Where the Boys Are
The two Florida Nationals at Sebring and West Palm Beach (Moroso) are a week apart beginning the weekend after New Years. Florida has a lot of racers and many others in the eastern half of the country escape there to play and bag some early National points and to enjoy some warm weather. I began planning for the adventure soon after returning from the Runoffs.
My car would be sporting some post Runoffs improvements. I had fitted four piston Wilwood front brake calipers in hopes of eliminating chronic hot day brake fading. I had also added additional caliper cooling ducts. Sebring is infamous for being horrid on brakes and tires. I had ordered a new ("good for 2 HP") muffler from Omni-Fab but it got delayed in shipping. I repaired several fiberglass cracks, but yet again resisted the urge to respray the entire car.
Kathy, still doing "day prison" and not able to vacate for my 11 day adventure, baked me two batches of cookies and sent me off. I somehow convinced Brian Little to join me at Sebring as crew. His car is in the midst of off-season renovations. I rendezvous with him at the Lumberton, NC I95 exit about 4 hours into the 13 hour, 850-mile drive to Sebring. Since we both have been racing since the 1960's, there were plenty of stories to fill the road time. Neither of us had been to Sebring before and finding our Hotel was a challenge. We stayed at the Kenilworth Lodge, a 1920's era "resort" hotel. By today's standards, the rooms were small, the room air conditioner noisy, and the plumbing quaint. It is a neat place to stay, however, and it is near the track. The track was a short ride up an orange grove lined side street. It is flat, sandy and VERY FLAT. Panoz has owned the track for a couple of years now, and improvements are in progress including a motel.
Bob Urso had saved us a pit spot among the DSR gathering. The paddock is huge and space is not a problem; it has been a long time since I have been at a track when this was true. The DSR field numbered 13, the most cars at a race, outside the runoffs, that I have ever witnessed. This was gonna be fun.
Sebring, at present has primitive facilities: no gas pumps, electrical or water hookups, no snack bars and a couple of cinderblock, pee against the wall restrooms. Beware of those little ants, they bite like hell.
Sebring mornings, at least the ones while I was there, were shrouded in fog, dew and 100% humidity. It took several hours to burn off. I went out for the first session in the fog to bed in the new brake pads. I did a couple of laps and came in to let them cure. I had bought the SportsCarGT computer game because it had the Sebring course. Unfortunately it used the real 3.7 course while we would be using the 1.7-mile "club" configuration. My computer ride had a lot more GRIP than my DSR. I had a lot to learn to be able to drive this course at any speed. There were over 150 cars signed up for practice day, and with 3 groups, the 1.7-mile course was choked with cars. It was gonna be hard to learn where the track went, braking and shifting points or anything. In two laps, I probably passed 10 cars and got passed by several. Sebring can be characterized as two long straights followed by very slow corners (the hairpin is ridiculously slow and tight), a couple of insignificant 90 degree turns and lots of sand and concrete walls to ruin your day. At two or three laps into my session, I was in the middle of turn 2 where you are doing about 120 mph and are under full side loading as the track turns left. The pit entrance is on the right before track out. The formula car (FF or FV) directly in front of me apparently decided he wanted to go into the pits mid corner (and much too late to have any chance to make it). He slammed on his brakes turned right, got very squirrely. I hit him in the rear wheel. Hard.
Damage was extensive as the right side wheel got folded under the car. The monocoque front subframe was bent and torn, 3 of 4 front wishbones, mounting brackets, rod ends, sway bar links, radiator, radiator subframe, nose fiberglass, splitter were trashed. One shock was broken and the other bent. Brian and I spent the next 8 hours removing the broken parts and starting the reassembly. Joe Stomola was at the track with his Penske Shock service truck and took my shocks off for repair and rebuilding. I had spares to replace the rest of the stuff (except for my new caliper cooling ducts, which, of course, got destroyed). Replacing the tub front bulkhead was tedious and time consuming. We stopped working at dark, but were thoroughly exhausted at least two hours earlier. Let's see, $200 practice day fee, 3 or 4 laps and a pile of broken parts. Not off to good start.
We returned to the track early Saturday to continue repairs. We finished alignment about 11 AM, missing the morning practice, and rolled the car off for its annual technical inspection. That spare nose section and splitter that had been riding in my trailer for 3 years would finally get used. With the repairs to evaluate, brake bias to set, course to learn I elected to start last for the sole qualifying session. There were 24 cars in our CSR, DSR, S200 group. I had too much front brake bias and was locking them up often. I did about 15 laps in the session, including an extra one since I had no idea where the checker was shown (a spot well to the right of where you are looking when driving hard). I had a chat with an annoyed steward. The car was understeering a lot the last few laps and I thought I had overheated the far from fresh tires. Turns out the rear sway bar link had sheared off its mounting bolt. I was surprised to find out that I had qualified 3rd in DSR and 9th overall with a lap time less than 2 seconds off the lap record. Ed Dickinson had the DSR pole and Dick Colburn was second. I had beaten both of the new Radial DSRs, but one had to retire with a broken tranny. Things were looking up.
Chip Haddock and Tony Blanco hosted a great DSR party Saturday night. They brought in food, a keg of good German beer, and much wine, beer and other spirits and cigars. I limited my input to 3 beers, but Brian took up our slack. I managed to drag him back to the motel at about 10:30 but not before he hugged everyone at least once. Great party. Many looked a little under the weather the next morning.
Race day began with a delay while SCCA waited for the fog to clear. Ed's fog, I think, lasted a bit longer. I started my motor at the two-minute mark on the false grid. It quit running just before the beginning of the parade lap. I got it restarted but was forced to start at the rear of the field. The field was strung out and I was still exiting the hairpin when the green flag fell (I was still a turn away at that point). I had played the SportsCarGT game by starting at the end of a pack of about 15 cars, and it was extremely difficult to get aggressively around the pack without getting hit or turned into. It immediately occurred to me that this race was going to be just like the game. I got very busy passing cars and charging hard. Real racecars give you a lot more room that the game opponents. By lap 4, I was up to 6th overall and within 50 feet of eventual DSR winner Tom Robinson in his Radical. Having to drive inside of cars entering corners, I was using the apex curbs often. It is the fast line in the game. Unfortunately, this doesn't work in the real world and I bent a front wishbone on the turn 6 curb. The car had outrageous toe out and has an acute desire to turn right. I had to retire. Ed Dickinson was a rocket in the race, set a new lap record, but eventually ate his drive belt (his Achilles heal) and DNF. Several others (Urso and Newcomb included) gave out of brakes before the 27-lap race was done and retired.
I was now out of spare suspension parts and would have to forego going to the Moroso the next weekend. Bummer. I entertained myself on the long ride home making up mental list of parts I would have to order. I arrived home at dawn in time to have breakfast with Kathy. After the 1700 mile tow for the race weekend, I am wasted. It was shorts and T-shirt 80-degree weather in Florida which was nice to visit considering it was 16 degrees when I departed for my "adventure." I could be talked into going again although I think Sebring will be at the bottom of my list of fun racecourses. Am already looking forward to a big DSR gathering at Savannah in March.