The American Road Race of Champions at Road Atlanta would be the first significant gathering of the newly created Formula B cars. A couple of the guys who helped draft the FB rules were promoting the gathering by arranging sponsors, prizes and tow money. The event had gained a big “buzz.” The emerging importance was not lost on the car builders and they put their best foot forward by putting “hired guns” in their driver’s seats. Only Matt Conrad of Phoenix Race Cars exercised any restraint, and chose to drive his car himself, Although 19 cars entered, only 13 made it to the grid. A lot of guys just didn’t have time to finish their cars.
Justin Pritchard, a multiple Runoffs winner in FF and FC would pilot the Piper car. ChampCar driver Tonis Kasemets would drive the South African built Speads car. Stohr Race Cars’ stable would include Cole Morgan, reining F2000 champion, JR Osborne the recent DSR Runoffs winner, Jean Luc Liverato who won the June sprints and 14 (!!!) nationals in 2007 in DSR, and Nick Bellings. I don’t really know anything about Nick, but he made the 36-hour tow from British Columbia. Lets color him a WARM shoe. The Osborne car was a special built one with narrow track and chimneys for exhaust management. In addition to the Pros, the field would include two drivers (Sean O’Connell and Jeremy Hill)/cars with a year of on track development. A lot of the pre race conjecture had them as front-runners.
Sean took his barely completed Jay Novak Van Diemen conversion to Atlanta with no expectations. Sean and I with the very able assist of Wayne Hayden had spent maybe 175 man-hours completing the building of the conversion. There were dozens of technical challenges. It would be the car’s first race ever and only Sean’s second race in 18 months. Sean would need considerable seat time to chase away the cobwebs. The car would likely have teething problems.
The track’s test day would be four 25-minute sessions for the “wing and things” group. They cut off entries at 60 cars, but that was way too many for the track. We got to the track early with a short list of things to do. It was COLD; in the thirties. Getting the vinyl graphics to stick was difficult (note: bring a hair dryer). A set of tires of unknown history were mounted and Sean buckled in. He didn’t like the adjustment of the shift linkage and we (Frank and I) set about changing it. Of course the access to the shift lever was difficult and it took several minutes. By the time Sean made it to the grid, the session was sitting in a black flag all state. He got in line and waited. They terminated the session. Not a very productive session for us.
Sean at least got on the racing surface in the second session. After 2 or 3 laps, there was the Black Flag all. As he coasted in, someone noticed a small fire. The fiberglass was too close to the exhaust and clearance was being dynamically and dramatically increased. A quick squirt of the fire bottle put the process to an end. When the session got going again, Sean joined them. We along pit lane would keep an eye out for flames. Again, they only got a couple of laps before the now dreaded Black Flag all.
The next two sessions and for that matter the two qualifying sessions the next day all kinda run together. Traffic was horrific on the track day and nearly as bad in qualifying with 44 cars in the group. As he gets to string a few laps together, Sean begins to worry about oil temperatures and pressure. With oil temps of 260 degrees, we were looking for more cooling but the oil pressure was more worrisome. Frank buys a small mechanical pressure gauge and we discover that the AIM sensor is likely reading low, maybe up to 10 psi. Some reassurance. It appears that we haven’t effectively bled the water system of trapped air. George Dean spends some time showing us how to do it. He is not too happy with the water swirl pod (Van Diemen stock part). With the system thoroughly bled, water temps are at a steady 180 degrees. Oil temp is now at 240, a bit high. A bigger oil cooler and some sidepod air management will be need for next season. Jeremy Hill, who runs a similar Van Diemen conversion and has run it in the heat of the Summer, has cut away the last 18 inches of so of his side pods to increase exit area while also increasing the intake width by a couple of inches. He also uses the stock VD water radiator in the left sidepod as an oil cooler. It is much bigger in area than the stock oil cooler. (Yea, yea we are concerned with subjecting it to a magnitude more of pressure.)
We pressure tested the water system at the end of the qualifying day. System appears to have a small leak and the pressure slowly leaks down. Sean had a “off” in turn one in the last qualifier, and there was an impressive volume to grass clippings to be removed from the left sidepod. Clamps that can be reached are tightened. As darkness closes in, Sean drives the car down for the group picture. As he brings the car back to his paddock space, it breaks water. Big gusher. Radiator has a gash/hole that apparently only opens fully with car is at full temperature and pressure. Fortunately, Jeremy has a spare radiator. A couple of nice guys from Texas, who have Novak conversions on order, helped installing the unholy radiator. Now it is quite dark and time to go to the FB party. Interestingly, Matt Conrad’s Phoenix had a switch fail at the photo shoot. Better there than raceday for both cars!
At this point, despite some worry about temperatures, the car has mechanically run flawlessly. Add gas, check chain adjustment, and tire pressures and go. And GO very fast at that! OK, add a little heat shield also. Adjustments were limited to air pressure, taking some camber out of the rear, and fully softening the rear swaybar to get more heat into the rear tires. Everything we tried seemed to help.
Sean decided to go with fresh tires for the race. He probably would have been wise to put them on before the last qualifier and he would have avoided Ben J. in the very wide Swift 018 FA. Sean spent 3 or 4 laps getting around him before the Black Flag all came out. Officials reverted the race two laps (Why? Our video confirms the 2+ laps), and Sean had to work for several laps to get by him again. Race went well. Sean finished 7th, and was the FIRST (or second depending upon how Nick is classified) of the non hired guns AND the FASTEST non-factory car. Not bad for a rusty old racer. With everyone’s attention on the hot shoes at the front, Sean’s accomplishment was pretty much under the radar. I think we like it that way. Next season, after the Pros have gone on to other things, it may be hard to hide.