My first race week-end of the year was actually the second Conference race: Although I had gone to Mission for the first race of the season, and even gotten my car run through its annual tech inspection, I ended up coming home Friday night. So, for me, my excitement for Portland also included an element of first-race jitters.
For the first time ever, and thanks to towing the race car and driving an extended cab pick-up, I was actually able to drive to the race with my family. So, despite some hellacious rainstorms and shockingly bad traffic through Olympia (why, one wonders…), I arrived at Portland International Raceway comfy and rested. Nice change!
Unfortunately, things got a little chaotic after that…
The first annoyance was that I had a strangely hard time doing a simple parking job with the trailer. In fact, the place where I keep the trailer involves a regular parking challenge that’s far greater than what I experienced in the paddock, but I still couldn’t straighten-up the trailer to save my life. Ah well, nobody seemed to mind. 🙂
Problem number 2 was a bit of confusion about tech inspection. Once you have an annual done on your car, you only have to present your personal gear (helmet, suit, gloves, etc.) and the car’s logbook at tech, unless your run group has been assigned to go through a mandatory tech inspection that week-end. As I’d had my annual done at Mission and wasn’t in the last run group of the day, I intended to just present my gear and then be off to the hotel for the evening. But the line was long and it was simply pouring rain (to the point they had to close tech early), so I decided to just bag it and deal with tech in the morning.
After getting dinner and relaxing a bit, it was time for bed. Usually, I have a hard time falling asleep before these things, but I fell right to sleep… it’d been a long day. But it just wouldn’t do for Steve to get a decent night’s sleep during a race week-end, oh goodness no, so my body decided it’d had enough about 2 hours before my alarm was scheduled and I just couldn’t go back to sleep. Dammit.
Since the weather continued to be wet, but with patches of blue sky and occasional sun breaks, I decided to get to the track about an hour early. This would give me plenty of time (heh; wait for it…) to get through tech and change to a wet setup, if the weather started looking really scary.
So we get to the track and I troop over to tech, only to find out that I do, in fact, need to get the car tech’d again, despite the annual from Mission. And, of course, there’s a long line of cars. And, of course, it’s starting to rain again.
By the time I get through the line and back to my paddock space, I’ve already missed all three calls to pregrid, plus the 5-minute warning. Although it’s raining pretty steadily, if not terribly hard, there’s no time to do anything but frantically change clothes, do a quick torque of the wheel nuts, and tear-ass off (at 10 MPH) down to the now-empty pregrid. I wasn’t too worried about running on my dry tires in the wet, since there wasn’t much standing water, but they were still set to dry-track tire pressures, i.e., too hard.
A quick look-over of my car by the marshals and out to the track, having only lost about a lap of practice time… where I found out it might’ve been better if I’d just skipped the session. The car was terribly squirmy to drive, more than I thought it would be, but worse still was the fact I was driving like an idiot, missing apexes, occasionally blocking faster cars, taking horrible lines through most corners, and just generally driving like crap. Eventually, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk (had a few major understeer moments and a couple good oversteers) and came in a lap or two early.
The first thing I did when I got back to my paddock space was to lower the tire pressures all ’round, but mostly in the rear, to improve the handling. (Huh. As I write this, I realize that I never even considered softening the suspension.) Just a half-hour later, I went out for Group 1’s (rainy) practice session, where I found the handling to be much more stable. I was still driving pretty slowly, but felt a good deal more confident. At this point in the day, my fastest time was a 1’47.539″. Without the chicane.
After all this running around in the rain in a race car that has no door windows, there was quite a bit of water in the car that I needed to get out. There was so much water, in fact, that I got distracted by something in my peripheral vision while braking for a corner: I saw some movement in the car and glanced to my right to see a small tsunami of water rushing to the front of the passenger-side compartment. Didn’t see any tiny surfers, but it took a nice break when it hit my ECU, I thought. Anyway, I must’ve sopped up over a cup of water, which is an awful lot to have splashing around the pedals and electronics.
I had a 4-hour gap until qualifying for Group 5, so I wandered around the paddock and schmoozed with people I know, watched a couple of other groups (including a Novice practice session featuring two of the very cool Dodge Viper Competition Coupes), and kept a “weather eye” peeled on the sky, which had gotten progressively nicer as the day wore on. And then about 12.30, as we made our way back from where we’d gotten lunch on the opposite end of the paddock, the sky just opened and pretty much drowned us and everything under our canopy. At least I wasn’t out on track.
By the time my first qualifying session rolled around, the weather had cleared to the point that I committed to a full-dry setup, even though the sky still looked a bit iffy. Frankly, though, it wouldn’t’ve mattered if it’d rained again or not, ’cause I was slow, slow, slow. Even allowing for all the people I pointed by, I got passed by everybody: cars that “should be” slower than me, cars I’m pretty sure are slower than me, and cars I’ve been faster than in the past… did they get faster, or was I getting slower?
I had only started the session with 1/3 of a tank and started seeing some fuel starvation issues (hesitations) in a couple of the faster corners, so I bailed on the session and came in early. As it was, I would’ve seen the checkered flag for that session on that lap anyway, so I only lost yet another slow lap. I finished 36/43 cars running with a 1’32.140″.
I put in about half a tank of gas and went out for Group 1 qualifying… where I still found myself slower than pretty much everybody and generally not doing very well. My “freak out” moment of the session came when I found I only had a 2-3MPH advantage on the front straight over Guy’s Datsun 2000, which I figured I’d have the legs on at PIR without the chicane. Not good.
On a more positive note, though, Eric had agreed to let me tail him around for the first lap so I could get an idea on where I might be taking a bad line and I was able to improve significantly in some critical corners. I was still slower than cold molasses (17/20 runners and 3/4 in class), but at least I took 2.6 seconds off my time from Group 5. (Even so, that would’ve only moved me up 4 spots in the group.)
I had been curious about the car’s weight after having removed the A/C system, and adding the oil cooler and Halon system, so I had the car weighed when I came off after Group 1: A net loss of 25 lbs (at my “reference weight” that includes me & 1/2 tank of gas), weighing in at 2645 lbs instead of 2670. Still a bit of a pig, but if the driver loses the 30 lbs he needs to, and I remove the door glass, power window motors, and door side-impact beams (which aren’t doing anything the cage isn’t doing already), I figure I’ll only be 50 or 60 lbs overweight.
Thankfully, Sunday dawned looking like it might be nice, or at least not soaking wet, so I was feeling hopeful that I’d be able to improve my times over Saturday’s. Of course, more than likely everybody else would, too, but I was going to have enough on my hands trying to improve without also worrying about the weather. Much less good, though, was the difficulty we had getting out of the hotel and to the track before Group 4’s first session (right before Group 5, surprisingly enough), which meant we couldn’t cross the track to the infield paddock until about 5 minutes before Group 5’s second qualifying session. To be perfectly honest, though, I was feeling awfully ambivalent about Group 5, so I didn’t even try to get out there; my time from Saturday would have to stand (now down to 43/47 overall and 10/11 in RS).
Since Group 1’s C Production is my primary class, you’re darn-tootin’ I went out for Sunday’s qualifying. My times still blew, but I had improved to 21 of 26 overall (still 3/4 in class), with a time of 1’27.549″.
(For anyone new to racing, I should point out that the very positive thing from all this is that, although I was really disappointed in my times to that point in the week-end, my times were constantly getting better. I was asking questions of other drivers, watching faster guys through every corner, thinking about everything I did and why I did it, and pushing myself to brake a little later or get on the gas a little sooner. Sure, my times were pretty slow, but I improved every session.)
One very odd thing I noticed after qualifying was that I seemed to be going through gas at a prodigious rate: Typically, 9+ gallons in the car plus another 10 in fuel jugs is enough for a week-end, but I only had about one tank’s worth with both races yet to run. In the past, this would’ve been just enough, but not this time… dammit. (Look for another “surprise” later on!)
Group 5 race (RS)
To keep things simple when describing PIR without the chicane vs. with, I’m using the “with chicane” numbers for every corner. This means that the turn at the end of the front straight for “PIR without” will be described as “Turn 4,” which is what it is with the chicane.
Unfortunately, and for reasons that will probably become clear once you read about the Group 1 race, I don’t remember much about the Group 5. This really is too bad, as it was one of the busiest races I’ve had since, well, my first-ever senior race… also in Group 5. This is partly due to Group 5 being the largest closed-wheel group, but also because of my back-of-the-pack starting position. Starting 43rd of 47 cars meant that I was among cars that are not only slower than me over the course of a lap, but are (in almost all cases) dramatically slower than me in a straight line. In Portland’s no-chicane configuration, this resulted in my passing something like 8 cars on the first lap and 5 on the second; more than half the cars I passed over the course of the race I did so in the first two laps!
A lot of this is because of the horsepower advantage I had over a lot of the cars I was starting amongst, but I can’t say enough about the really decent brake performance I was getting out of the car for Turn 4. I passed at least 5 cars while braking at the end of the straight, including cars I passed purely because I braked later. A little scary occasionally
—a couple times I thought I was going to get repassed because I was running out of track to brake, so I just let off the brakes and turned for the apex… traction!
—but overall a very satisfying experience when done cleanly.
I had a lot of fun racing with some 1st-generation RX-7s (a few ITA cars that really have no business being as fast as me [!] and one EIP), a couple of GT-4 Rabbits (especially Mike Volk; hope I didn’t mess up your race, Mike!), and some Spec Miatas running in my class.
What was not fun was a little “agricultural driving” I experienced in Turn 7. While accepting a point-by from a GT-5 Datsun 1200 (whose fast lap was 13 seconds slower than mine… that’s a slow car) and trying not to hold up Skip Yocom’s class-leading ITS Datsun 240Z, I entered the corner much later than normal, but without slackening my pace. (My relatively storming pace to this point undoubtedly having induced a case of the “red mist.”) This led to a drastically later apex of the corner and, inevitably, to running over the FIA curbing and off into the grass. Now, for much of the track this is not really an issue, as PIR is flat and has lots of runoff room. The outside of Turn 7, while a truly long way from the wall, is on an extremely bumpy patch of ground, which my essentially unabated speed led me to bounce over at high speed… with admirable aplomb, if I may say so myself, all the more so when considering I’d never been this far off the asphalt before, much less this fast. I did the right thing by applying minimal steering and throttle inputs to “regain the course,” as they say, at the cost of getting passed by Skip (who was on his way anyway), the 1200, and another car I’d passed a couple corners earlier. I got back past both the “non-Skip” cars on the back straight.
The cost of all this hard running, in addition to folding the splitter back under the car during my “high-speed lawnmower” impression, was that my borderline-shoulda-changed-’em brake pads were worn down to nearly nothing when I returned to the paddock. And I was down to about 1/8 tank of gas, with nothing left in the jugs. And, after I got out of my car and talked to a few people who commented on how many positions I’d made during the race, I suddenly came to strangely sickening conclusion that I might’ve finished 3rd or higher in class, resulting in a mandatory post-race trip to the weigh scales that I’d blown right past. Back into the car and over to wait in line for the scales to prove that, yes, my car is still a couple hundred pounds overweight for my class, thankyouverymuch. Oh, and I finished 4th in class and didn’t need to get weighed? Great, thanks for the info.
(Ya know, you’d think there’d be some official way to let people know they need to get weighed after a race. I mean, I don’t have any way to know where I finished until the results are posted, so my only recourse is to get weighed every time… bit of a pain.)
Group 1 race (CP)
So here I am, finally back at my paddock space, with about 20 minutes to go before my Group 1 race. (That’s 20 minutes before the race starts, but much less before I need to be over at pregrid.) No gas, no brakes, a front splitter that’s more of an air dam, and no time.
Problem #1, the splitter, was the easiest to fix: I just grabbed hold of the thin aluminum and pulled it (mostly) straight. It was scratched all to hell and even split in a couple places, but it was good enough for now. Problem #2 was what to do about my brakes. I had extra sets of front & rear pads (yes, even my underutilized rear pads were ’bout done), but not quite enough time to change even the fronts. Okay, just gonna have to run on what’s left and hope for the best. But I can’t run at all without fixing Problem #3, what to do for gas.
Thankfully, the open-wheel guys parked near me had a golf cart, so I ran over and told the first warm body about my sorry situation and got them to drive me waaay down to the vendor area at the other end of the paddock. Andy at Armadillo Racing just about killed me making sure I got a fair fill of 104 octane (oooh, race gas… at $6.75 a gallon!!), as well as being nice enough to take my word that Anna would be by in a bit to pay the difference between the cash I had and the actual purchase price.
Back to the car (yea, golf carts!), dump the gas in, get dressed, and then off to pregrid, just in the nick of time. Whuf! It was surprisingly easy on pregrid to forget all that had happened and focus on the race. Of course, this meant that my near-lack of brakes got pushed well to the rear of my conscious mind. Subconscious too, for that matter.
The longer I sat on pregrid, the more curious I got as to Guy’s whereabouts. As we got inside the 5-minute warning, and especially inside the 1-minute, it was pretty clear that he wasn’t going to be starting in his qualified position. In fact, it was about then that I noticed his car at the far back end of the grid, sitting in the middle of the lane. I found out later that he’d had problems with his starter motor.
Because John Cartwright didn’t start the race and Guy started from the back, I essentially made up two positions on the pace lap, leaving me only 5 spots behind Mike when the race started. Since we have two-row rolling starts, though, this meant I was really only 3 cars behind Mike and on the inside of the track. Due to the way the grid spreads out at the start, along with a “trademark Steve start” (sometimes, the pace lap’s pace falls right in the good part of my torque band), I found myself right behind Mike as we went into the first corner (Turn 4).
It appears that my car on cold tires is a little better than Mike’s, ’cause I hung with him pretty well for a couple of laps. I even got my nose up inside him in Turn 5, but eventually he started pulling away. Considering my pace over the week-end, I was surprised it lasted that long.
I ran by myself for a while and then starting catching up to Shelly Russell’s gorgeous red Alfa Romeo Spyder. We raced for a few laps and I was able to pass (again, in the brake zone for Turn 4) and then stay in front of her for a while, but then she repassed me and pulled away, eventually finishing 14th.
In the meantime, I’d seen Guy starting to appear in my rearview and drawing closer all the time. I pretty much knew he was going to get by me eventually (over the course of a flying lap, he’s faster than both Mike & me), but I wasn’t going to make it easy, leading to some good dicing once he caught me. He got by me somewhere between Turns 5 & 7 and, based on our practice and qualifying sessions, I figured I wouldn’t be able to stay with him. I decided the best thing to do was stick as close as possible and work on improving my lap times.
After a couple laps of chasing him around, I was getting more and more confident that I might be able to repass him: I don’t know if this is really the case or not, but I would say that I’m more consistent lap-to-lap than Guy, even if I’m generally slower. Although he initially pulled away from me a little, I was able to keep him from getting away. I was usually able to close the gap under braking for Turn 4 (he has solid discs front and rear drums, compared to my vented front and solid rear discs), but I also got a few good runs on him through some of the corners between Turns 4 and 8.
I was putting enough pressure on him that he locked up his front brakes a couple times and was occasionally sloppy in Turns 5, 7, and 12, leading me to start putting my nose inside under braking. I got my best run on him going down the back straight to Turn 10, which is a very fast left-hander that you put your left-side wheels up on when it’s not raining. Here, though, was where things got interesting: I didn’t have a camera in my car and I didn’t think to ask any corner workers (not that I’d actually have done anything, official-wise), but I was sure I was so far alongside Guy going into the brake zone that we were almost totally side-by-side. Certainly far enough to claim that I had the corner. If this is the case, some people would have backed off a little on braking and pulled in behind me. Others, as Guy did, would attempt to go two-wide through the corner. A bit disconserting, but certainly do-able if both drivers leave the other enough room… which Guy (in my opinion) did not. From my peripheral vision, he took close to the standard line through the corner, which meant he completely pinched me off at the apex. Since backing off was not an option (I’d’ve spun right into him), I was forced to go even farther “up” the curb, to the point that I put my left-side tires in the grass at 85+MPH. Not at all fun and the memory of which will definitely give me pause the next time we’re dicing for a corner.
(Don’t get me wrong, Guy’s a really nice guy. I think maybe he just had a little case of the red mist going on. Assuming I’m right about our relative positions as we went for the corner, of course.)
A lap or two later, probably two-thirds through the race, he got totally out of shape for Turn 7, doing a couple of big “tank slappers” (wild left and right oscillations of the car as it tries to spin one way, the driver overcorrects the other, the car tries to spin that way, the driver overcorrects again, etc) with me right on his tail and the eventual 4th place overall SPM 240SX right on mine. I aimed left, then aimed right, then decided I didn’t know where the hell he was going to end up and just got on the brakes until he sorted it out. It would’ve been a perfect time to pass, but I just wasn’t willing to risk the contact.
The 240SX passed us both down the back straight, with me hot on Guy’s tail as we went through Turns 10 and 11. Just at or maybe a bit after the apex for Turn 12, which leads onto the front straight, Guy really lost it and executed a big, lazy spin toward the pit entrance. This time, it happened quickly enough (he said the 240 braked unexpectedly, although that’s an odd place to brake; draw your own conclusions) that he did the only thing he could do, which is to jam on his brakes. I did what you’re supposed to do, which is to pretty much aim for the spinning car (i.e., maintain my line) under the assumption that it will have spun away by the time you get there. This is exactly what happened, although Guy’s car took a looong time to hook around, leaving quite a while where I was steadily gaining ground on “T-boning” him in the right quarter panel.
I’m assuming he couldn’t get his clutch in quickly enough, because his engine died and, without a working starter motor, had to wait a couple laps until the safety crews were able to tow-start him. (He would finish in 22nd place, 3 laps down from me.)
I spent the remainder of the race chasing down Rick Bostrom’s SPM RX-7, but wasn’t able to catch him before the end. Interestingly, my finish just behind him in the Group 1 race mirrored his close finish (running in E Improved Production) behind me in the Group 5 race a couple hours earlier.