2014 Solo Nationals Report

Terry Davis and I made the long trip to Lincoln Nebraska for the 42nd annual SCCA Solo Nationals.  “No motorsports event in the world boasts an entry list as extensive, diverse or unique as the Tire Rack SCCA Solo Nationals. Whether you are a championship contender, a trophy hunter, an enthusiast or a brand new autocrosser, the week of Nationals is an event you have to experience.” So said the SCCA website.

My trip began on Saturday with a day long drive to Knoxville Iowa to spend the night with a family friend.  It also makes the Sunday drive to Lincoln just 4 hours.  I pulled into the event site just after noon on Sunday and went to registration.  Registration these days is quick.  I spent less than 2 minutes in the tent getting my work assignment and checking for my paddock space.  The paddock rows weren’t clearly marked but once I found one, finding row 15 wasn’t hard.  Terry and I had spaces 3 and 4 which gave us plenty of room for the race car, truck and Terry’s 911.  I could have left the trailer in our spot but it’s just as easy to park it along the fence up by the Test and Tune course.

Technical inspection opened at 3:00 PM and I was ready to take the car down there when Terry arrived.  He’d driven from Evansville to Lincoln in about 9 hours.  I think he touched ground twice. J

I took the car down to Tech and waited in line for about 10 minutes.  When I finally got inspected there was some question as to whether or not my helmet would stick up above the roof when I was sitting in the car.  They seemed to take a lot of time trying to decide and ultimately decided I was low enough.  Then I had to call Terry to have come to Tech and sit in the car to make sure his head didn’t stick up too far.  Of course it didn’t since he’s 6 inches shorter than me.  The odd thing about all this was that if had left the roof on the car there wouldn’t have been any issue.  After all that I led the inspector through the rest of the inspection.  My helmet was certified to be in compliance and the stickers were on the car so I was given an inspection tag.  We went back to our paddock where we closed up the car until Monday.  Then we went to the hotel and cleaned up.  We had dinner in Lincoln at Lazlos’ and then retired for the night with the Atlanta NASCAR race on TV.

Monday was Test and Tune day.  We started by walking the East course a couple of times.  Then at noon it was time for the TnT.  I drove the car and gathered data from the electronic fuel injection system.  It was quite a trick trying to keep the laptop from sliding around but I managed a couple of runs with it in the car to gather data.  After I finished my work assignment I went to start the car and it wouldn’t start. We pushed the car out of grid and down to our paddock.  I had a suspicion where the problem was and started pulling the cover off the electrics in the engine compartment.  Terry procured a test light that helped me figure out a fuse wasn’t making a good connection.  We cleaned the fuse and the holder and reinstalled the fuse.  The car started right up.  After the repair session I sent a data log to Gene Young for his review.  He replied a bit later and made some suggestions about what to change in the EFI tune.  I made the suggested changes as well as a change to the timing sensor position.  The next day Terry would get the honor of testing the changes.  We walked the west course a couple of times before heading back to the hotel.  Dinner that evening was at Lazlos’ again.

Tuesday morning I had to be there for my heat 1 for work assignment.  I took notes as E Modified Ladies ran on the East course.  It was also the heat that had the Formula Jr A and B karts.  There’s a lot of energy in the Junior kart area and most of it kids being kids.  The kart meister was none other than former Indy Car driver Eliseo Salazar from Chile.

Terry took to the Test and Tune course at noon.  I kept track of his times while he did his practice laps.  I rode with him to get a data log and tried to coach him through the course.  It was the first time I’ve ever ridden on my own car!  There were no car issues this day and we returned to paddock where we removed the wheels so we could put on the new Hoosier tires.  It took a couple of trips to the Hoosier tire busters to get them all changed.  Now we were ready for our competition that would start Thursday.

I had to work the last heat and take notes on E Modified and G Prepared.  After the conclusion of the heats we walked the East course a couple of times and then went to the hotel.  Our meal that night was at an Argentine restaurant that served meat on a sword.  They kept bringing meat as long as the die had the green side up.  We turned it down a couple of times until it was time for desert.  Then it was time for bed.

Wednesday I was at the West course taking more notes about E Modified Ladies for my SportsCar story.  The EML winner Shawn Kiesel was emotional because her kids were running in the same heat and she wanted to be with them instead of driving.  It was especially bad for her because her son finished second by .002 of a second and she couldn’t be there to comfort him.  Her emotions calmed enough to give me some information for my story and her 7 second margin of victory but clearly she was more interested in being with them than talking to me or anyone else for that matter.

After the first heat we killed time driving the golf cart around the paddock looking at all the cars, talking to friends, enjoying the beautiful day.  Between the second and third heats we walked the East course again.  Then we had lunch and watched the third heat.  Then I had to get my stories from the fourth heat.

E Modified was more about who finished second through fourth than who won.  Jeff Kiesel notched his 8th consecutive national title in E Modified while in G Prepared Steve Bolinger waited until his last run to win a national championship in an event he didn’t intend to compete in just a month earlier.  Kiesel was dominant leading by 2 seconds the first day and then tacking on another 2.5 seconds on day 2.  Bollinger traded the lead with David Gott until he put it away with his last run.  When the heat was over and I had my notes we walked the west course.  Then we went to the east course for another walk through.

That night we went to the banquet, ate the food and talked with friends before heading to the hotel.

Thursday dawned warm and sunny.  We got to the site early so we could walk the east course before Terry had to work in the first heat.  Carolyn joined us about 11 AM just as we were getting the car to grid for heat three.  At the conclusion of the second heat we walked the course one more time.  Then it was time to get down to business.

The car was ready and we were ready.  Terry ran first and gave some feedback about the course.  My first run was okay but I knew there was lots of room for improvement.  Terry improved on his second run and I picked up a couple of seconds even while making a couple of big mistakes.  I knew the last run would be a couple of seconds faster and that I might just be in contention for a trophy.  All was going good until about 15 seconds into the run.  I was flat out, on the rev limiter when the engine made a strange sound and all the power went away.  I kept my foot down and finished the run but it came at a price.  When I shut it off at the end of the run the engine wouldn’t turn over.  Something in the valve train was amiss.  We pushed it on the scales and then out of the way.  Terry immediately sought out the Chief of Course to get his car Tech’d so we could run tomorrow.  I went and got the trailer and got it loaded.  I dragged it back to our paddock were it sat for the next day and a half.  Terry got his car tech’d while I got out the numbers I always carry with me.  We would apply the required stickers and numbers the next day.  The rest of the day I was pretty glum as I hadn’t expected an engine failure.  The engine was rebuilt just 3 weeks prior to the nationals.  It was running great after all the tuning that was done on the fuel injection.  I was bummed.  Dinner that night was at Vincenzo’s and nice Italian restaurant we frequent every year.

Friday, the last day of the Solo Nationals dawned overcast.  We got to the sight early to walk the west course a couple of times and then Terry went to his heat one work assignment.  After heat 1 we applied the stickers and numbers to Terry’s car and waited for time to pass.  After heat 2 we walked the west course one more time just as the rain began.  The first 2 runs were wet and I was entertained by the 2014 911 that kept me from doing anything drastic.  On the first run I threw it into the first turn too hard and I could feel the rear end coming around and I knew I was going to spin out.  “Not so fast there Big Guy” the car said to me and straightened itself out.  It was a chore to drive it within the limits of what it would let me do and I was laughing as I got back to grid.  “Eileen wouldn’t let me do anything.” I said.

Terry and Carolyn had puzzled looks on their faces.

“Eileen?” Carolyn asked.

“Yes, Eileen, as in Eileen over and you can kiss my a$$ if you want to drive like that!” I said.

We all got a laugh out of that.  I tried harder the second run to not over drive but Eileen corrected me a number of times.  My third run the course was dry and I wasn’t ready for it.  I managed to hit 2 cones when I was surprised that the car turned in a slalom.  I’m sure Eileen was snickering to herself at that point.  I finished a disappointing 27th when I expected to get in the top third of the field and maybe even get one of the 9 trophies.  That evening we went to the awards banquet, ate our dinner and then to the hotel.

Saturday we made the 13 hour journey home without incident arriving about 11 PM.  Over the next week I took the engine out of the car and found that an intake valve spring retainer had broken and let the valve hit the piston which broke the head off the valve and destroyed the piston and cylinder head.  Remember I said I finished my run?  Well that only served to trash the rest of the engine as pieces blew into all the cylinders and ruining them.  The final autopsy report was all 6 pistons, cylinders and heads were harmed as were the main and rod bearings and two bent connecting rods.

The engine repair will actually be a replacement.  The 2.7 that I was running was a grenade.  I was boosting it to twice the horsepower it originally put out.  The new engine will be stronger and able to take the horsepower.  Now I just have to get it together. Perhaps it’ll be done in time for the Roberts Park events in November.

SCCA Friends:

If you’re feeling  short on action don’t forget to check out our Kentucy and Southern Illinois SCCA friends.

Kentucky holds their events in Louisville: http://kyscca.com/events/

and Southern Illinois can be found at our beloved Mid-American Air Center: http://sirscca.org/autocross/mid-american-air-center/

 

A Special REport – Autocross Course Design

Having recently been the Event Marshall for one of our autocrosses,  course design a subject that has been on my mind lately.

If you have ever designed an autocross course, I’m sure you have noticed that, no matter how proud you are of your design, there will be event participants who aren’t as fond of the course as you are. I learned pretty quickly that it’s best to leave your ego at the front gate and to be prepared for some criticism.

When I lay out a course at Lawrenceville, I typically receive the most “suggestions” about how the course should be defined by pylons. We have a fairly unique site in Lawrenceville so we have to break a few layout rules in order to keep drivers off of the bad pavement. That means we usually have more pylons on the course than would be required if the site was a solid block of good pavement. But…

Though I’m likely in the minority on this topic, I think we could get away with using fewer pylons at Lawrenceville. I prefer a layout with fewer pylon “walls” and more pointers. Maybe that’s because I’m still relatively new to the sport and the pointers give me more visual cues for turn-in and apex points. A good example of this course layout philosophy was on display at last week’s autocross. Even though the course, designed by Kevin Smalley, was long and complex, Kevin managed to mark the course with a relatively small number of pylons. The pointer placement was great, and I found the course quite easy to follow. Kevin’s course proved my point(er)!  (sorry, couldn’t resist making that point…er)

Speaking of pointer pylons, a good rule to remember is to always leave some space between the upright pylon and its pointer. That layout will prevent the pointer from moving when the upright pylon is hit. Course workers will, therefore, have fewer pylons to reset when a driver goes off course.

There are a couple of other layout problems I’ve encountered that I would also like to address. The first is the pylon spacing for the pylons that define the edge of the course. In my recent course, I made the mistake of spacing some of the edge pylons at a distance commonly used for gates. When a driver is running the course at speed, those “walls” look like gates. That mistake caused some DNF’s at my event (Sorry, Dave). To prevent what I call a “gate mirage”, pylons at the edge of the course either need to be spaced at less than the common gate width or they should be so far apart that they don’t appear to be paired with another edge pylon.

The second design element I try to avoid is the “look at me” gate. I don’t think a gate should have pointer pylons pointing at each of the upright gate pylons. In most cases, no pointer pylons are required. If, however, the gate is considerably offset from the previous element, a pointer on the “inside” gate pylon is a good idea.  Usually, these decisions can’t be made when you are drawing the design on paper. They have to be analysed once the course is laid out at the site and you get a chance to see the gate or element from the driver’s perspective.

Course design is a huge subject and too much to cover here. If you are interested in a real discussion of course design, I suggest that you download a copy of Roger “The Real” Johnson’s document on the subject. You can find it via Google (search “Roger ‘The Real’ Johnson course design”) or from this link:

http://www.houscca.com/solo/courses/Course_Design_4-1-2.pdf

(Note: Even though the filename infers version 4.1.2, the document is actually version 5.1)

Roger is a well known autocross course designer from the Houston, TX area and has designed several courses for national events. The document covers many topics including how to design a safe course, how to equalize a course for high horsepower and light, nimble cars, and how to present common course elements in a variety of ways. Read his great document and then volunteer to be an event marshall for one of our autocrosses!