June 2nd, 2010:
First Race in Spec Racer Ford at Grattan

I’ve never raced a Spec Racer Ford (SRF) before, I’ve never competed in an SCCA National Race, and I’ve never been racing for 4 days straight before. I figured, “What the hell… why not combine them?!” Really though, it sounded like an opportunity for a lot of track time surrounded (or at least behind) a bunch of great drivers. Day 1 was practice: 4, 20-minute sessions. My first impressions of the SRF vs. my (sort of) Improved Touring-A (ITA) Neon were: it turns better, it stops better, it goes better. The SRF is more predictable, but I’m not comfortable with the limits of the car yet. The only thing that will fix that is seat time.

Day 1 of the “Cheap Points Double National” event at Grattan Raceway was an open practice hosted by the track. I got 4 sessions in on a set of generously donated, well-used tires from my father-in-law, Glenn. The course has been compared to a rollercoaster for good reason. The elevation changes and cambered corners are even more enigmatic when approaching them from 16 inches lower than usual. It’s a fun course, but difficult to learn. My times improved throughout the day, but I still have a lot to improve upon.

Day 2 was the first official day of the event. The national event schedule was a little different than the regional routine I was used to. Instead of a qualifying session and race on each day, everything was spread out between 3 days. Additionally, the races were longer: 23 laps instead of the 15-or-so that you get for regional races. First up: practice qualifying. My times were unspectacular, but I focused on getting to know my car. Ambient temps were already approaching 80 degrees and driving the SRF is a workout: manual steering, manual brakes and a whole lot more g-forces than I’m used to. The car feels directly tied to the course… un-buffered.

That afternoon, I got my first experience with brand new Goodyear tires during qualifying. The car was completely different. The limits were extended and it became even more predictable. It was able to hold off-camber turns much more confidently and I was more comfortable exiting corners, aiming the car and flooring the gas pedal. My times continued to improve, qualifying within a couple seconds of a more experience driver and ahead of another driver. After the session, Glenn, Gina and I inspected the steering rack and decided there was a little too much lash in the wheel movement so they helped me replace my steering rack with one of Glenn’s spares. The cockpit of the car is cramped, especially for somebody with my frame: 6′ 2″, 260 lbs. Moving the shifter further outboard helped a bit, but I continued to have trouble toe-heeling the pedals. Moving the gas pedal back a bit helped some, but I made sure to offset it further after I got home. Grattan always has a great dinner at the end of the race day. Though we got to the food a little late, what was left was still pretty tasty.

Day 3, Sunday. My first national race and I was nervous, but not as much as I would have thought. The temperature was peaking in the mid-80s and another driver gave Glenn and I zip-lock bags to fill with ice and place on our chests inside of our suits… and it worked very well. I had a great start and was moving along well during my laps. However, I was trying too hard to stay out of the more experienced drivers instead of staying on the racing line when they approached. Doing this allowed the driver behind me to catch up to me 3/4 through the race and pass me briefly. After I made a clean re-pass, he cut to the inside of a tight, technical corner. Instead of tracking out and recovering on the exit of the turn, he locked up his brakes, turned his wheels hard to the right… and spun out right in front of me. I t-boned his car at low speed… low enough to do no damage to his car, but crush my radiator and front fiberglass. My first race was over. I limped my car back to pit lane, carefully avoiding the racing line in case I was spilling fluid. Glenn and Gina helped me replace the radiator with Glenn’s spare and tape up the fiberglass. Repairs went smoothly and I was back in action for qualifying later that afternoon… though due to a scheduling mix-up I went out on my practice tires… oops…

The final day of the event promised changing weather: lightning, thunder, rain and… surprisingly… sunlight and a dry track in time for our race! Though a few rain drops fell before the end of our race, it was called early because of lightning strikes nearby. My times were o.k., but I was more focused on following the advice of some of the other drivers I spoke to that morning: slow down and figure out the car and track, then gradually speed up. I was spending so much time during the weekend trying to go fast, that I wasn’t thinking about how I was going to get there. While on track, I mentally broke it down into 3 sections and worked on smoothing out the corners in each one. This approach yielded my best times of the weekend as well as a better understanding of how the corners worked together in each section.

I had a great time. It was a lot of work, but just as much fun. We’ll return to Grattan in August. I’ll have a little more experience with the SRF by then and I’m looking forward to seeing what I’m able to do next time.

- Duane