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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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