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Friday, January 10, 2014

6 Hours of Sebring and Pie

Every race event brings some degree of humility to even the most jaded of drivers, and I fully expected Sebring to be a wholly humbling experience. I just didn't expect to spin the first lap of my race stint.

The confluence of events leading to that spin was telling: first time driving the track + rain + night race + some seriously intimidating machinery = oh shit, here comes a corner I'm taking way too fast in the wet. Attempting to prepare for this event, I had spent hours watching YouTube videos of similar cars racing at Sebring and imagining myself behind the wheel from the safety of my Play Seat. Sitting myself in the car for the first practice session on Wednesday night I knew it was going to be all for naught in the dark. The first few turns looked vaguely familiar in the same way seeing your old college roommate from 20 years ago does, and that was only partially because THAT section of the track was actually lit.

But after that I may as well have been an English speaking taxi cab driver navigating the back streets of Tokyo. Braking zones revealed themselves by crashing on your front bumper, and saying "Surprise! Here I am!". Turn in points and apexes were also shrouded in the same sort of mystery that besets a Jaguar electrical engineer on tea break. I let a Miata blaze past me in the hopes that I could follow in pursuit. Had he been robbing a bank I couldn't have told you which direction he went by the end of that lap. 30 minutes later I pitted and generously let my codriver Kenny partake in the malaise.

Fortunately our 3rd codriver, Whit, was a seasoned pro at Sebring and graciously walked us through the track and all of its "nuances". You see Sebring race track occupies a portion of Sebring Regional Airport and much of the surface is rough, uneven pavement used for World war II era landing fields. Some of the track also uses smoother, newer style pavement. Some sections use both, with newer style pavement interspersed with blocks of the old stuff. And just to keep it interesting the rough pavement is mended together with seam sealer which basically creates a friction-less surface. More on that in a minute.
No lack of serious machinery

The next morning, we wisely let Whit qualify us who puts in a blazing lap and lands us 2nd in our class on the starting grid. We then devised a strategy that would have Kenny starting the race, me doing the 2nd stint, and Whit bringing home the checkered. I use words like "strategy" and "devise" but if I'm being honest there was a little less science to it... as in "Hey Kenny, you mind if I do the 2nd stint?".

The race itself was an endurance event that would span a total of 6 hours and we would each do 2 hour stints. Starting at 3PM, the first 2 hours was supposed to be in the daylight (or in our case, pouring rain), and the rest would be driven in the dusk and dark (and rain) where those sealed beam halogens would undoubtedly pay big dividends. That's right, our Spec E30 BMW was still wearing its sealed beam halogens that it left the factory with 25 years ago which are slightly brighter than a match in a mine shaft. And that's when I began scouring the pits and noticed that almost every single team was sporting a super bright, LED front light bar perched on the front of their bumpers.  But who needs lights when you have semi-reflective concrete walls shielding you from the dangers outside the track!!
Kenny getting belted in for the race

There was no getting around it: I was really, really nervous which is not the ideal mindset for a racer. I watched in part disbelief and part terror as Kenny went down the front straight in fog and teaming rain, with rooster tails of spray jettisoning themselves out the back of every car and creating near zero visibility conditions. And sure enough, the unrelenting rain brought out the pace car and a full course yellow until the conditions subsided 5 laps or so later. Kenny is the smooth, consistent driver I aspire to be, and I wasn't surprised when he brought the car in 2 hours later unscathed. This also signaled it was time to refuel and change drivers.

As I strapped myself in, the two-way radio linking driver to pit crew decided to go on holiday. But don't worry they told me, we'll be in the pits waving our arms when it's time for you to come in which should be a snap at 100+ MPH in the rain spotting our nameless tent among the 40 other teams. As I eased out of pit road, I mentally drove the first few turns I had driven in the morning's practice session and they were perfect. Then reality hits, and as I passed the blend line into turn 3, my mirror is filled with a prototype car bearing down on me at what looks like warp speed. I panicked and didn't brake hard enough and the car launched itself into a lurid, not so glamorous spin. I sat facing the opposite direction between turns 3 and 4 looking at traffic squeeze past me. If I didn't like humble pie it was just too damn bad, 'cause Sebring wasn't serving anything else.

That spin also parked my wipers at the top of the windshield, right in my direct line of vision. As I made my way through the rest of that achingly slow first lap, I tested every position of the E30's windshield wiper stalk at least 3 times but the wipers resolutely would not move. Luckily it was only misting and there was enough RainX on the windshield that I could see.... sort of. So I elected to stay out and pray for a yellow flag before it turned completely dark and wipers would become a necessity.

It's funny how your mind plays tricks on you in adverse conditions. I had gotten into a rhythm and had almost completely forgotten about the wiper issue when I spotted the double yellow flag on the back straight. That would be my only chance to pit before it got completely dark in 15 minutes. Turn 17 arrived before the main straight, and I ducked down pit lane where the DriveGear pit crew expertly spotted a blown wiper fuse and replaced it. They also sorted out the radio so at least I would be able to hear them (although they still couldn't hear me).

Life was looking decidingly grand when I re-entered the track, freshly invigorated with working wipers and a sense of confidence I was lacking only a little while earlier. It was short lived. The rain became steadier and the track became more slippery. Low grip braking zones and corners were reduced to NO grip braking zones and corners. The luxury of dusk had eroded and the E30's paltry beams barely managed to light more than a car length in front of me.

It's all a blur of lights and sound
None of it mattered, because my mind was playing tricks again. Wow, I thought, as I came barreling through the fast right hander of Turn 9, I really nailed it. And then, much like Wiley E. Coyote in the seconds after realizing he just stepped out over a canyon, I catch a glimpse of orange cones in my peripheral vision out the driver's side window. Specifically, the orange cones signifying the braking zone for Turn 10, which means you already should have been braking a 100 yards back in the wet. I tried anyway. Hard on the brakes in the rain in a car with no ABS means a whole lot of nothing: basically, front wheels lock and you continue moving ahead without shedding any real speed. The last brake marker arrived and I eased off, modulating pressure as rapidly as humanly possible. This helped momentarily before the seam sealer decided I had enough braking anyway. There's no way I'm making the turn and the front wheels went over the curbing into the thick, Sebring dirt and sand which caught the car like a fish net. It was a bumpy ride, but the E30 is damn near bullet proof and hustled back on to the pavement unfazed by my brief, offroad excursion.

Roughly 90 minutes in and I begin to wonder how long I've been out in the car - I've lost all sense of time blanketed in darkness, fog, and rain. The 2nd generation RX7 I began battling with could have been a GT3 Cup Car, such is the fragile mental state you enter into in these hostile conditions. Turn 17 arrived and I got a much better exit than he did and began to overtake him on the main straight. He stayed the line and I moved over to the left, towards the inside wall. In the blink of an eye, I saw headlights just over my left shoulder and then in an instant, a rush of sound and fury as a prototype car barely squeezed through between me and the concrete wall at double my velocity. I briefly forgot about the RX7's angry headlights and cyclops hood light in my rear view mirror and took a few seconds to recount that very vivid moment.

The crackle of the radio interrupted the rare moment of peace out on the track when everything seemed to be in perfect equilibrium. I almost forgot I had a radio. "10 minutes to go before the driver change" was the message. Still well endowed with fuel from all the cautions, I put the hammer down on the back straight and run it up to redline in 4th gear, briefly shift into 5th before getting on the brakes and back into 4th again for turn 17. 3 more laps fly by, and I'm being told to pit.

Driver changes are always harried, even though you really have plenty of time. Whenever a driver change occurs, the car is refueled and it is a mandatory 5 minute stop. In the span of about 30 seconds, you are simultaneously loosening your safety harnesses, sliding the seat back, undoing the window net, unplugging the radio from your helmet and extricating yourself from the seat, up and over the roll cage.  Fueling itself is usually only a 90 second job and getting the next driver belted in and ready is another 90. Plenty of time like I said, but you would never guess it by the whirlwind of activity that occurs when a car pulls in.

5 Minutes until racing
Thanks to Kenny's gifted driving in the first stint, when I exited the car we were in 17th place overall out of 40 cars and 1st in our class. Whit then took the wheel and drove the final two hour stint to the checkered flag. His talent and familiarity with the track netted us 3 more positions putting us in 14th overall, 1st in our class, and beating plenty of higher priced, higher powered machinery. 25 years on, and the E30 is still an unbeatable combination of reliability, durability, performance, and economy. In 6 hours of hard racing, our only mechanical failure is a blown wiper fuse. A lot of credit also goes to DriveGear for preparing a well sorted, issue free race car, which is no easy task for this length enduro.

24 hours later, I'm back in the dry confines of my house that keeps me safe from the outside world. And the outside world safe from me. There's a lot to process during a race under normal circumstances: you're checking your mirrors, your gauges, watching flag stations all the while calculating braking points, steering and throttle inputs. Now throw in rain and darkness - and, if it's Sebring, paint across the finish line that is more slick than teflon - and your mind is tasked with making very, very quick decisions, which you hope are the right ones. Sometimes, they're not. Right now, I'm tasked with making the very quick decision of what's for dinner before Jen walks through the door.

"Hello Dai Kichi, can I help you?"

"Hi, I would like a double helping of humble pie."

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Meet the Auto Snob

Mike Kovac


Then

My passion for all things cars traces itself back to the age of 3 when I became obsessed with my Dad’s 1973 Capri V6. He would give me the keys and I would spend hours locking and unlocking the passenger door. Once I could read, I would lose myself for hours pouring over his car magazines and that carried into my teen years and beyond. Every month, I would creatively find ways to scrounge up $10 and buy the latest issue of ‘CAR’ Magazine which just fueled my desire to buy the “forbidden fruit” cars that were never imported into the States. This might explain why there is a 1987 Citroen CX25 TRD Turbo 2 parked in my garage. And why there will be others…

Age 3

Mike Kovac

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Phone number: +1 (917) 374-3291
E-mail: euroe28m5@gmail.com

And now

Today, my addiction has morphed from just reading about them to collecting, racing, detailing, driving and yes, even fixing them on occasion. But it’s not just the cars that I own that are exciting to me; it’s infecting others with the same passion and love for cars of all nationalities, shapes and sizes. It’s seeing what brings out the auto snob in each one of you!

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