Saturday, April 23, 2016

"If You Ain't First You're Last." - Reese Bobby





April 15th marked the start of the NASA Northeast racing season at New Jersey Motorsports Park.  Friday was a test and tune while Saturday and Sunday were the qualifying and sprint race days.  Having made a bunch of very serious suspension changes to the car over the winter I was really excited to get the car on track for the first time since October of 2015, where I lucked in to winning my first 2 races.  Apprehension was added due to the fact that I picked the car up from the shop on my way down to NJMP on Thursday afternoon.  The car was just coming off the lift when I got there. Talk about finishing in the nick of time.

Friday:
After an unfortunately long tow on Thursday afternoon, the car and trailer were dropped off at the track Thursday night.  Friday morning started with sunshine and temps in the 50s.  Forecast was for sun and 70 all weekend long.  Perfect racing weather.

Friday's testing session went fairly well but not without some issues.  My motor is creating a ton of oil mist, which is then getting collected in the catch can.  The catch can fills in about 3 laps of running, at which point the oil has to go somewhere so it goes back into the intake, and gets combusted - leaving a rather embarrassing smoke screen through a couple of corners.  I was black flagged a couple times Friday by concerned corner workers who assumed my car was blowing up. "No, it's just a Corvette, everything's fine..." I assured them.  We figured that in a 30 minute session the car is burning through about 1.5 quarts of oil.  Not good and not particularly reassuring to look back and see smoke bombs going off when you're supposed to be driving at 10/10ths.

So at the end of the day I went about a second faster than my best lap last year on old Hoosier A7s.  Happy to say that all AMT Motorsport products performed flawlessly.  The monoball control arm bushings are a revelation, especially since I've been running on 12 year old rubber bushings this whole time.  The car is super responsive and very easy to put on the edge.  Between those and the new Penske 8300 Double Adjustable shocks and coil overs, the car is hooked up.  A little more seat time to get a feel for the car, and I'm confident I'll get another half second out of it and be looking at track-record lap times.

Saturday:

More beautiful weather met us Saturday morning.  My brother Kevin snuck into my room late Friday night, and we were up at 6AM to scarf some waffles and get to the track in preparation for the day. Kev has a BMW 325i race car that he bought from Bimmerworld last year.  Our track obsession became a family affair bout 5 years ago when Kev started tracking his Jetta.  He then switched to a 2012 Mustang GT and landed on the purpose-built Beemer last year.  Car is a blast.

The morning test session went well.  Still running on old A7s I had a best time of 1:10.7.  Definitely not setting the world on fire but very respectable for the age of the tires.  Car was still blowing smoke but there wasn't much I was going to be able to do about that for the rest of the weekend.

Qualifying was a bit of a disappointment.  I made the mistake of getting to grid right in the middle of the pack.  There were 40 or so cars in our race group on the 1.8 mile Lightning track we were running at NJMP.  Our classes are all mixed, so the fast guys can qualify in the 1:08s with cars running as slow as 1:18s.  May not sound like much but it would be like me trying to race Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France - not even in the same realm of speed.  I knew I was in trouble when we left the pits and I was warming my tires and was immediately passed by a GTS2 car who just had to get in front of me so he could get a clean lap.  Yeah, right.

I pushed as hard as I could ( a little too hard - had a big 4 wheels-off at turn 1) but was held up everywhere by slow traffic.  There really should be more cooperation between racers in qualifying.  It's possible that everyone could get 2 clean flying laps with a little bit of discussion.  Instead it's treated like a 5 lap race where no one wants to let anyone pass and we're all fighting each other for position.  I wound up qualifying with a 1:10.114.  More than a half second faster than my previous best but still slow on sticker A7s.  I had at least another easy half second of pace that I couldn't realize due to traffic.  P1 in my class (and P1 overall) was Adrian with a 1:09.239 with Paul in P2 right on his heels at 1:09.544.  I wound up P3 out of 7 in my class and would be starting the race P5 overall.

The race for me, was quite short.  I'm embarrassed to say I'll have a new nickname in the paddock after this event.  All the cars left on their formation laps and for this race we did two formation laps, one of which was in the Missing Man formation in honor of Carl Mehne a beloved GTS3 racer who we lost 3 years ago.  Not lost while racing mind you, but his memory and family have been honored every year at this event since his death.

Adrenaline started building as we approached the Start/Finish line.  My brother Kevin keyed the radio and shouted "Green Green Green" as soon as the starter hinted at moving his flag.  I got a decent start but was held up coming in to turn 1 by an out of class Viper who started in front of me.  I got through turn 1 clean, and shut the door in T2 on Pat McMahon in a Factory Five Cobra.  He told me at the beginning of the race that he'd be all over me like a swarm of gnats, and he was right.  I left him too much room coming up into turn 5, and he snuck in at the apex, darting in with his 2800lbs car like, well like a gnat.

It was around this time I started to feel a vibration on the left side of the car.  It quickly got worse, and I told Kevin over the radio "Awww shit, I think my wheels are falling off."  I went into the pits, pulled up to my trailer, and sure enough all five lugs on the left rear were coming off.  Remember when I said I'd have new nickname in the paddock?  That name is "Torque," as in "torque your lugnuts before every time you get in the car you moron!"  I unsuited, got to the stands, and watched the rest of the race as a spectator, quietly telling my surrounding friends that I skipped one of the first rules of driving on track.  A buddy of mine texted me (Corvette racer and an ST1 Champion) to make sure I was OK, and when I told him what happened he said "Hey, I forgot to put gas in my car once and didn't even get through the first lap." So it sucks and it's embarrassing, but it happens.  I got a DNF for the race, and having won my first two races I could officially say that, at least in my case "if you ain't first you're last."

I entered a TT (time trial) session for the last outing of the day.  I had to sign up for TTU (Unlimited) meaning it's an unrestricted class for power and weight.  No one had signed up for my actual TT class that corresponds with my race class (ST2/TT2) so I hoped if I'd ripped off a flyer in TTU I could still win a couple tires on Saturday.  Traffic was again an issue as it was with qualifying and honestly I was tired and discouraged from the day, and could only muster another 1:10.1.  I later checked the data at the hotel and found I had a best "Rolling Lap" of 1:09.4, meaning that at some point I strung together a lap that fast but it wasn't from the Start/Finish line.  So maybe from Turn 7 to the next Turn 7 I did a 1:09.4.  That was encouraging since it was only .2 seconds of the ST2 pole, but again I need to make that flying lap happen from Start/Finish for it to count.  But it tells me the car (and I) certainly have the pace to be on pole and fight at the pointy end of the field.  I have a lot to learn about racing and race craft but I can at least drive the car at a competitive speed and I see another easy .5 second that I can shave off the lap with better driving. I ended up P2 out of 6 for the day in TTU, just high enough in the standings to come home with a big fat pile of nothing.

Sunday:

More perfect weather was forecast for Sunday.  The morning preparations were a little more relaxed since there is no practice session for racers on Sunday - only a qualifier and the race.
This time I got to the qualifying grid as soon as it opened, and I was second in line behind my very good friend Jeff Segal racing his E46 M3 in GTS4. GTS is a class for all-German cars, numbers again relating to power to weight.  A GTS4 BMW will run a very similar lap time to an ST2 Corvette so I was glad to have him in front of me.  The rest of the field gridded up in short order.  I realized things are much better when you're close to the front of the grid.  There in fact was discussion and collaboration among the first 10-15 cars on the grid.  We all agreed on a half lap warm up, give ourselves each about a second of space, and take off on a flyer at turn 7.  That way everyone warms up the same, everyone creates a small gap, and everyone has the same opportunity to put in a flyer before the field gets caught up in a couple of laps.  Honestly the TT groups do it best - they actually grid you based on your previous lap times.  I see no reason why they can't grid the race qualifiers in the same way. So you'll be running around guys with similar lap times giving you many more clean and unimpeded laps.

So we took off as planned for qualifying.  I probably shouldn't have given Jeff quite as much room in front of me as we could be a smidge faster together on the straights if we were drafting each other.  Car felt decent, I thought I was hustling, and in the end 1:09.99 popped up on my lap timer.  Still not as fast I needed to be, but at least getting me past the psychological barrier of the "One O-Nines." I'd hoped that my other competitors had gone a bit slower from their best qualifier yesterday as well now running on "used" tires as I was.  However it's very possible that the other guys are budgeting 2 sets of sticker tires for the weekend where as I only use 1 set for the weekend.  Still trying to win on some sort of budget!

In the end, I was back in P3 right where I was on Saturday, starting P5 overall.  2 flying laps was all I got before we caught up with the back of the field, and I didn't think I'd be muscling my way through traffic and get a better lap time. Adrian and Paul both qualified about a tenth slower than Saturday, and unfortunately my official time was 1:10.02, not the 1:09.99 that I had in my in car lap timer. Oh and those GTS4 guys I was talking about, the top 5 all qualified within .5 second of each other 1:09.3 to 1:09.8. All great drivers with great equipment.

The race on Sunday started much the same way as Saturday.  I got a nice start when the Green flag dropped, made up some ground before turn 1 on the two guys in front of me that I would be battling and the three of us went through turn 1 mostly nose to tail.  Pat McMahon was still right behind me in the damn Factory Five car, but this time I was aware of where he was and what he could do, and left him no openings.  He may have got on my outside going over turn 5, but the Corvette has longer legs than the FF, so I walked him down to turn 7 and from that point in only saw him in my rear view mirror.

Meanwhile Adrian and Paul were battling hard for first and second place, and I was slowly reeling them for about 3 laps while they battled.  While those guys are jockeying for position they're not usually driving the fastest line.  Once I put some daylight behind Pat and myself I was able to start driving the fastest line around the track, and by the 4th lap or so we were all running within a second or so of each other.

By this time we were just starting to catch slower GTS traffic.  The three of us came out of the bowl and on to the back straight and up on some GTS2 and GTS3 traffic.  Paul and Adrian were able to slip past both BMWs before the braking zone, and I'd hoped to follow them through.  However I was making a pass on both cars coming in to the braking zone and was squished in to the apex a little late and traveling a little too fast.  I couldn't make turn 1 at the speed I was going, so rather than stuffing it in and hoping I didn't spin I ran off into the dirt in control. I was pushing a bit too hard in the moment and probably should have just held back and passed the traffic after T1. Glad I didn't get hit by the BMW as I went off track.  Thanks for that, whoever you are.

As I was mowing the grass off turn 1 some of the grass got stuck in my radiator and the car quickly shot up 20 degrees in temperature. I realized this as I was trying to catch up to that damn Pat who capitalized on my off in turn 1 and retook third place. As the temps got near 220 (car was running under 200 all weekend) I backed off and resigned myself to finish the race while trying to keep the car cool, no longer fighting for the podium.

At this time we had a full course caution as the tow trucks came out to pull off a stricken ST2 Corvette at T1. We had about 2 caution laps and the race was restarted. After the restart the race quickly went back to full course yellow, and we didn't know why until we got back to the front straight. Three GTS cars got together in what looked to be a very high speed and devastating accident. It appeared to me that 2 of the 3 cars were totaled, and I hoped everyone was OK as I drove past the destruction. They brought the field back into the pits and called the race shortly after. They needed a lot of time to remove the cars and fix the track. Thank God no one was seriously hurt, but the cars are all in really bad shape. Bad things happen in racing some times.

So I ended up 4th on Sunday and DNF on Saturday. Certainly not the results I'd hoped for coming in to the weekend, but since I'd only done this once and won both times, my expectations were set a little too high. Most people look to their first win with hopeful anticipation, where I was looking at my first loss with unhealthy dread. I spent too much of the weekend worrying about everyone else's performance and not enough on my own.  But after pretty close racing on Sunday I was reminded of why I'm doing this in the first place - it's an absolute blast just to be out there. I know going forward I'll have a much healthier outlook on the whole race weekend experience. Can't wait to get out and race again with my NASA friends and family. Congrats to the winners in ST2 and watch out because I'm coming for you!

Link to Thunder race video from Sunday

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