Mazda Miata Cup Race,  Laguna Seca, June 2002

(This was while I was tracking my M3 but before I started racing myself - went down to crew for my buddy Dave who was racing in the Mazda Miata Cup, a Spec Miata support race for the CART weekend.)

Dave and I caravaned down and arrived on Thursday afternoon and unloaded the trailer at the track. Very professionally run event that ran on schedule to the second the entire weekend. Someone was always around to greet you and tell you where to go and answer questions. There were 3 huge tents right after the entrance to the paddock that housed the 74 Miatas:

(The miata tents are the 3 long white tents just to the left of the Bridgestone tire bridge. Farther left are the CART teams' trailers.)

We dumped the car, talked to a few people and headed back to the motel in Marina. Ate at a place with an ocean view in Marina, down the street from our motel.

Btw, the races on the weekend were Barber Dodge (Skip Barber's open-wheeled racing school cars), Toyota Atlantic (series below Champ cars in CART), Champ Cars, and Spec Miata. We were the red-headed stepchildren of the event, so we were on track first thing in the mornings or last in the afternoons.

Barber Dodge: 265hp 1800lb? It's a feeder series for CART - you pay Skip Barber Racing School to rent the car and get support through the series, the national winner gets a huge amount of money towards a ride in the Toyota Atlantic series.

Toyota Atlantics: 4 cylinder 240hp, 1300lb, can turn 2-3 G's in the high speed turns with their ground effects. 1:18 lap times at Laguna. From Toyota Atlantic some go on to Champ cars.

Champ cars: 6 cylinder turbo 800hp, 1500lb 1:10 lap times. Fastest road race cars short of F1 and maybe F3000 in europe. Champ cars run on methanol which has a very distinct smell, and which burns invisibly so you can only tell someone's on fire because they're dancing around.

F1 cars: 950-1000hp, 1400lb. They don't run at Laguna, but if they did they'd probably be around 1:05.

[Edit, Nov 2006: A modern F1 car recently ran at Laguna and clocked a 1:06]

Spec Miata: 130hp, 2400lb, course record is 1:48 and change.

For reference, my M3 does 1:47 laps (260hp, 3200lb, 1G in turns). That's right, when well-driven the Miatas are almost as fast as my M3 with 100+ more hp, because they are so light they can out-corner and out-brake my car. Of course, it also helps that the lap record holders have about 20 times more skill than me.


Friday

Got up at 5. Today was practice and qualifying for all the races. Dave was towards the back of the pack all weekend, but there were a lot of skilled drivers there. Mazda promoted this heavily, they had factory and corporate reps there (lots of bowing from the Japanese gentlemen). Several professional drivers were there in rented Miatas. They included 6 or 7 regular Speed Channel World Challenge drivers. This was the first-ever SCCA Pro Racing-sanctioned event for Spec Miata. People came from all over the country to be in this race.

Most drivers on Friday morning complained of their cars being very loose (oversteer) for the practice. The weather was a little breezy, cool and slightly foggy (now there's a surprise at Laguna Seca). There were a fair amount of spins, off track excursions, some contact with the walls and even a dead fox (after being hit at the start/finish line), but for the most part, the practice went well. Barry Hartzel (local NorCal hotshoe) had the fastest practice time with 1:50.282. The driver's meeting was held after the practice. The basic theme was to drive clean -- no body contact. Then there were about 8 hours to work on your car, work on your buddy's car or add new decals. The first qualifying was at 4:45pm and involved all 74 competitors on the track at once. Ken Dobson had the fastest qualifying time with a 1:49.802, beating his own qualifying record at Laguna Seca. After qualifying, all cars stopped between turns 9 and 10 for this group photo:

After practice in the morning, we hung out and watched the cars go in and out. Each miata racer was allowed 3 crew members who got pit passes (the word TEAM was on our paddock pass that we wear around our neck) so we had pit access for the entire weekend (except they wouldn't let us in for the actual Champ car race, just the practice and qualifying), so I had a good time flashing my badge and walking in and out of the pit during practice, qualifying and races and everything in between. Was 5 feet away from Mario Andretti at one point who had come to watch his son. We had a bike so I spent a lot of time on that, cruising around and checking things out. I was able to ride up to different vantage points in the hills around the track where I hadn't been before. I was able to find my friend Kyle, who is the crew chief/head engineer for the Toyota Atlantic team that won last year. He also got engineer of the year last year. I hadn't seen him in years. He and I were in physics together in college when I wasn't that into cars, so now he's like my hero. He let me come in past the roped-off area to the garage/trailer and I got to watch them work on the cars. He let me see top secret computer telemetry and graphs and such. At the end of the day (about 5:30), the Miatas had a qualifying session. Then we packed up and went to the motel, meeting up with Dave's wife along the way. We had dinner at Tutto Buono, an Italian restaurant in Monterey that is a tradition for Dave and me whenever we go to Laguna. We always get the same server (Arnold) who always comps us one or two items. We all went to bed early.


Saturday

Today was another practice/qualifying day, plus the Toyota Atlantics had their race. The 2 drivers on Kyle's team took 1st and 3rd. On the way to the track we picked up another pit pass for my friend Steve Rohrer who was coming the next day, but we ended up never getting a hold of each other. Btw, these passes were free and give you access to the paddock all 3 days ($65 value) plus pit access as I said, and the only other way to get pit access is to spend $500 on a pit row suite. After Dave's practice in the morning, I helped him make some suspension changes. It was really cool to be wrenching on a race car at a huge event like this while the CART groupie babes would walk by. Dave also helped a guy who had gone into a wall and damaged his body and suspension - actually several people came over to help. That's the way it is with the spec miata guys. Between the morning and afternoon, we again hung out and watched/explored. Lots more people there on Saturday. I smoked cigars, rode the bike around, talked to Miata drivers, watched the cars go in and out, basically enjoyed myself. Dave ended up qualifying 55th for the race. The spread between the fastest qualifier and Dave was 4 seconds. Although a rookie in spec miata, Dave has years of experience lapping his 3rd-gen RX7, and is most certainly no slouch. Those are some really hard 4 seconds to find. [Note: as of 9/4/03, Dave has been consistently getting 2nds and 3rds, and is currently points leader for the Western Region Spec Miata series.]

Towards the end of the day the Big Wind came up. Mazda sponsored a BBQ at the end of the day but it was outdoors at the track and it was so cold and windy that it wasn't much fun. Went back to the motel with a serious case of windburn. Wind was even worse there (great surf though.) Power was out so we had to shower by candlelight. Dave and his wife were dead tired but I was amped, however I couldn't read or watch tv or even go for a walk because it was too dark (not to mention cold and windy.) Power was out all over so couldn't even go to the place down the road (where we had dinner on Thursday night) for a beer. So I sat at the window and stared at the lights that *were* on a couple miles away. Power finally came back about 9:30 but by then Dave and wife were pretty much out for the count, so I didn't want to keep the light on to read so I went to bed.


Sunday

Sunday was all the remaining races and practices. Even more people there. Miata race started about 5:30, after the main event (2 hour Champ car race). Some controversy that day: it was discovered that 13 cars had illegal exhaust modifications. Instead of disqualifying them or at least making them start in the back, they were allowed to keep their qualifying times as long as they made the necessary changes before the race. Probably because many of the offenders were speed channel guys in the top 10, and Mazda wanted those guys to be front runners. I thought that was BS, but no one protested.

The Miata race was by far the most fun to watch out of all the races. Why? First off, 70 cars started - a track record. The leaders were getting the green flag on the straight while the back of the pack was still coming through the corkscrew (halfway around the track). The first turn in any race usually sees some kind of incident, and Mazda had been reinforcing the whole weekend that contact there would be "unacceptable." And now we've got 70 cars going through. There was a lot of apprehension. Well, there was no contact. Everyone got through clean. The crowd gave a huge roar when all 70 cars made it through. Every other race that weekend had a huge incident in the first turn - and those races were the so-called professional drivers.

All the cars are pretty equal so any passing takes a bit of skill. But since there were so many cars, something was always happening. The pole sitter was Ken Dobson (speedvision ERRR... speed channel driver) who had set a lap record for spec miatas during qualifying. Another speed channel driver set an even better record during the race (1:48). Second on the grid was Barry Hartzel. The battle for first was great - Dobson and Hartzel were nose to tail (with Dobson in first) the entire race except for a brief period when one car got between them, but Hartzel passed him back. Then, Hartzel made a great move on one of the final laps, where he got inside of Dobson and they went side by side in turn 2. Hartzel forced Dobson wide into the dirt, but remarkably Dobson kept his momentum, got back on track still side by side, and since the next turn went the other direction now Dobson had the inside, so we was able to take the line away and get back in front. That's how they finished.

Meanwhile, Dave started 55th and moved up a few positions. He made a great move to pass someone on the inside of turn 2 at one point, but couldn't hold the line and had to make the choice of using the car on the outside as a guard rail, or lift/get on the brakes. He did the latter and ended up spinning, but got going again without contact and made up most if not all of the positions he lost. He finished 47th. Like I said, great action all over the place - from my vantage point above turn 2 you could see turns 2,3,4,5,9,10, and 11. Lots of great passing, 2 or 3 wide in the corners, spins, offs, and fortunately no major wrecks. They did have to go yellow for a couple laps to tow a disabled car out of the corkscrew, which many times was taken 3 cars wide.

After the race, we were describing to Dave what happened with Hartzel's almost-pass and Dave's wife said "Hartzel did the gentlemanly thing and let Dobson by" implying that Hartzel would have been within the rules to chop him off on the turn in, but that was incorrect so I pointed out "No, Dobson was nose to nose at the turn in - he legitimately had the line", and right when I said that Dobson was walking by to congratulate Hartzel on a good race and he heard me say that and looked over and smirked as if to say "You got that right, buddy!"

All the days had perfect weather, clear skies, etc. except for a little overcast/fog fri morning and that wind Sat afternoon. Awesome weekend. Such pageantry. Speed Channel filmed the miata race - I got to see them install several in-car cameras - and will air the race sometime later this year. The only thing about the whole weekend that sucked was that I wasn't one of the racers.

That was basically it - I bought a t-shirt from one of the vendors, and got some free water bottles from mazda. Dave got free caps and t-shirts. 3 very long and tiring days - can't imagine if I had been racing as well, like Dave and all the other drivers. Stopped at the Pea Soup Andersen exit on the way back for fuel and food, decided to get an omelette from Denny's which was a huge mistake because when I got back in the car I was half an hour more tired. Got home around 11. Hope I get to do it again for the American Le Mans series in the fall, or for the CART races again next year. It certainly seemed a success from Mazda's point of view, so I'm sure it will happen again.