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Four Hours of Pacific Raceways

12 March 2006

The "Four Hours of Pacific Raceways" marked the first event in the new Northwest Enduro Racing Series (NWERS), a series thought of and headed by Hal Hilton, ably assisted by a small but vital group of racers and volunteers. The idea was to create an endurance racing championship, incorporating the 8-hour race in Portland as well as one or two others, that would run in parallel to the normal ICSCC race season. This would allow some of the endurance-only cars in the area more opportunities to race close to home, as well as giving addicted Conference racers some chances to run non-sprint races during our regular season. Time and money being what they are, Eric and I decided to run the race as the "final third" of the 8-hour race we'd completed in October.

The drivers and crew for the inaugural race of the Northwest Enduro Racing Series:



We were all too busy and too isolated from the track for there to be any pictures from this race. On the other hand, a lot of the same players from the 2005 8-hour were in attendance, so I've referred to individual pictures from that race as appropriate. (Of course, you can also refer to my PR track video to see the turns I describe in this report.)


Update: I lied! Someone (I think it was probably Eric's dad) did take a few pictures during the race. Also, a link to Eric's race report.

Saturday

I went over to Eric's house Saturday afternoon to help load up the car and trailer, but mostly this consisted of putting a few tools back in the trailer, as it was still loaded from the 8-hour enduro last October. :)

After a leisurely 50-minute drive, arrived at the track to conclude... we didn't have a clue where to set up. Normally, the paddock area is, well, the paddock, but for this race the paved section was doing duty as the hot pits. It was an interesting solution to the problem of pit location (Pacific Raceways doesn't really support endurance race crew areas in or near the pit lane), but it remained to be seen how well it would work. In the near term, though, we just needed to figure out where to put ourselves. We quickly spotted Hal Hilton, the driving force behind the enduro (he had first broached the idea back at our run at the 8-hour race in 2004), who pointed us to pit #15. After looking at the available space and thinking about Eric's 28-foot trailer, though, we concluded we needed to go register and get an official pit recommendation.

Registration was blissfully quick, and Cecilia Hill (Wonder Woman!) said that our best bet for our trailer was pit #30, which was pretty much in a corner by itself. Unfortunately for us, we needed to be closer to Hal's pit so that his crew could help us with our pit stops: We were running with a bit of a skeleton crew, so we decided to try wedging into #15. After much to-ing and fro-ing to get the trailer right where we wanted it, we decided that, no, it just wasn't going to work. So pit #30 got a second look. About this time Andre Samson, in his capacity as an official helping people with their pit spots, came over and confirmed that we couldn't really pit in space #15. After some additional discussion, it came to light that there was an area next to #30 that was "dead space," meaning we could park the trailer there and not worry about distance rules in relation to the hot lane.

A group of tech inspectors happened to be in the vicinity within a few minutes of unloading the car, so we quickly got the inspections for the car and our drivers gear out of the way. All that remained was to get the race numbers placed on the car, set up the canopies, and head on out. All in all, pretty much the quickest, most painless setup for a race I've ever experienced.

Sunday

After my now-traditional, 5-hour, pre-race "nap" (yeesh), I stopped off at Safeway for donuts before driving to Eric's house to carpool for the drive south. We arrived around 8am (with the first of three practice sessions scheduled to start at 9) in time to catch my sister looking for a place to park. We unloaded some odds and ends (chairs, tables, tools, etc) and then did a few things to get the car ready for its first on-track session.

Pre-race

Since Eric hadn't driven the car since the 8-hour race in October, while I'd at least done some lapping between instructing sessions in February, we decided he'd run the first practice session, I'd run the second, and then we'd decide later whether to run the third. We started the car a little before 9am while he suited up and then he headed down the access road to the normal pregrid area to start the practice. What we didn't know was that the ambulance (or one of 'em, at least) wasn't in position and, therefore, the session couldn't be started. It was about 5 minutes or so before that was taken care of, but then it turned out there was some problem with the official radio system. That situation dragged on, and on, and on, eating up nearly all of the time allotted for the 30-minute practice and setting the whole day off schedule. In an attempt to get things back on schedule, the organizers decided to extend the practice to 40 minutes, cancel the second 30-minute practice and the 10-minute break between them, and then run a 20-minute practice just before the lunch break. I wasn't planning on driving for more than 20 minutes anyway, but we hadn't bothered to hook up Eric's radio for the practice and so we couldn't tell him about the change in schedule.

As it happened, the changes to the practice schedule weren't going to affect us as much as I'd thought: After 20-30 minutes of running, Andre said that Eric was reporting a "wubba-wubba" sound from the car in right-hand turns. Fearing some sort of potentially disastrous suspension failure, he came in early to see what was wrong. Knowing that it was something on the left side of the car, the focus of the initial investigation focused on that part of the suspension. There was nothing obviously wrong with the control arms or anything, and the sound was indicative of a hub or wheel bearing, so Skip, Jack, and Eric disassembled the left-front rotor and hub assembly. As it became clear it was going to take a while to remove everything and check things out, and it was looking like it was going to be a close thing to get me out on track for the now-final practice session, I changed into my driver gear and climbed into the car while it was up on jack stands. There wasn't anything obviously wrong with the hub or wheel bearings, but Eric had a brand-new set of bearings and seals available, so they went ahead and changed them out... after a bit of a struggle to get the bearing ring to release. In the end, there simply wasn't enough time for everything to get done before the final practice ended, so I'd be spending the first several laps of my stint refamiliarizing myself with Eric's car.

Shortly after the car was dropped down off the jacks, Eric and I headed over to the drivers meeting while Andre went to the crew chiefs meeting. As was probably inevitable at a first race with a new pit/paddock configuration, there was a lot of confusion and on-the-fly rules changing. Comparing notes with Andre afterwards, we discovered that the crew chiefs meeting was somewhat chaotic as well. This also meant that the meetings went long and, with a back-of-the-grid penalty for failing to be at pregrid 15 minutes before the start and Eric needing to get changed and grab a bite to eat first, he had to race back to the pizza and wolf some down while getting changed. Thankfully, he made it through the pits (at 15MPH) and down the access road (at 40MPH) to pregrid with a couple minutes to spare.

Race

Unlike the 8-hour race, which uses a Le Mans-style start of drivers outside of cars that have to get in the car and get belted up before they can take to the course, we were using a rolling start with starting positions based on car number. Starting 5th with mostly slower cars ahead of us meant that Eric quickly jumped into 2nd overall and stayed there for quite a while. He also reported that the "wubba-wubba" was gone so, whether it was Eric's gut-feel knowledge of the car or just good luck, at least we seemed to have a healthy car again. What we didn't have, though, was much in the way of information about our on-track performance: In the hustle to get the wheel bearing repaired and get the car ready, we never found time to put the HotLap timer back into the car and so our only way to get lap times would be after the fact, from Timing & Scoring. However, due to some odd problem with T & S, there was NO information available for lap times or lap count, and we weren't even sure how accurate the class and overall position information was. We had also planned that Eric would run both of the first two fuel stints (at about 1h20m each) and I would finish the race, but he radioed in about 15 minutes into the race that, with it being his first on-track experience since the 8-hour race, he felt pretty sure he wasn't going to be up for that. For the third endurance race in a row, I'd be running the middle stint.

Because the pit area was away from the track, we all wandered over to the grandstands to catch some of the racing action once we'd determined that we wouldn't be needed until the first stop. With the relatively small field (not surprising, given it's the first year of the event and that mid-March is typically a time when people just start thinking about getting their car ready for the season), the cars quickly spread out and "disguised" some of the battles going on, but one obvious battle was between Eric and Mike Helton's ex-Grand Am BMW M3 [ed.: See yellow #14]. The M3 has a European-spec motor that puts out 270HP in stock trim—which this one certainly isn't—while the Eric's 968 came from the factory with only 238HP, the engine isn't very modified, and it's probably a bit tired after a few race seasons. Despite dealing with lapped traffic, an off-season's worth of mental rust, and the recent birth of twins, Eric was consistently pulling away from the more powerful M3 as the laps progressed.

Eric began to think he was hearing some bad noises coming from the exhaust so, with about 15 minutes still left to go in his stint, he decided to take advantage of a full-course caution to pit early and see if, in fact, the exhaust had come loose. Although I had gone to the trailer about 20 minutes early to get changed into my driving gear, the first I heard that Eric was pitting early was when he was pulling into the paddock area on the way to our pit space. I still didn't have my radio gear, helmet, HANS, or gloves on, so I hurried with all that while Eric and Andre looked over the car and Skip refueled it. By the time they were done with everything and decided there wasn't anything obviously wrong with the exhaust, I'd managed to get myself strapped in and was ready to go, so ultimately we didn't lose any more time than absolutely necessary.

With the obvious dangers of race cars tearing through the paddock cum hot pits, the organizers had set a 15MPH speed limit in the pit area, changing to 40MPH once we were fully on the access road that leads down to the normal pregrid area/hot pits near the start/finish line. As Eric had exited the track at Turn 8 to get to the pits and I wouldn't regain the racing surface until the braking zone for Turn 2, thus "book-ending" the entire length of the longest acceleration zone at Pacific Raceways, I was hyper-aware of the stop/go penalty on hand for speeding in the pits... getting hit with one of those would easily cost us a lap! I accidentally disconnected the microphone lead from my helmet as I traversed the pit area, still fiddling with my belts, but managed to connect it again as I got to the access road. I could've saved myself some stress by simply waiting until I got all the way down to the marshal stationed just before pit out, who held a CRX, me, and a BMW (in that order) as the pace car and entire field approached. He let us out at the end of the field, but we had just lost a lap that would be hard to get back.

Exiting Turn 3B (the second of two hairpins on the back side of the course) made it clear why there was a full-course caution: a Miata had dumped oil all the way from 3B to the track exit at Turn 8, making the scariest part of the course also now the slipperiest. We putzed around behind the pace car for a few laps before the officials decided the best course of action was to display a black flag all, meaning a black flag shown to the entire field that results in all cars pulling into the pits and stopping. Functioning somewhat like a pause button, it basically gives the officials and workers a chance to take care of something without ending the session or having the field drive through the situation every so often. In this case, it was because they figured it'd be faster, easier, and safer to simply hold us in the pits while they dumped oil-dry over half the track and attempted to clean things up. And so it came to be that, some 15 minutes after I got in the car, I found myself parked in the "normal" hot pits, engine off, last car but one, and still with no hot laps for the day. (And the lone car behind me was a matte-black BMW "325" [ed.: See black #1] packing a similar Euro-spec S50B32 engine to the yellow M3.)

After what was probably a 5-minute delay, we fired our engines and followed the pace car out in preparation for a restart. Going down the back straight from Turn 3B let me see the extent of the oil-dry... it was everywhere! I don't know if there was no attempt made to clean it up or what, but even at our drastically reduced pace we were kicking the stuff up like it was snow. (Little did I know!)

Scott Adare in his "325" had been hassling me the whole pace lap (following a little too closely and too fast, having to dodge me a couple times when the field "accordioned" and backed up), so I was ready to point him by as soon as the green waved, which I did while also gunning it myself and passing 2 or 3 of the slower cars in front of us. Driving through the oil-dry on that first lap (and even on the second, too) was quite... interesting: They were, without a doubt, the worst conditions I've ever raced in, and were even in the top 5 worst conditions I've ever driven a car in. Truly horrible visibility on the back straight, to the point that I could barely see the (lit!) brake lights of cars that were only a car-length in front of me. If these conditions had been due to fog, we wouldn't have raced.

As these several laps were also my practice session for the day, it wasn't long before a lot of the cars in front of me left me behind, but I didn't worry about them and just settled down to get used to the car and track conditions, which meant quite a few laps driving all by my lonesome.

Before long, though, an older 911 nosed itself into the tire wall about 3/4 of the way through Turn 2, causing a local yellow from Turn 1 through the exit of Turn 2. It was about this time that I finally got comfortable with the car and into a rhythm, so I started catching up to and passing the slower cars in front of me. I was passing cars elsewhere on the track (including the first pass I've made in Turn 5A, which was a mildly "puckering" experience, especially in someone else's car) before passing a CRX and catching up to a Miata going down the latter half of the front straight. It was pretty likely the Miata would be fast enough through the twistier back section of Pacific Raceways that I wouldn't be able to get by it as quickly as I'd like, so I made a quick judgment call and decided to try to get the Miata before the standing yellow displayed in Turn 1. I was sure that I had a bumper in front (or maybe closer still to being to even) when we passed the flag station, so I was pretty confident I'd made a legal pass before the yellow—that's as close as you can get and not be tagged for passing under yellow—but I still checked the flag station at Start/Finish for a black flag in case my judgment differed from that of the steward. :)

Although I made sure to point by the cars I didn't think I could keep behind me (e.g., the red Mustang Cobra R [ed.: #26]; Craig Hillis' 944 Turbo [ed.: #41]; the tube-framed, used-to-be-a Fiero that would go on to win the race (and took overall victory in the 2004 8-hour); and the "325"), I never saw the yellow M3 after the black flag all, although the final lap charts would show he was running a few seconds a lap faster. Doing a good job at getting lapped notwithstanding, I would end up passing every car that finished behind us in the overall order over the course of my 1.5 hours in the car, including two cars at the end of my stint that I think were for position in our class.

It's hard to judge the passage of time in a race car at speed, but I was sure we had to be getting close to the end of my stint, if for no other reason than the fuel gauge had been stuck on 3/4 for almost the entire time and I was getting a little worried about running out of gas. Shortly after that, Andre came on the radio to inform me that they had given our pit marshal the minimum 2-lap warning of an impending stop. As I went into Turn 3A, I decided that I would pit on the following lap, but then I caught up to two Miatas and a CRX in the twisty bits of Turn 5 and decided that it made sense to pit now. Getting slowed down from race pace to 15MPH at the end of the short access road coming off Turn 8 was incredibly difficult, and not at all helped by the fear I'd blow it and cost us a stop-and-go penalty.

We had a nice, clean pit stop and even found 4 gallons of fuel remaining in the car due to all the time I'd spent with the engine off during the black flag or cruising behind the pace car. I felt physically good, if a bit frustrated by what I felt was not a great performance in the car, but I shrugged it off, got changed, and then we all went over to the stands to watch the end of the race. We hadn't been there for very long when there was another incident, this time caused by a P1-classed RX-7 spinning and getting pretty banged-up in Turn 6, that brought out a red flag. Eric just happened to be coming through Turn 8 when the red came out, so he ended up pulling over and parking at the apex of Turn 9, right in front of the main grandstands and the bulk of the crowd. Smartass that I am, I made sure to hold up my nice, refreshing bottle of Coke as he sat stewing in the car.

After towing the damaged car back to the paddock, they got the field restarted behind a full-course caution and then "went green" for the remainder of the event. Eric passed the yellow M3 at the restart and slowly pulled away over the succeeding laps, but we would eventually finish just 12 seconds behind the car finishing 3rd in our class and 3rd overall. Had I not been held after our first stop, losing the lap Eric tried to regain at the end... well, who knows? All things considered, we were anything but disappointed, as we were also just one more lap out of 2nd place overall.

Post-race

There had been weird problems all day long with Timing & Scoring so, not only were we unclear about our lap times and the number of laps completed, we weren't even sure about where we'd finished! Since there wasn't anything we could do about that, we got everything packed up and loaded into the trailer before heading over to the stupendous barbecue that was hosted by fellow racer Jon Holt. They were out of ribs by the time we got there, so I had to eat salmon, which I don't like... but this stuff was awesome! Really, really good. As was all the rest of the spread Jon and his friends had prepared.

Most everybody hung around after dinner to finally learn the results and see the awards handed out, including the giant crystal one awarded to Tom & Dean Miller for the overall win. Then a tired-but-content Eric and I headed back to his house to unload the car and put the trailer away. Done!

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