Working, Testing and Travel - Summer 2011

The past two months have proven to be very busy—between my design/photography businesses, traveling for and working at Grand-AM events, and maintaining my own driving schedule, I’ve had little time to write any new posts. In fact, as I write this I am sitting at the San Francisco Airport waiting for my plane to Orlando (en route to Daytona) to arrive. Such is life that revolves around motorsports!

I should take a few steps backward and talk about recent events that many of you have noted on my Facebook page. Seems that it’s always easier to update Facebook than anything else—with mobile technology always in our pockets, it’s the way of the world these days.

Back in June I received an invite from 949 Racing to join the their team of drivers for testing at Buttonwillow Raceway, down in Southern California—all in lieu of discussions of running the 25hr at Thunderhill. The venue would be a 14hr Endurance Race, and the car on the menu would be a Miata—but not just any Miata. It would have a lot of extra go-fast-goodies that could easily leave my car in the dust. Converted from what was known as the 949 “Time Attack” car—boosted, with fat meats hugging the 15x9 949 Wheels—it was renown to be competitive in its native region. 

I had the pleasure of working with the owner and founder of 949 Racing, Emilio Cervantes, notably one fast Miata driver with no shortage of advice on how to make these cars scoot around the track. With him was William Chen, driver and all-hands-on-deck crew chief, and fellow co-driver Suvachai Wantanasirisuk (aka Sonny).

Preliminary setup the night before the race allowed us to discover and fix some mechanical issues with the car. Starting bright and early Saturday morning, I was the first driver to jump in. Having never turned any laps at Buttonwillow, let alone drive this particular race car—my first half-dozen laps were spent exploring the track and getting a feel for the container of metal I was sitting in.  Via radio Emilio did a great job coaching and encouraging faster laps. 

It was not a seamless stint; 30-minutes in the clutch began to exhibit signs of slipping. Each lap it worsened. I radioed in the problem, and moments of being parked in the pits a puddle of oil was revealed underneath the car.  It was then plan B was enacted. Thanks to William Chen, we secured use of a second car, a Spec Miata with slightly larger tires to carry it around the circuit.  For them the car was known as “Hello Kitty”—mainly because when William originally purchased the car, it was graciously adorned with Hello Kitty stickers.  The hood, fenders, the rear—were talking all out Hello Kitty love all over it. So while the Hello Kitty stickers had long since been removed, the “shadow” of where the stickers were on the remained, and could be seen under various light.

Hello Kitty was our car that made it through the 14hr enduro. With Emilio and William opting-out of the driver seat, they gave all the stints to Sonny and myself, ensuring we had ample practice for driver changes and laps during the day and night.

Due to the first car failure, we were down on overall laps but certainly one of the fastest cars on the track. Sonny clearly had much experience on the track and was able to set some good benchmarks. Throughout the day and the night we drove. The original car had stout enduro lights mounted on the hood; Hello Kitty on the other hand simply had OEM headlights with some upgraded bulbs. Once night fell, I had the challenge of keeping a reasonable pace with 30% visibility on a track that was unlit and very unforgiving at certain corners.

That night Sonny coined the term “Driving by Braille’—which certainly sums up the experience.  Despite the visual handicap, I seriously LOVED every lap in the dark. It was one of those inherit challenges of a new racer that once overcome becomes some of the most thrilling laps you’ll turn.

I was set to run the last stint—a time when other drivers on track were at their most tired and the track at its darkest. Predicting driver behavior at this hour was more critical than ever, as it became very noticeable who was a physically spent driver, or one who was less comfortable in the night. Finishing the race around 11pm, the 14hr Enduro was concluded with a flying checkered flag, and celebrations with the team commenced shortly thereafter.

Departing Burbank via plane the next morning, I returned home with a load of seat time on my belt, day-to-dusk-to-night driving experience in a faster car. Not to mention great memories working with such an awesome team of drivers and crew. While I had posted a special thank you to 949 on Facebook immediately after the event, I say again here in this post—thank you everyone on the 949 Racing Team for the opportunity to drive these cars at Buttonwillow.

Two days later I was on a plane again—this time to shoot yet another Grand-Am event. This trip would bring me to Road America, far up in the rural countryside of Elkhart Lake Wisconsin. I stayed in Sheboygan (don cha know) and endured what was a very hot and humid trip. Despite being in the elements, as a driver I greatly appreciate the opportunity to photograph the races. There is always much to be learned watching so close up. While the best seats in the house are found behind the wheel, photographers have the next best thing.

It wasn’t long before I made a long road trip to Northern California–equipped with a Penske Truck, an open trailer, my race car and my dog.  Having spent nearly my entire driving history in Arizona, it certainly felt like a good change of pace.  One day after my arrival I was race track bound—this time Infineon was on the agenda.

It’s interesting to see the faces people make when you lug a Penske moving truck into a paddock space. I never even unloaded my car, tools, tires or gas cans until just before the drivers meeting. I think this brings new meaning to the notion of “arrive and drive”. My mother, who is relatively new to everything to do with racing, was my spectator for the weekend. While not a race weekend, the two-day event did afford some time to shake out my car on my newest favorite track.

After having turned some laps in the Audi fleet as part of my instructor training at the Audi Forum, I already had my bearings on what to expect here.  Chief Instructor, professional coach and Rolex/ALMS driver Ken Dobson had stopped by and “inspected” my car (aka “Clifford”) for the first time. With this infamous Miata expert scanning the car I was prepared for a lot of feedback. The list started out small, but grew quickly. Very, very quickly.

Throughout the weekend I made significant lap time improvements, but when compared to cars “in class” my beloved Clifford would not be anywhere close to being competitive. Nothing is more humbling for a driver with a competitive nature to go through a corner with a similar car only to be lost in the distance because of mechanical advantage. It was that weekend that brought to realization that racing in this region will be the best thing I could do for my racing career.  Accepting Dobson’s advice along with the assistance of his trusted Miata expert Greg Garneau—Clifford is at long last undergoing a series of upgrades that have long since been past due.

Next up on the calendar was the Grand-Am event held at Laguna Seca. Was fantastic to see the races on one of my now named “home tracks”.  As with all events that I cover, scaling the hillsides and crouching around corner stations, a photographer gets to know the track close-up—even at the expense of debris pelting you from time to time!

Photography is officially a contact sport!

So this has summarized a portion of my summer of 2011 thus far. The next entry will elaborate more on some of my newest ventures, including efforts being made to align myself to run a professional racing series.


Posted on 08/04

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