Racing on the High Banks

In January 2011 I set foot on the grounds at Daytona for the very first time as a photographer. It would also be my first time attending and working a Grand-Am race.  My focus at the time was to shoot for Darren Law, capturing all the details in the pits/paddock. It was a great way to experience the race and observe firsthand what’s required of a professional racer. I knew from that point on that I had to make running in Grand-Am one of the highlights of my career. With Grand-Am on my list of to-do’s, I wanted to add running the 24hrs at Daytona to the top of my list. When I was invited to run Daytona for an SCCA Double Regional, I naturally was excited to be able to experience this track—the same track where that infamous race takes place every year.

Through my network of contacts, I was fortunate to have been introduced to entrepreneur and racer by the name of Chip Van Vurst. It was made clear to me from referring sources that I had to meet this driver—not only was he FAST but he also knew all about Miata’s.  After conversing with Chip in the hot pits during a Rolex race earlier in the year, I could see that I was dealing with someone truly passionate about the sport, had quite a few years behind the wheel, and much experience in the business of racing. It was later solidified that I was to run one of Chip’s cars at Daytona. Coming from the world of desert tracks in Arizona where Miata fields were very small, running the high banks definitely sounded like an experience I had to have on my belt. With a field of cars nearing 50, this would surely offer opportunity to work on my race craft and traffic management.

Chip has a record of not only setting fast laps, but is one of those completely capable racers who can start in the back of the pack (for fun) and win the race in a 50 car field.  Those in his circle were just as fast, including Alex Bolanos.  It only took a few moments with these drivers to realize that I was in good hands.

The car I drove was a 99 Spec Miata—bright yellow with black paint draping around the sides of the car and rear bumper. In place of the headlights were dark coverings making it appear more like a hornet than a Mazda. And like a hornet, the car could fly. I’ve been in well-sorted cars before, but this one was definitely a healthy breed.

The first day on track would be a Friday, a test day. Lucky for me, this was a rare moment at Daytona that I was able to take full advantage of. When I placed myself inside the car, I quickly noted the familiar creature comforts—Black leather Momo steering wheel, small fitted seat, and that general “Miata” feel that I’ve grown to love.  The PA announcer rallied everyone around “Group 1 to grid!” There I was set for my first laps on this world-renown track.

My only experience on a ‘roval’ until this point was at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR)—a small road course that used part of the NASCAR oval and a semi-fast infield. With it no longer available for road racing (NASCAR renovations eliminated my beloved infield), PIR will forever be a memory.

With the sob story I just painted for you, I think it’s safe to say that Daytona will (almost) make you forget about PIR altogether. First laps around you can’t help but admire the track. “That’s just so f*@$%ing cool…” I kept saying to myself. The size of the track, the aggressive angle of the banking, its history, drivers who have raced here, championships won and battles lost, and quality of the facilities just make Daytona one of the greatest places to race. Never would I have expected being a photographer hiking around the track earlier in the year that I’d be on the other side of the wall in a car.

Sentimentalism aside, I had some work to do. Adapting to the car and getting lap times in the ball-park was a wonderful challenge. Never have I driven a Miata this fast—with top speeds hovering around 127mph before Turn 1 in the summer heat, it was an absolute blast. The handling nature of the 99 forced me to change my 1.6l driving tendencies. With my own car, underpowered yet nimble, it was nothing short of simple to dive into corners and hit the throttle in the very instant that the car became slightly rotated towards the apex.

I quickly realized that the 99 likes a more generous braking zone, more patience and allotment for car rotation. The saying “slow in fast out” became even more paramount.  With heat being an issue on-track, grip was hit and miss—causing some under steer through the bus stop, and some slight push through the first horseshoe. 

Noting the obvious, once you get the car up to speed you have to slow it down eventually. With summer conditions turning the track into a crock-pot, braking became an occasional challenge—always having to be aware of my braking points in expectation there could be some fade. These are common aspects of driving that you have to adjust to. Speed has never scared me, it’s a sudden stop that I’m less fond of. As a driver who respects racing equipment, I definitely drove within the limitations of the car and myself, keeping all the above in mind. In the words of an ALMS driver / professional coach who’s watched me evolve the past year…” give yourself some room.”

For Sunday’s qualifying session I felt very ready and eager to get back on track. After studying data and discussing car behavior with my fellow drivers, I felt more confident to step it up a bit. I qualified mid-field, dropping lap times from my previous best. While not the results that I would prefer, I approached this race as a stepping stone—learning to drive faster and cope with less than ideal circumstances.

It goes without saying that the support of Chip and Alex became instrumental in building up my driver confidence. Both are great drivers with complimentary approaches to driving fast. Plus, I had visitors spending time with me at the track whom I’ve known since the beginning of the Grand-Am season including professional photographer David Wilks, and Grand-AM’s #1 racing fan Vickie Miller. I suppose this is when I step back and look around and see—“Ok wow, this was supposed to happen. It’s all come full circle.”

Sunday’s race will forever be the most memorable. First, with a field nearing 50 it was the biggest race I’ve been in yet. Second, I was driving one of the tracks I’ve marveled at over the past year. Third, because of the generosity of another driver I had the opportunity to put my right foot down in different car, learn to draft, and experience a highly competitive environment.

The race start was not the most efficient start. However, as drivers sorted themselves out into their respective battles I regained positions that were lost—chopping away one at a time. I’ve always been highly aware of my surroundings in a car, and consider mirrors as an extension of my eyes. Negotiations made around traffic, or driving off-line before (and through) braking zones all add up in the game of calculated risk, Spec Miata style. It’s true that I’m cautious, perhaps too cautious at times. And while not taking every window of opportunity to pass, I did plan each move without risking the car or anyone else around me. For a first timer at Daytona, I think every team owner could respect that.

Towards the end of the race it became a battle between a Freedom Motorsports car and myself. The track was getting hotter, dirt and debris from previous excursions elsewhere in the field made grip something you had to hunt for. For a few laps the Freedom car and I swapped position several times—catching him in the corners, yet not quite far enough at his door to force a pass.

One lap to go. I tucked in behind him in a draft, closing in bit by bit. I darted to his right driving alongside of him on the banking. With the bus stop approaching I was expecting two things; first, I’m not going to fight for the bus stop entry. Second, the battle would be best won on corner exit getting a run on him.

3, 2, 1 ….brake… brake? Ohh crap.

They Daytona heat was definitely not playing a fair game with my brake pedal. I was able to clear the bus stop entry with the Freedom car along my left, quickly realizing that my rate of travel vs. distance between our cars would not end well if I stayed on track. So I made some new track. In the dirt.

Keeping my foot in it, I finalized a pass short-cutting the bus stop. I eventually found the appropriate racing surface without issue—not even a squirm or a drift—leaving a giant dust cloud behind me, and likely a very surprised driver in my mirror. Maybe, just maybe, all those hours of playing Rally on Gran Turismo came in useful after all.

The Freedom car paced me several car lengths back. Before I knew it, my tires brushed the paint of the start/finish line. While not anywhere near the front of the pack, driving a new circuit in an unfamiliar car, in brand new racing conditions with a large SM field, I was reasonably satisfied with the result. With my lap times getting faster, maybe this means I’m starting to grow a pair. Can’t beat that! A girl who has balls? How marvel.

Simply put, I had A LOT of fun and was a great learning experience.

I know with some effort, quality coaching, and seat time I could do this car far more justice and qualify where it needs to be in the field. This kind of thing comes with experience of course, and something that cannot be learned completely in a single weekend. For those who know me personally can read into this statement… yes, I’m my toughest critic and on-track opponent.

As I conclude this entry, I extend a very special thank you to Chip Van Vurst and his crew, for not only presenting the opportunity to drive one of your cars, but for having faith in me—not to mention all the support on and off track. This was certainly an experience that will stay with me for many years to come. From one racer to another, I can’t thank you enough.

Photography by RaceShotsResource, Vickie Miller, and Bryan Humphries.

Posted on 08/19

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