For years, I have heard the legends of motor racing talk about the experience of racing in complete darkness. It seemed almost romantic. As a child I would fantasize about 230 mph down the Mulsanne Straight at LeMans, enveloped in black, a stream of the headlights cutting the fog, not truly knowing what’s ahead but faint red taillights. At the Inde Motorsports Ranch, in Willcox, Arizona, I got a taste of that fantasy — albeit nothing like I expected … Another moment of race-driven anxiety.
I was very fortunate to get an invitation from Jim Cantrell, CEO of Vector Space Systems, to test as an “alternate driver” for the Vector Space 25 Hours of Thunderhill team. The lessons I came away with were imprinted deeply on my conscience and ego.
Driving racecars has been an aspiration since I was a small child. I worshipped guys like Chuck Parsons, Brian Redman, David Hobbs, Tony Adamowicz and Peter Gregg — endurance sports car racers who defied death in cars like Ferrari 512s, Porsche 917s, BMW CSLs — and won the great long distance classics. The stories they would tell about night racing was frightening, but thrilling. So naturally, I jumped at the chance to be a part of a team that would contest the world’s longest endurance road race. Certainly a feather in my cap and an opportunity to race on track with numerous great drivers — who naturally would probably pass me every three to four laps.
For the Thunderhill 25, Vector’s weapon of choice is a 1988 Porsche 944. It had run the race in 2012 and had gone all the way to the checker. It was the first 944 to ever finish the 25. In all it came 13th in class and 45th overall. Clearly Cantrell’s car building skills were well honed for reliability and speed. I looked forward to racing the car as I made the long drive from Southern California to Wilcox, home of the track where we would get practice sessions. Eight hours straight down Interstate 10 through several cloudbursts, mountains and desert on Sunday afternoon into night took me an hour and a half East of Tucson and about 150 miles from the tri-state border of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Jim Cantrell, as you may recall, from the ‘Getting to the Grid’ series of stories I have been writing, co-founded Space-X with Elon Musk and has since started his own rocket company, Vector Space Systems. Cantrell’s small (relative) rockets carry payloads of basketball sized satellites for delivery into orbit for high profile technology and government clients. Cantrell’s first love is motor racing. He began building go-karts, then dragsters, then road racing cars for various competition in historic and endurance racing.
I arrived at the track at about 10:00 am. Inde Motorsports Ranch is a very nice facility. It has numerous garages and several old jet fighter planes on display in an interesting collection of aircraft. I looked around at the jets while I waited. A text message came in from the team that they were still working on the car and would be departing Tucson around 12:30 pm — with an estimated arrival time of 2:00 pm. So I settled in and did some writing thanks to the WiFi connection in the clubhouse.
Apparently there was more work to be done and as another text advised they were further delayed. For a moment, I felt like Jean-Pierre Sarti, in the racing epic movie Grand Prix as he waited at Monza for his Ferrari to arrive from the factory. By the time they were now estimating an arrival, we were clearly running out of sunlight. So I spoke to the staff at the track, which was not being used, and got permission to do some familiarization laps to learn the lines.
I took my trusty street FIAT 500 out onto the track. This would be fun as I had just installed a set of Eibach Sportline springs on the car a couple of months ago, lowering the car about 3 inches, and added a set of Sparco 16-inch wheels and Yokohama tires. I looked forward to putting it through its paces. While not a racecar, the FIAT did well around the 2.75 mile, 21 turn circuit. The course was tricky. A long carousel, taken middle to outside leads to a 2,200 foot straightaway with a sharp right hander at the end. From there, chicanery-which can be taken largely straight leads to a series of uphill-downhill hairpins.
Once thought the hairpins, you need to set up right for what local racers refer to as the “pucker” corner. It’s a double apex that starts wide to the inside, back out to the edge. If you get it right, you can accelerate smoothly back towards the flag stand, which has the pit entrance or a right-left-right run back to the carousel and the back straight.
When I was learning the track, the configuration was set up with an additional chicane right before the flag stand. I managed about 10 laps before going back to the clubhouse to write some more. I was happy with the handling of the bigger tires, wheels and springs. The car settled faster entering the corners with a touch of understeer. The front wheel drive would be different, by a long shot to the rear wheel drive, 50/50 balance Porsche 944 I would be driving later, but it at least gave me some point of reference to where everything was on track.
The team finally rolled in about 4 pm. The sun was setting and one of my teammates, Sean Coleman, decided to take his rental car out to do some familiarization. I decided to tail him around the course to get perspective as to his lines. They were similar to what I had figured, but I felt I had a better exit from “pucker” corner. From there, I gathered my belongings from the club house and met Cantrell and the rest of the team at his garage. Jim had his membership to this private track since 2006. His garage was outfitted with a lift, which held his 1968 Corvette racecar and the 944 was in the middle of the floor getting final prep.
For the 2016 race, Vector Space built a new engine and gearbox. The 2.5 liter 4 cylinder has a ported head and new cam plus balance shaft delete kit. They opted to lower the weight of the car by adding a fiberglass front end, lean hatch and lightweight bumpers. It was set for running slicks and had standard Porsche ‘Phone Dial’ wheels.
Jim greeted me and introduced me around. Coleman and I had been acquainted from vintage racing previously and we chatted each other up on cars in his collection and his daily driver, a beautifully customized DeTomaso Pantera. By this time it was dark. When I say dark, I mean black. The lights from the garage illuminated the immediate area, but the track itself was barely visible. Another garage in a different row was open with its occupant working on a Spec Mazda Miata racecar.
At this point, the first of the 5 drivers (remember I am the alternate), Cantrell, took to the track in the 944. The row of garages we occupied was up past the flag stand along the outside of the carousel, and had a small service road which allowed entrance to the track at the end of the carousel, leading to the back straight. It was from there that we would enter and exit the track. Naturally years of driving the circuit in a number of his racecars, Cantrell could probably drive blindfolded — in a way the darkness was more or less like driving blindfolded. As he approached the carousel the four 35 watt LED headlights illuminated the track ahead. I watched his line as he smoothly and rapidly attacked the course.
Two more drivers took to the track and ran fine. We stood near a tire wall at the end of the Start/Finish and watched as the Porsche’s headlights cut the darkness, came around the carousel, and disappeared down the back straight again. The third driver brought the car back into the garage area and the crew opened the hood and looked for leaks and loose bolts. The bolts holding the coil overs in place were tightened down. It was my turn to go into the darkness.
Normally, under magazine test circumstances, I try to drive the cars at about 70 percent. It allows the experience of running the cars and enjoying the feel, without taking unnecessary risks. However this was a night time test for a pro race. I climbed into the car and observed the controls, switches and gauges. With a little instruction, I secured the removable steering wheel and flipped the acc to the “on” position and pressed the starter. the car came to life immediately. I then was shown the headlight switch and the switch for turning on the dash lights. They cast a blue-ish glow on the tach and pressure gauges. I dropped the shifter into reverse and slowly backed out of the garage.
Needless to say having very little field of vision ahead of the car, was unsettling, but I wanted to get on track and feel the 944. I entered the track at the end of the carousel and tip toed down the back straight. The car felt well balanced, yet the rear end wanted to step out — it felt very light and nimble — even compared to my own 1992 Porsche 968 which has similar balance. The headlights pointed straight ahead, which made looking into corners difficult — and there are 21 corners on this circuit that come up quickly. I stayed in third gear for most of the circuit and steered and throttled. The brakes were available, but I was counting mainly on the torque to keep me moving.
At one point, I forgot where I was on track and had to make a quick right hand turn to stay in the tarmac. It was nerve wracking! After the second lap, and getting through “pucker” corner, I upshifted and came to the left-right under the flag stand and flowed nicely onto the carousel and went through the gears down the back straight. As the markers came up, I smoothly shifted the car back through fourth and third for the right-hander and again stayed in third until exiting pucker corner again.
Suddenly, I felt more confident. I knew the group would be standing along the tire wall to watch my line through the carousel. I planned to exit the track this lap, feeling good that I could bring the car home in the dark… Or then again…
I accelerated a little harder this time and shifted into fourth for my last pass of the flag stand. Clearly I remembered the left, but completely got lost on the right. In an instant, I saw the rumble strips dead ahead in my headlights… Oh Crap! Quickly applying the brakes made a moment of screech then that horrible sound of gravel. I was four wheels off for about 10 feet. The sound was deafening — the engine itself was not terribly loud and one could hear the gearbox clearly above the engine sound. The gravel made the car bounce and it sounded like I had picked up gravel in the wheels as I re-entered the track. It wasn’t gravel though.
In my off course excursion, I had taken the low slung front spoiler off the car — torn the rivets from the fiberglass and it was now dragging beneath the car. Fortunately my slow drive back to the garage on the service road did not create any more damage. I pulled up to the garage, switched off the car as the crew immediately jacked up the car to assess my mess up and the damage. Thankfully no one was mad about the damage, but Jim and I mutually agreed that I was not ready to be participating in the 25.
Disappointing? Yes. But if I came away from this experience with anything, it would be that I need more wheel time in the dark — heck more wheel time period! I need better memory of any track and the correct lines I am following. Lastly, I need to bring my confidence up more slowly in uncertain circumstances. Lastly and most importantly: racing a car is serious business. Respect for the car and staying within your abilities is key. Like all of us, I still have much to learn.