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


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.