Monday, October 28, 2013

DirtFish Rally School - Part 1

While I have been mulling over a few different Driving School options such as Skip Barber or Bob Bondurant, I thought about some different options.  Perhaps something like a Rally school, offroad racing or Baja experience.
Well, as luck would have it we were planning a weekend getaway to Seattle where one of the best Rally Schools - Dirtfish - calls home.  Even more coincidental, about 1 week before we were leaving, the show Top Gear aired an episode where they visited Dirtfish as well!  Crazy.  Watching it got me totally stoked for the 1/2 day school I had planned. 

The 1/2 day experience fit into our schedule pretty well and I showed up a bit before 8am on Saturday Sept 21st less than an hour from the Seattle airport.  I would have loved to do the 2-day or 3-day of course, but there's only so much time on a 'vacation' to enjoy some racing! 

I got signed in and once the other attendees showed up - 8 in all - we headed into the classroom section for some quick overviews.  There's a few cars inside you can check out and the hallways are lined with driver's suits which is pretty cool.
The classroom instruction was pretty high-level and short really.  They explained the basics and I was the only one of the group that had ANY driving experience.  The problem being that off-road Rally is much different than tarmac racing so I was prepared to do learn! 

We divided up into 2 groups of 4 and hopped into the 4 Subaru STi's that we would rotate between.  First up was a rocked skidpad where the instructor drove around 1st explaining that the steering wheel is really just a 'suggestion' and we'd be turning the car with the pedals with the concepts of weight transfer.  While this wasn't new to me, it was pretty freakin wild how things worked!  A round with the instructor was followed by 2 rounds with us behind the wheel!
Next up was a short slalom course where again the instructor ran 1 round and then we were up.  Below is a vid of my first runs in the car on the slalom course:

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

1st place! NASA Midwest @ Autobahn 4.5 hr Enduro - "Into The Night"

Waiting for my final stint I was chugging water and heading to the bathroom.  The advice I got from a friend in regards to my first ever time racing in the dark was to be careful not to fixate on brake lights in front of you; and also not to look directly into the rearview mirror as you could get instantly blinded with all the hi-tech LED lights others were running.  Great...  Oh and trust your knowledge of the turns!

At about 8:10pm with 50min remaining David radioed that he was coming in next lap.  Everyone started setting up for what would be our 4th pitstop and 4th driverchange.  I would be going in; along with the final 10 gallons of fuel for the last 45min.  Once again, the pitstop was extremely flawless and everyone was moving even quicker.  Being my 2nd stint of the race, I was quickly buckled in and waiting on fuel.  Davids only advice to me was:  "look for those reflective apex cones; they are your only hope!". 
After the all-clear, I headed out of the pits with about a 2-lap lead over 2nd place in class.  With the car all warmed up obviously everything was sticking well and I headed past the first set of turns away from the lighted pitlane into turns 2/3.  What did I find - DARKNESS!  And lots of it for the next 3 miles basically.  Wow, words can't really explain it as there was just no light out there besides our OEM headlights that focus straight forward.  Looking L and R for the reflective apex cones (the ones that remained that is) was difficult at the least and you really had to trust your knowledge of the track and assume everything was all clear.  The corner workers had a tiny light to let you know it was manned; and we were told a larger flashing light to indicate a yellow. 
After about 2 laps I realized that car was very 'hooked up'; better than before as the track wasn't as hot since the sun went down.  It felt really good, but the fact I opted to go without the coolsuit was not a good call as the Mustang did not have much natural airflow in the car.  I had one of the overall leaders - an older Daytona Prototype - come up on me down the lighted pitstraight so it was an easy pass to let happen.  I then tried to stick with him to get the aid of his better lights but watching the taillights did indeed lead me into an offline approach and danger really quick, just as my friend had noted.  A few laps later I caught up to a Miata and set him up for a pass down the lit straight too.  Then I had to deal with about 1/2 a lap of mirrors with insanely bright lights and I just tried to hit my marks and put some distance on him.  Other than that, there was NO traffic out on the 3.56 mile course that I had to deal with.  Even though it was dark, I was running about the same laptimes (2:53-2:54's) as I did in the daylight.  The car felt good, and I felt more comfortable with the car and the North course portion which I had not ran since 2008.

After the traffic; trying to settle into a more relaxed groove, I instantly ran wide in T2.  Wow that was quick and dark!  I tried the same groove approach I use for longer Endurance races on the next lap and the same exact thing happened - I missed my turn-in badly and nearly ran wide!  Being my 2nd stint, dark, having driven 3+ hrs to the track, no other traffic to work with; whatever... it was difficult to concentrate in the pitch dark.  So I instead decided to start turning hotlaps.  With my mind focused on improving every laptime I started stomping out 2:50-2:51 laptimes.  After about 10 of these  I started really looking for the white flag - and was beginning to think about the fuel situation.  Having not been passed by any in-class car I was assuming we had the win but still focused on getting the car back safely and enjoying it! 
After a 2:50.3 I got a hesitation on very next lap on the front straight!  I know knew I could now complete 1.5 laps after the initial hesitation (David did earlier) so I decided to conserve some fuel circle with short shifts and hope for the white flag.  And I got it; with a slower 2:55 laptime!  I had no idea if I could make another lap but I was committed.  I just hoped I would not run out of gas and get rear-ended somewhere!  I coasted as much as I could and don't think I ever touched the brake pedal the last lap.  Once to the N course (the last 1/3 of the lap) it was struggling to pick up throttle at all.  Once I got to the final turn before pit-in it was barely sputtering and I was down to 20-30mph of momentum.  I coasted into pit lane where the lights started and I knew I would be ok, the car then died completely as I rolled into a pit stall only 6 short of ours!  I flashed my lights, shut off the car and waited for the team to reach me.  We exchanged a few quick high-fives and they pushed me back into the pits.
Joe quickly handed me out beers (Stella Artois) and we quickly headed up for awards.  As suspected we finished 1st in class E0 and 5th overall.  Turns out the Miata I passed in my final stint was for position!  83 totals laps complete; nearly 300 miles.  We finished 1 lap ahead of 6th overall; 21 laps ahead of our nearest in-class competitor - which apparently came into the pits with a cracked brake caliper soon after I left for the last stint!

Packed with adrenaline the team stood around and talked for nearly an hour after the awards.  Everyone was shocked at the laptimes I was putting down in the dark.  Maybe I found a calling?  Since everyone else seems to hate the extra challenges of night racing!  I downed a gatorade and headed home.  Pulling into the garage around 1am - my day consisted of 6.5 hrs in the 335i to/from the track and two 50 minutes stints in the racecar for a total of 8+ hrs driving!  Thanks to everyone for their help.   
New firsts1st place in an Endurance Race (after piling up 2 seconds), my 1st time ever racing in the dark, my 1st time ever with 2+ stints in the same day!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

NASA Midwest @ Autobahn 4.5 hr Enduro - "Into The Night" (Stints 4-5 overall)

Having handed the car over to Joe for the 3rd overall stint it was about 6pm at this point, right about the time you need your headlights.  And boy did some of the field have some crazy LED light bars and sideways 'Apex' lights.  We... had 100% OEM brights on the Mustang.
Joe's stint quickly ran into the night with the last 1/2 being completely pitch dark.  Since my stint was over I took in some water and took stock of the situation and the competition.  There were about 6 cars in our class to start the race and 2 had immediate trouble and another had fallen back.  It was really between us and 2 other AI (high hp and higher prepped) mustangs with us holding onto a 2-3 lap lead at this point which Joe stomping out 2:51's and then 2:54's in the darkness.

Next up was David again - the owner - for his 2nd stint.  We were already running calcs to figure out how long David would need to run before we had enough fuel to finish with the following stint (me).  This was partly strategy and partly because David simply did NOT light driving at night; much less racing.  We figured he needed 30+ minutes based on our earlier stints assuming they checkered the race at 9:25pm to allow for a cooldown to clear the track at 9:30pm.
Joe brought the car back in terrific shape right about the 50min mark.  Our crew (including me) went to work; this being our 3rd pit stop and all things were moving very well.  We took another look at the Front Left tire and it was decided to go ahead and change it - once the fueling was complete, since we had a couple lap lead we didn't want to take any chances.  I grabbed the jack, jackstand and wrench - cleaned the windshield while waiting on fuel to finish - and then set about swapping out the tire.  I got some help from the fuel guys since they were done and everything went pretty smooth overall.

David headed out and struggled initially to find a pace in the pitch dark - pretty much just like he thought.  Having the radios working helped though and he soon radioed that he was coming in!  I was like 'Already'?  Then he mentioned he'd hit an animal - like a fox - and we just needed to check out the car.  Well, the bumper had shifted a bit, but it looked fine.  He wanted to stay in (there was 1 hr of race left; more than a fuel load) so he headed back out and started lowering lap times like a pro.  The crazy mishap def helped him out!

Still with our ~3 lap lead Dave was finishing up and I would be the closer....