Hearing about open road races in barren locations is one thing, but we didn't think we had the hardware, seeing as these events are full of super-fast, high-dollar sports and race cars. A friend of ours, Lenny Loftin, who has a shop specializing in high-end sports cars, and who rips around El Paso, Texas, in a well-worn Porsche, set us straight about the Big Bend Open Road Race, held in Fort Stockton, Texas. Lenny kept saying that you can run just about anything out there, and after reviewing the info on the race at www.bborr.com, we decided to give it a shot.
It is put on by the city of Fort Stockton with the help of volunteers, and the City of Sanderson, which welcomes racers after the first 59 miles. Classes start with an 85- to 150-mph target average, and then on to an unlimited class. We opted for the 85-mph class, as it was all new to us, and the rules don't require extensive work on a car in that class. The factory seatbelts (in good operating and non-frayed condition) are accepted. The tires can be S-rated (also only in good condition), which puts the top speed at 112 mph. Most importantly, the car of choice was a '79 Malibu-a station wagon to boot! My dad agreed to navigate and co-drive, so we were set to go. The car, however, was not.
The Malibu is a daily driver, and already had Bilstein shocks and a pair of Hotchkis sway bars, along with their rear control arm kit. The worn-out 305 had been replaced a few months prior with a slightly less worn 350 and a fresh 700-R4 transmission was in place. The wagon has over 120,000 miles, and there were a few more parts to update before making the race.
Drivetrain Specialties sent a set of axle bearings and seals for the 7.5-inch rearend. Surprisingly, they had a set of Mosers on the shelf. While the rearend was taken apart, we installed fresh brake shoes and new drums. Once assembled, the rearend was filled with Royal Purple's synthetic oil.
Hotchkis' upper control arms in front helped to bring the handling up to snuff. These arms require a B-body spindle and brakes, which are offered through Performance Online, and come assembled with the brake caliper already in place, making the swap a piece of cake. The new calipers and drilled rotors capped off the entire system. We traded our worn S-rated tires with some quality tread and 16-inch American Torq-Thrust wheels off another project car.
We installed new plugs, a distributor cap, a rotor, plug wires, and an MSD ignition system. The cooling system was already updated with an Edelbrock pump and radiator flush, plus all of the belts and hoses had been changed when the engine went in. Engine mounts and brackets were checked, wires were loomed, and secured away from heat sources and anything that moved. We were as ready as we were going to be.
The tech guys went over the car with a fine-tooth comb, and along with an official tech decal, they planted a big, bright rookie decal on the car. We wonder if this was meant to caution other drivers to stay clear. Being new guys, we had to take a short classroom course, then drive with an instructor.
We drove at our target speed with an instructor on a 10-mile practice road. Our instructor was Mike Powers, one of the founders of the Big Bend race and an accomplished open road racer. Later in the afternoon, a class for navigators and co-drivers went over the premise of using hand times, and what to expect on the course. Following that, there was a mandatory drivers' meeting. One tip: Do not be late. After the meeting, all of the race cars and participants paraded around Fort Stockton, and the locals came out to cheer us on.
Open road racing can be a test of patience and early mornings-very early. When we moved up to the starting line, the tech guys made sure we were wearing the proper equipment and that we were strapped in. We had our course notes and handy kitchen timer all set. We had already made calculations on how long it would take to run the 59 miles, and followed through the course notes to mark certain sections so we could determine if we needed to slow down or speed up. Our target was 85 mph; we couldn't go slower than 70 or faster than 112 mph (and they check in several areas).
The green light came on and we were on our way. We bobbled the timer, which stopped for several seconds, meaning we were winging it within a few seconds right off the bat. It had been suggested that we use two timers, which made a lot of sense at the moment. We got up to speed and held in the 90-95-mph area knowing that in the latter part of the course the blind turns and hills could slow us down. There are dozens of checkpoints and folks waving the racers on. There didn't seem to be an area in which someone didn't have eyes on you.
Closing in on Sanderson, the road winds and dips, and in our 85-mph class, the course didn't put the Malibu under too much strain. But in any class higher, you need to know your car, and your own limitations. We blazed through the traps at the end of the course and went into Sanderson to find the rest of the cars and lunch. Then it was time to race back.
We figured we were ahead of our 85-mph schedule, so we backed it down a bit at the end of the course. At Fort Stockton, we were greeted by a full parking lot of racers and fans, followed by a banquet where all of the winners were announced.