Teamwork at the race track is a stunningly beautiful thing to behold, especially when the stakes are huge. I am forever indebted to Jay Messenger, John Fabijanic, and Dave Frietas for giving me far more help than I ever imagined I would need, and for saving me in the process. Without those golden sacrifices, my road racing adventure would have come to a bitter end instead of propelling a meteoric advance. While zigzagging toward the green flag, I told myself “I’m doing this for them, not for me.”
How does this grab you for ambition: Going straight from driver school to professional open wheel racing, with only two test days in between?
With some encouragement from the guys at Honda Performance Development and Les Phillips, I entered the Formula F Super Series event at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. Since I had not driven any of the big track configurations, the weekend started with the Friday test day. I ran that day as a one man band since Jay and John had other committments that day.
My goals for the test day were just as ambitious as going pro: to learn the line, start developing the speed profile for that line, and continue the car setup development. I started with the basic setup from the driver school: skinny tires all around, 350 lb/in front springs and 250 rears. This time, the car had a real suspension alignment instead of the eyeball job that was all I had time to do during the final build thrash before the driver school. I expected the car to behave better than it did during the school because the alignment was proper instead of wacky.
That turned out to be wishful thinking, with another Buttonwillow dirt shower thrown in to make it obvious. The basic problem I had was that any time I let the rear end slide even slightly, the car wanted to depart into a spin instead of recover on its own. Between sessions, I changed the front springs to 450, then 550 lb/in. That improved the balance considerably, but that behavior remained. During the last track session of the test day, I did a decent job of using all that the car could do while keeping it inside those limits. My best lap was a 1:56. I was making progress with the setup, but that progress wasn’t coming fast enough, and I was sure that the basic behavior of the car would eventually bite me really hard. The friction circle showed the limitations: it looked like an ice cream cone instead of an ellipse. I couldn’t do much trail braking: Beyond Here There Be Dragons.
Part of the preparations for the pro race weekend was buying a new set of tires. While pondering the basic behavior of the car on the very short drive to the tire shop at the track, I literally had a last minute thought: Did they have a pair of cantilever FF rear tires that wasn’t spoken for? Happily they did, so I went for them. So for now my quest to tame the skinny tire dragon is on hold.
After picking up the new tires, I changed the setup to a conventional FF setup. I wanted to make sure that the car would understeer because I can deal with that. So, I put 300 front springs on it and 350 rears, then reset the ride heights, tilt, and crossweight. I looked at the gearing consequences compared to my inventory, and concluded that I would just have to live with gears that were too tall for the track.
The last task of the day was downloading the data logger, but the electrical system was suddenly dead. That led to 2 hours of debugging the basics, after which I asked the guys at Dave Frietas Racing for some help. We stepped through the basics again, and this time it worked. The car came back to life, and I got the data. The suspect was a short in the DC to DC converter that powered my video camera.
I scrubbed in the normal FF sticker tires carefully, ran one medium-pace lap to get a feel for them, and pitted so that Jay and John could check the temps and pressures. What a transformation! There was so much more grip, stability, and controllability on the normal FF tires that I could tell it would take a while to crank up my level of effort to match the performance capability of the car. When it comes to tires, fat beats skinny! After the temp and pressure check, the car developed a misfire at about 5300 RPM, accompanied by the tachometer bar flashing. Then the link between the engine and the tires broke somewhere. It would make grinding noises, but it wouldn’t accelerate. So, I parked it at the next flag station and got a wrecker ride back to the paddock.
Two simultaneous reliability problems at my first race, after running 6 hours in the school, a bunch of autox runs, and a track test day flawlessly? Yep. When we got back to the paddock, I dropped it in gear and rolled the car back and forth, and saw that the left outboard tripod joint had jumped out of its housing. That would do it! Jay and John set about pulling the halfshafts while I went back to work on electrical. Those two had only met that morning, but they immediately clicked and worked together like a highly experienced team. It was a delight to see two kindred spirits from different parts of the world work together so well on a common goal.
Rob with Honda Performance Development was on hand for track support, so I called on him to help diagnose the stutter. The data showed that the battery voltage floated up with revs, up to 17.5 volts. One thing we found was that the Z terminals on the master switch weren’t particularly tight, so I fixed that and the car ran fine, with the voltage steady at 14.2 like usual. We spaced out the outboard tripod housings using spacers borrowed from DFR, and got it all buttoned back together. We missed the qualifying session, but we were allowed to start the Saturday race at the back. That didn’t work out so well. The misfire and overvoltage was still there, and both outboard tripods jumped out at the same time after 3 laps. That was not the pro racing debut that I had hoped for. We really got our character built on Saturday.
The halfshafts came back out, and we spent quite a while test fitting bolts of various lengths inside the inboard plungers to act as plunge stops to prevent the tripods from jumping out of the housings again. Both the inboard and outboard tripods had been running right on the edges of their housings because the outboard housings weren’t wide enough. The inboard plunge stops turned out to be an effective fix for the weekend, but of course I’ll replace the housings with ones that are wide enough and set the plunge stops to keep the tripods in the housings.
On the electrical front, we concluded that either the battery or the alternator died, which took out the other one. For Sunday, once again we called on DFR to borrow a big battery, and disconnected the alternator. That turned out to be effective enough to run the qualifying and race on Sunday, but it kept us there until 9:30 pm.
After the nonstop Saturday thrash and on-track humiliation, we really needed a good day on Sunday. And we delivered. What a turnaround! We ran the whole qualifying session with no issues at all. Given my driving technique rust, the fact that the track/car combination was new to me, and the fact that this was my first race day in 16 years, I deliberately under-drove the car. I made no attempt to drive a qualifying lap: I just drove. I qualified 5th of 6 FFs, and I was happy with that. Even driving conservatively, I was 6 seconds faster than my best lap on Friday!
Finally, the work between sessions consisted of things that we should be doing: final fine tuning, a wipe down, setting the fuel level precisely, and having a bit of fun.
OK, here we go: game time. Here’s the video. On lap 1, I got a better launch onto the back straight than Sage Marie and eased by just before the entry to Riverside. I had a better transition from the sweeper to the esses than Ed Erlandson and got inside him going into Sunset. Two passes on lap 1! I must not be that far off the pace after all. I closed the gap to Al Salvo and squeezed through the tiny gap he left me going into Riverside, but he got me back going into Sunset. Sage was very close behind the whole time. A lap or two later, I got by Al again going into Sunrise, and he got me right back going into Cotton corners. I passed him again going into Riverside, then both Al and Sage got by me coming out of Sunset. I dropped back a bit to let the F2000 leader by, but closed the gap back within a lap. I got back by Sage on the back straight and closed the gap to Al again. I almost got enough of a run on him several times, but none of them were enough to make a clean pass. Each time a F2000 car came up to lap me, I gave them a point by and lifted since I wanted to be the nice guy of the day. Each time I was able to close the gap to Al back down, and we finished that way. A podium finish in my first pro race! Spraying champagne was a first for me.
Conner Ford won the FF race by pulling away from us on lap 1 and running 3 seconds a lap faster than Al, Sage, and me. The good news for me is that I know where I was leaving those seconds on the table, and I know how to go get them. With more seat time, I have absolute confidence that I’ll close that gap as well.
Of course I wouldn’t be anywhere close to knowing that if not for the amazing work that Jay Messenger and John Fabijanic put in on my behalf, and the endless patience of Dave Frietas who offered anything we needed every time we asked.
Gentlemen, Thank You.