ARRC 2003!!!

We attended the ARRC Runoffs at Road Atlanta this past weekend, the unofficial national championship for Improved Touring cars.

Talk about your highs and lows!

The adventure started well in advance of the trip itself, as Matt Kessler spent the prior two weeks busting his ass on the car. We were mostly prepared for the event chassis-wise, as our development and tuning were completed subsequent to the prior event. However, realizing that Road Atlanta has two very long straights, and that our main competition had engines of a rumored up to 240 crank horsepower, we decided to step up the engine program and build a new one for the ARRC.

Matt pretty much got up early and stayed up late for two weeks prior to our departure, sorting through disassembled engines for key parts and doing all the machine and assembly work needed to build a top-shelf SR20DE IT engine. Nissan Motorsports and FedEx provided the remainder of the necessary components (relying heavily on my MasterCard) and the final assembly was completed the Friday before our scheduled Tuesday departure. Installation was complete on Saturday, chassis setup was done on Sunday, and the car terrorized the streets for a few hours on Monday while Matt broke in the engine (the car is still registered and insured, believe it or not). It was quite entertaining listening to the little rocket ship pulling up to 7800 RPM around the industrial neighborhood for an hour...

Tuesday afternoon we met up the group and headed south as a caravan towards Atlanta. The "NE Caravan" drove straight through the rainy, drizzly, foggy night down the East Coast. We made a stop in Greensboro to meet up with the infamous Kirk Knestis (that's him, second from the left) then continued south, arriving at Road Atlanta bleary-eyed and irritated at 1:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon. There were no major damages or failures except to Ray's Ford's ECU module, which decided to crap out exactly 2.7 miles from the interstate exit for Road Atlanta. Go figure. It was a fine thing that it didn't happen in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere North Carolina... Unfortunately, right when they opened the track for arrivals at 5:00 PM the skies erupted and it began to pour on us. Most everyone got into their paddock spot and departed; I, on the other hand, decided I *had* to get the overhead canopy up and in the process of putting it together got both Matt and I soaked. Hey, I drove all night; can't expect to be too bright on no sleep, right...?

Thursday was a scheduled Road Atlanta test session, four half-hour sessions. The goal for the day was to evaluate the new Hoosier S04 tires and adjust our chassis setup to suit the new tires and an effectively new-to-me track, plus finish the engine break-in with a lot of power changes. Right as we arrived a fellow walks up and introduces himself: Tim Rogers! Tim and I had exchanged emails in the past in regards to our Nissan cars, plus he had gotten photos for me when I was seriously considering buying Joe Hermes’ Touring car early this year; it was a pleasure to finally meet him and we invited him to join us. As you'll see, I'm damn glad we did...

The overnight rain had stopped but the track was still damp and cool, and the new tires, while gumballs, were still cold as well. I drove out the first lap, working to heat up the tires while consistently throttling up and down. The car started to stick a lot better but I was still driving VERY conservatively. I passed by the pits, still working the engine, and turned into Turn One. Without warning the back end of the car swung out; even with full and immediate opposite lock the car refused to comply. Seeing the wall approaching at an oblique angle I straightened out the wheel back into it and waited for the whomp as I yelled "Aw, fudgesicles!" The resultant hit wasn't *too* bad, but I certainly noticed it and the flying Georgia clay. After putting it back into gear and driving away I noted that the rear hatch was still latched and there was no visible damage from the pilot’s seat; fortunately that area of the track is protected by tire stacks fronted with a large rubber mat. A quick pull into the pits showed only cosmetic damage so Matt told me to go back out.

As I pulled gingerly back onto the course I continued to work up the heat on the tires while running the engine up and down, never exceeding 7000 RPM (redline = 7800). During the fourth lap I went into Turn 7, the one preceding the longest straight, and I approached the corner with gusto, looking to grab second gear and make a couple of full-redline full-power runs to the Bridge Turn. As I braked hard into Turn 7 and rolled onto the throttle I felt a loud but muted "BRROOOOPP - BOOOP!" and the car shook violently. The drive wheels locked up and smoke poured into the car. I put in the clutch and brake and rolled to a stop outside Turn 7 out of the way. After unsuccessfully trying to contact Matt on the radio a couple of times I shut down the car and got out; it looked fine overall but it was obviously a Bad Thing: coolant and oil were pouring out of the nose of the NX and there was a horrible smell of oil permeating the area. Making sure there was no fire I opened the hood, signaled "safe" and "flat tow" to the corner worked across the track, and jumped across the concrete barriers. They black-flagged the session. A corner worker walked across the track to me and said (in that wonderful Georgian accent), "I don't think this is too good; there's a small pile of metal parts on the track back there where y'all locked up your brakes." I asked her to gather up those parts for me, and as I watched the wrecker pull the car up onto the flatbed she came up to me with a large fire glove filled with pieces of aluminum engine block, mangled rod bolts, and a very, very damaged #3 rod. Yep, you're right, honey: this ain't too good...

Matt and Tim met me at the paddock space as the wrecker pulled in and I jumped out and showed them the pile of "not good" parts sitting on the flatbed, still too hot to touch. Matt was obviously disappointed but immediately got to business: he directed the unloading of the car off the wrecker and into our paddock space. We opened the hood and saw the baseball-sized matching hole in the front of the block. By the time I was out of my monkey suit Matt was already removing parts from the engine compartment. To my pleasant surprise, Tim was RIGHT THERE helping him and I felt it was best just to stay out of their way for the moment.

Fade to last week: When Matt and I were loading up the truck back home we looked at the old engine we had just removed from the car and thought about leaving it sitting on the floor in the shop. We figured that nothing was going to happen, and neither of us would have the motivation to change an engine at the track, so why bring the temptation along?  Matt built this engine RIGHT and we were 100% confident that there was no reason for a backup plan. However, we both looked at each other and realized how stupid we'd feel if something went wrong during the test day and we had just driven 1000 miles to be spectators at an SCCA Regional race. Besides, we figured if we brought it, we wouldn't need it, right? And we had the space and carrying capacity in the 1-ton van, so...why not?

Why not indeed; what a damn fine decision that was. I started a “to buy” list while Matt contemplated the meaning of life. After taking stock of what we’d need to swap over the engine (we not only had to swap the long blocks but camshafts and all external parts as well as the oil pan) Matt gave me a laundry list of gaskets, filters, fluids, and parts we’d need. To our dismay, we also noted that the departing rod had seriously dented the header and holed the Nissan Motorsports radiator. Tim made some phone calls to help find a replacement radiator; finding no reasonable replacement he turned to us and offered his radiator and header off his car sitting in his garage back home. To top it off he even offered use of his engine hoist!

Bidding Matt farewell for about the millionth time (“…are you SURE there’s nothing else you need?”), Tim and I departed in my van to gather all the stuff Matt would need. Between Tim’s house (neat garage!), the local Nissan dealership, and three other parts stores we were able to get everything corralled and returned to the track within about 3 hours. Matt had the engine stripped and hanging on the mounts with the camshafts already swapped over, ready to go. Tim, without hesitation, jumped right in there with Matt and they had the engine on the ground within 10 minutes. I took on the role of go-fer, making sure they both had the tools, parts, food, and drinks to be reasonably happy.

Due to the efforts of those two guys (and several parts store trips) the engine was installed, running, and tuned by 6:30 PM that night. An absolutely incredible feat, worthy of the round of applause they received from onlookers. It was right about that point I realized how crucial my contribution had to be for the next two days: I realized that no matter what I did I just could not suck, that at the very least I had to give it 100% to justify the time and effort from these guys. I took the time to walk the track that night to make sure I understood every nuance of the new layout and to absorb everything I could.

On a side note, we won’t know for sure exactly what caused this failure until we’ve done a full inspection, but it appears in casual post-mortem inspection that we had a catastrophic rod bolt failure. There is clear visual evidence that it was a fatigue failure initiated at a possible cracked area on the threaded portion of the bolt, with about 4-6 major cycles before it finally let go; there is no way that I could have felt this in time to prevent it. If found to be the cause, this is most likely some kind of manufacturing defect that would have been impossible to detect short of Magnafluxing every bolt prior to installation, and then still unlikely to be found. We used stock Nissan rod bolts from the SR20DET engine, having been told they were more than sufficient for the task at hand. Matt will disassemble the engine to determine direct cause, and we may even send the bolt out for metallurgical inspection.

Friday morning dawned sunny and cool. The track was clean from the testing the day before and we were ready to go early. I had asked for the rear spring rates to be swapped out for significantly softer ones, as I would not have the time to “sneak up” on our typical setup (which, as you noted above, is fast but can be a hoary bitch for the unprepared). I needed a car that was predictable and consistently understeering so I could attack the course to get some good qualifying times. Matt and Tim had the springs swapped and the car re-aligned in 30 minutes, max.

The day’s first qualifying session went very well, with my being able to really grab the car by the scruff of the neck and toss it around the course. Our times were not particularly bad, but they were not as good as I’d liked. I was still learning the course and was still a bit concerned given yesterday’s spin and blowup. The second session I developed more trust in the car and lowered our lap times, really beginning to use the new Hoosiers to good effect (awesome tires, by the way.) We qualified 18th of 29th, as I recall, far in advance of other similar cars, but also far in arrears of the class-dominating BMWs. Our goal for the following day was to “not suck” and to finish in the top half of the field. I knew that between my improving familiarity of the track and my history of always going faster in the race versus qualifying that I had a decent chance of a top-10 finish, fate willing.

Race Day was cooler and sunny. Our warm-up session went well, with my having dropped an additional half-second off my best lap time. After the spring swap we had made no changes to the car, as our Lime Rock setup seemed to work perfectly. Matt and Tim attacked a minor engine oil leak and rotated the tires, we bled the brakes for good measure to make the driver feel better, but other than that we were ready to go well in advance of the race. Lunch, drinks, and a lot of time to watch other races (the Spec Miata and ITA races being the best ones…) Soon it was our time to go and I jumped into the car. My nervous meter was climbing but I didn’t have much pressure other than to finish. I knew the butterflies would go away the minute I released the clutch from the false grid so I spent the remaining time trying to relax and taking stock of what was in store.

The pace lap showed the car was in great shape and I made special effort to get the tires warmed up. Lining up two-by-two we came under the bridge and I was full-throttle when the green flag dropped. By the time we got to the top of the hill past One I had passed at least 4-5 cars on the outside of the turns and by going over curbs, and I could see more than a few shocked glances as the little red rocket past some guys playing grandma behind other cars.

The race itself went fairly straightforward except for a few metal-to-metal contacts. Two of those were side-to-side contacts as other cars were driven wide in the corners and then came back to take their lines only to find a little red car filling in the cavernous voids they left. Two more came from the little red car flying out of the exits of the corners with throttle flat to the floor, expecting the higher-horsepower cars in front of him to get on it and go; for whatever reason they didn’t and were rewarded with red marks on their rear bumpers. The NX took these beatings very well, with only a slightly-creased quarter panel and scuffmarks on the front bumper.

The only other odd thing was that I was chasing a 240SX on the last lap, trying to take him for 11th place. I could get right on his butt under braking and in the corners, but he’d get straightened up out of the corners and leave me hanging in the breeze. As we came under the start/finish I saw the “1” board being displayed and I called over the radio to verify it was the last lap, and I got an affirmative response. At this point I was so close to the S14 I swore I tapped him, and coming out of Turn 7 I had him in my sights. Going down the back straight I never got more than 6 inches from him and we were flyin’! I tried to outbrake him into 10A but couldn’t make it stick, but I took a super line through the bridge turn and stayed on his butt under the flagstand, so close I couldn’t see anything else but 240SX, and disappointed because I had a head of steam and would have easily gotten him into Turn One but for the lack of ONE MORE LAP. As we went under the flag stand (which I never saw) I lifted off the throttle and pulled aside from him to get airflow through the radiator. Tim immediately came on the radio and said, “You did not take the checkered flag, the race is not over, you did not get the checkered!” Agh! Back on the throttle, back on the line, and I carried so much speed through Turn One that I was back on his butt halfway through the lap. No matter, as that lap ended the same as the first, with me 6 inches off his bumper under the checkered flag (which I glanced up to see this time.)

During the cool down lap an E36 BMW, one of the ones whose void I filled, came alongside and gestured hands-up, but nothing else came of it. I entered the pits with a big smile on my face, pleased with our performance, and finding out I had lopped off over 2 seconds from our best lap. I got called to the tower to talk to the stews about the front-to-back hits but after a discussion and verbal reprimand I was released and walked back to the paddock. The E36 driver walked into our paddock afterwards to complain about the side hit, but no penalties came of it and I’ve got video to share with him when I get his contact info.

We were pleased with our performance and glad that we were able to drive it up onto the trailer under its own power. After changing out the radiator to yet ANOTHER one borrowed from Tim for the trip (so we could give him his NisMo one back immediately) we packed up the truck and trailer and headed home to CT. The caravan stopped for dinner and a hotel for the night before leaving early Sunday and arriving home before bedtime.

A very successful, and mostly fun, trip.

I’ve got to make the obligatory thanks, not because I want to sound like a NASCAR driver but because they are incredibly noteworthy.

First and foremost: Tim Rogers, you saved our butts. Not only did you provide parts and tools (OFF YOUR OWN RUNNING CAR!) that we would not have had access to otherwise, your motivation and personality was far more than the icing on the cake. I meant it when I said that words failed me to express the gratitude we have for you. You are welcome to go with us anywhere we go, and you’ll never buy another beer or dinner any time I‘m around. Plus, you’re a damn fine guy to boot.

Matt Kessler: a damn fine job. Damn fine. Can’t wait until I become filthy rich and can pay for a race shop.

We didn’t have any direct sponsors other than my wife, my job, and Matt’s considerable time and effort, but we do need to thank the contingency sponsors for the IT2 Challenge:

All entrants were ecstatic at the support and at least two of them said outright that the only reason they drove to Atlanta was because of the IT2 Challenge.

I can’t say enough for all the folks that made this happen, including the ARRC committee that, despite preconceived concerns, managed to pull off one hell of an event. Regardless of the excuses or reasons you have for missing this event, you missed one whale of a show. Put it on your calendar for next year and I hope we see you there.


Postscript (11/13/03)

I've taken a couple of hits from some people for my comments above in regards to the metal-to-metal contact. Their position is that m-t-m was specifically not allowed and 'what part of that did I not understand'? Maybe it was because of my flippant writing, but I apparently did not make it clear that the contact was not intentional and in fact I consider myself to be the victim in several of those cases. Tell you what: I'll let you decide for yourself.

Select this link to download a 13MB MPEG clip of the in-car video from inside my car. In it you'll find 5 merged clips:

I welcome your feedback on this matter. With the exception of the rear bumper taps, for which I accept limited responsibility, I see the metal-to-metal contacts as nothing more than racing incidents at best, other drivers losing situational awareness at worst. If you'd like to see these clips in context or want a better-quality file, please feel free to contact me. - Greg

Update (11/16/03)

A close friend, whose onions I respect, sent me the following feedback:

if you knew those guys, like [we know each other], hey no big deal.  But as we don't know and race with them all the time, it's different. I think you approach the uphill left different than most others on your tape. You seem to get your downshift done before they are even braking, then you are on the power much earlier.  As a rear-wheel drive guy, that exit is a bit rock and roll. It looks like they are trying to carry speed through the corner, where you are on the throttle early. You are more proficient at that corner, and as it's uphill, you are more likely to be at the proper speed. If the are too fast, they scrub, and if they mis-estimate and are slow, they are ...slow!  Long winded way of saying that you were faster, but they had motor on the straights.  In an effort to go fast, they were in your way, and you tapped them.  I think the Z guy has the most to complain about, but it could be written off as "just short track racing"...

If I was the driver of your car, and I was bored after the race, with time on my hands, I might walk the paddock afterwards and find the Z guy and give him a soft apology, and an attaboy pat. Dale Carnegie him.  But who ever has spare time?!?!  LOL

I did, in fact, exchange conversations with both the z-car guy and the Bimmer driver after the event, apologized, and accepted responsibility for the rear hits. I continue to contend that I was the victim in the side hits. Lessons learned.