2017 SCCA Solo National Championships
There's a big chunk of the 2017 Parsimonious Racing story that hasn't yet been documented in this space. Since I still want to go on and on at length detailing that development while not doing so now, I'll glance over it quickly.
We left off with Sloppy, the 2008 MX-5 we had been running in STR, leaving us high and dry with a camshaft problem in Toledo. We'll make a long story short, with the understanding that I will create that long story eventually: we bought another NC, this one a 2010 PRHT from Honest Danny's Quality Used Car Sales lot. Yes, the PRHT is the wrong model to make an autocross car out of. But it is a NC2, which comes with a stouter engine that can be run at a higher RPM reliably. The car came with better go-fast pieces than we had on Sloppy, so it was a turn-key solution. I added my seat, my little battery, and my stripe/number/decal scheme from SSC Tint & Graphics. Other than that, we just got in and drove it.
This flies in the face of generally accepted autocross principles, which suggest that tweaking one's car should come to a halt sometime in July so we don't go to Lincoln and the national championships with an untested package. Those principles don't take into account breakage that forces an operation to change to an entirely different car in July. On the other hand, we had little choice in the matter, so we left for Nebraska as well-prepared as possible, given the circumstances.
The ride out was uneventful, which is just the way we like it. We fired a set of tires on the Ram shortly before leaving, so that helped. We made about the same time as we did going out to Spring Nationals. Kate got us to the I-80 truck stop around midnight, and I took over for anther hour or so. I had designs on getting us all the way to and through Council Bluffs, since there is a pretty substantial road construction project that backed up traffic pretty badly when we went through there in May, but there was no way I could do that distance safely.
Besides, I realized, if I got us all the way to Lincoln non-stop, we would be getting into town around 7 in the morning. There's nothing for us to do that early; we wouldn't be able to check into our hotel for another eight hours or so. With that knowledge, we camped out for the night. The following morning, we hit the road again and were pleasantly surprised to discover that, while the construction around Council Bluffs was still going on, the traffic backup I feared we'd wind up in the teeth of did not materialize at all.
After that, our only challenge was to try and chase down Tony Savini. We were doing the Nationals Snap Crap Challenge, which is a photo scavenger hunt to keep participants awake and alert on the long ride out and longer ride home from Lincoln. One of the perennial items on the Snap Crap list is to get a photo of a fellow autocrosser traveling to Nats, and we hadn't seen one yet. We saw Tony post on Facebook that he had crossed the Nebraska state line less than an hour before we got there, and, armed with the knowledge that Tony's cruising speed is quite a bit lower than ours, there was a chance that we'd catch him before we got to Lincoln. This meant passing up our usual last gas stop and Kate's last driving stint. We never found Tony, but I bet we made it pretty close.
In town, we did our usual Thursday drill: check in to the Staybridge Suites, ditch the trailer in their yard, and head into town for lunch and a Walmart supply run. This was the first trip to DaVinci's out of a total of five or six.
Friday morning got busy. We had signed up to do the Evolution test & tune, but then Kate had a work thing that had to be done in town mid-morning, and Trevor the rock star driver was flying in and had to be picked up at the airport. We hatched a plan: unload the car outside the entry gate, ditch the trailer off-site, and let Kate go into town with the truck while I brought the car directly to the practice course.
Since I had a lot of T&T time in front of me, I figured I'd try a big change on the car just to see what it did. So I ducked under the car and switched the rear sway bar from full soft to full stiff. I started making runs and the car felt great, a lot more lively than at home but not uncontrollable. I started adding rear shock to try and see if I could feel the difference and the car kept feeling better and better. As I was feeling pretty happy with the car, Kate and Trevor showed up. Trevor got right in the car and started making runs, and we fiddled with shocks a little more until we thought we had it pretty much right.
I knew the practice course didn't handle like the main courses, but I couldn't remember exactly how. I asked Sean Greer, and he said that if a car was on the loose side on the practice course, it would be pretty much right on the other end of the site where the big show happens. This was good news, as the car was just a touch looser than I would have liked. So we were set.
Later on, though, talking with Shane Chinonn-Rhoden, he said that the difference between the two courses was the opposite of what I was told. A loose car on the practice course, he said, is only going to be looser on the southern end of the site. With this information, Trevor and I huddled and decided to back out the last few shock changes we made, while keeping the rear bar on full stiff. We were far from worried about not having the car dialed in completely; we each had three Pro Solo Finale sessions over the weekend to keep fiddling with things if needed.
My Pro Solo results haven't been spectacular all year. I love doing Pros, but that doesn't mean I enjoy great success in them. My results were: New Jersey 22nd out of 31, Spring Nats 9 out of 13, Toledo didn't count since the car broke, and Oscoda - the first Pro in the PRHT - 12 out of 13. Now that we're running against those who qualified for the Finale, I didn't expect to be high up in the standings.
The Pro was weird. In the first session I was roughly in the neighborhood of other drivers, but in the next two sessions, I never saw any real improvement in time. I knew what places on course I had to be better at, and for the most part I was better in those places as the weekend progressed. But each time through the finish, I'd think to myself "that was way better", but the time display showed about the same time that I'd been running all the time up to that point. This is far from the first time that this has happened to me, and I can only chalk that up to my inability to capitalize on the multitude of runs available to me in the Pro format.
In years past, we've come out of Pro Finales with underwhelming results. Parsimonious Racing was DFL and next-to-DFL in STS last year, and we still managed to have a decent Nationals, so I was not worried. The car felt great, it wasn't completely out of the ballpark, and we were all happy with the setup.
Well, we were happy with the setup until Monday afternoon. Trevor had attended the Koni shock absorber seminar, and came back with some ideas he wanted to try out. He wanted to slightly stiffen the front bar, and add some shock to both ends to compensate for it. We made those changes and figured we were set for our Tuesday and Wednesday championship runs.
Kate, in the meantime, was hatching her own plan. She saw that CSPL only had four drivers entered, one short of qualifying for Hoosier contingency. In talking with Sharon Eberline, one of the CSPL drivers, Kate opted to switch from STRL to CSPL to make it a full class, something that the other CSPL drivers certainly appreciated.
Kate's move shifted her driving heat from last to second, which not only got her done a lot earlier than she otherwise would have been, but perhaps would have gotten Trevor and me semi-warm tires for our STR effort in the third heat. Both Tuesday and Wednesday were predicted to be sunny but cool, so warmer tires would be nice things to have.
Starting on the West course, Kate was first out. She found cold tires to be a challenge as she looped it on her first run. She wanted to blame the spin on the changes we made to the car on Monday, though those were subtle changes that shouldn't have made the car undriveable loose. Her second run resulted in a cone being hit to avoid a DNF, and finally on her third go-round she was clean, though six seconds out of fourth in class.
Did Trevor and I benefit from warm tires for our STR effort? Not really. The half-hour or so course walk break between the second and third heats meant any heat in the tires was going to dissipate, even though the tire blankets were employed. This just meant we were on equal footing with the rest of the class, and not at a disadvantage.
I was the tire warmer, and I found a good way to warm the tires halfway through my first run. Heading up the right side of the West course into a fairly fast left-hander, I lifted and/or tapped the brakes to set up for that turn only to have the car quickly swap ends and exit stage right straight backwards. I put two feet in, standing on clutch and brake, but the brakes were in ice mode and didn't do much. No problem, I think, this thing's going to stop eventually. It did, but only after I ran out of concrete and got into the grass at the edge of the course. I shook that off and rejoined the course, no worse for wear. In paddock, we undid the rear shock change made the day before.
Trevor started his championship effort with a decent 61.56, and I got up to speed with an uneventful 62.04. Trevor didn't improve on his second shot, but I did with a 61.888. Trevor found a couple tenths on his last run with a 61.309 so we finished day one just half a second apart. That half a second, though, translated into 18 positions in the standings as Trevor was 32nd and I was 50th out of 76. I was pretty OK with that performance
On Wednesday, Kate was determined to shake off her first-day performance and see if she could run closer to the real CSPL cars. She didn't get off to a good start, though, with a cone right out of the box. But by the end of her three runs, she was right around two seconds off the fourth-place CSPL driver, and 4.5 seconds off the winner's Wednesday time. That's not too bad for a overweight STR car.
Trevor and I suited up for our second-day assault with some confidence after Tuesday. I had the early edge on Trevor as I ran a clean 58.7 while Trevor knocked over a pair of cones. I found a full second on my next run, but Trevor shook off those cones and went faster as well, reasserting the Parsimonious Racing lead with a 56.92. I knew I could get into the 56s for my last run, but didn't get through the first couple elements very well and I was surprised to see any improvement. I finished up with a 57.036 while Trevor found a couple tenths himself to sit on 56.717.
I picked up three spots from Tuesday to Wednesday, finishing the week in 47th, while Trevor lost four spots to run 36th, nine-tenths ahead of me. Overall, we were happy. I scanned the vast STR grid - we had our own heat - and asked semi-incredulously "I beat thirty of these guys?"
This was not my best performance at Nationals. In both 2015 and 2016, I was better than 42.85714% of class entrants (36 out of 63 in '15, 32 out of 56 in '16). My percentage this time around was 38.16%. If I were 4 positions better this year, I would have eclipsed my best in six years of running STS. That's not bad considering we were not only in the wrong car for the class, but the wrong model of the wrong car for the class. This was a car that we didn't even have in the fleet before July, so to come out of this in nearly the same shape we've left our last two years of a looooooooooooooong STS effort is very encouraging for the future.
Our Nationals success, relatively speaking, is also a testament to how well Danny Kao set this car up before passing it to us to continue its development. He put together a car that was easy to drive fast, with no surprises or bad habits to overcome. We'll be putting some work into the car during the off-season, but it'll be little tweaks here and there rather than re-engineering. It's that good.
The other development that came out of Nationals was our shaking hands with co-driver Trevor to have him drive with us for the 2018 season. When we started our 2017 campaign with him, I thought I'd be a nice guy and put a decent driver, saddled with what was very much the wrong car for the class, in a more appropriate ride. I'd take him under my wing, show him the ropes, introduce him to more fun people from other regions, and watch him slowly improve over the course of the season. What actually happened was that he outran me pretty much every time out starting with the very start of the year. He seemed to enjoy running Sloppy, and then Bruce, with us, and we're looking forward to continuing what we started as we start a second year as a team.