Sebring Race Report

My wife’s parents live in Florida, and we visit them every winter. She has two sets of parents, so we usually stay a couple weeks. I go a little stir crazy with all the down time, and so that’s why this blog post is unusually long. Two weeks away from home also leaves me searching for things to do.

Last year I chartered a boat and went spearfishing. Freediving alone in the ocean is both calming and thrilling. Calming because of the motion of the ocean, the silence, and deep breathing. It’s a kind of mediation I suppose. It’s also thrilling because sharks, big fish, low visibility, and the combination of the them. I had a few opportunities, but I was diving like shit and didn’t spear any fish.

I also went on a wild boar hunt. I put an arrow into a decent hog, but it escaped into the palmettos. In the end I had to enlist the help of a dog, and finish the pig with a knife. Good eating, and a fine winter break.

This year I looked around for something else to do and saw there was a Champcar race at Sebring the weekend after Xmas. My Florida geography isn’t great, so I had to look up Sebring. Oh damn, it’s only 53 miles away from Winter Haven, perfect!

I put a post on the Champcar forum page and got a couple interesting offers from professionally run organizations with arrive-and-drive pricing around $2500. This includes registration, all consumables, and catering. Well shit, at that price, it had better. But I figured this was a rare opportunity to race a bucket-list track, so I should do it.

The first team to contact me runs an E36, and that’s certainly appealing. Rear-wheel drive and a stick shift are table stakes in my game, and BMW handling certainly sweetens the pot. It was a strong possibility.

The second team, RYSA Racing, has a Miata with no windshield. Hurm…. I had previously corresponded with them about aerodynamics on their car, and they seemed like great guys. But the no-windshield thing was a bit concerning. Anyway, I liked ’em, and I know the platform, and I had another idea that would make it even more interesting.

I said that I could bring my wing and other aero parts with me. And then we could do a really neat article on before and after. Meaning, we’d run the car as it normally is on Saturday, and then overnight attach a splitter and wing for Sunday. That would be a cool back-to-back test, and even if not 100% scientific, it would make a great article. They agreed. Cool!

But then I got an offer to drive a first generation MR2. Fawk. My first race car was a MR2 Mk1, or AW11 to the enthusiast. We built a boat around ours, got a Lemons trophy for it, and later a neat writeup.

The M-Ark-2

We swapped in a Silvertop from Japan trying to go faster and cure engine problems, which it did and didn’t. We made it into a Lamborarri and got on a Car and Driver “Best Of” list.

Same MR2, Silvertop, new theme

I wanted to race the RYSA Miata, and write a blog post on comparative aerodynamics, Also I instantly liked the team owner Rudy, and I know we could be fast friends. I felt like a total dick letting him down.

Because when it comes to AW11s, I have a nostalgic streak as wide as Sebring’s front straight. My rose-tinted glasses are at 5%. As such I’m blind to all the troubles that led us to giving the car away rather than race it again.

So as much as I would like to end 2019 writing an article on Miata aerodynamics, I’m going to be completely selfish and drive Team Carma’s MR2. And here’s the other thing, the whole weekend for $500.

Sebring International Raceway

Sebring is a bucket-list track for a lot of people. Not only because of its storied history, but because it’s challenging. The pavement is bumpy, changes regularly between concrete and asphalt, and the track is long and fast. There isn’t any elevation to speak of, but it doesn’t need any more character than it has.

I wasn’t going to just show up and drive, I did my homework. I read every online track guide I could find, watched youtube videos, and most importantly, watched the Speed Secrets “Virtual Track Walk”. The track walk is over three hours of content and worth the price. I was an idiot and didn’t get this until two days before the event, and I really should have done this first, it would have helped me on the simulator.

That was the other vital piece of homework I did, sim racing in Assetto Corsa. My brother Ian hooked me up with a sweet computer, wheel and pedals. The rest of my “sim rig” is decidedly get-tow, with a tiny monitor and a bean-bag chair stuffed under a basement staircase. It’s a lot like Harry Potter’s bedroom without a door or heat.

At first I used a stock Miata on Street 90s tires and my best time was 2:59. I’m not bragging, I’m saying that I suck at sim racing. I can’t drive this car at the limit, and I spin out all the time. I then tried the ND Miata, and I could at least drive that one without spinning, and did like a 2:42. And then I tried the ND Cup car and I recall doing 2:35 or maybe even a 2:32. You guys are like, I can do a 2:27 in that car! Yeah, I’m not a sim racer. Yet.

Here’s what I learned. Turn 1 is probably my biggest problem, and that’s true at most tracks. It’s got to be psychological. I can’t tell where to turn in, or how much speed to carry, and I often wind up mowing grass.

Otherwise I’m generally pretty good in the tight esses and 90-degree bends, so the rest of the track flows alright for me. But Turn 16 is another one where I either overcook it, or leave too much on the exit. And the final corner is a mystery of braking and turn-in points, but it seems you can make some adjustments mid-corner. But this area is riddled with bumps, and the reality may be something else altogether.

Team Carma

It’s a good team name if you have an MR2. What goes around comes around. As in the back end coming around! And the fact that team owner Kevin swapped in a heavier and more powerful 3-liter engine… swapping ends is more likely.

Kevin raced SCCA many years ago, and pressed pause to raise a family. The past five years he’s been racing with Champcar. Over that time, his car has evolved. Like us, he got tired of being abused by the 4AGE, but rather than give his car away, he swapped in a V6 engine from a Camry. These typically put out 190-ish hp, but Kevin says this one has 220 hp. He had to cut up the engine compartment to make it fit, but it’s in there.

A 60-degree V6 will fit with some cutting.

At first Kevin used a stock transmission, but only two bolts on the bell housing lined up, and this required some custom fitting and didn’t last long. This will be the first race on a new manual transmission from a ES300, which are as rare as hen’s teeth. The new tranny required custom axles. If you know MR2s, then you know the axles are one of the weak points. Now imagine putting double the horsepower through them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Besides me and Kevin, there are two other drivers, Neil and Kevin #2. Neither has any experience at Sebring. Neil has a lot of short track experience, meaning a 1/2-mile oval. So he’s never raced on a track that has both left and right turns. Sebring has a lot of right turns.

Kevin #2 has no wheel-to-wheel experience, but he did the Lemons Rally to Key West in a Miata kart. He even dressed up as Super Mario. No shit, he’s that guy.

Image result for lemons rally key west mario kart
Teammates with this guy. Cool!

Friday

I arrived on Friday evening and looked over the car. Let’s start with the aero, of course.

The aero package starts with a short airdam and splitter made out of aluminum. It extends to the front axle underneath, but the business end is only a couple inches long. The ends turn up and aim at the exposed tires, which is not so good. In all, the splitter probably helps, but these cars typically need more downforce at the rear than the front anyway.

Airdam and splitter. Love the tow chain, I’ll use it.

The rear aero is the stock spoiler moved back a few inches, the Plumley mod, as it’s called. In addition, Kevin made the entire trunk adjustable, so he can increase the height and angle to four positions. It’s a simple DIY solution and I love it.

Simple adjustable spoiler. Notice license plate, this is street legal!

Before I move onto the rest of the car, I’ll note that I saw more cars without rear windows than with. This is an aerodynamic challenge for anyone using a wing, but the Champcar rules specify no rear glass. So for teams that don’t want to shell out for Lexan windows and the required aluminum supports, they just remove all the rear glass.

Back to the MR2. I noticed the tires were staggered, with 205/40-17 on the front and 225/17 on the rear. The rear tires are the largest diameter that will fit, which Kevin chose for taller gearing. I would have fit 15″ wheels, but it’s not up to me. The tires are Falken Azenis 615k+, which I’m familiar with. Kevin starts these at 30 psi, but doesn’t really adjust them. Which is a no-nonsense approach, but I’m seeing the start of a pattern.

I asked about the brake pads, and Kevin said he didn’t know. Are they race pads? No. Hmmm. I’ve never raced on “I don’t know” pads, so this should be interesting. The shocks also feel a bit soft, and I confirm they are simply cut springs. There are a lot of small details like that, which add up to a car that is, let’s say, not exactly race spec. But it is what it is, and it looks fun.

Ok then. The team owner has some interesting ideas on car setup. The other drivers are inexperienced, and both of them are scheduled to drive before I do. The forecast is for rain, and this is a treacherous track in the rain. At this point I’m certain the car wont last the weekend, and the over-under on me driving at all is about 50/50. Just the same, I’m feeling right at home with this car and these guys. Fuckin bring it.

Saturday

The race started with a bang. Or rather, two bangs. There are two pairs of black rubber stripes on the front straight, which is where the drag racers launch. This area has been treated with some kind of chemical for increased traction, which works in the dry, but has the exact opposite effect in the wet. In addition, the paint on the start/finish line is icy when wet. And it’s pouring. If you accelerate or change direction over these two areas, the car slides.

Green flag. Bang! Two cars hit the side walls before start/finish of the first lap. A few laps later another car would join them. And then another. And then another. The Champcar staff had to call an emergency driver’s meeting and tell all of us what we already knew: don’t accelerate or change direction on the black stripes or the start/finish line.

To Sebring: Clean that drag-racing shit off your front straight, it’s downright dangerous. Or better yet, don’t treat the track! Drag racing is about comparative times, it doesn’t matter what the surface is. Yes, we were told about this hazard in the driver’s meeting, but it’s within your power to make your track safer, and you made the track more dangerous. Even your safety car had problems staying on track!

We didn’t hit any walls, but this is a rookie team, and we made other rookie mistakes. Some examples of this:

  • Kevin #2 had the least experience, so he went first. We were gridded in 7th place, but because of an ill-fitting Hans anchor, he left in last place.
  • The radios gave us fits, caused an unscheduled pit stop, and never worked well.
  • The shifter cables got disconnected by getting caught on the driver’s sleeve. This resulted in another pit stop.
  • At the end of Neil’s stint, Kevin sent him out for three more laps. He interpreted this literally, and so when the entire track went full-course yellow on his out lap, he stayed out there during the entire FCY laps rather than use this for the pit window.
  • You only break parts you don’t bring. But I’m jumping ahead.

Despite these things, I was really proud of Kevin #2 and Neil. They’d never been to the Sebring before, were racing wheel-to-wheel in dangerous conditions, and brought the car back in one piece. They had their moments and saved them, and set some decent lap times in the process. Nice job.

I got in the car around 12:30, in some of the better weather we’d seen. I even turned off the windshield wipers for a couple laps. Despite the dry-ish track, I never got any heat into the tires because I couldn’t push the car. It just didn’t handle. At least not how I remember my MR2 handling.

I’d turn the steering wheel, the front tires would kind of take a set, and then the back end would come around, like there was a hinge in the middle that had to catch up with the front. The brakes didn’t inspire confidence, but at least they were water cooled. The suspension was way too soft, even in the rain. After a couple missed attempts at 2nd gear, I didn’t go below 3rd.

The engine, tho. The engine. More weight over the rear wheels, more power to them, and you can accelerate like crazy. The engine signs off at 5500 rpm, but so what. Short shift and pin it. I passed people on power, which never happens in a Miata.

It took a while to get accustomed to the point-and-shoot nature of the car, but I was getting there. And then on the entry to T5 I heard a clunk from what felt like the right rear wheel, and the car stepped out a bit more than usual, as if it had a second hinge. I backed off until I’d exited T6, gassed it, and then right in the middle of the back straight, suddenly the car popped out of gear and I had no power. I rolled to the inside of T7 and waited for a tow.

Back in the pits we found the problem, a broken RR CV joint. The axles on this car are custom made for the transmission, and Kevin didn’t have any spares on hand. We went to a local parts shop and got a standard MR2 axle, but we couldn’t fit it and our weekend was over.

The bearings are somewhere between T6 and T7.

Further inspection of the car showed a RF wheel bearing with a lot of play, and the entire wheel was moving 1/2″. I was on my way to a parts store 90 minutes away when they discovered that it was simply the nut backing off. Also the front sway bar was disconnected. Sebring’s bumpy surface will rattle apart anything that isn’t loctited or wired down, and these problems were probably victims of the track.

These two problems help explain the funky handling, and why I can put on my rose-tinted glasses back on and still call the AW11 the best handling car I’ve driven. Just not this one.

Sour grapes

This wasn’t my worst racing weekend. One time I flew out to California and the car broke on the first stint, and I never got to drive it. Another time I came together with an E30 at Watkins Glen and ruined both our weekends. Measured against these, this weekend wasn’t so bad.

I paid $500 for 12.5 laps. This works out to about $40 per lap, or $720 per hour. However, I got to race wheel-to-wheel at high speed, on an iconic track, in a nostalgic car. If I do the math, that’s less expensive than autocross, and a hell of a lot more fun than dodging cones in a parking lot. When things go badly, it feels better to point the finger at other people. So there I go bashing autocross again. I still don’t fucking get it.

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