Seven Month Slumber: Racing at Summit Point in a COVID-19 World

Our 2020 racing season with NASA Mid-Atlantic was supposed to begin in mid-March. Right around that time, the ‘novel coronavirus’ also known as COVID-19 made its way to the United States. Think what you will of how things have been mishandled, but regardless, we couldn’t have any gatherings until recently. And so, that’s how I found myself behind the wheel of a 2020 Ford Expedition with my enclosed trailer clamped to the hitch, heading to Summit Point Motorsports Park for the first event of the 2020 season. In June.

Track Weekends During a Pandemic

The National Auto Sport Association and our local Mid-Atlantic chapter both enacted some rules and procedures to keep drivers, crew, and staff as safe as possible for events this year. Hosting an event is dependent on state guidelines, but West Virginia said we could attend, so we did.

Our traditional “crowd together on Saturday morning” all-hands meeting was hosted over the PA system instead of the bed of a F-350 dually. We didn’t have an all-attendees’ dinner and awards party that evening. Classroom sessions were held outdoors in various unused spaces of paddock. Instructors, used to riding shotgun in students’ cars during HPDE sessions, drove as lead- and chase-cars, sharing observations with their students after each session. Masks were required indoors and encouraged outdoors unless a driver was hanging out solo in their paddock space.

Everyone seemed pretty accepting of the rules. We all missed the large group gatherings, but people were still free to roam the paddock and chat with others. And hey, it allowed us to go compete and get our cars on a racing surface after the longest off-season ever – seven months.

Friday Night Brake Light Fumble

I’d had my 1997 BMW ‘E36’ M3 at a friend’s shop during the traditional winter off-season. Kevin, of FlimFlam Speed fame, did a bit of work to the car. He got my power and weight where it should be, replaced the engine and transmission mounts, installed a Bimmerworld body-mounted shifter, and rebuilt the brake calipers. Unfortunately, some parts do just go bad out of the blue, and my car had sat for a few months between picking it up from Kevin and arriving at Summit Point.

Pulling through the inspection lane for my annual tech inspection, I heard “brake lights are out.” My brake light switch had failed, a common point of failure on the BMW E36 platform.

Thankfully, the brake light switch is easy to access. It sits with a plunger pushed in, breaking a circuit and keeping the brake lights off under normal driving. When the driver pushes the pedal, the plunger releases, completes the circuit, and the lights come on. The switch can be removed in a few minutes, especially in a race car with no real lower dashboard trim.

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Taylor, upside-down in my footwell, installing the newly-repaired brake light switch

The spare brake light switch I had was for an older, OBD I E36 and only had two pins for the wiring connector. After some thought, my friend Taylor had the idea to pull apart the two switches and swap the “guts” of the new, two pin switch in to the casing of my broken four-pin switch. It was a long shot, but it worked.

We left the racetrack in search of tacos and our hotel rooms, and I was excited to get behind the wheel the following morning.

Chasing Bill on Saturday

I’ve had a friendly rivalry with my competitor, Bill, for a few seasons. We are evenly matched and have some really great battles when we are together. Saturday’s race was no exception. I qualified fifth of ten and Bill was right behind on the start, followed by another GTS2 competitor, John.

Bill managed to get ahead of me on the first lap, and I got to work chasing him while trying to keep ahead of John. It was a close battle, and a missed shift from fourth to fifth on the front straightaway saw me give up the fight with John. He went flying past me and Bill as I frantically, finally shoved the shifter all the way into fifth gear. Nevertheless, I stuck to Bill’s back bumper like glue.

We eventually caught up to the slower American Iron Ford Mustangs, passing a few who stayed well out of our way as we battled through the carousel. The race leaders in their V8-swapped E46 M3s also caught us and stormed past.

After an arduous game of cat-and-mouse, I rounded Turn 10 and saw the white flag waving from the start stand – final lap! – and resolved to make this pass stick. Drafting Bill down the straight, we approached the braking zone at 127 mph. A faster E46 M3 flew past. I popped left and waited a beat longer than usual to nail the middle pedal with all I had. I edged past Bill, brapped off a downshift to fourth, then third, and turned in. I hustled to set a gap, and once I’d passed a few out-of-class cars on the way to the carousel, I could relax a bit. Once again rounding the corner through Turn 10, I saw the checkered flag waving. I’d done it.

Every race should have such a tight battle. The front of our field often does, but it’s most fun when the whole pack is racing hard no matter the position.

BMW E36 M3 racing Summit Point

You Don’t Win on the First Lap… Except When You Do

Instead of a traditional qualifying session on Sunday mornings, we have a qualifying race dubbed “Beast of the East.” Everyone from our multi-class ‘Thunder’ field is ordered according to their best lap time from Saturday’s race, and given a colored sticker for their car. So, I might be in the pink group and race against other GTS2 BMWs, a mid-2000s Mustang, and an E46 330ci or Boxster. The best lap time we each achieve during the race is used to set the actual grid for Sunday’s proper race. It’s a fun format that sees drivers competing with folks who’d otherwise never be on their radar.

This Sunday, I was up against two GTS2 BMWs, an E46 M3, and a Spec E46 330i. Typical wisdom states that a race cannot be won on the first lap, but it can be lost on the first lap. It’s a good reminder that the car must last many laps, and hard-charging into the first turn can be disastrous if you’re not paying attention. In this case, though, I won the race on the first lap.

Our start was a good one, with the entire field of roughly 40 cars taking one green flag. I saw the flag easily and picked a line down the center of the field. My reaction time was a hair quicker than my opponents, and I got past one E36 M3 easily. The E46 M3 braked early for Turn 1, and I ended up accelerating a bit to get in front of him as we went through the braking zone.

Again, I got a few cars between me and my opponents. I was able to push toward a faster personal lap time for the sake of our GTS2 race that afternoon, while relaxing just a hair as my morning competition was a few turns behind. I finished the Beast of the East race in first place out of five in our group.

BMW E36 M3 racing Summit Point

Racing in What’s Left of 2020

If all goes well, I’ve got four race weekends remaining this year. Three will be at Virginia International Raceway, and the fourth will be at Daytona International Speedway in Florida, hosted by NASA Southeast.

As we’ve seen so far this year, no event is guaranteed. I am signed up for these weekends and understand that the season may be interrupted or cut short. Here’s hoping the next four weekends can happen.

In any case, I was so pleased with how our June event at Summit Point went. My races were clean, consistent, and relatively fast. I pushed myself and the car, made smart decisions as a driver, and know how I can improve even more. Here’s hoping we can do it all again in a few short weeks.

Until then (and even then, and after that), wear a mask.

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