The point of the Novice races is to gain enough experience to be allowed to race in the “regular” races. Now that I was at that level, though, I started wondering if I was really ready…
I was more than a little apprehensive about running in Group 5 which, besides being the largest run group, also has a reputation for being a bit wild and woolly. The LAST thing I wanted to do was get caught up in some rolling furball at the start, so I approached Sunday’s qualifying session as sort of a crowded lapping session. This meant the most important thing to me was to simply go out and circulate with the Group 5 cars (those that were using the second qualifying session on Sunday morning, at least) and begin to get a feel for how the senior drivers compare to the novices.
My first taste of “real” racing was getting stuck behind “Judge” Penick in his son’s ITC Civic at the beginning of the session. Even though my Integra is clearly a lot faster, he wasn’t making it easy for me to get by. This contrasted with the Novice sessions, where you’ll typically get a point-by; on the other hand, I wasn’t really hammering it through the corners to stay right on his tail and, after all, qualifying is used to set a good time for the race, so I expect what I experienced was normal. Although… there was one lap where I really came after him as we approached Turn 5b, so that I could maintain some decent momentum and pass him going up the hill exiting Turn 6, but he braked (BRAKED! I couldn’t believe it!) just past the apex of 5b. This caused me to get extremely close to his rear bumper, and also made me back off until I could pass him going down the front straight. Ultimately, though, I really didn’t care where I qualified, since the only intention I had for the race was to see what it was like. Being at or near the back would be a good thing, for my purposes.
The session was black-flagged (all cars off the track) before the scheduled end after an RX-7 found itself parked backwards up the hillside in Turn 6. I speculate this happened after it hit the curb at the apex of 5b too hard, bending a control arm in the right-front suspension and spinning up the embankment. (I’m guessing on the sequence of events, but I know the control arm got bent ’cause I talked to the guy that had to figure out how to fix or replace it.) This part of the track is one of the scarier sections to me, because going off-course leaves very little opportunity to NOT hit something….
After qualifying was over, there was a good deal of discussion with the Race Steward about what class I’d be running: Turns out that, not only couldn’t I run ITS this year (which wasn’t too surprising: My car is still classed by the SCCA in Showroom Stock B, but I thought Conference might let that slide as my ’97 is identical to a ’96, which is old enough to run ITS.), but just because a car ages enough to run in a class other than Showroom Stock doesn’t mean it’ll be classed that way until someone petitions the SCCA’s Competition Board to reclassify the car. So suddenly my plans to run Conference Production and SCCA Improved Touring seemed a good deal less likely, even for next year! In the end, we decided to class my car in Radial Sedan (a class from the SCCA’s Oregon Region) for this race, so my qualifying time wouldn’t be for nothing. Unfortunately for me, RS allows a lot more modifications than Production, so my car was very stock, not to mention very heavy: I ran something like 335lbs over the minimum RS weight.
If there was one part of the race I expected to be no different from what I’d experienced as a Novice, it was pre-grid, but chaos reigned as I was one of 5 cars for whom no qualifying time could be found. They were eventually able to (mostly) figure it out, but at least one guy running for a championship was very vocal about his displeasure. Still, starting near the back and my “just here for the experience” attitude meant that losing two spots (I believe) from where I should’ve been gridded was really no big deal. (As a sign of just how little I cared where I was gridded, bear in mind that my fast lap from Novice practice, much less my even quicker fast lap from the Novice race, would’ve placed me something like 15 spots closer to the pole.)
The start was the same ol’-same ol’, with the biggest difference from a Novice start being that there were just WAY too many slower cars in front of me to do much about; no “magic start” for me this time. It’s probably just as well, because the tremendous variety of lines through Turn 2 (a big, sweeping left-hander also known as “Big Indy”) was so fascinating I almost forgot to pay attention to my own line into the corner. 🙂 The remainder of the first lap consisted of driving with my head on a swivel, trying not to get passed by too many people while making sure I was minding the cars around me. It wasn’t long, though, before even this large field spread itself out and my race settled down into just tooling along, minding my own business. I made the odd pass here and there as I caught up to slower cars, but I wasn’t doing much other than just experiencing the race, as I’d planned.
The next bit of excitement, after the start and first few laps, was when I noticed a couple cars gaining on me as I drove down the front straight. A-ha!, I thought, faster traffic approaching. Knowing that the cars that run toward the front of Group 5 are quite fast, and being a newly-minted Area driver, the last thing I wanted to do was interfere with their race, so I backed off a little going through Turn 2 and heading down to the first hairpin in Turn 3a. I figured that, as fast as they were they’d catch me pretty quickly, and I thought that I could set myself up (how un-competetive of me!) for a pass at the entry of the other hairpin (3b), or possibly on the back straight or at the entry to Turn 5a. Strangely, though, I got through the turns a lot farther in front of them than I expected, leading me to start pushing hard again with the idea that I’d be able to get out of their way so that they could pass me exiting Turn 6 (or later), where they wouldn’t have to modify their speed or line much, if at all. Well, “the best laid plans…” and all that: As I hammered into Turn 5b and prepared to swing back to the right to hit the apex, I suddenly discovered both cars freight-training through the corner, right where I expected to go. This led me to take a new and rather unpleasant wider line through the dusty and slippery outside portion of the corner, and at a speed that’s about as fast through there as I ever go. Can you say “pucker factor?” Knew ya could.
In the latter half of the race, cars started going off track and spinning with a surprising frequency. Eventually, there were enough cars off the track that they threw a full-course caution, bunching the field back up. Unfortunately for me, the restart did not go very well: I stayed to the outside of Turn 2 (which I can do somewhat easily, front-wheel drive helping a lot) so that I’d be on inside for the braking zone for Turn 3a, which is a popular place to pass. My thinking was that, at the very least, I’d keep my position in the hairpin, if not actually be able to make a few passes. Instead, I found myself trapped behind a couple of slower cars on the right side of the track as a massive train of cars streamed past, including cars that were slower than me and/or that I’d passed earlier in the race. “Just here for the experience” attitude or not, this was really, really frustrating.
The race ended with me once again circling around on my own, but without having done (as far as I know) anything stupid or obviously “newbie”-ish. I had moved up 9 spots from where I started, and finished 4th in class (only because the other two cars in RS didn’t finish!), but I felt I had accomplished my goals for the race and that was good enough for me.