by Jerry (Siddhartha) Bradbury
Standing on the track at the top of Thunderhill’s Turn 5, the Eagle’s Nest, I’m looking west down a three story drop and picking out reference points and points of timing for this blind turn. Little squiggles of asphalt patch and locked up tire tracks on the surface will help me place the car at speed and tell me when to turn, because I won’t be able to see anything on this approach. I’ll have to turn in on my POT and slide it up over the blind crest, keeping it on the black stuff as I head down the other side toward Turn 4. That’s right, 5 to 4, because today we’re running Thunderhill backwards. It’s a whole new track.
Behind me the sun slips over the horizon and turns the westward peak of Snowtop bright orange. Mount Shasta is visible to the northeast and the Sutter Buttes are limned against the blue-gray sky to the southeast. The gently rolling hills of the pasture land where Thunderhill Raceway was built are a mottled gold/green as the succulent grasses of the rainy season gradually surrender to the dry heat of approaching summer. It will be another perfect day at the races. Already I can hear the cough and mutter of cold engines getting their first taste of spark and air/fuel mixture under compression. Soon the quiet of the dawn will be ripped apart by the shriek of high revving rotary engines as the Formula Mazda cars are first out for warm up.
I arrived early on Friday to instruct for Trackmasters and to get in a few laps in the new direction. It was to be a weekend of attrition. First to fall was Canyon Bob Scheer whom I discovered sitting disconsolately on the cinder block wall running a torn supercharger belt through his fingers. His team just could not keep the race car from throwing belts, so he decided to fold his tent and pack it in for this race. Next, Rich Peterson failed to show, still working on his car, I presume. That left only me to carry the Mini flag to battle.
The population of our portable village was considerably less than last time at Infineon and I think that the new direction factored into some drivers’ decisions to stay home. Whatever their reasons, it was great for the rest of us; a perfect day and less traffic. Saturday revealed that drivers were still confused about where to go as our group split at Turn 5, some going up the hill, some going over the bypass. The Eagle’s Nest was in play because the Formula Mazdas get too much air going over the bypass and the slow turn up there makes an effective chicane. The rest of us were supposed to use the bypass. One Miata driver in HPDE 4 couldn’t make up his mind which route to take, split the difference, went off, lost the car and hit the flag box, spilling two corner workers to the ground. A massive emergency operation ensued which ended only after the injured corner workers were medevac’d out. Both are in the hospital but will make a full recovery. Belatedly the flag tower was dragged out of the hot spot between the forks and we ALL went over the hill from then on. I finished another race without a scratch and have now qualified for my national racing license.
Sunday was another glorious day and the cars continued to fail. During warm up some went off. During qualifying a Honda engine grenaded on the race line in the very fast Turn 6, spilling oil on the track. I was next around and did some ice skating before getting the car straightened out. After that, the yellow flag stayed out there and qualifying was essentially over, so I rolled into my pit early to save the car for The Show.
Jacques Andres and the Bay Bridge Motors team seemed to have found some horsepower since last time. They had traced a problem to an uncommunicative O2 sensor which was causing the air/fuel mixture to go fat at 4,000 rpm, just when the engine should be lighting up. A blown 15 amp fused was causing the problem, so I had more hp to work with this time. Still, I qualified 5th.
This race was all about traffic and attrition. At the start, I finally figured out how to get the transmission into second gear, but could not gain any ground and was passed by the 6th position RX8. By the end of the first lap I had reeled him in, re-passed and lit out after the leaders. I could keep them in sight, but could not close. Then we began running into back marker traffic and I was toast. The gentlemanly conduct of my history at trackdays where slower drivers point you by and where you take a breath in a tight corner and wait for a better place to pass is OVER! Now I have to learn how to pass any car anywhere on the track at any time. The racing line is out the window. So are lap times. All that counts now is position. This is a steep learning curve for me, but Sunday was better than Saturday. I found a way around Turn 14 by dropping the left front wheel off the curb there and hooking the car around the inside while everyone else went wide. I could get a good run down the hill from 9 through 8 and pass other cars at over 100 mph as they turned in for the apex at 7. I kept my foot on the floor coming through Turn 1 and got a good run down the front straight. But while I was doing this, the rest of the USTCC field was charging around and through traffic everywhere. If I can just get closer, I can train ride through traffic behind them . . . but I have to get closer. They are certainly not going to wait for me.
Then attrition began to be a factor. Around Turn 2 I saw Pete Bovenberg’s car parked in the grass. Now I’m 4th. Coming around Turn 1 there was Dave Bongiovanni’s EVO rolling to a stop in the infield. Unfortunately, I was just a little too late to pass him before he rolled past the checkered flag, so I crossed the line still in 4th place.
It was pandemonium at the podium. On the last lap, Curt Simmons had collided with Bongiovanni’s EVO and a Ferrari 355 while trying to pass in the extremely narrow, off-camber dip that is Turn 11. As the perpetrator, Curt’s very fast SRT4 was disqualified. Tom Lepper’s Cobalt had passed Bongiovanni as he was limping around to finish second on a flat left front tire and I was now 3rd.
No matter how you get there, a podium finish is a podium finish. You get your name called on the PA to take your place amid applause and hoots from the crowd, you get the big trophy and the kiss, you get the magnum of champagne with which to try to drown your fellow combatants, and you get the wide non-stop grin. Champagne stings when you get it in your eyes! And it makes your racing suit and hat smell winey. But I have to say, a fella could get used to it.
A perfect example of the photogenic line versus the fast line. While the Miata is busy getting air (no traction in the air) Shiva slips by on the outside.