It wasn’t all that long ago that I was asked: “What’s your greatest accomplishment?” I skipped the awards, builds, and business milestones for the first memory that popped into my head. September 23rd, 2010 – the Thursday before H20 International, almost three years ago. It should come as no surprise that the answer to such a question would involve my car, Rusty Slammington, but truth be told, this story could be about any car. The accomplishment came not from the car itself, but overcoming a hurdle that I assumed would be the final nail in the coffin.
I had been hard at work on Rusty for months, wishfully prepping for an H2Oi unveiling. The plans are old news at this point – a body drop, air suspension, a chopped top, wild seats and an interior to match. Gold-plated Ronal splits were the icing on the cake, and everything had been running smoothly. Or at least, as smoothly as they could, all things considered.
I had been bumming rides and borrowing a car from my roommate, Matt Moye. On nights that he didn’t have class or work, I’d steal his civic to make the trek out to the shop that belonged to my good friend and mentor, Chuck Yoder. It was in his shed that work went down late into the evening. Other times, Cory Hutchison would give me a ride and lend a helping hand. Rodney Nichols too – all familiar names to the StanceWorks homepage. For weeks, we’d worked together to get the car done; cutting, grinding, and welding away at the car in the spirit of reaching completion. As the days were marked off the calendar, the list never seemed to grow any shorter. As things were marked out with sharpie to signify their completion, a handful of additions were made. We knew we’d get done in time, but we’d be cutting it close, which is to be expected before the biggest show of the year.
Thursday morning rolled around – September 23rd. I was likely skipping class, knowing that if I wanted the car done in time, my studies would have to take a back seat. (Sorry mom.) The roof was on and the suspension was complete – my dream of the car laying flat on the ground had been realized after more notching and cutting than I had ever expected. Making room for the wheels and tires to fit within the fenders required hacking the car to bits, but it was worth it. The night before, I had dropped the engine into place; the fuel lines and driveshaft were all hooked up, and everything was ready to go.
Chuck, Cory, and I stood under the fluorescents of the shop on that hot fall evening, swarmed with mosquitos and gnats, eager to finish the build. There were only a few steps left, but frankly, we were already late. A 14-hour drive lay ahead of us, meaning that, even if we left right then, we’d get there by Friday at noon, and we knew that wasn’t going to happen. A dash still needed to be made and installed, the seat brackets hadn’t been built, and the car hadn’t even been fired up. Hell, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Nonetheless, we trekked on, and as the list finally grew shorter, it became time to start ol’ Rusty up.
It was nothing special – the engine had been in and driving prior. We pulled it out for one reason or another, and bringing it back to life should have been simple. Should have been. But wiring was never my forte. Wiring was as familiar as astrophysics, honestly. Not quite as difficult, of course, but just as foreign. I knew how to solder wires together and had been coached by my friend, Erik Rumbaugh, as we did the engine swap on my E36, but truth be told, I knew nothing about it, and that’s when the wrench was thrown into the spokes.
I plugged in the final relay and flipped the switches. “Good,” I thought. “Time to start it.” But my lack of knowledge was about to bite hard. I had plugged the relay into the custom wiring harness incorrectly, and before I even had time to flip the starter, which wouldn’t have worked, smoke began to billow out of the engine bay. I panicked. I had no idea what to do. I wondered for a second, and another, caught like a deer in headlights. I came to – snapped out of it, and yanked the relay from the harness. Melted plastic and wiring came with it, but the short was stopped.
It took a moment before I had realized what happened. I had just inadvertently cancelled our trip to Ocean City. The engine wiring harness had melted entirely, resembling something similar to melted black licorice. I had no idea how to fix this – Cory and Chuck were just as stumped. There’s no way I could re-wire an engine, let alone a Toyota motor from Japan. “Shit” and an assortment of four letter words were all that came to mind.
I was devastated. After months of hard work, something that simple was going to take me down. We sat around and discussed what to do, but I couldn’t even fathom where to start. “You could take it up there not-running,” said Chuck. It was true, I could. But that wasn’t worth it. Repairing the damaged wiring wasn’t even an option. I huffed and puffed for probably an hour. I said “I quit” over and over again. “I’m not going if I can’t take my car.”
But after I got the anger out of my system, probably sometime around midnight, I sat down and looked at everything in front of me. That old saying – “go big or go home,” that’s what I felt. It was either try, or pack up and call it quits. Just because I didn’t know how to fix it didn’t mean that I couldn’t. There were two options on the table: mope, complain, and walk home a loser, or give it my best shot and see what happens. I couldn’t possibly be worse-off. Of course, that’s assuming I don’t fry my ECU or coil packs in the process, but what’s another casualty?
We began to cut the wiring harness apart, and the sensation of “what have I gotten myself into” set in rapidly. However, it wasn’t much more than an hour before we had managed to unhook the engine harness, and cut out everything that had burnt. If it had just been wires that needed replacing, maybe I could have done it, but the entire relay block and associated connections fused together, meaning I’d have to make that too.
I did the only thing I could think of – I called the friend who built the harness in the first place. His name was Jerry Buenviaje. At 2:00am on a school night, I blew up his phone. A groggy Californian answered, and I offered my bit. I told him I had messed up, and that I needed to fix it. Now. He gave me a run-through on how things worked – he explained the way a relay functions and how to hook one up. He told me what engine components I had to give power, and what work the ECU was going to do. He knew these engines better than anyone as far as I was concerned. The wiring diagrams he had used when he built my harness were ingrained into his mind. The best I could do was to scribble a list on the backing-paper of the insulation that lined the shop – alternator, ecu, map sensor, injectors, coils, and others – the things I had to hook up and give power. There was only so much Jerry could do from afar, but he pointed me in the right direction.
Cory and I made the trip to Wal-Mart, the only place still open that would have basic wiring supplies. I needed a handful of relays, several rolls of wire, electrical tape, every push-connector they had, and solder. We loaded up and headed back to the shop where I settled in for a long night. I sat inside the car where the passenger seat should have been with my legs crossed and the wire strippers and cutters in front of me.
I disassembled the engine harness, figuring out where Jerry had junctioned the injectors and coils. I figured out where the important plugs were – the ones Jerry had told me about. One by one, I began stringing red wire from my side of the firewall to the other, clamping on crimp-connectors as makeshift relay holders. I was struggling to keep everything straight, first working on all of the grounds, then the constant hot wires. The switched, and then the output. That’s the summarized version at least.
I sat there all night, crimping, cutting, and soldering, hoping that I was making progress. A relay for this, a relay for that, just as Jerry said. Cory had passed out hours ago on the back seat, legs dangling out of the car. “I stayed up as long as I physically could, trying to yank the copper strands from the mass of crispy plastic to at least try to trace them back to their origins, but somewhere around 3 or 4 AM, I finally crawled into the rear of the cabin and passed out on the lower cushion of Rusty’s back seat. It was the only remaining part of the factory interior, and the only part of the whole car a person could conceivably sleep on,” said Cory. Chuck has long since gone to bed; his wife and kids inside were more important than my scrap of steel. I was there through the night, working away, clinking and clanking as the crickets chirped and the frogs honked.
The sky began to glow slightly, starting with a deep blue and into purple, then pink and orange, and before long, the sun popped up over the tree line. Slowly but surely, things were coming together. It was beginning to look like a wiring harness. It looked like a blind amputee made it, and I’m sure any electrical engineer would have written it off as a total blunder, but to me, it was progress. I remember soldering the last two wires, and turning around to tap Cory on the knee. “Alright man, I think I’m gonna try to start it.”
I put my finger on the starter button. It was the moment of truth. If I’m being honest, I knew inside it wouldn’t work. That excitement of “let’s see if this works!” just wasn’t there. It’s like that bowling ball you throw way too poorly. It veers hard to the right, straight for the gutter, so you turn around and begin walking back to your seat. You know where it’s headed, there’s no need to watch.
And then you hear it: the sound of clashing pins.
I pressed the starter and I swear she didn’t turn over but once before screaming to life. That high, popping idle of the 1JZ filled the shed. That was it. That’s been my greatest accomplishment. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs. I wasn’t saying anything, just screaming. Yelling with joy. I’m not sure if I could be heard over the roar of the open downpipe of the engine, but it didn’t matter. My hands were shaking above my head, arms flexed, and my face beet red, sorta like that classic face Arnold Schwarzenegger makes when he yells. I hugged Cory. Maybe I was still yelling in his ear. He was yelling in mine too.“I’ll never forget that moment. Our cheering woke Chuck, some 40 yards away in his house. I’ve never felt such triumph, such elated pride. We were victorious,” Cory said. When Chuck came outside, he knew what had happened. It meant I was about to put him back to work… but inside, I knew he was happy too.
There we were, in the garage, standing over a car that I had brought back to life in the final hour. It is, to this day, the greatest sense of accomplishment I’ve ever felt. However, its not as much about bringing Rusty back to life; it was overcoming my stresses, fears, and hurdles. I told myself I could do something, and then I did it. There are undoubtedly readers thinking to themselves “man, it’s just wiring an engine, I could do that in my sleep,” and I attest, you are correct. But my ignorance of wiring in every fashion was a barrier.
But I digress. This isn’t a story about my greatest accomplishment, surprisingly enough. It’s a story about the guy I never thanked for it. It’s a story about the guy I still need to thank for leaving me with such a memory; for sharing his knowledge and acting as a teacher at a time when I was ready to throw in the towel.
It’s a story about Jerry Buenviaje, the midnight Californian wiring savior. Without him, who knows what would have happened. At some point or another, we’d have gotten the car done, but it’s a crucial part of Rusty’s story that would have to be re-written. But Jerry was more than just a helping mind – he was an inspiration. He pushed me to do the 1JZ swap in the first place. He’s a talented eye – he’s a photographer that inspired me along my own path as one. He’s genuine, too, having donated more parts to my build than anyone ever has.
So I’m thanking Jerry, for all that he did. For the help, the inspiration, and most importantly, for my greatest accomplishment. I hope for someone, somewhere, he’s doing for them what he did for me.