Race Diary

7-27-02

From Bad to Worse

Getting ready for enduros is a little bit like planning a military invasion. Of course, the Roger Penskes and Chip Ganassis of the world have team managers and dedicated administrative staffs to take care of logistics. My team had ... me.

Okay, that's not entirely true. Even though Michael Jordan wasn't racing this weekend, he'd done yeoman work securing material and formulating our order of battle. John Norris, who was going to be one of our three drivers, had procured the tires. Frank Honsowetz, ex-chief of Nissan Motorsports, now general manager of Ed Pink Racing Engines, agreed to bring up the fuel that we were going to use in our car and the 300ZX he was driving with Marc Jones and Z owner Mark Kalemkiarian. Oh, and Marc bought the fuel. (Thanks, Mark. The check's in the mail, bud. Honest!)

But Friday morning, I was left to my own devices. I braved rush-hour traffic through downtown L.A. to Nissan Motorsports, where I'd parked our trailer. This was my first mistake of the day—the first of many. When I was positioned to hook up the trailer to the superlatively comfortable Suburban I'd borrowed for the occasion from the friendly folks at GM, I realized that I'd left all of my hitches in the race car. I drove crosstown to Technosquare, where the car had been race-prepped, grabbed the hitches, drove back to Nissan, hooked up the trailer and towed it back crosstown for the third time—and counting.

Howard and Richey Watanabe, the owners of Technosquare, had rigged up the hood of our car with a trick-looking rally-style light bar fitted with two spotlights in the middle and two excellent PIAA driving lights on the corners. They'd also equipped the cockpit with what appeared to be enough toggle-switch controls to bring a Mercury capsule back from low-Earth orbit. From the impeccable workmanship, it was clear that Howard and Richey knew what they were doing. Rallying, in fact, is their first love. Years ago, they ran their own rally car. Now, they help out Rhys Millen in his Mitsubishi Pro Rally effort. Unfortunately, they were in Maine helping Millen at this very moment, which means they weren't there to explain the intricacies of the lighting system or the work they'd done on the passenger seat. This was mistake Number Two. Hey, I was on a roll!

I loaded the car on the trailer, tied it down and started to take off. But instead, I stopped to double-check on directions up to John Norris' shop in West L.A. This was my third mistake, and by far the biggest of the day. While I was getting directions, a postal delivery truck pulled into the driveway in front of me. When I climbed back in the Suburban, there was ample room to squeeze past. Unfortunately, the postal delivery guy must have jumped out of his truck without setting the parking brake, and to my horror, the truck started rolling down a gentle decline toward me. I had time to honk the horn and curse at the absent postal delivery worker. That was about it for effective counter-measures. Maneuvering a Suburban hauling a trailer, you see, is more than a little bit like trying to pull a U-turn in the Titanic. While I cringed, the truck slid at an oblique angle against the rear quarter-panel of the Suburban, making expensive scraping sounds before thudding against the front of the trailer.

The Suburban was drivable, thank God, but I wasted more than an hour at the scene, demolishing my lovingly constructed timetable. I wanted to make it up to Buttonwillow Raceway Park by 7:30 p.m. to participate in a free one-hour practice session to test the light gear. The drive from my house takes about two hours in light traffic, so avoiding rush-hour was a must. Unfortunately, I still had to get the car over to John's shop to mount the tires. This took me through the area of automotive hell known as the South Bay curve of the 405, which set me back another hour. Once I made it GT International, I unloaded the car and removed the tires. John dismounted seven old tires, then mounted and balanced new Toyos—and didn't they look sweet! (I LOVE Toyos. Would somebody please give me a set of Toyos for my birthday—hint, hint.) But it took time. And he had a lunch engagement along the way. Afterward, in an effort to hurry things along, I loaded the freshly shod car on the trailer while he mounted our three spares. Nevertheless, I still I hit serious traffic back into the Valley. It was close to 4 p.m. by the time I made it home. I returned some phone calls, threw my race gear together, grabbed my significant other, Emily Young, and pretty well raced out the door.

The time was 4:58 p.m. Just in time for rush-hour.

Naturally, I hit traffic. Lots of traffic. Enough traffic to cause major muttering under the breath. I hadn't managed to do a stick of paying work all day. I was hot. I was sweaty. I was dirty. I was tired. John wasn't coming up tonight; he'd promised his wife they'd see a movie. Meanwhile, Jeremy Barnes, our third driver, had called to say that he couldn't make it as well. Like John, he was going to show up at 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning. What are we running here, I thought, an arrive-and-drive program? Anyway, what was the point of having ME test the lights? I'd never driven at night before. What the hell was I supposed to know about it?

Amazingly, I made it to Buttonwillow by 7:30 p.m. When I signed in at the gate, I was told that the session would start at 7:45 p.m. As soon as I found a spot for the trailer—which wasn't hard because the paddock was virtually empty—I started working like the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It was conceivable that I could have the car ready when the session began. But in the back of my mind, I was remembering the last time I'd thrashed to get a car on the track—when I started hot-lapping around Willow Springs with four five-gallon jugs filled with fuel flopping around in the trunk. Major oops. Fortunately, before I could find out what havoc I might wreak tonight, Cal Club worker extraordinaire Mark Smith came by to inform me that the session wouldn't begin until the sun was well and truly down—8:15 at the earliest.

This gave me plenty of time to unload and organize my gear. Then, I attached the light bar to the hood. (The hood wouldn't have fit under the tire rack on the trailer with the light bar mounted.) This proved to be a piece of cake; kudos to Howard and Richey for the slick latching arrangement. Unfortunately, figuring out how to work the lights turned out to be something of a challenge. Each pair of lights was controlled by not one but two sets of toggle switches, one with two positions and the other with three. Furthermore, the switches appeared to serve different functions depending on whether the stock lights were in the low-beam or high-beam position. After much experimentation, I figured out how to set the high beams on all six lights, and I decided that this would be the way to go. Not only would it provide maximum illumination, but it would also create maximum irritation for the competition. Actually, I wasn't really thinking about the aggravation factor so much as self-preservation.

Dusk was shading into night when a voice on the P.A. system announced that the track was open. For a few moments, nothing happened: It was as if nobody wanted to be the first one to speed off into the night—and go straight off the track. I wasn't any braver than the other guys; far from it, in fact. But I figured it might be safer to make my first-ever run in the dark with the track to myself. So I climbed into my firesuit, belted into my car and loped onto the track at a canter.

I know Buttonwillow very, very well—the product of a few hundred laps on the track in various cars over the past six years. But everybody had warned me that things look entirely different in the dark. On several occasions, I'd been told a cautionary tale about another journalist doing a night race at Willow Springs, where he'd also had a few hundred laps in his logbook. On his first lap—literally, lap number one—he went off at Turn 9 and blew all four tires. Yikes! Not that I really needed to hear any horror stories. I was already pretty well spooked all by myself.

It was fairly dark by the time I started my first lap, but not entirely black. Track officials had helpfully mounted reflective stickers at most of the apexes and in most of the braking zones, and my lights—set to maximum blind-the-opposition position—picked them up no problem. I figured that if I was able to correlate the stickers with my usual daylight reference points—pavement changes, dark spots in the road, etc.—I might actually live through the race. I picked up speed as I came down the front straight to start my second lap and got on the brakes much more aggressively than I had on my out lap. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a big whiff of brake burn. It got worse as the lap continued, so I trundled into the pits. When I stopped, Mark Smith told me that several corner workers had reported that my rear brakes were glowing red. Not a good sign.

I stopped back at the paddock and took stock. My first thought was that a piston might be stuck. But there wasn't enough time to jack up the car, pull the wheel and remove the pads—assuming, that is, that there was some way for me to get the pads off and then put them back on without burning my hands. (All I had were batting gloves.) But maybe, I thought, it was just a case of the pads being marginally too thick, for some reason, so that they weren't clearing the rotor. That was as good a theory as the first, with the added benefit that it meant I didn't have to do anything to the car. Hope springing eternal, I hurried back out for a second session.

This time, it was noticeably darker, and I have to say, I didn't like the looks—or, more to the point, the NON-look of things—out on the track. But I gritted my teeth and told myself I ought to at least push the car hard enough to tell if the handling had been improved by the changes we'd made to the toe-out at the front and rear. But the first time I committed myself to a left-hander, I heard a nasty thumping noise to my right. I did a couple of more corners, no problem. Then a very fast left-hander and, boom-ba-da-bum. Oh, Christ, I thought. Maybe it's the right-rear shock. For some reason, the adjuster had locked in place during my last race, and there hadn't been any time to get it rebuilt. Maybe, the problem was worse than I'd thought.

I pulled back into the pits for a look. Of course, there were no lights, and my flashlight was back on my trailer. So I opened the passenger door and started crawling around on my knees. Nothing. Completely bamboozled, I leaned up against the passenger seat we'd installed many years ago to give thrill rides—and nearly fell over. The goddamned seat wasn't bolted to the floorpan! Suddenly, I remembered having seen the passenger seat sitting in Howard and Richey's shop a few weeks ago. They'd removed it to get access to a dented body panel. Belatedly, I realized that they must have stuck it back in the car for safekeeping, assuming that I would realize that it wasn't attached to anything. Alas, they didn't understand who they were dealing with. When it comes to my powers of observation, assume nothing.

Back to the paddock to stash the seat. (It was a waste of precious time, but I was too embarrassed to take it out in the pits.) Back to the track for my third stint. By now, it was pitch-black. We're talking about inky darkness. The void of deep space. Zero visibility. My previous thought about being able to correlate my daylight reference points with the reflective stickers on the pavement? Woefully misguided. The lights I was packing were surprisingly powerful, and they lit up the road in front of me like a giant laser. Unfortunately, the most important things to see when you're racing aren't in front of you. They're to the side of you—apexes, without which it's virtually impossible to decide where and when to turn. For example: On the back side of the circuit is a kink that's taken flat-out in fourth gear. You're really honking along—100 mph at least, maybe more. Even at that speed, it's not a difficult turn—as long as you can see the apex. Miss the apex by 10 feet, and you're going to have a hard time keeping the car on the road at the exit. Miss it by 15 and you're in deep shit. My first time past, I missed the apex by so much I couldn't even SEE it. The only reason I didn't go off was because I wasn't full-throttle. My heart rate was pretty well maxxed out, though.

The second trouble area was the Esses. Like the kink, this series of corners is taken flat-out in fourth, no problem. The good news was that all the apexes were marked with reflective markers. The bad news was that the darkness flattened my field of vision so that instead of seeing a lane traced by the markers, all I saw was a confusing sea of lights, sort of like stars on the ground. Making matters even worse, the apexes are guarded by high curbs, and our car doesn't like curbs. As a matter of fact, it actively dislikes curbs. But on one of my half-speed passes through the Esses, I clouted a curb hard enough with the right-front tire to throw off the steering wheel off dead-center. This while lapping a good 15 seconds off my daylight pace. Idiot!

If there was one word to describe how I felt, it would be TERRIFIED. If I had two words, they would be FUCKING TERRIFIED.

I pulled off the track before the session was flagged to a close. Later, when told Emily about my experience, she said, "Well, now you must have a better appreciation for the drivers at Le Mans and Daytona." No, I thought, I have an appreciation for Miles Davis, for Paul Cezanne, for Saul Bellow. As for the guys who win big-time 24-hour races, I'm now convinced they're racers from another planet.

That night, as I drifted off to sleep, I fixated on one happy thought: Somebody had to drive the 240 in the enduro tomorrow night. But it damn sure didn't have to be me.

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