In some ways, this is the most difficult Race Report to write. My feelings at the moment are bittersweet. I am proud of my accomplishments in my first season, but sad that it is over. My Mini was outclassed all year by the Chevy Cobalt and Dodge Neon SRT4 turbo cars and by the Spoon Racing Acuras, but patience and perseverance have put me on the podium – third place in points for the season in my rookie year.
It has been a steep learning curve for me as I graduated from the gentlemanly conduct of the NASA High Performance Driving Events to the rough and tumble, no quarter, no mercy world of door-to-door racing. I was thoroughly spanked by the veterans at first and thoroughly frightened as well. The passing rules in USTCC racing are simple: any car, anywhere, any time. Tight and dangerous sections of the tracks that I had believed for years only had room for one car at a time – the high speed Turn 8 at Thunderhill and the esses at Turn 8 at Infineon for instance – were suddenly filled with the sound of roaring engines in my ears and bright paintwork in my peripheral vision as faster cars surged by on both sides. However, by season’s end I had learned to defend my line instead of lifting off the throttle and surrendering the corner when someone appeared in my mirrors. I may have hung up a faster car for a turn or two, but the lesson served me well when dicing with my fellow rookie, Michael McColligan, in his Mazda RX8.
After the accident at Buttonwillow in September, the Mini was back in the shop of my sponsor, Bay Bridge Motors, for repairs. Given that I was hit in the rear quarter panel at about 70 mph, the damage was relatively minor. Luckily, the Honda hit me at 90 degrees and right on the rear axle, one of the strongest parts of the car. Jacques Andres, Lee and Greg at Bay Bridge Motors replaced the trailing arm, the trailing arm bracket, the wheel hub, the upper control arm and welded on and painted a new quarter panel and that was it. Or at least we thought so. The car was aligned and ready to go when I discovered that the seat would not move on the brackets. The force of the impact had ripped one bracket off the bolt and twisted the support. That repaired, we loaded the car on the trailer and headed for Infineon Raceway in Sonoma. Little did I suspect that one more effect of the impact awaited me.
Trackmasters held a trackday at Infineon on Friday and I thought it would be beneficial to turn some practice laps before race weekend. Luckily I got some track time in the afternoon. The car handled well but as I pulled off the track it sounded like someone was pounding on the rear axle with a large hammer. In the pits I put the car on jack stands, removed the rear wheels and inspected it. The bushing that goes between the sway bar and the sway bar bracket had been pushed out of the bracket by the side impact leaving the sway bar loose and banging. Some disassembly required. By this time it was getting dark, but Rich Peterson had showed up with his racing Mini and loaned me some work lights which enabled me to complete the repair Friday night.
Saturday dawned cloudy with rain in the forecast. Norm Nelson of Redwood Empire Mini Enthusiasts had organized a Mini Corral and supporters had begun showing up. That was new and very much appreciated. I have felt like the Lone Ranger out there for most of the season. The warm up session was on a dry track and although the usual suspects crashed out, it was uneventful for me. The car handled well with no more banging. By the time qualifying rolled around, the track was still dry and the air was cool, which the supercharger likes and we turned my fastest time yet at Infineon, a 1:57. However, that pesky RX8 was only .0013 seconds behind me! Then the rains came. Since Saturday’s race is not for points, only one USTCC car went out. I was happy to cover the racecar, sit up in the motor coach and listen to the rain patter on the roof.
Sunday’s warm up was on a cold wet track and I took it very gingerly with no incidents. In qualifying, the car felt really good and I had some good clear laps. But I couldn’t better my time on Saturday. McColligan, on the other hand, turned a 1:55 and that 2 second difference would put him three cars ahead of me on the starting grid. I tried to take a nap after lunch but my brain just kept turning laps, figuring out the best places to pass the Mazda and reviewing defensive lines. I would definitely be at a disadvantage at the standing start, not only because of my grid position, but also because my front drive car is usually out-dragged by the rear drive RX8. If McColligan held on and we finished in the same places we started, he would ace me out for Rookie of the Year. If Andy Chittum brought his BMW in first or second, he would take third place in season points. This one was for all the marbles.
After the warm up lap we lined up on the grid. When the flag dropped I pulled the wheel to the right and followed Rich Peterson’s Mini up the right hand side of the track and past the RX8 who was being held up in the middle of the pack. Peterson’s Mini retired with ignition problems at the top of the hill and McColligan was right on my left shoulder through Turn 2 but began to drop back by Turn 3. As I slid the car up and over the hill there, he was in my mirrors. By the time I accelerated through Turn 5 he was gone and I never saw him again. Good start. I managed to keep the pack in sight much longer this time and made it harder for following cars to pass me. On the third lap Angelo Zucchi passed me on the main straight in one of the Spoon Acuras. The next time around he somehow failed to turn up the hill at the end of the straight. I saw his car go straight off the track at Turn 1 at well over 100 mph, charge up the hill, go airborne at the crest, catch a wheel on the fence and tumble headfirst into the grandstand, ripping off the roof and scattering parts everywhere. Norm and some of the REME Mini owners were up there and saw it happen. They were spattered by dirt kicked up by the crash and the grandstand looked like it had taken an artillery round, but luckily no spectators were hurt. Angelo has a spinal injury but the prognosis is good. The car is junk. And just like that the race was over after 4 laps. I finished 7th.
The final season tally for me is:
- One podium finish – third place at Thunderhill in August
- Two DupliColor Top Rookie awards
- 2008 USTCC Rookie of the Year
- Third in total points for the 2008 season
- Mini was just edged out of the Manufacturers’ Championship at the last event and finished second.
I have enjoyed writing these reports for my sponsor MiniMania this season and hope you have enjoyed sharing the experience with me. There is no way to determine quantitatively whether these Race Reports have been good for MiniMania’s business or not, so if you’d like to see them continue into next season, please take a few minutes and drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him why. Remember to keep the shiny side up, stay on the black stuff and above all, be safe and have fun.
Bye for now,
JCW Mini Cooper S
Here is some very exciting video of the race including the start and the crash that ended it. Enjoy.