Race 4: Chasing That First Podium

link to in-car videos  Click on all pictures to enlarge
 
For a mid-November day in central Texas, it was warm and muggy, with a threat of rain.  But any day is a good day for racing.  And Harris Hill Road in San Marcos is always a fun place to run.
 
Since the last race, we had replaced every part of the brake system other than the lines.  New booster, master cylinder, calipers, rotors, and pads.  In that last race, we had melted the seals in a couple of calipers, and the booster started going bad, creating a very long brake pedal.  We also made some brake ducts to try and keep brake temps under control.
 
The 240 has some existing vents in each lower corner of the bumper.  These vents worked perfect for making brake ducts.
 
  
 
We even made some baby ducts for the rear brakes.  Not sure how much they'll help, but they won't hurt:
 
Other than the brake ducts, the only real change to the car was a "new" set of junkyard shocks and some new tires.
 
A non-performance-enhancing change to the car was the addition of a radio harness and a push-to-talk button on the steering wheel.  Now, just like in NASCAR or any other professional series, all the driver needs to do is push a button on the steering wheel to talk to the pits.  To make it all work, we each installed a microphone with an integrated earbud connector in our helmets.  Speaking of earbuds, Clark scored us 4 sets of Shure ear buds; the good stuff used by musicians and such.
 
We showed up ready to go.  We ran a few practice laps on Friday just to make sure all the nuts and bolts were tight.  They were, but the first time I hit the brakes, a screwdriver fell out from behind the dash.  That's why we do the practice laps...  Our stated goal this weekend was to finally crack the top 5; but the real goal was a podium finish.
 
Race day started bright and early.  Drivers' meeting at 7:00 am, cars rolled out at 8:00 am, and the race got started about 8:07.  For this race, we decided to use 5 drivers, so we drafted our normal Crew Chief, Mark, to fill the 5th spot.  Mark has quite a few laps around Harris Hill Road, but had never raced wheel to wheel before.  We decided to let Mark go 3rd, to let some attrition takes its toll on the field before he went out.
 
Tobey started the race in 18th place, and quickly worked up to 11th by lap 5.  He generally maintained 11th until lap 25, when he was hit and punted off track by the Warthog Racing BMW.  The BMW got into the corner too hot, locked up his brakes, spun a 180, and hit the right rear of our car with a solid tap from his rear bumper.  Tobey immediately brought the car in for inspection, as the hit was right on the rear tire.  A quick look showed no damage, and he went back out in 15th place.
 
 
One advantage of the 240sx is that it can run a full 2 hours on a tank of fuel; 2 hours is the maximum allowed single stint for a driver in ChumpCar.  So in a 9.5 hour race, we would only need to stop 4 times for fuel.  Many teams can barely do 1.5 hours on a tank, requiring up to 6 stops. 
So, even though Tobey's not a slow driver (3rd fastest on the team according to the lap chart), other drivers pitting helped him climb the standings as he neared the first stop.  10th place on lap 41; 5th place on lap 60, and finally in the lead on laps 67 and 68, when he finally had to come in for fuel and a driver change.
 
 
Thomas went next.  Lap data shows that Thomas was our 2nd quickest driver.  After the stop, he found himself in 7th place.  He quickly worked up to 5th by lap 94.  5 laps later he was 4th.  Thomas had to avoid several spins by other drivers and endured several yellow flags. 
 
 
By staying out of trouble and showing consistant speed, he jumped to 1st on lap 137, where he stayed for a 3 laps until pitting for fuel and driver change.
 
 
 
Pit stops were a point of emphasis for the team in this race.  In previous races, we rarely had a stop that lasted less than the 5-minute minimum ChumpCar imposes if you add fuel.  For this race, we modified 6 fuel jugs with extra large vents so they would drain faster.  It worked like a charm.  Only one stop went over the 5 minutes, and that was due to radio problems.  And that was the stop where our 3rd driver, Mark, got in the car.
 
For some reason, Mark's earbuds weren't working.  We tried another set real quick, but they didn't work either, even though it all tested fine the night before.  We had to send Mark out with no communications for his first ever wheel-to-wheel action.
 
 
Mark went out in 5th place.  Based on previous races, by the halfway point in a race, the top 10 cars will have shaken out, and it gets harder and harder to gain or lose spots on the track. 
So, although Mark wasn't the fastest car on the track, he kept his nose clean, stayed out of trouble, and held onto his position.  He dropped to 6th for a few laps on lap 146, but by lap 150 was back in 5th place.  Mark pitted on lap 194, still in 5th.
 
The Nismorons have one golden rule for our drivers:  Bring a working car back for the next guy.  That means drive hard, but keep it under control, don't take chances, and don't put the car where it's not supposed to be.  After watching hours of in-car footage, it's apparent that most of the cars that are faster than us are being driven at 100%, always on the verge of losing control and taking too many chances in order to be fast.  Over a 9.5 hour race, that kind of driving can take its toll on tires, drivers, fuel mileage, and the car.  It's a stupid-sounding cliche, but that doesn't make it wrong:  To finish first, first you must finish.
 
 
Clark took over driving duties on lap 195, going out in 7th place.  By this time in the race, we knew we had a solid chance at a top-5 finish, and at least a shot at a podium.  After Clark went out, we only needed one more pit stop.  We were fairly certain 3 of the cars in front of us needed 2 more stops, and we suspected one other car would also.  Those extra 5 minutes for the additional stop gives us the opportunity to gain 3 laps on our competitor while he's sitting in the pits.
 
On lap 209, Clark moved to 6th place when the #68 pitted.  On lap 219, he moved into 5th when the #80 pitted.  Clark kept running consistent laps and kept it on the track, moving into 4th when the #11 pitted on lap 248.  Clark came in a few laps later, turning over the reigns to John for the last 2 hours.
 
(Our sincere apologies to John.  The onboard camera ran out of memory before John got in the car, so no pictures or video of John's stint.)
 
When John went out on track on lap 252 in 6th place, the running order was 7, 44, 58, 68, 11, and our 92.  The #7 MR2 was many laps up on the field.  They were drivng that car hard and fast all day long.  We had our eyes on the next 4 cars, though, as it looked like they needed an extra stop on the last 2 hours, and there were less than 3 laps between the 44 and us.
 
John immediately starting knocking out fast lap after fast lap.  On lap 267, he moved to 5th as the #11 pitted.  One lap later, the 58 pitted, and John was in 4th.  The #68 pitted next, moving John into 3rd.  Our first podium finish was shaping up!  It was now time for the drama...
 
30 minutes from the end, John radioed in that he was low on fuel.  The factory gauge was reading below the "E" line.  We tried to reassure him, as both Thomas and Tobey ran more than 20 minutes with the gauge below empty.  But it didn't reassure those of us in the pits, let alone John.  He was 2 laps up on the 58 car, and 2 laps down from the 44 in 2nd place, so we told him to back off a bit, conserve fuel where possible, and finish the race.
 
The 58 caught up to John, but John was holding him off.  We talked, and decided to let him pass, as he had to make up 2 laps to gain a position, and we still needed to conserve fuel with 20 minutes left.  With 15 minutes left, the race leader, the #7 MR2, heightened the drama even more.  They came into the pits with a bad rod knock in the engine.  They were still several laps up on the field, but there was plenty of time for 5-6 cars to make up the laps if they bowed out.  So they returned to the track, in rod-knocking glory, presumably to limp out 2-3 laps and salvage a victory.  But it was not to be.  They didn't make a complete lap before the engine seized.
 
Now, 10 minutes from the end, a 2nd place finish was ours for the taking, as long as John didn't run out of fuel.  Each time he sped by on the front straight, we were all listening, trying to detect a sputter or hesitation indicating that he was running out of fuel.  But for once, the racing gods were on our side.  After a blown head gasket in our first race and a grenaded motor in our 3rd race, and after 9.5 hour of hard fought racing, we finally had our podium finish.  2nd place!
 
Final Standings:
1st #44, 329 laps
2nd #92, 327 laps
3rd #58 326 laps
The #7 MR2 ended up in 6th place, with 323 laps.