Monday, May 27, 2013

Greg "Does" IT7...a.k.a., Why Racing is Awesome.

Day One

So, some time last year, I'm hanging out with the IT7 Gang (Pack? Gaggle?) drinking some after-race beers (I even paddock with them some times...) and we get to talking. "So, why don't you come race with us, Mister TGA??" and I'm all like "blah, blah, blah, sure why not, blah, hand me a beer, burp, I could run with you guys, noooooo problem, burp..." We go on our way, split for the Winter.

Some time a few weeks ago, I get a call from Mister IT7, Dan Sheppard. "So, what are you doing Memorial Day weekend?" and I'm like "Um, well, family, friends, stuff to do, house work, lawn I'm going to NJMP the following weekend for the Majors, think I'll leave the Integra parked that weekend."

"Good!" he say. "I've got an extra IT7 for you to drive."

"Um, whut?"

"Don't you remember? 'I could drive with you guys, no problem'?"

"F**k".

So Dan sets me up with his 'last year' car and pretty much all I have to do is drive up to his house, throw my gear into his truck, and trailer the thing an hour to NHMS for the Memorial Day weekend triple. Given he'd called my bluff, and given that my very existence - nay, my very reputation - was at stake (and given I really did want to drive one of those) how could I say no? The deal was done.

Weather's looking the suck for the weekend, and it's raining all day, but I make it to their house in Raymond NH that Thursday night without a hitch (though the traffic did suck). After brief hellos I swapped over my gear and we jumped into the trucks (he had another pickup with his camper shell and pulling his enclosed trailer.) I fired up the truck and noticed the CEL was on; got his attention, rolled down the window, and asked. "Oh, no prob, that's been on for a while. C'mon, LET'S GO!" OK. Put my foot on the brake to pull it out of park and the pedal goes to the floor. I look over at him and get one of those hands-up-in-the-air-you-ready? gestures and figure, 'oh well, guess it's been doing that for a while too' and wave him on. We pull out of the drive and I realize that this thing has almost NO brakes, making it a very interesting tow -- in the rain and traffic. I could get some brakes at the very end of the travel, and I figure if HE can deal with this, so can I. We make it to NHMS (lots of planning ahead for lane changes and turns) and we get to reg with 5 minutes to go. As I park the "SERVICE BRAKE SYSTEM NOW!!!" light comes on.

"Dan, does your brake pedal always go to the floor?"

"No, why?"

"'Cause it's going to the floor and there's almost no brakes."

We look over and there's a growing puddle of brake fluid under the middle of the truck. I'd popped a brake line just as I started the trip.

Thus begins an auspicious start to the weekend...


Day Two


The IT7 group had agreed to chair the event, so JB Swan (another IT7 driver) and I hit the local Walmart for beer for the weekend. The Walmart in Concord has a pretty damn good selection, so JB and I grabbed two shopping carts and roamed the aisles.

"So what's our budget?" I ask JB.

"No idea. No one seemed to know. But Ken Burtt (a prior chair) said about 20 cases for the weekend."

"Sounds good to me!"

I was like a kid in a candy store, taking one of these, two of these, another ones of those, a case of that, bit of this and that. We filled two shopping carts so full and tall that their wheels were binding on the bearings and we had to lean to push them. The place was dead  and we could see the employees pointing and talking to each other in their hands. A couple of people asked us where the party was...the cashier's look on his face was priceless. We actually didn't do too bad; I think it was about 15 cases for $400.09.

Funny part was we loaded it all into the truck then came back and loaded up the carts with bottled water. Same volume, total cost...$76.

We got up the next morning and it was cold (40s) and the track was wet (is this really Memorial Day weekend, or is it March?). Friday was the driving school, and I was instructing, both on- and off-track. There was a problem in registration and they didn't have me on-track, so I started the day as a trackside instructor. I and JB hung out all morning going to different corners, observing our students. The whole pack was doing great.

I was planning to get on-track after lunch, mostly as an excuse to see if the car was going to work for me. Dan is one tall dude, and he says that car was a small for him, but when I jumped in it fit me great. No need to make any adjustments. The rain had backed off but it was still cold. The IT7 group up here runs on Nitto tires "gentlemen's agreement" (though that's an ironic term with these guys); I had a lot of learning to do. I asked Dan if he'd had a chance to check oil and fuel level, he said "yep, we're good" so I got in the car after lunch for our practice starts. At the same time, though, I'm there to instruct so that's my focus.

Practice starts went well and I was trailing some of my students when the car kept cutting out on left turns, especially during long revs. It would just fall on its face. Brought it in at the end of the session and noticed that the fuel pump was HAMMERING in the back of the car (it has a fuel cell). JB pulls up and says "dude, you're out of fuel".

"No way, Dan said he checked it."

"Was it dying on left handers?"

"Yep."

"You're out of fuel."

"Can't be!"

I was.

I had to run to the classroom session but once we got out I ran to the paddock, grabbed a small (2.5g) can of fuel, dumped it in with some pre-mix oil, and after a push-start got back on the grid. Same problem on track.

"Dan, car's dying on left-handers still."

"How much fuel did you put in?"

"I dunno, that can there?" (pointing)

"Oh, that won't do it. You need to fill that thing up."

Sigh...

But that was the end of the day, it was time for beer and food, and time to sign off my students. Gas will have to wait for another day...much company enjoyed that night, many beers consumed. Too many, really. But it was good beer...got lots of compliments on the selection...


Day Three


We get up Saturday morning and it's even colder than the day before...and POURING rain. Buckets. JB had taken me to the hotel (remember, truck's brakes and Dan's staying at the track) and after we grabbed coffee and a sandwich on the way we get to the track. The IT7 group had put up canopies so we had somewhat-dry places to stand, but it was COLD. Relentless cold, nothing like we should be seeing this weekend. We were Group 2 and the RADAR showed this rain was sticking around all day.

"Hey, Dan, this thing have a working defogger?"

"No, we don't use those." (His wife handed me a doll-baby diaper).

"OK, um, we have a set of rains?"

"Yep, I've got rains. Oh, you mean for your car? Um, no. But those Nittos on there are kinda-sorta 'intermediate' tires", as I'm dodging a shifting river of water coming through the paddock spot...and I glance down to see what "kinda sorta" means, and it's not really matching my expectations...

"Right. So the wipers work, right?"

"Um, nope. This was the car that was flooded at Dick's (Patullo) shop, remember? Sat under muddy water for days."

Ah.

Well, I figured I'd make the best of it. We were on a three-race format for the weekend: qually session on Saturday AM, race in the afternoon. Sunday morning was a qually race, gridded based on your lap times from the Saturday race, then a Sunday afternoon race. We suited up for qualifying (at least the seat wasn't soaking wet), drove to the grid, and as we sat there the rain kept coming down. I had made a valiant effort to Rain-X the windshield prior, but since everything was wet it just didn't "take". Water was sheeting on the windshield and all I saw were shapes and colors; I couldn't even really tell when the grid workers raised their hands if we were 5 minutes, 3, 1, or rolling. But the car next to me pulled out - thank goodness it was a bright yellow color - and I duly followed...into an abyss.

I could not see jack s**t out of the windshield. Try it sometime: turn off your wipers in your street car, on the highway, in the pouring rain. When we got to the oval I stayed as close to the wall as I dared, hoping I'd be able to sense when it began to turn...and I almost missed it. We got to Turn 3 and I almost missed that. I could barely see the black tire wall to tell me where the inside was, and then I flat could not see where to go...and I know this track well! I figured I'd try one more lap to get a "banker" in but almost crashed twice; I tried to follow a fellow IT7 car after he pulled out of the pits in front of me, and duly followed him off the track when his car died.

Can't do this, I'm gonna hurt myself or someone else. I pulled into the pits and parked it after one lap. Qualifying position? DFL ("dead friendly last") on a grid of something like 30 cars.

Back in the pits I began some basic troubleshooting on the wipers. I suggested maybe it was a bad factory switch, and we could wire it together? Nope, he says, all that's disconnected as a result of the flood. We pulled the cowl and put 12V directly to the motor and...nothing. Sparks when we connected it, but the motor didn't budge. I asked around of the 9 other IT7 cars if they had a spare wiper assembly and every one to a "T" said they did...at home. Closest one 2-hour round trip. I pulled the assembly out to see if it had a rusted linkage -- took all of 10 minutes to get it out -- removed the motor and put voltage to it...nothing.

As I sat there contemplating my existence while trying to keep from getting rained on, I thought to myself, "what have I got to lose by pulling this thing apart?" so I set to doing exactly that. Pulled the motor apart: brushes look good, but the commutator was all rusted up and one of the magnets had come loose from the case. I found some emery cloth and spent some time cleaning up the commutator, and JB-Welded the magnet back in the case. With help from others, we carefully re-assembled the whole thing, ensured it was together, and then just for the helluvit put 12V on the thing.

It turned.

The cheer that came up from us was magnificent; you'd thought we won the race right then and there. I put that bad boy back in and Dan wired it up directly to a spare toggle switch in the dash. Wipers worked. Of course, the wiper blades were probably a decade old, but at this point it was a win no matter what (besides, Dick told me the wipers lifted off the glass past 70mph anyway...) I was back in business.

That afternoon's race was fairly anti-climactic. I was the only one in the group not on rain tires but while it wasn't totally pouring, it was still rain-tire-weather race. I did manage to move up the grid a few places, but I was still starting in the 20s position for Sunday. But I'd already had one "win" that day and was content to call the day a success. We tried to hang out for more beer and company, but the wind, cold, and rain was relentless; we called it a night quite early, unfortunately...which was probably a good thing, given prior night's "sampling"...

Day Four

Woke up Sunday morning and the first thing I did was pull back the curtains in the hotel room in anticipation...and saw rain.

DAMMIT!

Grabbed the iPhone and checked the RADAR and it was actually encouraging; looked like we were in the tail end of a line of rain that was working its way out of the area. However, the temperature was 35 degrees (!!!) and it was going to be windy, but if the rain went away the wind might help dry it out. So there was still a chance...

Standard coffee and sandwich stop and we hit the track again. All the IT7 guys were there, milling around and murmuring about the weather. "Mr Weatherman, is it gonna rain?" they asked? "Gonna pour, leave your rains on."

They didn't believe me.

Besides, the rain had stopped and the skies were actually starting to lighten a tad bit, so it was apparent that we were going to have a "dry" track. Everyone except Dick Patullo ("I'm too lazy, and it's too cold to hurt my rains") went through the process of swapping over to dries. I swapped over to my dries too, which coincidentally happened to be my rains (and intermediates). So I spend some time cleaning the windshield, checking the oil and filling the tank, checking my gear, and standing around pretending to not be nervous, given I was about to jump into a very strange-to-me car for the first time in race conditions. From the back.

Soon enough, Group 1 (FV/F500) hit the track and we knew we had about 20 minutes to our 5-minute warning. We all parted to change into our uniforms, and then we all began starting the cars to warm them up.

Except me. The car wouldn't start.

"Did you leave the kill switch on overnight?" Dan asked.

"Yeah, I guess so?"

"Can't do that. We'll need to push start you."

So I jumped in the car and a short handful of the other drivers pushed me down the lane and it started soon enough. Got it idling and I slowly worked my way to the grid, taking my place of honor "way over there" near Tail End Charlie (we waved at each other). Sat there on the grid watching the gauges, amazed that this car was showing 150 degrees oil temp in the 35-degree weather, but the water temp had yet to come off the 100-degree peg...guess that's normal...? Seemed like freakin' forever before we got the 5-, 3-, then 1-minute warnings, then I milled out to the track to actually see it for the first time through the windshield (well, except for the school). One thing I immediately noticed is that in my Integra I'll have to move the steering wheel maybe 45-degrees each way to scrub tires; in this beast it was AT LEAST 135 degrees, maybe even 180! Dan had also removed the brake booster vac line (at my request) to give me a better pedal, and it took some MEAT on that pedal to get those binders working. Regardless, I was ready to go, anticipating getting up close to the other IT7 guys in the first lap.

As we slowly drove around the track behind the pace car, I remembered how far away the lead car can be in a 30-car field; I was looking out the left side window to be able to see the starter stand, while keeping Steph Funk in front of me out of the corner of my eye. The pole car must have picked up his pace a tad when the pace car peeled off, because I could sense the field picking up speed; I was pretty much nearing full pedal just trying to keep up with the pack, when the green broke; amazingly, almost everyone in the first few rows ahead of me were on an accordion decel cycle at that very moment, so I was all "GO, GO, GO!!"

Then the seas parted.

No really, it was like in that scene in "The Ten Commandments" when Charlton Heston waved his arms and the Red Sea parted and the Israelites went marching through. I looked up, and not only was half the field coming back to me, they had all pulled out of line and I ran right up the middle. I went by 1, 2-3, 4, 5-6 IT7 cars; was that Dan? Drew? Is that Ray? I made a couple jinks between a Miata and something else, and I look up and I'm freakin' FOURTH OVERALL going into Turn Three! What...the...?

Suddenly, I realize: I'm in fourth overall going through T3 in a field of ITA, EP, and FP cars. In a first-gen Mazda RX-7.

Hoo, boy.

Ray, I think it was, tried to keep toe-to-toe with me on the outside of the oval, but I had the motivation; we went into T3 and he got blocked and I went outside another car or two. I looked back and I saw ITA cars, EP cars, and I even saw a couple IT7 cars back there a few. Looked up and the leaders were pulling away and keeping well clear of me.

OK then. Party on, Garth.

I figured those other IT7 guys would reel me in eventually, so I put my head down and decided to wring that little's car's neck and just run my laps. The car drives like a truck but it's a predictable and consistent truck; the Nitto tires wear like iron but have pretty damn good grip (and don't have a cliff-like edge when you go too far). I learned pretty quickly what not to do and then just starting clicking off lap after lap. I kept looking back and saw Drew, but he wasn't gaining on me; it was at that point that I thought, "damn, I might have a chance to win this thing!" and just kept plugging away. Dan Sheppard - the strongest competition - fell out with a broken exhaust, but everyone else kept going, and when it was all said and done, no one was more surprised than me that I'd just won IT7...how in the hell...?

Of course, there was no end to the grief when I got back into the paddock (after getting a push start out of Impound), but they claimed I was still their friend...but this was just a qualifying race, not the "real" sanction race, and the afternoon race would be gridded based on that morning's results.

And now I had a target on my back...with a lot of arrows pointed my way.

So the rest of the morning I tried to fill my brain with SoM/Tech stuff, and see if I could help out the other IT7 guys. Anything to get my head off of the afternoon race. You've been there, you know what I mean. Lunch, water, glad to see that weather is getting warmer (though not what one would call "warm".) Help pack up the trailers, take down the canopies (which got pre-taken down by the wind and - get this - SNOW the night before...screw you Al Gore.) Lunch, wait for the Vees to hit the track...

I was on IT7 pole, with all the guys around. I knew that circumstances handed me a lucky break earlier in the day, but I wasn't clear what the afternoon would bring. After all, these guys are running for season points, and I'm a guest. Then again, no one really appreciates someone just laying down...that's no fun. Just not clear what to do.

German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke once wrote (and I paraphrase) "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." What he meant by that is the same thing we experience each time we try to pre-plan a race: it never goes as planned. Yet, we continue to do it. Thus went my "battle plan". Once we got out there - I was gridded 6th - the race started at the waving green. Didn't take long for things to get busy, as ITA cars behind me wanted to go forward, as did all my IT7 competitors. As in the morning, I put my head down and tried to run best laps, and figured things would come as they may.

And "things" turned out to be one Drew Young, in a blue IT7 that was getting bigger and bigger in my mirror (just one mirror, as the others were pointing askew to things I had no interest in). Drew had started one place behind me, and had only run 0.4s best lap behind me, so I knew he'd be a factor. But despite my having pulled him at the start, he was a-comin'! Within two laps he was trying his best moves under braking at the end of the oval, but I managed to hold him off by maintaining momentum up the hill out of Three. But on Lap Four I could see him HANGING that little bastard of a car all around that NHMS oval, and there was just NO WAY he was to be denied. He stuffed that thing into T3 with authority and I knew he was there. He put that car into three and we turned to go up the hill with me pulling behind him...

...and all of a sudden, I hear this big "WHOMP!" sound (this, over the sound of the rotary and with earplugs!) and the whole underside of Drew's car is engulfed in flames! And I'm talking nose-to-tail, side-to-side big orange flames! I go around the outside and Drew quickly shuts it down and pulls over to a corner station. And while I'm trying to look over and see if Drew's OK, now I have a ITA Miata crawling up my butt, trying to pass.

OF COURSE we get a full-track caution, and we spend a couple laps catching the pace car. As we get gathered up, the Miata behind me keeps pulling up next next to me and gesturing. What, am I on fire? Nope, looks fine. Wheel coming off or tire deflated? Nope, feels the same as before. I know the guy, but he probably has no clue who I am, so I just blow him off and figure he's mad I'm between him and the next ITA car (turns out that was correct.)

So we toodle around and I see Drew's fine, though the hood is obviously blistered. He'll get it back together. I look back and can't easily see any other IT7 cars...but I know they're back there. I know Dan is back there, too, getting ready to put a bitch-slap on me, and others are close enough to go with him. I'm counting on the ITA cars between us to slow things down, but I have no clue where we are in the "15 laps or 21 minutes" race.

Soon enough, we get the indication from the starter that we're going green and the pace car pulls off...and we're gone. I keep my head down, running my best laps (I *know* I'm getting faster each lap), watching the mirrors for my antagonist...and there he is, a blue/green IT7. Dan Sheppard. Nemesis! I can see the red in his eyes from a full straight distance away. The steam is streaming out of the top of the car and he's coming. Each time we go around I'm mentally counting the distance and doing the math to figure how long until my demise. We go over a prominent milestone on the track and I'm counting "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi, 3 Mississippi" and figure I have - at best - two laps before he's on my ass. Then that old saw about "catching is one thing and passing is another" goes through my brain but is quickly replaced with "dude, this is Dan's car, he doesn't care if he wrecks the damn thing" and I'm all like "f**k me".

But then, just as we come out of the last turn, the most wonderful sight appears: the "1 lap to go" board at Start/Finish. There's that Moses revelation thing again...and all I gotta do now is NOT F**K UP.

Ever get that "just don't f**k up" thought in your head? Ever notice what it does to you? Yeah, IT CAUSES YOU TO F**K UP. I'm deep-braking every gawd-damned corner, watching the distance decrease with every freakin' microsecond. Dan's eyes are getting bigger, as is my appetite for corners speeds. And then, as I'm doing whatever I need to do to NOT F**K UP a slow Miata appears in my windshield two corners from the end and I am WILLING THIS CAR TO BE THE NEXT SCHUMACHER, TO FIND FORCE FROM JESUS HIMSELF (the baby one, not the one with the beard) TO NOT SLOW THE F**K DOWN. And he slows the f**k down and I try this "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi" shit before I think "f**k Mississippi" and just about run him over.

And then we FINALLY get out of the last corner, and all I'll I gotta do is not miss ONE LAST SHIFT before the checkered flag.

And I don't. It was probably the slowest and most deliberate 3-4 shift in all of the history of mankind.

And Dan blows by me just past the checkered flag. And I think I peed myself a little bit.

Just a little bit.

Dan's all about how he's gonna take the drivetrain out of the red car and put it into his blue/green car. That'd be OK; after all it is his car. But I'm pretty OK if we have a re-match soon with these cars...they're a lot more fun than you think.


Epilogue...

And here's where I'm going with this.

Why is racing awesome? It's not about the cars. It's not about the competition, really (though that's why we think we're here). It's not about the trophies, the flags, the accolades.

It's about the people. It's about the IT7 crowd that welcomed me in, offered me a car, and let me race with them. And when I won they gave me so much SHIT -- and then handed me a beer. It's about helping me repair a wiper motor on someone else's car and push-starting each other (never be the last one to leave the impound!) and helping to fill fuel and add oil and swap tires and change wheel studs. It's about "here's some tires for you and do you need any wheels?" and "don't get cocky 'cause we're gunnin' for you."

I watched a Miata driver near us spend the weekend alone. He'd pull out into the track, drive around, then come back to a paddock with no one helping him. As far as I know, he could have won every race, set new lap records every session, and took home three flags, three trophies. But he had NO WHERE as much fun as we did. There's just no way he could have. I thought about going over to him and - despite his being a Miata driver, not that there's anything WRONG with that - inviting him to move his paddock over next to us. I wish I had. If that's his existence then it will get old, and fast.

Because without everything else we do at the track when we're there, it's just simply not worth it.

I had one of the bestest racing weekends in a long time. Thanks, guys.

- GA

(Thanks to Jeff Young for the title...)