As with all stories worth telling, or reading, and indeed this episode of Cap’n Jake’s Racing Log, to properly set the mood for the story, a bit of backstory is required.
Cast your mind, if you will, back to around October of 2012. It’s fall, with that tinge of winter starting to blow in on the air. The leaves crunch underfoot, your breath starts to steam in front of you in the mornings, and here in Colorado, the mountains are ablaze with the color of changing Aspen trees.
If you’re like me, then you were getting ready to close up shop for the winter, still
perhaps glowing with the memory of Runoffs, or your last exciting race of the year. Maybe you were thinking a bit about Thanksgiving, Christmas, and perhaps any winter sports you enjoy. Skiing? Snowmobiling? Arctic Hammerschlagen? Whichever.
Regardless of your offseason proclivities, there is one annual post-season ritual that many of us racers must go through to varying degrees: Convincing our significant others not to make us sleep in the shop over winter for having spent all summer with “the other girlfriend.” It starts a little bit like “Hey Honey…how ya doin’ Punkin?”
Having gone through that refrain, my particular version of the “Racer’s Olive Branch” was to begin helping in the task of sorting out the details of an overseas trip to visit some of the
Amy’s relatives in Vietnam, and do a bit of sightseeing while there. We planned the trip for February, keeping in mind that the usual season opener for the F1000 series is at Thunderhill, at the end of March. Surely, a month or so would be plenty of time to get the car ready for the first race of the year, right?
Fast Forward to November, and off the car went to winter camp to get a bit of fabrication work done, scheduled to be complete around mid January, in PLENTY of time for me to get my ducks in a row before leaving for Vietnam…right? Down went my butt onto the couch to watch the Formula One Grand Prix of the Americas, and off went my imagination to think about what it must be like to run that race track at Circuit of the Americas. Someday, Someday, can you imagine? Wow.
Cue the Lone Star Region SCCA, who, in fits and starts, announced to the outside world that there would be a season-opening Double National Majors race at Circuit of the Americas,
and we amateur pilots were all welcome to come down and take part. The date?: March 8th, 2013.
Now my blood pressure was raised a bit. That date left me not even a week of preparation after returning from Vietnam to get the car ready. Maybe I wouldn’t go. Nah, ya gotta go.
Hmm…not sure that’s wise. Wait, how can you not go? You know it’s just goin to be a circus, right?
Internal debate raged.
Reasons not to go began to add up. My normal crew (read: Ma and Pa) weren’t going to be able to go, meaning I’d be on my own to look after the car. Rumors of folks having to
pay expensive track-repair fees after accidents and offs began to trickle in. The fabrication work was delayed, meaning the car wouldn’t be back until just before I was at the end
of February. Worry about the number of competitiors led to incessant forum chatter. The inveitable naysayers weighed in: “Waste of time,” they said.
“Goin’ to be one big mess,” said others, “Goin to be a circus down there,” filled in the rest.
In the end, one driving desire overrode all of those: I simply could not pass up the opportunity, potentially one-time, to go race at this brand new, world-class Formula One facility, and get to experience it myself from the driver’s seat.
Not go? You must be kidding.
And so it was, with my sleep-deprived body still locked into some 14-hours-off East Asian time zone, after 4 days of thrashing to get the car built back up, a fresh crew and I found ourselves pointed due south on the road to Austin Texas.
First day of School
I don’t remember all of the details of my first day of school, but I imagine I felt something like this when Mom dropped me off. From the wide-open toll road on the outskirts of Austin,
you drop onto an unassuming offramp, which sports a small sign promising “Circuit of the Americas” up ahead. You make a one turn, and you see the large observation tower standing proud like the tip of an iceberg above the rolls and swells of the Texas plains.
As you come a bit closer, more and more becomes clear, until you find yourself at the relatively unassuming entrance to the track. Much like Road America, you come in at the low point of the track, in this case, down by turn 20. Up to your right looms a cliff that seems impossibly high, sitting above even the grand stands, or almost anything else in the surrounding terrain. This looming hulk is Turn 1, ascending upwards sharply before plunging even more sharply downwards into turn 2. As if I wasn’t intimidated enough by the size and scope of the complex, that reminder up above you like the eye of Sauron was enough to raise my heartrate as we prepared our pit space on Wednesday night.
The first of a few difficulties made itself known as we waited to enter. Ultimately, we waited for about 45 minutes as the paddock folks tried to sort out where exactly to stick us.
Eventually we found ourselves in the “Upper” paddock, which is down at the end of T12, and extends southwards towards T13. The “Lower” paddock extends along the main grandstands, all the way from T20 down to where the hill begins for T1. Having gotten past the first confusion of the weekend, we got ourselves set up, and began working through where exactly everything was.
We headed off to our hotel in Bastrop for the night, and returned in the morning early to see how the test day would go.
A Dash of This, A Pinch of That
And, happily, the test day went well. Despite a preponderance of red flags due to folks successfully finding – and exceeding – the limits of their cars and the track, I was able to get a feel for the track.
And what a track. My take is that the circuit offers a little bit of everything – it’s like the best of Road America, Miller Motorsports Park, and Road Atlanta all mixed into one. The recipe
of trying to take bits from the best circuits around the world has suceeded quite handily, in this humble scribe’s opinion.
How ’bout a lap?
You approach T1 in 5th or 6th gear, and the road comes up sharply to meet you, making the car brake like superman. A timing line across the track marks your brake point. The actual turn itself is table-top flat, meaning that you’d sure better be off the brakes as the hill flattens out (remember this tidbit). As you crest the hill, first the front, and then the rear of the car squirm in turn. Down and around you go into Turn 2, flat-out, and making
your way up to 5th gear from 1st gear. Feels like Road Atlanta. Turn 3 is blind under
the bridge, but it’s flat out once you learn your turn-in. Then you’re into the esses. Lift a touch and maybe a dab of brakes for Turns 4 and 5, high-speed bends that test the car’s downforce and the driver’s bravery. T6 closes in a bit on the exit, blind up over a hill, so you feel your way around until T7 comes up to meet you with a bunch of camber and compression, and you meet it with third gear and full throttle. T8-T9 are a short left-right to test how the car transitions, and you sprint down to another blind T10, up to 5th gear before braking hard for the hairpin, one of the few turns you can actually see when you turn in for it.
Now you can let the car stretch its legs, all the way up through the gears down the rolling back straight. All that downforce that helped you through the esses is now your enemy, so how do you find the balance? Over a hillock and down you go, plunging down
into T12 on the brakes hard. Now begins the tight section, where the car’s mechanical grip had better be good, and you, the driver, had better be looking ahead, autocross style. Finesse your way through T13-14-15, all in 1st, 2nd and 3rd gear. Out of 15 you come, shooting for 16-17-18, which really is one corner. Yet again it’s blind around crests and rises, but keep it planted, and again feel your way to the right line, grabbing 5th gear as you hit the apex of 18. Down quick to 3rd for the deceptively quick T19, which falls off at exit, making the car want to slide. Miss the apex and you’ll be sorry! Make the final short run up to T20, find second gear and plenty of curbing, and get your best exit down the front straight, watching for the hill in the distance that marks T1.
Again! Again! I feel like a kid getting to eat cookie dough out of the bowl – this is my favorite recipe ever.
I got out of the car’s last session feeling pretty good. Nobody knew official times of course, but it seemed like I was at least kinda-sorta near the sharp end of the times we heard
in FB, so that was encouraging. I hadn’t lost 5 seconds over the winter. Small victories.
Practice complete, we dutifully found registration (out front in the main lot) and tech (down in the northernmost garage), and packed up for the night, feeling pretty good about the
possibilities for the weekend.
Friday: And Now, the Weather
Friday, and we found ourselves with a bit different proposition. Much hand-wringing had been done on the topic of the questionable forecast for the weekend, and on Friday, we got some of it.
As opposed to the comfortable, 60-70 degree sunshine from Thursday, Friday gave us a gray, cool and wet day. Just enough sprinkle kept falling to keep the track juuuuusttttt that little bit moist, making life extremely interesting for everybody now trying to learn the track, as well as those of us who had had the day before to learn our way around.
As usual it was an excercise in traffic management, with the Atlantics and CSR’s struggling mightily to get any sort of grip or temperature in their tires, yet always rocketing away on the straightaways, just in time to hold you up again in the corners. I discovered that this car doesn’t put power down anywhere near as well as the DSR, oddly enough, so there’s some questions to answer there.
For P2 it was much the same story, even to the point where we mounted rains for a little while, since it looked like we might need them. Fortunately, things dried out just enough
by our session that there was a dry line, so out we all went on our slicks.
Thursday we’d put an experimental front wing on the car, and decided to stay with it for the sake of consistency, since there was still a definite factor of me trying to learn my way around the track. Nobody really set any kind of special times in the slippery conditions, but still, we used them to set the order for qualifying on Saturday.
Up until this point, things still seemed to be going relatively well. Not much chatter was around the paddock about problems or difficulties with the event. Even the Spec Miatas – be still my heart – were not causing any of the mayhem that we expected from their quarter. The worst that any of us knew about was a big off into T11 from one driver, resulting in a lot of trucks and a shortened session.
It was at the end of that final session on Friday afternoon that we came in after another yellow flag, but they almost immediately let us back out. As I accelerated up the hill I thought to myself “hmm…car seems louder than normal, I wonder what’s up?” Nothing felt wonky, so I kept going, but kept an ear out, just in case. Our session ended just one lap later. Back in the pits, I pulled the engine cover off, and lo and behold, where my oxygen sensor had previously been, was a nice silver dollar sized hole in the collector. It’s never boring, remember?
I began scrambling around paddock, looking for the combination of welder, power for said welder, and a human to run the powered welder. I finally found the combination by borrowing a TIG from Jeff Shafer at Factory 48, and power from Critter’s Toter down in the main paddock. Brandon Dixon and Wren Keith were kind enough to introduce me to Nick Fuhs, who they regard as perhaps the finest fabricator in the lower 48. I loaded up
the gas, welder, and Mr. Fuhs onto the most terrifying golf cart I’ve ever piloted, and we headed down to Critter’s to weld.
The time now being around 8:00, and now well past dark in an early Texas evening, we had a few challeneges. First was, the, uh, dark. Turned out that wasn’t so bad, as Nick pointed out that as soon as he began welding, the dark wouldn’t be such an issue, now would it? However, the breeze was a bit difficult. In the end, the final configuration was Nick hunched over the flat bed of the golf cart welding the header, while I held a large shipping
blanket over us both to try to keep the breeze out. Despite the generator frequently tripping its overload circuit, Nick got the job done in amazing fashion, operating the TIG with his knee while I tried to keep the blanket over us. At one point Garrett Kletjian hollered out “What are you guys doing under there anyway?” From under the helmet, torch still alight on the header, Nick murmured, “I just ask that you buy me dinner first…”
At long last, the job was finished, and I owe a big thanks and gratitude to Nick Fuhs of Fuhs Fabrication for helping me continue my weekend.
Saturday: In the Big Top
Race day, and time for our qualifying session. Time for us all to get going. We’ve all learned the track, right? Errrr….yeah.
The name of the game is finding yourself a clear lap. In a gaggle of slow-to-warm Atlantics, CSR’s and DSR’s spanning nearly 20 seconds a lap, that’s a tough challenge. In this instance,
I only partially succeeded, as once again our session was shortened. I was able to bank a mid 2:12 lap, which was good enough for just 7th fastest. JR and Lawrence were in the 2:09’s,
Coop in the 10’s, and the Stohrs found ourselves in the 2:12’s, with Lucian and Jose just ahead of me on the grid. So, the gap was about the same as Runoffs – around 3 seconds to the quickest cars.
Onward to the race – can you feel the butterflies?
Around the long pace lap we went, everybody’s tires pretty much well and truly warm by the end, as we finally gathered up around T18.
Our split-start in F1000 was pretty darn orderly, actually. From what I could see, down at T1, JRO might have gotten in a bit hot, and Steve Ott came out of T1 in the lead.
JR and Coop were on the outside grass/astroturf, and came together slightly. Also, maybe some contact from Lawrence and Steve in the Astra, but through it we all went, everybody
getting sorted out.
Back in my seat, I got a good start, and picked up a few positions on the run down to T1, taking a far inside line, past Lucian. Into T2, however, that was offset by a few, ah, unrealistic starts from the back of the grid, two cars flying around the outside
of all of us as we waited for the green to fly. I shuffled in behind David Burkett and Alex Mayer as we funneled through T3. I got an excellent run as we came up to T8, but thought better of trying to make a move stick, and Alex swept across my nose, missing the front tire and wing by just inches. I kept momentum up, and braked by Alex into T11.
Down to T11 we went, though as we exited, Steve’s Astra gave a wobble and pulled off to the right, the right-rear wheel askew, his race done. Alex and I kept side-by-side all the way down to T11, finally making the pass stick as we turned in for turn 12.
Around we went, getting used to the cars and tires as everything started coming up to temperature. I found myself now behind David Burkett in his black Firman. The next lap, I pulled the same move on David as I had on Alex — have I mentioned how great these PFC brakes are? — sneaking up the inside of T11 before turning onto the long straight. David cannily tucked right into my draft as I swept over to the left trying to defend. David
drafted right back on by about halfway down the straight, allowing me to tuck back under him. Down to T12 we went, and I popped out, waited just a hair on the brakes, and managed to outbrake David again into T11, once again only able to make the pass stick after the long straightaway was done.
If it’s not obvious by now, have I mentioned: Circuit of the Americas races really, really well?
Now I set my sights on Jose G. in the ex JR Osborne Stohr, who was looking very racy indeed. Working in my advantage was a backmarker DSR, who held Jose up badly through the fast T16-17-18 complex, allowing me to close up drastically. Just ahead was Coop too, still in sight around the sweepinpg corners.
Ultimately, that was the end to our fun though, as the big problem was response to the full-course yellow, caused by a large off in T11 again. Many of us saw the flags, many of us did not. For my part, I saw each flag, but it wasn’t until I saw yellow at three corners in a row that I was able to figure out that they were full-course double-yellows. There’s been all manner
of threads on the topic, but it is true that it was more difficult than normal to see the yellows.
That said, a few of the backmarker D’s that we had passed came roaring around us after a while, making me wonder what on earth was going on. In the end, we circulated for a while until we reached half distance, and they checkered us in, race done. The results were JRO, Lawrence, and Coop, with the three Stohrs in 4-5-6 behind. Ultimately, post-race drama ensued in the podium positions, with pass-under-yellow flag protests demoting JR to 4th for the day.
As a further insult to our 4-lap shortened race, scheduling and vehicle recovery delays meant that we wouldn’t get our second qualifying session. Rather, we would grid for the race by our fast laps from Saturday, which put me 4th in the field.
Sunday: Circus Act – Falling Off the High Wire
The weather changing its mind yet again, Sunday dawned bright, sunny, and warm. Overnight, big rain had flooded one of the track’s access tunnels, and word is that a tornado warning/watch had been in effect some twenty miles from the track.
Owing to the previous day’s delays, we only had a one-and-done shot at the race. No Q2, no morning warmup, just hop in and stretch your legs boys! For most of the day we just hung around watching the skies and deciding if there was anything to do. We decided to change sprockets to 15/47 instead of the 46 that was on there. Didn’t seem to make much difference. The data shows 140mph on both of the laps I did, but both of those were in bigtime drafts behind the Astra and the Citation – see below. The only other technical issue of hte weekend was a hunting idle when the car was hot. George had me lower the idle down to around the 1300-1400 level, so we’ll see if that solves it or not.
Down to the grid we went. I was in 4th, behind Coop and ahead of Jose, having just barely pipped him for quicker lap by about three hundredths of a second. I knew that this would be
a close race between us.
Around the pace lap we went, and the green flew. This time I went a bit to the outside, seeing Lucian in my mirrors and trying to block him from making a run up the outside. As I braked for T1, I saw David Burkett come rocketing up the inside lane, and kept my line wide to make sure he wouldn’t collect me. That put me out on the outside of T1’s exit, running across the astroturf, and back across towards the apex of 2. From nowhere came Steve Ott, sweeping around me and up ahead. Around him went the Philly Motorsports car, and even John Labrie I saw up the road in his gorgeous new Phoenix. So, I found myself back several spots, and set about trying to make them up.
Immediately the Philly car removed itself as a problem, understeering wide in 7, off into the marbles and dirt, putting me right behind Steve, who was bottled up behind John. The three of us poured through T8, T9, T10 and ran down to T11, Steve pulling inside to
pass John, and me pulling in even further to pass Steve. Steve and I went side-by-side through 11, and pulled the trigger on corner exit, inches apart, drag racing our way down to T12 Unfortunately, the Stohr’s drag came into play here, Steve pulling out healthily. I tucked into the draft to attempt a re-re-re-pass, but when I pulled out, the car could not keep accelerating. I tried out-braking him into T12, but he stayed around the outside, and was gone, leaving nothing but a trail of leaking fuel.
We went around T13-14-15-16, but he was able to gap me considerably in that span, and was out of reach very quickly. On to the front straight we went, and Steve quickly dispatched David Burkett into T1. I closed up quickly in the esses, David’s car wagging back and forth, looking for grip. I thought I’d have another opportunity to pass up into T11 and I was right, getting down inside David once again.
This time David learned his lesson though, and swung to the inside as we went down to T12. Again he drafted by me, and I had nothing to do but try to tuck back in. This time, he had too much of a run, and I was too far back to make any pass attempt. I stuck to his tail through 13-14-15-16, and we continued around onto the front straight, me just a few car lengths behind.
…And this is where it came unravelled, and the highwire act came to a close.
Remember that bit about making sure to be off the brakes when T1 flattens out? I didn’t get that done. Based on my previous outbraking moves, I thought I’d be able to get by David again in T1, and make a gap through the esses. I left it too late, and had to keep just a bit too much pressure on the brakes over the hump. The back of the car stepped out just a bit,
and I corrected, but the resulting angle put me in David’s path as he turned in. My right rear clouted his left rear, and we crunched together, getting hopelessly interlocked. Day done.
Queue an embarrassing 10 or so minutes as we sat in our cars, separated by feet but worlds apart, waiting for the trucks to come get us. It was now that the big finale of the Circus of the Americas went into full swing, with multiple problems with folks not seeing the yellows, passing under the yellow, and a confusin restart with a green flag showing at the same time as double yellow flags at different points on the track. Confusing to say the least, and a topic to definitely be revisited in the rulebook.
I’ll spare you the annoying details, but eventually I was able to get the car back and assess the damage: a bent RR wheel, and a nose with broken nose mounting pylons. Argh. First time I’ve hit anybody in nearly 10 years of racing, and I’m really hoping it’s a long time until I do it again, if ever. Not a good feeling. I did eventually find David in the pits, and
he was very gracious accepting my apology, quipping “it takes a good man to know when to apologize”. Thanks for your good humor, David.
So, on that sour note, our weekend at CoTA ended. Next was the usual rush to get packed up and start the long tow home, in this case a bit quieter than normal.
So now it’s time to look forward to the next race. Still being approximately three seconds off the pace is still tough, though if there’s a silver lining, nothing has changed in the car since the Runoffs to try and correct that. Hopefully if we can get some of the mechanical and aerodynamic changes in place as the season goes on, that will start to close the gap somewhat. The challenge is always fun, let’s see what we can do…
So was it worth it? 1 week, 1 test day, 1 qualifier, and about 6 race laps? Hard to say. Will I go back? Absolutely. I’ll be there with my big shoes
and red nose for the next time the Circus of the Americas comes to town.
You Tube: Saturday Race
You Tube: Sunday Race Start