Saturday, September 10, 2011

NASA National Championship

Returning From the Worst-Case Scenario to Earn a Respectable Finish in the National Championship

If you'd like to skip right to watching the race, which was professionally filmed externally and commentated, just like the pro races, click on the following link.
You can use my username (Z3SpdDmn) and password (SpecE30) to sign in so you can watch full screen and in HD!
(Just note that you won't see me in my #007, but in the substituted #21 loaned to me by Denny Barker)

Between the last race in August and the 2011 NASA National Championships on September 8-10, I had concluded that my car needed an engine rebuild in order to be competitive for the championship. Video evidence showed a notable difference between me and the other fast guys and a compression test confirmed my suspicions. It was a stressful 3 weeks that faced us with multiple challenges along the way. I knew that I was taking some risk in building a new engine and running it with no test time, but I felt that doing nothing was not an option. Fellow SpecE30 racer Michael Osborne was a crucial element in getting the engine built and installed, going far out of his way to help. I got the engine running 5 days before the Championships, got it broken in, and set to work on other items that needed attending. In fact, I was feeling pretty good about it as I got loaded up on Wednesday.
I picked up Kevin Kreisa, of DTR Performance, on my way up to the Mid-Ohio and planned to meet Denny Barker up at the track. Regrettably, my usual crew chief, Nate Thulin, had a conflict come up and couldn’t make it, so Kevin and Denny were splitting Crew and Crew Chief duties. Having their help was absolutely instrumental through the weekend. We unloaded and set up a paddock space among the other Great Lakes SpecE30s, including Michael Osborne, Cameron Bullard, and Sean Louisin. When we returned early on Thursday morning, we faced a wet track and ran our Warm-up and Qualifying sessions in these conditions. The car was feeling ok on the wet setup and the engine felt good, but a decent bit of traffic in Qualifying left me with a 6th place starting position for the first Qualifying race. Thursday and Friday were run in this fashion, with a Qualifying session for a Qualifying Race. The results of the 2 Qualifying Races would determine the starting grid for the National Championship Race on Saturday. In all of our races, we would be conducting standing starts. That is, we would all be starting from a dead-stop, just like Formula 1 or the World Challenge Series do. Unfortunately, our region had never done standing starts before, and we initially resisted the idea.

JUMPED TO 3RD ON THE START (Kate Harley Moss Photo)

The rain went away and the track dried up before our Qualifying Race #1, so we switched to the dry tires and suspension setup on the car. I thought that this would be the test to tell me truly how competitive I would be this weekend. I had no problems with the standing start, launching from 6th up to 3rd by the time we hit Turn 1, and I was up to 2nd after the Keyhole. Loren Trethefen, in the only convertible SpecE30 I’ve ever seen, was followed me through (what I normally call) T7, up to Madness. However, he missed his braking point; first hitting me in the rear bumper, then again on the inside, putting a big donut in my door and rear quarter. I controlled the car, though, and pulled back ahead when we went into Thunder Valley. Robert Grace was ahead and I gave chase as I simultaneously was feeling out the car on the dry track. We hit T1 again, for the first time at speed, and my car was not turning… I had taken this turn at this speed and turn-in point a thousand times before, so it was obvious that there was something reducing traction. I slid off the track into the grass, kept my foot in it - correcting the oversteer one way and then the other. I made it back on track, but lost position to Michael Osborne and Carter Hunt. As I looked back, I saw a cloud of smoke and a gaggle of SpecE30’s scattered and spinning all over the place. I don’t know if I was the one dropping fluid or if it was already there, but as I kept driving, the car didn’t feel quite right under me. I pushed forward and got by Carter in T14 before the Carousel, with Sean Louisin close behind me. I struggled through the race and, as we were 2 laps from the end, the car started smoking. I was dropping back and just trying to resist each pass the best I could. I felt bad when Sean and I entered T14 with him on the outside and my car slid out again in dramatic fashion. He may have expected it, as he was quick to avoid me and take to the grass. I was glad he was able to get back on track with minimal incident. However for me, as I entered the front straight and took the white flag, plumes of smoke behind me, the car started going down badly on power. I had to shut it down and pull off. This was no way to start my run for the championship.

SpecE30 Championships - Qualifying Race #1

THE INJURED 007 (Andy Welter Photo)

Investigation led us to discover that the coolant drain plug in the block had gone missing and drained the coolant out of the block, allowing the engine to overheat. The strange thing was that my gauges never showed any crisis occurring. We found a replacement bolt to keep the water in and refilled the system. While the car started and ran, when we pulled the oil dipstick, we found the oil to be extremely frothy – indicating that water was getting into the oil. While the likelihood was that this was a catastrophic situation, there was also the possibility that the head gasket was blown and could be replaced. As Kevin got started on pulling the head, with assistance from Denny and Michael Osborne (who had amazingly started 15th and WON the Qualifying Race #1!), I went on a parts gathering mission. I got oil on site ($60 that would later go down the drain, figuratively) and headed toward Columbus to get a head gasket from fellow SpecE30 racer Kyle Smith. I returned to find that the head gasket that came off did not seem to be blown. With little other choice, we put it back together with the new gasket, filled it with oil, and finally fired it up around 2am. It ran, but when we checked the oil, there was again water in it causing it to froth up. The head was likely cracked, allowing the 2 fluids to mix. We made the decision, based on prior discussion, to go get Denny’s SpecE30 to continue the weekend. He and I set out for Cleveland, arriving at his house around 3:30am. We grabbed a few hours of sleep, loaded the car around 7, and headed back to the track. Make no mistake - it sucked.

Michael got us squared away with the NASA officials so that I could run the #21 car when we returned. We accepted that we would miss Warm-up and focused on getting ready for Qualifying. The car was mostly ok, but missing all the things that we had developed into my car, such as the fit of the cockpit, the suspension setup, and the freshly strengthened engine. Aside from these things, the #21 was oversteering badly going under the Honda bridge in T10, as well as a couple other places. Denny had previously complained of the same thing. I felt like the rear suspension – likely the swaybar – was binding and suddenly locking up the rear end. I Qualified 11th with this condition and Kevin and Denny set to work on fixing the issue. They adjusted the rear swaybar end-links to prevent them from binding and got ready for the Qualifying Race #2. My parents, sister Tessa, and Brother-in-Law Tim showed up from Rochester, NY around this time to spend the weekend with us. I was happy to see them.


Starting in 11th put me on the outside of the front straight as we look towards T1. When the lights went out, I got another good launch and dodged left to try to get by Matt Harness ahead of me. However, he also moved left and then missed 2nd gear. I got swiped down the left side, folding my drivers’ side mirror forward, and then rear-ended Matt, looking for a way by. As Carter Hunt was flying by on my right, I rear-ended Matt again before I could jump to the right and pull around him. I had lost about 6 positions before I finally got into T1! I pressed forward and worked on regaining those positions. The car was feeling better, but still having some issues in certain places. I did not feel like I could trust the handling. It felt more like fluid getting on the tires now, as the binding issue was gone and this was occurring on turn-in. I worked through it to gain back my positions, plus one, finishing in 10th. I felt ok with finishing a mid-pack car in the middle of the pack, but felt that it had more. I could see that the cool-suit cooler was leaking water onto the passenger floor and considered that it could be the culprit. However, I had also noticed the coolant temperature rising during the session and the water pressure was running low. I suspected that the expansion tank cap was failing and also noticed that the expansion tank’s overflow was not routed to a catch can. We swapped my pressure cap on, installed a catch-can, and replaced his cool suit with steel ballast from my car. While we were at it, we made a minor sway bar adjustment.

SpecE30 Championships - Qualifying Race #2

The evening was fortunately more relaxing. We went to dinner at KC’s Steakhouse – my favorite Mid-Ohio watering hole – and then got settled into the house I had rented for the weekend just 2 miles from the track. Alyssa and her parents and sister showed a bit later, as Alyssa had flown in to Columbus. It was really nice to have everyone together! The next morning’s warm-up session went quite well, as the car felt completely fixed and trust-worthy. I felt that THIS was a car I could race! In fact, I had dropped over a second off my laptime, posting the 3rd fastest lap of the Warm-up. It gave me a sense of confidence that I could have a shot to run at the top 5 cars. However, storms were a’brewin’…


As the National Championship race neared, we scrambled to get everything set and ready, ensuring that we had enough ballast to remain legal after burning 45 minutes worth of fuel in this longer race. However, it began raining before the race and did not look like it was about to let up. We swapped out to rain tires, but didn’t have time to switch to a suspension setup for the wet. Everyone took their positions and I headed out on a very wet track. We lined up for our standing start on the front straight, but some confused drivers ahead of me were not in their correct positions, causing me to start from a row back from where I should have been. In any case, I got ready, radioed to Denny that I would try to bring it home in one piece, and waited for the lights to go out…
I jumped forward by a couple cars to get up into around 6th. Robert Grace pulled out to an early lead while the cars behind him battled for position. However, while trying to open his lead, he went off in the carousel and fell all the way back to almost last. Carter Hunt assumed the lead, and it was a substantial one, at that. My strategy was to try to not be taken out by another driver. Especially considering that I was in someone else’s car, I knew that everyone was going for broke and would surely be making some moves with a low percentage chance of success. Having experience at Mid-Ohio in the wet, I know how much less grip the track offers on the inside, where the sealant is. It looks like a great passing opportunity, but it’s usually a good way to put you and another car out of the race. I pushed the car to get what I could out of it, passing where I knew I could execute. Following Palacio and Curran, I watched Palacio give Curran a bump on entry to the right hander into Thunder Valley. Curran unfortunately spun and we all moved up. While Grace came back up and got by, I got by Palacio and was now in 4th, behind a close battle between Grace and Gagliardo, with Hunt running a good distance ahead. I watched Grace make a move to the inside of T1, knowing it wouldn’t go well. He pushed out and banged into the side of Gagliardo. They both stayed on track, but Grace got big sideways on exit. I used their compromised exit speed to make a move to get by and braked deep into the Keyhole to make sure it stuck. I didn’t expect to find myself up in 2nd, but here I was, so I gave chase after Hunt.


With one eye ahead and one eye watching for aggressive moves from behind me, we started to close in on Hunt. I had Gagliardo, Grace, and Trefethen behind me and Trefethen, who had been pushing hard through the field, got past Grace when he got loose over the right into Thunder Valley. As I came into “the fast left” before the Carousel, I saw Gagliardo make a move to the inside. There was no way that it was going to work, so I got ready for the certain impact. He hit me in the left rear, putting me sideways, but I was quick to countersteer and hang on to my position. Loren Thefethen, in the SpecE30 convertible, got past Gagliardo as he recovered and, on the next lap, got a run on me down the back straight. He had hit me hard in the first qualifying race, so I wasn’t going to get into a position where he could do it to me again. I let him sail by and we both closed in on Hunt. While I held my line, knowing where I could pass and where I couldn’t – as well as where I was vulnerable to be passed and where I was not – Trefethen continued in his highly aggressive manner. He got lined up right on the back bumper of Carter Hunt’s car as they took the cresting right hander into Thunder Valley. Coming over the crest, the track is extremely slippery and Hunt got loose, starting a spin to the right. While Trefethen had no option but to also go right, he also got sideways, recovered on the right side of the track, and found himself facing sqarely at Hunt’s right front wheel. He hit him hard, bending Hunt’s suspension and retiring him from the race, while Trefethen careened off to the right and into the tires. Having left myself enough room to figure out which way they were going, I drove past on the left and assumed the lead of the race. Now the pressure was on as I led the next lap with Gagliardo and Grace in pursuit.

LEADING THE RACE! (Andy Welter Photo)

While I couldn’t believe I was leading the race, I tried to figure out how I would hold onto it for the remaining 15 minutes of the race. I didn’t have to think about it for too long, though, because I pushed just a bit wide in the left under the Honda bridge, giving Grace a chance to get to my left side, which gave him the preferred wet line up to Thunder Valley. He went by and I dropped behind, still content to be running 2nd at this point. With Gagliardo’s car suffering from his previous scuffle with Grace, Grace and I had opened up a decent gap back to 3rd. I just needed to hang on at this point and maybe I could make a move, but it wasn’t to be. A yellow flag came out, bringing out the Safety Car, who pulled in front of the 944Spec car that was leading overall. The pace slowed to a crawl as we caught up with the leader and the rest of the field caught up to us. We had a mixture of 944Spec’s and SpecE30’s in front of us, all of which were a lap down from the leader. Getting by in the wet was going to be tricky.
The green flag waved on the back straight and Grace and I initially had a great run. However, no one in front of us could decide what direction they wanted to go. We went right, then left, then had to lift throttle and check back to the right again. We passed a few cars, but we had Palacio and Allen a short ways behind us. We worked forward and Grace put a couple lapped cars between us. As we approached Thunder Valley, I saw Simon Hunter and a not-to-be-named white E30 ahead of me. I flashed my high-beams frantically, just asking for the room to get by. Hunter recognized me and immediately gave me plenty of space to get by. The other car, however, defended as if his championship was on the line. He kept me behind him through the Carousel and I got a run on the front straight.



The white flag was out – last lap! I came along to his inside as we approached T1, but he yielded no ground, and I had to slow in order to stick it on the sealer on the inside. Palacio was behind the white car and had a full-speed run through the turn, getting past me on the outside. The white car spun himself on the exit of T1 and backed it into the inside tire wall. OK… so I was in 3rd. Maybe I could live with that. Johnny Allen had worked through a lot of traffic to get up behind me and he was on my bumper as we went through Madness for the last time. For some reason, I didn’t recognize him as a car on the lead lap, thinking that I had passed him and he was just fighting back. He stuck his nose under me through 9 and got beside me approaching the left hand T10 under the Honda bridge, making me over-slow since I would be on sealer on the inside, and got by. I didn’t hand him the position, but I didn’t fight him as if it was for the last podium position, which, of course, it was. I got a run onto the front straight and crossed the line beside him, but about a ¼ car length back. It was not until we parked in the impound lot and I was handed the timing sheet that the reality of having missed the podium by one position set in…

THE BATTLE FOR 3RD PLACE (Andy Welter Photo)

To watch in HD login as user Z3SpdDmn and password is SpecE30.

I congratulated all the podium finishers and watched them celebrate with champagne, trophies, trophy girls, hats and big checks, before they proceeded to interviews. I was congratulated on my finish by my family, friends, and fellow racers, but I would be lying if I said I was satisfied with my finish. I guess it is my nature. Had I simply worked up to 4th, I would have likely been happy with having done that in a borrowed car. But, knowing that I should have at least had 2nd place wrapped up – and having had that yellow flag and the resulting traffic screw me – has left me with a big pit in my gut. There were some body contact forms filed against the 1st and 2nd place finishers, which gave some lingering hope of moving up due to a DQ (not that I would ever wish a DQ on someone). But, having reviewed the video, I didn’t think that any DQ’s would be handed out. We spent the next few hours in tech inspection, having some items checked for legality and compatibility. Having finally passed the inspections, we loaded up all our equipment and both cars and the headed back to the house to hang out and enjoy the rest of the night.
Disappointed as I may be in having lost my engine and not having finished on the podium, I feel great that we salvaged a really good finish from what would otherwise have been a thrown-away Championship run. I’m also rather proud to have been one of the few cars that I was around in that race that didn’t hit anyone else the entire weekend. I have to extend a HUGE THANKS to Denny Barker for allowing me the use of his car! I hope I did him proud. I also need to thank Denny and Kevin Kreisa for their support through the entire weekend, as well as to Michael Osborne for the great lunches and for helping with the attempted head gasket swap on Thursday night. I also want to thank my parents, sister, brother-in-law, girlfriend Alyssa, her parents and sister for all making the trip out to support me! It was a weekend that will not be soon forgotten and I am glad to have had them all have been a part of it.
I also want to thank my sponsors that have been supporting me this year. Jeff, Jeremy, and Andrew at Ireland Engineering, Chris May at IMGT3 Performance, of course, Kevin Kreisa at DTR Performance, Scott Barton of, and Ken Herskovitz at They have all made significant contributions to get me running or keep me running at one point in the year or another!
So, I have to move on to next year. The car needs fixing and there’s no time to waste. I need to get past the extensive mechanical woes that I’ve had this year – I learned how to do a lot of things that I really didn’t care to know! – and I hope that I will be set next year once the engine situation is sorted out. I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year to take another run at the SpecE30 National Championship!

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