It's been a hell of an off-season. We'd ended 2008 with a reasonably fast car, finishing 5th out of 23 in both of the NASA National Champioship Qualifying Races and winning a lightly-attended season finale at Putnam Park, but we also knew that time doesn't stand still. Our rivals had every intention of building and developing new cars, so we rolled the Green Baron Motorsports #187 Performance Touring "E" Plymouth Neon into the warehouse last October intending to carry out a host of winter upgrades ranging from a new DOHC engine to a comprehensive shock-revalving.
And then my wife informed me that we were going to have our first child, and that we needed to get our act together for impending parenthood. And then she had an emergency, premature C-section on April 19th, delivering a three-pound little fellow who observed us patiently every day from behind the Lexan of an incubator. And the Neon sat alone in the warehouse, untouched, gathering dust and forgotten by the world.
While our competition posted on their blogs about "dyno days" and "tuning sessions", I sat in the infant care unit, reading Iain M. Banks books and occasionally hopping up out of my seat when little John forgot to breathe or experienced a "spell" of decreased heart rate. The Mid-Ohio season opener happened without us. After five weeks, my son was to the point where I could go racing without worrying that I would miss his last day on Earth... so racing we went.
Did I mention that our trailer had been stolen over the winter? And that we had nothing that really resembled a "tow vehicle"? It was with a heavy heart that I hooked up a surge-braked U-Haul to my new 2009 Ford Flex Limited, but the Flex actually was a towing superstar, cruising serenely at 75mph and returning 15.6 mpg for the mostly flat, 221-mile-in-each-direction pull.
Our Braille battery gave up the ghost and began smoking noxious fumes into the cockpit during practice, leading the NASA officials to declare that we would be prohibited from racing unless we could find another battery. Luckily for us, but unluckily for him, Spec 944 driver Eric Kuhns had an accident in qualifying (see above) where he was launched fifty feet in the air upside down, totaling the car but not damaging his Braille battery. Ever the sportsman, the battered but unbowed Kuhns agreed to rent us the battery for $20, and it was none the worse for wear.
We arrived to find our main rivals, former Honda Challenge superstar Eric Waddell and the two-Civic team of Faisal Ahmad's "Pakistan Express", reviewing their data from a long Friday test day. They had gotten faster over the winter. Considerably so. They had also made the change to Hoosier A6 autocross tires, which wore far quicker than our Toyo R888s but provided vastly superior grip. We had a "secret weapon" as well, a special barrel of zero-weight Quaker State racing oil that promised to add horsepower and decrease friction, but it wouldn't be enough to make up for the tuning work our comp had done. This would be a tough weekend... but then it started to rain.
We qualified third in a damp Q-session, two seconds behind Waddell and 1.5 seconds behind my former One Lap teammate Brian Makse in a Pakistan Express Civic. The rain was falling hard and fast as we gridded for the race, but with five minutes to go before the start, the sky cleared and the temperature soared.
Instantly the Pakistan Express cars went up on jacks and swapped their Hoosier rains for the Hoosier A6es. We were stuck on full-tread Toyo R888s. If you're an F1 fan, think of these as "intermediates". As long as the track was damp, we'd have a chance; once it turned dry, the tires would "go off" and we'd be four seconds a lap behind the Civics.
At the start, I pushed past Waddell for second. A massive, multi-car accident in Turn One sent spinning Miatas across the path of our race group. Brian Makse and I dived for the same shifting gap and made it through in fender-rubbing fashion. Entering Turn Four, he shoved me to the outside. I put a wheel off but held my place and outbraked him into Five. On the damp track, the power and grip advantage of the Civics was useless and I quickly pulled out a ten-second lead by pushing the Neon as hard as possible and entering every turn with a heavy, trail-braking slide.
Then the sun came out. On my radio, team co-owner Mark Mitias warned me: "He's six seconds back.... four seconds..." On the front straight, I saw Brian on my rear bumper. He moved over and simply motored by. Now second place was the maximum possible. Still, I kept him within sight, losing a second or two a lap. With eleven seconds in hand, Brian went into conservation mode. But wait! Another Miata collision forced Brian to put four wheels off! I flew by and now we had an eleven-second lead.
Sunday's race was dry and hot. We put used Hoosier R6 tires on and "short-fueled" our way into another third-place qualifying result, running so light that I fuel-starved in the last turn of the qualifying lap. At the start, I battled Waddell but couldn't keep second place. We were running just ahead of the fourth-place Miata when the car lost power and coasted to a halt. Our lack of winter preparation had caught up with us; there was an electrical fault somewhere and we couldn't trace it. Brian redeemed himself by winning the race and taking Pakistan Express to the season-points leadership. The weekend was over and we towed home in silence. But let the record show that, in my first race after the birth of my son, I carried the day, against all odds, in a slow car, in lousy conditions. It's what any kid would want his dad to do, and that's what I did.