Well, my second race in Koni Challenge is in the record books. No, we didn't win, but I am proud to say we did fairly well given our situation. We thought the RX-8 might be a good car for this series, but it turns out we're finding we just won't be able to make enough horsepower to keep up. The car handles extremely well and is very fun to drive, but it just isn't very fun to have a Chevrolet Cobalt SS come rocketing up the straightaway by you only to watch him absolutely butcher the next corner (and you sometimes almost hit him because of it), and then rocket away from you out of the corner (even though you executed that corner much better than he did!).
We were also concerned that we wouldn't get quite good enough fuel mileage in the RX-8 for this particular length of event (two hours and thirty minutes) to do the race on a single stop. We should have probably tried it anyway, but that seemed high risk so we didn't. That meant we had to do two fuel stops during the race when most of the other cars only did one.
The weekend started out with Jason doing the first test session and feeling like he put some pretty good times in with something like high 3:18's. Then he had to leave to fly out for a test with his other team for the rest of that day and the next, so that left me with three sessions to do by myself (and with the help of the rest of his awesome Team MER crew). In my afternoon session that day the best I could do was a low 3:25. Not good. I wasn't feeling terribly well before getting in the car, so I think that contributed. Also, the car setup had been changed dramatically since I last drove it...then it was very much prone to oversteer and now it's very much prone to understeer. This situation is much better, it was just something I needed to get used to.
For those who don't know, oversteer is when your car tends to want to swing the rear end out due to a loss of traction at the rear tires (and NASCAR types call this "loose"). Some drivers like loose cars, most don't. Understeer is when you try to turn the car but it tends to keep doing straight instead thanks to a lack of traction at the front wheels (and NASCAR types call this "push"). Understeer is easier to manage in general because you can usually correct it by slowing the car which puts more weight on the front and gives you more grip there. Our car also happened to like to be loosened up by driving over the curbing at Miller Motorsports Park, so as long as you patiently drove it smooth down to the apex, you could pretty much get on the gas really hard at that point as the curbing would help rotate the car and avoid the understeer on corner exit.
Both sessions on Friday went fairly mediocre. Best I could muster in the first was a high 3:23 and the best in the second was a low 3:23. That second session was cut a little short for me as we had some power steering trouble that inexplicably just went away. I left on Friday somewhat disappointed in myself, that's for sure. I just didn't feel like I was in sync with the car, the track, or much of anything, and I didn't know why. Looking at the data we collect in the car for analysis later showed that I was generally just slowing the car down too much on corner entry. This was likely thanks to the fact that I'm so used to driving cars like the Spec Miata where it's more okay to brake, turn, and nail the gas all in quick succession. In this car you brake, turn, coast to the apex while still scrubbing speed thanks to the turning you're doing, and then go to the gas when you hit that curbing. Not that hard to actually execute, believe it or not, just hard to make myself execute, I guess. I'm stubborn.
Since we were going to have to do two fuel stops, we decided the best plan was to have Jason qualify and start the race, then I'd get in, and then he'd get back in to finish the race. That put our faster driver doing much more of the race, which is obviously a good thing. Jason qualified with a 3:19, I believe, and that was good enough for 23rd. Decent, but not great. Certainly better than I qualified us at Three Rivers, but the same as where we finished there.
The race start was clean and Jason drove well early, though we probably only got by one or two cars before a full course yellow came out about 21 minutes into the race. It takes two full laps under caution before the pits are open for our class, so it was going to be thirty minutes in before he could stop, which was in our first fuel window. That meant I needed to drive almost a full hour to get to the next fuel window, which sort of bugged me since I had been so slow thus far. But we didn't have much choice, so I jumped in and took off. Unfortunately, the pace car moves pretty fast and we couldn't quite catch the field on the four and a half mile track before the green flag came back out and we were racing again. That put me probably a minute behind the field and racing all by myself for a long time. That was annoying in some ways, but maybe good in others. My first lap was a 3:23, so that made me feel pretty good since I felt like that lap was kind of rusty and bad in a lot of places. So I kept working on every corner about eight or nine laps I was down into the 3:21's. Then a few laps later I popped off a high 3:20 followed by a few low 3:21's. I had finally gotten the hang of coasting with a lot of speed into the corners and using that curbing to help turn the car.
I was feeling good, but I knew when the radio clicked that I was fixing to be told my stint was over. Ugh! Oh well, all good things have to come to an end, I suppose. I was right, my time was up (and likely my fuel!), so I came into the pits and turned the car back over to Jason. I was fourteenth when I came in, but that was because we pitted so early during that caution and most everyone else stayed on track and then had to pit under green. But now we were pitting under green, so Jason went back out at 25th. He drove well and kept plugging away, though, to climb all the way back up to 20th, which I think was pretty dang good considering we had to make one more pit stop than everyone else, and even though it was during a caution it still didn't help us as much as it hurt since we couldn't catch up to the field under yellow. So you can say we probably lost an entire minute there, which is not so good.
But I'm very happy that my mostly depressing weekend turned very good at the end as I felt like I really got it together finally and turned in some good times. Being less than two seconds off Jason at a track this long is very good, especially since he's a race winner this season at this track in Speed World Challenge Touring Car, a very tough series filled with top professional drivers. Looking forward to the last Koni Challenge race of the season in two weeks at VIR! We should be a little closer to the faster cars at this track for a couple reasons, which will be nice. It's also a six hour race at a track I have a LOT of seat time at, which should be good.
Now for the best part...today's race will be on TV! Set your DVRs to record it from Speed Channel (DirecTV channel 607 and most cable systems carry it so check your local listings) at 11am on Oct 12.