The track this fine racing tale takes place on is Mosport International Raceway located near Toronto, which boasts the highest average speed of any North American circuit. Some call it a mini Nürburgring because of its ridiculous speed and off-camber, blind and dropping corners. It challenges even the best of drivers to get the very last tenth out of the car - to go fast at Mosport, you have to do things that, well, just aren't smart. But when done right, you're rewarded with blistering lap times.
The race car me and my co-driver would be piloting is my very own SG-Motorsport '03 350Z. I race it part time in a pro racing series called Koni Challenge (now named the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge), as well as in local endurance and GT races. The car was built in 2003 by Unitech Racing and run with quite the healthy budget; in fact, one of the biggest names in road racing, Boris Said, raced the car on numerous occasions. We've since upgraded the car, but you'd be surprised by how stock it still is. In Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, a lot of components have to remain stock, and therefore the engine is actually a bone-stock VQ35DE with nothing but Nismo street cams, our own headers, a 3.5-inch exhaust system and a few external bolt-on bits.
My co-driver for the race would be Mr. Yuke Taniguchi, who came all the way from Japan where he has raced professionally in Japanese Le Mans, World Touring Car and has even won championships in Japan's Super Taikyu series racing with Tarzan Yamada. But by day Mr. Taniguchi runs Yuke's, a video game company that has created titles like WWE SmackDown, and more relevant to guys like us, D1 Grand Pix! Needless to say, I was very excited to have him driving with our team and was interested to see how he fared at Mosport for his first time. Not to mention, Yuke had never raced a LHD car with an H-pattern gearbox before, so the stage was set for an exciting (yet possibly terrifying) race.
I had made some changes to the 350Z prior to the race and was anxious to see how they would perform. I revalved the dampers with more rebound and installed stiffer springs (to cope with the downforce our new splitter and wing were creating), as well as solid spherical suspension bushings in all of the front suspension joints. The morning practice session on Friday was cool and crisp, a perfect testing ground for the new parts. As I strapped into the car, there was no stopping the butterflies in my stomach. Rolling out all you hear is the exhaust resonating off the steel guard rails as you slowly get the engine up to speed. I tell myself I'll take one full slow and easy warm-up lap, but that never lasts.
By corner 4 I'm already testing the limits of the cold tires, sliding down the hill at more than 120 mph and going hard on the brakes (hoping they've warmed enough to slow me for corner 5, which is essentially a hairpin at the top of a crest). Up through second, third, fourth and at the top of fifth gear I crest the hill and see how late I can wait before I have to jab the brakes, catch fourth and watch all three shift indicators light up like a Christmas tree as I coast into corner 8 at more than 100 mph. I have to be patient and focus on getting a good run onto the front straight, but all I want to do is slam the throttle down and hear the VQ scream. When you get it just right and go over the curbing and up onto the thin patch of asphalt at the exit of corner 10, you get a ton of exit speed for the short front straight. Then the real fun starts as I fly down the straight getting ready to attack corners 1 and 2 (my favorite) at maximum aggression.
I don't want to brake for corner 1, but every part of me knows she'll push wide if I don't. Lifting at the last possible moment and tapping the brakes lightly the car comes down on the curbing, bounces over it and I mash the throttle as the road falls away downhill and every ounce of focus goes toward the left rear tire. Many cars have met the concrete wall by applying too much power too early here. The first shift light comes on and I'm really flying at 110 mph - the car has never experienced this much speed approaching corner 2. I know I'm really pushing it now.
When the second shift light comes on a few moments later, I can't help but smile as I approach the best part of the track: turn 2. I turn in with the utmost of delicacy and see the road dip down. Any twitch of the steering wheel will cause the car to slide, potentially right into the tire wall - not something I want to do, especially since Yukes hasn't even had a chance to drive. I finish off a few more laps and realize I'd better cool it because things are heating up a bit too fast for an early morning practice session.
Next session, Yukes goes out and gets comfortable. He comes back and admits he loves Mosport and is already trying to find all the speed possible. You can tell he's passionate about racing because every spare moment is spent looking at data or watching video comparing where the speed is, how a certain corner drops off or where a deceiving apex is. Imagine how difficult it would be to strap into a car you've never driven, on the wrong side, at one of the most treacherous tracks in the world, knowing you had one day to get it all sorted before your race. That's the situation Yukes had to deal with.
During Saturday qualifying the car feels even better than the Friday morning practice session. My goal for the weekend was a 1:29.00 lap, which I achieved on the very first lap. Needless to say, in qualifying trim with the front bumper all taped up and the wing trimmed out, we had shaved a full second off our expectations. My new optimistic goal was to hit 1:28.00, and sure enough, I put down a 1:28.576 in qualifying. The car had more grip than I could have ever hoped for; I was literally riding the fourth gear rev limiter (now set to 7400 rpm, bumped 200 rpm from previous because we were revving out everywhere) down corner 4. And when I say "riding," I mean the entire chassis was bucking down the hill (when it feels that good, your eyes get lazy and you rest your helmet against the seat's head support and enjoy the ride).
But there's one problem with running the engine to 7400 rpm - it's a bone-stock, non-revup VQ, which has a factory rev limit of 6600 rpm. And they are known to throw rods above 7200. For that reason, we lowered the limit to 7000 rpm for the three-hour enduro race. Finishing was the name of the game, and this wasn't the time to get cocky.
With an excellent qualifying time, we placed first in class and second overall to a Viper Competition Coupe with a great deal more power, tire and aero. We decided Yukes would start the race and run until the car was damn near out of fuel, where we would pit for fuel and tires and switch drivers. For the three-hour race we were hoping we'd be able to do just one stop, but after calculating the fuel used on a few practice laps, it didn't look good. To make it work there would have to be an extended full-course yellow, and even then it would be tight. If we could one-stop it, we knew we stood a good chance of overall victory; the Viper would need to stop twice at the absolute minimum.
Being a semi-pro team, all the hired guns aren't so much - hired. They're more like good friends volunteering. With only a few late-night practice sessions at the shop, we were far from a well-seasoned endurance race team. Regardless, we had the energy and the passion. We also had a pretty decent pit setup with the potential to be very efficient.
I gave the car one final inspection and bled the brakes. I paid special attention to the solid spherical compression rods and front lower control arms we added, making sure they hadn't developed play or done anything funky that would prove to be an issue. Then a quick spray down with some detailer gave the car all the love it needed.
It was time to suit Yukes up and get him out for the start. Strapping another driver into your car is always a nervous time. Sure, you've seen them drive, but what happens when it's game time? Will they respect your equipment? Or is it an all-out, win-at all-costs battle? Putting my nerves aside, I gave Mr. Taniguchi a handshake and watched the Z roll on up to the front of the grid.
The green flag finally drops and the Viper that's controlling the pace catches Yuke at top rpm in second gear. He has to make a quick shift to stay in the pack, and needless to say, it's tricky considering the left-hand-drive situation. As a result, he gets passed by a BMW through the first corner, but both cars are quick to act on a mistake by the Viper entering corner 2 - now it's BMW, Nissan and Viper. However, both Yukes and the BMW get freight-trained by the V-10 on the backstraight. Yukes regains second shortly after and things start to develop some sort of stability. Now it's all about pace and getting through traffic. At this race, there are tons of cars running in the field and times range from 1:20s all the way up to 1:50s. For a fast car, that means you lap a slow one every three to four laps, which can prove to be somewhat of a traffic jam at times, but that's what makes the race exciting.
A very fast GT1 Subaru STI gets by Yukes on lap 27, leaving us in third place overall, but still first in class. Soon after the Viper pits for fuel and the Subaru drops out with a small mechanical problem, moving the 350Z into first place overall until lap 48 when Yukes comes in for our fuel and tire stop. I get him out of the car as fast as possible and fueling begins. As soon as it's finished, I get in the car, belt up and wait. Meanwhile, the air guns are going off and the tire change is almost done. The lollipop lifts and I'm finally able to roll out in a quick but delicate manner. Breaking an axle now would be poor use of our first overall position. Of course, by the time our pit stop was over we fell back to third place.
I immediately notice the car has a ton of understeer with the full fuel load, and with more than an hour and a half to go, I better drive extremely delicately if I want to have any tire left by the end of this thing. I lap consistent 1:30s with full fuel through traffic, which, looking back, may not have been the smartest decision. It's so easy to coast speed in and let the understeer decelerate you, but that overheats the front tires - not good. Every lap I'd have to pass two or three cars, usually exiting a corner or on a straight. But sometimes I'd catch a train of six or seven cars scattered all over the place. When those cars are doing 1:45s and up, there's no time to waste being behind them. I'm forced to pass up on the curbing, or dive bomb a few cars at a time, even cut them off to some degree. It is a race after all.
Just over an hour into my stint, we knew the car wouldn't make it on a single fuel load, so it was time to pit. At this point, my back was in agony and I was losing focus fast, not to mention the tires were starting to go. The car would step out violently over the concrete patches, so I had to be very gentle on the throttle and take it easy entering corners to cool the tires down, which was ultimately costing us time. A pit stop was what the car (and driver) needed.
Being required by the series to get out of the car during fueling made for a nice treat because I was able to stretch my back out, but when strapping back in my radio earbuds became disconnected. One of the few things that kept my concentration up during the race was the constant lap-by-lap radio notification of my times. Without it, I began to feel like I was doing endless circles, unsure of when the race would finish. Starting to get hot and uncomfortable, driving a tired car on hockey pucks, it was taking every ounce of my strength and concentration to keep the thing at speed. The lap times certainly reflected this, as I began dropping off quickly from the 31s and 32s to the 33s and 34s.
And then, with an unknown amount of time left, the entire crew appeared at the wall with a sign that said "GO!" I felt my heart lift and my mind freshen, my adrenaline started pumping again and I got the second wind I needed. It was time to push as hard as I could - obviously, something was up if the entire team was at the wall.
With only one lap to go, I saw the limping Orange Viper. As I raced up the back straight, trying to catch it, I hit traffic in front of me and never before had I felt like punting a car off the road like at that very moment. When I finally got around it, I started to chase the Viper down on the front straight and that's when I noticed the checkered flag. I crossed the finish line just three seconds behind the thing. I pulled up next to him to give him thumbs up when I heard the V-10 stumbling and burping, clearly without a drop of fuel left. The Viper couldn't even make it back to the pits, it had to be towed in.
We had been beat by less than a liter of fuel. Had they run out sooner, we would have driven right by them and won the overall race. It also turns out they lost all clutch control and were stuck in fourth gear, so the car had been limping around 15 seconds off the pace for some time. If only there were a few more laps in this race, if only we had driven just a bit harder. But that's when we all realize that we also won. We won because on this particular weekend, we met and exceeded every goal we set out to accomplish, we qualified first in class, won our class (GT2), had a great time, met an incredible gentleman from the other side of the world. Not often does a race go so well, does a car work so well or do you get to be in the presence of such great guys, all fighting for the same thing. That's what racing is all about, whether at an amateur level, pro or anywhere in between.