The Cootermobile Vignettes

Scene 1: It appears

I clearly remember my first encounter with the IT-prepped Datsun 610 that came to be known as The Cootermobile. If it was to be my only experience with the car, its story would still be one of our oft-recounted racing tales. But unbeknown to us, there were more chapters to come. The origins of its moniker have been lost to age and time; My buddy Al insists that his friend Carlos came up with the name, but no one can remember when or why.

The car first appeared at an SCCA drivers’ school, way back when I was instructing for the SS/IT group. The region’s schools enjoyed a large turnout, and we ran a tight schedule. Students would often stage their cars before the prior group had left the grid lane, hoping that it might get them a bit of clear track in the early stages of their session. To help reduce paddock gridlock while the students were prepping, instructors would hop into cars and pull them forward onto the cleared grid. It was during this shuffle that we first met.

Four or five of us were running back and forth, bringing the cars forward, when the sequence paired me up with the sad-looking 610. I opened the driver’s-side door (which groaned on its rusty hinges) and plopped down on what looked to be a fairly standard black aftermarket racing seat. I landed with a teeth-jarring thud. WTH? I shook my head to clear my vision and looked down to see where I had landed. Technically, I suppose it was a racing seat; it was one of those plastic blow-molded dragster buckets, with no padding whatsoever. Size: Lard-Ass. Seriously, I could put a loaf of bread on either side of me and still not fill the space between my thighs and the bolsters. It was like sitting on a cinder-block park bench. With roughly the same amount of lateral support.

This all took place in the days before the SCCA started paying attention to date codes on safety gear. I looked around the interior. The harness must have been a relic from the 1950s: It was a crinkled mass of stiff black nylon web, with a well-worn lever latch. The roll cage was a terror; all tight bends and what appeared to be coat-hanger-wire welds. The factory ignition switch was gone, so I quickly searched for a way to start the engine. Someone had cobbled an angled panel in front of the shifter from a rusty (of course) piece of ¼” steel plate that must have weighed 10 pounds. An assortment of unlabeled, mismatched toggle switches poked from randomly-placed holes. I fiddled around a while until I figured out which ones ran the fuel pump, ignition, and starter. The engine bellowed to life through an open header just under my feet, sounding like a crop-dusting plane. I gingered the car about 80 feet forward in 1st gear and shut it off.

When the re-grid work was done, I commented to Al that it was the most frightened I had ever been in a race car. We spent the rest of the weekend taking bets on how long the car would last, but the damned thing went out every session and ultimately finished the event.

A few weeks later it appeared in the paddock with a For Sale sign. $500. To my shock and surprise, Al bought the damned thing. He figured that he could strip the good parts out of it (MSD, Weber carb, fuel cell, steering wheel) and haul the rest to the dump and still be ahead, monetarily. He dragged it home, we stripped it, and it sat in his back yard for a year, because, you know, that’s just what happens.

Scene Two: Resurrection

Al’s own Datsun 510 effort was well supported by Andy and Carlos, two of his buddies from work. They were pretty gung-ho; filled with youthful enthusiasm and thrilled to be involved in motorsports.
After a year or two of crewing, Andy was completely hooked, and decided that he would build an ITC Rabbit to run two upcoming schools and then go racing. But time and finances got away from him, as they tend to do, and it became clear that the Rabbit would not be ready in time. Al offered up the 610 (still sitting in his back yard) as an interim vehicle. Andy accepted, and they spent the next few weekends putting all of the good bits back on the car once again.

During the prep, Andy couldn’t seem to remember which rusty-panel switch did what, so we decided to label them. I got inside to flip the switches while Al looked and listened for what happened as a result, and then I labeled the panel with a Sharpie. I hit the first toggle and the car lurched forward. Ah, Starter. Spring-loaded, thank goodness. Then Fuel Pump. Ignition. One that we never did figure out, and we labeled it, “?” and also an empty hole that Al thoughtfully labeled, “NO SWITCH” in tidy block letters.

All of this was taking place right around the time that the Comp Committee decided to get persnickety about vehicle appearance. Somebody with too much time on their hands noticed that the GCR stipulated some nominal level of presentability for the cars, and suddenly the tech inspectors started flexing their volunteer muscles and rejecting cars for various violations of decorum. It was a happy time in the regional driver ranks, as you might imagine.

To be fair, the 610 (which had by this time become the Cootermobile) was probably the exact sort of car that had gotten them all fired up. Its white paint was chalky and oxidized, there were rust holes and dents in the quarter panels, and the numbers were done with duct tape. There was no way it was going to escape the wrath of our imperious scrutineers. So, in addition to the mechanical-prep thrash, the guys had to divert some of their precious hours toward cosmetic improvements. They attacked the paint with some compound and wax (the best it got was ‘satin,’ but it did look better,) slapped some Bondo in the rust holes and hit it with sandpaper and a rattle can. They even took some time to apply some Krylon racing stripes. As a result, it looked good from 50 feet away, going 50 MPH (or “a 50/50 Concours winner,” as we used to say.)

They were able to tap out most of the dents from the inside, but there was one on the left-rear quarter that couldn’t be reached with bodywork tools. Al got the idea to stuff a big inner tube in the cavity and inflate it to push the dent out. Amidst much skepticism he found a nasty old truck tube, got it in place, and started gingerly feeding it from the compressor a bit at a time. To everyone’s surprise, it started working. The dent began popping out, creaking and groaning and looking like Christine healing itself. Looking good. Nearly there. A bit more…

The next events occurred in rapid succession, but the adrenaline jolt transformed it all into that greasy, slow-motion weirdness that happens when things go terrifyingly pear-shaped. Al squeezed a bit more air down the hose; the inner tube exploded with a mighty BOOM; a hurricane of dust and debris whirled out of the trunk and both open doors, and Carlos came flying sideways out of the passenger door, saying something in Spanish really fast and loud. His hearing came back, eventually, but for months he would occasionally look around and ask if someone was playing a saxophone.

Andy passed tech and completed the school in the car (it never missed a session,) and afterward they dragged it back to Al’s and pulled out all of the good bits off once more. It sat in his back yard through the winter and into the following season.

Scene Three: My Turn

A few months before Andy’s first school, I had The Big One at Charlotte and brought my beloved Crossle’ 32F home in bushel baskets. I dejectedly sold the engine and what was left of the chassis, and spent the money on an engagement ring. This left me broke and without a ride for the following season.

You can probably see where this is going.

Al offered up the Cootermobile as a license-saving ride. When I asked about my potential liability, he said that if I wrecked it comprehensively, I had to help him take all of the good pieces off and drag it to the dump. This was a level of exposure that I could deal with.

I brought the car back to my garage to get it ready for the weekend. Now, it’s hard to say why anyone decided to race a 610; it was probably a matter of cheap availability, or possibly desperation. Hop-up parts were nonexistent, unless a piece meant for something else just happened to fit. Or could be coerced to fit. This became painfully obvious once I got the car up on jackstands. It was only then that I began to realize the full extent of its kluge. The previous owner had been, shall we say, creative in adapting, and sometimes inventing, various suspension pieces, dancing around that fine line between stupid and clever. I can personally vouch that these modifications made the car handle… differently.

The front swaybar, for instance, clearly came from a real car (though certainly not a 610.) And it actually looked like it fit, if you didn’t sit and think about it for too long. It bolted right up to the stock chassis blocks, and a bit of hardware-store bodge with some all-thread linked it to the A-arms. Nothing to see here; move along. The problem, though, was that the legs of the bar were too close together. Everything looked OK at full droop, but once the car was on the ground the front suspension could only move about an inch and a half in bump before the arms came in comprehensive contact with the frame rails. This produced a sudden and complete loss of front grip, which required some serious driver intervention to keep the car on the black part while trying to maintain some semblance of forward momentum. It was at its worst in the Carousel section at Summit Point, where a slow left-hander transitions to a long, double-apex right turn. The quick left-right transition made the chassis completely lose its mind. The car would point right, start to take a set, and the bar would crash into the frame with a solid clunk. Roll stiffness went to something like infinity at that point, and front grip vanished. The unloaded LF corner would pop straight up and the car would leap to the left. It would come down hard, bite, clunk, and release again. The normally-smooth Carousel line thus became a jagged series of straight lines and sharp corners, with the front end pogo-ing up and down like a jackhammer. And every bite would load and unload the steering wheel, which tried to wrest itself from my hands with each mighty lurch. Unk! Unk! Unk! Unk! After 5 laps my forearms felt like Popeye’s.

The car had a Sun Super Tach strapped to the steering column with an enormous hose clamp, because, I mean, think about it. Of course it did. As the practice day went on and I started to figure out how to trick the car into giving up more speed, I noticed that the needle was reaching the little redline marker about halfway down the front straight. I started feathering the throttle there so I wouldn’t grenade the poor thing. When I came back to the paddock, I found Al and told him what was going on. Wordlessly, he leaned into the car and pushed the redline marker 1000 RPM higher with his thumb. “There,” he said.

Incredibly, the car survived the weekend, and I didn’t finish last (and I’m calling that a win.)

Al had insisted that I drive it with a For Sale sign in the back window during the event. I thought he was just being ironic. But three weeks later, a new racer called him up and offered him $1200 (without the good parts.) SMH.

Scene 4: A change of ownership

The Cootermobile made its inglorious return to the track the following season. It was rumored that the new owner had dumped a bunch of money into it, but honestly, we were puzzled as to how this could have been possible. The car looked exactly the same as before, and it was still producing “mobile chicane” lap times.

Whether through naivete’ or just grim determination, the fellow ended up running it for several years. We would check in with him from time to time to see what demon tweak he had added. (One excellent example: a chrome exhaust tip from Pep Boys.) He said that the engine had developed an appetite for cam lobes, a trait that he seemed to accept as, “just how it goes with racing” (although his nescient belief in the 7500 RPM redline indicator may have had something to do with it.) As a dubious alternative to actually solving the problem, he started collecting junkyard valvetrains, and just replaced parts as they failed. “Two races in; Time to change the oil and camshaft.”

I guess at some point he got tired of rebuilding heads, or perhaps of finishing DFL, because eventually the faded For Sale sign appeared in the window once again, and then one day the car was gone. We mostly forgot about it, except when we would regale our friends with one of its stories at our beer parties* on the expansive aluminum bed of the “Big H” rollback during race weekends.

Scene 5: Reappearance

Al and I were walking back to the paddock one chilly March morning a few years later, sipping our coffee and preparing to kick off a Spring drivers’ school, when our travels took us past the line of cars waiting to go through Tech. Suddenly he stopped, and his eyes got big. He opened his mouth, but made no sound. Wordlessly, he pointed. I scanned the line of cars a couple of times before I recognized the pedestrian silhouette of a Datsun 610. Not a white one, but a 610 nonetheless.

We walked closer. Al turned to me, incredulous. “Could it BE?” he asked. It had to be. I mean, there couldn’t be a second IT-prepped 610, could there? Nobody would be so… ambitious. We pulled the window net aside, and that’s when we both saw the rusty control panel, still labeled in faded Sharpie. Sure enough, the prodigal Cootermobile had returned.
The chalky paint and rattle-can stripes were gone; someone had treated this pig to a makeover. Externally, anyway. Believe me, though; this was no concours winner. We stepped back to take it all in. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was a project for a high-school automotive shop class. Someone had applied Bondo and putty in abundance, and it had been sanded smooth, but not blocksanded. The entire car looked like a lump of poorly-kneaded dough. Its excrescence was made all the more obvious by the gleam of the fresh paint, which reflected the morning light in random directions. The color change, though, was the crowning touch. It was a semi-metallic purplish-brown that could only have resulted from dumping together every leftover half pint someone had found on the shelf in the paint booth. Al immediately dubbed the color, “Bloody Stool.” On this puffy goiter of a car, it seemed fitting.

We cheered for it every time it went out, and it ran every session and completed the student race at the end of the weekend. In last place, from pole position on our inverted grid. We last saw it rolling out of the main gate at Summit, on its way… somewhere. It never appeared at SPR again, as far as I know, but I’ll bet it’s still running, devouring camshafts and messing up someone else’s race. At least, I sure hope it is.

* These parties involved pot-luck contributions of various comestibles, which invariably included assorted wursts, pigs-in-blankets, pastrami, and such. Regarding the spread, someone offered, “Nothing says lovin’ like fatty meat.” Henceforth and forevermore it was called The Fatty-Meat Party.

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