Sunday, September 12, 2010

ICAR Sundown Enduro Race Report

A couple of weeks ago, Carl and I decided to participate in the ICAR Sundown enduro. The race was scheduled to run for three hours, beginning at 2:30 on Saturday and Carl and I would each be driving half the race. Pascal’s brilliant plan was to drive the entire 3-hour race by himself!

Carl would be arriving in town late from his trip to Lincoln Nebraska where he competed in the U.S. Solo 2 National Championship. I was in charge of getting the car ready and to the track. I arrived at the track at 7:30 am and got the car set up. As always, I drove the race car to the track, then emptied the car and changed the wheels. Being able to drive the car to the track saves us from having to have a truck and trailer. If there is a problem with the car, I can always call CAA for a tow home.

We had practice at 8:30, qualifying at 10:30 and the race was to begin at 2:30. The plan was for me to run the practice and Carl to qualify us. We were disappointed to see only 10 participants signed up for the enduro, but events like this take several seasons to build up a reputation and become a regular addition to people’s calendars. I just hoped I would have someone to race against!

The car was basically in the same specification as last year, except that there is now no limited-slip differential in the transmission, as I have temporarily installed a stock transmission in the car while I await the parts to rebuild my other tranny. I was hoping this would make very little difference, but on a track with three second-gear corners, I would have to ease onto the gas rather than just mashing the throttle at corner exit. My practice session was uneventful. I had been to this track once before at a lapping event and my best time was a 1:44. Carl had managed a 1:38.5 last year on fresh tires while Pascal had managed a 1:39.9. I was not driving particularly aggressively or even well, and I only managed a 1:44. I was a bit lost in the complex made up of corners 8, 9 and 10. The tires were brand new Nitto NT01’s and they felt a bit too new to provide maximum grip. Maybe the grooves were too deep, allowing the tread blocks to squirm. Maybe it was all in my head. As for Pascal, he was having transmission issues similar to the ones I had a few weeks ago. The transmission would pop out of third under part throttle or when he lifted. This meant that he would have to hold the shifter in gear in certain corners. Trust me, this is not pleasant. I can’t imagine having to do that for three hours!

Carl strapped in for qualifying and ran a bunch of laps in the 1:42’s, then a few 1:41’s, and managed a 1:40.7 on his last lap. This put him a few tenths behind Pascal. I knew I would have to pick up the pace and get closer to Carl’s qualifying time if possible. We were both qualified near the back, behind Mark Gawronski’s fast Civic, three BMW’s and two Mustang’s. We were qualified ahead of the Porsche 944 of one of our Monday night lapping buddies, Sebastien. Carl was able to give me a few tips, like telling me to short-shift into fourth before the esses and just take them flat out.
The rules required each team to make a mandatory 5-minute pit stop at some point in the race. Our plan was to have Carl drive the first half of the race and stop at exactly the halfway mark to refuel and carry out the driver change. Pascal had a similar plan, but he would get out of the car and get back in after the refuelling. We switched the tires from front to rear to even out the wear a little (ICAR is a real tire-killer), changed the oil (I hadn’t had time to do it last week) and waited for our race. The maintenance is really quite simple on the Civic, as so many of its parts are stock. Meanwhile, Pascal was working under his car, trying to adjust his shifter to make the car stay 3rd gear. As far as I know, this did not work.

Our little team, ready for the race
The green flag dropped and Carl got the jump on Pascal. Pascal re-took the position within a lap and the various drivers got into a rhythm. Carl lapped in the 1:42’s and high 1:41’s for the first 25 laps of the race. Pascal was slowly pulling away from Carl, a few tenths per lap, until his lead stabilized and eventually started to decrease. On lap 26, one of the BMW’s lost an engine, resulting in a full-course yellow. After four laps under yellow, the green was shown and Carl dropped right back down to 1:41’s. Carl eventually caught Pascal and the two changed positions several times before Carl eventually began to slowly pull away. Near the halfway point, we called Carl into the pits using our pit board, since we don’t have a radio system. Our pit strategy was simple. We had five minutes to change drivers, add fuel and check out the general condition of the car. My friend Rob was in charge of pouring the fuel. Carl, who would be hopping out of the car, was in charge of holding the fire extinguisher while Rob poured. Our buddy Choo was in charge of looking over the car. I had prepared a bottle with about 1/3 of a liter of oil to be added to the engine during the pit stop, as I know my engine, like many Honda Vtec engines in race conditions, uses a bit of oil. I figured it would be faster just to dump in a specific amount of oil rather than try to measure the oil level in the small amount of available time.

After Carl jumped out of the car, he told me that the car felt good and that everything was going well. I waited for the fuel to be added, and got into the car. I had time to turn on my video camera and properly adjust the belts and strap in while waiting for the official to let me know the five minutes were up. I got the signal and made sure I didn’t exceed the very low 40 km/h pit speed limit.

I hit the track and was basically alone. A couple of the ten cars had already dropped out of the race with mechanical issues. I was running alone, occasionally getting lapped by the leader in his M3 or Marc in his Civic. I occasionally lapped the 944. I ran a few laps in the 1:44’s, then a few in the 1:43’s. Carl’s trick to take the esses in 4th gear flat out was working. I could tell I was still losing time in turns 8-9-10, but I was approaching the limit in the slower corners. I was “settling in” and driving quite comfortably in endurance mode. I assumed that the rest of the race would be uneventful. I was wrong…

With 10 minutes remaining in the race, I was passed by a 2006 Mustang, who was followed by Pascal in his Civic. I did not know the Mustang’s position, but I strongly suspected that Pascal was passing me for position, as I figured he had now made his own 5-minute pit stop and had nibbled away at the lead Carl had built for us. I quickly decided that I would do everything in my power to stay with Pascal and maybe even pass him if he screwed up. At first, it was not too hard to keep up, as Pascal himself was being held up by the Mustang in the slower corners, which allowed me to catch up to him. In following Pascal, I realized that I could actually go much faster in turns 8, 9 and 10 (10 km/h faster, according to the GPS lap timer). Pascal eventually passed the Mustang, and I felt as if I had been sleeping for 35 laps and that I was now awake. I began to push more and more and my lap times immediately dropped into the 1:40 range. I could see this on the dash display and I was kicking myself because I had not began to drive this way earlier, which would have kept me ahead of the Mustang and Pascal. Of course, you don’t drive the same way early in the race as when there are fewer than 10 minutes remaining, but I couldn’t help but regret my earlier “cruise control” driving style. I did all I could to stay close to the Mustang in the hopes of passing him somewhere. I hadn’t passed anyone all race and did not even know where I would try. I was quite close to the Mustang and not too far behind Pascal when the checker fell.

It turned out that both Pascal and the Mustang had passed me for position, dropping me from 3rd overall to 5th. I was a little disappointed about that. Still, I was happy with my driving in the last laps. My before last lap of the race was a 1:40.08. For once, I had been faster than Carl. We headed over to the trophy presentation and Jacques Villeneuve was there, just hanging out. I was hoping he would be the one handing out the trophies, but he was just chilling. Pascal had taken the class win and 3rd overall. Carl and I were second in class, 5th overall. I felt like having my photo taken with JV, but was too shy to go up and ask his permission. Carl had not even noticed he was there, despite taking a group photo where Jacques was in the middle of the group!

By the time we got back to the cars, the crew had already changed the tires on my car. I had the car loaded up and ready to leave for the restaurant in a matter of minutes. Pascal, who has not run as many race events as us, took a bit longer. I think he was still basking in the glow of his achievement. It’s not easy to drive any car for three hours, let alone a Civic with a bad synchro on a track like ICAR, where there is no real time to relax at any point in the lap. We were all impressed with this accomplishment and I did not mind losing out the class win to a friend like Pascal.

In all, we completed 95 laps in the race. Carl drove 140 km in the race, while I drove 138. The car took the three-hour beating without complaint and was driven home and parked, ready for its next race (Tremblant in 2 weeks, maybe?). As is always the case with endurance races, I had a blast. I’d like to thank my co-driver Carl and my crew (also Pascal’s crew), made up of Alex, Kevin, Rob and Choo.

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