Right place—right time(ing)





The response from the article “Attitudes about Altitude,” posted on the Rocky Mountain Region’s Web site and sent out with each Grand National registration confirmation, has had the phone rather busy at the old “Workbench” with calls from all over the country. There have been numerous questions about bringing cars to Denver for the Grand National. From what our registrar Nancy Tucker tells me, she is also getting many calls and questions.


Some questions are quite realistic, and others—well. You can’t help but wonder how some Easterners visualize our Western culture and high altitude.


For example, when a gentleman called me with questions about his car’s performance, he also wanted to know if the parking area for the show cars would be separated from the horses. It was hard to figure out if he thought our civilization had not gotten past the horse-and-buggy era, or if he believed from the article that most of us rode horses because of the altitude. Hopefully, I calmed his fears.


Most of the questions were about car performance at our altitude and more specifics about possible adjustments needed. One of them even stated that he thought the reason our Denver Broncos (and Avalanche) did so well was due to the fact that our teams trained in this high altitude and therefore had an unfair advantage over teams that trained and played at sea level.


I tried to keep a straight face for most of the inquiries, but one of them really broke me up and I want to apologize for not taking him serious at the time. He asked if he should get an oxygen tank to put in his trunk and run a hose up to the air intake in order to drive his car while here. I thought he was kidding until he asked how our local people hooked the oxygen line up to the air cleaner to help our cars run at this altitude. It took quite a bit of explaining to convince him this was not needed. It will be interesting to see if he actually shows up with his car equipped this way.


The majority of the questions were about timing and how critical it would be to adjust the timing for the trip. Many of them very thankfully accepted my advice and put their fears aside. Quite a few expressed a belief that in fact, the fuel mixture and carb settings could affect performance at altitude, but, timing was a mechanical thing. Because of this, timing would not be affected by altitude. In reality, the timing actually has more influence on performance at high altitude than fuel mixture. The reason for this is very basic.


Our motors are referred to as “internal combustion engines,” because a combustible mixture of fuel and air are introduced into the internal cylinders. At the precise instant the piston reaches the right position near the top of the compression stroke, the spark plug fires and causes an explosion in the cylinder, forcing it down on the power stroke.


At 1,000 RPM (fast idle) in a V-8 engine, there are over eight explosions every second. You can do the math for higher RPMs at road speeds. Heavier air (such as at low altitude) results in the faster and more powerful the burn in the explosion. As the air becomes lighter, such as in high altitude, then the slower the burn. In other words, if the air is thinner, the time the spark fires until the explosion reaches peak power is longer.


To compensate for this, the spark needs to fire microseconds sooner so the piston can gain the maximum power from these explosions. The amount of time difference when the spark fires and the piston reaches top dead center is measured in “degrees.” The distributor will automatically adjust itself by centrifugal weights and vacuum from the carburetor to compensate for engine speed and load. In other words, the faster the engine turns and the faster the pistons travel, the more advanced (earlier) the spark must be.


Up to the early ’30s, most cars had had a control lever or knob to retard the spark for easier starting and to advance it for driving.


I hope you understand a little better now why the right timing, for the right places, applies in regard to your old engine. Of course, modern iron uses computers to take care of all this.


In regard to you yourself, the right place to be is at the Grand National here in Denver and the right time is from Aug. 8 through 11. And don’t worry; bring your good old Cad or LaSalle.


See ya there,