Go Conquer Fourth

My performance in the race two weeks ago was somewhere between disappointing and demoralizing. I was driving the wheels off my car to not finish DFL, and was barely accomplishing even that. In April, I drove at least a 2:16.5 at Thunderhill. In July, at the Spec Miata practice day, I drove a 2:16.9 in the morning, and in the afternoon I was turning consistent 2:18s when my motor thoroughly broke.

Despite several setbacks, I managed to get a spare motor that I had lying around together in time for the SCCA race two weeks ago. I tremendously improved my line in all of the critical areas of the track and brought my times down from a humiliating 2:22 in practice on Friday to a merely embarassing 2:19 on Sunday.

I am loathe to blame my troubles on my equipment, but I was pretty certain that the car was seriously down on power. A two month hiatus from driving a particular car on a particular track does not usually engender such a setback in my driving skill.

One of my major goals in racing the Spec Miata is to find out how good I really am. I've been driving on racetracks for 18 years, started racing over 16 years ago, and when I haven't been racing, I've been teaching. During those years, I've lost track of the number of times I've heard people say "You drove the wheels off that piece of shit. When are you going to get a real car?" Everytime I passed someone in a better car (which was nearly every time I passed someone) I knew that I was a better driver. Nearly every time I was passed, I could easily say that they had a better car. I'd never had the opportunity to match myself against a good driver in a comparable car.

While I most emphatically did not have the money to buy a new motor, I did have the cash. Or rather the credit. I also realized that if I put in a decent motor, and still did poorly, I would have answered my question, and would no longer have needed to race, I would have merely wanted to race, if that. Whatever the justification, and I did learn the art of rationalizing buying things I can't afford from a master, I decided to buy a brand new crate motor from Mazdaspeed.

I ordered it on the Tuesday following the race. I had the tired motor out of the racecar by Wednesday evening. The new motor showed up at the shop on Friday morning. Oddly enough the gaskets, in the same order, did not show up until Monday. With much help from my friend Edward Choh, the new motor was in the car by Saturday night. I had fired it up on Sunday night, and by Monday was able to drive the car.

Fortunately, nothing particularly exciting happened during breaking in the motor, and Thursday was spent packing for four days at Thunderhill. Testing on Friday, SCCA races on Saturday and Sunday, and teaching with Unlimited Laps on Monday. When I was nearly packed, I spontaneously decided to put my Ninja 250 on the trailer behind the racecar.

Skipping more boring details, I arrived at the track at about 7am on Friday, and if you want a good paddock spot, you don't want to get there much later than that. Friday was a day that could be described by the phrase "Practice Interruptus". I always seemed to pull into the hot pit either just after, or two laps before an incident that would require them to shut down the track and send someone out to tow the car in.

The mornings are generally run as one open session. Anybody can go out, open wheel or fendered, at any time in the morning. In the afternoon, when more people have arrived, they alternate between open wheeled and fendered cars.

Due, in part, to my laziness when packing, the racecar was still on the street tires I'd been driving on when breaking in the motor. I figured that they would not only be a good way to make me be easy on the motor during its first track session or two, but that it would be very education, and probably even fun, to drive a spec miata on street tires.

I highly reccomend taking a Spec Miata out on 185-60-14 street tires. First of all, it's a lot of fun. I really enjoy driving on the edge of adhesion and this is more accessible than rally and more predicatble, not to mention drier, than racing in the rain. If I could get a group to do it, I'd love to run some races on street rubber, maybe in ITX or something. I also feel that those morning sessions on the street tires helped make me a lot more comfortable driving at the edge, because on them the edge became so wide and easy to find.

By the noontime break I had gotten down to a 2:26.2 on the 185-60-14 HR rated street tires. Their tread was melted in some rather amusing ways, and I'm sure that the car would go even faster on them, if I had been willing to be less gentle with the motor. Even so, I had had fun, I think I know what it must be like to drive a 250 hp miata, and I felt a bit more comfortable driving the car in conditions of less than ideal grip.

The afternoon started out very frustrating. Due to circumstances I only got two hot laps in the first session. In the second session, I got three "good" laps, getting down to a 2:17.01 when I went through turn 7 far faster than I ever have before. So fast that my speed carried me not just to the edge of the track, but a couple inches past. I spun 360 back across the track, and another 360 in the dirt. I got the car going again, got back on the track at what seemed halfway down the straight and saw a waving red flag in turn 10.

Apart from driving schools, I may have never seen a red flag situation. In my still addled state, I interpreted it as a black flag, i.e. come into the pits, rather than a red flag. When I saw a few cars pulled off in turn 11, my brain went click, and I also pulled off and stopped.

What had happened was that entering turn 14, a GTA car tangled with a second gen Rx7, sending the Rx7 into the wall on the right. The driver of the GTA kept going, avoiding the tires on the escape road, and without slowing down significantly, crossed the track at turn 8. A first gen Rx7, probably doing well over 100 MPH T-boned the GTA car.

Several Spec Miata drivers were close behind the situation and stopped to help. While some put out the fire, as the GTA had burst into flame. Others attempted to rescue the drivers. Neither driver survived. Among other injuries, both had broken necks. I know that I'm not the only driver that day to reconsider investing $1000 in a HANS device.

After the incident had been cleared, the track reopened for one more half hour practice session for each of the two groups. My best lap of the afternoon was a 2:16.7. Not a particularly fast laptime, but still over two seconds faster than the previous week.

On Saturday, in ITX practice, I knocked almost a second and a half off the previous day with a 2:15.3. In SM practice, I hooked up behind Don Madsen (sp?) in the 22 Miata and dropped my best time down to a 2:13.554. During the ITX qualifying I proved that driving harder is not always faster, no matter how it feels. I got really good at pitching and catching the SM, hanging the tail out on turn 6, among other places and only turned a 2:15.258, qualifying 16th overall. SM qualifying was tremendously frustrating. I went out stuck in traffic. I came in looking for a clear spot and shortly was caught behind slower traffic again. I never really got a clean lap and turned a best lap of 2:14.661. It was very disappointing, I'd been hoping to break into the twelves. I know mar car, as it sits can get well into the twelves, I just have to learn how to do it.

Metisse got a great start in the ITX race, rocketing past me and several other cars. My start was adequate, I couldn't see the flag, but I was already hard on the gas to keep up with the pack when I did see the green flag. I kept on the left side of the traffic all of the way into 5A gaining another couple of places. On about the third lap Dave Vodden was catching Metisse and I. My plan was to let Vodden past and hope that he could open the door for me to get past as well. I was also hoping to have a chance to follow Vodden, as I seem to go fastest when following a faster driver. While I was plotting my strategy, Robert Canepa in a Ferrari 360 came flying up between turns 13 and 14 and moved in for an inside pass in 14. I moved over to follow him through, but Metisse closed the door, Robert hit the brakes aborting the pass, I was blocked in on the inside line and Vodden passed both Canepa and I going in and Metisse coming out. The really frustrating thing about my being screwed up by Canepa's half hearted attempt at a pass is that there wasn't even anyone else in his class on the track.

I had asked Stan, who had been flagging in 5 to watch my exit the day before. It's completely blind coming over the top and I have little idea of where my wheels end up on the exit. He told me that my exit looks just fine, but that I might do better with a later apex in 5A, setting up for the straight leading into 6. I had a lot of speed on Metisse coming into 5, tried setting up the later apex in 5A and went rocketing past Metisse. After the race, I found out that he had missed his shift. I slowly opened up the gap with Metisse, driving a somewhat defensive line until he was no longer threatening a pass. I felt like I could have gone faster but with nobody in sight to challenge, I decided that it wasn't worth risking a spin and losing a place, just for slightly better laptime bragging rights. My last 9 laps of the race were fairly consistent, being between 2:14.953 and 2:16.663 on my penultimate lap. On the 2:16 lap I lapped an Rx7, so other than that, 7 of my last 8 laps were between 2:14.953 and 2:15.866. Now I just need to maintain that consistency about 5 seconds a lap faster.

Some time after the race, I saw on lapcharts that I finished the race in 12th overall. Considering that I'd started 16th, I was reasonably pleased. It wasn't until the end of the day, when I was picking up the results from the Spec miata race that I noticed that I'd finished fourth in class. Of the cars that finished ahead of me, one was an Rx7, and one was an Acura, so I finished 2nd out of the spec Miatas.

The Spec Miata race did not go nearly as well as the ITX race, but it was a lot more fun. I got a mediocre start, but I got the inside line going into turn 2. I was making up ground, as there was a clear car width of track down along the inside. About two thirds of the way around the turn, I spun. I don't have any excuse. Maybe my tires were cold. Maybe my brain was cold. Bob in the black and white #12 missed me by inches. I think Tony went agricultural to avoid him. Sorry about that guys.

I had a few good battles and was hunting down Tony when Bill Haener, who started racing about the time I was born, caught us going into 2. I suspect that the yellow flag went down between our passing the flagger and Bill getting there, as I slowed way down looking for the incident and Bill went rocketing past me. Bill and I got past Tony and were having quite a battle. We caught Mike Lingsch on the main straight. Bill passed him on the right, and as I was gaining, Mike moved over just enough to give me room on the left. We were three wide going into turn one, and came out with Bill leading me, then Mike. Coming out of five, I was chasing Bill down when I saw him spun. My schadenfreude only lasted a couple of seconds, until I too found the dirt on the track. I brought the car around and was heading back to the track when Bill started rolling backwards in front of me. I avoided him and continued on. He had busted his transmission or diff in the spin and was out of the race. My best laptime in the race was a 2:15.069, a second and a half off of what I had done in practice while chasing Don, but still four seconds better than two weeks before.

While I have had some great races, battles where another car and I were barely more than a second apart from green to checkered, this was my first time driving in a competitive class, with at least a midpack competitive car. I had an absolute blast. If I got past someone, I rarely drove a whole lap before I was fighting someone else for position. I can see that I'll have tremendous opportunities to improve both my driving and my race-craft.

As long as I was already in Willows, I stayed up there to teach with Unlimited Laps on Monday. Sunday evening, I replaced my rear brake pads, as they were down to about 1/16" of material. I realized that I need to figure out a way of measuring pad thickness without having to take the wheel off. I also noticed that my rear tires were quite a bit more worn than my front, so I put a couple of takeoffs with a lot more tread, on the back.

There ended up being more instructors than students, so I worked as "floating instructor". I'd go out on course watching for students who were having problems, or I'd wait in pregrid and see if anyone wanted coaching. This gave me plenty of time to just practice driving. During the morning, I just couldn't get the car under a 2:18 laptime. This was rather disturbing because I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. At lunch, I put my new tires back on. At the end of the day, I was back to running 2:15s, with my best being a 2:15.42.

This was to be my "development" year. My goal was to be competitive by the end of the year, so that next season I'd be ready to do well from the start. I had phrased my goal as "a podium finish by the end of the year". While my goal was accused as being a bit grandiose, I've already played the game of just being on track while a race was in progress, and in racing, if you don't try to win, you'll be beaten by everyone who does.

My car is basically together. It now needs all the work to bring it to a "high gloss". The little things that all add up. I also need to get the coaching to find the few seconds a lap that I'm leaving on the table. I really like the "no excuses" aspect of Spec Miata. With the equipment being a known quantity, I can get a much better assesment of my own driving.

Between now and next season, I want to run the 25 hour enduro, using the Ilgen as a practice race for it. I already have one co-driver, and need to start putting together a competent team.

Copyright (C) 2004 Larry Colen
Most recently modified by lrc at Thu Oct 21 20:43:38 PDT 2004