"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.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Thursday, October 21, 2010
|Find the Van Diemen in this picture. For that matter, find the track!|
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.|