Friday, July 17, 2009

More Competition

The third race weekend of the year (yes, here we are in July and there have been only 3 race weekends) was the Blackhawk Valley Region "Firecracker" at Blackhawk Farms Raceway . This event is usually a double Regional (one race Saturday and one race Sunday), but to encourage more entries, BVR made it a quad Regional, with two races each day. This weekend would effectively count as one-third of the season.

The four-race schedule had me in a bit of a panic. Would there be enough time between sessions to take care of a full nut-and-bolt check? Would I have time to change out of my driver's suit? When would I eat lunch?? It wasn't until Friday afternoon that I realized what a goof I was being. Circle track racers run as many sessions in a single night as I would be running over the course of two days. Why was I so worried?

Early entries looked promising, with 4 cars pre-registered. Marty Handberg would be bringing his Tiga, Alan Murray would have his Crossle, and Bob Hall would bring his Crossle. Unfortunately, Bob backed out early in the week. I think he ended up running at Watkins Glen with Pete Wood instead. But the three of us could still have some fun races together. After I got to the track, though, I found that Alan couldn't bring his car. Now it was down to just Marty and me.

On the other hand, there were many more Fomula First entries than usual. We normally run together with FST, F500, and FV, but the total entries for that group were over 30. Meanwhile there were only 9 cars in the FA / FB / FC / FE / CSR / DSR / S2000 group, so the stewards decided to even things out by moving the FF and CFF cars to the FA group. That was just fine with me. That moved us from Group 2 to Group 4, and I love being in a later group. That also meant that our first race would be the first session after lunch.

It was a hot, sticky weekend, so I chose my oldest, hardest race tires. I figured that anything newer and softer would just overheat, and I wasn't far off. I felt like I had good traction all weekend, and the tires were still in decent shape Sunday night. But it rained Friday night, and it threatened to rain Saturday, so I brought rain tires with me too. They weren't needed, and I took them home Saturday night.

Saturday's morning qualifying session went well. The car was running strong, and the handling felt solid. The track was a little greasy, so everyone was running a little slow. I qualified with a 1:22.9, one second faster than Marty but still on the same row.

I quickly changed out of my driver's suit and started the nut-and-bolt check before the car had cooled off. I ran through the list and realized that I still had about 2 hours before the race! That was more than enough time for lunch and a bit of rest and relaxation. We had paddocked next to the grid lane, coincidentally within two spaces of my qualifying spot. All we had to do was push the car out from under the canopy and I was gridded.

The pace lap was rather fast, so there was no time to scrub the tires to heat them up. Lucky it was so hot outside. The green flag came out, and I looked for any way I could get in front of Marty. I looked to the right side of the track and considered a diving move into corner 1, but I thought better of it. If I wrote the car off in the first race of the weekend, I'd lose a lot more points than if I finished second. I decided just to try to stay with the cars in front of me for a few laps. I managed to gain a bit of ground, but what really helped me was when the leaders came to lap us. The lead cars seemed to time it just right for me and just wrong for him. I saw at least two of the lead cars outbrake Marty going into a corner, forcing them both to slow down. Both of those cars passed me on a straight, exiting a corner, so I lost no time at all. I don't think any of the leaders cost me any time when they lapped me, and the one car I lapped also didn't cost me any time.

On the victory lap, I came around the Silo turn to see that the corner 6A station was waving double yellow flags. That was a little odd. Not that they would have flags out on a victory lap, but that they would be double waving yellow. Officially, there is no "double waving yellow" in SCCA. The "official" conditions are standing (or stationary) yellow, waving yellow, or double yellow (a.k.a. full-course yellow). Before I could guess what they meant, I saw that another car was stopped on-track at corner 7, and a worker was waving the red flag at me. Now I was really confused. The car wasn't blocking the track, so couldn't I just drive around him? But the worker was signalling for me to pull in behind the other car. Just then, the other car pulled away, and I noticed that all three workers were wearing Hawaiian shirts. I stopped where they indicated. The man with the red flag shook my hand and congratulated me. Another man handed me a bottle of water, and a woman put a lei around my neck. How fun!

It turned out that Marty had also gotten slowed a little by battling with Tom Stillwell, who was turning similar lap times in a Swift FF. Marty tried to pass but realized that he would have to take too great a chance to do it. So I wasn't the only one who figured that finishing second would be smarter than finishing the weekend early. But the starting grid for the second race of the day would be based on the finishing positions from this race. That put me one row in front of Marty.

The interesting consequence of the grid being determined by finishing positions is that a few cars that ran into problems during the first race would have to start at the back of the grid. That would mean more traffic to deal with, but nobody in the group was trying to crowd or intimidate anyone else. I felt very safe with everyone.

We had just as much time for the nut-and-bolt check between races. I found a couple of loose fasteners that hadn't come loose in a few years, but everything looked good, and the car was running very strong. I sat down and tried to relax before the second race.

The grid for the second race had me directly behind Katie List in a yellow C Sports Racer on the outside lane with Marty in the next row directly behind me. On the start, Katie didn't accelerate as quickly as I expected. Just as I realized that I wasn't at full throttle, I also noticed a huge hole in the right lane. Orie Voigtmann's red Sports 2000 had been in the same row as Katie, but he took off quickly, and Tom Stillwell, whose Swift was next to me, didn't. I dove for the opening, passing Katie and almost passing someone else before corner 1. Again, I tried to stay with the cars in front of me for a while, but Marty did an even better job of staying with me. For at least the first four or five laps, he was right on my tail. I was starting to prepare myself for him passing me, when I realized that Katie had passed him. He didn't seem to be right behind her, either. When she passed me, I saw a comfortable gap between Marty and me. I just tried to concentrate on driving smoothly while I waited for the leaders. Once again, they seemed to want to pass Marty in the corners, but they almost always passed me on the straights. (Do I drive like a menace? Now I'm paranoid that nobody wants to share corners with me.) I made it to the end and stopped in corner 7 for another bottle of water and another lei. Later I found out that Marty's fastest lap in that race was a full second faster than mine. I would have to work even harder on Sunday.

Sunday was less humid but also less breezy than Saturday. Overall it felt a little cooler, but not by much. The hard tires would still be the right choice. We lined up for qualifying, and I tried to get close enough to Marty that I could draft him, or at least watch him. Unfortunately, we were separated and my pit signals weren't very useful. This time, he outqualified me by less than half a second.

For the race, Marty should have been gridded on the outside lane with me in the inside lane behind him, but I think someone in front of us may have been late to the grid, because I ended up in the outside lane on the same row. I was behind Jim Smalley in a Formula Mazda, and Marty was behind Katie List's CSR. Marty and I got a little behind on the pace lap somehow, and we ended up with a gap between us and the row in front of us as we exited corner 7. I could hear Marty get on the gas before the flag came out, and I reacted a little slowly. I got on the gas as well, but he was already well in front of me. Once again, though, I got lucky. The timing of the green flag was on my side. Marty caught up to Katie before the flag came out, and he had to get off the throttle. I was just far enough behind Marty that the green came out just before I would have had to lift -- and while Marty's foot was still off the throttle. If the timing had been any different, I'd have lost the battle. I passed Katie and followed Jim through the first few corners. He shook me fairly early though, and Katie passed me soon after, but by then, Marty was nowhere in sight. He disappeared so quickly, I was worried that he may have gotten tangled in an incident on the first lap. I wasn't getting any pit signals, so I had no idea what was going on with him. For all I knew, he could have been in front of me. I tried to signal my crew that I wanted to know where he was, but before they could respond, I saw him in front of me! By then, the checkered flag was out, but it was clear that he was having car troubles. It sounded awful on the cool-off lap. One more lei.

It turned out that the top plate of his carburetor had come loose, and he was suffering from a terrible vacuum leak. My crew relaxed when they heard his car popping and banging, but they neglected to let me know about it. Marty told me later that he made a bad mistake on the start after the green flag too. A Formula C car which had lapped the field on Saturday had a different driver today, but he didn't know that. He let the car go, figuring that the driver must have had a problem in the morning qualifying session. But on Sunday, the driver's fastest lap time was only a second faster than Marty's fast time -- which, once again, was one second faster than mine.

The grid for the second race was similar to the second race on Saturday. I was in the outside lane behind Lyle Rundhaug's D Sports Racer, with Gayle Gaborski in the FC next to me and Marty directly behind me. This time, Marty didn't let Gayle go first. But I got a good start again. I moved over to the inside lane to try to pass Lyle. He got back in front of me and also passed Tony Foster's Swift before the corner, so I followed Tony through the first few corners. Marty was on my tail again, but within a lap or two, Alex Murray (who had been having bad luck with his FC all weekend) was ready to pass us as he moved up through the pack. He separated us a bit, but it wasn't until the leaders came around that I got a comfortable lead on Marty. I never really did relax, but I could concentrate on driving smoothly, instead of trying to stay in front. It paid off with another lei.

But the biggest victory of the weekend was that for the first time since 2005, I don't feel like I'm fighting the car anymore. In 2005, I felt like I was on the same wavelength as the car. It felt like it was obvious what to do. When I needed more cornering speed, I would do this. When I needed to brake later, I would do that. The car would always do what I needed, and sometimes it felt like I didn't even need to know what to do. But since 2006, I've felt like I just couldn't get it right. The car wouldn't turn in -- or was I cranking the wheel too hard? The back end would step out in a corner -- or had I just lifted? And I just couldn't trust the brakes not to lock the wheels coming into a corner. I had actually started to coast coming into some corners because the car just didn't feel right. I'm not sure what changed, but this weekend, I was able to keep my foot down much later. The car always did what I needed, and it seemed like I knew what to do again. It was an amazing feeling, and had I finished 8th, it still would have felt great to have that back again.

TRO Central Division Championship CFF points:
John Haydon 100
Marty Handberg 64
Bruce Drenth 28
Alan Murray 24
Peter Wood 15

Each lei has a laminated tag attached that reads:
"I got LEI'D at turn 7."

Thursday, July 16, 2009


After the minimal turnout at the first Regional of the season, it was encouraging to see that 6 Club Formula Fords were entered for the double Regional at Road America at the end of May. Again, mixed feelings. Six is much better than one, but I'm getting excited over just 6 cars. There was a day when 20 cars was a pathetic showing. But I'll still take 6 over 1.

The car needed a new battery, a new water temperature gauge (to replace the borrowed electrical gauge), a gear change, and a thorough drying-out. Everything went smoothly, but for some reason I ended up with a 3rd gear that is just a bit taller than ideal for Road America. I think the preferred gear may have been in the transmission that burned up at Blackhawk in 2005, and I had just lived without it since then.

The weather threatened to be a repeat of the April race, but Saturday morning dawned clear and sunny. It stayed that way just long enough for us to unload everything from the truck. Then it started raining. We loaded everything back into the truck... and the rain stopped. So we unloaded everything again to let it dry... and the rain started again. We went back and forth at least three times before it started to really rain. But the sun was starting to poke through in the west.

So, would it be wet or dry? Time was running out, and we had to make a decision in time to change the setup for the first qualifying session. I decided to gamble on a dry session, while Pete Wood did the opposite. I got lucky. The sun came out and stayed out, and the cars on track immediately before us dried the track pretty thoroughly. It didn't rain the rest of the weekend. Fortunately for Pete, the session was long enough that he was able to duck into the pits, change tires, and still get a few laps in.

I was a little disappointed in my performance that weekend. My fastest lap time all weekend was a 2:41.6, three seconds slower than my best, and only good enough for 4th place. On Saturday, Pete dropped out with an engine problem, but Marty Handberg passed me for 3rd, and I just couldn't challenge.

Sunday was much better, though my lap times didn't really show it. Pete pulled into the CFF lead on the start and held it for the first lap. Bruce Drenth, who had qualified on the CFF pole, passed him back and used the aerodynamics of his Eagle chassis to run away from the rest of us. Alan Murray had also gotten a poor start, dropping all the way back to 5th, but by the third lap, he charged past Marty coming into Canada Corner. He was trying to pass me too, but I closed the door and made him try again. And try again he did -- in corner 14. He passed Pete on the front straight, but not before giving me a bit of a tow, which brought me back in sight of Pete.

The rest of the race, I worked on getting to within striking distance of Pete. I got close, but never close enough to make a legitimate challenge for 3rd. Finally, on the last lap, I got close enough to draft him on the front straight. I pulled out to pass... and realized that my too-tall 3rd gear cost me enough acceleration on the steep hill that I couldn't quite draw even with him. Fourth again, but at least this time the gap was down from 2.3 seconds to 0.14 seconds.

Now we have a points race!

John Haydon 44 points
Bruce Drenth 28 points
Alan Murray 24 points
Peter Wood 15 points

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

O the Drama

Where to begin? If you don't mind, I'll try to start at the beginning of the interesting stuff.

April 26 was the first SCCA race of the season. It was a one-day single Regional race at Blackhawk Farms Raceway, capping off a three-day weekend that included two days of driver's schools. The students who attended and passed both driver's schools would qualify to run the Regional on Sunday, and to encourage entries, this was designated as a double-points event. Still, entries were very light. I was the only Club Formula Ford entered.

Unfortunately, it rained for much of the weekend. By Sunday morning, many paddock spots were underwater. The rain came and went through the day, but every time it stopped, it just came back that much harder later on.

I had parked under the Lindstrand Motorsports tent in an attempt to stay dry. Allen Wheatcroft and I both waited until the very last moment before going out for qualifying. When you're moving, at least in the Tiga, rain doesn't have much of a chance to fall into the cockpit of the car. I managed to stay pretty dry that session. The wet conditions kept my lap times up in the 1:55s, but I kept the car on the track and facing in the right direction.

The car didn't need much maintenance between sessions, which was lucky. It's hard to work on a precision machine when you're parked in the middle of a muddy lake. As we waited for the race, the clouds seemed to part. We even saw something resembling sunlight in the sky. For the first time all day, the predawn half-light gave way, and it really seemed to be the middle of the day instead of the end. But not long after Allen and I commented on that, the sky really opened up. Just in time for us to push our cars to the grid.

I mentioned before that you can stay fairly dry when the car is moving through the rain. When you're sitting still on the grid for 10 minutes, you give the rain a much better chance of hitting you. Over and over and over.

By the time we rolled out onto the track for the pace lap, the rain had soaked through my driver's suit and had even splashed onto the inside of my helmet visor. The wind might clear the rain off the outside of the visor, but there wasn't much I could do about the rain on the inside. Shaking my head back and forth didn't do much. I would just have to live with the blurriness.

We set off for the pace lap (still shaking my head), and I immediately discovered some new things. I had seen a deep puddle on the track at the apex of corner 3A before, but I had never seen standing water anywhere else. It turns out that when it rains really hard for a couple of days, standing water collects in a lot of new places. One of these places is the apex of corner 1. And it turns out that when you drive right through a deep enough puddle, you create a really big wave, like a wall of water taller than the car. The next thing that happens after you create this wave is you drive right through it. When that happens, a shocking amount of said wave ends up in your lap. In case you're wondering how that could possibly be shocking, it's because the temperature never got above 50 degrees, and all that icy water ended up, as I said, in my lap. I hit similar puddles (with similar results) in 3A (yes, I should have known), the braking zone for 4, 6, and 7. And I kept hitting them throughout the race. Each time I would make a mental note to avoid it on the next lap, but it was like my mental notes kept getting washed away.

The only scary moment in the race was when the car suddenly slowed while exiting corner 4 about halfway through the race. It felt incredibly harsh inside the car, like someone had turned off the engine for a second. Oddly, I have a hard time picking it out in the video. Could it be that I'm really concentrating that much harder, and I'm that much more tuned in to the car when I'm driving, that the slightest hesitation feels like an eternity in freefall? Or am I just a drama queen?

Back to the point: The car stumbled under acceleration. It felt a bit like it was out of gas (I know that feeling well), but I had filled the fuel before the start. Plus, we were running so slowly, I would probably only burn about 2 gallons during the race. The only other possibility I could think of was that the battery was dying. Moments later, my onboard lap time display confirmed my suspicions by displaying a very helpful blank screen.

The battery I was running that weekend came with the car in 2004. I have no reason to doubt that it was the same one Pete Wood had been using in 2003 and 2002. Seven years of racing, and I never replaced it? Keeping a battery for 5 years in a street car is pushing your luck, as far as I'm concerned. Now here I was, taxing this antique battery with the added demands of the rain light and an electrical temperature gauge. What was I thinking?

If there's one thing I know about, it's nursing an ailing car to the finish. That's not to say that I'm any good at it, but I've read about it a lot. The ignition system needs maximum battery voltage under heavy acceleration, so it was time to ease up and coast a lot. I considered turning off the rain light, but I would have been black-flagged without it. The race was nearly halfway through, and all I needed was a finish. As miserable and soggy and cold as I was, I preferred some slow track time to an early ending to the race.

In Impound, we discovered that the car now weighed a full 8 pounds more than it had after qualifying. All of it was water.

Almost as soon as the race was over, the clouds parted and the sun came out. It didn't matter much; everything inside the truck was soaked, too.