SCCA 2005 Season Finale at Thunderhill Raceway

I did not have a really good race weekend. Went up a day early on Thurs to break the new motor in (have to keep the revs low the first couple sessions). My last session I got a personal best lap time, but not by much and part of it could be attributed to some extra paving that has been added to a couple turns, making the track faster. So even my PB was still about 3 seconds off what the fastest cars were doing, which is about what the gap has been between me and the leaders all year. And all last year. Sigh.

Friday was practice and qualifying. During practice I was getting a wicked clunking sound when cornering and braking which turned out to be a broken suspension bolt. Luckily I had a spare and was able to replace it between practice and qual (although since the bolt was bent it took a lot of WD40 and hammering to get out.) During both practice and qual I was having trouble with both sets of tires I had brought up there - they just wouldn't grip and it was like I was on ice - prob a combination of them being too old, and not finding the right pressures to run. So I was really slow in qualifying but still had hope of doing well since they were doing another qual session Sat morning - one's qual time would be the best of either session and the cooler conditions Sat morning would make for faster laps, so that would be the session that really counted. But Sat morning not only was I still slow, I couldn't find space between cars to get a clean lap. My fastest lap would've been faster were it not for a jackass who was trying to race me (something you do in qualifying only if you're very stupid - if someone behind you is faster you let them by, because blocking/racing them makes *you* slower too.) This particular jackass was gridded right in front of me for qualifying (for everything except the race you go out in the same order in which you show up to the grid, so it is mostly random) - I hadn't met him before and was unaware of his jackassery, so I introduced myself and he says "I think you and I are running similar lap times" so I said "Ok, maybe we can help each other". (Folks who run similar lap times can be faster by drafting off each other.) Well after one lap with me all over his bumper it's obvious I'm much faster. But instead of him letting me by in a spot where neither of us would lose too much time, he blocks me for another lap and races me side by side through 2 corners before I get by. Believe me when I say I gave him a good long fist shake after I got around. My tires went off after that, so that turned out to be my fastest lap.

So I qualed around 36 out of about 45. (I usually qual in the mid-teens.) Even though I had the difficulty with the tires and the problems with traffic during qual and could use those factors as excuses, bottom line is I still knew I was 3 seconds off what the front runners were doing, even with my new engine, and even after having 2 seasons under my belt. That was discouraging. After qual I had about 3 hours to kill before the race so I drove into town and got a frap from Starbucks, and drove around just sightseeing and soul searching. I've never been closer to deciding to just quit racing. I did decide that I would do at least one more test day next month, to give the engine a chance to break in a little more (it will get a little faster as it continues to break in), and beforehand I will fine tune the car in a couple ways, and order some new tires. I'll also go to a dyno to make sure I'm putting out the power I should be. So I'll see how my lap times are after doing that stuff and decide from there. Really my primary goal was to see how I compared to other drivers, and if I end up still being a couple seconds slow after completely dialing the car in then, well, I'm a couple seconds slow. I *could* just keep racing no matter how slow I am, as I'm sure I'd get better every year, but I would be (and have been) spending a ton of money. The other thing is: like I mentioned, I've stayed about the same relative to the leaders - but everyone who I used to be much faster than has either almost caught up to me in speed, or passed me. So I'm just not sure if this is a sport where I can excel. Although maybe it's just rust from not having done many races this year, who knows.

The race started well - I quickly made up several positions on the start, including the jackass who had raced me in qualifying (I guess actually that worked for him since he qualed one spot ahead of me :-) but I was past him as soon as the green flag flew), and made up several more positions on the first lap (as I expected, since I really was faster than these guys in the back, just had a bad qual time.) Then on the second lap, as I was picking off guys one by one, I was turning into a corner and someone on the inside bashed into me. At the time I thought it was someone who'd tried an overly optimistic dive bomb pass. I was knocked off track - kept it straight and got back on but had lost 6-7 positions. Luckily the car didn't feel damaged and I was able to keep running the same lap times, and got some of the positions back (including Mr. Jackass, who had passed me when I was trying to get back on track after being punted - and who I quickly reeled in and again made into a speck in my rear view mirror within half a lap - that felt good) before the end of the race. I probably ended up around 25th. After the race the guy who hit me came over and explained that his throttle had stuck. He actually had spun off after hitting me and had been forced to shut the car down and watch the whole race from there. He was very apologetic, and I was very understanding - just one of those racing things. I just need a new door and fender - already have a spare door, and the fenders aren't too expensive.

To explain another disappointing outcome, I must first back up to last year. As a rookie I did very well, getting 4 9th place finishes in 50-60 car fields and destroying all the other rookies, both in the races and in the final series points. Because I finished 1st out of all the rookies in Spec Miata, there was a possibility for me to get Rookie of the Year, which comes with a trophy and recognition at the end-of-year awards banquet. But they have to also consider rookies in the other classes. Supposedly they use some kind of formula to figure out who the best rookie is, probably based on finishing positions and number of entrants. Well a guy who raced in another class ended up getting the award. The class he runs in though, has maybe 6-7 entrants per race, and he would finish around 5th or 6th. Like I said, the Spec Miata (SM) races had 50-60 entrants per race, and I would finish somewhere between 9th and 15th. In the season points, he finished 7th out of 35 drivers, whereas I finished 10th out of *135* drivers. I think the formula for picking the fastest rookie is broken. :-) Plus, anyone who knows anything knows that SM is the most competitive class - that's where all the fast drivers are, and in fact is where the pro drivers rent cars and race when they come to play. (Side note: at one race last year I outqualified a pro driver who recently won a race in one of the most competitive series in the world - Speed World Challenge - can't say whether I would've beat him in the race because I got taken out by another car at the start, but point is I was able to lay down a faster lap than him in qualifying. Sure, maybe he had trouble in qualifying, like I did this last weekend - but about 15 other local club racers layed down a faster lap than him or any of the other the pro dudes who were there, and about 10 of the local guys beat him and other pros in the race. I think this shows that the top guys in club racing are just as good if not better than the famous, winning pro drivers - they just aren't as well funded.) Anyway, back to the award - I've always been a little disappointed about not getting it, and have always hoped that the guy who did get it would race SM so I could see how he did. Well the point of all I've been telling you is that he raced this weekend. His times in the first qual session were way slower than mine. His second qual session times kept him in about the same position, but since all the times were faster because of conditions, and mine were slower because of the jackass who was racing me and my crappy tires, I was shuffled back to several spots behind him. At the end of the race I was reeling him in, but there just wasn't enough race left to catch him, so I was denied the satisfaction of beating him. Sure, you could look at the results and see my fastest lap was a second or two faster than his, but all that matters is that he finished ahead of me. No excuses about bad tires and bad qual sessions and being punted can change that. And I'll bet you that he's thinking right now, "You know I never really felt I deserved that award because I wasn't in the most competitive class, but now I've beaten the guy who was the fastest rookie in that class - so I guess I really was Rookie of the Year!" :-) Actually, one thing that might have prevented me getting the award is the fact that Driver of the Year for that year, and Rookie of the Year the year before, both went to someone in SM. (In fact both went to the same person: Justin Hall, for those of you who know him.) So they were probably politically motivated to choose a rook from another class. But I can still be bitter. (Incidentally the guy who got the award is not a bad guy - I actually know him from doing track days before I got into racing, when we both had M3s - but we couldn't compare ourselves back then because he had the newer model with 100 more HP.)

Anyway, that's the racing story. Stay tuned for more stories next year, maybe. :-) Thanks a bunch to those who came out to watch this year or supported me in any way (which includes just reading these race reports.) I really appreciate it.

- Bill