by Jerry (Siddhartha) Bradbury
It’s one of life’s inevitabilities – just when you’ve got something all figured out, somebody else goes and changes it. After fifteen years, Thunderhill Raceway has made a monster upgrade to the track. They hauled in 6 miles of dirt, graded a wide safety band all around the track and repaved the racing surface. Sure, it’s clean and pretty and maybe a little faster, but all my braking points and turn in points are gone. I used little macadam repair squiggles on the old track and chunks of missing pavement and concrete runoffs as my marks and they have all been “repaired”. Then they put four inch high curbs in some of the apexes instead of sloping berms that you could ride up on, so that requires a line adjustment. And because the surface is new, it hasn’t had time to be filled in and smoothed out with tire rubber yet. It’s like driving on sandpaper; tires wear quickly. It’s like starting over with a brand new track. But it’s no use bellyaching about it; change is inevitable and we must adapt. That’s what we do. We’re racers.
It was a hot weekend in Glenn County, in the upper nineties and dry. The heat takes its toll on drivers and machines. Copious amounts of water are necessary to prevent driver dehydration and the fastest laps are always in the morning while it’s still relatively cool. The Mini’s supercharged Chrysler I-4 engine, even with a big intercooler, will get hotter than usual and lose horsepower toward the end of a 30 minute sprint race.
The warm up laps on Saturday featured the usual spins and offs with the added factor of much loose dirt from the newly graded perimeter being dragged onto the track as they struggled back. That made some of the corners more exciting than they had to be. Qualifying was a little more reasonable with only one Legend car wadded up into a tight fist of metal. Have I mentioned this is a dangerous sport? No injuries though, just a damaged car – and tin don’t bleed. The race on Saturday is a no point affair so USTCC ran a rolling start from the back of the pack. This meant we had to work our way through the Spec Miata/Spec 944 Porsche/Spec E30 BMW traffic to find a clear lap. I found that much to my delight, the slower cars for the most part watched their mirrors which meant I could barrel down the inside of the back straight, out brake them at the corner entrance and not have to worry about them turning in and chopping me off at the apex. My fastest lap was 2:10 and change. The big dogs of USTCC were running 2:04. *Sigh*.
Sunday in warm up I found a clear lap and dropped into the O’s with a 2:09. Still way off the pace. I qualified 6th, but because I forgot to go directly to weigh in after qualifying, I was penalized one position on the grid and pulled up outside of Michael McColligan’s RX8 for our standing start. In the past the rear wheel drive Mazda always got the jump on me at the start and I would have to run him down on the course. This time I was determined to get it off the line. Before the green flag waved, I ran the revs up and when it dropped I dumped the clutch, steered left, held on, and ended up squeezing McColligan out at the first turn. Coming around after the first lap I noticed all the short rubber patches from the other cars and one big long one from mine. Hmmmm. Start still needs work.
Being (as my friend Vince so graciously put it) “the leader of the back markers” has its responsibilities too. I intended to motor off into the distance leaving the RX8 way behind as I usually do, but McColligan had other ideas. He stayed there in my mirrors while I tried my best to keep my car right at the limit of adhesion and not make any mistakes that would give him an opportunity to overtake. Coming down the back straight with one lap to go, a faster car passed me on the right at the corner entrance which caused me to back off to keep from hitting him and consequently losing my momentum around Turns 14 and 15. Because he was behind me, McColligan could avoid that and as we came onto the front straight he pulled out and simply drove past me. I settled in on his bumper already planning to make my riposte in the same place on the final lap. I had to stay right on him around the track, so I could pull to the right on the back straight, drag race him to the corner, out brake him on the inside and try to hold the advantage to the checker.
As so often happens in racing – or in battle for that matter – the plan goes out the window when the first shot is fired. I shadowed his car around the track, sticking like glue through Turn 8 and up the hill. But when he turned in for 9 at the top of the hill, he lost power suddenly. Being so close behind him, I had to snatch the wheel to the left to keep from parking my front bumper in his exhaust pipe, upset the car’s balance and got sideways up over the crest. When the rear end of the Mini starts coming around you must get on the power immediately or you will spin. Planting my right foot on the floor I managed to get control back and pulled past him going down the hill, carrying the advantage around to the finish. Later he told me he was low on fuel and the centrifugal force in the corner had pulled what was left away from the fuel pump and starved the engine. Pure luck.
For my efforts I won a nice trophy for Top Rookie and a pair of Permatex mechanics gloves, just in time since my fingers were coming through the old ones. The point standings are not posted as I write this, but I’m pretty sure I’m still in the lead for Rookie of the Year with two events to go. Next time we travel south to Buttonwillow Raceway due west of Bakersfield. It’s McColligan’s home track so I know he’ll be gunning for me. I’ve turned a few laps there myself this season so I’m hoping to be able to hold him off. Since the date is October 11-12, I’m also hoping for cooler weather, maybe some rain! I hope to see some of you Angelenos there too.
Ride along for a few laps in qualifying.