Although both Group 1 (SPO) and the one-hour enduro were options, I elected to only run ST for what was turning out to be my last sprint week-end of the season (other commitments)
Looking at the entries for Group 4, with loads of GT1 and GT2 cars, plus some fast ITE cars, the cars in SST, the fact nearly all the SE46s were faster than me at the July race, and so on, I thought it very possible I’d be one of the 3–5 slowest cars in the whole group. Even just looking at the other entries in ST (2015 M240iR factory racecar, Gator’s WRX, and an E36 M3), I’m quite possibly the slowest car.
Despite the opportunity to leave for Portland earlier than usual, I didn’t actually get on the road until about 30 minutes earlier than normal, so what was supposed to be a 3:15 drive ended up being pretty much exactly 4 hours. Still, a generally straightforward tow and the first real outing for the new hitch, which went well until I forgot about its low ground clearance and nailed it on a speed bump entering the track.
Because Friday was a combination Test ‘n’ Tune and HPDE, and certain classes see what is (IMO) a ridiculously high rate of TnT signups, there were what felt like a billion cars lining up for their next session when we arrived… so many that we had to stop in the paddock area for a while as we waited for the overflow onto pit lane to clear out as the group left for the track. We quickly found the area where Curt had saved spaces for both Eric and me and pulled into it to set up.
The air-conditioned drive down had ruined me for outside temperatures in the humid mid-80s and I was dying almost immediately, further compounded by an “interesting” challenge in unhooking one of the trailer’s safety chains. In order to get the trailer aligned in a trailer space and snugged up to the SE46 paddocked next to me, the truck ended up at something of an extreme angle in relation to the trailer, which in turn was applying a lot of tension to the chain on the “outside” of the angle, but I eventually got it worked out by disconnecting the hitch from the truck and sliding it toward the trailer. (I swear, there’s always something…)
I had thought the tech inspection I’d gotten from Duane back in July was for an annual, but it turned out he’d only tech’d me for the one event. He was paddocked just across the lane from me and nice enough to give the car another look, even though he was subbing as Steward this week-end, so in the end not really even an inconvenience for me. Meanwhile Curt, who was doing the TnT to ensure he’d resolved the issue that kept him from racing at Pacific, had found yet another random mechanical issue in the aftermath of his crash here in the rain at the start of the season. He and Eric were able to get it to a state where it would probably be okay for the next day, but it was going to take until the morning’s qualifying to really gauge that.
With the cars tucked in for the night, it was off to dinner and then a trip back to WA for gas at Costco (the big shoebox I’m towing has terrible aerodynamics and the truck’s fuel mileage gets murdered as a result) before heading to the hotel for an early-ish night.
Assuming there are no issues to resolve, I like to arrive in the morning about an hour before my first session. This allows plenty of time to get the trailer and paddock area setup for the day, the car prepped for the first session, and the inevitable “good morning” socializing before the day properly kicks off. As the tiniest of wrinkles, I decided to try a different mounting location for the GoPro so that I could use a different lens setting. I was hoping it would do a better job of showing the speed than the wide-angle I usually use to show more action during races.
Despite the huge layoff since early in the 2021 season, I was quickly falling into a rhythm and felt pretty mentally prepared as I headed out for my first on-track session in 14 months. Within a couple laps, though, I realized I was very much mistaken. It’s not like I was driving poorly or causing anyone else problems, but simply that I was absolutely not in the right mental space for a qualifying session. Basically, I was just driving the track at the kind of pace I might use at an “8/10s” track day. I vividly remember when I realized this, which came as I was just sort of driving very casually into Turn 5 instead of attacking it like someone who, you know, wanted to set a good lap time.
I did eventually (sorta/kinda) get my head in the game, but I wasn’t helped by cars randomly stalling on track and others (several!) simply throwing it off in brake zones. My best lap was ruined by an SE46 having some kind of major issue braking for Turn 10 (end of the back straight), but the lap after actually ended up being better than the previous one was predicted to be.
Going into the week-end, as I said, I was convinced I’d be 4th of 4 cars in ST and in the bottom 3–5 of the 33 cars in the group as a whole, but somehow I ended up second in class behind the M240iR and 19th overall. In fact, I was going to get to actually race another car in my class, since Gator and I were going to be gridded right next to each other with nearly identical lap times. Apparently, now that the car was finally fixed and I was getting used to it, I no longer sucked as badly as I had been! 😀
Initial qualifying results showed me and Gator in 19th and 20th overall, but apparently the transponder for one of the GT cars hadn’t registered, so restoring his times made me 20th and Gator 21st, which in turn meant he’d be starting from the row behind me rather than next to me. Even so, I thought there was a better-than-average chance he’d get by me at the start due to the typically chaotic start in the chicane on the first lap… although generally we have less contact and other shenanigans than when IndyCar comes here. With that expectation, I decided I’d just stay on him for the bulk of the race (good video!) and then see what I could do for the last 10 minutes or so.
Somehow, I managed to stay just in front of him through the first handful of corners and then slowly pulled a gap on him over the next several laps, by which point the faster GT cars were already lapping us and causing the gap to widen. I finally got to a point where I was far enough ahead that I’d only check my mirrors to see where Gator was once a lap, but that was about the time I started becoming really aware of how hot I was; in other words, I started getting distracted and little mistakes began to crop up.
Seeing the board at start/finish that announces 5 minutes remaining in the race was apparently the signal for me to start making real mistakes, usually by missing my brake points and compromising my corner exits. I also think my tires had gotten a little overly hot and it was soon after that a small glut of GT cars came by. Whatever the causes, it wasn’t long before Gator was back within a few car lengths of me.
I totally blew the braking for Turn 7 and he got right on my tail, but I was able to stay in front of him down the back straight, both of us getting lapped by a GT1 car as we headed into Turn 10. The GT car missed his brake point and got too deep into the corner before turning for Turn 11 and then, probably, got back on the power too soon or too hard and got sideways right in front of me. I checked up, Gator checked up, and then the GT car finally saved it and we all were back on the power to exit Turn 12 onto the front straight.
What neither Gator nor I knew was that the overall leader in a GT1-classed Dodge Viper was coming up hard behind us. As I got close to the starter’s stand, I saw a brief flash of the “Last Lap” sign just before the checkered flags came out. I thought that we were still racing, so I kept my foot in it thinking the behavior of the corner workers would confirm whether we were done or not… were they waving to us on our cool-down lap or still observing a race? Gator, on the other hand, hadn’t seen anything other than the checkered flags and decided the race was over, backing off once he got to the chicane. As soon as I saw him drop way back in my mirrors, I quit pushing so hard and had a nice, easy last lap to a second-place finish.
(Upon eventually returning to the pits—I was literally the last car off track and there was a huge line at the scales—I learned that the “surface conditions” flag I’d seen early in the race, but for which I couldn’t find a cause, was the result of Eric’s engine exploding on the third lap and dumping oil and water down the front straight. 🙁 I never saw anything on the track because he’d thoughtfully pulled to driver’s right, which is pretty much off the racing line.)
There’s always at least one night during a race week-end where I sleep poorly and Saturday night was it. The day was getting hotter faster than it had on Saturday and our qualifying session was an hour later than it’d been the day before but, really, the real problem with qualifying was I just wasn’t feeling it. I don’t know what was going on with me, but I was putting in crap laptimes. My third flying lap turned out to be my best, closely followed by my first lap, but all the others were either balked by traffic (although I don’t think that mattered much) or just generally crap.
I again qualified right behind the fastest three SE46 cars as I had on Saturday, but today Gator was two seconds faster and right behind the pole SE46. Although I’m generally a faster driver when I have a “rabbit” to chase, it was starting to feel like I’d lost some of my driving mojo from Saturday, what with starting the day by overdriving the car like I had been at the end of yesterday’s race. The good news for the ST classifications was that Gama wasn’t going to race his M240iR today, so I was still starting the race second in class.
Because most of the progressively more-irritating GT1 stock cars had decided to start at the back of the group for the day’s race, the run into the chicane was way more chaotic than I think I’ve ever experienced. Like, IndyCar levels of chaos. 🙂
I normally try to run down to the chicane driver’s right, so that I’m on the inside of Turn 1 and, theoretically, unlikely to have someone overcook the brake zone and drive into my door. Since I was starting in the left column, I would either have to cross through the pack and over to the right or stay to my left. In the past, starting toward the back, I’ve chosen to cross over toward the pit wall, but that wasn’t an option today. I stayed a little wider than normal and, as people began to funnel right into the first part of the right-left-right chicane, was able to stay on throttle a bit longer and pass a few people, including Gator. I was now going just as slowly as most everybody else, so the much-tighter-than-usual turn left for Turn 2 was no big deal (see the still image for the video, below, with Gator in my passenger mirror), and my relatively soft suspension made driving over the inside curb a non-issue.
With so many cars to my right I knew I was going to have to drive toward the wall on the left of the track for a ways before I could turn right for Turn 3 and head down the short straight to Turn 4. Some of those cars began to fan out to their left so they could carry more speed into Turn 3, including Gator who was slightly behind and to my right. Whatever else happened, I was going to have to wait until he turned in for the corner before I could, which meant giving up the advantage I’d gained going into the chicane. Oh well, I hadn’t actually expected to be in front of him after the chicane anyway.
Unfortunately, he jerked left just before turning right, which meant he whacked his left-rear tire into my passenger door. I had seen him about a foot to my right and was just about to twitch my steering wheel to the left to avoid what felt like about-to-be contact when I realized that one of those GT1 stock cars had somehow appeared to my left… I would’ve bet money nobody had gone through Turn 2 tighter than me, but there he was and I had nowhere to go to avoid Gator.
In the video I refer to it as “unnecessary” contact, which I believe my camera shows to be the case. (After the race, at least, Gator was pretty adamant that I drove into him.) Personally, I also feel it was “avoidable” contact, which you can get penalties and fines for, but that’s just my opinion based on what I saw at the time and multiple viewings of the video, as I think there was more than enough room for Gator to stay to the right or at least not make contact. Regardless, this kind of minor contact pretty much defines Portland’s chicane, even for pro drivers, so I’d never make more of a fuss about it than I already have. 😀
I wasn’t sure what damage had been done, if any, so I took a few seconds to settle myself while I felt and listened to the car for anything wrong. By that point I was in the brake zone for the right-hand Turn 4 but on the outside and had to let a couple cars bull their way through to give up more of what I’d gained entering the chicane. Everything seemed okay, though, so it was time to get back to racing.
There being no obvious issues with the car, this means that the half to a full second of pace I was losing to Gator each lap was purely down to me. I spent the next 10 minutes watching him slowly pull away until the gap between us was about the distance from the exit of Turn 12 to the chicane. And then one of the GT1 stock cars spun in the chicane and couldn’t get going again. Okay, slow down on the front straight each lap until past the incident, then back hard on the gas for the rest of the lap.
Eventually, though, a pair of yellow flags were waving at every flag station. Apparently, someone decided that we needed a full-course caution rather than continue allowing cars to blast down the front straight before theoretically slowing down and taking things easy through an area where corner workers were at risk. Go figure.
Initially, I was super-excited as this meant Gator’s time gap was gone and there was just an SE46 between us, a situation that looked very promising for a fun restart between us. I was also, if I’m honest, a little relieved to have a small break in the action on what was proving to be a pretty hot day. The longer we followed the pace car around, though, and as I watched the clock progress toward the 30-minute limit for the race, the more I actually started growing concerned about a restart. I mean, the start was chaotic enough, but with only three or four laps remaining for hot drivers to attempt “a slick move” to claim one more position before the checkers? Yeesh.
In the end, the Powers That Be decided that a three-minute sprint to the end was just not on the cards and so we finished early, still under caution. Ah well.