Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

Eh. I can walk away from this one and feel good. It wasn't my fault in the slightest. It was my fault that I still finished as well as I did. Considering. And I had to lose sometime.

Around lap 15, I lost 3rd gear. Like, entirely. Gearbox just wouldn't shift into it. Felt like I was putting the car in neutral, and that's how the car behaved. The way this track is set up, most turns work out to exit at the top of second gear, which means that this was just a god-awful failure to have. Worst possible gear to lose. Actually, it forced me to completely change the way I drive.

I go slow-in and fast-out. Nice and safe, keeps me alive, keeps the car in one piece instead of many smaller pieces, keeps me in the game. And it gives me a lot of leeway when it comes to making a pass in mid-turn. Everyone drives slow-in and fast-out, unless they're crazy or really, really need to win.

With no third gear, and thus no way to go fast out, I had to barrel into turns in 4th gear, pop the car into neutral and just let it spin as I danced on the brakes and kept the engine revving with some light gas-work, and then abruptly put it back in gear after rev-matching it.

Yeeeee-haw!

The embarassing thing is, I still finished third. Only the M3 and the S4/RS6 took me. And the margin between us was .536 seconds, with just .274 seconds in between me and the M3. I beat the Corvette, which came in fourth, by 2.173 seconds.

Oh, and I'm way out in front in terms of championship points, which are worked out as a function of actual finishes, laps led, seconds above or below average, and average position over the course of a race. So it's very possible to win the thing even if you lead every lap, and then park 15 feet back from the finish line for ten minutes. Pathetic little championship points for a fake gold cup on a crappy podium made out of plywood and covered with a sheet.

In other words, the taste of victory distilled into pure state, without the big gold championship dish, the bikini-clad umbrella girls, the endorsements and the sponsors. Only two things...winning, and losing.

Monday, April 10, 2006

"...no, I mean you're ON FIRE..."

Hey, at least we got the first crash out of the way.

Turned out to be a pretty good one, for me. It killed the Audi S4/RS6 and the Pontiac GTO, the only two guys in front of me. We went to yellow flag and I took the time to pit in, and was able to come out in the same position.

Here's what happened: The GTO's fat ass and massive torque likes to digest tires. Meanwhile, it's outsized engine likes to guzzle gas. They resolved the running-out-of-gas issue the only way they could, by cutting into the body and slapping in a bigger fuel cell. Cool! They learned math!

Problem: Gas has weight. Bigger fuel cell means more weight in the rear. Which is a good thing...they were able to launch harder out of turns. In the beginning, anyway. Race-grade gasoline weighs about 6.65 pounds a gallon (86-octane usually weighs about 6.216, and premium weighs around 6.35; it varies a little from refinery to refinery). Now, that translated to maybe 80-95 pounds of ballast in the rear. Unfortunately, when they retuned the suspension for the extra weight, they forgot about how that gas was going to gradually disappear.

Result: The GTO experienced massive tire-burning and unintentional throttle-on oversteer 15 laps after fueling. Around the time of the crash, he had basically no rubber left in the rear. "Bald" doesn't even begin to describe those tires..."scalped" is more like it.

So he did the natural thing and started braking earlier. Meanwhile, the Audi's driver was getting better behind the wheel, and he started making up time on the GTO. Eventually, they entered a sharp turn fairly close to one another, and when the GTO braked early...crunch.

Good night, intercooler. Good-night radiator. Good-night grille. Good-night intake. Good night, everything in front of the frame's nose.

The GTO, for its part, took the initial impact fairly well. The exhaust pipes crumpled up and twisted shut, which is a lethal hit...carbon monoxide will build up in the cockpit. Unfortunately, the GTO fishtailed and slid off the track and into a wall at a slight angle, which ripped the passenger-side wheel off.

Here's where the "fire" part comes in. I was a second or two back, with the Corvette, which was actually making a good showing. I hadn't gotten up to the point where I felt like really passing him, so we were kind of running side-by-side. I saw the crash, and the huge, hideous pile of Audi parts bouncing across the pavement, so I tapped the brakes and hung back in preparation for the yellow flag. The Corvette's driver dodged out in front of me and then noticed the enormous pile of debris.

One of the things I designed and built into the car was a little button that deploys two course mesh screens over the intakes. I figured, shit, both of them are right down at the front lip, it might be good to have a way to protect them while keeping them fully open during normal operation. My little button snaps the screens down in maybe a quarter of a second. I thumbed it just as I started braking.

The Corvette had no such trickery. What it did have was a big, open intake mounted on the hood. And as it roared through the debris field, it snorted a handful of Audi pieces.

But that's not where the fun stopped! The pieces ripped a big hole in the plumbing. And this hole occured after the Mass Airflow Sensor, which tells the ECU how much air is going into the engine so that the ECU can tell the injectors how much fuel to squirt into the cylinders.

The hole increased the mass of air going through the intake plumbing by virtue of giving it an unregulated opening to travel through before hitting the engine. The MAF saw all this air going down the tube and couldn't tell that most of it was getting sucked out through the hole. So it told the ECU, "Dude, there's a crapload of air coming in!"

The ECU replied, "Dude! I better tell those injectors to dump a crapload of fuel in!"

The intake valves, meanwhile, were weezing to let in a measly amount of air, while the MAF and the ECU clicked happily away in their own little world.

Now, when you get a whole crapload of fuel and not a lot of air, you end up with unburned fuel. Within the engine, this isn't too big a problem (unless you count detonation as a problem), since the fuel is mostly getting pushed out through the exhaust ports and into the headers.

All this fuel, which is travelling as a bunch of big, heavy droplets surrounded by a very fine mist, can only go so far before it hits something hot enough to ignite it.

This leads to giant-ass flames shooting out of the exhaust pipes. And the ignition of the bumper.

I clicked over to the driver's channel on the radio, which is kept open specifically for emergency events like this. The radio circuits we use were another little invention of mine. The driver's channel allows you to cut through all the bullshit--namely, your team and his team--and just talk to the guy. It plays through the left headphone, as opposed to everything else, which goes through the right. It's also encrypted, so we can use whatever language we see fit (everything else can be picked up by anyone with a VHF or even, sometimes, a clock radio).

Me: "Danny, ah, you're on fire."
Danny (Corvette): "I know, the car's dialed in today. What about keeping the channel clear?"
Me: "No, goddammit, I mean you've got some flames coming from the exhaust and your bumper's starting to go. Get it on the grass and kill the engine, for fuck's sake."

Luckily, it had rained the night before, so he didn't have to stop on the side of the tarmac. The grass was wet enough that it didn't light up.

We went to yellow for 5 laps and then raced the final 15. The M3 came damn close to acing me, and I thought the EVO was going to win until its tortured center differential finally gave out on lap 34. No matter...another win for better driving and the simple front-engine/rear-drive layout.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Hooray to Me for Not Dying!

Well...that was fun. Deeply unsatisfying, but fun.

My little plan to draft the leader by the third or fourth lap failed miserably. I wound up entering the last straight (which is a really, really long one...we're talking Fuji's straight long) with three guys in front of me: The M3, the GTO, the Audi, and the G35. Not because I was turning crappy times, but because I underestimated their ability to block me. And really, not their ability as much as their aggressiveness in doing so. I mean, they were reckless about it. Bloody amateurs.

But here's the magic of such a situation: If you exit the final turn, a hairpin, just right, you can slipstream the tail car, the M3. Everyone has big fat-assed GT wings on their car, so the envelope for doing that is just enormous. From there, I screamed past the poor bastard and slipped into the GTO's air pocket, and then repeated the process with the M3 and the G35. I hit the drivetrain's top speed about halfway through, levelled the throttle, and just ran away.

From there, I built up my lead to what I consider to be healthy breathing room, about five and a half seconds. I suppose I could have worked up a wider margin, but I was trying hard to conserve both my tires and my fuel so I wouldn't have to pit in and get caught in the middle of the pack while the leaders ran away from me. The closest four cars pitted in on Lap 25, and that allowed me to turn in a burning-hot lap before popping in myself. My Pit Crew of Spectacular Talent managed to fuck up pretty badly, which completely killed my lead (I figure that I should have been out of there eight and a half seconds earlier...okay, so it wasn't a total fuck up, but it was a bad pit), and that forced me to nose out onto the track behind the G35, with the Audi S4 in a comfortable lead.

You remember. The Money Pit Audi S4. Turns out they bought a truly skilled pit crew in addition to the titanium-forged everything and all those RS6 parts.

But it was cool. I was back in the lead by Lap 30, and feeling very comfortable by 35. By the time 40 rolled around, I'd forgotten it was a race. Split time? Seven seconds. Not a whole lot, but it was only a 40-lap race, and I'm always willing to take a one-second lead over a ten-second lead that disappears when I break a gear, blow a damper, or burn out my l-s differential in the final lap. Also, I don't know if we have the money to buy a new differential if this one breaks. And I'm almost certain my boss isn't going to buy us a new engine if we kill this one before the season is over.

Enter victory lap, champaign, obligatory girls hired off a website for an escort service. You know, I kinda miss the ultra-annoying ass-kissing Japanese umbrella girls. At least they were, well, professionally sleazy. If I had my way, the winner would just get a beer. Fake-ass trophies are just dumb, and it's pretty silly to have a couple glammed-up girls do photo-op kisses on the cheek when so many women are involved with autosports now, and so many drivers are married.

Still, it felt good. I found that I still hate that flame-retardent gel. Stuff is still cold as shit. It was 75 today, and I was shivering out on the tarmac. The Nomex undergarmet still itches and scratches, and the car is still hot as hell. On the plus side, my legs can take two hours of 1g+ turns, which I was kinda worried about. And it was actually pretty refreshing to have a crowd just give a little cheer, as opposed to the unadulterated adoration the Japanese lavish on their drivers. I dunno...it just seems so much more sincere when they only give you a little, and no more or less than everyone else. I mean, I always just look at anything I hear from the grandstands as the spectators showing their appreciation for my gift of dragging my ass out of bed at four in the morning so I can have my ears drilled on by an unmuffled exhaust by nine.

Yeah. I was up at 4 AM Saturday, and it is now 6 AM Sunday. I have not slept in 26 hours. Well, only 25. Daylight Savings Time.

Lisa was very cool about everything. She was worried, but only the natural kind of worried. Not hyperventilating. I had already sat her down and talked with her about it. I'm going to tell you all the same thing I told her. Racing--and by which I mean, racing professionally--is like crossing the street. Every time you do it, you're putting your life in the occasionally-buttery fingers of complete strangers and, worse, random chance. You're trusting that they're going to be safe, skilled, and responsible drivers. And you're trusting that you've taken as much of the process out of the realm of random chance as you possibly can. A guy crossing the street looks both ways. I inspect my car, from top to bottom and inside to out, no less than a dozen times myself, in addition to all the other people that look at it.

And yeah, racing's dangerous as hell. And I hear some people get hit by geriatric Cadillac drivers while they're crossing the street.

First real race after the accident. Next stop? Hit a more serious circuit after this rather short season is up. I've got a professional vendetta against Toyota and TRD Sports. And yeah...returning to "real racing" means I lose my fucked-up-driver money. Oh, well. Some things are worth it. Revenge is one. Racing's the other.