Miata's first Race

My Miata's first race weekend
Infineon Raceway (Sears Point) Oct 25-26 2003

I didn't plan on racing the Miata last weekend. Then again, pretty much nothing with that car went according to plan. The plan was to buy a Miata, use it as a street car until I got the MGB back together, then build the Miata into a Spec Miata. Now I know what a friend of mine felt like when his younger son skipped highschool entirely, and rather than having first one then the other son in college, he had both kids going to college at the same time.

My checkbook is bleeding, my credit cards are on life support, my miniscule garage is overflowing with parts and I've got two major car projects vying for my time and money.

As of Oct 18, my '91 Miata was completely stock, apart from the rollcage, racing seat, belts, gutted interior and other safety related modifications. The plan was to teach with nasa, http://www.nasaproracing.com at Sears Point, and start to get a feel for the car. I've had the SM suspension kit longer than the car's been running, what I haven't had was the time to install it.

Over the course of the week, I was told that one of the guys that I'm supposed to share a rabbit with in the 25 hour enduro: http://www.nasaproracing.com/norcal/25hour/index.html needed to borrow a car to get his license signed off at last weekends race. I had entertained fantasies of racing the car on Sunday if Saturday went well, so I checked into it. It wasn't possible to sign up for just one day of racing. It's $300 for the weekend whether you race one day, or two.

I decided to just bite the bullet and do the race weekend. I knew I'd be slow, and technically not legal without the suspension, but I was told I could run "not for points" if I wanted. I also realized that I needed to get practice driving in more aggressive environments than HPDEs again. In an HPDE they get upset over little things like spins or driving off the course, especially if you're an instructor. Since you're never supposed to exceed the limits, it's hard to find where exactly they are. Also passing is done a lot more aggressively in a race than in an HPDE. This is a good thing for safety, but limits how sharp you can keep your skills if all you ever do is teach.

At the last minute, I got an email saying that the other guy had gotten a ride after all. But somehow I had missed that. Maybe I didn't want to see it. Racegroups are a lot more fun to drive in than opentrack groups. Even if you are slow.

Thursday night before the race became a late night thrash. No surprise there. I needed to replace the brake pads, and the front rotors. While I was in there, I also decided to upgrade to the racing swaybars. It looked easy, and only took an extra hour or two. After I installed the bars and the Hawk Blue brakes, I drove the car into Felton, filled up the tank and bedded in the brakes.

Hawk suggested a few easy stops followed by six or eight from "race speeds". Then letting the brakes cool without the e-brake being on. I wasn't about to do race speeds on public roads, but the Chevron in Felton is at the base of Felton Empire Grade, a curvy road with some nice > 10% hills on it. I drove up it a mile or so, braking fairly gently at first, then progressively more aggressively. After I had warmed up the brakes, I turned the car around and headed back down the hill. I'd get "up to speed", hit the brakes hard heading down hill, and let off the brakes. If I hit any sort of bump after using the brakes, I'd see bright glowing embers thrown from the wheels. A little disconcerting at first, but rather pretty all in all.

I did not get to the track as early as I had intended on Saturday morning. Something always seems to come up. The paddock was pretty full, and it took me a while to find my friends, unload the car, move the trailer up to the top of the hill and get the car ready to be teched. My racegroup was first on the track this weekend. I completely missed my practice session and missed a bit of qualifying getting the car prepped for the track. There were a couple of unexpected issues in tech, but nothing that wasn't easy to resolve. All in all, a lot less hassle than SCCA tech has been, especially since I was getting a logbook for a new car.

My laptimes were not very good. I qualified at 2:10.322, in the back of the pack. Mark Kirberg, the leader, qualified at about a 1:57. The session was very educational. I certainly didn't expect to qualify well, my first time driving a new car on the track that is woefully underprepared. I just took the view that for me the weekend would be a series of practice sessions to learn a new car. In a couple of these practice sessions, other people would be racing.

My impressions of the car, in stock trim except for swaybars, wheels, tires and brakes, were very favorable. There were a few places on the track where if I was not careful I could pitch it sidways (turn 2 for one) but judicial counter steering and use of the gas would bring it right back into line. In turn 4 (a sharp, downhill right hander), and occasionally on other right handers it would sound like something was rubbing mighty fierce near the left rear wheel.

While I felt like my driving improved the whole session, my third lap was my fastest, followed by my fifth then my sixth.

Between sessions we checked fluids, tried to find anything that might be rubbing and other minor futzing. I also finished getting the logbook sorted out and the cage stamped. While I was at tech, I had my cornerweights taken:

642 576 589 564 Total: 2379

Mike and I got the camcorder mount installed, and had installed the camcorder when I realized I had forgotten my camcorder safety strap. There were only a few minutes until the race and I decided that making it to grid on time was more important than a video record of the race, so we pulled the camera.

Saturday's race started out very poorly. I was in the wrong gear, wasn't ready for the green and ET, who I was gridded next to, in Zipper, the car she shares with Bonni Weatherwax, completely dusted me at the start. I did not yet feel at all comfortable in the car, and wasn't able to get around her. Later in the session I found myself steadily gaining on her.

At one point, I entered turn 2 more aggressively than I had previously and the rear end came around to ask me what I was doing. I might have looked like I was practicing for the rallycross at Thunderhill the next day, but I kept the clear glass things in front of the red plastic things. I was kind of bummed that Head-on photos wasn't shooting at turn 2, it would have made a great photo. I don't know if I've ever been that crossed up on dry pavement and managed to collect it.

Close to the end of the session I wasn't quite so lucky. I got passed going into turn 10, and totally blew my line. The rear end started to come around, but I wasn't quite able to bring her back into line. I straightened the wheels, disengaged the clutch and the car caught after 180 degrees. I was aimed dead center down the track, I had a perfect view that no traffic was coming and I decided that this was a perfect opportunity to try to bring her around. I cranked the steering wheel hard left. Note to self, when you do this too quickly the tires will just slide for a moment. About the time I was beginning to wonder why nothing was happening the car whipped around faster than about any other pi radians of rotation I've ever experienced in a wheeled vehicle. I got on the gas, started to let out the clutch, downshifted, let out the clutch again, and went on my way. When I went to get a printout of my laptimes from the tower, they complimented me on a perfect spin and continue.

I pointed out that Gerold Kunzman (Jerry's brother), does call me "The Spin Doctor" for a reason. I must admit that this was my first clean spin and continue in a race.

I finished the race DFL, apart from folks who crashed or broke. But I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot about the car.

On Saturday afternoon, ET was driving in group three and managed to spin Zipper into the wall. The right rear corner was seriously crunched, but it didn't seem to affect the suspension. I really hoped that they got the car fixed for Sunday, as it was the only car that I even had a chance of catching.

Joe, who is planning on sharing the car with me next year, drove it in a group four session. The temperature guage never got over 1/2, but the car started overheating in the paddock. Later in the weekend, I overheard Barry Hartzel talking to someone about all of the ducting around the radiator, and how it needs to be sealed up tight. This is on my todo list for this week.

AFter Joe drove the car in group 4, we decided to try adjusting the camber to closer to the allowed negative two degrees, rather than the about -1/2 it had (if that). We (Joe and Mike) got the camber adjusted, and Joe said that he'd be back at 7 the next morning with his toe guage and adjust the toe.

Before leaving on friday, I took some yellow racers tape and put a large yellow diagonal stripe across the hood of the car. I figured that if the flaggers could show me "Azure, a bend sinister Or" (A yellow diagnoal stripe on blue background) all weekend, I could do the same for them.

I didn't quite get to the track by 7, neither did Joe. He and Mike adjusted the toe while I got dressed for practice. Someone wrecked in turn 10 at the beginning of the session, so I didn't get any fast laps, but I did get a better feel for the car. It handled a LOT better with the negative camber, and the rubbing noise on left turns was gone.

I came back in, and noticed a weird rythmic sound coming from the left rear. It sounded almost like brakes rubbing. Joe tried driving the car, didn't hear anything. He went to an outlying parking area, did some doughnuts, and got it to make the noise. He decided it might be wheel bearings.

Qualifying was pretty uneventfull, I qualified at 2:09.445, faster than Saturday's qualifying , but slower than the 2:08.473 I did in Saturday's race. Coming off the track I still heard the "rubbing brake" sound. We were checking for worn wheelbearings (I have new bearings, I just haven't had a chance to install them) when I noticed that two of the lugnuts on my left rear wheel were finger loose. I shortly discovered that none of my lugnuts had been torqued down beyond what had been done by my electric drill. Everybody had thought someone else had done it. I was really lucky, and reminded of the importance of having one person who is responsible for making sure that everything on the car is correct.

Sunday's race, I again started out next to Zipper, but Bonni was driving rather than ET. I did a lot better on the start, passed Bonni going into turn 2 and never saw her again. The start reminded me a lot of racing in Improved Touring. Someone spun coming out of Turn 2 and there was all sorts of excitement as cars scrambled to miss him.

I felt a lot smoother, and faster starting Sunday's race. I had remembered to mount my watch where I could see it while driving, and made it something like 10 or 12 minutes into the race before getting lapped by the leaders in the US Touring Cars.

When the Honda Challenge cars started passing me, I was impressed by the aggressiveness of their driving. Unfortunately I was thinking about how wild their driving was, and not what I should be doing, and I early apexed turn 4. Oh well, if I hadn't been at Sears Point, I probably would have been at the rallycross at Thunderhill that day. I went charging off into the dirt, barrelling along, got the car back on track in time for turn 5, and apart from getting a little squirrely coming back on track, continued without further ado.

I really felt that I was going a lot faster twoards the end of the race. When Kirberg passed me in turn 4, I pretty much kept up with him until he was on the gas exiting turn 6. I did my best to keep up with him and not block the second and third place cars, who passed me in the esses, but lost them once they got on the gas for turn 9. I certainly didn't feel like I was still running 10 seconds or more a lap slower than they, but when my laptimes came in for the session, I had not improved my laptimes by more than a second.

Overall, I'm very impressed by the Miata. It's the first car I've ever driven on the track that by simply changing the swaybars has better manners than my MGB. I was also surprised to find that it is actually lighter than my MGB, which weighs about 100 pounds more.

Looking at my laptimes, my performance improved disappointingly little over the course of the weekend. I really felt like I was going faster, and seemed to be going faster in comparison with the other cars. However, my laptimes say that I did not improve as much as I had thought.

Sat               Sun
qual     race     pract    qual     race
2:15.537 2:10.788 2:14.711 2:09.445 2:14.851
2:14.079 2:09.558 2:15.541 2:11.751 2:08.286
2:10.322 2:10.126 2:14.332 2:12.361 2:08.526
2:14.635 2:11.527 2:14.173	    2:11.527
2:11.107 2:14.260 2:14.684	    2:07.407
2:11.542 2:10.781 2:14.684	    2:10.964
2:12.829 2:08.473		    2:11.231
	 2:09.135		    2:08.950
	 2:11.155		    2:11.746
	 2:11.674		    2:08.850
	 2:13.354		    2:09.036
	 2:22.284		    2:07.349
	 2:11.896		    2:09.000

Larry Colen

Copyright (C) 2003 Larry Colen
Most recently modified by lrc at Fri Oct 31 20:11:05 PST 2003