Usually shout-outs and thank-you’s are saved for the end. But not this time. I want to start by thanking everyone who helped make our trip to the 2018 NASA National Championships at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, TX possible: Andrew Eng, Son Vo, Victoria Capinpin, Jon Vo, Martin Tagliavini, Graham Downey, Ashly Downey, Liam Downey, Chase Johnston, and Jei Chang.
Thank you to all of my incredible partners who have been instrumental in our program’s success, year-over-year:
JRZ Suspension Engineering
Wunder Aligner USA
Our road to COTA actually began several months ago with a lot of careful planning and preparation. A lot of things had to be done before we ever left NorCal:
Determine who was competing and in what class: I would be racing in my ST4 (Super Touring 4) S2000, alongside Martin in his ST4 S2000, Liam in his ST4 Civic, and Graham in the Supertech Performance 1.6L Spec Miata
Determine who was going: All four drivers plus Jon, Victoria, Son, Drew, Ashly, and Max (Rory wouldn’t be able to go this time around because he has school)
Determine what we would need in terms of spares and supplies: COTA is 1,800 miles from the Bay Area, which meant we needed to bring and think of everything that we might possibly need
Coordinate transportation for all of the above: Liam, Graham, and Max would be towing there and back in the Wunderaligner USA rig
Book airfare, lodging, and rental cars: The rest of us would be flying in and we rented two SUVs, plus an Airbnb house (located just 6 miles away from the racetrack)
Prepare our vehicles: All four race cars were thoroughly prepped before the event, with “Irene” returning to Blacktrax Performance for a last minute dyno tuning session with Jei Chang after receiving a freshly built J32A2 engine (this one was equipped with a custom larger capacity Trackspec baffled/chambered oil pan, brand new OEM Honda oil pump, OEM Honda rod bearings, BC connecting rods, and Supertech valves, springs and retainers)
Coordinate with the race organizers: In addition to registration fees, we reserved lower-paddock level parking for the toter and we also scheduled our compliance dyno sessions (required for Super Touring competition)
On Sunday, September 9th we spent most of the day loading up the toter. Graham, Liam, and Max left Morgan Hill the next morning. After 36 hours of driving they arrived at COTA on Wednesday, September 12th. Martin flew into Austin later that evening, because his plan was to run the open test day on Thursday (when the rest of us would be in transit). In hindsight, this was a great decision on his part because COTA is very technical with a lot of nuances, and the extra seat time was well worth it (more on this later).
Thursday: September 13th
My Thursday began at 5:30am (PT) when I woke up and left San Francisco to pick up Drew. We drove down to San Jose to meet up with Son. I parked my BMW at his house, and then the three of us took an Uber to Mineta International Airport where we were greeted by Jon and Victoria (coming from Fremont) at the gate.
The flight was fairly short and uneventful. We arrived in Austin around 4:00pm local time (CT). We picked up our rental car (a GMC Acadia SUV) and drove straight to COTA. Once at the track, we divided and conquered on duties: the three ST4 cars needed to be dyno’d for compliance while the drivers (myself, Graham, Martin, and Liam) needed to attend a mandatory welcome meeting in the Media Center.
Afterwards, we spent a few hours unpacking everything and getting set up before going to the Airbnb to get situated. We went on a quick grocery run while we waited for Ashly to arrive (her flight landed at 8:10pm). Once the entire band had been reunited, we went out for a delicious dinner before calling it a night.
Friday: September 14th
Day one of competition
The format for this year’s national championships (which had over 450 drivers/cars competing) was as follows:
Friday: The fastest lap from either qualifying session determines the starting position for the qualifying race on Saturday
Practice session (20 mins)
Qualifying session 1 (20 mins)
Qualifying session 2 (20 mins)
Saturday: The finishing position from the qualifying race determines the starting position for the championship race on Sunday
Warmup session (20 mins)
Qualifying race (30 mins)
Hardship practice (20 mins)
Championship race (45 mins)
Friday was interesting for several reasons.
First, I didn’t sleep well the night before because I was feeling really sick. I’ll spare you the details, but needless to say I was dehydrated and very unwell in the morning. However, I was determined to suck it up and make the most of my only three sessions in the car that day.
Secondly, the weather was horrendous. It would be hot and humid one minute, and then windy and raining the next. As such, we went back and forth several times about what type of tires to be on (slicks or rains).
Third, remember how I mentioned earlier that COTA is very technical and I wish I had done the test day? I meant it. I was really struggling for pace. I lapped in the 2:42’s first session out. During qualifying session 1, I found a lot more time and got down to the 2:36’s. Unfortunately, it rained during qualifying session 2 but we had already gone out on slicks so I didn’t have a chance to improve my time. My best recorded lap for the day meant that I would start the qualifying race on Saturday in P14 on the grid. Needless to say, I was slightly frustrated. I spent some time talking with Graham and Martin in the evening, and thought a lot about how I could pick up more speed the next day.
Saturday: September 15th
Day two of competition
Saturday morning arrived and the weather continued to be unpredictable. Forecasts showed that it would rain during morning practice and the afternoon qualifying race. As such, we mounted rain tires and went out for morning practice.
Unfortunately, it completely dried up by the time we got on track and I wasn’t able to improve my lap time because rain tires do not like being driven hard in the dry. They get way too hot and all of the deep tread grooves make for a lot of squirm under heavy load (including braking).
For the qualifying race, we watched the weather like a hawk. With less than 30 minutes to go before the cars were due on grid, things were looking dry so we mounted the set of wheels with slicks. Great decision, because they were the right tire for the job. I had a terrific start and gained 4 positions before T12 on the first green-flag lap. Unfortunately, the race was stopped under full-course red due to a horrific accident when an ST3 Miata lost its brakes (in T11) and then plowed straight into the side of an unlucky ST4 Miata. Both drivers were banged up and went to the hospital, but thankfully otherwise okay. Phew.
The race was stopped for nearly twenty minutes under full-course red, and then double yellow through to the checkered flag. Initially, I finished in P10 and thought that would be where I would start for Sunday’s championship race. However, after the officials reviewed the results later in the evening they realized not all of the cars on track had completed a full lap under green. As such, the race was ruled incomplete and they decided to have Sunday’s championship race start with the same grid-order as Saturday. This was a bummer for me since I had worked really hard to pass 4 cars, but everyone had to accept the ruling as is.
Sunday: September 16th
Day three. The big day had finally arrived.
The only thing on the schedule that mattered for us was the 45-minute championship race at 1:30pm local time. I was pumped. I had been reviewing videos and data, as well as spending a lot of time picking Martin’s brain (thank you for all of your help).
I was able to go out for “hardship practice” at 8:00am (a session designed to let racers make sure their cars were working well before the race) where I finally strung together everything that I had been processing and thinking about for the past two days about how to go faster at COTA. And it worked!
I put down a 2:33.8, which based on the fastest qualifying lap times in the ST4 field for the weekend would have put me in the top-8 on the grid (23 cars from all over the country had qualified for and registered for ST4, with 19 actually showing up for the weekend).
Okay, so you must be wondering: what happened during the race? Here goes…
For some reason, I had a weird electrical gremlin that shut off my car...right before we were supposed to be in formation for the race start as we were coming around T16. I had to cycle the ignition a few times before the car worked again, but by then the entire ST4 field had passed me and I was already dead last. This meant that when the green flag was thrown, I was still 2 corners back from the front straight.
So what did I do? I drove my heart out and gave it my all. I was determined to make up ground. For the next 23 minutes of green flag racing, I passed 9 cars and went from 19th to 10th. Lap after lap I gained on cars and made clean, smart passes for position until once again, the race was suddenly stopped under full-course red. A GTS4 E46 had lost control exiting T18 (a very high speed section of the track) and rolled over into T19 (you will see this in my video). As such, the race was halted in order for the safety crew to rescue the driver. Fortunately, once again the driver was banged up but otherwise okay.
What did this mean? I ended the race in P10 with a personal best recorded lap time of the weekend, a 2:33.6. After looking at AIM data from the race, it looks like with clean traffic my theoretical best was a 2:30.8 which would’ve been the 5th fastest lap-time recorded by an ST4 car during the event.
Ride along with me here:
We didn’t get on the podium, but I did receive the “Hard Charger” designation for making the most passes and gaining the most positions during the race. While I’m happy to have finished another nationals in the top-10, I also know that our entire team worked really hard and went out there for one reason: to win. While the odds (and weather) weren’t exactly in our favor, we can be proud knowing that we put up one hell of a fight.
With nationals behind us, our plan now is to give “Irene” a thorough once-over before the final NorCal regional race of the season: October 27th-28th at our home track of Sonoma Raceway. We’ll be racing both ST4 sprint races, as well as the 4-hour night Enduro. Wish us luck!