GO WEST, YOUNG MAN
by Stephanie Funk, Northeastracer Editor, and Northeast Division 2018 H-Production Champion, photos by the author.
“What do you mean we can’t sit together?”
The JetBlue agent was apologetic, but firm. The other passengers who chose aisle seats were refusing to move. And so, we started our week long trip scattered around the cabin in JetBlue’s ‘Mint’ section. ,
I clambered over the outstretched legs and ample girth of my unwanted seatmate and settled against the window. Outside the tarmac at Boston glistened under the unending rain we had experienced all summer. Leaning my head against the window, I stared across the gate area as my mind took a journey of its own.
Virginia at VIR in April, a crap shoot this year as storms moved in with a vengeance, shortening the race card and producing tornados nearby. This would prove to be the tone of the season as we battled inclement weather at almost every event.
The jet shuddered and began to ponderously back away from the gate, the ground man waving his light sabers in indecipherable commands.
We returned to the south a mere two weeks later, for the Summit Point Majors. Between mechanical issues and getting tagged and sent off track violently, with a DNF resulting, the trip wasn’t much of a resounding success. The high speed, violent off at turn 4 had me bouncing and spinning through the gravel with enough force to push the rear axle sideways several inches, jam gravel into three of the four tires enough to break the beads and let the air out and, as a crowning touch, jumping the timing a couple teeth.
With engines screaming, the jet picked up speed, bouncing and lumbering down the runway. I wondered, as I often do, if this time would be the time we ran out of runway before achieving lift.
We didn’t. It lumbered free of the earth and rose through the layers of clouds to cruising altitude unscathed.
I sighed and raised the foot portion of the multi-functional seat, reclining back in relative comfort. A smell wafted through the cabin, an unpleasant one.
My unwanted seat mate was ordering half the menu for lunch, his ample girth testament to the fact that this likely wasn’t a new thing.
The smell intensified. I ordered lunch and pressed my face into the edge of the blanket to muffle the olfactory assault.After Summit Point, we regathered and realigned the car.
Pittsburgh International Raceway was next, in mid-May. Our first time to the venue, we had no expectations as to what we would find. The weather was projected to be lousy, with thunderstorms and heavy rains. Sadly, the other people registered in my class began to either drop out or blow up in the test day, leaving me with one person to face.
Next to me, my seatmate laid his seat flat, pulling his eyeshades down. Snores began to percolate up out of his gut. The smell, which had abated, began to make its presence known again. I glanced at the GPS display on the television in front of me: still over 4 hours to go.
Saturday at Pitt race was still dry when we had our race. With the defection of the rest of my competitors, I decided to put the session to use as a track day, to see how quickly I could get Pitt nailed. It’s a tricky course; lots of technical places, off camber esses across the hill side, blind apexes and high speed blind spots.
In my second session on track, that dry race, I reset the track record. Saturday afternoon, the thunderstorms moved in with a vengeance, creating havoc to the poor bastards in SRF. Nothing like racing a car shaped like a bathtub in a monsoon.
Sunday dawned with a torrential downpour, one that continued through our race and into the afternoon. The car was in a good mood; it scooted through the wet without much attitude, handily covering the race distance to win again. We departed from there much happier about how the car was set up and running.
There is no service cart in the Mint section of Jet Blue. Instead the attendants come through with each person’s meal on a tray, real porcelain dishes and silverware, edible portions and ice cream for dessert.
Beside me, my seat mate asked for extra chips and second can of Coca Cola. I mentally braced myself for what was coming.
A dear friend’s wedding during the weekend of the Watkins Glen Supertour meant we stayed home instead of traveling to one of my favorite venues and areas. Instead of taking any down time, I filled the weeks between Pitt with motorcycle track days and a regional race at NHMS in the second gen CRX during Memorial Day weekend.
Leaning forward, I peered around the cabin looking for Ed and our crew, Joel and Kelly. They were either engrossed in reading or sleeping. Pulling the shade down, I attempted to sleep for a while. Next to me, a snore burbled up again.
Over the winter, Ed had been nosing around among his west coast contacts, inquiring about the possibility of perhaps renting an ITB or ITC car to run the Runoffs in. He was directed to a former Runoffs winner, a winner of three Runoffs with three different drivers, a second gen CRX that was really fast and very well built. He began talking with the owner about renting that for the June race at Sonoma and for the Runoffs.
We didn’t need another H Prod. We have a perfectly good one. We tried to have it shipped out, but the cost was prohibitive. We talked about shipping it ourselves, but neither of us had the time to drive across country and spend a week racing. A rental would be the perfect solution.
Except, one afternoon I would come home to have Ed say to me, “You really shouldn’t leave me unattended...”
I roused up enough to check the GPS display. Down to 2 hours and 15 minutes to go. Below us, the landscape had changed to an arid scene punctuated with bright green circles.
It made sense, in a weird way. The car was for sale. To rent it for both events was going to cost almost half if not more of what it would cost to buy it. Given the pedigree of the car and its record, it was worth buying it.
Of course, things don’t always go exactly as planned.
The trip to Sonoma in June revealed some issues we hadn’t been aware of. The crank position sensor failed, causing the car to quit running whenever the water temp got about 190. Being that the ambient temperature was 107 F that day, it meant after two laps it would quit.
By Sunday’s race, I was a bit frustrated. I was out there on my own, garaged with the people who had the car. Pulling on my IT background, I ended up talking them into running a piece of brake duct down to the sensor, covering the end of it with wire mesh and filling the tube with dry ice.
While not running well, it stayed running through the entire race, allowing me to get to know the track a little bit. Sensors can be fixed; I could tell that underneath that there was a good car.
The attendant came through offering beverages. I ordered a cappuccino, mostly because I could. I could get used to traveling like this.
The weekend after Sonoma, we traveled to Connecticut, to Thompson for the Majors there. And there we ran into some mechanical issues. A possible second place finish was turned into a third place one on the last lap when lapped traffic created its own issues. And Sunday’s race lasted two laps, after ending up with a gearbox full of nothing in T4.
We would later find out the track was so rough that it caused the bolts on one of the motor mounts to fail, making the motor shift enough that the shift linkage came free. That wasn’t all we found; we also found metal shavings in the oil, leading us to suspect the bearings were going.
With New Jersey on the schedule in three weeks’ time, all we could do was pull the motor and slap the rebuilt stock ITB motor we had in it.
My phone pinged with a message, sent through the airline’s internet; Kelly, seated three rows behind me, ‘What is that smell?’ Yes, that strong, Remeber that guy with the second coke. He passed gas more than a Sunoco fuel truck at a NASCAR race.
I had an idea what was causing it. 45 minutes to go. Below the window, snow and clouds dominated.
New Jersey Motorsports Park is built in a swamp. And like any swampy places, they are wet. Add in, what else, thunderstorms and wind and you have a perfect storm. Once again, the car proved it was in a good mood in the wet, allowing me to fling it through corners and not kill me in the process. And I had to: we were down on horsepower, so now it was all about momentum and taking chances.
The announcement came over the PA to prepare for landing, place seatbacks and trays in upright positions.
I knew Tom Broring was quick around NJMP, but he was also in his wife Carolyn’s Volkswagen. I gambled that he would be reluctant to toss her car into a tire wall, and so took chances with ours. It paid off, with two wins, one in a blinding downpour, the other on a treacherous track where I was going sideways through turns, looking over my shoulder down track.
Below us, the clouds broke, revealing San Francisco and the bay. We flew over SFO and began a slow turn over the bay.
We had a few weeks between NJMP and the Runoffs. We filled those weeks with Matt Mather, aka Beaverbuilt Fabrication working remotely with our California counterparts to fix the issue with the sensor. I traveled to Connecticut for some seat time at a full motion sim race machine running Sonoma. In a FWD VW, I was able to get down into the 59’s on my second session. I began to cautiously hope that if the car was right that I could get up to speed swiftly at Sonoma and try my hand against the likes of Brian Linn and Jason Isley.
We lined up with our runway, racing a Southwest Airlines jet in as the two jets landed simultaneously. As the jet jolted down onto the ground again, engines screaming in reverse, I gripped the arms and wondered what the week would bring. And yes, I most definitely looked forward to wheels-on-ground... and fresh air!
So much of the Runoffs is luck as well as prep and skill. The best driver in the world can’t compete if the car doesn’t perform up to standards. And drivers who aren’t the best in the world can still place well if they keep running when others don’t.
We began the long, lumbering taxi to the terminal. I stared out at the palm trees under the flat, bright sun and wondered what was going to happen.
To be continued...
Stephanie Funk is a New England based driver, competing in SCCA in H Production and with motorcycles through track days. Funk is also an editor at Northeast Racer. You can reach her with comments or story suggestions at email@example.com © 2018 Stephanie Funk This material may not be reproduced or used without permission