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Four Hours of Pacific Raceways

9 March 2008

If you've read my report for the previous running of this race, back in the fall of 2007, you'd know that I'd intended to run my car in an enduro for the first time, but the costs associated with giving it full-fledged enduro capability were looking to be a fair bit more than I'd expected. I also very much wanted to do the 12-hour enduro at Portland later in the year, but the thought of that much wear-and-tear on what was still a pretty untested car made me a little nervous. What I decided to do, then, and aside from the stuff necessary for endurance racing, was prep the car as I normally would for the start of a season and then run it in the 4-hour to see what problems to expect... or simply find out what would break.

First up, though, was replacing the old sprint-sized fuel cell with one of a larger capacity suitable for endurance racing. A dry-break fueling setup was also a good idea, as the quicker you can get fuel in the car, the quicker you can get out of the pits and back in the race. A full radio setup was also an important feature. Finding an affordable set of radios and getting the wiring done was the easy part...

Oh, yeah, we also had to do all the other prep we would normally do before the start of a season. Eric was right: Prepping a car for an enduro involves a lot of stress. Not to mention that, despite starting the process well in advance of the race, the car wasn't buttoned up and ready to run until a week or so before the race. This would mean that its first post-modification shakedown would come the day before the enduro at a lapping day. Heh.

The drivers and crew:


Pictures and video from this event

Saturday

The intention behind running in the test sessions at the lapping day before the enduro was so that Eric could get some seat time in the car before driving it in the race. As mentioned above, though, our first task had become verifying that the changes to the car were working properly and would hold together after rattling around on track for a while. To that end, I took the car out in the first session to make sure nothing started leaking and to see what the balance was like with 10 more gallons of fuel out back than I was used to. The track was pretty slippery at first, which actually helped me focus on the car and not on driving a quick lap. Everything seemed good and we didn't find any leaks. The radios tested out okay, too, with crystal-clear reception even "down in the valley" on the far side of Pacific Raceways from the pits.

Eric went out in the next session (the track had dried) and had us all laughing after a couple laps: He radioed in that he was having a blast driving the car, enjoying the engine sounds and how much faster it accelerated compared to his car. (It actually took me back to when I'd first driven his Porsche 968 during the time with my Acura Integra GS-R: top speed was pretty similar, but you got to it so much faster than you were used to.) His happy commentary on the car continued after the session ended, which certainly made me feel good about my car.

In his second session later that day, after he'd gotten comfortable with the car, he started pushing things up to a more aggressive pace. At one point, he found himself with a nice stretch of open track and decided to see how fast he could take it through Turn 8. Just as fast as his own car, but he also discovered that all that extra power delivery with my car comes at a price compared to what he's used to, and he found himself in a nice throttle-on spin. With no other cars around, that part of the track is a safe place to lose it and he was able to get going again right away. Curiously, though, he was pretty sure the right-rear tire was locking up on braking going downhill into Turn 3A. While that corner of the car is "unweighted" in that braking zone, my car has ABS and shouldn't lock up any tires, ever. It all seemed weird and unlikely to both of us, so we pretty much put it out of our minds.

Sunday

Unlike the last time we did the four-hour, race day dawned crisp and clear and was forecasted to stay that way all day. Nice.

Pre-race

With all of Eric's race experience at Pacific Raceways and after some decent seat time the day before, we decided not to mess with all three of the pre-race practice sessions. Eric was going to start the race, so he'd go out in one of them just to get warmed up. No issues with Eric, the track, or the car, but we got our first look at our competition. One of the big surprises came from a tame-looking BMW 325 in our class that was turning in phenomenally quick laptimes. We later learned that they were due to an engine built for current-day SPEED World Challenge rules... and composed primarily of titanium parts. Wow!

Race

Starting order is based upon the order entries for the race are received and as car #04 for the race Eric was starting in the second row. As you can see from the in-car video, he gets a tremendous jump at the start and leads the field across the line. By the mid-point of Turn 2, though, he gets passed by the P0-classed V8 of an engine-swapped Datsun 280Z. By the exit of Turn 2, the Caterham in P2 goes by. He ran in third until getting passed by a brand-new Mustang Challenge car exiting Turn 7, and then ran around in 4th for quite a few laps until eventually getting passed by the BMW 325 and a Mazda RX-3 in GT-3 trim. Not to worry, though, as even a "short" enduro of 4 hours is still a pretty long race and we expected those cars to go by us pretty quickly, not to mention that Eric was still getting settled in to the car. And we were still first in our class (P1).

Eric ran a solid pace even as he was settling in, but came on the radio pretty early commenting that the tires were a bit "greasy" and he was having trouble getting the power down exiting corners. I decided it was a combination of his unfamiliarity with the power delivery of the car and not pushing the car hard enough to bring the tires up to temperature, so I told him not to worry about it. Deep down, though, I think I knew it was wishful thinking on my part: After all his stories of how much mileage he's managed to get out of the Toyo RA-1 tires he's used in enduros, I'd decided to run the race on tires I thought were about halfway through their useful life. In reality, and despite the significant amount of "meat" left on them, I think they'd had a few too many heat cycles. Ah well, live and learn.

Despite the minor issue with the tires, Eric was gaining more and more confidence in his ability to handle the car and was having fun motoring by cars pretty much wherever and whenever he wanted. After less than an hour, we were back up to 5th overall. He'd actually run as high as 4th overall before the end of his time in the car.

Speaking of the end of his stint, we weren't really sure when that was going to be. Because of the weird hot pits setup at Pacific Raceways for enduros, coming in for a stop costs an insane amount of time and you really, really want to minimize the number of times you have to do it. With the larger cell and only a rough idea of the engine's fuel burn rate, I knew we could go at least an hour and 20 minutes on a full load of fuel. I was pretty certain we could go an hour and 40 minutes, but we really wanted to get as close to 2 hours—and just the one stop for fuel and a driver change—as possible. Just to make things interesting, I was only pretty sure I had correctly adjusted the "full" and "empty" settings on the fuel level sending unit. We knew the cell was full because we'd filled it up before the race...

Just about the 1h40' mark, Eric radioed that the engine had stuttered as he exited Turn 9 onto the front straight. We asked about the fuel gauge. He said it was still showing about 1/4 remaining. We told him to keep going. He radioed in again later that it was now cutting out a lot and on both the front and the back straights. We asked about the fuel gauge. He said it was still showing about 1/4 remaining. We told him to keep going. He radioed in again that it was now cutting out all over the place. We said, yeah, maybe it really is time to come in for fuel. :)

His laptimes were close enough to mine that, barring a lot of laps under a full-course caution, we were going to be a half-hour short in our fuel strategy and would have to stop one more time before the race ended. It would only be for one dump can's worth of fuel but, again, the amount of time it takes to enter and exit the "enduro pits" at Pacific Raceways meant we were going to need a massive lead over the cars behind us if we were to maintain our position when the "splash & go" rolled around.

Eric and I have done enough driver changes that it was quick and no-drama, and was done well before the fuel was completed. Heading back out, we had dropped from 4th overall to 6th, but a few other teams cycled through their stops and we were soon back up to 5th overall, 1st in class. One of the challenges to driving in an enduro is that, other than the guy starting the race, everyone else needs to get into the car and be up to speed right out of the gate. Assuming there's nothing wrong with the car, there's really no reason not to be, but it's definitely a challenge for us non-professionals.

In my case, my laptimes for the first half-hour bounced all over the place and I was generally pretty annoyed at my pace. I'd like to blame the leaky bite-valve on the drinks bottle that dumped Gatorade all over my lap, but I just couldn't seem to find a rhythm. Despite my inability to get comfortable, within a half-hour or so we were up to 2nd overall due to a pitstop for the P0-classed Mustang Challenge car, mechanical problems for the P0-classed 280Z, and the end of the day for the BMW 325.

With slightly more than half the race gone, attrition was definitely starting to take its toll. In addition to the teams who had started managing their cars' mechanical issues, not to mention teams that had simply decided to call it a day, cars were starting to park out on course, such as the car that failed as it came out of the pits and spent the rest of the race parked driver's right. My personal favorite was a white Honda CRX that had been parked driver's right in Turn 7 from before I got in the car. After many laps of passing by while he thrashed away on the car, I started urging on his efforts every lap, and gave quite a cheer when I came around one lap to find he'd finally gotten going again. Now that's commitment!

Passing Miatas and other lower-classed cars was definitely fun, but it wasn't long before I started hearing about Helton's M3 beginning to put a significant dent in our P1 class lead over them: Pat Boyle was in the car and coming fast... and for more than just the class lead.

You see, what I hadn't realized was that when Mark McClure's zippy little Caterham died exiting Turn 2 with about an hour-fifteen to run (yes, his bad luck with the car in enduros continued), it handed us the overall lead of the race. With less than an hour to go, I'd asked James (crew chief) what our position was. He said, "You're P1, you're P1." Completely glossing over the fact we'd been first in class all day long, I simply took his comments to mean we were, you know, first in class.

It was about this time that the exhaust (all the piping from the headers back!) that had fallen off Wes Hill's BMW onto the front straight, coupled with some other odds-and-ends scattered about the racing surface, convinced the race officials that a full-course caution was in order. I had just passed a white BMW 325 coming up the hill through Turn 7 and was setting up a pass on a Miata going into Turn 9 when the flags came out in the corner station there. I slowed way down, of course, and the white BMW, clearly having missed the flags, came zooming up to re-pass me. I waved frantically for him to stay behind, but he passed anyway, a big no-no. Oh, well, no skin off my nose.

And here's where I should've gotten just the smallest hint that we were leading the race: As we came down to Turn 2 and caught up to the pace car, he waved around the Miata and the 325, but then held me up. With only about 45 minutes left to go, I was so wound up about not getting the opportunity to hoof it around the track to the pit entrance in Turn 8 that I completely missed the fact that the pace car always picks up the overall leader. Twenty-some years' experience watching car racing and that little tidbit just completely passed me by.

Not knowing exactly why the caution had come out, what followed was nearly a lap's worth of intense radio conversation as we debated whether to pit then or try to stretch our fuel economy during the really, really, really slow lap set by the pace car. Seriously, building on my frustration about the Miata and BMW being able to tear-ass back around to the pits while I was stuck behind the pace car, we seemed to be practically walking our way around the track. Anyway, the smart call was made to "pit this lap" and I scooted out from behind the pace car as we came through Turn 8.

There were no other cars in the pits as I came in and I started feeling self-conscious, despite the generally decent timing and obvious need for being there. I rolled to a stop in our pit box, killed the engine, and took my first really deep breaths since getting into the car over an hour earlier. The 8 gallons Scott added didn't take long to go in and I was ready to go... just as soon as the car started. It didn't catch the first time I started, but it fired right up the second time I pushed the starter button.

The "enduro pits" at Pacific Raceways are actually setup in the paddock, which means you have to drive all the way down the long access road to the actual racing pits, and then quite a bit further to get back out on track. As I cleared the wall driver's left that ends at the apex of Turn 1, I could just see the headlights of the pace car as it came through Turn 9 in the distance behind me. No problem, I thought, I'll be at the back of the pack, but I've got plenty of time to catch them up and be ready for the green. Unfortunately, what I couldn't see was that the yellow lights on the pace car's roof were off: He was about to leave the track and we were about 30 seconds away from the restart, putting me nearly a full lap behind new leader Pat in Mike Helton's M3.

I was pushing pretty hard on what were, at that point, pretty unhappy tires, but after 8 minutes or so of green-flag running Pat had closed the gap and I was now racing to avoid going down a lap. We had a pretty good fight for 5 or 6 laps: I seemed to get a better launch out of the corners, but he was all over me on corner entry. There were more than a couple occasions where he'd get alongside in a corner, but I was always able to pull away enough that I could back in front by the next. I was also getting better braking performance for Turn 2 at the end of the front straight, which saved me on a couple occasions.

Finally, though, Pat got a good run on me coming out of Turn 9, drafted me down the front straight, and was able to get alongside going through Turn 1. Unlike his attempt the previous lap, though, he was on the outside for Turn 1, putting him on the inside for Turn 2. I wasn't worried about it, though, as I was pretty sure I'd be able to get back past him, but I think I failed to brake enough before downshifting to 3rd gear and the back of the car came around on me. I stalled the car as I backed into the inside of the corner (I could swear I'd gotten the clutch in in time), but probably lost only 2 seconds total before continuing.

Remember back to the day before, when Eric had experienced what he thought was a braking problem after spinning in Turn 8? Well, it was back with a vengeance and I locked up the right-rear tire big-time when braking down the hill for Turn 3A. It did it again braking for Turn 5A and I started worrying there was something really wrong. The damage was already done as far as Pat was concerned and I didn't want to hurt the car this close to the end of the race, so I backed off for most of a lap and tried to figure out what was up. The rear tires were locking up in almost every braking zone and I eventually found that I could prevent it if I braked really early and much more gradually. It would protect what were now flat-spotted rear tires, but it was definitely not the fast way around the track. [We would later conclude that the ABS computer had gotten confused and gone into limp mode. When it does that, the system splits the brake bias about 50/50 front to rear and it becomes really easy to lock up the rear tires.]

After several laps driving within the new braking parameters, I'd managed to make the rear tires mostly round again and the severe vibration I'd been living with finally went away. I also began to pick up my pace a little, but solely with the intention of maintaining our 2nd place. This whole event was simply intended as a test, you'll recall, so there was really no point in risking a bigger "off" by pushing a car that was clearly no longer in the best of moods. I wasn't going to catch Pat anyway.

Or was I?... I started catching glimpses of him in the distance, closer and closer each time. I was, inexplicably, catching him. Finally, with about 5 minutes left to race, I saw him heading into the pits as I went from Turn 7 to Turn 8. Despite having a larger fuel cell than us, Pat had run into the same engine stumble that Eric had when the car got low on fuel. Even my greatly-reduced pace was faster than Pat's had become, as he'd had to start coasting down hills and running in higher gears to reduce RPMs and fuel consumption in an attempt to stretch it out. In the end, he realized they needed just that little bit more fuel.

Pat's pitting under green guaranteed that I'd be able to unlap myself before he could make it back out of the pits, so the battle was going to be back on once he did. My only hope, given my braking problems, was that I'd be able to get enough distance on him that there wouldn't be time for him to catch back up and pass me before the checkers came out.

As I came around a lap later and exited Turn 9 onto the front straight, I passed Pat as he entered the access road to the pits. Awesome! I'd get at least half a lap on Pat before he could get back out on course... only, as I went through the kink (some refer to it as Turn 10) a few seconds later, I saw the checkered flag raised in the hands of the starter. What?! That's it? Okay, then, cool.

Just finishing an endurance race is an accomplishment all its own, so the applause of the corner workers on my cool-down lap was not unexpected. As I came into the pits, though, a LOT of people seemed to be specifically directing their applause and cheers in my direction. It was a really great feeling to drive down the row of other teams' pit areas as they applauded for me. Eric and the rest of the crew were jumping up and down, clapping, cheering; the whole nine yards. What a terrific feeling! But wait, it gets better...

I had been out of the car for probably 10 minutes, talking and laughing with the crew and other folks who'd come by to offer their congratulations. Yes, I was feeling pretty damned good about my first class win when I overheard somebody say something about the overall win. "Wait a minute," I said, "did you just say that we won overall, too?" There was one of those moments where someone gets a frozen smile on their face as they try to decide if you're joking about something before they responded that, yes, we won both our class and the race overall.

Yes, I am a natural blonde. Why do you ask?

Post-race

The top 3 overall cars were rolled down to one end of the paddock for what seemed like a wall of people taking photographs. There was also a LOT of laughter as I told my story to the assembled group that, yes, I'd actually won the race without realizing it. Talent: I've got it.

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