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Motorsports Diary: Racing In The Snow at Road Atlanta

Photo by Osajus Photography

The ChampCar 2021 season kicked off as it usually does, at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta in early February. I’ve been fairly active since my last ShiftAtlanta diary entry for AMP in October 2020. I’ve done several weekends as an HPDE instructor for Just Track It, and received approval to instruct for JZilla, Chin Motorsports, and the Atlanta Driving Society as well. I pursued my MSF Level 2 HPDE certification, which really gave me a lot to consider about driving and instruction. I’ve also met some great people in the HPDE industry, which will help me develop as an instructor. Finally, I raced in December at Barber Motorsports Park with ChampCar and the awesome Momo team, with decent results.

The Race

I’ve been racing at Road Atlanta for about 10 years now, and the February ChampCar race has always been a challenging one. As a straight 14-hour race, drivers must be ready for all conditions from 8am to 10pm, including running lights for night driving. Weather in February can be unpredictable, which can range from spring-like temperatures to white-out blizzards. Since it’s the start of a new season, teams also have to go through inspection for any new rules that have taken effect. As a result, it’s a busy event.

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ChampCar is an entry-level series, which brings a lot of new drivers into wheel-to-wheel endurance racing. Road Atlanta hosts a number of events, including the IMSA Petit Le Mans. This means we have professional drivers often mixing it up with complete novices. Combine that with a track that doesn’t play around, and you get the potential for a rowdy event. The biggest problem by far is passing under yellow, which is a frequent offense, but gets downright silly at Road Atlanta. It was not uncommon at all for the entire race to be black flagged so the organizers could have a little fireside chat about the lack of respect for corner flags. There were also times that the amount of car-to-car contact got bad enough that we’d get a little come-to-Jesus meeting prior to nightfall. By 2016, the organizers changed driver requirements; unlike other races, Road Atlanta would only allow drivers with two ChampCar races into this event (or equivalent experience). No more first-time novices…but I’ve always felt it was the seasoned veterans that got a bit too much red mist when it comes to ignoring flags. 

Since the change in 2016, I’ve had a fairly smooth experience in the opener, racing with different teams in 2017-2019. The prerequisites that ChampCar put into place really seemed to help. In 2020, I couldn’t get a seat but came out to the race anyway to spectate and cheer on my friends. That race was stopped for a rather impressive blizzard that covered the track in 6 inches of snow. At some point, the novice restriction was removed from Road Atlanta, and some 80 new drivers started the race this year, out of about 300+ drivers in the field.

This year, the weather predictions changed during the days leading up to the race. It was predicted to be cold, but not freezing, with some light precipitation on race day. Hillar, Patricia, and Joey from Team Momo got to the track Thursday. I drove up to Braselton on Friday to get my annual gear check and help prep. As usual, the team had everything ready and was doing some testing. A new exhaust system proved to be defective, splitting its seam and putting out a lot of noise. They welded things up and I went out for a little practice. 

I’d never actually driven this Miata at Road Atlanta, and was really interested to see how the aero performed. I was able to get into a rhythm quickly. The AIM Solo in the car gave me lap-time feedback, but I was surprisingly slow. The weather was nice and we had sunshine, maybe in the 50 degree F range. My lap times clocked above 2:00 mostly, with just one lap breaking into the upper 1:59 range. I felt that the car was capable of the upper 1:4X range, but I wasn’t getting anything close to that in practice. Oh well…I figured the race pace should be much better once we got going. There was no reason to push hard now, especially with the car getting louder again. I pitted, and the other side of the muffler had developed a leak. Hillar and Joey loaded the car up on the trailer and found a muffler shop to replace the damaged system. I caught up with a bunch of friends while waiting, but eventually went home early to get some rest. It was going to be a long day Saturday, and it started early. 

The Green Flag

Green Flag for the race started at 8:00am, and we needed to be in the car and ready to pace by 7:45. COVID restrictions meant we had to watch a driver’s meeting on YouTube before the race. This was nice, as it saved time on race morning too. We had a great pit spot at the very end of pit lane, and from the random draw, we were going to be about mid-pack at the start. Almost 100 teams were registered, and it looked like about 86 teams started the race. There was frost on the ground, but the air temps were in the lower 30s so we figured the frost would go away quickly. We expected light rain in the afternoon, so we opted to start on the dry Hankook tires and try to get through the sprinkles without switching to the Continental rain tires. That was the plan anyway. 

Doc Waldrop was doing the ChampCar live coverage with the help of veteran motorsports announcer Bob Varsha, who ChampCar had somehow convinced to watch our little race. Varsha has commented at Le Mans, Daytona, Indy, etc. Tire Rack has made a huge impact as our title sponsor, and the additional media coverage has been amazing. In-car video feeds are much more common now, which has greatly expanded our audience. Doc’s team, Brewe Krewe, is running a new E30 to replace the one we drove to death, affectionately named “Kenny” (Yes, they killed Kenny). 

The “Dad Chat”

Immedately following the green flag there was chaos. My friend Michael McCourt in a BMW-powered S12 got shoved into the bridge before getting to the front straight. Watching the various live feeds after the event, Brewe Krewe’s driver jumped the yellow and pitted a Camaro coming up the hill to T11, pushing Michael and the Pit Maneuver Experts’ S12 (some irony in the team name here) into the bridge. That brought out the pace car, and not long after, a red flag. Race director Dana Morisson called all the drivers together for a chat about our driving. There had been three spins on the first lap, a three car-contact resulting in a crash into the bridge, and a ridiculous number of passes under caution. Dana gave us the Dad speech and sent us back out. 

Photo by Nicholas James Johnson

The Restart

Andres had stayed out of trouble, but there were a lot of people who didn’t behave themselves. After the restart, Andres moved us up quickly to 30th place. That really didn’t last long, as the pace car came back out for several laps. Andres got about 10 more laps in before another full course caution slowed things down. His lap times were in the 1:5X range, with a 1:52 and two 1:51 laps as the track was warming. The red flag cost all the first stint drivers seat time, and we opted to change drivers and refuel during the full course yellow. Andres brought the car in at 9:52am, after just 30 laps, and not many under green. We had a perfect pit stop, and I went out a little early at 9:57am to a warming but overcast track. Andres had brought us up to an impressive 23rd but the stop put me back down into 28th.

Photo by Jim Voss, Missed Shift Motorsports Photography

I got settled in pretty quickly, which is something I needed to work on. In previous races, it’s taken me too long to get into the groove. The traffic was pretty hairy, with lots of cars and a wide speed differential. The usual suspects were very quick: Visceral Racing’s 944 and Leviathan’s MR2 were just plain fast. #742 Castrol Prefect’s SC300 was also very quick. Meanwhile, I was pretty happy getting into the 1:58s after a few laps. Dealing with traffic made lap times pretty unpredictable. The Miata was fantastic, though. The turns at Road Atlanta are generally faster than the other more technical tracks around Atlanta, and the extra speed really made the aero shine. I quickly used the extra grip and drove my lap times down rapidly. Road Atlanta is a track I have many hours on, both as a racer and instructor. Still, driving it with strong aero was great fun. 

Photo by Josh Vaneld

Coming off the fast front straight, T1 is deceptive: it’s much faster than it looks. Normally I’m a little cautious here, because you can run out of room going uphill. I had no such issue with the Momo Miata, where I could set up for passing into T2 on any line I wanted. If I had room to carry the speed, I’d be deep into 4th gear here. In heavy traffic, the T1 dive bombers would slow me down and I’d take the uphill in 3rd. With the aero, I could stick all the way track right and still get to T3 before others. Normally, T3 is the last safe opportunity to pass until T5-T6, as T4 enters into the Esses. There’s generally not much room here, but the Momo Miata was glued. I typically run flat out through the Esses in 4th gear, tap the brakes at the bottom, and switch to 3rd for the hard left uphill in T5. On the way to T6, I grab 4th gear again and carry as much speed into the hairpin T7. I drop to 3rd, or sometimes even 2nd if there’s a traffic jam. Once on the back straight, it’s full redline shifts in 3rd, 4th, and I get deep into 5th gear before braking into T10A. Dropping into 3rd, I hit T10B and charge up the hill. Going under the bridge, I shift into 4th and fly into T12 flat out. Here is where the aero really shines: I can easily pass on the inside anywhere and carry massive speed to the front straight. The car was just behaving beautifully, staying in the low to mid 1:5X range. I did get a few clear laps, knocking off a 1:49.8, a 1:48.6, and my best of 1:48.4. Being a momentum car, traffic really affected any consistency, but it was still a lot of fun.

The Battles

It was a great stint, and I had many great battles. #742 Castrol Prefect SC300 switched over to a more conservative driver and I had some good laps swapping with them. Honestly, they could open it up and leave me, but traffic usually brought us back together (https://youtu.be/3Furc6aOhSI?t=14339). A Mustang went past Castrol in T1 with me in tow, but promptly crashed coming out of the esses (https://youtu.be/3Furc6aOhSI?t=14367). Unfortunately, Castrol Prefect had to dodge some debris in T12 and wound up in the wall (https://youtu.be/3Furc6aOhSI?t=17816). The driver was uninjured, but the car would not be salvageable. There were a couple of older CRXs on the track, and they were slow everywhere. Not #194 RBank Racing’s EF CRX though; that car was fast and well-driven, consistently turning mid 1:4X laps. It was in our A Class as well, and just rocketed away from me. The 944s of Cone Crushers and Visceral Racing were leading the race. Hong North’s K24-powered Supra also had some serious pace. I did get tagged in T7 by the #927 Copper Penny, but it was just a tap in a crowded corner. There were many times where we went 2 or 3 cars wide at the apex. For the most part, I kept it sane with solid pacing. 

My friend Matt Harper took over for Brewe Krewe and we ran neck and neck for a dozen laps. Their new car (named Jim) has some legs, unlike Kenny which I could pull away from in the Miata. Matt was driving great too; he runs Flying Wrench, which just opened a larger shop in Kennesaw. I had some tricky exhaust work I needed on my Acura, and couldn’t find anyone who was willing to take it on. I was really going to the wrong kind of places; I needed a race fabrication shop, so it was worth the trip to Flying Wrench to have it done right. They do race prep for several cars on the track today. Even though we were in different classes, it was fun duking it out in dense traffic. 

My stint passed pretty quickly, which happens when I’m in my zone. The team left me alone and let me focus. I didn’t realize I was approaching the 2-hour stint limit until Patricia told me to pit in a couple laps. I pulled off after 63 laps. I had worked us up to 5th overall, and second in A Class to the Rbank CRX, which was leading the race briefly. Joey got into the car next, and took the car back out in 12th place. 

Joey turned in a strong pace as well, but his stint had a few yellows. His best was a 1:50.4, and he fought us back up to 5th overall and second in class. Hillar was next and really set a nice pace, with many laps under 1:50. Race Hero’s live timing coverage was spotty at this point, but I was able to see that Hillar set our fastest lap of 1:47.3. He started the stint in 7th place, but we weren’t able to track his progress very well. He had a small off at T7 but only minor damage to the splitter support. Hillar got us up to 4th place overall, behind Rbankracing.com’s CRX in the lead, followed by Cone Crushers and Visceral Racing’s 944s. We were holding 2nd place in our class. By the end of his stint, the weather forecast had light rain coming up and the temperature was dropping noticeably. We decided to stick with dry tires and get through it. Andres got back into the car at 4:08pm for his second stint, only to see the sprinkles turn heavier. He was reporting grip problems over the radio, and we opted to bring him back in for rain tires at 4:28pm. We changed his tires and got him back out in less than 3 minutes, but the off-interval stop cost us a few positions. It’s something we could have easily done at the last driver/fuel stop, but the rain became heavier than predicted.

The Rain

As rain started to pick up, Andres was struggling with visibility. We had a new wiper blade, but it didn’t seem to be working well. Andres was reporting zero visibility in the trail mist behind other cars. Joey had gone to refuel the gas jugs, and we called him to pick up a new wiper blade. Meanwhile, we eventually pulled Andres back in to clean the glass and try a wiper blade we took off one of our personal cars. This cost us another 3 minutes, and didn’t really improve visibility much. Unfortunately, Andres would just have to deal with it until we got a new wiper, refueled and swap drivers. I went into the car next, and left the pit at 6:05pm. Andres really got all the bad luck today, and we dropped an unknown number of positions for the two unplanned stops.

I’ve always enjoyed racing in the rain, but the last few years haven’t been great for me. Back in my autocross days, I’d usually be in the top 10-20th percentile in dry weather. But when it rained, I’d wind up in the top 3 spots or so, often with overall wins. Rain just seemed to slow me down less than others. I had some great results on my home tracks in Louisiana during wet Lemons races. Unfortunately, the last few years haven’t been as good for me in the rain.

I did a wet ChampCar race at NCM in 2018, and just had a miserable time. Santus Gore’s Mad Hungarian Racing B15 Sentra just wasn’t very good in the rain, which is strange because I really enjoy FWD cars when it’s wet. The factory Brembos and lack of ABS made braking difficult to modulate. The power steering system lacked feel as well. The torsen limited slip worked well, but I never got a good feel for that car. Santus had equipped the car with a loud beeping alarm and warning light when the oil pressure got too low. During one wet corner, I hit standing water while trail braking. The front tires locked instantly, killing the engine and power steering. So there I was, hydroplaning towards the outside of the turn, engine stalled, an alarm blaring and a big warning light flashing, while now fighting manual steering. That was a rough race.

My next rain race was with Doc and Brewe Krewe in very cold conditions at Barber. Back then, Kenny had some sticky brake calipers and the car tended to yaw a lot under heavy braking. I never had much confidence in that car, and wound up in the gravel pit. Kenny got beat up pretty hard that day. I raced with Momo last December at Barber, and had heavy rain as well. During that stint, I was caught out on dry tires, and would hydroplane above 65-70 mph. The car is supremely responsive and controllable, but I had to stop accelerating once the hydroplane started. I couldn’t pit for tires either, as I needed to stay out to get us into a more favorable refueling window. I got passed a lot, and really struggled. I was really happy to get out of the car after that stint. I hoped that the finely tuned Momo Champ would prove to be a good dance partner in the rain. I had been connecting well with this car; it’s just something that Miatas do. 

For my second stint at Road Atlanta, the rain was steady and it was getting colder. I got back out onto the track in the middle of a full course yellow. That’s perfect, as I can get acclimated to the conditions at a slower pace without losing position. Getting into the groove quickly is something I was still working on as a driver. Under yellow, it became pretty obvious that forward visibility was terrible. Water wasn’t beading up on the windshield, despite a generous application of Rain-X. I had to run the wipers on full blast, and the new wiper wasn’t very effective. No wonder Andres was so frustrated. Oh well, I just had to deal with it and do the best I could. My right mirror was also useless, pointed too far out to see anything. Hillar gave me a squeegee to clean the inside of the windshield, which I wedged into my seat. I leaned over and tried to adjust the right mirror with the squeegee, but I just couldn’t reach it. 

The pace car stayed out for 4 laps and we went green as the sun went down. I couldn’t see well, but I was able to drive from memory. A few cars were still pretty quick, so it became very important for me to stay predictable and be passed well. Strangely though, I was doing a lot of passing too, including the Rbankracing.com CRX at a rather swift pace. This was the first time I’ve driven this Miata on the Continental rain tires, and it was actually pretty great. Standing water wasn’t a problem at all, and there was a tremendous amount of communication through the wheel. I had a death grip on the wheel, searching for every bit of feedback about traction. I short shifted to limit wheel torque, and stayed off the painted curbs. It was fully dark now, and I had to find the track using other cars’ lights and their reflections. I’d seek out the Road Atlanta’s distinct blue and yellow curbs to locate the car (thanks Michelin!). In many areas, I had to drive up along one side of the track, just following the pavement/grass line because that’s all I could see.

The Snow

The rain was starting to bounce off the windshield, indicating that I was now seeing sleet in addition to the rain. It was quite cold now, and my damp gloves were making my fingers numb. I was still blowing by people though, even at my conservative pace. Nobody was interested in racing right now, as a lot of cars were going off the track. I kept checking the corner stations for yellows, but there was nothing. The sleet started to float down in my headlights, so I checked with Hillar on the radio. He confirmed there were some snow flurries down on pit lane. I kept pressing on, and after just six more laps, I passed the Rbankracing.com CRX again, indicating I was going some 20+ seconds a lap faster, and had unlapped one of the seven laps we were behind them. I did some quick math: if this pace kept up, and I unlapped myself every 15 minutes or so, I’d make up all 6 laps in about 90 minutes. That would get pretty interesting, if the race continued that long.

I worked my way up to a clear track, and I realized that my headlights weren’t very useful going into the Esses. I had been using other cars’ headlights, tail lights, and reflections to see the track boundaries. Once those cars were gone, I had to drive from memory, especially around T3. I was actually having great fun, but I was aware that others were really struggling. Cars kept going off and the pace car finally came out. Snow started really coming down, sticking to the track. I was getting wheelspin going up the hills at a walking pace, even under quarter-throttle. The Emergency crews were getting cars unstuck, but more were still going off even during the slow pace car laps. There was just no way to ensure the rescue crew’s safety under these conditions, and the race was red flagged after five pace laps. We parked the cars on pit lane, and about 30 minutes later they called the race around 7:30. That was absolutely the right decision. We wound up in 9th place overall, and 3rd in class. Not a bad result, considering the unplanned stops. We packed up the car in the freezing wet snow and called it a day.

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