WDMS - Chapter 226 - Sept 2014

WRL at HIGH PLAINS RACEWAY

It's weird how things fall into place sometimes. Take this event; It was not even on the radar because the following weekend we were due to be in NOLA for the next NASA event. However, NASA cancelled the event on very short notice and as all good resourceful racers do, we looked for an alternative. Marc Sherrin (fast NASA TT1 driver in a fast C6Z) has an endurance car, the PoorVette (I fixed that car at the last WRL race at TWS where I was driving another car...and the PoorVette went on to win overall the next day!) and he called me saying "we need to do this". I could not agree fast enough and Anna got to work on the logistics of finding flights and a rental car, etc. A day and a half later we were on a plane and then landing in Denver in the wee hours of Saturday morning. With a solid 4 hours of sleep under our belts we headed to the track in darkness and arrived well before the sun. The one-day 12-hour race (9a-9p) was being run on a Saturday and it was pretty nice to have it all done in one day, so we had a flight home at 6am on Sunday to make this a quick weekend and trip.

 

WRL is the World Racing League, one of the many new series' that are catering to long distance racing. WRL's angle is no-contact racing with classes based on power to weight. For this event, there were 24 cars with the bulk of them in GP1, the fastest class, with a few in GP2 and GP3 as well. The event was held at High Plains Raceway, a track cut in the middle of rolling farmland about an hour east of Denver. Marc had also asked another TT driver Mike Weathers, who has a very fast C6Z as well, to be the third (and final) driver. Mike had driven the PoorVette earlier in the year at Daytona and I've been on track with him a few times and he's quick, no doubt.

First off, I've never even SAT in the PoorVette. Secondly, I've never seen, much less driven, the 2.55 miles that is HPR. Marc had left on Thursday and got to the track for the Friday test and got to do a some recon laps. Mike arrived late and could not drive, but got to ride with Marc for a few laps as well. They decided the used tires we were going to run likely would not make it, so they went into town and mounted up the brand new BFG Rivals that Marc took 'just in case'.

 

As for me, I was thankful that Marc found some in-car video of HPR running the full course the direction we were going (it has many configurations and can run either direction) and it was a TT car that was running similar lap times to what we figured we'd do. I printed out a track map and watched the video a lot while referencing the track map and tried to get a rhythm for the course. Marc figured that we'd all double stint with Mike starting and going 4 hours, then me doing the middle (double) stint of 4 hours and then Marc bringing it home in the dark. I had kinda wanted to drive in the dark, but the car owner makes the call and really I was just happy to be invited!

 So Anna and I arrive at the track and the first thing I do is see if I even FIT in the car. Terry Fair's crew at Vorshlag did a good bit of the work to get the car race-ready and so the nice seat was on sliders but I like to sit fairly close and sadly with the seat all the way forward I was still a bit more aft than I preferred. Mike was in the same boat and said they'd put a pad behind him at Daytona and Marc had actually brought a pool kickboard (tough foam, in pink!) for us to put behind us. Anna checked the fit and knifed out parts of the board we didn't need and we hoped it would work out fine. With it in place I could barely pin the clutch but felt the gas/brake were fine. Thankfully the clutch engaged near the top so I figured we'd be good to go. I actually got to drive the car a few hundred feet from our paddock spot to the hot pits so now I'd "driven the car". <grin> The weather was PERFECT. Clear skies and sunny, with a high about 79 and then cooling to the low 50s when the sun went down.

Mike with his gameface on!  

So Mike gets in the car and they launch a few minutes after 9am. After two warm up laps they take the green at 9:18am and we settle in for the 12 hour race. The grid was a simple line up by classes so we started 3rd and Mike slowly dropped back over the first few dozen laps. Since the last time he drove the car, the brakes had been modified a bit and it was not to Mike's liking. Mike is a huge trail-braker and the PoorVette simply would not trail-brake. We were on the radio to him but he simply could not get comfortable with the brakes. The handling and power seemed fine he said but he was losing a lot of time on the brakes and after looping it a few times he settled into a rhythm and maintained a good pace. He was fighting with the back pad being uncomfortable so we cut his stint short at two hours after he had completed 40 laps. On lap 32 he posted our quickest lap time of 2:13.9, while the leading Porsche was putting down 2:08s seemingly at will. It was incredibly clear there was not much chance we'd be fighting for the win today, but Marc and I were wondering how far off the podium were we going to be?

A few laps prior to Mike coming in, he radioed that we'd likely want to clean the windshield during the stop and so we made plans for that as well. Mike's wife Ale ("Allie") had come with him and she had her suit/helmet and we had (of course) brought Anna's gear as well. All four of us (Marc, me, Ale and Anna) suited up and as the PoorVette came close to our hotpits it became apparent why we needed to clean the windshield! On one of Mike's 'offs' he had gone through some mud and had thrown it up and then driven through it! On the black car, the mud had dried to a tan color and it...was....everywhere. The car looked almost like a leopard with spots all over. I figure a good 30% (by volume) of the windshield was covered and I'm not even sure how well he could see! As Marc got the fuel port open, Mike got out of the car and I slid in, buckling up as fast as possible. Ale was holding a fire bottle aimed at the back of the car and Anna was pouring water on the windshield and wiping it clean as quick as possible. By the time three jugs of fuel went into the car, I was almost done and the last wipes of the windshield were completing the job. Anna had already reset the air pressures and the car instantly fired up and I was rolling to pit out.

SHORT VID OF HOW THE PoorVette GOT THE "LEOPARD LOOK": https://vimeo.com/108148910

 

First driver swap. I'm already in the car and the windshield cleaning has begun!

The car was an unknown, the track was an unknown and the traffic was an unknown. Regardless, it was time to drop the hammer, drive smart and fast, and knock down four hours. I was anxious to get up to speed fast but yet cautious to not throw the car off the track. There were several places where an 'off' would likely destroy the car and many places where it would 'just' instantly put us out of the race. Neither was acceptable, yet the stopwatch cannot be reasoned with. You cannot say 'however' or 'yeah, but' to the stopwatch. I entered the track as I always do with my senses turned up to 11 and my brain allotting every available moment of bandwidth to processing the task at hand. I had asked Marc to leave me alone on the radio for the first dozen or so laps to let me focus unless there was an emergency and I'm thankful he (mostly) did.

 

On my 2nd lap, I ran a 2:16 and then dropped to a 2:14 on my 4th lap. On my 6th lap I set the PoorVette's then-fastest lap of a 2:13.7, quickly dropping that to a 2:12.4 on my 8th lap. Marc broke our radio silence for that one simply saying "great lap, keep it up" as I rocketed into T1 to begin another lap. Breaking the 2:12 barrier now became a traffic issue. A whole lot of these drivers were not very heads up and made passing difficult. I have to be honest though, there were quite a few that were VERY vigilant on their mirrors and would tap their rearview as I came up on them and frequently 'helped' me a bit to get past them without slowing themselves down or having me have to go offline by much. The latter acts were extremely helpful and I waived a thank you to all those that made it easy.

 

Soon, the radio ban was lifted and Marc asked for a sitrep. I told him the car felt okay, had very nice torque, mild understeer but very controllable handling but I was really struggling to get comfortable with the brakes. They were incredibly vague. The pedal seemingly had a 'slowing down a little bit' setting and then just a smidge past that was 'slowing down medium' setting and then if you pushed 1mm past that you were going to lock a tire. Which tire you locked simply depended on the loading of the chassis. It was frustrating and trail-braking (as Mike indicated) was completely verboten! ANY bit of trail would begin to lock the rears and you were in real trouble in a hurry. I had spent the first 10 laps not only learning the track, but learning how to drive this most unorthodox car in as fast a fashion as possible. In the fast corners, I had settled upon braking early and then transitioning back to just a bit of power at the turn-in point and then powering through the corner. It actually made some of the passing easier as I was carrying even more exit speed than I normally would and with the torque of the LT1 and the serious elevation change, it really helped me power past other cars on short straights. While I would have preferred to brake late and carry more speed from the previous straight, the car simply did not have the brakes for that style and I was braking before most of the other cars on track as I didn't trust the brakes fully and I wanted to ensure there were no mistakes that could take us out of the race. I was passing several cars a lap now, desperate for a clear lap where I could lay down a fast lap. The big 295 BFG Rivals were nice and steady. They'd get a bit greasy if you slid them much, but if I kept it tidy then I could feel the crispness come back and the slight overall grip increase that accompanied it. Sometimes I'd get a great first-half of a lap, only to catch traffic and abuse the tires a bit to get around them and lose a second or so with the resultant hate from the stopwatch. I *really* wanted to see a 2:10 or so on the lap timer, but it just didn't seem like it was going to happen. I was in 5th gear once per lap and the 5-4 downshift was wonky, and that took a handful of laps to work out as several times I went into 6th.

Early pitstop action

About lap 80 Marc has me check fuel and we decide to pull me in for a splash. I've been in 40 laps and we don't want to run out with all the elevation change. As the team is getting suited up, I ask for a drink (we'd brought Gatorade and straws) during the stop and as I pass a few cars into the last section of the track I come up the hill to start/finish and see that the first quarter of the track is totally clear. With clear track in front of me, I go for as perfect a lap as I can lay down right now. The first half of the track went really well but I could see I was catching a pair of cars and would likely catch them prior to the final set of esses before the s/f line. Ug. I kept my head down, was as fast and tidy as possible and ended up passing both cars on the last little straight before running the esses very nicely and putting in a 2:11.2 lap. Argh. That pair of cars robbed me of my 2:10 and that was all I could think as Marc called "box box box" and I brought the car in at the end of lap 85 for a splash.

 

My second low 2:11 lap was on lap 94 as I was reeling in the #313 Porsche...Soon we were in 2nd place!

The stop was flawless, with me shutting the car down and coasting the last 30' or so and I was stopped for only a second or two and Marc was dumping in the first 5 gallon can. Anna held a Gatorade in the window and I took it and brought the straw under my helmet and killed about half the small container. The front air pressures were bled down just a bit and in less than 40 seconds I was headed back down pit road with a full tank of fuel to burn as I hunted that elusive 2:10.

Sixteen laps later a miata spontaneously combusts on the short straight just prior to the final esses and we get a full course caution. At first, folks are still lapping pretty quick, but soon a train forms up behind some moron going 60% speed for the remainder of the course and with our crew suited up and ready I pull back in for a splash to get me to the end of my stint easily. Another quick stop, bled tires, and Gatorade for me, it's off we go for the last yellow lap and then back to green. I kill the first 20 laps or so picking off traffic that I was behind and Marc lets me know I'm the second fastest car on the track, with only the leading Porsche cutting better times than me.

 

Solidly in 2nd place now with the orange/black #313 Porsche behind me, I trek down the long main straight again.....and again and again and again...

I got in the car on lap 41 and the PoorVette was in 11th. 10th by lap 48. 8th by lap 53. 6th by lap 56. 4th by lap 62. We made our splash-of-fuel stop on lap 85 in 3rd and we were still in 3rd for my final splash as well. On lap 101 I slipped into 2nd place and held it until the end of my stint on lap 144. Passing cars me likey!!!

Great snap by Anna. Me in the PoorVette in the foreground and (spoiler alert) the winning Porsche and the 3rd place BRZ in the background!

On lap 125, comfortably in 2nd, I *finally* got mostly clear track and kept it tidy and threw down our then-fastest lap of a 2:10.4. There was more in the car, but you really had to get everything perfect, have the tires not greasy, not hit traffic and really manage the brakes well. They were inconsistent a bit and tough to be precise with. So, I tended to hold back a bit on top of holding back a bit already since this was not my car and we still had 6 hours to go when my stint was over. But still, I was asked to join the team to go fast and smooth and I was intently focused on that. Sadly, the lap after my 2:10.4 lap I got black flagged for dropping two tires off and apparently the officials were concerned about me. I stopped, they said they just wanted to check on me, a very short 10 second chat happened and I was released. I was, of course, nice and polite and when they asked if I was okay and not too worn out to drive, I said I was fine and alert and was wondering where the blue passing flags were for all the cars that were ignoring their mirrors. I got an empty stare and released.

 

The 313 went WAY off after the main straight and was in the pits a long time. It does not look bad, but it was. They tumbled down the standings because of it.

I was, to my knowledge, the only car pulled in for this hard-to-define infraction. Had the officials been really concerned you think they would have checked lap times. My previous times were incredibly consistent and I was the second fastest car on the track. That alone might tell you that all was okay. Or the officials could have walked the 50' to our pit stall and said "hey, is your driver ok? He's dropped a few rear tires on exit and we just want to make sure". Thankfully (spoiler alert) we secured our finishing position by more than the 40 seconds it cost me to have a useless chat, because it would have been a big shame to have something so irregular and selectively enforced effect a finishing position. Through paddock talk later, we heard the black flag was not called in from a corner-worker, but told to an official by a competitor. Sour grapes apparently. Hopefully WRL makes this a one-off incident as it is crap like this that turns off racers. After the race Marc told me one official asked him about the driver and he showed them lap times and said all was fine, but the wheels were already in motion and I'd already been black flagged and acknowledged. Ug. 

So, now I'm near the end of my stint and for grins, drop another 2:10, this time a 2:10.3, five laps after my black flag to throw down a time that ends up giving us the second fastest car of the race and me our fastest lap time. Booyah! I come in on lap 144 and Mike slides in and although he gets back on the track in 3rd place, he puts us back into 2nd only 9 laps later, at lap 154.

TRACK NOTES: As for the track, it is a DAMN FUN little track. Great elevation change and a few blind corners to keep things interesting. There were a few spots where going off could REALLY screw up a car (see Porsche 313) and that seemed more to poor track maintenance (not filling in big holes just off the runoff areas, etc) than anything else. I'd have liked a few higher speed corners, but all in all this was a fun track to drive. With the elevation change, torque out of the corners was important and the mighty LT1 did not disappoint.  

SHORT, ONE LAP VID!!!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4TM9SX7Nkg  (CLICK "HD" IN THE BOTTOM RIGHT!!!!)

My ONE "off": While still feeling the car out, I went through a looooong right hander going uphill and then as I went for the brakes, the extremely long coolsuit connectors that I'd shoved out of the way came sliding forward and my left heel (left foot braking FTW) caught the hoses and limited my movement. I quickly lifted my heel but the damage was done and I was now a few lengths past my braking point. I could have pitched the car sideways and kept it on the pavement, but I'd seen a lot of cars go off here, it was very slow speed (slowest point on the track) and I was off-and-on very easily. No, I don't wear a coolsuit (Mike and Marc do) and we didn't get the hoses tucked very well. The rest of that lap was spent getting them shoved out of the way and they were not a problem the rest of my stint. 

SHORT VID OF MY "OFF": https://vimeo.com/108148581

Last lap prior to getting the final fuel splash and our lights mounted up. Marc is in the car.  

Mike puts in two solid hours of driving and pits on lap 205, having held 2nd place the entire time with no mistakes at all. The PoorVette has built up a few lap lead over 3rd and we don't even lose a position on the long pitstop to fully refuel and put Marc in the car. Marc is now staring at 4 hours to get us to the finish line and he's in second place as he takes off to hold our spot. The leading Porsche is able to run 2:08s at will and is some 8-9 laps in front of us at this point so we're content to keep mildly pushing to keep our 2nd but also to be close if the leader falters.

 

Marc runs a smart race and simply manages the gap to the 3rd place BRZ and keeps it at a steady 1.5-2 lap lead. The car is not acting like he is used to, but sadly, I have no frame of reference since I'd never driven the car before and I'm sure the tires and brakes are getting knackered. Marc stops a bit before the sun drops all the way behind the horizon and we dump enough fuel to make it to the end as well as put on the light bar. Sadly, the lights moved a bit and we came back in a few laps later for a quick re-adjustment but we still kept 2nd place and Marc could throw down a quick lap time if the BRZ started making a push at us. In the dark I could see Marc pumping the brakes a few times before the corners and we were all hopeful that we could just maintain the position.

 

In the end, the checker flies after 12 hours of running and the PoorVette takes 2nd in class (and 2nd overall) with 1.5 laps over the BRZ. Marc had slowed down all the way to 2:25-2:30 to keep from using the dead brakes and match what the BRZ was doing. In the end the BRZ had a late fuel stop and Marc just putted around the last few laps and cruised to our podium finish. Wahoo!

Huge thank-you to Marc and Mike for letting me join the team for this race and, most importantly, to my incredible wife Anna who loves spur-of-the-moment trips and adventure. I'm happy to be a part of the crew that stood on the second step and brought hardware home to Texas!