Mirror, Mirror, On The Wall, What if we didn’t fit you at all?

images

Bathrooms need mirrors. Telescopes need mirrors. And where would gyms be without mirrors? Street cars need mirrors, too. But what about race cars? Do they need mirrors? Perhaps not.

Not long after the first car took to the dirt roads dominated by the horse and buggy in the early 1900’s, at a time when the dawn of congestion was at hand, street cars were fitted with mirrors. Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500 in 1911 driving a Marmon Wasp that was fitted with a rear view mirror. So mirrors are not new to street cars or racing cars, they’ve been around since the beginning. But do we really need them on a race car?

Crazy thought? Let’s think about it a minute or two. What are mirrors used for when racing? Right now, admittedly, several things. When faster traffic approaches from behind, as is often the case during mixed practice, you’re supposed to see them coming, let them by, not fight them for the corner. If it’s a knock-down, drag-out race, and someone dives inside you as the two of you approach a corner, you’re supposed to see that coming, give way to the overtaking vehicle if it has made it abeam you and “earned” the corner and fight back on the next corner. And of course, let’s not forget how they can be used to block! The guy behind is a tad faster, trying to pass? I see him coming, I’ll just drift over to the left a bit and block his path. Ah, that’ll teach him, I’m still ahead! In Europe, they call it “defending.”

You might also see smoke emanating from your car in your mirrors, telling you something is amiss. And in open wheel racing, some might add that they can see their rear tires in their mirrors and can tell if said tires are wearing in a desired and/or expected manner. And photographers love taking pictures of a pensive driver’s eye’s in their mirrors.

All well and good, so far. Sounds like a critical safety item and something that must be present. However, consider a world where no mirrors were fitted. How would a pass be made? With more certainty, I suggest. The vehicle being passed has no way to know I’m here, so I better get by cleanly and without doubt. Blocking? You wouldn’t know where someone is coming from so wouldn’t know which way to purposely drift across the track. Better racing!

I raced motorcycles for about 5 years in total. No mirrors. If fact, they’re not allowed, period. If you do a track-day on a motorcycle, organizers will require your mirrors be removed or at least taped over. Why? For the amateur track day rider, the view to the rear is a potentially lethal distraction.  They can be a distraction on four wheels as well. I once passed another car exiting the famous carousel at Sonoma Raceway, stared with delight at my defeated foe in my mirror and promptly went right passed my braking point for turn 7 and shot straight off the course, looking quite the fool. Luckily, there was room to spare and nothing to hit. No doubt he laughed as he re-passed my wayward car.

Tipping a motorcycle into a corner at speed, knowing it is likely that someone is close behind, is a tip of faith, to a degree. But you know he knows that you don’t know he’s there. So he’ll only be there if he can rightfully claim the corner. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. Sure, misjudgments happen all the time, and bikes come together and mayhem ensues. But it’s not like mayhem doesn’t ensue anyway from time to time with all manner of mirrors fitted on race cars.  Mirrors create assumptions.  “Didn’t you see me coming?” –a common query during post crash discussion.

Far less blocking goes on in motorcycle road racing, too. Partly, it’s because the bikes take up less space on track, making it harder to become an un-circumnavigatable obstacle.  Sure, there’s that.  But to a large degree, it’s because you can’t see from where your foe cometh, so you know not where to block, ahem, “defend.”

IMG_0009
The Zinc Z10, sporting mirrors left and right.

So something to think about. I doubt old school minds would ever consider such a quantum change in thinking, but I think it an interesting topic of conversation. Perhaps, during driver’s meetings, at the very least, it would be a good idea to suggest that all driver’s approach one another with no preconceived assumptions.  Don’t assume you are an image in his/her mirror!  I’ll keep using mine, and stay out of trouble, and maybe a photog will find me looking pensive on the grid, eyes filling my car’s mirrors!  But take them away and I, for one, would not be phased.

___________________________________________________________________

Last weekend; the VARAC (Vintage Automobile Association of Canada) Grand Prix.  Over 350 vintage cars and 28 Formula Fords.  We managed 5th in qualifying and finished all five races in the top ten, 4th, even, in one race!  A fabulous and very, very fast track.  Fabulous people and parties, too, as I suppose one should expect in Canada.

Next up, in July, an HMSA (Historic Motorsports Association) event at Mont Tremblant, an iconic track north of Montreal.  Should be more of the same; great track, great event, great people.  It’s likely a smaller event than last weekend, but a chance to race on another famous Formula One track.  Hard to pass up.  And I’ll use my mirrors, I promise.

Rain, Rain, and more Rain

Its 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon and I’m in my hotel room watching tv–Stage 5 of the Tour of California bicycle race.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Well, a lot.  I should be in the middle of the second practice session for the Jefferson 500 at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia–round two of the Royale Cup Formula Ford series.  I should be consumed by threshold braking, hitting apexes, shifting smoothly, and generally working my tail off trying to go fast in my Zinc Z10 Formula Ford.  Instead, I’m following who’s in the breakaway, how far back the peloton is, and who’s been accused of doping, lately.  Bicycling, hmm.  Love to ride them, not sure how I feel about watching them race, especially today.

IMG_E1528
The Lola T204 in the rain at Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, CA a couple of years back.  Visibility not awful unless you’re following someone.  Photo by Mike Dirkes

Heavy, heavy rain, has forced the organizers to cancel the weekend’s event.  Flooded apexes, rivers crossing the track, and newly formed lakes in run-off areas–lakes big enough to swim in–made it the right, if disappointing, decision.  Sure, you can always just driver slower, but there comes a point when driving is pointless, and more dangerous than is tolerable and/or acceptable.  Go off and into one of the lakes that had formed, and one could drown, and what race driver wants to meet his or her end by drowning in their race car?

It rained during most of the 12 hour drive out here.  It rained all afternoon as I set-up my paddock space.  And it rained all night before the official start of the weekend.  Many of my fellow competitors didn’t even leave their dry homes given the forecast, and are therefore no doubt now watching the bicycle race, or whatever else has their fancy, from their own dry couches, not the Winchester, VA Travelodge.  Such is the price of optimism.  I expected rain, but not to biblical proportion.  And not for the whole four-day weekend.  So it goes, so it goes.

Some people say they like racing in the rain.  Some say that those who say that are either liars or fools.  Neither fool nor liar, I will openly admit I don’t care for racing in the rain.  Its scary.  I’ve felt the glory of a win on a motorcycle racing in the rain, but still can’t remember what one-off deal I must have made with the devil to get that result that day, since I’ve been a coward in the wet ever since, and have had no other good results on slippery surfaces.

IMG_0143-2
The Zinc Z10 under cover, trying to stay dry.

Putting aside the misery of perpetual, complete, and unrelenting wetness felt while out of the car, working on the car (cheap canopies are not terribly water proof) and bumming around the paddock, the driving and racing experience is hugely compromised, too.  Watching professionals race in the rain?  Great fun.  Rain is an equalizer.  The most horsepowered teams enjoy no great advantage; their extra power made moot by limited traction–the little guys now have a chance.  And mistakes in the rain are greatly magnified, showing us all that professionals make their share of mistakes, too, while simultaneously reminding us just how difficult racing is.  And to the morbid amusement of some fans, the rain can make for more and spectacular crashes.  But to those of us not being paid, but rather payING to do what we do, it is daunting.  To me anyway, and to those who would tell the truth.

When one does race in the rain, here are some things thought about.

Change shields.  A dark shield, something I just about can’t live without on a sunny day, is not good on a dark and rainy day.  Change to a clear shield.  And while you’re at it, put a little anti-fog on the inside of the shield, and some RainX on the outside.  No tear offs, either–water gets between the layers and visibility, already limited, is limited more.

Stay as dry as you can before getting in the car.  Be sure your shoes are dry as the slippery is not limited to just the track.  Shoes slipping off the important pedals; well, no good can come from that.   I’ve seen some drivers actually hoisted into their cars by crew members in order to avoid dry shoes touching wet ground.

Once in the car, and out from under the canopy that may have heretofore afforded you a modicum of dryness, prepare to get wet in an open wheel car.  Not much you can do to prevent that.  Accept it, embrace it.

Don’t expect the brakes to work too well on first, second, or even third application. Takes a bit of time to get rid of the water that has fallen on them.  With use, and a bit of heat build up, they’ll start clamping down on the rotors soon enough.

Don’t drive the conventional line.  That’s where tire rubber has been laid down when grip was there on past, now longed for, sunny days.  Normally grippy, it is no more so.  Stay far outside of where you would normally position the car.  Better grip will be found. Better, not good, but better.  Brake with delicacy, turn with delicacy, apply throttle with delicacy.  Finger tips on the steering wheel (well, almost) and toes on the brakes (well, almost).  Gentle with everything.  Milk the grip that can be found by the milliliter.  Sneak up on the limits.

Be patient–you’ll likely gain at least a few spots over those who are not.  Don’t ruin your day by trying to be hero.  You’ll likely look the fool.

Car set-up?  Wouldn’t pretend to pontificate on that, given my still neophyte status as a formula-car hobbyist.  Generally softer in all regards.  Softer springs, softer sway bar settings, less compression and rebound dampening, and so on.   Lots of opinions on what’s best.  In vintage Formula Ford racing, most will soften or even disconnect the sway bars and leave it at that.

The tires?  Ah, would that we could use deeply treaded soft-rubbered rain tires, expertly engineered to shove massive amounts of water out from under themselves and provide amazing grip on a rain-soaked surface.  But no, we must use the same slightly grooved spec tire we must use on a dry track–cheaper and simpler, and the rule applies to everyone, but offering no water dispersal whatsoever, and of a hard compound that may last a long time on a dry track, but really has no business being used in the rain. The challenge is great.

But this weekend, no cars on any type of tire will make it on track.  The organizers will lose money, many will curse the god’s of racing and racing weather, and still others will silently admit to themselves that they are relieved that they are no longer compelled to add additional risk to an already risky sport.  I am one who will admit to dipping a toe into that puddle of thought.

No, I don’t care for racing in the rain.  I’ll take credit for showing up.  And I’ll also happily take my car to the next race nicely in one piece and ready to go–about a month away, Mosport, just outside of Toronto, Canada.  I’ve heard it’s fastest road course in North America.  It’s on my simulator at home, practice will begin when I get home in a couple of days.  Do I need to set the track conditions to “WET?”  Lets hope not.

—————————————————————————————–

Regrettably, no video from my car in the rain at Laguna Seca (photo above).  Below, however, two short videos from my Ninja 250 racing at Gateway Motorsports Park. Same bike in each video, just a new tach fitted by the time the dry video was shot. Note how the puddles are the apexes! A dramatic juxtaposition.

#%@!%*&^$!!!!!

This time it was real, not a simulation.  The car was sliding, backwards, across damp grass, and I knew it, we, were going to hit the wall.  A wall of impact-absorbing tires, but a wall, nonetheless.  We’ve all heard how when you think you are about to die, your whole life flashes before you.  I’ve never felt that kind of danger.  Perhaps out of naïveté, or just plain slowness of thought, but I’ve never really thought I was in a pickle that might just kill me.  And this was no exception.  I never thought I was going to die.  Or even get hurt.   In this moment of backwards motion, however, I had no slowness of thought.  Quite the contrary.

My first thought was how badly I had screwed up.  Cresting turn two at Sonoma Raceway, the back end of my recently acquired 1975 Zinc Formula Ford slid left, slightly.  I corrected, too much.  It slid right, and I corrected again.  And I thought, briefly, that things were back to right.  I thought wrong, and the forces at play seemingly instantly caused the car to slid drastically to the left again.  A classic “tank slapper,” that I spawned and then allowed to gestate to the point where I was quickly merely a passenger heading backwards into a tire wall.

It was then, after all instinctive thoughts and actions had failed, and as the wall grew ever so large ever so quickly in my mirrors, that that rush of thoughts flowed through my brain as if I were, indeed, about to die.  Not thoughts of my whole life, since I didn’t think I was about to die, but rather of what had just happened and what was about to happen.

I thought of how hard it was going to be to return to the pits, and a number of well wishing friends, with a wrecked car.  I thought of how awful it was going to be to face the car’s previous owner, who had just finished restoring it with great and tender loving care and was kind enough to come to the track to assist me with its first test–I wished he hadn’t been so kind.  I thought next of the angle at which I’d hit the wall.  Would it be acute enough to be gear box first (very expensive to replace)  or sufficiently angled such that only the right rear wheel, and those parts which connect it to the car, would be damaged?  I also thought about the fact that I had foregone the wearing of my Head and Neck Restraint Device (mandated for actual racing), since my new helmet was not yet properly fitted with the needed attachment points.  Then I remembered that it only protects your neck from front end collisions, not rear-end impacts.  That thought left as quickly as it arrived.

Next thought; Maybe divine intervention would save me from all of the above.  I’ve only been to church for weddings and funerals, but if becoming a believer would allow the momentary suspension of the laws of physics, just this one time, and allow me a pass on what was otherwise inevitable, and cause my car to miraculously change directions and miss the wall, I’ll believe starting now, thank you very much.

But, whack!  No divine intervention.  The tire wall gave a bit, then pushed back.  15 or 20 yards from the point of impact, and still on the damp grass all was silent.   Just for a few seconds, though, the silence being followed quickly by every curse word I could muster and scream out loud in the privacy of my full face helmet.

8B505DE2-132C-4850-8DC3-7FD91C19F9F3
Just about everything that joins wheel to car was bent or broken.

After the circuit was black flagged and a rescue truck showed up, I climbed out of the car and surveyed the damage.  Most of the right rear suspension bits were either broken or bent.  The oil tank was dented by all the bending suspension pieces, and several parts of the frame appeared to be bent.  It was not good, though the gearbox seemed to have been spared.

There was little I wouldn’t have given to take back the 5 seconds during which this event had transpired.  Very little, indeed.   And as the car was hoisted by it’s roll bar behind the crash truck, I struggled to fight back the tears, luckily only welling up a bit, unnoticed, I hope, by those who’d come to help.  Professionals no doubt only think about how such mistakes will affect their careers, the race they were in, or the next race they may now not be in.  “Get it fixed and get me back out there,” is their dominant thought.  But for an amateur hobbyist, me at least, crashing a car on it’s first day out, on a test day, and when there was nothing to gain by trying too hard to go too fast too soon, it was a mortifying experience

I’m always quick to remember that it’s a lucky man who has only to worry about how his little hobby has been impacted.  Family, friends, health, are the truly important things in life.  Sure, we all know that, but I had failed so completely at something I take some pride in doing fairly well and it was and has been tough.  Life, fortunately, though, and racing, goes on, and as several have said to me, if you race enough, this sort of thing happens.  So true.  I’ve crashed motorcycles, go-karts, even bicycles, enough to know that.

The car is being repaired (ironically by the very same skilled gentlemen I bought it from), and we hope to race it at Laguna Seca in just a few short weeks.   Then again, in Sonoma, in April, after which I’ll ship it east, and race once again at various famous venues where cars of its vintage, 1973 to 1981, comprise the most popular group of formula fords.   The Lola, my original entry into the world of vintage formula ford racing, is currently being refurbished and will eventually be out west, where it fits nicely into the very West Coast popular 1972 and older formula ford class.

9D5D574E-1274-4595-B5CB-846B81FDB37E
The Zinc being readied once again.  Note the proper alignment of the right rear tire.  Anything can be fixed.

It should be another fabulous summer.  I’ve heard it said that race cars drivers are well served to have poor memories.  Memory has never been my strong suit so perhaps that weakness will now actually be to my favor.  Not sure what getting back on the horse will be like but I imagine I’ll be a little off pace for a little while.  The budget is getting thin and I really don’t need to think so much, so fast, at such expense, ever again.

————————————————————————————————————————

Now that a modicum of catharsis has taken place through the above writing, time has marched on and the horse awaits a ride.  The Cross Flow Cup begins this weekend at Laguna Seca Raceway, in Monterey, CA.  Tomorrow we head south with repaired car in tow.  Rain is forecast, which is rarely wished for, but regardless of likely wet conditions, its Monterey and its Laguna Seca and racing doesn’t get much better than that.  With luck, I’ll have positive news to report soon.

Watkins Glen–Season Ender

The left front wheel only barely brushed the edge of the track exiting turn 2, but at 120 mph, and exiting a corner that demands everything the tires have to offer, it doesn’t take much to upset the apple cart–or Lola T204 Formula Ford in this case–and where goes the front wheel, the rear is soon to follow. In a heart beat the car pulled sharply to the left, fully departed the racing surface, and after heartbeat two struck the very close Armco barrier, nose first–the front end instantly crushing like a cigarette butt being snuffed out. It then spun round, a convenient 180 degrees, and after several more heartbeats, the rear end of the car was crushed, too, as it impacted another section of Armco barrier.  Oops.

Just before the first impact, I took my hands off the wheel. I’d seen that on TV.  Professionals know when to give up, it seems. They know a time comes at which there is nothing more they can do to save the day, so self-preservation becomes the next priority; save hands and wrists from the powerful, un-commanded rotation of the steering wheel when the front wheels hit a wall.   Having a fondness for functioning appendages, I followed their lead, gave up, and took my hands off the wheel as the mayhem ensued.  Finally, after destroying the car at both ends, silence.  No more tire screech, smoke, metal bending, and fiberglass exploding.  Just silence.  The car was severely damaged.  Me?  Not a scratch.  Frustrated, but not flustered.

Re-set, request a new car, reposition to the hot pit lane and start a new session.   Such is the greatness of a simulator.  My real race car sat unscathed, peacefully and intact, in my garage, and oblivious to the carnage it’s sister sim-car had just experienced.

img_0053
IRacing.com has become my software of choice.  All the best tracks to choose from, and the detail fantastic.

It was sim practice for the Vintage Racing Group’s race at Watkins Glen International in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York–valuable training before the real thing soon to come.   I had debated about making the two-day drive to get there, but after three or four laps around the track in the simulator, crashes and all, it was clear I had to go.  Over four miles of fast, sweeping corners, beautiful scenery, and a storied history of Formula One, Trans Am, Can Am, even NASCAR races.  This was a must see, must drive, must race on, track.  I had even been there before, some 40 years ago, as a 19-year-old kid thinking that crewing on a professional Trans Am team would be helpful to a career I thought would be that of a professional race car driver.  It would be good to return, this time on the right side of the pit wall.

Simulators are not new to me, they being an integral part of my job as a professional pilot–the professional race car driver plan of some 40 years ago not quite working out.  Aircraft simulators can be amazingly realistic, leading us to often say while flying the real thing; “Hey, this is just like the simulator!”  Racing simulators are rapidly approaching a similar level of realism and effectiveness, I quickly learned, after spending time with Tom Pabst of Pro Racing Simulators (prsdd.com) at Sonoma Raceway in California.   Three or four hours of time behind the wheel of his simulator, and with his professional instruction, before setting off for Portland International Raceway a year ago, had me well prepared for flesh and blood racing at the new to me track. After just half of the first session of the first day, my pace in the real thing and on the real track was competitive.  Great to know which way the track goes before getting there.

Tom keeps his sim room warm, sim volume up, has you belt in, and wear your own helmet, driving shoes, and driving gloves. Anything you can do to simulate the real thing is a good thing. Believe you are there, and don’t take crashing lightly, he’d say, or you’ll crash too readily in the real thing.  Serious effort was expected in his sim, and I worked hard to be a good student.

Given the costs of racing the real thing, and the precious little track time afforded one during a race weekend, preparation in as many ways possible is key.  Simulator practice is one of the best ways to prepare, so I bought a gaming computer of my own.   Control wheel, pedals, etc., and able-bodied crew member Fred Hecker built a great lay down chassis from wood and PVC pipe that has me prone, steering wheel just below head level, and legs outstretched, almost straight–the driving position I assume in my steel and fiberglass Lola T204 Formula Ford.  And learning from Master Tom, I even dawn helmet, gloves, and racing shoes for my own sim time.  Serious effort is put forth even without him watching over my shoulder.

IMG_2874
Had to paint it green to match “the real thing.”

After not taking crashing too lightly over the course of surely 500 simulated laps around the Watkins Glen International Raceway, I finished the laborious but wonderfully anticipatory process of loading actual car, gear, and supplies, for the long trip to Watkins Glen, New York–a two-day drive from St. Louis. The first day of travel, uneventful–a Comfort Inn that actually lived up to it’s name was the highlight of the day, and prophetically, perhaps, located close to another famous track at which I hope someday to race; Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, in, as one might deduce, the middle of Ohio.

Day two of the trip I entered upstate New York. Beautiful. Vast rolling forests in fall livery.  Bright yellows, greens, reds.  Spectacular.  And where forests end, farm fields and pastures begin, sparsely populating the landscape.  Upon initial departure, as I often do, I questioned the sanity, the wisdom, of going on such a long journey for such folly–to drive a car round and round in circles trying to go just a bit faster than everyone else.  But the forests and the fall colors alone almost made the trip worth it. And racing was still to come.

img_0052-1
Surprisingly uninspired facade for such an inspiring place.

And come it did.  Friday morning was wet.  Some decided to not take car to track.  It was tempting to follow suit, but there to race, out I went, into rain, reduced visibility, and slippery conditions.   I had not practiced wet conditions in the simulator, but none the less, the sim had not let me down.  Time in “the box” paid off and my pace was descent.

Saturday’s main event was run under clear skies and on a dry track.  Tough to be fast right out of the shoot, with no real experience on a dry track, but I still managed a very satisfying 7th out of 29 overall (modern formula fords were included in the fray) and 2nd out of 12 among the Historic Fords only.  Very satisfying indeed.  Thanks, Tom, Fred, and technology.  The sim time spent had once again proven to be time well spent.

The Watkins Glen circuit is a bit scary.  I’ve learned over some decades of racing one thing or another that just about every track has one corner that is simply evil.  It’s the pucker factor corner.  It’s usually fast, usually has minimal run-off room, and always demands every thing of you, your car, motorcycle, or go-kart.  Gather your grit, keep the throttle open, and hope you get it right.   At Watkins Glen, just about every corner is a pucker factor corner.  Armco (a brand name) guard rail lines most of the track.  What exactly is guard rail guarding anyway?  Certainly not me–more like trees and gullies as far as I could tell.  I guess it’s better to hit guard rail than trees, but jeepers, couldn’t they have set the barriers a bit farther from the racing surface?  Evil corners conceived of and built by evil doers!

Of particular concern was turns two and three.  120 mph plus and on the limit of tire grip.  I had gotten it all wrong in turn two in the sim and it cost me nothing.   A mistake made around the real thing, chasing that extra half second or so off a lap time, and the car will hit the Armco barrier in an instant.  No re-set button, no new car request, and definitely flustering.  And likely painful to both body and bank account.  I developed a mantra: There is no Armco, there is no Armco, there is no Armco.

Above video, Saturday’s race start.  After lap one, a bit lonely–unable to catch the fast guys but no challengers from behind.

Sunday’s morning race and it was back to wet conditions.  There is no Armco, there is no Armco…..   2nd out of 10 in class and 7th out of 29 overall. Another satisfying result.

Sunday afternoon, the last race of the weekend.  While adding fuel, I noticed a missing motor mount bolt.  And then a broken motor mount bolt.  Should have seen that before!  So it goes.  With no time to fix things, I watched the race from the pit lane and wished that I was out there, pucker factor corners and all.  After the race is over, load the car and head west, home to St. Louis.  Disappointing to not race in the afternoon race in dry conditions, but the weekend was epic, as they have all been.  The grand tour of 2017 was over.  Virginia International Raceway will be the first race of 2018.  I better download that track and start logging some sim time, its only a few months away.

The WeatherTech International Challenge–Road America, Elkhart Lake, WI

It’s what makes golfers come back to the course, try again, and again, and again. Hack away for 17 holes but, hit a 250 yard drive straight down the middle, a bunker shot within inches of the hole, or a long putt into the hole, and they come back, hoping to capture perfection, or something close to it, just one or two times more during their next round. Without one or two good shots in a day, most would quit the game.

I felt this way as I pulled my Lola into its paddock space and under my much needed sun-shielding canopy. Engine off, all quiet, exhale. The eight lap feature race at Road America, the iconic road course just outside the quaint little town of Elkart Lake, Wisconsin, was now complete and it had gone well.  What a relief after what had transpired in the days prior.   By weekend’s end, in the feature race, I had hit that long and straight drive, sank the long putt.  “And that’s why I come back,” I said out loud, to myself, in the privacy of a by then very sweaty helmet. “That is why I will do this again.”

The weekend had not started well.  Not well at all.  There was a point of despair at which I was ready to give up, sell the car, and accept only spectatorship as my future involvement with motorsport.  I’d search for solace at that tavern of despair that must exist somewhere where golfer, racer, and any number of other once impassioned competitors drink, sadly commiserate, and ponder what might have been, having walked away from the sport they thought they loved or had hoped they would fall in love with, never having felt that pit in the stomach feeling of satisfaction when things finally go well.

8 am Thursday morning; the first of three 25 minute practice sessions during which I would learn the track, merging simulator experience with the real world. Lap three, a gearbox (transmission) full of neutrals. I shift from second to third and get nothing but rpm, and too many at that. No acceleration.  Back to second? Fourth? Nothing. Not even first. No drive. The shift lever feels as though gears are being selected but somewhere the drive train is disconnected.  A convenient access road presents itself and I coast off the track, around the Armco barrier and to a slow stop. Engine off and all is quiet, save for the lucky bastards with still working cars who whizz by me on the other side of the guard-rail as I sit anxiously considering what part of my car has failed. Sweating in the still air of a motionless car, I waited for the tow of shame.  Thankfully, my full face helmet provided welcomed anonymity through the throngs of spectators strolling the grounds of Road America and along the road to my paddock space.

Out of the car, two bottles of cool water, driving suit off, time to take stock of the situation. And get help. Thankfully, the folks from Taylor Race Engineering were there with a trailer full of gearbox parts and a boat load of expertise and experience with Hewland racing gearboxes and transaxles. Whew!

Early diagnosis suggested that there might have been a failure in the ring and pinion–the two gears in the transaxle that change the direction of power coming from the engine from longitudinal to lateral. The clutch could also be the problem. Only exploratory surgery would yield a definite answer.

9 am Thursday morning; I set about removing the transmission. Wheels off, suspension bits disconnected, half-shafts separated, oil tank removed, upper and lower frame cross- members off.  Bloodied hands, three or four pounds of water sweated slowly away into the hot and humid Wisconsin air, and on a breakfast-less, lunch-less stomach, at 2 pm I hoisted the car’s transmission onto the work table. Nothing obvious yet.

IMG_2662
The car, sans gearbox, clutch off.
Looking back at the car, and at the now exposed clutch, still attached to the engine’s flywheel, the failure was obvious; the hub of the clutch’s friction disc had completely separated from the surrounding clutch plate. “That happens, sometimes,” said Jay Ivey, of Ivey Race Engines, and the builder of my Lola’s engine. He, too, was there, (Whew, once again!), and lent his vast expertise and hands to help me get underway once again.

IMG_2706
Two pieces that should be but one.
9 pm Thursday night; a new clutch disk, pressure plate, pilot bearing, and while things were apart, oil cooler mount, had been fitted. It could have taken less time, no doubt, by a more expert individual, but never having done this before, it was 12 hours of non-stop effort. And it would have been more were it not for Mick’s help, too, from Taylor Race Engineering.  Gearbox back on the car, suspension bits and all of the above parts mentioned back where they were, more or less.  Wheels on, too, and the car back on the ground. Tools sorted from the pile that had accumulated during the frantic repair and once again ready, finally, for Friday morning qualifying. Only two bolts and three nuts left over. Hmm, where do you suppose these were supposed to go? No matter, things seemed right.  Still no food so off to Taco Bell, the hotel, a shower, and bed.  It was I who turned the lights out at Road America Thursday night.

IMG_2677
The back end, as it should be, once again.
Friday morning practice and the car was solid. So many things could have been forgotten, gotten wrong, yet we got it all right and the car was good.  Tried not to think of the post-surgery leftover nuts and bolts.   The gearbox shifted well and the new clutch engaged like a racing clutch should with a solid, almost digital connection–in or out and nothing in between. Excellent. With little track time though, a disappointing 12th in afternoon qualifying. The next qualifying session, a chance to improve. But no, it rained. No chance to improve, but a big chance to crash the car. After four laps I pulled off, parked the car, intact, readied it (cleaned it) for Saturday, and then joined the evening festivities in Elkhart Lake, riding into town in my paddock neighbor Jimmy Hendrix’s Porsche 914-6 IMSA GTU car.

Along with 100 other race cars we whistled by thousands of spectators lining the public roads leading into the charming town of Elkhart Lake as they cheered when Jimmy allowed a gap to develop between us and the 911 RSR ahead and then put the hammer down, briefly, letting the flat six shriek to it’s 7000 rpm redline.  The greater the burst of speed and noise, the greater the cheers from the street-side crowd.  Great fun.

During the second qualifying session held Saturday morning, my car continued to run well. Still learning the track I motored carefully about, increasing my speed bit by bit and shaving seconds off my first times from Friday morning. Still only 12th quickest.  Others had gotten faster, too.  And the same result for the afternoon qualifying race, a rather lonely experience as I quickly gapped those behind me but could not keep those ahead in sight.  But confidence was building and things were becoming fun again.  I hadn’t yet hit that long drive, but the eternal optimist in me thought that the “I’ll do this again feeling” might be just around the corner–perhaps corner one, or four, or 14.  It won’t matter which, as long as it comes.

And come it did in the feature race.  Gridded well back amongst a mixed class of racers that included faster Formula B and Formula Super Vee cars, I managed to get passed five cars in five turns of the first lap, and then had a serious tussle with a determined competitor whom I managed to pass once and for all before the checkered flag.  Confidence was high and the car was working as it should, as far as I could tell, even missing a couple of nuts and bolts–I guess they just weren’t that important.

Tremendous satisfaction on lap 8 of 8 from a top 10 finish.  Not too much to brag about, truthfully, but obstacles had been overcome, despair put aside, and a solid effort logged.  I had hit that one good drive and the reward had exceeded the effort.  When can I do that again?  Sooner than later, I hope.  And where will it be?   Watkins Glenn in September?  Sonoma in October?  Circuit of the Americas in November?  Stay tuned.

Indy Start and a lap

DCIM102GOPRO
DCIM102GOPRO

Here’s a youtube link to a lap as described below:

At 7,000 rpm, the 1600cc Lola push-rod 4 cylinder is not so much laboring as it is simply saying in it’s own, high frequency, harmonic way; “Enough, I am at my limit, I have little more to give, please ask for no more.”  Fair enough.   And thankfully, just after reaching that RPM in fourth gear, turn one shows up, rather suddenly, with little warning other than yardage markers, and it’s off the throttle, hard on the brakes, turn one, turn right.  The engine has given it’s all one more time down the main straight at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

And so a lap begins at Indy.  7,000 rpm, 126 mph, brake for turn one.  Left foot braking, fourth to third, to second, first gear.  Leave a little track left over on the exit to set up for the left hander, turn two.   Turn two is tight, a 90 degree left hander that ends with the beginning to turn three, a right hander.  Second gear between two and three.   Hold second gear around 3 and through the tightening turn 4, still going right.  Finally, it ends, and exiting tightly to the right, third gear through 5 and 6.  5 and 6 are fun.  Curbing left, curbing right, top of third gear, 100 mph, give or take.  Down the Hulman Straight, fourth gear, move to the right  and ready yourself for another heavy braking zone and turn 7 to the left.  Again, fourth to third to second to first.  Brake late, turn in, add power to scoot the back end out and point left to set up for the esses that begin to the right.  Second gear.  Right into 8.  Take half the curbing, not all of it.  The second half of the width of the curbing at 8 is slippery–not a place to be greedy.  Turn 9,  to the left, the esses continue.  Take half the curbing, only.  (See turn 8).   Move left for the rapidly approaching turn 10, a right.  Still second gear.

Allow the car is head, use all the track to the left, and steer as little as possible around turn 11, a broad right hander.  Turning burns speed.  Let the car drift to the wall–the wall between Indy 500 Turns 1 and 2–exiting turn 11.
Approaching the wall, fourth gear, accelerating through 100 mph.

Next is turn 12, a 90 degree right hander.  Heavy braking, fourth to third to second to first, yet again.  Turn in, don’t use all the track on exit so as to be in a better position for the left hander, turn 13, that leads to the fast turn 14.  Exit too far out of 12, and 13 is tighter than necessary and that kills speed through turn 14.

Turn 14; the last turn of the lap–the money turn.  This is where you re-enter the famous Speedway course, albeit in the opposite direction the Indy 500 is run, but still, it’s as critical a part of the Indianapolis road course as is turn 4 for Indy 500 drivers.   Turn 14 exit speed will either haunt you or reward you, depending upon your skill, your car, your daring.

Fourth gear once along the wall and on the main straight.  Like turn 4, let the car move out to the wall, be brave, get close.  Steer as little as possible and don’t scrub speed.  Exit speed; about 110 mph.  Following someone?  Draft.  An extra 200-300 rpm is at hand behind another car, but, per the opening paragraph, as willing as the little engine may be, over 7,000 rpm is asking  lot.  Lift if necessary.  Time popping out from behind your foe just so, so that you win into turn one or maybe even over the yard of bricks and under the checkered flag.

A lap at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in a vintage formula ford driven by a vintage driver.  Put it on your bucket list!

Indy!

During my first few laps, there was no fear of hitting the wall lining the entry to turn one–Indy 500 oval turn one, that is.   At good speed, but less than full chat, the car neither wanted or needed to exit the final turn of the road course and drift toward the outside wall.  Too easy.  Not long into the first practice session, however, it became obvious that good speed down the main straight would require good pace out of the last turn and that was going to mean taunting the white, steel wall, lining the circuit.  Not at all easy.

We were at the Sports Car Vintage Racing Associations’s Open Wheel World Championship at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 315 single-seat, open-wheeled race cars had shown up. 45 Formula Fords, give or take a few–newish ones, ones of medium age, and ones like mine; produced no later than 1972. The 2.43 mile road course, using the main straight and then a portion of the oval between Indy turns one and two, would be used.  We’d be going down the main straight in the opposite direction of the famous 500, but we were still at Indy and we were still crossing the famed yard of bricks at the start-finish line.  Very special to just about everyone there, to include me, certainly.

DCIM102GOPRO
Down the famed Gasoline Alley, right turn, onto pit lane and onto the track.
We arrived Wednesday night, a fairly short tow from St. Louis.  Check in with registration, claim our paddock space, set up camp. Thursday morning, fuel the car, check tire pressures, worry about what we missed during our preparation. Meet new people who would quickly become friends, and greet familiar faces. New and old, friendship’s founded on the surface by a mutual interest, but more deeply on a similar take on how to live life and make the most of every day…..I think. No time for deep thinking or profound comments on the purpose of life here. For crying out loud, we were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and we are racing. That’s the matter at hand!

Thursday afternoon, our first practice session. I’d spent a number of hours in my home simulator so knew most of the track. Most. Unfortunately, the simulator didn’t have the track layout quite right so in addition to looking at some great YouTube videos, actual on track learning would be required.

The 2.4 mile road course inside the famous oval is flat, by and large. Three twisty bits, each separated by fourth gear, high-speed, straights. Good run-off room, easy to see through the corners, and baby’s butt smooth pavement. Nice. Not too tough to learn, and after two sessions I was pretty clear where the track went and where the car needed to be. The engine and gearbox were working well, the car’s balance good (its tendency to track around corners neither pushing the front end through or sliding the rear end to the outside of the corner) but the brakes were an issue. Too much rear bias.

New brake lines, new pads, and extensive work on each caliper’s piston and seal and I thought surely braking would be our strength. Not so. The new pads had greatly changed things. After session one, more front bias dialed in. Not enough. More front bias after session two. And still the rear brakes locked first. When the rear locks first, the back end wants to swap ends with the front. Difficult to control, so not good. When the front wheels lock, it’s not great, but at least the car goes straight until the driver reduces brake pressure. Better that than swapping ends.

Friday morning was another practice session and our brake adjustments had helped but not fixed the problem. We also discovered a broken frame member. Thanks to the good and helpful nature of one of the big support operations, some excellent brazing had us back on track for Friday afternoon’s first qualifying session.
More forward bias adjustment and we qualified 8th out of 22 cars in the historic Formula Ford group. Not bad given the cars “darty-ness” under heavy braking.

Saturday morning was a second qualifying session and I was sure we’d gain a second, maybe even two, with improved braking. Instead, we lost two spots as a result of a broken engine mount that allowed the engine to slosh about so much that the gearbox gave up on me and no gear selected stayed engaged. Our early qualifying time that had us in 8th place would have to do. Unfortunately, others went faster in Qualy 2 so we would start the Historic Formula Ford Championship Race Sunday morning in 10th spot. Once again, skilled help at the track came to our aid and repaired the broken motor mount such that we would, indeed, make the race.

Front straight Pagoda view.JPG
We’re going the wrong way, but its still Indy!
And so the race started, the number 24 Lola T204 Formula Ford starting in 10th place with 22 cars entered. Mid-Pack. It was a slow start and despite the long straight at Indy, just about all of us ended up at turn one as one large gaggle. There was a gap between two cars I was tempted to split. Judgement, gut feeling, cowardice, I rejected the attempt. Space to my left, on the outside, and, the gaggle is slowing early. Please brakes, now would be a good time to work properly. Work, more or less, they did, and in an instant I passed four cars on the outside of turn one and kept them all at bey into turn two. P6.

For the next three laps, I fought hard for fifth spot. Brave braking, I had it. Braver braking by the other guy and I lost it, back to sixth. With the laps winding down, I had a plan for a last lunge under braking just before entering the main straight. My plan almost worked. Almost. Just a millisecond or two too far behind to bring my plan to fruition. Instead, I had to follow my new enemy around the last turn. Argh. Then, a missed shift, fuel issue, engine problem? I don’t know and don’t care. Not my problem. He or his machine stumbled for a split second and fifth place was mine again and forever! A good result.

Next, the SVRA hyped “Formula Ford World Championship.” My fifth place finish in the Historic Formula Ford race had qualified us for the weekend finale– young, old, and middle-aged Formula Fords all racing together. I held position for the start though for the next four or five laps, every corner entry felt like it was a start in and of itself. Some might say vintage racing is parading. They would be wrong…very wrong. Two, three, four wide at times entering corners at 120 mph! At Indy. Is there anything better?

Almost routinely smoke would rise up thickly at approaching corners–leading cars locking wheels and burning rubber as they go so deeply and (too) fast into bends. Spins, mechanical failures (?), we were somewhere around 12th to 15th, out of 35 starters. I was pleased given the number of more modern cars I was besting which should be faster.

By the last lap, I had found my pace, my place, and was confident we were going to finish in the top third at the World Championships at Indianapolis. Satisfying all things considered.

Confidence can be fleeting and so it was when the engine coughed sputtered, and then quit, on the last lap exiting turn two. We had a fueling problem. That’s what a professional racer would think to say before the microphones were in his or her face. It WAS a fueling problem. We hadn’t fueled the car enough before the start. The long, full-throttle straits, several full-course caution laps, and the intense pace, simply burned more fuel than we had fueled the car for. Inexcusable, but we aren’t the first to have this happen. Another, ARGH!

Indy? Yes, incredible to be there. But surprisingly, I didn’t find myself looking about in wonderment about times past at “The Brickyard.” Its a race track. It must be attacked, challenged, conquered, to the degree possible, as any other track must be. Perhaps in time it will strike me that I have driven across the line of bricks that so many storied and immortalized drivers have also crossed (albeit, in the road course’s opposite direction and at a fraction Indy car speeds), but right now I dwell on the laudable 5th place finish in the Historic Formula Ford race and my near top third finish in the World Championship. A great time with a good result regardless of where we were.

Also hugely consequential to the great time had at the Speedway was the meeting of Alain de Cadenet.  Alain was an accomplished endurance car designer and driver some years back and has since produced and starred in a number of truly excellent vintage racing specials and series, as well as acting as a presenter for a number of excellent broadcasts from famous events at Goodwood, England, and other great spots. Seems he had come over from his native England to help his friend Geir Ramleth, a new friend from my racing in California, and took us under his wing as well throughout the weekend. His advice on repairs, driver attitude and technique, and general preparation as well, were appreciated and well received. Being a big fan, it was hard not to be a bit star struck. Super nice guy. Humble, unaffected by his success, and great to have met and worked with him throughout the weekend.

So Indy now behind us. Many further improvements planned, hoped for, on the car. Still better brakes, some frame re-enforcement for better handling, perhaps an oil cooler. Time, money, and ability will determine all, and not necessarily in that order. Stay tuned, Road America, Elkhart Lake, WI, is next.

Soon,  a description of a lap of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield road course, with a little video to go along.