Motorama 2022: Susquehanna Boxcar and Justice for Vantruck

On a somewhat rainy Thursday evening before the weekend of Motorama, after Susquehanna Boxcar was all put together, I began loading my Pelican cases decade-old Harbor Freight aluminum suitcases (who can afford Pelican cases??) of robot gear into Coronavan so everything was ready to hit the road in the morning. The plan was to get there over the course of Friday and unload everything so I don’t need to rush on Saturday morning, and maybe help with some setup as well.

Friday morning, I woke up and pulled everything out of it… because shit’s about to go down.

That’s it, we’re doing this now.

The last time I tried to have you do something useful, you randomly broke down on I-81 in Virginia. Vantruck had not wandered north of the Mason Dixon since the very last week of 2019. Of course, after replacing the fuel injectors and harness inside the FiTech throttle body unit, it’s been just fine for everything I’ve had it do, including pulling Murdervan, Snekvan, and several jeeps back home.

Still billowing blue smoke and missing a cylinder, but what else is new. We’re just going to dive right into this after an inspection of fluids, belts, whistles, and dingles.

But before that, over the course of the week, I was making Motorama trophies! I took on this responsibility after the original maker had Personal Problems come up. They were going to be laser cut and engraved. It just so happened in the months prior to this that I had picked up a 18×18 75W laser cutter on the cheap.

As with everything else lately, I owe a post on the process of getting that junker up and running again with replacing the tube, squaring the gantry, and so on. But, trophies.

I made a few test cuts in different colors of acrylic I had hanging around, then had the organizer order a few sheets to me through McMaster. Design three was what we ended up going with, though I personally prefer the clear plastic. The stands were already made, so I just had to supply the display panels.

asslaser69 (as it’s named in the print driver selection box) handled this first major job exceedingly well. Before this week, it had only cut random little trinkets as tests. To prepare, I bought a hydroponic weed growing aeration pump as the forced air blast source and it was running an aquarium pump submerged in a 5 gallon car wash bucket.

Look, all the pieces are there. Even if they’re wrong.

One of the upgrades I want to do eventually is a long-focus (100mm) lens and a gas lens, so it can get through some thicker stuff. It’s honestly just fine right now for basically everything you’d use a CO2 laser cutter for, but muh scope creep.

Of course, when you let me make visual products, you are going to have shit like this be part of it.

Common rule of thumb for being my co-worker: If you know, you know. If you don’t know, don’t Google it. Especially not on the lab’s network.

With Vantruck given the green light and my Extremely Large Miku print strapped in the back seat, it was time to ship off northward!

immediate regret

The journey was uneventful (good… misbehave and the methy junk man will come for you), and it was quite pleasant to be heading to a familiar haunt of mine. Motorama had been canceled for 2021, and I wasn’t in any position to turn around a trip back in 2020. I romance the I-81 corridor a little in my personal make-believe TVTropes page in my head, but it does form an axis between me and the friends and adventures I left behind up north.

It would be nice for it to hurt a little less though.

Just a little bit less, please.

Remember, this was the weekend before Russia really lit off World War III. Gas, while post-economic reopening expensive, wasn’t Summer of 2022 tier expensive. I can’t imagine making this trip at all if it was even a month later.

12 hours after leaving, I rolled into the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. Not a peep along the way, though the oil usage was on the order of 1/2 quart or so (Hard to tell if it’s just that I didn’t give it an hour or so to meet back at the bottom).

This should be more of a 9-10 hour trip (having made the run to Norwalk using the same route a few times) but Vantruck’s preferred speed is more 65mph instead of the 85mph+ I keep trying to pull with Coronavan.

I unloaded everything and went around to help set up the arena and said hello to everyone. But, before I could leave, I had to attend to a Vantruck thing:

It just wouldn’t be a van trip without me fixing something in the parking lot somewhere. On the way in the gates, a security guard let me know that my right side brake light was out. Odd, since I hadn’t noticed the turn signal blinker acting up. It turns out the running light filament was out, so the turn signals using the main filament would still be good. I did manage to break the bulb apart while extracting it from the socket, though.

In a stroke of … well, typical luck, someone at the event just had a few 3157 bulbs sitting in their car, and at a robot event we all have pliers and grabby tools of some sort, so this was otherwise a fast repair. Makes me wonder how long it’s been out – it was dark at least since northern Virginia, and I don’t hit the brakes on the highway. Vantrucks do not have to follow laws.

And that, kids, is how I found myself holding an inflated 6S lithium battery pack, standing in a Waffle House in Harrisburg, PA.

It’s the next morning and time to get serious. Everyone’s here now and going through inspection and testing!

Been a good long time since I’ve seen any of the bots or the builders. This is “Starfather”, a 30lber from the P1 team and the larger version of “Starchild” which is right next to it. It won’t be the last time I see this thing either.

One thing I can appreciate is that Norwalk’s multiple tournaments per year, all full-contact in nature, has really pushed the evolution of the 3lb through 30lb classes. Designs were on point this Motorama. A lot of bots were very clean and professional looking, some from builders that were just starting out with their first kitbots or 3D printed 3lbers in 2019 when NHRL really kicked off.

A small 12 pound tribute to Poison Arrow.

The rise of more on-demand machining services in the past few years has really let robot builders leverage the competitive pressure and creative use of materials/processes. It’s way easier to achieve robots that “look like a thing” nowadays – 5-10 years ago I could easily see this being a square aluminum bar frame, for example.

A Sportsman class flipper with some serious machine and welding work on it.

Hell, even bots that are “traditionally built” are on point nowadays. This thing – appropriately named Pipe Bomb – is a full body drum spinner with mostly 3D printed internals but hand-cut UHMW plastic wheels and endcaps. The giant ring bearings supporting the drum had all the grease washed out of them and replaced with some light oil for less drag. It spent much of the tournament sideways trapped on its wheel faces, but took an absolute beating and kept running.

This ultra-stanced conical wheel drive flipper named Pigeon was interesting. It let the bot be very low sloped on the sides without compromising wheel track spacing and wheelbase.

Some high quality machine work coming out of Wedge Industries (who has since stopped machining things in order to machine more epic things) this is Crunch Time, a scaled down tribute to Quantum/Spectre from Battlebots and King of Bots.

It turns out when your load case is that of a skull, it’ll generate you a skull

– alex, maybe

Told you this wasn’t the last time you’d see Starfather. It turns out that’s my first match. The only top-attack robot in the bracket and I somehow drew it, with the robot that has the most exposed shit going on up top. For giggles, I obtained a Brandon Sign from the dealer hall (this is a rural motorsports event, there is plenty of Brandon Signage) and bolted it to the Multishovel to give Brandon Zalinsky, the builder/driver, something to think about.

Well there wasn’t much thinking he had to do, because it didn’t end well for Susquehanna Boxcar. Starfather pretty much nuked everything on top. I left the arena functional, but with one dysfunctional motor and more possibly smoked, but still moving.

The weapon got in a direct hit on the pokey stick shaft, which is hollow and so folded like a lawn chair. It also nicked the sprocket and bent it sideways. This bend was unable to get straightened out and compressed again to to the point where the chain could wrap around it, so it was eventually cut out.

Starfather’s weapon also put some clean gashes into the Multishovel. Amazingly, it did not break off its mount, but just backed the locking collar off its thread.

The most important damage was to the drive motor, where it cleaved through the UHMW mount and completely broke (and bent) the motor. I only had 1 spare 555 mild-wound motor with me, and it was going to replace this one. The other three motors all smelled kind of interesting too, so they were not long for the world.

My next matchup was against Pigeon – the ultra-stanced face-wheel drive flipper seen above. This was a pushing match that I could not win, so I just drove around to the best of Boxcar’s ability. No damage sustained in this fight, but between the 4 drive motors I think I had 2.5 left by the end.

The next day, I stopped by the local Asian grocery tore to pick up some snacks and a new weapon for it since I was planning to enter as many rumbles as I could:

Nicknamed “Danger Potato”, it was a taro root that we impaled on the end of one of the pokey-sticks and wrapped in caution tape to prevent it from coming apart.

Danger Potato in action in the 30lb rumble (Starting at 04:38:40 or thereabouts, if the time link doesn’t work). I basically ran around like a dumbass until the motors all smoked, and then just sort of flailed around.

So what lessons have I learned from Susquehanna Boxcar? Nothing. It served its purpose beautifully: Be basically free to build and be an entertaining meme. The mild-wound 550 printer motors were a bit of a wash, but I knew that going in. I’ll definitely just change them to some equivalently-powered brushless motors and bring it back next year. The top side could use some work, but hey, it’s all stuff I found in piles in the garage. The drivetrain itself took no damage, nor did the internals beyond the chunk taken out by Starfather.

This was a nice break from van-related work and reminded me that robots can still be fun. Between BattleBots and having to take myself seriously, and NHRL’s focus on the prize, robots have more and more seemed like a chore as of late. Honestly, besides this coming BattleBots 2022 season, I think I’ll only stick to Sportsman-ish events like Motorama 30lbers and Dragon Con from here on.

After everything was wrapped up and done, I was presented with a prize for Vantruck. The Jeep Bros that I keep fetching wreckage in Alabama sheds for found this pickup truck roof wing at an estate auction. I’ve been looking for something like this for a good while since buying new ones is expensive, and mildly considered building my own.

Largely just to completely The Look – it’s not like I will ever regularly tow a Portable Convention Center & Hotel which could use a forward-mounted wind deflector.

Of course, it wasn’t time to go home quite yet. In another “This isn’t a van trip without fixing something in the parking lot”, early on Sunday morning I went to pick up a part that I suspected was giving me some trouble on the way up, and definitely confirmed it once I arrived.

That’s the mechanical, viscous-coupling fan clutch at the front of the engine. I began to suspect it had seized up because during the trip northward, as temperatures fell, I noticed the coolant temperature never going above 150-160 degrees, dropping some times as low as 145 degrees.

140 degrees is the threshold for the FiTech control unit going back into warmup mode. The fuel mixture became richer, and my gas mileage dipped to even more horrifying levels. If the fan clutch seizes, then the engine fan will always be turning and therefore overcooling significantly in the cold winter night air at highway speed.

This was a quick enough fix, and I could reach in behind the radiator to undo the fan hub nuts, then unbolt the fan from the clutch.

I finished this in about 15 minutes in the Motorama back parking lot, and as you’d expect of a gearhead motorsports event, about a dozen people stopped by to ask if I needed help or supplies. I’m sure I’m far from the only one trying to resuscitate a patient on the ground here. After installation, I caught up with some people for dinner and started bombing it southbound…

Only to encounter more pain I stopped for the night near Roanoke, VA and continued Monday morning on a little detour.

Alright, I’m conveniently positioned to cross the Blue Ridge and Smokies at some point, and somebody hasn’t been back here since Dragon Con 2019. So we know what this means…

It was a very quiet morning on the Tail of the Dragon. Being in the middle of winter, the resorts were all shut down and the photographers were not out in force (though you can still beckon and commission them for a fee, ahead of time, if you so desired), and I took my time with the mountain crossing.

In all, the trip was completely reasonable (for me, anyway – reasonable implies at least one or two wrenching oopsie moments are designed in from the start) and it was a good way to recast a hobby that had, in recent days, felt more like an unpaid internship *ahem* Battlebots than bashing it up with friends and onlookers.

From my return, I focused more on getting the 7.3 IDI engine from Snekvan rebuilt; it had already been extracted from the van by New Year’s Day 2022 and I was halfway into tearing it all apart. I had an eye for getting Vantruck swapped and ready for Dragon Con 2022; this also means I’m like 11 Operation IDIocracy posts behind.

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