This race weekend couldn’t just be simple. Of course not. Maybe it is too much to ask for, maybe no race weekend in history has ever been simple. But for a few hours before our first timed session, it seemed like simplicity was a genuine option.
First I should go back to the beginning and explain how we ended up in Fontana for Redline Time Attack’s season finale. As most know, Mike Lewin and Grant Davis towed our beloved Evolution VII to SEMA to be displayed as a feature vehicle courtesy of one of our sponsors, Zeitronix. After SEMA, Mike had to head back home to go to school, but Grant stayed with the car and towed it to Southern California in preparation for the Redline Finale. I (Dan O’Donnell) flew out the Thursday before the race weekend with Handsome Dan Leuck accompanying me. Mike flew back in Friday and we had a huge supporting cast of friends and family driving and flying in as well. I was excited to see how we would compare with the West Coast cars, confident we would turn a few heads, but not exactly confident we would have the straight-line speed to vie for first place.
The race weekend started for us on Friday with some very relaxed testing and a shakedown of the vehicle. I learned quickly that Auto Club Speedway is an intimidating track. Speaking with resident time attack badass, Trent Choi, about how I felt the banking may cause a few butt pucker moments, he dismissed my comment as lame and he had no such fears, damn he is such a badass. For me, the banking gave the feeling that if any part of the vehicle were to fail, it would be a very bad outcome. I have gained new respect for Nascar and Indy car drivers, banked turns are no joke and you have to have faith that the car will get you from the beginning of the turn through to the end. The car performed well with 1:53 second laps clicked off with little to no effort. I had studied Billy Johnson’s record (now former record, thanks to GST) lap of the track and his line was excellent. All I needed to do was follow in his footsteps and step up my confidence through the banking and the chicanes to lay down a strong lap.
Saturday started out well, we swapped out our 1 piece Girodisc rotors for DBA 2 piece rotors, installed new CL-8 pads up front, adjusted the alignment settings on the car and studied the data from the previous day with confidence that we would put down a respectable 1:49 time. All went well except for the high wind speeds we experienced on the banking. Initially I had the feeling of too little downforce on the front of the car which I had experienced previously when we got too aggressive with our new rear wing from Kognition. After a few discussions we decided to leave the car as is and go back out. I had been gaining confidence throughout the day and it showed after laying down a strong 1:49 time. We felt we would have no problem vying for first place as long as we could repeat this time on race day. We also knew that we would be closing in on a record lap as the previous time set Jeremy Toye in the Reese Tuning car was 1:47.6 with a +1 second penalty.
As the day wore on, the car started slowing down and becoming less stable. Back in the garage we found the rear passenger wheel had toed out and lost half a degree of camber. We attributed this to the heavy forces on the car rotating the cam adjustment bolt. Studying data, we learned quickly just how great the forces were. We were hitting numbers in the 1.7 G area throughout the banking! A quick adjustment of the suspension and back out with a 1:48… things were getting interesting…
Sunday started out well. The car was in great shape, no adjustments needed, no problems to report, everything felt strong. Out in first practice/qualifying session and an unofficial class record of 1:48.1 was set! I blew through a cone damaging the front splitter, but the damage was in a position that we didn’t foresee it slowing the car down. Behind us was the Stoptech Evo X with Stephen Ruiz driving at a 1:49 and change. Confidence was high as I knew there was more left in the car, all I had to do was step up in the banking and chicanes and the car would do what I asked.
We decided to take it easy on the car and sit out of the second practice/qualifying session and I got to take time to enjoy the event. It was great to see the other cars, drivers and also get to walk around the paddock to see the car show, vendors and all the cool sights that I don’t normally get to enjoy. Our time held as the fastest in qualifying and all I had to do was backup what I did earlier in the day and that would be that, we would secure a lap record and first place. Simple right? Well this is where all that simple talk went out the window.
In the first timed session that car felt a little down on power, but not too bad. My confidence in the car was supremely high and I think my best driving of the whole weekend was in this session, only the times didn’t reflect it. Not at all. The best time was a high 1:49 and at worst in the 1:51 range. I didn’t understand it! I had held full throttle through the entire banking, through both chicanes, I had no mistakes in the slow speed turns, how could the times be so bad? At first I thought that the heat was getting to the track and that all the cars were probably slowing down, but that was not the case. Stoptech threw down a 1:47.7! New record for them, 3rd place for us?!
After a very disappointing time waiting to get through tech, we pulled the car in the garage and combed over the data. Boost was a paltry 21 psi, normally we are in the 29-30psi range. What had happened? Our car has not had boost issues all season. Our car was flawless this weekend and other than the one alignment change, perfect for the track. Quickly the team ripped into the car, Ziggy from Zeitronix and Mike from Kognition stopped to help fix the car. We couldn’t find any issues, but checked all hoses, removed the intercooler piping, replaced the aftermarket pass valve with the OEM Evo IX we had as a spare. In the process of all of this, somehow a pinhole leak was created in the radiator! We had about a 40 minute window to get prepared for the next timed session and my confidence, which had been unshaken the whole weekend, was at an all time low.
Without hesitation, Mike with Kognition offered us a spare radiator off of their personal demo car, but luckily Grant and Mike pinched off the leak and amazingly it would hold for the entire event. With minutes to spare I brake boosted the car in the paddock to see it hit 26 psi, 3-4 psi short of our previous number, but a huge improvement. Rushing to line up in the number 2 grid spot, now behind Stoptech, I was pissed and ready to get out there.
The wait felt like forever. Sitting in the car I could hear Nads, Yukio and Todd, the announcers for the event, and there was no mention of Professional Awesome. All weekend we were the front runners, all weekend they promoted us, Yukio had even committed us to a 1:46 time. With such a mediocre performance in the first session, I don’t know if there was any hope the team would be able to step back over Stoptech’s time and reset the track record.
With my warmup lap I had an internal dialog. Stay safe, stay smart, drive to the fullest of my ability and whatever happens happens, just don’t leave anything on the table. Our Evo didn’t want to let me down. I may never understand what a war pilot would feel toward his/her plane, but in that moment I was as close as I could be.
Deciding that it as now or never, we raised the rev limit on the engine to coax the maximum possible speed on the straights, there would be no taking it easy in the banking, there would be no heavy braking for chicanes, it was go time. The first lap went very well, but I bobbled the turns after the second longest straight, not bad, but I went wider than I would have liked. Undaunted I drove hard and felt very strong through the remainder of the course, but knew I had more to do in lap 2. Coming across the start/finish line I looked at my dash for the lap time and I saw 1:46.67 flash across the screen! No freaking way! But the Stoptech car ahead of me looked just as fast, I couldn’t back off, I had to go faster.
The internal dialog turned external, now I was one with the warbird, now is the time to go faster. The old girl, with her 50k mile engine at full song, drove hard and fast through the infield. Heading onto the second longest straight I saw a large puff of smoke from the Stoptech car, thinking he might have lost the engine and oil could be on track I backed off hard in order to survey the situation, pass if need be, cool down and save the tires for the last lap. The Stoptech car slowed as well but then I saw him stretch his legs for the back straight, he was still strong and ready for one more lap, so was my girl and hard down the main straight we went. Into the banking again with full confidence and I knew then, the tires didn’t have the full grip they had in the first two laps. I kept pushing for more in the turns, but I couldn’t carry the speeds I had on the last two laps. The car asked for grip, she had more to give, but 1:46.67 was all we would have for that session. I couldn’t expect more, she had done more than anyone would have thought possible. On the cool down lap I pulled up next to the Stoptech car to give the thumbs up. I didn’t know if I had a good enough time to beat him, but if he had done a lap faster than 1:46, then he absolutely deserved the win.
He let me pass and I entered the pits slowly and smoothly. I just happened to hear my name on the intercom with our time and the words new class record! I may have pumped my fist once or twice and it was pretty amazing to see the crowd cheer as I drove the car to the tech inspection. At that moment everything was perfect, Yukio telling me I need to credit him for the 1:46, the Professional Awesome family all there for support, the announcers going crazy, wow. I pulled our Evo, our warbird, our girl, now covered in dust, grime, with a damaged splitter, a far cry from the polished and waxed halls of SEMA, into the garage, she had earned a rest.
We decided to run the wheel-to-wheel Super Session which was loads of fun and I finished where I had started after being passed once and passing another car. The Evo was then put on display along with Cobb’s GTR, GST’s Impreza and Fontana Nissan’s 350z. The usual awards, champaign and models followed suit, but we did have one former record holder upset with a few modifications on our car and getting race stewards and other teams riled up. Our car was double checked and deemed 100% legal and all was right with the world again. I scored an amazing parting gift from Mike at Kognition, a custom Kognition carbon watch. I am also very grateful to Ziggy with Zeitronix who not only helped wrench on the car in our time of need, but also took Mike Lewin to the airport as he had a plane to catch.
I’d like to thank my Mom, Grant’s Mom and Dad, Lewin’s Mom, Handsome Dan, Ian, Tommy, Paul, Kevin, Nik, Jackson and all those who helped us not only with this event, but the entire season. Without our sponsors, friends and family, we would not have been able to achieve the success we have this season.