Victory and Terror at Road Atlanta

Oct09

SSHHIIIIIIITTTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

 My hair was standing on end in terror as the Beemer bounded over the ridges and thru the ditches in the rough grass at freeway speed.  We were taking a surprise shortcut inside of Road Atlanta’s turn 4.  I wasn’t in control, I was in “hope” mode, just along for the ride.  I was doing all kinds of hoping.  I hoped the car would keep pointing the same way.  I hoped the car would keep going in the same direction and stay clear of the walls.  And I hoped that I didn’t break a suspension piece. 

I’d screwed the devilishly hard Road Atlanta turn 3 where you have to bound the car over the raised edge of the track, rotate it just a little sideways, bound over a second ridge, and then land with the car “just so” to stay on the track and enter turn 4 at high speed.  I’d goofed the rotation part and had no prayer of staying on the track and entering turn 4.  Instead, I’d headed right into the rough infield. 

But I should back up and tell the whole story. 

BMW Club Racing, Road Atlanta, 2-4Oct. 

The BMW Club Racing crowd, CR for short, are kind of a high end crowd.  My car is worth ~$10k, some of their cars are worth > $100k.  They have a culture which is a little different then what I’m used to.  We stagger about the paddock area in dirty t-shirts, mumble about hangovers, and use our jeans to wipe the brake fluid off of the brake  line we just scored from the local junkyard.  A CR guy might be found in business casual sipping a cool drink in the shade with his doxy while his nattily uniformed crew polishes his race car. 

Ok, I exaggerate a little.  But some of the Club Racing cars really are >$100k cars, and some of the CR guys really did have professional crew.  With matching natty uniforms.  And they had shade, cool drinks and business casual.  And doxies. 

I'm looking for the exaggeration here, but I'm not finding it.

The CR crowd is very strict about racing contact.  Who wouldn’t be given the cost of their cars?  That does create certain advantages for someone that is used to a little more rough and tumble style, while sliding thru a turn at 90mph. 

I had problems Friday morning with my engine missing something fierce.  I had to pull in ½ way thru the day’s first practice session with a motor barely running.  I thought I had it fixed but then wasn’t even able to complete a single lap of the second practice session.  I found and fixed more problems, and spent a lot of time fixing things that were probably ok, and then headed out for Qualification where the motor started crapping out again.   

Exasperated, I looked over everything again from the beginning.  And then I figured out what the problem really was…a sensor wire was frayed by a pulley.  It took an hour for the local junkyard to decide that they didn’t have a spare, and my own spare was 10hrs round trip away.  So I pulled the sensor off and with great care, repaired the frayed wiring.  Finishing just in time, I headed out to the starting grid, where they put me last because I’d only done one lap of Qualification.  

It’d been a couple months since I’d raced at Road Atlanta.  As we went out for the warm up lap, I tried to remember the subtleties of how to drive the track.  “Hmm, was that a right turn"?  So although I was glad that the car seemed to be working, there was some trepidation re. the huge amount of suckage I was about to display.

On the other hand, there was some new ideas on a couple turns that I wanted to see if I could make work. 

It’s all about the speed in the turns, or more precisely, the speed coming out of the turns.  The cars in my SpecE30 class (BMW 325’s from 1987-1991), are virtually identical, so if another guy comes out of a turn with 1/2mph on me, he’s going to pass me on the straight that follows no matter what I do, or how good looking, funny, and charismatic I may be.  There’s been times when I’d a sold my soul for another 1/2mph of turn exit speed.  Every single turn is a furiously concentrated and executed attempt to find the fine line between “it could have been faster”, and sliding off into the grass backwards.  Or worse.  Turn exit speed is much of the ballgame. 

There were two race “groups” and I was in the low horsepower group of around 40 cars.  Each race group was made up of various race “classes”.  All I really had to worry about was the other 7 “SpecE30’s” that were in my class.  Everyone else in my 40 car low hp group was just traffic to be managed.  We were certainly the slowest class of cars, but some of the guys in faster classes were relative newbies.  So there would be times that I might catch up to a faster car in the turns, but they’d leave me on the straights.   

The key to managing traffic is to get the faster car by you without screwing either of you up.  Turns before a long straight, for example, are critical because every mph of turn exit speed is compounded all the way down the straight.  The worst possible traffic management is when you allow a faster car to pass you right in one of those critical turns.  So you have to (attempt to) exercise some control over when that faster class car on your rear bumper gets by you. 

That being said, the faster class guy is battling in his own race.  He’s only going to be patient for a second or two.  And then he’s going to be tempted to do something aggressive that might be full of unhappy for you.  If you've fought for 5min of brilliant laps to put 3sec in between you and the next guy back, you could lose that in a heartbeat if you get passed by a faster class car in a bad place.  So you have to see the situation developing and find a way, find some way, to get the faster class car by you safely and quickly. 

Here is the first 6min of Friday’s race.  It’s the most interesting part because since I started near the back there was a number of passes to be made.  The last couple of laps are spent chasing a car in a faster class.  You can see him pull away at each straight, and me catch up in the turns. 

ftp://FileSharing.BrasselerUSA.com Big high res file for download.  Look in the Videos folder for the 2Oct file. 

I ended up getting 3rd out of 8.  I started in the back, I’d missed the practices and Qual, yet I’d scored my very first podium finish.  Pretty darn cool.  Ok, the real reason I got 3rd is that there was 8 of us instead of the usual 25, but our class size of 8 was as big as any of the other classes racing that weekend, and I’ll take what I can get. 

Saturday’s race was an hour along affair with a required 5min pitstop.  I wouldn’t be able to make weight at the end of the race without some extra fuel, so I arranged with some buddies such that I could come in after they’d fueled two other cars, for a couple gallons myself. 

I qualified 2nd of 8, a pleasant change from being in the back half of 25, so most everyone in my class started behind me. 

12mins of the race at:http://www.vimeo.com/6921112 (streaming video)

ftp://FileSharing.BrasselerUSA (high res file for download). Look in the Videos folder for the 3Oct09 file. 

At the 7min mark you’ll see a Chuck Taylor, buddy and regional SpecE30 director, get hit while trying to make a pass at turn 7.  The passee wasn’t paying attention and didn’t give him enough room to complete the pass.  The passee ends up sideways taking up all the track and me and another guy have to head for the dirt to get around them. 

Apparently the passee was involved in more contact later in this race and was already on probation for contact early in the year.  I’m told that he lost his competition license this day. 

At end of the video you’ll see where I almost ended the life of my car, in a harrowing off that I opened this saga with.  Turn 3 is a devilish beastie where I’ve improved a lot recently.  I’ve been able to find perhaps 2mph on the turn by using this delicate dance of touching the brakes as I bound over one bit of curbing, sliding the car a little sideways, bounding over a second bit of curbing while still a little sideways, and then coming down in a slide such that I drift right to the other edge of the track in perfect position to enter turn 4.  But at 12min it goes wrong because I don’t quite get the car pointed right and I go flying into the deeply rutted grass at freeway speeds.  I bounced thru the ruts like a monster truck and hit so hard that I knocked the camera system wonky. 

That one was a near thing.  If it had gone slightly different I’d a gone into the walls at right or left. 

About 15min later I had a 2nd scare.  The cement wall is awful close to the track on the front straight.  I have a watch strapped to my roll cage in front of my forehead.  That way I can check the time by simply glancing up.  The only time you can really check anything like gauges or clocks is on the straights because anywhere around a turn you’re incredibly busy.  I needed to keep track of the time because I had a specific window to come for the splash of fuel.  There was a guy scheduled to come in both before me and also after me.  So running along side the edge of the track at ~105mph I looked up and squinted to make out the numbers on the watch, up in the shadow above me.  Which is when I wandered off into the grass.  At 105mph and with a cement wall only a couple feet away.  Now that was scary.  With my hair standing straight up, I gently eased the 2 wheels back on to the track.  And breathed a long sigh of relief while my heart settled down. 

Chuck, crash in turn 7, Taylor ended up pulling into the pits to check his damage, and the guy that started in front of me pulled in with radiator problems.  I stayed ahead of everyone else and as a result got my first career win.  No one was more shocked then I. 

2 months ago I was, after a year of trying to figure out how to drive Road Atlanta, still running rookie times.  One month ago I had a break thru and started running mid-pack times.  And today I won.  How very unexpected.  My car gets it’s first Race Winner decal. 

But there were more surprises to come. 

In Qualification the next day I ran an (for me) incredible time, beating my old personal record and the next fastest guy by almost 1.5sec.  The time was so fast that even if all 25 veteran madmen of my SpecE30 had been there, it’d been good enough for 2nd.  I was speechless with surprise.  I think, so was everyone else.  Although that may have been dismay or irritation.

In the race that followed, having qualified at Pole, I started in front of my class and slowly pulled away from them.  I just focused on being smooth and knocking out fast laps with no serious blunders.  I’m almost always good for a serious blunder or two.  Things were going fine for most of the race, but then a car that was catching up to me caught my attention.  I spent some time studying it in my rear view mirror, as it worked it’s way closer, trying to confirm that it was indeed in another class and therefore no threat.  It had caught up to me pretty damn fast so it was almost a sure thing that it was in class “KP”, which had more hp and stickier tires.  It was hard to tell because KP cars look just like our SpecE30 cars, except for a little “KP” decal.  I might be able to recognize the car’s color scheme or see his name on his windshield.  This was important because the race probably had only a couple laps left and if somehow this was another SpecE30 car that had charged up on me so quickly, then I had a real problem. 

I studied and studied it’s reflection in my rear view mirror as I tried to stay smooth, fast and not do anything dumb.  The race was almost over and all I had to do was hold it together.  The number of races that I’ve done without a single stupid blunder is fairly small.  I just needed to make it another couple of minutes. 

Then the car got close enough that I could make out the name on the windshield.  It was Chuck Taylor.  “Goddamnit”, I thought, “how had he charged up on me so fast?”  I started pushing harder, accepting risk.  I started watching him like a hawk, carefully choosing when I could take the fastest line thru a turn, or when his position forced me to take a defensive, slower, line thru a turn.  Every time I took the fast line in a turn I risked allowing Chuck to divebomb me on the inside and take the turn away.  Every time I took a defensive line on a turn, I risked Chuck taking the fast line and passing me on the straightaway that followed.  Chuck’s far more experienced then I and as we approached each turn he’d be trying to fool me re. his intent and/or capitalize on any mistake I made.   

We passed Start/Finish to see the Control waving the white flag.  That meant one lap left.  I was pretty desperate.  His tires were clearly doing better then mine which is how he caught up so fast.  I needed to be at the very top of my game, have eyes in the back of my head, and read his evil mind.  It was a near thing.  His last attempt to get me was at 10a/b, a left/right dog-leg before the always scary descent to turn 12..  I took a defensive line and he took the fast line.  But I held enough speed sliding thru the exit of 10a that he couldn’t get in position to take 10b from me.  That was really his last chance and I held on for the win.  Woohoo.  2nd Race Winner decal for the Beemer. 

Video of the last couple minutes of the race at http://www.vimeo.com/6919764 

That afternoon we had a “fun” race.  Which is BMW Club Racing for “a race with no series points awarded”.  Apparently BMW Club Racing types aren’t doing this for fun, so there was only 8 of us.  3 were in my class.   

I was aggressive at the start because I wanted to get up to the first guy in my class before he got away and I got stuck in traffic.  I got by him when he made the mistake of going thru a key corner side-by-side with another car.  That killed his turn exit speed and he was helpless as I passed him on the straightaway that followed.  

 But then another car started getting involved. 

The other car was in a different class, a very fast class.  He had only one other car in his class in the fun race, didn’t know where that other guy was, so he decided to have some fun with us.  He was kinda screwing with us such that he would get his car in the way just at the wrong time.  I didn’t understand what was going on, but maybe everyone else did.  I thought that the faster car had engine problems or something and it was just my bad luck that he seemed to be in my way so many times.  He was in a far faster class $100k car and he should have been able to pull away from me with ease.  But instead he seemed to be in my way a lot.  I think I did a lot of yelling and cursing.  I clearly recall yelling “FOR GOD’S SAKE GO GO GO GO!!!!!” 

But in the end it worked out.  I got my 3rd win.