Summer Racing at VIR: Peaks and Valleys Back-to-Back

Though our 2020 racing season has been cut short due to COVID-19, NASA Mid-Atlantic has been able to host events in recent months. Our first event this year, at Summit Point, was an exceptionally fun time even with COVID-related restrictions in place. Two weeks ago, we made it to Virginia International Raceway for the first time since last October. This event covered a three-day weekend that should have been our annual HyperFest – a public-facing extravaganza of all-things automotive at a beautiful racetrack.

Of course, inviting six thousand or so spectators to a racetrack amid a global pandemic wasn’t a smart idea. VIR supported that notion by restricting those on the property to just registered drivers and a limited crew. Our traditional spectacle of road racing, autocross, drifting, off-roading, downhill-Power-Wheels-ing and more off-track debauchery was cancelled this year, but we were still able to get together and race without the big, cheering crowds.

Testing and Tuning, and Tracking a 2020 Toyota Supra Launch Edition

Friday of our three-day VIR events is reserved for practice and special driving groups, and this Friday was no exception. I ran my 1997 BMW M3 in the racers-only Test & Tune group. I hadn’t been at VIR in nine months, and desperately wanted the track time and related “back on the horse” practice.

While we normally split our race groups into “Thunder” and “Lightning” based on theoretical lap times, the Test & Tune group is for any racecar, no matter the speed. It was fun to dice it up with a little bit of everything, from Spec Miatas to normal German Touring Series competitors.

Grassroots Motorsports was also in attendance for Friday, as they host their annual Ultimate Track Car Challenge as part of our HyperFest weekend. Even without all the spectators, it was fun to see a wide variety of cars competing for fastest lap time of the day.

My friend Trevor showed up mid-day Friday, as he was working the weekend as an instructor. Trevor recently replaced his BMW 340i with a 2020 Toyota Supra Launch Edition, and had it stickered up in old Toyota Racing livery. He had taken note of the reviews we’ve hosted, and offered me the keys to his Supra. While I missed out on the initial Supra launch, which saw journalists taking laps around one of Summit Point’s smaller circuits, I wasn’t about to turn down a full 25-minute stint behind the wheel at VIR. Keep an eye out for a separate, full review of the 2020 Supra coming soon, to include details on its racetrack behavior.

Toyota Supra Launch Edition at VIR

Saturday’s Race: Personal Peaks, Competitor Challenges

I’d been running quick enough lap times on Friday and felt good about our Saturday morning qualifying session. I got the car down to some repeatable 2:09.xx laps on Friday, with a predicted 2:08.xx on my AIM Solo – slow-moving traffic ruined that lap. Unfortunately, my friend and competitor had a small fire during our qualifying session which cut things short.

Chris’ BMW M3 spun at Turn 3 and ignited the dry grass just off-track as the hot exhaust skipped over. As he corrected the spin, a fireball erupted from the right rear corner of his BMW. Thinking quickly, Chris drove immediately to the next flag station at Turn 4. The corner worker had a fire bottle ready for Chris, who evacuated from the car and put out the fire as the rest of us circled the track under caution. Thankfully, Chris was okay and was able to drive his car back in under its own power. His theory of the events involves an over-pressurized fuel tank and vapors igniting due to the grass fire, but has not been confirmed.

chris fire

Another friend and competitor, Scott, suffered a snapped wheel stud as he was changing tires just before our afternoon race. Chris and Scott both missed the green flag on Saturday, leaving the rest of us with a bigger shot at the podium.

I took the green flag and had a great race, working hard to keep ahead of competitor Clayton, who was my closest rival in this race. We felt evenly matched, but he was able to make a few moves stick that I could not. Both of us were chasing a new competitor, Glenn, who graduated from competition school the day before in his “991” Porsche Cayman S. The Cayman S had allegedly been de-tuned to fit in GTS2, with a 13:1 power-to-weight ratio. Equipped with Porsche’s magical PDK dual-clutch automatic, Glenn was able to keep his flat six in the tiny, optimal power band while using seven gear ratios to his advantage.

Glenn finished the race in first place, with Clayton in second and yours truly in third. It was a fun battle and we all ended up visiting the dyno to verify power and torque were within stated, acceptable limits. While all of us were deemed legal at the time, further investigation revealed Porsches with PDK have a hard time being dyno tested, as the car enters a sort of “limp mode.” So, while Glenn was legal according to his dyno results, both before and at the event, the Cayman S may be making much more power than indicated. A special Porsche-only tool is required to produce accurate dyno figures, so I’ve heard.

In any case, third place was a solid finish and I prepared the car for Sunday morning’s Beast of the East qualifying race with a little pep in my step.

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Strapped down on the dyno with Todd about to make some pulls!

Beast of the East: Late-Braking Goes Awry

Instead of a traditional qualifying “time trial” on Sunday mornings, NASA Mid-Atlantic runs a qualifying race called Beast of the East. Racers are grouped according to Saturday’s best lap time, which means we all get to race against out-of-class friends while qualifying for our afternoon race. It’s a fun concept and you have a great time no matter where you may be in the field. I started our Beast of the East among some Spec E46 BMWs, Clayton in his GTS2 E36 M3, and (I think) a Ford Mustang or two.

My first lap was a good one, with a solid start that got me ahead of my pack. Clayton is a diligent competitor and I knew I had to work to keep him behind me for the rest of the race. After a few laps, I had a gap but felt it was closing. Clayton was on my tail and some out-of-class Spec E46s were ahead of me. We approached the braking zone at the back straight as a unit, moving in (relative) sync as the first few brake markers flew past on our right.

Knowing I could stop my car from the “1” or “2” brake markers with relative ease, and having done so before, I made the choice to brake at the “1” to avoid giving up my position to Clayton. I applied the brakes and held the middle pedal with all I had. My purple BMW slowed from 132 mph down to something, but I could tell it wasn’t enough. I was going to punt the driver in front of me. I had nearly no time to make a decision, but figured a direct nose-to-tail punt would cause nasty damage to both cars.

As the track curved left, I turned the steering wheel to the right and took the grass, avoiding the punt. Unfortunately, the racing surface then curved right and the two cars I was desperately trying to avoid once again became my problem. I yanked the wheel harder and, amid a flurry of curse words, impacted the passenger door of a Spec E46 330ci. Both of us spun across the track and went off in the grass on the left.

I saw the #313 Spec E46 pirouette its way down the grassy hill, come to a stop, then spin its rear wheels as the driver managed to continue. Assessing my own situation, I realized that my engine had stalled but the body of the car appeared to be intact. I went to put the shifter in neutral and it was stuck. My gaze shifted to the hood of the car and I noticed smoke rolling up from under the BMW.

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My view behind the tire wall after bailing from the car. This was not very fun.

Amid more cursing, I did what everyone hopes to never do – I bailed. When you have an “incident” on a hot track, the safest place to be until emergency crew arrive is strapped in to your potentially-broken car. The only exception to that rule is if there is a fire. I rushed to unbuckle, drop the window net, remove the steering wheel, and kick the door open – then took my sweet time disconnecting my Cool Shirt lines (which are designed to break away if you just tug hard enough). In any case, I ran down the hill and stood behind the tire wall and guardrail for the remainder of the race. Thankfully, the car never actually caught fire, and the smoke I saw was grass smoldering from hot exhaust and leaking oil.

My car had to be towed in, as I had broken an engine mount and shifted the entire drivetrain during my high-speed off-road testing.

Making Amends and Fixing the #404

Following any body contact, racers must both fill out “body contact forms” indicating what happened. I filled out my form and took a walk through the paddock to find the driver of the Spec E46 whose day I had attempted to ruin minutes earlier. He was in good enough spirits about the incident, and reassured me, saying “I did the same thing to someone else a few years ago, don’t worry about it.” Thankfully, his racecar only suffered minor damage. His crew was able to pull out the fenders to prevent tire rub, and he raced the car that afternoon, no worse for wear beyond a crinkled door.

On our way home that afternoon, we stopped at my mechanic’s shop to hand over the #404. I rolled the car out of my trailer and pulled the Aerocatch hood latches open. Kevin quickly assessed the damage and felt confident he could repair it prior to my next race in mid-September.

While I was feeling down on myself for a day or so after the incident, the ultimate takeaway is that it was just that – an incident. These things happen to (nearly) everyone, in some capacity during their racing career. Thankfully, this incident was relatively minor, with both drivers walking away and both cars able to be repaired. I’ll run through the crash damage in a separate article, but I’m confident that I will be back at VIR with my friends in September with a running, driving, slightly-more-dented purple M3.

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