Racing Recap - Progress Through the 2013 Season

It’s been a while since I last spent some time writing an article. Let’s just say I’ve had my hands full with work, coaching, and special projects—there’s always something to work on either in the garage or behind a computer screen.

Last year’s racing season left me a rather frustrated; a busted up fender, mechanical problems, crap for tires, and a dwindling budget; it was becoming clear that I was living the typical life of a struggling race car driver. More times than not, I felt that I was up against a wall with few options—financially and emotionally. Before burning out completely with my efforts to get ahead in this industry, I made the decision to separate myself from racing for a while. I used the winter break to regroup myself and focus my energy on more important areas of my life.

In this time I learned to ski at Squaw Valley, visited some dear friends, completed some great design projects, and worked with some wonderful clients as a driver coach. In the meantime, my race car went though a major makeover, which involved removing many layers of paint and old vinyl left behind from the previous owner The mechanical aspects of the car received much needed attention as well. Running a tired car is never a great experience in a competitive class. As with most things in automotive, finishing the car took a little longer than expected. As a result, I missed the first two events of the (SCCA San Francisco Region) season.

Starting the 2013 Season (Late) at Thunderhill

The racing season was well underway, and my car was finally prepped for testing. The car looked ready, the driver was ready, but the thing I wasn’t ready for was a tire budget. Scrounging around my garage, I pulled out some thoroughly heat-cycled Toyo RA1’s. In the opposite corner sat a set of full-tread R888’s that I’ve had in storage for over a year and to my memory they had several track days on them. I originally purchased these R888’s to run in a 6-hour enduro at Thunderhill back in December of 2011. However, my epic Miata crash (which many of you might be familiar with by now) was the reason I never ran that race. So spare tires they became!

First SCCA SFR Win

My first event of the season would be at Thunderhill Raceway towards the end of May. Perry Richardson, who is normally my right-hand man at the races, wasn’t able to attend the first day of the event due to a business related conflict. Temporarily I was my own as rig-driver and mechanic.

The car handled terribly with an old misaligned setup and crap-for-tires. However, by the days end I was somewhere in the top-10. In all honesty, I’ve become a very harsh critic of Toyo products. After burning up the last of what racers call RA1s (but more like barbeque-rubber) I slapped on the R888’s and waited for Perry to arrive so he could tune the suspension. My situation was far less than ideal, but I knew that he would be able to sort out any changes for the next two races.

Given his mechanical background, Perry has been very good at understanding my feedback and responding by making the appropriate setup adjustments. What sounds like clattering under my car is actually a very smart man at work. Gridded in order of lap-times, I began the race somewhere in the top-5 and was able to climb up and claim P3 by avoiding some pretty brutal crashes in the field.

The last race of the day brought a grid of cars that happened to survive the mid-day aftermath. The driver who originally held the pole position didn’t bother to show up, so I was defaulted in P1 for the start. Behind me was a series of ITA cars, but also close in line were a few in ITS, which resulted in some very enjoyable battles against faster setups. The race start was surprisingly clean, coupled with a close chase with the P1 ITS car on my bumper. Away from the Spec Mustangs and higher powered cars, I was the first Miata across the finish line, taking home my first ITA win.

While this finish appeared to be a small victory, it was a very important event for my esteem. I’ve won other races in the past, but this region is notoriously competitive, requiring another echelon of skill. Firstly, I was able to out-drive all other Miata’s through consistency and avoiding mistakes. Second, I achieved this result on the most rubbish tires I’ve ever owned. Third, taking home a SCCA SFR checkered flag was something I’ve always wanted to do since I relocated to California, but never thought I’d achieve given my limited budget. I assumed those with the most cash always won… I challenged my own theory!

But would I be able to continue this streak of success?

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (Podiums Continued)

A three race weekend had arrived, and I knew I would have a fighting chance for strong finish so long as my pace was in the ballpark of top-5. However, this time I was armed with new artillery ... Tires.

After some budgetary changes, err sacrifices, I was able to save enough money for a new set of Hankook C51s, which turned out to be a very worthwhile investment. They hook-up like a Hoosier, cost much less, and last longer. They appeared to be an ideal tire to run for the Improved Touring class on a tight budget. At the time there was far too many active debates regarding which Spec Miata tire/s were going to be permitted. To simplify my efforts I committed to running ITA—for sake of my sanity, setup, and bank account.

Weather is ever changing in the Monterey area. Laguna especially has its own micro-climate; fog and mist one moment, warm and sunny the next. We spent much of our time sorting out the best setup options per the weather conditions, and tried our best to adjust accordingly. We never did get complete relief from our handling issues, but I was able to hustle the car fast enough for the first race. The entire sprint was a P4 vs. P3 battle, swapping places several times before I settled into 4th for the finish. Not yet entirely happy with how the car was handling (nor the result); we continued to hunt for solutions and committed some time reviewing data.

The second race started in ill-weather—thick Monterey fog had rolled in strong, followed by a heavy mist. Several laps in, I settled in P2 in attempt to chase down the lead car when I was punted out of the way by the driver in P3. While this made for spectator entertainment, this wasn’t my idea of quality racing. After a brief exhibition of Italian hand gestures and statements, I committed to chasing my aggressor till the end, and intended to file an official protest with officials.

Rolling into the impound gates; I aggressively stomped out of my car to review the damage.

“Are you %^#&@^# kidding me?!” I blurted out.

Looking at a scratched wheel, a few small dents and a doughnut shaped scrape that made my ITA class designation sticker look like “IT-bluuughhh”, I had to remind myself that hot-heads aren’t so cool. Within a few minutes I collected my composure, knowing all too well the officials were going to be able to handle the incident. I should note, they were amazingly efficient in deciphering appropriate action.

Since the “punt” resulted in a gain in position, the driver was found at fault. He forfeited his position, which then put me further up the charts into P2. For veteran racers, contact like this is clearly unnecessary for several reasons; a) plenty of racing room was provided b) the act was purely a result of poor judgment and excessive aggression, c) the full duration of the race was available to sort position, and d) there is VERY little to gain at this level, with much to loose. 

I can’t remain frustrated when it’s a known fact that not everyone exercises the same level of patience, care, awareness, and skill when racing in close proximity. After all, it’s far more difficult to race “clean” than “dirty”. At this level causing damage to another’s car is simply pointless. This is yet another reminder to all racers; know who you’re racing with before getting too cozy!

The last race of the weekend didn’t award me additional dents, but I did earn another 2nd place finish. So while circumstances were challenging throughout the event, I was rewarded for my effort and etiquette.

Sonoma Sprints at Sonoma Raceway

This was the event many Miata drivers were waiting for all year long; as it was the annual Spec Miata Festival, also a Rational (regional + national) event. Surprising to many, I skipped running the Spec Miata class. The decision was made purely from a financial standpoint. Given my results in ITA, it made sense to continue running in that class and earn more championship points.

Perry and I were at Sonoma earlier that same week for testing. It had been a long time since our last run there, and made sense to shake out the cars on the dime of cheaper track time. After cranking out some fast laps during the test, it was safe to say that I was going to fair well that weekend so long as I don’t get collected in a Miata-mess.

The event started with a great outlook, qualifying P1 for the first race. For the record, this was my first pole position earned outright. While starting in the front is great, it has its drawbacks too. First, it can be challenging to keep eyes and thoughts forward. Second, defending a position can place more pressure on a driver than fighting to take a position.

The start of the race simply did not go as planned; by turn-3 I was about to be mixed in some fender-action mid-corner and I immediately diverted for the dirt to save the car. As a result, I lost… ALL…MY…SPOTS!

With the field so tight in the beginning, it was very easy for everyone to pass by while I was busy rally-crossing. It then became a passing game starting in the back. Going through half of the entire field of cars (both in class and out of class), I ultimately finished just shy of a top-10, 11th in class.

To offset this disappointment, during my climb through the field I managed to turn my all-time personal best lap times; a few tenths faster than my qualifying result. At times like this it’s best to savor those personal victories when things simply don’t work out in your favor logistically.

Despite my personal achievement, I was faced with some frustration and a nagging sense of remorse. I had to remind myself that Sonoma and I have a rough history. Never when I’m driving or coaching do I think about my horrible accident in the esses, but subconsciously I might have some quietly instilled self-preservation instincts that caused me to react the way I did in the race.

I do not feel it’s necessary to deny those feelings, but is something to further rationalize and continue to work on at this track moving forward. I will strongly argue that any “macho” mentality that encourages drivers deny and ultimately ignore those cognitions will suffer far longer than those who do not.

The second race would prove to be a much better game of chase. Qualifying in P3, I was only a tenth or so away from P1 and P2; so all drivers were fairly even in the front. Next to me were other cars outside ITA, such as STL and STU classes. With a 40-minute race and hot weather, it became very clear that the majority of drivers had trouble managing their tires; something that I planned for in advance.

Ticking away the STL Miata’s in my path one by one, and with the ITA P1 and P2 cars in sight, progress did not seem fast enough. I was sadly stuck in the middle of a STL battle, and getting around them was going to prove to be a risky task. Fortunately, within the last several laps they had either flown off-track on their own, or had given up overall position in response to me lurking closely on their rear bumper; moving me further up the field.

I ultimately finished where I started—P3 in class. I clearly made quality gains through the whole of the race finishing 11th overall in a 46 car field, and not a single dent or scratch. That is a victory in itself! I won’t ever regret finishing a very challenging weekend with a podium finish!

Preparing for the End of Season Races and Beyond

There is nothing like a brief summer break where I can leisurely prepare the car for the end of season events. The last two stops will be at Thunderhill in September for more Regional sprint races, followed by the much anticipated 6-hour enduro in October. What platform I will run for the enduro is yet to be decided. But if I do run, it will not be in my Miata!

With all this effort this season I sometimes ask myself; to what end will this experience be useful? Working closely with professional drivers, I get to hear about their wide range of racing experiences. Some have critiqued my persistence running the Miata as a racing platform; stating it’s a waste of my time, money, puts me at personal risk, and does little to advance me into professional racing. While I do see this side of their argument, I can also argue that it’s just as important to stay in the game vs. waiting for a glorious opportunity to arrive.

I seldom make racing decisions that put the car or myself at risk, I’ve done fairly well given my limited funding, and staying in the game keeps me fresh enough to continue my work as a driver coach. Part of being a good coach stems from real-time experience all while packaging those experiences into valuable learning tools for others.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find the opportunity in the very near future to advance to a professional series—by which time I would have gained additional experience. Given my options, resources and time spent in the sport, I’ve made significant progress. Since I cannot personally pay for a seat in a pro-series, it’s now time to work especially hard on the business development and marketing sides of racing. It’s safe to say that this will be my only chance of sitting in a race seat that isn’t bolted in a Miata.

In the meantime, you’ll continue to find me trying my best to outrun the boys on local Northern California racing circuits, also working as a driving instructor for various clients at trackdays, and at the Audi Sportscar Experience and Simraceway at Sonoma.

Many thanks to all who have continued to support me (financially and emotionally) as I make my way though this challenging industry. Your faith, enthusiasm and encouragement is not only fully recognized, but makes this journey so worth while.


Posted on 07/20

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