August 8, 2012

Chump Car: Minnesota Meltdown

Jonathan Gitlin is back reporting for us from the tropical world of ChumpCar,   It was a buggy and   blistering hot race again but in Minnesota this time where he and his mates literally drove the wheels off their Golf.....check the video if you don't believe me!

The last time I graced the pages of this site, it was fresh off the Golf's ChumpCar debut at historic Road America. Despite running into problems both days, we brought home a pair of 7th places, but it was obvious that Wolfburg's finest had the makings of a great grassroots racing car. Could we bring the fight to the mighty E30 and E36s? The guys had been hard at work in the intervening weeks before we rocked up at another storied Can-Am track, Brainerd International Raceway (nee Donnybrooke), in Minnesota.
There were an awful lot of these guys, and some of them were very fast! 

A suspension refresh saw the car on coilovers, promising even better handling around the shorter 2.6 mile layout at Brainerd. The interior was even tidier than at Road America, and now the passenger footwell now bore a large grey cooler with a pair of blue pipes coming out. With 90˚F+ temps all but guaranteed, investing in a CoolShirt set up for the team was a no brainer. This year there would be no repeat of drivers coming in early with heatstroke!

Saturday started well. Fresh Dunlop Star Specs graced the front wheels, giving plenty of grip, and even if we were outclassed in the power stakes by the rear wheel drive competition, we were able to mix it with the very best of them in the braking zones. Alex (responsible for most of the photos and as talented with a camera as he is behind the wheel) took the first stint, and handed the car over to me in a strong 5th place.

Unlike Road America, I was unfamiliar with BIR. Luckily another team mate, Aaron, instructs there, and tried to walk me through various corners the night before. The highlight of the track is turn 2, a very high speed right hander with a bit of a washboard surface that has you arriving at the 90˚ turn 3 at well over 100 mph, even in something with as little horsepower as our #88. What must it have been like as part of the longer CanAm layout in those monsters? They really did earn their money back then.

As I started finding my way around I had a feeling that I was well off Alex's sub-2 min pace, but didn't know quite how much as the Traqmate was refusing to get a satellite lock, robbing me of the tach display, shift lights, and the lap timer. A little berating from my wife over the radio after setting a 2:12 got me to pedal a bit faster, and I forced myself to keep it flat from 13 all the way down to 3, at which point the times began to fall into an acceptable range. Unfortunately the stint wasn't without incident.

About 40 minutes in, I noticed that my belts needed attention, and made for the pits, where a quick stop ran on as the battery needed a bit of attention. The good news was that power cycling the car seemed to make the Traqmate happy, and I got back out there and was soon lapping under 2 mins, although we were still a few seconds a lap off the pace of the faster BMWs, notably the all-conquering Tubby Butterman Racing, who managed a scarcely believable 1:51that morning. We clawed back into the top 10, but it wasn't to last. Another forty minutes later the handling began to go awry, stepping out and crabbing in a straight line. At this point I made a tactical mistake. Unlike with the belts, where I decided to pit straight away, I foolishly thought I'd give the car another lap to see if the handling problem went away. Perhaps you can guess what happened next.

Heading down towards 2 at a slightly reduced pace, it became evident that things were definitely not alright, and as I got towards the apex the left rear wheel bearing gave up the ghost, taking the wheel with it. You should be able to see the wheel go off on its merry way at about 25 seconds in, followed a few seconds later by the disc part of the rotor. The car ended up pointing the right way and, being FWD, could still carry on under its own steam, so rather than wait to get recovered by a flatbed (thus causing a full course caution) I limped back to the pits where the hard work of fixing things could start.
Investing in a bug-proof awning was a stroke of genius (thanks, Elle!)
Unsurprisingly we were done for the day, but thanks to a lot of hard work by Nick, Kent, Aaron, Colin, Scott, and Steve (in other words almost everyone other than me, since I don't know one end of brake line from the other) we were back on all four wheels a little after midnight, ready for round two. Some of the credit for this should probably also go to one of our sponsors, The Four Firkins, who provided lots of hoppy refreshments. We weren't the only team working late. Brainerd seems to be a car breaker, and maybe half the cars that started made it to the end on day one. While out picking up replacement parts, we ran into five other teams doing the same, including one looking to get their cylinder head machined! There's a great camaraderie in the paddock at endurance races, whether it's professional series like the ALMS or grassroots, and it's one of that makes me love the sport. I was scheduled to run the final stint, since Nick, Kent, and Aaron were yet to get a lap in thus far. Yet, the Golf was running well, albeit a couple of seconds slower than Saturday, probably due to slightly shagged tires and BIR's very abrasive surface. Sunday was also hotter, and the thought of an hour or more plugged into the cool shirt more than made up for any apprehension about trusting the car. saw me climb in at 2:45 to take us to the flag. With a couple of laps separating us from the cars in front and behind, there wasn't much pressure, and we looked set for sixth place, which was at least one better than seventh. It took a while to put my faith back in the car, but after spending a lap and a half staring at the bumper of the Escort ZX2 that the guys ran last year I realized it was time to man up and drive. My pace was probably a couple of seconds slower than it had been on Saturday, a combination of staying well clear of the curbs and slightly tired rubber. The next hour included some fun battles on track, and a couple of helpful retirements ahead meant we crossed the line at 4 pm in fourth place. Better than another 7th, but still not good enough for a trophy! Importantly, it qualified us for the regional Chumpionship.
One of you will be ours this season!. 
Looking back, I'm not sure I ever got completely to grips with the track itself, particularly turns 12 and 13. I think the unfamiliarity with the racing line was also the reason I wasn't really driving at my best–I was barely heel and toeing, atlhough I was consciously concentrate on my use of the wheel. Looking at the in-car footage it always looks so much calmer than it did at the time! Having really good quality in-car footage is something I'm glad we have. I imagine it would be really good to be able to analyze everyone's data in between the two races during double headers, but so far Saturday nights have usually involved most of the team working on the car to fix whatever issues we ran into (odd engine problems at Road America, my three-wheel motion at BIR). I'm less impressed with the Traqmate. Don't get me wrong, having it in the car and doing its predictive lap timing thing is worth the price alone IMO, but I really wish there was a mac version of the Traqviewer and Traqstudio. Satarday's data appears to be garbage, consisting of a 48 minute lap and a 108 minute lap, and I've still not had the time to sit down and try and wrestle with Sunday's yet.
Taking the chequered flag, and fourth place, on Sunday. 
Next on the calendar is my first 24 hour race, at Iowa Speedway at the end of August. It occurs to me that I should probably do a little more preparation for this one, as my race suit is getting worryingly tight around the middle, and it's not like I can't stand to lose a few pounds. Weekly trips to the farmer's market and a hogie moratorium are in order, I think. I was visiting my folks for the Monaco Historics and had a chance to try out Felipe Massa's Ferrari jungle gym - if money were no object I think something like that would be perfect, but this is grassroots motorsport so strapping weights to my arms and playing a lot of Forza might have to suffice. Speaking of race suits, I keep finding myself drawn to that new Evo fit that Sparco have developed, where the zips are in the shoulders and not down the front. So far, Jean Alesi is the only person I've seen wearing one, but it's a clever idea, and I remember wetsuits going there a few years ago. I think there's room for more innovation in racewear right now, and would love to see what the guys at Triple Aught Designor Errolson Hugh at Acronym could do with nomex and SFI/FIA specs.
We might not have won any trophies but the broken stub axle now has pride of place on my desk. TSA weren't too enamored with it… 

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