Our friend and Car and Driver/Road & Track associate publisher, Jason Nikic spends a good amount of time in the office. With a demanding career, you'd expect to see him on the couch most Saturday afternoons - catching up on sleep, relaxing. Not the case. Most weekends you can spot him trailering his 1978 911 Targa wide body or his 1978 Porsche 911 m491 wide body behind a Defender 90 towards Lime Rock, Watkins Glen or some distant racetrack. His passion for racing has become the counterpoint to his professional life. Read on and see how a recent weekend of endurance racing took an unexpected turn and how sometimes just getting to the start line is the most epic part of the weekend.
There was no grace in the movement. But that didn't matter. My right hand slapped at the electrical cutoff. I heard the C-L-I-C-K of the switch just as my left hand reached for the release on my harness. I didn't hear it click - but I did hear everyone around me yelling "FIRE." I paused just as I was halfway out the passenger side window. Paused for a moment to reach back and release the hoses that ran ice-cold water from a special system to a special shirt worn underneath my race suit. The hose was brand new. And I didn't want to ruin it. Odd what you find yourself worrying about as flames rip over the side of your engine bay. Odd to think about preserving a new hose, when the very preservation of the old car itself was at stake. The car continued to roll as I made my way through the window and away from a fire that emergency crews were running towards. I'd forgotten to pull the emergency brake. I turned and watched with a slight sense of awe, and a greater numbness as I removed my helmet and waved to my team mates running down the pit lane – as if to say "Hi, I'm alive. You can stop running." They did stop running. And I started to wake up to the reality that our weekend was finished.
We were drunk in joy as the motor fired with a new voice. Hours of wrenching and searching and wondering and maybe even a little praying, later. You could hear the difference in the motor. It sounded…right. Deeper, meaner. Fouled injectors made the motor run so poorly, starving it of fuel. But replacing them cured our ills and brought about that sense of joy and confidence that the next mornings race was going to be different. It was different. Our car burned up. Maybe we celebrated too much …
We pushed the still-smoking-car down the pit as other teams looked over at us. I could read it on their faces. They'd all been there before – some of them actually burned up but others, the luckier ones, had less dramatic failures. Still, both ruin weekends. Seth was on the phone. I thought he was calling his wife to tell her about the fire. He wasn't. He'd sourced a donor car an hours drive from the track. Eric and I were sure he was crazy, but we weren't sure if we were both crazy too. "It’s not that bad, maybe three hours of work.” And that's why we spent the rest of the morning and into the afternoon driving through rural Virginia and Maryland. When we finally got back to the track, I saw our hood on the ground. The purple paint blistered around the gold "79." All the burned wiring was already removed from the engine bay; melted rubber hoses littered the ground in a neat pile; a few plastic reservoirs surveyed the fire with superficial scarring; while others were amputated and would require replacement. I felt like a transplant surgeon might feel working in the African bush. While a war was going on. With only a butter knife on hand. Teams walked up and down the paddock - staring, peering over our shoulders as we worked, shaking their heads as they walked away. The next eight hours came and went. The race had ended some time ago, but I couldn't even tell you who won. We struggled working around the shadows cast as by the work lights piercing the total darkness of that evening. When we finally cranked the motor, it was after eleven o'clock. Most teams were already asleep. Others walked through the pits with beer in hand, socializing. At the very edge of the paddock, where the light from the flood lights didn't reach, one team had a fire pit going. It didn't start. I was tired. I could see fatigue in Eric's eyes. I started to give in to the persistent doubt that lingered around us all day. The doubt that we could get the car ready in time. The doubt that it would ever start. The doubt that it was even worth fixing.
As I drove down pit lane at 30 mph, drivers and mechanics and spectators were all standing along the pit wall. Clapping. Cheering. Our competitors were lined up on the grid. And we took our place at the very back. I could see everyone shaking their heads in conversation. But this time it wasn't with doubt; we'd brought back to life a car that everyone else would have buried alive.
And we started the race.