Mid Ohio, Part 2: Practice and Qualifying

Is this a racing team or the Comet Skateboards team?

American Endurance Racing (AER) is a top-notch racing series. This was my 24th endurance race, but only my second with AER. The memory of my first AER event at Watkins Glen is tainted by me crashing out in T6, and I had forgotten how professional this series is. For example, checkin is much easier, because your personal gear is your personal responsibility, and so they don’t verify all your stickers and labels and whatnot. If you treat people like adults, they act like adults.

Each driver and the car have RFID stickers, and with that they know exactly who is in the car at all times. On your AER profile page, that data is saved for you and the entire team. The pit stops are timed via RFID, as well. All very high tech and classy. You also get regular text messages throughout the event, telling you important details.

The cars are more expensive and faster than you’ll see in Champcar, Lemons, or Lucky Dog. Stacker rigs are not unusual, and so our open trailer stood out as an oddity. We were definitely the budget team against a lot of expensive BMWs, Porsche Caymans, and even an Audi R8.

Sahlen’s R8 sets the class.

AER events start on Friday, with an HPDE point-by session until noon. Non-race cars are allowed as long as they pass a quick tech, and so it’s not unusual to see street cars, including rental cars, on the track together with the race cars. This is a good opportunity to learn the track with a coach in the right seat. It’s not a good opportunity to learn the limits of a street car. One person in a rental car experienced stock brake fade and wadded their car. It did not look drivable afterwards.

Friday practice. Let’s get this show on the road!

We each took one run in the car. Sonny did the first run since he’s very familiar with the track (ahem, TT6 track record), and we wanted feedback on how the car handled. He said it was pretty good right away, and that our car should be capable of a 1:45, maybe a 1:44. He said this would be a decent NASA ST6 time. And when you consider we’re using the chicane, which adds a couple seconds, and we’re on RS4 tires, that’s not bad at all. In my previous blog post I wrote that OptimumLap predicted a 1:43.5, so that’s pretty close. But that would be a perfect lap, and we only just got here.

Pat has been to Mid-Ohio a couple times before, so while he knows the track, he had to re-familiarize himself with my Miata. Pat usually races a 265 whp E36 M3, and so I would imagine it takes a bit of time to get on the momentum line. Alyssa is a Miata specialist and knows how to get the spurs into a slow car, but had never been to the track before. Nevertheless, they both posted initial times that were similar to each other, and not too far off Sonny. Impressive.

I take longer to get adjusted to a new track, which is mostly braking too early, a slow entry speed, and other fear-based survival tactics. I did a shaky and uncertain 1:58. Thankfully we didn’t have the Aim Solo turned on, I really don’t want to see the data.

Coaching moment

We didn’t have time to look at the Aim data over lunch, but we watched video from Sonny driving the car, and that was illuminating. He explained where he was braking, turning in, shifting, etc. The big surprise to me is that it’s all 3rd and 4th gear, and I was shifting twice into 2nd. This is partly because I put in a couple hours sim time in Assetto Corsa, and was driving the stock NA car the same as my race car.

Sonny also carried much more entry speed, barely braking for T1, the chicane, T9, and T11. I chewed on this while chewing my sandwich, and prepared to go out again.

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Worst. Picture. Ever.

Practice and qualifying

The afternoon session is race cars only, in racing conditions. It’s still practice, but it’s also qualifying. AER classes you solely based on your team’s lap times, and there’s a secret threshold (maybe not so secret) for each class division.

I got in the car first, and was immediately more confident, knocking off over six seconds and did a 1:51.7s. Strewth, six seconds. That’s the difference between me trying to learn a track on my own, and literally 10 minutes of Sonny explaining the track to me. I need a coach at every race.

We each got two 20-minute practice runs each, and in my second run I did a 1:48. I had 8/10ths in hand on the next lap, and then felt the car sputter as I sipped the last off an empty tank. I nursed it back to the pits, but it was good to know I’m capable of a middle 47. With more track time throughout the weekend, that felt like a good target for a race pace, as well.

Pat’s times came down a bit and by his second session he was reacquainted with the car and solidly in the 1:45s. He came in with grass on the splitter, evidence that he was feeling comfortable and exploring the space. Maybe a bit too comfortable.

Sonny did a high 1:44 in the afternoon, which gave us an indication of how fast the car could go, and matched his forecast from the first time he sat in the car. Sonny said that he can determine the potential of a car in one lap, and often in just a couple of turns. Not an exaggeration. Fact.

And then Alyssa surprised everyone by going quicker, managing a 1:44.5. Holy crap this kid is fast. This is her first time ever to Mid-Ohio, in her third 20-minute practice session, and she out-qualified our pro driving coach by .35 seconds. This kid had like 42 hours of racing time in her entire life before this event.

Alyssa Merrill. Two Rs, two Ls. Remember the name.

AER Class 3

So with both Alyssa and Sonny doing 1:44s, we got put in Class 3. My goal for this car was to be eventually competing in AER Class 3, and here we were! But mostly because Alyssa didn’t sandbag qualifying. We were still learning the track, and that required going as fast as we could. Most other teams held some in reserve so they could be classed lower (or classed appropriately, if you wish), and race for a win.

We were classed with these cars in AER Class 3. Seriously?

After seeing the other cars in Class 3, we went to the officials and said how did a 120 hp Miata, the least powerful car on track, get put into Class 3?Obviously it was good driving, but they said that if this turned out to be a mistake, they would re-class us half way through the race tomorrow, and put is in Class 2. Cool.

Pat adjusts tire pressure. Note the green “3” class sticker on the windshield banner. For realz.

But still, we did get AER Class 3 in qualifying, and for me, that feels like a million bucks. When I look over the cars we out-qualified, it goes like this: lots of BMWs (E36 325 S52, three E46 330s, all of the E30s, 525i), all the Miatas except one (two NC, two NA), three Porsche 944s, a Toyota 86 and a VW GTI. Fuck yeah.

Coaching moment

Friday evening we got a chance to look at the Aim data, and Sonny coached us on where we could improve. For me, the biggest problem was slowing the car too much. I always do that, but to a criminal degree in T1, T4, and T11. I also sometimes coast into or through corners, and lost a quarter second by not getting on the gas early enough in Madness.

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Late-night coaching moments require IPAs.

But it’s not like I’m a total noob. There were some corners I did right. In the keyhole and esses (T5-8), I’m as fast as anyone. To understand this, Sonny looked more into the data, and my lateral Gs are identical to the rest of the team pretty much everywhere except T1, meaning I’m cornering just as hard. My problem is I throw away too much time before the corner. This is not new news to me, it’s my particular driving style, and something I will have to correct if I want to go faster.

Aero and setup notes

I saw a lot of great aero this weekend, with most teams running splitters, side skirts, venting, etc. Wings were mostly about roof height and about zero degrees angle of attack. This is much different than a typical Champcar race where you see wing angles set too steeply, wings mounted too low, or otherwise aero done wrong. I only had to threaten to dick-punch one guy, when he said his 190+ hp 2.7 stroker e30 didn’t make enough power to use aero.

There were other Miatas without aero, and they all had motor on us. In fact, we were the slowest car in a straight line. But the extra downforce gave us better cornering and braking, and was clearly felt in the high-speed sections on the track. One Miata with aero and more power was doing 1:42s and was a legit Class 3 car. They were on RE71Rs, though.

I’m still using a 60″ 9LR wing set at about 5 degrees, without a Gurney flap (the flap would add about 15% rear downforce). The front has a typical Supermiata-style airdam, and a splitter of 4-5″ length depending on where you measure it. We didn’t adjust the aero one bit, and the car was very well balanced and easy to drive.

Setup wise, we added two turns up on the left rear shock, which is a Mid-Ohio thing. Otherwise we left the car alone. We set the 225 RS4 tires at 24 psi cold, and they came up to about 30 psi hot, and we’d bleed them down to 30 if they went higher. A pyrometer verified this as the proper setting.

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