Saturday, December 24, 2011

(160) 2011 in review

Well well, what a year it's been.

The year started out a bit frantic. I wasn't able to drive the car I was planning on, so I had to make a course correction into SCCA Spec Miata. I worked fast and got into a car owned by Ed Railton, which turned out to be a great move because he has worked tirelessly to keep my and my team-mate's cars on the track and going quickly.

I got my national-level SCCA racing license and also my NASA competition license. I took the green flag racing wheel to wheel for the first time with fenders. Results wise I did quite well. I got a number of podium finishes, though, sadly, no wins.

The year-end championships turned out swell. I took home two third place finishes - one in the San Francisco region SCCA Sunoco Challenge, and one in the Racing Driver's Club driver championship (both championships were scored out of the same races).

I took home a lot of hardware too. 15 trophies in total. SFR SCCA was kind enough to grant me the 2011 SFR SCCA Rookie Driver of the Year award, which I'm very honored to hold.

I also participated in my first day-long endurance race at the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill, which was exhausting, and also a little sad since our engine blew up in the late morning in the 23rd hour of the race. It was an amazing experience despite the troubles.

Next year? Stay afloat. I have no money, so the challenge is going to be finding a way to continue racing. My online business is plugging along in the early stages and with luck, I may be able to do an event or two in the later half of the year. I'm pursuing options in that regard.

Until that day, though, I will try to do some autocross with my dad since he has been chomping at the bit to try it in his new Subaru WRX. Autocross is very inexpensive and it would be good training.

Well, I hope 2011 has been as good to you as it has been to me (better, even), and I hope you have a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

(159) NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill 2011

This race has been in the back of my mind for most of the year. The NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill. It's legendary in American club racing, but it's probably one of the best kept secrets in motorsport. Most people in the western world at least know the name Le Mans, and probably half of them could tell you it's a 24 hour race in France. Pretty much everyone who watches racing on TV knows of the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Petit Le Mans.  Everyone who is a fan of sports car racing knows the 24 Hours of Daytona.

But the 25 Hours of Thunderhill is a trade secret. This is a true racer's pride event. The majority of the people spectating the race own at least one fire suit and a helmet equipped with a radio headset and boom mic. It's a true pro-am event. You have teams with millions invested in them pitted next to guys that are simply groups of friends running a $15,000 car out of a trailer.

Team Premier Auto Service was closer to the latter. We had a new (for us) car. The car had competed in the 25 before - last year Ed Railton, now the owner of the car (and Premier Auto Service) drove it through the rain.

No such inclement weather was forecasted for this year's running. It was going to be cold, since it is December after all, but the engines like that, even if the tires don't.

 Team Premier Auto Service! From left to right: driver Joe Kalinowski, mechanic Chris Cook, mechanic Dave Anderson (back), driver Gregory Evans (front), driver/team owner Ed Railton, driver Jeff Annison, fueler Edgar Lau, big cheese Ian Cook.

On Friday morning, the start of the test day, it was cold and windy. The first of my co-drivers Dave Allen and I were going to shake the car and it's brand new engine down during the day and dial in some suspension settings.

The car ran pretty well. It wasn't making killer horsepower but it handled decently out of the box. At lunch we adjusted the rear anti-roll bar and it became pretty well situated on the track. The second of my co-drivers to arrive, Jeff Annison, helped us test some more in the afternoon. One complication was a bent throttle plate (I won't name names), but that was fixed and the car continued to run strong.

Unfortunately the test session did not go smoothly for a number of other competitors. The worst of it was a Honda Civic that hook-slid off the track in turn 7 and flipped about 6 times. He ended up landing top-up in the concrete wall on the inside between turns 7 and 8. The testing was stopped and a helicopter was called in. He was taken to the hospital but was later released. He returned to the track to watch his team race on Saturday. Fortunately our day had no such drama.

I got one session on some used sticky Hoosier SM6 DOT-race tires in the morning and I thoroughly enjoyed them. They offered rather tremendous grip at the expensive of being slightly less predictable on the edge of adhesion. We switched to Toyo RA-1s for the rest of the test day however. We had limited sticky tires and we didn't want to shoot ourselves in the foot by using up our good tires trying to go too fast when it didn't quite matter yet. The Hoosiers had wheel balance issues anyway and were shaking the steering pretty good. One the Toyos, Dave Allen and I were doing identical times.

The other new part to adapt to was the new turn 5. Thunderhill has two ways to take turn 5: the uphill way, which has you braking while going over the crest of the hill, which is the configuration I've been used to all year in SCCA club racing, and the bypass way, which takes a route around the hill rather than over it.

The new bypass section was interesting. There is no braking involved. You set the car up on the left side of the track. Then, just as you crest (and the world falls away from your vision) you lean the car to the right and practically hover down to the bottom where you apex and floor the throttle. You have to be careful, because on the back side of the crest is a large bump. If you're on the wrong bit of track it can be pretty severe and it makes the car want to slide. If you drive the bypass at 10/10ths you have to correct the car no matter how you hit the bump and the first time you do it's unnerving. But it's easy to get used to and the car isn't in much danger when it does start to slide since the road falls away from you and it's an easy catch.

The hardest part about the bypass is the lack of visibility. If you're sitting reasonably low in the car you can't see the road until after the bump. You need a very good mental picture of the corner in order to push there.

With the bypass tamed, the track was closed and everyone prepared for official practice and qualifying during the evening.

This is when my third co-driver Joe Kalinowski arrived. He had to learn the car and the bypass as well, so he took to the track during the practice session and it was decided that I would qualify the car when he was done.

As the light was fading quickly I hopped in the car and went out for my fast laps. I got a couple in the books, and I got down to a 2:11.2 on the slower Toyos which was good for 3rd place in our class, E3 (which had about 23 entries). The pole time was a 2:04 and the 2nd place time was a 2:08, which we might've done if we had the Hoosiers on the car (I did a 2:07.8 in testing with the Hoosiers).

Then, n the 4th or 5th lap, I came into turn 8 and saw lights flipping end over end on the outside. The car they were attached to eventually ended up on it's roof. I pulled into the pits and the session was ended. The driver of the car, a kit replica of a Shelby Daytona Coupe with Mustang underpinnings, was fine and the car raced on Saturday. In the morning I heard one of the crew say it was the softest roll they'd ever seen. That's quite a trick in a 100 MPH corner.

With 3rd spot secured, we retired for the day. The race was to start at 11:00 am on Saturday and the checkered would fly at 12:00 noon on Sunday.

 Practicing driver changes.

Our strategy was to take the green flag, do one lap, then come in and refuel. The reason for this was simple. E# cars (E3, E2 etc) were production derived, so in keeping with production style rules, the cars were required to start the race with the stock fuel load. In the Miata's case, it was 11.9 gallons.

Now, our car had a very different fuel setup. Fuel was fed via the stock fuel tank into the engine, because the car was already wired with a high pressure pump. Instead of wiring a second high pressure pump, the car had a low pressure pump running from the secondary fuel cell in the trunk into the main fuel tank. When the main tank was low, the driver flipped a switch in the cockpit which turned on the secondary pump, feeding fuel into the main tank from the cell.

This has the added advantage of making it easier to prove we have the stock fuel load. Just empty the secondary cell and presto.

And so, since we had to start with 11.9 gallons and we needed about 20 gallons to make a 3-hour stint, we decided to fuel the car right after the green flag.

I volunteered to start the car. We were starting 39th overall out of 83 cars! It was going to be a big start, but I hoped people would behave.

People did, and my start was clean. I lost a couple positions to faster cars that somehow had worse qualifying times than us, but it didn't matter. I was going to pit and go to the back anyway.

I pitted and we got the fueling done as fast as we could since we had to use 5-gallon cans.

With that complete I headed back out to begin my 3-hour stint. It was fairly regular. The leaders all lapped me very quickly since they were turning laps at least 20 seconds faster than me. They were so fast you could safely ignore them and they would simply pass in a flash when it suited them. But I was catching other cars, and making clean passes. I was working my way back through the E3 positions.

During the start of the stint, we were having radio issues. The pits were having transmission problems, but those got fixed and I had mechanic and fellow Spec Miata driver Dave Anderson with me giving me periodic updates and having me check the fuel level.

After a few laps I adjusted my shoulder belts and I felt a tug on my helmet - my radio got disconnected. I spent a few laps trying to find the end of the cord, but since I was at race speed I could only do that on the straights and only when I wasn't busy shifting and dodging faster prototypes. I finally located it and then spent another 3 or 4 laps trying to plug it into my helmet on the main straight. I got it plugged back in and re-contacted the team explaining what happened.

While all this was going on I was adapting to the main tire selection we were using for the race - Goodyear Eagles. They behaved differently than the Hoosiers. They were very sensitive to rubber pickup, and would vibrate for a good lap or two when I had to move out into the rubber marbles to let a faster car by. They had similar sharp handling to the Hoosiers, though they were not quite as dull feeling and they had very nice grip. They also lasted a very long time, considering they had a tread wear rating of 40. The total bill for all the sets of tires we were using in the race was around $3,600.

 The rest of the stint went by in a flash. A little after 2:00 pm I pulled into the pits for a driver change. Dave Allen got in the car and drove off for his 3-hour stint. I felt elated after my stint. I felt great. I was cold, because my suit was soaked through with sweat and the wind was blowing, but I was very happy and upbeat. We were in 11th spot in our class and gaining more positions by the hour.

In the middle of his stint Dave had a small coming together with a BMW. The hit was enough to knock the front alignment off and he had to come in to fix it. It ended up being a bent tie rod, and with that fixed he went back out.

 Just as Dave pulls in to get the tie rod fixed.

It was about 4:00 pm and I headed back to the hotel room to get some rest. I slept for about 3 hours and then came back around 7:00 pm. Jeff was just climbing into the car if I recall correctly. I can't remember if it was in the middle of his stint or right as he was climbing in, but the front brake pads were also changed on the car. Ed and Dave Anderson managed to get that done in a little over 7 minutes, hot rotors and all. Unfortunately there was still plenty of pad left and it probably could have gone the whole race on one set of pads.

Jeff had an uneventful stint and then it was Ed's sole turn at the wheel. He only drove for 1 hour and 30 minutes but he put down fast laps and had no mishaps save for one off track event.

It was half past midnight or so and now it was my turn. Ed gave my roof a pat, said "have fun, be careful," and off I went.

This is the video of what happened during the next 30 minutes.

Stint footage from about 12:30 to 1:00 am.

It was busy, to say the least.

The first thing that hits you is how bright many of the lights are in the mirrors. I had tape on my visor to protect my eyes from the setting sun on Friday, but I didn't think the tape would become useful at night to shield my eyes from my own mirror.

 The other thing is how much effort it takes to keep track of all those lights. Not only is it impossible to judge distance without constantly looking in the mirrors, but sometimes you can't see all of the cars behind you due to the glare. One set of headlights could contain 2 or 3 cars.

This makes the mental stress aspect much higher at night. You have to operate at 100% mental capacity just to keep from turning in on someone or worse. That's draining. It makes for a long stint. I remember Dave getting on the radio to tell me I reached the 1 hour mark. I couldn't believe that it had only been 60 minutes.

On the first flying lap of my stint I was caught off guard by the lack of grip in the cold night. I dropped wheels and went off track in turn 1. I learned and started driving to the conditions better.

About 4 laps later someone spilled some fluid or oil in turns 3 and 14. They became pretty slick and the first time I went into turn 14 with the oil I felt like I was hydroplaning.

Towards the end of the video, I have a nice battle with my good friend Roger Eagleton in his Honda Civic. Roger's car had about 95 horsepower, ours had 117, so it was nice to have a power advantage on someone for once. That's a rare thing in Miatas. One of my karting coaches, Jared Thompson, was also out on track in his 700 horsepower Ford GT.

The stint was long and hard. It felt like an eternity before I was back in the pits. I managed to clamber out of the car halfway, and someone grabbed me under my arms and hauled me out the rest of the way.

Physically I felt fine. My wrists were stiff and my ears hurt from the radio earbuds, but that was it. My exhaustion was purely mental. I wanted to just sit and do nothing, to let my mind rest. But I had soaked nomex to remove, water to drink, and a bed to get to. When your mind is that tired, all of these tasks become obstacles. I found myself frustrated by the littlest things, such as the cap on the water bottle. I ended up locking myself out of my hotel room at 4:00 am while trucking my stuff inside.

I got back to the track around 9:00 am, since my driving was done. We were doing well. We were running as high as 6th in E3 and still setting solid lap times.

But then, around 10:00 am, Jeff had to come in. The car was down a cylinder. Ed changed the spark plug and Jeff went back out. It still didn't sound right. Jeff came in again. The ignition coil was changed. He went back out, still sounding terrible. Jeff stayed out this time. We were all hoping it would hold together to the end.

Then, with only about 1 hour and 30 minutes until the checkered, the car came down the front straight billowing smoke from the exhaust. The engine had let go, and Jeff parked it on the inside of turn 1. Our race was done. Ed reckoned the engine dropped a valve.

Disappointing, but we had a good run until then. We kept our noses fairly clean and the car ended up doing 568 laps, which is about 1,700 miles. When the dust settled we had enough laps to land 10th in E3.

It was a wonderful experience for me, and I hope to do it again next year because I had buckets of fun. Special thanks to everyone that helped us out during the weekend and of course to the entire Premier Auto Service crew! You guys are awesome!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

(158) New cars, new cars, and new cars

This weekend I'm going to be racing in the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill sponsored by the U.S. Air Force. This is going to be the largest single event I've ever participated in. There are going to be over 80 cars out on track from all over the country! There will be a lot of media, including television (for later broadcast on Versus), and many teams are crossing country lines to compete.

I'm going to be driving with team Premier Auto Service as I have been all year. My co drivers are going to be my team-mate Dave Allen, Joe Kalinowski and Jeff Annison. Car owner Ed Railton is also going to hop in for a stint.

It's going to be a tough race. 25 hours straight. We are entered in the E3 class with a new enduro-spec 1991 Mazda Miata with a brand new engine made specially for this race. It's got a big fuel cell for double the capacity, so the car should be able to race for 3 hours before needing refueling. We drivers are going to have to make the same distance in a stint. The good news is, it's got the manual steering rack. In the 78, the car I had for the season this year, had the power-assisted rack. Ed disables the power-assist and that makes for nice and heavy steering. The manual rack should be lighter, so that will make it easier to last the distance.

The other trouble is the driver size discrepancy. Joe is over 6 feet with long legs, I'm a little under 5' 8". I'm going to need a monster seat cushion.

Since the race is going to go through the night, the car has also been fitted with a rack of lights. This is going to be a new challenge for me, as I've never raced in the dark before. And Thunderhill isn't exactly known for being well lit. Fortunately we get some dusk-time practice. Maybe I can get dibs on the evening-into-night shift and the night-into-dawn shift.

Another new thing is going to be the tires. We are unrestricted in terms of tires, so we're going to choose something that's race-bred, like Goodyear or Hankook. Whatever we choose, we'll need five or six sets to make it through the race.

I'll be sure to write all about it next week! I probably won't get any actual racing footage, but I will be able to grab many pictures and hopefully some night-time practice onboards so you can see what it's like in the dark!

In other automotive adventures, I checked out the San Francisco auto show on Sunday. Most of this year's new cars seem to be hatchbacks. In particular I liked the Fiat 500, the Ford Focus, the Hyundai Veloster, and the Mini Cooper Coupe John Cooper Works edition. I think I want to test drive all of these cars. It seems this is the year of the hatches.

I've already gone out and test-driven the Ford Focus - good car, pretty decent handling, but could use more power (I'm sure the upcoming hotted-up ST version will alleviate that). Not unforgettable but very good. It certainly doesn't hurt that Ford gave me $50 for taking the drive! That'll pay for about 5% of one of the aforementioned sets of tires...

In other new car news, my dad has bought himself a brand new sports car - a 2012 Subaru WRX Sedan.

2012 Subaru WRX Sedan.

The car is amazing. He got it with the SPT performance exhaust which sounds absolutely killer. The other improvement was the short-throw 5 speed shifter and a beefed up shifter bushing. This vastly improves the main fault of the car which is a slack feeling shifter.

The car handles very well and has plenty of grip. The vehicle stability control system is pretty conservative and you can feel it working the all-wheel drive system most of the time during hard cornering, although it can be completely disabled. Subaru calls it "stuck mode" - sometimes the computer gets confused when one wheel is off the ground or has really reduced grip, like when you get stuck in a snow drift. With the system off, torque is applied to all four wheels equally.

The centerpiece is the motor. It doesn't make crazy horsepower, but it makes plenty (270). The nice part is the torque. You wouldn't expect a 2.5 liter with a turbo to make great torque, but this car will haul itself up the speedo with surprising gusto even in 5th gear at 3,000 rpm.

Those are only preliminary impressions though. I have done less than 80 miles in the car. My dad plans to take it to an autocross after the break-in period in order to really put it through it's paces.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

(157) I can only get this once

The San Francisco region SCCA award banquet was plenty of fun!

There were plenty of people there in the ballroom of the Hilton hotel in Pleasanton. Harry Mhoon Fair, Jon Norman, Gary Meeker, and Bob Stegall were all inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Board of Directors all presented their "board awards", a great many special awards were bestowed, as well as worker and race class awards being given.

I myself was rather shocked when my name was called as the "Rookie Driver of the Year". There were plenty of great rookies this year, and I'm really stoked and honored to get the award. I still don't really believe it.

I was also awarded the third spot trophy for the Sealed Spec Miata class. Here's a look at both trophies:

Thanks SCCA and GoPro for these awesome trophies!

This year GoPro decided to provide the money for all of the trophies presented during the dinner. I'm sure it was an expensive bill, so it's really awesome of them to do that.

If I get some stage pictures of all of the Spec Miata guys standing with their awards, I will update this post.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

(156) A quick reunion

The weekend of October 29 was a very special event. Basically, a lot of the guys from the old Jim Russell (now Simraceway Performance Driving School) kart race series, a series I participated in quite a bit, decided to gather together and do a day of reunited driving.

Problem is, the school doesn't do the race series any more. So we had to arrange to hijack a single advanced karting class for us to use to rac- I mean, practice green flag starts leading into open lapping sessions. With lap times.

There ended up being 9 of us in total. The setup was phenomenal - we had the track to ourselves, we could do our own schedule, and we had points, trophies, prizes, and gags. It was decided that we'd do a couple of practices, a qualifying session, and then two 10-lap heat races followed by a 15 lap main event.

Getting back up to speed in the karts didn't take long. I think driving full size cars has helped me go faster in the karts. I was carrying more speed into the corners than I ever have, although it's a little hard to judge since I was not using the normal 45 pounds of weight added to the kart. While the kart does accelerate faster with no weight, I feel like it corners better with the weight in. Without the weight the rear end gets very skittish, both when entering corners and when coming out while trying to put the power down. In any case, I felt like my technique was better.

The karts were outfitted with a new type of centrifugal clutch that really made them jump off the corners and not get bogged down. They were more fun to drive than ever!

The day was cool, and the track hadn't seen a race event in a few weeks, so the rubber on the track was minimal and so was grip. The most challenging thing to recall was the braking, since not only was the pedal much more sensitive, but the tires were not being their usual talkative selves, for whatever reason. I think it might have been the lack of rubber, since on cold days tires usually talk more.

In the first couple sessions I set the fastest times, despite a couple of the other drivers getting some special practice days before the race! I set times in the low 55s, which is right on my best pace.

I carried that pace into the 5-lap qualifying session, and I got the pole for the first heat race (sorry, practice start followed by open lapping).

The only problem for me was, we decided to invert the grid. So, while I got the pole time, I was going to start at the back. This posed a new challenge. Since I was light, I had a lot more acceleration than just about everyone else. It was going to be really easy to get myself in a lot of trouble right off the bat by starting at the back.

At the drop of the green, the karts in front of me fanned out and almost immediately went 4-wide. My driver-sense was tingling severely. I held my position in turn 1. Which turned out to be a good decision because a kart got sideways at the apex. I was able to capitalize on it and pass on the outside at the exit. I then passed another kart going into the turn 2 complex called Tic Tac Toe.

I continued to pick off karts for the first 3 or 4 laps. I found myself in the lead. From there it was a simple cruise to the finish.

Heat race 2 was the same deal at the start. I started in the back again, and this time turn 1 was calmer. But the drama began in turn 2. Two (or more) karts tangled in front of me, but it was a slow speed collision. I had very little choice in the matter, and I tried to position my kart to minimize the damage of the impact. I nosed into the side pod of one of the karts and came to rest with the other two. With no reverse gear, I simply leaned back and used my hands to roll the rear wheels backwards until I was clear. I fired up the engine and continued on. I lost about half a lap.

I did my best to work my way through the field as efficiently as possible, but I rushed a pass and lost some time. I wasn't able to catch up with the leaders and I finished 3rd.

The final event's starting positions were up for debate. We eventually decided to take the points positions of the mini-championship and invert that running order. I was leading, so, surprise surprise, I got relegated to the rear of the pack.

The start was fairly calm again. I bided my time. I had 15 laps to work this out.

I got through most of the field again in about 4 or 5 laps, but I still had the leaders to get. I got into 2nd place with about 7 laps left.

The leader was a keen racer with plenty of experience, and he was hard to pass. I eventually got a good run going down the main straight. I nosed along side. The straight isn't totally straight, so most fast lines make for the inside and hold tight to the edge of the road. I got most of my kart along side, but the leader started moving over. He kept coming. I had nowhere to go, so I eased the kart off track and took out a couple of cones at 65 MPH. Thankfully the starter, instructor Mike Hill, was heads-up and jumped out of the way. I rejoined the race in 4th.

I calmed back down again, and began working through the pack again. I did a much better job this time, and managed to get into the lead with enough laps to spare to take the win.

In the end, I snagged enough points to win the mini-championship with a safe margin. I walked away with a lot of very kindly donated hardware. I was awarded trophies for my pole position, my two wins, my 3rd place, one for fastest lap of the weekend (54.9), and I got two trophies for winning the championship - one driver-donated, one school-donated.

I also got the "Sassiest Costume" award, which was for my duct-taped orange pumpkin helmet which took me all of 15 minutes and 2 rolls of tape to do up.

It was one of the most fun days of racing I've had. It was wonderful to catch up with and race with everyone again!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

(155) Double marks

I'd like to say that I went into this weekend thinking about what an awesome season it's been, how I'd be missing the people I've been racing with for the past 7 months, and the fact that it has only been 7 months since I started racing in SCCA to begin with.

But I can't say that. Because I approached this weekend the same as I always do - with a steady mind, set on the intent to perform. Those thoughts are for Mondays, when you're setting your trophies in their cabinets. For now, it's time to race.

The weather report indicated perfect 85 degree weather during all three days. I like perfect.

Unfortunately, coming into this weekend, mathematically I had no chance of reaching second place in the driver's championship. All I had to do was finish near my team mate Dave Allen, and I was set for third spot.

This was yet another weekend where I would not be having a Thursday test day, and instead would be jumping right into practice and then qualify. And again, my goal was to be fast out of the gate.

I was sharing the car with Mike Neff, who rented the car to run another race group in Improved Touring X. Mike usually does a couple events every year and is a clean racer, so I had no problems with it.

Practice went very smoothly. I find it easy to get into the groove at Thunderhill. We put the fastest set of tires I had on the car, so that made things a lot easier. When you have a set of well taken care of tires, the car gets much easier to drive. Some of that might be placebo though. Still, having nice-looking tires that you can sink your fingers into because they're so soft doesn't hurt.

Once I was back in the paddock, car owner Ed Railton came over and slyly asked me as I opened the door, "how was the transmission?"

"Perfect" I exclaimed, "I thought I was going a little crazy at Laguna because I thought it felt a bit notchy!"

"That's what Dave [Allen] said when he drove it last time" Ed supplied, "so I threw a brand new one in there. I forgot to mention it before you went out."

"So I'm not crazy!" I said, relieved, "thanks, Ed."

It's pretty cool of an owner to just pitch in a whole new transmission because his drivers say it's a little notchy feeling. Ed's done a ton of awesome stuff for us throughout the year, like hauling the car all the way back to the shop in order to rebuild the engine overnight so I could race the next day. You couldn't ask more than that.

Qualifying was equally perfect. There was little traffic, and I had tons of space. But I'm still new to Thunderhill, relative to a lot of the veterans out there, so I wasn't quite as fast as my team mate, but I still managed to put it 12th overall, 3rd in class. The official results showed a new SSM car, the 00 driven by Barrett Tilley, had got in front of both me and Dave, but it was a mistake, and it was actually an SMT car, so while the official results say I was 4th, I was actually 3rd.

On Friday evening, during the social hour, there was a "Meet the Team"event hosted by Steve Jaroch, SCCA's Chief of Announcing. We stood by the cars and basically did a 5-way interview with Ed, Ian Cook (Ed's former boss) and his driver Ed Lever (who evidently is an excellent interview), my co-driver for the weekend, Mike Neff, and myself. Dave Allen was sadly scarce. That interview will probably show up in "The Wheel", the region's monthly publication. It was a fun time, and there was a pretty good crowd watching, so I'm glad people enjoyed it. Thanks to Steve for having us.

At the start of the race on Saturday morning, I got a huge drop on Dave Allen and left most of the guys behind me for dead going into turn 1. But Dave came back and wedged himself along side going into turn 4, finishing the deal in turn 5. At the end of the first lap, which was unusually calm for Spec Miata, the 58 driven by Jeff Annison rocketed by me. That car had some major horsepower.

Not long after, Jeff started battling the 08 being driven by John Grillos. I was happy with this, because it meant I would probably catch up. I pushed a bit harder.

The battling didn't favor John, and I began following him after trying to get by in the first couple of corners when he lost his momentum in turn 1.

It was at this point that I realized something was wrong. My temperature gauge was climbing. Racing in the draft of John's car was robbing my radiator of cool air, and the engine was going to overheat.

So I started moving over to the side on the straights, avoiding the slipstream when I could. It was a rock and a hard place: either take the slip stream, overheat, and lose power (risking the engine), or take the full force of the air flowing over the car, lose straight line speed, but save the engine. Obviously, saving the engine is preferable.

Once I broke the draft, I could see the thermometer needle going down.

This continued for a little while, until John slightly overcooked turn 14's entrance. He swung out wide, and the back end started to slip away.

He was close enough to spinning that I couldn't tell if he was going to save it or not. And he was positioned on the track in such a way that I couldn't tell if he was going to spin to the outside or the inside if he did lose it. I was about 2 tenths of a second away from jinking to the outside when he gathered it up. I had to slow to avoid hitting him.

This allowed the 20 of Andrew Holifield to easily slip by on the main straight. But I wedged myself to the outside of Andrew in turn 3 and got him back.

I was now up an unsavory creek: I had to defend my position, while tending my engine's condition. It was inevitable that I would lose some spots now. It didn't take long for Dante Paulazzo to pass me in the 81.

Dave Anderson in the 32, another SSM car, also got by not long after. I was now in 4th in class. As far as I knew, Dave Allen was still in 2nd. I couldn't lose too many class positions otherwise I would lose 3rd spot in the championship! And now, a rather large queue was forming behind me, which contained the green SSM #5 driven by Alan Gjedsted.

With the 1 lap to go signal from the starter, I had to capitalize on all of Dave's mistakes if I was going to take the position back. I tried my best, but he lost me going down the back stretch going up the hill to turn 9. I looked in my mirror and saw Brian Ebding in the 3 car pop on Alan going into turn 9. I knew this last-lap ditch attempt, even if it worked out well for Brian, would kill both of their momentum to turn 10.

I was a good 10 or 12 car lengths behind Dave now, and I was going to have to push hard in order to catch him, assuming he made a mistake. But I pushed too hard, and had a nice big drift in turn 11. That sealed my fate. I finished 4th.

I gave the car a pat as we took the checkered, for holding together in the race, and for a wonderful season. My arm bumped the wipers. It was almost as if the car was acknowledging me.

Race 13, the finale, full onboard footage.

As it stands, I did not lose 3rd place in the driver's championship. This race was really important, since it was worth double points. My third place in the championship is a result I'm proud of. But the weekend is not over yet!

Up next is the SCCA Illgen Classic 4 hour endurance race.

Our team consisted of Ed Railton, Roger Eagleton, and myself. Ed's driven Miatas for years, and has lap records. Roger drove with me during my first karting enduro a couple years ago, and raced BMWs last year in SCCA.

There were many classes taking part. Miatas, sports racers, prototypes, GT cars, and touring cars were all on the menu.

The first practice/qualify session was on Saturday afternoon. Mike Neff had just finished his race, but there was a problem. The clutch would not fully disengage. This made it impossible for Mike to shift during the race, and very difficult to get the car moving.

Ed acted quickly, got the car up on jack stands, and dropped the transmission and drive shaft. He only had about 2 hours before the start of practice.

An hour later, and we knew the problem. The throwout bearing, the part that basically pushes the clutch away from the flywheel and allows the motor to spin independently of the transmission, had exploded, lodging parts in all kinds of spots in the clutch.

Miraculously, Ed managed to clean all the parts out, put in a new throwout bearing, remount the transmission and drive shaft, all on jack stands, on his back, in less than 2 hours and just in time to practice for the enduro.

I went out first for a couple laps, to make sure the car was ship-shape. There was a ton of pickup on the tires and at first I thought something might be broken, since it was vibrating the whole car and the grip was terrible. But when I heard the "clang, clunk" sounds from the wheel wells I realized what it was. It took about 2 laps to clean all the rubber chunks off the tires.

Ed pulled me into the pits and Roger took the wheel with a practice driver change. Roger familiarized himself with the car for 20 minutes, and then Ed jumped in for another 20.

We were entered in the "under 1700cc" class, rather than the Miata class, because we figured we'd have the best chance to win. I was excited because I was going to get to try the car on race-bred tires, instead of shaved street tires. Ed reckoned the race tires would be good for about 2 seconds per lap.

Sadly, the next morning, the morning of the race, we contacted the tire shop (AIM Tire), and they were out of Miata-sized slick racing tires. They had sold the last set only 10 minutes prior, a set of Hoosier slicks, to the 35 car of Dan Cooper, Greg Cicatelli, and Doug Makishima - our main competition.

My dad and I drove the truck over to the Goodyear trailer, to see if they had anything that would fit on our rims, but they didn't.

So, we bought a set of shaved Toyos, since that's all we could get. Lesson learned. Special order the tires you'll need.

We practiced for another hour and a half, making a few driver changes and wearing in a new set of tires. Ed set the fastest time in the morning with a 2:10.5, which qualified us as the second fastest Miata. The 35 car beat us, however, by some 2 seconds.

We decided that I was going to start the car, since I had just been racing close quarters all year. The primary concern was simply to survive. I would drive for an hour and a half, then Roger would take the middle stint, and then Ed would take the final stint.

The start was good. One of the cars ahead of me didn't show, so everyone basically moved up a spot. This meant that I now had the inside on the 35 car. A large pack of Spec Racer Fords - tried and true sports racers built by SCCA Enterprises and only slightly faster than a Spec Miata - were ahead of us. My start was so good I made it nearly to the middle of this pack, and the 35 car was stuck behind. I knew it was only a matter of time before they would catch and pass me, though, with those sticky Hoosiers, once the SRFs filtered around me. Being in the middle of that pack without any hearing protection was a headache. Those cars are so raspy they literally hurt your head.

Joe Kalinowski flew in to drive the 58 car with Jeff Annison, and Joe started right behind me. After a couple of laps he caught and passed me. I followed him closely. On lap 4 or 5 he made a mistake in turn 9 and dropped wheels, which sucked him off track. I zoom-zoomed by.

I spent most of my stint battling with the 41 driven by Phillip Holifield. I was very pleased to finally be able to put some space between our cars. Phillip is an extremely fast racer and I'm usually nowhere near him in the races.

Right about lap 20, one of the large GT cars left the race with a bang in turn 8. A full course caution came out, and the safety crews hauled the car away. I'm not sure exactly what happened. I was focused on keeping the pickup off my tires.

The pace car split the field, and while I was not leading the race, I was directly behind the pace car. This basically gave the 35 car a 1 lap lead over us right away. 2 laps later, we were back to green flag racing. I again started working out a gap between me and Phillip. We were not in the same class, but you still want to finish as high as you can.

The rest of my stint was spent dodging faster cars. There was one sports prototype that was lapping about 24 seconds per lap faster than the Miatas, and that thing just flashed by every time.

With the fuel nudging empty, Roger called me into the pits and we made a driver change and filled the car with fuel. Two of Ian Cook's drivers helped us out with that.

Roger takes the plunge down the back of turn 5.

Once I got out of the car, I felt ready for another hour at least. The Miata is not very hard on the driver, and it's quite a sinch, physically, to drive.

Meanwhile, Roger was setting solid lap times. It had been a while since he had driven Thunderhill, but he was re-learning the track very quickly. Roger put a number of laps on some of our competitors and got us further ahead. We still had no chance of catching the 35 car, who was now a couple laps ahead.

An hour and a half later, Ed got in the car for the home stretch. Ed and I had very similar lap times, and he also put more laps on the other cars in our class. All of our stints were fairly uneventful.

At the line, we finished 2nd in class, 15th overall.

It was an awesome race, and it was a fantastic warm-up for the NASA 25 Hour coming up in December.

And now, the SCCA racing season is over. Now I can truly say that I'm thinking about how awesome of a season it's been, how I'm going to miss all the people who are part of SCCA racing, and how I cannot believe that it's only been 7 months since I started in SCCA. It's been a year to remember.

And thank you, to every volunteer who has helped out during the season. You guys are awesome.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

(154) Let's just all be reasonable

It's been said by a number of people that motor racing is gladitorial. While I do not agree with that statement (gladiators existed for the purpose of killing, racing drivers exist for the purpose of going fast), it does illustrate the basic theme of motor racing - high stakes competition with the very real possibility of a horrible death.

I'm not going to talk about what happened at Las Vegas. There are already hundreds of media outlets doing so (some more competently than others), and thousands of people discussing it on the internet (some more lucidly than others).

Rather, I want to talk a bit about safety. Specifically, one of the troubling trends I've been hearing from various people - commenters, experts, and journalists alike.

I'm not an engineer. I couldn't tell you what the best materials are for a crash structure, or where that structure should be on the car. What I will do is tell you, quickly, why I think some of the solutions being proposed to make IndyCar racing on ovals safer are probably not the most reasonable.

Basically, the solutions I have a problem with boil down to two categories: slow down the cars, and stop racing ovals.

The problem I have with these proposals is that these are very low level solutions. Specifically, they do not solve the immediate problems. They simply ignore them.

We could just stop racing, and then all racing-related deaths and injuries would stop as well. But that wouldn't solve the issue, which is the danger of racing. We would simply be ignoring the real problems and refusing to participate. This is by far the safest way to deal with a problem. If you don't partake, there is no problem. However, it doesn't actually do anything about the issue itself.

If you wanted, you could never again get out of bed. This would keep you safer than if you were to live your life as normal, where any number of nasty things have the potential to happen to you, but I think we'd all be in agreement that staying in bed would not be a very intelligent way to deal with the dangers of living.

If you have a car, you have locks and an alarm. If you live in a very cold place, you dress warmly. These are targeted solutions that address a specific problem. Instead of retreating away from the issue, these solutions allow you to carry on. Some solutions are more effective than others.

The same methodology needs to be applied to racing. If you have a neck injury issue, you develop a device that keeps the head from snapping forward. If you have a high likelyhood of fire, you put fire extinguishers in the cars and have the drivers wear fireproof overalls. If you have solid walls around the track, you do your best to line them with something soft to dissipate impact energy.

I just hope those in power try to solve the immediate problems, instead of retreating from any danger and generally limiting our sport. There are only finite threats to our safety in the cockpit. Since they are all physical problems, they all have a quantifiable, deployable solution. Total racing safety is possible given enough time, research, and technology. That day may be very far off, but with that goal in mind, the march towards it will be steady.

In 50 years we have gone from losing many drivers per racing season to having even an injury being big news, all while having faster and faster cars. Let's keep improving motorsport safety at that rate of speed.

Speaking of rate of speed, the season finale to the 2011 San Francisco region SCCA Sunoco Challenge series at Thunderhill Raceway is fast approaching. This weekend is going to contain the final regional race, which will be for double the normal amount of points.

At the moment it looks like I have 3rd spot all tied up, and I'm mathematically unable to get any higher than that. Dave Allen would have to finish something like 5 spots ahead of me in order to overtake me in the championship.

At the end of the weekend, I'll be racing in the SCCA Illgen Classic 4-hour enduro. The team is all set up and ready to go.

My team mates will be my car owner Ed Railton, and my buddy Roger Eaglton. Long time readers may remember Roger driving with me in the Jim Russell karting enduro a couple years ago. Roger spent a lot of last year driving an E30 BMW in SCCA and is definitely a very solid racer. Ed Railton has a ton of experience in Spec Miata, and holds a number of track records in the San Francisco region. His team won their class in the enduro last year.

There shouldn't be any tire changes during the race, but we will have to refuel of course. The Miatas can go for about an hour and 20 minutes on a tank of fuel, which in Thunderhill maths is about 9 miles to the gallon. Pretty impressive for going flat out everywhere. Also convenient, since it evenly splits up the 4 hours between 3 drivers.

This is going to be an awesome weekend!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

(153) Loaner, part 2

Back in the paddock after the race, I talked to team mate Dave Allen and car owner Ed Railton after they both had a look at Dave's busted engine.

Dave still had 3 races to go in his weekend since he was signed up to do Super Touring Light in addition to Sealed Spec Miata, but his car was toast, and Ed didn't know if he could fix it since he didn't know what the problem was yet. Dave needed a car. So I offered to let him borrow mine, with approval from Ed, for the STL races that Dave was doing on Sunday. The Sealed Spec Miatas are legal in STL and Improved Touring A, but STL and ITA both run in the same race group, so you have to choose one or the other.

Dave would run his race in the morning using his tires, and then, after changing back to my tires, I would take the car for my SSM race just before lunch. Dave would rent another Miata in order to run the SSM race with me. In the afternoon, Dave would run his last race of the weekend in STL.

Unfortunately, Dave was going to have to start from the back in the morning STL race because he changed cars. That worried me a little. If you recall my sole experience of starting from the back in June - and the subsequent crash - you'll probably sympathize with my nervousness about the car's wellbeing.

I needn't have worried, however. While it was strange seeing the little silver and yellow Miata buzz around the track from the outside, Dave kept his nose completely clean using his superior racing experience, and brought it home without a scratch, gaining plenty of positions in the process.

Back in the paddock, Dave remarked to me that my Miata "is one good handling automobile." It's nice to have all that setup work approved by someone as experienced as Dave. Dave's 2nd race later in the afternoon went without incident as well.

Ed Railton managed to grab his first (and rather spectacular) Spec Racer Ford victory in the final race of the weekend in the afternoon. He won by over 6 seconds. Congratulations Ed! He's doing very well in the SRF championship at this point.

Up next for me was my final race of the weekend in the late morning. Since this was a two-day format weekend, there was no qualifying per se for the Sunday race. Instead, as requested by popular vote earlier in the year, the grid positions for the Sunday race were to be determined by the fastest lap times set during the Saturday race. My time was a 1:49.143, so I started 3rd in SSM.

The race start this time was slower. The leaders took longer to take off, and I misjudged my own launch. I got passed by two of the more powerful SMT, but I held off Dave Anderson in the black and red 32.

We remained double-file until I passed the 00 of Barret Tilley on the outside in turn 5. Most of the SSM/SMT field had not driven the track yet that day, and were still figuring out the grip levels during the first lap.

I now found myself directly behind the 20 of Steve Holifield, and I pushed very hard on my as yet unheated tires while trying to fend off Barret directly behind me. I tried a silly fake on Steve in turn 11, and scooted up a little too far. Steve was heads up and went wide, but it blew both of our corners and Barret sailed by me as we headed down the straight. I graunched third gear coming out of turn 2. Very easy to do in first generation Miatas when you're pushing hard.

I now had the 34 of Juan Pineda staring me down through my mirror. He tried a pass in turn 9, but backed off. He bided his time a little, and then took me going down the front straight on the inside. I'm starting to crave more horsepower pretty badly by this point.

The battle ahead was starting to heat up, and behind me the 4th place SSM car of Dave Anderson was popping in and out of my mirrors with what I guessed was a 4 or 5 second gap. If I got embroiled in battling too hard, I might have lost the gap. I put my faith in the guys ahead to carry me further and further from Dave. Maybe my time would come.

A few minutes later, I saw what looked to be David Petruska's #59 sitting on the outside of turn 9, in the sand, with most of the left side of the car seriously scraped and bent. I thought for sure a full course caution would arise as a result. I kept looking for the double yellows.

Sure enough, I saw them in turn 5, along with the safety crews coming out onto the track to lend aid to Dave.

I relaxed, took a breather, and I tried to count backwards in order to figure out how many laps we still had yet to go. I was sure we would go back to green flag racing after 2 or 3 laps.

It was on this lap that I got a better look at David's car, still sitting on the outside of turn 9. The door was slightly caved in, but looked intact. The left rear wheel was pointing 90 degrees the wrong direction.

As we rounded turn 11, I saw another car, the 9 of Fred Peterson, who looked like he had spun to the outside and was beached. It didn't look related to Dave Petruska's crash.

We sauntered around again behind the pace car, and now Dave's crash site was being tended to by the safety crews and the paramedics. There was a huge stacking effect in the corkscrew as everyone slowed to check on our fellow racer. I didn't see much as I passed, just the medics checking on him through the window. I assumed it was precautionary.

The line headed into the pits and the pace car brought us to a stop at the start line. The checkered was waving. Dave Anderson came along side and congratulated me on finishing 2nd. I didn't really know what to say besides "thanks". I was thinking about Dave Petruska and whether or not he was okay. After a minute, we all turned around and retired to the impound station to check the front runners for technical compliance. Nobody wants to win a race under yellow, and no one wants to gain positions because another racer crashed. These two factors combined results in one of the worst ways to finish a race.

Race 2 full onboard footage.

At impound, I asked around to see if anyone further up the field saw what happened. Based on what I heard there, as well as what I read on the community site after the weekend was over, this is what seems to have happened.

While racing hard for the top spot in SSM, Dave Petruska had contact with another car in turn 9. He spun off the track and hit the bare concrete wall on the driver's side. He suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and swelling of the brain.

Dave was taken via helicopter to the hospital, where he is now making an encouraging recovery.

All of his fellow racer's thoughts are with him. Get well soon Dave!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

(152) Loaner

Rapid fire is one way to describe the two-day SCCA weekends. Convenient is another. One could think of it as adding pressure, or one could think of it as not enough time to get the job done.

I prefer not to limit myself by thinking such things. I view it as an opportunity to exploit advantages, being my driving preparation and quick learning - both of which translate into speed out of the gate. You need that for two-day race weekends.

And so my weekend began with a lot of preparation. I ran laps in my head trying to dial in what I thought would be the optimal lines and speeds given the (rather ideal) conditions. In practice I was immediately on a fast pace with a 1:49.1 best lap.

This was the first time I had run the new setup with the new alignment and camber settings at Mazda Raceway. There are places where I feel like I have less grip (turn 8, turn 4), but there are other places where I feel like I have more (turn 6, turn 11). Everyone seemed to be running slightly slower times, so it's hard to tell if the setup itself is faster or slower. It feels better at the very least. Easier to drive. It suits my style.

During the run up to the weekend it seemed that there would be a dip in participation. But in the final days of registration the list ballooned, and we ended up having around 45 cars take to the track. As with the other two-day weekend at Mazda Raceway, we did not split the group into even and odd numbered cars for qualifying. So we have quite a bit of traffic to deal with.

It did not go well for me. My first two laps were clear and quick. But on the 3rd lap, I caught the back-markers. I finally got a gap a couple laps later, and my onboard timer showed I was going 7 tenths faster than my best session time of 1:49.4, but a car spun in front of me in turn 8. All the other laps were balked by any number of things, from traffic to spun cars and cautions. Even my team mate, Dave Allen, had an uncharacteristic spin in turn 2. It was one of the busiest qualifying sessions I've ever had.

My early session effort landed me 4th in class and 15th overall for the race. This was to be my lone qualifying session, with the second race's starting positions being determined by fastest laps from race one. Dave Allen landed 2nd with a blistering 1:48 lap.

The start of the first race was fast. I came out of turn 11 practically full throttle. I got a very nice start and held my position (against the more powerful SMTs, every SSM's ideal start is to not lose any positions). I got single file for turn 3, but ahead and behind me there was some two-wide action.

Later in the lap I got by Rylan Hazelton in the 17 car in turn 8. The reduced grip from this new setup in turn 8 really showed as I got a bit of a slide as I crested and stepped on the throttle. It's pretty hard to do that in a 112 horsepower car with racing slicks in third gear.

On the next lap a car spun off the track in turn 3. I was all prepared to go straight through the cloud of dust since I saw where the car ended up and was sure it was clear, but as I was going by the cloud, a new cloud of sand was kicked up and I had to duck my face away from the window or risk temporary blindness. Window nets only keep big things out.

A lap later I caught and passed the 74 of Cameron Rogers in turn 5. Over the next minute and a half I put a good gap between him and myself. Until I entered turn 6 with slightly too much gusto and dropped my right wheels over the edge of the track into the deep sand.

The sand grabbed my wheels and pulled the rest of the car off the track. I backed out of the throttle, but the car was already beginning to slip sideways in the deep sand. I had to jerk the wheel to correct, disobeying the first law of leaving the tarmac: be smooth.

I caught the slide in time, but then another slide came on fast. This one was bigger. I corrected more, it started to come back around, and then I hit asphalt. I had enough sense to see it coming at least, and brought the wheel back to center in time to avoid hooking back into the wall. Cameron sailed by.

It took at least until turn 10 to get all the dirt off my tires, and in that time Cameron put some more distance between us.

I was now giving chase to Cameron, and he held me off for a number of laps. He seemed to get a second wind when I flew off track a few laps before. But I kept gaining on him after turn 6, so I tried to push my advantage as much as possible. Eventually I got by him in turn 8 with a very late braking attempt that nearly spun me out. But his superior power carried him pretty easily by again down into turn 9.

Then Rylan passed me on the main straight, and Steve Holifield in the green #20 passed me in turn 8 after I got slowed a bit by lap traffic. It really sucks being down on power to the other classes. But at least it's not for points-paying position!

I gave chase to the three ahead of me for most of the rest of the race. I kept gaining on Steve on the run from turn 10 to turn 11, but he was always wise to me and played defensive. I didn't have the power to exploit his defensive posture down the main straight, so I wasn't able to get by him there either.

A few minute later and we all passed my team-mate Dave Allen as his engine gave up the ghost. It had been making a knocking sound all morning and he did his best to conserve it, even though he was setting blistering times. Unfortunately, they are usually fastest before they blow and sadly this was the case yet again.

The four of us then started catching some lap traffic, and the 53 was called in for a mechanical problem as we passed by on the start finish line for the penultimate time.

A lap later, and the race was done. The only other Sealed Miata, like mine, that I saw was the 32 of Dave Anderson in my rear-view mirror. With Dave Allen dropping back after his engine blew up, that meant I had finished in 3rd place in SSM, and 14th overall!

But enough of that text stuff, you want video! For you, my friend, best price! Free!

Race 1 full onboard footage.

Some notes about the video:

The squeaking  noise you hear as I apex some corners is the right-rear tire rubbing the fender ever so slightly.

And as I go up the start of the hill past turn 5 and into turn 6, you can kinda see my feet a bit as I shift to 4th. My footwork is getting better and better and the shift from 3rd to 4th is getting pretty fast. The 2nd to 3rd shift is still a bit slow due to the weak centering spring and the weak 3rd gear synchro which really needs to be babied in order not to graunch it.

For now, I will save the final race of the weekend for next time!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

(151) Nationalism

Last week I upgraded my racing license from an SCCA regional to an SCCA national. It was time to renew anyway, and I have obviously completed the requisite 4 races. So I might as well pay the extra ten bucks and get the upgrade huh?

I already feel the weight of increased responsibility on my shoulders.

Really all it does is allow me to enter national-points events, and to go to the national runoffs if I so desire. I may do that one day. It won't be this year, and probably not next year either, sadly.

Speaking of next year, it's about that time when I gotta start thinking about what I'm going to do. This year has flown by. I've been kept really busy with training, simulating, and of course putting that all to good use racing. That's kept my mind very focused on it, and I think my writing is showing that. Most of the blogs I've written this year have been about racing. Yes, it's a racing blog, but I haven't really sat down to just type my thoughts very much this year. Maybe that's a good thing. In any case, I'm doing that right now. But back to next year.

The short story is, there are no plans. Facts are starting to take over a little bit. Facts like my near-22 years of age, facts like my finances, facts like getting my own pad, a sustainable cash flow, boring real life stuff. Stuff I'm really not good at.

My parents have been amazing to me. I don't talk about them anywhere near enough. They come to all my races. Dad helps in the pits and keeps me organized. Mom provides everything else, including the silver and yellow matching folding chairs which look great next to the car. Mom and dad helped me get my career started when there was little hope of me being financially and emotionally able to start it myself (at 18, what did I really know?). With my transition to fullsize cars, my career is officially started, and now I need to take over.

So next year I am going to be financially responsible for my racing.

That means I'm going to be on a real shoestring budget. And until things get solid, I won't know how much racing I will be able to do. In the meantime I am working on starting up an internet-based business. It's unorthodox, but I know the internet very well and I believe I can make it work. Fortunately the business I've picked has virtually zero startup cost. In any case, some of the money I earn will go to racing.

I'm fairly certain I will continue to race in SCCA in 2012, most likely still the Spec Miatas. But I want to try other types of cars next year, if I can. I still have lots to learn, even after 3 years of racing school, and trying new cars will really accelerate my learning. That fact will probably make my event participation haphazard - one month in a Formula Vee, another in a Miata, yet another maybe in a BMW E30. I probably won't be in it for any championship.

But these are predictions. I once wrote that humans are terrible calculators. Extrapolating from that viewpoint, humans are even worse fortune tellers. I'm sure 2012 will hold plenty of surprises.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We still have at least 5 races left in 2011 (maybe even 6)!

First we finish out the season in Spec Miata. There are 2 races at Mazda raceway Laguna Seca next weekend October 1st-2nd. It's another one of those two-day compacted weekends. So far the attendance roster is the thinnest we've seen this year, only 31 Spec Miatas are registered as of today. After seeing fields of over 50 at Infineon, it's really easy to say "only" 31. Considering the economic situation right now, that's still a pretty sweet number. Even in a "cheap" class, it's still hard on people. It's amazing to have 60-car fields at all.

After Mazda Raceway we head to Thunderhill for October 21-23, which is going to finish out the season with the final single-race. Double the points are on offer, so this is a big one to make count. At the end of the weekend, the Racing Driver's Club (of which I'm a member) is holding a 4-hour endurance race called the Illgen Classic, and I'm going to be driving in it using the 78 Spec Miata I've been using this season. The team isn't final just yet, but you'll hear all about it prior to the weekend once everything is sorted out.

A week after that is a little surprise. On the 29th there is going to be a get-together of most of the old crew from karting at Jim Russell (Jim Russell has changed it's name to Simraceway Performance Driving Center in partnership with a new simulator hitting the market). We'll run some races on the Infineon karting circuit and just generally have a blast. It's going to be good to see the guys again, and getting back in those trusty old karts. I've heard they've made some improvements.

Then comes the big one. And this one is also not final.

The National Auto Sport Association 25 Hours of Thunderhill is the longest road race in the country. It's a true test of even the best drivers and cars. Naturally it runs non-stop through the night, rain or shine. We will modify the car with a more powerful lump (engine), and run it with 4 or 5 drivers. The stints will probably be on the order of two hours at a time in the car. That comes in December.

I couldn't think of a better way to end out 2011 than with the 25 hour.

In terms of the SCCA Sunoco championship, I'm looking good for at least a 3rd place finish in my rookie year in SSM. I'm 4th in points behind my team mate, Dave Allen. However, Dave is going to have to drop two races from his points total at the end of the season, whereas I do not, since I missed two SSM points finishes earlier in the year (you'll recall I had to change classes when the motor had to be rebuilt at the Spec Miata Festival race, and that prevented me from getting SSM points). I'm 10 points behind Dave so assuming he drops races worth more than 10 points (which he will), I will claim 3rd place at least.

Mike Niemann and David Petruska occupy the first and second spots, and they are both far enough ahead that I don't have a chance at catching them. This is the top 5 as they sit now:

1 Michael Niemann: 262
2 David Petruska: 258
3 David Allen: 188
4 Gregory Evans: 178
5 Alan Gjedsted: 168

Dave Allen and I have similar pace at the moment. I'm faster at Mazda Raceway, though, and with two races there coming up, I stand to gain some points on him.

The tire situation is playing out well, too. The Toyo RA-1s look to be good for about two race weekends plus a test day for running the tires in and making them fast. I will use my Infineon set next weekend at Mazda Raceway (which is a track that is hard on tires, but Infineon is easy on them, so they have plenty of life left), and the final set I will use at Thunderhill. The set I am saving for Thunderhill is really fast. So it works out perfectly - four sets of tires for 7 race weekends and 4 test days (the test days were in order to run the tires in and make them fast). I won't be doing test days before these race weekends, though, so I will need to be fast out of the gate. Both the enduros will each eat their own sets of tires of course.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

(150) Driving According to the Chump #6: At the Office

Wow, it's been over a year and a half since I last talked about driving techniques. I've learned a lot since then so I should probably write another Chump article.

This time I want to talk about your working environment - the office. How you interact with the office is going to determine your performance on the track. If your working environment is inhospitable for whatever reason, it's going to upset you in certain ways, and that's going to translate into mistakes, bad judgement, frustration, and just plain slowness.

The office of a racing car does not usually look very pretty. Typical racing cockpits are full of plain, functional, sometimes depressing-looking equipment - straps to hold you down like some kind of weird operating chair, panels with large gaps, exposed metal, wires and tubes all over the place, copious amounts of cheap plastic, exposed epoxy and welds, and, naturally, lots of duct tape. You wouldn't think that kind of aesthetic would result in a pleasing place to be. The secret is ergonomics.

 A Porsche race car cockpit. This is pretty luxurious as far as race cars go.

Ergonomics make the whole thing tick. The racing driver must be happy, otherwise he won't go very fast. So the cockpit has to be able to let him use the controls with ease and precision, and it has to be comfortable.

Yes, the racing cockpit is loud, hot, and vibrates the heck out of you - but it is the initial comfort which negates these things in a lot of ways and makes it bearable.

Comfort in the cockpit is down to a number of key areas:

The seat (very important) and how it hugs your body.
The driving position.
The ease of use of the controls and the control positions.
The visibility.
The safety devices, including escape means.
Auxiliary equipment such as radios, cool shirts, elbow or knee pads, ventilation, and ear plugs.

If these areas are well implemented, the cockpit becomes a very nice place to be and work.

So let's start at the top, shall we?

The seat.

The seat is easily the most important bit for making a comfortable work environment. If the seat doesn't fit you properly, then no amount of tweaking in the other areas is going to make much of a difference.

The seat does not need to be very soft. You're not going for Cadillac leather and mountains of foam and feathers here. It doesn't need to be bare metal but it should be fairly rigid. This is a safety measure in addition to a performance measure. The more seamlessly you mesh with the car, the more you can feel it, and the safer you'll be in a crash - the car will take the energy of the impact for you.

As such, a hard foam-insert, form fitted seat is undoubtedly the best option. The driver basically sits in a bath of expanding foam covered with trash bags. He stays there until the seat hardens. As long as the driver doesn't grow too much, the seat insert will work for years and years and remain as comfortable as ever. It can take a few tries to get it right, because the driver needs to sit very still and hold the ideal position (which is a very neutral spine and hip position). The main problem with a traditional seat is that they tend to force a driver into an unnatural position. The seat designers will do everything in their power to ensure the best fit for everyone, but everyone is a little bit different, so even the very best Recaro seat will never be a perfect fit off the shelf.

With a form-fitted insert seat, the driver can adopt their most natural, comfortable position, and the seat will hold them in place perfectly for as long as the insert remains rigid.

The driving position.

The driving position, after the seat itself, is next on the list of important comfort features. It's also the most involved

The ideal driving position allows you to see easily, to reach all the controls without stretching, and to ideally operate said controls.

As we all know from driving road cars, adjustable steering and pedal position is just as important as adjusting the seat. Unfortunately most racing cars do not have adjustable steering. Most pedals can be bent or otherwise manipulated side to side or up and down, but again very few can be moved forward and back. Most of the adjustment in a racing car comes from moving the seat around. Fortunately, because race seats are bolted down and usually don't have electric motors or rollers under them, they have quite a wide range of adjustment.

Now, the most important feature of setting up the driving position is to be comfortable operating the steering, pedals and shifter. Since everyone is different in size and proportion, my method of setting the seat might not work for everyone. But I encourage you to try it, because you might find you like it.

The first thing I do when fitting into a new car is to reference the seat distance and height relative to the pedals. I find that my pedal work is best when the bottom of the seat is as level as possible with the pedals. Sometimes in street cars this is hard to do - I usually just drop the seat as far as it will go, unless that impacts my visibility.

Sometimes formula cars actually have the pedals well above the bottom of the seat - this is fine, as long as they aren't too high. "Too high" is hard to quantify because of the varying levels of recline available in modern formula cars. In a modern Star Mazda car, for instance, the driver is practically laying in bed. Really, the only thing you're trying to avoid is having your femur bone's range of motion restricted by the bottom of the seat. You need the full range of movement from each of your leg joints available.

You get the full range of motion by setting the pedals at the right distance. I choose the longest pedal (usually the clutch in street-derived cars, but in racing cars sometimes it is the throttle) and set the seat so that when I press the longest pedal fully, it is not a stretch, but it uses the most range of motion in my joints possible. For example, when I press the clutch to the floor in the Miata, my leg is very nearly straight, but my ankle is not, thus avoiding stretching. This also makes heel-toe much easier - you're just moving the feet around, not the whole leg.

There is a similar philosophy when setting the distance from the steering wheel as well. You should be able to keep your hands at the 9 and 3 positions throughout as much of the rotation as possible. In reality this will probably be about 120-140 degrees from center, maybe a little less.

The method for achieving this is a little more involved. First, the center of the steering wheel should be level with your shoulders. That will give you the most range of motion with your arms up and down. Second, the steering wheel should be close enough to you so that at no point does your arm become straight, and it should not be so close that you have your arms bump your torso during the rotation.

Now, it may be that you drive a formula car that has 12 inch wide front tires, 3,000 pounds of downforce and no power steering. If so, the steering will be quite heavy indeed (IndyCar drivers have equated it to carrying a 35 pound weight in each hand while trying to turn).

If this is the case then you're going to have to sit closer to the wheel in order to not get destroyed physically while driving the car. The situation is also different on ovals. Again, the grip generated on an oval is high, so the steering is heavier than a road course would be. Plus the corners are long, so stock car drivers sit with the wheel very close to them so that they can really lean into it and not get tired.

The reason why I prefer to put the steering as far away from me as possible without having straight arms is because that causes me to use my wrists and forearms more than my upper arms and shoulders. This goes for the pedals, too - using your ankle and calf to push is more precise than your thighs and hips. The further down the limb you go, the more delicacy you get. Try writing a note with your elbow, or balancing on your knees. The downside is this uses more energy, since the smaller muscles are less efficient for doing heavy tasks. So you have to compromise. How much power do I want, and how much precision am I willing to give up to get it?

Note that this "extend and gain precision" philosophy doesn't apply to everything. One thing I like to equate it to is handgun handling. If you watch the fastest speed-shooters, you will see that they reload the weapon very close to their body. When free-handing something like that, it is usually best to have it close to you in order to have better control over it's mass. Pedals and steering are different though. You're not holding the steering or pedals in the air, they are supported by the car. Pedals and steering are like the trigger on the gun. When you pull a trigger, it is better to have the tip of your finger contacting the trigger, rather than shoving the whole finger completely through the trigger guard and pulling it with your knuckle. The reasons are the same - giving yourself the greatest possible range of movement engages your precision muscles more.

You can see this at work sitting at your desk. Simply pretend you're holding a wheel, and try turning it while it is close to you and far away. Pay attention to your forearm and wrist movement. You will see your forearms engaged more with the wheel further away. Alternatively, try holding a weight with your arm extended (but not totally straight). Count the seconds. Now try holding it closer. You will be able to hold it up longer with it close to you because compacting your arm (reducing the range of movement) causes you to use the larger muscles closer to your torso (upper arms and shoulders). That's why you move the steering closer when you want more strength. It's just leverage really.

Finally, third and very importantly, the steering should be as straight up and down as possible. Many, many street cars have tilted steering wheels, and this causes the driver to stretch too much at the top, and compact too much at the bottom of the rotation. Sometimes this is the only way to fit the steering, however, since there is limited room in the engine bay for the steering shaft and any accompanying joints (like those required for a straight steering wheel).

This is some video I got in a practice session at Infineon. I wanted to see what I was doing as a driver, and it shows my seating position and control manipulation pretty well.

Driver view.

Now, based on what I wrote above, you will probably find things wrong with my seating position. That's the idea!

The first thing you'll probably notice is my arms are very, very nearly straight when they reach the top of the wheel. I would absolutely not put the steering any further away than this. The Miata's steering is very light for a racing car, and even with this extended driving position I don't even get close to having tired or sore arms after a long 4-day weekend. If I was driving the Skip Barber Formula 2000, I would be closer to the wheel because it is heavier.

The problem is the Miata's steering wheel is not straight up and down. So when my hand goes to the top of the wheel, the arm extends further. The other problem is the HANS device attached to my helmet. You'll notice that even with the reclined driving position, it still shoves my head forward a little bit. If I make the seat a little more straight up and down in order to get my shoulders a bit closer to the wheel, I'll be forced to stare at the dash, not the road.

You will also notice the wheel is slightly too high. I decided to compromise the steering just a tiny bit in order to be at a more comfortable level with the pedals. Comfort is the goal here. The best driving position in the world is of no use if it makes the driver uncomfortable. If any of the things I say here make you uncomfortable, drop them and forget them. Being uncomfortable on the race track isn't just slow, it can be dangerous. So I decided to compromise the method a little, and gain more comfort.

Very briefly I want to talk about what the driver should be doing once everything is set up to his liking. This is slightly off topic so I'll make it quick.

The most important thing is to relax all the muscles not related to driving, or supporting the driver, and to only have the muscles as tense as they need to be, especially with the steering. If you look at the video again and pay attention to my hands, you'll see they are only gripping the wheel enough to keep it from coming out of my hands. In fact some of my fingers aren't clasped at all.

Also, when I turn the wheel, I pull it down, I don't push it up. The outside hand does less work. Pulling down utilizes gravity, and a more natural feeling grip on the wheel. Of course, you probably shouldn't do it all with one hand and just let the other be limp, but I emphasize pulling down.

Oh, and you'll also notice I reposition my hands on the wheel occasionally. It's a nasty habit that I've been trying to kick and I've been doing it less and less. I only do it in the Miata for some reason.

The rest.

The post is already running a bit long so I'll touch on the other points.

Regarding visibility, you need to be able to see the track, but you don't need to see the hood of the car. Being in a race car I sit pretty low, both for the pedals and to keep the weight low in the chassis. I can probably see the track disappear about 20-25 feet in front of the nose. If you take a look at my onboard race videos, the camera is a bit higher than my eyes. Racing drivers look far down the track. If you look 20 feet in front of the car, there is virtually no time to react. I can see well enough to see where the car is placed on the track, and I can see through the side windows properly. I could give myself a better view of the road directly in front of the car, but doing so would make me uncomfortable using the controls, so overall there wouldn't be a gain. And make sure you have a big mirror - my rear view mirror extends all the way across the cockpit and offers tremendous visibility. The side mirrors should be adjusted to give you a view of what's beside the car. The rear view mirror is for the stuff behind you, the sides for the stuff beside you. Properly set up mirrors practically eliminate blind spots.

What properly set-up side mirrors provide. A large rear-view mirror takes up the rest of the blind areas.

On safety devices, choosing the most comfortable safety devices does a lot to make the cockpit more bearable. A lightweight, breathable suit with enough nomex layers to give you good protection is worth investing in. My suit (a Sparco X-light) has 3 layers and weighs a lot less than most 2-layer suits. The HANS device is the most comfortable and practical head restraint solution I've tried, and once the belts are on you don't even know you have it. Speaking of belts, making the belts properly tight also helps comfort. The belts should be uncomfortably tight while in pit lane, but once you get out there and the vibrations start settling everything in, properly tight belts hold you in and make you more secure and comfortable.

There is a trick to properly tightening the belts. The first thing you should do is to clasp and tighten the lap belt. Get the lap belt as tight as you can make it with it clasped across your pelvis. The reason is to make sure it stays in contact with your pelvis while you tighten the shoulder straps. A lap belt that rides up and sits on your gut can cause you tremendous problems in a frontal crash.

With the lap belts tightened, now you can tighten the shoulder belts. Pull the straps so they are snug over your neck restraint device and won't slip off. Next comes the big trick. It is often claimed that shoulder belts cannot be properly tightened by the driver. This is false. You just have to do it right.

Let's tighten the right strap first. Bring your left hand over your chest and grab the end of the strap. Now bring your right arm up and place your forearm on top of the left hand. This is to provide extra leverage and to allow the next step to work.

With the arms in place, now all you have to do is push/pull down on the strap with a pretty good amount of force. As you do this, drop your right shoulder down an inch or two.

Repeat the process on the left side, switching your left and right hand positions. Your belts will now be so tight they will hurt. Once you start rolling down pit lane, adrenaline and vibrations will remove the pain. I've found that with my HANS device, I can get the belts tighter because of the padding under the device that makes the whole thing a lot more comfortable.

Just make sure to take the extra 2 seconds and arrange your manhood properly if you have an anti-submarine belt. You don't want anything out of order once you have your belts tight - it's not fun, especially in the braking zones.

While you're out on the track, give your shoulder belts a pull every couple of laps, just to make sure they are staying tight.

If you don't have a window net, you're not racing. I'm pretty sure every wheel to wheel racing series mandates a window net, or window protection of some kind. Window protection allows you to lift the visor on your helmet safely. Doing so makes the heat much more manageable. A cool suit is a godsend, and a must on really hot days. If you have a ventilation system, make sure the intake is filtered, or in a place that can get cool air without delivering smoke and dirt into your face.

Also make sure that you know and practice the escape procedure in your car. Get good at opening the window, unbuckling, and climbing out without opening the door, all with your eyes closed. If you're confident you can get out even with the door smashed and on fire then you'll be more confident on track.

A radio, even for club racing, is very useful if you have someone to spot for you. Even if the information is just about local yellows it will still be a huge benefit. If you get a radio, invest in some custom earpieces. Custom earpieces will fit under the helmet much, much better. Even if they are simply for sound protection, it's still worth getting custom fitted plugs.

Finally, the gauges are also very important. All the information should be available to the driver, from speed to oil pressure, with the most important information being large, centrally located, and possibly brightly colored. You should have lights that tell you when to shift. I don't, and I wish I did. If possible, the information should be digital. This helps with relaying info to the team, or self-diagnosis. It's one thing to see that the water is running hot at 2 o' clock, it's quite another to see that it is at 208 degrees.

An AIM data display, with RPM, shift lights, speed, current gear, oil pressure, lap time, water temperature, and room for other custom value displays such as tire or brake temperature. These types of gadgets make me drool.

All these things help you perform on track.

Ten tips to a good working environment:

1. Relax as much as you can, and take a light grip on the wheel. Your driving will be much more lucid.
2. Do your best to get the optimum range of movement of your limbs given the seating/control adjustments available to you.
3. Don't be afraid to compromise your seating position a little in the name of comfort.
4. Use comfortable safety solutions and practice using them to escape the car. It will boost your confidence.
5. Get visibility where it matters. You don't need to see 5 feet in front of the car, but you do need good mirrors that are set up properly.
6. Get a custom-fitted seat if you can. If not, use of firm foam pillows can improve your off-the-shelf seat.
7. Make sure the auxiliary equipment functions simply and is reachable with your belts tight. A confusing start-up procedure is disastrous should you stall. Simple is fast.
8. Try to maximize ventilation to the driver, but also don't let dirt and stones into the cockpit.
9. A steering wheel that is straight up and down is important, if possible.
10. Breathe evenly and calmly. Holding your breath might be necessary in some corners if you are driving a very high-G car, but for everyone else you need to breathe, and don't forget to blink.

Monday, September 12, 2011

(149) Shark attack part 2

And so our little story continues.

After the morning's 4th place finish I was feeling pretty good. The SCCA gives out complimentary trophies to competitors. If there are more than 10 cars in a race, they give trophies down to 4th. If more than 20, they go down to 5th. For the first race of a double weekend, you get a nice picture trophy with your name and your finishing position. You get to pick which picture to use. It's really swell, and they had a great picture of me waving to the volunteer corner workers on the cool down lap.

The damage incurred during the race to the passenger door was purely superficial. All that was required was a duct tape patch in order to make it clear to corner workers that the damage was from a previous session. If you don't do that you might get called in at the end of the session for body contact.

With the car patched up I headed out for afternoon qualifying.

The weather was looking really good so I knew the track would be grippy. Maybe that gave me a little too much confidence, because I over-drove slightly. I put it 4th in Sealed Spec Miata and 28th overall with a 1:59.933. I was only one and a bit tenths behind my team mate, Dave Allen.

Since Infineon is my home track with a pretty simple 40-minute drive to home, I was able to sleep in my own bed at night. But the real benefit was I got to wash my nomex undersuit every night. Only this night I forgot to get it out and let it dry, so in the morning it was still soaked and it wouldn't dry for the race. So I broke out the karting gear - an old Alpinestars t-shirt and a pair of soft shorts.

The race was unfortunately delayed due to a formula car incident in the previous group. The ambulance was busy delivering drivers to the hospital, with minor injuries (or so I hear, that might not be accurate - as far as I'm concerned, hospitalization is never minor). Since the ambulance was not at the track, racing could not continue. So the start was delayed a couple of hours.

The start of the race was much tighter this time. I started on the outside this time, presumably because someone did not start. We were 3 wide through turn 1, and I had very little room to work in turn 2. The 2-wide business continued through turn 6.

On the second lap I found myself wishing for my nomex undersuit. The car's exhaust runs right by my right leg, so it gets hot in the footwell. My legs were sweating, and the heavy nomex suit was flapping wetly against my legs on every shift and in every turn. It was not pleasant, and very distracting.

Still, I managed to keep my pace high, and I ended up setting my fastest lap of the weekend at a 1:59.218, which was only about one hundredth of a second faster than Dave Allen (1:59.229). After the 3rd or 4th lap, I found the car was acting more overtsteery than usual. The increase in temperature from the delay must have cause my tires to over-pressurize slightly, giving me less grip in the rear and making the handling a little trickier. The highlights of the race are scarce, but there were a few key events.

About halfway through the run, David Petruska and Juan Pineda had an unplanned coming together in turn 11. This left Juan with a stalled car and David with a damaged one. Dave is usually a front-runner in Sealed, most of the time finishing ahead of me and Dave Allen, but this time he had to let most of the field pass by due to his damage.

Towards the end I get on the tail of Cameron Rogers in the black 74 and Jon Davies in the 25, both SMT drivers. Cameron got a run on Jon going through the downhill section, and I could see he was setting up a pass in turn 10. I decided to follow him past Jon. So I tucked up close to Cameron, probably no more than an inch or two off his rear bumper, and scavenged another position. Coach Ric said he was "doing jumping jacks" while watching that move. I guess that means he thought it was pretty slick! In the very next turn Cameron had a big slide and slightly over-corrected, temporarily giving me his spot. It did not take him long to re-acquire the position due to his much more powerful SMT engine.

In the end, I finished in 3rd spot with Dave Allen in 2nd. Premier Auto Service lands both cars on the podium! Car owner Ed Railton was very happy about that.

Enough blabber, just watch the race!

Race 10 full onboard footage.

I really prefer these types of races, the sort of long distance fights where pace over the whole run matters more than the face-to-face brawling Spec Miata normally incurs. It's like the difference between the O.K. Corral gunfight and a sniper duel over a thousand yards. One is about reactions and ferocity, the other about precision and planning. I'm good at both, but I prefer the latter.

It was an awesome weekend and I'm very, very pleased with the results. Even if Dave Allen gained some points on me in the championship. We'll see how that plays out when we head back to Mazda Raceway next month.