Consistent Speed: Oktoberfast at VIR with NASA Mid-Atlantic

NASA Mid-Atlantic recently took over the north paddock at Virginia International Raceway for one of our most anticipated events of the season – Oktoberfast. It always seems to be “horsepower weather” at VIR in October, and we get drivers joining us from regions north and south as a result. This time last year, I wrote about my time at VIR that “I am likely back on the pace I had built last year – easy 2:11/2:12 laps.”

It’s interesting to see how time flies (and falls off) as experience and comfort grow. While I had barely squeaked into the “2:10 club” of lap times in August, I was eager to keep pushing and earn not only faster lap times, but more consistency throughout those laps.

I had taken the month of September off, to allow for a 10-day trip to Germany. Although I had a blast on the Autobahn, the Nurburgring, and the benches at Oktoberfest, I hadn’t been in my E36 M3 since August. How I’d feel behind the wheel again was anyone’s guess at first.

Happily, Friday’s afternoon practice session saw some progress, as I laid down 2:10.xx and 2:11.xx laps, over and over, for nearly the whole session. I felt pretty good about those laps, with later braking and better turn-in both focuses of mine as I drove. No surprise, I got faster the more I focused on those simple adjustments.

Saturday’s qualifying lap time of 2:12.3 landed me in a fourth-place start for the afternoon race. Everyone was a bit slow in qualifying due to traffic and I figured I’d pick up some of the pace once the green flag dropped.

Our race was gridded with Super Touring 3 up front, followed by Super Touring 2, then GTS2. A “class of one” Porsche Boxster was by himself in Super Touring 2 and running lap times in the 2:18s. When the green flag flew, all of GTS2 found ourselves rushing to get around the slower Porsche.

There is a rule that we all promise to follow in club racing. “No out of class racing!” is the mantra discussed at every drivers’ meeting. Basically, if you aren’t actively racing others in your class, but encounter others who are having a race with their class, it’s your responsibility to stay alert and let those having a race keep racing.

As the green flag flew, I found myself hustling to stay ahead of Larry and Matt, who were behind me. I was also chasing Jeremy, Jason and Scott up ahead, who had already passed the Boxster.

The Boxster driver had the responsibility, given he was in a class of one, to let those of us in a big group have our race. Unfortunately, awareness was not at its peak on our first lap. I was unable to pass safely in the first few turns and attempted to pass at South Bend, as we approached the famed Oak Tree turn.

As the Porsche and I drove down the hill toward Oak Tree, I figured the other driver would brake a hair early to allow me to take the pass on the outside. Instead, the Boxster driver kept on racing (who, I am not sure), and I had nowhere to go but off the asphalt into the grass.

Many expletives were yelled as my E36 M3 slid through the grass and quickly approached the tire wall. I released the brakes, let the wheels roll, and the car turned in the nick of time. I glanced off of the tire bundles, knocking off my driver’s door mirror in the process. The engine was still running, so I slammed the shifter into second gear and pinned the throttle open, driving down the grass back onto the racing surface.

In my brief landscaping of VIR’s runoff, Larry had managed to pull ahead. I hustled for the remainder of the race but could not catch him. He was dealing with a lack of anti-lock brakes, which meant I could catch up in every braking zone. But, I wasn’t pushing as hard as I could given the near-crash experience, and it showed. I finished fifth out of six in GTS2 on Saturday.

Our track photographer, Chris, happened to be at Oak Tree when I lost my mirror on Saturday. He dug it out of the grass once the day had concluded and it popped back onto its mounts easily.

Sunday’s race fared much better. After a brutally rainy “Beast of the East” qualifying race in the morning (note to self: buy better wet tires), everything dried up by lunch. Several of our GTS2 crew faced mechanical difficulties and either could not start the race, or did not finish. I kept things clean throughout the entirety of the 35 minute race and finished third.

Looking at my data from Friday’s practice and Sunday’s race, I’m seeing theoretical best laps as fast as 2:07.xx. Granted, those involve the best pieces of every lap in a session, but it’s great to know that with a bit more work, the consistent 2:10s can drop substantially. The car will do it, I just have to ask the right way.

We have one more race of the year coming up next weekend. It’ll be a bit chilly at Summit Point Raceway, but I’m excited to be rounding out what has been a very fast, very productive season!

E36 M3 VIR purple

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