The 2021 race season has already been filled with enough highs and lows to last an entire year. At the time of writing, we have completed all regular season races and are beginning our preparation for our National Championship race, to be held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
We compete in the Sports Car Club of America’s GT-L class for purpose-built road racing sportscars, competing for the oldest and most recognized sportscar racing National Championship. Our car was designed by successful driver and car constructor Jim Dentici and son of Honda Motor Corporation founder and Formula 1 and LeMans race car and engine constructor Hirotoshi Honda.
The 2021 season will end on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway which has hosted Formula 1’s US Grand Prix and IndyCar’s Indy Grand Prix. Our championship event, called the “Runoffs” will be decided by a sprint race of about 45 minutes on October 2, ending a weeklong schedule of qualifying and testing. This is the second and likely last ever Runoffs at the Speedway with the first being held in 2017, a race that we won.
To qualify for the Runoffs, a driver needs to enter a certain number of race weekend and finish a required number of those races. There are two races per regular season race weekend.
Races 1 & 2: The Chicago Region Weathertech June Sprints
The June Sprints is held at my home track of Road America and is the oldest consecutively held road race in North America. The first June Sprints in 1956 was won by a Texas chicken farmer named Carroll Shelby. It is an important race for me personally having only missed 3 of them since my birth.
This year we qualified on pole, very close to the lap record we set at the 2020 Runoffs which were held at Road America. Everything seemed fine as we started the first of two races.
On lap 2 of the first race at 7,500rpm the brand-new timing belt snapped. Our entire race weekend was over. Not only did we destroy our good “Runoffs” engine, but we didn’t check any of the boxes for Runoffs qualifying. After three days in the 100-degree Wisconsin heat, we packed up early and went home.
Race 3: Gateway
Scrambling for anything that would help me qualify for the Runoffs, I rented a car for the second of the two races held at a racetrack in St. Louis. Gateway, or World Wide Technology Raceway as it’s called now is a combination oval with infield road course and a drag strip.
The car I rented is the 1991 GT-5 class National Champion. It’s a Datsun B210 that was built by legendary NASCAR chassis builder E.J. Trivette. Not only was it way down on power and using tires of unknown age, it was also right-hand-drive. Technically this is the second time I’ve driven this car, with the first being in 2017 prior to our win at the other Indy Runoffs. Hopefully, it is the beginning of history repeating itself.
The car ran fine, and we achieved our goal of getting a finish. The first Runoffs qualification hurdle has been cleared.
Races 4 & 5: Road America
Back home the to beautiful Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin for a second race weekend at the 4-mile Road America track. For this weekend we used the backup engine which is a couple of generations old and maybe down on horsepower by 8 or 9%. However, the goal is to get two finishes and hopefully two wins to complete our Runoffs qualification requirements.
Our weekend was full, having to split my time between our race weekend and my nephew’s pro go-kart race at the Road America kart track.
However, the race weekend went smoothly. We qualified on pole for both races, lead every lap, and set the fastest lap in both races. These two finishes and wins completed the minimum qualification requirements for the Runoffs.
This was a critical weekend to gain momentum and confidence in ourselves and the car going into the Runoffs preparation.
What happens now? We have two months to prepare for the Runoffs, which means a lot of things need to happen to fine tune the car for the Indy road course.
Indy’s track is extremely smooth and wide, but with tighter corners than we normally face at tracks like Road America. The straight is very long, and we’ll need to optimize top speed as well as maximize handling. Even the asphalt at Indy is unique as they diamond grind the oval smooth and use a traction compound in certain areas of the track. This means Indy wears the tires faster and generates higher levels of tire heat.
We will tailor everything to this track to try and win the National Champion. Our alignment will change to balance turn-in and top speed. Spring rates likely won’t change, but ride height and shock valving will. We will build two transmissions with two different gear sets depending on what areas of the track we want to optimize. Our bodywork will be massaged and smoothed to increase downforce while reducing drag. Every wire, hose, nut and bolt will be inspected.
The engine is a completely different matter. We have already begun building a new engine with incremental gains in every area. We learned a great deal building the engine for the Runoffs in 2020 and we will continue to expand on the areas where we found gains a year ago. Each engine we build is a little better than the prior one.
Sometime in September, we will test all of our Runoffs updates and determine the set up that we’ll use to start the Runoffs race week.
The importance of our last, successful, and trouble-free race weekend cannot be overstated. We do not have to scramble for a last-minute rental car, nor are we second guessing the fragility of our car. As the driver, I know my confidence in the car is restored and I am certain our chief mechanic and engineer feel equally relieved and confident.
Having said that, anything can happen at the Runoffs. Anytime where a single contest determines the season-long champion, the pressure to perform on that day, and the importance of every small detail is amplified. We won’t know how good of a job we did until October.