In my last post, I signed off just before bed Wednesday with the intention of giving an update of the first day of competition the next evening. By the time I got back to the hotel room Thursday night, I was beat. Facing a 5:20 wake up call on Friday morning, I decided to get some shut eye and catch up with the blog when I got home. That’s where I am now, recovering from a whirlwind 80 hour epic! I’ve had a little time to recover, decompress, study results, and gather my thoughts on both competition days. Here’s my recap of day one.
Thursday morning started at 5:30. I woke up drenched in sweat, a byproduct of the cold I was fighting. I showered for the third time in 12 hours, dressed, took a handful of pills for the various symptoms I was experiencing, gathered my things, and headed down to breakfast. While I ate I watched, on my laptop, some in-car video of the West Course from a winning driver who had already competed. I had been studying the course for 2 days, having seen the course map online Tuesday morning as well as a video walk through by the some of the Evolution School instructors. On Wednesday afternoon I watched several classes of cars drive the course and Wednesday evening Emanuel and I had walked it several times. I don’t think I have ever been as prepared for any single autocross course as I was for this one. I had a crystal clear vision in my head of how I was going to approach it.
We arrived at the site a little after 6:30. After gathering a few things from the paddock area and airing up the tires, Emanuel and I headed over to the West Course. We then joined the scores of other competitors who were getting their final course walks in as the sun rose over the Lincoln Air Park.
I got the car to our designated grid spot and Emanuel and I started final preparations. One by one our RTA class competitors were filling in along side us. As much as I was trying to stay self -focused, it was impossible not to mentally size up the competition. I saw a lot of very serious looking cars. With some VERY serious sized tires. All of our opponents except two were driving the latest model of Subaru WRX sporting 40 more horsepower and a better suspension than my car. More critically, they can fit wider tires. Based on some research I’d done online and the width of my stock wheels, I had consciously decided to go with a 215 section width tire. The newer WRX had a 1″ wider wheel and, by the theory I was subscribing too, could effectively use a 235 or may 245. Most of the guys in the grid were sporting 265’s and, it turns out, had been competing in National events all year long with success. So much for our tire size theory! My optimism for competitiveness was dimmed considerably. I I didn’t let that bother me too much, however. I was here to drive my best and have a good time.
At 8:50 we stopped for the singing of the National Anthem as a VW GTI drove around the course with an American flag flying out the side window. At 9:00 the course went “hot” and the first car of the heat, a Super Stock class Corvette, was on it’s way. I tried to stay loose as I waited for my turn. I donned my helmet, climbed in the car, and pulled forward when the grid worker gave the signal. As I waited in line for the starter I scrolled through my mental checklist (early steering input on the slaloms & offsets, careful of the cold brakes, easy on the off-camber first turn). There were two cars in front of me, then one, then none and the started motioned me forward to the line. I focused on my first key cone. The green flag waived and I was off.
I eased into the first turn, mindful of the cold tires. As I progressed through the course, I was easily able to find my focus points. I kept my steering inputs smooth and drove the line I envisioned. I felt the tires gaining grip as they warmed and pressed progressively harder accordingly. Through fast sweeping offsets of “Double Down” I felt the car drifting ever so slightly; a huge grin came to my face and I thought to myself “this is why I love coming to Nationals!” There’s just so much space it allows large, flowing courses that we can’t replicate back home. That thought lasted a millisecond, then I was back to concentrating on the task at hand. I negotiated the tricky last turn without going too deep, and accelerated through the final “Six the Easy Way” slalom and through the finish lights. I took note of my time from the scoreboard and proceeded back to grid, satisfied that I had driven my plan and very happy to have not hit any cones. As the first car in my class to complete a lap, I wasn’t sure how my time of 67.632 would stack up. I wasn’t all that concerned, really, because I was sure there was more speed to get. I had driven with just a hint of caution, mindful of the need to get a clean, cone-free run in the bag before pressing harder.
I wheeled the car back to grid, popped the hood, and got out. Emauel sprayed water on the intercooler and I changed the magnetic numbers on the doors, then checked the tires for warmth. As I was doing this I was hearing the times of some of the other competitors as they crossed the finish. Most were in the 63’s and 64’s. I wasn’t expecting to match those times, but figured I would get closer on the last two runs. My friend Dan complimented me on a clean first run; he knew I’d been having cone trouble lately. As Emanuel’s turn came, we wished him good luck and went to the bleachers to watch. He was clearly pressing a bit harder than I had but was a little sloppy, tagging a couple cones. As he crossed the finish the scoreboard showed his time was 66.098. With the two cone penalties his official time would be 70.098.
We repeated the driver swap routine, and soon I was wheeling to the line for my second run. My plan was to try to carry a little more speed though the turns. As I went through the course, the attempt to get more speed in the turns was resulting in a little understeer from the front end. As I went through the course, the understeer got a little worse. I was starting to overcook the front tires. The push put me behind in “Flop, Turn and River.” I managed to recover with a quick steering correction, but I over-compensated on the next input back the other direction and nicked the inside cone at the exit of the turn just before “Five Cone Draw.” I continued on to the finish, expecting to see an improvement in the raw time from my first run. I was quite disappointed to see I’d actually gone slower by 3/10ths of a second, even before the cone penalty was applied.
Emanuel’s second run was like his first. He was about a half a second faster, but again had tagged two cones. As I was mentally preparing for my final run my Evolution School Instructor, Andy Hohl, came up to give me some advice. He had watched my 2nd run and could see from the outside that I was over-driving the car into an understeer condition. He recommended I back off a touch in the turns to avoid that. He was right; the “carry more speed in the turns” idea hadn’t worked. So I was back to driving just as I had in the first run. Problem was, Emanuel was running scratch times 2 seconds faster than me in the exact same car. I knew I had to do something different than the first run if I was going to improve. I thought maybe I was giving up the throttle too soon in the strait between “Come Out Easy” and “Let It Ride.” My plan for the last run was to do everything just like my first run, except hold the throttle longer into that strait, and hold slightly tighter lines in the sweepers to shorten the distance.
When my turn came, I got out of the start, through the first tight off-camber right hander, and as I came out of the double-apex, opening-radius second turn I got on the throttle sooner and stayed on it longer. As I approached the entry of “Let It Ride” I brushed the brakes, looked for my exit point, and turned the wheel. The car only turned about half as much as a I expected. I dialed more and more steering angle and the speed was scrubbing off in a big was as the car continued to wash out wide left. I had driven in way too deep. I was helpless to do anything but ride along as I clobbered cone 216 with the front bumper about midway between the left headlight and the license plate. In an instant my run was toast but I proceeded on and drove a the rest of the run with tight lines and without understeer. My scratch time before cone penalty was 2/10ths slower than my first run. I didn’t really expect any different after screwing up the third corner so badly.
I was a little aggravated to have to stand on my first run, but at least it was a clean one and my fastest scratch time at that. Emanuel was going into his last run having double-coned both of his previous attempts. That was not sitting well with him. The trophy-position threshold was somewhere in the 63.9’s He knew it would take an incredible run to even get close to that. He had to balance his desire to go all out with his need for an error-free execution. A 63.9 with cones wasn’t going to do him any good. With his stereotypically German calm determination, Emanuel laid down a cone-free 65.167. He said there was maybe a few tenths left in the car, but not a second plus. Andy came over and commented, after having watched both our last runs, that we were driving well but had brought a “butter knife to a gun fight” against the newer, more capable WRX’s. I obviously wasn’t driving that well to be 2.5 seconds behind Emanuel in my own car. But I had confirmation that I was driving the right line. And I couldn’t go faster in the turns without inducing unwanted understeer. And I couldn’t hold the throttle longer in the long straits. I was actually starting to zero in on where I was losing speed by the process of elimination.
When the first day final results were posted I was in 13th place in the class, only ahead the guy who hadn’t shown up. I was slightly depressed, but shook it off and made my way to the other grid to crew for my buddies Dan and Kia who were getting Dan’s MINI Cooper ready for the second heat. Dan put down three great, progressively faster runs in a row and found himself in 4th place in the STF class after the first day of competition, the final trophy spot. Kia, on the other hand, was bit by the cone bug and dirty all three runs. His best scratch time would have put him in 5th place, about 3/10ths of a second behind Dan. With the cone penalty, he was several places farther down the list. Word also came in that our mutual friend, Adam, who was driving his Mazda3 on the East Course, had finished day one in the fourth trophy position in RTF. It was good to be able to share a little joy in their success given the relative lack of any on my own part.
We took a short break for lunch, then headed back over to the West Course for our work assignment. I was a “cone chaser” in corner 4. It was an enlightening experience. I saw most of the cars were doing the transitions quite differently that I had. Where I had been trying to hold a constant speed, I saw others giving a little “squirt” of speed each time the steering was going back through the strait position from left to right or right to left. A valuable little nugget of information on how I could go faster had been uncovered. I intended to look for ways to apply this to the next day’s course.
Speaking of Friday’s course, it dawned on me after working that it was time to cram study. Unfortunately the East Course was only half way through the 4th heat with another yet to run before it would be open for walking. We went back to the hotel for a short break. While Emanuel cooled down with a swim in the pool, I studied the map while watching the instructional video and in-car video. It was certainly going to be a more challenging course to memorize. And I was having a hard time staying focused on the day ahead instead of reflecting on the day just finished. After an hour or so we headed back to the site. 5th heat was still running on the East Course. When the last car finished and the course was opened for walking, well over a hundred people converged on the start. We walked a couple times, but I was having difficulty sighting the key cones because of all the people blocking the view. It was late and we both mentally and physically fatigued. I was particularly knackered from being slightly under the weather. We met out friend Jeff for dinner, then retired to the room for some rest. I loaded up on cold medications and dozed off to sleep with thoughts of cones, apexes, and braking zones going through my head.