Global Time Attack’s Super Lap Battle has always been a tale of two stories for the team. One where we are hit with monumental adversity and challenges in the highest-pressure situations. The other, where all these issues are overcome at the last moment and the team rises to the challenge, besting all expectations. Riding this knife edge is full of tension and stress, but the team has been able to thrive in these conditions. Leading up to the race, we had done everything in our power to reduce the chances of problems popping up, but of course Buttonwillow seems to always have other plans, and this SLB would be no different. The track would throw every possible problem our way, and the team would have to fight tooth and nail to meet the expectations we have of ourselves.
This year, the car was mildly evolved, with refinement as the goal and a new Stig, Ken Dobson, behind the wheel. After having a successful and moderately reliable Gridlife event we focused on upgrades and modifications as we didn’t have to fix many problems before going out to California. Upgrades consisted of improved datalogging capabilities, fixing wiring, tweaked aero, improved engine reliability and suspension adjustments.
With all seemingly going to plan, the car started its cross-country journey with Grant trailering the car out and having smooth sailing on his trip. Mike and I arrived at the track to see Grant had prepared everything and left the garage, which was provided by Fortune Auto, in a tidy, organized state, ready for the upcoming days’ activities. The garage and advanced preparation, along with a 5 a.m. wake-up call, meant we were prepared and ready to run well before the first session on the first day. In retrospect, I think all this positivity was just the car gods lifting our spirits, just before kicking us square in the pants.
Ken would go out in the first practice session to familiarize himself with the car, do a systems check and make sure all was well. With low boost and old tires, a 1:46 was achieved with little effort. We were feeling pretty good that this was going to be a special Super Lap Battle. The car was sent back out for the next session, old tires, but this time with more boost to see what he could really do and find out what the car was capable of! This is when Buttonwillow decided to get involved. After a familiarization lap, Ken really started to push it. Entering Phil Hill, the car lost oil pressure, sprayed the oil down the passenger side, and a small fire came to life within the wheel. From our vantage point, the team didn’t see any of this, only realizing that a problem had occurred when the car didn’t show up around the last turn as expected.
Being the consummate professional that he is, Ken immediately killed the engine and held off from pulling the fire-suppression system, which while potentially saving his life, would have caused a big mess. Thanks for putting yourself at risk, Ken! Team photographer Nelly Wenger happened to be in a position to catch all the drama, and as we walked over to watch as the car was loaded on the flat bed, she showed us the pictures and our imaginations ran wild with all sorts of negative imagery. We also felt terrible for all the other competitors’ time we just wasted by requiring the track to be cleaned. Not a fun time in the Professional Awesome camp.
The rescue crew at Buttonwillow did an amazing job of putting our Evo on their flat bed. Our car is so low we expected the worst, but they got it up without a scratch and back to our pits for us to assess the damage. Assuming a blown engine or oil line, we were surprised to find no source of such a major leak. For those of you familiar with the team, this is exactly what happened last year, when a loose oil filter was found to be the culprit. This year, the oil filter was on tight with no additional damage other than our oil temp and pressure sensors being tweaked, but not leaking. Everything seemed healthy and happy, with the exception of 3-4 quarts of oil sprayed everywhere. Eagle-eyed competitor Andy Smedegard noticed what might possibly be a bulging seal on the top of the oil filter and even offered a replacement filter to boot. Not completely convinced this was the cause of the issue, the team cautiously fired the car, saw no problems and began the painstaking process of oil clean up … again. This would cost us the remaining sessions of the day, but offered a glimmer of hope that the team would recover and get back to kicking ass the next morning.
Day 2 would start with much needed rest for Mike and me. Things looked up, the team was optimistic, weather seemed to be as good as it possibly could be, and we knew we had to strike while the irons were hot. Out were the old tires, and in were fresh-sticker C91s, ready to give their lives in the name of fast laps and racing glory. Conservative boost settings gone, now we would be at mode 10 out of 11. We were going for a banker lap, with just enough in our back pocket to go faster later, after we set our first, fast time. The car rolled out, looked good on the warmup lap and ready for the kill. On the fast lap, everything looked great until near the Bus Stop, when I noticed it seemed slower than expected. In would come Ken with complaints the car wasn’t responding to throttle inputs. I notice the dash light warning of high engine coolant temps and fears would instantly spread throughout my body.
Back in the garage, we would find the coolant level abnormally low, but no data suggesting a headgasket issue from our water pressure sensors. The lack of throttle response was a safety protocol on our AEM Infinity ECU, turning down the power when water temps get too high. Thanks for saving the engine AEM! The overheating was cause for concern of course, so a backup water pump was installed to be safe and the system properly bled. We aren’t completely sure the water pump was an issue or just the low coolant level causing problems, but that’s neither here nor there now. Another wasted session, more unexpected complications, especially after normally having rock solid cooling.
With the fixes made, the car was ready for its next session — its next dance with destiny. The C91s were only mildly scrubbed, maybe even better now for going fast, but the desert temperatures started to rise. We had a slight scare of an air bubble in the power steering system causing an issue, which delayed the car getting on track. No matter though, Ken would go out and lay a 1:43.7 while passing people, building our confidence up as traffic started to clear for a second hot lap. It was not to be though as the transmission failed halfway through the lap. Why it failed is unknown at this point, but it was hot, the car wasn’t normally running back-to-back fast laps and when running north of 700whp, things just break.
Towed back to the pits again, this time with more catastrophic damage. This is where the miracle of sportsmanship and kindness arrived. Evo transmissions were offered to the team to try and put it back together and go for that elusive fast lap. Take that racing gods! Despite the crap you throw our way, competitors still band together to rise above. Tony Szirka’s day in the UMS Evo had ended after a fluke accident damaged his engine. A perfectly good transmission sat in his car and he was willing to give it to us to use; what a guy. 365Racing driver, Andy Smedegard, jumped into the mix and while the Pro Awe team pulled out the damaged trans in our car, Andy and Tony pulled out the trans from the UMS Evo. In record time the swap was completed and Ken was instructed to the differences between the two transmissions as the new trans was now a dog box.
Unfazed, Ken hoped back in the Professional Awesome Evo ready to do battle. There would be two sessions left to see what the car was capable of and he went out and ran a 1:43.3, an improvement, even while learning the new gearing and testing everything to make sure the swap was successful. He attempted another lap, but experienced fuel shortage issues, as the 5 gallon tank wasn’t enough for a warmup lap, fast lap, cool down, and then another fast lap. We hadn’t even had time to set tire pressures in the final push to get it on track. It’s amazing what Ken accomplished under such trying conditions. That left us optimistic yet again for the final session.
The stage was now set, just as it has been in years past. The final session, the final day, would we see what the Evo could do? Plans were made to refuel the car to get more laps in than normally possible with our 5 gallon tank. Boost would be set to 11+ (36 psi), higher boost pressure than we’ve ever run before at the track. All boost safety features for coolant temperature where removed. I believe the expression is “damn the torpedoes!” First flying lap, a 1:42.594! Quickly back to the garage to be refueled and then sent out. The next flying lap, he is absolutely trucking. The fastest through the Bus Stop I have seen him go. The car disappears past Phil Hill, always scary as it will be out of sight for quite some time before appearing at the final turn, aptly named Sunset. Ken flies around and looks poised for a great lap… when… the car dies, fueling issues again. He’d still go through the traps at a 1:42.7, two tenths slower despite running out of fuel. He’d make it around again and a last second decision was made to toss in whatever remaining fuel we had in the gas can, but it was not enough to make a full pass.
I can’t describe the feeling of coming so close to seeing what the car was capable of, just to be let down at the last moment of the last turn after all the hardship that was overcome in the past two days. Maybe the racing gods got the last laugh, letting us know that the knife edge couldn’t be ridden forever. We ended up second to the Jager Racing STI, a car and team that has progressed so much, we are honored that they were the ones to beat us. I struggle with how to end this story, even with the strife it was a great event and wonderful to learn all the other amazing stories that happened while we battled our own problems. There’s always next year. Maybe the racing gods won’t get the last laugh after all.