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!