Race Diary

7-30-02

Victory!

One of the great benefits of unrelieved mediocrity is that you don't have to feel guilty for patting yourself on the back on those rare occasions when you manage to exceed your usual limitations. And so, without further ado, I hereby announce that the Automobile Magazine team of John Norris, Jeremy Barnes and moi (ably assisted by lone mechanic Franz Heinrich and pit poppies Emily Young and Deborah Sandford) won Cal Club's inaugural SeeYa Six-Hour Enduro at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. Not won our class, mind you. Won it outright. Yeah, baby, we're talking first overall here. (Cue blaring electric guitar.) We are the champions! We are the champions! Of the world!

Okay, so it wasn't Le Mans. It wasn't even Nelson Ledges. There were only 30 entries, and only 24 cars took the green flag. We were lapped early in the race by a trio of extremely fast wings-and-slicks single-seaters that broke later on. The Honda CRX that looked to be our principal competition started having mechanical trouble on the first lap, if you can believe it. Two other cars were a bit quicker than us, depending on the driver, but the drivers were uneven, and they had to pit far more often than we did. We ended up beating a Spec Miata by five or six laps. Like I said, it wasn't the Cobra-Ferrari wars. But winning a race—any race—feels pretty damn good. And we got the same trophy a more deserving team would have received. (Two of them, actually, because we also won our class.)

One of the best treats about winning the race was that it was so unexpected. To be honest, after my session Friday night, I had been dreading the enduro. Around 11 p.m., I'd happened to see Marc Jones, Mark Kalemkiarian and Frank Honsowetz pull into the truck stop across the street from the lovely Super 8 where I prefer to stay when I'm racing at Buttonwillow. (Second floor, interior courtyard—that's the hot setup.) It wasn't too hard to spot the van Frank was renting for the occasion: It was the one riding on its rear axle thanks to 900 pounds of fuel and God only knows how many more pounds of assorted race gear. (Frank goes to races loaded for bear. The only reason he wasn't traveling with his motorhome and enclosed trailer was because they were up north with his Nasport GT-3 car, which he was racing at Portland next weekend.)

Anyway, while they gassed up, I told them my tale of woe. "So," Frank asked me, "are you going to do a night stint in the race?"

"Well," I said, "I wanted to find out what it was like to drive at night. But the way I figure it, I just found out. So as far as I'm concerned, somebody else can have the honors tomorrow."

When I broached the subject with John and Jeremy Saturday morning—they both rolled in shortly before 10 a.m.—they had no problem with my position. John had done a lot of endurance racing and was perfectly comfortable driving at night. Jeremy had tested a car at night but never raced after dark, and he was eager for the opportunity. So the initial thinking was that I would do the first stint, from 5 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. (We figured that an hour and forty-five mintues was as far as we could safely go on a tank full of gas.) Jeremy would do the second stint, which would take him from dusk into dark. John would do the third stint. Unfortunately, depending on how much time we spent in the pits, that would leave us, say, another 30 minutes to go, and John wouldn't be permitted to do a double-stint because the rules limited drivers to a maxmimum shift of two hours. That would mean Jeremy would have to jump into the car at the 11th hour, as it were. But that didn't seem to make much sense, considering his lack of experience. So we decided to let John start, have me run second—hopefully finishing before it got too dark—then put Jeremy in the car and let John bring it on home.

First, though, we had to get the car—and the drivers—up to speed. We didn't expect this to take long. John had raced a 240 for several years, which was convenient, and Jeremy had tested—though he'd never raced—our car a few years ago, and he figured it was a lot easier to drive than his RX-7. Still, we wanted to bed two sets of front pads for the race, the idea being that we'd start with new brakes all the way around and replace the fronts halfway through. John did the honors for the first pair of pads. The protocol is simple: Two easy laps to gently bring the brakes up to temperature. Two hard laps to get all the nasty stuff to bleed out of the pads. Then one lap without touching the brakes to let them cool down thoroughly. Back in the paddock, Fritz took the opportunity to practice changing pads. With John's hotrod aluminum jack and battery-powered Snap-On impact wrench, it took about two minutes. Then Jeremy went out and bed the second set of pads.

After lunch, we laid out our gear in the pits next to Team Kalmo, whose 300ZX figured to be a little bit slower than our car. This was more than a matter of socializing. We were also sharing Frank's fuel rig—a bladder suspended from spindly legs. This entailed pumping gas from the 30-gallon drums Frank had hauled up from L.A. into the bladder. Fuel could then be dispensed from a standard gas pump. This promised to be a lot quicker and safer than dumping in fuel from the standard five-gallon gas cans.

I decided to take the car for the first half of the 30-minute qualifying session, then turn it over to John, who was going to start the race. Getting my first laps in daylight, I felt completely hamfisted, and I turned three piss-poor laps in the 2:11 range before the window net mysteriously came loose—the first time I can ever remember that happening. I pulled into the pits to get it fixed, and decided to let John get into the car. His second flying lap was a high 2:08, which he figured was good enough for government work, so he pulled off the track rather than needlessly use up the car.

John started sixth and—after holding off Kalmo, who made a great start—moved up to fifth when the CRX fell back. A few laps later, he passed a tube-frame RX-7 to move into fourth behind the three Sports Racers. From the slick timing-and-scoring information that was being pulled from transponders and displayed real-time on a TV monitor inside Buttonwillow's central building, we could see that he was turning 10s and 11s like clockwork. Everything was going far better than we could have imagined. But even so, I kept wishing I were in the car instead of pacing around in the pits, counting the minutes before my stint began.

Endurance racing is an oxymoron, if you think about it. The standard approach to an enduro—running steadily rather than quickly, with the emphasis on not making mistakes—is antithetical to the whole point of racing. And there's something vaguely offputting about watching somebody else drive your car, sort of like seeing an ex-girlfriend going out with somebody else. John was doing a great job, but I was getting antsy. I was also a little bit amped up, which discouraged me from eating—a big mistake, as it turned out.

Kalmo came in after 90 minutes, and his team botched their pit stop by spilling some fuel, which carried a stop-and-go penalty. Confusion reigned, and Frank ended up doing TWO stop-and-gos. Of course, that was the least of their problems. Kalmo was sick to his stomach, probably from dehydration. (It was in the neighborhood of 100 degrees.) The gearbox was screwed up. And there was a brake problem. By the time Marc Jones got in the car, all he had was fourth gear, and when he drove down the front straight, he couldn't see Kalmo or Frank over the pit wall. He said later: "So, I've got no gears. I've got no brakes. I've got no crew. And I'm thinking, what the hell am I doing out here?"

John was 2nd when he finally pitted. I strapped in after Franz finished fueling and took off. I hit traffic my first few laps, and I didn't want to take any chances passing people before I was completely up to speed. But once I found some free track, I pushed a little harder—a 2:11, a 2:10 and finally a low 2:09, before throttling back slightly. At this pace, the car felt as stable as an ocean liner. I'd been running with junky tires all year, forcing me to try so hard that I often had several moments each lap. Today, with fresh, well-cared-for rubber, I had only one moment my entire stint—when the power steering suddenly cut out, catching me by surprise, when I was dialing in some opposite lock, which caused me to run up on a curb. Otherwise, the stint was a milk run. That's not to say there weren't some small dramas. The power steering started failing after about an hour. This wasn't really a problem, just a bit disconcerting, especially when the steering would suddenly lock in position when the suspension was loaded up. Also, the brake pedal started to droop on those points on the track that came at the end of a long stretches of full throttle. To make it easier to heel and toe, I started pumping up the pedal with my left foot. Last but not least, the race had started about 20 minutes late, which meant that my stint was scheduled to last until close to 9 p.m., by which time it would be almost completely dark. I flipped up my lights after about an hour or so, not to illuminuate the road but so slower traffic would see me coming. (By this time, I'd passed the last remaining Sports Racer, which was dawdling along on two-and-a-half cylinders.) But as it got dark, I realized that I had a serious problem: I didn't know what time it was, which meant I didn't know when I was supposed to come in.

We didn't have any radios, and the idea of ringing up each other on our cell phones seemed a little bit too wacky. Fortunately, our car had a working digital clock, and we planned to use it. But as the light faded, so did the digital read-out, and my night vision was such that I wasn't too confident about my ability to read any pit boards shown as I went past on the front straight.

I seemed to recall that the odometer read something like 140 miles when I got in the car, which meant I should go until I reached at least 280. But what if I were wrong? I certainly didn't want to run out of fuel, especially when we were leading the race. (At this point, my mantra was DON'T SCREW UP!) Our car was equipped with a hot lap timer that flashed the lap number and lap time each time I passed the start-finish line. I tried to calculate how many 2:10 laps would equal one hour and forty-five minutes. But by now, my brain wasn't working too well, and when I devoted too much concentration to multiplication and division, I started missing apexes and braking points. Also, the light was fading fast, forcing me to start making confidence lifts in the Esses. My lap times slowed to 2:12. When I hit 40 laps, I figured I ought to start thinking about stopping. I flashed my lights coming past the pits, and two laps later, I came in.

As I trundled down pit lane, I was confused by all the people who were waving their arms. (I belatedly realized they were Cal Club workers alerting everybody that a car was coming.) I stopped before reaching my pit, sat there in a daze for a few second, before realizing that I hadn't gone far enough. Finally, I saw John waving me in. I undid my belts as I pulled in, lowered the window net and stumbled out of the car as soon as I stopped the car. (Franz couldn't begin refueling until I'd emerged from the cockpit.) The moment my legs touched the ground, my calf muscles spasmed and I almost fell. I was supposed to go around to the back of the car to man the fire extinguisher while Franz filled the tank, but it was all I could do to climb over the pit wall, where I slumped, hyperventilating, like a boxer who'd just gone twelve grueling rounds. In the car, I'd felt fine. But now, with the adrenaline no longer pumping, I realized that I was dangerously dehydrated. In fact, I've never felt so physically shattered in my life. To be perfectly honest, it took me 24 hours to recover.

I barely had enough energy to tell John that the power steering was fucked. We didn't want to waste time doing any systems checks, so John topped off the fluid. He also changed left-side tires, but decided that the brakes looked like they could go the distance. So Jeremy took off and got his baptism of fire at night. Later, he confided that the first few laps were terrifying. But after that, he said, he had a blast, and before too long, he was also turning 10s and 11s. (It was funny how, without even discussing it, we'd all settled on almost exactly the same race pace.) By this point, nobody was even close to us, and people kept coming over to offer premature congratulations. (Jeremy's girlfriend Debbie, who does Jaguar P.R. at North American F1 races, started referring to me as the "team principal." I kind of liked the ring of that.)

There were two final glitches, neither of them major. Jeremy had to make an extra stop for fuel because we didn't get enough gas in the tank the first time around. Then we had to make sure that he didn't stay out for more than two hours, which could have gotten us disqualified. We called him in with about forty-five minutes to go, and John did the final stint. By the time he finally got the checkered flag, I think we were all more exhausted than elated.

No, come to think of it, elation exceeded exhaustion.


Postscript

On Monday, I returned the light bar to Technosquare. When I told Richey that we'd won overall, he looked delighted—after looking completely stunned. (I knew just how he felt.) I told him he should come with us on our next night enduro.

"Tell me when you do Daytona," he said, laughing.

Don't call us, I thought; we'll call you.

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