Race Diary

10-26-02

Saturday, 2:00 pm:

The best thing about racing is that hope springs eternal. The worst thing about racing as that — at least for me — hope rarely translates into palatable results. This morning's debacle was a case in point.

Emily and I spent the night in beautiful downtown Buttonwillow, which isn't the greatest way to kick off a weekend. On the other hand, I wasn't too eager about the prospect of leaving my house at 5:30 in the morning and then obsessing the entire trip about being late. We got a decent night's sleep, got to the track no problem, went through registration and tech with nary a hitch. Morning car prep consisted of rechecking the fluids, retorquing the lug nuts, resetting the trip odometer, turning on my transponder and, voila, ready for takeoff, sir!

When I arrived at pre-grid, I found that a dozen cars had already beaten me to the punch. Virtually all of them were Spec Miatas. In fact, my run group turned out to be something of a Spec Miata convention. Now, I love Spec Miatas. I briefly tested one while reporting a story on them for Automobile Magazine. A really well driven Spec Miata is almost as fast as a poorly driven ITS car (read: my car). But most Spec Miatas just get in the way. A few months ago, in fact, one of them got in my door. All things considered, I had a sinking feeling as we headed out on the track.

The first problem I noticed was a horrible shimmy in the steering, which, by the way, was well off-center. The sensation got even worse under braking. It felt like a flat spot. But I knew that the tires were fine. The second problem was that I was unfamiliar with the track configuration. The first time around, in fact, I found myself approaching the start-finish line before I even realized that I'd completed a lap. Making the track even more difficult were slight elevation changes that obscured the apex of several corners under long after you'd gotten on the brakes. Oh, and I was bedding brakes, so I only ran two serious laps, both of which were still so slow that I barely got any heat into the tires. All in all, a disastrous session.

But wait, there's more! As I pulled my car back into the paddock, tech inspector Allen Coy asked me if I was leaking any fuel. Apparently, somebody saw me spraying something. I immediately pop the hood and check my braided fuel lines, two of which have shredded for no apparent reason this year. The fuel lines and the associated fittings were fine. That was the good news. The bad news was that I saw a bunch of fluid collected near the left-front wheel well. I knew right away that it had to be power steering fluid — the leak Sly and I hadn't been able to find. I threw the car up on jackstands and pulled the tires just to make sure they were OK. (They were.) Then I had Emily start the car and turn the steering wheel. It turned out to be a sneaky leak — a fine spray from the high-pressure line running off the power steering pump. The reason I didn't see it was that it was covered by a foam rubber sleeve. But once I moved the sleeve, I could see fluid spritzing out from a pinhole every time the steered was turned near full lock.

The good news? I'd identified the problem, something of a miracle considering who was playing detective. The bad news? There was no way that I was going to find, much less change, a proper high-pressure line before qualifying. To be honest, the leak wasn't too bad, and I wasn't afraid of losing the power steering, in which case the car still would have been drivable. But since Tech had already seen some fluid coming from the car, I figured I was running a real chance of being black-flagged if the hose continued to leak.

I quickly solicited opinions from people who knew more about the subject than I did, which described virtually everybody in the paddock. There were two basic schools of thought: Glass-half-full types suggested that I do nothing and hope for the best. Their glass-half-empty counterparts, however, said I should cover the hole with racer's tape and secure the "fix" with a hose clamp. Considering that we were dealing with a high-pressure line, this solution seemed marginal at best. But I figured it was better than nothing — literally. If worse came to worse, I could always wrap the whole shebang in a terrycloth towel to absorb and leak as it sprayed out. So I bought a pair of hose clamps from the 7s Only shop run by Tom and Bette Dragoun and did the deed. Five minutes later I was on pre-grid for qualifying.

Unfortunately, I was one of the last of 43 cars to arrive, and most of the 20 Spec Miatas were in front of me. I was still having trouble with the track, and I was driving like shit — braking too early, not carrying enough speed into corners and generally behaving like a wuss. But the biggest problem facing me was traffic. I was mired in traffic for all six of my flying laps. As a result, I not only qualified four seconds slower than usual ITS and ITA suspects, but I was also going to start behind several slower cars that were bound to hold me up. I figured I'd get past them on the long straight, but not before the ITS and ITA guys had disappeared. Not that I could have stayed with them anyway...

On the other hand, the weather was beautiful — something you can rarely say about Buttonwillow. My car was in (relatively) good shape. I was driving a race car as fast as it — or at least I — was able to go. Is this a great country or what?

Saturday, 8:00 pm
Well, I finished. I didn't run out of power steering fluid. I didn't get black flagged. I didn't hit anybody. I also failed to finish anywhere near the podium. But, hey, nobody's perfect, right?

Actually, a lot of people in this run group weren't perfect. The race was filled with mayhem. Two cars hit the wall on the front straight — the only wall on the track. There was contact between several other cars. Somebody seemed to go off the track on every lap, which, at Buttonwillow, means that portions of the circuit are enveloped in dust clouds. One of them was so thick that I braked nearly to a complete stop. (A couple of races ago, a guy in a Bimmer went full-speed through a dust cloud and T-boned a Camaro at 75 mph.)

The mishaps started, fittingly, at the start. I got a good launch at the green flag and could have picked up a few positions going into Turn 1. Unfortunately, the cars in front of me blanketed the track by going four wide. Obviously, something had to give. Somebody must have nailed the brakes earlier than usual, and the guys behind — especially me — inadvertently got brake-checked. Not only did I flat-spot a tire, but I lost a spot to a hulking V-8-powered Camaro that was bog-slow in the corners but kick-ass down the straights. I followed him as closely as I could, not so much in hopes of getting by but with the idea of pressuring him into making a mistake. Frankly, this ploy rarely works. But lo and behold, on the last corner of the first lap, he looped it. I squeaked by with inches to spare. Better still, he served as a mobile chicane for the cars behind us, meaning that I didn't have to work about being pressured myself.

I gradually picked up speed, eventually trimming my lap times by two seconds from qualifying (though I was still two seconds slower than the fast guys). It's easy to tell yourself to go faster, brake deeper, carry more throttle, but it's fucking difficult to do. I had several moments on the slow-speed stuff, which always makes you feel like a hero. But in the fast corners, I was plainly wimp material. During the last few laps, I started catching a 3-series Bimmer, which was classified as an ITS car but which was so close to stock that I should have blown it away. I was significantly faster than he was, but when I got a good run at him, I couldn't get the pass done under braking. He got away from me in traffic and I spent several laps catching back up. On lap 14, I made up a lot of ground on the last few corners and got an excellent run off the last turn. At the start-finish line, we were virtually even, meaning that I would easily outbrake him into Turn 1. But as we continued down the straight, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, several workers giving us the thumbs-up. Well, I knew the pass wasn't THAT good. That's when I realized that the race must be over. As it turned out, I finished two-tenths of a second behind the Bimmer.

Later, after looking over my lap times, talking things over with several competitors and thinking analytically about the track, I decided that I should be able to shave at least a second, and maybe two of them, off my lap times. But then, as I said, hope springs eternal in racing.

—Preston Lerner


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