Peter Barratt and the Team United America Wrenchers had just two days to turn four barn find wrecks into at least one race car for the LeMons race in Houston.
Words: Keith Adams Photography: Murilee Martin
The American wrenchers
‘Why Austin Americas? Because they were available, I love British cars and there is a madman in San Diego called Spank who knows them inside out and back to front who pushed for this the moment he saw the original advert.’ That’s what Peter Barrett, Captain of Team United America Wrenchers (think about it), said on his decision to enter one of the USA’s most competitive races, the 24 Hours of LeMons in an ADO16.
Not heard of LeMons? As an AROnline reader, you’d love it. It’s a series of endurance races on tracks around the USA, and although its name is a parody of the famous Vingt-quatre Heures du Mans, what the event is really, is a celebration of old snotters by true enthusiasts. And we love it. The event is a weekend’s celebration that includes qualifying, the main endurance, race, some partying, and a lot of spannering. It’s not about money and budget, but cunning and ingenuity.
The hands-on, oily knuckled race weekend might have a jovial atmosphere surrounding it, and we all have plenty of laughs at the cars, and how they’re customised for the track, but like all races, it’s still underpinned by a very real sense of danger. A crash is a crash – so, preparation and the safety of your snotter is absolutely paramount.
Like all good banger events, it’s designed to be run on the tightest of budgets. The teams have a maximum spend of $500 on the car, but can then spend what they like on safety equipment, such as roll cages, brakes, wheels, tyres and suspension components. This is sensible, and all the teams ensure that their cars – however down at heel they look are top notch in terms of safety. With the case of the United American Wrenchers, finding the car was half the battle…
Getting hold of the cars, Peter recalled, ‘We bought four because they were a job lot, but in very poor shape. They came from an estate of a guy who bought these cars with the intention of working on them. Parked them in a field in Waco Texas 30 years ago and there they stayed until being auctioned off as part of the estate. The buyer could not shift them due to their poor condition, so was happy to offload them on us. So, we had three rolling shells (no engine/transmission) and one complete car. Spares included a rebuilt engine and no end of gaskets. everything for $600.’ It was a case of game on. But time was a bit of an issue.
“The cars came from an estate of a guy who bought these cars with the intention of working on them. Parked them in a field in Waco Texas 30 years ago and there they stayed until being auctioned off as part of the estate.”
Peter is known as ‘Bloody Brit’ by the rest of is crew, but he knew he’d need expert help making one or more of of his Austin Americas race-ready. Why? Because in true banger style, the cars were bought at the last minute, and they basically had two days in which to get them sorted for LeMons. Remarkable considering the cars were mouldering wrecks.
Peter built his team in double-quick time, and perhaps the biggest hero of his crew, Spank, flew out from San Diego at short notice for the race at Gatorama in Houston. He’s the man to have on board, as an existing Legend of LeMons, he already races an Austin America on the West Coast. And if anyone knows how to make an ADO16 work on track, it’s him. Spank was already sorting out what was needed before he hopped on the 737 to head east.
He had three roll cage kits prepared near his base in California, and had them shipped them to Houston before he rocked up to the Houston track. Spanks said, ‘this was a tremendous by my friend, Jeffrey. He hauled out the rollcages and spare parts from San Diego, and I’ll never forget his word Thursday night: “I just drove two days and over 1500 miles, and I show up eight minutes after 10 and they’re telling me, “Sorry, the gate is locked for the night. We can’t let you in.” Thanks to the MSR Gatekeepers for eventually having a heart and letting him in to drop stuff off.’
But here’s the thing – there were four donor cars, but it still wasn’t clear how many of the Austin Americas would be competing in LeMons. It really depended on how many cars’ worth of good parts they could scavenge.
“Okay we just started up this engine for the first time in 30 years and with no coolant in it yet and there’s exhaust puffing out of the thermostat housing. Uh, should we be concerned?”
Peter said, ‘we hoped to build two cars, so we took the best three down to the track. We soon discovered the complete car was bad. Despite sitting for 30 years the suspension was low but functioned, the front subframe completely rotted and the engine seized. At this point we decided to make the best car we could from all the spares we had. We cut panels out of the blue car to patch up the floor – partly with the roof of the green car.’
Race day, Saturday began to feel like ground rush to a team that desperately needed to be in the grid. By Friday night, the inventory of good parts revealed that Team UAW had sufficient good engine parts to make just a single 1275, along with only one good front suspension subframe. Decision made – the team was going to race a single Austin America. From that point on, the team could focus completely, and everyone clustered around the green car and began sweating blood in order to make it good.
Spank confirmed that Team UAW was only going to get one car to the track this weekend: ‘Having only one welder really did seal our fate to just one car, and we had to make that call mid-late Friday afternoon. We had all the stuff for a second car, just ran out of welder and people to weld and the amount of time used on rust repair really ate into potential second car time. We figured it was best to get one car done right and not need any re-do’s, than get two cars done that would have a bunch of “we’ll fix that better for the next race” stuff.’
Bearing in mind that the team was now on track with the race to start in less than four days, and all they had was three wrecked cars, a load of parts, and a huge amount of determination, this was going to be interesting. Challenge number one was actually getting at least one car to the grid.
‘So began the process of turning the four cars into one,’ Peter said. ‘The team hacked as much sheetmetal as possible out of it, for use in patching the slightly-less-rusty other cars.’
Spank recalled the spirit of co-operation in the pit garages: ‘Crazy Mike would come over at just the right moments when his insight was needed to answer silly questions like, “Okay we just started up this engine for the first time in 30 years and with no coolant in it yet and there’s exhaust puffing out of the thermostat housing. Uh, should we be concerned?”‘
This operation of rationalising the four cars was a major one. Peter said: ‘In the original job lot was a complete engine off an automatic, we took the head off that and put it on the rebuilt engine. Among the spares we had shipped in were an LCB, working carb and distributor, so these were all bolted on the good engine. We used old driveshafts and a gearbox which came with the short block. An exhaust was fabricated on site using 1 and 7/8in pipe and a cherry bomb.’
The weekend progressed, the inspections came and went, and the team continued to work feverishly on the America. The race started at 3.00 on Saturday afternoon, and the America still wasn’t ready. But the team didn’t give up hope and continued working on the car, never at any point giving up hope. But it wasn’t just the engine that needed attention. ‘Roll cages were pre-bent and shipped in parts,’ Peter said. ‘But we welded them in on site in the pit garage.’
The electrics on the green car were finished. ‘We had some used alternators, so we switched one from positive to negative earth and installed it. For whatever reason we could not find power to the fuel pump, but the rear lights were on, so we jumped a wire from the lights to the pump.’
It wasn’t until 10.30 on Sunday morning, when everyone else was already the up to speed that the America was ready for scrutineering. The team was ready to race! Five yards after passing the inspection, the exhaust system fell off, but that was fixes and the team was ready to join the race.
So, the race was on. Team UAW joined the track with the race already in full swing, and although the Austin America was now running, it wasn’t without problems. ‘During the first stint with Spank driving, one of the Hydrolastic displacers failed.’ Peter said. ‘We came in and we had spares lying around, so replaced it in the pits. We then rolled the wings with a hammer, as the tyres we had were 185/55x14s mounted on Honda Accord rims, and really were too large for the job in hand.’
But despite the problems, the team was enjoying driving the car, building up pace, and ironing out the teething problems. ‘First few stints in the car were slow, as the brakes were poor, but we replaced all the lines and had an air leak in one of the new flare joints at the back. In the end, we bypassed the rear brakes totally.’
Thank you to everyone who came over during the course of the build to lend us encouragement and kudos and for the rousing applause when she took the track for the first time. Lots of thumbs up from drivers who were on track, too.
But as the hours passed, the Austin America got better and better. ‘When I got out second time I went more aggressive,’ Peter said. ‘Once the pads were up to temperature, they did a fantastic job. I could throw the car more and even managed to make a couple of passes. The handling was good, on a slippery track I ploughed on as MX-5s span off in front of me. The gearbox was poor but worked, and third gear synchro was nowhere to be found.
‘Driving it was a blast, I grinned from ear to ear and was out to take the chequered flag. We did not come last, but were 89th out of 97. We did not have the slowest best lap, but we did what we aimed to do, which was build a race car and get it out on track over a long weekend.’
The organisers were impressed, and want to see Team UAW’s Austin America again. ‘We won the prize of “Most heroic fix”, Peter said proudly. It was an absolutely dogged effort to build one running ADO16 out of four derelict ones, and clearly that kind of commitment is right up our street.
Spank summed up the effort – the team camaraderie perfectly. ‘Thank you to everyone who came over during the course of the build to lend us encouragement and kudos and for the rousing applause when she took the track for the first time. Lots of thumbs up from drivers who were on track, too. That really was the best reward ever. Some people challenge themselves by seeing if they can swim the English Channel, Hike the Appalachian Trail, or scale great heights just for the sake of seeing if they could do it. Let’s just say this was our Mount Everest.’
They’ll be racing again next year, and you can be sure that AROnline will be taking a very close look indeed, and our bunch of lovable heroes…spider, Mint Hill NC)