121 mph is not particularly fast in the racing world. My friends on liter engined race bikes routinely top 170 mph on track and that’s just second or third gear with three more to go! Incredible. And of course, speeds routinely top 200 mph in Formula One racing and 230 in Indy Car racing. Nonetheless, the 121 mph top speed recently achieved in my Lola Formula Ford, at Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia, seemed particularly intense. Could the intensity have come from the vintage nature of the car? Its frame is old and flexible, so handling can be unpredictable. And as speeds rise, it’s far from aerodynamically sophisticated. I dare say the nose generates lift rather than downforce, reducing grip and causing a rather non-committal front end. Such is vintage car racing. Braking, as in, slowing down with some measure of control, would become the true issue of the weekend, though, and perhaps the most significant catalyst of my sense of increased intensity.
Thursday practice; routine. Many hours in the simulator provided much needed advance awareness and within the first five laps or so, I was comfortable with where I should be trying to put the car, what gear it should be in, and where time can be gained when courage and attention are at their maximum. Good fun learning a new to me track.
Friday morning was a qualifying session. We managed a mid-pack time. Acceptable, though nothing to brag about. Friday afternoon’s race started well, but after just five laps, the shift-rod that runs four feet or so to the back of the car, snapped. In neutral, as it happened, I coasted off course and and to the shade of a West Virginia forest. In full gear, to include long undies, a two-layer driving suit, gloves, helmet, etc., I think I lost 5 pounds watching everyone who’s shift lever didn’t break, race on. A new shift rod-end was fashioned by a willing and skilled local fabricator/machinist and we were back on the track for Saturday morning’s race. Lap times were improving as I learned the track’s nuances. Many thanks to Ted Eller for working late into Friday night on our behalf.
Saturday afternoon brake issues became……uh, issues. Cresting turn 4, top of third gear, turn in, lift just a bit, back to full throttle, then brake hard for the tight left hander. And, a huge pull to the right upon brake release! Lucky to stay on track. What the? Flat tire, hit from behind, broken suspension? None of the above, press on, be prepared for it to happen again. The next heavy braking zone, at the end of the main straight doing the 121 mph referred to earlier, could be exciting. It was. It happened again. Same pull to the right. At least I was ready for it and again was able to stay on track. My pace was compromised to put it mildly, dealing with this anomoly, and a mid-pack finish was something to be happy with all things considered.
Thankfully, a Gerling brake guru happened to be at the track and had heaps of parts and advice. We changed piston seals on the right caliper, polished its piston and cylinder with Scotch Brite, and the reluctance of the right brake to release seemed gone.
Sunday morning was a Historic Ford only race. Just 15 or so of us, unfettered by the previous inclusion of the more modern, but not always faster, Club Formula Fords. More braking drama, though, despite our previous efforts at repair. But now the pull was upon brake application, not release. Seems we’d come upon a time in the history of this car at which all it’s brakes needed attention. Managed a sixth place finish. Better was on offer but with dodgy brakes, I dare not try to take full advantage of the car’s usual braking strength. Argh.
Too little time to make further brake repairs before the main event Sunday. A descent start amid the mixed field of 26 cars afforded me a great bout with three other cars for the entire 20 minute race. Attached are two short videos showing the start (fair) and finish (a last turn pass). Brakes, or lack thereof, held me back, both literally and figuratively. Too sketchy from too high a speed to be too brave and try to accomplish too much. 15th overall, 5th out of 12 among the Historic Formula Fords. Acceptable for the first time at this track competing with savvy locals.
Since returning home, we’ve rebuilt all four calipers, fitted new brake lines, new brake pads, and improved the shifting mechanism. We’ve also installed new and more adjustable Koni shocks, and hopefully improved some of the aerodynamics around the nose to improve airflow through the radiator to reduce engine heat which was right on the edge of acceptability at Summit Point. Would that we could reduce the lifting action of the nose, but that would violate the rules as the cars must, alas, remain loyal to their original shape. Many changes, though, and hopefully each will contribute in it’s own way to faster lap times, a more rewarding driving experience, and a better result.
We race next, this weekend, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The “Brickyard” itself. Who’d have thunk it? Not since my younger days, dreaming of a professional driving career, have I thought I’d ever get to drive a race car, in competition, at such a place.
We’ll be on the road course, about 2.5 miles in length, just like the oval, and will drive the main straight backwards, so ok, not exactly the Indy 500. Regardless, we’ll race across the yard of bricks all weekend and be at one of the most famous race tracks in the world. Special. Over 250 cars are expected, all open wheel formula cars.
For more details on the Indy weekend, check out; the Sports Vintage Racing Association’s (SVRA) website:
I’ll take fingers to keyboard again after recovering from the weekend with some thoughts on how it went. For now, fingers simply crossed that we have fewer issues than at Summit Point. Good times are once again on the horizon. Stay tuned. And for a taste of last month’s event, I offer the following helmet cam footage. A little jiggly but still some good footage of an old-school, east coast, road course.
And for those interested in getting started in vintage racing, here’s an outstanding video produced by and staring my good friend, Andrew Wait. First class stuff: