"How do you make a small fortune in racing? You start with a large one" - a cliché I heard my dad use while I was growing up (my parents used to race a GT-1-prepped Ford Mustang with the SCCA and ICSCC, International Conference of Sports Car Club, in the Pacific Northwest). I am, as most racers are, very familiar to the practical application of that saying. Even worse, I don't have a large fortune to start with.
The car that we, Clinton Racing, campaign is a '04 Subaru Impreza WRX STI. The class that we run with ICSCC is ST (Sport Touring, visit race-st.com for more info). This is a class based on simple rules: 10:1 lbs/whp, nothing tube-framed and DOT-approved tires only. This forces our car to weigh in at a minimum of 3,100 lbs, based on our 310hp ECU map. Our custom-tuned 310-whp/310-wtq ECU map was developed by Tim Bailey at COBB Tuning Surgeline in Portland. The few engine mods we've done include a larger 3-inch FP Green turbo, 750cc Deatschwerk injectors, a COBB SF intake with a larger MAF, a GrimmSpeed boost control solenoid, and a Walbro 255 fuel pump. Max boost is 16.5 psi, which kicks in by 3300 rpm, providing a very broad powerband all the way to the 6700-rpm redline.
Our first race weekend of the ICSCC Championship Series, held at Portland International Raceway, went relatively smoothly. On Saturday, we qualified with a 1:20 flat, putting us fourth in our class and 17th overall. Sunday's race would prove a bit more eventful, and not in a good way.
As we came down for the green flag, I was behind a Porsche 996. Directly behind me were two American Sedan class cars. (AS is a class made of muscle cars that mostly sees Fox-body Mustangs and '80s/early '90s Camaros.) They have quite a bit of horsepower (400 hp at 3,000 lbs), but are really limited in their suspension/aero setups. When the green dropped, they both got a good jump and out-drag-raced me into the first turn.
I was able to quickly get back around one of the cars that passed me at the start, a Camaro. The other car, a Mustang, was more of a challenge. The driver is an experienced racer, and even though I could pull up on him in the corners, as soon as we got to the straights he would pull four or five car lengths on me. I could see my closest in-class competition slipping away. I knew I had to get past this guy so I could start reeling in the other cars.
As we came down the back straight, I dove hard into turn 10 and turn 11. I made damn sure that I hit my marks - first over the gator teeth on the left in turn 10, then back to the right to graze the gator teeth through turn 11. I got the car positioned close to perfect through turn 12 and was able to get power on much earlier than I had in the previous laps. By the time we were exiting turn 12, I was so close to the Mustang that I'm pretty sure he could see my nose hairs in his rearview mirror. He started pulling away, but this time he wasn't going to get more than two car lengths away from me on the straight. I knew I would be able to out-brake him into turn 4, so I waited until the last brake marker to get out of the throttle. Somehow I got the car to slow down and still make the turn ahead of the Mustang - time to go after the Porsches.
I spot them heading out of turn 7, right as I'm entering turn 6; I must be 10 to 12 seconds back now. Good news, though - the 911 in my class is having a good battle with a 996, which allows me to slowly catch up. Then things take a turn for the worse. Heading down the back straight in sixth gear at about 5500 rpm, the engine misfires!
I check the oil pressure - looks good. The oil temperature also looks good, and the water temperature was all good. I make it through turn 10, then 11, then 12, then back onto the front straight and the engine coughs yet again. This time I check the boost gauges and it's pegged well past 22 psi - not good! I back out of the throttle a little and the boost immediately drops to 10 psi. Forget chasing down the Porsches, I just want to finish this race without blowing up the STI. A few laps later, I cross the start/finish line for the checkered flag, but what's really on my mind is why the engine is overboosting.
With only four days between races, most of my after-work time is spent diagnosing the boost problem. Unfortunately, Friday arrives quickly and I still haven't figured out the issue, so I enlist the help of our fabricator, Robb, at GodSpeed Fabrications in Auburn, Washington. Robb and I start to pull the actuator arm off, and the real problem immediately reveals itself: the flapper arm binds up when it's hot. I had been testing it with a cold motor, but since I drove to Robb's shop, the engine was up to operating temperature.
But it's now 4:30 pm and the race weekend starts tomorrow at 9 am. There's not much time to find and replace the part. After talking to my mentor and mechanic, Pat Boyle from Pat's Autosport, we decide its best to throw in the towel for the weekend. I drive home dejected, but decide to call anyone and everyone in the Pacific Northwest who might be able to help me source a new wastegate, but no one has anything in stock.
Early Saturday morning while I'm still asleep, the phone rings. Dave at Pacific Import Auto in Tacoma, Washington, lets me know the bad news first. He doesn't have a new wastegate sitting on the shelf, but an employee has one that he would sell me off his own car. We're back in business! It's too late to get the car ready for practice and qualifying on Saturday, but the car will be ready to race on Sunday.
I use Sunday morning's qualifying session to make sure everything is working with the new wastegate, and just like that, the boost is back to normal and all the other vitals look good. I lay down an official time of 1:37, putting me 14th overall, and fifth in class.
The weather forecast shows a 40 percent chance of rain for the race. The people in the pits are glued to their phones to check the weather. It's now 1 pm, and it's time to get serious about making a tire selection. The rain is starting to spit, but it stops after a few minutes. Everyone else appears to be sticking with slicks and dry setups, so I decide to do the same. My choice of tire is questioned when the skies open up and dump rain as we grid for the start. Fortunately, by the time we're on the warm-up lap, the rain has stopped.
My reconnaissance lap reveals that the rains has made all the rubber and oil laid down from Friday and Saturday come up, making the surface very slick. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because I have the AWD advantage. As we roll two-by-two waiting for the green flag, the anticipation is exhilarating.
I get into the throttle hard and squirt out to the right side of the track. By the time I approach the first corner, I've moved into third place in class and second (an E36 BMW) is right in front of me. About that time, I realize AWD can get me moving quite quickly, but it's not going to help me stop. I ease off the throttle and start gently squeezing on the brakes. I focus intently on the cars in front of me to watch for signs of things to go wrong in the water spray. They say the trick to driving in the wet is to pretend that there's an egg under the gas pedal. That's a lot easier said than done in the heat of the moment. We all make it cleanly through the first two corners, and we're off down the hill and into the tight 180-degree turn 3. By the time we leave the third corner, the pack is starting to spread out. I file into line behind the second place car in my class, with fourth and fifth place (one is a Porsche 911SC, the other a Porsche RS America) right behind me. Heading into turn 5, I start turning in and realize I have no front grip and plow straight ahead. Luckily, I keep it together and get the car slowed down to make the corner.
The second place BMW starts to slip away from me by a few car lengths, and I'm starting to pull out a bit of a gap on the Porsche behind me. We carry on like this for a few laps. The track is drying, but a few of the corners still feel extremely precarious. As the lap times come down, the nerves start to settle, maybe a little too early. On lap 6, just when I'm starting to feel comfortable, I get sideways and crossed up in one of the most dangerous spots on the track. It rattles me a bit because I've seen plenty of cars turned into balls of metal at this particular spot. My error allows the fourth place 911SC to latch right onto my bumper, and as we head down the straightaway, I can't help shake what almost happened from my mind. A good driver is supposed to have no memory of events that just took place. Me? I think I still need practice not remembering. Because it's still wet, I realize I'm driving over my head to stay in front of the Porsche, so I do the smart thing and let him by. I figure I can follow him for a few laps and then maybe make a move in the last couple of laps.
We engage in a rousing game of cat and mouse for 5 to 10 laps, both of us fighting for every inch of track, but he still remains ahead. I devise a plan to surprise him on the last lap by staying high on turn 8 to get a run on him down the straight and pass the Porsche before the checker waves.
However, I see the fast GT-1 cars are starting to appear in my mirror. As they approach, my plan is to let them by as quickly as possible so I can stay on the 911's rear bumper. But by the time the GT-1 cars work their way around us, the 911 creates a bigger gap than anticipated; as hard as I try, I can't catch him before the checkered flag is waved.
After all the pain and hard work of Saturday, I'm pleased with a fourth place finish and the car came home in working order. But the roller coaster ride doesn't end. I check the final results, where I see I've been bumped to second in class! The 911SC and the E36 that were in front of me were both disqualified for technical infractions. Even though I may not have raced my way to the podium, after the week I've had, I gladly take the second place finish and second in the point standings.
With 10 more races left, it's going to be quite an interesting season considering how up and down the first race weekend was, but that's what makes wheel-to-wheel racing so fun and exciting. And while I may not be making a fortune in racing, I'm having a hell of a good time doing it.
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