There is a 2.4 mile piece of asphalt in Lexington, Ohio that doesn’t love me back. Year after year, my affection for Mid Ohio grows stronger and she continues to reject me. The first time we met, in 2007, she broke our half shaft late in the race. Two years ago, she teased me in the worst way possible - she gave me her track record! But an hour later, she gave it to somebody else. The last time we hung out, she tossed our VTEC right out the window with the rest of my clothes. This year was no different.
But you don’t understand, she’s only like this when she’s drunk. I swear.
Mid Ohio is Madness
Our 2015 season has been full of challenges, yet the Garrett Racing, Drive4Diabetes Pirelli World Challenge team showed up ready to dance. In the offseason, the team decided to make the jump from the familiar TCB class, routinely locking up poles and wins, to the faster and more dynamic TCA class in a Honda Civic Si. Chase Pelletier, a Type 1 diabetic, race winner and the face of the Drive4Diabetes Pirelli World Challenge Honda Racing program was promoted to drive the TCA car. My job is to coach Chase and help the program succeed at the next level. Plus, I get to drive a few races per year, which is a pretty good deal.
I’ll be honest. The transition hasn’t been as smooth. The team opted to convert a faster, Touring Car spec Civic Si down to a slower class instead of building a brand new car. There were timeline and cost advantages to this approach, however, it was not without some technical obstacles.
Our first race of the season wasn’t until the third weekend of the championship. We skipped the first round at COTA while sorting out the new car. Our sponsorship partners don’t require us to race in Canada, so with the added costs and logistics of crossing the border, we missed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and targeted Road America as our first outing with the new car.
It was a disaster.
Garrett Racing understands the challenges that professional racing can throw at you. Where other teams might have showed up to the first race, hoping for the best, the guys at Garrett put time, money and effort into testing. We tested at their home track, Carolina Motorsports Park and we tested at Road America. Armed with data from the last time the TCA class raced there, we had a measuring stick to compare our lap times to. Since last year, the Civic lost a few hundred RPM in a BOP adjustment, we were happy that our times in testing matched our goal.
So, why were we almost four seconds slower when we showed up on race day? We were down almost 10 mph in some areas. In a few corners, we were entering a gear lower, or never making it to the higher gear that we found in testing. We struggled to motor past TCB cars.
Everything was off.
We haven’t yet figured that part out, but our best guess is contaminated fuel. Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to do much diagnostic work. We made some progress, but were still struggling to match our testing pace. Then, early in the weekend, Chase got caught up in an incident in Canada corner and ended up nose-first into the tire wall. The team put in a herculean effort, trying everything to get the car back together. Parts came flying in from all directions, and other teams leant tools and support. They worked late into the night until they found that there were more broken parts than initially thought (there always is) and we had to accept that the damage was too much to fix at the track. We were forced to pack up and go home. Not the debut we were hoping for.
The unceremonious start to our year couldn’t dampen our spirits for the next race. One of the most underrated tracks in the county, one of my personal favorites and in Honda’s backyard: Mid Ohio. It’s hard to overstate how great this track is. Mid Ohio is more than the sum of it’s corners. It’s technical and difficult in any kind of car and is one of those rare tracks that is great to drive AND race on. Many tracks are one of the other. Some are neither. The fans are passionate and they come out in droves. Mid Ohio is a tasty treat, and it was a late addition to our schedule this year. So for that, Pirelli World Challenge, we salute you.
And yet, the struggle continues to be real. Our first session was a shakedown, to make sure everything on the car felt ok, post crash. It was a cool, dry morning and all systems functioned normally, no alarms, handling was straight. So far so good. Chase hopped in for the second practice session and I hiked out to the spectator hill to act as team photographer. I snapped a few shots of Chase, then a few more, then he didn’t come around again. “Maybe they’re making a quick shock change” I thought. A few minutes turned into a few laps and soon the session was over and Chase never returned to the track. The car overheated.
The radiator was one of the pieces replaced after the crash. We spent most of the test day troubleshooting, but couldn’t get our temps down into a safe range. The heads on these engines are extremely sensitive so we were facing another “pack up early” scenario. Thankfully, our direct competitor, the Compass 360 team came to the rescue just after sunset: They let us borrow their spare radiator.
Karl Thomson, Compass 360 Team Principal, reminding me to be kind to his radiator.
On the morning of race day, excitement turned to frustration, then desperation. Two laps into the race, the temperatures were rising again. DNF: Overheating.
With two races in one day and only a few hours to find a solution, the team burped the system and checked every inch of the borrowed radiator for a leak. Chase and I embarked on an arts and crafts project with tape and cardboard, creating a very professional, top quality, air-tight seal around the radiator, ensuring peak efficiency. Desperation is a stinky cologne and we laid it on thick.
The clock was ticking, Race #2 was 30 minutes away and our final bullet came from under the hood of a Hyundai Tiburon, belonging to our crew member, Missy (THANKS MISSY!).
I was late to grid, meaning I had to start from pit lane. I was feeling cautiously optimistic. The longer I sat idling in pit late, watching the engine temp number on the Motec dash hold steady, the better I felt.
The green flag came out and the race is a bit of a blur. It was 40 minutes of green-flag, caution free racing. The engine temps creeped a few degrees higher than normal, but stayed in a safe range for the entirety of the race. I made it up to 6th place at the checkered flag, which felt like a win. Thanks to Missy’s Hyundai Tiburon radiator cap! I ate Korean BBQ for a week in appreciation.
Part of what our program is about is developing young Chase Pelletier, who is an ambassador for diabetes awareness. Our weekends are about more than just the on-track results. Chase brought down his personal driving simulator and set it up in our race trailer. We hosted guests from a local diabetes organization, and put them in the sim seat to compete against us in a Formula One car around Mid Ohio. I lost by default, unable to complete a full lap without crashing, but one guest got within a few tenths of Chase’s time - and it turns out he’s a local ringer with some real seat time! Nicely done, Nolan!
A rare moment, me driving a sim, pointing the right direction.
Chase Pelletier (L) and guests.
Chase had a strong drive in Race #3, netting some points and some prize money and continued momentum for the Garrett Racing team. Our next set of races is at Laguna Seca, which is also the season finale and a great opportunity to close out strong.
Ride along for a lap:
About @JonLeeMiller (not the Jonny Lee Miller who was married to Angelina Jolie): Jon is a racing driver and coach who has competed in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge since 2006. He collects Hot Wheels and action figures and hopes to race at LeMans or appear as an extra in the new JJ Abrams Star Wars films. A University of Central Florida graduate, he now lives in California with his wife, Denise and Bob Barker, their adopted pet Boxer.