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Sebring 2010 - Checking One Off the Bucket List

Sorry to be so long in getting this out, but on the Monday after the Feb 20-21 SARRC weekend at Sebring, Harriett & I had to fly out for a week in St. Martin. I know, I know – it’s a tough job but SOMEbody has to do it! <g>

Short story on the race weekend: We survived the experience, we earned 13 SARRC points (coming in sixth of twelve GTA cars), Cuervo’s still in one piece, and we learned some valuable lessons about the care and feeding of brakes. I’ve also now run the historic 12-Hour course configuration at Sebring and I’ve gained a LOT of admiration for the cars (and drivers) than can withstand twelve hours of that abuse. 

And, as always, the longer story:

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Although we ran the NASA Time Trial event at Road Atlanta last December, the Feb 20-21 weekend at Sebring International Raceway would be our first wheel-to-wheel competition event since my short weekend (wrecked on the first corner of the first lap) last August at Mid-Ohio. Working with BJ Holley in Jackson, GA (404-379-9200), the BK Racing crew had rebuilt the right front suspension, replaced the nose and RF fender, and finished a lot of the piddling maintenance items that never seem to get done when you’re busy thrashing in the middle of the racing season.

It was 25 degrees when Data (Eric Bartel) and I pulled out of Woodstock at 7:00 Thursday (2/18) morning, and it was 65 when we arrived at the track around 5:00 that afternoon. I had never run the full 3.7 mile course at Sebring, so we signed up for Friday’s test day, unloaded everything, set up our paddock spot, and prepped Cuervo for the next day. We had to re-learn some of our procedures as we knocked off six months of rust, but that’s the value of using checklists – at least we could figure out what we were forgetting! Around dark we stopped to talk to the Kansas Tornadoes (it was NINE degrees when they left their shops outside Kansas City!), then repaired to Lake Placid Pizza Hut for dinner and adult beverages. I also called Harriett and it was (again) below freezing in Atlanta. 

We ran three for the four sessions offered on Friday and improved from laps in the 2:30s to consistent 2:20s in the late afternoon. We were running the same gears we use at Road Atlanta and (after figuring out that the track is run clockwise) I was getting fourth gear at five different places on the track, each of which was followed by second or first gear corners – lots of speeding up and lots of slowing down. As we were checking things after the last session we noticed the pads that were new at Mid-Ohio (two sessions there and two sessions in December at Road Atlanta) were just about shot. I’d been told that Sebring was hard on brakes, and now I knew what folks were talking about! We didn’t have a fresh set of pads with us (yet another casualty of it being our first race in six months) so I made the management level decision to qualify with the current pads and then piece together a replacement set of pads from the best of the used pads that were in the trailer. NOT the best decision in the long run.

With sticker tires on Saturday we improved to a 2:18.634 in qualifying, which was good for fifth of 12 in GTA and eleventh of the 30 cars in the field. Ron Keith and Randy Walker were both in the 2:15s and Jay Marshall was at a 2:17.2 so I figured I didn’t have anything for them, but Tommy “Hollywood” Graham was just in front of me at a 2:18.409. It was a 30-minute race, so my plan was to hang as close as I could to Hollywood for the first fifteen minutes and then see if I had anything left in the second half of the race. I also spent some time talking to my buddy Bill McGavic about running Sebring. Bill does a lot of instruction at Sebring and held the GT-3 record there for a while, so when he pointed out that I was early apexing a lot of corners I paid attention. He also offered a different approach to Turn 17 (aka – “Sunset Bend”) than I had been using, and based on that I thought we had a decent shot at getting faster during the race. 

At the green flag the twelfth place car (Doug Wilson’s STO BMW) got by as traffic stacked up into the first corner. In keeping with my new conservative approach I stayed behind him until we got to the 160 mph back straight, drove around him, then lined up for my new approach into Sunset Bend – and almost didn’t get stopped! Thinking the new approach was messing me up I gathered things back up (as Doug re-passed me) and followed him closely through the next half lap.  I got another run out of Turn 5 and got alongside him heading into the braking zone (at 150 mph) for the Safety Pin, jumped on the brakes where I had been hitting them all weekend – and the car was all over the place! I had a major tank-slapper, (barely) managed to NOT hit Doug, and finally slid sideways to a stop in the runoff area. I wasn’t DFL (dead frigging last) by the time I got the engine restarted and rejoined the race, but I was pretty damn close. I got on the radio and explained to the crew that I had wanted to start from the back anyway because that would give me more practice passing people (i.e. – “I meant to do that”). No, they didn’t believe me either…

Shortly after I rejoined the track went full course yellow while the safety crews towed a disabled car from a dangerous position, so that helped me close up to the back of the pack. I picked off about eight cars in the next couple of laps after the restart, then pretty much had a solo run from lap six to the end. I ended up the last car on the lead lap, sixth in GTA, fourteenth overall, and my best race lap was a 2:22.963 – 4.5 seconds off where we’d qualified. Granted the car was in one piece (always a good thing) but I was pretty disappointed in my performance. My first thought, of course, was that I’d somehow forgotten how to drive between qualifying and the race and it wasn’t until the ride home on Sunday that I figured out what had happened. 

Somehow it had slipped my mind that we’d changed brake pads. Traffic was heavy the first half lap of the race, so my first attempt at threshold braking was the first run into Sunset Bend (where I almost didn’t get stopped). In the heat of battle I attributed that to altering my entry, but then the second opportunity for threshold braking was trying to beat Doug into the Safety Pin. While replaying the race in my mind I realized that for the rest of the race, even though I was driving pretty hard, I was hitting the brakes a good two markers prior to where I had been earlier. I didn’t think about it at the time, but obviously the car simply wouldn’t stop! Bottom line is I’ve already ordered new pads from CarboTech and we’ll ALWAYS have a spare set of new pads in the trailer going forward.

Besides Data and Michelle we were joined by Mike Eakin and Janice (Mr. & Mrs. Purple Frog) for the weekend, plus on Saturday my cousin Sandra, her husband Mike, and their son Jacob all came down from Lakeland to watch. It was Sandra & Mike’s first experience with road racing and we’re already talking about them coming to see us at Daytona in August. And besides having (re)learned about the care and feeding of brakes, we also learned that you need to be patient if you’re going to eat at Cowboy’s in Sebring on a Saturday night – I believe there are some folks that are STILL waiting on a table two weeks later! 

Cuervo is still in one piece, so our next event is the Track Trials at Little Talladega the weekend of April 17 & 18. The new format of the SEDiv Track Trials program is great for testing and also for two-driver cars, so if you’re interested in sharing a 500 hp GTA car that weekend let me know and we’ll work out a deal.

See y’all at the track…