Practice Day One – Devils Playground to the summit
Practice is held each day from 5:30 AM to 8:30 AM. We arrived at the Devils Playground parking area at about 4AM. We unloaded the car and fired the engine to get some heat in the motor and make sure we could idle at 13,000 ft (I had no Idle Control Valve on the engine). I was told at the meeting the night before, that I would be required to run each section by myself a few times to get comfortable before they would let Travis in the car. There was a drivers’ meeting at 5AM and after that meeting, we had a brief meeting at our car with the safety crew. They were shown the newly installed window net and its release mechanism, and also went over Travis’ oxygen supply. We were lined up last in the first run which was fine with me. I wanted to be sure I could take my time on the first run and see how the car was going to handle the dirt. The car in front of me went off and I slowly staged my vehicle, and waited for the green flag. A very long period of work, frustration and sacrifice had led up to this moment. I had all of fifteen minutes in the car to this point and I was a bit anxious to see what we had to work with.
The green flag dropped. I revved the motor (not quite enough) and dumped the clutch. I was on my way. I bogged a little, as I sort of expected to up here, and the engine revved out smoothly. The boost started to come on and the torque was impressive. When I was just fully on the boost, the car took a hard right turn and had me pointing off the edge of the mountain. Not good. I corrected and stayed in it for just a second more, but the car was having trouble recovering. I eased off and then eased back in, and each time the boost came full-on, I found myself getting way too sideways. This was a nightmare. I eased back off and cruised the road at moderate speed (maybe 45-50mph), using this first pass to see the changes in the road from last year and try to figure out how to drive this car.
Back in the pits after the first run I told Steve the problem. He asked if I wanted to make a change. I said no. Not sure where to go with it just yet. Let me take another run and see where I have control and where I don’t. What I found was that if I kept the RPMs down on the lower part of the boost range, that it would stay relatively controllable. We still weren’t hooking up really well, but at least we weren’t all over the road.
Run two was a bit better, but still not nearly as fast as I had hoped. The road was dry slick, I was on cheap tires, and I had no time in the car. All of these elements added up to a slow ride. Run three was a bit better, and I was getting a feel for the car, somewhat. It still wasn’t great, but much less anxiety than the first couple runs. I am told when I get back to the pits that I will only get one more run. We decided to load up Travis for the last run. We are the last to go for the day. I’m pretty comfortable with Travis in the car. Having him there is sort of comforting. I want to do well and keep us both safe. We get the green and we are on our way. The last run of the day is the best. I am feeling more comfortable and we have a pretty good run. Just before the summit we see that one of the Big Rig race trucks has gone off the edge just ahead of us. We have to avoid a flag man in the road and keep out of the ditch. A bit of a tense moment for sure. The big rig driver, Shane Chapman, is fine and so is his race truck. When we make it to the summit, Travis tells me that this is the first time he has been up there since his accident.
When we get back to the hotel after practice I get a good nap in and then get started on the car. I get the oil changed, make a few other adjustments, and spend most of the evening cleaning out the dirt from the interior. I’m not sure what to do on the suspension, so I send a quick text message to a friend. “Loose in the dirt. Too loose. Where do I go?” I’m in a part of town that has really bad cell service, so he doesn’t get the message till the next morning.
Practice Day Two – Start Line to Glen Cove
We qualify today. This section of the road is paved for the first three miles and dirt for the last three and a half miles. We should get about four runs today. I’m looking forward to how the car will handle, on the paved sections. I’ve never been much of a dirt driver. Not that I don’t enjoy it, I’ve just never been really good at it. Even on the ATV’s I preferred the pavement. My first run goes well. Easy, again, to get a feel for the car and see what the road is going to give. The paved sections feel ok, and the dirt section is, again, a problem. Still wants to get too sideways when I’m in the boost. This dirt is different from the upper section dirt. They spray calcium chloride on this section to retain moisture and it should “blue groove” really quickly.
My second run goes a bit better, and I’m getting comfortable in the paved section. I can easily gauge now when the boost is going to hit and I’m getting a better feel for what gear I should be in and where. Having to shift the car into first gear for every tight hairpin has been a pain. Getting our completely stock transmission into first, at anything more than idle is not easy. And it’s really tough on parts. The third run goes well, and I’m even finding places on the dirt where I am comfortable. Just one problem…the brakes are going away. I have to double-pump the pedal to get any pressure. There’s an air bubble somewhere or the pads are knocking back like crazy. We will find out later on that it was, in fact, pad knock-back, which was due to a flaw in the hardware used to attach the rotor to the hat.
As I’m driving back down the hill after the third run I hear a clunking noise coming from the right front corner. I hadn’t heard it before…but, really, this is the most relaxed I’ve been in the car all week, and I’m starting to notice much more going on around me. I can’t figure out what it is, but I know I’ll need to check it our before our last run. I make it back to the pits and they tell me I’ll only get one more run. We haven’t had Travis in the car yet, and I need to check out this problem. I quickly climb out of the car. “Travis, get loaded up…we need to look at the front-end and get the brakes bled! ” All we have is a small jack, so I start getting the passenger front in the air. I look down to loosen the lug-nuts and one of them is about to fall off. The other four are really loose. I can’t believe we didn’t check the lug nuts before practice this morning! Turns out they weren’t tight yesterday either. Wanna guess why the car took a hard turn when the boost came on? As soon as I noticed this I looked at the other three wheels. ALL of them were loose. Some more than others, but still, this was a big problem. Turns out we never did a final torque on the lugs, after the last brake bleed when they were installing the wrap.
A crew member from another team sees us scrambling to get the brakes done and comes over to help. Randy Rhule, the top safety guy in the Pikes Peak organization, came over to see where we were. He was trying to hold things up to make sure we got everything done and could take a final run. Some of you might remember Randy from Monster Garage. He was part of the episode in 2004 when Jesse James built and drove a car up Pikes Peak. We were just about done getting the brakes bled and were doing a final bolt check on the car before heading to the line. Just as we were about to fire the car, Shane Chapman left the line. We heard his turbos scream, and the tires squeal, and then we heard a bang. Shane had gone off the road again…right in front of us…again.
This held things up long enough for us to get things done and we rolled up to the line. They really wanted us to get a final run in, so they cleared Shane’s debris from the road and gave us the green flag. Wow…what a difference tight lugs and good brakes make! The car was handling better and was much more predictable on the dirt section. This last run, our qualifying run, was a full thirty seconds faster than any of my previous runs. I was pretty happy. We got back to the pits and got our time. We had qualified fourth, out of four, BUT we only missed third by four seconds. Just after practice I get a text from my friend, he had just gotten my text from the night before. “Rear toe, soften shocks”. I hate my cell phone service.
Back at the hotel we do a complete bolt check and change the oil. Then a long nap for me. Later in the evening I’m back outside, once again, cleaning the dirt out of the car and making the changes to the rear toe and resetting the shocks. One more sleepless night before my final day of practice on the hill. Anxiety has been the rule this week.
Practice Day Three – Cove Creek to Devils Playground
This section is all pavement. Did I mention that I hate my cell phone service? Won’t get to find out if the changes I made to the suspension work, until race day. Bummer. This is a short section and we should be able to get in five or six runs. I am still exhausted from the day before, so I decide to nap during the first couple runs. I LOVE this section and feel like I can get away with less practice. This section is the called the W’s. There are seven hairpins and it is all above tree line. Most drop-offs are well over two thousand feet and are very exposed. You don’t want to screw the pooch in this section. It’s the most technical on the hill, and the most dangerous. I had a big fear of this section my rookie year on the quad, so I came up early and drove it for a full day. Probably forty or fifty times. That’s all it took to get me over the fear.
I set off on my first run and the car is running well. I get through the first couple corners and then slow for the first hairpin. I have to jam the transmission into first and it’s not liking it. I have to find a speed slow enough to engage first, without leaving bits of the transmission scattered on the road behind me. I’m REALLY wishing I had a lower gear. Now I’m thinking 4. 50 or better would keep me from having to shift into first. I’m driving the car harder than I ever have, and really getting a feel for it at higher speeds. I’m groaning every time I have to slow down so much for the hairpins. Another option would be to back into the corners like a drift or rally car. Only problem there is that I have no e-brake to get the back of the car around, and no skill to get it done otherwise. That’s another add-on I’ll need to make before next year…both the e-brake and the skill. I’m losing a good two seconds or so on each hairpin and I know it. The car I am gauging myself against, is 24 seconds faster than me in this section. She has a lot more power than me, and has been driving her car for a few years. If I weren’t losing those few seconds per hairpin, I’m right there with her best time. I love this section. And now I know what I need to go faster through it.
Practice and all the anxiety that go with it are finally complete. We now have the rest of Friday and all day Saturday to relax; and make the car ready for Sunday. We decide to cover the car and take Friday night off and make it down to Fan Fest for the evening. It was cool to see everyone who had cars on display and check out everything else going on. Rhys was on display and he was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk to us about the week that had been and, again, ask if we needed anything for race day. I felt really lucky to be racing with such great people.