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2006 Final Dash

30 Sept./1 Oct. 2006

As was somewhat expected, the first race outing for the car resulted in several problems. What wasn't expected was that the problems would be both numerous enough and severe enough for me to decide to pack it in and head home before the racing had even started. With those issues apparently resolved and the final race of the year close to both home and my "technical support," I was feeling more confident that the week-end would go well.


Pictures and video from this event

Friday

The first little minor annoyance to the week-end was a delay in picking up the car: I had wanted to get everything loaded up so I could be on the road by 3pm and before the worst of the Friday afternoon traffic, but the car wasn't ready to be collected from Colin's until 3pm. By the time we went over everything and I had winched it up and tied it down, it was already after 4pm.

Then, just to make things really interesting, I discovered that the brake controller recently installed in my new tow vehicle wasn't communicating with the trailer brakes. Towing the 1150lb trailer without trailer brakes is one thing, but it's a little over 4000lbs fully loaded plus I'd still have to deal with whatever weight I was also hauling in the back of the truck. I tried all kinds of things but finally concluded the brake controller just wasn't going to work. After thinking about the various ramifications of going/not going, I elected to at least make the attempt: there are no significant hills to deal with; it's a short trip, distance-wise, and most of the time would be spent at low, "rush-hour" (ha!) speeds; and my truck has pretty hefty brakes. (This was also a time when all the attention the car gets was actually useful: Some guy was taking pictures with his cell phone and I was able to yell over for him to check the state of the brake lights on the trailer.)

The tow was thankfully uneventful—I was even able to slow from 60MPH to a stop a couple times without drama—and I arrived at Pacific Raceways with lots of potential paddock spaces to choose from, including several in the paved area. After some consideration, though, I decided to set up in the wide-open spaces under the trees in order to have lots of room for my family and other guests that I was expecting. Plenty of canopies meant I'd be protected from tree sap, but I'd also be driving my sticky race tires over gravel when going to/from my paddock area. Can't have everything, right?

Starting up the car to back it off the trailer made it pretty clear that the lifter knock I'd experienced briefly in Portland was back, so I left the car running after I unloaded to give the offending lifter a chance to clear itself. It hadn't corrected after a half-hour, though (no overheating, at least!), but I figured it would clear up once I revved the car pretty good during the next morning's first practice. Tech went smoothly and I was soon on my way back home for the night, leaving the car under a canopy and a car cover. (I didn't want to go through the hassle of removing a big dollop of sap, as I'd had to a couple years earlier with my previous race car.)

Saturday

First order of business in the morning was to get the car warmed up, both to get ready for practice and to hopefully see the lifter knock clear up. I noticed the voltage was a little low—again—but figured that running it for a fair bit would at least make sure the battery was charged. (Yeah... duh: If the voltage is too low to charge the system, running it isn't going to solve anything battery-related.) Not only did the knock not clear up, leaving me to clatter my way through the paddock to pre-grid, but I foolishly shut the engine off while waiting to go out on track. When it was time to start it up... dead battery.

Unlike pre-grid at Portland, which is co-located to the infield paddock, the pre-grid area at Seattle is something like a half-mile away from anyone who might be able to help me. Or so I thought. After waving the marshal over to let her know that I wasn't going anywhere under my own power, she dispatched two bystanders to her truck to retrieve a battery and cables. After some minor confusion—including her asking one of the guys to step away from my car with his cigarette, as leaning over the battery mounted in my trunk is about a foot away from the fuel cell—they were able to get the car started and I zipped out for the last three laps of the first Group 4 practice session. Limited time in the session notwithstanding, my goals for the first session were simply to make sure the car was in good shape and to shake myself of any nerves I might experience braking for Turn 2. (Long story short, the ABS pump was plumbed incorrectly by someone before I bought the car and caused a massive rear-tire lockup at 125+MPH and an unpleasant meeting with a dirt berm earlier in the year.)

Despite running around pretty hard for 3 laps the lifter knock still hadn't cleared up, so I figured I'd be heading to the auto parts store on the way home for a bottle of oil detergent. Since there wasn't anything else I could at the time, I resigned myself to the car sounding like a big clock the rest of the day. Practice for Group 1 was uneventful, at least in part because I took advantage of the rules and left the engine running on pre-grid. I then spent part of the time before the first qualifying session adjusting the height of the hood pins and tightening various screws and bolts that had worked themselves loose.

At the Saturday drivers meeting, the steward announced that the section of cones we've been seeing on the inside approach to Turn 2, and that takes up a whole lane, is due to a sinkhole that's developed and that won't be satisfactorily repaired until after the week-end's over. They also pointed out that it's likely to destroy the suspension of any car unlucky enough to hit it. This isn't a big deal for qualifying, but it's likely to be a serious problem for the races. I'm really not looking forward to that first-lap scrum down to Turn 2.

The lifter knock finally went away on the drive to pre-grid for Group 4 qualifying and the voltage was back to where it should be. With my goals for the week-end consisting mainly of getting any other bugs ironed out and having fun, I was treating at least the first sessions of qualifying as simple track time. As such, I latched onto the back of a Pro-3 car and just tailed him around the track for several laps. Near the end of the session, though, I started hearing some weird sounds coming from... well, I wasn't sure, but I started worrying it was the splitter problem again. I tried pointing at the area where I thought the problem was every time I passed a corner station, but I don't think anyone guessed at what I was trying to indicate. It started sounding worse in faster parts of the track, which pretty much sealed the deal as far as guessing about the cause, so I backed off the pace for a lap or so before exiting the track early.

Sure enough, taking a look at the airdam back in the paddock confirmed that the one part of the splitter Colin hadn't made additional bracing for (he'd run out of material) had started separating from the airdam. Aerodynamic forces being what they are, it probably didn't take long before the splitter started pulling itself free from other parts of the airdam, including the very braces meant to prevent it from separating. Heh.

Luckily enough, Colin had popped by earlier to see how things were going and now returned to investigate the short-circuit, so I found myself with my very own professional mechanic squirming around under the car in a thrash to get it repaired in time for the Group 1 qualifying session. Although my auto–repair–tool collection isn't nearly what it could be, I actually own everything Colin needed for his repairs, which included removing the splitter before it did any more damage. The hassles of life with an open trailer and a race within "easy" driving distance of home (it's still nearly an hour away) meant that I hadn't brought most of my tools with me, so Colin had to resort to those old standbys, zip ties and race tape. I made myself useful by socializing.

Group 1 is home to my car's primary class and I had gotten a bit more comfortable with the car, so I felt it was time to go out and have a real qualifying session. That being said, I braked later on entry into the corners, kept more speed through the middle, and got back on the throttle sooner on exit. Or, at least, I thought I was doing all those things. I shaved a little more than a second off my previous best time for the week-end, but I was still farther off the pace than I felt I should be. Whether it was an overall lack of commitment, continued unfamiliarity with the car, having my top speeds limited by the final drive ratio in the car, or some combination thereof, I was a bit annoyed by my qualifying results. But just a bit as, after all, this was meant as a learning week-end.

Finally, by the time I left for home Saturday afternoon, I'd heard from around a dozen racers and spectators that my brake lights kept coming on at unexpected times. Who the hell knew what that was all about, but I guess I'd be adding yet another item to my ever-growing List of Things That Need Fixin'.

Sunday

As a rule, a race track will always result in faster lap times (all other things being equal) on successive days of a race meeting because of the additional tire rubber that has been placed on the track and that results in higher grip. Also, the cooler temperatures that were present on Sunday morning versus Saturday afternoon meant that the cars would develop slightly more horsepower and that any aerodynamic devices would have more effect (again, providing more grip). With all that in mind, I set out for the second round of qualifying for Group 4.

What a waste of time that was.

Sure, I still hadn't had much time in the car, but my lap times were actually a tick slower than they'd been the day before. And so, with that in mind, I decided that there wasn't any point in going out for Group 1's second qualifying session. I don't remember my thinking at the time, or what else might've been going on, but there must have been some reason why I decided to forgo the additional seat time.

Group 4 race (ITE)

Despite any track time I'd acquired to this point, I was about to start my first race in my new car and I was feeling a little nervous about it: I've never been very good at qualifying and consequently go faster in the race, but I didn't know how the car might react once I started pushing it; unlike my steel-bodied Integra, this car's bodywork is pretty fragile (you can break it by leaning on it in the wrong place) and I was wondering what kind of repair bill I might have after a season-ending race in a busy group; and I hadn't done any real racing since September 2004. (Sure, I'd run in a 4-hour enduro in the spring and the 8-hour before that, but driving in an endurance race is definitely not the same as in an always-intense sprint.) On the other hand, ITE is even more of a throwaway class for the M3 than RS was for the Integra, as it's mostly populated by big V8 refugees from the SPO class as well as lots of PCA-classed Porsches. Moreover, I didn't have any intentions for the race other than seat time, so it wasn't going to bother me to point by anyone who wanted to go faster.

Group 4 was the home of the Pro-3 class for E30-bodied BMWs in 2006, a group that had managed to arrange for split starts, so my pretty horrible qualifying time saw me further up the starting grid than it would've otherwise, jumping something like 7 positions. This also meant that there were going to be several "faster" cars behind me (driver ability, intentions, and other considerations aside, the Pro-3 BMW 325 hasn't been made that can legitimately beat my M3), so I was going to have to keep even more of an eye on my mirrors than I would've already.

The first few minutes on track during the pace lap drove home the point that this is a different environment than what I'm used to, as I found myself surrounded by Mustangs and Camaros, and even a NASCAR-style Monte Carlo. I also got to witness the never-before-seen (by me) sight of a car spinning off during the pace lap. It was a Porsche 928 with V8 power, and all I can think is that he got things a little too out of shape while warming his tires. Pretty surprising to everyone, no one more so than (I imagine) the Porsche driver.

My next new experience was being aware, as we came up the hill and through Turn 7, that I was close enough to the front to actually see the pace car... first time ever! :)

I used to take rolling starts in 2nd gear in my Integra, but the gearing and low-end power are very different on the M3 by comparison, so I hunted around a bit during the last bit of the pace lap in an attempt to find a gear with good acceleration that wouldn't force me to shift too quickly after the green flag. I settled on 3rd, which was probably the right choice, but all the V8s around me still dropped me once the flag flew. Randy Blaylock in his SPO Dodge Viper (running ITE) got a phenomenal start and rocketed off into the distance, but I was able to catch up with the rest of the front-runners in Turn 1.

I got on the inside of an AS-classed Camaro under braking for Turn 8 at the end of the lap and then stayed with him as he pulled ahead a little on the run to Turn 9. I went wide left and took a straighter line to the apex, getting onto the throttle quicker and pulling past as we exited the corner.

I was chasing after the Monte Carlo and was about halfway between the kink (known to some as "Turn 10") and Turn 1 when I saw a cloud of tire smoke just past Turn 1. This is an area when you most emphatically do not brake, so clearly something was going wrong for somebody. A quick glance to my left as I approached the corner found a 993-bodied Porsche Carrera backwards in the drag strip, which is an odd state to find someone there: you'd expect them to have misjudged the corner and be heading down the return road to get back on track. As I went through the corner proper, there was an enormous cloud of dust on my left, with Bruce Beachman's EIP-classed BMW (running ITE) sideways at the end of it.

I was able to stay pretty close to Monte Carlo through the various corners getting to the back straight, whereupon he dropped me like a bad habit. The problems in Turn 1 were severe enough that I caught a double-yellow at the Turn 7 flag stand, settling in with the Monte Carlo for two laps behind the pace car. Taking the restart in 2nd gear for what I thought would be greater acceleration than 3rd was likely a mistake, as I quickly got gapped by the Monte Carlo and passed by the Porsche 928, while finding myself running out of rev's in 2nd and then 3rd rather quickly. Worse still, I couldn't get the transmission into 4th right away (might not have depressed the clutch enough) and lost 4 more positions... yeowch!

I easily got past a second-generation RX-7 under braking for the first hairpin (Turn 3A) to regain one of the positions and then almost got nailed in the rear bumper by Hugh Golden in Wes Hill's car exiting the second hairpin (3B) when I somehow shifted from 2nd gear to 5th. [ed.: Washing the car a few weeks later, I found a line rubbed horizontally in the paint of the bumper, so maybe he really did make contact. Not too happy about it, but I can't blame him for it.] He caught back up to my bumper and then made a fairly aggressive pass on the inside of Turn 5B, a fast right-hander that leaves very little room (well, basically none) for error. He pulled away from me in the twisty back sections of Pacific Raceways—he was much faster than me in the corners—but I caught back up with him and the Camaro as we got back around to Turn 3A.

Hugh got past the Camaro exiting Turn 2, using a slower RX-7 as a "pick," and then I was hard after the Camaro through the back section until his V8 launched him down the front straight. Will Diefenbach and Bruce Beachman in their E30s were hot on my heels under braking for Turn 8, but I was able to pull away a bit heading down the front straight. At the same time, I caught back up with Hugh as the Camaro out-horsepowered him on the run to Turn 1, getting myself right onto Hugh's rear bumper at the second hairpin.

Bruce caught back up with me in the back sections and passed me on the inside of 5B as Hugh had done, with Will right behind me as we went up the hill through Turn 6. I pointed Will by at the top of the hill in Turn 7, and then Ted Anthony Jr. at Turn 8: I had finally remembered my goals for the week-end, one of which was not to mess up anybody else's race as I got used to the car.

I stayed close to Will and Ted down through Turn 3B, where I got to see some nice door-to-door racing as Ted worked his way past Will. Ian Alexander's Pro-3 (man!, there's a lot of 'em!) got the point-by in Turn 8.

Both to continue my experiments with gear selection and in an attempt to prevent my earlier shifting problem exiting Turn 3B, I tried running through the hairpins in 3rd gear instead of 2nd. It was maybe a little too high a gear, but the 3.73 rear-end made up a lot of the difference... which, after all, was the whole point of experimenting with gear selection. As I was also being trailed by Bill Spornitz' Pro-3, I pointed him by under braking for Turn 8. (Starting with Ian's car, I had to be careful not to overhaul the Pro-3 cars on the parts of the track that are flat-out.)

I was finally able to run by myself for a few laps before getting lapped by Randy Blaylock (still leading ITE and overall) heading onto the front straight and then by Bud Reichard's GT-2 RX-7 while braking for T2. We had all slowed up for a yellow in Turn 1, which also let Lance Richert's Pro-3 catch up to my bumper, and Bud almost got the jump on Randy when we got back to a green-flag area.

I pointed Lance by in Turn 8 and then Fred Wright's "green dot car" Pro-3 under braking for Turn 3A. I tried pointing by Jeff Van Lierop in Turn 8, but he couldn't (or just didn't) pull it off and would have to wait until another slow section of the track. Speaking of slow, something must have happened to Bill Spornitz, because we caught up to his orange, "Jägermeister"-painted car on the front straight, and then we all caught up to Fred, who then proceeded to fight with Bill for position the rest of the race.

Jeff was finally able to get by me in the second hairpin later that lap, marking the last Pro-3 car I'd let by that day: Not only did I figure I'd gotten out of enough folks' way, but the next car to catch me up was Jeff Wicks in his E36-bodied 325, my "old nemesis" in RS back when I raced the Integra. In fact, I was now far enough down the order that I was running with cars that were a fair bit slower than mine, even with the reduced pace I was running, so I found myself constantly backing off the throttle so as to not overtake the nose-to-tail Lance/Fred/Bill fight; as I said, I didn't want to get in the way of anybody's race, and those guys looked to have some serious fun for the last couple laps in the race.

Looking over the lap charts after the race, it appeared I was running pretty decent Pro-3 times which, interestingly enough, are pretty much the same times I used to run in the Integra. I also noticed that, despite my "tradition," my fastest race lap was actually slower than my qualifying time.

Group 1 race (SPM)

Okay, so now it's time for Group 1 and my car's primary class. I've had as much seat time as I'm going to get before this race and I'm feeling pretty good. Sure, I'm still going to be taking it easy, but not as much as I did in Group 4; despite all the logic supporting it, pointing people by got old real fast. I'm also qualified slightly better, although still about 5 or 6 places off where I think I should be. Time to get racin'.

"Time to get racin'" or not, I experienced a minor disaster at the start: Unlike the Group 4 race, when I'd started in 3rd gear, I took the start in 2nd. It got me a good launch compared with the cars around me, but my unfamiliarity with the car's short-shift kit found me struggling to find 3rd gear, to the point that I eventually shoved it into 5th by mistake. By the time I shifted into the correct gear, my lost momentum cost me 3 positions heading into Turn 1. I did a good job of remaining calm and keeping close to the cars that had gotten by, but there wasn't any real opportunity for me to repass anyone until I was able to out-accelerate Jeff Van Lierop (running his Pro-3 car in SportBMW) down the back straight.

I tailed the comparatively underpowered SPU VW Rabbit and SPU BMW 2002 through the back sections, where they're both quite a bit faster in the corners than me, until Brad Greco in the Rabbit pointed me by as we approached the kink. I pulled away from Brad pretty aggressively on the horsepower section of the track, but he caught back up with me as we went through the hairpins. Just to keep things interesting, I totally blew the 2–3 upshift exiting Turn 3B and he just about nailed me as my hard-accelerating car suddenly bogged down. (As with Hugh in the Group 4 race, it's possible he did actually rub my back bumper.) I raised my hand in a "sorry" gesture, but I still felt badly about it. [ed.: See the event from his perspective on YouTube, although continuing through the clip finds a rather unhappy ending.] He stayed right on my tail all the way through Turn 8 with us going side-by-side to Turn 9 before I was finally able to drop him as I got back by Jeff Roberts' 2002 on the way to the kink.

Despite having to breathe the throttle every time I went down a straight due to the excessively "short" 3.73 final drive ratio that was originally intended for a 6-speed transmission, I made up a lot of ground on the second-generation RX-7 that got by me at the start, catching him up in the brake zone for the Turn 3A hairpin. I got a good launch off the corner onto the back straight, but had to back off because of a yellow flag and a surface conditions flag for an SPO 240Z (running a GM-sourced V8!) that'd dropped some sort of fluid and then died on the outside of Turn 5A. Hugh Golden in Wes Hill's Pro-3 BMW did a much better job of getting back on the gas once we were past the incident than either Kim Fabbro or myself, leaving the two of us to fight it out while he pulled away.

I feinted to the right a bit as Kim and I approached Turn 8, so he shaded over a bit to cover me in case I'm going to try a wide line through the corner. In response, I dove inside to take an early apex, putting us nearly side-by-side through the corner. The early apex meant I was going to be a little wide on the exit, which then forced him to either give up and tuck in behind me, or stay wider still and take a tighter approach to Turn 9 (which is what he did). Neither one of us gained much ground on the other and so, short of nailing me in the passenger door, he had to stay close to the apex and leave me room on the outside, which I took advantage of by carrying more speed through the corner and passing him. (A calculated risk, to be sure; some people would've forced me off track if I wanted to stick to my line.)

Now that we're on the fastest part of the track, my horsepower advantage over Hugh kicked in and I was able to make up a ton of ground on him by the braking zone for Turn 2. Our relative positions remained static until we hit traffic in the first hairpin, which let me gain a little more ground, but I lost it right back as we went through the twisty back section of Pacific Raceways.

After another lap where I'm not able to get close enough to Hugh to give him much pause for thought, he was able to catch up to and start battling with Bob Hornbeck's motorcycle-engine-powered, NASCAR-lookalike, 3/4-scale, SPU Monte Carlo.

Hugh got by Bob on the inside of Turn 2 a lap later, and I was finally able to join their fight upon exiting Turn 3B a couple laps after that, after Bob's better power-to-weight ratio let him repass Hugh. Unfortunately, I kept losing touch with them going into 5A, as the 3rd gear I've always selected for that corner is just too low for the 3.73 diff and it costs me valuable momentum. Finally, finally, I caught back up to Hugh's bumper in the brake zone for Turn 2 and chased him to 3A, where we both caught up to Bob's Monte Carlo. Hugh actually got inside Bob at Turn 3B, but both Bob and I have better acceleration out of the corner and Bob pulled away from us as I got past Hugh.

Once again, though, my "automatic" 4–3 downshift in Turn 5A cost me enough momentum that Hugh was able to get alongside me in 5B and take the position back. [ed.: Watching my videos later confirmed that I was consistently getting gapped by whichever car was in front of me when we hit 5A.] I stayed close to him as we went up the hill and through Turn 7, and then made a half-hearted dive for the apex of Turn 8. He was either ready for the move or confident that he was far enough in front to take his normal apex, which he followed up with the typical Pro-3 move wide toward the escape road. Meanwhile, I took the "school line" (the line through Turn 9 that's taught by all the schools at the track; while the school line frequently matches the race line, it's designed for safety more than outright speed) and swung wide to the left in preparation to cut back across to the apex. As Hugh hit the apex in 9 and inevitably drifted left on exit, I was able to cut back across and take a much straighter and therefore faster line to shoot past him and head down toward the kink. Textbook! :)

One lap later, with Hugh just a few car-lengths back from me, I got inside of Bob in Turn 2, but I'm not able to get in front of him and his better acceleration (and wider line) put him solidly in front of me on exit. I stayed with him through the back section, but my now-weird fixation with downshifting to 3rd on entry to Turn 5A got Hugh back on my bumper (and I mean right on my bumper!), getting him in the perfect position to capitalize on my slightly wide entry to Turn 8. We replayed our move in Turn 9 from a couple laps earlier, but my progress past him between there and the kink got impeded by a slower car. I had to settle in behind him, but my differential-limited top speed raised its ugly head and we headed to Turn 2 side-by-side... where the stupid cones marking the stupid sinkhole kept me from claiming the inside line to the corner.

I swung wide to try to get a good run through the corner, but this was when the leaders (Randy Blaylock and Bud Reichard again) came blasting up the inside of me, spoiling that plan and giving Hugh a little breathing room. They did the same to him at the hairpin, though, so I was able to get right back on his tail, only to get gapped again in Turn 5A when I downshifted to 3rd. I was much closer to him exiting Turn 3B on the following lap, and was able to pull past him on the back straight, only to get repassed in Turn 5B. Again.

This went on for another couple of laps, with me catching him on the front straight, getting right on his bumper in the hairpins, passing him on the back straight, and then getting repassed in 5B. I did notice that his handling seemed to be going away, as he appeared to be fighting the car going through Turns 5B, 6, and 8.

Finally, I was able to stay really close to him going through Turns 5A/5B, 6, and up the hill to Turn 7 (so close I had to back off just a hair or risk tapping him), and dodged for the apex of Turn 8. It wasn't a serious move, but it forced him to drift over to protect the apex. I shifted to 2nd gear instead of 3rd, making the car a real handful on exit as I'm suddenly playing with more torque to wheels in this corner than I'd been using thus far, but it gave me a solid run on him out of Turn 9 and with a significantly greater speed differential than before.

For whatever reason, Hugh was either unable or unwilling to catch up with me in the hairpins, and even my speed-robbing downshift in Turn 5A wasn't enough for him to catch up. At long last, I could move on and chase after Bob without worrying about Hugh hassling me the whole time.

On the next lap, now that I had some breathing room and was able to get back to some of my car-learning goals for the week-end, I tried leaving the car in 4th gear and just braking a little to set up for Turn 5A. It seemed to work well as far as not losing entry speed, but it also blunted my acceleration through Turns 5B, 6, and up the hill to 7. Still, it was promising enough for me to determine to experiment with it some more.

I set my fastest lap of the race on the next lap as I slowly hauled in Bob Hornbeck, and then got a great run on him down the front straight on the final lap of the race. I used the Porsche 928 just leaving the pits as a "pick" on Bob as I squeezed between the Porsche and the cones and into Turn 2 ahead of him. He pressured me as well as he could (he told me later he was having fuel pickup problems), but traffic and my improved facility with the car kept me in front for the remainder of the lap.

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