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Here we go again...

As most of you have long since forgotten, I (scR motorsports founder James Walker) last competed in door-to-door SCCA Club Racing competition over six years ago.  Hopefully nobody remembers that our last race, in October of 2003, at Mid-Ohio, ended two laps prematurely when the alternator decided to work a little overtime and pushed so many electrons into the battery that there was no more room for the acid, thereby spewing it into the fan assembly and thus all over the engine compartment.  Not quite the memorable way to end a quasi-successful seven-year motorsports endeavor, but hey, that's racing.

Has it really been six years?  Six years and one month?  Six years, one month, and twenty-five days?  Yes, but who's counting?  Now, three kids, two employers, and one relocation to Houston later, scR motorsports is back to re-stake our claim as THE force to be dealt with in North American wheel-to-wheel motorsports.  Or something like that, if not “exactly” that.

Actually, the December 3-5 weekend at Road Atlanta was nothing at all like that.  Not even close.  But I am getting ahead of the story.  Before going any further, you are probably asking yourself why you are bothering to read this story in the first place.  Well, chances are you fall into one of these three categories:

  1. You are my mom (this does not apply to a vast majority of you)
  2. Back in the day, you were a fan of scR motorsports
  3. You are a racing dude and should find the humor in our weekend trials and tribulations because, at some point, the exact same thing happened to you

So, in grand scR tradition, here's our official race report for your amusement.  Hopefully it will not be another six years before our next newsletter!

** Rewind the clock to October 1, 2009 at approximately 8:38pm **

So there I was in Atlanta having dinner with a good friend of mine, Robert Patton.  It just so happens that Robert owns no less than THREE racecars, prepped for a NASA series known as Spec E30.  For those of you not in the motoring know, an E30 is a late-80's BMW 3-series car, and in this particular racing class, the cars are all built to an identical formula, such that the cars should all be equal in performance potential.  The rationale behind this kind of racing is that the person with the most talent wins, instead of the person with the largest budget.

Robert, being the generous kind of guy that he is, casually offered me a chance to race one of his cars, if I had interest, at an upcoming event at Road Atlanta in December.  Note to Robert: For future reference, if you ever offer a seat to a racecar driver on sabbatical, expect them to take you up on it!  By the time I got to my hotel room that evening, I had already checked into flight availability, read up on the NASA licensing requirements, and had embarked on a plan to get approval granted from the scR motorsports CEO, CFO, and Corporate Comptroller, Dana Walker.

I don't really recall the details, but somehow the entire plan fell into place.  My journey to Atlanta started at Carolina Motorsports Park, in November, where Robert loaned me his car to attend a NASA driving and licensing school.  For Robert's sake, I'll graciously pass over any criticisms regarding the failed brake hose going into turn 7, the leaking fuel tank gasket that sprayed enough fuel inside the car to coat the inside of the windshield, and the eight-year-old windshield tear-off that had never been torn off and was so coated with track crud that it effectively blocked all forward vision out of the car except for a three-inch-square opening just to the right of the rear-view mirror.  Putting all that behind us, the school ran without a hitch, and I was granted permission via a novice permit to enter the sprint races at Road Atlanta on December 5 and 6.

And now for one hell of a coincidence.  You can't make this stuff up.

Out of absolutely nowhere, John Teague sends an e-mail.  Remember John?  Probably not, but back in the early days of scR motorsports, John (a co-worker of Dana's) was a crew member for team scR, including support at the 1998 Valvoline RunOffs where HE remembered to send flowers to Dana on our anniversary, when I had forgotten.  (Hey, it was qualifying Tuesday, so I was a little bit distracted.)  After hanging with us for a short while, he formed his own racing team, running in F500 and Spec Miata, with his brother, Curtis.  We often set up in the paddock together.  But when John left Dana’s company and moved to Atlanta, I lost track of him.

In essence, John had hunted me down, after all of these years, to see if I was still actively racing.  It turns out that he and Curtis were entering a nine-hour endurance race (enduro) in his Spec Miata and were looking for a third driver to participate.  The enduro was to be held at Road Atlanta on December 4 - the day before the sprint races I had already entered with Robert.  Since this was OBVIOUSLY a case of divine intervention, I jumped at the opportunity and registered in less time than it took you to read this sentence.

In the weeks spent preparing for the races, I spent equal time watching my old Road Atlanta in-car videos and preparing my victory speeches.  In hindsight, I should have spent more time watching my old Road Atlanta in-car videos, but in hindsight of my hindsight, it really wouldn't have mattered much anyway.  In hindsight of my hindsight's hindsight, that time would have been better spent fixing my doorbell or something.  Remember how Brett Favre was really awesome, took some time off, and then came back really, really awesome?  Well, Road Atlanta wasn't quite like that for scR motorsports.  But it didn't exactly suck either.  Sort of.

** Friday Enduro **

Spec Miata 1Friday's enduro was scheduled to be a nine-hour extravaganza.  There were only 18 cars that started the race out of the twenty-something that registered for the race, and this might have had something to do with the predictions of snow mixed with rain that weekend.  I didn't think that it snowed in Atlanta, but what do I know?  Anyhow, we had planned that John would drive the first stint and would come in when the gas was just about empty.  I would then take over and drive stint two, until the gas was running out, and would then hand over the car to Curtis.  We had planned to repeat this sequence until winning the race, nine hours later.

The starting positions for the race were purely random, and by the end of lap one, John was in 17th place out of the 18 starters.  It was a SOLID 17th place, though.  This was not so much due to John's talent behind the wheel, but more related to the fact that most of the other cars were WAY faster than our Miata.  At any rate, for one hour and twenty minutes we watched John pass by the pit straight, consistently turning in lap times between 1:50 and 1:51.  He came in under green after about 43 laps, and I said a little prayer as I jumped into the driver's seat.

At this point, you should be reminded that the last time I had raced at Road Atlanta was in November of 2001.  It was the ITA Championship race that year, and we finished a respectable 4th, but it's amazing how much you forget after eight years away.  This was also my first time EVER behind the wheel of a Miata of any sort.  And yet there I was, about to enter an enduro in process without one lap of practice or warm-up under my belt.  If you're going to jump in, do it with both feet!

Spec Miata 2So I enter the track and promptly get black flagged.  On lap one.  Actually, I didn't even get to complete the lap.  This is the first thing that would suck in the enduro.  I would learn, after the fact, that when John had come in for the driver change, he was found to be exceeding the pit lane speed limit.  So I was flagged, before even completing a single lap, to be served a stop-and-go penalty on HIS behalf.  Not quite the illustrious start I was hoping for.  I trundled down pit lane, got my hand slapped, and proceeded back on track.

Things sort of picked up from there.  After remembering where the track went left and right, I slowly worked my lap times down from the 1:54 range into the 1:50's, and even put down a 1:49 along the way, setting our team's fastest race lap, to that point.  Now in Spec Miata land, a 1:49 at Road Atlanta isn't much to write home about, but I was trying to follow John's lead by running fast enough to stay competitive while not running the car SO hard that it would break before the finish.  I figured that in my second stint behind the wheel, I would turn up the volume a bit and lay down some better times, but early on we were conserving the car to ensure that we would still be running at the end.

After running my 43 laps, I headed down pit lane to swap the driving duties with Curtis. Three minutes and 12 gallons of gas later, he was off to the races.  All was looking good for the team until, as they say, disaster struck.

Approximately half way into Curtis' session, he came upon a disabled vehicle in a section of the track known as the esses.  As the story was later told (multiple times, I might add, with emphatic hand gestures and great emotion), Curtis made a move to pass, the disabled car cut him off, and Curtis being the nice guy that he is made an evasive maneuver instead of driving the guy off the track.  In hindsight (there's a lot of talk about hindsight in this newsletter, isn't there?) it would have been best for Curtis to have punted him off the track, as the evasive maneuver took Curtis off the paved surface, into the grass, and into the concrete wall.  He was fine, but the car was stuck and needed a tow back to the paddock.

Spec Miata 3Not knowing the extent of the damage, we all hoped for the best and gathered at the team trailer, waiting for the car to come home on the wrecker.  Tools in hand, we were ready to do whatever was necessary to patch the car back into shape to continue on - after all, we still had about six hours left in the race.  Our plan was squished pretty quickly, though, as we saw the car coming down the hill into view.  It was a complete mess.

Maybe I'm exaggerating here.  Besides the crushed rear fender, the crushed front fender, the broken welds in the wheelhouse, the smashed headlight, the relocated hood, the smashed front fascia, the bent tie rod arm, the deformed rear trailing arm, the tweaked upper rear control arm, the 45 degrees of front toe-in, and the red Georgia clay shoved into every known crevice on the undercarriage, the car looked pretty good.  Oh, the driver-side mirror was also scratched, but thankfully it folded in upon impact with the wall, saving it from any significant damage.  It's those little things that one needs to be thankful for.

Thus ended our enduro, but that's not the worst of it.  Later that night, the proverbial icing was put on the cake when my sirloin at Outback Steakhouse was completely overcooked.  Is there no justice?

** Saturday Practice **

BMW_241 1Hoping that all of our bad luck was behind us (it wasn't), Tom and I headed down the paddock on Saturday morning to hook up with Robert and his Spec E30 fleet.  I had to explain very clearly that it wasn't ME that wrecked John's car before Robert would turn over the keys to his #241 car.

Since my school, Robert had fitted new brake pads, new brake lines (remember that brake line failure I mentioned?), and new tires to #241.  He also replaced the eight-year-old windshield tear-off, so I could see EVERYTHING out the front window.  Wow!  It was about as ready as it could be, so I was quite eager to take to the track for our morning warm-up session.  Thankfully I had that one enduro stint to learn the track on Friday, so I could focus more on learning the nuances of the car rather than on finding my way around.

Did I mention that it was snowing?  With a trackside temperature of about 38 degrees, a few scattered flurries were in the area, but nothing to significantly slow down the car.  Over the course of the 20-minute session, the lap times progressively dropped until I clocked a best of 1:47.9.  I knew that there was more in the car, but felt it best to save it for the qualifying session.  The brakes were soft (this would become an important point later in the day), but otherwise the car felt solid.

** Saturday Qualifying **

When the green flag flew for qualifying, the sun was out and the temperature had warmed to a balmy 40 degrees.  Good power and good grip combined to let me consistently lower my lap times throughout the session.  That is, until the brakes went away.

BMW_241 2Coming down the hill on the back straight into turn 10a, I was about to make a pass on Robert's daughter driving her own Spec E30, #911 (it runs in the family, I guess).  I was on a pretty hot lap and didn't want to give up much, so I dove right in and laid on the brakes late, in order to make a clean pass without killing my exit speed.  Only problem was that when I actually hit the brakes, I got an out-of-office reply from them.

Now, it's one thing to wreck a borrowed car.  It's another thing to wreck that car and the owner's OTHER car simultaneously.  But it's a whole new level of thing to wreck both cars AND collect the owner's daughter as collateral damage in the process.  And then, a miracle happened.  Essentially I completed the world's most clumsy, inelegant, and ineffective pass of all time, but managed to avoid contact while staying on the pavement. Don't ask me how, because I think that my eyes were shut for most of it.  After collecting my thoughts and letter her by, I gingerly pedaled #241 back to the pits for diagnosis.

After looking around and finding nothing obviously wrong (in hindsight, we should have looked a little bit harder), we came to the conclusion that it must have been brake fade from the new pads and/or fluid, so we bled the system and called it ‘good’.  On a more positive note, my best qualifying time of 1:46.3 was more than a full second better than my best practice time and landed me in fifth place on the grid of fifteen-or-so cars.  Robert had qualified just a few spots back, in his own #8 car, with a 1:48.5, so I was hopeful to stay in front of him for the race.

And now, it's time for Marcus Mansfield's five minutes of fame.  While we were scurrying around trying to find the problem with the brakes, Marcus - a long-time supporter of team scR, who joined us at the track - offered to head up to the fuel pumps to get us gas for the race.  With my credit card in hand, he dutifully pumped 12 gallons of fuel into the jugs and returned triumphant...until we found out that he had bought 12 gallons of race gas at $9.50 per gallon.  Race gas that wouldn't work in a Spec E30.  Try as he may, he couldn't find a buyer for the gas in the paddock, so there it sat for the duration of the weekend.  Marcus's sole consolation at dinner that night was that he finally did something newsletter-worthy.

** Saturday Race **

BMW_241 3The start of the race was a complete CF, and I don't mean carbon fiber.  For reasons that escape me, the officials decided to have the green flag located at the far end of the front straightaway, along the pit wall, instead of the traditional spot in the starter stand, up high at the bottom of the hill.  Being gridded on the inside of the field, the starter was down so low in my field of vision that I never, ever saw the green flag - the cars to my left completely obstructed my view.  The starter may as well have been in a manhole.  Consequently, everyone on the left just took off and left me sitting there.  In turn 1, I made up a position or two, but when we came around for the end of the first lap, I had fallen back to sixth place.

By the end of the second lap, I had worked back up to my original starting position, but almost immediately thereafter, a full-course yellow was issued, and everyone cooled their jets while the more over-zealous were towed off the track.  The real downside was that during the full-course yellow laps, we were forced to catch up to the group racing in front of us, and more specifically the slowest cars on the track who would be immediately in front of us, during the restart.

Five laps later the green flag flew, and we repeated the turn 1 CF.  This time, I lost three positions, as cars went five-wide up the hill to get around the slower traffic.  Not wanting to be a part of the potential carnage, I laid back and planned to pick them off one at a time, once things settled down.  In the melee, Robert had managed to pass me in the #8 car, and he was first on the list of people to get back around.

I'll start this next section by stating that Robert claims that he didn't see me.  I sort of believe him.  :)

As I slowly reeled him in, I decided to make my pass down the back straight.  Coming through turn 7 leading onto the back straight, I got a great run and was on his rear bumper, as we climbed the hill toward the bridge.  I moved to the left to make my move, but at the same time, Robert decided that would also be a good place for his car to be.  Not wanting to give up my run, I elected to complete my pass by running with two tires in the grass.  This seemed like a great idea at the time, but, well, Robert just kept on coming over to the left.  I don't think I ever really got all four tires off the track, but for the sake of the newsletter, I'll say that I did.  It was at least 3.5 tires, though.

BMW_8 1Off-roading at 100 miles per hour might seem cool to some, but I really didn't have a good plan to complete my pass safely at that point.  Lifting off the throttle and tucking back in behind Robert, I ran down his tail into the turn 10a braking zone.  Counting on my incredible talent and my freshly-bled brake system, I made my move to the inside and laid on the brakes as late as I could.  This was going to be a pass for the highlight films!

But not so fast - this is where we can cut and paste the paragraph above about the brake pedal going to the floor.  It was a bit more dramatic this time, though, as Robert wasn't giving up an inch.  In a moment of brief brilliance, I determined that driving off the track and into the eroded edge of the rumble strip curbing was better than hitting Robert square in the door, so off the track we went to the inside.

WHAM!!!

That's the sound of the left front tire hitting the curb and bending some unknown components in the left front suspension.  It sounds much worse in person, let me tell you, but it sounds SO much better than the sound of two cars coming together.  The steering wheel was off center, the car pulled to the left, and there was a horrible vibration in the front end, but I considered that a victory in light of what could have happened.  I limped the car around track and headed into the pits, none the worse for wear, and hoping that there wasn't anything seriously screwed up with the car.

Tom McCready, our scR crew chief extraordinaire who came along for the weekend, quickly put the car up in the air and found a bent left-front wheel, a shifted left-front camber plate, and - drum roll, please - brake fluid dripping out of the left-front flex line fitting.  Oh, and brake fluid on the inner fender.  And on the cradle.  And on the ground.  Basically, everywhere that you don't want to find brake fluid, Tom found brake fluid.  I think that if Tom had looked in the glove box, he would have found brake fluid there too.  Insert explicative of your choosing here.  I chose two or three.  At least the Blizzards at Dairy Queen that night were not overcooked.

** Sunday Prep **

BMW_8 2Digging through his box of spare part (not to be confused with a box of spare parts), Robert miraculously had no less than FOUR spare left-front brake hoses.  This is even more incredible when you consider that Robert packs so lightly that he doesn't have caps for his fuel jugs.  Seriously.  I'm going to buy him some for Christmas.

We swapped out the bent wheel for a new part (or at least a not-bent used part) and then set off to chase down the suspension issue.  While the right-front wheel had about three degrees of negative camber (this is good), the left-front had more than six degrees (this is bad).  I can say this with certainty, as the camber gage we were using only went to six degrees and it was off the scale.  Adjust as we may, we could not get the camber down below negative five degrees, and nothing was obviously bent or deformed.

In the end, Robert suggested that I drive the #8 car for the Sunday race, and he would try out the #241 car.  With all the unknowns about the #241 car, he wanted to feel it for himself, instead of using me as a guinea pig.

** Sunday Race **

I use the term "race" very, very loosely here.  The race on Sunday was more of a spectacle than a race.  With no practice and no qualifying, the grid was set by a random drawing among all competitors.  On top of that, ALL race classes and groups were going to be on track at the same time.  This meant that 63 cars from Spec Miata (slow) to GT cars (fast) were taking the green flag simultaneously and in random order.  It would not be so much of a race as mass confusion.  Think "WWF Wrestling meets Road Atlanta", and you're on the right track.

BMW_8 3My strategy was to start as close to the back as possible and let everyone else get ahead of me, thereby allowing me to run on a clean track in a pseudo-practice session. Since the Spec E30 cars are one of the slowest classes, we would just be obstacles for the faster cars anyway.  This worked great, as by lap two, I was basically at the back of the pack and enjoying my own personal lapping session.  The only issue was that the #8 car was definitely not as fast as #241, and apparently Robert was having no brake problems as he promptly ran away from me.

My fun would end, however, as the leaders caught up to me.  As soon as they passed me, the officials elected to throw a full-course yellow for the sole purpose of bunching up the group behind the leaders.  The only problem was that I was now fourth in line at the restart, with 59 cars lined up behind me, ready to pounce.

At the next green flag (did I mention that I never saw a green flag all weekend?), I was immediately swarmed by the pack.  I did everything in my power to just get the hell out of the way, but I never again was out of traffic.  Just to stay out of harm's way I would turn in a fast lap every now and then (I did end up running a 1:47.1 with the #8 car), but overall just ran fast enough to avoid being a nuisance.  All in all it was a terrifically miserable experience, but the car ran fine (if slow) and I didn't hit anything or anybody.

Fittingly, it was an anti-climactic end to a melancholy weekend.  We poured the unused race gas into the rental car (seriously - that RAV4 never ran so well) and headed to the airport.

I’ve written this while sitting on an airplane, typing furiously, before I forgot the emotions, the mishaps, and the fleeting moments of glory.  In spite of all of the trials and tribulations, it felt SO good to get back in the seat, and for that I really need to thank John and Robert one more time.  Thanks, guys!  Having Tom and Marcus (and Jason for the little while he spent with us) there added a flavor of the scR days of old, and I would be lying if I said that I didn't get the urge to come back for more.  Sure, it wasn't the comeback story of the decade, but hey, that's racing.

Anyone need a co-driver?

- James