Race Report: AER Watkins Glen, April 23-24, 2016

It’s The Disappointment That Makes Racing Worthwhile. At least that’s what I wrote last year.

By those standards, this was a very worthwhile weekend. The Sunday-race start you see above, which saw me jump from 37th to about 27th by Turn Two, was as good as it got. The rest was a catalogue of mistakes, failures, and bizarre circumstance.


It was foggy, raining, and slightly below freezing when I took “Black Betty”, our V6-powered RX-7, out for the start of Saturday’s race. We had qualified ninth in an eighty-car field, but that was deceiving; the weather had been so bad on Friday that most of the field hadn’t even taken a qualifying lap. There was a brand-new Corvette, a V8-engined E92 M3. Plus a fresh-build E46 M3 behind us. Although we’d registered six drivers for the race, one of them had missed his flight and two of them were sick. That left us with:

* Bark, who had no experience racing in these conditions.
* Travis, whom we needed to set fast laps in the long middle stints.
* Me.

I’d driven us from Ohio to the Glen the previous night; we got in at 2:15AM and I didn’t sleep a wink. I was already so tired my eyeballs were bouncing in their skulls. Oh well.

There was also the matter of tires. We have a wonderful arrangement with Yokohama that provides us with two different kinds of tires: an Advan that kicks ass in the dry but is not great for racing in the rain, and an Advan that kicks ass in wet conditions at the expense of dry grip. Due to a misleading weather forecast, we had the dry tires on. It was going to be a great start.

At the green flag I went from ninth to fifth by Turn Two. You can see me run up to the Corvette in this video taken by some nutjob who just drove up the outside and got whacked out onto the curb. Serious balls on that dude, but I should point out that it’s an enduro, not a sprint. 🙂

After Turn Two, I got super sideways going up the Esses in fifth gear. I had to fall back and let the competition pass me. I fell down to 22nd or thereabouts as the rain just kept falling. Every time I tried to push the car a bit and check traction I was rewarded with a vicious twitch as Betty tried to hit the blue-painted guardrails ass-first. Four other cars hit the gravel or the wall during my stint, a great reminder not to push it too far. After about ninety minutes there was enough dry pavement for me to take back about ten of the places I’d lost. My best lap time was a not-great 2:16.2. What can I say? After almost two hours I was beat up from the feet up. The track was dry by the time I pitted, I just couldn’t take advantage of it.

Travis got in and immediately ran in the high 2:15s, then the low 2:15, then a stunning 2:14.2. But there was a problem. I’d been braking the car early for the “Bus Stop” at the top of the long, fast hill that makes Watkins Glen kind of America’s answer to Spa, but Travis was running full throttle another 300 feet and under those circumstances the brakes didn’t work. When Sam Smith agreed to be roused from his Zika-coma, he reported the same problem. We brought the car in for a lengthy repair, then sent Bark out to make sure the car was okay. He reported that it was behaving, but when yet another car hit the wall and brought out the double-yellow we called it a day.


I took the start again for Day 2. We began the race 37th, with seven hours of sleep under my belt but all sorts of leg pain from yesterday’s ridiculousness. At the start I brought us immediately up ten places and started running 2:15s. A Miata oiled the track right ahead of me, causing Betty to lose her fucking mind in the fast corners and also incentivizing three other cars to hit the guardrails in the first few laps afterwards. During the double-yellows we came in for a quick refuel — but our pit crew wasn’t on the radio and didn’t show up. We went from 8th place to 35th over the course of a nine-minute stop. I went back out and drove the car until the next dude hit the wall. My fast lap was 2:15.0.

Travis, true to form, scorched me with a 2:14.8 in his stint, but the brake problems that plagued him came right back despite our fixes. I wish we had data so I could see

a) how he got those 0.2 seconds
b) why he kills Betty’s brakes

Maybe the answer to those two questions is the same? Not wanting Travis to be the tenth or eleventh car to crunch a guardrail this weekend, we called him back in and retired from the race.


After a brief lunch at “Mr. Chicken” and a short tour of Seneca Lake, we headed home. It was a weekend to forget, as they say in Formula One. But we can take comfort in the fact that nobody was injured and the car wasn’t damaged in any way. We had a few glorious moments: I completely humiliated that V8 M3 during my Sunday stint and I was able to occasionally hassle the race leaders, while Travis had just a brilliant Saturday drive. We also learned a lot about what we need to avoid doing if we’re going to get any more trophies in AER.

Our next race as a team will be in July at New Jersey Motorsports Park, although Bark and I will be doing something really neat at Laguna Seca between now and then. Sam is doing something even cooler than what we’re doing and I wish I could tell you about it, but I can’t — SAM’S GOING PRO RACING DON’T TELL ANYBODY SSSSHHHH — and I will also be running NASA in the interim. Last but not least, my son will make his SCCA debut in early June.

So we’re going to look forward to that race, and stop looking back at this one. And my sincere thanks to the blue Miata team, shown below with Betty; they fueled my RX-7 when our pit crew didn’t show up!


18 Replies to “Race Report: AER Watkins Glen, April 23-24, 2016”

  1. -Nate

    ” That’s Racing ” .

    _NEVER_ forget the bad days , they’re instructive and make the good days so much sweeter .


  2. Ronnie Schreiber

    At the risk of being someone who knows almost nothing about racing telling folks who have done it, you need someone whose only job is to manage the team: make sure drivers are at the race, make sure the right tires are on the car, make sure the pit crew is ready when you come in for refueling.

    • Mental


      Some of the successful teams I have establish “Pit Mom” and “Pit Dad” They can be drivers, but Pit Mom ensure there is food and hydration. makes sure everyone has a chance to eat and stay liquid. Pit Dad handles the pits. When the car needs to come in, who is suited up and keeps tabs on race happenings to maximize opportunities like yellows to to pit stop.

  3. Nick D

    Sorry to hear the weekend didn’t go 100% according to plan.

    I know you’ve lost the love for crapcan racing, but your former colleague Alex Kierstein’s Lemons team saved ours this weekend at Gingerman. We both had manual transmission 3800-powered U-Body vans, but theirs was supercharged and blew up on test and tune day. My team takes a complete backup engine and transmission attached to a spare front subframe for rapid swaps to every race. The team owners offered both the engine/transmission/subframe, know-how (well, the people on my team who can do that sort of thing did anyways), and assistance Friday night after it became clear their engine was ruined. They declined given that their van was a Frankenstein with completely custom manual transmission mounts – it was uncertain if the subframe would even fit, let alone work with the unholy combination of Series II and Series I connectors by Saturday AM.

    The next morning, as Alex’s crew was about to head out, our rusty panhard rod broke about 2 hours into the race. Embodying the best of Lemons, Alex and team were kind enough to lend us the one attached to the disabled van for the race, quickly getting us back on the track and preventing a mad junkyard search or fabrication session. We ran the best we’ve ever run – the 3800 really comes alive with a manual. We’re also looking for a nice U-Body panhard rod to get to Alex’s team.

    On the track, a bunch of stuff I’ve read and tried to practice in prior races started clicking on this third go-around, and I took about 15 seconds off my time from my first stint Saturday to the final one Sunday. We were able to mix it up with some class C and not-so-fast class B cars. Our 200k mile 3800 won’t rev to 7000 RPM, but we got the fastest times by short-shifting and taking advantage of the wide powerband to get power down earlier with less wheel-hop on corner exit.

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      A stick-shift U-body van?

      As DiCaprio said, you had my interest, but now you have my attention!

      • Nick D

        We’re the 666 van in the article – http://www.roadkill.com/lemons-michigan-bs-inspections-american-galore/

        Wearing an oversized, thick nomex suit under a star trek shirt makes me look like a compressed air cylinder exploded in my gullet.

        Gingerman was the van’s first race as a manual. I drove it at Autobahn for the true 24 hour race in July 2015 (my first actual race – and it wasn’t fun as we kept setting the brakes on fire in addition to a number of other problems that had to be resolved in the searing heat, while utterly exhausted, or both). By the October Autobahn race, we fabricated an adapter and installed C4 Corvette calipers and rotors and sorted a bunch of other niggles. These fixes made a huge difference, but the automatic still hated life and wouldn’t shift properly under race conditions. I couldn’t go to February’s Barber race due to an ill-timed funeral, but a newly-installed automatic blew up towards the end of that race.

        With the transmission being the only remaining weak spot, the engineer and retired mine mechanic on our team figured out a way to knit together the 3800, a 2001-only manual J-body bellhousing, clutch, clutch master cylinder, a clutch pedal, cables, and some Cobalt gears to make a reliable 5-speed fit into an overgrown Celebrity. I merely provided a spare set of hands on the various build days I could attend.

        Having mastered the U-Body, the team is already looking at something else to build. I’m pushing for something with a lower center of gravity and more power.

        The U-Van, however, was a good tool to learn track driving. A higher seating position assisted in providing a good view of the track and traffic (EYES UP was my mantra). It’s slow speed, somewhat compliant suspension (even after lowering), excess braking power, and a hydraulic steering system that had a modicum of feedback also helped me understand the real-world application of a few basic principles from Speed Secrets and other stuff I’ve read.

        • Jack Baruth Post author

          To me, this is what LeMons is all about. I just wish they’d address the closing-speed issue, preferably by slowing down or eliminating the really rapid machinery piloted by utter morons.

  4. PaulyG

    I see that you were racing against my old car 588, the silver rose ’89 944 turbo (0:13 on the video). My good friends Jim and Drew were driving.

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      They were running 2:08s. I couldn’t hang.

      I did watch somebody spectacularly loop the thing in Turn One though!

  5. Jeff

    Just a wondering- why harrass the lead cars is if you are running 9th or lower etc? This was an enduro right? Shit happens when you engage with other cars. In all I’ve probably seen it maybe about 200 times in lemons and chump.
    Fast car meets slower car, slower car prefers not to be passed, faster car tried to pass, slower cars ego causes paint to paint and ladies and gentleman – slower car succeeds in fuxking the faster cars weekend up.

    Sure it’s fun of course but with all the cars going off course throughout the event why risk it ?

    • Jack Baruth Post author

      “Harass” is perhaps overstating it.

      If I’m in the middle of a stint and I have no reason to burn my tires — i.e. more than 30 seconds ahead or behind the next guy — then when the leaders come by I’ll hang for a lap or so for my own amusement.

      I emphatically do not race out of class in enduros nor do I “race” the leaders if I’m not on the lead lap.

      Too bad none of the E30s in AER can do the same.

  6. Jeff

    That is precisely what I thought any top tier enduro driver would do. The e30 mafia that lives in “chu-mons” all have the need to flaunt their extra speed every chance they get. But that most definitely is not the way to enduro.

    I got passed last year by one of the car and driver hacks (supposedly the faster one) at autobahn and indeed we were around a 2 laps down As he outbraked me before “patience”, I upped the ante a bit not only to watch his lines and braking points but to also let him know- “hey- if my damn teammate hadn’t got blackflagged this morning we WOULD be tangoing right now.” So yes harassing those other cars a bit can provide a nice sideshow to the main stage.


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