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Four Hours of Pacific Raceways

20 October 2007

One of the first things I realized after I bought the M3 in 2005 was that I would soon have a car that could be competitive in one of the enduro classes we have around here. (The Integra, although a fantastic car, would be outmatched in the P2 class.) First things first, though, and that meant a couple years of "finishing" the car and getting the bugs worked out. I bought a set of radios in January and planned to buy a larger fuel cell in time to run the IRDC four-hour race on its rescheduled October date. Time and money were such that it didn't happen in time, but Eric decided last-minute to speed up his timetable for repairing the damage caused by the ABS failure in August, and so we cobbled together a crew and plan for the race after all.

The drivers and crew:


Pictures from this event

Saturday

Stephen had driven over from Idaho (!!) on Friday night just to crew for the event, spending the night at Eric's and helping him get everything loaded up, so I would get to play "arrive and drive" racer for the day. It had rained heavily overnight, most of the remains of which appeared to be concentrated in the small lake in our assigned paddock space, with even more "over the wall" in our hot pit area. The rather pessimistic weather forecast for the day had us prepared for water, but you don't expect to need water wings to get from the trailer to the car! Anyway, I set to helping get things ready for the day, even though Eric and Stephen had done most of the work by the time I'd arrived. The additional crew I'd secured through the local BMW Club showed up a little while later: Scott Norton had been racing his heavily modified, E36 325 in SCCA Time Attack (formerly known as Solo I) and brought his brother along to help us out with refueling duties. Little did I know they're both big 'uns (each well over 6 feet tall) and impressively suitable for the "big guy" task of slinging heavy cans of fuel around.

Pre-race

With a steady drizzle for most of the morning, the track was plenty damp enough for Eric to shoe the car in formerly full-tread RA-1s that had been worn down to something like intermediate tires. Having absolutely no running time in the car after doing a ton of work to repair the Portland damage, including adding a brake bias valve, Eric went out to settle the car in and experiment with brake bias settings. He didn't have a lot of fun, finding that the car was slipping and sliding around the track. The overall balance was pretty neutral, he felt, but you couldn't do much with the car.

Funny story: To help with driver changes in endurance races, Eric usually replaces his normal seat with its high, wraparound "wings" at about head level with a wider, more open seat. I tried getting into his car once, just for fun, with his regular seat installed and pretty much couldn't do it. I wasn't wearing my driving suit at the time, I didn't own a HANS device, and I'm not even sure I was wearing my helmet. So imagine my dismay when I discovered that Eric had forgotten to swap seats during his thrash to get the car ready for the race. I had an awkward experience getting into the car before the session, even after seeing Eric's tricks for doing so, but at least I would have plenty of time to get in before the race as I was the first driver. I figured it wouldn't be too bad to get back out, but I decided it'd be a good idea to give it a shot after returning from my practice session... and I couldn't do it! No matter how I twisted, squirmed, and contorted myself, I couldn't figure out a way to get out. I couldn't bend at the waist enough to get one leg out and follow it with my head, as I do in my car, and trying Eric's method of getting my legs out and then pushing my upper body out across the top of the door bars... well, the less said about how that turned out, the better, but I will say that the whole crew (including myself) got a huge laugh out of it. :)

Not so funny: I would spend the rest of the morning worrying about how I was actually going to, you know, get the hell out of the car for the driver change.

Eric is nothing if not an understated guy, so I was sort of under the impression that "the track was a little slippery," but nothing really important to note. I was surprised and more than a little discouraged to discover that, while the car felt and sounded like its usual self despite still showing the cosmetic results of the shunt in Portland, I felt like a complete novice in the session: I just couldn't seem to drive the car without sliding all over the place and just generally tip-toeing through the corners. I've driven in the damp before, including in Eric's 968, so my stomach just sank lower and lower as I realized just how dog-slow I was going to be in the race. I was really feeling glum when I came in at the end of the session and told Eric that I thought we should minimize the amount of time I spent in the car, as I was going to be more of a hindrance than a help to our race pace.

Eric thought that, between the lack of grip in the Toyos and both the current and predicted weather, he'd put on the sticky Hoosier rain tires for the third practice session. Believe me, it was with a huge sense of relief that I listened to Eric over the radio crowing about how dramatically improved the car's handling was and that we'd start the race on them, assuming the day didn't miraculously dry out first. Between the weather reports we'd all seen that morning, ongoing discussions of the state of the weather at the track, and some concerned eye-balling of the weather radar we accessed through James' phone, we were confident the day wasn't going to turn dry, but that was about all we were confident of, weather-wise. Every indication we had was that it was going to be alternately raining and not raining all day, with occasional bouts of thunderstorms. Fun stuff, especially as sections of the track (fast sections!) don't drain at all well, and the track gets pretty dramatically slippery even when it's raining lightly. Note to self: Don't wad up Eric's car.

Race

Aside from coping with Eric's wingback-style race seat, the big change was that I would not, for once, be running the middle stint(s) during an enduro. It also meant that I would get to test out that old saw that races, especially endurance races, are never won on the first lap. Additionally, I'd get a nice view of the field for the green as the entry-order-based grid meant we were way, way in back for the start, 34th out of 38 cars.

While the track was still somewhat damp as I made way down to the normal "hot pit" area to grid up before the race, the skies weren't as threatening as they'd been all morning. If things dried out, we were going to be in a world of hurt on full-wet tires. We'd have to pit early before they got too hot and started to shred themselves. Luckily for me and Eric's tire budget, it started to sprinkle as we left the hot pits for the pace lap. The rain got progressively heavier and, by the time we came rolling around for the start, the track had "wetted up" again, enough that I was glad to be on the rain tires. In fact, they were so amazing at the start that I immediately started passing cars that were technically faster. I was also taking some really odd lines through the corners, some of which (especially in Turn 8) allowed me to pass bunches of cars all at once. True, you do drive off the normal racing line when it's wet, but I'd done a BMW track day in the recent past and asked for a fellow instructor with some racing experience. As it happens, the guy I was assigned had driven the track extensively in a Trans-Am Mustang back in the 70s and showed me the (by our standards) really goofy lines those high-horsepower but "traction challenged" cars took back in the day. In many ways, it was perfect training for a day like today.

So there I was, feeling pretty comfortable for the conditions, making up all kinds of places with very little effort, and just generally doing my bit to put in decent laps without stressing the car, when I realized I was starting to have a hard time seeing out the windshield. Eric had put Rain-X on the windows (I love that stuff on my street car and also use it on my one-wiper racecar), but I was having to use his wipers more than I expected. Rain-X is great with rain but not always so good with spray, so I put the visibility problem down to that for a while, as I was still mixing things up with the middle part of the field. Eventually, though, I concluded that it was something else.

My suspicion, of course, was the windshield was fogging up. Not an uncommon occurrence in the rainy Pacific Northwest, but Eric had put stuff on the inside specifically to help with that. Nothing's perfect, of course, so tried wiping with the back of my glove. I couldn't really reach, though, so I loosened my belts a bit so I could reach farther forward. Pacific Raceways is a little too "dynamic" a track for that kind of thing and I quickly found myself and the car squirming all over the place. It also wasn't improving my visibility any.

My next suspected culprit was oil of some kind. I had spent quite a few laps following a first-generation RX-7 and I started worrying that the notoriously messy rotary had sprayed me with oil. As the rain had been coming and going, and the field had spread out, I had been relying more on the Rain-X and not using the wipers. The rain was coming down harder now, though, and if I'd gotten a bunch of oil on the windshield in the interim, all I was doing now was smearing it around. Not good. Like, really not good, as forward visibility had degraded to the point that cars were just vague blobs of color and I was looking out the side windows to see brake points and turn-in. I was using the bright yellow rain suit of a corner worker on the inside of the corner as my turn-in point for Turn 1 (where you're flat-out before angling right to aim for Turn 2) and praying he didn't go anywhere. For Turn 3A, the first of two hairpins, I was using where the green blob out the right part of the windshield turned grey so I knew where to turn right for 3B. It was about this point where I was on the radio to the crew, expressing my increasing concern about my lack of visibility. (Yes, I was freaking out a little!) The crew, of course, didn't want me to come in if I didn't have to. Eric was pretty sure it was the Rain-X smearing around, but I'd never seen it do that before and remained convinced it was oil from the RX-7.

The rain had increased pretty steadily and the track was really, really wet at this point. It was so bad that the stewards called for a standing yellow from the exit of Turn 9 to the "kink" (aka Turn 10), where the track doesn't drain well and you're driving between two walls. The rest of the front straight (including Turn 1, remember) was also wet enough that I was hydroplaning a bit in a straight line. Remember that note to myself about not wadding up Eric's car? Yeah, that was getting increasingly difficult not to do and all the fun I had been having was right out the window. Understanding the crew's point about not pitting unless we absolutely had to, I stuck with it and the windshield finally cleared up after about 9 laps or so. The conditions were still pretty dodgy, but at least I could see again.

Most of the rest of my stint was spent managing traction while watching a lot of other drivers fail to do so. I lost track of how many cars I saw blow the brake zone for Turn 3A and take the escape road. Ditto for cars losing it coming through the always-slippery Turn 8. Speaking of Turn 8, I got really distracted one lap by a waving yellow on the outside of that turn where I'd never seen a yellow flag before. As I got closer, I realized it was actually the yellow driving suit of someone who'd temporarily abandoned his car and was making his way back to the pits to obtain tools and/or parts to fix his car.

Toward the end of my stint it finally stopped raining and then actually started drying out. Even so, our pace had been tame enough that we were going to be able to do the race on just the one stop for fuel, and now I was hearing on the radio that we were going to change tires, too, as Eric and James had concluded that it was probably going to stay dry for the second half of the race. Only probably, though, so Eric had decided to replace the Hoosier rains with a set of treaded RA-1s. Of course, the crew hadn't practiced changing tires during a pit stop, so that'd be a fun little bit of on-the-job training.

With the driver change approaching, a young driver's thoughts turn to wondering how the hell he's going to get out of the car, given the problems he had doing it during a lazy practice session. I got to thinking about what had been the problem and realized that I could get out of his car the way I normally get out of mine, if only I could bend my neck a little more. That was when I realized that I could get that extra angle if I unhooked the tethers for my HANS as I entered the pit lane. The "pit lane" for enduros at Pacific is actually a coned-off path through the regular paddock and so I'd have plenty of time to unhooked them as I loosened the belts and got ready to bail out.

Sure enough, I popped right out of the car, no problem, and helped Eric strap in while the crew did a masterful job of changing all four tires (Stephen would later comment that they'd actually had to lift up the driver's side of the car a bit to get the jack to slide under with someone in the car) and filling up the fuel for our last stint. Despite the rain, traction, and visibility issues I'd had, I handed the car off to Eric with no damage and in 6th place overall after starting 34th. Not bad.

Jumping into a car during an enduro also makes you (well, me, anyway) feel an extra amount of pressure to get up to speed in a hurry, so as not to "waste" the effort of the drivers who have come before. Eric was probably also feeling a bit of pressure as it's his car and he would be expected to be faster than anyone else. On the other hand, the track was only drying and not actually dry, and he was on cold tires: On his first flying lap after the stop, he spun going into Turn 2 and went into the gravel, coming really quite close to the tire wall. The gravel traps are not deep and were further compacted by the rain, and so he got going again with very little loss in time. As the track continued to dry, he settled right in and started clicking off the kind of laptimes we all expected.

In fact... we started looking at the Timing & Scoring data and began calculating if it would be possible to catch Mike Helton's GS-classed BMW M Coupe from Grand Am's KONI Challenge series. They were 3 laps ahead of us at that point, but we decided that, with Eric's pace, yes, yes it would. We got on the radio with him and started urging him on... and it was working! A bit here and a bit there, Eric reeled him in and finally passed him for position. Sweet!

The other, um, "highlight" of Eric's stint was how much he got to race with Pro3-classed BMWs that were running the P2 enduro class. There were quite a few of them out there, but Eric somehow always found himself in the middle of a clot of them. Even when he'd clear out from them, there'd be a full-course caution or something that would bunch him back with them. At one point, he actually radioed in to report that it felt like he was actually in a Pro3 race! :) (Check out the last four minutes or so of the video he made for YouTube and you'll see what I mean.)

He also tried his hardest to catch up the class-leading BMW M3 (also belonging to Mike Helton, it's an ex-Grand Am car), but it was just too far in front of us and was running laptimes similar to Eric's. In the end, we'd finish 2nd in our class and 5th overall. Or did we...?

Post-race

Considering how thrown-together our race had been, with a car that was running some leftover parts (and missing its usual front splitter and limited-slip differential), and in the rain, we were quite happy with the results. After the race was over, an official came by to let us know that there had been a problem with the Timing & Scoring software and we'd actually finished 4th overall. Even better. :)

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