Thursday, June 4, 2015

A New Motorsport Adventure…”You Want Me To Race What?”

I’ve been involved in amateur Endurance Racing for over ten years. In that time, as a crew-chief I have been a part of a class win and two podiums at the 25hrs of Thunderhill, two NASA Endurance Championships and a bunch of Endurance Series race wins. It’s something that I deeply enjoy. It satisfies my need to measure my performance against my past and against my competitors, identify areas for personal and team improvement and see measurable results of those improvements. 

I’ve long held the desire to participate in a top tier racing class and I thought that opportunity might come in the form of a chance to help out with a team headed to the 24hrs of Daytona or 12hrs of Sebring. Heck, I’ve even told a few acquaintances that hold professional racing licenses that if they ever get the chance to race at Daytona, Sebring or….be still my heart…LeMans, that I’d pay my own way to the event just for the chance to help in any small way. Though that opportunity has yet to materialize, I thought until recently that it would be my best opportunity to participate at the highest levels of motorsports.

Until recently…..

Steve Lisa is one of the drivers that I’ve worked with at Prototype Development Group. In addition to being a very good sports car racer Steve owns a desert racing team and early this year he approached me and asked if I’d be interested in joining. 

Now, let’s stop here for a second and tally up all the things I knew about professional desert racing prior to this conversation:

   1. They race in the desert.

That’s about it.

But Steve, his son Tony and their Team Manager KC know quite a bit more and apparently, they recognized in me a skill set that fit their need for a full time Navigator to ride with Steve. Tony & Steve share the driving duties for the team and Tony has a navigator that he’s raced with for years. And just like that…I’m going racing. 

What I’m planning on doing is chronicling my progression, sharing the things I’m learning and trying to convey what it’s like to be quite literally dropped into a form of professional motorsports with absolutely zero experience.

Imagine the doing the entire Baja 1000 in this?
Now I’d seen “Dust to Glory”, the fantastic Dana Brown (son of Bruce “Endless Summer” Brown) film that chronicled the 2004 Baja 1000 so I did know that desert races are a multi-class affair. There are somewhere around a dozen different classes of vehicle starting with class-11 which are essentially bone stock Volkswagen Beetles. The classes progress upward in terms of the level of preparation allowed, the expense and the speed of the vehicle all the way up to the two Unlimited classes, Trophy Truck and Class-1.

Most of you are probably familiar with the Trophy Truck class as it tends to garner the most attention and the sweet sweet energy drink sponsorship dollars from RedBull (Bryce Menzies) Monster (BJ Baldwin) and Rockstar (Rob MacCachren)
Rob MacCachren's Trophy Truck

These are 5000-6000lb, rear wheel drive “trucks” with a live rear axle, independent front suspension and 36” of wheel travel that pack 700-900hp will top out over 130mph and often cost upwards of $500,000 to build. They are the stars of off-road racing. 

The other unlimited class is Class-1. Rather than looking like pickups, these are open-wheel buggies with 4 wheel independent suspension. Usually ~1000lbs lighter and more nimble than Trophy Trucks with often similar power they tend to do well on courses that are more technical and that favor handling over outright power though the class-1 buggies are capable of similar speeds.
A fairly typical Class-1 Buggy
So in my initial conversations with Steve he informed me that his team had been running in Class-10 (a buggy class with unlimited suspension but with strict regulations on engines) but were upgrading….to Class-1. So not only would I be jumping in as a participant in a sport I knew nothing about, I’d be doing so in a Professional class at the very top echelon of the sport…no pressure right?

Before we began racing there was opportunity for some introduction and education. I flew to Phoenix to visit the team shop and learn a bit about the buggy. As a navigator, I’d be responsible for darn near everything on the buggy except for operating the brake, throttle and steering. If something breaks, I fix it or we wait for the race to end to get unceremoniously towed in out of the desert. There are a handful of things one can reasonably fix and continue in the race. They include, but aren’t limited to changing a tire (more on that later), replacing a blown CV joint, replacing an alternator or engine belt, replacing a steering arm if we center-punch a tree or large rock, changing ignition modules and a handful of other “quick-fixes” that will allow us to limp in to the next service area. KC and Tony walked me through each of the procedures and showed me where the various tools and spares were stashed on the buggy. 

Oh wow, this is really happening...

Now, about that tire… Each tire & wheel weighs about 145lbs. The spare is carried on a rack above the engine in the back of the buggy. The jack handle is pinned to the roll cage adjacent; the jack is tucked into a space just above and forward of the right rear trailing arm mount. In the event of a flat the procedure is thus;

145lbs of BF Goodrich's finest
1. Steve stops the buggy, hopefully in a place well off the race course with a bit of cover to prevent some yahoo coming from behind plowing into us.

2. I unstrap from my harnesses, drop the window net and climb out the window of the buggy and onto the back.

3. I then unstrap the spare tire & wheel and toss it down onto the ground.

4. Then I unpin the jack handle & jack, assemble them and hope there is some solid ground under the buggy to support the jack, if not I need to collect some rocks or something to stabilize it.

5. Then I grab the electric impact gun from it’s holster in the cockpit, buzz off the old wheel and lift the new one, all 145lbs, onto the hub and if I haven’t lost any of the lugs in the sand, zap the lugs down tight.

6. Then I drop the buggy off the jack, disassemble the jack and handle and stow them, stow the impact gun then huck the shredded tire & wheel (hopefully it’s lighter than a new one at this point) up onto the back of the buggy.

7. Then I climb up, strap it down then climb back into the cockpit and begin strapping in as Steve drives away.  

This procedure is supposed to take ~2min. All while wearing a 3-layer firesuit, helmet and head/neck restraint…in the desert. 

Mid-race repairs aside, my primary duty is to navigate. In front of my seat in the buggy there is a Lowrance GPS unit with a 10” display. It shows the designated course of the race and I use it to let the driver know when a turn is coming and how acute that turn is relative to our speed. They instructed me on how to read the display and how to call out the turns to Steve as he is driving. And the next day we towed the whole shebang out into the desert for my first time in the buggy.

It's an even more intimidating machine in person...if that's possible?

We arrived at Gila Bend, AZ for a small club race that would serve as the first test day for the now complete team and our brand new Class-1 buggy. We had a few minutes on Saturday to preview the short 4mi loop course that we’d be racing on for an hour the next day. Our goal this trip was not to be competitive, but to familiarize ourselves with each other and the new buggy. To test the various systems and begin the process of tuning the buggy for the real races we’d be entering later this summer. Despite that, when dawn broke on Sunday it got pretty real pretty fast. Steve and I geared up and took the buggy to the start area and lined up next to another Class-1 buggy and Tony in his lightning fast class-10 single seater with about a dozen other buggies and trucks behind us. 


When the green flag dropped I very nearly ruined a very expensive Sparco firesuit. It’s difficult to describe the sensation of dropping the hammer in a vehicle with this much power. The thing squats on it’s haunches and all you can see is the hood of the buggy and blue sky and as it rockets forward you are assaulted with the noise of nearly 700hp of small block Ford howling through open headers. The dog-ring gearbox ads it’s own racket like the horn section in a very drunk ska band. Even the shocks are loud as the three way compression and two way rebound blow-off valves pop and clatter over every bump…and there is a buggy on either side of you contributing it’s own disparate melody and nobody is playing in the same key. 

Then we arrived at the first corner. Steve laid into the brakes and the buggy stood on its nose allowing him to initiate the turn. Once tipped in, he was immediately back in the gas and grabbing a handful of the turning brake, a device used to enhance traction in a corner by applying the brakes to the inside wheel in a turn thus transferring power to the outside all the while the 145lb, 37” BFG’s are scrambling for grip and sending up great plumes of dirt, sand, rocks and small desert animals.

It was at this moment when I fully realized the purpose of a navigator. The Class-1 buggy that started next to us had arrived at the first corner before us and was now in the lead. The aforementioned great plumes of dirt, sand, rocks and small desert animals that our tires were kicking up were also being kicked up by that buggy…directly into our faces. We were 1/2 –way through the corner, accelerating like we’d been shot out of a cannon and totally blind. In the mean time we were still racing and there were other corners coming. So while bouncing over god knows what because we couldn’t see, I now had to guide us. To give you some idea of what that looks like check out the video below (not us).

The navigator calls out, over an in-helmet intercom, the distance to the next turn, which direction the turn goes and how acute that turn is. It’s either easy, medium or hard and left or right with occasional addendum of adding 90 or 180deg if the turn is particularly sharp. The challenge though is that what is an easy turn at 50mph might be quite a hard turn if you are approaching at 90mph. You also need to consider subsequent turns and the terrain which you can’t see because you are looking down…you have to sorta go by feel. The GPS shows you the speed, but it’s a lot to take in all at once.

Thankfully this race was short and we didn’t hurt the buggy at all. In fact, in the second heat, Steve's son Tony scored the fastest lap of the day despite it being our first time in the buggy. Steve was happy enough with my progress thus far that he didn't immediately kick me off the team so that's a positive. We all learned a lot and I, most of all. 

The most important thing I learned…was that I have a great deal to learn.

Next up…. My first Pro race as a member of the team.

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