It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to provide an update on Project CrossTime — I promise there are a lot of articles in the pipeline to tell you everything I’ve been doing on it. It’s just very hard to do in the middle of racing and car show season (I do a lot with our other titles). But, I wanted to do a short chronicle on probably the largest event in which CrossTime has been entered: The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Time Trial Nationals in Bowling Green, Kentucky, at the National Corvette Museum (NCM) Park on September 28-30.
Chris and I have thrashed on the little Miata over the past couple of weeks getting ready for the inaugural event as we’ve been throwing upgrades on it at a furious pace. Here is the short list (more thorough and detailed updates coming soon on these):
- Changed from the stock Douglas (400 treadwear) tires to some take-off Toyo RRs (40 treadwear)
- Changed from stock brake rotors and pads to DBA USA rotors and PFC Brakes pads
- Received an Intercomp tire pyrometer and infrared temperature gauge from our friends at Summit Racing
- Gutted the interior (completely)
- Removed the A/C and de-powered the steering rack (all to try to get more horsepower)
- Installed a full Spec Miata rollcage (RaceFab Fabrications in Covington, Tennessee)
- Installed a Momo seat and steering wheel, as well as a Joes Racing Products quick-release steering hub — all from Summit Racing
- RaceQuip provided all the driver safety gear for CrossTime, including its brand new Chevron 5 single-layer firesuit, underwear, socks, balaclava, arm-tethers, shoes, and gloves (I already owned one of its Vesta 15 Helmets)
- HANs device (Ultralite Pro)
- Racepak CL1 Vantage Pro for data acquisition and analysis
- Installed Eibach sway bars front and rear
- Bought some Bridgestone Potenza RE-71 (200 treadwear) tires from Tire Rack to get out of the Unlimited class
I’ve run the Miata at numerous SCCA and NASA autocross and track day events in the Mid-South area including an SCCA Pro Solo event (my first SCCA regional event) at Blytheville, Arkansas, the NASA Bourbon Barrel at NCM, and Winter in July event at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and of course, plenty of time on track at Memphis International Raceway. To say I’ve been surprised by the resiliency of this 188,000-mile Miata is an understatement. The clutch is almost shot, but it still keeps on ticking (literally — the engine has that characteristic Miata-tick going on), no matter what I throw at it.
So that brings you up to speed (well, as fast as a Miata can go anyway) and to the SCCA TT Nationals at NCM Motorsports Park. The TT Nationals is not a championship, so you don’t have to have a competition license to participate. If you’ve been to a track day event, such as Track Night in America, and your car has the normal street safety gear (convertibles needed a roll bar), chances are you would pass tech. I arrived Thursday night, along with my friend/teammate Chris Johnston and his Miata. We arrived just in time to get teched-in and get the lay of the land. We met a few of our “neighbors” for the weekend in the paddock, checked the cars over, and threw the Covercraft cover over CrossTime before heading to the hotel.
I was excited to see how I would do on my return trip to the highly technical Corvette Museum track, now that I have gained some time behind the wheel. The only problem was the wheel isn’t the same one I started out with! There are so many things that changed lately, I might as well have been driving someone else’s car.
The two latest changes were the Eibach sway bars (Sept 24) and Bridgestone Potenzas (the morning of the event). These two changes “bit me in the butt” Friday morning. I had been running slicks for months — since that first event with the 400 treadwear tires — so I was used to a tire that could “save me” if I screwed up. At the same time, I had never played with the sway bars, as the originals aren’t adjustable. When I put the rear Eibach sway bar on, it was a total guess as to what setting to put it on. I guessed the middle hole. Evidently, I guessed wrong!
During the driver’s meeting, we were warned by Heyward Wagner, our event coordinator for the weekend, not to overdrive the car on Friday because it was just practice to get to know the track. “Hell, I already know the track — I’m good,” I thought! Again, I thought wrong. As we were waved out onto the track, I was nervous. I was aware of all the changes we made, and now with all the new safety gear in place, everything felt foreign to me.
Unfortunately, my plan to slide into the back of the grid was the same plan everyone else had. By the time I got to the grid, once I figured out how to put on all my RaceQuip safety gear and HANs device, most of the spots in the back were already taken, except the first spot in the second row. I was starting somewhere around 10th in a field of 30 cars. “No problem, I got this . . . I’ve been here before, I’ll just wave all these Mustangs and Bimmers by me when we get onto the backstretch and then scare the shit out of them in the corners,” I thought confidently. Yeah, that’s not how it went though. Not in the least!
We filed out of grid making a single-file line onto pit lane. Tom, our coach, was there with a pit-board that told us to keep all four wheels on the black stuff as he waved us onto the track. “Ok man, just go easy, you’re not in a race” went through my head as I eased off of pit road. But honestly, I was all out of sorts. With a car that had so many changes done to it in such a short time-frame, I should have done the smart thing and moved over on pit road and let everyone pass. Sure, I’d been on the track before — and even with this car — but, though this car carries the same patina as the old one, it was completely different to me.
I hauled off toward Turn 3 (which is where the blend line comes out from pit road) and I thought “cold tires, cold track” so I backed it down going into the corner. I braked early, knowing I had an unknown situation before me. Looking back at the Racepak CL1 Vantage data shows I was only doing 34 mph heading into that corner (normally I enter around 60 mph). As I slowly turned in, I felt the rear kick out a little . . . no wait, it’s more than a little! Holy shit, it’s going to come around! I floored it hoping I wasn’t too late, but I was. Yep, I’m man enough to admit that I spun the car on the first corner of the first lap in the first session!
As I pushed the clutch and brake in together to keep the engine from running backwards, I saw the Miata behind me coming straight for me as I sat right in the middle of the line through the corner. Luckily, he noticed it early and slowed so I could right the car, but it backed everyone else up. That meant there was now a train of cars stacked up directly behind me. I started furiously doing point-bys as we entered the backstretch, all the while trying to figure out what the hell just happened. I was now completely terrified by the car I had become comfortable driving over the past few months.
Still driving practically one-handed with my other hand pointing everyone by, I took it easy and off-line through Turn 5 with some technical turns ahead and even more cars bearing down on me. Turn 6 is a tight, off-camber, late-apex right-hander (that I still haven’t mastered) leading down the hill to Turn 7. I was so flustered, I missed the line on 6 badly. I just wanted to make it back around in one piece to pit lane to have my mandatory meeting with the coach and regain my bearings. I stayed off-line as much as possible pointing everyone by hoping that my rearview mirror would clear and I could think about what the car was doing.
Into the hairpin, I managed to let two more cars go by. Coming out of the hairpin, I stayed off-line pointing two more cars by as we headed toward “Deception,” a slight right-hander, but totally off-camber corner. The car was sideways through there and it sucked me toward the rumble strips. This was probably a good thing as two more slipped by me on the inside as I waved them by.
Finally, the coast was clear and I drove the car at about 60-percent heading into Turns 14, 15, and 16. By the time I hit 17, I was down to about 40-percent just looking for the pit-lane entrance. Cresting the hill, I saw the promised-land and exited stage left. The danger was over and I could think. Lucky for me, they ended up black-flagging the session due to a mechanical on one of the cars, so that was it for me.
As soon as I got to the paddock, I was under the car softening the sway bar and checking everything over. All looked good for the next session. This time, I got prepared early and was the first one on grid, so I took the last spot — where I should’ve been the first time. I already felt more comfortable, I was prepared, and the car didn’t have any visible signs of a problem, but I was still a little apprehensive. I ran the first couple of laps just getting reacquainted with the track, making sure I got some laps in.
After lunch, I had my confidence back — in myself, and the car — and began to push to see what I could do. I passed a couple of folks in faster cars who were still learning the track. By the end of the session, I felt real good and my lap times were dropping as I began to remember what my instructor had taught me at the NASA Bourbon Barrel event earlier in the year.
By the fourth session, I was really ready to stretch CrossTime’s legs. I had a great thing going with the Spec Miata of Brad McCurry and we swapped positions a few times. As the session came towards the 20-minute mark, I had opened up about a 10 to 15 car length gap and I was feeling good. That’s when Murphy made his appearance. As I headed out of Deception down the middle straight, I caught a whiff of coolant — not really anything new and the temp was good — or so I thought.
At the end of that straight, a Miata is doing at least 95 mph into a slight dogleg left (Turn 15), you give a little tap of the brakes to set the car for Turn 16, a flat-out, off-camber right-hander. If you do it right, you shouldn’t have to lift — the throttle will plant the car — you’re on the edge, but it will stick. That is how it should be done, but as my left foot transitioned to tap the brake the car wiggled. A racer’s instinct would’ve taken him right back to the gas pedal to plant the car and just drive through it. Unfortunately, my street driver instinct confused my “racer” mind and I hesitated. A bad mistake. The rear immediately snap-oversteered on me and I was looking the other way at about 90 mph.
As the front tires caught up to the rears, it came back to just sideways, which scrubbed a bunch of speed before I went over the rumble strips onto the run-off area. I didn’t get my foot on the clutch fast enough to keep the engine running when it went backwards, but at least it didn’t run backwards, it just killed the engine. As I was slowing from the spin, I noticed the steam coming from under the hood. When the car stopped, I tried to get the engine fired, knowing I was in a precarious position on the outside of a really fast corner.
That is when I heard my new friend Brad come up over the hill with tires squalling — he was doing the same thing I just did and probably heading right for me. I braced for impact, but luckily for both of us, he was not online with me and ended up in the grass. I got the car fired back up and we both hightailed it to the pits before someone else came over the rise. Here are two different angles of the spin.
That ended Fridays lapping sessions and we had a good story to tell, but I had some work to do in order to make the Track Sprint in about an hour-and-a-half. Upon investigation I had blown a heater hose. When we pulled the heater core out of the car, we simply made a bypass hose from the outlet to the inlet. That hose swelled under pressure and touched the header. Brad said he had seen a little smoke coming out of the hairpin, so I think the uncharacteristic wiggle I felt going into Turn 16 may have been some fluid.
It was a quick trip to Advanced Auto to get some caps for the outlet/inlet and I was back in business for the East Course Track Sprint. The Track Sprint is running a section of the track as you would an autocross, only there aren’t any cones. So, you have a standing start and trip the beams at the end. We had three runs, and the best run counted toward your overall score.
I didn’t do as well as I could’ve. The East course pretty much starts just after Deception and ends just after the Sinkhole, which is shaped much like a figure 8. Tight corners are a challenge in my Miata, because it still has stock suspension and an open differential, but is very stiff. It will lift the inside rear tire in tight corners, scrubbing speed in the process. I didn’t dare mess with the sway bars before the run, so I left them alone and tried to keep all four wheels down. I came in 5th in my class (T5) with a 49.769.
My Saturday went better, as I kept all four wheels on the pavement (mostly), but I could’ve done better. I probably should’ve tried to push the car a bit harder, worked on turns that were giving me trouble, or worked on my racecraft, but I was having so much fun running with Brad in his Miata that I didn’t really “get down to business” as it were. My best hot lap time was 2:43.927 (7th place). My Saturday Track Cross time was 73.818 (also 7th place).
After Trackcross on Saturday afternoon, the SCCA put together a karting competition for the first 64 registrants. You got two sessions to get a good lap, then the top 24 moved on to the next round. Just to prove I’m not a total idiot behind the wheel, I managed to squeak in with the 24th fastest time, and proceeded to the “B Main” if you will. Starting in 12th, I managed to work my way through traffic to finish 3rd! I think I was more pumped about that than my racing on the track. In truth, I was just happy to be at the event and my goal was not to finish last. I’m happy to say I accomplished that goal on both tracks.
On Sunday, I was able to knock another two seconds off my time for a best lap of 2:41.931, but everyone else stepped up their game and it was the slowest for in our class. I was able to do a bit better in the full-course Track Sprint and came in 6th with a 147.783. My overall time for the event was a little less than two minutes behind the overall winner with a 9:57.227, good enough for 7th in my class.
Below is my in-car cam of my best hot lap session of the weekend on Sunday. This is a great course with a lot of technical corners that I’m still struggling to nail down every turn and be brave in the fast ones. At times, you can hear the rear inside tire lifting and scrubbing speed in the corners.
The car is tired, that is for sure. The clutch sounds like a herd of trash cans when I engage it (look for an install article of a SPEC Clutch in the off-season), and the transmission is chunking into Third gear. I only have a few autocrosses left before the winter, so I’ll try to limp into the off-season and fix a few more things. Either way, I’m having a blast with my first serious foray into road racing/autocrossing and I don’t want the fun to stop. I don’t care what the sanctioning body is, or what kind of car you have, just get out there and do it! You’ll have fun whether you are in a McLaren or a Miata, I guarantee it!
I know I will be at the 2019 SCCA TT Nationals. Whether you are a total noob, or a die-hard racer, there is something for every skill level and a laid-back atmosphere. The event isn’t geared toward competition (even though they have awards), it’s geared toward having fun, hence the hashtag: #FunWithCars. I would like to give a big shout out to Heyward Wagner and his crew who taught us all a lot, while keeping it light, and the most fun you can have in a car — and that is coming from someone who has done a lot in cars!
For the results from the SCCA TT Nationals, go HERE (I was car #222 in class T5). Also, look for some exciting news coming soon about the TT program. There was an announcement at the event which we were sworn to secrecy about, but I think many people will be really happy with the details when they are released.