Dateline: Friday, April 26, 2019

In advance of our third TCR Championship event of the season at VIR, I had composed a wonderful script that involved Act I storylines about the miraculous collarbone recovery, quickly finding pace at the new track, and the incredible out-of-the-box performance of our new racecar.  The Cinderella Story culminated in dramatic fashion in Act II with podium appearances, trophies for the shelf, and a climb up the TCR Championship leaderboard.

And then the actual weekend happened.  So much for the wonderful script.  At least all eight geese escaped uninjured.

No geese were harmed in the writing of this newsletter.

Act I, Scene I – Friday Morning Practice

The original script opened up with the team arriving at the track on Friday morning for a full day of testing and tuning under clear blue skies.  The car had not yet been shaken down, I had not been on track since my surgery, and I had never turned in a lap at VIR.  Oh, and the sanctioning body made us reduce our maximum boost pressure, effectively taking away some of the horsepower that we had enjoyed at COTA and St. Pete.  Challenging elements creating a building sense of drama and anxiety!  But the script read that by the end of the day the car would be handling perfectly, my collarbone would be pain-free, and our lap times the next morning would put us at the front of the field.  Who doesn’t love a sports comeback story?

Picture-perfect conditions on Friday morning.  God Bless America!

Thankfully my collarbone stuck to the script (it gave me exactly zero trouble all weekend), but absolutely nothing else did.  While the first Friday practice session took place under dry conditions, it was temporarily halted by a red flag after about three laps.  And then there were the eight geese strolling across the track that shook up the rhythm once we got rolling again (note that the geese were not characters in the original script – they were simply party crashers).  Through it all, I managed to post a 2:02.98 lap time which, um, sucked.  No candy-coating that one.  It was only about seven (!) seconds slower than the fastest TCR Audi.  We were in the wrong zip code.

To make things even better, our top speed through the official traps at the end of the back straight was about 6 MPH slower than most of our competitors, confirming that the reduced maximum boost pressure had indeed taken its toll.  All of this good news demonstrated that I really, really, really needed a second practice session that afternoon to start figuring things out.  In a hurry.

Act I, Scene II – Friday Afternoon Practice

And then, with a blatant disregard for the script, the rain came.  And came.  And came.  The wind blew away not just several canopies around the paddock, but also any reasonable chance of the #34 TCR Giulietta putting down a decent qualifying time on Saturday morning.  Cue more drama and anxiety.

Act II, Scene I – Saturday Qualifying

Obviously, the script had to change.  The overnight rewrite had the team overcoming all of Friday’s drama and anxiety and me wringing an incredible lap time out of the car at the very end of the qualifying session.  It was going to be a real nail-biter, but the pole position was ours for the taking.  What a great recovery!

Problem was, I came up to speed TOO quickly.

Exactly seven seconds into the session (yes, seven seconds – I have the video), I “earned” a drive-through penalty for a pit speed violation.  This might be a record if someone keeps track of such things.  I find it so ironic that I have not been pulled over on public roads since 1993, but before I could even leave pit lane I got busted for speeding.

Let me explain this seemingly insignificant issue a little bit further, for it’s unfortunately going to come up again toward the end of our story.

First gear in the #34 TCR Giulietta is incredibly tall.  It’s more like second or third gear in a typical production car – it will go all the way to 60 MPH.  This is great on a racetrack where there might be an occasion to use first gear in a tight corner, but it makes driving off from rest rather difficult (try starting off your manual transmission car in third gear sometime and you will get the picture).  When coupled with the fact that the amazing little 1.7-liter engine makes exactly NO power below about 5,000 RPM, the problem is severely exacerbated.  From the outside, it looks like the driver is learning how to drive a stick shift for the first time.  That is, until the turbo suddenly wakes up and the car shoots forward without warning.

The process of getting the car to move on a flat piece of ground takes about – you guessed it – seven seconds.  And about 200 feet.  Which was exactly how far away the timing loop was that triggered the pit speed violation.  By the data, I only exceeded the pit speed limit for about, oh, three quarters of a second, but that was enough to get called into the Principal’s Office.

Busted for driving 42 MPH in a 31 MPH zone.  For less than one second.

Now, back to our story.  The qualifying session was scheduled to be 15 minutes long.  However, after dutifully serving my penalty, I had exactly six minutes, or three laps, to get it done.  While my 2:01.53 bettered my Friday morning practice time by a small amount, it was still woefully slow and put the car eighth on the grid of eight cars.

That’s a fancy way of saying we were dead last.

Because qualifying had gone so poorly, we made a host of changes to the chassis to try to give me more confidence in the car (if you’re a long-term reader, it won’t come as any surprise to you that if I’m not in sync with the way the car is performing I won’t try to force the issue).  Thinking that it couldn’t really get any worse, we threw the proverbial kitchen sink at it and crossed our fingers that the car would come to life and drive itself to the front of the pack.

(Note that if you want to watch the qualifying broadcast online, you can check it out here.  As always, Greg and Calvin did a great job of calling the action as they saw it unfold.  They even gave a shout-out to Zack for his scR newsletter efforts!)

Act II, Scene II – Race 1

Time for another update to the script – a charge from the back of the pack to the top step of the podium, right?  This was going to be our finest hour!

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t our finest hour.

The start of the race worked out well enough.  I got a great jump at the green flag and managed to drive around the Audi directly in front of me before entering Turn 1.  We gained a position!  And then I discovered the car was essentially undriveable.  The kitchen sink solution moved the needle in the wrong direction.  The car was far too stiff for the curbing, and any attempts to drive the proper racing line ended up with the chassis bouncing across the track.  This was particularly amusing in the Climbing Esses.

The start of Race 1.  We gained position, but it would not last long.

After driving around for about eight laps simply hanging on for dear life, we decided to turn the race into a practice session.  Rick called me into the pits, and we made a quick shock and tire pressure change hoping to salvage a decent lap time.  But that didn’t work out so well either.  The change didn’t settle the car down and we ended up finishing in last place with a “best” lap time of a 2:02.76.  Comically off the pace.

If the broadcast were available online I would include a link here, but for the life of me I can’t find it anywhere on the TC America website.  But I was told it spends precious little time focusing on the Alfa circling around the track by itself, so you’re not missing much.

[Post-race update: one of the VWs broke on the first lap and the race-winning Audi was disqualified in tech for being under the minimum weight.  A position gained by attrition is a position gained, and points are points.  I’m not proud.]

Act II, Scene III – Saturday Dinner

In an attempt to revive the team spirits, I suggested that we dine that evening at Outback Steakhouse.  An scR tradition spanning over 20 years, dinner at Outback back in the day always seemed to put the weekend in perspective.  Naturally, the script read that the Bloomin’ Onion and Victoria’s Filet would make all right with the world.  Unfortunately, half of the crew (the smart half, it turned out) thought that was a patently bad idea and went to eat Indian food instead.  Those of us who went for a trip down memory lane quickly learned that our glasses were indeed rose-colored.  The good beer was unavailable, the steaks were poorly prepared, and the service would have been forgettable had it not been so inattentive.

While my fond memories will survive this particular experience, I am afraid that there will be no more Outback Steakhouse in the near future for Risi Competizione.  And from the crew there was much rejoicing.

Act III, Scene I – Sunday Morning Prep

Being in a position with literally nothing to lose, we threw yet another kitchen sink at the setup for Sunday afternoon’s race.  The front springs, rear springs, rear anti-roll bar, ride height, and tire pressures were all sacrificed at the Altar of Enhanced Performance in an attempt to salvage a respectable finish for the Hella-Pagid special.

Spoiler alert: we didn’t salvage a respectable finish.  But at least the car was greatly improved.

Act III, Scene II – Race 2

Not knowing at the start of the race what to expect from the car, I essentially gave up the fight and let the rest of the TCR field sort it out in front of me.  I figured that if I had a great car under me at last, I could make a heroic charge to the front of the field!  And that became the script.

Two laps in, I determined that the car was indeed improved, if not awesome.  The curbing was finally in play, and the lap times began to drop.  And drop.  And drop.  Before too long, 1:59’s were showing up on the timesheet and I began to slowly reel in the seventh-place Audi.  And then, faster than you can say “Oliver North,” the script was stuffed into a shredder.

Two in the air at Oak Tree.  At least we got a few good pictures!

Coming up through the Climbing Esses on Lap 10, I caught two TCA Honda Civics engaged in their own battle for position.  Trying to be a nice guy, I didn’t force my way into their battle and tucked in behind through Turn 10, planning to simply motor by them after Turn 12.  That plan was all fine and good until I caught them a little too quickly coming up into Turn 11 and ended up dropping the left-front tire off into the grass.  Fortunately I avoided contact with the car directly in front of me, but the braking needed to slow for Turn 11 caused the car to spin 180 degrees like a top.  I saw it coming and knew what to expect, so a quick turn of the wheel and release of the brake allowed the car to spin immediately back in the opposite direction, facing forward once again, but stopped just slightly off track to the left.  Having damaged nothing but my pride, I restarted the car, put the transmission in first gear, and took off.

Oh, wait a minute.  No, that’s not what happened.  Not at all.  What actually happened is that the car stalled again.  Seven more times.

As you heard earlier, first gear in the #34 TCR Giulietta is incredibly tall.  It’s more like second or third gear in a typical production car.  And while that poses certain inconveniences on flat ground as explained previously, it’s simply, well, catastrophic when your car is parked on a uphill, grass-covered incline.  It simply could not move out of its own way without stalling.

For 43 seconds (yes, 43 seconds – I have the video), I tried everything I could think of to get the car moving under its own power (I really don’t want to see what the clutch looks like at this point).  Eventually it rolled far enough that it coughed and sputtered its way into the torque band and we were off again, but the entire event took almost exactly one minute to sort out.  And just like that, there was no conceivable way that we were going to improve on our last-place finish.  I completed the final 11 laps at race pace simply to ensure that the car had not been tweaked during the spin, but there’s not much else to report.  There was no joy in Mudville that day.

On a positive note, we brought it home without a scratch.  Or a trophy.

And that was the anti-climactic end of the decidedly off-script weekend.
If the broadcast were available online I would again include a link here, but for the life of me I can’t find it anywhere on the TC America website.  But I was told it spends precious little time focusing on the Alfa circling around the track by itself, so again you’re not missing much.  As a consolation prize, however, I have finally started up a YouTube channel for scR motorsports, and you can watch in-car video of our 1:59.51 VIR race lap by clicking on this link.  If enough people have interest and subscribe to the channel, this might become a regular thing as the season progresses.  Let me know what you think.

[Post-race update: one of the Audis broke with just a few laps to go.  A position gained by attrition is still a position gained, and points are still points.  I’m still not proud.]

Act IV, Curtain Call

A few miscellaneous items here need to be addressed before we wipe the slate clean and focus on our upcoming race at Sonoma.  First and foremost, I need to thank the entire crew from Risi Competizione that suffered gladly with me through the weekend.  In alphabetical order, Anna, Mark, Mike, Miles, Rick, Russ, and Scott all demonstrated why they are the best in the business, even when their car isn’t running (temporarily) at the front of the pack.  It’s still kind of amazing that they humor me enough to let me race with them.

And then we had our fan club(s) show up.  With Dennis in wave one, Craige (yes, that’s how you spell it), James, Nat, and Robert in wave two, Chris and his boys in wave three, and “Larry the Alfa Guy” in wave four, the paddock was filled with semi-true stories, incredibly tall tales, racecar show and tell, and plenty of good-natured teasing.  Guys, I am flattered that you took time out of your weekend to come out and cheer so emphatically for the slowest car on track.  Come back next time, and we will put on a better show.  Promise.

And then we had all those who tried to help me get up to speed.  Without prompting, Nate, Michael, Johan, and Anthony all offered to look over my shoulder, review my data, and critique my video.  Maybe they were just doing it for comic relief, but all offered up little nuggets to try to help Chassis #17 find the pace displayed by Chassis #16.  Some bits of their advice worked better than others (every car at VIR brakes at the 3 board on the front straight – not!), but in the end we were faster because of their help.  Thanks!

And then Mark showed up.  Those stories will be told in private when I have a beer in my hand.  But we are thrilled that he and his consulting firm, KBE+, are now an integral part of our TCR family.  I am sure that we will continue to build both our partnership and friendship as the season unfolds.  It’s great to have you on board!

Next up is Sonoma Raceway on June 8 and 9.  While it will be another new track to learn, we have six weeks to plan, prepare, test, test, and test.  What a novelty.  Chassis #17 will find its speed without a doubt, and we have every expectation that we will work our way back to the front of the field.

See you at the track!

TCR #34