I am the current custodian of the 1950 MGTD Von Neumann Special that was Johnny Von Neumann’s first race car. This car won the 1st Pebble Beach Road Race in 1950, the 1st Palm Springs Road Race, the 1st Torrey Pines Road Race, and the 1st Sandburg Hill Climb in 1951. Tracy Bird and Bumpy Bell purchased the car from Johnny in 1952 and the car won many races for them in 1952 and 1953. Johnny bought the car back in 1954 and Josie Von Neumann drove it to many more wins in 1954 and 1955.
I am Don Martine, owner of the Pacific Grove hotel Martine Inn, and I have raced this special car for almost 25 years and over 100 times. Scott Fruz and I restore, build and maintain vintage MG’s on our weekends. I have a garage in which we do almost all our work.
I entered the Sonoma Historics in December 2011 for 4 days of racing starting 5-31-12. The engine in the car had completed the Rolex Monterey Reunion in August 2011. I did a complete change of fluids, compression test, leak down test, tune up, check valve lash and drove the car about a mile several times. It sounded fine and pulled well but occasionally seemed to hesitate. I thought it was just cold. I agreed to take the media for rides Wednesday morning to get more time on the track. I gave a guest at the inn a ride around the block on Tuesday before loading it into the trailer so I could arrive on Wednesday, when the engine froze.
I had to call and apologize for failing to be there for the media event and get busy building a replacement engine. We had already loaded the trailer with all our supplies and tools. Three tool chests , jack stands, etc . had to be removed and placed back in the shop. I thought had all the parts in my shop to complete the replacement race engine rebuild. I decided not to try to rebuild the engine that was in the car and seized because I had no idea what her repairs might have to be.
The spare block had good clean cylinders that measured properly. We honed them to get good ring seating and checked the piston clearances. Carillo rods had been refurbished at the factory and the crank had been rechromed to standard. New rings and bearings were installed and checked with plasitiguage. A refurbished cam from Schneider was installed with new lifters, valves ground, spring rate checked and installed height checked. The baffled pan was installed along with the head that had already been ported, relieved and shaved from prior uses. Timing the cam took considerable time as it was a number of degrees off.
Some parts for the replacement engine had to be removed from the damaged engine. The modified oil pump fit well but the water pump needed to be modified. One of the water hoses developed a leak when installed on the replacement engine and it is not a standard hose. Visits to 2 parts suppliers finally turned up a hose we could use. The clutch cable housing turned out to be cracked and I had no spare but after a couple of calls to local MG buddies we were able to find one and install it.
With the damaged engine removed we installed the replacement engine. It was timed and adjusted and torqued. It started very easily and seemed to rev adequately but sounded a little strange. A short drive illustrated a lack of power. We pulled the valve cover and found an adjuster on #2 rocker was stripped, the lock nut gone and the valve not opening properly. We pulled the rocker assembly, replaced the parts, replaced the assembly and adjusted the valve lash on all the valves again. The replacement engine now sounded great and a short drive produced great torque and good revs.
It was now Saturday at noon so we restocked the trailer and loaded the MG and headed for Infineon Race Track. At that late time we were not able to get the trailer in the paddock space so we parked on the hill about ¼ mile from the track. We were invited to go on a tour to the Sonoma Square Saturday evening and the clutch kept getting worse. We made it to the Sonoma Square and back by starting it in gear. After a rather restless night due to being extremely tired we took the MG out of the trailer and left it part way on the rear lift gate so we could get under the frame to check the clutch. We could not use the jack of the stands on the slope and rocky side of the hill where we had parked for the night. We found I had not sufficiently tightened the lock nuts on the adjustment and we needed to readjust the clutch and properly tighten the lock nuts. The readjusted clutch worked perfectly. With about 40 miles on the engine from the trip to Sonoma and back we checked all the fluids again and added ½ qt of oil. We checked the tires and found them low in air pressure and drove to the tire supplier only to find he had already packed up and left. We found air from a friendly competitor and were ready to go. We got a grid sheet and found us gridded 29 out of 30, which is what we expected. The front cars were all very large displacement cars, some more than 4 times the ccs in our MG. The pace car went with the speed of the large cars and the smaller ones in the middle got separated from the front so the start put us way behind at the green flag. I was able to pass 2 cars before the 1st turn and drove carefully but as quickly as possible, considering I had not practiced at all. On lap 3 an engine blew on corners 3 and 4 so a lot of care was needed. The next lap 2 cars spun in front of me in the oil and were sideways on the track facing each other. I was able to go between them. As I passed cars I had a great dice with a Jaguar 120. I finally passed him under braking and pulled away. The S’s at Sears are a great challenge to a racer and I have measured my skills by how I was able to get through them. Having not raced in 9 months I was pretty rusty and I never really got them perfect during the race. At the end of the 12 lap race we had finished 14th. We had enjoyed ourselves immensely. We always stay for the awards presentation from Steve Earl but we were so tired this time we just loaded the trailer and left for home. On the trip home we talked about how much we had enjoyed the weekend. We felt that we had success on the track, had a car still in great condition, and were ready to go again.
On Monday I got a phone call telling us that we had received the award for Presentation and Performance for our race 9. I was flabbergasted. This is what vintage racing is all about.