Sunday, December 27, 2009

(97) 2009 in review

2009 was good to me karting wise. I got my first win(s), I placed on the podium in the Jim Russell Arrive and Drive karting championship, I raced in my first endurance race and did well in that, and I also got my first clean sweep (fastest lap, led all laps, got pole and won).

As far as stats go I surpassed 1,100 miles driven at race speed (over 2,000 laps of Jim Russell International Karting Center), I led over 90 racing laps, and I broke 24 hours in the seat of the kart.

There's a few things I didn't achieve this year that I wanted to, one being getting a race license of some kind, another being finally getting on the larger tracks in the faster cars, as well as buying my own sportscar. None of those happened more or less for money reasons, as the coffers are running thin.

What does next year hold? Right now, I don't know. I do know that if I'm going to be doing much racing at all, some of it will be in fullsize cars. What kind of cars, again, I have no idea. My family needs to recover from the money situation and I need to start making some income before I can really get myself hauled up the ladder any further. If I'm going to be racing cars finally, it probably won't be for a full season, and it may be a smattering of various classes - there's a few options on the table.

I hope 2010 will be as good to me as 2009 was. See you next year.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

(96) My first Le Mans (the Saga of the Enduro, part 2)

You know how humans are 98 percent water? I'm not. Right now, I'm 98 percent acid. This is a result of my poor muscles, who've not only had to do 40 minutes straight in a very fast kart, but also had to do it again a mere hour later.

Never did I think, when I first entertained the idea of learning to race in karts, that I would be competing in an endurance race. Endurance racing was my goal, my eventuality, but I thought that it would be many years before I would drive in one. I didn't think people were crazy enough to race in karts for hours on end, but I was wrong, and even more so, I was one of them.

Until yesterday, the longest time I'd spent in the kart at one time was about 20 minutes. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I got to the track at the normal time, around 8 AM, and met my two team mates for the day: Roger Eagleton and Leighton Ridgard. Both fast drivers and good friends. We also met our crew chief, Becky, who would help us in the pits and with strategy (the driving instructors were taking a fairly hands-off approach this time. Indeed one, Jared, was actually competing in the race). My dad, Scott, played team manager, taking lap times and managing stints.

We had two options on the table with regards to stints. Being a four-hour race with three drivers, it makes most sense time-wise to change every forty minutes, with each driver pulling two stints. An easier option for the drivers would be four stints at twenty minutes. We decided to go for the forty minute option, since we're all in fair shape. We concluded that if our times started dropping, we'd have my dad call us in for a change.

Practice was an hour of open lapping, and we each got a few go-arounds. We practiced driver changes, which went well, and we figured out that a pit stop would take about one minute or a lap, from pit entry to pit exit. I warmed the kart up, partly because I like drifting, mostly because I needed to refresh my kart control after 2 months of not driving. It was very cold, and I was getting wheelspin all the way up the hill and through the kink. By the end of practice we decided that I would qualify the kart, since I posted the fastest time.

Qualifying went really well. I got pole! There were 9 teams total competing across two classes (HPV Junior and the Russell class), with 4 teams in the Russell class. The entire field was on the same Yokohama Advan rubber, but the HPV motors don't have the same top-end as the Rotax motors in the Russell karts, so we were faster on the straights.

While putting me in the kart for qualifying was a good call, I'm not sure if it was a good idea to have me start the kart. The start was Le Mans style. The karts were off to the side of the track, the drivers would dash across the track, hop in, start the kart and pull away. A real free-for-all. I tired a few practice runs and got the hopping in part down pat, as you can see in the helmet cam. Usain Bolt, you better watch out.

I realized my first mistake before my butt even touched the seat - I forgot to pull the ignition pin out while the kart was sitting on the grid. No matter, I'll just pull it out now and it'll only add a half a second to my start time! Pull the pin, click, yup, push the starter, little bit of gas, aaaaand...

Chug chug chug.

Okay, too much gas. Try again. Chug chug chug. Still too much? Really? Less. Chug chug chug.

At this point I glanced at my coach, Jeff, who was watching from the opposite side of the track. My eyes must have been wide as saucers or something, because he came jogging across the track, dodging karts, to see what's up.

"It's stalling!" I shouted through my helmet and above the buzzing kart engines that were leaving me for dead.
"Less gas, less gas," coach Jeff advised.
"That's about as little as I can give it," I replied.
"Ignition pin," he said, giving the pin a tug.
"What!" I exclaimed, pulling away.

That little bugger only has about an inch of travel, and I only pulled it out about two thirds of the way. So the engine wouldn't fire, and I lost about 20 seconds on the start. After the first corner, I was in 8th spot.

Over the next twenty minutes, I used my anger over my small but catastrophic mistake to propel me back into 1st place overall. The first few laps were dicey as the kart was completely cold and the tires lacked grip. I led comfortably for the rest of my stint and gained a lap over the rest of the field, with no major mistakes and a rather exuberant pit lane entry at the end (I also forgot to pull the gas cap off as I was coming down pit lane). Racing with the HPV Juniors was a joy. They were very respectful and raced like much older people. One team, driving an Intrepid, even waved me by. They ended up winning their class.

Physically I felt pretty good all the way through the stint, but my head was bobbing over a little bit in the last 15 minutes or so in the left hand corners. The track is counter-clockwise, with only two real right-handers and neither are very high load. There are plenty of lefts, and a couple of them start to wear on you - the Helipad corner heading into Tic-Tac-Toe is a killer, very high G as it's sort of a basin that catches you as you drop off the apex, and the entire run up the hill through the kink, which isn't really high G, but it lasts a long time from the entrance of Sand all the way to the braking zone of Monaco. Watch the fuel tank in the onboard video to get an idea of the Gs. Even so, reverse National is probably the easiest on the body of the 4 main configurations at Infineon.

Helmet cam footage from my first stint, Le Mans style start all the way to the first driver change. 8th to 1st in the first 20 minutes, and gained a lap over the field in the second 20. Unfortunately I forgot to turn the camera on for the second stint, but you're not missing much because all it shows is me getting tired.

Roger took over driver duty from me at the end of my stint, held down the fort and kept our 1 lap lead, even extending it a bit. Now came the long haul. I watched Leighton jump in the kart and then tried to get some rest for half an hour. I should have gotten more rest but I felt pumped after my heroic-feeling first stint.

Fast forward to the start of the 3rd hour, and we were a lap and a half in the lead as I hopped into the kart after refueling. We were slightly worried about the tires, but for my second stint they felt even better than before. The lap times were faster and the grip was up since the sun was shining in earnest and the track was warm. There was a lot more dirt and debris on the track from various agricultural excursions.

Physically this stint was much harder. About halfway through the stint I started to see the end of my stamina looming over me. But, I rationalized my continued pushing by reassuring myself that if I started driving dangerously, or fell off the pace, then the team would bring me in. This enduro was very valuable for me, because I learned to ignore my physical pain for the sake of continued smoothness and performance. And pain there was. Every left hander felt like someone was jabbing their fingers in my neck, my kidneys felt a little squashed, and my knees were slightly bruised from supporting myself, even with the pads that I wore under my suit. Now I know how the drivers can go on during the 24 Hours of Le Mans: it's not because they don't feel pain or fatigue, it's that they're able to push past it and focus on their performance and the condition of that, not their body. Sounds kind of obvious, really.

Anyway, other than my continued fatigue, my second stint was very incident free. Even after 40 minutes, I was still banging out the laps somewhat smoothly and consistently. Though, I did feel like I got close to the end of my rope on the last lap - I might've been able to do 10 more before I forced myself to pit. I handed the kart over to Roger for his second stint, and he held up well also, keeping a good pace throughout and keeping us still squarely in the lead.

Then, during the last 30 minutes of the race and Leighton's final stint, disaster struck. After about 5 or 6 minutes of running, Leighton came in with complaints about weird brake feelings. We were concerned that the brake pads would not last the full 4 hours, but the crew said they looked fine. Everything looked normal, so we told him to go back out. Alas, a bad call. On the very next lap, the brakes failed going into the helipad section just before Tic-Tac-Toe. Leighton shot off the track towards the fence, downhill, at about 50 MPH. He managed to miss the tire barriers, and the fence, by riding the dirt and grass berm that surrounds the bottom section. Luckily, Leighton was unhurt, and the kart was fine, other than the brakes completely not working.

After limping back to the pits, we found this:

The brake disk had completely separated from the axle mounting and was flopping loosely within the caliper.

The brake rotors and pads had been replaced before the start of the race, but I presume that the axle mounting has been the same part for most if not the entire year. I bet that it wouldn't have mattered what we were doing, the part would've let go within 4 hours of running regardless of constant use.

An axle replacement would've taken hours, but luckily Jim Russell kept a few spare karts out for us. Leighton hopped in the first fueled kart and off he went... very slowly.

His warmup lap was uncharacteristically slow, and continued to get slower. First place gained another lap on us. Becky commented to me that it looked like a fuel delivery issue with the carburetor. After several progressively slower laps, Leighton parked it inside the apex cones on the helipad. The kart had died. I hung my head. This couldn't possibly be happening. We were dominating before this.

One forlorn truck ride later and a final kart swap (this time a good one), the damage was done. We were in 3rd place in class, 6 laps behind with 15 minutes left in the race, and our competitor's fastest drivers were on track. I almost couldn't watch. Leighton was trying and trying doggedly, but it was no use. Our competitors were blighted by no mechanical maladies of any kind, and they sailed to the first and second spots on the podium. We took third, and the fourth team to cross the finish line was 15 laps down having suffered a failed ignition coil.

Still, we finished the race despite some quite trying circumstances, and we had a brilliant run for the majority of the race and led the most laps of any team. All told we completed about 240 laps, and led for more than three quarters of that distance. My team mates did a fantastic job and as far as the driving and pit work was concerned, there was nary a hitch as far as human error goes, save for my start line debacle.

Special thanks to Jim Russell for encouraging us to participate in such a great event, to Becky for being a fantastic crew chief, to Scott Evans for being our team manager, and to all our competitors who raced fairly and very quickly.

We also got a very shiny trophy for our efforts.