Part 3: Texas World Speedway March 9 - 11
I had a race under my belt. The experience was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. Less baptism-by-fire, more settling into a new home. In preparation for the trip, we spent the preceding weekends cleaning up the cars, fixing leaks and replacing a dented muffler from a little shunt that occurred in the treacherous last turn at MSR Houston.
With everything nut-and-bolted down to the smallest detail, we loaded and rolled out under gray skies and light drizzle. If you ever want to see Texas from behind the wheel, stick to the back roads. We made our way South towards College Station sticking to single-lane farm roads with 55mph speed limits, passing through a couple-dozen small towns with not a single Wal-Mart or strip mall to be seen. If you ever get the chance to experience this, you'll start to notice the pattern: long stretches of open road with nothing but pastures and trees, maybe a farmhouse set back a ways at the end of a long gravel driveway. A couple small houses off by themselves as you come to the outskirts of some sub-1000 population community (watch for speed traps - small municipalities depend on your mandatory contributions to stay alive), densifying and aging inversely to the posted speed limit as you approach "downtown." You'll more than likely stop at the single intersection the city was built around, take a second to admire the architecture and absorb the slow as molasses pace; time literally stops here. At least until your light changes.
We brought the weather with us, and by the time we merged on to State Highway 6, it was pissing rain and threatening to worsen overnight. Our truck passed through the gate and entered the long tunnel just after dusk, and the boss searched for a suitable spot to park and unload.
This might be a good time to describe the venue. Texas World Speedway was originally built in 1969 and over 2 miles in length. This puts it in the same class as Talladega and Daytona, although it has fallen out of use since the early 80s due to deterioration. It's a typical steep bank superspeedway and hosted NASCAR and Indy events in its heyday. It was repaved in 1991 and has been catering primarily to club racing events and the occasional unsanctioned test session or shakedown. The large signage on the banking is visible from just about anywhere in the complex. Standing in pit lane, it's not hard to imagine the paddock and stands packed and buzzing with activity, heat waves mixing with gas fumes and the rumble of 70s-era engines shaking everything that isn't bolted down.
While the age lends a historical provenance and no small amount of nostalgic coolness to the track, it comes with its share of pitfalls. Literally. The paddock and parking for haulers is spread out across a field with paved areas in various states of disrepair - potholes and uneven surfaces make driving your racer to the track a treacherous proposition. The layout isn't what you'd consider optimal; while the pro teams may have been able to successfully navigate their tractor trailers to a parking spot efficiently and expertly, the club racing crowd is a little different. We spent some time in the mud off the edge of the crumbling asphalt, lining up to afford our drivers and crew with enough high ground to stay as dry as possible.
By the time we'd managed to get situated, unloaded and set up it was well after dark and our time slot for the first practice session meant an early alarm and getting to the track before dawn. We bailed for the day soaked and cold and ready to race.
Practice days are always the busiest, sometimes packing several sessions back-to-back meaning turnaround time is critical. The car setups can change pretty drastically according to the driver input, and can happen mid-session in pit lane or in a 30-minute scramble back at the trailer. Our cars were lined up in front of the trailer, all prepped and ready for the first practice on a wet track. The following sessions were mostly uneventful, the clouds trying to make up their minds whether to mist or pour and the drivers doing their best to adjust to the track conditions.
By the end of the day the cars and drivers were as prepared as they could be for the first qualifying session. We left the track in high spirits, attempting to dry out as much as possible before hitting up the nearest BBQ place. A few experienced mechanics joined our crew that morning, but I felt immediately accepted and spent the evening listening in reverence as stories were swapped between old friends. The rain picked up as we turned in for the night and conditions didn't look as though they were going to improve by morning.
Sure enough, we awoke to find the streets flooded, huge puddles filling the gutters and spilling over the curbs. It was the same story at the track. The entrance tunnel had about 6 inches of murky brown water collecting at its low point. The path from our trailer to the track was similarly swamped, and it was a possibility our drivers would be rowing their cars to the grid for Q1.
After managing to wring out what we could, we sent the drivers to their starting positions and awaited the start of the session. The atmosphere was understandably different today, tactics and rivalries for the season had started to form and tension was building everywhere. This was a faster track than MSR Houston with a long banked section at the line that meant high speeds into the first turn as the cars lapped. Gearing had been changed to account for this pre-race, but there were plenty of tight corners in the infield with nothing but grass, mud and temporary lakes to stop a car in the event of an off.
From pit lane, the crew can put eyes on their car from the entrance of the bank and into turn 1. Most of the view of the road course is blocked by the paddock, garages and trailers. The only way we can tell if there's an off or a wreck is by listening to our radios, watching the flaggers and the wreckers. It's a little nerve wracking to think about your driver being out there in the car you prepped, a million things come to mind: Did I re check the torque on the lugs? Will that wing come loose again? Will that bodywork hold up or tear off? Your responsibilities as a mechanic don't end after the car leaves the trailer, and the life of your driver literally rests in your hands.
The rain continued through qualifying and into the race session. Visibility was low, especially if you were behind another car. The rooster tails of spray kicked up in your face means a serious disadvantage when you're following, making passing a risky proposition. Someone had discovered a couple of inundated low spots on the track in one of the more technical sections that caused a couple offs and liberated one of our cars from its nose/front wing. The sudden and drastic change in the car's handling properties were enough to take it out of contention but our driver managed to finish the race anyway. We were dispatched in the pickup to collect our discarded bodywork, and seeing that it was damaged beyond repair we fitted the spare and finished our work for the day.
Sunday saw a break in the weather and the track conditions changed to mostly dry with a few puddles to watch for. Better conditions did not necessarily translate to an easier race, and one driver managed to damage his spare nose and wing necessitating a swap to an unpainted cone and wing. This really wouldn't suffice, so for the race the mechanics stretched their creative muscles and came up with some fitting livery:
Rains came off, slicks went on and grudges from the previous day were addressed as the drivers went to work.
This picture shows the mixed field that usually comprises an SCCA grid. The Formula Mazdas are in front with a full-bodied CSR and Formula Atlantic and Pro Formula Mazda in the rear. The disparity in speed and handling capabilities between the classes often makes for interesting racing.
Post-race means cars are hands-off as the SCCA workers perform their inspection. When the winner is announced, the drivers who managed to take a spot on the podium celebrated in the typical fashion.
But the day wasn't over for the crews. Just as we started the long process of cleaning and loading the cars and equipment, the sun broke through the clouds and gave us some warmth to work with. Exhausted but accomplished, we headed home.