Friday, November 25, 2016

Re-post from 2003: Our Lime Rock Adventure

Here is a re-edited version of a race report I wrote back in 2003 following a race at Lime Rock on 
November 1, 2003. The race was organized by EMRA, the Eastern Motor Racing Association. After class wins in the enduros held at Shannonville and Watkins Glen, I realized I was in the hunt for the class championship in the ST1 class, even though I had missed a couple of events.  This is what led Carl and I to attend the Lime Rock event. Enjoy!

This was to be the last race for my first Civic race car, my 1988 ex-Honda-Michelin Civic DX. By 2003, its original 92-hp engine had been replaced by a 125-hp SOHC Vtec engine from a 1992-95 Civic Si. Later that fall, I bought a 1991 Civic of the same model and, over the winter, I built it into my next race car. That 91 Civic never saw a single race, as I crashed it on its very first outing on track (at the "oval-in" corner at St-Eustache. This would lead me to buy and build my third Civic, the 2000 SiR coupe that I would own from 2004 until I sold it Carl in 2014.  

Well, EMRA or posted the results of the Watkins Glen event and I realized that I was leading the ST1 enduro championship. When I consulted their website, I saw that to win a championship, you need a minimum of three events and you have to volunteer at one event. I emailed EMRA to find out if I could race and volunteer the same day. That was Tuesday. I got the answer Thursday and Carl Wener (my buddy, Integra Type R enthusiast and co-driver) and by Friday morning, I had decided to have a go at it. Did I mention the race was Saturday? Our road race season, which was supposed to end after the Watkins Glen event, was to be extended.

Lime Rock, in Connecticut, is 475 km from Montreal. We figured we would simply drive the Civic to the track with the Toyo RA1 race tires already on the car and that we would carry some rain tires in the back. We threw in a fuel jug and some tools and our bags of gear and that was it. The car was still mostly prepped from the Glen event two weeks earlier. Although we have driven the car to a few events, we usually have a crew or a backup vehicle to get home in case something goes wrong. This weekend, we would be performing without a safety net. Crazy? Maybe… Did I mention that we decided to leave at 2:00 am to get to the track at 7:00 so that we wouldn’t have to spring for a hotel?
So we left at 2:00 am and everything on the way there went fine. We stocked up on calories for the day at 5:00 am at a Denny’s near Albany with a Meat Lovers’ breakfast. The sun was rising as we approached the track and the scenery was lovely, especially at this time of year. I’d never been to Lime Rock or even Connecticut for that matter. Carl had been there back when he was racing in SpeedVision World Challenge, but his diff had broken on the first lap so he hadn’t seen much action.

We had to get organized quickly : register, get a transponder, sign up for work duty, get the car ready (not much there : remove the passenger seat, tape up the headlights). I was a little worried when I heard the guy ahead of me at get put on the waiting list for the enduro as there were 60 cars vying for 45 slots on the grid. Fortunately, it turned out I had an automatic spot guaranteed since I was in the fight for a championship.

There were a bunch of SCCA racers there. The atmosphere was less laid back than at other EMRA events I’ve been to. For example, there was this SCCA RX7 parked in the lane that goes around the paddocks, right where they were doing tech inspection. At some point, a security worker comes by and asks me if I know whose car it is, which I don’t. He tells me to tell the owner to move the car if I see him. So I see actually see the owner about 20 minutes later and give him the message. He says “Why would I want to move it”. I repeated that the security guy asked him too (I could have said “cause it’s in the way, dumbass”). He said “Yeah, I’ll get right on it”. I didn’t even realize that he was being sarcastic until I had walked away. I mean, what kind of loser leaves his car parked in the tech lane for 45 minutes then refuses to move it? I hadn’t met any jerks at an EMRA event until then. Carl said “welcome to the SCCA”.

The EMRA people are starting to get to know us as « those crazy guys who drive the race car to events from Canada». They were surprised to see us, as we told them we weren’t coming to the last events for lack of budget. We were just happy to be at one last event, especially with the warm weather we were getting.

Carl was signed up for the 18 lap sprint race and we would share driving duties for the 1-hour enduro. Carl would do his practice and qualifying before I ever got on the track for the enduro combined practice and qualifying.

As for my volunteer assignment, they had assigned me to the corner one station as an assistant flagger. I met Sheryl, the flagger, at the station. She was really nice and had been around the wolrd of racing. She even flags for CART and has even done the Motegi events in Japan. With 40 cars on a 1.5 mile track, there was more than a little action. Needless to say, I was waving a few yellows.

When I got to see my own car in action and it wasn’t pretty: more body roll than almost any other car out there, and it was hurting the car’s performance much more than at the Glen. Carl was running 1:10’s and others in the class were running 1:06’s. When I talked to Carl after the session, he confirmed that my low-buck suspension was simply not going to cut it here. There are too many important quick transitions between turns 2 and 3 and between 3 and 4. Normally, we get beat on the straights and catch up under braking. At this track, we could only count on the brakes to catch others. Another problem was that the Toyos in front weren’t worn down enough. I had only run them in the rain and in the rear in the past. We decided we had to switch them to the front. I proposed we do it before Carl’s qualifying so he could get a better time in, but he said it could wait until later and that he preferred to have a few more cars to pass in the race. It’s true that Carl gets much more motivated in the actual race, especially starts. So Carl qualified without too much drama with a 1:08. We weren’t expecting him to win the class anyway.

It was finally my turn to get on the track. We had changed the tires around and were hoping for a little more handling. Since this was a new track for me, I was hoping to get in behind somebody slower so I could learn the line quickly. I knew that this would be possible, since in the enduro, all classes run together, even the cars with only 65 hp. I'd watched a few laps on video, but it’s not really the same, especially with tracks that have elevation change.

I managed to follow a couple of different cars and could immediately see that we were at a handling disadvantage. The car was not reacting well to transitions and it was sliding a lot in the long turns. It wasn’t understeer or oversteer at least, it was just neutral, but with a low limit. At least the track wasn’t that hard to learn (not learning how to go really fast, just learning where to go). I was satisfied with my session and figured that even with a lot more track time, I wouldn’t be going much faster, because I was near the (low) limit of the car on many of the turns. Carl timed me in the 1:08’s.

It was time for Carl’s race and I was back at my flagging station. Despite the large number of entrants, the race went off without incident for Carl. However, several crashes eventually caused a general black flag to clear the cars and debris. They lined the cars up in the pit single file. I went to see how Carl was doing and to tell him I believed the rule to be “racing straight out of the pits”. Carl found this hard to believe. The race was re-started and, sure enought,  you were allowed to pass right out of the pits. Carl wasn’t prepared to risk a black flag for an illegal pass, so he didn’t take advantage. He finished the race without any problems, ending up 4th in class. The race hadn’t gone the full 18 laps. I thought Carl was disappointed with the shortened race thing and the fact that my car was pretty sloppy on this track, but he told me he hadn’t had so much fun racing since his early years in Quebec regional racing.

It was almost time for the enduro. We filled the car with as much gas as humanly possible to make sure we could go 60 minutes without fuel starvation. With my car, this usually happens in right-handers, and every turn but one is a right-hander at Lime Rock.

Because of a computer glitch, we weren’t ordered according to our qualifying times but rather by class. Carl who was to drive the first part, wasn’t too happy : since we were in a theoretically fast class, we were starting near the front of the pack, with a Nascar-type truck and other beasts behind us. Carl wanted to run the first part because he liked starts, especially with a 45-car field. The plan was for Carl to run 20 or 25 minutes and I would do the rest of the hour. In our class, there was a Porsche 944, an old Alfa Giulia, an RX7 Turbo II (is that really fair?) and a 280Z. We knew we were far from being the fastest, but we also knew we could run an hour without refueling and that we would pull off a quick driver change.

The group got the green flag and Carl was off to an excellent start. After one lap, Carl had passed a few cars and a few had passed him. There were no fewer than 12 Spec Miatas in our race, almost all SCCA guys. These 12 cars all started behind and it was clear that most of them were faster than us. Carl was getting on pretty well and came in for the driver change after about 20 minutes. We managed a lightning quick driver change and I was off.

What’s fun about a 45-car field on a small track is that there is always someone to battle, even when you’re slow. I was passing cars from the slower classes while getting lapped or passed by cars from the faster classes. I had a few nice exchanges with a Dodge Charger, a Toyota MR2, a Mustang and a new Mini. I had a little off because I basically lost my concentration when I saw a NASCAR truck coming up to lap me on the start finish straight and expected him to get by before turn 1. I lost sight of him and didn’t know if he was going to do it or not. I went off at the entrance of turn 1. When I tried to give it gas to get back on the track, I realized that the engine wasn’t running so I turned the key (I was still coasting the whole time) and restarted the engine and got back on to the track . The whole incident cost me only 8 seconds according to the stopwatch.

A group of 5 or 6 Spec Miatas that were running together caught up to me and the Mini and they passed us very aggressively, basically acting like they were the only ones out there. The field was black-flagged to clear some of the smashed or broken cars. Most cars didn’t come in for the flag and the few of us that did waited while they ran another lap. I mentioned this to the official, since it was an enduro and the transponder would register an extra lap for them. I don’t know if they took this into account.

After the restart, I was having fun out there. I was battling with an Alfa Romeo Milano 3.0 which had really good straight-line speed. All of a sudden, the back end started to come around on me for seemingly no reason. While trying to catch it, I realized that I had just been hit in the corner by a red Spec Miata. Not only that, he was still pushing the side of my car because I guess he didn’t lift off the gas since the initial contact. Basically, he was turning me around NASCAR style. I kept my foot in and drove off the track safely. While I was waiting for traffic to allow me to get back on the track, I was happy to note that the jerk in the Miata was also off the track, but pointed in the wrong direction. Looks like you get what you give. After the race, Carl asked me how I lost 10 seconds on that lap, and I showed him the dent under the taillight, the dent in the bumper cover and the red streak stretching the whole rear half of the car.

I continued on my way. The race seemed to be longer than 60 minutes. We got the “2 laps remaining” notice and I had a fuel starvation cut-out in turn one. There were 2 red Miatas behind me and I wondered if one of them was the one who bumped me. I was trying to keep them behind me while driving in a way that wouldn’t slosh my remaining fuel all to one side. I was losing time, but there were no cutouts… until the last turn of the last lap… after which a red Miata passed me just before the finish line. Still, in the same situation two weeks before, I was trying to keep a slower car behind me with fuel starvation and ended up sticking it in the gravel trap on the last lap of the enduro, so crossing the finish line was an improvement. I just hope the Miata driver doesn’t think he made some sort of miracle past based on extreme talent.

As I had suspected, the race had lasted more than an hour. We finished with 55 laps. With an average of 1:08 or 1:09, that makes 63 minutes of racing, without counting the time for the pit stop and the black flag wait.

As far as our class, we were faster than the Alfa and Porsche (which broke anyway) and the 280Z and RX7 Turbo also DNF’d. Result for us: another class win for the Civic. Go attrition! So for 2003 : 3 enduros, 3 class wins, all unexpected. At the trophy presentation, the presenter said “here are the 2 guys that got up at 1:00 in the morning and came here with no sleep from Canada to race!”. People were surprised to hear our little story and that we had actually driven there with the actual race car.
For Carl and me, it was mission accomplished. Another event in the season that was supposed to have ended 2 weeks ago, another 2 trophies. We had taken a risk by coming down with no crew or support vehicle, but everything worked out perfectly (except maybe for the dents and scratches). We were tired, but not too tired for the drive home. Thanks to a “good” average speed, we were home at 11:15 pm, still grinning. The whole trip lasted only 21 hours, but it felt longer, maybe because there was no sleep in those 21 hours.

To conclude, I’d like to thank Carl for joining me in the craziness. I don’t think he has any regrets. I also have to thank my sponsor TRAC Racing and my fiancée Alex for letting me duck out of both a brunch and a dinner we had planned for the day. I again highly recommend EMRA events to anyone who races. 

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