It has been a while since I’ve been on the racetrack. In fact, the last time I was on a racetrack was this very same track, back in September. My Jetta TDI Cup season ended right there as I crashed the car hard into the tirewall off of T2 on Thunderbolt Raceway.
After unsuccessfully trying to find funding for the Jetta cup this season, I was stuck pondering what is in the future for me, driving wise? A month before the event, after discussions with some friends and a local shop, there was interest in me driving & setting up their Mazda RX-8 race car for the Koni Challenge series. Unfortunately, like I had experienced with trying to find sponsorship for the Jetta cup, things didn’t happen as planned last minute and there I was again, sitting on the sidelines. I called a few shops a week or so before the event, trying to see if anyone had a ride available. Nothing concrete, but after hearing that Rhys Millen and Tarzan Yamada were supposed to show up, I had interest in coming up as a spectator…not because I wanted to go up to them and be a fan boy, but rather to talk to Rhys about stunt driving (as I am currently trying to break into that industry), and to speak with Tarzan about his career in Japan and how he made it to my favorite racing series, SuperGT.
On a whim, I drove up by myself to NJMP on Saturday morning not knowing what to expect. I show up at 9:30 in the morning to learn that Redline would not be running until 5pm that day, that Rhys Millen had blown his engine in the Hyundai Genesis race car earlier in the week and wasn’t even attending, and that Crawford Performance/Tarzan Yamada had already packed up & left after practice the previous night to make it to a Subaru meet in Massachusetts. So there I was, wondering why the hell I was even there. I wasn’t planning on driving this weekend, and now, the main people I was going to speak to for networking weren’t even there. Regardless, I met my friend Todd Steen (who helped setup Formula X), met some of the crew at UrbanRacer.com and also saw a fellow 2008 Jetta TDI Cup racer, Nick Mancuso, who was now racing in the Playboy MX-5 Cup.
Since there was nothing to do for a few hours, I walked around the paddock and hung out with Jeff Ricca of 240sxmotoring.com and talked about his S14 240SX race car, his involvement as a team in Formula D, the transition to time attack, his business, etc. As I was hanging out with Jeff & his wife, Phil Grabow from Element Tuning came by because Jeff’s wife’s car was blocking his trailer. I introduced myself to Phil, and he remembered who I was as I had talked to him on the phone about a week or so prior to the event, trying to get a ride for this event. I had known about Phil & Element Tuning because they dominated at this same event last year and took home wins in both Modified and Street class. I ended up helping out Phil and his team for all of Saturday, getting his STi race car prepared for time attack competition. The crew consisted of Phil, 2 James’, Eddie and myself. Phil mentioned to me that he wasn’t going to run the WRX because there were not enough participants to warrant a payout for Street AWD class. I understood and helped them out for all of Saturday. His STi was running strong and it was pretty clear that it would be difficult for anyone to match his times. But, once Phil came into the paddock he mentioned that he was having trouble getting into some gears. It turned out that the selector fork for 1st & 2nd was toast. After thinking about if he should pack it up and head home, he then said he didn’t need 1st or 2nd for this track, only 3rd gear on up. So hardcore style, Phil said screw it and decided he would run on Sunday!
After a long day at the track, a few of us headed home to Maryland because of various reasons. Talk about a crappy ride home when you’re completely exhausted. The next morning, I hitched a ride with one of the James. I was itching to drive the WRX and I hinted every now & then to Phil, but I didn’t want to bother him about it. Phil was telling me that if I paid the entry fee, I could drive the car, but he didn’t want me to waste my money because he hadn’t brought the race pads for the WRX and the stock pads would easily be cooked in a few laps. In a last minute search, I asked a fellow competitor in the same class, Ed Haney, if he had any pads for STi Brembo brakes. Luckily, Ed saved the day as he had some dual purpose, street/track compound Ferodo DS2500 pads available. Although not quite race pads, they would do, especially compared to the stock pads that the WRX still had on. We got 100 octane gas ($8.50 a gallon!), I paid the entry for Redline and wrenched on the brakes and finished up right around the time cars were already starting their time attack practice session.
I got my firesuit and other appropriate gear on and immediately headed to the track. The first couple of laps were fun, sarcastically and seriously speaking. Sarcastically, because I had to bed the pads in around the track and try not to be freaked out by the mushy brake pedal and extended braking distance I would have to try to be used to. Seriously, because – wow – this car was insanely fun to drive! This was my first time driving competitively in an AWD car and it was somewhat what I had imagined it to be. Throwing it into the corners like a FWD car, feeling the massive rush of boost from Element’s upgraded turbo, feeling slight corner entry understeer, but being able to balance corner exit with slight oversteer (thanks to BC Racing suspension), etc. This car was a beast of a daily driver that was easily capable of being fast on a race track. I would only go out for a few laps at a time, come in to check the brakes and let them cool down, checking tires for proper wear with the camber settings, letting the engine cool, etc. The last time I was in a street car without a race seat or harnesses was about 2 years ago, so my body was definitely aching and sore from trying to brace my knee against the transmission tunnel, my ribs from trying to hold my body upright and just trying to fight the g-forces in general.
Although the brakes were still not confidence inspiring, I knew I would have to adapt to extended braking distances. With the stock street weight of around 3400 lbs, it was heavy duty for the Ferodo pads. Other than the brakes, the car felt phenomenal and I was having a blast with that car on track. After reviewing practice times, it looked like I was running low 1:40’s. Good enough for now. As we start lining up for the time attack sessions, Phil jumps in the car (being the tuner he is) and jumps me up to the 100 octane fuel map as I had been on the 93 octane map. This netted me an extra 30-40hp for the time attack session. There were 2 run groups because the of low driver turnout this year. The slower group went first and I was in the last of the line for the faster group, all based on practice times. We were all spaced out about 15 seconds and I was ready to start my time attack session. I was behind a red Lotus Elise and I could already tell that everyone was already booking it for their flyer laps.
The time attack session consists of 1 out lap or pace lap, then 3 hot or ‘flyer’ laps, then 1 cool down lap. I start my out lap aggressively. During the whole practice session, I would always lift/slightly tap the brakes under the Subaru bridge leading onto the front straight. The genius in me decided to try to go flat out through the final turn for maximum speed. So right before my flyer lap, I went full throttle under the bridge and onto the massive curbing. Not so good….as I book it full throttle with the car not having any aerodynamic aid and the suspension being setup pretty stiff, the transition of running onto the huge concrete curbing back to the asphalt and bouncing of the rear took its turn. All of a sudden – SNAP! As the back end suddenly snaps on me, I turn the wheel hard toward the right and slam on the brakes as I slide sideways from 90mph to a dead stop while facing pit wall. HOLY SH**!! I just avoided totaling the car into concrete, start the car backup after stalling it, and get back into running my hot laps (damn I wish I had onboard footage!). Honestly, it was over too quick to even be scared. It turns out, even with my mishap, I was only 1.2 seconds or so off my fastest lap haha. As I start running hard again, I didn’t feel any vibrations from the tires – good, no flat spotting. The only issue now is that because of my screw up and the full load of sliding on the left side tires, my right turns would feel a little weird. Regardless, I pushed it hard for the next 2 important flyer laps. The car was handling like a dream: easy to control at the limit, the straightaway power was fun and just a beautifully balanced car in general. As I get on my 2nd flyer lap, I screw up a few turns and know I have to get it right my last time. On my 3rd and final hot lap, I hit the apexes just right, get my braking down and make the smoothest lap possible. After getting out of the T2-T3 chicane, I see the red Lotus go way off driver’s left. I see him way ahead get back up to speed and I am hoping I don’t catch up to him as it will slow me down. After the high speed, right hander kink, I notice a huge, dust cloud off of driver’s right and see the Elise slowly crawling alongside the guardrail. I found out and saw later that he was going too hard (especially after just going all 4 off a few turns before) and smacked the back end into the guardrail or tirewall. It was painful to see the rear carbon fiber smashed like that. Back to the lap…since the Lotus was already off, I still took to a fast pace around him and as I came onto the front straight, I got the checkered and black flag. Whoo! Session done and now time to cool off!
Thankfully, I bring the car back to the paddock in one piece and was happy to do so. I roll by and Jeff and his friends are laughing as well as giving me the ‘what the hell was that’ shrug! I explained what happened and he told me when he was coming around, all he saw was a cloud of white smoke and tire marks that stopped probably a foot from the wall. After debriefing with all the other racers and with Phil and the gang from Element, we head to the award ceremony. Really having no clue what time I posted, I wasn’t expecting to be too quick, especially with the lack of brakes. As the times were being listed for Street AWD, I was maybe expecting a podium finish… 3rd place goes to the Mitsubishi Evo…2nd place to Ed Haney (who sold me his Ferodo’s)…then 1st place, with a 1:39.155…me!! YES! I was stoked and excited to have won in a car I just had 20 minutes of practice in prior to the time attack, in a drivetrain layout I had never ran, and to take a trophy home! As a matter of fact, Element Tuning came home undefeated from last year and came home again with the overall win as Phil ran a 1:29.x in Mod AWD and myself repeating his Street AWD win last year. As I found his winning time from last year, I was 6/100ths of a second off without the Hawk DTC70 race pads he ran previously. Knowing firsthand from Jetta cup data testing, braking was completely critical. With proper race pads, I’m confident I could shave atleast another second off my fastest lap time. But nonetheless, I was glad to be coming home with a win at my first Time Attack and helping out Element Tuning. If there’s some upcoming events nearby, there’s good possibility the WRX will make another appearance.
HUGE thanks go to Phil Grabow of Element Tuning for giving me the opportunity, Element Tuning’s sponsors, to the guys of Element who helped crew during the weekend, Ed Haney for the brakes, Subaru of America for contingency money, Mazda/UrbanRacer for putting on Formula X, Redline Time Attack for running the event, and to anyone else who I forgot – sorry. Also, sorry for such a long post.
Here are some quick pictures from this weekend courtesy of Jerry Nguyen. I will update this post with more media links in the future…
Here are some more pictures and time results from the weekend: