Monday, October 25, 2010

That Loooong Race #40

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
-- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Well, no, it wasn't the worst of times by a long shot. More like, "it was the best of times, it was the wettest of times." It wasn't raining when I got to Blackhawk on Sunday morning, but a big storm had rolled through Saturday night, dumping enough water to break several canopies around the paddock (including one of mine) and to flood my paddock area. Everything I owned was wet, and before I could get anything sorted out, it started raining again.

It continued to rain -- hard -- during the first practice session. The track was underwater in a few spots, creating a new racing line that was less about finding traction and more about not drowning. I was happy to bring the car back in one piece, delighted that it was once again running perfectly, and surprised that I managed to get below a 2 minute lap time.

The rain eased up a bit for qualifying, so I was able to take a couple of seconds off of my practice time (still a 1:50, 11th on the grid). The car was running strong, but at one point when I opened the throttle, the exhaust note suddenly changed dramatically. It sounded a little like a blown exhaust header gasket, so I stayed out just long enough to ensure that I got enough laps to start the race.

When I pulled the engine cover, the gasket was still in one piece. The 4-year-old crack in the header looked worse, but there was still no evidence that it had cracked through. I started the engine again to try to find the leak, but there was nothing -- no visible smoke and no gas escaping anywhere -- just that weird noise that didn't sound so much like a header gasket after all. Luckily, Nicole Temple walked over from the Lindstrand Motorsports trailer just in time. She listened for just a few seconds, looked it over for a moment, and spotted the problem. One of the tabs which holds the exhaust collector to the header primary tubes had broken. The collector slipped off just enough to allow the #2 pipe to pop out, creating the bizarre, lumpy-cam-V8 racket. (Yes, she's better at this stuff than I am, but to be fair, she was standing on the other side of the car, so she could see the collector.)

The rain stopped soon after qualifying, and the sun came out. It was like a Christmas miracle. The flood waters began to recede, and we all changed from rain tires to dry tires, from clear and amber face shields to smoked and mirrored shields. Of course, just before the first call to grid, the sky clouded over again, and we all began to wonder if we had made a terrible miscalculation.

We hadn't. The rain held off, and the sun even peeked out a few more times during the afternoon. The track had drained somewhat before the start of our race, but it was still wet everywhere, and there were still puddles on the front straight. I got a great start, passing a CFF and an FC going into corner 1. Someone spun in either corner 2 or 5 (or both??), and cars went off both sides of the track. I picked my way through the group and found myself 4th overall! One of the cars still in front of me was Matt Lagessie (usually a big V8 sedan driver) in Jack Bartelt's Lola CFF. I caught up to him a few laps later, just in time for a front-row seat when he spun in corner 2. We narrowly missed each other as I passed, taking over the CFF lead. I tried to get some distance on him before he could recover.

The track conditions were tricky to say the least. It started out wet, but within 10 laps some of the corners were visibly drying. I worked on increasing my cornering speed in those corners, trying to take advantage of the increase in traction. The hard part was trying to keep from turning on "full dry" mode. Corners 2 and 5 and the dogleg between 3A and 4 are the last sections of the track to dry. Even when all of the other corners dry completely, you still have to take it easy through those areas. You're not driving a rain race, but you can't drive like it's a dry race either. It's hard to build a rhythm that way, and a lot of very fast drivers struggled with having to switch back and forth from corner to corner.

I ran as hard as I dared, trying a little harder each lap until I was at full dry speed in almost every corner. I managed to get down to a 1:19.14, just a second off of my best dry time. Soon I recognized the white Hawke of Mike Green in the distance ahead of me. Putting him a lap down would take a lot of pressure off of my pit stop. I turned up the heat a bit to catch up to him. Braking for corner 7, he briefly locked a wheel, and like a fool I started thinking that I had pressured him into a mistake... until I felt my own tires sliding, and I realized he had snookered me into a mistake! Fortunately I recovered from it -- and from the same mistake entering corner 1, and from another mistake in corner 2 (boy, was I getting greedy). The next time down the back straight, I was almost ready to set up for a pass, but he stayed to the right exiting the kink... and ducked into the pits. He later told me they had planned it that way. Clever, but he might have done better to drive defensively for another lap or two. He could have easily kept me behind him, maybe drawing me into a bigger mistake that I couldn't recover from.

"That Loooong Race" (yes, officially 4 "o"s) is a 100-mile race. Back in the day, the Formula Ford rules (at least in England, or someplace) actually specified that the fuel cell could be no larger than 5 gallons. Making some assumptions about fuel consumption, that means a Formula Ford has an expected range of about 30 minutes, which is about 50 miles at Blackhawk. In reality, I have had about 1 1/2 to 2 gallons left after a 30 minute race. The TLR rules allow auxilliary fuel tanks, but I've never come up with a design that I'd be proud of. I would need to stop for fuel too.

Of course, this isn't NASCAR or Formula 1 or CART. Our pit stops take a little longer. We don't have the high-dollar quick-refuelling rigs. We also don't have safety crews stationed up and down pit lane, so we have to be more cautious when it comes to refuelling. Our rules require the driver to be out of the car with the engine off, with a crew member standing by with a fire extinguisher. The person doing the fuelling is also required to wear so much safety equipment that it makes sense for the driver to do the actual fuelling.

With Mike in the pits, I drove as hard as I could to try to maximize the number of laps between us. I had told my crew to expect me around lap 30, so I waited for the right combination of traffic, lap number, and... something else, which I hadn't quite decided on yet. Soon enough, I got a sign. My water temperature gauge had reached 210 and was edging towards 220. I wasn't hot outside by any means (maybe high 60s), but I knew right away what the problem was. It's late fall in Illinois at a track with a thick canopy of trees. I noticed on the pace lap that corner 2 was covered in leaves, and of course I had scooped some huge amount of them into the radiator intake. It was only strange that it had taken 30 laps for it to run this hot.

I pulled into the pits for my fuel stop. Before I could get out of the car, Jack Bartelt had already cleaned the leaves out of the radiator intake for me. I dumped in the 2 gallons we had left in the fuel jug and got back in the car. I saw Matt and Mike both pass while I was buckling in, but were they already lapping me or just unlapping themselves? I asked my dad how long Mike had been in the pits, and I think he said that our stop was faster.

With the leaves out of the radiator, the track drying off, and fewer than 20 laps to go, I tried to drive like it was a sprint race. I tried to keep the lap times in the :19s, which was tough with so much traffic, both slower and faster. I have a new empathy for the drivers at LeMans, and the wide mix of cars and speeds they deal with. The fastest 5 cars in our group had fast lap times between 1:10 and 1:16; the slowest were between 1:29 and 1:35. The fastest car must have been passing the slowest car every 3 laps! And there I was in the middle, alternately lapping slower traffic and being lapped by faster cars.

I passed Matt in the Lola once more after my stop, getting back a lap I had lost during my pit stop. But how many laps he had already done was a mystery to me. Was he now behind me or still ahead of me? Were we on the same lap now?

As it turned out, we weren't. I forgot that Jack had constructed an auxiliary fuel tank for that car long ago, which meant that Matt didn't need to pit for fuel. I was only unlapping myself, but I still had another lap to make up before we would be on the same lap! He won CFF with 47 laps (finishing 5th overall), and I took second (9th overall) with 46 laps. I was catching him at a rate of about 4 seconds a lap, and at the end I was only about 20 seconds from getting back on the same lap as he was. But then I would have needed another 20 laps to make up the rest of that lap, which would have required another pit stop.

I am very proud of how I did, not just the finishing position and lap times, but I really felt like I drove better than I ever have. I was more confident under braking, I carried more speed through the corners, and my line took advantage of every bit of traction I could find.

Now if I could just start the 2011 season with a drive like that, we might really have something.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mid-Ohio

The last time I tried to drive Mid-Ohio, the trip did not go well. I got about 3 or 4 laps in (during the $850 Mid-Ohio School, the only "test day" available) before my pro-built engine decided it was ready to die, and it wanted to be buried all over the back straight. But it wasn't the track's fault, so I was determined to go back there and have a better race weekend.

The WOR Games race weekend format has changed in recent years. It had been a 2-day double Regional race weekend, but this year they tried a 3-day, 3-event format: PDX (Performance Driving Experience) on Friday, an 8-hour sedan enduro Saturday, and a one-day double "restricted" Regional Sunday. This ended up being perfect for me. Since I couldn't take Friday off, I would have to tow the 8 hours (plus one hour for the time zone change) after working all day Friday. Following that up by getting into the racecar to bomb around an unfamiliar track would have been crazy. I still towed there Friday night, but I spent Saturday leisurely unloading, setting up, and trying to find where things were (I vaguely remembered where the grid was, but I needed a map to find the restrooms!) before checking in at the hotel for an early night.

The hotel, by the way, was excellent. Hampton Inn & Suites Mansfield South @I-71 is one of the nicest, cleanest, quietest, and best-run hotels I've stayed. That's not a free plug -- they earned it! The price wasn't bad, the room was very nice and very clean, and everyone who worked there was genuinely friendly and eager to help. Even the complimentary breakfast -- which is what other hotels call the mess of reconstituted eggs, soggy bacon, and warm OJ -- was much better than I've seen anywhere else. I'm sorry I was only there the one night.

I had to get up early Sunday morning because we were Group 1. The schedule was tight (qualifying at 8am), but the really unnerving thing was that it was still dark. The sun was just coming up while we were on track, which of course meant some glare in certain areas.

Find the Van Diemen in this picture.  For that matter, find the track!
No, that's not my excuse. I'd need something a lot more convincing than that to explain away my 1:51 lap time, so here it is: I've only driven 4 or 5 laps there before! Mid-Ohio is hard. Somehow the blind turns at Grattan don't suck the confidence right out of me like the corners at Mid-Ohio do. Even after I learned which way the track goes (and remembered it -- crest the left-hand 10A and the right-hand 10B is right behind it, but track position doesn't matter, and at this speed you could take 11 flat out), I just couldn't keep my foot off the brake. Still, that 1:51 gridded me in front of 3 FVs, though I would start behind 2 other FVs and well behind all of the CFFs and FFs. The polesitter qualified with a 1:38. I decided that I'd be satisfied to get down to a 1:45 during the race.
I hopped out of the car and headed for the Keyhole to watch the next group. Being a restricted Regional, there were only 4 groups (small formula cars, large formula/sports racers, small production, and big GT), so I couldn't afford the time to visit any other corners. I kicked myself for not staying to watch the enduro on Saturday. 

An FV setting a good bad example.
On the start of the first race, I stayed behind the two FVs for a lap while the FFs and CFFs drove off into the distance. I finally managed to pass one of the FVs, but I just couldn't catch the other. Amazingly, my lap time dropped dramatically -- my fast race lap was a 1:41! The leaders got down to the 1:35s, but how can I be unhappy with being 6 seconds off their pace, and 7 seconds off the track record? I'm closer to being competitive there than I am at Road America!

The second race didn't go as well. I passed the other FV on the first lap, but then I held him up badly from corner 7 through the Carousel. He finally squeezed past me on the inside of the Carousel, and I decided it would be wise to stay behind him for a lap to try to learn from a master. Unfortunately, the very next lap, my car started shutting down at the end of the back straight. It was acting as though it wasn't getting any fuel. A quick lift off the throttle brought it back to life, which is consistent with fuel starvation. At first it only happened at the end of the long straight, but it rapidly deteriorated. By lap 5, I couldn't make it through a corner without the car sputtering. It was obvious that I wouldn't make another lap, so I pulled in and called it a day. Is that my first DNF in this car?

This week has been spent trying to diagnose the problem. Every part of the fuel system is working properly, which is frustrating. The fuel cell vent line may have gotten pinched, but it's terribly unlikely. We changed the tachometer since the last race, and since that's the only change we made, we're wondering if this tach has an internal short that's cutting the ignition.

And then there's always the ignition coil. An internal short (which usually starts when the coil heats up, as it does when the car is run hard) would make the car falter. Lifting off the throttle decreases demand on the coil, which allows it to cool off enough that it would work better for a few seconds. Since this problem got so much worse so quickly, I'm inclined to believe that the coil -- which was either on the car when I got it, or else new in 2004 -- might be to blame. Ignition coils are cheaper (and easier to deal with) than lost track time, so a new one goes in tonight.

If the problem continues, I plan to pull into the pits and unplug the tach. And if the problem still persists, I'll find the nearest brick wall and commence beating my head against it.

The tow there and the tow home Sunday night were just excellent. You couldn't ask for better. We screwed up the directions a little on the way down (jumped the gun exiting I-90 and wound up driving through downtown Merillville), and we hit Chicago traffic on the way home, but the truck and trailer performed flawlessly. I still pinch myself that I can use cruise control (and the A/C) while towing a trailer. It is actually relaxing to drive that rig to and from the track.

Gee, maybe next year I could tow the 8 hours overnight and then hop in the race car in the morning...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Back In It, Again

Yes, a year. It's been a year. And not a good one. Not racing hasn't helped.

Fortunately, I finally overcame my acute case of inertia and started working on racing things last month. The car was still in good shape from the last race in October 2009 (much better than I was). It was almost ready to go. Just a few issues needed to be addressed.

First, the restraints had expired at the end of last year. Even if they hadn't, they would have been too short to get around me (I'm twice the driver I once was), and the right shoulder strap had been rubbing on the fuel cell outlet fitting. The fraying was minimal, but it wouldn't make a tech inspector happy. Replacing the harness means removing the sidepods, which exposed Problem #1: The fire system tubing was broken. Way back in 2004, the fire bottle had broken out of its mount (since replaced with a stronger mount) and spent some unknown number of laps at Grattan -- plus the ride home from Grattan -- hanging by the tubing. The tubing managed to hold for a few years after, but the stress was finally too much. This gave me an opportunity to reroute the tubing a little more directly and securely, but it required a few pieces from the hardware store. Problem #2: The fuel cell fitting was still in the way of the shoulder strap. This was easy to solve. The fitting is offset on a round plate held in place by 6 screws. Unscrew, rotate the plate 2 positions (120 degrees), and the fitting is out of the way. Both of those jobs gave me a great sense of accomplishment, but also a real "duh" feeling -- why didn't I notice the easy solutions before they became problems?

Once the belts were in and the sidepods were back on, I changed the oil filter, put in fresh Red Line oil, and charged the battery. The car cranked eagerly and fired up pretty quickly. It sounded just as good as ever.

In the Sunday paper on September 26, I found out that the Classic Thunderbird Club of Wisconsin would be holding a car show at a Ford dealership just down the road from me to benefit Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. A good cause, at a Ford dealership, just a mile or two away -- how could I not go? Plus, I enjoy showing the car. Car shows are like very very low-stress race weekends. You get to take the car out and be around car people; you just don't have the stress (or enjoyment) of actually racing. The short tow also revealed two more problems that needed to be addressed. The trailer lights were only working at about 25% -- I had just one taillight and one brake light. And the trailer was making this weird "rongrongrongrong" noise going down the road. The bearings were toast. Rust, actually. The long, wet winter had corroded the bearings badly. It took a few days (and 5 trips to 3 different parts stores) to get the trailer rewired with new lights and to replace all of the bearings, but it was all done and ready to roll by midweek before the race.

The last problem standing in the way of me racing again was the small issue of a suit. Despite almost-daily exercise, I still couldn't fit into either of my driver's suits. Bruce Lindstrand offered to lend me his for the weekend, but since I really didn't know if it would fit, I decided to just buy a new suit. Yes, that's 3 now. But at least one of them fits me.

Like last year, this race was a 4-race weekend, with a qualifying session Saturday morning, two 8-lap sprint races Saturday, another 8-lap sprint on Sunday morning, and an 18-lap "feature" race Sunday afternoon. The lack of downtime worried me, but I figured that the short sprint races would be a good way to work myself back in.

I was right. For qualifying, I tried to find another car to follow (Formula Vees especially are a great car to warm up behind -- they're all about corner speed and smoothness; the relative lack of outright speed helps to calm the nerves and get you out of your own head), but I was all alone. The best lap I managed was a 1:24.5 -- not embarrassing, reasonable for the first session after a 363-day hiatus, and close to my weekend goal of a 1:21. That put me behind an F500, two FVs, and a Formula First, ahead of several other Vees and at least one Formula Ford, but separated from the other CFFs and FFs by those few VW engines.

I didn't realize how badly I had needed a car to follow during qualifying. I think it was the second lap of the race (the first chance I had to glance at my lap timer), I turned a 1:20, and it felt easier than the :24 I had done in qualifying. I passed the FVs and the FST, and settled in to follow the F500. He was fast on the straights but slower in some corners -- not all of them, but where it mattered to me: I got a good run out of corner 6 and passed him exiting the silo turn. My best lap time ended up being a 1:19.2 -- just half a second away from my best.

When I started the car for the second sprint race, something weird happened with my tachometer. It said the car was idling at 5000rpm. I knew that wasn't right (or helpful), so I switched the car off and tried again. Then I saw what had happened. On this brand, when you turn on the ignition, the needle goes backwards and bumps against a stop pin located between 0 and 8000, then it comes back to rest at zero. The little stop pin had fallen out, so the needle swung all the way around to 4000, then settled back at 5000. The second time I switched on, the needle swung to about 5000, then settled around 6000. A few more clicks on and off, and it came back to just a bit below zero. Close enough!

The grid for the second sprint race was set by finishing positions from the first race, so I had improved my starting position considerably. I was in front of the Vees and next to the F500, with the other CFFs in sight ahead of me. But a few fast cars DNF'ed in the first race, so they would start at the back. I forgot all about that part. Fortunately I hadn't moved over too far to let the yellow blur that was Dan Cobb's F500 squeeze between me and the pit wall on the start. That startled me enough that the other F500 next to me got ahead of me going into corner 1, but I passed him a few laps later in the silo turn again. With the tach reading inaccurately, it was tough to really push the car hard for fear of over-revving. I did discover that the shift light still worked, but I would have given anything for a rev limiter.

I was also using that session to scrub in a new set of tires, but for some reason I just couldn't break out of the 1:20s. Rolling through the scales at impound, I found the culprit. The wheels I chose for the new tires weigh some 30 pounds more than the other set I was using! That's 7 1/2 extra pounds of unsprung, rotating mass on each corner. I immediately felt better about my driving -- and worse about my equipment.

For the first sprint on Sunday I was gridded with only one car between me and the other CFFs. When we lined up on the track, I was directly behind Mike Green in the Hawke, with Tom Tipsword's Van Diemen next to him and Alan Murray in Tom Stillwell's Swift FF next to me. I almost got Alan on the start, but by the end of lap 1 we were in grid order again: Tom, Mike, Alan, me. Tom had been running very fast times on Saturday, but he was getting balked by a slower car. meanwhile, Alan tried to pass Mike -- who wasn't having any of it -- and spun off in corner 3. I was close behind Mike, but I knew that we would never have a chance if we battled with each other, so I vowed to stay in 3rd and try to help Mike catch Tom.

Narrowly avoiding a 3-car pileup in corner 6

For several laps we were nose-to-tail, with Mike threatening Tom in a few corners. Mike and I pulled out to draft past Tom on the front straight, but we couldn't quite make it work. (Now I'm wondering if I should have kept trying -- I had to lift to stay behind Mike...) They pulled away from me a little bit by the end, but I was close enough to see that Tom spent the last lap on defense. He played it brilliantly, and so did Mike. Tom somehow made his car very very wide, but Mike kept looking for an opening and trying to force Tom into a mistake. The most brilliant part is that neither one pressed the point too hard, and they both finished in one piece. It was just exciting to watch. The 1:18.571 on my lap timer didn't hurt either. That beat my personal best by 0.137 second!

The only other problem of the weekend cropped up in impound. When I hit the starter button to drive back to my paddock spot, all I got was a "CLUNK". Something was wrong with the starter... or the relay... or the battery... I would call it unlucky except for one very important thing: All day Saturday, we pushed the car back from impound. Sunday morning, we were not directed to report to impound, but most of us went anyway. If I hadn't gone to impound, or if I hadn't decided to try to drive the car back, my first warning could have been when I tried to start the car on the grid for the feature. As it happened, the two starter mounting bolts both fell out, leaving the starter hanging by the power cable. The pinion gear end was just supported in the bellhousing. The pinion was just clear of the flywheel ring gear, and the positive terminal was just barely not touching the frame. That was the other lucky thing. Half an inch in either direction would have been disastrous: a shorted terminal would have burned out the starter at least; hitting the flywheel would have ground the ring gear off the flywheel (so replacing the starter wouldn't make a difference); a broken cable could have let the starter fall out on the track and really ruin someone's day. And then, I had just 2 of the correct size bolts in my spares. Maybe I should have packed up and gone home. I had certainly used up all of my luck for one day!


This is what it looks like when you have to work on the starter.

The feature race on Sunday afternoon was exciting, but for the wrong reasons. I got stuck in traffic a few laps in, so I didn't get close enough to see the CFF battle in front of me. Still, there was still plenty to keep my eyes occupied. The FST was stopped on the outside the silo turn, maybe after spinning. Corner 7 was yellow for an incident I couldn't spot. The next lap, I saw a rescue truck on the side of the track at 7, again for no apparent reason. Then I finally saw a flash of red deep in the weeds -- I couldn't identify the car, but someone had gotten stuck off-track. A few cars did some really amazing things (amazing in a bad way) in front of me. It seemed that every corner had a debris flag up at some point, and the yellow flags got quite a workout as well. A tailpipe was left sitting on track in front of the corner 6A station. But perhaps most importantly... I passed Tom Tipsword as he was limping his car back to the pits. He had blown a water hose in his battle with Mike, which gave Mike an easy win and me an unearned second place.

If you don't count the bruises, sore muscles, sore lungs, and pounding headache, I feel pretty good about the weekend.

Next stop: Mid-Ohio.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Is that 4, or is that 5?

For the Fall Sprints, the last CenDiv Regional race of the season, Chicago Region decided to spice things up a bit. Instead of a single race spread out over two days, or 2 races (one race each day), they put together a 4-race schedule. The first three races would be 8-lap sprint races, with each race setting the grid for the following race. The last race would be an 18-lap "feature" race. The feature race would be the only one that counted towards the Regional championship, but each of the four races would count towards a "weekend" championship.

I was looking forward to the quick sprint races, but not to the weather. Friday (towing day) was cold and rainy all day, and the forecast for the weekend called for highs in the 40s and overnight lows below freezing. I pulled out the long underwear, gloves, and winter coats.

When we got to Blackhawk Farms Raceway Saturday morning, a layer of frost covered everything (sound familiar?) and the track was a little wet, but the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. The morning qualifying session was difficult because the cold weather made for some great horsepower, but it also took away a lot of traction. On top of that, the track was wet in several spots, including the front straight. Any heat that built up in the tires would be rinsed away before corner 1, which made braking dicey. I got a little spooked after locking the brakes a few times. That plagued me for the rest of the weekend, and I braked too early every lap. Still, the lap times were promising for such challenging conditions. 1:31, 1:27, 1:28, 1:26... then a 1:24.6 on the last lap! That last lap was good enough to catapult me to the CFF pole. (Mike Green had tried using tire warmers before the session. He warmed the tires up to 170 degrees before going out. When he came back, the tires were all at 80 degrees.)

Sprint 1 Grid (top 10):
FF 22 John Spinello 1:21.6
FF 38 Dan Johnson 1:22.1
FF 10 Steve Barkley 1:23.8
CFF 65 John Haydon 1:24.6
CFF 7 Mike Green 1:25.3
FV 88 Hal Adkins
FV 19 Matt King
FF 49 John Luxon
FV 70 Daniel Eick
CFF 15 Bruce Drenth

When the green flag came out for Sprint 1, I got a jump on Mike and took a defensive line into corner 1. He tucked in behind me, but somehow I carried more speed and managed to open up a comfortable gap before corner 3. When I stopped watching my mirrors, I realized that I was close enough to the three lead FFs that I was in a good position to challenge Spinello for 3rd overall! Just as I was trying to talk myself into settling for 4th overall and the class win, Spinello dropped out. A lap later, William Cobb in a F500 passed me for 3rd overall. I would have liked to finish higher overall, but as my dad said later, "You won your class, and you can't get any firster than first!"

Many of us (including me) had assumed that the finishing order from each sprint would set the grid for the next race. We were a little surprised to learn that the grid would actually be set by fast lap time during the race, not by finishing position. Clever -- but it cost me a grid spot! While I settled in and cruised to the finish, Mike had actually turned a faster lap trying to chase me down. Touche'.

Sprint 2 Grid (top 7):
F500 28 Cobb 1:17.9*
FF 38 Johnson 1:18.6
FF 10 Barkley 1:18.9
FF 22 Spinello 1:21.5
CFF 7 Green 1:22.3
CFF 65 John Haydon 1:22.5
FF 49 Luxon 1:22.8
*Cobb did not go out for the morning qualifying session. He started Sprint 1 at the back of the grid and worked his way up to 3rd overall, setting fast lap of the race in the process.

When I saw the results from Sprint 1 and the grid for Sprint 2, it struck me how well I was keeping up with the FFs. These cars usually run soft-compound tires, which offer better traction than the hard spec tires that CFFs run. Then it dawned on me: The FFs couldn't get an advantage because the cold weather prevented their tires from getting warm enough to be effective. (Cold? It snowed during the lunch break!) The CFF hard tires, on the other hand, never get very sticky, so their behavior in the cold is about the same as it is on a hot day. Another thing working to my advantage is the fact that I have spent the majority of my racing career on old, used tires which have very little stickiness left. For the first several years, I actually raced on street tires. I'm not used to relying on sticky tires.

Before Sprint 2 started, Dan Johnson told me that he had one shock absorber that had failed. I was a little surprised that he decided not to run in Sprint 2 (he had set the fastest FF time with the failed shock, after all) and at least set a time so he wouldn't have to chase from the back in Sprint 3. But he decided to try to locate a replacement shock, probably because he would only have to set a good lap time in Sprint 3 (not finish well) to grid well for the feature.

When Dan didn't show to the grid, that put me one row behind Mike. He got a good jump on me and led me for the first 3 laps. I stayed on his tail to try to find an advantage. Finally I got a good run coming out of corner 6 and managed to get in front of him before corner 7. I wasn't able to catch the leaders this time, but I got down to a 1:21.5 and once again settled in for a 4th overall finish and another class win.

Sprint 3 Grid (top 8):
F500 28 Cobb 1:16.9
FF 22 Spinello 1:18.6
FF 10 Barkley 1: 19.0
FF 49 Luxon 1:20.4
CFF 65 John Haydon 1:21.5
FV 81 Bertolucci 1:22.1
CFF 7 Green 1:22.5*
CFF 15 Drenth 1:22.5*
*Green's and Drenth's fast lap times matched to 0.001 second. They were actually gridded by their second-fastest lap times, which differed by 0.041 seconds.

Sunday morning dawned just as cold and frosty as Saturday. It was so cold, the Stewards decided that we should have two pace laps for each race, so we could have more of a chance to warm up engines and tires. That was a good decision, in my opinion. I even came up with a plan: The first lap would be spent warming the engine and tires; the second lap would be just for warming the left front tire and the brakes -- in anticipation of the right-hand corner 1.

When we gridded for Sprint 3, we were surprised to watch Cobb take the pole position and then drive back to his paddock spot. I'm not sure what happened there, but I'm assuming the cold was making his car misbehave. Which is odd, considering that F500s have snowmobile engines. That meant that the fastest car in the group would start the feature race at the back. Meanwhile, Johnson had found a new shock and was ready to start Sprint 3 from the back.

Once again the race start worked out in my favor. I accelerated away, but Green got balked by another car going into corner 1. That let me open up a comfortable lead on Green before the end of the first lap. Meanwhile, Johnson had made his way through the pack. He passed me in corner 1 on the second lap and passed Spinello soon after. He challenged Barkley for the overall lead, pulling out to pass in several corners, but he wasn't confident that he could make the pass, so he backed out and pulled back in line at the last moment. That dicing was slowing Barkley down enough that I caught up to the lead pack within a couple of laps, and three laps in a row I watched Johnson try to pass in corner 7, only to back out and concede the corner. Finally, he decided that he would make the pass, even if it meant forcing Barkley to back out. He pulled out to pass Barkley going into corner 7 again and tried to outbrake him. Unfortunately, he miscalculated and the car began a slow spin onto the grass on the inside of the corner. Spinello and I both saw this and backed off to let things unfold before we got to the corner. Johnson slid sideways through the grass, hit the curbing at the inside edge of the track... and his car barrel-rolled onto the track, sliding upside-down across the corner exit. Barkley came to a full stop to avoid him, but Spinello and I were both able to sneak around the mess, passing Barkley in the process.

Actually, I didn't quite make it. Barkley got going again just as I was next to him. He looked over and recognized that I wasn't in his class, so he was ready to let me go. Then he realized that Spinello was also in front of him, so he put his foot down to try to get the lead back. Unfortunately for him, this was the last lap and he didn't have enough time left to chase him down. I finished 3rd overall and got another class win.

Feature Race Grid (top 6):
FF 22 Spinello 1:23.1
FF 38 Johnson 1:23.5
CFF 65 John Haydon 1:23.8
FF 10 Barkley 1:23.8
CFF 7 Green 1:24.7
FF 49 Luxon 1:25.6

With Johnson out, that put me on the front row. We went out for the pace lap(s) and we all proceeded to toss the cars back and forth, trying to scrub some heat into the tread. Back and forth, back and forth... but as we exited corner 5, I realized just how tired I was. My arms were completely exhausted! I didn't know how I could make it through a second pace lap, much less 18 race laps.

Thank goodness for adrenaline. The green flag flew and Spinello and I dashed for corner 1. Luxon and Cobb both passed Green on the first lap, giving me a bit of a gap. Barkley passed me somewhere in the first lap as well, but I still had the CFF lead. About halfway through the race I caught up to a Formula Vee and lapped him just before corner 7. Once I was past him (and just before Green and Luxon had passed him), he spun. That opened up my lead a little, and I was able to relax a bit. I tried to be conservative, telling myself that steady 1:21s should keep me in front. When I looked at my lap timer several minutes later, I saw that I had done a 1:20.9. Then a 1:19.9. 1:19.8. Finally, I got down to a 1:19.007 -- just 0.3 seconds slower than my best time ever. I finished 4th overall, with another class win.

Winning my class in each of the four races secured the "Weekend Championship", which was an excellent way to finish off another Regional Championship in CFF.

So that's 2 Midwestern Council championships and 2 Regional Championships. Can I count the Weekend Championship as a 5th?

Monday, August 24, 2009

No Stick, No Go, No Stop, No Clue... No Problem!

The last time I raced on the Wisconsin State Fair Park / Milwaukee Mile infield road course was in 2005. Since then, another layer of asphalt has been added to smooth out the infield course and especially the transitions from the oval to the road course. Still, I thought I would have an advantage over those who had never raced there before when we finally went back for a double Regional race last weekend.

It turns out that sometimes a clean slate is better than a memory.

The track was terribly dirty and dusty for the first qualifying session on Saturday. When the track isn't being used as a track, it (and the grass around it) serves as a parking lot for people attending the State Fair and other functions at the fairgrounds. Unfortunately, it rained heavily during one or two days of the fair this year, so a lot of mud was left on the track surface. Some of the animals at the fair also used the track as an outhouse, and the resulting mess was too much for even the track sweepers to scrub off completely. As if the slippery conditions and dusty atmosphere weren't enough, the track didn't even go the way I remembered. Every line that I thought I knew was wrong. I qualified last in CFF and 13th overall, 2 rows back from Pete Wood and not even in sight of polesitter Mike Green. I still don't know how they managed to get enough grip to go as fast as they did without off-road tires. I think I would have gone just as fast on the grass as on the track.

Saturday's race started well. I got a good run off the last corner, and the green flag was out just as soon as I could see the starter's stand. I got around the F500 in front of me and tried to tuck in behind Pete, but just as we passed the start-finish line, my car sputtered. It was a familiar feeling, but I tried hard to tell myself that it didn't happen and that everything was fine. I downshifted for corner 1 and followed Pete through. I got on the throttle and felt like I had hit the rev limiter. I shifted to 2nd and set the car up for corner 2 before I realized... my car doesn't have a rev limiter. Just then the car sputtered again. It was starving for fuel and wouldn't pull all the way to redline. That might not have been so bad except that this track is basically 4 flat-out stretches connected by 3 hairpins and a flat-out sweeper. As I exited the corner 4 hairpin, the car sputtered earlier and earlier in the rev band. I watched everyone speed past me as I tried desperately to make it back to the pits with the engine coughing and misfiring the whole way. The next thing I knew, I was on the front straight again. I had missed the pit lane entrance! It would take another agonizingly slow lap before I would have another chance to find it. I just barely made it into the pits before the pack came around again to put me a lap down. I jumped out of the car and took the rear bodywork off, hoping to find an obvious problem like a pinched fuel line, or a loose fitting allowing the fuel pump to suck in air instead of fuel. No such luck. I sent someone running for a screwdriver so I could take the top of the carburetor off. Lucky for me, John Vlasis happened to be in the pits. He came over and noticed right away that the carburetor float bowl was almost empty. Since the float appeared to be in good shape (not broken or leaking), he suggested that the float level had somehow been mis-adjusted. I was willing to believe that, since I had adjusted it just last week! He offered to do a "quick and dirty" adjustment, and I eagerly accepted. He couldn't possibly make it worse. He bent the float to what he estimated would be a super-rich condition and put the carb top back on while I got back in the car. I looked at the lap counter and saw there were still 8 laps to go of an 18-lap race. I needed at least 9 laps to be considered a finisher. As I got buckled in, I saw the starters change the lap counter to 7. Should I still go back out? Let's see, I had 2 laps already. Add 7 more. That's 9! If I could just keep from going another lap down, I'd have a finish. I took off out of the pits and the car ran flawlessly. It popped and backfired a bit on trailing throttle, but that was to be expected with all the extra fuel. I got passed immediately by the 3rd place CFF, and I did everything I could to stay on his tail. He pulled away a bit each lap, but I still managed to knock 2 seconds off of my qualifying time. And I got exactly 9 laps, enough for an official 4th-place finish.

Why did the carburetor lean out so much? I have no idea, and that's what bothers me. The last time that carburetor was opened was in 2005 when Bruce Lindstrand set the float level for me. The car ran flawlessly since then, but most engine builders advise that the float level should be checked after every event. I never did because the car ran so well. Last week I figured that I was living on borrowed time and I should check it. It seemed to be just a little bit richer than it should be, which I thought was odd. Still, I leaned it out just a hair -- not even all the way to the recommended level. It also ran just fine Saturday morning in qualifying. We speculated that the needle valve could have stuck closed, but on my second "limping" lap I hit a pothole, bottoming the car on the track surface and jarring everything so hard that I can't imagine that it wouldn't have been knocked loose. It's just possible that some debris could have gotten on the seat for the needle valve, sticking it closed like glue (as opposed to some grit getting in between the two sliding parts of the valve), and that when John bent the float tang in the pits, the pressure on the needle valve was enough to break the grip of whatever was gluing it closed. It's a mystery, which means I don't know what to do to prevent it from happening again. But Bruce reset the float level after the race, which seems to have made it happy again. My fingers are crossed.

Sunday morning qualifying started better than Saturday's race, mainly because the car ran without any issues. I also tried to forget what I thought I knew about the track and just follow the fast cars. Unfortunately, as I started to really learn the track, the brake pedal started going soft. Within a few laps, the pedal was going to the floor without slowing the car. There was no way I would be able to turn any better laps, so I pulled in early. When I checked the car between sessions, I found that both brake fluid reservoirs were nearly empty! A failing master cylinder would have ended my weekend, but when I went to unscrew the caps, they both just fell off in my hands. I had neglected to tighten them all the way, and the brake fluid simply sloshed out.

I only took a couple of tenths off of my lap times, but it was good enough to qualify on the same row as Pete Wood with a 1:20.3. Pete pointed out that the 4 CFFs qualified at 1:17, 1:18, 1:19, and 1:20. Not a tremendously tight field, but at least Mike, Pete, and I would be within 3 rows of each other. After the session I watched some other cars in the corner 4 hairpin. The fastest cars were taking a very different line than what I was doing. It was definitely worth a try! I should have taken a walk down to the two corners where the track exits and enters the oval. I probably could have picked up several seconds there.

The race start went well for me. The green flag came out a bit later this time, but I got a great jump on the FST in front of me, and Pete and I passed Mike going into corner 1. The infield course is very narrow, and it suddenly looked very crowded. I actually laid back a little bit, expecting to see at least one car go cartwheeling through the air, but I should have known better. Everyone made it through cleanly and started to spread out a bit as we approached the hairpin. I tried my new line entering the hairpin, but as I turned in, I was surprised to see Butch Deer's FST right next to me -- in the grass! Apparently he had followed me a few laps in qualifying and expected me to take the same line as I had been doing, which would have left him plenty of room to drive inside me. I got lucky once more. Butch is an excellent driver, and he was able to keep his car under control despite the total lack of pavement under it. There are many drivers who would have ended up on top of me. But we made it through, and the field started to spread out a bit. Pete and I were pretty evenly matched with a couple of FST cars, and we battled back and forth for several laps. Around lap 8, I followed Pete into the hairpin, but it was clear he wasn't on the right line. He slid off the track and let me pass, but he didn't lose much time. He kept the car moving and pointed in the right direction, and I heard later that I only had about a 3 second lead on him at the end of that lap. Two or three laps later, he passed me back and held me off for the rest of the race. I got close, but never quite close enough to challenge. Mike ran into an ignition issue during the race, so I managed to finish 3rd. Pete turned a 1:17.9, and I managed to get down to a 1:18.9 trying to catch him.

One thing became very clear during the weekend: My tires are no longer any good. One thing I am sure of from 2005 is that I was able to take the long sweeper (turns 1 & 2 on the oval) flat out in 4th gear with only a little lift at the entry and slight throttle modulation in the middle. This year, I had to stab the brakes hard before the turn and I could only hold about 3/4 throttle through the turn.

The engine, on the other hand, is doing very well. When the carburetor was working, the engine pulled hard all the way to 6800 rpm. In fact, it accelerated so quickly that I almost over-revved exiting the hairpin a few times. A fresh Farley cylinder head will do that for you, apparently.