People say that racing is hard and the best way anybody said it to me about the experience of this year’s Thunderhill 25 was Jonny Davies. Jonny’s summary of our race was that racing teaches you a lot about yourself. Frankly, I’ve been experiencing plenty of adversity and failure lately, via bicycle racing, and there could be only one acceptable result… But, what Jonny said is a little window into why we race – we race because it is hard, because success is fleeting, and because victories are glorious.
I love this team. There is another thing about racing that outsiders don’t always understand. Racing becomes part of ones soul, and there is an understanding and camaraderie amongst racers that can only come from the same (and shared) experiences. It is why bitter rivals will help each other to regain the battle – it is why these rivals will then become team mates and aspire (and conspire) to do great things.
There have been 3 “powerhouse” teams in the Northwest since the beginning of Spec Miata. The Miatacage.com enduro effort is loaded with members of those teams. There had been collaboration between Jonny’s Hood River team (from which I came) and Ken Sutherland’s Ludicrous Speed team for some time – Ken and I became de facto team mates (and later Ken and Bruce Wilson) when we needed partners to challenge Will Schrader and his mentor Gary Bockman. But, Ken and Will on the same team… Who woulda thunk the results could be so spectacular?
Speaking of spectacular, we all witnessed a pretty amazing thing last weekend. Steve Gorriaran drove to victory solo in an E2 class Spec Miata – I would have preferred to see him drive to an E1 class victory, but I’m glad I got to see it. I don’t know Steve and only spent a small amount of time observing their pit stops. The car was fast and he must have done an excellent job of staying out of trouble. When I first heard that he was making an attempt at a solo, I didn’t believe it. I still don’t have my head wrapped around it – I have a high fitness level for a race driver, and I don’t think I would ever have thought of something like this. Way to go!!! – I’m still mostly speechless.
Our race went pretty well and exactly according to plan. We knew that our pace would be slower than our primary competitors, but we also expected it would come out in the wash. Our plan was simple – my contribution to the team this year was minimal (not such a bad plan in and of itself…). My greatest success has come from making and executing simple plans. So, what I did was to share the simple wisdom of my very first driving coach, Richard Spenard. He told me “If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast”. This is mostly what I remember of Richard and those words have never been proven false – If my ability to understand English laden with French had been better 30 years ago, maybe I would have remembered too much and screwed it all up..?
To the drivers and crew: “If things are not going well, the solution is not to do it faster, the solution is to do it slower.” The drivers were quick and the crew was fast from the beginning and both simply got better.
Team Miatacage.com was always running near the top of the order. Early on we had small battles with an Acura that I remember from last year (we expected it to break) and one of the BMW E30’s (that we knew nothing about). The problem with the E30’s (like PRO3 cars in the Northwest), is that they have enough power to drive by us on the straights and are much slower in the corners. I think a good one (well driven) should be just a little bit faster than us, and that unfortunately slows us down a bit and causes stress with drivers that are sometimes in a hurry to get somewhere (over and over again).
We overcame all of that and settled in to a top 3 battle. We did survive an early race situation in which Bruce was hit very hard in the left rear corner by the number 62 Atlanta Motorsport Group (AMG) car. The car was brought to the paddock for a look see. We checked camber and did a several minute inspection before deciding to send the car back out – we lost 2 – 3 laps.
Our primary challenge, however, was that we had brought a 1.6 liter car (which is what we know). Our preferred car would have been either a 99 Miata (like Gorriaran’s) or a 1.8 liter car like those 3D Racing and AMG had brought. One advantage with the smaller motor was that we would get slightly better fuel mileage – this is important because the rules allow only 10 gallons of fuel to be added per pit stop. We also would be easier on brakes and tires (which in some cases were very old Toyo RA-1’s). Don’t get me wrong, our car is capable of very fast laps – it is very nearly identical to most National level Spec Miatas (Ken is a multi-time Divisional Champion and Will the SM lap record holder at Thunderhill, in similar cars). I am proudest of the fact that this was a budget effort – just a handful of guys proving that it is possible to run up front without breaking the bank – If you must bring a knife to a gun fight, bring a handful of ninja masters to operate it…
Brian Clemons (an ex-rival of mine) did a stellar job as a first time crew chief. I always thought that Brian was a great guy for that job – mostly because he is smart, focused, sees the big picture and has been around the cars for so long. Sean Hedrick, the car owner, has great observational detail skills and I can do most anything extra that’s needed (if you can trick me into concentrating long enough). So, Brian C. organized the tasks and did absolutely unbelievable, spot on, fuel consumption calculations (which then made the flawless fuel stops possible). Sean knew when any of our competitors would enter the pits (and for how long) and I monitored scoring, wrote updates and went over the wall for under hood inspections during driver change stops.
Dave Sutherland and a new crew member, Josh McKinney, did fuel – every time. Part of our “no mistake” strategy was to do it the same way every single time. Fuel spills equal penalties, so getting this right can be worth several minutes (if something were to get botched up). They were machines – they put 157 gallons of fuel in the car without spilling a drop. It’s never a sure bet I will get a beer down without getting some on my shirt – I was impressed.
In the past we have had a driver do the tire changes – Ken is kind of a control freak and prefers he do the job, himself. This time we had Jason Rawlins, who is new to Spec Miata, but has a ton of moto-cross experience (so he performs under pressure and doesn’t make mistakes) – that allowed the drivers to sleep and not worry about our “no mistakes” strategy.
Our jack-man, Kevin Clark, had been with us before, as had Ed Pavone (on the windscreen and other external details) and Jordan Wilson awake for every pit stop in fire gear to watch for fueling issues while manning the mandatory fire bottle. Brian C. was through the window on every pit stop to make sure the driver was comfortable and the radios worked.
Food and rest are also important parts of endurance racing. That job was handled by Carrie Sutherland and Cheree Rawlins. There was always water, coffee, and something to eat available when a team member needed it I think part of Jonny’s plan, for daughter Sam and Kelli Clark, is for them to work into that role… – I asked them once what was for breakfast and the answer was “what would you like”. That’s the right answer – and with a smile. But, I’ve observed Sam’s skills in a go-kart and I’m pretty sure she’s just waiting for her chance to drive.
We thought the race would really start sometime around sunrise. I had asked the drivers to please just get through the night, so that we could have something to fight with in the morning – and they did that. As a matter of fact, we were 5 -6 laps up, while Pat Newton, with his 3D Racing crew and Team Gorilla were battling it out, sometimes on the same lap. Perfect, let those guys chew each other up while we putt around. Then it happened – with less than 3 hours to go, Will called in to say the right rear wheel was gone. It turned out to be a sheered hub – something we don’t see in the Northwest, but I am told is more common other places.
Basically, the forces put onto the part which the wheel attaches to broke into two pieces – one stayed with the car and the suspension upright, the other went with the detached wheel. It took a while for the car to reach our paddock area with the tow truck. When it did, Will and Ken , with parts and tool feeds from the crew, repaired the car in about 10 minutes.
Because our spare car has the original rear differential and rear axles from the 1.6 liter Miata and the race car the updated version, we didn’t have a spare axle. Ken was able to borrow one from AMG, the team with the car that had run into us earlier. I wrote some harsh words about one team member in particular after that, but in the true spirit of racing they helped us when we needed it, and that is one of those special things that happen in sports car racing. Thank you, Marc.
We entered the race again in 3rd place, behind Team Gorilla and 3D Racing – not bad. I recall that we were about 4 laps down. I’m the guy that wants the drivers to be extra careful with the car – SLOW THE F**K DOWN!!! But we had 4 laps to make up, and I believed we had a guy that could maybe do it if we got some help. My last words to Ken as he left the paddock were “burn it to the ground” – and our boy set sail like a bat working his way out of hell.
Almost immediately we got some help. 3D Racing had the same failure we had suffered, but on the opposite side. Good thing for them it was the other side too, because they were able to borrow the “other” spare from AMG. What this meant is that we were now second but that Gorilla no longer needed to push for a victory. I’m not sure that changed anything for us. I’d have preferred they race each other to the very end and increase their chances to have problems. One of the Gorilla team members told us after the race that they were nursing a front hub issue – but we don’t know if that would have made a difference.
In the end we were 2 laps down in second place for E2 and 15th overall. Those 2 laps are our reminder that this kind of racing does not look kindly on even small mistakes. Our time in the pit after the early collision ended up being the difference in this race. We had other bobbles that make another lap. On the other hand, the pit stops were flawless and the speed of the car, when necessary, exceeded our expectations. There were errors, but 25 hours thrashing a race car is supposed to cause errors.
The disappointment we all felt at coming so close once again was only unbearable for as long as it took to realize that there was another race to prepare for. As Jonny said, we learned a lot about ourselves. We also learned a lot about Team Miatacage.com as a group – we’re pretty good at this. We made new friends, strengthened relationships, and established new rivalries. Yes, racing is hard, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
photos by Carrie Sutherland