Last Thursday I arrived at Road Atlanta for the NASA's 8 hour Santa Toy Run, to drive in a car that I had never driven, with a team that I had never driven with, on a track I had never raced. And if my travel day before the race was any indication, it was going to be a long weekend. My flight out of Saint Pete, FL was delayed from 1:00pm to 10:00pm, and then again on the runway for more than a couple of hours. It was after midnight when we started on our drive from Greenville, SC and nearly 2:00am before we arrived at our hotel room in Brasselton, GA. My alarm went off at 5:15am and I was the track for the 6:30am registration.
We knew the day would be a wet one, it was already sprinkling with a 61% chance of rain for the rest of the day. I'd be driving for Drive Gear in a BMW E30 with only two goals in mind: first, to really get a feel for this car new to me; and second, to test my stamina on only 3 hours of sleep.
I had only one opportunity to get a feel for the car before the 8 hour race - a 45 minute practice at 8:00am. First order of busniness was meeting with the team's Lead Mechanic about the car's setup. He said that I would not need 2nd gear on track, since these cars like to push through the turns, they have no bottom end (torque) and they tend to top out at 6500 RPM’s (unlike a Miata which top out at 7300 RPM’s). Then I got in the car and started it up. Immediately, I noticed how much lower you sit in an E30 than you do in a Miata.
Once on track for the practice it was still sprinkling, making the track just wet enough for the windshield wipers. The Lead Mechanic was right, the E30 had no bottom end, and the transmission was slower and was stiffer to shift when compared to a Miata. Just like you would with any damp track, I had to be very carful on the exits of my turns, making sure I didn't let the car get too loose - especially on turns 1,3, 4, 5 and 10a. Road Atlanta has a reputation for collecting cars because of all of the elevation changes, high-speed straights, and the sharp turns the follow those straights.
At this event instead of qualifying, they randomly positioned everyone in NASCAR formation, and we got P35. The track was a little drier than it was for the practice, but I still had a long way to go to get up to the front. By the time I got to the top of the hill approaching the last turn, the green was thrown. "GREEN FLAG GREEN FLAG!" the Crew Chief shouted over the radio.
I had a good jump until on the exit of the last turn two people ahead of me started to lightly hit their brakes and did not have leave me enough room to pass them, so I ended up with an average start. The track now is pretty dry and I was able to drive the dry line and go full throttle through the S’s. Shortly after the start, I got the car up to 11th and the car felt great then the track went double yellow. Aside from me really having to go to the bathroom (even though I went before the race), about a lap under double yellow I saw way off to the side in turn 1, one of my teammates had spun out into the gravel leaving the car to be serviced for a while. After the green was thrown again, a lap and a half later my car started acting up. On the entrance of turns 3, 4, the S’s and 5 the motor would pop. Then in the middle of those turns it would act as if the motor just shut off, then on exit it would kick back alive causing us to lose some time (which got frustrating). The best part was that our radios stopped working so I could not report the situation while on track. Shortly after, another double yellow was thrown again. All of the sudden the radio started to work again and my crew chief asked me if there are any of my teammates somewhere on the track because they had not seen one of them for about a lap. I responded telling him one is parked by the wall going into turn 10a. So after the green flag came back out I pitted to make sure that we could still finish the race with the problems (we could not pit during a caution). During the pit stop, I told my mechanic about the car and they refueled the car to make sure it was not a fuel problem and told me to drive it out. Full fuel did not solve the problem unfortunately so for the rest of the time I drove the car with the issues I described above. Then the team told me over the radio to bring it in the pits in the next two laps. When I brought it in, I told my mechanic that it is still having those problems. So the team opened the hood and started checking out the car to make sure nothing was wrong and to see if they could fix the problem. While that was going on, I was able to quickly get out of the car, dart to the restroom and back in the car before we finished the pit stop. As I was getting back into the car I was told to push through it unless the car gets any worse. So I go back out there with it being the same except halfway into the session, it started to work beautifully again! Unfortunately that was for four laps then it started getting worse than before. Now it’s popping going into turns 2, 3-5 and turns 10a and 10b. Then in the middle and exit of those turns it’s dead, then after the turns it would pop then get back into action. I drove it like that for a while until the car was going so slow around the track that it was getting dangerous. I then tried to radio the team that the car was getting really bad until I realized that the radio was not working again. So hand signaled them going by that I’m coming in. Once I got the car back to the pits, I told them that the problem with the car had to be electrical and they said “since we already have our other driver here and suited up, were going to do a driver change”.
During my teammate’s first pit stop, I heard him give the same feedback that I gave the team. So they searched the car again and then changed the voltage regulator on the alternator and the battery in the car. When he went out, a few laps afterwards he gave a thumbs up as he went by and said on the radio that the car now feels good and now the car was back on track for full speed racing again! Roughly about an hour later, my teammate passed the car back off to me. He told me that the car feels great though the tires are starting to wear just a little bit. I was quickly getting out of pit lane and back on track for a solid hours’ run. When I got back on the track, the car felt beautiful (and the fact that I had a radio made it even better)! Now I was able to drive the car right and feel the car out properly. Now with the car doing what it should be, I was able to feel that on the entry and middle of turns the car would like to push (partly due to having the street tires on). On the exit of turns, the rear would have a little bit of rear tire spin. To adjust for that kind of handling, I would slow down on entry through middle of the turn to hit the apex and be more patient with the throttle on the exit of the turn. Around the end of my last session, on the radio my crew chief told me good job, I set the teams fastest laps by of any of their three cars with a low 2 min. and 48 second lap. I replied back asking if I had the ok to push the car and break into the 2 min. 47’s and he said “sure”. So I picked it up and do my thing hitting all of my marks and pushing the car and quickly landed a 2:47.7 and then down to a 2:47.4! Sadly a bit later, I was told to bring the car in for a driver change and that was the end of my part of the race
Well, I accomplished both of my goals. I learned to wheel the BMW and put down fast, quality laps and I learned I had the stamina that it takes to run long stints in a race car. I ran a three and a one hour stint and still felt a bunch of more hours of racing left in me.
At the end of the race we finished 10th overall and 4th in class! We just had bad luck with otherwise, a good potential to win! This was a good experience for me and would like to thank K&M Logistics and Spirit Bands for working hard and putting in all the effort to making this race happen, Drive Gear for providing the opportunity and the equipment along with great team work and once again I want to thank all of my fans who follow me!