We return to the tricky and undulating Sonoma Raceway for Races 9 & 10 of the SCCA San Francisco Region Championship. Last year we spent a good amount of time trying to improve our performance at Sonoma including a test day with Ross Bentley and the SCCA National Runoffs.
Friday - Test Day
Heading into the test day we had done some overhauls on the car suspension including updating the rockers to the newer tubular design, replacing the old worn out Penske Racing shocks with fresh units and installing the new bump stops that will be mandatory next year. Look out for future install articles coming soon.
With so many changes to the suspension components we performed a full alignment on the car and changed the set up ahead of the race weekend. This required some significant changes to our Rod End Supply bearings and link settings to get the castor, camber and toe back to where we wanted it. Several of the old rockers must have been tweaked causing offsets in castor and camber.
The first few sessions were dedicated to feeling the car and getting the overall set up dialed in. Changes were made to ride heights, sway bars and damper rebound.
In the weeks leading up to the weekend I spent time combing through the data a video from last year. There were obvious corners and areas for improvement including Turn 1/2 the fast uphill, Turn 6 the carousel, Turn 10 the fast right hander next to the outside wall.
I focused on these corners trying to carry more speed up hill in Turn 1 increasing the entry and mid corner speeds for Turn 2. Significant lap times can be achieve with gains up to 0.5 seconds in some cases. The exit of Turn 6 is also critical at Sonoma as you thunder down the back straight alongside the drag strip into a heavy break zone for the Turn 7 hair pin, a key over taking location on the track. Similarly a good run out of Turn 10 can provide you with ample speed to get a pass done under braking heading into the Turn 11 hair pin.
Throughout the test day we focused on maintenance between session adding fuel, checking everything was tight and ensuring extra grease for the fresh set of rockers and bushings as they got broken in.
By the end of the day we had worked through tuning the set up, several key corners on the track and ensured the car was ready for the race weekend. On the last session of the day the tires were towards the end of their life so we focused on some heavy braking. Pulling into the paddock after the final session the old tires were completely used up and it was time for a fresh set of rubber for tomorrows qualifying and race.
After the last session of the day we went through the usual end of the day checklist making sure everything was tight in the suspension and the fluids were topped up. The brake pads were nearing the end of their life so we swapped them out for a fresh set on all four corners. We left the wheels off as we would be heading over to Hoosier tires for fresh rubber in the morning.
With the car sorted it was time to head out to the hotel to get some dinner, review the video and check the data.
Saturday - Qualifying
Arriving at the track early Saturday morning we took the cover off the car and headed across the paddock to get some fresh rubber installed on our wheels. We had a little time before the mid morning qualifying session so I gave the wheels a good solid clean. Then got all the dirt and excess rubber off the the car and gave the engine bay a quick wipe down removing the grime and dust we had kicked up on the test day.
With the new tires, lighter wheels, fresh shocks and updated rocker arms we weren’t sure of the total weight of the car against the official SCCA scales so we headed over with our gear to get a weight prior to qualifying. The car was lighter than expected even with the current fuel load so we ended up adding more fuel and 10 lbs of extra ballast.
As we were finishing up the final preparations on the race car our friends Lisa and Laura arrived at the track to wish us well before we headed out for qualifying.
With fresh tires, I took a few laps to get them up to temperature before pushing hard for fast lap. As I was getting up to speed the White #66 of Brandon Lewis was catching me and getting closer in my mirrors. I made a mistake coming out of Turn 4 running wide and pointed him by to tuck in behind and chase him down trying to get a tow down the straights and through the fast back esses section.
Brandon was quick and having a rabbit to chase for a few laps was fantastic. Trying to keep up pushed me to go just that bit deeper into the braking zones and faster into the corners. There were corners where Brandon was quicker and it was great to watch what he was doing and note areas for improvement. I set a new personal best lap time of 1:48.889, fast enough for 8th position on the grid.
A quick maintenance check of the car and then we headed out to relax and grab some lunch with friends Lisa and Laura. If you are ever visiting Sonoma Raceway check out the little Deli and sandwich shop on the way into Sonoma town. You will often see it filled with racers and crew waiting in line for the sandwich to be ready. A nice way to unwind before the afternoon race.
Laura captured this fantastic picture of my crazy eyes just before heading out to the grid. Can you tell I am excited to be in a race car?
Race 7 started out good. I was running with the fast group up front. On the opening lap the #14 White car of Greg Hoff spun in Turn 7 causing several people to take evasive action. Resulting in another position gained moving myself up to 7th.
I spent the next few laps battling with the Black/White #51 of Bob Breton. The test day practice had worked and I was maximizing a few key corners on the track. I was able to catch him coming out of Turn 6 and then get alongside coming out of Turn 10 but didn’t have enough speed to get the pass completed.
Then disaster struck on the 5th lap. Coming out of the carousel, Turn 6, I lost 4th gear heading down the straight to Turn 7. Initially I thought the car had popped out of gear but trying again I couldn’t get 4th. I tried other gears as I limped down the back section of the track. Fourth gear is so critical at Sonoma and shifting from 3rd to 5th wasn’t going to work. Rather than risk further damage to the gearbox or engine I pulled back paddock and retired from the race. An unfortunate DNF after a solid qualifying and start to the race.
Sadly our evening dinner plans with Lisa and Laura were postponed. Sometimes that is the tough side of a race weekend. Pulling into the pits I quickly got to diagnosing the problem and ensuring it was actually the gearbox. I checked with Jack of East Anglia Motorsports and he had a spare transmission available I could purchase.
Getting the car on jack stands I started the process of disconnecting the motor from the rest of the car so I could extract the failed gearbox. This meant removing a majority of the engine connections and ancillaries.
There is lots of work involved in removing the engine including draining the coolant, removing the exhaust headers, disconnecting the oil cooler and fuel lines, removing the driveshafts, disengaging the wiring harness, unbolting the transmission and all the other little items that make the car run.
Then it is a matter off getting an engine hoist and undoing all the motor mounts. Big thank you to Ric of CSR Performance who lent a helping hand and provided the engine hoist.
With the motor out of the way we could remove the broken transmission and start the process of switching over the throw out collar and clutch lines to the new transmission.
When we removed the motor we noticed one of the inner bulkhead motor mounts was cracked. A quick trip around the paddock to find who had a spare and we lucked into one. Thanks to Michell of M&L for the fresh motor mount. It is a lot easier to replace that inner bulkhead mount while the motor is out of the car then try and do it with limited access in the car.
With the mount repaired and the new transmission now in place it was time get the motor back into the car. It is always a juggling act to get the motor and gearbox to align. The trick is to get everything on the correct angle and align the input shaft, then push the motor and gearbox together. Put the bolts back in place to hold it together and then slowly tighten the bolts in place around the circumference of the motor/transmission.
With the motor and transmission now connected it is a matter of getting the combined drivetrain in the right place and connecting all the motor and transmission mounts. We have found it easier to get it aligned with the firewall bulkhead first then work the upper gearbox, right side motor mount and then the lower gearbox mount. The key is to slip the bolt through each mount and nut in place but don’t tighten until all the mounts are in place. Having the mounts loose will give you enough play to be able to position and move the engine and gearbox assembly around while getting all the rest of the mounts in place.
It was a late night and around 1030 before we had the majority of the car back together with all the fluids back in place. Since it was so late, I wasn’t able to start the car and check it over. The test fire would have to wait until morning. I headed off to the hotel for a much needed shower and some rest.
Arriving back early in the morning it was time to check last nights work, provide the finishing touches and then start the car up. We ensured the coolant expansion tank was full and started the process of burping any air out of the motor.
The car fired up first time always a relief and nice way to begin. Then we spent the next hour getting the car up to temperature, removing air bubbles from the coolant system, topping up the coolant level and then letting the car cool back down. We repeated the process a couple of times to ensure all the air was out of the system and that the fluids were full. Then we took the car for a quick test drive up around the back parking areas of the track to ensure the car changed gears smoothly. Everything looked, sounded and felt good. A thorough run down of the maintenance checklist and we were ready for qualifying with time to spare.
Tired from the long night before I knew my performance was probably going to suffer a little but I focused on the task at hand. Spent the first few laps watching the coolant gauge like a hawk and taking it easy on the gearbox to ensure everything was in order. I was stuck in traffic until I got a clean lap of 1:49.251 not as fast as the Saturday qualifying. The next lap around I had a predicted 1:48 lap but I had to abort for a waving yellow in fast esses section of turns 8/8A and 9 with a car off course in the outside wall. At the end of qualifying I was 9th missing out on 8th by just 0.001 seconds. Although slower I was still in a good spot on the grid for the race.
After qualifying I gave the car a detailed inspection and made sure everything was right, tight and working correctly. Double checking the suspensions and motor mounts, rechecked the fluids, topped up fuel and inspected the brakes all to ensure everything was ready for the race.
A the start of the race I lost a position to Joe in the #9 Black/Yellow car. I spent the first 5 laps of the race trying to get back around Joe. I could get a run out of a few turns but Joe was great at covering the inside of the corners in the breaking zone.
Unfortunately the external microphone got disconnected at some point so I apologize for the poor sound quality in the video.
An incident on the outside of Turn 10 brought out the safety car on lap 6. I was now up to 9th place. On the restart I was able to get a run out of the Turn 6 Carousel going inside under braking into Turn 7. Moving up to 8th place.
On lap 12 the #66 White car of Brandon Lewis spun in the Turn 11 hair pin and I moved up to 7th.
I spent the reminder of the race trying to get past the White #16 of Greg Hoff. On the final lap he made a mistake coming out of Turn 2 and spun, I was lucky enough to just avoid his car and keep going.
At the checkered flag I finished 6th. A fun race with good speed and lots of battling trying to get past some of the faster drivers.
All the hard work on the test day and the long night changing the transmission had paid off. A tough weekend but a great performance and finish in Race 10. Always a good day when you can drive the car onto the trailer.
Big thank you to Lisa and Laura for coming out to see the qualifying and racing. Always great to spend time with friends at the track. Sorry we had to cancel dinner but there is always night race weekend.
Thank you to all our Sponsors and Partners. Huge thanks to Ric of CSR Performance for helping me with the transmission swap, thanks to Jack of East Anglia Motorsports for the spare Transmission and Michell for the motor mount.
Two thumbs up to SCCA Workers and Volunteers who put on another great event with so many racers and lots of action packed into just three days. Thanks for keeping us safe out there.
Our next event is Races 11 & 12 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, 31 August - 1 September 2019, we hope to see you there!
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