Thursday, August 20, 2009

Road America Raceday

August 15, 2009

We started off today with another 5:30AM wake up. Despite the early hour, I woke up refreshed and looking forward to qualifying. Upon arrival I began unloading my racing gear in the tech tent and saying good morning to the mechanics. I talked to Travis, my lead mechanic, about my tire selection then I went for breakfast in the VW hospitality tent now as it was finally 6:00AM and they were serving food. I had staved off my hunger with some eggs and sausage and noticed that I was feeling pretty sore (I think I’ve been running too much. Never thought I’d say that!).

We started the pre-driving exercises with a qualifying session at 8:00am. As I got dressed, I chatted with snow mobile racer Levi LaVallee, about what he hopes to work on this race. He felt was not using the breaks as much as he should and my words of advice were to smash the brake pedal in three crucial breaking zones and find out what his car can do. We wished each other the best of luck and parted ways to our respective Pirelli VW Jettas.

As I was getting all of my racing equipment situated, Dave and I quickly reviewed my goals and spoke about keeping my mind focused on specific improvements I am hoping to make during qualifying. I had my ceremonial pre track restroom break and intense water consumption just before Dennis announced that drivers need to get into their cars. I finished my last glass of water, climbed aboard my Jetta and strapped in which is quite an involved process. First, I dawn my Defnder neck brace and helmet. Next I cinch my lap belts and finally I yank on my shoulder straps till we are rolling out of pregrid. I started my Jetta and briefly enjoyed the diesel racecar shake. It's interesting to watch the whole dash shake ever so slightly at idle and as soon as you introduce a little bit of throttle the car smoothes out tremendously. Clearly this car does not enjoy sitting still as much as I do!

When we finished navigating the pits and pulled out into pit lane, I reminded myself of my goals and traced my path around the racetrack, trying to visualize the line I wanted to drive. I made 7 laps in my head before it was time to start doing the real things. The green flag waves and the qualifying session began.

I went out and started lapping the car all the while enjoying the cold tires as the car to rotated and easily slipped sideways. It was exciting and got me in a good mood, so I decided to go a bit faster. I ended up going 3 seconds faster then my practice time but that was only good for 18th spot on the grid. Bummer! My data acquisition system also didn’t collect any lap times, which means that I could not compare data with the rest of the field.

Shortly after the race I was introduced to Don Tebbe who works as a Project Manager for the Arciero Miller Racing and my spirits were raised. He told me he could help me go through my data and find out what it was I could do to go faster and I told him I would come find him after the autograph session we had coming up.
I love the autograph sessions. Kids and even older race fans show up to ask for our signatures. The interesting part about this autograph session is the amount of VW guests that come by. Typically I don’t get the chance to meet these people and the autograph sessions give me a chance to chat to them. That and the kids that are too shy to say hello and ask for autographs, so the parent often have to walk up and say “this is for my child” that is standing 5 feet behind them. It's too funny sometimes.

After about an hour of autographs and other drivers yelling at me to hurry it up, we began our journey back to VW hospitality. At that point I learned some sad news. He was enjoyable to talk to ill miss seeing him but I wish him luck.

After arriving back at the tent, I found Don and asked if he could assist me in analyzing my clustered data. I climbed into the VW tech trailer and we began going over data. We soon realized I was working on trying to carry more speed through a corner and Don offered me an amazing amount of advice on how to get the Jettas to turn better. He explained that these cars are not like the ones I have driven in the past. They take a more time to transfer their weight, especially to the rear wheels which are just along for a wild ride since the Jettas are front wheel drive car. It was the light bulb I needed! Now I knew how I was losing the 2mph in the middle of the corner. It was not from breaking or the misuse of the gas pedal, it had to do with how fast I was moving my hands. It was unbelievably exciting to hear.

Soon preparations started for the race and all the drivers filed into the drivers meeting. The VW staff reminded us to have a clean race and Jan also instructed us that blocking was unacceptable and will be penalized. When the meeting concluded we all filed out and began finishing our pre-race rituals. For me that includes a lot of talking to myself and reading over my notes. I put on my racing suit drank my glasses of water and listened to the IMSA Lites zoom by. All of a sudden Steve walked by and said Dale Earnhardt was here. Sure enough I looked over and saw his signature Bow-Tie and 5 o’clock shadow talking to John. I wandered over and said a few words to John about the race and introduced myself to Dale.

As the light disappeared, I climbed aboard for the race that was going to be dark enough we were required to run with our headlights. Dennis made the announcement that it was time for the drivers to start their cars and for us to file out into our starting positions. They pulled us out of the tent, put us in line and lead us out to grid.

We started our warm up lap and began getting our breaks and tires up to temperature. During the warm up lap, I tried to run the line I had planned for the race and I also tried the later entry into 5 like Don had suggested. I managed to keep a incredible amount of speed and also get the car rotated and exited much better.

Finally I pulled into my start box. I kept resetting the car and beginning to get on the gas for our standing start. The horn sounds and I look at the lights waiting for them to turn on. All I see is red as the lights turn on I mash the gas getting the RPM's up and waiting to launch the car. The lights go off and I let go of the break and away I went. Already I felt it was a much better than my last race in Chicago. I edged forward until I was door to door with the car in front of me down the main strait.
On the exit of turn one, Jake Thompson spun which force me to abandon my current position and drive around him as wide as possible to leave room for the car next to me to pass him wide as well. I came back onto the asphalt and quickly looked at the dash to make sure the car wasn’t screaming bloody murder about anything and thankfully it wasn’t.

Soon enough there was another problem. I noticed a clump of cars going wide into turn 5. I prepared myself to dive close to the inside of the racetrack and somehow everybody made it through without any major contact. The pack of cars right in front of me really slowed one another up and I capitalized on that by closing the gap going through turn 6.

By turn 8, however, I saw Juan Pablo Delgado spinning on the exit of the track. Instinctively I drove the car wide through the dirt for the least hazardous way around him. Thank goodness these Jetta's have the ground clearance to get away with it!

On the way through the carousel and towards the kink I put two wheels off to the outside of the exit. Thankfully I did respond how I typically do in those situations and not like I did back at Mid Ohio. I brought the car back on the racetrack carefully and continued to maintain an excellent strait away speed.

We all mustered our way through “Canada Corner” and began our climb up the hill towards the main strait. I checked my mirrors and Nicky Boule was drafting up my rear with a tremendous speed advantage going down the strait. By the time we got to turn one, he had passed me with a fraction of an inch to spare. We went through turn one less then a couple inches apart with a recovered Jake Thompson on my tail, but by this point the full course caution was out. We got into line to see Gunn Tucker off in the dirt outside of turn 8 which was very sad to see however he looked for the most part undamaged and fine which is all that matters.

After two pace laps we restarted and I managed to pick up a tow from Nicky down the strait. By turn three, Jake had tucked in rather tight and managed to get by me going into turn five. From there I stuck to Jake as the rest of the lap progressed all the way to Canada Corner where all I saw was a giant cloud of dust - it was Devin Cates getting deep into the kitty liter. I just drove by it to see the full course caution flags again. So we all filed into line as I watched Jake ahead of me pounding on his helmet upset about his blunder on the first lap.

We patiently worked our way around the racetrack to Canada Corner and I couldn’t believe what I saw. Devin Cates had somehow managed to put a dent in the roof of the car and destroy the windshield. They had the car craned into the air getting it onto a flatbed. I passed it hoping that Devin was alright and knowing that we had at least one more lap of caution.

Eventually the pace car shut its lights off and we began to climb the hill. I saw the green and let her rip, leaving the car behind me and holding onto Jake. Sadly, I just marinated in my position for the last three laps. I finished 16th across the checkered flag and I was satisfied.

I realized the last few laps I was not working on smooth steering wheel movements which are why I could not catch Donny. But, considering all the carnage I was happy with getting out alive and with no damage!

After pulling into the pits and parking the car I found Devin and asked if he was alright. He reassured me he was and I headed to check on John as he was just pulling in. I talked to him through his window net for a little bit just before Dale got there. At which point I walked away and let the old friends chat. I got undressed, packed my driving suit and walked outside in time for the end of the trophy ceremony. Then, I grabbed some food ate and head into the driver debrief in which all of SCCA and VW displayed their disappointment with the race. There had been 3 hazardous of track excursions and they announced that they were going to be distributing penalties. Finally, we were excused and I began the goodbye process so we could get on the road back to Chicago and get ready for the early flight home.

I found Dave and we both discussed how happy we both were with how the weekend turned out. We both learned a lot and I found a way to make myself faster that you can't see in data.

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