After my one-year hiatus from the Cascade enduro, 2007 saw the return of the driving lineup for the 2005 race, as well as a crew of endurance race veterans (the sole exception being Stephen Guy, who bravely showed up in his very pretty, street-trim 968), ready to take on the P1 class. The scheduled repaving of Portland International Raceway in the fall resulted in Cascade working out a deal with IRDC to swap dates with the 4-hour. As has become something of a tradition, I would be driving the middle two stints, where my pace doesn't set any records, but maintains the equipment and position for the last third of the race.
The drivers and crew of the 2007 enduro effort:
Pictures from this event
Eric brought the car down early (and I mean early) on Friday so he and Bruce could run the Test 'n' Tune that day. Most everybody else trickled in to Portland over the course of the day, with Julie, Andre, and myself arriving that evening. One of the first things I learned after we arrived at our pit space was that Hal Hilton, teammate in 2004 and recently a driver for Team Seattle in the 2007 24 Hours of Daytona, had already experienced his traditional (or so it seems) pre-enduro catastrophic car trouble, this time blowing his motor only 3 laps into Friday's test sessions. (They would manage to find and install a junkyard motor and start the race, but the main rod bearing failed before long.) We had arrived at the track in time for registration, but missed out on tech for my driver's gear, which I'd have to deal with in the morning before the first practice. Bruce and some of the other guys had already eaten, but several of us made it to BJ's for the now-traditional pre-race beer and dinner before heading off to the hotel for an early night.
The plan was to meet in the lobby at 7:30 before heading over to the track, so most of us crossed paths a little before. I'd spoken to Anna around 6am (she'd left home a bit after 5am with the food and both girls asleep in the back) and she'd requested we pick up a few things, so Julie and I left separately to go to Safeway for some last-minute additions to the menu. My priority after we got to the track was to go find someone from Tech to go over my driver's gear. Although I couldn't find anyone, Margie Burgesser working up in registration was nice enough to take care of it for me. That done, at least, I knew I could settle in to thinking about the day's driving.
I felt I'd driven Eric's car enough that all I needed was the first practice sessions (20 minutes) to get used to it and PIR again: It'd been a year since I'd driven the 968 at the 4-hour and not counting the abortive attempt at a race with the M3 back in September, I really hadn't driven the track in almost 2 years. Well, between cold tires and a track surface that was both cold and a bit damp, I managed to get the car fully sideways—and while under a full-course caution—in Turn 6. I'm sure this greatly amused the corner workers in Turns 4 & 6, but it was a quick wake-up call for me that now would be a good time to get my brain warmed up, too.
While the car warmed up quickly enough, it took me quite a while to recall all the nuances of the track. There's a saying that it's really easy to get PIR mostly right but hard to get it all-the-way right, and the most obvious aspect of that is in realizing how much of a late-apex track PIR is: If you think you're taking a late apex at a particular corner at Portland, you're still probably making it a little too early. I was doing an excellent job of early apexing in turns 6, 7, and 12 at first, then I got better on 12 and sort-of okay in 6, but I never really feel comfortable in Turn 7. Partly this is because I never feel like my braking is really spot-on and partly it's because my braking strongly influences the line through the corner I'm able to take.
Regardless, and without putting much effort into it (i.e., it was a very sustainable pace), I picked up the pace for my last few laps before coming in early. Eric told me that my last three laps were all in the 1'22" range, with our 2007 pace selected as 1'21". This was fairly promising for me, as I felt the team's pace (which I've never been able to hit consistently, year to year) was quite do-able. We skipped the second practice and Bruce went out for a little bit in the third in preparation for his running the first couple stints in the race.
I'm not fan of the ballet, but Bruce's, uh, "interesting" method for crossing the track during the Le Mans-style start has now given me a glimpse into the workings of "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy." :) In all fairness, Bruce's arm-waving, "skipping through a mountain meadow" goofiness was just as fast as any other method for crossing the track I've seen and was a good deal more amusing. Although it took us a while to get him out there (including a heart-stopping few moments when the car wouldn't start), he was immediately on-pace and running consistently in the 1'20" range, including our fast lap of the race. He did lose his radio early in his first stint and, since we could hear him but not the reverse, we all (correctly) assumed his earphones had come unplugged from the helmet. It took a few laps of signaling from the pit wall to get him to pit for his first fuel stop, but everything worked out and we were able to reconnect his earphones during the stop. He also had a little "off-course excursion" during his first stint, overcooking Turn 10, going over the curb and up into the grass, but he immediately got things back on the pavement in time for Turn 12 and never really lost much time. (It's pretty impressive on the video.) Unfortunately, we suspect the impact the underside of the front of the car had with the curbing came back to bite us later, as it probably broke some of the fasteners for the airdam and undertray.
Sometime before Bruce's fuel stop saw us engaged in what I view as an inappropriate series of episodes with our pit marshal. It started when he got really tense about what "Fireball" (Julie) was going to wear over the wall as the person manning the fire extinguisher. She was dressed according to the supplemental regulations, which stipulate that only the two people working the fuel must be dressed to the same fire-protection standard as the drivers; everyone else must simply wear long sleeves, long pants, closed-toe shoes, and gloves. Our marshal, though, was really up in arms about this, as in his opinion that person should be dressed appropriately for fighting fires. While he might be right, and nobody disagreed with his points, the fact of the matter is that she was dressed according to the rules. That should have been the end of the discussion, but he still kept on about it, to the point that we had to get another marshal to come over and explain the relevant section of the rules to him. Even then, he complained about it for quite some time. Perhaps this got us off on the wrong foot with him, too, because he seemed to be inordinately vigilant about everything we did from then on out. Eh.
My first stint started off a bit rough before I'd even gotten in the car: In an attempt to see further down the pit lane in order to spot the car on its way in, I stepped up on our slightly cheesy air bottle cage, a plastic milk crate instead of the usual metal cage. Unfortunately for me, it only looked like a milk crate and promptly collapsed under my weight. Luckily for me, not to mention the delicate regulator being "protected," I had only put part of my weight on one foot on it, so no real harm done. Still, and even though I hadn't known what the deal was (we'd used an actual milk crate in the past as a step for going over the pit wall), I felt more than a little foolish. Having our "Soup Nazi"-like pit marshal come over and give me crap about it didn't help, either.
So, Bruce brought the car in 3rd overall and 1st in class (the Adare M3 had lost a lap to us removing some unnecessary tape over the radiator inlet; I'm not sure why the Helton M3 was behind us), despite a few issues he'd had (including a rather memorable little episode with an Acura Integra that we caught on video, before the camera mount in the car went out), and now it was up to me to, at least, not cost us any overall time or positions. Easier said than done, of course, but usually a task that I'm able to handle. Of course, with the fastest laps of the two M3s (the only other cars running in the P1 class this race) being more than a half-second faster than our fastest, and with my fastest laps being 3 seconds slower than that... well, let's say we weren't going to stay ahead of those cars based on outright speed during my stints.
Of course, we certainly weren't going to stay in front of anybody if I wrecked the car: I was so busy adjusting belts and mirrors after I'd left the pits that I got a little too focused on the task during my out-lap and just missed scraping the right-side mirror off on the inside wall of the back straight. Focus, Steve, focus. :)
Nor were we going to stay in front of anybody if I spent all my time in the car driving like I did for the first several laps of my first stint. Despite the time I'd spent during practice—and which I'd decided was sufficient to get me back into a PIR-no-chicane groove—my lines were sloppy, my braking technique poor, and my passes poorly executed. In short, I sucked. Fortunately, that crap didn't last for too long, and more laps under my belt found me experimenting with corners and remembering how PIR "works," as well as just generally settling in to the car, the track, and the race. Except for when I was stuck in traffic, and a couple laps in the 1'21.9" range, I spent the bulk of my first stint running in the mid-1'22". Slower than I was supposed to go, but not a horrifically slow pace, especially as it was better than two seconds quicker than my previous-best enduro pace. (Well, okay... still too slow, full stop.) The really scary part of the first stint was that, after only about an hour or so, I felt pretty much destroyed. Physically and mentally, I was spent.
At least I wasn't dehydrated: After the difficulties I'd had getting fluid out of my drinks bottle in the 2005 race, I went out and spent $30 on a Camelbak with a much smaller, more pliant bite valve that fit better in my helmet. I was able to get all the fluid I needed on the straights, and it wasn't nearly the distraction it'd been two years earlier.
I came in for my first fuel stop right on schedule at 4:00. Between the problem Bruce had starting the car initially and the slightly sluggish start I'd had when I'd first gotten in, I was prepared for a difficult time restarting. Unfortunately, when it initially didn't want to to start, I thought back to Bruce's comment that a bit of gas helped it out and then promptly flooded it slightly. I got it restarted and headed back out, losing only 3–5 seconds, but it grated on me for most of the next couple of laps. I also turned the lights on for this stint, as it was late enough in the day that they were getting useful for warning slower traffic that I was approaching. Mostly, this consisted of what seemed like half the Miatas in Oregon, as they had carpet-bombed the P3 class and were pretty much everywhere, all day. Typically, you'd approach two or three battling it out for class position, which made it hard to get by in a timely fashion no matter how vigilant the respective drivers were or how hard they tried to get out of the way. We even got to the point of joking that, if you just saw one Miata in front of you, it was because it was drafting three others in front of it!
Ten minutes after my fuel stop, I got a meatball from the starter's tower. I hadn't noticed any different sights, sounds, or smells, so I kept on going hard for another lap, while I radioed in to to see what was up. I couldn't get any response to my queries and the flag was waved a bit more aggressively the next time I went by the starter, so I started looking for smoke or flames coming out of the car. It was right about this time that Andre responded to my calls of "What's wrong with the car?" by letting me know that the splitter was separating from the car and taking parts of the airdam, bumper, and right fender with it! (Between the two episodes with splitter problems on the M3, and now this, I would later joke that I must be bad luck for splitters.)
I tried to keep up as much speed as possible in the corners, but backed way off on the straights on my way back to the pits, where I went directly to our pit stall. As you're supposed to go to the "meatball station" to have a marshal tell you why you were flagged, I was more than a little concerned there'd be a penalty associated with "skipping" that step but, after all, I already knew what the problem was. In any event, some of the guys jumped over the wall with zip ties and racer tape to try to get everything solid enough that it'd hold together for the remaining half of the race. Between my slow in-lap and the time spent working on the car (roughly 4 minutes), we finally lost the lap we'd held over the Adare M3 (and 3 others, unfortunately) since Bruce's first stint... yes, one way or another, I'd managed to keep our lead. :)
I went back out and tried to push hard to get back on whatever pace I'd had before becoming aware of the problem, but it was only 10 minutes later that we got our first and only full-course caution of the day. Attempting to take advantage of the slower pace the field would be running, Andre called me back in: The quick-and-dirty reinforcements they'd tried earlier hadn't been enough to keep the car from continuing to fall apart.
As a race car driver, it's never a good feeling to pull into the pits with a problem, only to see what seems like the entire crew jumping over the wall with hacksaws, hammers, and tin snips.
After watching the car going by after their first attempt at repairs, the crew had decided that the only way to solve the problem was to remove the splitter and anything else that looked like it was going to fall off, but they didn't want to eat up a lot of time removing bolts and assorted other fasteners, so they'd concluded their best bet was to simply cut off the offending parts. Great idea in theory, but the reality was that it still took long enough for the pace car to pass us twice, with me yelling over the radio every time I saw it approaching... over 5 minutes in the pits! I guess the Germans built the car expecting it'd only ever be disassembled in the traditional manner, 'cause a couple of the guys would later tell me that they had begun worrying that they even could cut the parts off. At least I had plenty of time to hydrate, with nothing else to do but suck down as much water as I could. Then, just to keep me on my toes, George Burgesser couldn't seem to make up his mind whether to show the "Stop" or "Go" side of the sign at the end of pit lane. First it was "Go," then as I got closer (and, remember, we're only in pit #3) he flipped it to "Stop." As I was slowing down (from only 20MPH or so), he flipped it back to "Go" and then, just as I gunned the engine to head out, started to flip it back to "Stop." At that point, though, I was going no matter what and with the expectation that the crew would argue forcefully against any threat of a penalty. (He never did flip it all the way around, though, so it was just added stress and not added penalty time.)
I hustled the car around to catch up to the pack before the restart that was scheduled for that lap, and rejoined the field last but one. So, aside from all the track position we'd lost, I was faced with the slightly daunting prospect of passing all those blasted Miatas again. (Being they're pretty reliable little suckers, their attrition rates never approach those of other cars, which means those of us in faster cars will always have the opportunity to practice our passing skills. Unfortunately.) The only change I noticed from before the problem developed was that I was seeing some minor understeer in high-speed corners. My lap times dropped off as I tried to adapt to the different feeling of the car in these corners, but I eventually realized it was handling more like my old front-wheel drive Integra and adjusted accordingly, at which point I settled right back in and my times dropped.
At about 4:30 (yes, this had all occurred in less than 30 minutes), Andre radioed me to say that I needed to pit to serve a black flag penalty. A lap or so earlier I'd passed a Miata in the brake zone for Turn 10 (end of the back straight) and just before a yellow flag being waved at that station, so I was pretty hot on the radio asking why the hell I was being called in, thinking it was going to be for a BS "passing under yellow" penalty. Andre responded that we'd had two crew members over the wall without gloves during the attack on the splitter, so I immediately calmed down and returned to the pits. This was already my fourth trip down pit lane in 30 minutes and each time I had to really remind myself to take it easy, as breaking the 35MPH speed limit would definitely result in a black flag penalty, only it would now be our second infraction and result in a one-minute stop in the penalty box, rather than the 30 seconds we were facing now.
Me being me, I stalled the car pulling out of the penalty box, but only lost a second before getting it refired. I don't know if it was a result of relaxing physically and mentally during all the recent stops, or because I'd reached some sort of philosophical "zone," but I felt more physically comfortable and mentally relaxed during the next half-hour than I had all day. Despite all the problems that'd occurred during my stints, I was actually having fun. In fact, it was during this period of time that I drove my two fastest laps, including my best of 1'21.758". It was a exactly a tenth of a second slower than my previous-best in 2005 (1'21.658"), but my overall pace this year was faster and more consistent, so I view 2007 as a big improvement.
But all good things must come to an end, as Eric exercised "owner's privilege" to call me in 10 minutes early. This was allegedly because he thought I might be tired, but I think it was really because he was getting antsy about the pace and our position relative to the cars just ahead and behind. Whatever the reason, I came onto pit lane for the fifth time in an hour, got out of the car, and then staggered (I'd been unnecessarily bracing myself with my left leg during my stints, and it'd gotten all cramped up) to the wall and over. I handed off the car 3rd overall and 2nd in class, down only to the Adare M3 that'd passed us during the meatball stop and the P2-classed Caterham 7.
All things considered, it was a pretty decent couple of stints, despite all the problems we'd had and positions and track space we'd lost. Most of the drivers in lapped cars were really good about pointing by the faster cars, I did my best to do the same for the Sports Racers and the race-leading Mustang Cobra R (which eventually broke down off Turn 7 during my second stint), and didn't lose any positions due to my pace or skill.
Eric's first stint was pretty uneventful, although those of us back in the pits got a bit of an after-the-fact scare when Bruce called up some weather information on his phone late in the stint and we all got to see a radar map showing a hellacious storm cell that had passed just north of us late in my second stint. During the fuel stop, James used a suction gun (normally used to add transmission fluid) to connect to a dry-break hose in a combination that Eric and Randy had thought of as a way to add engine oil without having to go through the time-consuming process of unlatching the hood and removing the oil fill cap. It was so exotic-looking that Scott Adare scampered over from his pit next door to sniff out what we were doing with this cryptic bit of technology. (This would give rise to much amusing conversation amongst our slightly punch-drunk crew at dinner late that night.) Shortly after the stop, a light rain fell for about 15 minutes and reduced the overall pace of the race by about 3 seconds a lap, even though it's unlikely it made a whole lot of difference on the track; all those cars and all those hot tires should have kept the track dry despite the rain.
With a little less than an hour remaining in the race, and after much examination of the gaps and lap times of the cars near us in the overall classifications, we concluded that our relative position to the two cars in front of us was essentially static (7 laps and 2 laps), as was the gap to the car behind us (about 10 laps). Additionally, and just to keep things interesting (Eric had radioed in that he was bored as hell, there being nobody to race with and only about 16 cars still on track), Eric and Andre got into a little discussion about whether our fuel consumption was going to force us into the pits for a "splash and go." With the gaps being what they were, we wouldn't be at risk of losing a position by pitting for a few gallons of gas, but pit stops are always somewhat risky, what with the danger of exceeding the pit lane speed limit, potential problems restarting the engine, accidents with the fuel delivery, etc., so Eric decided to just back off a bit and conserve.
And back off he did, running laps 6–8 seconds off his previous pace (it was also getting quite dark)... right up until an excited radio call that neither Andre nor Bruce could quite understand. Bruce and Andre looked at each other, shook their heads, and then Andre radioed "Say again." Eric responded "The Caterham's off in 7!!"
While we were worrying about running out of gas, the P2-leading and second-overall Caterham 7 had finally crossed a line they'd been dancing near all day and run out of gas, parking it off-course near Turn 7. Suddenly, the two laps we were behind looked like something we could make up, but we'd have to get after it quickly, as the race was within a few laps of being over. Eric immediately cranked up the pace as we hurried to deduce whether we'd be able to make up the gap to the Caterham before the Adare M3 took the checkers. We quickly radioed out that it looked do-able, but Eric was going to have to hustle to make it happen. And make it happen he did, as he made up the two laps and officially passed the Caterham's lap count at the start of the final lap.
(The really unfortunate part of this for the Caterham crew is that, although they managed to get a crew member out to the stranded car with a gas can, by the time the car had crossed the finish line it was just outside the allowed time limit and so, after running strongly all day long, they were ultimately not even classified as finishers.)
After waiting around forever for the post-race awards ceremony, we finally got everything packed up and stored for the night and then headed over to Stanford's for dinner and drinks. A quick-and-dirty analysis of the time spent in the pits because of the splitter revealed that we'd lost almost exactly the same number of laps as we ultimately trailed the Adare M3, which would've certainly made for an interesting latter half of the race otherwise. That being said, we'd also been experiencing some problems with the 4th-gear synchros all race, so harder driving in a head-to-head battle might've just resulted in gearbox trouble. Either way, the expected threat from Mike Helton's M3 never materialized due to lots of driver changes (they had 5), problems in the pits, penalties, and what we thought were generally slower lap times than in years past.
We also had a brief chat and commiseration with Mark McClure about his Caterham's plight at the end of the race. He was philosophical about the whole thing, but he also said that the crew had parked their cars at the hotel and walked to dinner, the better to "tie one on" and dull some of the pain. :)