Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fall Sprints

The last SCCA race of the year is usually a single Regional race spanning two days in October. This race is also usually worth double points, so the maximum number of points possible is 28 instead of 14. With a 30 point lead going in, I could have stayed home and watched Bob Hall take all 28 points and still won the championship. But where’s the fun in that? Several other people seemed to agree with that thought, so we had a good field of 5 CFFs and 23 cars in the group.

I had to get new tires for this race, but new race tires live longer if they are run through one heat cycle and then allowed to rest for 24 hours before being run again. That meant that I would also need a new set of old tires. Pete Wood came through with a set of tires that had a lot of tread, but they were so old that he playfully called them “rim protectors” rather than race tires. They were round, they were black, and they held air. That was all I needed.

Saturday morning was wet and chilly. Not as wet as Road America (did I mention it rained there?), but the track was damp in a few spots. The worst was corner 2. Normally flat-out, this corner becomes a brake-and-downshift corner in the rain, and it’s the last to dry out because of a thick canopy of trees overhead. I had a few tense moments there, but still managed to turn a 1:23 lap or two, and everybody made it though safely.

I put the new tires on for qualifying and tried my best to bring them up to temperature gently. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run a few hard laps behind Alan Murray. We turned a 1:19.9 before I passed him and got down to a 1:19.5, which was good enough for the second CFF grid position. Alan would be two cars behind me, with Gunnar Lindstrom (who hauled his Lola all the way from California! ) between us. The three of us had qualified within half a second of each other, and the entire Club Ford field was within 3.5 seconds.

I was very disappointed to hear that Alan had broken a stub axle during qualifying and wouldn’t make the race. The same thing happened in July, and he had to search to find the very last replacement stub axle in the country. That meant he didn’t have a spare when the other one broke, and nobody had another to send to him by air freight. I may not have been as disappointed as he was, but I think I was a close second. I was hoping to either enjoy a fun drafting session with him and Gunnar while Bob Hall drove away… or to work together with Alan and Gunnar to chase down and pass Bob. Alan said his goal for the weekend had been to turn a 1:18 lap, but that it was now up to me to do it for him.

Sunday was dry and sunny, but windy enough to be somewhat chilly. The morning races went quickly, and cleanup between sessions was done so efficiently that by lunchtime the races were running a full hour ahead of schedule. I had originally planned to sleep in on Sunday and just show up around 1pm, which would have been an hour early by the printed schedule… and would have been too late in reality. It’s great that things ran so smoothly, but they never made a single call to the grid for our race. Gunnar and William Cobb, the F500 gridded second overall, were both paddocked away from the rest of us, so they never saw us when we started pushing our cars to the grid around 12:30. Gunnar told me later that his first warning was when he heard our engines start at the 5 minute signal on grid. He rushed to get to the grid just in time to see us pulling away without him.

We all tried desperately to get some heat in our tires and engines during the pace lap. I was in the left row, with Bob Hall lined up directly in front of me and Allen Wheatcroft in front of him. Pete Wood was a row back from me. When the green flag dropped, my engine coughed as I stood on the gas, but I didn’t lose much ground. I started to catch up to Bob a little as we approached corner 1, but he was trying to pass Allen on the left edge of the track. Allen hadn’t left any room on that side though, so Bob ended up dropping his left rear wheel off the track surface just as he hit the brakes, snapping his car into a spin and sending it backwards across the track in front of me. I thanked myself for being too chicken to follow him any closer than I had (I had left at least a full car length between us), but then I saw a yellow blur come up from behind me. Cobb had decided to try to slice his way through the entire pack all at once and get back to second overall in just one move. He had a huge head of steam going when Bob’s car suddenly appeared in front of him. The yellow F500 bounced off of Bob’s black Crossle and started heading back toward me. I actually had to get back on the throttle to try to get out of the way. Two cars out, and we’re not even through the first turn.

Entering corner 6 on the same lap, Brad Ellingson tried to pass Dan Johnson’s Van Diemen FF on the right. Unfortunately, Dan was already trying to pass another car. There isn’t quite room there for three cars, especially when one is a car as wide as Brad’s Swift DB1 FF. Brad hit the curbing, which made his left front wheel hit Dan’s right front wheel. That impact catapulted Brad up into the air, vaulting over Dan’s car and landing on Rick Eskola’s F500. Three more cars out, and we still hadn’t completed a single lap. The pace car came out, and we crawled around for four laps under full course yellow while the safety crews tried to untangle all the cars. It took me a couple of laps to realize how few cars were in front of me. There was one F500, two FFs, and then me. I was suddenly 4th overall and leading CFF!

When the green flag came out again, I charged hard to try to keep the lead. After two laps, my crew showed me that I had a 3 second lead over Pete Wood in second place. A few laps later, I realized that I was still hot on the tail of John Luxon’s Piper FF. John has been to the Runoffs a few times, and I was determined to stay with him for as long as I could. I turned a 1:18.7 (there you go, Alan! ) before losing him in lapped traffic. I tried to chase him down again, but I reminded myself that I didn’t need to push so hard. I just needed to stay in front of Pete, who was now 26 seconds back, and Gunnar, who was trying to pass Pete for second place. Actually, I didn’t need to stay in front of anyone. I didn’t even need a finish. I just wanted to have fun and bring the car home in one piece. The championship had already been locked before the weekend even started. Still, I couldn't help being a little disappointed with myself for giving up 4th overall. I thought I was being lapped by the overall leader, but it turned out to be Darrel Greening, who was running 2nd in F500.

The TRO Manufacturing Central Division Regional Championship requires each participant to run a minimum of 4 races to be eligible for the championship. Although 14 drivers earned points in CFF this year, only four qualified for the championship. I ran all 9 events (the last counted double, so it is considered to be two events), Bob Hall ran 6, and Pete Wood and Alan Murray each ran 5.

At first I felt that I had won the championship by racing (and winning) the first three races that the runner-up did not attend. That gave me an “automatic” 42-point advantage. But take out those three events and that still leaves me with a 12-point lead and the championship.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Catching Up Part 2: All Tired Out

Although my 2008 season has been all about SCCA, it was easy to talk me into running the Midwestern Council 50th anniversary race at Blackhawk on September 21. Unfortunately, I had committed to that event long before running the Double Regional at Road America the week before. I came down with a cold after spending the weekend outside in the cold and the rain (did I mention I was wet?), and I was seriously considering sleeping in when Sunday came around.

The title of the event was “All Tired Out,” so it was fitting that I had to drag myself out of bed at oh-dark-thirty and spend two hours trying to pick my way through a pea soup fog to get to the track. The fog lifted by the time I got to the track, but it was still cool and humid when we hit the track. I got out of the car after the practice session and realized that I was blowing a lot of fog around. I was breathing heavy, and the cool air turned my breath into quite a cloud every time I exhaled. I tried to calm my breathing a bit, but I was still engulfed in steam. Finally I realized that the steam was coming off my body! My slight fever combined with the exertion raised my body temperature, and the perspiration was all but sizzling off of me. Yes, I was hot.

I couldn’t hook up with anyone during qualifying. I was balked by sports racers nearly every lap, and it seemed that nobody was turning the same lap times that I was. I settled for a 1:22 and 3rd in CFF. Several DSRs had come to test for the Runoffs, so the field was large and fast. Third in CFF was 21st overall on the grid.

The race started off very badly. On lap 2, a Runoffs-bound DSR broke and stopped at the side of the track. On lap 3, an S2000 hit the wall, and an FC broke and stopped. On lap 7, another FC and another DSR both stopped. There were not enough wreckers available to get all of the broken cars to safety, so the officials had no choice but to stop the race until the track could be cleared.

When we lined up for the restart, I was directly behind Scott Reif, who was running 2nd in CFF. I thought I could get a jump on him at the start, and I was right. By the next lap, he was almost a straightaway behind me, balked by a sports racer. I did my best to deal with increasing understeer, but I could only manage a 1:21. Meanwhile Scott had passed the sports racer and was turning 1:19s in pursuit of me. He passed me with only a few laps to go, and I finished 3rd, just 5 seconds behind him.

After the race it became clear why the car had been understeering. The left front tire had just about shredded, losing a significant portion of its tread. But this wasn’t an entirely bad thing. While it was happening, I felt as though I learned (or re-learned) a lot about driving the car. I tried to compensate for the loss of traction by turning in to the corner a little earlier, so I could turn the wheel a little less abruptly. That not only made the car turn better, it also made the car handle much more neutrally than it had been doing. The back end was finally sliding as much as the front, which is what I had been struggling to make happen since 2006. I was probably as spent as that tire, but I felt so much better about everything that nothing really seemed to matter.

That would have been a terrifically high note to end the season, but there was still one more race to go.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Catching Up in 3 Parts

Amazing thing, inertia. You can keep a thing going with so little effort, but take a brief break and it’s like pulling teeth to get going again. Once you’re rolling, you wonder why you stopped in the first place.

After the Firecracker in July, we had a two-month layoff before the Kettle Moraine Double Regional at Road America. It was an agonizing two months. The car was begging to be worked on, and I was itching to get back out. Of course, I didn’t touch the car at all for seven and a half weeks. Thursday night before the race, I finally got out to the garage to at least look at the car.

It rained Friday night, so I waited until Saturday morning to load the car. Of course, it was still raining in the morning, so the car and I got wet anyway. I got to the track bright and early (and wet) to find a line of cars waiting for Tech Inspection. Several people were milling about inside the Tech shelter, drinking coffee and not doing a whole lot of anything else. One car sat at the front of the line with nobody looking at it for nearly an hour. The next car in line was being inspected by two or three people for well over an hour. The owner of the CFF in front of me finally pointed out to the coffee drinking people that he and I were in group 2 and would miss our session if someone didn’t put down their coffee and help us soon. About ten minutes later, an inspector came over to look at his car. When he was done, he left. I then watched as two other inspectors began to check the Corvette in line behind me. When an inspector finally came back to me some fifteen minutes later, I informed him that I was now definitely going to miss my qualifying session because I had been waiting for so long while everyone stood around not inspecting my car. He finally handed me my tech sticker as my group was hitting the track. Thanks. That was a great way to start the weekend.

With my qualifying session wasted, all I could do was wait for the race and watch everything get wet. My clothes were all so completely soaked that I had to call my girlfriend to bring me something dry to wear. Fortunately, she did. And she didn’t even make me buy her breakfast.

The weather was a bit chilly, so I decided to wear my old three-layer driver’s suit rather than my newer, lighter-weight, breathable suit. That turned out to be a bad choice. When I got in the car, I couldn’t even buckle the lap belt! The old suit was so much bulkier than the new one that the belts were about an inch away from each other. So we each grabbed a belt and pulled… and as soon as my back popped, the belts snapped into place. Ouch.

As we lined up on the grid, a fog descended that was so thick the corner workers could not see from one corner to the next. We had to sit on the grid for several minutes (getting wet) until the fog lifted enough that the workers were confident that they would not lose any cars in the mist. I appreciated their caution, even though I got wetter because of the wait.

Because I had never raced in the rain at Road America, and I had no practice session in the morning, I had no idea what to expect. I started very conservatively and tried to gradually bring my lap times down from the 4-minute range to something approaching 3:30. I watched as my position marker counted down: 23… 19… 17… I hadn’t passed a single car, but people were having a tough time staying on the track. Finally I passed a pair of more modern Formula Fords. The newer cars are sprung so stiff that they can’t get much traction in the rain. The older Club Fords have much more compliant suspensions, so they can deal with reduced traction much more effectively. I finished 12th overall and 5th in CFF, mostly due to attrition and spins in front of me. All that mattered to me was that I had brought my car back in one piece, without ever leaving the track.

Sunday was more of the same, though thankfully without the Tech scene or the belt drama. I got a little more used to the RA rain line, which holds a couple of surprises. Corner 7, the Kink, and corner 13 (all flat out in the dry) require some braking in the rain. The entrance to the Carousel has a very slick patch, followed by a lot of traction. The tricky part is that there is no visual indication where one ends and the other begins. If you turn the wheel too early, the front wheels lose traction and slide straight ahead until they hit the grippy bit, which suddenly throws the front end of the car sideways. The rear tires are still on the slippery part, so they start sliding the other way, which is very exciting. The car goes from pure understeer to scary oversteer in a heartbeat. The exit of the Carousel is almost as bad, but the track goes from having almost as much traction as in the dry to a bit of a slippery patch. The transition is much more gradual, so you just start to become aware that the car is starting to slide. You can modulate the throttle to keep it from getting away from you, or you can plan for it and leave yourself a car width of track at the exit.

The race would have been called uneventful except that I picked up two positions on the last lap. Ian Lenhart was leading in CFF, with Garey Guzman in second place. Ian went off and got stuck in the gravel trap at corner 3, and Garey spun in the Carousel (apparently a victim of the slippery/grippy surprise). I finished 4th in CFF, which was good enough for a trophy.

TRO Manufacturing Central Division Championship Series points:

John Haydon - 70
R. Hall - 40
P. Kingham - 28
A. Murray - 25
D. Harmison - 24
S. Beeler - 20
P. Wood - 18
J. Tovo - 18
G. Guzman - 18
I. Lenhart 17
M. Green - 16
C. Smith - 11
C. Rehder - 7

With only 28 more points left to earn, that would seem to be a wrap for the season! But we can't let it end like that. Stay tuned.