Tuesday, July 26, 2011

(146) Misaligned

After the many hurdles of the last race, the Spec Miata Festival at Mazda Raceway, the car needed some work done. We had broken the legality seals on the engine trying to fix a stretched rod, and the right rear quarter had unibody damage from a hit in turn 3. The engine got re-sealed, and the body panels smoothed out. The bodywork ended up costing about a grand. And so the car was ready for the test day and regional race weekend at Thunderhill.

The July races at Thunderhill Raceway are generally the hottest ones of the year, or so I hear from around the paddock. Still, the temps decided to stay in the mid-90s which, depending on what side of the fence you're on, isn't so bad.

On the morning of the Friday test session, I headed out of the pits with new brake pads and new tires for the first session of the day. During the 5-MPH trip through the paddock, I noticed that the steering was not straight. I figured the steering wheel was put on crooked, since that's happened before. I would fix it before entering the race track. So I pulled over and pulled the steering wheel off. Nope, it was set straight and true.

Well now. We have a problem.

So I brought it back to the pits and had a more critical look at the rear wheels. Sure enough, they weren't straight. Sometime during the repair process the alignment must have got messed with pretty severely. The right rear was toed out (which means it was pointing towards the outside), and the left rear was toed in. That means the rear wheels were steering the car left (imagine rear-wheel steering on a fork lift or something) and to compensate I had to turn the steering to the right about 15 degrees.

We spent most of the test day playing with the alignment. No matter what we did we just could not get it to track straight. In addition to the alignment problems, the car was having trouble with the heat. The stock radiator, which is usually more than sufficient, just could not keep the engine cool. Car owner Ed Railton taped a duct around the radiator and that improved things to a bearable level for the car, but it was still getting warm. If the car got too hot, I had control of the heater, which would suck some heat from the engine and, obviously, dump it in the cockpit. It would also sap some power, but if it kept it from going pop, that was preferable.

The overheating issue wasn't just limited to the engine. I was having issues with it as well. The first few test sessions were double-killer, because not only was I dealing with a potentially killer car setup (it was very twitchy in left hand corners because of the alignment), I was also dealing with killer heat. The temps weren't too bad outside the car, but inside, where I had to wear 4 layers of heavy Nomex, a balaclava, a helmet, and suede racing shoes, it was about 120 degrees for my upper body, and about 140 to 150 for my feet and legs, since the exhaust runs very close to the pedals. You get a little airflow from the windows, but it's not a whole lot, and the fresh air gets quickly cooked by the sun beating down on the roof and the engine dumping heat through the vents and center console (where the exhaust runs). Thankfully the pedals themselves were not super-heated, like is usually the case with big front engined cars, but the air down there was more like an oven. It hurts just to sit in it, and I've never experienced heat like that before in my life. I drove the Skip Barber formula car on some hot days, but since it's an open cockpit car with loosely fitting body panels you get plenty of air flow in that car, so it's not anywhere near as bad as the Miata.

But all closed cockpit racing cars are like that. It's the same for everyone. It's just new to me. I think, if I continue racing closed cars in high heat, I'm going to need a cooling device more effective than a bag of ice shoved down my suit (which only lasts about 20 minutes anyway). An expensive, but refreshing Cool Shirt may be on order for next year. Still, the ice kept it bearable.

Saturday rolled around and with only a qualifying session left before the race, the setup situation was looking desperate. Thankfully, that morning, Tim Barber at TFB Performance had rolled up in his hauler with his laser alignment system. 120 bucks and 40 minutes and all of the handling problems (including some tire wear problems) on the car were shot dead. Unfortunately I had to qualify on the bad setup, but I would have a good car for the race. We added some front camber for a more aggressive use of the tire, and got the rear alignment to within 1/32nd of an inch of zero. Tim thought there might still be something bent ever so slightly in the right rear. But the car still went straight.

Qualifying wouldn't have benefited from the improved setup anyway, since I had traffic troubles and only managed to get 5th in class. All of the cars suffered in lap times, and few people were below 2:10. I myself never bettered 2:12. I think the Sealed cars were having more issues with the heat than the unsealed cars.

The race start was very hectic. The car I was following pulled off in the 2nd to last corner complex during the pace lap and left me with a large gap to close before taking the green. I got back up to the appropriate grid spot in time and the leaders stepped on it coming out of the final corner. But then they braked, hard, stacking up the rest of the field. The green finally flew and off we went.

I got a terrible launch and cars swarmed around my rear bumper in turn 1. I was timid, because this was the first hot lap on the new setup and I didn't know how it would react. Turn 1 is about 93 MPH on a fast lap. I had to drop to 3rd gear on the exit and three cars passed me. I was stuck on the outside line in turn 2, and up ahead I saw three-wide action. I scooted back up a spot through turn 5, and finally the field was single file.

At the end of lap one Fred Peterson in the red #9 car passed me in turn 10. This is important because he is another Sealed car, so it was a pass for class position.

At the start of lap two I saw a cloud of dust up ahead in turn 1.  A number of cars were involved in some jostling and I think a couple spun. As I rounded the bend I aimed the car for the middle of the track, because I was going nearly 90 and I was fast approaching a blinding wall of dust. Surely cars were behind the veil. Experience told me that any cars involved in such a high speed incident would be to the sides of the track, possibly re-joining the pavement.

It turned out to be a good call because Juan Pineda was rejoining the track, and I was closing on him at about 50 or 60 MPH. If I had stayed on my normal like it would have been a very, very bad accident, as he materialized instantly out of the cloud and I would not have had time to avoid him. David Petruska was also rejoining the track to the inside. If that isn't a graphic example to do your best to think rationally on the race track I don't know what is.

At the end of the lap in turn 14 my team mate, David Allen in the silver 84 car, had some contact with a spun car which deformed his right front fender. The deformation formed a sharp shiv, which began to eat away at his tire in left hand corners. If I asked you to come up with a shape to shave rubber off a tire, you would draw this diabolical piece of body work. As a result, David's tire was coming to pieces and as I followed him limping through the front half of the course, bits of his tire were bouncing over my wind shield.

Later in lap three I finally found the limit of my new setup in turn 9 when I got a huge slide coming over the crest at 72 MPH. I held it, saved it, and didn't lose too much time.

A bit later and David's tire was giving up. He slowed through turn 6 and let everyone through. He did end up finishing the race though.

The rest of my race was scattered, but fun. I ended up chasing down Fred Peterson and took my spot back. I finished the race in 4th place in class, only about a second and a half behind the 3rd place car of Alan Gjedsted (the green #5 car), who I was catching rapidly. There was simply not time enough in the race to apprehend him.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the footage. I worked hard for it.

Race #7 onboard footage.

The second qualifying went much better, and placed me 3rd in class on the grid. The race itself was less intense, and I finished where I started in class placing, though I did move up a few spots overall.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

(145) Small world

Last weekend I took a trip down to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in order to soak up the atmosphere of the Grand Am and SCCA Pro races at the Continental Tire Sports Car Festival.

Along the way I signed up to do some volunteer work for the SCCA. Nothing too heavy, just to spend a few hours manning a membership information booth in the vendor area.I spent a few hours there, although the foot traffic wasn't too heavy and I and the other volunteers only ended up talking to a few people during my stint. Most people were busy watching the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge race that was going on.

One of my coaches from Skip Barber, Thomas Merrill, was driving for a new team (A.M. Performance) during the Continental Tire race, driving a Nissan 370z. Unfortunately the car had a mechanical failure and had to retire. They ran well though, inside the top ten. Not easy to do in a 60-car field.

The racing world is really small. I always used to think racing was more compartmentalized, but no, it really is small, with all kinds of drivers and team members crossing over from region to region, genre to genre. I'm still new to this world and it still seemed like I couldn't go more than 200 feet without bumping into someone I knew. Some people I hadn't seen in a long while, others just from the last month.

The SCCA is also a very huge part of that small world. The SCCA provides most of the volunteers, corner workers and safety personnel for most of the road races in the US. That includes Grand Am, IndyCar, and IMSA. Many of the same workers who volunteer for the club races also volunteered for Grand Am last weekend. Which is really cool.

Here's some pictures I took.

MX-5's during the SCCA Pro Racing playboy MX-5 Cup race. These are the grandsons of my racing car for this year (20 years their sire).

The view from the grand stands.

Grand Am Rolex Daytona Prototypes and Grand Touring cars in the feature event.

San Francisco Region SCCA members working hard to keep everyone as safe as possible.