The Perfect GPS

Over The Top

by Scott Fisher

From time to time, people will ask (as I once did), "What does it take to get started in racing?"

My answer has always been, "Whatever you've got, and then some."

Racing demands a lot more than just the time and money it takes to build the car and get it on track. It demands the things you choose not to do -- from taking nice vacations to paying the rent, depending on how bad the addiction is. It demands time away from family and friends. And always, under the surface, is the sense that it can demand all you have. (Let's face it -- nobody writing for this publication, and probably nobody reading it, is as good as the late Ayrton Senna was.)

There's a lot more to it, of course, and we'll look at some of the rewards as well as the costs in future issues. But for now, I want to take you back, those of you who wonder what it's like to get started racing, and drop in on a racing driver in the making -- me, half a dozen years ago.

This month's column includes notes from my email journal, written shortly after my first on-track experience in the car I built myself, a 1965 M.G. MGB tourer, prepared for the Sports Car Club of America's E Production road racing class. I'm driving with a motor borrowed from my friend Andy Banta, taken from his EP MGB-GT that just finished a four-hour endurance race with it, and I've got Andy's rear axle as well (the axle housing that came with the roller I bought having blown out a seal at one end.)

You'll see and read more about this car, and others, as this column progresses.

The date here is Friday, December 7, 1990, and the place is Sears Point International Raceway in Sonoma, California. The event is an open track session put on by a local car club, and in proper racing tradition my friends and I have been working all night every night for an unremembered period of time to get this stupid thing working so I can familiarize myself with it before SCCA Driver's School in February.

-- Scott Fisher

Tradition Renewed

Well, I finally got to drive my MGB on a race track yesterday. I learned a lot, had a lot of fun, and got more confirmation that if I'm going to do this myself, as opposed to winning the lottery and hiring a professional race team, MGs are the right choice for me for a lot of reasons.

Andy and I had stayed up only moderately late the night before the race. We got the car to start for the first time Saturday about dusk, which meant there could be no testing since it has no headlights; since it also has a REALLY LOUD EXHAUST SYSTEM on it, we would probably have caused a minor revolution in the neighborhood. At 3:30 Sunday morning we got up; Kim, blessings upon her, made several pots of coffee while Andy and I tried to go over the list of things we needed not to forget. Jeff and Jill showed up shortly before 4:00, having decided to stay up all night at one point. Ah, youth.

We got to the track well before dawn and had the wonderful experience of seeing the sunrise over the eastern edge of San Pablo Bay while walking the course. We did the uphill section of the course, walking from about turn 1 through the exit of the Carousel before we decided to get my car through tech.

A brace of young deer bounded across the track in front of us on the short straight between turn 2 and turn 3; I remembered my instructor at an earlier on-track day saying that a friend of his had been killed in a motorcycle race at Sears when a deer suddenly decided it wanted to be on the other side of the course.

Starting my car on a frosty morning was another story. My improvised choke connection didn't do the trick; we'd meant to time the car at the track, so Andy loosened the distributor pinch bolt and played with the distributor while I ran down the battery.

We pushed the car to where Sam Sjogren was able to bring his Mustang and a set of jumper cables; Andy finally hit upon a timing setting that seemed to start the car well and I tried warming it up and charging the battery. I learned that it wasn't yet 8:00 when Jerry, one of the head guys at the host club, pointed out that the track was pretty serious about not firing up race motors (race motors? moi?) before 8:00, so we passed a quiet and very cursory tech (yeah, that looks like a race car, here you go).

We broke into groups with our instructors; my instructor used my tow car to take us on a track tour, since no one else had a large enough vehicle to take five people. I then went back to the paddock to start the race car and bring it out near the pit lane, where we'd line up to go out on course.

Lesson 1: Always do a quick sanity check under the hood before each track session.

The car was running rough, but I figured it was still cold -- the temperature gauge, one of only two we'd managed to get hooked up before going out on course, was only reading 140 degrees. In the middle of my first lap, it became obvious that the rough running was NOT just the car coming to temperature. It sounded like the car was running on only two or three cylinders -- a very Walter Mittyesque tapocketa-tapocketa noise as I tried to climb the hill. After a couple of laps of this, and as I realized the car was dying when I'd shift and starting when I would let out the clutch, I pulled in. I drove all the way back to the FAR OUT IN THE GODDAMN STICKS paddock site that my braindead and sleepless teammate had selected for us and decided to start troubleshooting. Torrey came up to the car as I was unpinning the hood. "You car is broken, Daddy?"

Fortunately, the problem was obvious and simple. There isn't supposed to be a 1/4" air gap between the front carburettor and the intake manifold. A half-inch wrench made short work of that problem. "Is it fixed?" Kim asked, as I climbed in. Flip the kill switch to ON, raise the red covers on the aircraft-style master and fuel pump switches, and hit the black rubber button. Torrey covered her ears. Yeah, I guess it's fixed. Too late to go back on course, so I drove around an empty portion of the paddock trying to bed in the brakes.

Lesson 2: When you think it's right, check it again.

I lined up for the second session, chatting (yelling is more like it) to my instructor who lined up on grid next to me. We got the go-ahead and I took off, this time with something approximating power. We hadn't really tuned this motor since the Enduro, except to get it to start that morning, but at least it was better than running on two cylinders.

The track is very different when you're able to accelerate. My bedding-in of the brakes helped some, though they were still a little spongy -- I guess I hadn't really got them all perfect with the new Mity-Vac brake bleeder, but they were starting to grip well as they heated up and the pads and discs bedded in to one another.

I had a good line through one, turned in well for 1A but was going slowly enough that I had to drop into second for 2, a right-hander that crests a hill. From there it's a short drop to 3, which is a climbing left-hander; I think that once I get the nerve I'll be able to take 3 flat out, since it's cambered well and climbing enough to load the suspension.

3A is a fun turn. When you apex 3, the track-out line takes you to the right across the track, towards something you can't see because it's on the far side of the hill -- you're aiming for the end of the berm at the exit of 3A. In turn, when you do that right, you track out to the left and continue to round the crest of this hill, which means you can't see your track out point either. If you've done it right -- and later that day I got to the point that I could do this repeatably -- your left two wheels touch the edge of the track, just barely getting in the dirt.

The first time I did that, I corrected by steering right, which of course screwed me up for 4. What you're supposed to do in 4 is keep your wheels at the left edge of the track, where they've been since track-out from 3A, and then start a traditional late-apex turn-in for 4, which is a 90-degree right-hander with a few twists. For one thing, the short straight leading up to 4 is downhill, so you pick up speed well once you get the car back on the pavement. However, it turns out that 4 itself is flat or slightly banked, so the suspension loads up somewhat and gives you good grip.

On my first few laps there, I didn't get it right. I kept getting spooked by the sensation of having my wheels just nudging the edge of the track at the exit of 3A, and that made me wimp out and take a shallow line to 4. Fortunately the car was sticking really well, the exit to 4 has a lot of runout, and 5 is a gentle, climbing turn to the right, so mostly this mistake just made me slow and I missed the apex to 5 most laps.

Again, that wasn't dangerous, because turn 6, the Carousel, has a number of lines through it. It's a good place for a dirt-track pass (as I learned later when Sam passed the Ferrari F40 on the outside of that turn). The Carousel is a longer-than-180 degree sweeper, a fast turn; I could take it in fourth by later in the session when I'd learned to carry a little speed into it, but even early I was taking it in the upper quadrant of third gear. The B just stuck there, its modified suspension making good use of the A008Rtus that we had mounted for the school.

About two-thirds of the way through the Carousel, there's a piece of rippled pavement in the innermost car-width or so of the track. I'd been taking a conservative, consistent and safe line about midway through the turn and using this pavement as my throttle-on point. When I'd do that in the B, the front tires would get grip, they'd turn the car in towards the apex and I'd get that wonderful sensation of the car pointing first into, then out of the turn -- without moving my hands on the wheel.

If you have enough power, you track out wide from the Carousel onto the tail end of the drag strip. From there you've got a left-hand kink that leads into a short straight, then the braking area for 7, a 180-degree right. The line through here seemed to be to give up the kink -- apex late but hold your position with your wheels on the painted line at the inside of the exit of the kink, so that you're lined up to take the very outermost part of 7. 7 is a classic late-apex; right near the apex there's a patch of rough pavement, and the berm is a little broken so you get good audio/tactile feedback when you cut across it. Track out from 7 ends you up at a pothole at the end of the berms across track from the apex. There's another little throwaway bend after that, to the left; you want to hug it, clip the berm at the exit, and power on to make the right- hand part of Turn 8.

Turn 8 begins the esses (unless the unnumbered kink after 7 does). 8 has two berms, separated by an escape road, in the middle; the far end of the second berm is the apex. You want to feel that berm nudge your car as you've applied the gas to start tracking out towards 8A, a downhill turn that is also slightly blind and to the right. After that comes turn 9, a long left-hander that takes you within hailing distance of 1, across the infield. From 8A you want to move the car to the right of the track and stay out in the middle of 9 till you pass the corner worker's tower and see the CAMEL GT bridge. You want to start moving left so that when you get to the bridge, your wheels are on the painted line at the inside of 9 and you're passing under the C of CAMEL.

Then you start turning in for 10. 10 is a fast right-hander with a lot of room at track-out, at least if you have apexed it at the right point. I was apexing at about the next-to-last painted square on the berm at the inside; apparently for racing you want to apex it a little earlier, but later is always safer. After this your car slides left, into the wide apron if you've clipped the berms at the right point, and then you come up on the straight leading into 11. I was always applying just a little nudge of confidence on the brakes to enter 10; I've been told that if I really carry enough speed through the esses I'll have to brake a little harder.

11 is a 180-degree right, a very tight hairpin that has a scary looking concrete wall at its outside and a flat, painted virtual berm and several piles of white-painted tires on the inside. There's typically a lot of passing into, in, and out of 11 during a race. At the Enduro, for instance, a light sports-racer would outbrake the GT1 Pontiac Trans-Am into 11, hold the tighter inside line but be stuck apexing early, and the T-A would fall back in the turn but nail the gas early, take a late apex (somewhere between the virtual berm and the last stack of tires) and win the drag race up to the end of the pit wall that marks 12. These two cars did this on every lap of the last fifteen or so. I tried a couple of lines through 11, some of them on purpose...

There's a medium straight from 11 to 12, which is a left-hand kink at the end of the pit wall, and from this you let the car drift to the right as you head for turn 1 and your next lap.

So anyway, I did this for about 20 minutes, hving lots of fun and gradually feeling comfortable with the car, learning to use its grip, and enjoying the way it still feels like an MG -- correctable, stable, solid, responsive, and nimble -- while at the same time rolling far less, reacting to pavement imperfections far less, and generally behaving like the best-handling car I think I've ever driven.

When I took the checker, I slowed to take a cool-off lap and just practiced driving the lines well. About Turn 7 I felt something wiggle in the rear end -- something's loose. Trying to will it to get me to the pits, I slowed down, raised my hand to indicate my slowing to those behind me, and pulled off the racing line. Another wiggle, bigger this time; I made it through 8 and 8A, only maybe a quarter mile to go. More wiggles; I was coming up on 9 when the car slewed to one side. I steered into the slew, which was the way I wanted to go anyway -- to the left, off the track -- and braked. The pedal went to the floor and I went off track, heading over a patch of pavement and onto the dry grass. As I was aimed for the tire wall with no brakes, I looked to my left at the gentle hill, made a very fast assessment of my speed (low), and turned uphill. That did the trick; I got about fifteen feet and stopped.

Fortunately, Larry and Michael were working that corner; I gave the Driver OK signal that Larry had thoughtfully shown us at the Enduro, he signalled across the track to where the rest of Team Fizzball, not to mention my family, were all wondering why I had parked on the hill to chat with Larry. ("I'm sure there's a better time to talk to him," Kim later told me she had thought at the time.)

I shut off the car, climbed out, and inspected the damage. It was pretty obvious -- Morgan may have made 3-wheelers, but MG never did. Fortunately, Larry had seen my wheel go across the track, and when the last car went by I went off to retrieve it (which explained my behavior to the people across the course).

Yup, some dipwad had forgotten to tighten the lug nuts when he'd finished bleeding the brakes the day before... which had gone on while Andy was out putting fuses in my tow car. Moral: Check them EVERY time the car goes out on course.

I would like to point out, however, that the car waited to break until after the checker, and that it gave me lots of warning and let me pull off at a safe place. Safety Fast.

Lesson 3: Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.

Before my final session of the day, though, Sam and Ruth managed to shame me into riding in Sam's car. THAT was an interesting experience. The Mustang doesn't steer, stick, or brake quite as well as the MG, but it does push you back in the seat in a great tearing hurry, and Sam was in the thick of it with cars all around us. We had about three laps of dicing with an SVO, a Toyota Celica GT-S with an instructor's mark on it, and the winner of the Aw, George award for the weekend, the F40.

(The Aw, George award is a prize that I have been giving on and off since my autocross days; it signifies the person who makes the most expensive fool of himself at an event, like the Cobra replicar who spun into the sand trap three different times, the last time stopping the event for about 15 minutes while he dug out, or like the Calloway Twin Turbo Corvette roadster that was 20 seconds slower than my dead-stock MGB, on an autocross course designed be a Corvette club, no less -- not quite two pylons 1320 feet apart, but close.)

This article copyright 1997 by Scott Fisher. All Rights Reserved.

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