Chasing the Dragon

Chasing the Dragon

Celica Dragon logo

The logo for the Celica is a Dragon. So we thought an appropriate place to test our Chump Car Celica was the chasing the Dragon Hill climb.  I got a special invitation from Ted Theodore of Southern Driver and organizer of the hill climb in Robbinsville, NC.


The hill climb is named after the famous Tail of the Dragon Road with is US 129. Chasing the Dragon Hill climb uses a dead-end road nearby with similar topography.  Although I have been to Robbinsville many times and explored many of the back roads, I don’t remember having actually driven up this road before our scouting trip.


After accepting the invitation and making plans to race, I loaded the dog in the Jeep and took a trip to see the hill. The total road length is less than 5 miles. Most of the road is taken up in parking for racers and spectators leaving 2.2 miles to race on.  The pavement is mostly smooth with a few interesting dips and ripples. There are also some new patches.


Tom and I arrived early to get an SCCA log book for our car. We already had a Chump Car log book but an SCCA log book is required for the Time Trial.  We also had to apply for our Novice time trial license.  That meant we also had to attend a class that evening.  Tech went smooth on main street of the sleepy little mountain town. We did not even have to unload the car from the trailer.


After tech and registration, we took the car to the camp ground and began setting up camp.  I had made arrangements with camp host on my scouting trip and he had saved a nice place to park the truck and trailer. We unloaded the car and snuck it the ¼ mile of public road to get to the hill. We set up a paddock space on the narrow shoulder of the road.


Once camp was set up, we headed to town for our class.  Ted lead the class telling us some of how hill climbs work – multiple runs, drivers split into run groups, only the best one counts etc.  He mentioned that it would not be possible to memorize the track in one weekend. I had already realized I could not and was a bit relieved to know that I was not expected to.  I treated it like a short rally stage I had run before.


I went to bed a little nervous. I was not sure what it would be like to drive our old car flat out up the mountain.  I took the first run up the hill with Tom being in the later run group. I was a but disappointed that the car had so little power that I was at full throttle all the way up. I hardly lifted at all and never braked until after the finish line.  I was very happy with the grip our Azena tires gave however.


Toms first run up the hill was a second or so slower than mine. We compared notes on how to go faster.  I dropped a few second on my next attempt. Tom went even faster edging me out slightly.  We checked the cooling system and added a little water as the car was beginning to get hot on the climbs and not cool quickly in the turnaround area.


I had to sit in the stage line a long time as one of the Miatas had a bad off. The driver was carted away in an ambulance but I was told it was just a precaution and he was not hurt.  I tried to not think about it and just focused on the drive up the hill.  As Tom had suggested I shifted into fourth and got more speed out of the car. I was going quite a bit faster than before and took one scary slide as the pavement changed grip in a transition from old to new paving.  I took six seconds off my previous time.


Tom made another run pushing hard to drop below my time. He was just a bit slower but noticed that the engine did not cool off on the return trip down the hill like it had been doing all morning.


We checked for leaks but did not see any.  I made the decision to press on anyway when my run group was up.  I was having a good run until about the last .3 miles.  I saw a red light flash on the dash but did not see what it was. As the car began to lose power, I noticed the oil pressure was low and the temperature was very high.


As I let off the throttle at the finish, I head a tapping coming from the engine.  I left it running in the turnaround area hoping it would cool off from the fan running.  It never did. The tapping got worse as I coasted down the hill. I pulled into the paddock and told Tom the bad news. I had killed the car.  He seemed relieved that it was me this time as he got credit for killing it last time.


I was very disappointed as I had really hoped to drop my times with more runs up the hill. I was really starting to enjoy the experience.  I drove back to our camp and loaded the car. I was ready to head home but our support crew had been invited to the worker appreciation dinner so we decided to stay the night.


The next morning we got our license signed off and said good-bye to Ted.  He made sure we got trophies for second and third in our class although I did not feel like we really earned them.  It is still a nice trophy and I now have it displayed in my office.


We are now having a new engine built and hopefully we can put the overheating problems behind us. I hope to get to do another hill climb and look forward to racing in Charlotte in November.


Results and pictures can be found at dragon-hill-climb.

Heater Treater Blend Door Repair

Heater Treater Blend Door Repair

1999 Jeep Cherokee XJ

Janice’s Jeep Chreokee has had trouble regulating the temperature in the cabin. Eventually the warm / cool knob made no difference at all. It was cold all the time.

I remembered the previous experience of pulling the HVAC box to replace the heater core. That was a job I do not care to repeat. I also remembered that I had a lot of trouble getting the blend door to sit properly in its hinges when I reassembled the box.

I first checked the actuator and saw it moved in response to the knob on the dash. I had had trouble with my GMC Suburban that turned out to be the HVAC controller. Since the actuator was moving but the temperature was not changing, I knew something had to be wrong with the blend door.

A quick Google search showed this to be a common problem on the 97 to 01 Jeep Cherokees. The door is plastic and will break. Once I got mine out, I found it was indeed broken where the drive actuator engages it.

While searching for solutions, I found They offer a metal replacement blend door along with a procedure that allows the door to be replaced from the foot well without removing the box. At first, I thought the $119 price was high but it sounded better than removing the box again. Especially since the Freon has to be removed to pull the box.

I put the kit on my Paypal account and waited. It was shipped the same day I ordered but it did not arrive until the following Monday. So much for Priority Mail.

I borrowed my Dad’s Dremel kit as recommend in the instructions. The kit came with a cutting blade that looked like a drill bit. Dad’s kit had one similar but shorter so I used his instead.

I removed the passenger seat to get access. I was surprised that it is held in my SAE fasteners rather than metric. Janice had previously removed the actuator. That was the most time consuming part of the job. The actuator is held in place by three screws with 8mm heads. (Not two Phillips screws as stated in the instructions.) Two are almost impossible to access. I used a short socket on a ¼ inch drive ratchet. Even with that I had to pull the carpet back to get enough room.

I cut out the template from the instructions. It is a nice pattern and well thought out. I would not make the hole any different after seeing inside. At first, I could not find a way to transfer the pattern onto the black box to make the cut. It was very difficult to see in the dark floor board and then was little room to get a light in there with me.

My final solution was to transfer the pattern onto a piece of the provided silver tape. They sent plenty. I then stuck the tape to the box and used that as a guide to cut along.

I had not used the Dremel before or used a drill bit as a cutting tool. It was very messy and I would advise goggles or a face shield. Regular safety glasses don’t provide enough protection as the plastic chips fly everywhere and there is not much space between your face and the cutting. After some experimenting, I found it best to make several shallow cuts rather than trying to plunge in and make the cut all at once.

I made a pretty messy cut but was able to get the section cut out properly. As they note in the instructions, it does not have to be neat as it will be covered by tape when you are done anyway.

With the section removed, I could see my blend door hanging at an odd angle. It was not seated in the upper pivot point. At this point I considered putting it back in place and returning the Heater Treater Door. However, upon closer inspection I saw where it was broken. I was able to get it out without making the additional cut noted in the instructions. I guess I was lucky as they said.

Next I took a close look at the replacement door and compared it to the original. There are some minor differences in the shape. The major difference is in the material of construction however. The original is flimsy plastic and the replacement is metal covered in foam. The replacement also has a removable axle to allow it to be inserted and removed without separating the box halves. All the stressed parts are made of steel or aluminum. It looked very strong.

Putting the door in place took me several tries. The top has to fit in the pivot point at the top of the box. The instructions describe the procedure but it took me several attempts before it popped into place. Then it promptly fell out and I had to do it all over again.

The most difficult part of the whole procedure was then putting the little nylon washer in place. I had a very difficult time finding a way to position my hands to get the washer placed under the shaft and over the hole without letting the door slip out of the upper pivot. I am not sure how I eventually did it, but I finally got it all in place.

The axle shaft will fit in two ways only one of which is correct. I hooked up the actuator to the wire again and rotated it to the centering mark on the actuator by turning the hot cold knob on the dash. I removed the wire again and slipped the axle shaft into the actuator. I then carefully raised the actuator and shaft into the hole and wiggled the door to let it slide down on the axle.

I then rotated the actuator to align the screw holes and put in the one screw that is easy to get to. I reattached the wire and tested the actuator. The door moved nicely from one end to the other.

I then sealed up the hole. I tore two pieces of tape and placed them on the bottom of the cut out piece. I then pressed the cut out into the hole and pressed down the tape on either side. It does not look perfect, but you can’t see it unless you lay in the floor anyway.

I then let Janice put back the other two screws holding the actuator. I then reinstalled the seat. She will now have heat for holiday traveling. She now just has to clean up all the black plastic shavings. I even had them in my ears.

Overall, I found the Heater Treater well worth the price. The instructions were very clear and easy to follow. The template was just the right shape to make the repair. Cutting the box sure beats removing the box. See for more info. Allow about two hours to make the repair.

2012 Fall Crawl

2012 Fall Crawl

With my new job, my time commitments are tight. So, I made a last minute decision to attend the XJ list Fall Crawl. That meant I did not have time to prep my trailer and my Jeep. I decided to borrow Jennifer’s XJ which had until recently been her daily driver.

I made the assumption it was ready to drive and just spent the time unpacking her stuff and packing in my camping gear. Having grown accustomed to packing a Suburban, I had to rethink some choices when packing the smaller XJ. The 33 inch spare took up a lot of room even wit he seat folded down. Since I was traveling alone, I used the front seat space for a few soft items like my sleeping bag and backpack.

I left early Friday morning. I made it to the camp in Harlan just as the guys who arrived Thursday night were waking up. I aired down and disconnected the sway bar. I then unloaded the camping gear and set up the tent. I then took my chair to the camp fire and caught up with everyone I had not seen in a while.

After lunch, we lined up and headed up the mountain. I was surprised to see that part of trail 45 is now closed and we were forced to use the trail 48 bypass. Even with the bypass, getting up the hill is still a bit spooky in a couple of places.

At middle fork, we took a look at Tailgate. There was a huge buck deer looking back at us. It just stood there staring at us as we investigated the climb. Only after Josh restarted his XJ and turned p the hill did the big deer slowly wander away. The wet leaves proved too slippery to get on onto the bottom of the trail which looked pretty unforgiving further up. So, we turned and headed up trail 15 to the left toward the helicopter pad. After exploring the remains of an abandoned earth mover, we ventured further east to the huge plateau that we found a few years ago. There was still snow in several places and I chucked a couple of snowballs.

A couple of XJs were low on fuel so we split in to two groups. While one group headed to Evart for fuel, I led the others on a round about way to Lower Rock garden. We took trail 15 back to middle fork and then took the other side of 15 up slip and slide and then up the next big hill. Slip and slide was pretty dry but the second longer hill was pretty slick. I was very happy with how well Jenny’s XJ climbed in the slippery mud. Also her new Procomp shocks did very well at controlling the front axle over the rock outcrops.

Some of the newer participants had some trouble at first as they did not realize how aggressive they need to hit the bottom of the climb to be able to carry speed to the steep part. After a couple of tries every one made it up.

We then made our way to the lower rock garden. We played around there for a while until the others caught up. It was pretty dark by the time we headed back to camp. We went back along the easier trial 12 and 20 back to camp. Going down 45 was pretty exciting as the switchbacks took a careful line to drop into without feeling tippy.

Back at camp we made our individual meals and swapped stories. As usual, the stars were extremely bright on top of the mountain far away from light pollution.

After a chilly night we headed up the mountain again. We decided to try the far west side of the part as one of the county officials had suggested. He told us that some of the ATV trails were OK for our size Jeeps. We navigated our way across the park making only one wrong turn before we got to a confusing spot and took time out for lunch. I used the manifold to warm some hot pockets which were very tasty on the cool clear day.

We made our best guess at which trail to take and ventured on. Not far in we found a spot a bit too narrow for an XJ. A fallen tree was blocking one side of the trial. Josh used his XJ like a bull dozer and moved the log aside. However he got hung up backing out and Dean had to give him a tug to get free.

After a long while of continuously going down we decided this was not taking us where we wanted to go. We could see the Harlan High School below us. Eventually we found a place to turn all the rigs around and made the long climb back out. We took another narrow trial toward the southern part of the park. Again we encountered a tree blocking the road and Josh again pushed it out of the way.

There was one particularly challenging rock that took some maneuvering to get around but generally the trail was uneventful. We were all glad to be of the narrow trail by the end. We stopped at 4 poles overlook and enjoyed the view.

Next we decided to try some trials we had not been on before. We turned up Fuqarwe and then onto Fly Trap. Neither proved to be much of a challenge. We then made our way along 12 to the unnamed rock garden.

We gain split into two groups with one group taking Frankenstein and the others going to Little Stadium. The group on Frankenstein had some excitement as Dean broke a hub and Frosty took a tumble. We all met back up on trail 12 and headed back down. We made it to camp just about dark.

Frosty fired up his grill and tossed on some juicy rib eye steaks. Potato boats surrounded the cooking surface as well. Once it was all cooked, the conversation died down and was replaced with grunts, oohs and compliments to the chef.

After a nice dinner and some story telling I retired to the tent and slept very well. I woke early the next morning and packed my gear. At the bottom of the hill, I aired up using the camp compressor. After hooking back up the sway bar, I pointed the red Jeep south basking in the memory of a nice relaxing weekend.

Flying Southwest Airlines

Anytime someone is considering flying and they are looking for the best deal the first thing I recommend is Southwest Airlines. This is especially true when it comes to unaccompanied children. When my brother and I were kids anytime we had to fly it was with Southwest. Then when I had to make the decision to have my kids fly back from their grandpa’s house in Texas, I did not hesitate getting tickets for them.

The last week of October I had to make a quick trip to Texas. Since it was during the week I did have to fly out of my local airport which does not have Southwest, but I knew on my way back home I would definitely be using them. I was able to make reservations two days prior to leaving out and I still got a great price.

I will admit that flying out of other Airline carriers was not the best choice. Their planes were smaller and you couldn’t stand up on the airplane without bonking your head. Plus you have to pay for luggage and have an assigned seat, which someone took mine. I also had to walk out on the tarmac to get to the plane, something I had never done in my life.

I had never flown into Atlanta on Southwest since it has only been several months since they started service into Atlanta. Typically I would fly to Nashville or Birmingham. Why I chose Atlanta this time is that it is the closest to home by an hour.

Using Southwest was a very easy process at least at Houston Hobby. Checking in the person at the counter was very friendly and helpful. When we were in the process of boarding the plane all the Southwest employees were very warm and friendly. My grandfather chose to sit by the wing which is also where the emergency exits were. One of the flight attendants asked him as well as myself if we were willing to be the ones to open the emergency exits should there be an emergency. As we were preparing to fly to Atlanta, another flight attendant came and stood in the mid section to do their routine demonstrations of the seat belts, emergency exits, oxygen masks and the like.

Overall I will say the employees of Southwest were much more pleasant and friendly than the other airlines we flew on days before. I am one to first and foremost recommend Southwest not just because the first two bags fly free, but that they are typically less expensive and have great service. Because of that I have trusted them to fly my kids back home and I also recommend Southwest to other families who have to fly children unaccompanied to destinations. If you are looking for reasonable flights with great service to get you from point A to point B then I recommend Southwest.

Working the Coker Tire Challenge 2012

Every year Corky Coker of Coker Tire Company in Chattanooga, Tennessee is gracious enough to hold a fun event in September known as the Coker Tire Challenge. It starts at the Coker Tire headquarters in downtown Chattanooga and takes the drivers, navigators, Sweep crews, as well as the Checkpoint crews all over the place from Middle Tennessee to Alabama and Georgia. You just never know where the Rally Master will take you!

This year was my third year to work the Coker Tire Challenge held in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My first year was in 2008 and I returned in 2011 after working The Great Race that summer. This year was about the same, work The Great Race 2012 this past summer and then two months later work the Coker Tire Challenge.

The more I work both events the more comfortable I get being around the drivers, navigators, support crews, other volunteers and staff of Coker Tire. That has been a major plus for me to socialize with other people while building my confidence.

From Friday morning through Sunday afternoon I am busy working as a checkpoint crew person.  First thing Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning I am up before the roosters crow to get watches set using the Universal Coordinated Time using a time cube. Then for about an hour or so we are on the road heading towards our checkpoint(s) for the day. Friday we had two checkpoints, Saturday we had two with the last one being a double (cars come by in both directions) and Sunday we had just one.

It never fails that we will have at least one person stop and ask us what is going on or what is The Great Race (since our checkpoint sign says The Great Race). Every once in awhile we’ll have someone who would like to hang around and watch the cars go by as we take their times.

Friday evening after we finished our checkpoints our destination was the Mountain Valley Farm, where the Cokers reside. Since we were the first ones in (as requested by the Rally Master, John Classen) we helped with score cards, handing out Ace Stickers, and do some collating when new score cards are handed to us by the scoring crew. After we finished those duties we were invited up to the home of Corky & Teresa Coker to have dinner (catered by Sticky Fingers, yum!). It’s always a nice way to end the day especially since I was starving! Of course, I wasn’t about to climb that huge hill to get there so I went to the “bus stop” where Hal (Corky’s right hand helper/worker) drives a vintage Yellowstone Park bus. I have to give it to Hal since the bus obviously doesn’t have power steering and he obviously has to be in shape to steer that thing.


Saturday our first checkpoint was at an old abandoned store that probably closed in the early 90’s since one of the gas pumps read gas $1.19. As I recall as a “new” driver in 1993 that gas was about that price a gallon. We met a few of the locals who were rightfully curious what we were doing sitting in the parking lot with a sign across the road and a big green dot painted in the center of the road. About the time we had about 7 or 8 cars left they showed back up to enjoy watching the cars go by as I took their times.

After having lunch at the Hardee’s on 411 in Benton, we headed to our next checkpoint which was inadvertently changed so we had to move down the road. This checkpoint was an adventure and a half since I had cars coming from both directions about half way through our time there! At one time I nearly had two vehicles crossing the green dot at the same time and two more behind them… Thankfully one of the drivers slowed down a hair which allowed me to get everyone’s times. Needless to say my heart was definitely racing after that one.

Sunday’s checkpoint was by far the most peaceful one. We were situated on a windy road that ran parallel to the Tennessee River. It was mostly quiet (something I rarely have with three kids). Got through the last checkpoint with a breeze although I was quite exhausted particularly since I had to wake up at 4:50 AM to make sure I got ready and arrived at Coker Tire by 6:15 AM. Once the sweep crew and the sweep truck came by we headed towards Coker Tire. The road got narrow and slightly hairy for the sweep truck a couple of times. Very interesting to watch how the sweep truck driver handled the tight squeezes. I know I could never be that talented!

When we finally arrived back to Coker Tire headquarters reality set in that the event was over with when it was time to turn in our equipment, sign and supply box. It felt as if it had just started and suddenly ended. After enjoying a nice meal it was time to announce the winners of the 2012 Coker Tire Challenge. Most of the cars that won I was not surprised, especially when the Jason’s won-they were the Grand Champion winners of this years Great Race.

Since John and his wife Rachel had to leave quickly to get to Atlanta to fly back to Burbank, CA, Janice and I helped make sure the drivers received their score cards, ACE stickers if they made any Ace’s today and an overall score/time sheet. We managed to give all but two of the score cards out which I think is pretty good.

I enjoyed getting to interact with some of the drivers and navigators more this time around.  I know I will be more prepared to dive in to my duties as a checkpoint worker for The Great Race as well as work with the drivers and navigators. It is important to me that I get to know them and vice versa.

The highlights of the event was that I got teased by one of the cars’ drivers “Tom” would joke with me about yelling “MARK” as his vehicle crossed my checkpoint. So, I started yelling “TOM” as he crossed my checkpoints so I started getting thumbs up. Next, I made a major boo boo by calling car “69” a car when it is a truck. So at the last checkpoint of the event  I yelled “TRUCK” instead of “MARK.”  Yes, the driver Jim and his navigator got a huge kick out of it!  Then as we were heading home and on Main Street I  notice a Coker Tire badge and sunglasses laying in the middle of the road. Janice turns around and parks in the median while I get out and wait for traffic to pass through. Luckily no one ran over the sunglasses before then. I quickly picked them up got back in and read the name: Chad Caldwell and his sunglasses? Ray Ban’s! So we headed back to Coker Tire hoping to find Corky, which we did as he was locking the gates. I sure hope someone calls Chad to let him know his sunglasses were safe and sound.

I am glad I did one good deed for the event and the day!