Amateur Hour

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Chuckwalla and I Have... History.

Round 3 of the Challenge was crushing. I left Chuckwalla humiliated, frustrated, and furious with myself.

I am an engineer. I had many, many Legos as a child. I like to tinker. But cars are not as easily altered as Legos, and in this case I should have left everything well enough alone.

The Miata anti-roll bar I mentioned in my last report went in three weeks before the third round. This, I assumed, was enough time to work out any handling kinks. Unfortunately, the bar then proceeded to pick a fight with the right rear differential mount, which it won handily. The next week and a half was wasted attempting to navigate Innovative Mounts’ abysmal customer service (details here); eventually I was forced to surrender and purchase an OEM replacement.

In retrospect, there is little or no logic behind what I did next.

I’d had some 700lb springs lurking in my living room for several months. They took up residence on all four shocks, and away went the Miata bar. The added spring rate, I reasoned, would reduce the effect of the swaybars, or lack thereof, and the car had not been badly balanced at Auto Club last month.

My first warning that this may have been a poor decision came on the drive out to Indio, where I’d booked a room (Speed Ventures’ discounted hotel rates are a lifesaver if you prefer to shower before spending the day sweating into your helmet). Crossing the mountains on Route 74, the car hopped from bump to bump like a drunken rabbit; it was almost a relief to get jammed up behind the world’s slowest Camry during the hair-raising descent into Palm Springs. At least it prevented me from inadvertently bounding over the edge to oblivion.

I can’t blame lack of sleep for my poor driving; even waking at 5am, I got seven hours, and the hour cruise down I-10 to Desert Center saw me polish off a pair of Red Bulls, partly out of boredom- there’s not a lot to do on an arrow-straight highway before dawn.

Chuckwalla itself hadn’t changed much in the two years since I’d last been there. Dusty, windy, and spartan, it’s a spiritual descendant of the frontier settlements where cowboys, miners and thieves fought in the streets. These days, the weapon of choice has four wheels and internal combustion, and miles of runoff ensure some margin of safety, but the competition is no less ferocious.

The track paddock echoed the inchoate conception of its forebears, as RVs and race trailers gathered into roughly organized rows and canopies sprang up around and between them. In the early morning, it’s always an intoxicating place. A panoply of noises rises and falls, from the pointed blare of 911s to American iron’s disgruntled chunter. The thin reek of petrochemicals is everywhere, and people rush or loiter with equal intensity. It’s energizing, but far from calming. I was in the last group out; after two hours my nerves were tweaked almost to the breaking point; anxious anticipation bordering on overwhelming.

At some point we’re called to grid; everything is a blur until the car in front rolls out of the pits and the clarity of total concentration descends. The calm and focus doesn’t last, though; it’s immediately apparent that I’m badly misjudging turn-in on the open, sweeping corners that comprise most of this track. My normal, autocross-trained wrist-flick sees me meeting the inside curb yards ahead of the apex, killing exit speed and making it impossible to find the line. The car isn’t helping; it feels strangely inert. I churn around for six laps, seemingly finding nothing but new ways to make the same mistakes. The session is over too quickly; I haven’t strung together a single decent lap.

My fastest turns out to be a 2:19, fully ten seconds off a decent time in class. I find a place in the shade behind a trailer, sit down with a track map and another Red Bull, and try to choke down the anger. An hour of contemplation and lap visualization later, I’ve got a plan, and I’m ready to go drive it.

The first lap I’m stuck in traffic; I pass a few cars and a few pass me, then I have some open space and can get to work. Lap two is better than anything in session one, but it’s becoming apparent my car is fucked. It’s pushing all the way through every corner; trailbraking provides only mild relief, and big lifts don’t provoke any rotation. The stiff springs have reduced body motion too far- the dynamic toe change isn’t working properly, and any chance of driving around the erroneous swaybar setup is gone.

I’m furious now, all the suppressed anger from the first session boiling over, and I start throwing the car around, trying to provoke the tail. That’s when my springs step in, and turn what should have been a minor bump over the turn two kerbing into an immediate spin. I’m black-flagged.

By the time they let me back out, the session is over. I was two seconds quicker in those three laps, but it’s not remotely close to a competitive time. I’m dead last in class; the next-slowest competitor is three seconds ahead of me, and the leaders are ten ahead of that. I’m ready to scream and/or punch something; I’ve wasted a day, lost any shot at points, and embarrassed myself, all because I didn’t think through my suspension modifications. The next hour is wasted bitching to anyone who will listen; fortunately I have tolerant friends who understand and forgive my craziness.

I finally swallow my pride and accept the inevitable- if I’m going to salvage anything from this day at all, I need an instructor.

My third session is worse- the instructor points out all the places I’m not tracking out far enough on corner exit or carrying enough speed in, but I can’t trust the car not to wash out. I don’t pick up much time, the instructor is frustrated with me, and at that moment, I hate him, my car, and my lack of ability in roughly equal measure. I’m not even disappointed when oil on the track and an incoming storm bring things to a halt before my fourth session. I’m ready to go home.

The winner of Street class, Jeff Ringer, had a significantly worse weekend than I did. His motor let go in the second session; despite this, his 2:03.3 was strong enough to hold first place, both for the day and in the championship. Albert Castro scored his first win (and third podium) of the season in Stock, putting him solidly in the class points lead. Chris Elders won his class, tying up the Modified class going into Round 4 at Streets of Willow. Super Modified was unexpectedly well represented, with Alex Peng scoring his second win. I’m currently sixth in class in points; I need a solid finish at Streets to cement that foothold.

As difficult as this event was, I learned far more than at ACSW. The realization that I don’t know the right lines was painful, but necessary. I need to put in a lot more road-course time before altering my suspension setup. The Miata bar- now properly clearanced- and the 460lb springs will be going back into the car. I’m going to drop an autocross or two every month and try to do an extra trackday instead- there are some road course skills you don’t learn at lower speeds.

Bruce Lee gave what might be the perfect quote for this sort of weekend:

“There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”

It won’t be an easy road ahead, but I’m not giving up.


Author’s Note: As always, a big thank you to my sponsors: Infinite Motion,, and Speed Ventures. This wouldn’t be possible without you.

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