To drive them on the street you would sight down the hood to the large bumper bar cage on the front. If you could see the white center line of the road between the cage and the hood you were in the right spot.   If you were careless you would scrape rear view mirrors of cars, remove mail boxes, and that sort of thing.

I was always excited to drive away from Doug’s in a Hummer. In those days they were pretty rare, and people would try to see through the windows to identify the rich and famous person. After half an hour of this I would feel pretty silly, and by the time it came to return the car I was fervently hoping to get it back without damaging it. Every time.

This rally would run at night on forest service roads. It was a continuation sort of rally, where you did not stop at checkpoints. Instead, a rally worker in a car perpendicular to the side of the road (or trail) would turn his or her car lights on at the sound of an approaching entrant and jot down the time as the big white number decal on the side of the entrant flashed by.

Problems began to arise on the way there. First of all, my usual navigators were all unavailable, so a friend of my son’s who had done a couple of rallies with Will driving agreed to navigate for me. Trouble was, Jeff did not talk much. I was used to, and enjoyed, a navigator talking in one continuous blue streak, repeating the two of three things I was supposed to be working on at any given point, over and over.  Jeff was more likely to say “Turn right in 5 miles” and then remain mute until the next direction.  I realized much later that when he and Will did rallies, Will was driving the car while also doing 90% of the navigating.

Secondly, I learned that the Hummer’s speedo was not very accurate, bounding continually over a 15 -20 mph arc, so figuring out our speed would be challenging. The driver’s “butt clock” is of little use when you’re driving a 6,000 pound very wide vehicle you’re not used to on dirt roads at midnight.

Third, it was dismaying to discover that I couldn’t read the small and dim numerals of the odometer without leaning forward and removing my glasses. 

A mute navigator and no way to judge speed or distance is not a harbinger of rally success.

We made an error on the first leg of several minutes, which meant that for the rest of a rally with no checkpoints to reset the points clock we would be considerably behind until I managed to make up about 8 minutes on curving dirt roads I had never seen before in pitch black darkness.

Which is to say I had an awesome time trying, aided by the huge spotlights above the windshield. At one point we were booming down a steep hill in the darkness at about 60 mph, and I noticed in the glare of the roof lights that there was a sharp hairpin at the bottom of the hill, right next to a cliff.  Hmmmm.  I applied the brakes and all 4 wheels locked up. Not good. Tried again, more gently. Same thing. As we neared the corner at too high a speed, I remembered that Hummers have torque sensing differentials and are able to put the power to any combination of one to four wheels.  Theoretically I could just turn the truck and it would take itself around the corner.  And it did. The navigator never looked up and saved himself a heart attack.

It was a good marketing move for Doug’s in a way because as I tried to make up time we would come up on other competitors. Several told me later that it was exciting to see this huge truck with an array of lights ablaze loom up behind them like a monstrous space ship, and they would wave as we oozed past.  

One worker told me later of his frustration. He thought he had taken a great picture of the Hummer as we slid sideways around a sharp corner. The left front wheel was off the road on that side and the right rear wheel off the road on the other side, because the vehicle was wider than the road.  His camera failed, and I would love to have that picture framed and on the wall.

At another point there was a fearful cracking sound – the snorkel had removed a low hanging tree branch, which bounced off the hood and into the darkness.

Another positive outcome came on Monday.  I drove the Hummer to school before returning it to Doug’s in the afternoon. It was too big to fit in my parking space, so I drove over the curb and parked on the grass in front of the portable where I taught. A great way to be considered the coolest teacher in the history of the world is to park a black Hummer, covered with mud and with race decals on the doors, on the grass in front of your classroom.  Most of the boys came into my room totally agog, and I often had to go out let them climb into it. 

Terrific classroom dialogue:

Incredulous student; “Is that your Hummer, Mr. Preston?”

Me:  “Of course not. I’m a high school English teacher. I can’t afford to own something like that. I drove it in a rally for Doug’s last weekend for my other job.”

Delicious pause for many seconds…

Incredulous student:  “You mean you were PAID to drive that?”

After that, for all 5 periods, the coolest teacher in the world began class…

One more adventure with the Hummer awaited. I’d noticed that morning that the left rear tire was low on air.  No worries, as Hummers have an on-board air compressor and you can air up or down the two fronts or the two rears on the fly. By the time I got to school everything was fine.

After school, the rear tire was even lower. I aired them up again as I drove it back.  I called a couple of days later and was told I had put a nail in one of them.

“How much do tires for a Hummer cost?”

“$500. Each. And they have to be replaced in pairs.”

Moment of horrified silence.  “Yeah but – those tires were pretty shot when I picked up the truck in the first place.”

“That’s true. Don’t worry about it.”

The coolest teacher in the world then resumed breathing…

Next installment – how I came to leave Doug’s for the world of motorcycles.


Copyright 2013                                             David Preston

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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