Heat, History, and a Hyundai (S2000 Challenge Round 4)

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They tore past in a visceral tremor of V8 violence, practically nose to tail- a Gulf-liveried GT40 and a blue-and-white Shelby Daytona Coupe, arcing smoothly and unhesitatingly into the vast sweep of Big Willow’s Turn 8. It was an image out of time; the physical embodiment of an idea so transcendent and enduring that it spanned half a century utterly unchanged.

Some people feel compelled to race; to compete against one another, against the odds, most of all against themselves. It can and will drive us to irrational decisions, but it brings a sense of excitement, challenge, and fulfillment that’s increasingly difficult to find in our ever-tamer world.

The last Challenge event, at Chuckwalla, had left me profoundly frustrated and somewhat discouraged. The idea of abandoning motorsports altogether had a certain depressing appeal; it’s hard to justify spending hundreds of dollars a month on a fundamentally competitive activity that I don’t really have an aptitude for.  Trying to imagine life without racing, though, forced me to concede that I’d rather be fighting for every tenth of a second at the back of the pack (and struggling to pass a Hyundai; more on that later) than pursuing any other hobby.

I’m not usually prone to pitlane philosophizing between run sessions; blame the high desert heat, lack of sleep, and the sight of classic machines lapping on the other side of the catch fence. The fourth round of the S2000 Challenge had brought us to Streets of Willow on the same day that the Cobra Owner’s Club hosted an event on the Fastest Road in the West.

I had never been to Streets before, and I was smitten from the first lap. It’s a narrow, twisting, frequently blind track with large elevation changes and unpredictable camber; a fast lap requires faith, technique, and sheer testicular fortitude in roughly equal quantities.

I laid down a 1:34.7 in the first session, running counterclockwise; 6-ish seconds off the fastest cars in class. I was confident in my line from the skidpad up to the bowl, as the corners were mostly well-sighted and of autocross-level speed and layout. The blind, 80mph charge up over the infamous chicane was done out of ignorance the second lap (I’d forgotten the course jogged back to the left and just left my foot in), but that faux-error gave me the confidence to push an increasingly aggressive line through that section as the session went on.

The bowl, though, lay just beyond, and in a full day of lapping I never found a line I liked. You approach this banked, increasing-radius but decreasing-camber 180 at over 100mph; faster even than the start/finish straight. Turn in from the outside of the track, then brake and clip the first, early apex simultaneously. Now you’re pointing straight off the banking; the windshield is filled with brilliant blue sky with the smallest crescent of pavement at the very bottom. Brake all the way up the bank, then turn in sharply toward the second apex. You have to be very careful with the throttle now; the banking recedes sharply all the way out of the corner, and a millimeter too far on the pedal will have you skating precariously close to the edge and a long, unpleasant roll down the hill. Every lap, regardless of where I placed my apices, I’d exit the corner bogging at 5000rpm, losing precious seconds waiting for the VTEC kick to arrive and propel me down toward the sweeping, full-throttle right following.

After following another S2000 around the bowl, I realized I was also slow going in; it’s possible to brake later and deeper toward the second apex. My only attempt at emulating that line, however, earned me a close-up look at the crumbling outer edge of the pavement as I nearly departed it at speed. 235-width front tires may simply be too narrow for the Street class, as the non-staggered cars can outbrake me by a substantial margin.

The return leg is mostly downhill and off-camber; finding the right line requires you to let the car fall almost all the way to the edge on track-out before reining it in. No two laps were quite the same- I’d gain some speed in one corner and lose a little in another. It’s an area that will require further visits, and possibly a data system, to understand completely and improve upon.

The last corner is a sweeping downhill left onto the pit straight, opening out the whole way. You enter at less than 50mph and leave your foot in; by the time you hit your track-out point you’re a third of the way down the front straight and traveling at just under 100mph. It’s a rush every time; even more so when the gutted, caged Hyundai Accent you’ve been trying to catch for three laps points you by on entry. We went through with door mirrors almost touching, and in that moment I knew I’d made the right choice to continue racing.

The second and third sessions were a borderline surreal experience. I was driving a better line, using maximum grip over more of the track, and braking later and harder, but skyrocketing temperatures meant my times were actually increasing as available grip plummeted precipitously.

At the end of the third session I called it a day. My tires were gelatinous, the brakes were unpredictable, and the clutch had started to hang up slightly during the rapid 4-3-2 downshifts at the end of the start/finish straight. With back-to-back autocrosses the following weekend and my acceptance of the fact that it will take many more events for me to develop my skills to consistently score points in the Challenge, there was no reason to continue abusing the car. I will, however, be sure to return to Streets before the series finale there in December.

In the final reckoning, I improved from seventh of seven at Chuckwalla to sixth of eight at Streets. I’m now tied with Fernando Muga for 6th in class overall. With a fresh engine installed, Jeff Ringer managed to score his second consecutive class win, giving him a solid lead over Doug Chan and Mike Kang. With more than half the series to go, however, he’s going to have to work to maintain it.

Victor Huang scored his first win in Stock class, bringing him within striking distance of current leader Albert Castro. In Modified, Mike Tsay recovered from his mild slump at Chuckwalla to score his third win and edge out Chris Elders for series lead in class. David Lara scored an uncontested victory in Super Modified. Round 5 will take place at Big Willow in four weeks; it’s an extremely fast track, and presents a formidable challenge. Unfortunately, family commitments prevent me from attending.

 I’ll be updating on test and tune progress occasionally during July, in preparation for my next event in August. The car is continuing to evolve, although I’ve decided to leave the spring rates alone for now.

Remember those irrational decisions I mentioned earlier? Since Chuckwalla, I’ve installed a Hard Dog roll bar, six-point harnesses, and an extinguisher, and I have a HANS device on the way, all in the interest of avoiding fiery death. This has also required me to remove the entire bulkhead assembly from the car, so not only is the car bumped from STR-class autocross, I now arrive at work every morning half-deaf and with the outline of Scroth FIA 3-inch belts squashed into my freshly ironed shirt. I really should buy a daily driver, but 17×9 wheels and non-staggered tires are now firmly rooted in the back of my mind. I have just enough points to do it and stay in Street class, and I really hate failing to address a newly discovered deficiency, either in myself or in my car…

Photos Courtesy of Chris Johnson (yonson).

Author’s Note: As always, a big thank you to my sponsors: Infinite Motion, C2racers.com, and Speed Ventures. This wouldn’t be possible without you.

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