Racing is one hell of a drug. When driver and car are running flawlessly the emotional high is amazing. On the other hand, when everything is going wrong the low is absolutely miserable. Anyone who’s been involved in the sport for a reasonable amount of time can certainly attest. Personally, having campaigned a car or two for the better part of twenty years I’ve experienced all the emotions. And if I’m being honest, as of late there’s been more mechanical misery. Perhaps that’s why I approached the 2019 WeatherTech International Challenge at Road America assuming all would go wrong. Or maybe because that’s exactly what happened the year prior. Regardless, if I learned anything during the weekend, it’s that you should expect the unexpected, and that sometimes the unexpected it sheer joy.
If you’ve never been to the WeatherTech International Challenge (WIC), or The Hawk as many refer to it, what are you waiting for? It one of the largest assemblies of vintage race cars and enthusiasts in the country hosted at what I consider the greatest race track in the great in North America, Road America. Attending the event has become a family tradition for me, dating back to when I was a young 10-year old and leading up to now attending with my kids. The event truly offers fun for the whole family, particularly if the family has a bit of motor oil running through their veins. So, needless to say as the 2019 WIC rolled around, I loaded up car, family and trailer to participate in my favorite weekend event of the year.
We arrived Wednesday and got to setting up our home away from home for four days. The temperature, and dew point, were rising and acted as harbingers of what was to come. Fortunately, setup was quick and easy. The car made it through tech inspection without any major concerns and we headed out to cool off at the lake. That was easy.
Thursday was a test day with three session scheduled, and naturally it was raining when I left for the track. I run what are essentially slick tires on my car and have never invested in a true set of rain tires, so as the rain got heavier, I decided to sit out my first practice session. I used the time to install a Cool Suit system in the car – something that would come in handy that afternoon and through the rest of the simmering weekend.
Ten o’clock rolled around and I hit the track for my second morning practice session of the day. I was excited to test out my new Cool Suit system. Would you believe that despite the muggy weather I came in after my 25-minute session on track cool as a cucumber? I marked the session as probably the first where I didn’t come in hot and sweaty from muscling the car around.
2pm brought my final practice run of the day, and boy was it an interesting session. One of the cars in my group had a mechanical issue and careened through turn fourteen and into the wall bringing out the safety crew, ambulance and an isolated yellow flag. The good news is, from what I’ve heard, the driver is okay. Per the rules, and moreover plain common sense, drivers should’ve proceeded with extreme caution during a situation like this. Unfortunately, common sense didn’t prevail, and dozens of cars passed under the caution conditions, prompting the calling of an all-group meeting with race officials immediately following the session. The dangerous actions by the folks in my group nearly got everyone booted from the event, but cooler heads prevailed, and they allowed everyone to stay. That’s a good thing, since most of us traveled a considerable distance to attend and spent sizable sums of money in the process.
Friday brought two more practice sessions in what I can only characterize as interminable heat. Come Friday afternoon the air temperature was inching towards 95 degrees with a heat index closer to 110 degrees. For us Minnesotans that’s unbearable heat if you’re wearing shorts, let alone wearing a fireproof suit and safety gear strapped into a cockpit with temperatures above 150 degrees. To put it in perspective, picture yourself wearing a snowmobile suit in the peak of summer in South Florida. My newly added Cool Suit made things a little more bearable, but it did nothing for the sweat dripping into my eyes on track. Seriously, that’s not something you want to deal with when approaching the braking point into turn one doing upwards of 140 mph. I was happy to end the session and safely bring the car back to the paddock for the night. My five-year-old daughter, however, wasn’t too happy with me. Apparently, I failed to wave at her during the cool down lap despite her rigorous attempts to get my attention.
The plan was to load the car into the trailer for the night and head to the lake to cool off, but naturally the car had other plans. When I went to engage the starter button I was greeted with absolute silence. Hmm, I thought, perhaps the starter went bad. I grabbed the spare from my trailer, sourced the appropriate tools to do a quick swap and as I laid down on the ground to slip under the car I sizzled on the pavement. I couldn’t help but compare the heat on the blazing hot blacktop to the feeling of an egg hitting an up-to-temperature frying pan. As sweat dripped from every pore I started to remove the starter bolts, and then I noticed it. One of the quick electrical connectors came apart way too loosely. It appears the plastic sheath around the connector got so hot that it loosened the connector. A simple adjustment and the wires were properly connected again. I got of the pavement as quickly as I could, hopped in the car and hit the starter button. It fired right up. Easy fix. I wish they all were this easy. Lady luck was on my side.
All along I had planned to take my car and kids down to Elkhart Lake Friday night in the police escorted Race Car Concours. If you’ve never seen it, here’s my in-car video from a few years ago. I quickly learned Friday that I wasn’t registered. It seems that for some reason I either forgot to register or the show was full by the time I registered. My seven-year-old son wasn’t happy with the news, but after seeing everyone melt in the sun during the staging hour prior to the event, and the two hours down at the show, I’m kind of glad things worked out as they did. It was nice being able to simply show up at the show, check it out and leave. I may have had a beer in the process. Or two. But who’s counting.
Saturday dawned and we prepped for two qualifying sessions. Upon completion of the morning session I was pretty happy with my times. I was still a second or two per lap off of my preferred pace but was moving in the right direction. I figured by the afternoon during our qualifying race I’d hit my target. Of course, the skies opened up dumped rain for the two hours immediately leading up to my qualifying race. While my group hunkered down in the trailer, I contemplated whether or not the weather would clear and if I could go out.
In the end I passed on the rainy session, as did most of the folks in my group. Those who did make it out slowly slipped and slid around the track. We ended up watching from atop turn 13, where at least three other drivers from my group did the same. I guess great minds think alike. In the end times from the dry morning session were used for the feature race grid, meaning I didn’t miss out on anything by not going out in the rain. We capped off the night with a trip to Schwarz’s Supper Club, a must stop for anyone attending races at Road America.
Sunday dawned and the weather was perfect. My race was scheduled for 9:45am and I was feeling good. Despite planning for the worst, the car had run nearly flawlessly all weekend. Not only did that make for happy time on track, but also more quality time spent with my family enjoying the associated weekend activities.
I was looking forward to the race and was gridded 18th out of 69 cars. I was in the middle of an Orange Porsche sandwich, with Bruce Boeder’s beautiful Orange 911 directly ahead of me and two orange 914-6s directly behind. The pace car escorted us out on track, we completed the pace lap and before we knew it the race was on. My start was pretty average. A 911 further back in the grid had a great run and came out of nowhere on the inside of turn two. I would swap places with that car and another 914-6 throughout much of the race.
I was ripping off respectable lap times and holding my own until the second to last lap of the race when third gear became a bit elusive. On the run down to turn five I struggled to grab third gear. I finally got it engaged, but in the process two cars from behind caught up. One proceeded to pass and in the subsequent turns the other got by. With only a lap left, and degrading shifting performance, I was not able to get past them. I did, however, make it to the end of the race and had a lot of fun in the process.
Apparently, my timing was impeccable, because the moment I exited the track I lost all of my gears. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t engage any gears to get my car in the trailer. Could’ve been worse though, right? I’d much rather have an injured car in the parking lot at the end of the race than in the middle of the race. All told I finished, and to quote an old racing sage, in order to finish first you must first finish.
The successful race completion capped off another great weekend at the track spent with friends and family – a weekend I look forward to every year. Life moves pretty slow the Monday immediately following a race weekend and I’m already planning for the next event, the Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival in September. And if you’re wondering about the gearbox issue, I’ve figured it out and a simple fix is on the horizon. I hope…