This past weekend, I ran with Harris Hill Road LMP(OS) in 24 Hours of Lemons Gator-O-Rama. We ran a 1978 Triumph TR7. This was my first wheel-to-wheel race – I had done plenty of HPDEs, autocross, even some gymkhana, but had never competed, wheel-to-wheel, with open passing.
If you’ve run a low power car at an HPDE, you know the frustration of being caught behind a car with more power and less handling. The frustration of them refusing to give you a passing signal, convinced that their car is better and they should be ahead. That dynamic is both remarkably similar and remarkably different with open passing in a competition. The high power cars (at least the ones who watch their mirrors) will try to block in the corners, then use that power in the straight. It takes courage, planning, and skill to get around them. Sometimes, I’d find myself able to out-brake them coming into a corner. I’d aim myself just to their inside and wait, wait, wait to brake. How late could I wait? How late dared I wait? And then hard on the brakes, yanking the car down, slowing. If I couldn’t get my mirror next to theirs by a bit past corner turn-in, I’d just stand on the brakes and wait, as they’d almost always take the apex and I shouldn’t hit them. If I had managed to get my mirror next to theirs (or even in front), I’d take that apex, still braking, and stay on an inside line through the corner. Thanks to the handling of that Triumph, if I was next to them just after turn-in, I’d be in front by the end of the corner. Some of the power guys would try to pass me on that next straight, but many were wise enough to stay behind. I earned the pass in a late braking competition – they didn’t want to risk me out-braking myself into them.
Other power cars had either better drivers or better braking. I couldn’t outbrake these drivers, at least not without risking outbraking myself. When battling one of these drivers, I had to learn patience. If I could just convince myself to wait for one of the sweepers, I could get them there. Few cars could take the carousel as fast as that “flying” wedge. If they took the inside, I’d take the out. If they took the outside, I’d take the in. And I’d inch past, inch past, gaining and gaining. It was a thrill to earn the pass, inch by inch.
Things were wet come Sunday. The day started with enough fog and dew to have a damp track, and light rain kept it wet for a substantial part of the day. I took the third shift this day. The rain was coming to a close as I got in the car. On my out lap, I drove timidly, just getting used to being in the car again. My next lap, I pushed a bit harder. I’d never driven the Triumph in the wet, so I wanted to find the feel of the car as I pushed it in the wet. I let the car slide a bit too much that lap, but I avoided any real problems and gained a much better understanding of the car. At that point, I did my best to settle in. I’m an aggressive driver with a strong competitive streak, so keeping myself contained and behaving in the rain was not easy. Our radio had broken, so I didn’t even have team members reminding me to take it easy. Still, I took deep breaths and kept my head on straight.
At one point, in the wet, a BMW decided they were going to pass me in the carousel on the inside. I had watched them in my mirrors through a few corners, and I could tell they decided they were coming around then. They were not going to make it through the carousel at that speed without sliding, the only question was, where would they slide? I backed off just a bit, choosing to let them have the pass rather than risk contact. When my front bumper is about halfway through their car, the back of the BMW kicks out. I see the car coming for me and just gently unwind, completely avoiding contact and giving them a chance to recover. I had a little laugh in my head as the driver waved to me, thankful I chose to let him have the pass instead of fighting him for it and letting us hit.
The Triumph handled the wet wonderfully. When the car slipped, the slip was minor. If I started with heavy braking and then turned in, I could encounter some understeer. Gently rolling off the brakes would cure it. More often, I’d get some slip from the rear of the car. This, too, was easy to handle. The back might slip slightly on turn in, but I’d let it lose a bit of speed with that slip and then gently roll on the throttle, stabilizing. Only once was the slip more than “slight,” and even then, it was easy to countersteer through the slide and pull the car out. The car would lose traction on acceleration coming out of the corners, as well, but yet again, the slide was slight and easy to control. I could not have asked for a better balanced car.
I’m an aggressive driver in multiple ways. One of these is that I’m always testing the car, the limits. As a result, when conditions started to dry, my braking zones reduced faster than the braking zones of many other drivers. I found myself flying past cars on the inside, outbraking them into corners. As the track dried, I found myself having more and more fun. I was really getting into the drive when I looked down at the watch. It was 4:45… I needed to hurry up and give the team the signal I’d come in so that Steve could have his turn! So as I went down the front straight I beat on the roof of the car. This was the signal… Three more times I’d drive down that front straight, and then I’d be in. My next time down the straight, my hand was out with three fingers up. The next time, two, and that last time, one finger held up high. And then in I was. That was it. My driving portion of the race was over. I’d had a ton of fun on my drive, and as I came away from the car, it was clear the team was very happy with my drive, as well.
Steve did a fantastic final stint it the car, covering lots of ground and keeping us penalty free. We finished 31 out of 122, 286 laps completed, 686 miles covered by that Triumph. It was a great race and a lot of fun.