No question, this has been one of the most fun, dramatic and stung-out weekend I’ve been through. Special thanks to Team 949Racing (Emilio, William, Mike, John, Manny and Geri) and 2nd Chance Roadster (Alex and Erik) for an enjoyable, memorable experience. My first-ever race outside of racing school and it had to be an endurance race.
I’ll try to divulge as much detail as I can as I still remember it now, without repeating myself too much. To do that, I’ll leave links to the posts I’ve already typed out for those details.
6/16 – Thursday night summary: Did last-minute work on William’s red ’99 enduro car until 3am Friday morning, as we had to arrive at Buttonwillow Raceway by mid- to late-afternoon. The goals of this Chumpcar endurance race were to fully test the new LED headlights on track, give me my first experience driving an endurance race and to train our skills for night-time driving.
6/17-18 – Friday setup and Saturday morning race day summary: Got the car setup and teched. Had time to chill out and walk the Buttonwillow #1 CW course to show our guest driver Geri the track. Tested awesome LED headlights, but the newly-rebuilt engine was found to be not well-prepped. Radiator fan fuse blew while testing the lights, overheating the engine and at the same time the water pump pulley was loose.
Fortunately, nothing bad happened from that and we started the race on-time at 9am Saturday morning. However, Geri noted to the team a clutch-slipping problem. She came into the pits and Emilio knew immediately what the problem was. A bizarre upper rear oilpan seal failure (first thought to be a real main seal failure) started seeping oil and contaminating the clutch, which eventually made its way out of the bell housing of the transmission and onto the tarmac. With only 8 laps completed, this was the end of the red car’s 14-hour race.
6/18 – Last Short Update before my first stint: However, a phone call brought our hope to life again as William remember he had his old ’03 Spec Miata (recently sold to a friend) and asked if he could borrow it and pick it up in nearby San Luis Obisbo. I didn’t care if the team was dead last in the standings at this point. To me, I want to race and try my best to drive the best I can. Better to start late than never. Team 949Racing reentered the race 6.5 hours after the 9am start with the black Spec Miata at 3:30pm.
Now that the backstory is spelled out above, I can tell the rest of the story after resting a bit and settling down at the comfort of my own house (and ease of typing on a keyboard rather than small smartphone).
After my last update, I was ready to do my first-ever laps in a real race series. With only 7.5 hours left to race in the 14-hour race, William and Emilio decided to let only me and Geri (an experienced Spec Miata racing driver Emilio flew in from Arizona) get more hours for driver training and experience in night driving.
William’s black ’03 Spec Miata was running strong as Geri finished her first stint (about 1.5 hours) in the car. Geri did a brilliant job learning the track quickly and getting us out of last place overall against other cars that were still running in the race, despite us missing nearly half the race (started 6.5 hours after the 9am start). The driver change and refueling went smoothly and quickly as I rode into the late afternoon.
I flew out of the pits for my first-ever laps as a wheel-to-wheel racer. The first thing that came to mind was “don’t screw this up.” I can’t tell you how nervous I had to learn a bunch of new things at once. Driving a fast lap was one thing, but being consistently fast for 60-90 minutes straight while passing other cars is another. I had trouble with this early as William was trying to coach me on the radio about planning my passes and strategizing ahead of time. Not that I didn’t know how, but my lap times were definitely not showing that, which is the bottom line that the team was looking for. For the first half of my first stint, I was losing on average 2-3 seconds per lap due to traffic. During the latter half of the stint, it got down to 1-2 seconds per lap, but I definitely need to improve on that over the next few months.
And speaking of radios, that’s the other thing I had to cope with. I’ve never had to talk while driving (with exceptions to instructing in HPDE track days and to myself for focus for a fast time trial lap), not to mention with a radio system like you see in Formula One and in NASCAR. And to make it extra hard, William and Emilio decided that they’d have some fun distracting me and cracking jokes at random. I remember a couple of comments in particular that went something like, “So, are you having fun?” or “WATCH OUT!” when there’s nothing there. But I got more comfortable with the system eventually and started to play along. At one point, I even started to jokingly for the crew to order me a cheeseburger and fries before I ended my stint.
As the laps went by in my first stint, I started to realize that despite us having a relatively slower car compared to William’s ’99 red enduro car we intended to use, our team still had the fastest car out there. It’s obvious since this is a Chumpcar race (we were not classed for the series competition, prizes and awards, AKA exhibition class, or EC) and the main series competitors are in low-budget odd-ball cars with street tires. I ended up easily setting the race’s fastest lap at 2:15.115, about 4.4 seconds faster than the best lap set by our nearest competitor, which was Hennessey in their E36 3-series coupe, also in EC. Yes, THE Hennessey, a high-profile tuning shop famous for producing specialty cars such as their twin-turbo Dodge Vipers. I even had to do a dicey pass with two wheels in the dirt because that car was giving me grief on the straights (definitely was fast on the straights) and I had to pass in the technical sections to prevent more time lost being stuck behind it for the rest the lap.
If you thought I had enough to worry about, it wasn’t over yet. About 45-50 minutes into my stint, the black car had the throttle cable come loose, disabling me on track with minimal throttle control. It was disabling enough that I had to be towed back to the paddock for a quick repair, but costed us about 10-15 minutes total, including the tow time.
About 45 minutes later, one of my most intense driving experience up this point came to an end with Geri taking over for the last daylight stint. By that time, I was hot, sweaty and adrenaline-filled and our deficit to Hennessey was now down to about 60 laps (started 90+ laps behind Hennessey when we rejoined the race with the black car). And I knew right there and then, I was loving it. I couldn’t wait for my next stint. I did get what I wished for, but not in the way I expected. Since the black car was not ready for endurance racing (no auxiliary lights and half-used brake pads), Geri ran into the problem of running out of pads and had to come in early, and unexpectedly. By then, I was barely ready and dressed to climb back into the car. By the time I finished my first outlap, the sun was falling into the horizon. This was now the new frontier for me.
Darker and darker the night became, but slowly and surely, the stock OEM headlights I knew were not cut out for racing at night. And to think I used to race like this in the twisty mountain passes during my younger street racing days, I never thought I’d ever had to recall using my then useless and dangerous skills in my past life for a new purpose. After realizing I’ve sort of done this before, I got over it the fact that I was racing blind and relied purely on rhythm, feeling the road, using distant lit objects/buildings as reference and mentally recalling every corner of the track I’ve done 100s of times before to get me up to speed again. Using the berms and feeling them out to know where I am without seeing them was something I never done. At one point on the radio, I told William that I was “driving by Braille.” Immediately after saying that and calming down a bit, I completed my best lap, which was a 2:20, about 5 seconds down from my fastest race lap from the daytime. Not very good in the big picture of the entire race, but still a damn side faster than any other car out there. Personally, I think everyone else in the field was probably scared shitless because there were times during this stint that I lapped a couple of cars every 3-4 laps. Even the Hennessy E36 was easy to dodge in the dark.
After about 1.5 hours, I was out of gas and Geri took over the last stint with a little less than an hour until the checkered flag. By now, the deficit to Hennessey was down to less than 50 laps, but it didn’t matter anyway in terms of trying to beat a fellow competitor. What mattered to me most was that I finally got a taste of endurance racing and what to expect for the big race I really want to race in, the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Despite the fun I had with Team 949Racing that weekend and the lessons learned from my first endurance race, I know that I have plenty of work to do to make myself better, more experienced wheel-to-wheel racer. I want to do well come time in December, to bring my A-game and passion and will to compete.