Dateline: April 21/22, 2012

The Road America Curse

For those of you who are keeping track of such things, this scR newsletter is the latest in a series that dates back to 1997.  That’s right – we have been doing this thing for 15 years now.  Based on that fact alone you might be getting slightly bored with the same old stories, believing that there just isn’t anything else that can happen at a race track that you haven’t already heard about.  You might also be getting bored with the same old cast of characters and their sophomoric routines and hijinks.  You might also think that after so much time we are getting bored with the whole ordeal and will likely stop sending out these pointless, if slightly amusing, newsletters in the near future.

Well, sit back and read on because we have new material, new blood, and a renewed enthusiasm for this fiasco we call auto racing.  We also have a big pile of broken parts.  This is good news for you, for as it turns out, broken parts make for good reading.

The History

Road America is a four-mile long road course hidden in the hills of Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.  Host to Can-Am, Formula 1, Indycar, and just about every top-shelf road racing series in the world over the years, it’s on every racer’s bucket list of tracks you just gotta run at some point.  It’s also a quintessential man track, meaning that to go fast you really need to pucker up and hold on with both hands because a fast lap will frankly scare the crap out of you.

On a more personal note, long-time scR fans and followers will recall that Road America was the debut track for the #34 ITA car back on September 4, 1999.  On that inglorious weekend we trailered our brand-new racecar 400 miles only to have the engine blow up during its inaugural outing.  You might also remember the epilogue to that story, where the tow vehicle ran out of gas while driving back to Michigan (thirteen years later, it’s still Tom’s fault).  We have not been back since, so it was with a little bit of trepidation that we pulled through the entrance gate on Friday evening to the track that had treated us so badly 13 years earlier.

Fast Forward to April 20, 2012

The driving duties were to be shared by Mark, James, Pat (not to be confused with Patrick), and Tom – the same foursome that combined forces to run Texas World Speedway last summer.  Crewing were Patrick (our gas man) and Nic (our keep-the-gas-man-not-on-fire man).  Nic?  Who is Nic?  At this point all you need to know about Nic is that the number of letters in his name is inversely proportional to the number of calories he consumes per day in the interest of maintaining his 800-pound power lifting ability.  For the next event we might start calling him Jack, because we really don’t need one in the pits any more.

Friday night was spent taking care of the typical last-minute details.  Patrick spent 45 minutes washing the windows, Nic paced around the car with metal shears looking for dead weight to remove (the crazed look in his eyes was kind of eerie as he crouched and slowly circled the car like a lion stalking its prey), and Pat addressed outstanding bodywork issues with Hello Kitty duct tape.  By the end of the evening all the weight Nic had removed was mostly offset by the three rolls of Hello Kitty duct tape used in crafting an entire fender from scratch, but everyone felt as if they had contributed in some way.  The biggest challenge for the team was staying warm, as the daytime temperature was somewhere in the high 30’s.  The biggest challenge for Nic was finding enough to eat.

 Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Like it has been doing for years now, Saturday morning arrived right after Friday evening was complete.  About 55 cars were entered in the race, and as far as we can tell, all made it out for the pace lap.  Tom, who had never been on track at Road America, was elected to be the first-stint driver and quickly took to finding his way around the track.  Turns out that there were some FAST cars at this event, and finding consistency with all of the traffic was difficult at best, but after one hour and forty-five minutes Tom returned the car to the pits in ninth place overall without a scratch (blatant foreshadowing: he would save that for Sunday).  That’s much more impressive when you consider that the ChumpCar starting procedure generates a random, well-spaced grid, and our luck-of-the-draw starting position twenty-eight cars back put us in quite a hole when the green flag fell.

Pat took the wheel and picked up where Tom left off.  Also a Road America first-timer, he too had to learn the track on the fly; however, his hours and hours of watching YouTube races in the weeks before the event certainly accelerated his learning curve.  A special thanks must go out to his corporate sponsor Xerox for allowing him to do this all at work!

{Note: If anyone from Xerox actually reads this newsletter, please be advised that was a joke.  I would feel really guilty if I got my brother fired.}

At first Pat was mildly distracted by the 130-decibel malfunctioning radio earpiece in his helmet, but once he found his confidence (and had gone partially deaf) his lap times began to drop to the point that by the end of his stint he had moved the car up to eighth place.  Without a scratch.

Nic took off to find lunch (lunches, actually, since we discovered that Nic never eats only one meal at a sitting) while Mark hopped in and did what Mark does best – he took off and went like stink.  While he did have prior experience at the track, it was over ten years ago in a racing kart.  That didn’t stop him from quickly picking up the pace and running times consistent with the leaders.  Although at this point the first three cars were more than three laps ahead of the Saturn Art Car, Mark found enough speed to bring the car into pit lane for the final driver change in sixth place.  Without a scratch.

With one hour and forty-five minutes remaining, James took the wheel and drove as if the race could be won (it couldn’t, by the way).  An extended double-yellow session at the beginning of his stint allowed him to quickly re-learn the track so that when the green flag flew with one hour remaining in the race it was full speed ahead.  His rapid reduction in lap times had the crew standing on pit wall jumping up and down with enthusiasm.  Fifth place was solidly in the bag with only thirty minutes to go.

Then things just didn’t go so sweet.

 Cue Malady #1

 It sort of started when James caught the car in fourth place on the back section of the course approaching a curve called The Bend.  Approaching the turn at about 105 miles per hour, it is the hardest braking point on the track, and a great place to set up a pass.  That is, if you are actually close enough to pull it off.  In the heat of the moment, and with much more enthusiasm than traction, James pulled alongside (and, for the record, marginally ahead of) the Honda coming through the Carousel turn and firmly took control of the inside line heading into The Bend, confident that the other guy would just give up the corner and go away.  It didn’t quite turn out like that.

Braking just slightly too late and slightly too much (a bad combination for braking at high speed, in case you were wondering), the Art Car began to, well, “deviate” from the really sweet passing line that James was trying to follow.  You know, the passing line that defies physics.  Sliding sideways toward the turn apex, it would have made an outstanding video similar in nature to the hot laps put on by the instructors at the BMW Performance Center, but starring a $500 Saturn instead of a fleet of $100,000 M5’s.  That part was really cool.

Things quickly went into suck mode, though, as the Honda decided to drive around the outside of the sliding Saturn and directly into its path.  Accompanied by sounds you just never want to hear as a racecar driver, the cars came together (neither driver giving up the line, by the way) in a rather violent way.  The Art Car’s passenger-side mirror gave up its life in spectacular fashion as glass shattered and flew in through the window opening.  The cars bounced off each other with great dramatic effect, but in the end staying more or less on track.

Mildly shaken, both cars continued on to the Black Flag station at Turn 14.  The Art Car felt just fine and seemed none the worse for the incident, so when there was no Black Flag to be seen it was right back to racing.  In an attempt to be mildly sportsmanlike, James pointed the Honda by on the front straight, giving up the position he had pretty much grabbed by brute force.  So, with 25 minutes remaining on the clock, and the Art Car still in fifth place, we were back to full-bore racing.

Until the wheel fell off the car, that is.

Cue Malady #2

With 20 minutes remaining and James reeling the Honda back in, the left front wheel decided that enough was enough and separated from the car without so much as a second’s worth of warning.  At the braking point for Turn 3 the Art Car was a hotrod blazing a path toward the podium, but by the apex it had transformed itself into a tricycle.  It probably wasn’t the wheel’s fault so much as it was the fact that all four lug studs sheared off simultaneously, but for a reason that is still a mystery, James never got to complete the second half of Turn 3.  As the wheel went bouncing off to the left (taking a nice, big piece of the fender with it), the car dropped to the ground and slid, quite embarrassingly, in a perfectly straight line from the apex of Turn 3 to a point somewhere in the middle of Iowa.  Had this happened at any other corner of the track it could have been much worse, but thankfully instead of smacking a wall or some other violent event the car just sailed on like a plastic snowplow until it had dug up enough sod to bury its nose in the dirt.

Once the race was over and the car returned to the garage, the team quickly got to work scoping out the damage and making the needed repairs.  Ironically, the team was no-so-much interested in the collision with the Honda, as the damage to the left front corner was much more entertaining.  Nonetheless, after an hour or so of bolting, unbolting, cussing, and a frantically working a second roll of Hello Kitty duct tape, the Art Car was primed and ready to head back out on track for Sunday’s race.  A drive around the paddock confirmed that everything was correctly put back together, and multiple visual inspections under the car confirmed that there wasn’t a hidden gremlin ready to ruin our race the next morning.

Or so we thought.

Cue Malady #3

On Sunday morning, we were thrilled to find out that in spite of our wheel retention “situation” we had finished eighth in Saturday ‘s race.  As a result, Tom was again slated to be our leadoff driver.  The car drove perfectly to the grid, the team beaming with pride that they were able to overcome any sort of racing adversities on short notice.  Several other teams from the previous day were not so fortunate, so with a slightly smaller field we took the green flag precisely at 9:00 A.M., basking in the cool air and warm sunshine.  What a perfect day at the track!  Tom picked up right where he left off and by lap two had already bested his fastest lap time from Saturday’s race.  Lap three was faster yet, and with high expectations the crew began to settle in for seven hours of Saturn dominance, except Nic who headed off to the concession stand to get himself some breakfast(s).

That’s when the car caught on fire.

Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but on Lap 4 Tom became aware of a LARGE amount of smoke come from, well, everywhere. The car still drove fine, so he made his way around to the pits as quickly as he could.  Without functioning radios (still AWOL from Saturday’s race) the crew was first alerted to Tom’s early exit from the racing circuit by the incredibly large plume of smoke following behind the Art Car as he hustled it down pit road.  Forgetting completely about the fire extinguisher (note to self: in the future always approach a smoking car with a fire extinguisher), Mark and James threw open the hood and began to look for the source of the bad news.  Nothing was found until Mark dove under the car and realized that he could see the transmission ring gear was completely intact.  Problem is, for those of you who don’t know much about transmissions, you can’t actually SEE the transmission ring gear from under the car unless the transmission case is shattered.  Which then also lets out all the fluid.  Which then can spray on the hot exhaust manifold.  Which then can make an incredibly large plume of smoke.  Which then makes you wish you had your fire extinguisher.  Which then can end your race weekend six hours prematurely.

Which, if you are Nic, lets you eat an early lunch, so there was a silver lining after all.

So what do we do about this apparent calamity in preparation for our next race at Michigan International Speedway in August?  That’s right – fix everything AND build a second car!  In the grand tradition of these things spiraling completely out of control, Mark has somehow convinced Cindy that yet one more of the Saturn lawn ornaments in front of their house needs to be converted to race duty.  Stay tuned for the next chapter of the story when our TEAM cars blitz the Michigan race scene by storm.  That, or they take each other out in Turn 1…

See you at the track!