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Welcome to the first racing blog post of 2019! On May 4th and 5th we found ourselves at NJMP Lightning with a whopping 10 cars signed up to race in ST2. Season was sure to start off with a bang (a good one, hopefully) bringing lots of rookies and seasoned vets alike to the track. I'll re-cap a couple small items since our last race at Watkins Glen before we get to the fresh stuff at NJMP.
After finishing second place in both races at WGI in September I got the car out two more times to test and try eek out a few more mph in a straight line. In October I spent a day at Palmer Motorsports Park and made some tweaks to get about 4 mph more out of the car by the braking zone. I took some wing out and removed the gurney flap as well as took the side mirrors off the car. I was able to verify the VMAX change with data and had to be disciplined with my throttle and brake points to be sure I was getting apples to apples comparisons throughout the day as I made changes. Happy to say the changes worked, but I still need to find another 3-4 MPH in a straight line so I don't get walked by the significantly more-powered (but also higher weight) drivers in my class.
In November I did a nearly-private open track day at NJMP Lightning with 2 other cars. We had the whole place to ourselves so I enlisted the help of Drew Wikstrom to help me with car setup and tuning. Now that the car seems to be running reliably I can start messing with the variables I can control (shocks, sways, tire pressures) in order to get the car as balanced and comfortable as possible and eventually lower some lap times. I'll admit I'm not a driver who has a great "feel" for changes that I make to the car so having someone along like Drew helps to speed up that process by hopefully eliminating a lot of the 'error' in the trial and error process. I bought a set of discontinued Continental Slicks to test on for the day because they were cheap, new, and similar to the A7s I normally use. I ended up with a best time of 1:08.2 which is a second faster than I'd gone previously. Data says a 1:07.8 is possible which is knocking on the door of the ST2 record Mike Phillips set last year. I've got plenty to work on with my own technique so between that and setting up the car I know the track record could fall. Would it happen in May of 2019? Time would tell.
I had a long list of minor but time consuming items I wanted to get to over the winter to try and pretty up the car, make maintenance easier, and get a few more MPH on the top end. None of those things happened. I did swap on a crappy set of Corvette Creationz wide front fenders to squeeze a larger Finspeed wheel in the front, but other than that the car touched the ground in March largely as it did when it went on the lift in December.
In March I tested the car at NJMP Thunderbolt with MoE. My splitter ripped off the first session out and I ran over it. I expected the corner workers to bring it back in a little bucket but unbelievably the piece was largely unscathed aside from a few inconsequential tears in the carbon fiber on the non-business side of the splitter. Many thanks to AJ Hartman for making a very robust piece! I developed a new bomb-proof splitter mounting kit and this will be a forthcoming AMT product in the very near future.
In April I made a trek out to race at Mid Ohio to try and get some practice in since the NASA Championships are going to be held there in September. In 2017 we won both days at an AER Endurance race in an E36 BMW but I'd never turned laps there in my own car. My car should be on the order of 15 seconds per lap faster so it would be an eye opener. It poured most of the day Friday for the test day and I learned that Mid Ohio lives up to its reputation of being absolutely diabolical in the wet. There is no grip anywhere that a car has been driven, and even when you drive completely off line in the wet there is all kinds of asphalt sealant that wants to launch you off track. I ended up getting 10 dry laps on Friday evening and setting an absolutely mediocre lap time of 1:34.5. It was dry on Saturday but I had brake issues (backed out caliper bleeders) that caused me to miss practice and qualifying sessions. I'd be headed out to race the track for the first time with 10 dry laps under my belt. There was only 2 people in my class and the other guy was one Chad Gilsinger in a Factory-built (he's a dynamics engineer at Honda North America) current gen NSX with 480whp, a 9 speed DCT transmission, AWD and hybrid power. He's a much better driver (he also drives in the Pro endurance races with Ryan Eversley), in a much better car, in his backyard. So while I had no intentions of beating him I didn't expect to be 4 seconds per lap slower. He put a football field on me before the first braking zone and then sailed off into the sunset. His best lap was a 1:29.6 (track record for ST2 AND ST1) to my 1:33.8. I've never been that non-competitive in a race before and it cuts deep. With a deluge guaranteed for Sunday I passed out early Saturday night and woke up at 4am to start the 8 hour tow back home. Overall a very disappointing weekend. I'll have a lot of work to do if I have any hope of being competitive against Chad at Nationals.
With my wounds sufficiently licked after Mid Ohio the car was ready to race at NJMP. As usual I diligently watched the sign up sheet the week leading up to the event and beat the drum as hard as I could to get more people to sign up for ST2. In the end we had 10 people sign up for the race group. Unfortunately that number was already down to 8 by Saturday morning. One very unfortunate Corvette driver spun his car on lap 2 of Competition School on Friday morning and put it into the wall. Car is repairable but will need some bodywork before it's back on track. ST2 regular and season points champ from last year Mike Kuna had a fairly serious cam issue with his engine that will sideline him for some amount of time. Sounded a lot like the same problem I had with my last engine, which prompted an engine replacement. Poo.
I signed up for TT2 (time trial) as well to get some more practice in as needed. Plus with 5 people signed up for TT2 there could be another opportunity to win some tires in the event that I didn't achieve a favorable result in the race. However the 5th number never materialized so I only went out in the warm up TT session and mustered a 1:10.something with my old practice tires. That would have been good enough for first in TT2 but it was a warm up session that didn't count. So my ST2 competitor Alan Cohen actually took home the trophy with a 1:11.8 in his Patriot Missile Cadillac CTS-V. I kinda forgot about the trophy otherwise I woulda gone out again to log an official time. Oh well.
I slapped on my 1-race-old Mid Ohio Hoosier A7s and Gold AF Finspeed Wheels for qualifying. I started 6th on the grid behind some fast GTS3 traffic so overall not a too bad position. Hope being that we could space ourselves out enough that no one would be impeded by anyone else even if our lap times differed by a second or two. That ended up not working so well as I caught those folks rather briskly and managed only a 1:09.8. Second lap was slightly better with a 1:09.2. Knowing that was nowhere near my potential I kept going. Lap 3 I got stuck behind a VanDiemen Prototype mowing the grass all the way down the front straight so that was a throw away 1:10.7. But the 4th lap was mostly clear and I knocked off a 1:08.8. T'was good enough for P1 in ST2 and P2 overall, with only Scott Mohr in his SU Corvette pipping me by .3 with a 1:08.5. AJ Hartman made the move from American Iron to ST2 this season and was in P2 with a 1:09.5 in his winged beast sporting all new aero. He's low on power and on tire so when he gets a proper ST2 tune and a new set of Hoosiers on his car he will be wickedly fast. The FAST Racing duo of Doug Winston and Keith Workman nabbed P3 and P4 with a 1:09.55 and 1:09.8 respectively. Keith gets the award for Most Improved since 12 months ago at this event he managed a best of 1:14 in TT2. 5 seconds is a HUGE chunk of time to take off so congrats to Keith! Newcomer to ST2 Christina Lam grabbed P5 with a 1:10.7 in her light-but-not-powerful E46 M3. Alan Cohen nabbed P6 in his super heavy and super powerful Caddy, followed by John Gatzmeyer in P7. Chris Benoist graduated Comp School on Friday and drove a 1:09.something lap but his transponder didn't hit so his lap didn't count. So overall an 8 car field separated by a total of 3 seconds should make for a fun race!
I'd be starting in Grid Position 2 which meant I'd be next to Scott Mohr in the front but also on the outside in the run down to T1. I always prefer the inside but so does everyone else, and it was Scott's choice since he was P1 overall. The Green Flag dropped and away we went. Video of the race is linked below but honestly it was rather uneventful. Aside from passing some slower out of class traffic there's not much action to speak of. Keith Workman and Doug Winston were keeping me honest in my rearview mirror for the first few laps. We had a full course caution come out about half way thru and you can see the SU Vette hold me up in some of the twisty bits, but by the time the dust settled I finished where I started - P1 in Class and P2 Overall. Keith Workman finished 17 seconds behind me and after 3 DQs Christina Lam bumped up to 3rd on the podium. I haven't checked the data yet but my best lap came in at 1:08.6. I'm working on breaking some bad habits with my driving and I'm gonna go a little slower before I can go much faster, so Mike Phillips 1:07.6 track record stands for at least another year.
After the race I was sent to dyno as is customary when you win a race with a relatively large field. Having just dyno'd at Mid Ohio 2 weeks ago (or about 40 minutes ago in engine run time) I wasn't concerned. At Mid Ohio the car made an average wheel horsepower number of 379. So I was a little surprised (and concerned) when the car only made 359whp average at the NJMP dyno. Every dyno tends to read a little different but that's a huge difference. I was then relieved to hear that other competitors were seeing the same difference. That means I can either a) Remove 200 lbs of weight (not gonna happen) or b) add 20whp and still race at my minimum weight of 3048lbs. Guess who has another tune with exactly 20 more whp? This guy!!
The forecast for Sunday was wall to wall rain, and the weather-persons got it right this time. I've never been one to shy away from going out in the rain and with my Hoosier H20s I rather enjoy it. So instead of packing up as lots of people did I checked with my ST2 compadres to make sure we'd have a full enough field for contingency. Christina and John G were bowing out for the rain race but the rest of the folks were in.
I took advantage of those morning TT sessions to play with the setup of the car (little more rear wing, couple clicks of compression out of the shocks) to see if I could optimize some sort of wet weather setup without getting too wet. I wasn't about to lay in puddles of water to mess with my sway bar so it would stay at the medium setting. First session out I kept the shocks where they were and mustered a 1:29.3. With only 13 guys in TT that was good enough for third, but without any other frame of reference I didn't know where that would put me with the race group. More adjustments and another TT session knocked it down to 1:28.6. Not so great. More fiddling and went to qualify with the race group and did the same exact 1:28.6. My eyes were opened in qualifying that I was quite slow. AJ Hartman and Chris Benoist both did 1:26s with AJ getting the pole by less than a tenth. I wound up third only slightly ahead of Keith and Doug. Alan had what he thought was an engine issue in Qualifying so he didn't complete a lap and put it on the trailer and went home. That would knock us down to 5 for our race group. Just enough for the winner to take home 2 Hoosier tires.
I was starting third which doesn't sound terrible, but I can recall only a handful of times that I've ever been passed by anyone in the rain. My second race ever was at NJMP Thunderbolt where the ST2 field all started on A7s in hail and a downpour and I managed to win that race by 25 seconds. So to be 2 seconds off the leaders in the rain was worrying.
Starting to get nervous I went back the other direction with the shocks and went out again in TT. Yet again, best lap I could manage was 1:28.6. There's a theme going on here. Front end would understeer everywhere and I could not put any power down at the exit of any corners. Even when the car was perfectly straight it would just light them up in either third or 4th gear. I tried different lines to adjust but nothing I did seemed to help. Flummoxed, I resigned myself to the fact that this may be a rather unsuccessful rain race.
The rain continued the rest of the day and with the track sufficiently soaked it was time to head out. I made no adjustments since my last TT session so the car and track would at least feel familiar, as slow as it or I was. I was behind AJ and next to Doug at the start. Unable to put any power down (and down 60whp compared to him) Doug blew past me at the start and got me into turn 1, and Keith drove around the outside of me at the apex of turn 1. From third to last in one turn. It became immediately evident that I just didn't have the grip of any of the guys in front of me. Either that or I just suck in the rain all of the sudden. In any case I wasn't about to hold up anyone behind me so I was l liberal with the point bys throughout the arduous 30 minute race to be sure I didn't get in the way of anyone who was actually competitive. Chris "The Rain Meister" Benoist actually lapped me. LAPPED ME! I was white knuckled going through the outside of the bulb (the grippiest of lines in the wet) and he drove past me on the inside about 10 mph faster waving with one hand out the window. I'm actually glad that happened because in mind it confirmed that my weapons simply weren't as sharp as the guys around me. I was beginning to think that perhaps the rain tires I bought used in 2015 had maybe given up the ghost. Remarkably it was a clean race without a single yellow incident. It gave me plenty of time to try different lines and techniques in an attempt to at least set a decent lap time. In the end my best lap was, you guessed it, 1:28.6. 4 sessions, same exact time. I just wasn't going any faster on those tires that day. Video is below but I don't have windshield wipers so you can't see much except the occasional car blowing past me.
After the race I checked my tires and sho' nuff they were made in the 17th week of 2011. They had just celebrated their 8th birthday. They still look brand new and since rain tires don't get very hot I didn't think one measured their usefulness in Heat Cycles as we do with dry racing tires. Speaking with some folks after the race who know more about tires than I do it was suggested a race tire older than three years belongs in the garbage. So, hopefully that was my issue. I should know shortly, as with my winnings from Saturday I have a fresh set of Hoosier H20s arriving tomorrow and I'm headed to Lime Rock this weekend with plenty of rain in the forecast. I suspect a new blog post will be coming shortly comparing new rain tires to old rain tires.
So while Sunday didn't go particularly well all in all it was a fun weekend. Car didn't skip a beat, we welcomed 3 new cars to the ST2 family (with more to come later in the season) and it looks like it's going to be a busy year with lots of cars and good competition. Can't wait!