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Rose City Opener XXII

27/28 April 2013

Not quite the first time out with the new car, having done a Test 'n' Tune the prior September, but the first where I'd really be pushing myself. Of course, it'd also be my first chance at competition in almost two years and, just to add another dimension, my first time racing at Portland without the chicane since an enduro in October 2008.

(Yes, I was there for an enduro in late 2011, but that car's engine broke before I got the chance to race.)

Friday

Loading equipment, tools, fuel, tires, and so on was the easiest it'd ever been, as this was actually the first time where I both A) owned an enclosed trailer and B) parked my trailer next to the house. I could get used to this! Balancing that instance of ease-of-use, I had an incredibly challenging time hooking up to the truck, far more difficult than the other times I'd used the trailer. And then I had a stupid-hard time just getting the car loaded onto the trailer and strapped down. Crazy.

I finally got all that stuff squared away and headed out for Portland, stopping twice to make sure everything in the trailer was doing okay. (I'd never carried this particular set of gear in this trailer before, so answering the "where to put stuff" and "how should I strap this down" questions were experiments.) The tow was its usual hell from Bellevue until past Joint Base Lewis-McChord, ending right at my predicted "flight time" of 4.5 hours for a 3-hour (or less!) drive...

I had arrived right when the gates for racers opened, but apparently everybody and their brother had done Friday's Test 'n' Tune, because the paddock was just PACKED when I pulled in. A little bit of noodling through the paddock eventually led me to the other ST guys, who were way down at the eastern end of the infield pavement, jammed cheek-to-jowl with tow vehicles on the grass hill, trailers edged up to the start of the pavement, and then cars on the asphalt under canopies.

I unloaded the car and got the canopy set up, then went off to register and get my personal gear inspected. Since Conference president Dave Bennitt had been kind enough to come over to my house earlier that spring to get me an annual tech inspection (we live a couple miles apart), I returned to my paddock space to... realize that I couldn't remember what kinds of things I should be doing! :) It had been, after all, a while since I'd done this.

Eventually, Eric and I went for a late dinner at BJ's Brewhouse (oddly, my first time eating there when not part of an enduro crew), and then to the hotel and bed (uh, separately...).

Saturday

Not one of those guys who shows up at the track and immediately begins wrenching on the car, pretty much all I needed to do before the first session was torque the wheel nuts and guess at some tire pressures. My plan was to use the practice sessions to, you know, practice, and then take the most-used of the two sets of Toyo RA-1s that came with the car over to the trackside tire guys to swap out for the new set of Nitto NT-01s I'd bought. I was loosely targeting lap times somewhere in the 1'20" range, which wouldn't put me too far off the back of the ST cars in Group 4 and would keep me in front of the PRO3 guys in Group 1.

Considering the borderline cold late-April morning, the layout of the track (for a road course, PIR is pretty close to an oval in terms of on-throttle time vs. brake zones), the switch to front-wheel drive vs. the rear-wheel drive I'd gotten used to, and the simple fact I'd be driving an unfamiliar car, I wasn't at all sure what to expect in terms of actual lap times, so starting the Group 4 practice in the high 1'27" range shouldn't have been surprising. I did finish the session just inside 1'24", but I wasn't sure whether to be mildly disappointed that I was that far off the pace or concerned that I was so bloody slow. Then again, I did drop 3 seconds over 10 laps, so I was probably being a bit hard on myself.

I adjusted tire pressures (different on each corner!) to be closer to what I wanted them to be by the end of a session and then went out a short time later for the Group 1 practice. At this point, I was already getting more comfortable in some of the corners and, despite running into a lot of traffic, had a best time of 1'23.6". It was only about another 1.5" drop, but I was feeling better about how things seemed to be coming along and the tire pressures were right where I wanted them when I got back to the paddock... although I immediately took them off to deliver to the tire guys.

Knowing that I needed to scrub in the "sticker" Nittos, I decided to use them in Group 4 qualifying: after all, I was going to be slowest car in the group anyway, so it's not like it mattered by how much. Compared to the shaved RA-1s I'd been using to that point, guessing at tire pressures for the full-tread (not that there's much) Nittos was a little challenging, as was braking at the end of the straight on that first lap out... whee! Let's scrub off that slick release compound!

I took things relatively easy for the first couple of laps and then started to go for a time. I could definitely feel the improved grip from the newer rubber, which gave me more confidence in the corners, but I was only able to manage a 1'.24.5" on my second real flying lap. I backed off for a couple laps, thinking I'd let the tires cool down a little, and then decided to go for one more lap. That turned out to be a high 1'27", which is probably down to the state of the tires at that point. (Or me simply overdriving the car and/or new tires.) Remember how I said I'd be the slowest car in the group, so by how much didn't matter? Yeah, well, being essentially 3 seconds slower than the next-slowest car was still difficult to swallow, despite my internal attempt at setting low expectations.

I'd put in enough fuel before Group 4 "qualy" to bring the level up from about 1/3 to 1/2 tank, and it was just below 1/2 after the session, so that seemed like it'd be plenty for Group 1. However, my first real issue of the weekend cropped up when my hydraulic jack would no longer lift the car. Actually, the problem was the piston that raises the jack arm had started to stick. Some experimentation showed it worked fine without a load, so I bled it to see if there was air in the system. That didn't seem to accomplish anything and it was still sticking, although it'd pop back out if you pushed the lifting arm down.

I suddenly realized there was only 15 minutes before qualifying started and I still hadn't swapped the Nittos over to the shaved Toyos, much less changed into my personal gear. I borrowed a jack and scrambled to get the Nittos off, the Toyos on and torqued, and changed into my driving gear, arriving at pre-grid behind nearly every PRO3 car out there. Definitely not part of the plan.

Once the session began, I worked my way through some of the PRO3 cars and found some free space to run in, but by then the car was bogging down a little bit exiting Turn 8, which is the left-hander that leads onto Portland's back "straight" (it isn't). It happened a couple more times in small ways, but I figured (I don't know why) it was down to the way I was shifting. I felt I was getting faster in some other parts of the track (a predictive lap timer would've been really helpful) and was ready to go hard for a good lap time, but the engine stumbled really hard and then lost drive for a second on the lap I was intending to be my best. Looking down at my gauges, I saw that the fuel gauge was solidly pegged on the "E." A-ha, another one of those "getting to know the car" moments...

In the end, I was only able to manage a lap that was .019" faster than my best in the Group 1 practice. Fuel-starvation aside, the engine also seemed to be developing an odd rasp at low idle. I thought this could be the bolts on the new exhaust header, or possibly the flange where I attached the muffler section after the Test 'n' Tune last September (and, once again, I'd like to apologize to everyone in earshot of that event for the MONSTER noise coming from my little car), but everything seemed tight enough. I didn't think this was or would develop into a major issue, but it was definitely something to keep an eye on.

Sunday

In the end, a little more investigation into the engine rasp revealed it was just the back portion of the aluminum splitter vibrating against one of the removable mounts for the front clip.

"Issue" solved, all that was left before round 2 of qualifying was to retorque the wheels and set the tire pressures on the Nittos to what was still essentially a guess based on the Toyo pressures. In fact, with clear, sunny skies warming the track surface and cooler air temperatures helping engines to produce more power, this round of qualifying for Group 4 was likely to be generally faster than Saturday's... for everyone but me, most likely. It's hard for me to remember that ST is no longer my primary class. What I do there really doesn't matter (it's just for seat time) unless someone else signs up for the class that I kinda/sorta have a shot of racing against.

Despite those cooler temperatures, very few people improved their times. I chose to only do 6 laps, realizing after my first lap (which was my fastest) that I wasn't going to get any quicker. Even so, this "fast time" was actually about a tenth slower than Saturday, so clearly there was something I wasn't doing right. Based on the two days' results, I would end up qualifying dead last (as expected) in Group 4, some 3.5 seconds slower than the next-slowest car. Ugh.

Getting ready to jack up the car to swap the Nittos for the RA-1s before Group 1's second qualifying session, I discovered that my fancy-pants, lightweight racing jack would no longer work: for some reason, the piston that the jack handle pushes in would go in and then stick, and it was only by pushing the arm down that the piston would pop back out. I thought it might've gotten some air in the system as the oil fill screw was a little loose, but purging it didn't really help. It wasn't able to generate enough hydraulic pressure to raise the car, which was both annoying and somewhat stressful, but paddock-next-door-neighbor and fellow ST guy Steve Clinton ("Tribe of Steve" to the rescue?) let me share his for the rest of the day, so ultimately it was just something to add to my post-race list.

Interestingly, another SPU car showed up on pre-grid for qualifying. I had no idea how fast he might be, but it was starting to look like maybe I wouldn't be getting a class "win" by default as the only runner. Despite my relatively poor showing in Group 4 qualifying, something changed in the second qualy for Group 1: maybe it's because there are other cars of a similar pace around to chase/stay in front of, maybe I was finally starting to understand the car and remember the "feel" of PIR, or maybe it was both, but I took a solid 1.5" seconds off my previous best time and almost accomplished one of my lesser goals for the week-end, that of out-qualifying all the PRO3 cars. (On paper, at least, the Civic should be quite capable of it.) My morning's time would eventually be eclipsed by some performances from Saturday's qualifying, and so I would actually grid up after the second of the PRO3 starters, but still... not bad.

Group 4 race (ST)

I got a little behind on my pre-race tasks before the Group 4 race, but I wasn't worried about potentially missing the 5-minute warning (which comes 8 minutes beforehand at PIR) because the penalty for that is... they put you at the back of the grid. I mean, how much farther back could I get than DFL?! At any rate, I made it to pre-grid on time and found myself gridded 24th of the 25 starters after someone else did "miss the 5."

As we came around Turn 12 (I count the corners as if the chicane's in play, so the corner at the end of the front straight is always "Turn 4") and under the pedestrian bridge to take the green, I got a pretty good start and immediately gained some places on the slower of the AS and ITE cars. Inevitably, their tires "came in" a couple laps later and I watched them blow past me on the straights. Actually, that's a pretty good description of my whole race: me driving around like I meant it and getting blown off the track by everybody else.

Seriously, everybody that finished the race lapped me at least once, with the faster cars doing it 4 times. Yuck.

I have never, in my entire racing "career," been the slowest car in a class, much less an entire run group. It's not a fun experience, made even more frustrating as I didn't even have anybody I could legitimately chase after, much less race against. As much as I like the ST class (and the guys racing it), I think I might have to get a little more creative with what I use for extra seat time. Maybe the "mini-enduros" that have popped up this season, especially as, running an hour in duration, they're closer to what I'd like our sprint races to be.

Group 1 race (SPU)

So, moving on to the Group 1 race, I was at least starting to feel like I was getting more comfortable with the car and the track, and even sort of looking forward to racing with (well, around) the PRO3 guys. While I wanted someone to play with (the other SPU car I'd seen had qualified about 2.5" behind me), I also didn't want to mess up the race for someone in another class, so I told PRO3 drivers James Colborn (ahead) and Chuck Hurley (behind) that I'd get out of their way once the usual green-flag chaos had settled down so they could get on with their PRO3 battle.

But wait, what's this? As we were rolling out of pre-grid for the pace lap I noticed a blue Mazda RX-7 a couple spots ahead of me with a big, white "SPU" on the side. O-ho! A rabbit to chase!

The start was... not one of my best, losing two spots right out of the gate. One of those spots was to Chuck, though, who later said that was probably his best start ever. I found myself on the outside of a column of PRO3 cars going into Turn 4 at the end of Portland's very long (when not using the chicane) front straight, which led to being surrounded on three sides going into Turn 5. Inevitably, some of those cars got a little loose going through the corner and the loss of momentum made for some interesting moments for those of us behind... there's video from a following PRO3 that shows he came that close to tapping my right-rear corner. Thankfully, I was a couple cars up from another of the trailing PRO3s when he spun going through the left-hand Turn 6. Better still, everyone behind him managed to avoid him. Lucky guy!

The group started spreading out a little as we went down Portland's back straight, with me pulling away from the car behind and the cars ahead of the car leading me gapping him. I knew from qualifying that I was capable of a greater pace than the "Bastos"-themed PRO3 in front of me, but I pulled out of the draft too early on the front straight, an error compounded by missing a downshift going into Turn 4. I caught up to his bumper again on the back straight, but again pulled from the draft too early on the front straight. On this next lap, coming into the brake zone for the right-hand Turn 7, I saw the blue RX-7 in the grass between Turns 7 and 8, heading back toward the racing surface. Through no fault of my own, I was leading the class!

No longer needing to get past the PRO3 car to chase down the RX-7, and realizing that "Beef" Wellington was carrying more pace than me through Turns 11 and 12 onto the front straight, I concluded that I should quit hassling him in the hopes that maybe we could A) draw away from the RX-7 for my sake and B) catch up to the two PRO3 guys in front for his. I backed off just a touch and let the gap grow to around 2–3 car-lengths for the next few laps.

Eventually noticing that the RX-7 had moved right up behind the PRO3 car trailing me and which, in turn, wasn't all that far behind me, I decided I needed to make a move to put some distance on the RX-7. Wellington didn't seem to be making much progress in catching the Hurley/Colborn battle up the road, anyway, so giving him an opportunity to draft me might actually help him out. By this point, too, I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the car, and I was finally getting some good runs in corners I'd been having problems with.

It actually took me three laps to close up enough to consider a move, but I got a good run coming out of Turn 12 and passed him on the front straight. For whatever reason, he was unwilling or unable to stay with me, and I proceeded to slowly pull away while catching up to the two PRO3s duking it out ahead of me. (Door-to-door battles like that tend to slow down the participants.) I was putting in some good laps, but I also managed to miss a downshift a couple times going from Turn 11 to Turn 12, including one time where I got the car so out-of-sorts that I almost joined the "yet another car to slide off into the grass this week-end" club.

Meanwhile, I could see that the RX-7 had finally worked his way past the PRO3. He was still a ways back, and now he'd also have to pass Wellington to come after me, but all I knew about that car was that it was faster than me, at least over the course of a qualifying lap. With no one on my tail, and still pretty far back from the Hurley/Colborn furball, it was time to put my head down and get in some fast laps.

Concern time: While focusing on doing some decent, smooth, quick laps (still mis-shifting in Turn 12 another time or two), I was of course still scanning my gauges. All the readings were right where they needed to be... except for that pesky fuel gauge. We were only about halfway through the race and it was already well down below the halfway mark. Well, it's not like there's anything I could do about it, so I just kept an eye on its progress and got on with things.

Aaaaand... that was about it for the rest of the race. I got progressively closer to the two-car battle ahead of me, but never quite caught it. The RX-7 did make some progress toward me, but never enough for me to worry about it. I lapped a few slower cars and some of the front-running cars lapped me. And the fuel lasted for the remainder of the race.

Oh yeah: I also won my class in my first-ever outing with the new car. Nice!

("Less nice" was driving the car back into the trailer without taking the front clip off first. While the angle of ramp to splitter probably would've been fine on the dead-flat paddock asphalt, I was actually driving slightly up onto the trailer. The result? One curled-under and then torn-off aluminum front splitter. Oops.)

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