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Grand Am Cup Racing 2006

Team News And Photo Site

  Roebling Road Raceway Practice - January 23rd, 2006    

"Vee have vays of making you talk!"

Sunday, January 8th

You can look at our Daytona Practice in one of two ways.  1)  We blew a ton of money, got very little track time, and ran into lots of problems, so it was a waste of time and energy.  Or,  2) We blew a ton of money, persevered through many hardships, and now we know where we need to improve.  

Regardless of your point of view, both sides agree, we blew a ton of money!

Danny and I slowly came around to point of view #2.  I think I had a little more time to think about it, because the drive back home from Daytona was 8 hours, while Danny's flight was only 3.   At the beginning of my ride home, I was somewhat sour on the whole experience.  My wife wasn't very happy sitting next to me, listening to me grouse, but she was a good sport.  8 hours later, by the time I pulled in the driveway, I had come around to thinking about how we were going to make things work more smoothly.

So Sunday morning, I'm on the phone with Danny, and we started plotting our new strategy.   Danny didn't have quite as much downtime on his trip home to think about it, so he wasn't quite in the same state of mind that I was.  So to get the ball rolling, I put together a "punch list" of things we needed to be successful and emailed it to Danny.

While Doc is a brilliant car builder and Lenworth is an excellent mechanic, we got the message loud and clear that we needed our own tools, our own pit crew, etc.  Sharing resources wasn't going to work as smoothly as everyone first envisioned.  And Doc just couldn't do it all by himself.  So at the top of the list was that we needed a crew chief - someone that could take things off Doc's plate so he could concentrate on making the car better and faster.   We also needed our own pit crew.   And we needed our own set of tools.  At Daytona, when the NRG / ROAR team cars went out for practice, their mechanics took the only tool chest with them to the pits (I don't blame them - they had 3 cars to support).  But this meant that when Danny and Bill and I were thrashing on the car back in the paddock, trying to get it ready, we didn't have much more than a screwdriver and a hammer.   So one of the important things was that our 4 car ROAR team needed a second set of tools.

Plus we needed more practice in the car.  We clearly didn't get enough seat time at Daytona to become comfortable with the car.  Danny was convinced it was down on power as compared to the other RX-8's.  I wasn't sure either way.

So a plan developed:

1)  Find a Crew Chief

2)  Find some pit crew

3)  Identify what tools, etc, ("hardstuff") we are missing, and get it

4)  Get some more seat time in the car before Daytona

And Danny came up with one of his own.

5)  More power!

Friday, January 13th

Danny is incredibly resourceful, and once he has a plan of action, you pretty much get out of his way, or you'll slow him down.  He's one of those guys that rolls up his sleeves and gets things done while everyone else is still scratching their heads.  Just the kind of guy you want on our side in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, etc (and he's been to all those places, on behalf of you and me, when he was a Special Forces / Army Ranger). 

So Danny talked to Jon Lewis, owner of German Speed Merchants, in Wilmington North Carolina.  Jon was very enthusiastic about being our Crew Chief, and one better, he could even provide some pit crew. Not only that, Jon happened to be renting Roebling Road Raceway a few days before the Daytona race, as kind of a private test day for his customers.  Can you say, Kismet?

I need to tell you some more about Jon and his crew.   Danny, Brandon Mee (one of Jon's mechanics) and I co-drove the "old yellar" Jetta that Jon built and owns,  in the SCCA Kumho Tires 13 Hour Charge of the Headlight Brigade enduro, held at VIR back in October.   Jon was Crew Chief, and he brought along about 10 of his employees to take care of the car.   These guys were some of the most enthusiastic and capable crew that I have ever seen.  And Jon did an excellent job of orchestrating the whole affair.  Here is an example:

Flashback - October, 2005

Its 3:00pm, about midway through the 13 hour enduro.   We did a driver change around 2:00, so I've been driving "old yellar" for about an hour.  It's sunny and 80 degrees, and by this time my driver's suit is saturated with sweat, but I don't notice, as I'm having so much fun.  I'm in a "groove" with the car, lapping VIR in the 2:26 to 2:28 range depending on traffic - a nice comfortable "endurance" laptime for an ITB car on endurance race tires.   Suddenly, at the top of the uphill esses (the right hander which is the fastest turn on the course no less),  the steering goes all wobbly!  I lift off the accelerator and just barely manage to keep the car on track as I negotiate the turn.  I still haven't bled off enough speed, so approaching the next turn (turn 10, nick-named "Stevie Wonder" because its blind and fast), my foot gropes for the brakes, and oh-my-god, I don't have any of those either!   I pump furiously at the pedal and manage to get just enough braking power to slow the car.  With cars whizzing by,  I nurse "old yellar" back to the pits, while yelling frantically on the radio back to Jon, "I'm coming in - we're hurt bad - the steering's broke, the brakes are broke!"  In my mind, the car is mortally wounded and the race is over.

But not to Jon and his crew.  Back in the paddock the GSM mechanics swarm over the car.  The left front axle had broken, and fortunately the wheel was being held in place by the brake caliper, or it would have fallen off completely.  They jack it up and three guys immediately set to work replacing the axle.   Meanwhile Jon diagnoses the brake failure as a ruptured seal, where the brake line ties into the cockpit brake bias adjustment bar.  The pressure must have somehow spiked when the axle failed and I first went for the brakes.  So he simultaneously sets to work, fabricating a bypass to the brake bias bar.  Within 20 minutes, the axle is changed, the brakes are fixed, the tires are changed, the car is refueled.  We get the car quickly inspected by the SCCA tech officials, and they send me back on track.   Whoa baby!  I feel like I'm driving the 24 hours of Lemans, the year is 1952, my pit crew has just saved the day...

Return to Present - Sunday, January 22nd

Beth and I and "Shadow the wonder dog" pack up and head south to Savannah, or more accurately, to Pooler GA, which is a sleepy little suburb of Savannah, and the closest "major" town to Roebling Road.   Somewhere in South Carolina, 3 cars blow by us on I-95 doing maybe 100mph - a dark blue BMW M3 and a souped up VW Golf, affixed like a remora to the rear bumper of an aqua colored late model BMW M3.  I think for a moment before I realize, "those HAVE TO BE some German Speed Merchant guys heading down to Roebling."  Now since I started racing, I drive quite prudently on the highway - in fact I'm often accused of driving like an old man, but this is too good to pass up.  Having no idea how fast a Ford Explorer will go, I take off in pursuit, and within a mile or so I'm along side the lead BMW.  I wave, but there is no recognition by the other driver (heck, those guys have only met me once before), so I drop back to normal speed and let them go.  

On a damp but warm day (62 degrees, 100% humidity), we arrive at the Jameson Inn around 2:30pm.  Doc and Lenworth arrive shortly thereafter in a big F350 pickup towing an open trailer with the car.  The back of Doc's pickup is full of tools, and a fresh set of Hoosier racing tires mounted on the expensive, lightweight rims that Doc prefers.   I was surprised and a little puzzled by this - I thought Doc had a big transporter to haul the car around with.  But Doc explains that the car will be hauled to the races on the ROAR Racing transporter - the nice shiny new one that you saw pictures of in the Daytona Practice story.  That behemoth can hold 4 cars - the 3 NRG ROAR cars, and Doc's ROAR car.   That sounds like a pretty good long term plan to me.  

Doc and Lenworth and I caravan over to the track, so we can leave his truck and the car there.  Even though the Jameson Inn is quite nice, our gear will be much safer locked inside the track than it would be in the hotel parking lot.   When we get there, we find that a Formula Mazda racing team is on track.  Just two cars - they look like little Indy racers, and they buzz around the damp 2 mile track about every 80 seconds or so, kicking up rooster tails of spray as the go.  Surprisingly, the track officials don't even stop the test session to let us cross the track - they just had us wait until the cars passed by, and then we dashed across the track into the infield with the truck and trailer in tow.   That was when I got yelled at for the first time, by the track officials.  Apparently I wasn't moving fast enough to suit their taste.   I ALWAYS get yelled at, at least once, when I go to Roebling Road - its just one of those things I can count on.  Its an SCCA owned track, which means it might as well be owned and managed by the East Germans at the height of the cold war ("Vee have vays of making you talk!").  

We drop off the truck and trailer, and Doc and Lenworth climb into my car.  I get yelled at once more (that's twice now) as we get motioned back across the "live" track.  What a spectacular crash that would be - a Formula Mazda disintegrating at 130mph into the side of a Ford Explorer. 

We agreed the new team would get together in the Hotel conference room at 6:00pm - basically a chance for our Crew Chief and his crew to meet Doc and Lenworth.  Over a casual pizza dinner we discussed plans for the season, but we didn't go into too much detail.  Mostly is was just a meeting of the minds on what everyone's role would be.  The good news is that it looks like Jon will be able to travel to most of the races with us, maybe only missing one or two.  It looks like the core team members will be:

Donald "Doc" Holness - Team owner, chief engineer

Jon Lewis - Crew Chief

Lenworth Barnett - Chief mechanic

Sripathi (Sri) Haputantri - Crew / Mechanic (We just call him "Sree")

Aaron Barlow - Crew / Mechanic

Scott Pullard - Crew / Mechanic

Victor Manning - Timing & Scoring

Danny Alvis - 1st Driver Extraordinaire

Mark O'Dell - 2nd Driver Extraordinaire

Also at the meeting was Randy Shields, who is a good friend and sponsor of Jon's "old yellar".   Randy is a super nice guy, and may be helping us out here and there as well, depending on our needs and his availability. 

Once we got done with the serious business, we horsed around for an hour or so, drinking beer, discussing the best way to drive Roebling Road, and watching some on-track racing video that I had stashed on my laptop.   I made sure I asked Victor (a BMW M3 driver) about our encounter on the interstate earlier in the day.  "Oh that was you?" Victor replied.  "I just thought it was another one of those nutty SUV drivers."  Right on both counts.  By this time Doc was worn out - he was starting to nod off from exhaustion - he got almost no sleep the night before.  It was time to call it a night. 

Monday, January 22nd

8:00am found us at a drizzly racetrack, unloading the car and tools into the covered "tech shed".   No one else snagged it, so what the heck, we wanted to be dry.  

Everybody else figured out pretty quickly that was the place to be, so all of a sudden the tech garage was crammed with cars.   Notice the RX-8 has no decals on it any more.  Doc felt he needed to make the car look more professional, so he and Lenworth stripped off our makeshift numbers.  Doc has arranged for a professional sign guy to come by his shop tomorrow to put some nice graphics on the car.  So you'll see the car with a new look when it debut's at the Daytona Race in a couple of days.

There were only 11 other drivers sharing the track that day, some were employees of German Speed Merchants, some were customers.  Jon held a drivers meeting and explained to everyone how the 2 alternating run groups would be organized.  Our run group would include the more experienced drivers, and passing would be allowed anywhere, when signaled by the car in front.  Not quite a racing group (where passing is allowed anywhere with or without a signal), but it's the next best thing and it makes the event MUCH safer.   After all, we don't need to bang up the car 3 days before its first race. 

The RX-8 had very little fuel, so I grabbed an empty gas can, and hopped in the Explorer for a quick drive to the local gas station.  The RX-8 was tuned to run on 100 octane Race Gas, but the pumps at Roebling weren't open yet, so in a pinch we can run on regular pump gas if we have to.  I get admonished a third time (not exactly a full blown yelling, so we'll only count that one as 1/2 yell) as I re-enter the track.  I arrived just moments before 9:00am, when the officials close the gate, signaling the start of the event.   With this many cars on track (5-6 per session), there would be no crossing of a "hot" track.  

Roebling in the rain (although it was really only sprinkling) on worn Hoosier racing "slicks" is something everyone should experience at least once.   For this practice we were using the leftover tires from our Daytona test days, and while they had a decent amount of rubber on them, they aren't grooved at all - nada - nothing.   The first 20 minute session was pretty uneventful, but I felt like a pro-rally driver trying to keep the RX-8 on-track.   One of the things we learned was that the car felt great under full throttle, but at 50% or less throttle the engine was stumbling badly.  This made it really hard to keep the car balanced in a sweeping turn, a phenomena that was exaggerated by our slower speeds in the rain.   Its important for the car to behave well under partial throttle, because the way you maintain the car's speed in many long turns is to stay gently on the throttle.  So Doc had a little more work to do with his custom engine management computer.  Doc wanted me to give him feedback on how the car was handling, but I told him I still didn't have enough time in the car to do that.   You can end up chasing your tail trying to make the car faster, if you make snap judgments, because for every change you make there are three possible outcomes.

1)  The car goes faster

2)  The car goes slower

3)  The car is neither faster nor slower, just different

I seem to have an awful lot of experience with #2 and #3 (especially 2), so I elect to hold off until I get more seat time with the car.  Plus, until you are able to drive the car consistently well, and under identical conditions, you don't know if the change made the car handle better or worse.

The track sessions are short, so we are rotating on track every 20 minutes.   This is actually an ideal test situation, since this allows you just enough time in the car to figure out what it's doing, then a quick break to make any adjustments.   Doc spends this down time with his computer plugged into the car, reprogramming the air-to-fuel ratio, trying to make it perform better in part throttle applications.   When a session starts, I'll go out for a few laps, then I'll pop back into the pits to tell him how the engine is responding, so he can quickly reprogram the computer.   Being a short track, laps go quickly at Roebling, so we can actually repeat this 2-3 times in a 20 minute session. 

During the still wet second session, I was doing my best impression of a dirt-tracking / rally driver, getting the car out to some rather imprudent slip angles, shall we say.  If you were following along behind, you would have gotten more than an occasional view of my doors handles.  Heck, its fun to drive that way, and it helps you practice your car control, but it doesn't necessarily make for the fastest time around the course.  In the middle of turn three, my enthusiasm got the best of me, and I quickly found myself facing the wrong way, the car in a lurid slide into the sandy wet grass on the left.  In the blink of an eye, as I'm sliding backwards toward oblivion, my first thought was "dang, Danny's going to kill me if I put this thing into a tire wall 3 days before our first race".  

Now It is a well known fact that a race car will not slow down once it hits wet grass - some folks claim that it actually speeds up!    For all the control I had at that point, I might as well have been sitting in the passenger seat (if the car had one), so all I could do was put "both feet in" (lock up the brakes, press in the clutch to save the motor) and hang on tight!  In an inexplicable twist of fate, the car stopped almost immediately, avoiding the foot-deep standing water 20 feet to the left of the track, as well as the dirt burm the SCCA wisely erected to keep you out of the trees.   I got the car quickly back on track, but then the engine IMMEDIATELY started to buck like a bronco.  Oh, no, I broke the car!  I may not have been fast enough pushing in the clutch - and a car sliding backwards can potentially brake the motor due to the stress on it, since running motors don't like going backwards!  So I nurse it to the pits, Doc leans in, presses some buttons on the AiM dash and proudly declares - "you're out of gas!"  Whew!!!!!!!!!

I find out later that while all this was happening, since you can see turn 3 from the pits, most everyone standing there was immediately concerned for my safety.  But  Doc and Lenworth knew better, so they're laughing their @sses off!  Back in the shed, as I'm cleaning sand out of the wheels, I am hounded mercilessly - Lenworth laments that its too bad the video camera wasn't mounted, so I resolve to get it in the car before the next session. 

A Lap with Mark on a drying Roebling track <<Link

I think I look like I'm driving drunk when I watch this video.  The car is cutting out under light throttle, and the track is still a little damp, so basically any "smoothness" went out the window.  Mostly I was just trying to stay on track.  Fortunately as the track slowly dries out, each session the car gets faster and faster. However this makes for a difficult test situation, because if you make a change to the car, you don't know if you are faster because of the change, or maybe you are faster because the track conditions have improved.   So we hold off on adjusting the car's suspension,  and Doc continues to make minor adjustments to the computer to improve the engine's drive-ability under part throttle conditions.  

Roebling is a good place for testing that - several of the turns are constant radius, so you are under partial throttle quite a bit.  Even if we don't get it fully resolved, we are hoping Daytona shouldn't pose quite as big a problem in that regard. 

Sri (pronounced "Sree") posing next to his 70's era Porsche 911.  Sri resurrected this car from the dead, rebuilding it a piece at a time from hodge-podge parts as he came across them.  The body panels don't match, but it sure seemed cleanly built, well put together, and very fast.   He's clearly an extremely knowledgeable mechanic, that will be a great asset to our team. 

Old Yellar, sporting Randy Shields' "Cars by Dealers Magazine" sponsorship decals.  Randy -- a few of these decals might look good on our RX-8 (hint, hint, wink, wink). 

Jon told me that after our 13 hour endurance race, they got the car back to the shop, and the GSM guys did an extensive inspection.  I had told Jon that late in the race, I noticed Old Yellar's steering starting to shake quite a bit under braking. Jon laughed and said its no wonder - apparently the abuse of the race had taken a toll - we had broken a front subframe bolt, and lost another one.  Plus we finished the race with no brake pads left on a couple of the wheels.    I'm glad I didn't know that when I was driving the last stint...

Jon's GSM race car hauler.  In the background you see Victor's low flying M3 street car.  Mr. policeman, if you see Victor hauling @ss down I-95 this Thursday night, please look the other way - he's coming to Daytona to do timing and scoring for our race...

Lunch was downtime for the most of the gang - a chance to take a break and relax.  But not for yours truly - no siree.  I moseyed over to the track office, and asked the one person I could find, if I might be allowed to go out on track and sweep off some of the mud and dirt that had accumulated in a few of the corners.   It seems that I wasn't the only one with an occasional off track excursion, and some of the dirt dragged back on track would interfere with our being able to lay down some good laps.   So with permission, I threw a push broom in the back of the Explorer, and set off on the empty track.  Shoot, this is harder work than I thought - after about 10 minutes I only managed to sweep a small part of turn #1.  I skipped the dirt that was down in Turn 2, as it wasn't on the racing line anyway, and proceeded to the site of my infamous turn 3 debacle.  Huffing and puffing away, I made a small dent in it, only to pause and look up into the puzzled face of two track workers in a pickup truck.  "Don't you know you're not supposed to be out here..."  You know how it went.   Actually, this was a pretty good tongue lashing - these guys were on a roll - so I may count it as two.  It certainly more than made up for the half-hearted one I got when I arrived almost late while fetching gas this morning.  Lets see, 1 + 1+ 1/2 + 2 = 4 1/2 stern rebukes in less than 24 hours.  I think that's a new Roebling Road track record, probably the only one I'll set today!

Clearly Jon has a pretty good perspective on where racing fits in with his business and his family.   Whenever possible, he brings along his wife and daughter Lagan.

Aaron with his Supra - the GSM mechanics don't limit their knowledge to German cars - many have experience with Mazdas, Hondas and Toyotas.

After lunch, we had a chance to see what the car could do on a really dry track.  As the session went by, Doc made significant progress with the computer's fuel mapping.  The car was unstable on hard braking going into turn one, so with a few clicks on the front shocks, Doc solved that problem.  I was impressed with how he could figure out the problem and tune in a solution. Over time, I came to the conclusion that the car turned pretty well in right hand turns, but it oversteered in left hand turns.  Between sessions, Doc would make shock absorber adjustments trying to account for this, but they had only minimal affect.  I finally decided we need to put the car on scales, so we could determine if it was properly corner balanced - and that's when we found the potential source of our problem. 

If a car is perfectly balanced, each corner of the car carries exactly 1/4 of the car's weight.  In the real world, this is impossible to achieve, but what you can do to make a car handle well, is make the cross weights match each other.   In other words, you can adjust the car such that:  

(Right Front) + (Left Rear) = (Left Front) + (Right Rear)

You do this by making adjustments on the springs that support each corner the car.  When you do this "corner balancing", the car will handle equally well in left and right hand turns.  Don't ask me why this works - only braniacs like Doc fully understand it.   So we put the car on these 4 specially designed scales that I have, and find that our cross weights do not match.  Our (RF + LR) weight is well over 100lbs more than our (LF + RR) weight.  This is why the car oversteers in left hand turns.   We don't have time to fix this now, but we'll have to do something to correct that between now and Daytona (which is only 3 days away).

Racer and GSM customer, Bill May, posing next to his very fast Porsche 911 street car with its high performance Euro motor.  He purchased it recently, and Roebling was its maiden track test - a very quick driver in a very quick car.

As 3:00pm rolls around, more storm clouds start to approach.  At least we had a couple of hours of dry track, which allowed me to get familiar with driving the RX-8.  We had hoped that Danny would be able to fly down during the day to join us, but he couldn't get away from his rather pressing and important business.   Doc made some significant progress on the programming of the engine management computer, so it became more drive-able at part throttle, but there is a bit more work to do.  This is not uncommon when programming the engine in a race car from scratch.  So for Daytona we'll have more power when under full throttle than we had at practice a few weeks ago, at the expense of drive-ability at partial throttle.   I don't know yet how this will affect us, but given that Daytona (unlike Roebling) is mostly a full throttle track, we think it will be a significant net gain.

Right before the rain starts, we put on a fresh set of Hoosiers, the plan being I will scrub them in to use for the race at Daytona.  I go out on track and immediately drive 2.5 seconds faster on the new tires.  Wow, what a difference that makes!  After 3-4 laps, I pit - any more would be unnecessary since we are saving these tires for the race.  As I pull into the pits, the rain returns to Roebling - now that was perfect timing!

A thumbs up from Doc, as the three amigos prepare to call it a day.  Doc was pleased with the progress we were able to make today.  Tomorrow Doc will get the new decal scheme applied to the car, and clean up a few loose ends.  Its going to be a busy day for Lenworth and him.

I plan to get up at o'dark-thirty on Wednesday morning, and drive down to Daytona so that I can get there by 2:00pm (or sooner, if traffic is light).  Hopefully the car will be unloaded off the ROAR transporter by then, and I'll have until 5:00pm to get it "corner balanced".  It's something I've done before with my own race cars, so I'm hoping it won't be too difficult.   Knock on wood...

Thursday is practice and qualifying.  Friday we race.  Saturday and Sunday we celebrate our success and mingle with the spectators at the 24 hours of Daytona.  Stay tuned for the next installment!


  In a couple of days we'll be racing at Daytona.  Check back soon!



To go to the next story, click on this link: Daytona Race