Spectre 341 Challenge

The theory behind the H-Team is that people with well sorted cars will go out and enjoy driving and that we, at Hotchkis, can help encourage them. 

H-Team member, Dan Weishaar recently participated in the Spectre 341 Challenge, an intimidating hill climb race held in Virginia City, NV. Dan came back full of enthusiasm about the race, his car and his plans for next year. 

The big blue Road Runner wasn’t the only Hotchkis-equipped car at the event. Hotchkis was represented on everything from Minis to Corvettes, and it looks like everyone had a blast. 

We’ll let Dan tell the story:

Spectre 341 Challenge

A Race Event Like No Other

By: Dan Weishaar

As an automotive enthusiast, I’ve participated in a slew of events; Poker runs, Good Guys Speed Peanut, SCCA Autocross, Track Days, Driving Schools, and Sunday morning spirited drives through back roads in the foothills. This event is like the latter, but on steroids. Nothing I can type or describe can tell you the feeling of exiting an apex on the throttle, tire on the outside white line, with only six inches of gravel separating you from a 400 foot drop into oblivion. Or diving into a corner for a late apex, where your standard runoff is composed of 20 feet of Kitty Litter or a wall of cones, is, you guessed it, a sheer drop off. You know where your car SHOULD be, but do you have the stones to put it there? THAT is the core of this event. Driving fast is something that is not new to us. We track day, we autocross, we drag race. When we biff, we wear a funny hat and wait for the next guy to claim the title. The 341 is not so forgiving. You wipe out here, you’ll be lucky to total your car into the side of the mountain and live to tell about it. More often than not, your legacy will be a set of skid marks and a plastic wreath to remind other drivers to err on the side of caution. 

That said, Let’s tell the tale. 

Weeks of preparation work went into the Road Runner prior to this event. Usually, it’s a check for leaks, kick the tires, and let’s go mentality. If it starts, it must be good right? As a guy who daily drives his car no less than 80 miles a day commute, I know my stuff works. But with the daunting task I was about to put the car through, everything had to be better than “kinda right”, but had to be REALLY right. Wheel bearings were replaced, all fluids were fresh, rotors turned, new pads, new tires, the works. Countless hours spent in prepping the car, not to mention the pile of spare parts I knew would break. This is not my first rodeo, but with 540 miles of drive on each end of the event, I knew this was going to be the epitome of Hot Rodding. When my alarm beeped at 4am, I was more than ready. I threw the last of the bags in the car, fired up the single speaker Craftsman radio, and hit the streets. 

The car hummed along steadily as I knew it would, and made great time to Kramer Junction, 150 miles from my origin. There’s a crappy little diner there by the 76 station where good food is served by ill-tempered waitresses. After both driver and car were full, we rolled onto the 395 North for the worst part of the drive, the high desert toward Bishop. The car performed flawlessly, never getting temps above 180. For anyone who has done this drive it is long. And straight. And barren. I wish I had more to say about it. 

After arriving in Bishop, it is always a blast rolling into smaller towns with the Road Runner. People gawk, point, hoot, yell, trip or just give a good Hot Rod “thumbs up”. Driving through this part of California will make you feel like no other. Snow capped mountains, tall trees, calm, crystal clear lakes, and nice wide bends in the road with great hills, as well as some technical stuff as you get closer to the border. Just awesome driving. I stopped for lunch at a favorite of mine, Walker Burger in Walker, CA, just a few miles shy of the border. This town is awesome. No cell phone reception, one road in and out, no traffic lights, not even a stop sign. But the Walker Burger is something else. The kitchen is a outside shack, where everything is made AFTER you order it. Yeah, you have to wait 10 minutes for your food, but it is fresh, hot and delicious. The eating arrangement at Walker Burger is all outdoors, at picnic benches on a lawn, and the whole place is set up like Grandma’s backyard. I finished the rest of the drive up to Carson City in short time and arrived at the base of SR 341 shortly after. 

I wanted to drive this course as soon as possible to start learning it. I had watched videos for Amir’s record run and last year’s winner countless times, but seeing is believing. And there is no greater feedback that your eyes and your ass. So I started the ascent. Being the middle of the day, and with traffic, this was a recon run. An earlier warning was issued that if we were caught speeding or breaking any infractions while in town, we would be ejected from the competition. So I took the corners like a civilian, staying in my lane and rolling through the turns. The anticipation was building. I did two more dry runs, just to get my bearings but I found all it did was make me more nervous, so I found my hotel and called it a day a little bummed. I had all these tools and spare parts in my trunk, and I didn’t get to use any of them. Oh well, give it time. 

The next day was full of mundane tasks that soon became serious issues for most drivers. Tech was difficult, partly because of the illiteracy of participants (myself included) and the overzealousness of the SCCA inspectors. Helmets weren’t fireproof (regardless of the fact that no other fire retardant garments and open faced helmets were required), tires were “expired” and fire extinguishers were nonexistent. Needless to say, Summit and the local tire guys made quite a few bucks off of us participants, and with a 80 mile, mostly 45mph limited round trip, let’s just say that participants AND event organizers were stressed the hell out. We all had to participate in a course tour in a motor home with Amir, the current record holder. For anyone that has never had the pleasure of his company, he is a character like none other. Should the whole performance car market tank due to EPA regulations, he will have no problem being a Tour Guide at the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, or even a standup comedian. 

As race day dawned, the pits were busy. Most drivers were complaining about new helmets not fitting well, fire extinguishers were being passed out from the back of trucks, still in their boxes, and most of the Spectre vehicles were on jackstands, with fresh tires on their wheels littering the area, some without wheel weights on (the local tire shops had run out, the demand was so high). The anxiety in the air was palpable. As the course workers and media departed, the drivers were given their morning briefing, and everyone was reminded that the class awards were a 67-cent ribbon. Stay smooth, feel the course, enjoy the drive. 

The cars fired up and began the descent down the bypass road. At the bottom, the cars lined up into the staging lane. A what’s what of automobiles was there. Porsche GT3, EVO 9 and 10, Ferrari California, Mini Cooper S, ZR-1 Corvette, ’65 Chevelle, Big Red Camaro, MR2 and even a Plymouth Laser. You couldn’t have asked for a better group of car guys. Everyone there had a mutual respect. We were all there on one of the only courses in America that could kill you. And we were all car guys that understood one common fact. This is a race course like no other. Not only could it kill you, but you were in a competition against yourself more than the other cars and drivers. How far would you push it? How close is too close and how far was too far? We were all going to spend the next two days together trying to find out. 

As the first car moved from “On Deck” to the “Chock”, everyone shifted their view up the hill. A wave of the green flag, the rev of the engine in the quiet valley, and it was on. After about 20 minutes, I was On Deck. Helmet on. Check. Gloves on. Check. Fuel pump to on, Foot on the brake, clutch in, twist of the key and all 400rwhp of 383 Big Block Mopar roar to life. Jeff Smith in his 65 Chevelle are on the Chock. I watch him launch and am waved up by the race director, Jimi Day. I move up and the vehicle is chocked, Jimi leans in to check my 6-point harness is tight and that I’m ready to go. He gives me a 20 second coaching and pep talk, the flagman gives me the point, my visor goes down, car in First, both hands on the wheel and I give the nod. The flag waves and I’m launching up a windy public highway at 4k rpm, grabbing second as I pass the timing lights and dive into the first turn. 

To say that there is a lot to take in is an understatement, and I can’t really do it justice. It is the most visceral and raw race feeling I’ve ever felt. I made several rookie mistakes, such as returning to “my lane” after exiting an apex (some people even used their blinkers according to some course workers) and taking many of the turns tightly to keep as much space as possible between myself and the edge. I spent the run feeling out the course, deciding better lines, shift points etc. I crossed the finish line at the bridge 5.2 miles and 4 minutes, 17 seconds later and realized I wasn’t really breathing. As I cruised the cooldown road I tried to pick apart the run in my head and couldn’t. But I knew one thing, I needed to do it again. 

The next run was more of the same, but now I had an idea of what to expect, so I found myself wondering more of: 
A. Is this the straight with the slight right followed by more straight, or by a tight hairpin? 
B. Why does my engine feel sluggish and seem to be surging ever so slightly over 5500 rpm? 

I crossed the line that time with a 4:10, and proceeded down pit row to make some adjustments. After a leak check and tire adjustments, I found that fuel pressure was low, (like 3psi low), so I adjusted the regulator to 5psi, and headed back to the return road. On the way I saw fellow competitor, Jeff Smith leaning on the fender of his Chevelle, looking oh so cool in his firesuit. I pulled up and asked him what had happened, and he said that he had fragged his trans and didn’t have 1st-3rd. He jumped in to the Road Runner so I could give him a ride back down to his crew chief, John McGann, and their parts truck. 

We talked cars, driving, and guy stuff, and then we changed the topic to “Why has the Road Runner stopped running?” 

Luckily the return road is all downhill, so I coasted into the staging pits, and began shooting it down. We shortly discovered that the MSD box had given up the ghost. Great. The one thing that I didn’t bring. Luckily it was one of the things that Jeff had brought. So after a bit of hammering, crimping and zip-tying, we had a “Not-So-Direct Fit” Crane box in place of the MSD box, which was now in charge of making sure the Road Runner didn’t roll down hill while in neutral. By the time we were done, lunch break had started, so we headed up the hill for food. 

After a short phone in interview with Dennis from Hot Rod Magazine Live, RJ (driver of Big Red), Aaron Pfadt (Pfadt Race Engineering) and myself, we headed back down for the final 2 hours of Saturday runs. The rest of the day went great, trying different lines and shifts, my best netting me a 4:07. Most of the good drivers had given up on the track and didn’t run after the first run of the afternoon, but us rookies needed to run the course and learn, so we kept at it. The day was great, aside from the Hill claiming a few parts and egos, everyone had an awesome time. 

Sunday morning was cool, cars were running great, all of the broken cars from the previous day were repaired or just about wrapped up and running. After our safety briefing, people began to head down the hill and stage up again. After my first shot up the hill the car felt great. The cold air coming in the scoop improved power and the Road Runner managed a 4:04 on cold tires. The next run up netted an even better 4:01, and I eagerly awaited my third run. As I got On Deck, the thing we were all worried about happened, course workers radioed, car off course. The whole pits shut down and all attention turned to the radios. With 3 cars on course at any time, speculation began. Who was out? What turn? What do they mean “off course”? 

As I gathered from a couple sources, and we should have video soon enough, a driver overcorrected and went into a 3-foot ditch on the mountain side of the course, and the impact was so violent it shoved both wheels into the fenders and lowered the car to the frame. The car followed the contour of the mountain and ended up about 6 feet above the track in the rocks and then ended up on the shoulder. 

We shortly got the word that despite a near miss with the rapidly approaching ZR-1 Corvette (event winner, average speed of 96.4 mph, you do the math), all drivers were okay, but that cleanup would take through lunch, so we were done for the morning. Bummer. 

After lunch, the track condition had deteriorated to the point that once again, many of the drivers packed it up into their trailers and called it a day. By the afternoon runs the course was too loose, but despite my better judgment, I wanted to run the course more. How many times in your life do you get to blast up a public highway, no speed limit, no oncoming traffic, just you, the car and the road? This is any Sunday morning back road hot rodders wet dream. By four in the afternoon I had done 3 more runs, backing up my 4:01, and steeling in my mind that next year I need more tire and I need my car to behave at 5000-6200 feet as it does at sea level. 3:41 is a pretty lofty goal without forced induction and at least a little bit of Aero. But now we know and there is always next year. 

And you can bet your ass I’ll be back.