1. smells like z spirit
my 1985 nissan 300zx was running better than mo farah after a bowl of wheaties. everything seemed to be perfect, which is to say, much better than usual. it was a foggy 5 a.m. in marquette, in michigan's upper peninsula, an unusually early beginning to a six-hour drive toward my parents' house for spring break.
an hour into my trip, i saw only the third or fourth other car on the road. headlights filled my rearview mirror; player two had joined the game. except player two was a tailgater, the annoying sort who lives unaware that headlights have adjustment screws. there was no traffic, every opportunity to pass, but they didn't do it.
passing through the long straight section east of shingleton, an "unincorporated community" only slightly larger than a crowd of people, there were endless rows of pine trees at either side, but no street lights. the z's exhaust was still humming along nicely, and the tenacious d i was listening to was just as metal as the guy tailgating me at 80 mph down an empty road. and then silence.
car trouble wasn't anything new for me and was inevitable after spending $1500 on an old sports car from craigslist. i wagered that any car repair during college would be financially devastating, so i bought a car i had already owned and repaired two of during high school to improve my odds. in hindsight, buying a car that didn't need to be repaired would've been better, but that sounded smart and boring.
my brain started to drown in what-ifs. timing belt? fuel pump? satan? i signaled with my hazards and flashed the brakes as though to indicate: hey, i need help. the car behind me continued to slow down as i coasted dead to the shoulder of the road, and i was feeling thankful that this jerk might end up being my savior. instead, i heard only engine noise and exhaust as the driver flew right past me as my car crawled to a stop.
i stepped outside and saw the fog stuck between the trees like cobwebs. it was thick, dark, and beautiful. it occurred to me then that 90 percent of the bears in michigan live in the u.p., and there i sat, stranded, like a spilled bowl of honey.
obvious signs like oil or other fluids were missing, so i popped the hood and smelled that weird stink that electrical stuff makes when it burns. it was coming from the box of fusible links. fusible links are like big fuses that connect major electrical components, and rather than burn your entire car to its valve stems, they sacrifice themselves in the event something goes wrong. the fusible link marked ign for ignition was scorched like the last curly fry at the bottom of an arby's container.
i started walking back toward shingleton, hoping the next thing that i crossed paths with had really small teeth and hated the taste of people. i thought about the fact that everything from my dorm room was also stranded in the 300zx: my type 1 diabetes medical equipment. my clothes. my television. but most important, my playstation.
a vehicle was moving my way: a mid-'90s pontiac trans sport. i reluctantly held my thumb out. it's a van that can accommodate up to seven people, but when you see one, you wonder if that's seven people in seats, or two columns of people stacked vertically.
it signaled and pulled over. i walked to the passenger side of the van and got in. my heart dropped.
there, atop the mini shelf on the dashboard of this creepy pontiac van, sat a new-in-the-box fusible link from napa. "dude, i need this," i told the guy before saying hello or explaining anything. the man piloting this portable-vacuum-shaped van told me he was an electrical engineering student from michigan tech university. i was, in a word, stoked.
he was not interested in my 300zx at all. it could have been a delorean, for all he cared. he spent a few minutes scanning the engine bay, as i blabbed about the 3.0-liter v-6 being an interference engine, and the two z's i had in high school, one of them turbo. not even an "uh-huh." then he said, "oh, that's why." the previous owner had replaced the clutch fan, which would normally bolt to the water pump and cool the engine, with electric fans from a ford taurus. it's a common modification to the z because taurus parts are cheap. he showed me that the relay for the fans was wired backward, and this wire here needed to go to that tab there. he asked me: "does the power switch for these ever get warm?" i said, "oh yeah, all the time." oh, that's why. unfortunately, neither of us had a crimping tool or crimp terminals, which meant that fusible link he magically had was useless.this fellow college student drove me 45 minutes in the opposite direction he was traveling, so we could wait 20 minutes for a parts store to open. we got what we needed and drove 45 minutes back to my stranded car to begin roadside repair. the crimping tool we purchased was junk and immediately bent out of shape on the first crimp attempt. so there we were, on the side of the roadway, using a rock and a hammer to crimp wires together. we also added an inline fuse between the relay and the fusible link to prevent this from ever happening again. everything was beaten back together, and the car fired up.
i felt incredible. i always say people in the u.p. are some of the nicest in the world, and this is why i say it. i rewarded him with the best thing i could afford at the time, a cheap lunch. and i still have that fusible link. i keep it in my backpack.—austin irwin
2. z meets wall
when we last left off, we had just embedded a nissan nismo 370z into virginia international raceway’s turn one retaining wall during our fourth lightning lap [february 2010] so forcefully as to have fused them together into a sort of vehicular diphthong.
the cause? it certainly wasn’t a case of running out of talent. no—fact is, the nismo’s presumably strong brakes weren’t. and they failed us at the worst possible time—at the fastest point on the track, when we were attempting to decelerate from 130 mph for the 45-mph right-hander that is turn one . . .
3. rock climbing with a 260z
"if you had an insurance car i could just leave and let you deal with this. okay, let me see your license."
i drove my dad’s late-'70s dodge aspen station wagon to school that day. it was avocado green both inside and out, and i used to park it behind a row of trees to keep it out of sight. somehow during the day, a girl i liked needed a ride home and i quickly offered. i led her to the aspen, drove directly to my dad's, and swapped it out for his 1974 datsun 260z. my idiot high-school brain insisted that this would be the car that would impress her. i drove her home, dropped her off, and was giddy as i turned right just ahead of the tehachapi city limits to take a side road that bypassed the town.
there was a sharp left turn about a quarter of a mile up the road that always had gravel at its edges. at the apex of the turn was an intersection with a single road, which was the source of the gravel. trucks would drive through this odd junction and drop the tiny rocks onto the asphalt. i was filled with teenage excitement and failed to notice the new gravel until the rear tires were riding atop the tiny rocks and the 260z was spinning and the front of the car was pointed in the wrong direction. the windshield filled as i went off the road, and i felt a jolt as the front of the car spun in the opposite direction to the right before coming to an abrupt stop.
shaken, i waited until the dust settled, then noticed that i had landed in a ditch a few feet from a fence. i figured i could just drive out, so filled with the type of self-assurance that's only apparent in high-school boys and cocaine addicts. i was confident that everything would be fine and i could leave the scene before the authorities arrived. i started the engine, no problems there, shifted into first, and pressed the accelerator. nothing. had i broken the driveshaft? i turned off the engine, got out, and realized my rear tires were spinning helplessly three feet above the ground. the driveshaft was fine. i had high-centered the gas tank onto a boulder. i was trapped, and when the cop arrived i was terrified.
"you didn't damage anything that's not yours, so i just need to see your insurance," the officer said. i told him i didn't have insurance, and irritation filled his face. then i got to tell him that i didn’t have a license. he shook his head and asked me a bunch of questions about who owned the car, where that person was, and why i thought i could drive without a license. a tow truck took the car to my dad's, and the police officer dropped me off at my mom's. everyone was angry. clearly i wasn't supposed to be driving. i replaced the gas tank and did the bodywork on my dad's car. i went to court and paid a $150 fine—an amount that seems quaint now. i got my license, and that 260z was my passport to freedom until i got my own car a year later. yes, my dad actually did let me drive it after that.
i didn't get the girl, but that wreck pushed me to be a better driver, which eventually expanded my love of cars, and well, now i'm here. it only cost me $150, two weeks of automotive work, being grounded for a month, a ride in a cop car, and the knowledge that everything goes much smoother when you have insurance and a license.—roberto baldwin