Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Racing in the Rain

Racing in the Rain happens to be one of my favorite books of the past decade. It also happened to be the theme for Sunday's race at VIR. The day started out dry, but overcast. A quick check of the radar showed that there was still plenty of rain in the area and that getting wet at some point during the day was still a real possibility. As qualifying approached, there was no doubt that the track would be dry for our session. I left the dry tires on and headed out, hoping for a good lap and a decent starting position. Unlike Saturday's rain soaked qualifying, every car was on track for Sunday. This meant finding a decent hole in traffic was going to be a challenge. Despite my best efforts to create a gap and get a good lap to myself, I either caught traffic or was caught by traffic in all 4 laps. The result was good enough for 5th place in class. It wasn't as good as I had hoped, but I really couldn't have done better than 4th as the top 3 cars were in a different zip code of speed.

The clouds and occasional sprinkles continued throughout the morning and early afternoon. As the race start approached everyone's eyes were once again on the radar. While rain was in the area, it did not appear that any would be hitting the track anytime soon. That, combined with the fact that the track was currently dry, meant that everyone made the call to stay on dry tires for the race. I got suited up and got the car on grid, ready to improve on Saturday's result.

The session before our race was ended a little early due to an incident that brought out the black flags. We left the pits uncertain about whether or not that incident had been cleaned up or not. As we approached turn 14 on the first pace lap, it became evident that we would be making at least one more lap around behind the pace car. This is where the confusion began. As we reached the end of the back straight on the second pace lap everyone was eagerly watching the lights on the pace car to see if we would be getting the green on our next trip by the start/finish line. As the pace car turned down the hill at turn 14 and went out of sight, its lights were still on. This left those of us not directly behind the pace car to think we were going to be making another lap. As I crested turn 14 and looked down the hill at the pace car, I realized that it had now turned it's lights off. The problem was that none of the cars in front of me had moved into the proper two-wide configuration and were instead still nose to nail. As we all hurried to get down the hill and get our cars into place the pace car pulled into the pits and the front of the field took off to the green flag. As luck would have it, I was able to continue my speed from trying to catch up and take it onto the front straight. This gave me a great run on the 4th place car and I was able to get by easily before turn one. Video of the start, and the rest of the race, is below.

The rain started at turn 10 on the first lap.  It was quite a surprise to fire in there door to door with other cars to find a completely different grip level than we were expecting.  Everyone kept it together and we battled on to turn 15 where the rain stopped.  From there on out, each lap meant more rain on more of the track.  Just staying on track became the name of the game as the conditions deteriorated.  Cars from all classes were going off track all over the track.  Due to the weekend's wet conditions, most of the cars that touched the grass either hit a wall or got stuck in the grass/mud.  I found myself in a position in which I was well behind third place and well ahead of fifth, so I felt no need to push it unreasonably.  Pushing a car on dry tires in wet conditions is quite a physical and mental challenge.  I was quite happy to see the checkered flag.

Overall, my first race experience with the Mid-Atlantic region was quite a humbling experience.  It is very apparent that I am going to have to step up my game to be able to hang with the front runners here.  Challenge accepted.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Moving into Race Season 2.0

And just like's 2012.

The rest of my 2011 season was a little...bumpy. My 5th race weekend of the year was at Carolina Motorsports Park during the third weekend of October. I was really excited about the event due to the long break from racing I had taken over the summer. My results during the season had me in second place in overall points, with a slim lead over third place. I was ready to push hard to try to pick up a couple of wins and stretch my gap in points. Unfortunately, some of the mechanical gremlins that had plagued my last weekend at CMP came back to visit.

The car seemed normal during practice, although we spent most of the time driving around behind the pace car because a couple of guys felt that practice was a great time to spin and get stuck in sand traps. I went out in qualifying ready to put down a flying lap. I went out near the end of the field and set up a perfect gap to the traffic in front of me. I got off to a great start and was flying. As I turned into turn 4 (a left hander) the steering became really stiff for a couple of seconds. Once I turned back to the right, the problem went away. I wasn't sure what the issue was but I expected a power steering issue. Regardless, it seemed to have fixed itself by turn 5 and I continued on. When I reached turn 11 (another hard left hander) I was only able to turn the steering wheel to the left about 90 degrees. It simply wouldn't go further than than. As a result I was unable to get around turn 11 correctly and ended up bounding off through the dirt off the track at the exit of the turn. While bouncing through the dirt the steering freed up and I was able to get the car back on track.

Now slightly mentally frayed by the stuck steering, I sawed the wheel back and forth through turns 12 and 13 still trying to diagnose the problem. All seemed fine and I continued on to try to get another good lap. Another car spun in turn 1 and stalled in the middle of the track bringing out a local yellow flag. While that meant I wasn't going to set any record times, it also meant that everyone else would have to slow down there as well. I concentrated on getting the rest of the lap right and fast. The steering felt great for the rest of the lap and I pulled in happy with my efforts. Back in the pits I began looking for the reason for my steering woes. I immediately noticed that my driver's side engine mount had failed. This mount was located next to the steering column. When the mount failed, it wedged itself between the steering column and the frame rail, effectively locking my steering in place. I was extremely lucky that the failure did not take place at a more dicey time and place on track. I did not have any spare engine mounts with me and was unable to locate any replacements. My weekend was over almost as soon as it had begun. To rub salt in my wounds, my qualifying time was first in class and third overall. I packed up and headed home as frustrated as ever. That, as they say, is racing.

I finished the year by instructing at at Chin Motorsports event at VIR in December. It was an enjoyable, low stress event until I went off track in turn 10. My trip through the bumps and jumps beside the track surface tore off my front splitterand part of my front bumper. I wasn't amused.

2012 began with a new edition to my pit crew. My wife gave birth to our first child, our son Caleb, on January 22. He is the most perfect thing ever and we could not be more proud. I know my time on track is going to be reduced now that he is here, but that time with him is something I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

Since my schedule is going to be a bit different this year, I have decided to bounce back and forth between the Southeast and Mid Atlantic regions of NASA. While this means I will not be able to compete in the overall season points race in either region, it does give me the opportunity to race when and where I want to race rather than being held to the season schedule of one region. It also gives me the opportunity to race at Virginia International Raceway, which is located in the Mid Atlantic region.

My first event of the season was NASA Mid Atlantic's second event of the year, their annual "March Madness" at VIR. This was a three day event, featuring a test-n-tune day on Friday and two days of racing over the weekend. The forecast leading up to the event showed a high likelihood of rain for both Saturday and Sunday. Just in case, I bought a set of rain tires and had them mounted on a spare set of wheels. This decision turned out to be very fortuitous. In true racer style I had to scramble a bit to get the car ready. The biggest thing was repairing the damage from the excursion above. It was taxing, but I got her ready to go.

Add ImageAdd Image

The Friday test-n-tune came and went without much drama. The weather was perfect and the car ran great. I discovered a wheel spacer issue and was able to figure out a fix with the help of some fellow competitors. I was glad to have the stress-free extra day to figure things out rather than waste race time. I was also able to begin to feel out my new tires for this year, the BF Goodrich R1. I decided to step up from the Nitto NT-01's I used for the past few years to an even more aggressive race tire. I was not disappointed as I was able to immediately knock 1.5 seconds off my lap time at VIR. I know there is even more time advantage to be found but I'll need more time on these new tires to find it. Sadly, I wasn't going to be able to carry over much of what I learned on Friday into the race weekend as the weather conditions deteriorated rapidly.

Saturday morning I rolled out of bed at the Sleep Inn in Danville, VA and took a look out of the window. The parking lot was soaked and it was raining hard. I turned on the TV and changed the channel to The Weather Channel to check out the local radar. The size and speed of the storm made it appear as though we would be dealing with rain all day. We packed up and headed back to the track.

For this event, the racers were broken into two groups. My class was put into the Thunder race group. Our group's practice was one of the first sessions of the morning. In the midst of heavily pouring rain, I took off the dry race tires and changed over to my rain tires. Apart from being soaked, the car and I were ready to go. Only about one third of the racers in our group braved the tough conditions of practice. I spent the entire 20 minutes just trying to keep the car on track and get the brand new tires broken in. It had been several years since I had driven in the rain at VIR and I wasn't quite ready for how slick it was. My knuckles were white long before the checkered flag came out to end the session and I pulled into the pits happy to have an undamaged race car. Qualifying was scheduled to take place only a couple of hours later. A quick review of the radar (what would we do without smart phones?!?!) showed there was no chance of the rain letting up by then. I left the rain tires on and retreated to the comfort of a fellow racer's enclosed trailer in an attempt to dry out. Only 33 of the 54 cars in our race group lined up to go out for qualifying, the rest unwilling or unequipped to deal with trying to put down a flying lap in the rain. The rain was coming down hard and there was standing water all over the track. Certainly not ideal for trying to go as fast as possible. I did four laps in qualifying, mainly in an attempt to continue to learn the car and the track in the rain. I ran an incredibly slow best lap of 2:47.xx, some 30+ seconds slower than my normal times in the dry. While quite a bit off the pace of the guys up front, this was good enough for a 5th place in class starting position for the race. Most importantly, I didn't wreck.

The three hour break between qualifying and the race was exactly what we all needed. The clouds decided to stop raining about an hour before the race and the other groups on track during that time were doing a great job of drying up the track. About 20 minutes before the call to grid, I took off the rain tires and put the dry tires back on. I was taking a risk that the rain would stay away during the race but the radar had me convinced. I got in the and headed out to grid. This was my first race in Thunder group and I knew I had a new challenge ahead of me. When the racers are split into two groups, typically my class is the fastest class in the "slower" race group. This event had our class in the middle of the "faster" race group, meaning there were going to be plenty of faster cars on track during the race. This meant that traffic management, especially dealing with being caught and passed by faster cars, was going to play a big role.

Alright...enough talk...on to the video:

So I started 5th in class and finished 4th in class. I was fine with that finishing position since I had kept my nose clean, but other than a couple laps battling with the silver BMW M3 in my class, I spent most of the race driving around alone because the rest of my class had checked out. It was immediate proof that I am going to have to step up my game to be able to stick with the pointy end of the field when racing at VIR. The car ran great and all the off-season repairs and maintenance seemed to have held together. I spent the evening reviewing data and video in preparation for Sunday's race, determined to be more of a factor and looking for a spot on the podium. The big question on everyone's mind that night, however, was what Mother Nature was planning for Sunday.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Chump Change

Over the last 5 years, a new form of grassroots racing has taken shape and is growing rapidly. These events are made up of "cheap" cars (usually around a $500 value), driven by people of all experience levels, pitted against each other in endurance races. The most popular organizations running these kinds of races are The 24 Hours of LeMons and The ChumpCar World Series. While each series has been running events at nearby tracks for years, I have never been able to participate until now. I joined on with Team inACURAte Racing to drive a 1992 Acura Legend Coupe to race in the ChumpCar 24 at VIR.

Here's a 22 page thread dedicated to the building of the car: BUILD THREAD

Our team consisted of 6 drivers, ranging in experience from seasoned veterans to novices just starting out. We knew going in that having 6 drivers instead of the required minimum of 4 would limit each driver's time behind the wheel, but we hoped that having time to rest and stay fresh would keep our team moving forward when others faulted.

Friday morning of the race weekend arrived with an ominous forecast...record heat and a chance for severe thunderstorms. And by record heat, I mean ALL TIME RECORD heat. As in 105*. Awesome. We had made special plans to deal with the heat. We installed a cooler in the car which was wired to pump ice cold water to special shirts that each driver wore, hopefully keep each of us cool in the heat of battle. We also made provisions to install large insulated drink bottles in the car for each driver to use to stay hydrated during the race. Regardless, there wouldn't be much other than shade to protect us from the elements when we weren't in the car.


The entire day on Friday was set aside to get the teams into the track, get cars unloaded, pit spaces set up, and cars and drivers registered. Two of our drivers arrived at the track around 10:30pm Thursday night to get in line. Amazingly, they found themselves behind 50 or so other teams who had similar plans. They spent the night inside the car trailer and held our spot in line. I arrived at the track about 7:30am Friday and joined in the "hurry up and wait" process at VIR's rear entrance. We had been told that the gates would open at 8:00am. They didn't open until 8:30am, but the delay seemed absolutely reasonable with the madhouse that was forming due to 84 teams and over 500 drivers and crew showing up for the event. Around 9:00am our portion of our team caravan had made it to the outskirts of the South Course paddock. We noticed a still unclaimed portion of front-row grass parking and jumped on it. This would end up being our base of operations for the weekend. As the 3 of us got unpacked, the rest of our team showed up with all the tools, generators, and most importantly, the car. They stayed in line and headed for our designated paddock spot.


As fate would have it, we got a GREAT paddock spot. Right on the front row and about 50 feet from the front door of the Timing and Scoring building. We got things unpacked there and started in on making sure we had everything where we needed it for the race to follow.


The guys who built the car had done a really nice job and it was basically ready to go when the rolled it off the trailer. We made a smart move and got the car in the front of the line for technical/safety inspection. The car passed with flying colors.

With the car ready to go and all the drivers registered, we were able to focus our attention on driving. VIR had arranged for the track to be open from noon to 4pm as a test session for all the cars registered for the race that weekend. Since two of our team members (including myself) had never driven the car, we felt it was important to get a chance to get some seat time and get a feel for the car before it mattered. A secondary goal of the test session was to make sure that everything was ready to go on the car. I was first in the car for the testing. I did about 10 laps around South Course and got comfortable with the dynamics of the car. Having never driven a front wheel drive car in anger on track, I knew I was going to have a little bit of a learning curve. The 10 laps wasn't enough to tell me everything I wanted to know, but it pointed me in the right direction. After a couple other drivers spent some time in the car, the car began having some weird fuel delivery issues. The gas tank was getting overly pressurized and fuel was back-feeding itself into the emissions control system. Not good, but this is why you test the car before racing. Without time or parts for a fix, we simply bandaided the situation by removing some of the emissions system and loosening the gas cap. With that drama behind us we checked in for a much needed night of sleep at the hotel.

That 6:00am wake-up call seemed to come way too early. That's the thing about a 24 hour race like this...even though the racing itself would last 24 hours, we were planning on a good 30+ hours of non-stop involvement due to everything that would have to happen pre and post-race. We were at the track by 7:30am to make sure everything was ready to go before our 9:ooam all-hands meeting. Coolers and drink bottles were filled. Gas jugs were pumped full. Driving order and pit duties were finalized. As a result of some dinner table discussion the night before, we also decided to check over a couple more things with the fuel system. Here's the car about 30 minutes before the call to grid:


I was going to be driving the first stint, so seeing the car in the air and work being done to the fuel system was a bit unnerving. There wasn't anything I could do about it at that point, however, so I got suited up. By 9:30am it was already 90* out so putting on that heavy fire suit and helmet wasn't something I was looking forward to. As soon as I was able I got in the driver's seat and got my cool suit hooked up. A flip of a switch and I was in cool suit heaven. It is amazing how much of a difference that simple system can make.

Now it was time to focus on the task at hand. Since I was driving first, I main emphasis was to keep my nose clean and bring the car back ready to go for the next driver. Everyone agreed that this task was surely going to be easier said than done as having 84 cars piled onto a 1.6 mile race track was sure to produce some nasty battles for small pieces of real estate. I got the car onto the grid behind about 1/3 of the field. They told us in the driver's meeting that they wanted us all to get out there and do a few laps, nose to tail, so they could make sure that the timing and scoring system was working for all the cars. Once they verified that everything was good to go, they would start the race. We did 5 or 6 laps at around half-pace before the green flag came out.

Here's the video of the first 15 minutes of the race, starting with the green flag. (Look for Ronald McDonald waving the flag in the start/finish tower)

We officially started the race in 20th position, a spot that was completely random but I'm glad it was in the top 1/4 of the field. Our car was smoking fast and had a nice power advantage on most of the other cars on the track. This made passing a fairly easy task. The biggest difficulty was dealing with packs of slower cars and being able to pick out the best line and timing that got through them. The car was fast enough that the closing speed we had over some other cars could create quite a pucker moment if you weren't anticipating enough. I managed to get the car up to 6th position by the 7th lap. I had to pit about half way through my 90 minute stint because gas was pouring out of our purposely loosened gas cap. Pulling in to get it tightened down cost us a couple of positions. I pitted the car again on lap 26 and handed the car over to our next driver.

This pit stop was our first opportunity to refuel the car and change drivers. We had talked over how it was going to go and the responsibilities of each person, but actually doing it is always more difficult than talking about it. I unlatched my belts, unplugged my radio, dropped the window net, and unhooked my coolsuit fittings to get out of the car. Once out, I immediately took over refueling duties. Since the person responsible for putting gas in the car was required to wear a fire suit, helmet and gloves, we decided it made the most sense for the driver (the only guy already dressed in that stuff) to be the one to handle the gas cans. For this stop, we were done fueling before the driver change was complete. Everything seemed to go fine and the car was back on track having dropped to 23rd during the stop. I felt great after my stint, so the coolsuit and drink bottle had done their job.

We knew there really wasn't any reason to be paying attention to the timing and scoring results, especially this early into the race. It turned out to be a good thing that we weren't watching, as doing so might have stressed us out quite a bit more.

Somewhere during the 4th driver's stint, the car began to hesitate. It seemed like it was having fuel delivery issues again, very similar to what we had discovered during the test day. We pitted the car and I cracked the gas cap to discover A LOT of built up pressure in the tank. After releasing the pressure, the car wouldn't start. it was acting like it was flooded. We quickly pulled a spark plug but it was dry. We tried push starting the car on pit road but couldn't get it to fire. Instead, several of us had to push the car up pit road and back to our spot in the paddock. Thank goodness our spot was a close as it was. Since a lap on South Course only takes about a minute and a half, any time spent working on the car is tough to overcome. This is where not looking as the standings helped out...we were winning the race right before the fuel issues started again! It's nice to know that now, and I'm so glad we didn't know it at the time. By the time we got the car back out on track we had dropped to 44th. It only behaved for another handful of laps before the problems showed up again. Since we were getting close to the required 1 hour break period, we decided to park the car and get the problems fixed for good before the race restarted. Back in the pits we found the problem. Our gas tank was full of gunk. The gunk had been sucked up by the fuel pump, starving it for fuel. It has also clogged the tank vent lines causing the overpressure situation.

Clogged fuel pump:

The racing gods shined on us during the the form of a very nasty thunderstorm. Lots of lightning and rain hit the track with very little warning. At some point a bolt of lightning hit the track's electrical station and knocked out all the power to timing and scoring. As a result, the restart of the race was delayed by an hour and a half. This allowed us to get the repairs finished and the car in line on grid just minutes before the race started. This reprieve meant we still had a shot. Day turned to night during the first stint after the restart. Here's a shot of pit road as night was approaching:


We switched over to running the Full Course configuration of VIR for the night session. This portion of the track is twice as long (3.2 miles) as South Course and features much higher speeds. I got back in the car somewhere around 11:30pm, about 12 hours since I had gotten out of it. We had decided to change the driving order a little bit and my stints were separated even more as a result. I got in the car knowing that I was going to be driving either for two hours or until the car ran out of gas, whichever came first. I had never driven on a race track at night. None of us had. I didn't know what to expect, beyond what my teammates were saying over the radio. The lights in the pits keep things nice and bright and blind you to just how dark it was out there. As I pulled out of the pits and onto VIR's long back straight, I got my first taste of exactly what I was up against. I couldn't see anything. Not in front of me, beside me, behind me. This was a track I knew well, so I had plenty of mind and muscle memory about where it went, but trying to navigate it (at race speed) without being able to see where it went was a challenge. The lights we had on the car were legal to the rules but were woefully inadequate and paled in comparison to what many of our competitors were running. I was either struggling to see the track with our dim lights or was being blinded by the lights of cars behind me. It took about 20 minutes of my stint before I started to feel confident about what I was doing out there given the visibility situation. Soon enough I was cruising and picking off lots of other cars. My 2 hour stint seemed to end all too soon. That two hours was absolutely the most terrifying and most thrilling time I've ever spent in a race car.

Here's some night video (taken from the first quarter of my second hour)

And my favorite photo from the race:

The car ran great most of the night. We managed to work ourselves all the way back to 22nd overall. While I was getting some much-needed sleep in the trailer, one of the drivers brought the car into the pits with a brake pedal that was sitting on the floor. We brought him into the paddock and found that our rear brake pads were completely gone. In fact, all the friction material was long gone and we had been running on the backing plates for some time. They wore so thin that the left rear piston popped out of the caliper. We were within 30 minutes of the second mandatory break period, so we decided to perform a full brake job on the car. We replaced all the pads, bled the brakes, and put on a couple new tires. The car was ready to go for the third and final session of the race, this time back on South Course.

Within a couple of laps the driver radioed in that he was experiencing a bad vibration in the car at certain speeds. We had him bring it into the pits to check it out. While looking for the answer to the vibration problem, one of us noticed water leaking from the front of the car. Back to the paddock. We quickly determined that a pinhole leak had formed in the backside of the radiator in front of one of our cooling fans. Without a replacement, and with no desire to harm our engine, we had to make the tough call to park the car and not finish the race.

We ended up in 45th position but were long gone before the race actually ended. While it was frustrating to pack up while others were racing, it just wasn't meant to be for us. We were on track for 16 of the 24 hours. Everyone on the team got to drive a couple of stints, and everyone got some time in the dark. All in all, it was a great time. We know we have a competitive car and a competitive team. With any luck, we'll be up front at the end of the next one. It took me a couple of days to recover from the event. A 24 hour race is truly a test of man and machine, and I'm happy to say I've survived one. Congrats to all those that made it all 24.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Matched perfect and staggered special

The two month break since the my last race at CMP seemed to take forever. My spring had been consistently full of track time making the time off seem almost out of place. Fortunately, it gave me the time to make the repairs that were needed after the last event. In went another gas tank, a large amount of 2000 degree heat reflective tape, and some replacement BMW heat shielding. Additionally, a replacement axle was installed. With any luck, the issues seen at CMP will never repeat themselves.

This round of the NASA Southeast racing season took us to Charlotte Motor Speedway (formerly Lowes Motor Speedway). The race was held on the "roval" at the track, which combined the infield road course section with the D-shaped track the NASCAR boys race on. I have previous roval experience at Rockingham Speedway, but that is a much smaller track overall and has a much different infield configuration. Regardless, I have felt what it is like to drive on the high banks of an oval, an experience I hoped would pay dividends while learning another new track.

CMS has several strange and strict rules for using and entering track, starting with the fact that everyone had to be out of the track by 6:00pm on Friday. No other tracks on our schedule have a rule like that. I really wanted to get the car and trailer into the track rather than having to leave them in the hotel parking lot all night. We set out early enough for us to get to the track somewhere between 5:15 and 5:30. Of course that was with the assumption/hope that traffic would cooperate. We were cruising along just fine until we reached the Kannapolis area. Traffic came to a standstill and we watched our time window fade quickly away. As we exited off I-85 at the speedway exit a fellow racer called me to tell me that track security was ushering everyone out of the track. It was 6:08pm. All that planning and 3 hours of towing just to miss our deadline by a few minutes was pretty frustrating. The only thing that could cure my frustration was Mexican food and beer. Fortunately both were easily obtainable within a short drive of the track and all was right with the world again. I spent the rest of the evening at the hotel reviewing video of last year's race taken by two fellow racers. They talked me through the course and I felt confident I could get up to speed without too much trouble on Saturday.


We arrived at the track at 6:15am on Saturday. I wanted to make sure we were near the front of line at registration since I knew many others had been in the same boat as myself the evening before. Registration was in a ticket both directly under the new video screen at the race track. It is the largest HD screen in the world. 200' by 90'. It's quite amazingly huge, but dwarfed by the size of the track. We went through the tunnel into the infield and headed toward garage #33. I made the decision to rent one of the NASCAR garage bays a couple of weeks before the event. It turned out to be one of the best $65 I ever spent. We got the car and truck unloaded and set up our track home in the garage. The weather was bearable at that point but we knew it was on its way to 98* before the end of the day. I had installed a cooling system in the car a couple of days before the event. I was going to get lots of opportunity to try it out.


First up was practice. My garage-mate agreed to lead me out and let me follow him around a little bit (just like he did at Road Atlanta). I was immediately struck by the generally crappy condition of the infield pavement. It was cracked and bumpy. There was seam sealer everywhere. There was even grass growing through some of the cracks. My car was very unhappy on the washboard-like surface, especially under braking. The banking was daunting at first, but not too bad. NASCAR turns 1 and 2 are no big deal. Since you hit them after just coming out of the infield, you are flat on the gas and don't really have to worry about them very much. NASCAR turns 3 and 4 are quite different. You reach turn 3 and well over 100 mph and just have to turn the car into the banking knowing that it is going to stick. Once into the banking, the G-forces press you down into the seat more than pushing you toward the outside of the turn. It's a wild feeling and a total rush every time. As usual, the 15 minutes of practice seemed to end far too early and I didn't feel like I had gotten a hang of the track at all. My best time was a 1:33, about 7 seconds from where I needed to be, but surprisingly only 3 seconds behind first place in GTS-2.


Qualifying at a track I haven't been to before continues to be one of the most challenging things I have had to do during my track experience. The first hot lap went pretty well and I felt I was able to push the car harder than I had in practice. Every lap after that found me running into some amount of traffic. Even though I knew those laps would be slower, I kept making laps in order to run the track. I came in better about my knowledge of the track and hoped it would be reflected in my times. But then I got the time sheets. I had improved, down to a 1:28.8, but the first place car had run a 1:25.5. His time was almost 2 seconds faster than the lap record for GTS-2. I almost couldn't believe his pace. I knew I wouldn't have anything for him during the race.

As usual, the different classes were split up into two different groups to start the race. I found myself gridded right behind cars that were a second or more faster than me and in front of cars that were a second or more slower. The start saw quite a bit of jockeying around throughout the infield portion of the course. Things settled down once we got onto the oval and everyone fell into line. As I expected, the cars in front of me pulled away and I pulled away from those behind me. This made for a fairly boring race as I spent most of the time making laps with no one around me. With about 10 minutes left in the race, the first and only full course caution came out. I went off track on next to last infield turn just before the FCY, allowing 4 cars to get by while I gathered things back up and got back on track. I was hopeful that we would see a restart and give me a chance to regain those positions. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be and we got the checkered flag while still under yellow. This was certainly not my best showing. I knocked off a little more time and got down to a 1:28.1. I picked up 6 total positions and came in 14th overall and 2nd in GTS-2. At the awards BBQ that night, my name was called for first place. After getting my trophy, I found out the class winner was disqualified for passing under yellow. Not exactly the way I wanted to get my second win of the season. I felt as though I didn't deserve it since my performance had been so bad, but a win is a win. I got a celebratory Cook Out peanut butter fudge milkshake on the way home.

Winner winner, chicken dinner

We spent some more time reviewing video on Saturday night. This time I had my own video to review. My buddies and I went through it and looked for places where I could pick up some speed. It looked like I was leaving quite a bit on the table in the turn into the infield and the turn coming out of the infield. I didn't think it would be enough for me to catch the first place car, but I felt confident I would find speed on Sunday.


Sunday started off with another one of those weird CMS rules. Apparently Cabarrus County doesn't allow any race engines to be run until after noon on Sunday. Therefore our qualifying session was scheduled for 2:15pm, a stark contrast to our normal 9-10:00am starting time. We decided there was only one way to kill the extra time in our day...with a huge breakfast at Cracker Barrel. We got to the track around noon and started getting things ready for the race day. While checking over the car I found that my right front tire had worn itself down to the cords during Saturday's race. Metal showing through the rubber of your tire is not an ideal situation for racing. I replaced the tire and determined everything else was ready to go. For qualifying I decided to go out directly behind the first place GTS-2 car. My hope was that I would try to follow him and allow his pace to increase mine. Much like Saturday, we only got one clean lap before traffic began coming into play. That first lap ended with me still on the bumper of the first place car. Either I sped up, he slowed down, or a little of both. The truth would be revealed in the time sheets. I ran a 1:25.8. More than two seconds faster than Saturday! My pace pushed the first place driver to go even harder, and he cranked off a crazy time of 1:24.9. He still had more overall speed than me, but we were much closer now. I guess all the video analysis from the night before had paid off.

Sunday's race video is really the only video from the weekend that is worth watching, so here it is, in two parts.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 1...I started one position behind the class-leading car, so he was in the right side of the row in front of me. I needed a good start so that I could get up to him and put the pressure on him early and before he drove away from me. However, as has become my habit this season, I didn't get a great start. I immediately dropped two positions before reaching turn 1, another in turn 2, and another in turn 4. Four turns into the race and 3 cars had gotten by. Not that good start I was wanting and needing. I got back by two of those cars on the second lap and set off after the first place car. He was gone and flying. I was stuck in the midst of two battling Honda Challenge cars. They were both faster than me, but their battle slowed all three of us down. They eventually got things settled and I kept pushing hard. A full course yellow came out after about 14 minutes of racing and the field was bunched back up.

Part 2...the restart was a bit strange. Since us faster cars had begun lapping slower cars before the yellow came out, there was a lot of traffic mixed in with us and lots of out of position cars. As a result, the line of cars was so long that I couldn't see the lights on the pace car or the flag stand as I entered the end of the oval. All of the cars in front of and behind me were very spaced out when the yellow lights along the wall went out. The spacing of the cars and the pace of the restart meant that making up any meaningful ground at the jump wasn't going to happen. Everyone knew we would only have a few laps of racing left after the restart and things got a little crazy. The first couple of trips through the infield saw cars hitting each other and going off track. I worked my way through the carnage and slower traffic and tried my best to keep with with first place car. I was never able to get up to him and finished in second. I picked up 16 overall positions and ran a best lap of a 1:25.5. I was happy with my time as it was quite a bit faster than the old lap record. The new lap record was set by the first place car with a stupid fast time of 1:24.2.

My win on Saturday and second place on Sunday put me solidly in control of second place overall in our season points championship race. I'm going to need more of Saturday's luck to draw me closer to first place.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Last weekend was round #3 of GTS racing with NASA Southeast. For this round, races 5 and 6, we returned to Carolina Motorsports Park in beautiful (sarcasm) Kershaw, SC. The weather was absolutely perfect with lows in the 50's and highs in the 80's. You can't ask for much better for a track weekend. I had made several improvements to the car over since the last race, most of which where designed to make the car survive the abuse of racing a little longer, so I was excited to see if any of the changes made the car better.

We hit the road a little later than usual so we didn't get to the track until 7:45 Friday night. Our group of "track friends" were already there and they were all growing increasingly impatient for dinner, so we just parked the rig and headed back out. Several of us rode in the bed of a pickup back into the town limits of Kershaw. While I hadn't ridden in the bed of a pickup in a couple decades, I'm quite sure that we weren't the only folks who had ridden in the bed of a pickup into Kershaw that night. Dinner was at Gus's House of Pizza. There are only 4 places to eat in Kershaw and the track crowd tends to lean more toward pizza/Italian than country cooking. We joined in with a large group of Spec E30 racers. Although this made me an outsider, the SE30 group is good people and made for fine company. I had cheese ravioli with meatballs. It was better than I had expected. I had doubted it before, but GHOP is now on the list of places to eat when visting CMP.

My wife and I had made the decision to camp out at the track for this event, something we hadn't done before. We put an inflatable mattress in the back of the van, added a couple sleeping bags and a couple pillows, and had a reasonably good night's sleep. The cool evening weather made it very comfortable. I'm not sure it would be so nice in the heat of summer.

Getting ready to go on Saturday morning:

Saturday's practice began around 9:30am. I hit the track with the same suspension settings which were on the car when I rolled off the track at VIR's North Course at the last event. I had some new brake pads and rotors on the front of the car, so the most important thing about practice was getting the brakes bedded in. The car had quite a bit of push/understeer in the slower corners which is nothing new for CMP. I had no reason to push things very hard so I settled into a comfortable rhythm and knocked out some laps to knock off the rust. The good news was that without any real effort of trying to go fast, I managed to run a 1:49.2, which was just 0.1 sec slower than my personal best ever at CMP. The car felt pretty good, I got the brakes bedded in, and I was pleased about the changes to the car. Next up was qualifying.

As I've discussed earlier, it's always hard to know what to do about getting to grid to get in line for qualifying. As usual, the guys in the front of the Spec E30 crowd got to grid as early as possible and took up all the positions up front. I took my time getting to grid and got in line in the last third of the field. To my relief, the only other car in GTS-2 that weekend was in line right in front of me. This was a good thing because it meant that him and I would have to deal with the same traffic on track and he wouldn't get the opportunity to get a wide open lap and set a better time. During the out-lap, it felt like no one could make up their minds about how they were going to attack qualifying. Usually drivers either take off right away and try to get something done early, or they hang back and create gaps to the cars in front of them for the chance to have at least one lap without dealing with traffic. Instead, cars were bunching up then spreading out and then bunching up again. As a result, a long line of cars got the green flag at the same time and I was right in the middle of it. The other GTS-2 car and I immediately being firing through traffic as best we could. The problem was that there was so much traffic that we were not going to get a clean lap to put down our best times. After 5 laps, I had managed a best of 1:50.1 which was quite disappointing after my times in practice. The good news was that I qualified first in class and 7th overall. The other GTS-2 car qualified in 10th overall. The car was still a little pushy on corner exit, so I had some changes to make before the race, but I was thrilled to have a couple cars between me and my competition for the start of the race.

I made what I considered to be a couple of very small tweaks to the suspension settings of the car before the race. My goal was to balance the car out a little more and reduce the understeer in the slower corners. These changes would end up being far too much for the much warmer track conditions for the mid-afternoon race.

The race began without incident. We took the green flag about half way down the front straight and basically everyone around me stayed put all the way into turn one. Since I qualified 7th, I was on the inside of the track for the start. A Legends car (which looks like a 3/4 scale hot rod) was lined up beside me in 8th. We stayed side by side through turns 1, 2 and 3. During the exit from turn 3, I got very loose and allowed the Legends car to get by. No big loss since we were in different classes, but it did allow my competitor to close in on me by another position. Turns 4, 5, 6, and 7 came and went without drama. As we approached the braking zone for turn 8 I decided to stay on line to the left side of the track since the Honda Challenge car behind me was doing the same thing. I took one more look in the mirror while I was in the braking zone and saw the other GTS-2 car making a late pass on the Honda and approaching my right rear corner. His move surprised me and I basically gave him the corner. He took the inside through turn 8 and I took the outside. This required me to take turn 8 much slower than usual and both Hondas behind me past me as well. From 8th to 11th in about 10 seconds. I was upset that I had not been on my game enough to hold my ground going into turn 8. Oh well. I had to buckle down and get after the other in-class car. Within two laps I had worked by both Hondas. By then the other GTS-2 car had pulled away to a 5 second lead. I kept my head down told myself to stay smooth and hit my marks. I did and I reeled in the other car fairly quickly. By the time I caught him we were catching the back end of the field and had to start working through slower traffic. Trying to keep up with a fast car while working through slower traffic is quite fun and frustrating at the same time. Sometimes traffic would hold up my competitor and sometimes it would slow me. Throughout these laps I noticed that he was having to brake before going through "the kink" on the back straight. I could get through there with just a little lift, so I was quite a bit faster from the middle of the corner out. I thought this could give a chance to get by into turn 11. I finally took my shot when the other GTS-2 car slowed going into the kink and again slowed coming out because of traffic in front of him. I stayed in the gas and took the car up the extreme left edge of the track toward the inside of turn 11. The run fired me by and into first place in class. But only for a moment...

Since my move meant I was passing my competitor and a slower out of class car, I was on the inside of turn 11 going much slower than usual. I decided I was going to be going too slow for third gear so I threw in one more downshift to put the car in second gear for a powerful run out of the corner. I got around the apex and mashed the gas. Nothing happened. I realized the RPM's were very low and the car was bogging. At first I wasn't sure what the problem was. My right had quickly discovered the answer...I had shifted into 4th gear instead of 2nd. As I was trying to figure out what was happening, my competitor flew back by me with little effort. Getting passed in turn 8 at the start of the race was a rookie racer mistake. This was just stupid. I had made up all that ground, gotten the advantage, and then threw it all away in the blink of an eye. I went back to chasing the rabbit yet again.

I was able to get myself back onto the bumper of my competitor within a lap, but traffic was becoming even more of a problem. While we were still passing and lapping other cars, those cars were becoming less and less slower than us. This meant that getting by them took more work and more time, allowing the other car to keep traffic between us. With 3 laps to go the car sputtered during full throttle while coming down the front straight. It felt like the car was running out of gas. I started the race with 3/4 of a tank, so running out of gas shouldn't have been a problem. After the car sputtered, I checked the full gauge and it said I was at 1/8 of a tank. Something wasn't right and the car had obviously been dropping car onto the track during the race. My hopes of chasing my competitor down one last time had to take a back seat to just finishing. I backed off a little bit and made sure I wouldn't run out of gas before the checkered flag. I ended the race in 6th place over all and 2nd in class, scoring very valuable season championship points (and another trophy mug!). My hard fought battle with the other GTS-2 car was a blast and I learned a lot. I was disappointed that I wasn't able to hold onto first, but I felt like the experience was going to make be a better racer in upcoming races.

Back in the pits, after the usual Saturday evening BBQ, beer and Firefly Sweet Tea vodka, I turned my attention to finding and fixing my fuel leak. I started in the engine bay and found nothing. I then checked the fuel pump and fuel level sender areas. Again nothing. Under the car I went. I jacked up the left rear of the car and slid under. The first thing I found had nothing to do with the fuel brand new axle had failed. The outer clamp on the outer boot had come off during the race. This allowed the joint to dump all of its precious grease out all over the wheel and suspension. A $0.25 part ruined a new axle. Great. I knew my weekend was done at that point but I still wanted to track down the fuel leak. I checked all the lines and couldn't find anything. I was about to give up when i noticed something white on the gas tank where it humps up over the drive shaft and exhaust pipes. Upon closer inspection, these were areas where the exhaust pipes had come into contact with the plastic gas tank and melted it. In a couple places holes had formed. The car had been dumping gasoline onto the hot exhaust during the race! I later determined that nearly 8 gallons had been spilled out during the race. 8 gallons of gas dumping onto a hot exhaust during a 35 minute race and no fire. I realized how lucky I was and used a couple more beers to get over my sadness of not racing the following day.

The failed axle boot:

Tank damage:


Tuesday, April 5, 2011


A couple of weekends ago was the first event of the year for the Tar Heel Sports Car Club (THSCC). THSCC is a car club and not a race group, so their events are focused on instruction of the students in attendance. I started doing events with them back in 2003 and worked my way up to instructor level in 2006. I always try my best to be at their schools to instruct and help give back to this hobby of mine. Normally instructors are given two students at two different ability levels to coach. This weekend, due to an over-abundance of instructors, almost all of us only had one student. This was very nice as it made for a much less busy event and allowed us more time to focus on working with our student.

The competition aspect of THSCC events are their Time Trials. Time Trials are not typical, door-to-door races but instead is a challenge to set the fastest single lap time that you can and to see how that time stands up against your in-class competition. For the past two seasons I have finished the season in second place in my class, F-Prepared (FP). Being so close both times has made me more determined than ever for this season. Goal #1 was making myself faster at VIR's North Course.

North Course has long been my favorite track. Regardless of how much I liked the track, I've never been that fast there. I've always been about 2-3 seconds slower than the rest of my class. I came into the weekend hoping that some of my newly developed driving skills, all found as a result of racing and figuring out how to go faster in places and situations I"m not used to being in, would pay dividends in the Time Trials.

The normal driving sessions during the day at these events serve as a bit of practice for the TT's, but you never really get to push it as hard as you can because there is always quite a bit of traffic to deal with and you have passengers riding with you most of the time. Even though I was trying to focus on being smooth and consistent for my students riding with me, I did my best to push the envelope here and there. The problem was that I didn't "feel" like I was going any faster. Instead I felt like I was just being erratic and driving sloppy. I even ran into one of my fellow racers and discussed with him how I wasn't sure that racing was making me any faster. I'd get to find out for sure once the TT rolled around in the afternoons.

Saturday's Time Trial was a challenge. The weather had been windy but sunny all day so we didn't have any reason to worry about it. The skies to the south had darkened a little before I walked into the driver's meeting, but I still wasn't concerned. It was a different story when we walked back outside 20 minutes later. There was obviously nasty weather heading our direction in a hurry. Everyone scrambled to get in their cars and get to grid with the hopes of getting out in front of the rain. A couple stragglers at the end of the group cost us several valuable minutes, but we finally got sent out onto the track. As we got to the first turn on our out lap, the drops started falling. The sun was shining brightly from the west and the rain was blowing in from the south. We got back to the start/finish line and took the green to start the TT. The rain was now falling on only portions of the track. Some corners were dry and fast, others were soaked and slippery. The conditions were truly difficult to deal with. I knew that first lap would be our fastest, so I pushed as much as I could. Most everyone realized the same thing, and the majority of drivers came in after that first good lap. I did fine as far as the competition was concerned (1st in class and 3rd overall), but the time I put down (1:52.0) didn't really matter as it was set in "adverse" conditions. I had to hope for better weather on Sunday.

Sunday came with no wind and nothing but sunshine. The car ran great during the normal school sessions and I was able to run the gas level down to about 1/16th of a tank in order to have the car as light as possible for the TT. Several folks who competed on Saturday decided to pack it up and head home early, so the TT crowd was quite a bit smaller. As a result I was set to go out second. The car in front of me, a Datsun 280Z with a huge Chevy engine in it, was much faster than me. Therefore, my strategy was to stay close to him during the warm up lap and make sure I would have plenty of cushion behind me. I got the tires warmed up and got on it hard coming onto the front straight while getting the green flag. The first lap went by with no mistakes. As I crossed the start/finish line, I glanced down at my data screen to check out my time. 1:44.1. I almost couldn't believe it. I had never been lower than a 1:46 before. I stayed in it for another lap. This time, a 1:43.9. I felt like the tires had one more good lap of pushing in them so I stayed in the gas. I crossed the finish line for the third and final time with a 1:43.6! Unreal. I was hoping for 1:45's and instead knocked several seconds off my best time ever. I guess I must be doing something right.

As a is a graph of speed over distance showing my best time from last year (red line) and the 1:43.6 lap (blue line). I was simply faster everywhere. Maybe racing is making me faster after all...

speed comparison

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hello again, Podium

Saturday night at the hotel was spent reviewing lots of race video and discussing lines, where to pass, etc. This was a great opportunity to take a step back and focus on what I had learned about the track (and my competitors) throughout the day. I felt confident that Sunday would yield better results.

As usual, there is no practice on Sunday. Just qualifying and the race. Our qualifying session was scheduled to begin at 8:30am. While this is relatively early for the Sunday quali, we were all fine with it as it meant our race would be at an equally early 12:30. The prospect of being packed and gone by 2:00 is a serious plus when facing a 6 hour tow home. I looked the car over once I got to the track. Everything seamed ready to go and nothing out of place following the race the day before. I still had plenty of gas left over from the day before so I decided not to add any before qualifying. This meant I would be even lighter after quali than I was after the race on Saturday. I knew I'd have plenty of time between quali and the race to figure out the weight issue. I wasn't going to be able to add more than 200 pounds of ballast, so I wasn't sure what I was going to do. Regardless, I had to put that out of my mind and focus on a good qualifying effort.

This time I cared about where I gridded up. I waited for all the crazy, front-running SpecE30 and Spec Miata guys to line up and then got in behind them. I felt they would likely all take off as soon as we left the pits and I would try to build up a gap behind them before my hot laps started. Again a couple of my competitors had the same idea and we lined up together. I vowed to stay on the bumper of the fastest car in my class and knock more time off. That strategy worked for a couple laps before we caught a BUNCH of slower traffic. I pulled into the pits feeling that I had done much better than the day before. My official time was a 1:46.0. I knocked off 0.6 seconds and everyone else got a little slower. While my time was far from great, it got me up to 4th position in class and in a much better position overall.

Next up was dealing with the weight issue. I let the car cool off and headed for the scales. The scales being used at Road Atlanta were a portable set with adjustable pads that can be slid back and forth to accommodate cars of different wheelbases. Two other racers helped get the pads correctly positioned and we weighed the car again. This result: 3020 pounds. A difference of 145 pounds more than the "official" weight from Saturday, and I had even less gas in the car! Most importantly, the car weighed exactly what it should have and I wasn't going to have to add any ballast. Obviously the folks manning the scales after the race didn't quite get the car centered on the pads and caused the discrepancy. We discovered during the racers meeting at lunch that every car they weighed was underweight. Thankfully, the GTS series director understood the problem and chose not to penalize any of us based on the post-race weights. He also urged that we make sure we not leave the scale area if we expect problems like that again. Another lesson learned for this rookie.

Race time. My number one goal for this race was to be more aggressive at the start and not stay out so far going into turn one. Everyone in front and beside me took off at about the same time and no one changed position. That wasn't true of the cars right behind me. A couple cars got really good starts and a Porsche 944 from another class was able to move into position beside me going into turn one. I moved down to the inside enough to hold others off, but the 944 was able to get enough of a run to get by me going into turn two at the top of the hill. I hadn't lost any positions, so I was very happy with the much better start. I was able to take of the out-of-class 944 during our first trip down the back straight and set my sights on the in-class car right in front of me. On to the video:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

I was able to stay with the GTS-2 E30 in front of me and finally get by him (to put me into 3rd place in class) in the braking zone coming into turn 10a. The red GTS-2 944 also caught up and the 3 of us were nose to tail. After about 1 lap of that I realized what I had gotten myself into; those two cars were likely faster than me, but were making up ground on me in places where passing is tough. I was then able to stretch out a gap on the straights and keep them at bay. I knew that they would be there for the rest of the race and any mistake by me would let one or both of them by in a heartbeat. We got a handful of laps into the race before a FCY for a stopped car in the downhill esses. I was happy to take a breather for a couple laps while they got the car towed in. While the caution got me back to the rear bumper of the 2nd place, I knew I didn't have anything for him as he was a couple seconds a lap faster than me. Therefore, I focused on making sure I got a good restart and kept the in-class guys behind me behind me. With no drama at the restart, I set off to try to keep running consistent laps and hoped neither of those guys could mount a challenge to get by. Fortunately for me, they had a pretty good battle going on and switched positions a couple of times. Eventually the 944 got by the E30, but they had undoubtedly slowed each other down while battling. The 944 got back onto my bumper, but I was confident that I could keep him back there. A local yellow flag in turn 6 meant that I could take my time getting into turn 7 and focus on getting a good run onto the back straight. As long as I was able to do that, I knew the 944 couldn't get by. While I didn't drive very consistently, I was able to hold him off and bring it home for a 3rd place class finish.

Ending up with a podium finish was a great result, but I was most proud of having been able to hold off two well-matched competitors for almost the entire race. There is still lots of room for improvement, but doing what I needed to do to gain a spot and stay there was very rewarding. I ran a best lap of 1:45.5 during the race, knocking off another half second. My data showed that my theoretical fastest lap using all of the race data was a 1:43.7. The numbers proved how inconsistent I was being as I am typically within 0.2-0.3 seconds of my TFL at tracks I am familiar with.

Road Atlanta is a blast. I can't wait to go back and give it another shot.