FORT MILL TOWNSHIP — If ever there was a time to make lemonade when life hands you lemons, this was it.
LeeAnn Shattuck and the Eagle Racing team had just traveled the day before to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., to compete in an endurance race that simultaneously celebrates and mocks the not-so-affectionate name given to autos whose days are numbered. Things were going well for the team less than two hours into the marathon event.
Then they werent.
Our driver Stephanie was driving great for the first 90 minutes, Shattuck said. Smooth, consistent. Then when shes pulling back into the pit, we heard this terrible clunk and the car died.
The teams car, the Cherry Bomb, which Shattuck and the rest of the team was scheduled to drive in shifts over the two-day 24 Hours of LeMons, a series of events that helps raise money for Speedway Childrens Charities, wasnt just mostly dead.
There was a rather gaping hole in the engine block, Shattuck explained, the result of a piston that left its mooring and then pretty much exploded on impact. Known as the Car Chick for her Fort Mill-based Womens Automotive Solutions, a car-buying service, Shattuck grew up a gearhead. Shes an experienced driver both on-track and off, but neither she nor the rest of her team had an inkling there was anything wrong.
There was no warning, Shattuck said. The oil light didnt come on no warning lights came on. Its what we call a spontaneous high-speed dis-assembly, she joked.
Determined to squeeze the most out of their lemon a mash-up of a 1997 Eagle Talon and a Mitsubishi Eclipse the team wasnt about to give up. Shattuck wouldnt let them if they did.
As an entrepreneur I dont give up on stuff like this, she said. I said, How do we get this car back on the track? How much duct tape do we have? Can we open up a beer can and weld it on?What other cars share a similar engine that we might be able to find?
The team headed to a junkyard and found their treasure. Thanks to their sponors, grapevine Wine Bar in Baxter Village and Charlotte-based Woodies Auto Service and Repair Centers, they had enough money left in the contingency fund for the $120 find.
We cannibalized an engine block from a 1995 Dodge Neon, Shattuck said. We proceeded to pillage that poor Neon.
The team had its replacement part and soon it had a new surgeon to help perform the transplant.
There was this guy Steve, a local junkyard guy. He pulled out this steak knife from his belt and were like oh my god, he has a shiv! but he just wanted to help. He took that knife and started cutting hoses and we named him Steak Knife Steve.
Twenty hours later, with the help of a growing legion of fans pitching in, the Cherry Bomb was patched up and ready to hit the track, this time with Shattuck in the drivers seat. There was about 30 minutes left in a race in which moral victories count. Then another obstacle. A big one.
We tried to fire her up and couldnt get her to turn over, Shattuck said. I said we didnt come this far for the stupid engine not to start. So Scott, our crew chief, poured gasoline right into the intake manifold and of course this giant fireball erupts. After everybody stops screaming Scott told me to hold the throttle open and to try starting the engine and it sucked the flames back into the engine and she started right up.
Long before that display of engineering ingenuity, a monsoon-like rain started pounding the area. While that initially presented the team with another bushel of lemons, it wasnt long before it was raining lemonade.
Now the engines running, but the engine bay is still on fire and I said dont worry the rain will put it out. So they push me out while the car is still on fire and the rain did put it out and I made it back out there with about 15 minutes left and everybody is screaming for the Cherry Bomb, Shattuck said.
We kind of felt like the Jamaican bobsled team. I was actually crying.
The effort earned Eagle Racing serious consideration for the Most Heroic Fix trophy and race officials were so impressed they awarded the team a special regional trophy. They also honored the team the Best Alabama Junkyard Nickname award for Steak Knife Steve. It was such a spectacle that a blogger for Car and Driver magazine even documented the saga.
The teams only regret, Shattuck said, was not being able to thank Steak Knife Steve after the race. Shattuck said he just disappeared, but the team hopes to find him.
We know his name is Steve Wilson and he works for a Piggly Wiggly in Birmingham, she said.
Anyone who knows Wilson can direct him to Shattucks Facebook page, LeeAnn CarChick Shattuck.
Looking at the experience from a distance, Shattuck said shes learned a few things.
Its not what I expected to learn, but I what I learned is, its a lot like running a business in that failure is an option. In business, you fail about 80 percent of the time, she said.
But the biggest lesson is, you think on your feet. You learn to deal with things when they go wrong and fix things under fire.
Oh, and one other thing:
I dont recommend setting a car on fire to make it start, but it does occasionally work.