Say hello to Freddie

» Posted by on Mar 26, 2012 in Current projects and Tech Notes | 9 comments

Say hello to Freddie

Freddie Krueger and Freddie Mercury are both in there, and I detected some brief glimpses of Fred Astaire too.

Brand new race cars never run flawlessly right out of the box, especially if the final part of the build was an all-out thrash. Except for the one that I built, that is.

This is the Swift DB-6 that I just spent the last 10 months building up from a bare frame. By myself. Due to the timing of arrival of the final flurry of parts, it first moved under its own power about an hour before the start of a 2 day SCCA driver school at Buttonwillow, California. And it ran like a top through 6 hours of track time. The brand new Honda FF engine and the brand new gearbox were perfect the whole time, along with everything else on the car. I’m somewhat proud of that.

My instructor said that the finishing rate for driver school students in open wheel cars is about 50% because so few open wheel cars are capable of enduring the hectic schedule of a driver school. It was extremely brave of me to show up to a severe challenge like that with an entirely untested car, but the car sailed through the school in spectacular fashion.

Rather than boring you with a complete description of every part, here is a brief photo montage of the build.

 

If you want to see more photos of the car’s resurrection, click here.

One of my old racing buddies from Texas, Jay Messenger, volunteered to be my crew for the school, and he was absolutely fantastic. Thank you Jay!

There were two major challenges to tackle during the school: coming up with a driveable setup with the same size tires on both ends, and scraping 16 years of rust off my driving skills. They were both significant challenges, and we made a LOT more progress on both than I had any right to expect.

Since there were only two run groups during the school, we had 25 minutes of track time followed by a 25 minute break while the other run group was on the track, over and over and over. It was an extremely hectic groundhog-day grind, and it lasted all day long for two days. Since there was so little time between sessions, we had no time to make significant changes to the car during each day. Each break consisted of little more than a gas-and-go.

During the whole first day, the car went loose at the slightest provocation and would spin without spectacular driver intervention. Since my control inputs weren’t quite spectacular all day long, that resulted in two spins on the pavement and one spin through an awful lot of dirt. I left the pavement at the start of that one at about 100 mph. In a strange way, it was rather entertaining to see all of the dirt flying everywhere while the car was spinning and sliding through it. One of the engine bay side panels departed the car on its own earlier in the day, and the other came off during that spin. They were both shredded, so we ran the rest of the school without them.

The loose behavior of the car could have been a contributing factor, but the other unexpected issue during the first day was that my level of effort in the cockpit seemed to be permanently stuck on 11 tenths. I spent the whole day trying to wrestle the car into performing the way I wanted, which of course it couldn’t do. After sleeping on it, I convinced myself to start the second day at 8 tenths and work my way up to the limit from the low side. Also, after the first school day was over, we swapped the springs from 250 lb/in front and 350 rear to 350 front and 250 rear, along with a general softening of the dampers. With those changes, I could feel what that car was telling me. It worked out a lot better to just accept the performance that the car was capable of providing at that moment instead of demanding more. That change in approach took more than a second off my lap times and improved my consistency tremendously. The setup change made the car comfortable to drive, with a bit of understeer in the fast corners and a bit too much in the slow ones. That was a good setup for my level of driver development.

The alligator-wrestling and overdriving during day 1 prevented me from improving my lines through the corners, but I made a huge amount of progress on that during day 2. I’m stunned that I was able to get anywhere close to driving a good lap, much less laying down long strings of laps within a tenth of a second of each other. I expected to leave the school with a lot of work left to do. I definitely have a lot of room for improvement, but the school was far more productive in driver development than I expected.

Thin attendance and mechanical attrition reduced the open wheel group to only 3 cars on the second day, so the practice starts didn’t amount to much. I was gridded at the back for the first 5 lap race. I got a good start and passed both of the other cars before turn 1, then proceeded to motor off into the distance. The grid for the second 5 lap race was determined by the finishing order of the first one, so I got to start from the pole, got another good start, and took another win. It was a very long road from picking up the car to punching the air while crossing the finish line.

Sunday of that weekend was a regional race, but since I only had hard compound slicks and it rained the whole morning with the temperature in the 50s, the potential for disaster outweighed the benefit of getting a regional race finish. With such a positive weekend going, I really didn’t want to end it on a sour note, so I sat out that race. What’s next? Probably some autocrosses, test days, and regional races.

9 Comments

  1. Awesome! She looks brilliant! A true integration of years of vehicle engineering expertise and execution of a dream project. I would definitely be proud to come home and see that baby sitting in my garage!

  2. Neil-Congrats again! What an accomplishemt for both man and machine. Now you know why I retained you a good while back for your advice and engineering consulting on my new Bonneville car(hopefully a 300 MPH plus ride-we are not there ’til we’re there as a true racer realizes, but most think we’ll be there). Go FAST and be SAFE-not necessarily in that order, but do both. Thank you again!
    Lee Sicilio

  3. Neil is understating everything a bit.

    Yes he was totally unprepared – for example – I found one clamp loose and one 10-32 nut under a frame rail missing. I turned wrenches on the car solid for two days trying to make sure nothing would jump out and bite him, but I repeatedly found everything perfect. It was a terrible thrash just to turn the car around in 20 minutes or so all day long for two days. Just pulling the body to look it over, keeping the wheels torqued, the driver hydrated and fuel in the car takes a incredible amount of effort. The finishing rate for formula and sports racing cars at these events is way below 50%.

    I was thrilled that Neil was physically up to the task. It was very demanding on him.

    I told Neil, and I will say it here, the reason I made the trek from Muleshoe, Texas out to California to help him was because of several things:

    He is a naturally skilled and very fast driver
    He is a gifted engineer that actually understands how to do things in the real world – no bull advice from Neil – best one-liner I heard from him – “if it ain’t on the car, it won’t break.
    He could actually tell me the weight of the bucket of washers he removed from the car

    But the big reason is this – there are very few people in this sport that are as passionate about going down their own path, doing it right with full follow through, and doing it with their own two hands as Neil is.

    That is it – his passion is overwhelming and contagious!

    JM
    Muleshoe, Texas USA

    • I thought I was alone! Entered my DB-1 in my first SCCA drivers school last year. Lost both engine side panels spinning in the dirt, just like you. My dear little wife kept the wheel lugs tight and gas tank full. You guys are right, the schedule was nuts! But we finished both days, and I went on to qualify for my regional license. Just entered drivers school again this year. After 30 years away from driving, I need every minute of track time. Really enjoyed reading about your trials and tribulations. And yes, formula cars fail to finish school weekends at an alarming rate.

  4. Great Job!

    I was wondering if you’ve had the luxury of running any telemetry.
    It would be fun to see the numbers on lateral and braking g’s.

  5. Nice job, Neil! To come away from a hectic 2-day event with that level of reliability and competitiveness only goes to show how well you prepped the car, thrash and all. Congrats!

    Terry Fair @ Vorshlag

  6. Neil,

    I remember like yesterday being there when you won your first FF race and all of the adventure that entailed. It is excellent to be witness to new chapters and I look forward following along through this delightful technology that allows for such. Now, thanks to you I shall return to some yet unfinished projects of my own in my top secret underground facility and return to the drivers seat as well. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Lucas Rea

  7. Awesome! Huge CONGRATS for the reliability and success in the school and very cool Jay was there to help! Looking forward to more updates!!

    Costas

  8. Glad to hear you had a good weekend Would have been neat if you could have run in regional race sunday,if weather would have cooperated.

    mike