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.

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