Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Liebherr Crosley at Bonneville

I emailed Dale Liebherr a couple of weeks ago to let him know that I'd see him at the Salt Flats; five minutes later my phone rang.  "How'd you know we were going?" he wanted to know.  Dale and brother Rob were talking about the idea of building a Bonneville Crosley at the 2007 Minden meet.  Within a year they'd built most of a car, and thanks to the sharp eye (and camera phone) of John McKnight I knew they'd completed it and taken the car to El Mirage this spring- they failed tech inspection, (no tranny blanket) so the car didn't run there.   
I'd wondered why Dale and Rob had kept such a low profile with their car building.  Dale posts on the Crosley Yahoo group and is involved in club stuff, but hadn't mentioned anything about the car.  Turns out that they wanted to avoid letting the Evil Tweety team know that they'd have extra competition this year.   
Evil Tweety is the current J Production class record holder.  The 1971 Honda Z600 has been battling it out with Gerald Davenport's Crosley for salt supremacy for a decade now.  Boasting a very warmed-up motor, a computer-aided induction/timing system and a much 'cleaner' underside than a Crosley, Evil Tweety took the record back, and then broke the century mark a couple of years ago.  The current record is just over 103 MPH.  Team Liebherr didn't want Tweety to know that it was in their sights.
We called Dale from the salt and arranged to meet them at their pit.  Pits were arranged parallel to the Long Track starting at about the two mile mark and going to just about the four mile mark.  The Liebherrs had scored prime real estate at the three mile mark... just about optimum for watching the races.
The car is an almost stock-appearing 1947 sedan.  Dale bought the car from Bob Carson twenty years ago and it sat in the desert until after the 2007 meet.   Then they got to work.  Rob handled the bodywork and paint (and drives the car).   Production class rules do not allow modification of the body, and one of Dale and Rob's personal rules was that the car could not be modified in a way that could not be easily converted back to a correct restoration.  I'm fairly sure they are the only team on the salt with that thought in mind.  Even the stock wheelwells are intact- though sporting handmade 15 inch rims and racing rubber.   
Dale handled the engine work, with assistance from knowledgeable sources like Don Baldocchi.  Again, class rules prohibit a larger displacement, but the engine sports all sorts of mods including Hilborn mechanical injection and a crank trigger ignition.  There is plenty more going on inside, but Dale is cagey on most of the details.  The mill connects to a Datsun 4 speed then back to a stock Crosley rear.  The office is clean, and with the addition of a substantial roll cage, even more compact than a regular Crosley.
Bonneville is about a mile above sea level- enough to give any car fits- but the constant atmospheric changes of the site are especially tough on cars that are built to run at utmost efficiency within very specific tolerances.  Temperature and humidity changes wreak havoc on carefully tuned systems, with conditions sometimes changing dramatically in the space of a few minutes.  These conditions are measured in 'actual' altitude... which ranged from about 5000-7000 feet just in the time we were there.  Early morning turned out to be the best time to run, with a recorded altitude of about 5000 feet.   In the end it turned out that Evil Tweety didn't need to be worried- the sedan's best runs were in the mid 80s.  Still, not bad for first-timers to the salt, and they're already looking forward to next year.
The Liebherrs were kind enough to let Liv and I join the crew for the day and we spent about six hours with them, riding in the catch car as Rob made runs, and hanging out in the pits while they debated timing changes, injection adjustments and speculated about the 'actual' altitude.  At the end of they day they even fed us delicious sausages and beer.
We had an amazing day, and Liv and I both can't wait to come back.  My big regret was that we never saw Gerald Davenport at all- it turned out that he had a sort of mobile pit trailer and was working over by the Special Track.. I assumed we'd run into him but it just never happened.  I also assumed we'd bump into John McKnight- the Liebherrs said he'd been by their pit several times, but he was scarce the day we were there.   Once the salt closed up for the night I found his number and gave him a call.  It turned out that he'd finally gotten a hotel room in Wendover after three days of sleeping in his car at the bend.  We went by his hotel and I finally got to meet John in person after 10+ years of email correspondence.   He was a great guy (and a wealth of Crosley engine info)... we visited for an hour or so and then Liv and I headed off to camp.   
All in all, this was one of the best days I've had in years.  Liv and I talked about what makes Bonneville so special... and decided that it's because everyone there is so committed.  No one accidentally ends up at Bonneville.  It's too far from anywhere else and too harsh an environment for the casual observer.  If you're at Bonneville, you're there for Bonneville.  It's a beautiful thing.


Anonymous said...


THis is the exact same vibe that exists at the drags. The trick is to go and be a part of a team rather than a garden-variety spectator. With Dave in Korea, I am going to have to recruit you to work with me on Tommy's dragster- you'll just have to carve out time in your schedule to do it. It's worth cancelling anything else you have going on to be there and be involved.


smitty said...

Not being there to help with the dragster is one of the few things I miss. I'd also like to see the orchestra doing Star Wars in October with whatever special effects they'll have. I'll have to make up for it by going to Japan to visit the Ultraman Theme Park and finding me some of the Hello Kitty beer.

Liv Moe said...

If you find said Hello Kitty beer can you bring one home for me? I like to imagine it will taste the way most HK products smell i.e. sorta like a Strawberry Shortcake doll.

Ol' Man Foster said...

Smitty, you missed it... you need to go to Speed Week when you're back in the states.

Anonymous said...

Was a very clean looking Crosley - I'm sure they'll get more miles per hour out of her next year. The first trip is often a learning experience.

The Evil Tweety crew would love to see a Crolsey bust the century mark and back it up, and were in fact offering up tips to this team while waiting to race. You can read more about the Honda at GarageCity - http://jdmtown.garagecity.com/600hondaavenue/97/

Ol' Man Foster said...

I talked to the Liebherrs this week- they're deep in the lab doing mad scientist stuff for next time...