Thursday, June 30, 2011

(144) Gentleman's club

It's the middle of the San Francisco SCCA season, and that means it's time to look at points. Here are the top ten drivers in the championship for Sealed Spec Miata after 6 rounds (25 drivers in total):

1. David Petruska: 154
2. Michael Niemann: 154
3. Alan Gjedsted: 114
4. David Allen: 104
5. Gregory Evans: 86
6. Fred Peterson: 78
7 Bob Murillo: 76
8 Joe Kalinowski: 64
9 David Anderson: 62
10 Joshua Fine: 60

The rest of the points can be found here: regional championship points standings

The reason why I'm occupying the fifth spot is because of last weekend. I got no points in the Sealed class because of the fact we had to break the seals in order to fix the engine. During the season we are allowed two drop races, which means only the highest 11 points earnings will count towards the championship. I've now used both of my drop races. Everything from here on goes on the board.

I'm finding racing with the SCCA most enjoyable. My fellow racers are a friendly bunch. Most racers are friendly, but the guys in Spec Miata take it to the next level. They're extended family. If you need a part, or a helping hand, they will share. If you need advice, they will share. Gentleman's racing is definitely still alive and kicking. Obviously in SCCA club racing there isn't that professional bent, but that also removes the win at all costs attitude that tends to go with it.

I wanna help the club along a little bit so I'm volunteering to man a new member signup booth at the Grand Am event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on the 9th next month. I won't be deskbound all day so I will be able to roam around and take photos for you guys, as well as talk to some teams and network a bit. Grand Am is a real option for me to move up the ranks so meeting people in the paddock will be important.

Finally, I'll leave you with the 6th regional race onboard footage. It's not terribly exciting but it's still racing. I mostly chase the white #40 driven by Kyle Gayman. He was proving really tough to get by and I ended up only having one chance to do it in the whole race. Unfortunately it wasn't enough.

There is a full course caution behind the safety car in the middle of the race for a beached car in turn 6. Again, I'm racing in the SMT class this time due to the broken seals situation. This was after the car was fixed, and I was able to qualify for the race. I started 13th overall, and finished 13th overall (12th in class).

Race 6 onboard footage.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

(143) Hardship lap

Back to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for races 5 and 6 in the San Francisco Region SCCA Sunoco Challenge. This weekend was a bit different due to the inclusion of the Spec Miata Festival race, as well as a rare test day at Laguna Seca. It was going to be a big weekend.

We started out early on the test day by meeting Ric McCormick for another day of coaching. We started off by driving around the edge of the circuit to talk about some lines and reference points. The test day was going to give me a ton of track time, about two and a half hours of green flag running. We slapped the test set of tires on after a thorough briefing with Ric and off I went under the fog.

I immediately set the fastest time I've had on the dash lap timer, which was a 1:49.2. Unfortunately, the tires started to fall off later in the session and I never got better than that. Ric continued to work with me through the day and we made a ton of progress on my driving, though my times got slower and slower as the day went on because of the tires. They were completely cooked at the end of the day and the right front had cords showing. That's not the way to get the best stick out of them. By then it was hard to get a 1:51.

In terms of what Ric was teaching me, we mostly focused on driver smoothness, footwork, and using all the track. Mazda Raceway has very gentle curbs. Actually they're not curbs, they're just chatter strips really. Figuring out when to use them and when to avoid them is still a little puzzle to work out. Sometimes using them as you enter a corner can destabalize the car, or it can give you an extra 2 feet of track to work with. After Ric's coaching, I felt like I was ready for the weekend. Ric said my turn 6, a very fast, blind left hander at the bottom of the hill that goes to the Corkscrew, was pretty much perfect. Makes sense to me because I love that corner. I gained time on every car that I was behind when we would go through turn 6.

On Friday, we went out for practice in the morning. We put my newer race tires on the Miata with the optimized pressures we worked out on the test day. As I pulled out of pit lane, I noticed the car sounded slightly raspy, and a little louder. More like the fully built cars in the class above me. I decided to wait and see what it sounded like in another lap or two. I didn't have long to wait.

On lap 3, heading up the hill to the Corkscrew, I heard and felt a loud knock coming from the engine. I immediately pulled it in, it sounded pretty serious. Back at the pit, we decided to break the seals on the engine in order to find out what was wrong. The cams and valves looked fine, so owner Ed Railton pulled the head in order to look in the cylinders. He found a connecting rod had stretched, and the piston head was hitting the cylinder head.

The further away of the two piston heads shows signs of hitting the cylinder head. Who ever thought a lack of build-up was a bad thing?

The hitting wasn't bad. It wasn't enough to damage the valves. Really all it did was clean off the edges of the piston head. But if allowed to continue it would have caused serious problems.

I thought my weekend was going to be over. But Ed, being awesome, suggested he trailer it the two and a half hours north, back to the shop, where he would spend the night rebuilding the engine. I asked him if he really wanted to do that, if it would be too much trouble. But he said no, it would be nice, because he could take his time and do it right. He said he'd enjoy it.

It's times like these I'm really glad I walked into that shop with the race cars out front many months ago. I couldn't ask for a cooler car owner.

The only other session that was scheduled for Friday afternoon was qualifying. Obviously I wasn't going to make that. So a bunch of us from around the paddock pushed the car onto the trailer (with me steering, since I'm the lightest), and Ed headed homeward with the little Miata in tow after he was done qualifying in his Spec Racer Ford. Either the car would be there in the morning, and we'd know things went smoothly, or it wouldn't, in which case my weekend was over as far as racing was concerned. I was confident in Ed.

At the end of the day of racing, a special Spec Miata photo was to be taken of all the running Miatas near the Corkscrew. I hitched a ride with my team mate, David Allen. Spec Miatas have no passenger seats so I had to crouch as we went around the track at 35 MPH. We took a number of photos.

During the evening we held the party for the Spec Miata Festival. All the Miata drivers came over to our end of the paddock, where Cook Motorsports had set up a fantastic dinner and raffle. Most of the drivers brought raffle prizes, ranging from wine to books to gloves and everything inbetween. SCCA had a bunch of prizes, including free test days and race entries, and of course Mazda brought some prizes, in the form of $2,000 to be split among many prize winners. There were so many prizes and winners I began to lose track. Just about everyone got something it seemed. I myself got a case of beer (yes, I'm 21) and a free test day at Infineon!

In the morning, we drove into the paddock, waved at the gate guard, and peered into our pits for a silver and yellow striped car as we drove up. We didn't have far to look.

There was the little dude, in the same spot we pulled it's heart apart, with a small puddle of coolant underneath. We went to find miracle worker Ed to get the sitrep.

Ed had stayed up till about 3 AM putting the engine back together in a tremendous show of commitment to his machines. The only remaining issue was to get a new clamp on a coolant hose that had a small leak, which was the source of the puddle. 5 minutes later and the 78 Miata was ship-shape and ready for a shakedown. I trotted off to find the chief steward to get approval for a "hardship lap", which is a lap for a single car in order to check that it is running smoothly. I would be released at the end of a session while the cars were making their cooldown and victory laps.

Before I went out for the lap, coach Ric came by and presented me with a loaner radio. We would use the radio in the race so that he could spot for me as I made my way from the back of the pack, since I missed qualifying. The hardship lap would be a good time to test it.

A little bit later I was released from pit lane to start the cooldown lap. Ric was in my ear testing comms in each corner. The Miata felt really good. It felt like it had more power, and the engine was running smooth as silk. When I got back, we found that the mild oil evaporation issue with the last engine was gone. No more topping it up between sessions.

I could hear Ric in the radio except from turn 5 to turn 9. Kind of a big dead spot but he couldn't see me there from the tower anyway.

Unfortunately, since the engine had to be rebuilt, that also meant I had to change classes. Normally I run in the Sealed Spec Miata class. The engines have seals put on them, ensuring a level playing field in terms of horsepower and reducing the cost to compete. The problem is, the Sealed cars have less horsepower than the "fully built" SMTs, which run at the same time as the Sealed cars (SMT is Spec Miata - Toyo). Since we had to open the engine, the seals were broken, and I was no longer legal for the Sealed class. So I became a "smut". The points from Sealed were forfeit, and I was now competing against cars with 10 or 15 more horsepower and in some cases, a lot more torque.

Now it's time to race. This was going to be my first time, ever, starting where I "should not have". That is to say, in the back, by virtue of no fast time. 60 cars were ahead of me. I should have been starting ahead of at least 45 of them. This was going to be interesting. Have a gander at this footage.

Regional #5 footage, from the back. And yes, that is from the very start. The back of the pack is always a mess because there isn't enough time for the entire field to get properly gridded up.

Dramatic. Disappointing. Surprising.

This is what I've pieced together after talking with the other drivers and reviewing the footage in slow motion. The silver 08 car driven by John Grillos missed a shift. He was having transmission issues all weekend. My exhaust is quiet. We shifted at pretty much the same time, so when I let out the clutch, his motor revved in neutral. I thought it was me. So I looked down at my gear stick in order to fix it (I can't really just put my hand on the stick while racing and have enough mental precision to feel it in neutral versus 3rd gear, with such a short-throw gearshift). When I verified I was good to go, I looked up, and I was on a collision course with John.

The blue 10 car of Christopher LaBouff was in the process of going by John to the inside. All I saw were cars on the right side. I figured, in a split second, that the left offered the clearest track. So I went left.

Once I was along side, John must have looked up from fixing his transmission and, like me, saw Christopher to the inside. He steered left, only the left side of the track wasn't clear. I was there. So, we collided, lightly. The only damage that was done from the initial impact was some rubber donuts down my door.

Once we were both off-track, we spun. I spun around 180 degrees to face backwards. John spun 360 degrees. As I came to a rest, and as John was getting straight, his car hit mine fairly hard in the right rear. Since I was facing backwards, his right side hit my right side.

My suspension was bent, the car would barely corner, and at speeds above 60, it was wiggling the rear end fairly severely, as well as not tracking straight. So I retired.

Back in the pits the damage, apart from the bent suspension components, looked pretty cosmetic, and it was limited to the rear quarter panel and suspension.

The damage. This was taken after we cleaned most of the marks and things off.

The damage was quickly repaired by Ed, who has really had his work cut out for him this weekend.

Next was qualifying. Thankfully we got two qualifying sessions, with the second qualifying determining positions for both regional 6, and the Spec Miata festival race.

I started out by going a bit slowly down pit lane. I wanted to build a gap to the cars in front. Normally everyone just charges out all at once and they get all squashed. I just went a bit slower and got a gap. Unfortunately the stewards didn't take to this idea, and I got reprimanded when the session was over. Just a slap on the wrists, but I know not to do it again.

With Ric in my ear, the qualifying session went really well. I hit very little traffic, took some time in the middle to cool off the tires, and I ended up setting my fastest time ever at Mazda Raceway, with a 1:48.48 lap, which put me 13th overall on the grid for race 6.

Race 6 went fairly well. I lost a couple of positions on the start due to my lack of horsepower relative to the other SMTs with fully built engines. Sealed Spec cars always have trouble on starts due to that discrepancy. A really good start for a Sealed car just means you don't get passed by SMTs going into turn 1. But due to a couple of spins I made those positions back up.

Most of the race was spent chasing the number 40 wheeled by Kyle Gayman. His engine was a 1.8 liter, mine a 1.6, but he had a weight penalty. I would catch him in the corners but he would pull me on the straights, especially going up the hill to turn 8, the Corkscrew. In the end I never quite got an ideal opportunity to get by, and I finished 13th overall, 12th in class. Man, I wish I was in the Sealed class. I would have finished 2nd. But that award went to team-mate David Allen.

In the Spec Miata Festival race, a number of cars did not start. So I got moved up a little bit right away from my starting position. Sadly, most of my race was spent alone, with the only real racing excitement coming when cars spun in front of me and I caught them. I ended up finishing 9th overall and 8th in class. Again I would have got second in Sealed Spec and a nice trophy. But oh well.

All in all, it was a fantastic, if trying weekend.

A real adventure.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

(142) Tire kicker

I like test driving cars. I like comparing them, and the sense of discovery you get when you explore a car's traits.

So far the cars I've raced have all been very different, from the kart at Jim Russell, to the Formula 2000 car at Skip Barber, to now the Spec Miata under Ed Railton's ownership. Going from the kart to the F2000 was a big jump. But going from the F2000 to the Miata doesn't seem so different.

The very first thing you notice when you start to push the Miata, when compared to the F2000, is the weight balance. The F2000 has a lot of weight in the rear, like a Porsche. That makes it kinda iffy when entering corner, as you try to rotate the car with that big mass back there. It does rotate, you just need to finesse it more using your feet (brake and gas inputs) to get it right.

The Miata, at least from the factory, has even weight distribution front to back (once you strip it out and add a roll cage that changes a little, but it's sill mostly "perfectly" balanced). That means it behaves very similarly when both exiting and entering corners. It's like the difference between trying to balance a pencil on your finger, and a screwdriver. The screwdriver is very uneven in it's weighting. It's harder to manage balancing it there. The pencil is easy, because front to back it's basically the same. It's pretty similar principle when you're switching to "balancing" a car while entering a corner, using the brake. Just more complicated.

The Miata also has more physical grip than the F2000, thanks to the slick tires (the F2000 has street tires). But it weighs more, almost twice as much as the formula car, so the actual G forces while cornering are about the same (about 1.3 G, maybe 1.5 with good banking). The F2000's suspension is also very soft for a formula car, so both cars move around under you much the same. There is one dip, right after the apex of turn 11 at Mazda Raceway, that feels and affects both the cars in pretty much the same way. Speaking of weight, with much less horsepower (113 as opposed to 150), that added weight really saps the acceleration. At Mazda Raceway, the Miata will only graze 100 MPH on the main straight. The formula car will do about 108.

The biggest difference, though, is the addition of fenders and the sheer size of the Miata. Yes, it's a tiny car, and the roofline is at my belly button, and it only takes about two strides to go from one end of the car to the other, but it's still massive to me, because most of my racing has been in the kart, and the F2000 was pretty miniscule as well. Nevertheless, I do overestimate the Miata's size in racing conditions some times. I do that towards the end of this new video and a car driven by Cameron Rogers squeezes by on the main straight, which was during race 1 from last weekend at Laguna Seca.

Race 1 from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on May 28th.

I really didn't think he could fit through there.

The next race is going to be on June 18th. It's a big one, the Spec Miata Festival. 4 days of driving, including a test day with a bunch of hours of running, and 3 races over the weekend. I've got myself a bigger memory card for the Contour so I'll be able to catch all the action on camera.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

(141) Return to Laguna

I knew race #3 was going to be interesting the moment I learned it was to be a 2-day event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Normally SCCA regional events are double-format, three-day affairs, with two "sanction numbers" being run on each weekend, such as the last weekend at Thunderhill which held races #1 and #2. During the weekend you get one practice, two qualifying runs, and two races of course.

But, track time at Laguna is at a premium this year. The club is so tight on scheduling that we actually only get one test day in the entire year, which is going to be in front of the Spec Miata Festival event next month, which is, thankfully, a 3-day event minus the test day.

The track time constraints are only part of the equation though. The other half is the stringent sound policies in place at Mazda Raceway, since there are lots of homeowners nearby. The sound level limits actually change during the day, with under 90db in the mornings and late afternoons, and more open 103db levels in the midday.

Combine the two factors, lack of track time and the need to fit certain classes into the appropriate sound window, and you've got a nightmare scheduling job.

Unfortunately, there was simply not enough time available to get everyone the normal amount of sessions, so one qualifying session was dropped. That means both races would have the same grid order, so you had only one shot to get your spot for the races. And now we have yet another problem.

Normally Spec Miata has so many entries that the club separates practice and qualifying sessions so that odd numbered cars all run one session, then the even numbered cars will run a session. This effectively splits the field and allows you more space on the race track.

This time, there was no room for that. All 50 cars had to be on track at the same time for both practice and qualifying.

So, combine all these factors, including the fact I've never driven at Mazda Raceway in the Miata, and I have one busy weekend. I needed to get up to speed very quickly.

The Miatas were the first guys out. The track wasn't terribly "green", since the Skip Barber schools run there as well as plenty of track days, so the track still had some rubber on it. The weather was gorgeous even at 8:30 in the morning, which, in Monterey, can sometimes be fairly fogged in.

Good morning, Mazda Raceway.

On track I immediately realized that traffic was going to be a real problem. In 20 minutes of running, I got maybe 2 mostly clean laps. In those laps I set high 1:49 times, about 2 seconds off the pace of the fastest SSM piloted by Michael Niemann. Without more clean laps, improvement was going to be real difficult. But I was happy I was able to get decently quick times in the first session. All the running with Skip Barber in the F2000 there last year helped a ton.

The Miata really likes Mazda Raceway. Or, at least, mine did. The car was set up fairly "loose" from the get-go, and it was easy to make the tail come around. It seemed to like it that way, and especially here, with very few bumps or sudden camber changes, the car can really take a set and dig in. I was ready for qualifying.

Or so I thought. I didn't manage traffic properly and I got stuck in a big wad of cars. My best qualifying time put me in 17th overall and 5th in class. I had work to do if I was going to make it up the field.

The first Miata race was the last during the day, at 4:35, because of the sound restrictions. The Miatas are able to run very quiet so they go first and last at Laguna. My start was good. I held my position (which is always the primary goal on race starts or restarts), and I got a little lucky, since one of the cars in front of me did not start, I got to move up a row, although I was now on the outside rather than the inside.

The first couple of laps were interesting. The 6 car of Matt Rose took me going into turn 5, and I stayed behind him in the hope that he'd carve me a path. Then on lap 2 my investment paid off when the 74 of Cameron Rogers took a little dive down the inside of the Corkscrew and got into a big slide, lost momentum, and I shot down the inside into turn 9. Cameron tried to come back at me in turn 10 but I stuck to the outside and held on to my new position.

I continued to hold onto my spot for a number of laps longer. I was chasing the 55 of Joe Kalinowski, who had previously lost his rear bumper from contact with Matt in turn 3. Like at Thunderhill, with his bumper gone, I found it very hard to get a draft and catching up was proving a bit difficult with Cameron applying pressure behind me.

As the race progressed I noticed the light getting dimmer and dimmer. The clouds were getting more and more threatening.  I half expected it to rain at any second.

In the middle of the race Joe had a bad exit coming out of turn 11. It was a pretty unstressful pass down into the Andretti Hairpin. I was now in the lead of our little group.

This continued with Joe pursuing for a little while, until we hit lap traffic going into turn 2. There was a "standing" yellow flag, meaning there was a car off track (waved yellows usually mean a car is spun or crashed on-track). The lapped car attempted to run wide and let me by in the middle of turn 2, but since we were not yet past the incident, I had to hold off on the pass. In doing so I scrubbed some speed. Cameron also tried a move to the outside of Joe, which I can see in the rear view mirror on the onboard footage, but I didn't notice it inside the car at the time. Cameron got penalized 3 class positions for passing under that yellow. The SCCA marked the penalty as "passing under double yellow", but there was no safety car period save for the pace lap at the start of the race. I think it's just a mistype.

Later that lap we caught more traffic. They were embroiled in a battle and I saw one car go for the pass in turn 9. I figured I could get in there and follow him through, or capitalize on any mistakes made. Unfortunately the passing car got cold feet and slowed up, forcing me to do the same. I still had a run though, so I punched down the inside into turn 10. I was left just enough room to squeak by, but I had lost my momentum and Joe pounced on the outside of turn 11. He carried a bit too much speed, and it spat him out into the sand a little bit. That was what I needed, so I swept by on the run up the hill. The yellow in turn 2 had been lifted, but the spun car was still there, stuck in the gravel. Cameron also got by Joe under brakes for turn 2.

The next lap Cameron got a stonking run out of 11 and just managed to squeeze by at the start/finish line. I didn't think he had enough room, but I underestimated how small the Miatas really are. In the middle of that lap, at the Corkscrew, Cameron outbraked himself and went bouncing down the inside of 8b, which has a nasty dip at the bottom. That sent him into a huge slide across the track and into the sand. That took him out of the fight and now Joe and I only had to worry about each other.

2 corners later and I'm worrying. Here comes Joe again, inside for turn 11. He throws it in, but he outdoes himself and runs wide again. I think he might actually be able to salvage it and make it stick, but then... *crunch*, he botches a shift into 3rd gear and I take back my position.

I look up, and there's the checkered.

I didn't even know it was the last lap. I just had one of the most dramatic finishes to a race in my career, and I didn't have a clue. Maybe it was for the best. I ended up 4th in class and 13th overall. Not bad!

It was an awesome race and I have the full video recording of it, unfortunately I'm not allowed to upload more than 1 high-def video per week to Vimeo, so I will have to choose 1 race to upload now and save the other one for next week.

The one I will upload is the 2nd race of the weekend.

Race 2 full onboard footage.

It's hard to keep track of all the cars, but I actually finished 3rd in class in this race! My first podium in Sealed Spec Miata!

This race had a lot in it as well. My team-mate David Allen in the silver #84 got ahead of me and stayed there for a number of laps, until his motor had trouble. I figured he had a bad exit in turn 11, so I gave him a push, but when he didn't accelerate with me I went around him.

I also had a really good battle towards the end of the race with the black #50 car driven by Tupper Hull. I really recommend you watch the whole thing. I know it's half an hour, but it's pretty exciting I think!

It was a great weekend. Unfortunately on the trip home I came down with food poisoning. That put me out of action for Monday, so this post is getting out there a day late. I'll finish it off with a fun picture I got on the coast while climbing rocks.

Thanks SCCA Volunteers!