25 Hours of Thunderhill – Race Start

The time just before the start of the race is an event all by itself. Every crew member is on the starting grid, it’s literally packed with people. Everyone stands facing the flag for the national anthem, the guys playing the bagpipes walking past the cars all gridded up, the fly-over by the fighter jets, just a few hundred feet up. It’s an awesome site. So I’ve heard. I wouldn’t know. I’m always in the race car getting settled in for the opening stint of the race. Not once have I actually SEEN the jets fly over. I’m always kind of bummed about that as I hear them scream overhead, but that feeling fades as fast as the sound of their engines, because my focus comes back to the start of the race. Easily my favorite part.

To me, the race start is the most dangerous and most exciting. All seventy something cars are tightly bunched up and hitting the throttle simultaneously. Invariably, there’s always those few that think they are going to make up significant ground at the start. Like the positions they gain right now is what is going to be what puts them in the winner’s circle 25 hours later. Of course it doesn’t. And outside of the car every driver will certainly understand that concept. But man, get a bunch of racers together and for some of them, logic goes out the window. There’s always some stupidity going on at the race.

The challenge that I like is making my way through the craziness at the race start and keeping the car out of trouble and healthy. This year was going to be even more difficult since the rear tires were so slick when cold. I was concerned about being on the inside of turn one considering that I spun there on my outlap last time I went out cold!

We had two full warm-up laps before the green flag dropped and I took full advantage of it. I worked that wheel back and forth like a two year old working a Logitech G25! My arms were tired after the first lap! By the end of the second lap I was looking for my drink bottle. I was relieved when the race actually started so I could take a breather.

I worked into the first lap very slowly. Seemed like the back of the car had more grip than I was expecting, meaning working the tires probably helped quite a bit, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I let a few people go by me on the first lap, knowing once the tires came up to full temp that our Scion tC would be faster. Based on our qualifying time of 1:59, I knew we had the ability to go 2 seconds per lap faster than the cars around us. So I let them go, knowing those positions would come back to me.

Starting the second lap I started pushing the tires a bit harder and the car responded well. Sure enough, I caught up to the other cars in short order. I had a fun battle with an Acura that I think was being driven by Bob Endicott. I forget where I got past him, but I wasn’t pulling on him too hard yet as the tires were still settling in, so he was right back on me when I caught a very slow Miata in turn 11. I was stuck behind the Miata through 12 and swung out to the right to go around him in turn 13. Of course the Miata driver doesn’t see me, and tracks all the way out to the exit, putting me four wheels off in the dirt on the right side. I wanted to get away from this idiot as quickly as possible, so I kept my right foot in it and passed him in the grass. When I got all four tires back on the track, the Acura was alongside me. He must’ve sneaked around the left side when the Miata driver was busy trying to kill me without knowing it. The Acura had a fender on me, but I was on the inside for turn 14 and stayed in it. Once we got to the braking zone the corner was mine and whoever was driving the Acura conceeded.

I settled in and started driving my laptimes lower. Traffic becomes a factor very early in this race. Within just a few laps backmarkers are being lapped and getting in the way. Clumps of cars get stuck together that have no place being together. Sports racers tangled up with Miatas because the Miata guys are busy racing each other and are completely unaware of the car that’s 30 seconds a lap faster waiting for them to stop their shenanigans so he can get by cleanly. Sorry if I sound bitter, but I’m bitter. I’ve been run off the track too many times by Miatas lately!

As I attempted to get past a gaggle of slower cars I switched back to our high boost map for a little more oomph. Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. The engine sounded like it had a boost leak and had a big drop in power. I immediately radioed in to the pits and explained what was happening. They called me in that lap to check it out. This is only about 30 minutes into the race.

The crew checked under the hood and couldn’t see anything immediate, so we had to go back paddock to take the splitter off and check out the bottom of the intercooler and boost hoses. After about 30 minutes of inspecting clamps and tighening everything they couldn’t find anything obvious. They sent me back out to see if the problem had been resolved but it remained. I noticed that if I only put in about 40% throttle, the car would pull very well and felt strong, but beyond that, I could feel the engine fighting itself. Back into the paddock for some more investigating, this time with the data. It showed that we were overboosting by quite a bit. Our target boost was 13 psi, but we were seeing up to 27psi at times. The ecu wasn’t mapped for boost pressure that high and Mike had pulled massive amounts of timing to protect the motor in that range. Mike sent me back out with instructions to run at partial throttle while they considered what to do.

Driving to engine feel was a new and interesting experience for me. I’d put in throttle until I felt the engine go just slightly soft, then back off until the power came back. Once I found the sweet spot that the engine liked, that became my new “wide open throttle”. Then it was just a matter of trying to put down consistent laps while the guys worked the problem. I was able to get the car into the 1:59’s driving this way, which was surprisingly good, and I was prepared to finish out my stint this way since I’d gotten used to it.

The crew wanted to resolve the problem, though, and called me back in. The guys had determined that it must be a faulty wastegate controller and decided to remove it and just run off the wastegate spring. When I went back out the problem was gone and the car was still pulling strong. It had cost us a ton of time and it was very disappointing. I think we had spent over 45 minutes in the pits and you just can’t recover that kind of time nowadays in an endurance race. So, barely after the race had begun, our chances of finishing strong were gone. Now it was all about just having fun, enjoying racing and the team cameraderie that comes about in these very long events.

I’d like to say that the rest of my stint was pretty uneventful, but there were too many Miatas to let THAT happen. I’d completely settled in and was turning fast laps by this time. I came up on a Miata in turn 2 and was on his bumper all the way around this long sweeping left hander. As the Miata exited to the right, I held a tighter line and started accelerating past him on the left. Turn 3 is nice and wide and there’s room for two cars to go through there side by side. As we approached turn 3 virtually side by side the Miata came over to the left very quickly. The guy had no fucking clue that I was there. Again, I was run clean off the track by a Miata. If I hadn’t driven off the track he would have crashed us both out. I had a brief moment where the car started to pitch to the right, but was able to catch it and rode it out almost to the tire barrier way off the track. I managed to bring the car back on track undamaged and continued on. I finally caught this moron on the front straight and wagged my finger at him out the driver side as I passed him. The index, not the middle finger. Don’t know if he got the message. This guy didn’t seem to use his eyes much anyway.

The rest of my stint went well. Despite taking to the dirt twice for evasive Miata maneuvers, the car was solid and fast. The times kept coming down which was a very good sign. I managed a 1:56.7 in the opening stint of the race and the tires were still in great shape for Mark’s first stint. Turning a lap almost 2 seconds faster than last years fastest lap showed how effective the new fwings and wider front tires were working. The car had great front end grip for a FWD and was very stable in the high speed stuff. I got Mark strapped in and scooted around pit wall to join all the guys and share my silly Miata stories.

I was really looking forward to my next stint that would roll around in about 6 hours. By that time it would be well into night, one of my favorite times to drive. If the car was still healthy, it was going to be fun! Except for the not seeing part, but hey, I like a challenge. 🙂

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