Another hot Saturday morning in Portland. Another prediction for record highs. And, oh yeah, my first-ever day as a racing driver.
For all the running around I’d done since leaving the house two days earlier, Saturday was shaping up to be a surprisingly relaxed day: As a novice, I was only scheduled for two practice sessions (one on either side of the official lunch break) and the race itself and, despite messing it up a bit on Friday night, my car was ready to go racing. Anna, Lauren, and I had a nice place to sit in the shade with food and plenty of water to drink, so we just hung out and talked with our “neighbors” in the paddock: Skip Yocom (winner and champion on many occasions in his ITS 240Z), the racing portion of the Heinrich family (Dan, Linda, and son Chris), and a good percentage of the Club Rabbit/GT-4 crowd of Jon Guffey, Greg Swanson, Mike Vogel, and my instructor from Friday, Dave Dunning (Chris Heinrich is also part of the “Bunny Mob,” as we took to calling them).
Although we had done some at-will passing on Friday, first practice late Saturday morning was my first opportunity to pass anyone whenever I wanted. It was also my first time on the track with people who had actually raced before, even if it was just one novice race. I was pushing pretty hard, since I was still so new to the track and figured I still had a lot to learn, but it became clear to me that either I was going to kick ass during the race or some people were saving something for the race. (Uh, yeah, I came to the latter conclusion, too.)
Aside from the option to pass folks whenever I wanted, my first bit of realization that “this ain’t no track day” came during the first practice, when I almost got creamed trying to pass someone under braking going into Turn 1… I had come hauling up on him about halfway down the straight, and based on experience from earlier in the session I expected him to get shown the blue (“faster car approaching”) flag, but he didn’t. Okay, fair enough, and even if he had gotten the blue it doesn’t mean he needs to move over. However, he also didn’t appear to be checking his mirrors, because I was on the inside and well up on him (you have to be at least even with the door to be considered to have the line) as we got to the braking zone, only to find him taking the normal “no one’s around” line into the chicane. This meant he ended up shooting across my nose (he stayed wide longer to take the preferred line) and we would’ve made serious contact if I hadn’t stood on the brakes. So it’s the overtaking driver’s responsibility to make a clean pass and I recognize that, but he really should’ve been paying better attention in my opinion. I wanted to talk to him about it, if for no other reason than to learn something, but he never showed up for the second practice, didn’t show up for the race pre-grid until really late, and was gridded too far back from me to make the walk there and back in time. In the end, the scary thing is that he might’ve known I was there and chosen that line anyway…
Fast forward to where I’m sitting in my car at pre-grid at 5:15 that afternoon: All the heat of the day is soaking up from the asphalt (at one point, someone measured the asphalt at 130
°F) and into me in my 3-layer fire suit, gloves, fireproof socks, etc. It was so hot that the soft rubber on the soles of my driving shoe soles started sticking to the floor of the car. I was just totally miserable. One of the wonderful pre-grid workers (volunteers all!) came by with small cups of cold water, which I think had a large part in preventing me from just walking away from my first race.
I have no idea how the License Director determines the Novice grids, but it looked like drivers with more experience and/or faster cars were gridded toward the front. Based on my position in 9th, I was feeling pretty good about how I (or maybe my car) was stacking up against the competition. In fact, for my first race, I was feeling pretty calm about the whole thing, although I did notice that my hands were shaking pretty good when putting my gloves on with about a minute to go. Musta been the heat, right? 🙂
As we followed the pace car around on the formation lap, I was getting more and more apprehensive about the start. I mean, I’ve watched enough racing to know how people use the start to try to make up as many positions as possible, and with mix of somewhat-experienced novices, some brand-new novices (like me), and some people new to PIR (me again), I was thinking the sharp, slow turn in to the chicane could be really ugly. Luckily, I was gridded on the inside of the track, so as we took the green and approached Turn 1 I stayed really wide on the inside, got on my brakes hard, and took a ridiculously tight line into the first corner. While this left me wide-open for a pass on the inside of Turn 2, somehow nobody did.
As the 30-minute race progressed, I got 4 or 5 point-bys (it’s still a pass, just a recognition by the passed driver that the car behind is going to get by, so why force the issue in a race that has no points or prizes?), but I made several passes under power and even several under braking and/or in turns. Two of these are worth mentioning:
- I lapped 3 cars at once while braking for Turn 1. My little “‘teg” is reasonably fast, fairly light, and pretty decent on the brakes, but a pass like that just didn’t seem possible unless there was a yellow flag I had missed, so I let them by as we exited Turn 2. I quickly realized, though, that there hadn’t been a yellow flag and I had wasted a good pass, so I had to pass them all over again.
- I passed a faster BMW under braking for, you guessed it, Turn 1 (I also used the braking zone at the end of the back straight to make a few passes) and then found myself with a whole lot of entry speed and no real plan for how I was going to manage it through the chicane… I pretty much slowed to a crawl (as race speeds go) and managed to make my way through without getting repassed, but making that pass cleanly, if unattractively, was at least as much luck as it was good equipment. (I’m not sure where driver skill factored into it, but probably third.)
At this stage in the race, after one mechanical (possibly two) and some passing, I was actually in 3rd place! I knew I was never going to catch the Z24 Camaro that had been on pole and led the whole way, nor the SPU-prepared CRX that had started 8th and was now 2nd, so I settled in to just lap at a decent pace for the last 5 minutes or so of the race. I don’t believe I was suffering from the heat at this point, but I was definitely glad to know the race was winding down.
Despite passing him and pulling away a little bit, I hadn’t come close to dropping the BMW: He was faster than me in a straight line, but I seemed to be taking faster lines through the corners, so we were relatively well-matched. I don’t know if it was just that he couldn’t quite catch up to me at this point or if he’d decided that it was smarter to stay behind me after my move on him in the chicane, but after a lap and a bit of keeping an eye on him in my mirrors, I decided I was going to point him by once we got back on the front straight. I was hot enough and getting tired enough that I just wanted to run by myself for the rest of the race, even if it meant giving up a position.
Entering Turn 10 (at the end of the back straight) I was able to pull a little ahead of the BMW (I was either braking later or just less with my lighter car) and carry good speed through the left-hander and into the right-hander (Turn 11) on my way to the right-hand turn onto the front straight, Turn 12. There’s a short straight section of track between the exit of 11 and the entry into 12 where I brake, downshift to second to keep the revs up, and then turn right for the apex of 12. As soon as we got onto the straight, I was going to point the BMW by, even though it meant it would drop me to 4th for the end of the race. (I later found out I was about to start the last lap. Had I known at the time, I would’ve just hung in there for the finish.)
There’s an old maxim in amateur racing: “If you can’t afford to wreck it, you can’t afford to race it.” Whether it was because the track was too greasy (with all that heat, it definitely was, as I’d noticed a couple laps earlier), I didn’t scrub enough speed, my tires were too hot (I’d been getting some understeer as the race progressed, plus I think I was running my tire pressures about 4psi too much for PIR), I was too hot, or I didn’t have enough high-performance experience in a FWD car, I don’t know, but here’s what happened: I braked and downshifted as normal but, as I turned the wheel to hit the apex in Turn 12, my front tires immediately started to plow wide. The wider I got, the more the “marbles” (bits of rolled-up rubber that have been scrubbed off tires) and dirt near the edge of the track made my car understeer. Almost before I knew it, I found myself with no hope of making the turn and heading straight for the tire barriers. I stood on the brakes, but there was no way I was going to stop in time and I plowed into them at about 60MPH. (It’s possible I gave up on the car and might’ve been able to save it by stomping on the throttle and hoping the front-wheel drive pulled me out of trouble. This is what a few senior drivers who saw what happened said and I agreed with them at the time, but further reflection suggests that it’s just as possible I would’ve hit the left-rear of the car on the “point” at the end of the turn, which would’ve spun me across the straight and into a concrete wall.)
My reaction after the impact was to yell “Shit!” and whack the steering wheel ’cause I’d just wrecked my car, and in my first race to boot. My second action was to nod in response to the License Director’s (he just happened to be standing near Turn 12) lip-read question if I was okay. My third action was to respond to a corner worker’s question of “Do you know where you are?” with “Yeah! I’m in the flipping tires in Turn 12!” Guess I was okay… (For the rest of the season, the License Director loved to tell the story of how he and everybody else in Turn 12 scattered as I came flying towards them. I always responded that I had had a question for him and thought it’d be a good time to ask.)
After a few more questions to ascertain my immediate condition, the corner worker told me to get out of the car and escorted me around the tires to the corner station, as cars were still whizzing by and I was parked in what was clearly an impact zone. There followed more questions by the paramedics
—and seemingly everyone else in the “hot zone” near the Turn 12 corner station
—and then I was escorted behind the fence, where Anna & Lauren were waiting… yes, the first time my wife & kid come to see me drive my race car, in any kind of event, and I wreck it right in front of ’em. :-|. Lucky for me, Anna is at least as competitive a spectator as I am a driver and Lauren was too young to notice what’s going on (although Anna swears that Lauren started crying when I crashed).
By the time I got back to my paddock area (where Jim Hill had kindly test-driven my rather thrashed car), it was something like 6:30 or quarter to 7 and what had already been a long day (after an unexpectedly long day on Friday) was turning into yet another long day: I needed to get things as squared away as possible so that anything that might prevent (or make miserable) the trip back to Seattle in the morning could get spotted ASAP. Mostly, this involved cleaning all the glass out of the interior (the driver-side glass and wing mirror had both been broken), removing seriously damaged pieces like the fender liners and lower valance (the bottom half of the bumper), and banging on the left-front fender to get it away from the wheel and leading edge of the door. Despite the assistance and advice from Chris Heinrich, this dragged on until well after dark. (Since neither I nor anyone around me had a flashlight, Greg Swanson was kind enough to point his wife’s Honda at my work area and turn the lights on.) Anna finally demanded we head back to the hotel, no doubt helped along by Lauren, whose patience (pretty remarkable in someone barely 5 months old) had finally run out, and my first race day finally ended back at the hotel some time after 10pm.
Sunday was supposed to be a relaxed “wake up, pack the car, and go” day, but instead I got to go back to the track and test drive the car to see how the alignment was. Although it pulled a little to the left if I let go of the wheel, it really wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. In fact, driving it normally the pull wasn’t the slightest bit noticeable.
As you might recall, I no longer had a working left-side wing mirror (or even a wing mirror at all; along with a few other parts, it resided in the trash at PIR), so I got to use good old-fashioned arm signals. Of course, since I didn’t have a driver-side window anymore, either, this wasn’t that big a hassle… 🙂
After probably a week or so where I didn’t want to look at the car (but relived the crash and second-guessed myself a few dozen times), it was time to start repairing the damage. A few examinations of the damage showed that it was more extensive than initially thought, but still essentially cosmetic. After hitting up several wrecking yards for used parts, a couple of online places for OEM replacement parts (word of advice about OEM replacement parts: generally speaking, don’t), getting another alignment, and doing nearly all of the other repair work myself, the crash ended up costing me less than $1700, including a professional buffing & polishing.
Believe it or not, and especially considering the results, I actually got off a bit cheap.