Jeff Lawton Earns 2010 NARRC Championship!


Anatomy of a Championship - by Jeff Lawton

I remember when I was 12 waking up at 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning to watch Formula 1; from that point on I always wanted to be a race car driver. Fast forward to six years ago; I remember sitting in the stands at NHMS watching some of the best ITA/ITS drivers in the country racing down into Turn 3. Nick, Andy, and Steve from FlatOut; the AutoTechnic BMWs; Greg A, Rick B, Tim K. Ray Lee, the Sheppard’s, Shane H -- and being mesmerized by how fast they were going!! I looked at these guys and thought I would NEVER be as fast as them...

Some may think this championship was a normal progression of car development and driver improvement. But this season was not only that but also a “coming out” as well. The driving, the attitude, and the control all clicked at once. No spins, no “offs”, one minor contact (sorry Tim!!), no drama (maybe I wasn’t driving fast enough??). I learned to drive Watkins Glen with no fear. Lime Rock, always my nemesis, became one of my stronger tracks. I drove a new track to within tenths of the track lap record. I made great tactical decisions. I stayed calm and fought back from poor position and multiple mechanical issues. While others suffered misfortune, I kept the car in great shape and "on the island".

But the speed was there too: Lime Rock Park is a short, momentum track more suited to the smaller, well-handling cars with wishbone suspensions; in the past there hasn’t been a MacPherson strut-equipped ITA car that has approached the speeds of the lap record-holding Miata. And yet, I was able to take the Mac-strut-equipped Saturn to a win at Lime Rock Park and beating the most-winning car there for the last couple of years...twice!!

But all was not perfect and rosy. I blew up my limited-slip differential while testing the first weekend in April. And as you can imagine, finding a replacement for a Saturn - a car that is built on a sea of one-off experiments - was not going to be easy. After weeks of searching for one in the States, I contacted Quaife in England who said they would fabricate a one-off for me, but ETA: who knows...? Price? Pricey! So as a band aid, Matt Kessler of Kessler Engineering removed the transmission (the first of four times during the season) and welded up the stock diff and re-installed it. A welded diff gives you great traction but is very, VERY difficult to drive around the paddock because one wheel is always dragging (and I don't have power steering) and there's always the fear of snapping an axle...anyway, I went into the first race of the season at Lime Rock having no idea how to drive the welded diff, plus I was using a different brand of tires...but while this mix had "disaster" written all over it worked out well and I beat one of the best CRXs in the country with it in our first race.

And the troubles weren't over. The second race weekend of the year was at New Hampshire Motor Speedway...where I proceeded to lose second gear...and had trouble with fourth as well. I managed to fight through the frustration with 4th- and 2nd-place finishes.

This frustration with the lack of reliability led to Matt and I deciding that the Saturn had to go at the end of the season. We also thought that if I could go fast in a Saturn, “maybe” I could be even faster in a better car...?

Watkins Glen was the next race weekend. I didn’t have a lot of experience there and its fast speeds and no room for error always made me hesitant. The first race I qualified 5th but finished 3rd. In the second race I moved into 2nd place on the start with 1st place within reach. But on Lap Two the brake pedal got soft. The next lap it got even softer yet I was still staying within reach of the leader. On the fourth lap I went into the Inner Loop (the first turn after the fastest part of the track), pushed on the brake pedal and it went all the way to the floor! I did a quick down shift and pumped the pedal a couple of times which slowed me enough to get through the corner (although a little sideways). I decided it was time to give up and pull in.

Later that night as I was unloading the car at Kessler’s shop, I looked down at the left front wheel and realized the stub axle was GONE!! Apparently the only thing keeping the wheel on the car was the caliper!! To this day, the thought of losing a wheel going up through the Esses at Watkins Glen makes me sick to my stomach. Not only the fact my car would have been destroyed but I could have easily taken other cars with me...

Next up was the Thunder track at New Jersey Motorsports Park. At this point I had given up on ever getting the Quaife differential from England but Steve Eckerich came to my rescue. He makes all the limited slips for one of the pro series and assured me (with a guarantee) that I would love the one he makes for me. So once again I was going into a race at a track I had never been to, with a limited slip I wasn’t sure how to drive. But all the fears were put aside by the third practice session when I was running within a couple of tenths of the track record. I managed to come away with a third and second place finish (behind the eventual 2nd-place finisher of the 2010 American Road Race of Champions). And yes, the new limited slip diff from Steve Eckerich was far better than anything I had ever used!! Steve is "The Man" when it comes to custom limited slips!!

Soon the season progressed to the last race of the season, the North Atlantic Road Racing Championship Runoffs at my old nemesis, Lime Rock Park. This is the biggest race of the season. Qualifying Day started with torrential down pours; parts of the track were under feet of water and there was a real possibility that qualifying for the day would be canceled. Although still raining at 2:00 PM they had removed enough water off the track to get cars out. I qualified third behind Shane Hawthorn in his CRX and Andy Bettencourt in his Miata.

At the start of the race I had a run up the inside on Shane but he moved over to block. I had to lift to try and get around him to the outside. This gave Tim Klvana a run up the inside and past both Shane and I and let Rick Benazic get up inside going through Turn 1. So I managed to go from third to fifth by the turn 1 exit...Andy checked out and I put my head down and picked the rest of my competitors throughout the race, ending up 2nd-place for the race...but first in the championship!

I had just won the NARRC championship.

In the six years since I watched some of the best in the country, I learned, I asked questions, and I observed. I spent hours reviewing data from the data acquisition system and hours watching video and yet it still humbles me that I might be considered a member of that group. It still boggles my mind that at every track I go to, people I’ve never met approach me to congratulate me, comment on the race, or the car, or the season or even ask advice. Yup, very flattering. And very humbling.

Again, many thanks to Kessler Engineering. Matt’s knowledge of set up, tuning, building, fabricating and getting the most out of a driver is unmatched.

Oh, and that idea about getting rid of the Saturn...? Yeah, well, we're keeping it.

See ya in 2011!