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Grand Am Cup Racing 2006

Team News And Photo Site

Mid-Ohio - June 24th, 25th 2006
For the want of a nail...

After the Grand Am VIR Race, our laundry list of todo's was longer than ever.   Maaco of Danville did a great job getting the car back together during the VIR race, but it was of course a quick repair performed at breakneck speed, and they had to reuse and repair damaged parts because there was no time to procure and install new ones.   This meant we were going to have to send the RX-8 back to the body shop to have the right rear frame rail replaced, rear quarter panel replaced, trunk lid replaced, etc, etc.

We needed a new tranny and clutch as well (you may recall I finished the VIR race with only 5th gear remaining, and I lost that on the post race cool down lap!).  We had only a week to get all of this done before the car had to be loaded up for the west coast trip to Laguna Seca and Phoenix, and it was going to be an expensive haul for a one car team to make.  So we decided soon after VIR to set our sights on the Lime Rock Race, which gave us a couple more weeks of breathing room to get the car ready.

Then, after the Phoenix race, Grand Am published a technical bulletin - they would allow the RX-8's to have another gallon of fuel, increasing our maximum allowable capacity from 17 gallons to 18 gallons.  If you watched the Phoenix race on TV, you would have seen no full course cautions - the entire race was run under the green flag.  This was largely because the number of cars was small and the ST cars and the GS cars had separate races.   I think the ST race only had about 30 cars in it.  But I'll get to the point - the RX-8's at Phoenix were not able to make the entire race on 1 pit stop, unlike the other cars.  Rotary engines need to run high rpms to make maximum power, so the RX-8 in race trim guzzles gas, like a wino chugging a bottle of Mad Dog 20-20.  With no yellow laps to extend their fuel mileage, they just couldn't go the distance.  Grand Am decided that to give the RX-8's a fighting chance, their fuel capacity would be increased by a gallon.   This meant we had one more todo - modify the fuel system to hold another gallon of gas.   Because the gas tank itself could not be made larger, the only way to do this within the rules was to convert to a dual-nozzle dry break setup from a single dry break setup. 

Here you see the new fuel filler intake for the RX-8 - two nozzles instead of one.  The extra internal fuel hose from the nozzle to the gas tank holds the additional gallon of fuel we need.   A&E Racecars of South Boston Virginia did the modifications for us, and the work they did was clean and professional.

I'm not making excuses, but because of a few delays here and there, the Lime Rock Race came and went without us.  That was a tough one for me to sit out, as I was really looking forward to it, especially since the ST cars were going to have their own separate race (like Phoenix).

We regrouped and set our sites on the Mid-Ohio race.  After the Lime Rock Race, Grand Am instituted yet another allowance to the RX-8's - they now allow the RX-8's to run an aftermarket exhaust header, allowing the engine to exhale a little better.  That should be worth a few horsepower, and allow the RX-8's to become more competitive with the rest of the field.  Unfortunately we won't have have time to get and install a new header in time for Mid-Ohio, so we will be a little down on power compared to the other RX-8's.  That will have to be corrected as soon as possible.

Saturday June 17th and Sunday, June 18th

There was a Mazda Club driving school at VIR the weekend before the Mid-Ohio race and we decided to take that opportunity to test the RX-8.   We wanted to make sure the new tranny, clutch, and fueling system were all in working order.  And if possible, we wanted to see if we could evaluate different suspension setups.  I couldn't be there on Saturday, but Danny was able to put the car through its paces that day. 

When I arrived Sunday morning, Danny said the car was running great, and sticking to the track like glue - he felt pretty good about it.  Unfortunately my first session in the car wasn't so fruitful.  I found that the engine was cutting out on the exit of certain left hand turns, so I brought the car back in after only a couple laps -- I stayed out only long enough so that I could figure out the pattern, then brought the car in.   Danny wasn't too happy with me - he wanted me to stay out on track so I could help evaluate the handling, even if the engine was cutting out occasionally, but I wouldn't do it - I was afraid we might hurt the motor if it were running lean due to fuel starvation.   The funny thing was, the car was about 3/4 full of gas, but it was still cutting out, and only on left hand turns. 

Danny got under the car and tried to find the cause, but didn't see anything that would account for it.  From the inside of the car, he removed the cover to the fuel pump and verified fuel was getting to the left side fuel "saddle", and it was completely full of gas.  So if it was fuel starvation, it wasn't your ordinary garden variety type.  We tried calling our network of mechanic/friends, looking for suggestions, but it was Sunday, and no-one was available.   Hmmm... we were a bit stumped to say the least.

Being a slot car junkie on the side, I came up with this kooky idea of installing a portable track inside my trailer (which I had also hauled up to VIR for the day).  The track is screwed down, so I can fold up the table and strap it to the side, out of the way.   Here you see my friend Matt Hensley and his father Tom enjoying a little wheel-to-wheel action on this particular "Father's Day" outing at the track.  Revell Whitener (wife of Rob Whitener, aka. Mr. Roar Racing), walked by and didn't realize that this was my trailer.  Danny and I happened to be standing nearby while these guys were racing, and Revell came up and commented "Can you believe how hard core those guys are?  They have a slot car track installed in their trailer!"

We decided on one final test for the RX-8.  Just to make doubly-sure, we topped off the fuel tank to the brim, and took it on track one more time - and were rewarded with exactly the same symptoms - it was cutting out in left hand turns. 

Ultimately we decided not to drive the RX-8 anymore.  We packed it up early, and Danny left the track so that he could take it back to his shop to work on the problem at hand.  After all, we have only two days to fix the car, reload it onto the trailer, and depart for Mid-Ohio. 

Side note to above photo:  As I was standing on the tailgate of the trailer, I tried to get a close-up pic of the "silvery mane" on Danny's back - after all, it is our trademark.  But he caught me in the act and said he would absolutely kill me if I did it. Discretion being the better part of valor, I wisely backed off.  Danny is kind of like a gentle grizzly bear - cute and fuzzy, but don't poke him with a stick!  

Monday, June 19th, one day before leaving for Mid-Ohio

I called Danny to find out the progress on the car - he said that he found some wiring under the car (I think it was a wiring harness that also connects to the second Oxygen sensor), that was unsecured and rubbing up against the exhaust.  The insulation had burned off, and he said he could recreate the problem when he ground the wire against the exhaust.  The theory was the wiring was hanging loose, and in left hand turns it was making contact with the exhaust.  So he fixed the wiring and re-secured it. Hmmm, this sounds like it might be fixed, but we won't know for sure until we test again.

Tuesday, June 20th

Today the rig is supposed to leave for Mid-Ohio.  The schedule for the upcoming Mid-Ohio Race weekend is as follows:

  • Wednesday June 21st - Race rigs parked at the track
  • Thursday June 22nd - Optional Promoter test day - 2 informal test sessions
  • Friday June 23rd - 2 practice sessions
  • Saturday June 24th - 2 practice sessions and Qualifying
  • Sunday June 25th - 1 short practice session and Race

Bill wasn't going to be able to drive our rig up to Mid-Ohio due to other commitments (we knew this well in advance), so Danny made arrangements with another truck driver.  Unfortunately this other truck driver backed out at the last possible minute.  Danny calls me in a panic.  What the heck are we going to do?  Danny was trying to get me to volunteer to drive the rig, but no way was I going to do that.  I don't have a Commercial Drivers License - I'm not qualified - what if something happened and someone got hurt?  Or what if I lost my license for driving a rig without the proper credentials?  Heck, I need my drivers license for my job as a thrill seeking international playboy spy, errrr, I mean as a boring, Pre-Sales engineer/geek for some big computer conglomerate.  Anyway, there is no fricken' way I'm going to drive that rig.

This meant that Danny would have to drive the rig up himself, and because of his schedule he wasn't going to be able to leave until Wednesday afternoon.  Its a 12 hour drive (minimum) so we would miss the rig parking deadline.   Actually, I didn't think this was that big a deal since teams are parked in order of team points, which meant we would be parked nearly last anyway - after all, we've only made 2 of 5 races.  Heck, how much worse of a parking space could they give us?  Little did I know, they could give us a pretty bad one, and this would have ramifications on how our weekend would turn out. 

I'm going to go on a brief tangent here.  Have you heard this old saying?  (I think I more or less got it right)

  • For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost...
  • For the want of the shoe, the horse was lost...
  • For the want of the horse, the rider was lost...
  • For the want of the rider, the battle was lost...
  • For the want of the battle, the kingdom was lost...
  • And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The moral:  You need to sweat the details, because you never know when small things will snowball into bigger problems.  Of course things are going to go wrong - that's a given - but proper planning and good execution can minimize the longterm effects of mistakes.

Wednesday, June 21st - "Rig Parking" day

Instead of parking the rig, today was a travel day for most of our team.  The plan was for Danny to drive the rig up today, leaving at 2:00pm and driving until o'dark thirty, i.e. until he got there.  Which should be about 3:00am on Thursday.  I was driving up separately with my wife, and since I lived a few hours closer, and started a bit sooner, we would have a much more leisurely drive.  Danny ended up conning, errrr, recruiting his dentist/friend, Dr. Vince Smith, to ride up with him in the rig and crew for the weekend.  This turned out to be an excellent maneuver, as "Doc Vince" was a real car guy, and a very organized individual to boot.  He was willing to get his hands dirty on any task, and was an extremely competent addition to the crew. 

Jon and Sri and Matt from German Speed Merchants would be flying up separately on Thursday night with a friend of Danny's that happened to be a private pilot.

Thursday, June 22nd - Promoter Test Day

Today we would have two 1 hour practice sessions.  This may sound like a lot, but remember there are two drivers splitting the practice time, so that is really two 30 minute practice sessions for each driver (if we do a driver change in the middle). 

I arrived at the track at 7:30am, and then realized my Grand Am credential was not in my wallet where I keep it.  Arrghhh -- I had to pay my way into the track since Grand Am does not issue a temporary credential - if you forget it, too bad.  Ok, no big deal, I'll flush $75 bucks down the commode, but it was a pretty bonehead thing to do.

Once inside the main gate, I found Danny and Vince parked in a field outside the paddock, waiting to get in.  Danny said they arrived about 2:15am, and slept in the rig, which is really pretty comfortable for two people.  They made really good time, except for getting stopped twice by the highway patrol, once in Virginia and once in Ohio.  Those are two pretty strict states to get pulled over in, and I was surprised when Danny said he talked his way out of not one, but both speeding tickets.  Danny's military training means he knows how to act around cops.  Plus they seem to have a soft spot for guys that race, and it doesn't hurt that he has tons of patriotic logo's emblazoned all over the truck.

We unloaded the golf cart and went off in search of a Grand Am official that could direct us to where to park the rig.  That was when we realized we had a 7:45 crew chief meeting!  Jon was our crew chief this weekend, but he was flying in tonight.  So Danny and I decided to attend it, and park the rig afterwards.   It was a good thing we did, because during the meeting, Grand Am issued new transponders for the cars.  These transponders have an additional cable that would connect to a uniquely coded "dongle" on your helmet, and thus allow the officials to know which driver was in the car.   So now your crew chief wouldn't have to inform timing and scoring when you do a driver change in the middle of the race. 

After the crew chief meeting, we finally got the rig parked.  Fortunately our first practice session wasn't until about 11:30am, so we had time to unpack.  But unfortunately they parked us in one of the worst spots in the paddock - on a slope.  But that's all there was left.  This would make our life a little more difficult all weekend, because its challenging and potentially dangerous to jack up a car when its sitting on a slope.  Sure, you could get one side in the air if you chocked the wheels properly, but as we would later discover, you couldn't get the car onto 4 jack-stands without it possibly toppling off.  But we would have to make do.

I insisted Danny take the first 1/2 of the practice session, not out of any altruism on my part, but I figure when we are diagnosing a problem, in this case the fuel cutting out in left hand turns, I'd just as soon not be the guy responsible if the motor blows up.   It would be just one more thing the guys on the crew would have in their back pocket to give me crap about - "Hey Mark, nice job this morning blowing up the motor!"  Lets face it, when you get a bunch of grown men together on a race team, they LOVE to give each other a hard time - you'd think we were a bunch of 12 year olds.  But its all in good fun!  Most of the time...

With Vince's help, we got everything unloaded out of the rig, and prepped the car for the first practice.   At the mid-point of the session, we planned to call Danny in, and I would get in the car and drive for the second half.  I helped Danny buckle in and he headed out on track.  While I put on my own drivers suit, Vince went down in the pits to watch the action.  When I got finally there, I discovered it was a madhouse in the pits - the stalls weren't numbered, at least not in any obvious way, and with 90 teams trying to share 35 stalls, everyone was stepping on each other.   Danny only did a few laps when he brought the car back in.  Dang-nab-it, it was still cutting out in left turns, and as he found soon out, Mid-Ohio has more than a few.  There's no use beating a dead horse, so we took the car back to the paddock to work on it.  Scratch one practice session.

Danny and I noodled over it for awhile, then decided that we didn't know diddly-squat about what to do next.  Our mechanical support, Jon, Sri and Matt, were unavailable as they were currently on a small plane flying up.  So Danny did the next best thing - he went and talked to Sylvain Tremblay at SpeedSource.  Even though Sylvain is on a "competing" team, he has committed himself, through his relationship with Mazda North America, to help support anyone running a Mazda.  And he's a great representative in that regard, as he has always proven willing to help.  According to Danny, Sylvain said that this was indeed a puzzling problem - starving in left hand turns with a full fuel load.  He said you just have to start eliminating the possibilities, and suggested we start with the fuel pump and work it from there.  So that's what we did - Danny bought a new fuel pump from Sylvain, and proceeded to replace it. 

Vince wanted to get the car on 4 jack stands to make it easier to work on, and that made a lot of sense.  While Danny was replacing the fuel pump, we could take the wheels off, bleed the brakes, replace the rear brake pads, etc. - just some basic going over between sessions.  What we didn't realize was that you can't put the car on 4 jack stands if its on any kind of a slope.  Vince got one side of the car up and secured, but when he jacked up the second side, disaster struck - the jack flipped on its side as the car toppled off the stands, wedging both the jack and the stands (now crushed and on their sides) under it.  No one was hurt, but we had to borrow a second jack from the neighboring Kaiser Racing team to free our own jack, which was now damaged beyond repair from it being on its side with the weight of the car on it.  Then we freed the crushed jackstands from the other side.  The car looked ok, but it turns out it wasn't - what we didn't realize at this time was that we had bent the driver's side rear control arm (sound familiar?).  You would think we'd learn from past mistakes and look at these things more carefully, but apparently we have a vast, almost unlimited capacity for being pretty darn stupid!  I'm just kidding of course, it actually does have somewhat of a limit... we just haven't found it yet!

This is the Kaiser Racing Team, which is running a GS Class Cadillac CTS.  They brought along the rental truck on the left to supplement their smaller trailer on the right.  Their effort is a grassroots effort, not unlike our own, and they are here hoping to beat some of the "big boys" and maybe make a name for themselves.

I'm impressed that they seem to have a reasonably good set of spares in their support truck.

Danny got the fuel pump swapped out, and (we thought) we were fat, dumb and happy at this point.  All we needed to do was test the fix in the next practice session, which was coming up rapidly at 3:30pm.  Also coming up rapidly was a nasty looking cold front, with some rather ominous looking clouds.  It started sprinkling occasionally, but for the most part, the track was only slightly damp. 

We opted to stay with dry tires, and once more Danny strapped in and headed on track. Vince and I went down to the pits and I waited until the 1/2 way point for my turn at the wheel.   Danny's session went pretty uneventfully. The rain was light and intermittent, which meant the track was a little bit slick, but not too bad.  He came in at the halfway point and turned the car over to me.  Danny noted that the water temperatures were running a little higher than normal.  It wasn't overheating, but it was darn strange given the conditions (cool and cloudy), and he told me to keep an eye on it.   The good news was that it seemed like the new fuel pump had fixed the problem with the engine cut off.  So we were looking pretty good, or so we thought.

As I went on track, during my very first lap, it started to rain again.  I saw a GS class Sahlens Porsche that went wide in turn 13, and gotten stuck in the gravel with no serious damage.  The gravel is kind of like flypaper, and prevents you from hitting the tire walls and guardrail on the far side, however it also meant the Porsche wasn't getting out on his own.  The officials black flagged the session and I pulled back into the pits, where all the cars waited while a wrecker pulled the Porsche free.

During this time the clouds overhead were looking considerably more treacherous, getting darker and starting to roil a bit.  I was starting to get a little concerned.  Impatiently I was thinking "C'mon, lets get some practice in before the real rain hits." 

My prayers were finally answered and within a few minutes we were back on track.  Just in time for the deluge to begin.  It was gentle at first - hardly enough rain to disturb the rainex on the windshield.  Within a lap the intensity of the rain ratcheted up a notch, and I was starting to find the limits, and then occasionally exceed them, of dry tires on a wet track.  And that's when the wind hit and a little bit of hail mixed in for good measure.  We're not talking tropical force wind, but rain falling sideways and gusts approaching hurricane force coming out of the west.  Several times the cross winds felt like they were practically picking up the car and tossing it - I almost didn't keep it on track in turn 2.  Huge branches littered the long straight and I could no longer see any of the corner workers - had they taken refuge?  Even though I didn't see any black flags, I knew it was time to get off track.


I pulled into the pits to the frantic sight of people scrambling to take down the 40-50 temporary canopies that teams use to line pit row.  It looked like a losing battle, as most of the tents looked like so much mangled litter, and dangerous debris was flying through the air.   I heard later that one person sustained a broken arm when a 1500lb tool chest flipped over. 

I got back to our paddock, to find a similar site.  Our two small 10'x10' canopies, despite being strapped down, were down on the ground and their skeletons twisted and intertwined.   We had a table with tools on it that had collapsed and the legs were bent beyond repair, with our tools and various "stuff" scattered around the paddock.  Our trashcan blew away, but we found it the next day. 

This was the condition of the Sahlen's Hospitality / food service tent.  It looks like they won't be serving breakfast tomorrow morning, or lunch either, for that matter.   They did get it back in service on Saturday though.

The BMW Club was running one of the support races this weekend, and this poor club racer came back to find this.  Word is that his racecar, strapped down inside, was ok.  With forces like this at work, thank goodness no one was more seriously injured.  It took us awhile to clean up our own paddock area, but we got it done fairly quickly and called it a day.  We felt things weren't too bad - after all we no longer had a problem with the car cutting out on left hand turns, so that was progress.   What we didn't realize was that the control arm was bent, and that we might have a rather serious overheating problem ahead of us to tackle.  Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss.

Danny and Vince checked in at the hotel in nearby Lexington, and arrived to find the whole area was experiencing a power outage, including the hotel.  There were still severe thunderstorms in the area, and it looked like the rest of the crew (Jon, Matt, Sri) would be delayed from flying into nearby Mansfield airport until the next morning.  I headed back to Columbus to stay at my sister's house, and managed to find a Sears along the way where I bought a replacement aluminum jack - it wasn't as nice as the one crushed by the car, but it would do in a pinch.

Friday, June 23rd - "Practice Day"

Today the key "deadlines" for us were:

  • 9:00 --- Tech inspection
  • 12:30-1:30 ---- 1 hour Grand Am Practice
  • 3:45-4:15 ---- 30 minute Grand Am Practice

When I arrived at the track at 7:30am, Vince and Danny were already hard at work.  It was still overcast, but fortunately any rain that fell was relatively gentle.  The private plane carrying Jon and Sri and Matt  didn't make it all the way to Mansfield last night - they had to stay overnight in Charleston, WVa.  But they were able to resume their journey first thing in the morning, and they would arrive soon.

Vince and Danny managed to cobble together one of the canopy frames using duct tape and some metal scraps for splints.  Then we set to work getting the car cleaned up for its tech inspection, scheduled for 9:00am.  Vince has some experience as a technical inspector, so he ended up leading the effort to make sure the car was cleaned up, all the decals were in place (because of the recent body work, some were missing) - basically Vince made sure all the t's were crossed and the i's dotted so to speak.   He did a great job because it sailed through technical inspection in record time.

L-R    Matt, Dr. Vince and Sri modeling the latest in "Danny Wear"

Jon and Sri and Matt arrived shortly thereafter, and immediately jumped into action to get the car ready for the upcoming 12:30 practice.  It felt good being able to step back from the car and let the real mechanics take care of the prep.  Shortly before the session started, it was raining steadily, if not very hard, so we decided to try out the rain tires. 

I headed out for the first half of the practice, and had a pretty good 30 minutes in the wet.  It actually stopped raining about 20 minutes into the session, and the conditions started to improve from there.  Danny drove the second half, and by the end of the session a dry line had developed on the track, allowing the cars to go faster and faster.  Danny's fastest laps near the end of the session were putting us on the quicker half of the grid (14th out of 35), which wasn't a bad thing.  During the session, the car's coolant temperature was on the high side, but it was still relatively cool due to the overcast conditions, so the car wasn't actually overheating.  Nonetheless, we were starting to worry about it.   We figured we might be in trouble if it got sunny and warm.  This was one case where we wanted to be wrong. 

In the downtime between sessions, Jon and his crew looked over the car, trying to find a reason for the somewhat high coolant temps.  They checked the water pump, the radiator, and the thermostat, but all seemed in order.  We decided to gut the thermostat, which essentially meant we were running without one altogether, which is not uncommon in racecars.  Would that help?

While the crew was working on the car, I worked on scrounging up a remaining part we needed to convert our fuel rig from a single dry break setup to a dual dry break system.  BSR Racing, the supplier of the rig, didn't have the necessary fitting in stock (but they could get one in a day or so) to connect the return hose back to the rig, so I drove to a "Tractor Supply" store about 25 minutes north of the track, and would you believe they had one?  It turns out farmers need all sorts of pumps and hoses and such to run their business, and they use the same kind of industrial grade couplers.

By the time our 3:45 practice session came around (only 30 minutes long), the sun had come out, and the afternoon turned out to be quite beautiful for the first time since we arrived.  We got out there a little late, and Danny drove the car for about 15 minutes, and found that the car was getting dangerously warm.  Now we were beyond worried.  

We decided that it would help if we could extract the information from the AiM dash data logger, and that might give us some clues on how to get to the bottom of our overheating.  For example, was it possible that the engine was running lean on fuel, and that might be causing us to run hot?  Normally Doc Holness does that kind of thing for us, but he didn't make it up to Mid-Ohio. So Jon and I thought we might be able to figure it out.  Jon had the software on his laptop, but we didn't have a data cable.  So I spent the better part of an hour running around the paddock looking for the AiM factory rep - they always have one at every Grand Am race.  Finally I found him working over at the Bernheim Racing trailer (they run a bunch of GS Porsches), and he agreed to pay us a visit and bring us a cable.

This is Scott Jessup from AiM showing Jon how to interface to the on-board AIM dash computer.  Scott spent the better part of two hours with us, getting the firmware on our dash up to date, installing the analysis software on my laptop, showing us how to use it, etc.  While we are on track, the computer collects dozens of different data parameters - engine speed, coolant temperature, oil temperature, fuel pressure, air / fuel ratio, the speed of the car, the lateral g-forces of the car - the list goes on and on.

The dash itself can also be programmed to show any of these collected data points to the driver.  I programmed ours to show RPM, Speed, Water Temperature, Oil Temperature, Current Laptime, Fuel Pressure, and Air Fuel Ratio.  You can also set alarms for any parameter - in the above picture, you see an alarm for "Fuel Pressure 0.1" - this is because the car was not running when I took the picture, so the fuel pressure naturally read zero.

Scott also showed me how you could program in a creative "welcome message" that flashes briefly whenever you start the car - you only see it for a second then its gone.   Danny never even noticed the message this weekend, it went by so fast.  After Danny reads this, I'm sure to get one of his light hearted "Your @ss is grass" emails!  Yep, this one's going to cost me...

Unfortunately our data logger had not been collecting information correctly up to this point, because the memory had filled up with previous sessions.  Even though we had everything more or less working now, we didn't have any recent data to analyze.  However, we figured we would be in good shape to collect some information during the next session first thing tomorrow. 

Saturday, June 24rd - "Practice and Qualifying"

Today the key "deadlines" for us were:

  • 9:00 - 10:00 ---- 1 hour Grand Am Practice
  • 12:55 ------------ Driver nominations due
  • 1:00 -1:45 ------ 45 minutes Grand Am Practice
  • 2:55 -3:10 ------ 15 minutes Qualifying Session (ST Class only)

Danny splurged and got us some fresh rubber for today's practice sessions.  Up to now we had been practicing on leftover tires from the VIR race, or when it rained, the used rain tires we bought off Sylvain at the beginning of the season. This is the Hoosier Tire racing tent, a traveling road show erected onsite to support the Grand Am Cup and Rolex racing teams.  I counted 7 tractor trailers full of tires and gear, all to meet the needs of about 175 race cars.

Here is a view of the "assembly line" underneath the tent.  You drop off your old tires and rims at one end, and at the other end you get your rims back mounted with brand new tires.  These guys were constantly busy - it only takes them about 20 minutes to mount a full set, but because of the backlog, you may have to wait 1-3 hours to get your tires back, so you need to plan ahead.

This is the Hankook Race Tire trailer, which as you can see, is not nearly as large as the Hoosier operation.  Hankook is a relatively new race tire manufacturer (at least here in the states), and they are the "david" to the Hoosier "goliath".   We can't use Hankook tires in Grand Am cup - the series requires we run on the Hoosiers, however there is a Miata Pro series that is racing this weekend as a support race, and Hankook is their specified tire.  These guys weren't nearly as busy, because they only have to support a couple of dozen cars, and they all use the exact same size tire, which makes it easy for them to bring a much smaller setup for support.  And Miata's being relatively light, they don't use up tires as quickly as most cars.   The Hankook tires are a quality product, and they are a welcome addition to the race tire marketplace - more competition means better products at better prices for us racers.

9:00am rolled around, and I got the next crack in the car.  I decided it was time to collect some video, so I mounted up the video camera and headed out on track - finally, you say, some in car video.  The plan for this session was for me to scrub in the new tires - I was supposed to start out slowly for a lap or so, run hard for three laps, then bring it in for a tire change.  We were going to scrub in one set of new tires and set them aside for the race tomorrow.  Then I would go back out until the mid-point of the session (30 minutes), then bring it in to trade places with Danny.   It didn't quite work out that way. 

Today being a sunny day, it didn't take long (about 6 minutes) for the car to start running warm, and this time it was actually overheating.   Instead of coming in for a tire change, I brought the car in and we decided to take it back to the paddock.   Scratch one more practice session. 

While the mechanics puzzled over the problem, I hooked up my laptop and downloaded the information from the data logger.   What we could determine was that our oil temps were ok (after all, we had 3 oil coolers on the car!), but our water temps were getting up to about 240 degrees - at that point the system would start dumping coolant out of the overflow.  I was also able to determine that the air fuel ratio was within a reasonable range, so it wasn't because the engine was running lean.   We were clearly losing power as well - after 2-3 laps, we would lose 6 mph down the back straight alone.  You can see in the video that as the session wore on and the car heated up, cars began walking away from us (or more accurately "jogging" away from us) on the straights.    We could make up some of the ground in braking, but we were clearly too slow to be competitive.

Also, I felt at this point the car wasn't handling correctly.  I was having to lift off the accelerator in certain turns (such as turn 10), where I should be able to go flat out.  I thought that I couldn't get on the throttle coming off the turns as soon as other cars.   It was a bit puzzling to me, and I recommended to Danny that we adjust the front swaybar to try to account for this.

Meanwhile, Jon and Matt and Sri were working diligently to figure out our overheating problem.  We were hoping it was something we could fix, like a faulty water pump, bad radiator, minor leak in a hose, etc.  But nothing seemed to be amiss - the water pump was flowing well, the radiator wasn't blocked, they couldn't find any leaks in any hoses.  It was starting to look like something we couldn't fix - an internal engine problem.  If that was the case, we would need to swap out engines in order to continue.  But we didn't have a spare.  Danny was having one built, but we didn't get it in time for the race.

To to net out our situation at this point:

1)  We were overheating, and unless it was going to be cloudy and rainy tomorrow, we would have no chance of finishing the race.   The engine *might* survive if we got abnormally cool weather - and that was NOT in the forecast.  As the engine got warmer, it clearly lost some of its power as well, as we could see on the data logger.    The GSM mechanics didn't give up, and continued to try to resolve the issue.

2)  We had a handling problem.  I thought we could fix it with a swaybar adjustment - what I didn't realize was that the problem was bigger than that.  After talking it over with Danny, I asked Jon if we could adjust the front swaybar.  This would turn out to cause us yet ANOTHER unforeseen problem, which I will elaborate on later. 

While we were mulling over the situation at hand, I was visited by an old racing buddy / nemesis.  When I was running my "J-Stock class" BMW M3 on the BMW Club Racing circuit, one of my regular competitors was Davis Reiman.  I like to think I got the better of Davis, and I'm sure he liked to think he got the better of me - many race weekends we would have split decisions - I would win one race, but he would win the next.  It turned into a friendly rivalry, and for a season or two we kept close tabs on each other.  This picture is Davis with his lovely wife and daughter, posing next to our "great ape" mascot. 

The graphics on the car have turned out to be a real crowd pleaser.  When Danny first proposed them, he sent me some photoshopped pictures of how the car might look.  My first reaction was that the big gorilla was too scary looking and intimidating.  But it turns out even young kids seem to love the look.  In the end, Danny didn't listen to me and went with his gut, and he was right.

This is Matt working on our overheating problem.   The more we learned about it, the more we started to think we couldn't do anything about it, short of changing out the motor.   But that didn't stop us from trying - between each session we would try something different to address it. 

The 12:55 deadline for our qualifying driver nomination was approaching rapidly.  Grand Am makes you declare 2 hours prior to qualifying, which driver will qualify the car, and this driver must also start the race.   This Mid-Ohio qualifying session was more important than all other qualifying sessions at previous races.  First the first time, Grand Am announced that the qualifying results would be used to pare the field down - some cars would not make the race.  While 90+ cars were registered, about 83 or so still remained due to normal attrition during the past couple days, and Grand Am wanted the field to be 75 cars.  This meant that the bottom 3-4 qualifiers for each class would be told to go home without racing.

We actually didn't know which of us was the faster driver this weekend at Mid Ohio, because we had so few laps here in the car, under the same conditions.  Ultimately, we decided I would qualify the car, since I had the most previous experience at Mid-Ohio.  So Danny went and turned in the driver nomination form and came back just in time for the start of the 1:00 practice.  The big question was, would any of the tweaks that Jon and the GSM gang made, help with our overheating problem?

Danny took the car out this practice session, and after a few laps, he brought it in - the car was still overheating.  Now what do we do?  Qualifying started in less than two hours.  Even if we found a spare motor, there wouldn't be time to change it before then.  Ultimately, we figured if I could nurse the car through qualifying, afterwards we could swap the motor -- we would have until around noon the next day, which was more than enough time.   Danny checked with the Speedsource, Roar and PlayTherapy teams - but no one had a motor they could sell us. 

We were starting to wonder if we should even qualify the car, or just pull the plug now.   We figured even with the overheating car, I should be able to run a couple of laps and get the car qualified - then we could make the decision on what to do next.  The downside was that if we did qualify the car, and then later withdrew, we would have taken away a spot on the grid for someone else, because of the 75 car limit.  I don't think we were thinking rationally, because we decided to go ahead and qualify the car. 

When I got on track for the short, 15 minute qualifying session, I realized I was in trouble within the first lap.  The car was handling poorly - not at all like when I had driven it earlier this morning.  I couldn't understand why it understeered badly on the entry to the slower turns, and oversteered on the exit of some of those same turns!  It was eerie, but the car felt somewhat like it did at Daytona when I was driving around on two almost-flat tires.  I struggled with it for a couple of laps, then when the water temps got too high, I backed off and circled the track more slowly. 

At this point I actually tried to bring it into the pits, but when I came around through the carousel turn, I couldn't get the car to the correct side of the track to exit due to traffic conditions.  It was my fault really, I was trying to stay offline for the overtaking traffic riding up my bumper in turn 13, and I get back to the opposite side of the track quickly enough to make the pit exit in the carousel.  I'm sure my fellow ST co-drivers were cursing my name as I slowed down their qualifying laps.  But Mid-Ohio is like that - if you drive off-line for 1 turn, trying to be courteous by staying out of the way of faster cars, you'll find yourself online for the next turn, and then blocking them as they try to get around you.  After almost 2 laps of driving slow and unfortunately blocking other cars, Jon radio'd and said there was one lap to go in the session.  The water temps had dropped due to my casual pace, so I decided to give it one more hard lap, to see if I could do better.  But it just wasn't in the car.  As I motored down the front straight, the crew thought the engine sounded pretty strange.  And when I was on the short straight between turn 1 and the carousel, it still wouldn't pull 5th gear and felt on the weak side.  I figured we were done so I backed off once more and brought it in.

Ultimately I was slow - really slow.  Yes, I thought the car was down on power, but the bigger mystery to me was how poorly the car handled.  All we did was make a minor sway bar adjustment this morning, and there was no way that would account for the bizarre behavior - a car that both understeered and oversteered.  I was really puzzled, and starting to question what I knew (or didn't know) about suspension behavior.  Frankly I was lost - and when that happens, I should have realized that maybe, just maybe, there was another explanation.   But that never entered my mind - all I could think of was that my swaybar adjustment might have cost us the chance to make the race.

It took an agonizing hour for Grand Am to release the final list of cars that would race, and we used the time to ponder our options.  Finally Mr. SpeedSource, Sylvain Tremblay, stopped by on his way back to his own trailer, and said we qualified in the final spot to make the field.  6 or 7 racers were notified they were done for the weekend, but we weren't one of them.  Actually, we weren't very happy - even if the motor held together (and it sounded like it was already on its way out), we didn't relish the thought of struggling along in last place.  We didn't think we had any tricks up our sleeve to make the car faster, and we were likely to blow up the motor in the first 20 minutes, so what was the point?  Danny took me aside, and we both agreed we should withdraw immediately so that Grand Am could fill out the grid with another car in our place.  So he rushed down to the Grand Am tent, and gave them the news - we were done.

With this burden lifted off our weary hearts, we proceeded to load up the trailer.  Many hands make light work, so it didn't take long.  If we hurried we could grab a quick dinner and then stick around to enjoy the Rolex feature race (which started at 5:30pm and ran until about 8:15pm).   As we loaded the car onto the upper deck of Danny's rig, I was able to peek underneath it, and I discovered a couple of surprising things.

The first thing that jumped out was that we had another bent rear control arm (remember VIR?), and it was sporting some fresh red paint.  This was definitely something that happened this weekend at the track, and not beforehand, but I couldn't figure out when.  My first thought was that it was from the red striped curbing at Mid-Ohio.  When they recently repaved the track, the resulting curbing turned out pretty high, so much so that if you accidentally straddled it, you might scrape the bottom of the car on it.  Danny was willing to take the fall for doing it, but I wasn't so sure that I hadn't caused this myself. 

It wasn't until the next day that I realized, in one of those thunderbolt flashes that strike you when you're thinking about nothing at all - that this control arm was almost certainly damaged by the crushed jackstand, which was indeed red, when the car toppled off of it (because the truck driver cancelled, because the rig was late, because we were parked on a slope...).  This would certainly explain the unpredictable oversteer on corner exit.  But what about the severe understeer condition on corner entry?  Inspector Clouseau was now on the case -  I looked at the front suspension, and it immediately dawned on me that we may have done something terribly wrong, when we adjusted the front swaybar earlier this afternoon. 

As we were adjusting the swaybar, we couldn't understand why the bolts seemed to be on backwards - this made them incredibly hard to undo - in fact the whole shock tower had to be unbolted from the lower control arm to allow enough clearance to remove them.  So we all agreed that this was stupid - there couldn't possibly be a good reason for it to be that way - so when we put the bolts back on we reversed them.  This would make it much easier to adjust the bar in the future, so we were pretty proud of ourselves.  And when the car was jacked up, this looked just fine, because the suspension was all drooping, and there didn't seem to be any obvious clearance problems.  But now that I was underneath the car, and it was settled down on its suspension, I could see that the reversed bolt might indeed cause a serious clearance problem.  If the suspension compressed any further, the bolt might hit the shocktube - then the suspension would bind, the spring rate would rocket to infinity, and the car would ...tada...understeer!   Of course this would only occur when the front suspension became compressed, which, by the way, occurs when you are trail braking into a turn!  Mystery solved!

So now we knew why it understeered on corner entry.  And oversteered on corner exit.  Well, these are my theories, anyway, and I'm sticking to them! 

After we finished packing up, we raided the Sahlen's Hospitality food tent (crackin' good bratwurst and sausages, Gromit!).  Then 7 of us piled onto Danny's golf cart - it was seriously overloaded and completely dangerous.  This made it hilarious to anyone watching, and occasionally terrifying for the rest of us, and we headed for the infield to watch the Rolex racing action.  I'm usually not one to enjoy watching other people race, but I must admit they put on one heck of a fine show.

This is the view from turn 7, and you can see the track was pretty crowded with GT cars and Prototypes mixing it up, side by side, constantly battling for position.  This made for many dramatic passes every lap, especially on this portion of the track which went right-left-right in quick succession.  "Our" Grand Am Cup race on Sunday (which of course will go on without us) promises even more action, with even more cars on track - 75.  That is the most I have ever heard of racing at Mid-Ohio, which is only about 2 1/4 miles around.  By comparison, VIR had 90 or so cars, but it was 3 1/4 miles around, which is 40% more track for the cars to share.

This is the hill at the crest of turn 7, and you can see the rather high red-and-white candy-stripe curbing lining the inside edge.  This is why I originally thought the red paint on our bent control arm may have come from the curbing.  This is a great place to watch the action at Mid-Ohio, because from one vantage point you can see the end of the back straight (a great overtaking opportunity), plus three turns - one of them (turn 7) is a doozey since its at the top of a hill.   And the cars are CLOSE to you - when a group of Rolex Prototypes thunders by in unison, your chest tightens from the overwhelming percussive force of their engines.

The crew wanted to see other parts of the track, so we piled back on the cart in search of other viewing opportunities.  This drew humorous glances from the spectators as we struggled to keep all four golf cart wheels planted on the ground.  With 4 people on the back, we had to sit one person over the front bumper to keep from popping a wheelie.  I wouldn't let Danny drive - we wouldn't live to tell the tale!  He only knows one speed when he's behind the wheel of anything and that is flat out, and driving this overloaded cart up and down the hilly dales of Mid-Ohio required someone with a more highly developed sense of self preservation (me).

We settled on the area between turns 12 and 13 just as a Prototype lost control, and with a bang it ricocheted off the guardrails.   This area of the track forms a narrow canyon with no escape - you lose it here, and you are going to hit something.  The driver emerged from the car to cheers from the crowd - he was fine with no apparent injuries.  It was mildly entertaining to watch the crew manage the cleanup of the track and recovery of the car, with a perspective (from the hill) that I'm not used to seeing.   After loading the car on a flatbed hauler, they used a giant broom mounted on the front of a pickup truck (just like a snowplow), to push away the bits of carbon fibre and metal that littered the track surface.  Then a huge tractor mounted blower got whatever was left behind. 

We moved around a little more, to the corner overlooking the carousel and the front straight.  We figured we could watch the finish from there and there were only a handful of laps left.  Then all of a sudden, a TV cameraman on a gantry above us yelled down - "You ought to see the crash on the long straight - a BMW just went end-over-end down it!"

So we piled back on the cart and headed over to the long straight.  When got there, we couldn't see the car - did it go off track into the trees?  No, actually it was right in front of us, upside down!   The driver, Joey Hand, was actually leading the GT race when he had contact with a Pontiac GTO.  Hand's car left the track and launched into the air when its nose dug into an elevation change in the grass.  It went end-over-end several times as it traveled down the straight.  He escaped with relatively minor injuries - bruises and soreness of his neck and back.  This is a tremendous testament to the quality of the factory built roll cage in his BMW.

As a result of the ensuing full course caution, the race soon ended under yellow.  Well our weekend was over, a day earlier than we hoped.  Tomorrow the Grand Am Cup race would go on without us. 

As I left the track, I was looking for the trailer that was blown over by the wind.  I was surprised to find it righted once again.  Although we can't see inside, it appears that the trailer itself is in pretty good shape, all things considered.  I hope this racers' weekend turned out to have a silver lining.

So ends a somewhat inglorious racing weekend.  I certainly wish that it had gone better for us, but I can't help feeling that many of our misfortunes were self-imposed.  

What keeps me going is that I know we can do better, and that there is always another race to run.


  Next up, Barber Motorsports Park! 

To go to the next story, click on this link: Barber Motorsports Park