Alanf’s blog…
Scattered thoughts

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Box of Shame #7: Tuned beyond the limit…

Author: site admin
Category: The Box Of Shame

In 1992, the WERA roadrace organization had one of the coolest classes among any of the national level pro-roadrace clubs: Formula 3. The class was obstensively for 125cc GP bikes, mainly Honda RS125s and Yamaha TZ125s. However, to increase grid size and provide a race class for big four stroke singles, WERA also allowed thumpers up to 600cc in size to race against the 125s. This made for great racing since the two bike were so vastly different. The 125 GP bikes carried huge corner speed and had great drafting battles while the big singles relied on their prodigious torque to square off turns and get their heavier weight out of corners quickly. This made for interesting races, made all the better by the fantastic riders that were in the series at that time. Two unknown brothers named Tommy and Nicky Hayden were racing 125GP bikes, along with well known names like Keith Code, John Ulrich, Rodney Fee and the Himmelsbach family also on the little two smokes. The four stroke contingent included Allen Willis on a trick Woods Rotax, Eric Falt with a Honda VFR framed Rotax motor, Erich Fromm on a SRX 600 based bike and Bill Cardell on a RG framed SRX motor. This class was marvelous competition between true factory race bikes against do-it-yourself specials.

Into this race class waded a denizen of the usenet newsgroup named Ray Hixon. Ray started with a stock ‘82 Honda FT500 Ascot which he slowly modified throughout the year to get more and more performance from the motor and to improve other major items like the brakes and suspension. Early that race season, I saw a posting from Ray on the newsgroup asking for pit help at an upcoming race. I had been regularly volunteering as a corner worker at the area tracks but decided to skip the weekend of the WERA national races and help Ray instead. I met up with Ray at the track and immediately got along well with him. I’d spent a few years rebuilding ’60s muscle cars with my friends Troy and Dave, so I knew a bit about spinning wrenches. This turned out to be a very useful skill, since racing a big production based single cylinder bike means a lot of trackside work is required. I enjoyed working with Ray that weekend and volunteered to join his friend John and his father as his pit crew for the rest of the summer.

Throughout the race season, his engine builder Joe Hutcheson continued to get more power by first overboring the motor to 540cc and then to 591cc. The suspension and brake problems were solved by moving Joe’s mega-motor into a Yamaha FZR400 frame with Honda Interceptor forks. The bike was proving to be one of the faster bikes in the class and Ray was riding the bike really well. Race results varied from being a front runner to struggling in the pits with niggling problems caused by the combination of the hodge-podge of parts used on the bike. In order to get extra track time to iron out some of the mechanical problems and to be more prepared for the Pro races Ray started to race the Clubman class in the WERA regional series.

One particular weekend, the whole crew drove down to Savannah, GA for one of the regional races at Roebling Road. Ray was fast in practice and the bike seemed to be coping well with the roughly 60hp 591cc motor. When the Clubman race rolled around, we were optimistic and Ray was ready to stick it to the more powerful bikes in the class despite being gridded in the back since he wasn’t a regular in the class (it was gridded by current points of which Ray had 0). When the green flag flew, Ray immediately started moving forward especially through the really fast turn one. In the pits, we watched the bikes run through the back section and towards the final turn which led the bikes onto the long front straight. The whole pit crew knew that Ray had to get a strong drive onto the straight to have any chance to staying in the draft of the faster bikes. Just as Ray started onto the straight during one of the early laps he suddenly shot directly off the track in a cloud of smoke. Uh-oh, definitely not good.

We pushed the bike back to the pits as Ray gave a baffled story of having near ESP give him the feeling something was going wrong in time to pull in the clutch, lock up the rear brake and slide the bike off the track. Once back in the pits, we could see small bits of aluminum dust in the exhaust, clearly a sign of Bad Things ™. As we disassembled the bike to see if we could get it back together in time for an afternoon race, we started finding more and more signs that something was seriously amiss inside the motor. More metal dust was in the airbox and every attempt to turn the crank indicated the motor was locked up.

Now aware that the bike wasn’t going to race again that day, we instead switched over to investigating the depth of the problem. Joe the enginer builder lived south in Florida while home was north in Atlanta. We had to determine which direction that engine was headed that afternoon. As we removed the valve cover, everything still appeared okay, but as we removed the head we finally realized just how catastrophic the failure had been and just how lucky Ray had been to sense it so quickly. The Wiseco piston had failed where the wrist pin went through one side. On an upstroke the piston twisted sideways coming completely loose from the wrist pin and then rotated a 1/4 turn all while being driven upward from the inertia of the crank rotation. The piston crown, no longer parallel to the head, was driven upwards *through* the exhaust valves where it was embedded into the head. The con rod, with the piston no longer attached, slammed around in the cylinder a few times before wedging against the cylinder liner which then locked up crankshaft. The motor was a complete write-off. Thankfully, Ray was unhurt and after another infusion of money and parts, the bike was back to race again…

Ray went on to race the bike for two more seasons in AHRMA Sound of Singles, WERA Formula 3, WERA Clubman and various other classes. The bike continued to evolve with ever larger engine displacements, amazing amounts of titanium to keep it all together at higher rpms and wilder bodywork to get better aerodynamics. The bike became less and less reliable and eventually faster bikes like the Ducati Supermono required larger financial investment than was rational to keep the Ascot “Megathumper” competitive. Last I heard Ray was enjoying the career of a real life rocket scientist with NASA.

Broken Wiseco Piston chunk

I kept a small piece of the piston, found in the exhaust pipe, for my Box of Shame. The lesson from this one? Just that a heavily modified engine running at high rpm in race conditions contains a huge amount of barely contained energy. Just one little problem can unleash a tremendously destructive chain of events.

[image from my photo collection.]

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