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Grand Am Cup Racing 2006

Team News And Photo Site

Another Beginning...
The Voice of Reason?

For the past couple of years, I have been dabbling here and there in various forms of racing, with admittedly mixed results.  There have been many highs and lows, and the only common denominator was that regardless of how things turned out, a lot of money changed hands!

I've also picked up a few hobbies and additional interests along the way.  As a child I especially enjoyed playing with model trains and cars.  In particular, I admired those elaborate room filling train setups with multiple tracks and life like scenery.   When I came across 1/32 scale slot car racing, it all just came together - so I spent a few hours here and there in the off season putting together my own racetrack, which I proudly dubbed "CIR - Carolina International Raceway".

I especially enjoy collecting replicas of real-life race cars, like this one below - an M3 GTR that ran at Daytona in 2002.

So while I'm playing around with slot cars between racing seasons, this guy named Danny Alvis is off collecting the real thing (look familiar?).  After it had been raced professionally in the ROLEX series for a year or so, Danny bought this M3 GTR, and raced it himself in the Grand AM GT series.   This is BMW GTR chassis #001, stuffed with a big honkin' V8, and built into a full blown race car by Bell Motorsports. 

So what does this have to do with anything?  Well I'm getting to that.  Early in 2005 I was instructing at VIR for a BMWCCA drivers school.  One of Danny Alvis' sons, Brian, was riding as a passenger in another instructor's car when I blew by in my ex-Speed World Challenge BMW Touring car.  Brian thought, "I've got to get a ride in that".  Later that day Brian and Chris (his older brother) were lined up by my car to mooch some rides.  

Both Brian and Chris had done quite a bit of riding on track with their father Danny.  So after their ride in my car, Brian and Chris told Danny that maybe this O'Dell schmoe was someone he might want to talk to.   It seems Danny was looking for a co-driver so he could run Grand Am again (in Grand Am, 2 drivers share a car), so Danny came by and introduced himself.   I'm thinking yeah, sure, but I'm not getting my hopes up.  There are a lot of folks out there that talk about racing in the big time (or at least "big-ger" time), but very few can pull off, so I'm somewhat skeptical that anything will come of it.

Many months pass, and I end up running into Danny again at another track event.   In the meanwhile, Danny has been talking with a brilliant race car builder out of Florida, Donald "Doc" Holness, of HBAR racing (Holness Brothers Advanced Racing).  He and Danny have been scheming about building a new Mazda RX-8 to run in the Street Tuner (ST) class of the Grand Am Cup.   Doc built a few cars last year for another Grand Am team, and Danny immediately recognized how talented Doc was.   Danny starts working on me again to run Grand Am Cup, as a co-driver.  These Grand Am Cup races are about 250 miles long, which makes them endurance races.  At the mid-point of the race, you switch drivers - so every car has 2 drivers.   And Danny wants somebody that could (maybe) keep up with him on track, so to speak.  He's a pretty darn fast driver behind the wheel.

I was still on the fence regarding this Grand Am Cup series - it costs a whole lot of money to field a car, but the good thing is you can win some of that money back.  Nonetheless, to run a whole series of 10 races requires a serious financial outlay.   Danny continues to work on me, wearing me down.  He invites me to co-drive as a third driver in a 13 hour SCCA endurance race at VIR - minimal money to race, tons of track time.   I thought it would be a good way to see if we could get along together under racing conditions, so I took him up on it.  The car was a little yellow Volkswagen Jetta, and I must admit, even though it wasn't the fastest thing in the world, it was very competitive in its class.

Here is "old yellar" in turn 3 at VIR - well not exactly "in" the turn, as we had to avoid an RX-7 that had spun in front of us.   The endurance race turned out to be the most fun I have had racing in a long time.  The car was built and fielded by Jon Lewis, owner of German Speed Merchants out of Wilmington, NC, and his crew was just fantastic.  All I had to do was show up and drive - I didn't have to spend weeks prepping the car, hauling it around, fixing it when it breaks.   Whenever there was a problem with the car, I just got out of the way, and the GSM mechanics literally swarmed over the car, fixing it in a fraction of the time that I could.  They knew every single nut and bolt on that car - it was amazing to watch!  I'm now convinced that "arrive and drive" is definitely the way to go. 

So Danny works out the details with Doc on running the RX-8 for the 2006 Grand Am Cup.  Danny's a deal-making kind of guy, so I basically get out of the way and leave all the negotiating up to him.   At some point Doc buys a new Mazda RX-8 and starts stripping it down to turn it into a racecar, and Danny and I agree to drive it in the Grand Am Cup.  Doc will build the car, and arrange to haul it around with a pit crew, spare parts etc.  The 10 races of the Grand Am Cup are all across the USA and Canada, so that will be no small task. 

Let me tell you a few things about Danny.  He spent 20 years as an Army Ranger in Special Forces, going to hotspots around the globe, parachuting in, kicking in doors and taking out bad guys.  Now he is a financial planner / wizard that puts together real estate deals, helps folks with estate planning, and even has his own syndicated radio show ("Its Your Money", Saturday mornings at 9:00am EST).   He's kind of a mini-Donald Trump, without the nice hair.

Click this link for info on Danny's show

About this time I learn that Danny has a private plane (I should have known this based on his other "qualities"), and his plan is to fly to the races in it. 

This plane can land on ground OR water.  It has a boat-like hull, and the wingtips are actually integrated pontoons.  Its called a "Seawind 3000 Experimental", and looks like something James Bond would fly.  Between you and me, I'm not partial to planes with the word "Experimental" in the name.   This should tell you everything you need to know about Danny.  The other day, referring to our "partnership", he said, "I'm the risk taker, and your the smart guy".  I agree with the first part, but if I'm the smart guy on this team, we're going to be a few bricks short of a full load.  I think what Danny meant is that I'm supposed to be the occasional "voice of reason" that keeps him from going overboard and getting into too much trouble.   So far its not working, as you'll see...

Danny is itching to fly his plane again, so he comes up with some cockamamie reason to get behind the controls.  "We should fly down to Florida to see Doc and get fitted for the racecar before the first practice," he tells me over the phone.  This will be quite a trip, since we both live in North Carolina.  "Can't we just get fitted during the practice sessions at Daytona?" is my response.  "Nah, we should go down ahead of time.  We can fly down and back the same day," he reasons.   Getting fitted for the car basically involves permanently mounting the seat so that both of us can reach the controls comfortably.  The seat has to be bolted solidly to the floor for safety.  Fortunately, although Danny is taller than me, we both have a similar leg inseam, so we should be able to find a position that both of us can live with. 

Now I've never flown in a small plane before, so this seems kind of exciting to me.  Sounds like a good way to kickoff our upcoming adventure.  Danny agrees to fly into tiny Louisburg / Franklin County airport to pick me up.  Then we will fly down to Miami, see Doc and the car, and turn around and fly back.  The plane cruises at about 175mph, and I do some quick math.  Uh, Miami is 800 miles or so, hmmm.  "Gee Danny, maybe we should fly down one day, and come back the next morning?  After all, I don't think we should be rushed," say I, the voice of reason.  "No, we can make it down and back the same day," Danny assures me.

So bright and early the day after Christmas, I'm waiting at dawn on the tarmac for Danny to land and pick me up.  Its just me and the airport mascot dog, Bump, who comes running up out of the darkness, greeting me excitedly with some rather loud barking.   It was supposed to open at 7:00am, but I'm the only one there.  I think they weren't planning on much traffic the morning after Christmas.  The Louisburg / Franklin County airport is SMALL.  It has 1 runway, no control tower - just an administrative building and a bunch of hangars.  Its mainly for small private aircraft, and is actually pretty nice as far as that goes.  Being the "voice of reason," I brought an extra pair of clothes, just in case we need to stay overnight.  

Danny's plane swoops in for a landing and taxis up and I get my first look at the plane.  Nice landing - this guy can fly.  Pretty cool plane.  Unfortunately there is literally no one else at the airport, so Danny can't get more fuel like he hoped.  So we'll need to make another pit stop on the way down to Miami to top off the tanks.  No big deal though, as his tanks are still over 1/2 full.  As I find out, there are literally hundreds of small airports along the way.  You don't notice them from the ground, but from the air, you realize they are all over the place.  Once airborne, it seemed like we were never out of site of an airport, which was comforting. 

Say "Cheez!"   I climb on board, and we taxi to the runway.

Here you see us idling at the end of the runway, the sun still not quite over the horizon.   Notice the call sign on the dash of the plane - N666AC, "November Triple 6 Alpha Charlie".  It was given that by the previous owner of the plane, an ex-airline pilot whose initials where "AC".   Danny is not fond of it for obvious reasons, and has put in a request to have it changed.    Racers are, after all, a somewhat superstitious lot.

We take off, and the first thing I notice is how many darn instruments there are.

Pilots side, above, and co-pilot, below.

We start our cruise on down to Miami as the sun comes up, and Danny decides that Fayetteville regional airport is on the way, and is a good place to top off the fuel tanks.

Lining up with runway 27 at Fayetteville.  The 27 numbering of the runway indicates that the runway is to be approached by heading 270 degrees on the compass (due west). 

Safely down and fueling up.  The plane has 4 fuel tanks - an inner and an outer tank on each wing.  The inner tanks are 38 gallons each, and the outer tanks are 18 gallons each - for a total of 112 gallons.   The plane uses about 17-21 gallons per hour, so you can safely fly 4-5+ hours before refueling.  One caveat though is that the fuel for the engine is ONLY drawn from the inner tanks.  So after you have run for a couple of hours, you need to start up the electric pumps to refill the 38 gallon inner tanks, by pumping the fuel from the two 18 gallon outer tanks.   There is also another set of electric pumps which can pump fuel from one wing to another (left-to-right or right-to-left), just in case the fuel isn't being evenly drawn from the left side and right side the inner tanks.   So having a working fuel gauge is a good idea, because it tells you not only how much total fuel you have, but how it is distributed in the tanks.   Which can be important, I would think.

Which is why Danny is unconcerned when we take off from Fayetteville, and the fuel gauge goes immediately on the fritz.  After all we have a full fuel load, and only a 3 hour flight to Miami.  Plenty of reserve.  But all the while I'm thinking, "but how do you know for sure you have enough fuel, in the correct tank?".  I seem to recall from some show on the National Geographic Channel ("Airline Disasters" or something like that), about a big ol' airliner that fell out of the sky because it had a hole in one of the wing fuel tanks.  For some reason the gauges weren't working right, and they end up pumping fuel from the other "good" tank to the one with the hole in it, and they ran out of gas.  But I keep my fears to myself, mainly because I can glance out the window, and I don't see any holes in the wings.

This is where we will be later next week, practicing with the newly finished car - Daytona airport to the left, and Daytona International Speedway just to the right of it.  Racetracks make a lot of noise, so why not put them near the airport, which is already making a racket? Or maybe it was the other way around, as I don't know which came first.

A little after noon, we land at Okalackaduca Airport (or something like that - I didn't write it down), which is in northern Miami, and appears to be an abandoned army airfield from WWII.  Dilapidated DC3 hulks, missing parts of tails and wings, are littered around the periphery.  But this airport is still being used for general aviation, although you wouldn't know it by the condition of the numerous large metal buildings, showing as much rust as paint.   Its much easier if you are a private pilot to land your plane at these smaller, less used airports.  You don't have to compete for air and runway space with the big jets at the major airports.  As long as they have a good runway, a fuel truck and a bathroom, they are pretty convenient.  Plus you can usually find a small airport closer to where you actually want to go, because as I am learning, they are literally EVERYWHERE.  These airports are the equivalent of an Exxon with a convenience store that you find off the interstate.

Doc picks us up at the airport with his lovely girlfriend Tamara, and we head over to his shop.  Inside the shop are 2-3 RX-8's in various states of building and rebuilding, and an RX-7 ITS car with a tarp half on it.  All the cars are red in color, which I guess is Doc's trademark. 

Here is "our" car, almost finished.  Doc strips them down the bare minimum parts, then puts them back together with special racing components.   Kind of a shame to do this to a brand new car, but that is what it takes.  By starting with a new car, we should get maximum reliability.

This is Doc, holding up the radio he took out of the RX-8.  Doc is practically a rocket scientist, as you figure out pretty quickly after you first meet him.  He used to do some kind of hush-hush Department of Defense type work, for an aircraft company.  He says it had to do with "quantum based electronics", but that is as much as he can or will say.  He found racing to be a bit more exciting, so now he builds race cars full time. 

Our engine bay - the motor is stock, per the rules, but it has some fancy electronics that I can't talk about that will give us "a bit more power than stock".    How much more?  I can't say - some things are secret!  Just remember, Doc is an electronics wizard...

Front suspension, showing off the racing coil-over shocks.  Pretty-in-purple springs, go well with the car, don't you think?

Drivers compartment, showing off the cage.  Doc will repaint the interior to be a nice uniform color when he is done.

He's ripping the dash electronics out, replacing them with a sophisticated racing specific instrument panel.  Doc worked with with some European company so that it would integrate with the RX-8's engine management system.  There is no seat mounted yet, so it doesn't look like we will get fitted for the car today.  Doc says we can do that before practice next week.  Hey wait a second -  I, the "voice of reason," said exactly that to Danny a few days ago.  Why did we fly down here again?  This is when I realize Danny was just looking for an excuse to fly his airplane and that I've been hoodwinked!!!  That's ok, I really wanted to see Doc and the car anyway. 

This is a finished car (not ours), which Doc built last year.  Ours should look like this when he is done.

Trunk mounted fueling setup (on the finished car), with a dry break fitting.  This special setup will allow us to refuel very quickly due to the high flow rate, which is very important to keep the pitstop short.

Doc explaining to Danny about how he has built a kick-a@@ race car, and you better be up to driving it, buster!   No really, Doc is explaining how he worked with some European company to custom code an integrated dash for the racecar, using the XYZ software protocol, so that it could interface to the....   All Danny and I hear is "blah, blah, blah Racecar blah, blah, blah".

Doc's girlfriend, Tamara, and Danny.  I conned Danny into posing for this shot, so I could bank this photo for later, maybe to use as, how shall we say, "leverage".  But in retrospect, its much too tame for that, and besides, its the only photo I have that includes Tamara.


Here is one of the Holness Brothers built RX-8's that ran in last year's Grand Am cup series, getting fitted with a fresh motor. 

Doc and Tamara take Danny and I out to lunch at a local Jamaican restaurant, which I really enjoyed.   We had chicken with a flavorful brown sauce, rice with "peas" (which looked an awful lot like pinto beans to me), and drank fresh Jamaican coconut water, which is a bit of a treat.  Then it was off to the airport.

Prior to leaving, Danny checked the fuel level using a dipstick which he manually lowered into each of the 4 fuel tanks.  It seemed like the engine was drawing better from one side of the plane's tanks than the other, because he found the remaining fuel wasn't so evenly distributed.   This isn't completely abnormal, but without a working fuel gauge, you wouldn't know this while you were flying, so you couldn't use the pumps to move the fuel around to balance it out.  And since we couldn't verify if the pumps were actually pumping the fuel around without the fuel gauge, it meant we didn't want to risk flying the plane to its maximum range.  So on the return we would plan to stop sooner than normal, just to top off the tanks.  Before we left, the ground crew refilled our fuel tanks, then at 3:00pm we lifted off. 

We got no more than 1000 feet into the air, when some of the instruments on my side of the plane went blank!   All of these instruments are controlled by a single computer (the same computer that controlled the fuel gauge, it turns out), so Danny figured that computer was having problems.  So not only did we not have a fuel gauge, but we didn't have any of the engine monitoring instruments as well.  So we couldn't see engine speed, engine temperature, oil pressure, oil temperature, fuel pressure, or voltage and current for the electrical system.  The last part (voltage and current) turned out to be a  bit of a problem - more on that later. 

So how fast is the engine turning?  What is the oil pressure?  We don't know!  Now admittedly 100 years ago in the early days of flight, bi-planes didn't have any of these things, and still flew around pretty successfully (for the most part).   Nonetheless, I'm thinking why don't we just turn around and land this thing, and as "the voice of reason," I say as much.  Danny says, "No we'll be ok."   All the critical systems were still working, like the radios, the navigation system, and all the mechanical (non-electrical) gauges like the altimeter, etc.  Danny said we would just take it easy on the plane, and run the fuel mixture a little rich to make sure we don't overheat anything.  I'm thinking, you know, its not the first mistake that kills you when you fly a plane.  Its the second one you don't know about BECAUSE of the first mistake.  Like the engine oil pressure starts to drop, and because you don't have any instrumentation to see it...  Or something like that.

But you know what, I decide I'm not going to be a wuss, and I'm not going to worry about it (must be the Jamaican food I ate). Danny's made up his mind, and otherwise the plane is running well so just try to enjoy the trip.  The visibility is fantastic, and quite frankly it was a beautiful day to fly.

This is the Kennedy Space Center.   The big building in the center is the oversized hanger building for the launch "vehicles".  Out towards the coast, you can see several gantries for the different launching pads they use.   After passing by Cape Canaveral, we started heading out over the water, towards Myrtle Beach, where Danny planned to stop for fuel.  If we had working gauges we could have made it all the way home on one tank, but Danny agreed we should stop well short to top up for fuel, just in case.  Its more of a direct line to fly out over the ocean, and heck, our plane can land in water if we had to. 

But then, somewhere off the coast of Jacksonville, something funny started to happen.  Our radio and Navigation system flickered off and back on.  Now they did come back on, but that was very troubling, as it would be hard to land the plane without a radio to contact the control tower, and the navigation system was necessary to find the airport.   At this point Danny correctly assessed that we had an electrical problem.  He figured the alternator crapped out, and we were running off battery power.  So he decided to shut off one of the batteries (the plane has two), and run only on one battery at a time.  That would keep one battery in reserve.  He shut down any electrical system that we didn't need to fly the plane, to make sure we didn't run out of electrical power.  And he made one more critical decision.  We would stop in Savannah instead of Myrtle Beach (much closer).  He angled the plane toward Savannah, but we still had about 45 minutes to go.  And it was after 5:00, so the sun was going down. 

I'm pointing out to Danny that there are a few smaller airports between here and Savannah that we could stop at, but Danny wants to make it to Savannah, because there will be facilities there for fixing the plane.  Somewhere along the way, Danny has to switch to the remaining battery.  Darkness descends  as we approach Savannah.  Danny is having me hold a flashlight on the instrument panel, so he won't have to use precious electricity on the instrument panel lights.  Danny contacts the tower, and we have to angle around to line up with the runway, so it takes awhile.   Finally, its now completely dark, but we are lined up with the runway, and we are cleared to land.  All you can see in front of us is utter blackness - and the runway a mile ahead, lined on both sides with bright red lights.  About 1/2 mile off the end of the runway, our remaining battery starts to give out.  As we approach, we lose the radios and the navigation system.  Fortunately we've already gotten clearance to land.  And the engine is self sufficient - as Danny explained, the engine gets its electrical power off of mechanically driven magnetos, so it will run no matter what happens to the electrical system.   Danny lands the plane in the darkness, and as we taxi, he manages to switch the radio back on briefly, getting directions for where to park.   Phew!

We park the plane at Savannah Aviation, but it is closed for the night.  Danny manages to phone a mechanic, who agrees to start working on the plane first thing in the morning.  I call and get us a room at the Days Inn, almost within walking distance of the terminal.  Right now, "the voice of reason" is feeling pretty proud of himself / myself for bringing an extra set of clothes and a tooth brush.   Of course I can't resist giving Danny some grief for not doing the same.

The next morning we go back over to the Savannah Aviation terminal, where we find the mechanic has already started to move the plane to an indoor hanger so he can work on it.  I'm needling Danny about how fresh I feel in my clean underwear, and Danny retorts "That's ok, I'm not wearing any!"  I guess that must have been part of Ranger training... those guys are tough!

They use these little electric trucks to move the planes around.  It doesn't take much, since the planes are so light.

Chris, the mechanic, had never seen a Seawind before, but that is not unusual as Danny says there are only about 60 or so of them.  But Chris knew what to do.

Chris found the culprit - this green connector on the back of the alternator was about ready to fall out.  Without a good connection, the alternator wouldn't work, so the batteries discharged.

While Chris was fabricating a new connector, Danny had me top off the oil level.  Here is a picture of the engine as seen from the top.  It is a horizontally opposed flat six, air cooled engine, not unlike what you might see in a Porsche 911.   Danny also took off the cowling on the instrument panel, to see if he could figure out what was wrong with the computer that controlled those instruments we lost earlier.  It seems like even after Chris fixed the alternator, and recharged the batteries, those pesky instruments in front of me didn't come back on.  However everything else was working ok, and it was another beautiful day to fly, so we decided to head for home.

But first, we top off the fuel tanks.  Then they tried to fire up the plane and it wouldn't start!  Chris and Danny were trying all sorts of things, but it just wouldn't go.  Then I asked Danny, "Did you turn the fuel back on?".  Danny gives an "Oh Sh@#", turns the fuel back on, and the plane starts up.  Sometimes its the obvious...

Today's weather turns out to be even better than yesterday, and we are in pretty good spirits. And then, about an hour into the flight, mysteriously all the gauges started working again!  The fuel gauge, the engine gauges, everything was back to normal!   All systems were working beautifully.  Danny is going to call the manufacturer of the instrument computer, to try to get an explanation. 

As we head back to the Louisburg / Franklin County airport, I told Danny to fly over my house.  I called my wife on my cell phone, and told her to go outside and look for us.   Danny dropped down to about 1000', and made a U turn right around our house, and I could see my wife and mother-in-law (who was in town for Christmas) waving from the lawn below.

Danny made a textbook landing at the Franklin County airport, despite a fairly strong crosswind.

This time the airport was open, and several of the employees came out to gawk at the plane.  It really is an unusual plane, and no one had ever seen one before, which was a phrase we heard a lot.  Actually, no one that we met during the entire trip had ever seen one before.   An Apache helicopter came in for a landing while we were there, and delayed Danny's take off while it performed some touch and go landings.



And away!

So ends the beginning...

  Next week we will return to Florida, to drive the car for the first time.  There will be a 3 day Grand Am practice at Daytona International Raceway.  This practice will include the Grand Am Cup cars, as well as the ROLEX cars that will run in the 24 hours of Daytona.  This should be fun.  Stay tuned for an update. 

To go to the next story, click on this link: Daytona Practice