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Road Atlanta Double SARRC

Note:  I pretty much finished this report Wednesday night, then on Thursday my buddy BJ sent a note that our mutual friend Randy Rabinowich of Circle Racing Wheels had been involved in a bad motorcycle wreck. It ends up he had his left leg amputated and is currently in ICU. News like that puts having a broken but fixable race car into perspective. Please keep Randy and his family in your thoughts.

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I already sent out the short version – “We came, we saw, we conquered (on Saturday), we wrecked (on Sunday)” – so I’ll just jump straight into the longer version.

Those of you that have been around me might remember I’m not one to wallow in self-pity and/or feel sorry for myself for very long. After the wreck on Sunday (July 17) Harriett felt comfortable enough to remove the straight-jacket on Monday afternoon and took me off suicide watch sometime Tuesday evening. We unloaded the car Wednesday night and while it’s still pretty much toast I’m no longer harboring thoughts of hanging up my helmet.

It rained Friday morning and the winds caught (and destroyed) my awning before I had time to tie it down, but after lunch my brother-of-different-parents Chris Ingle showed up and we did the two afternoon sessions. The first session was still damp and I felt good about getting into the high 1:33’s, then the second session was dry and we turned back-to-back 1:32.0’s. My best lap ever in a GTA car was a 1:30.6 (turned in much better conditions and on sticker tires during qualifying for the 2010 ARRC by GRM), so after Chris called out “1:32.0” I really bore down on the next lap. As I came across the line the radio said “1:33.5” and Chris wondered if I’d stopped at the Wendy’s drive-thru on the back straight. I was puzzled as well (I REALLY thought I’d nailed that lap) but on the cool-off I realized the RR tire was going down. By the time I made my way back to the pits it was completely flat, so that explained the drop off in speed. Over dinner that evening (perhaps more than once) I might have commented that it was nice I’d not forgotten how to drive since November. <g>

It was raining again Saturday morning so we didn’t bother to go out for qualifying. As my buddy Johnny Miller once said, “I’m not sending any rain tires with you – you’re not going to learn anything and my guys already know how to weld.” As a result we started from the ninth row of the twenty car field but had 15 laps to make it to the front. After getting passed on the pace lap by the black #53 we got a decent start, passed a couple of cars going into Turn One, and had a front row seat for the wreck started by the idiot in the black #53 and invovled Fletcher Williams, Casey Carden, and Mike Kelly as they went into Turn Five. I passed Ricky Sanders (red #19) going slowly on the back straight (the fuel pressure issues they had at VIR in May had resurfaced) to take the GTA lead, then as we started lap two I felt/heard the engine go off-song (we later found the #6 plug wire had fallen off). There was a bit of a fiasco when they went Full Course Yellow for the incident at Turn Five, but once we got the green again I was able to maintain my class lead. Chris was giving me lap times and the margin back to the second place GTA car (Preston Fowler – yellow #34), and since the overall leader (Zach Monette) had lapped Preston I took the checkered flag on pit road.

Sunday morning we qualified fourth overall, first in GTA at a 1:33.174. Ricky again came in early with fuel pressure problems, Preston was dealing with a slipping clutch, and Jim Matheson (red/white #95) had started his family vacation after finishing third in GTA on Saturday. We were still chasing an oil leak at the rear of the transmission and I had to go get race gas off site since the track’s pumps were not working, so we never really looked at anything else on the car other than making sure the plug wires were on tight.

At the green Richard Bridgette in his GT-1 got by me into Turn One (on the grid I had told his crew I wasn’t going to contest him since he’s in a different class), then a couple of laps later both Mike Kelly and Bob Monette got by in their GT-1 cars as well. That removed all the traffic between myself and the red #19 that kept getting bigger in my mirrors (they obviously had figured out the fuel pressure issues). I kept the gap about the same for the next two laps and figured we had legs on Ricky on the back straight, but I knew it was going to be tough to keep him behind me. As we started lap five Chris suggested I might want to “turn the wick up a bit.” Unfortunately, we never finished that lap.

At the time I had absolutely no idea what had happened. I was leading Ricky down through the Esses, braked at my normal spot and down-shifted to second for the left-handed Turn Five, then all of sudden the car went straight. It didn’t want to stop, it didn’t want to turn, and I had just enough time to think, “Oh sh!t, this is going to hurt.” I remember seeing the hood fly up as we crashed into the tire barrier, then I looked over to see a corner worker (Mike Henry, I think) and Ricky’s buddy Randy Hutchings asking me if I was okay. I radioed to Chris and Harriett that I’d had a bad wreck but was okay, then I shut everything down and started to get out. Once I dropped the window net everyone seemed to relax a bit.

After getting out I looked at both front brake rotors to see if one of them had broken (they hadn’t) and all four tires still had air. About that time the ambulance arrived so I waved to the crowd (both of them) and climbed in back for the trip to the Quack Shack. Everything there checked out (they talked about doing a brain scan and decided they wouldn’t find anything) so I hitched a ride back to our paddock spot and arrived about the same time Cuervo did. After checking in with Harriett & Chris (they never heard my radio transmission and only knew I was okay after hearing it on the P.A. – we’ve got a new procedure for that now, too) I went to Impound to apologize for shortening the race and also to talk to Ricky about what he saw. He said he was looking up the track ahead of me but remembered I hit the brakes, the car started to turn in, wiggled once, then shot off the right side of the track.

Don Drennon had a radar gun at the Turn Five flag station at the bottom of the Esses and said it showed 108 mph as Ricky and I went by. I downshift for that corner, so figure mid-range in second gear is between 80 and 90 mph. The car didn’t slow down much going through the gravel and certainly didn’t scrub off any speed flying through the air (Randy later said he could see the bottom of the car!) so let’s say I hit the tirewall at something north of 70 mph. The impact was enough to dislodge the tire bundle and move the concrete Jersey barrier back a couple of inches, so after a number of laps of full course yellow (plus another incident in Turn One involving the black #53 yet again) the stewards checkered the race early to allow the barrier to be rebuilt.

Turn Five communicator Rod Kramer said he thought the throttle stuck, but after looking things over its obvious the inner tie rod bolt on the right side either fell out or stripped out. That would make the heavily-loaded RF tire immediately go full lock to the right which would make the car go straight and render the brakes essentially useless. I also know that not once since November have I put a wrench on the steering assembly to check for tightness, so that bolt loosening up would also explain why we continued to get slower as the weekend progressed. In retrospect I also remember the front end “chattering” a couple of times in the downhill sweeper at Turn Four, and that could also be explained by the loosening tire rod bolt.

I realize in 2011 America I’m supposed to blame my mother for not breast-feeding me as an infant, my dad for not telling me he loved me enough, my brothers for not encouraging as a child, and/or any other number of people for imaginary failings that caused me to wreck. As much relief as that might grant me, however, I accept that the wreck was fully MY fault and we’ll implement procedures to keep it from happening again. From now on every time we jack the car up we’ll shake the wheels before taking the tires off and fix the cause of any play we might find before going back on track – that very simple step would have prevented this incident.

I’m too much of an engineer to claim the HANS device I use saved my life – the only way to test that is to have the same accident without it and I’m REALLY not ready to try that. I’m also aware there’s a great debate/argument about which H&N device is best and whether or not SCCA should be mandating their use starting in 2012, plus I acknowledge the almost straight-in impact is where the HANS device works best. All of that is static to me. What I BELIEVE is my using the HANS device is largely responsible for the fact I sustained zero injuries from a 70-80 mph head-on crash, and that I won’t get into a race car without one.

We haven’t gotten everything apart yet, but it appears all the damage is confined to the front part of the chassis. One of the benefits of using stock car components is these cars are designed to be fixed easily (they run into things a LOT at most circle tracks), so it looks like we’ll be able to weld on a new front clip, replace the bent/broken parts, and be back on track before the end of the year. That’s the current plan at least.

Yes, this past weekend was Cuervo’s first time back on track in eight months; yes, we went almost as fast as ever during Friday’s test day; yes, we won our class on Saturday despite running on seven cylinders; and yes, it was VERY frustrating to wreck the car while leading (barely) during Sunday’s race. Bottom line, however, is I know what caused the wreck (my fault entirely), I’m physically fine, the car can be repaired, and we’ll keep it from happening again.

Despite what Joe Hooker once told me (“If you want to amuse the racing gods plan your season in advance”), here are the POSSIBLE events remaining on our 2011 calendar: 

Dates

Track/Location

Reason

Aug 6-7

Daytona

Spectate and work

Aug 20-21

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Unless Harriett & I go to the Montreal Nationwide race

Sep 3-4

Barber Motorsports Park

Spectate and work, plus it’s “local”

Oct 7-9

SARRC Invitational

Spectate and work

Nov 4-6

ARRC by GRM at

  Road Atlanta

Biggest Club Racing event this side of the Runoffs

Nov 12-13

Time Trial at

  Roebling Road

Payoff of a campaign promise

Depending on how things go we might skip some of these events or we might add some others. As always, if you’d like more information about any of them just let me know.

See y’all at the track…