This weekend was very interesting….to say the least. There was excitement, mayhem, disappointment, but most importantly: I had fun and it was a great experience.
It all started off on Thursday night. I had just came home to Baltimore the night before from visiting New York city, so I was a bit tired, but excited to about my first race. Since Josh lives so close to OG Racing, I asked him to get me an I/O Port camera mount and some nomex socks (which I found out later I didn’t need). Our good buddy at OG, Brian Hair, is an awesome guy to hang out with, knowledgeable on safety stuff and an excellent driver. He’ll be doing One Lap of America in the luxury sedan class with a 2007 BMW M5. Keep up to date with co-driver Brian and car owner Mark Simons, as they go around the US competing for top honors, here. Good luck to Brian, his father Woody Hair, Neil Simon, Mark Simon, Barry Battle, Robin Sparrow and others competing from the DC area! Ok, enough of the shameless plug.
After talking with Josh & Ross and getting some last minute tips, David Yi and I headed out on our 4 hour journey down to Virginia Int’l Raceway (VIR). Even though it’s illegal in Virginia, I always use my Valentine 1 radar detector, and oh did it work wonders. I saved myself from about 4 or 5 tickets. It seemed like there was a cop every 10 miles or so on 95 and then on Powhite toll parkway. Since there is no Sonic drive-in restaurant in the DC area, we had to stop by in Fredericksburg to pick up some tasty chili-cheese tots, slush drinks and burgers. After about 210+ miles, we finally reach our hotel in South Boston, about 25 minutes from the track. Me being the genius I am, waited til the week before to reserve a hotel. Since this weekend had Grand-Am, Speed World Challenge, our TDI series, Skip Barber, ST bike series, the fans, etc…needless to say, almost every hotel within a 30 minute radius was booked. We finally settled in the hotel and got some rest.
Friday morning, I had no idea what time I was supposed to be at the track, as I wasn’t there on Thursday for the track walk and other meeting…oops. Before Friday, I was frantically calling VW people & SCCA to find out the status of where my SCCA license is, only to find out that they have it waiting at registration at VIR. We head into the track and I see the huge VW hospitality tent that was the same at Phoenix testing. I walk around and everyone says, “we didn’t think you were gonna make it”. Haha, not a chance! The cars looked great as usual. I knew I was car #29, but it was cool to finally have my name on the car and I found out I had the silver Castrol sponsored car. I find out that we cannot use our own personal cameras as Go Pro cameras signed up to be the series sponsor as well as supplying every race car with a camera. I get geared up and we all get into the Jetta race cars for 9:55am practice, 30 minute session. On track, man these things are so much fun! VIR is a fantastic track and it feels even better with a race car (instead of my street car), especially going completely flat out up the up-hill esses. The first lap was sketchy, as everyone was trying to go too fast with cold Michelin slicks. A lot of spins, off tracks and slides. None the less, we all got a bit of seat time. There was too much traffic to get a good lap in. As usual, VW provided fantastic catering for lunch. Whenever he was available, we all tried to approach Jan Heylen about how to hit each corner the fastest, the proper gear, etc. In between all this, there was so much exposure from the media. The publicity was fantastic and I never got tired of doing random photoshoots and video interviews. We all got media ‘postcards’ to use for possible sponsorship opportunities, as well as for giving out to people to get our names out. We headed out again on track for a 2nd practice session. This session was cut short as car #24, of Noah Arundel, hit the tire wall pretty bad coming out of T5. It is a very unforgiving corner if you hit the dip wrong. It was a shocker to come around and see the car sideways on track, all banged up, smoke coming out and the tire wall moved far out on track. The impact was good enough for the airbag to deploy. Fortunately, the driver came out unhurt, but that would be it as there were no spare cars. The red flag meant we only got about 2 or 3 laps.
Once we were all done with practice, we all had a group photoshoot, had debriefing and were free to go. On the way back to our car, I noticed a familiar helmet as someone was putting it away in their Touareg. I noticed the name said, “Lehman Keen“. I immediately said, “Leh?” and sure enough, it was him. I’ve watched Leh’s videos before and I’ve somewhat kept up with his career, so it was pretty cool to meet him in person. You might be familiar with some of his videos of drifting around Roebling Road in a 500+ whp Supra and still winning overall time attack. Or, at Watkins Glen in a PCA race, while dominating everyone and setting new track record. After chatting up with him & his co-driver, Eric Lux, they headed out to go shoot guns.
David & I headed back to the paddock to see if the Bimmerworld guys were around. As we both own BMW’s and buy parts from BW, we have always supported them in Speed World Challenge. We hung out with one of the drivers, Seth Thomas, and a few of the crew guys. The BW crew was awesome and their E90 race cars are very cool. It was somewhat hilarious that our ‘amateur’ series had stickier tires than the pro Speed World Challenge series. I wished Seth good luck for his race the next day and then David and I headed out. It was funny, earlier in the day, someone came up to me and said my name. I turned around and saw a Mississippi State University hat and he mentioned that I had rode in his Subaru STi back at a Mississippi autox. I immediately remembered him, Brian Whitmire, and could not believe how random it was. Brian & some other MS State students were there that weekend for the Formula SAE international competition. It was about 2.5 years ago I rode in his STi at an autox in Columbus, MS, and I am also good friends with his co-driver in SCCA Solo2, Drew Boyles. It was very cool hanging out with guys who are from my hometown, especially since my father is still a professor at MSU. They had broken a spindle on their race car and were scouring around town to get another one. Starkville is such a small town that when we name dropped, we each knew atleast a few of the people. At this point, we headed out of the track and went to the city of Danville (about 15 minutes from the track) to watch Harold & Kumar: Guantanamo Bay. The first H & K was much better, in my opinion. Just like the small town I came from (Starkville, MS), a lot of the kids in town hang out with their cars in parking lots because there’s nothing to do. It was reminiscent of when I used to live in Starkville. We headed back to the hotel to catch some Z’s.
Saturday morning, I rushed to the track to go to the 10:30 driver’s meeting. Jan was wondering why we were not going up to him for help as he saw a huge disparity in lap times. After our meeting, we had more press obligations, including more media interviews and photoshoots. Todd, a manager from CDOC, had a contingency program for us. I happily obliged (sorry Brian & OG!). Around noon or so, we were already all geared up and started getting ready in the cars for the qualifying session at 1pm. As we were rolling out of the paddock, I saw another friend, Jon Felton, snapping pictures. Jon is the NASA Mid-Atlantic time trials director as well as organizer/instructor for Trackdaze. On the way to false grid, with my HANS connected and the RECARO seat, I couldn’t see to my left and I almost hit Jason Saini’s Mazda6 touring car…whoops! Jon caught up with me at false grid and wished me good luck in qualifying. As we only had 6 tires available for each race weekend, and 4 were used up, I opted to switch rear tires to the front for a little more grip.
This time on track, the drivers were much smarter about space management and we were allowed to come into the pits in order to get some more space. I had a few decent laps by myself, but went too hot into ‘hog pen’ (T17) and went into the dirt. I did a few more laps after that until the checkered. My AIM datalogger said I did a 2:15.98, but the official SCCA timing beacon stated a 2:16.09. I managed to qualify 15th out of 29 cars. Not too excited, but I did manage to improve my lap times by 2 seconds from practice on Friday. I’m sure the Grand-am rubber on the track helped as well. My roommate from Phoenix testing, Josh Hurley, managed to get pole position with a 2:14.3. Very quick. Soon after, I found the data engineer, Matthew, and we went over my data from qualifying compared to Josh’s lap. Our data was similar, but the key difference in him making 1.7 seconds over me was my braking. Josh had strong initial brake pressure and consistently got on throttle quicker. My braking pressure line was very jagged and not consistent. Because of that, I was overslowing the car and was slower out of each corner. Over a 3.27 mile course, he gained a few tenths every corner. I now knew exactly what to work on and felt better.
After qualifying was over, we had another driver debriefing. After we got out of the briefing, it was lunch time. I met some people that David was hanging out with. They turned out to be magazine editors/writers. I met a bunch of industry contacts, which is a very cool opportunity and a bonus of being part of this program. I hung out with Chris Neprasch (executive editor at Diesel World), James Tate (used to write for Sport Compact Car, now for Popular Mechanics) and Mike Sutton (Ward’s Automotive). We all sat around, ate and viewed the Speed World Challenge race. It was cool watching them on TV and then their loud exhausts in-sync when they passed our tent. It was a fantastic race and I was happy to see the Bimmerworld guys, Seth Thomas and James Clay, take podium! Seth put on such a good show and he did awesome, taking 2nd and a career best finish.
VW had a party at the hospitality tent and invited people from all over the paddock to hang out. I talked a bit with Dale Johnson, a crew member for the Speedsource Mazda RX-8, which had won the 24 Hours of Daytona earlier in the year. It was very interesting to hear about his stories and he seemed very enthusiastic about the Jetta TDI Cup. I headed over to the BW tent and gave Seth Thomas and James Clay congrats on their amazing finish. They really showed that the BMW’s were still competitive against Realtime’s Acuras. We headed out of the track to go back to Danville to watch another movie. This time, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Produced by Judd Apatow and pretty much most of the cast from Superbad/Knocked Up. Not as funny as Superbad, but it was still a decent flick. A heed of caution, be prepared for a lot of male nudity. Back to the hotel again, time to sleep in preparation for race day.
Finally, Sunday came. This was it, the big race day. We all had another driver meeting, this time at 10:45. After the meeting, we were free to do whatever for awhile. Since we didn’t have to be near the race cars til about 3pm, most of us either sat in the tent and watched the Grand-Am Rolex race on TV or saw it outside on track. Once again, I hung out with Chris Neprasch, James Tate, Mike Sutton, Patrick Saint-Pierre (public relations for Volkswagen Canada) and Keith Price (public relations for Volkswagen USA). Soon enough, it got time to head over to the tech shed and get ready. My zipper was being stupid on my uniform, so that wasn’t helping. James Kirkham and I were doing some pictures and he was asking if I was nervous. He told me when he did his first race, he was definitely shaking. I told him I was a little, but not enough where it was freaking me out. We were already prepped in our cars sitting on false grid, so none of us knew who had won the Grand-Am race and I’m sure none of us were really focused on that. For the race, I opted for my remaining fresh slicks to be on the front.
This is when I started feeling the butterflies a bit. I saw the 14 cars ahead of me on grid and knew it would be a tough battle. We all followed the pace car (one of which including the black beetle from the Das Auto commercials) in our respective columns (even numbered cars on the left, odd numbered on the right). We did one lap of that while we all warmed up our brakes & tires by swerving on our own half of the track. We did another lap, this time we all followed single file and did some more warming up on our cold slicks and brakes. We all lined up…this was it, the crucial launch. The red lights came on just like in Speed World Challenge. As soon as the lights went out, BOOM, I was gone, just like I practiced from my drag racing days. I immediately clicked the paddle shifter to 2nd and found some room in the middle between 3 time scca solo2 national champion #15 Ryan Buetzer and someone else. Coming hard into the braking zone, I was mere inches from either car left and right of me. What an incredible and scary feeling at the same time! I managed to make it out of T1 without any contact…good. We all flew around the next set of turns and then most of us settled single file for the flat out uphill esses. Around the 2nd or so lap, the Redbull #6 car of Andy Lee was on my tail. I wasn’t used to defending my position, so I left the inside open coming into the famous Oak Tree turn. I held the outside line and gave him room on the inside. We did a drag race down the back straight and at the braking zone, I didn’t want to chance it, so I let him take the space and tucked in right behind him. The next lap, it was a redo at Oak Tree. I had the better line and corner exit on him and he missed an upshift. I tucked in on the inside of him and we did another drag race down the straight. This time, I had the better line for ‘rollercoaster’ (T14-16) and braked deep enough where I took the position. He was on my tail hard for the next lap until the double yellows came out. For a 30 minute race, we only had 12 laps. Someone had crashed hard into the wall off of T5 and they had a flatbed setup. The pace car was out for about 3 laps and this really reduced our time out on track.
The restart was awesome and weird at the same time. Coming down the pit straight, I was behind #36 Michael DeNino (also from Maryland), but most of us were confused as we thought start/finish would wave the green flag. Instead, I saw a couple of guys pass on the left and I said screw it. I went full throttle as well and since there wasn’t enough room on the track, I went around DeNino on the grass and braked way deep into T1. I ended up passing around 3 cars and might have passed some more. The next lap, I went deep into T1 again, tried to put my nose in and gain another position. This time coming around T3 then to T4, I had a good run on a few cars and then on the only Mexican driver, #4 Juan Pablo Sierra Lendle. I braked hard on the outside of T4 and I had just enough room where I tucked in on the inside of him for T5, while still keeping it clean! At this point, I believe I was up to about 9th or 8th place. I was going flat out up the esses, but all of a sudden, when I went in for T10 (fast downhill sweeper), the back end got completely loose and when I tried to do a quick countersteer, I ended up FLYING off track and down the grass hill. Wow, what a rush! I was sliding fast downhill, kept hearing the loud banging of the suspension bottoming out and all I could think of was “please don’t roll over!” and “ok, there goes the whole field passing me by”. I managed to regain control, headed back on track and got back into the rhythm. I knew my race was done, but I would try and work my way up. With only a few laps left, I started seeing more cars on the side of the track and damaged parts scattered on the pavement. I got close to #14 David Richert on the front straight, but then the checkered flag dropped. I ended up finishing 22nd. Full race results here.
The end result was madness. 4 cars were pretty much destroyed and about 21 others all had damage. Myself and maybe 3 other cars had zero contact/damage. I was shocked at the amount of stupid driving shown today. I had corner flagged for NASA club races before and had never seen so much damage. There was even reports of guys banging each others cars on the straightaways! #20 Mark Pombo came out victorious, followed by #42 Derek Jones and #18 Jimmy Underhill. Congrats to those guys, they put up a helluva fight. After the award presentation by Tim Gnatiw of Dream Car Garage on SpeedTV and the speech by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and learning from VW USA CEO Stefan Jacoby that VW put $22 million into this program, we got a very stern talking to from the driving instructors. Mark Miller was furious at what he saw and rightfully so. It was the exact type of stuff that they had warned us they did not want to see. They mentioned that they would sit down, along with SCCA, to review all the footage and then assess penalties for MoSport. We immediately headed over to the tech tent to review the damaged cars and do our after race damage assessment sheets. For me, it was a victory to finish with an undamaged car! It was such a great experience and I was truly proud of myself for it being my first car race ever. I wish I hadn’t screwed up so I could’ve gotten some much needed points, but it’s ok. Hopefully the other drivers really step up and learn from this race about dirty racing, atleast, I know it will be a harsh reality check when they receive their invoice for damage/repair costs. In the end, I ended up with 3rd fastest race lap with 2:15.259. I knocked off another 7-8/10ths!
Like one of the VW guys said to me during the race weekend, “you gotta come in and have fun. Once you take it seriously, that’s when you get stressed out and do bad”. Very true. All in all, I learned a great deal from this weekend and was really glad to come out clean, while learning to use up whatever track is available and avoid hitting other cars. Watch for the race in maybe 2 weeks on Speed channel. I’ll be the one mid-race sliding sideways down the hill! I also noticed, I got my picture taken for the local Danville paper, as shown below.
I can’t wait for MoSport in about 3 weeks time. Until then, I will be traveling to Korea to visit relatives. Once I fly back to Baltimore, the next morning, I immediately fly out to Toronto. So, see you guys in Canada!
My picture in the Danville Register & Bee, courtesy of sports editor Drew Wilson
Here’s a quick youtube vid during qualifying between T3 & T4. I come in around 0:50.