Winding Road Racing: VIRgins No Longer
By Winding Road Staff
November 07, 2012
We’ve introduced this column on racing because, well, we love racing and thought you might too. We love racing in the sense that we love going out on Saturday or Sunday and competing on the track, wheel-to-wheel. Of course, we also loving racing in the sense that we love getting up on Sunday at 6:00 am to watch F1 at Spa, and we love spending almost the whole day watching the 12 Hours Of Sebring on ESPN3, too. But for this column, we’re talking about the first kind of racing—the kind of racing that happens when you’re in the car, on the track.
This is a column for racing drivers with a particular focus on novice drivers and those who are still learning. We want to encourage people to join the sport and we want to help them enjoy it.
In this edition of Winding Road Racing, guest columnist and Team Winding Road member Dan Ibrahim describes a recent trip with two other Team Winding Road members, Jim Kettelkamp and Steve Krock to run the 13-hour endurance race at Virginia International Raceway. If you’re contemplating the sport, this might seem to be a reach, but as we described in our pre-Targa Newfoundland piece, these epic events are part of the draw.
Note: We sponsored the #74 Team Anvil Spec Miata. We gave them two Winding Road decals to run on the car.
Sitting outside the Advanced Autosports semi between races at a Midwestern Council event at Road America back in August, Jim Kettelkamp casually mentioned a potential trip to Virginia International Raceway (VIR) for the 13 Hour SCCA Charge Of The Headlight Brigade endurance race in October. Already having enlisted Steve Krock, a suspension mechanic on the Ed Carpenter IndyCar team, Doctor Jim was looking for a third driver for the team. I switched off all rational decision making processes for a few seconds and signed up.
Doing the 13-hour race made sense at the time. With it, my Tracktober plan was complete: Autobahn South in the Spec Racer Ford on the first Sunday, then Blackhawk Farms Raceway in the Spec Miata (SM) for the Fall Sprints the following weekend. For the third weekend, I’d make a quick spin up to Road America to instruct at the March of Dimes Drive for Babies the Friday before The Looooong Race back at Blackhawk on Saturday and Sunday. Finally, out to VIR to round out an October with every weekend spent racing, in three different cars, at four different tracks.
With two engineers and a doctor on the team, there was plenty of overthinking and OCD-like planning to be done. We decided to rent an RV from Cruise America, a company which I now think should be called “Rattle Around America in a Gas Eating Garden Shed Loosely Nailed to the Back of an Underpowered Pickup Truck.” Accurate and catchy.
Next debate—the team name. With two Americans and a naturalized Englishman behind the wheel, we needed something vaguely Anglo-American. Stealing an idea from an old work project, we chose Team Anvil—in reference to a US/UK operation during WW2.
Team Anvil first united at the Fall Sprints at Blackhawk Farms where Steve Krock ran Jim's car in the SM class, leaving Jim to fight for the ITA crown. Having started to get over my well-publicized dislike of rain racing at Road America this year, I ran this very wet weekend (zero dry laps in qualifying and four races) in preparation for any nasty weather at VIR. We decided to take Jim's car (#74) to the 13-hour, so we made sure we would all fit in it, slapped some Team Winding Road decals on it to affect a massive sponsorship package, and tried to be nice to the car all weekend. Before the last of my races in my #33 SM, Jim stuck his head through the window and said, “Take care of the spare!” Happily, #74 made it through the rain unscathed.
Thanks to Dave Wheeler's team at Advanced Autosports (the other half of our team, responsible for prep, transportation, and maintenance) we were able to have #74 prepared in good time for the VIR race. Dave added a light bar, illuminated number panels, pit-car radios, harnesses, and shifter ball from #33. Of course we brought two sets of new Toyo tires, and new brake pads, along with the bevy of Miata replacement parts that Advanced carries to all races.
While this would be Team Anvil's first trip to VIR, Advanced had been to the event before in support of Voytek Burdzy's #41 Spec Miata. Voytek loves the event and especially the venue, and warned us that the track is a serious challenge: very tough to learn, due to the complexities that come with the combination of high- and low-speed corners, and significant gradient and camber changes.
We watched the ALMS race at VIR on Speed TV and decided that perhaps we could get ahead by learning the track on a racing video game. A little research of the obvious console racing titles yielded no good VIR options. Fortunately, iRacing, the online PC simulation, seemed to have accurate representation of the track. This led to a violent assault on my Mastercard with the purchase of a new gamer PC, wheel and pedals plus mounting system, and an iRacing subscription. A few nights of practice for me, and one for Jim the night before departing for the track, and we at least knew where the corners were and what gears we might need.
As a side effect of this foray into online racing, my good friend Steve Tingle became instantly addicted to iRacing while taking a turn on my new set up. His credit card is now also contributing mightily to the end of the global recession. Gateway drug administered, I am sure I can get him into a real car at least once in 2013.
We set off for VIR by way of Indianapolis (to pick up Mr. Krock and the RV) on Thursday morning. A thankfully uneventful drive through Ohio and West Virginia had us arriving at Fancy Gap, Virginia late at night—where we spent a glamorous night in a gas station parking lot. Fancy? No. Gap? Yes. In our planning.
Friday morning saw us eating breakfast at The Copper Pot, apparently named for all the coppers that were eaten there. I wanted to try the menu item called 'Hotdog with an egg' but was not sure what was in it so I didn't take the risk. An athlete is ever mindful of his diet.
Finally it was time to head to the track. Arriving early afternoon, and shortly followed by Voytek and Adam (drivers of the #41 Spec Miata) we staked our claim to some prime paddock real estate using the time honored technique of strategically obstructive garbage can and vehicle placement while awaiting the arrival of the cars and crew in the Advanced Autosports toter home. An hour of registration and tech formalities and we were almost ready to roll.
Unlike our typical Spec Miata sprint races which last about 30 minutes, this race requires radios, driver changes, and refueling. So, we set about some practice getting in, getting out, and shaking it all about. Dave Wheeler coached us well, and with a few tips from Voytek we were down to our target time of two minutes for a full refuel and driver swap.
The schedule for the event had us hitting the track for the first time for an hour of qualifying at 5:30, closely followed by an hour of fully dark track time to test out the car's lighting systems. While qualifying position is irrelevant for a 13-hour endurance race, we did all want to see the new track both in the light and the dark, so we each took two turns at the wheel.
These first few laps of the weekend were fairly frantic, due to the quantity and quality of other cars and drivers. The 13-hour has begun to attract some big name teams, with fast cars and pro drivers, and the feeling of being “guppies in the shark tank” started on Friday night and stayed with us all weekend. We kept our noses (and tails) clean, and qualified the #74 safely at the tail end of the grid in 51st position. Someone has to be there, right?
Relieved to have the initial laps in the books, we got to sleep in good time on Friday night. We knew we had an early driver's meeting on Saturday before a 9:15 race start.
Race day dawned overcast and cool, with a 10-percent chance of rain that never came. Jim, as car owner, took the green flag at 9:13 with a conventional club racing two-by-two rolling start. Advanced Autosports had set up a full pit lane support tent, with all the tools, equipment, Kit-Kats, refreshments, and stuff we would need over the long hours ahead. Jim got down to a respectable lap time early in his stint while concentrating on a driving style that would maximize our fuel efficiency. Advanced had finely tuned the fuel gauge in the car, so this opening stint would help us understand the number of stops we would need to complete the 13 hours. With the fuel gauge still a little above the big E after two full hours, we realized we could complete the race with only six pit stops required.
Time for Jim to bring it in, and for crew members Dave, Brian Zellner and Andrew to orchestrate the first of our refueling stops. After perfect pit work by the crew enabled us to hit our two-minute minimum stop time to the second, I headed out on my first stint. Impressively, we did not have a single issue in the pits all race long with not a single second wasted. Believe me it is not as easy to do as the pros make it appear. Not even close.
Determined not to be the one to cause us trouble, my first stint became an exercise in traffic management, avoiding lock ups, over revs, missed shifts, and contact with anyone or anything else. Especially as I was in someone else's car.
VIR is a fantastic track to drive. At 3.27 miles, the full course has a little of everything – fast sections, downhill off camber stuff, and patience testing compromise corners like Left Hook and Oak Tree. The Uphill Esses are approached flat out in top gear and are not too tough to get right in a Miata, but so much fun to blast through. In a high-horsepower car, I am sure they are a major challenge. The other very notable section of track is called the Roller Coaster, and is something of a recreation of the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca. With a sequence of downhill corners leading onto the front straight, exit speed is important but tough to maximize. Again—a brilliant section of track to drive.
I certainly didn't set any lap records, but in an endurance race steady progress often beats outright speed. This came into play for the first time when 90 minutes into my stint I (only just) caught the car in a big slide at the top of the Esses—where some friendly soul had oiled the track. In my rear view mirror I saw the next Miata behind do a nice 360-degree spin into the grass, and by the time I rounded Oak Tree and could see across the course back to that corner, there were at least four cars out in the weeds. It looked like they were stopped for a picnic.
It took a few more laps for all the oily corners to dry out, and then Dave radioed to ask how my fuel was looking. With about a quarter tank left, I was able to complete my two-hour stint and hand the car over to Steve Krock. The only service required was to change two tires—a routine that would continue at most of our pit stops from this point forward, using two sets of tires in rotation. With a little over four hours completed, Steve settled in quickly and started to turn good and consistent lap times. We had risen through the order to around 40th by staying clean and out of trouble, and that became the plan for the rest of the race. Steve and Jim had raced together in Skip Barber single-seaters at the start of their racing careers, and this was the first endurance race for both of them too. We really wanted to get it to the finish line on our maiden voyage.
My friend Neal Leifheit had driven up from Greenville, South Carolina to come and support us, and he was good enough to take care of our assigned two hours in timing and scoring where he wrote down numbers of cars as they crossed the line as a backup to the electronic transponder system. He said he wrote down #74 a lot so he knew we were doing OK.
The #41 car of Voytek and Adam suffered bad luck early with a broken transmission less than two hours into the race, but Brian (reliable as ever) installed a new trans from the Advance Autosports inventory in the back of the toter, and got them back out onto the track so they could have some fun. Both drivers being fast, and familiar with the track, we got to see them a number of times during (most of) the rest of the race. More to come on this.
After another stint by Jim which saw our hero set Anvil's fastest lap of the race, it was 5:30 pm when I climbed in for my second two-hour stint. We knew from the previous night that it would go dark during this run, so Dave fitted the light bar. We still got out in our two-minute target pit stop time. Amazing work, again.
The first hour of the stint went smoothly, with a brilliant red sunset that was great to watch from the car. With the number of fast cars on the track still very high, I became so used to sticking my left hand out of the window to point them by that I wished I had just taped a spare glove to the window net, with the index finger extended.
By 8:00 pm it was fully dark and I was getting tired. The rearward visibility was very marginal, and we all found it tough to assess how far a car was behind us. You could tell the approaching car was there—but not quite where, which made allowing faster traffic through safely a real trick. The entries to turn three and the Uphill Esses were also difficult to judge, and the Esses required an act of blind faith and muscle memory at the turn-in point. With only a little track familiarity, this wasn't easy to hit consistently—but watching the pros get it right lap after lap with no reduction in speed from the daylight hours was both fun and instructive in what it takes to be one of the best. “Very large attachments,” as David Hobbs might say.
It was around now that I had my only serious scare of the race. I let a car by at Oak Tree (again) and followed him very closely up the long back straight which has two crests in it. Just after my shift into top gear, the car I was following suddenly pulled to the left for no obvious reason. My eyes instinctively followed him wondering why he was taking the odd line. Fortunately, I then looked back to straight ahead again as we came over the crest, just in time to see another Miata close to stationary right in front of me—with apparently zero power. Certain I was going to hit him with about a 100-mile-per-hour speed differential, I yanked the wheel left and missed his rear bumper by a few inches. Thankfully there was no passing traffic in the area. I gathered up the subsequent tank slapper after two more fishtail oscillations and then shouted something that shouldn't appear in print.
A few laps later the overall leader crashed out of the race, backwards into the tires at the Roller Coaster, bringing out yellow flags (well, yellow lights) at the top of the hill. It can all be over so quickly.
I finished out my stint in slow but steady form, and handed the car over to Steve for his final turn at the wheel. Steve seemed to like the darkness, and again turned good solid lap times. I'll not admit he was going faster than I was, but somehow he was getting the car around the track in less time. Strange physics at work somewhere I'm sure.
Still circulating in the #41, Adam had taken over from Voytek after he reported a potential problem with the front left suspension and came in to get Dave's eyes on it. The car checked out, Adam was back out turning fast laps—but had a spin which caused a metal to metal, and a sad end to the race for the Polish team.
Jim and I were hanging around in the pit watching the clock tick away when Dave turned to Jim and told him to suit up early as Steve needed to pit having gotten something in his eyes, probably from all the dusty apexes in the sharper left-handers. We got Jim ready to go, but in a heroic effort Steve did a lot of blinking and driving with one eye at a time until he got his vision cleared and was able to continue without needing the unscheduled stop.
So with 45 minutes left to go, we had had zero issues. Not a lock-up, no loose lug nuts, no missed shifts, no penalties, not a thing. With this in mind, Steve handed the car off to Jim for the final laps of the race. Another flawless stop by the Advanced Autosports crew and Jim was headed towards the checkered flag.
We were running around 24th overall, and 4th in the ITA class by now, and just looking to bring it home safely. Ann and Megan O’Malley from Advanced had been in the pits with us all day long, helping with the stops, and the gear; making food, taking photos, updating Facebook, and keeping the spirits up. Steve and I hung out nervously for the last 45 minutes while Jim put his head down and drove.
With one minute to go, the entire team crossed pit road to watch the last lap from the wall. As Voytek said, “Wow—it looks fast from here!” As the flag flew, we cheered each car by, and then waited for the finishing drivers to bring the cars back to pit lane for the 30 minute impound period. The half hour post race pit lane party was a great place to be, and Andrew brought beers over from the trailer—beers which had to be opened in time-honored Spec Miata fashion using the door latch on the race car. This complex maneuver is yet to be mastered by Kettelkamp who managed to snap the top off the bottle. You remember he's a doctor, right?
We had covered 954 miles in 13 hours, completed 292 laps with six pit stops, and finished 22nd overall after starting from 51st on the grid. We were fourth in class, so we had no podium ceremony, but we were still delighted to have turned in such a clean performance on our first attempt at serious endurance racing. Jim's car still has the original stock engine and transmission, which have never been out of the chassis. We put an entire club racing season's worth of laps on it in one day and it never coughed once. Miatas are amazing as racecars.
Doing some calculations since the weekend, to gain even one more position on the track, we would each have had to drive three seconds faster on every single lap of the race—so I truly believe we did as well as we could have hoped, especially as newbies with no experience of the race or the track when we arrived on Thursday night. Blake Thompson, one of our friends texted me that night, “If your car isn't broke, then you won.” You don’t know how true that is until you’ve seen the faces of drivers with broken or crashed cars.
Back in the paddock, Ann cooked a much-needed hot meal, and a few more serious beverages were consumed by the crew and the drivers of both cars, although Brian and Andrew were still working hard packing away gear and loading cars into the trailer. Shortly after 1:00 am we could stay awake no longer and retired to our house on wheels.
The ride home was long but happy after such a good Saturday. We did manage to take a shower (well three showers really) at the track before we left, which was good—as certain sections of Team Anvil underclothing had been declared a biohazard by the EPA.
Dropping the rental RV off required another Team Anvil first, involving Jim enjoying a nighttime wrestling match with the 'black water' drainage system and some more unpleasant odors. Thanks for taking care of that, Jim. Now that you’re a professional, you can do it again next time.
Team Anvil is discussing options for the 2013 season—hopefully we can do something this fun again next year. Maybe this, maybe something else. Keeping options open for a while in any case.
I would like to thank Jim for the idea to go and do this, and the willingness to put his car on the line for the race. Steve, great job driving especially at night. And pretty good work sleeping through my mountain driving madness in the moving shed. That takes talent too.
We would all like to thank Dave, Brian, Andrew, Ann, Megan, and Neal for all their support before, and during this trip and the race. The whole Advanced Autosports team did a spectacular job of preparing and supporting the car, and we would have been nowhere without Dave and Brian's help, experience and enthusiasm.
Thanks of course to all the volunteers at the track who stage these great events, and work hard to make them come together safely and efficiently. Club racing needs you, and we appreciate all you do.