Dateline: May 13/14, 2017

Let’s Start At The End – Sunday, May 14 – Race 2

Finally settled into a groove after the first-lap melee, we found ourselves in the seventh position (P7) out of 18 cars, wiping out most of the hard work the Risi crew had exerted earlier in the day to place the car on the second row of the grid in P4.  To make matters worse, the car wasn’t exactly as happy in the slow-speed corners as it had been in qualifying, and the high-speed push had returned as well.  Moving the car towards the front of the pack in the brief 20-lap sprint race was going to require more work, and probably lots of it.

In the heat of the moment, work is never fun.  But with each mini-victory on track, at least the work became rewarding.  P6 was reclaimed shortly following a race restart in Turn 1 – coming in hot on the brakes at about 140 mph and tucking under the leading car is a trick the ITA Saturn didn’t teach me, but seemed like the right thing to do at the time.  A few laps later, P5 was accomplished in much the same way – stand on the brakes late in Turn 1 and stick the nose under the car in front.  The low-hanging fruit had been picked.  Nine laps to go.

P4 presented itself in Turn 5, as the car running in P2 experienced an issue of some sort which forced him to retire early.  With about five laps to go, the new P3 and P2 were in sight, and according to the little voice inside my helmet (the little voice named Rick), we were gaining on both of them every lap.  With about three laps to go the little voice became a motivational speaker, and with two laps to go the little voice became a drill sergeant.

“In case you haven’t noticed, you have him on the ropes.  Finish him off.”

It wasn’t so much of a suggestion as it was an instruction.  Knowing that the crew had gone through so much to 1) get the car prepped, 2) get the car running, and 3) get the car tuned to my liking, I really had no choice but to honor their efforts with some of my own.  They had held up their end of the deal to get me to this spot, and now it was clearly on my shoulders to get that car on the podium where it belonged.  Yes, we had Hello Kitty duct tape all over the rear wing (you’re not surprised by this, are you?), but that wasn’t going to be enough to carry the day.

With two laps to go, still locked in P4, more speed was found.  Not a lot of speed, but enough.  Carrying great (I thought it was great, anyways) momentum through Turn 6, I intentionally made a move to the outside to force the P3 car off to the right in his one permitted defensive move.  Perfect.  As Turn 8 – the Corkscrew – approached at speeds not remotely possible in ChumpCar, the inside of the turn opened up and I squeezed the car down the apex first, exiting the corner in P3.  Not quite as dramatic as the 1996 Zanardi pass in the same corner, but you get the idea.

And then the silliness began.  Yes, the end result was that I was standing on the third step of the podium at the end of the day, but not until after the car in P4 chose to pass me back on the last lap of the race while under a full-course red flag condition (in case you’re new to this, that’s not allowed).  This resulted in him finishing the race ahead of me in third place…albeit, illegally.  While Rick and the rest of the team tried to draw this to the attention of the race officials, nothing was done until AFTER the podium ceremony, AFTER the distribution of the trophies, and AFTER the spraying of champagne (yes, that’s part of the routine here).  Three hours later, AFTER the podium was empty, AFTER the trophy had left the premises, and AFTER the champagne bottle was empty, the race officials determined that yes, we had earned the position and yes, the glory was all ours.  Justice was served, but in a melodramatic kind of way.  Nobody likes celebrating on an empty podium, but sometimes…well, that’s racing.  It’s not always pretty.

Press Rewind – Wednesday, May 10 – Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Getting to Monterey for the season opener at Laguna Seca turned out to be one miscue after another.  I’m not sure, but it’s entirely possible my mom had something to do with this:

5:45 PM : Delayed flight (United, so this is normal)
8:15 PM : Missed connection (United, so this is normal)
10:05 PM : Lost luggage (United, so this is normal)
1:05 AM : Oh wait, the luggage is here after all!
1:10 AM : Oh wait, the luggage doesn’t fit in to the miniscule trunk of the convertible Camaro SS rental car!
1:25 AM : Oh wait, the Camaro SS rental car doesn’t fit into the miniscule parking spaces at the hotel!

Death by a thousand tiny daggers.  Welcome back to the trials and tribulations racing!

Thursday, May 11 and Friday, May 12 – Practice (or not)

Thursday and Friday were supposed to have been spent on track, getting the car and driver familiar with one another.  A solid five hours of track time were set aside just for this task, and the weather was frankly outstanding.  The first two hours of the day were spent running from trailer to trailer getting my racing license, getting my credentials, getting my parking pass, getting the entrant list, and sizing up the crew.  The reputation of the Risi team certainly preceded them, but I frankly has no idea what to expect.  And neither did they.  First date jitters on both sides of the equation.

As I walked up to the transporter for the first time, there was the car.  Completely naked.  Just white.  Not a single sticker, not a single scratch, not a single clue as to what the weekend had in store for us.  Over the next 48 hours its metamorphosis into a full-fledged race car (#234) would take place, but not without some pretty major teething pains.  I was less nervous about this, however, as I was about my own upcoming metamorphosis (or not) into a full-fledged race car driver.

Practice session #1 on Thursday was supposed to be a general shake-down and get-to-know-you kind of deal.  Car, crew, track, and driver simply trying to figure each other out.  Unfortunately, this was truncated when the car decided to simply stop running on lap five.  Just completely dead.  There is a special human-machine bond forged during the moments you and your dead race car are towed back into the paddock (I raced Saturns long enough that I know this first-hand), but when it happens the FIRST TIME you take the wheel, it loses some of its glamour.  Deafening silence in the car juxtaposed against the 19 other screaming Italian V8’s still on track.  Off to a great start.

The crew immediately went to town diagnosing the temperamental Italian.  Lots of clues, but not a single root cause to be found.  After fiddling and tweaking and poking and prodding, the car was driven to the grid for practice session #2.  This time the car ran for all of five corners before deciding enough was enough and shutting itself down.  This cycle continued until 9:00 that evening when, as we left the track, the car still refused to behave like a proper race car.  That is to say, it still would not move under its own power.

Friday morning started up, or didn’t as the case may be, with a race car that was still infirmed.  With the crew thrashing away, and even getting Ferrari North America involved, the first practice session started and ended without me even considering putting on my Nomex underwear.  And then, a defining moment, second only to Sunday’s pass going into the Corkscrew for the final podium position.

The car’s previous owner had installed a number of aftermarket accessories that were tied in various ways to the electrical system.  Cameras, data acquisition, a two-way radio, and a portable driver cooling system all had their tentacles plugged into the wiring harness in some way, shape, or form.  After finally stripping everything out and returning the car back to its stock configuration, the car returned to health and fired right up.  For the rest of the race weekend, the car never missed a beat.  The problem was, by this time we had missed almost five hours of practice.  But hey, at least I could go out and get in a few brief recon laps before the end of the day.

Saturday, May 13 – Race 1

And so the learning curve began.  Friday’s best lap time was something in the 1:36’s, but just getting off the track without the use of a tow truck was the real victory.  In Saturday’s morning’s brief practice, #234 ran a best of a 1:35.6 in dense traffic – good enough for P10 in our grouping of 20 cars.  Qualifying was a different story, however, as the track finally opened up and the car finally began to feel good under me.  The result was a new personal best of 1:31.4.  The effort landed us in P6 on the grid, but less than 0.8 seconds out of P2.  With the lap times continuing to drop, the expectation was that we would invariably move up during the race as we figured more things out.

So, that’s not exactly how it turned out, but it sure seemed like a great plan!

As the field of 20 over-anxious drivers made their way toward the starter’s stand, all hell broke loose.  Occupying P6, I was on the outside of the third row.  This placed me directly behind the car that qualified P4 and directly next to the car that qualified P5.  By the time we would get to Turn 1, both of them would be in the market to buy a new race car.

Well before the green flag flew, the car in P4 jumped out alongside the car in P2.  This created a pretty bad situation when the car in P2, not realizing that he had company to his right, himself moved to the right in preparation for Turns 1 and 2.  This forced the car in P4 off of the track and on to the dirt, which, by the way, is a very bad place to be at about 100 mph.  The ensuing over-correction and hook slide set the car in P4 on a course that was aimed squarely at my right-rear fender.  Or so I thought.  Bracing for impact (literally!), I steered left and kept my foot in it.  By a margin of what felt like inches, the car in P4 went shooting directly behind #234 and whacked the car following closely behind in P5.  The yard sale that followed (definition for non-racers: when parts go flying everywhere) also involved contact with the concrete wall adjacent to pit lane.  Somehow we managed to escape completely unscathed, but what a way to build confidence.

The carnage took the better part of five laps or so to clean up, and when the shuffling came to an end we found ourselves right back where we qualified.  While not exactly thrilled with an uninspiring 6th place finish, the fact that the car was a good as new was a great consolation.  As the saying goes, better to be lucky than good.

The post-race driver debrief led the team to put the car back on the alignment fixture and start turning the knobs for Sunday morning.  While the car felt great in qualifying, the best race lap of 1:32.5 indicated that something had not quite clicked when the green flag flew.  I need to give the crew a huge pat on the back here for essentially starting over from scratch and adjusting the setup based on my feeble recollection of how the car felt in each of the 11 turns of the race.  As Sunday morning would reveal, they found more speed for me.

The Secret Weapon Arrives

You just know it’s going to be OK when a care package filled with Hello Kitty duct tape and Nutter Butter cookies arrives at the track addressed to your attention.  Thanks, Mark (and Cindy)!

Sunday, May 14 – Race 2

A new day, a new race.  Same car, same crew, same driver, but a new setup.  And…one strip of Hello Kitty strategically applied to the top of each rear wing endplate.  Play ball.

Practice was a traffic mess, but the magic sauce the crew spread on the chassis the night before resulted in a new personal best lap time of 1:30.9.  Unfortunately there was only one clean lap in which to make it happen, but the car and driver were definitely coming together, at least as far as the stopwatch was concerned.  Qualifying continued the trend, and as we worked into a rhythm our best effort turned in a 1:29.8, good for P4 on the grid and only a couple of tenths out of P2.  Time for more Hello Kitty!

And this is where the newsletter began.  Another first-lap melee, albeit nothing that required drivers to purchase new cars, shuffled the deck in Turn 2.  Falling to P7 just seconds after the green flag flew was disheartening at best, but as you have already read, laying claim to the third step on the podium was a wonderful reward to the crew for a job so well done.  Clearly it wasn’t as satisfying as the two taller steps on the podium, but that just gives us something to shoot for next time.

Next Time

Next up: Montreal, June 9-11.  With Formula 1 as our support race (that’s a joke), it’s sure to be an incredible atmosphere.  Driving in parallel with the world’s largest motorsports spectacle is mildly intimidating to be sure, but based on the trajectory we established at Laguna Seca, we’re gunning for the biggest trophy.  And we might even break out some more Hello Kitty to get us there.

This is real racing.  This is real competition.  This is a real team.  This is a real race car.  This is real work.  But in the end, this is real fun.

See you at the track!