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I just learned what TL:DR means - “Too long, didn’t read.” I should probably throw those at the top of all my blog posts since they do tend to get a little wordy. So here goes. TL:DR - Raced at NJMP June 9-10 but terrible weather and wonky electronics led to bizarre race scenarios in which I was racing for nothing (or not at all). Car finally ran well at the end of the weekend and hopefully it will be fast from here on out. There. Now on to the full write up.
I brought the car to Watkins Glen with my good friends from Audi NEQ on Monday and Tuesday in the hopes that I could give the car (and driver) a full speed shake down before the first NASA race at NJMP. I had the car at Limerock 10 days prior but it was a rain out so it basically meant the day was a systems check just to make sure the car was running after 13 months of down time. It mostly ran, but again running at 6/10ths didn’t tell me much about the actual state of the car. The two days driving at Watkins meant a thrashing schedule of instructing Monday and Tuesday and fixing whatever issue popped up Wednesday and Thursday in order to get it on the trailer Friday for the tow down to NJMP Thunderbolt to race with NASA.
I gotta say my first session out at Watkins felt a little bizarre. I hadn’t been here since September 2016 when my car met the wall at Turn 9. I wasn’t driving at all that fateful day so the last time I was actually at speed at WGI was August 2016. Pretty much every major component on the car had been changed since then so I was definitely tentative my first session out on top of the fact that I hadn't driven it at all in over a year. Nearly 10 seconds off my normal pace I felt like Ricky Bobby after his accident - “Are those the other cars!?” Car felt pretty strong but my head was yet to be in the game. I hoped over the course of 2 days I'd get more comfortable and speed up. Unfortunately throughout the weekend I was fighting weird electronic problems. Yet again I was having problems with my factory coolant temperature sensor which would cause the car to pull timing and make no power - same exact problem I had at my last race in 2017 that I thought we had cured.
NERD ALERT - Skip to next paragraph if you don't care about nitty gritty car details!! This time armed with an EFI Autocal box I was at least able to plug in to the factory OBD-II port and see what heck was going on. After 2 days of testing and logging data I finally started to get a handle on what was happening. At some point for some reason (most likely error code P0116 ECT Sensor Circuit Range) the coolant sensor creates an error when it becomes displeased with the rate at which the car is (or isn't) getting to temperature. The error shows up as 260 Degrees on my analog gauge, but "XXX" on my digital GM dash, meaning sensor error. However the car is actually running at a safe temperature of 200ish F confirmed by my RaceTech Dash AND the EFI Box, which will display engine data as it's logging. When that sensor goes into an error mode, the ECU pulls basically all the timing from the motor. I can see this on the EFI box and feel this on track. When the motor is running right it's a 22.5 degrees of timing and you can see it right on the EFI box. When that error code is active it's only running at 4 degrees of timing, which makes the car dog slow and also puts way too much heat into the exhaust valves so it's unwise to run the car in that condition. Killing the ignition does not clear the error, however killing the power usually does. So it became the norm for me to go out for one lap, roll through the pits, kill power, re-fire, and then things would seemingly run normally for the rest of the session.
While battling intermittent power issues I was able to whittle away some lap time. I wound up in the 2:04s by the end of the first day. Pretty dang fast for an HPDE day on old tires with a rusty driver, but far off the pace where I'll need to be to win.
Day 2 started with yet more rain. Between Limerock in May and now this I'd used my Hoosier wets more in the last last 3 days than I had in the last 3 years. But I actually enjoy running in the wet as it's always good to get some wet practice in and truthfully the Hoosier Wets are a straight up unfair advantage when it's raining, so I can drive around AWD Audis like they're standing still.
Finally at the end of day 2 is stopped raining, the track dried up, and I got to swap on my old but still useable Hoosier A7s to see if I could set some respectable lap times. In the end I matched my previous best of 2:01.2. Not where I'd hoped to be (was hoping for sub 2:00s) but again with DE traffic and on old tires, it was respectable. This is where I left off in 2016 and was just happy to get back to that lap time. With some tweaks to the car setup, fresh tires, and more seat time the car should easily be capable of class record lap times in the 1:57 or less range. We'll see what we can do at The Glen during the race in September.
With only two days to run through the car before NJMP I did a bunch of quick things to try and correct my temperature sensor issue. First obvious thing to do?Change out the temp sensor with a new unit. Second thing to do was to swap back to a factory 185 degree thermostat instead of the 160 degree thermostat I was running. Logic being if the ECU is unhappy with the warm up rate of the car, then let's have it warm up at a factory rate by using a factory thermostat. As I went to swap back to the factory thermostat to my surprise I found there was no thermostat in the car! That means as soon as the motor is running water is flowing through the heads, definitely causing it to warm up much slower than it should from the factory. Perplexed by where the thermostat was (we suspect engine builder took it out and failed to mention it) but happy that this may be the smoking gun, I put in a factory thermostat, filled and bled the cooling system, and put her on the trailer SURE that it was going to run perfectly normal at NJMP this coming weekend.
At this point I still had not run the car on a Dynojet to get an actual power value. You may recall that I run in ST2 with an 8:1 power level, which means I need to carry 8lbs for every horsepower. Knowing my car was going to come in right around 3040lbs with me in it and no fuel I had the car tuned to 380whp. WHP stands for "wheel horsepower" which is the power the car is actually putting to the ground. Any horsepower number you read in a magazine or from a manufacturer is crank horsepower, which is the power the motor makes hooked right to an engine dyno without any drivetrain or tire losses. The wheel horsepower number is generally 10-15% less than the crank horspower number, depending on roughly a million different things. Anyway I'm shooting for 380whp and the tuner wisely also gave me a 370whp tune in case there are dyno anomalies and I am actually making too much power depending on different dynos, weather conditions, etc. However the tuner uses a Superflo dyno and not a Dynojet, and the only acceptable power reading for NASA is a Dynojet, which meant I needed to get on one of those before my first race to finalize my paperwork.
Per usual I left that task to the last minute and stopped by the good folks at Speidell Supercars on my way down to NJMP to dyno the car. After strapping down the car the operator took his first pull. 396whp! The only people who are ever disappointed when their car makes too much power are racers. Aghast I told him to take another run with some slightly different dyno setting to see what difference it made. 393whp. I was 13whp over which would mean I’d need to carry 104 extra pounds of weight if I ran at that power level. Unacceptable. Luckily I had that 370whp tune in my back pocket. I didn’t know what to expect since my 380 tune was reading 16whp over on this dyno, but I loaded the 370 tune and crossed my fingers. When all was said and done, the car made 3 pulls right at a very flat 380whp. Phew. It also makes close to 490 lbs ft of torque, so if I fail as a racer at least I can go in to the tree stump pulling business.
I loaded the car back up and continued the rest of the three hours down to NJMP, hopeful that since the car didn’t act up on the dyno that the coolant sensor problem had finally been licked. Time would tell.
After setting up camp next to my good buddy, ST2 competitor, and AMT customer Mike Philips we were both excited to head out to our warm up TT session together. Mike and I have never actually been on track at the same time and after texting each other like school girls for the better part of a year stoking ourselves up for actually getting on track together, we were both pumped to be nose to tail coming down pit lane. Sho' nuff, as soon as I hit the accelerator Mike pulled away from me like I was standing still. I look down and saw the too familiar "260" staring back at me on the temp gauge. Bummer. So much for the new thermostat. I tried my usual modus operandi of killing in in the pit lane and going again, but even that was only working intermittently. Perhaps it was the very high heat and humidity causing extra issues, but my problems persisted and were seemingly worse than ever. I went out for our race group practice session and while battling issues the whole time I crapped out a meager 1:31.2. That's a warm up lap pace for me. This practice session became very significant because shortly there after Thor himself started lobbing thunderbolts at Thunderbolt with furious pace. The track cannot be run when lightning is within 10 miles of the track, and it was a lightshow for at least 90 minutes. After that the rain came down in buckets for another 2 hours. The track grounds crew was digging ditches to try and drain the water in some spots, but in the end there was just too much water on the track to continue the day. We would miss qualifying and our race, and we would race twice on Sunday with this practice session counting as our grid positions for Race 1 on Sunday.
So that junky lap time would unfortunately be more important than I’d hoped it would be, and I would also have no time in the day to continue to trouble shoot my issue in the hopes of finding a fix. Luckily my buddy Ben lives near Philly and drove up to try and help me solve the problem by re-wiring the coolant temp sensor in hopes that there was some suspect wiring that was causing issues. In typical Trial by Fire fashion we wouldn’t know if the fix worked until race time on Sunday morning.
We had a nice number of racers for ST2 with 9 cars lining up to take the Green Flag on Sunday. Doug Winston had a fully rebuilt and very nice C5 built by the capable hands of Adrian Wlostowski and his crew at FAST Automotive in Brooklyn. Adrian was actually driving Doug’s car during that Saturday practice session lap and would start in first place with a 1:26.2. John Robbins was back with his EVO X which seemed to have its issues sorted since last year and ran a 1:28.2 for second place. Scott Mohr nabbed third in his new to him Panoz with a 1:29.4. I managed 4th with the 1:31, followed by Mike Kuna in his very quick BMW, John Gatzmeyer in his C5, and rookie Corvette racer Keith Workman for places 5-7. Sadly the two fastest guys didn’t log a practice time and would start in the back of our group. Mike Philips was saving his tires for qualifying and didn’t go out in practice, and as mentioned Adrian was driving Doug’s car and not his own car so he never got a practice time logged in his car.
Because this grid was based on a practice session we’d also have slower and faster group cars peppered in between us. Some Unlimited and ST1 cars are extremely fast in a straight line but slow in the corners, and the opposite is true of an American Iron car like that of AJ Hartman who’s slow in a straight but real fast in the corners due to his great driving and awesome aerodynamics. So with all these cars intermingled for the start, as well as a damp but drying track it was sure to be an interesting first race.
As I pulled up to grid I was already in serious trouble. Not only was I having the familiar temp sensor issues, but ALL of my gauges were malfunctioning, with the kiss of death “reduced power mode” showing on my dash. This is basically GMs way of saying “there is so much crap wrong with your car right now we’re not even going to let you drive it.” I frantically killed and restarted the car a dozen times while in grid to try and get it to clear but nothing worked. As they sent us down pit road for the formation lap I pulled off and and made the drive of shame back to my parking spot. I got out, cursed the car, and made my way up the tower still in my driving suit to watch Thunder Race 1.
It sucked to not be out there with my friends and competitors, but in reality I didn't miss much. After the green flag the leading ST1 Viper spun at high speed in turn 3. Dozens of cars narrowly missed him as he tried to get his car back onto the racing surface, when he should have just waited for the pack to pass him. Shortly there after a different Viper punted Mark Gaynor in his GTS4 Porsche into the wall at Turn 5. This brought out the safety car for pretty much the remainder of the race. At some point John Robbins got out in front of Doug Winston and made very clear the advantage of his AWD EVO in mixed conditions. He was routinely 4 seconds per lap faster than everyone else. He pulled out to about a 45 second lead on the rest of the field, and for some reason (I have to think some weird lack of communication) passed under yellow right in front of the tower while in first place, and was disqualified from the results. That made the podium order in ST2 Mike Kuna, Doug Winston, and John Gatzmeyer. I think there were maybe three actual green flag laps in the race and the rest was under yellow flags.
After the race I went back to my car, fired it up to continue trouble shooting, and everything was back to normal. Perhaps the car is just possessed. A more intellectual hypothesis was that some electronics got wet during Saturdays' deluge as they are all in the passenger footwell of my car. I didn't see any appreciable moisture down there but I'll come up with a better solution to protect it from the elements for the future.
At this point, with the second race coming up in a couple hours and all of our attempted fixes proving futile my buddy Ben had come up with an idea to at least keep the temp sensor issue from killing all the power in the car. We could install a new tune file into the car telling the ECU to ignore various trouble codes. This P0116 code kept popping up whenever I would have the temp sensor issues, and it was our thinking (well Ben's mostly) that the ECU is then pulling timing when it sees that error code. So by eliminating the code we're telling the ECU "hey, we don't care if the car is not warming up at the rate at which you expect. Fuggedaboudit!" So my tuner remoted in to my laptop and using EFI Live installed a new tune that ignored a couple of these errant engine codes that were otherwise having no effect on the performance of the motor or cooling system. Technology is awesome.
Fingers crossed, I pulled up to my grid position all the way back in 18th spot. Our starting positions for race 2 were determined by our finishing positions for race 1, and since I didn't even start race 1 that would put me all the way to the back of my group.
At least this time on grid everything appeared to be working in the car as expected. No frantic resetting of the car and ECU to get it running. We pulled out onto the pace lap and while following the pace truck warmed and cleaned our tires to prepare for the race start. I had one eye on my temp gauge the entire time to keep an eye out for "260" even on the pace lap. It was good to stab the accelerator on that pace lap and feel all 380 of my ponies ready to go.
We snaked our way thru the Octopus on the formation lap and while I was stuck 18 cars back the lead cars had already gotten their green flag on the front stright. I was able to get a run coming onto the front straight and passed a couple out of class ST1 cars before turn 1. I knocked off another one on the outside of turn 5. I normally wouldn't even get a full lap before the temp sensor would flare up and start pulling timing so I was already feeling hopeful nearly completing a full lap that perhaps we had finally solved the problem.
Sadly the race went under double yellow conditions (safety car) before we even completed one lap. Two GTS cars came together at the start right before the braking zone into turn 1. I was told there was a mechanical failure on one car that lead to hitting the other car and both cars went into the inside wall at 100mph+. The damage to both cars was significant, and we spent a full 20 minutes under yellow flags cleaning up the damage, debris, and the track crew actually had to bring in new concrete on a forklift to replace the wall that was damaged in multiple impacts. Was a bad accident but very glad to say both occupants were unhurt. This is why we don't cheap out on safety gear, folks.
Finally we resumed racing with only a few laps of green flag racing available. Everyone was bunched up at this point, and after a long caution period like this people tend to get overly aggressive for the last few laps of the race. I maintained a good pace but ultimately got stuck behind a slowish group of 5 ST1 and ST2 cars. With only a couple laps left to race, and nothing to really race for, I just tried to remain respectful of the fast GTS4 cars that were racing hard behind me. I pointed them by and stayed clean but didn't feel any desire to race my actual competition hard in a 3 lap sprint for 6th place. I ended up 7th place out of 9 in my class with a best lap of 1:27.9.
Disappointing results after a disappointing pair of races BUT the car finally ran for 35 minutes straight without an issue. Temp gauge stayed normal, engine power stayed where it belonged, and I think for the first time in at least 2 years I was able to race the car for a full stint (well, minus a whole bunch of yellow) without SOMETHING going wrong. That felt pretty good. I'd normally pack up and go home but since I wanted to see if we could make it two-in-a-row sessions without a problem I went out for the last TT session of the day. Happy to report the car ran yet again without incident. I ran several consistent 1:26.2 laps which is the fastest I'd ever gone at Thunderbolt. That time was good enough for 3rd out of 10 in TTU (still with ST2 power, however) where I was running for the day, just .2 off the second place finisher. I'm still a ways off from Mike Madman Phillips who ran a 1:23.9 in our last TT session, but if my car will run properly every time I get in it then I can finally focus on driver development and car setup in order to get those lap times down to where they should be. I know I'm capable and the car is capable. We'll have to see if I can put it all together at Limerock on July 13-14 where we already have 10 ST2 cars signed up to race. Can't wait.