It’s been too long...
My last turn behind the wheel at a race track was WAY back in October 2017 - just after moving from the US to the UK. After a very busy six months of work, I found an opportunity to get back to visit my NASA Texas friends during Round 3 of their 2018 season at Circuit of the Americas.
Mimi’s Little Sister had been borrowed last fall for the NASA Eastern Championships at Sebring. That didn’t go so well - a melee at the start meant that Mimi’s Little Sister made contact with Karen, the car belonging to another friend from Texas.
The repair work was very well done. The front clip was completely replaced, including hood, fenders and headlights, while a new radiator was fitted inside. As a pleasant surprise, the repaired car was brought to COTA sporting a new livery.
Practice sessions on Friday morning were cancelled due to lightning storms in the area. We hunkered down in the trailer to wait out the weather, while the car was tucked under the canopy initially, and later moved into the trailer when the wind really picked up.
We were able to salvage two sessions in the afternoon. With standing water in Turn 14 and continuing rain, the wet weather tires came off the rack for the first time in two years. While not particularly meaningful given the dry conditions forecast for the rest of the weekend, it was good to experience and, likely, more relevant for future racing in the UK.
Blue sky and sun greeted us at the track on Saturday morning. With the first NASA National Championships being held at COTA in September, drivers from across the country (fast ones) made up the nearly 60 car Spec Miata field. At the morning driver’s meeting, in addition to the standard welcome message, track limits were discussed. With no sausage curbs installed, the rule for the weekend was “if it’s paved, you can race on it!”
The first practice session was an opportunity to try a racing line that didn’t fuss things like white lines or curbing. While I could wrap my head around running wide on turn exits to maintain momentum, I struggled to fully cut corners with all four wheels inside the track surface.
I definitely left some time on the table when it came to qualifying. I found myself caught behind a slower car, but didn’t managed to get past quickly. After wasting a few laps trying to get by, I backed off to create some space, but it was too late. The checkered flag came out and my best time was 2:48.8 (not quite as quick as my 2:47.7 from 2017), leaving me 45th of 53 on the grid for Race 1.
The huge field made for an interesting start. By the time the back of the pack turned onto the front straight, the leaders had been given the green flag, stringing out the second half of the field. A few faster cars from the back moved quickly past us during lap 1 and a mistake in the braking zone on the back straight during lap 2 cost me another couple of spots. By the end of lap 3, I was stuck in a gap between two groups. I was able to use the esses on lap 4 to move up to the back of the group ahead, nearly grabbing one place in the last turn. I got that spot and one more through the esses on lap 5, but lost one again after the running too deep in the braking zone in Turn 12. After holding position through lap 6, I ended up side-by-side with another car going into the esses at lap 7, but being on the outside, I fell back and accidentally left a whole for another car through as well. I got lapped by one of the Spec MX-5 cars going into the last turn of lap 7. At the time, I didn't appreciate that the checkered flag shown to the Spec MX-5 winner also applied to me, so I raced lap 8 with the two cars just ahead. Catching and passing them was all for not on the timing and scoring sheet. I finished in 39th with a best lap time of 2:49.2 - here’s the video from Race 1.
Qualifying on Sunday went a little better. Grid was based on the fastest lap times from Race 1, so speed differentials wasn’t an issue. And I made the space I needed to get some clean laps. The best time I could post was 2:47.4, setting a new personal best by 0.3 seconds. That got my up to 42nd of 53 cars for the long race in the afternoon.
However, as I rolled to grid for Race 2, I could smell, then see, smoke in the cabin. My main electrical disconnect switch failed internally. I was able to turn it off and stop the smoke, but it wasn’t looking good for the race. Thankfully, friends at the track were able to purchase and install a new switch, getting me out on track as the main pack came through for their second flying lap.
I was able to enjoy 30 minutes of track time, even if I wasn’t racing for position. By lap 7, I caught the back of a small pack, picking off 1 car on the inside of turn 11, then another in turn 14. After that, I just made space as Spec MX-5s lapped me, and drove to the finish 3 laps down in 41st place - not the result I wanted, but better than a DNS (Did Not Start).
It was great to get back in the driver’s seat and race wheel-to-wheel again. The car is tucked back in the trailer until the next event - whenever that may be!
The 3-3-30 Plan was born out of the unexpected opportunity to compete in Round 6 of the NASA Texas 2017 season at MSR Houston. My original schedule for relocation to the UK had me across the pond by the time this event was to take place, but for a variety of reasons, that didn't happen.
After a busy summer working overseas, and the week prior to the event spent preparing for my move, I hadn't mentally prepared to race. It took some time on Friday to get my head back into it, but by the end of the day, my times had dipped into the 1:53's - faster than I'd run at MSR-H in this direction before. It had been hot all day, so I skipped the last session and just made it back to the hotel in time to crank the A/C and pass out.
After a solid 12 hour nap, I woke to a gorgeous Saturday at the track.
This weather was in stark contrast to the storm that had decimated parts of the city just a couple of weeks earlier. The flooding had apparently taken it's toll on the timing loop at the track, so with no times recorded during qualifying, the starting grid for Race 1 was set based on season points.
I posted the following on Facebook over lunch: "4th on the grid! Please let me make it through turn 1!"
Car #31 was behind and to the inside, but caught a glimpse of car #20 hopping the curb inside him and over-reacted. He nosed his front-right fender into my left-rear bumper and I spun. Thankfully, I wasn't collected by any of the following 15 cars as I slide completely across the track.
I spend the rest of our 20 minute race trying to catch the back of the pack, but to no avail. I finished 18th of 21 starters, which would also be my starting grid position for Race 2.
Only a little bit of brute force and ignorance was required to get the car sorted.
It turned out that starting from the back wasn't any better for me than starting from the front. While I was able to cautiously complete the opening lap, it was starting lap 2 that I got bumped - again. I had run a little deep and lifted off the throttle more than car #151 expected. The bump was enough to send me off into the grass. Given that I was already at the back of the field, I decided I'd had enough for the day and pulled back into the paddock at the end of the lap.
With an official finishing position of 21st (and last) from Race 2, I was disappointed to learn that the timing loop hadn't been fixed for Sunday. The starting order for Race 3 was based on an average of Race 1 and Race 2 finishing results, so needless to say, I was at the back!
I let the field get itself organized for a few laps, then started to work my way forward. I was able to capitalize on a mistake by car #63 on lap 7, then forced a mistake that let me get past car #36 on lap 9. A cloud of tire smoke gave me cover as I went inside on car #194 on lap 10. Cars #20 and #81 both made mistakes on lap 11, and finally, I got around car #78 on lap 12. The remaining 8 laps were spent solo, trying to chase town the couple of cars that I could see ahead.
Despite starting last on Sunday, I managed to finish 9th, climbing 12 spots in total. That helped to make up for a fairly awful Saturday at my last race in Texas for the year.
I didn't know it at the time, but the results at MSR-H would be enough to help me secure a top 10 finish in the season points despite missing Round 7 at NOLA. 9th overall has got more to do with attendance and consistency than outright pace, but still something to be proud of in my first full season of wheel-to-wheel competition.
I woke up on Thursday morning at 3am in Atyrau, Kazakhstan, to catch my flight. 30 hours later, my Uber driver dropped me at a hotel west of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I definitely traveled the furthest to attend the NASA Texas Summer Shootout at the Hallett Motor Racing Circuit.
After a long day of travel, I elected to sleep a little extra on Friday morning. When I eventually made it to the track, we changed the oil and installed a new radiator to address the overheating issues that we experienced at the last event in Austin, Texas. It was an easy job and immediately after lunch, I hit the track for a few warm up sessions.
I was quickly able to better my fastest times from 2016 with a 1:32.9 - likely helped by cooler temperatures, but hopefully thanks to some experience gained over the last year. By the end of the afternoon, it was definitely time for a nap in the handy trailer hammock.
The warm-up on Saturday morning went well. With slightly fresher tires and even cooler weather, I found another second to drop my lap time into the 1:31s.
I was continuing to find tenths during qualifying. On the 6th lap of that session, I had a small oversteer moment on the exit of Turn 2 (at 8:00 in the video below) and dropped my right-front wheel inside the curbing of Turn 3. It made a horrible noise, but surprisingly, the car felt fine.
Until lap 8...
As I got on the curbing on the inside of the left-hand Turn 6 (at 11:30 in the video above), the right-front suspension collapsed and I scraped my way off the track and onto the grass. I didn't realize that the suspension had fully collapsed, so with corner workers waving me on, I drove to the infield to await a flatbed back to the paddock.
The lower ball joint bolt had sheared and I had only managed the 20th fastest time in a field of 27 cars.
We were able to source a replacement ball joint from another Spec Miata paddock at the track, so set about replacing the part. While we were in there, we also replaced the brake pads and rotors (that, incidentally, had been installed at Hallett a year earlier).
A mere two hours later, the front wheels were pointed in the same general direction and we were ready for Race 1.
Given the rushed repair and rough alignment, I was tentative at the start of Race 1 and got swallowed up by a number of cars in Turn 1. As the race continued, I slowly gained confidence that the mechanical bits were going to hold together. I set my fastest time of the race on lap 6 with a 1:31.6.
By the end of lap 7, I had closed the gap to a group of 4 cars. I got a run on car #194 on the front straight and passed him into Turn 1 only to run off the track on the exit and give the place back. I got by him again on lap 9 when he gave me a little too much space through Turn 6.
On lap 11, I managed to carry a little more speed through Turn 1 than car #007 and got just far enough along side to take the inside line through Turn 2 and make the pass stick.
With just one lap to go, I was able to catch, but not pass, the remaining two cars within my sights. That landed me 19th - just one spot higher than I started.
I started Race 2 on Saturday afternoon sitting 19th on the grid. I managed to hold my position through Turn 1, but because of the slower inside line, I got passed by car #36 into Turn 2. On lap 2, I managed to get by car #30 on the inside of Turn 7, only to give the place right back on lap 3 as I ran wide on the exit of Turn 5.
I dropped another place as I struggled through Turn 1 on lap 4, but recovered it again in the same spot a lap later.
I spent the next few laps catching a group of 7 cars that I could see further up the track. By the end of lap 7, I was in a position to take advantage as two cars slid off the track at the exit of Turn 10. And I picked up two more spots at the end of lap 8 with a another couple of cars spinning out. While the gentleman racer in me didn't overtake car #31 going to the finish line, I still picked up the "Hard Charger" award for most positions gained on my way to 15th place.
Race 3 was a real test of my patience.
My starting position of 17th was based on the average of Race 1 and Race 2 results. I had a good start, but made a couple mistakes on lap 2 (missed shift after Turn 3) and lap 3 (poor exit on Turn 9) that cost me a couple of spots.
I had a lot of fun racing with car #15 starting on lap 4 (at 5:00 in the video below) as he's catching me. He dived down the inside of Turn 2 on lap 5. We ended up going through Turns 2, 3, 4 and 5 side-by-side, with me staying out front in Turn 6. The next lap, I'm slow through Turn 1 and get passed in Turn 2, but car #15 couldn't find 3rd gear exiting Turn 3. We bumped before I realized what was happening and then I went by and pulled a bit of a gap.
Car #15 spent lap 7 chasing me down. As we crossed the line to start lap 8, he was on my bumper and I waited a little too late to brake for Turn 1. I ran wide onto the bumpy grass and got passed by car #15 and car #70.
I spent a number of laps trying to catch the group ahead, but by lap 16, I was getting tired - maybe finally feeling the effects of jet-lag. With car #30 catching me, I ran very wide in Turn 2 and let him through on the inside.
On lap 25 (at 37:30 in the video below), I started catching a few cars. From a little too far back, I attempted a pass down the inside of Turn 2 and didn't quite make the apex. Thankfully, car #151 knows I'm there and helped us avoid any contact.
I got close to car #133 on the 27th and final lap. On the exit of Turn 9, he shifted from 2nd to 5th and slowed considerably. I proceeded to do exactly the same, so missed the chance to take advantage of the situation. We raced to the line and I finished Sunday's endurance race in 14th spot.
It's time for NASA Texas to take a summer break, so the next event on our calendar is Targa Newfoundland 2017!
It’s been a hectic couple of months since we raced at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) - the home of Formula 1 in the US. I’ve posted a few updates to our Facebook page, but only now am I getting around to collecting my thoughts and writing this weekend recap. Better late than never!
I arrived at the track on Thursday evening. Despite the limit space in the paddock area, we were able to set up the trailers and parking right outside our garage. And the garage… well, it was pretty cool to be using the same space that will house a Formula 1 team in just a few months. Here’s a view from the pit lane just outside the garage looking towards Turn 1.
The track is 3.4 miles long with 20 turns, That's a lot to remember, so I had watched a lot of video from other racing at COTA to get a head start.
It's a good thing that I did, because I found myself distracted on Friday with issues related to the data acquisition system and digital dash. At one point, the dash decided not to work at all as I rolled onto the track. I had only the external shift light functioning until I could reboot the tablet while rolling along the back straight. The best time I could manage was a 2:50.8, which was more than 5 seconds off the pace!
Unfortunately, with the heat and humidity, I’d spent too much time hovering over the race car with my laptop, and not enough time eating, hydrating and staying cool. I ended up overheated and back at the hotel early for a cool shower and a long nap that night.
My challenges continued on Saturday.
After warm-up, the Race Director advised that my transponder wasn’t working, so no official lap times were being recorded. We checked all the wiring but couldn't find the problem, so we ran the car over the timing loop again and, somehow, it seemed to work.
Later, a lap or two into the qualifying session, my cool shirt cooler came loose inside the car. It tipped over into the passenger foot well and banged around while spilling water everywhere. To avoid being under the minimum weight due to losing all that water, I pulled into the pits early, only managing a 2:49.9 and putting me 20th of 26 on the grid.
Finally, it was time to race. Race 1 was exciting from the beginning, with cars running 5-wide through Turn 1.
As the field spread out, I found myself running at the back of a group of 5 cars. I was struggling with braking in the downhill entry into Turn 11 and at the end of the back straight into Turn 12.
On lap 5, there were 4 cars running two-by-two coming onto the back straight. With a yellow flag showing on the left, I backed off the throttle, but forgot to wave off the bump draft from behind. It ended up being a fairly hard bump and I got passed at the end of the straight, only to recover the spot as that car went off on Turn 20.
By the start of the last lap, I’d moved up from 20th to 17th. I then picked up two more spots to 15th place by passing car #06 into Turn 1 and car #44 into Turn 11. Car #06 also got around car #44 in Turn 11 and was bump drafting me down the back straight. With an extra bump just before the braking zone for Turn 12, I wasn’t able to slow enough to make the turn. As I spun, I watch four cars stream by, dropping me right back to 19th spot.
Here is the video from the onboard camera for Race 1.
With no warm-up scheduled, our first session on Sunday was qualifying. With the cool shirt cooler full secured, I managed my fastest lap of the weekend – a 2:47.7. It was good enough for 16th spot on the grid, but still 4 seconds off the fastest Spec Miata times. I've included a video from my fastest lap below.
Unfortunately, I don't have video from Race 2. I found myself getting picked off one by one until I had dropped back to 22nd place on lap 8 with laptimes creeping up to the high 1:53s. Then I found some pace and pulled together 8 consecutive laps in the low 1:50s and nearly climbed back to my starting position - finishing 17th.
It was an incredible experience, either with the trials and tribulations throughout the weekend. I was also fortunately to have Jill visiting for the weekend and managed to enjoy some sight-seeing in Austin on Memorial Day.
Next up - the NASA Texas Summer Shootout at the Hallett Motor Racing Circuit!
Bryan Bursey, driver, founded Underbite Racing in 2015.