Friday, August 5, 2016

Still waiting for a trouble-free weekend

Round 4 of the NASA NE race series took us to Palmer, Massachusetts and The Thrill at Whiskey Hill on July 23-25.  The actual name of the track is Palmer Motorsports Park but it's built on the side of a mountain known as Whiskey Hill.  Palmer is a 2.3 mile roller coaster with 190 feet of elevation change.  It is a winding, technical track where the main straight isn't really straight at all, and there is very little run off and room for error.  The track is brand new and only opened in the beginning of last year.

However, no one actually wants a race track built anywhere near where they live.  Most new race track construction is met heavily by political road blocks and a few (but very loud) local voices screaming "Not in my town!"  Thusly the biggest issue met by most racers this weekend was the strict 100 dB sound limit.  On the Friday test day many racers were scrambling to quiet down their too-loud exhausts by adding turn downs (exhaust extensions that point the sound in a different direction), baffles (material in the exhaust to knock sound waves down) and in many cases running to NAPA to bolt or weld on elaborate (and often hilarious) muffler setups.  Luckily we took the AMT Motorsport C5Z to Palmer 3 weeks prior to test our own exhaust setup against the dB meters.  A combination of turndowns with baffles installed them snuck us in at 96dB and thusly had no concerns about the 100 dB limit.  Several cars in racing in ST2 were well over 100 dB which caused them problems all weekend.  Between the sound limit and lack of at-track facilities it would surprise me if NASA continues to run races there in the future which is a shame since Palmer is a great drivers' track.

Saturday July 24

We got to the track around 7:15am and it was already 80 degrees and muggy.  Forecast was for mid-90s and high humidity so I was very happy to get a new piece of cooling gear for my helmet.  It's called a Cool-a-Clava and it hooks into my Cool Shirt setup and runs ice water through my helmet.  It proved to be worth its weight in gold this weekend.  Special thanks to Robert Zecca from Driving Impressions for the fast turn around on this new product to have it ready for the race weekend.

My friend, championship winning, Rainman-Corvette-guru and all around awesome dude Ben Lesnak was going to be driving my car this weekend in the TT sessions while I was sticking to racing.  Ben needed some more TT points to qualify for the East Coast Championship and I offered to have him drive my car for the weekend. The previous month at NJMP he'd rented a "race car" (using the term loosely) 30 seconds per lap slower than the rest of the field, so I'd hoped he'd have a lot more fun in a fast car at Palmer.

Those hopes were dashed within 2 laps.  Ben only got one reconnaissance lap for his TT session before the clutch pedal went to the floor, would not return, and the car would no longer shift.  Seems the pedal was not releasing the clutch mechanism after the car got hot.  Peter Agapoglou from Autosport Fab was on hand for the weekend providing track side support, and quickly got to work bleeding the clutch. The fluid coming out of the clutch was black and toasty, so we'd hoped that would be the cure to our woes.  We went out in the Race Practice session with our fingers crossed but to no avail - the clutch stopped working within one hard lap.

Qualifying went as expected with only 4th gear available. John George in his Factory Five and Adrian Wlostowski in his Corvette Grandsport both laid down scorching lap times at 1:40.9 and 1:41.9 respectively.  Pat McMahon is his Factory Five managed a 1:44.4 while I was 1.5 seconds adrift with a 1:46.0. Doug Winston was fighting the dB level issue all weekend, and had to shift at way low RPMs so he brought up the back of the ST2 field with a 1:58.  There were several out of class BMWs splitting the ST2 cars, but because GTS starts the race in their own wave, I'd be starting 4th in ST2 and 4th overall out of 23 cars.

I got to grid for the race and noticed Adrian was absent in the P2 spot.  He ended up getting to grid too late and started the race Dead F'ing Last.  I knew how that felt from my last race at NJMP.  He's fast enough that he'd easily make his way past everyone and probably finish P2 overall and have fun doing it, but to start in last when you qualified P2 overall sucks.  He'd be driving with a fist full of anger.

I was hoping I could get at least 2 minutes out of my clutch so I could race hard for the opening lap.  I knew it was a matter of time before I started dropping places using only one gear.  Coming to the start/finish in 3rd gear I was looking way down the track for the green flag, only to realize the flagging station was much closer than I realized.  I didn't floor the throttle until I heard everyone else do it, and by then it's way too late.  So I quickly gave up one place to AJ Hartman in his all-carbon fiber American Iron Mustang before turn 1.  However because the Mustangs don't exactly fly through the turns and AJ knew I was racing the 2 Factory Fives in front of me I easily got by him between turns 3 and 4 - AJ courteously lifting off the gas for a moment to get me by with haste.  3rd gear worked for the remainder of the lap, so I was able to close the gap to Pat in P2 throughout the lap. I got a run on him on the main straight and snuck past him on the outside into turn 1.  However coming into turn 4 the car would no longer shift, so I was forced to putt along through the slowest turn on the track with about 3000 rpm less than I would have liked.  I pointed Pat by at the exit of turn 4 and figured my race was pretty much over.  All I needed to do was to complete 7 or so laps so I could get credit for finishing the race.  However Pat had an oil line blow off his car right in front of me before turn 5.  Oil covered my windscreen, and Pat went careening off the track backwards at turn 5, barely nudging the tire wall and causing no real damage to his car.

I assumed the tow truck would come to rescue him since he was not in a very good place to be stranded, but oddly (I thought) the race continued with only a standing yellow at the scene of his accident.  We raced for another 7 laps and in that time Adrian made his way through the pack and zipped by me while I was stuck in 4th gear.  I wouldn't have had much for him anyway - Adrian was flying all weekend.  However 2 laps after he passed me, he dove into the pits!  I assumed he had some problem (which was the cause of him coming to grid late) and he had to pit because of it.  Turns out that he too was victim of the low dB limits.  He was black flagged for being too noisy and forced to finish at the bottom of the ST2 cars.

With Adrian gone and Pat on the side of the track I'm now sitting pretty in second place with John George half a lap up the track in P1.  I figured I might as well keep driving the car in 4th gear to see if I could wind up with a trophy!  I ended up running a best lap of 1:45.4 stuck in 4th gear and did finish P2. Poking around in 4th gear forced me to keep my entry and mid corner speeds up - felt like I was driving a GTI again.  After looking at the data the lack of gearbox cost me at least 2 seconds of lap time in acceleration alone.  Still doesn't get me into the blistering 1:40s that John George was getting, but respectable enough.  I received my second place trophy and went to dinner.  I knew I only got second due to attrition and luck, but I'll take it. I hoped my luck would continue on in to Sunday.

Sunday July 25

Sunday morning started much the same as Saturday - hot and humid.  We got to the track around 7:30 am and Pete was already busy adjusting the alignment on my car.  The man is dedicated - his daughter was born only 2 days prior and I told him he was certainly allowed to skip our event.  My wife would have divorced me had I left 2 days after the birth of our son.  Anyway my car seemed to be chewing up the outside edge of the front tires, so he put another degree of negative camber in the front tires.  Happy to say the AMT Motorsport camber plates made adjusting the camber an easy process, and we locked it in solid at a little more than 3 degrees.  A quick toe adjustment with Pete's string setup and we were ready to qualify.

The car seemed to be getting worse the more it drove and the hotter it got.  For this qualifying session I was not even able to get a half lap before the clutch started acting up.  I managed a 1:44.3 which put me 3rd in ST2 and 7th overall out of 21 cars.  John and Adrian both upped their game from the day before - Adrian with a 1:40.4 and John with a disgustingly quick 1:39.9.  Pat was a little less than a second behind me in P4 and Alan Cohen in his massive Cadillac CTS-V was P5 in ST2 with a 1:48.8.  Allen's car has a bunch of horsepower but also a bunch of weight, and Palmer is a track that really favors light, nimble cars.  Lots of power doesn't do much for you here.  Doug Winston went home Sunday unable to get his car quiet enough to even get on track.  Adrian on the other hand rigged up a ridiculously silly but effective turndown system and was finally able to sneak in under the 100 dB limit.

I started P3 overall for the race - John and Adrian in front of me and Pat starting next to me on the outside of the track.  I got a much better start at the green flag but was balked by John George who missed a shift. I was slow going into turn 1, and because I couldn't shift down a gear I wasn't able to pick up speed out of turn 1 and lost a position to out-of-class American Iron racer Albert Watson in his Fox body Mustang.  Behind me now was AJ Hartman again who was racing Al Watson, so I let AJ go by so he could focus on his race with Al.  Unfortunately that meant I was stuck behind this battle for basically the remainder of the race.  Even with only 4th gear I was still 2-3 seconds per lap faster than the two AI cars, but with no power out of the slow corners I would just have been holding them up at those key spots and getting in the way of their race.  After a couple of laps the GTS traffic started to catch us, and seeing as those guys were battling for their race as well I let all them all go by quickly and efficiently.  With 5 or 6 laps to go I started to see Alan Cohen in his CTS-V making ground on me.  Now I was getting worried - it was one thing to be cordial and let out-of-class racers by me but I wasn't about to hand over a position to a car in my class 2-3 seconds per lap slower even if I was wounded. Just as I was starting to figure out ways to hold him at bay a full course yellow came out.  My very good friend Greg Miceli was stranded at turn 3.  His ST3 E36 BMW M3 just decided to shut off on him, so the field bunched up under the caution period while he was flat bedded off the track.  At the restart Alan was right behind me.  Luckily the slow laps allowed the clutch to cool off enough that I could get it into third gear for restart.  I was able to pull away from him on the main straight and maintained the gap til the end of the race.  Unfortunately the race was ended when John George and Adrian came together at turn 1 battling for 1st position.  John nudged Adrian in the right rear, sending him spinning off track at a fairly high rate of speed and Adrian hit the tire wall at a pretty good clip with the right front of his car.  Adrian is perfectly fine and it seemed the damage was mostly cosmetic (but lots of it and expensive).  John felt terrible but it appeared to the Race Director to be a "racing incident" between two guys going hard after each other.  Adrian finished in last place with a DNF and John kept his 1st place win.  I finished in third behind Pat, due to Adrian's DNF.

So yet again the weekend was a bit of a bust due to more mechanical issues.  It's becoming a theme for the season this year.  Good news is that the issue appears to be bad clutch master cylinder.  I replaced the part today in about 30 minutes and will try and drive the car "around the block" in the next few days to see if that cures the issue.  If not then it's a slave cylinder which entails a lengthy and expensive transmission tear down.

I'm hoping all mechanical woes are cured in time for the East Coast National Championships at Watkins Glen in September.  The fastest racers in the Eastern US will be in attendance vying for the National Title.  If the car finally comes together and runs well at The Glen then at least we'll have a fighting chance at bringing home the trophy.  Time will tell.

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