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Car Tender Challenge

4/5 August 2007

Although the car's issues were dealt with shortly after the May race in Portland, work obligations kept me from June's race in Portland as well as the double week-end (plus special BMW-only race) in Spokane. Having decided that enough was enough, I quit my job to have more time for racing. (I'm kidding. Mostly.) My plans for the week-end were simple: 1)Get back into the swing of racing; 2)make sure everything was cool (ha!) with the car in an on-track test; 3)try to have some damn fun with the car.

What I didn't know and couldn't have predicted is that the week-end would turn out to be one of thrills and (way too many) spills, insults and injuries, and even life and death. Craziest race week-end I've ever attended... among other things, I've never spent so much time in the car without actually turning race laps. Madness.


Pictures and video from this event

Friday

Despite the fact it was early August, and even the Pacific Northwest is in the middle of summer at this point, the day started out cold and wet: the "drizzle" forecasted for the day would be considered rain in a lot of places, and certainly dumped enough water. Since I wasn't encumbered with a job, I decided I would get to the track as early as the opening of registration at 4:00 so that I could be done and home at a reasonable time. A sick child put paid to that particular idea, and I figured I'd be scrambling just to get there before registration closed at 7:30. Luckily enough, though, I was able to start loading up at 4pm and managed to get on the road by 5, arriving at the track much more quickly and easily than I would've expected. Although I knew intellectually that the "park" section of PR's paddock (trees, grass, and gravel roads) had been razed and paved over, arriving at the track to see it in person completely blew me away, not only in terms of the visual perspective shift it forced on me, but in the acres (literally) of paddock space that had opened up. A lot less "friendly" than before, but definitely more suitable for the task at hand. Continuing the evening's trend of things going more quickly than I feared, I parked, setup my paddock area, and then zipped through registration and tech in no time at all, getting me back on the road for home by 7:40. Nice!

Saturday

Need I even mention that I got very little sleep? Thought not. Given that, I was even more aggravated than I would've been when the start of the day was pushed back, and back, and back, because one or both of the ambulances had failed to arrive. As the delay kept mounting, the officials tried to keep us all informed of the changes to the schedule when and as they thought they had figured them out. But all that happened was that our understanding of the revised schedule got more and more confused, to the point that several of us decided we'd just stop listening to the announcements and wait until we heard Group 2's engines as they left pre-grid. Aside from the delay itself, the larger issue was that our day was looking shorter by the minute, as we typically get bum-rushed out of Pacific Raceways on Saturdays to make way for the evening drag races. Luckily for us, track owner Jason Fiorito was actually there running his SPO/GT1 Ford Taurus, so he made the decision that our day would just have to push back into the drags' schedule by however long it took for the ambulances to arrive, since procuring them is the responsibility of the track.

By the time we were finally ready to start our day, 1.5 hours had already passed (yes, believe me, I thought about how much more sleep I could've gotten!), which I suppose might have had some influence on a Spec Miata going "shiny side down" on the first flying lap of Group 2's practice session, causing a black flag all and delaying the day even more. By the time Group 4's practice rolled around, I was just hoping to get in some laps without a lot of hassle. For some reason, I thought that letting all the American Sedan-classed cars get in front of me was a good idea, but all that really did was force me to spend the session repassing most of them (the idea might've made more sense at Portland without the chicane, or Spokane, but definitely not at PR), leaving me with a 1'39.673" best for the 10-minute practice. Group 1's first practice saw me stuck behind cars that I'm faster than, but nearly every time I'd try to motor past them in a low-risk area, I'd find myself balked with one of the many Pro3 cars that were spread out through the field. My best was only a 1'41.354".

Clearly, putting the AS cars in front of me wasn't the way to go in Group 4, so for qualifying I just trundled down to pre-grid when I was ready, starting the session in the middle of what appeared to be most of the AS class. I drove pretty hard (I thought) and finished up with a 1'38.673", exactly 1" faster than in practice, and 12th overall. All my laps that session turned out to be within a half-second of each other (up or down), so whether or not I was fast, I was at least consistent. Unfortunately, and mostly due to their practice of heading to pre-grid pretty early, qualifying for Group 1 found me stuck behind most of the Pro3 guys. This meant that any chance I was going to get at a fast lap was going to require that I drive more aggressively than I would prefer, leading to a few "dive-bomb" moves going into corners. One in particular springs to mind, when I went 3-wide with a couple of Pro3 cars going into Turn 8 and then had to bail out sharply when the inner car cut across my nose, clearly not expecting there to be a faster car coming up the outside. I ended the session 7th overall with a time of 1'37.786".

Sunday

The second qualifying session for Group 4 saw me improve on Saturday's time (1'38.240") but actually drop in overall positions, down to 16th. Group 1's second qualifying session was... well, frustrating at least, and pretty damned aggravating in one instance.

The frustration came from tripping over Pro3 cars every time I thought I was going to get a clear lap. Not only are most of them as fast (or faster, in a couple cases) as I am in the corners, but the 4.10 final drive ratio most of them run results in a good launch off the corners. By the time my greater horsepower kicks in, we're either most of the way down the front straight or getting ready to brake for Turn 5A at the end of the back straight and, even when I was getting a good run down the straight, I was frequently coming up on one Pro3 car taking up my lane as he pulled out to pass another Pro3 car (or a slower SPM or SPU car).

The aggravation came from the same place it's come in several other Group 1 sessions, namely Hugh Golden running in a rented Pro3 car. Hugh has a lot of talent (but not, one strongly suspects, as much as he thinks he has) and is more than willing to trade paint in a car that's not his own. He also has some professional or semi-pro racing experience, where you'll find a lot of drivers willing to bang door handles in the quest for time or position. Conference is an amateur racing series, though, and rubbing bodywork with my car means I spend a small fortune ordering custom fiberglass body panels or, if I'm lucky, spending a lot of time and money patching and then repainting the broken pieces. Also, helloooo, we're in a qualifying session, not racing for championship points, so protecting the inside line to a corner, cutting me off in apexes, and generally trying to keep me behind you is just really unnecessary. The final "chop" at the apex of Turn 8 finally got me so steamed that I did something I've never done in 4 years of racing, and that's gesture angrily out the window. (No, there were no "birds" involved.) I don't know what Hugh's deal is, but I wish he'd cut that crap out, and I know that I'm by no means the rare person at an ICSCC event to think that.

I kept finding Pro3 cars everywhere after Hugh eventually pointed me by and, realizing that I wasn't going to get anywhere in the session, pulled off early with a time of only 1'38.060", which meant I'd have to use my Saturday time to start 11th overall.

Group 4 race (ITE)

I got a reasonably good start to the race, but following a bunch of V8s and other high-horsepower cars meant that I got gapped pretty quickly, only to be surprised (which is an understatement) when Wayne Monahan's black Mitsubishi Evolution VIII came blowing by me under braking for Turn 2. I know part of it was that he was able to keep his turbo spooled right up for the start, but getting from 21st to 16th that quickly was some kind of accomplishment, to be sure! Anyway, I was able to stay tight to him as we ran through the twisty bits of Pacific Raceways (although he and everyone else gapped me again exiting Turn 3B leading onto the back straight), dodging to the inside as he setup for Turn 8. He crossed from my right back to the left on exit in order to get a run on me in Turn 9, but unfortunately for me we came across Jason Fiorito's tube-framed GT1 car crawling along at the apex of the corner, forcing me to jam on the brakes and then dodge left to avoid hitting him. Wayne rocketed back past me and away as we ran down the front straight, but I was able to catch back up to him under braking for the first hairpin. I chased him around the twisty parts again but wasn't as close to him to repeat my earlier move under braking for Turn 8, which actually let me keep up better speed through there and Turn 9 and preventing him from gapping me again down the front straight. In fact, I was only about a car-length behind him the whole way and went inside under braking for the big sweeper (Turn 2) at the end of the straight. We stayed side-by-side for the first half of the corner, but then I think he backed out a bit to get a better exit and challenge again on the downhill run to 3A. I kept one eye on my mirrors the whole way to the hairpin, waiting for his inevitable move on me, but it never came and I set off after Rob Rissberger's AS Camaro that had qualified a few spots in front of me, and was now only about 2 seconds ahead on track.

Despite over-slowing into Turn 2 as much as I was, I quickly closed up on him under braking and stayed with him as we went through the two hairpins. He pulled his lead back up to 3 seconds by the time we hit the front straight, though, and coming around to exit from Turn 2 I saw an impressively tall cloud of bluish smoke in Turn 3A along with a standing yellow: Apparently, Doug Moul had suffered some kind of catastrophic engine problem in his GT1 Corvette. Yellow aside, I continued in my pursuit of Rob through the back side of the course when I saw the double-yellows of a full-course caution at the Turn 6 flag station. I backed way out of it going up the hill and through Turn 8, but I hadn't seen any indication of the cause by the time I got to Turn 9, so I sped up a fair bit as I went down the front straight to catch up to the pace car.

I could see an enormous cloud of dust and what looked like a column of smoke coming from the far side of the course near the hairpins and, since I knew Doug had pulled his car well down the escape road toward Turn 4 (which is effectively the middle of the back not-so-straight), I knew it didn't have anything to do with him. It was also clear that there was a fire of some sort going on, rather than this being smoke from locked-up tires or a blown engine. With no cars in sight and a desire to not hold up a restart, I was back up to probably an 8/10s pace as I went through Turn 1 and nearly past my sight-line to the Turn 2 flag station when I saw them deploy a red flag. Never having seen one from the driver's seat since I started racing, I quickly had to remind myself of what I was supposed to do. I pulled over to the far side of the track and stopped where I could see the flag station, soon to be joined by Wayne, Eric, and a couple other cars. Once the corner workers were sure that nobody else was coming down the track, one came over to give us each a quick report on the situation as he knew it, which was that there was a car that had rolled just before Turn 3A and was blocking the track.

So there I am, parked in full race gear in my hot racecar in the August heat. Thankfully, there was some cloud cover and a tiny little breeze that would sneak through the window from time-to-time, but basically I sat stewing in my own juices for a long, long time, watching ambulances, track support vehicles, tow trucks, fire trucks, and even a street sweeper heading past me and down the hill to the hairpin and the incident. Clearly, this was no simple rollover. Eventually, and I do mean "eventually," a second fire truck came by and parked in the middle of Turn 2 in order to mark an area for a Life Flight helicopter to land. Okay, now I knew something significantly bad had happened, but all I could do was wonder what and to whom. Not fun.

There was some concern by the firefighters (and echoed by the drivers of the 5 cars parked by Turn 2, no doubt!) that our cars would get pummeled by debris kicked up by the helicopter's rotor blast, so the stewards drove down and led us the wrong way up the drag strip and back to the hot pits. After sitting there for a while, we were advised to go ahead and get out of our cars as it was going to be a while before things got sorted out. After another longish chunk of time, the rest of the field was brought around on the straight and parked in two columns at Start/Finish: one for the cars in front of "my" group and another for those behind. Thankfully, a couple of the ladies from pre-grid brought around bottles of water for us, which was a huge help and definitely made me, at least, a good deal more comfortable in the heat. We got some sketchy details about a car going airborne before landing and catching fire, but nothing really definitive, including the name of the driver(s) involved.

Then, just to make things really interesting, Jerry-the-starter came down from the tower to talk with one of the stewards, and then promptly collapsed in a boneless heap: He was having a heart-attack. In one of those little fortuitous quirks of fate, the fact that there had been a major incident at the track probably helped to save Jerry's life, as there were a whole lot more EMTs and other emergency personnel at the track than there would be normally, and they were able to restart his heart—twice—before transporting him to a local hospital.

At this point, several of the drivers, myself included, had decided that A)this race was pretty much a bust and B)we didn't see any point in restarting it. Our 25-minute race was barely half-completed, but we'd already been in our suits/cars for nearly 1.5 hours when you include time on pre-grid. We'd had a driver hurt seriously enough to require helicopter evacuation to one trauma center and a course worker actually die twice before being evacuated to a local hospital with an excellent cardiac care facility. Lots of us were thinking about how much energy and interest we'd have for our second run groups later in the day. We were hot and our cars were cold. We were polled a few times about our interest in continuing, but then we started to hear that no, we wouldn't continue. Then we heard that we would. Then that we wouldn't. Then that we would, but only for a few laps. Then we heard that, no, we'd continue for as many laps as it took to fulfill our 25-minute allotment. Nobody knew anything, although we did finally hear what had happened: Two cars were racing downhill to the hairpin. There was right-front to left-rear contact, sending Steve Pfeifer's second-generation RX-7 from the right side of the track across the nose of the car on his left and up the hillside, where it went airborne by some 15-20 feet, slowly rotating longitudinally. It then hit nose-first and proceeded to tumble, end-over-end, before finally coming to a rest with fuel leaking from a broken hose. Before anyone could react, the fuel dripped onto the hot exhaust and the car caught fire, with the driver unconscious inside. Luckily, not only did this happen right in front of a flag station with fire bottles, but at least a couple of fellow drivers who were right behind the two involved cars leapt out with handheld fire extinguishers: It'll embarrass the hell out of him if he ever reads this, but Dave Haire gets special mention as someone who not only exited his car with a fire extinguisher that he put to good use, but he actually climbed into the burning car to help get Steve out. And all this in his first race after upgrading from Novice. Plus, Dave's just a really nice guy.

Sometime after getting the details of the incident, we finally got official word about how things were to proceed. We would be restarting for 6–8 minutes of racing, but anyone who was unable to or uninterested in continuing was free to pull off in Turn 8 during the pace lap. I had long-concluded that I was going to be one of those people, as this whole thing had stopped being fun long before. We geared back up and got ourselves belted back in, waiting for another stretch of time before we were all released on another pace lap. A funny thing happened as I went through Turn 6 and up the hill toward Turn 8: I decided that the "right thing" was to continue the race. In a way, I felt that if I was going to race at all, and knowing full well that what had happened could happen to me, I should, you know, race.

Four cars that were in front of me, including two in my class, exited the track as we came to the access road, leaving me a very atypical second in class behind Randy Blaylock's monster Dodge Viper. Unlike the beginning of the race, I got a decent run at the flag and was able to keep out in front of Wayne, who now had his mirrors full of Eric's Porsche 968. I continued to increase the gap back to Wayne while catching up to Rob's Camaro. I stayed on his tail for the penultimate lap and was right on his bumper as we went through Turn 9. I was close enough to stay in his draft going down the front straight to start the final lap and knew that I was able to brake much later for Turn 2 than him. I pulled to the right going through Turn 1 and he drifted over to take the outside and cover my approach. I shot back to the left and out-braked him rather easily to the inside and stayed in front down to the hairpin. I pulled a little bit of a gap going through the twisty parts of the course where my lighter car handles better and stayed in front as we took the checkers at the end of the lap.

Longest 25-minute race ever. Hope I never experience another one anything like it.

Group 1 race (SPM)

With some cars unavailable because of incidents in the Group 4 race and others out for mechanical (and/or perhaps personal) reasons, there were a lot of gaps in pre-grid and I found myself due to start the race in 7th overall instead of 11th, right behind track owner Jason Fiorito's tube-framed Ford Taurus. I was supposed to be starting next to Pat Boyle who shares Steve Pfeifer's RX-7, but clearly that wasn't going to happen.

Anyway, being on the fourth row of the grid was a pretty cool experience I'd like to experience again as soon as possible; you really have a different perspective (literally and figuratively) starting that close to the pace car. Other than Randy Blaylock's V10 and Jeff Remfert driving Mark McClure's extremely fast Caterham, I was buried in a sea of high-horsepower V8s. Jeff's qualifying time was only 0.3" of a second ahead of mine and I thought I had a reasonable shot at him, but otherwise I figured there was only a small chance I'd finish in the top 5.

While I expected to get dropped like a bad habit once the green flew, I didn't expect it to happen while we were still on the pace lap, but the pole sitter punched it when the pace car pulled off and took everybody in front of me with him. Yes, I should keep up, but he's supposed to maintain the same speed as set by the pace car. I got on the gas, too, only to realize that the green wasn't out. I don't know what was going on behind me, but I know the first four rows basically took off like scared rabbits once the green was waved. In all the confusion, I somehow managed to shift from 2nd to 1st, very briefly, before getting it into 3rd where I wanted. A combination of engine braking from the downshift and RPMs that were by then too low for 3rd gear meant that the cars in front of me had left me behind that much more quickly, and many of the cars behind me were suddenly all over my bumpers and around my doors. <sigh> Another good starting opportunity wasted.

I was able to keep the cars behind me, behind me, except for an SPU-classed, tube-framed "Dodge Intrepid" that I was able to get inside of through Turn 2, and then back ahead of on the run down to Turn 3A. Just for fun, I mis-shifted from 2nd to 5th exiting the second hairpin, something I hadn't done all week-end, but it didn't cost me any positions. Given this first half-lap, I was a bit apprehensively starting to wonder how the rest of the race was going to turn out.

After my various problems to this point, the Caterham had pulled quite a gap on me, but I somehow found myself with no immediate threats to my rear, so I put my head down and set out to catch back up to Jeff. Well, I thought that's what I was doing, but it didn't take long for the capabilities of Jeff and the Caterham to pull away on the twisty parts of the course, leaving me something like 6 seconds behind after another lap-and-a-half. After three more laps of losing ground to Jeff, I came around Turn 9 to see an enormous cloud of white smoke down the front straight between the kink (called "Turn 10" by some people) and Turn 2. The "surface conditions" flag was being waved pretty aggressively in the kink and it was pretty obviously because of someone's blown engine. I stayed to the far right of the straight and on that side of a thick line of oil in the middle of the racing line that went off track left in Turn 1 and to where Jason's SPO Taurus had pulled off near the Turn 2 flag station. I got back up to speed once I was past the incident only to see a full-course caution come out as I went up the hill from Turn 6. My immediate thought was that it was because the safety crew wanted to move Jason's car, sitting as it was in the impact zone for anyone overcooking Turn 1.

This was all well and good, but I realized, as I caught up to the pace car on the back straight, that the leaders had already starting lapping the tail end of the Pro3 grid, meaning that several closely-matched but slower cars would be in front of me on the restart. Worse still, the fast end of the Pro3 grid had now caught up to me, which meant they'd be driving hell-for-leather on the restart when all I wanted to do was continue my lonely little lapping session. Also, I'd likely soon be dealing with my old "nemesis" from qualifying, as Hugh typically runs at the front in Pro3.

We spent a couple of slow laps behind the pace car before getting the restart. All the lapped cars in front of me meant I was a long ways back when the flag flew, but I got a pretty decent jump and was all over the back of Jeff's car on the left side of the front straight while he, in turn, was all over Mac Russell's super-fast, tube-framed, SPM-classed Nissan 240SX. Heck, not only was I running second in SPM (don't expect to be able to say that very often), I was only about 3 car-lengths back from the leader. Unfortunately, this meant that the three of us ended up running the length of the looooong line of oil-dry that I'd seen just dumped out the back of a truck barely in front of the pack as we were on our last pace lap, so the front of my car instantly looked like I'd driven through a flour mill. I even got some on my helmet visor, so I can't imagine what it was like for Jeff in the open-topped Caterham!

We all got bunched up going into Turn 2, as the slower (but still quite fast in a corner) Pro3 cars found themselves mixing it up with the fastest nine cars in the group, all at once. As the lapped Pro3 cars and a single Miata were about as fast as everyone else in the corners, we ran through "Big Indy" and down to Turn 3A in a big, messy pack. The class-leading Pro3 cars of Ted Anthony and Andrew Newell had worked their way through traffic and up to my back bumper under braking for the hairpin, so I stayed wide left on exit and let them through as we turned for 3B. They and I ran two-wide down the back straight with the Miata and a couple of the lapped Pro3 cars, but I was only able to get by one of them before we bunched up for the 5A/5B/6 complex. Heading up the hill through Turn 7, the red Pro3 car of (I believe) Bruce Feller didn't seem inclined to let me by, so I went way inside to brake for Turn 8, planning to use my greater torque to accelerate away from him before we got to Turn 9. All that torque, however, got a little hard to handle and I got some decent power oversteer exiting the corner, which meant that we were still somewhat side-by-side at the apex of Turn 9. I was able to pass him on the left and then swung wide exiting the corner to pass the Miata, only to go hauling down the front straight in time to get stuck behind a two-wide Pro3 battle going into Turn 2.

I got by Frank Greif (I think) through the first hairpin and then got right on Caelin Gabriel's bumper going through the second hairpin with the intention of outrunning him down the back straight. Again, 3rd gear was feeling shy and I shifted into 5th instead, so we went side-by-side down the back straight instead. There wasn't any point in forcing a pass going into Turn 5A, so I hung back a little, leading to a lot when I saw Hugh Golden coming to make his signature inside-Turn-5B pass. I held back again, not wanting to get caught up in something potentially ugly when Hugh made another one of his signature moves by going way, WAY to the inside of Caelin under braking for Turn 8, right through the dirt and gravel inside the apex, so I stayed wide right with the intention of getting a good run on them when we exited Turn 9. Silly me wasn't watching my mirrors, though, and my old pal Rich Coté and his Volvo 240 Turbo took advantage of the opening and snuck by on the inside... not only had I lost touch with first place in SPM, but now I'd lost my 2nd place to Rich!

I knew I could get back past Rich on the front straight (his car is fast, but not as fast as mine, and it's shaped like a box) so I stayed tight on his bumper to draft him and repass, most likely right after the kink. For some reason, though, Caelin decided to not only stay at full throttle as I tried to pass him on his left (got no problem with that), he also kept squeezing to his left more and more as we approaching the kink, leaving me the choice of driving through the dirt and hitting a line of cones or backing out and letting him back in front (do have a problem with this). Then, just to add insult to injury, another full-course caution came out before I had a chance to pass either one of them. Coming around through 5A I saw the reason why: Two Pro3 cars in the tire wall on the outside of Turn 6, one nose-in and the other on its side. As were were the last run group of what had been a long, tiring day for everyone involved, and with all the other crap that'd gone on, somebody made the understandable but slightly frustrating decision–given how recently I'd lost a class position I knew I could get back–to end the race under caution on that lap.

And so that was that. But you know, after the frustrations in Portland back in May, I was ultimately okay with how things went for the car, especially as I was confident that the Portland race following in two weeks was my chance to finally have a good week-end there with the M3.

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