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Lone Star Drift Round 2

What would make someone travel for 6 hours, sleep in the shadiest motel and spend two days inhaling tire smoke and the fumes from race gas? The answer to that is drifting.

Friday afternoon I met up with my teammates Logan and Tobi in Austin, Texas to load up a couple of Mazda Miatas and a truck bed full of tires. After getting packed up and watching a few drift videos for motivation, we departed to Mineral Wells, Texas for round 2 of the Lone Star Drift Series and Texas Street legal. Logan and I traveled in a truck with his turbo charged multipurpose Miata on a trailer and were followed by Tobi in his stock powered Miata. After hours of me driving Logan mad with my views on life and plans for future racing, we arrived in Mineral Wells13036439_10153721880017739_1430995845_o

Now the original plan was to stay with Logan’s family about 2 hours away from the event, but being that it was already late we chose to get a motel in town instead. Tobi found one for us on his GPS and we enthusiastically made our way to our destination ready to relax and have a few beers.  Now the motel had the word “Comfort” in its name but I believe the owner may have a different idea of what normal people consider comfort. The best way to picture this place would be to imagine any motel from any horror movie based in the middle of nowhere. It was one rectangular shaped building with 11 rooms and a closed off alleyway behind it that may be home to who knows what.

IMG_5452 2The night manager escorted us to our room and one quick look inside revealed a severely cracked foundation, a crudely patched ceiling and a smell that made my nose tingle. So, of course, we gladly accepted it and began unloading our bags, tools and tires. While the others got settled I poked around the room to admire it’s aging and take pictures. What I found was a sink being held up by a 2×4, an old box television set, and a fridge that had been off for weeks at the least. We realized that for a few dollars more we could stay at a decent hotel up the road, but something about the place we were in appealed to us. So we had a few beers, talked about racing, and then drifted to sleep in anticipation for the following day.IMG_5468 2.JPG

The next morning we loaded up and headed to the track. The initial drivers meeting held by the series organizer, Aaron, was a little informative and a very comical. Some of the safety information included, “Don’t hit the walls. If you do, your stupid” and “It may begin to lighting. If you get struck by lighting, well your stupid.” As soon as the meeting was concluding, having been ready to drive since waking up, Tobi took to the track with me in the passenger seat.

Tobi’s car is a Mazda Miata with a stock engine on a stock tuning, a cool sounding exhaust, a cold air intake, and some really good suspension work. His goal for the weekend was to participate in the Texas Street Legal drift competition, taking place in a few hours. The plan was to get as much practice as possible as his car is very underpowered compared to any other competing. Logan’s Miata is turbo charged with cheap coil overs and some drift steering knuckles. His plan was to just have as much fun as possible during open practice.IMG_5453.JPG

My job for the day was to ride with Tobi during practice and help try to find the best line and car setup and to be on the sidelines during the competition to communicate with him about how he and the other cars are doing. After a few laps of just driving the course, Tobi entered turn 1 for the first time sideways and it became very apparent that it would be a challenging day. The course was far too big for his underpowered car. So he found a baseline through consistent driving and began making his adjustments. A few changes to the tire pressure and suspension stiffness and the car reached peak setup for the track. However, this didn’t completely solve the low power issue. It took practicing until the very last minute to find a line that worked best for the car and that Tobi could consistently drive.

Without having expensive radios with headsets to communicate during competition, Tobi and I used ear buds with mics and our cell phones to speak to each other. He was slotted to drive in the second battle in the quarter final of the Street Legal Series. While observing the first battle of competition I noticed the cars straitening out of drift in the same part of the course that Tobi had been all during practice. I immediately relayed this information to him to say not to worry about it, concentrate on angle and line the rest of the course.

Tobi’s first battle was against Mark Williams in a BMW E36 and after very conservative driving, Tobi was granted the win. In the semi final battle Tobi was slotted against Formula Drift driver Will Parsons in his Lexus SC300.  Previously Tobi had a battle with Will that resulted in a “one more time” and the resulting battle was not an easy decision for the judges when announcing Will as the winner. In his follow run, Tobi launched off the start line giving everything the Miata had and did his best to keep up with Parsons on the initial stretch. Although falling behind, he drove a good line and made no mistakes other than a small straitening on the right hand turn that most cars could not fully complete. Unfortunately Parsons had the power to get through the turn with ease. On his lead run, Tobi’s driving was on point with him using all 110hp to tap the outer wall of turn 3, but with the Formula Drift driver having a good follow run, the victory was awarded to Parsons.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 4.16.00 PM.pngThis was not the end of the event for Tobi. He was out of contention for the win, but still in the fight for 3rd place.  The fight for third would be against Ben Joseph in the white Nissan 350Z. Tobi lead the first run and both drivers were on point. Run two was lead by Joseph and mirrored the first. The result was a one more time. At this point it was all or nothing. Tobi lead his final battle leaving nothing at the start. As he came out of turn 3 and into the round about, he went a little wider than normal and seemingly way too fast, quickly closing on the turns outside C wall. Tobi later told me, “I thought to myself, if I hit, it got to be with the side of the car, I CAN NOT bail. It worked out.” It worked out very well as the red Miata carved the entire length of the wall within inches and then tightened to the inside of the turn for a good clean finish. This drove the bystanders and the announcers mad as it was just unbelievable driving for the car being used. Only tens of feet behind was Joseph in his 350Z laying down a very good follow run.

The final run started. Joseph pulled away quickly off the line but was soon being chased down by a very angry Miata. Both cars entered the first turn as committed as they had been all competition and as the cars tightened to turn 2, I noticed Tobi sweep very wide and could hear him banging off the rev limiter. Its not like Tobi to overdrive the car like that, so I knew immediately his tires had gone bald. He kept his foot in it and continued to follow the 350Z. This was the first time all day that he was able to make it all the way through turn 3 without having to straiten for reinitiating and I knew that would easily make up for going wide earlier. Then around the last quarter of the roundabout the car swept wide again and ran over a few cones. The drift was perfect, but he just ran out of track. Both cars pulled up in front of the announcers to await the conclusion of the event to find out who took the last step on the podium. The 3rd place was awarded to Joseph who had driven amazing all day.12983886_1031914813565790_4946133639007309351_o

Although finishing 4th, there were no frowns on Tobi or anyone else there to support him. The drive was incredible and I don’t believe many other competitors could do what he did having only 110HP and a deficit of at least 100HP from any other car in competition.

The day would conclude with more fun runs on the track and a few beers in the motel.13010202_10153721880122739_325934583_o

IMG_5469.JPGThe next day we returned to the track that was covered in standing water after a full night of thunder storms and the weather did not give any indication of clearing up. What amazed me was the Pro Am event was still on schedule to be driven. This did not amaze me just because of being in increment weather. I am a rally driver, so I know rain is part of the Fun. What amazed me is that most of the Pro Am drift cars had no windows and some even had no roofs, yet these drivers threw some raincoats on and headed onto track anyway.

I was excited when the owner of Slide Life, Julian Ramirez, offered me a ride in his SR20DET powered 240SX S14. This car had tires that were at least twice the width of the ones on my rally car and probably 5 times its power. The first things I noticed when climbing into the car that had no windows and an massive hole in the top were the moon roof used to be, was a pool of water under my feet and a lack of really anything but seats, a steering wheel, a tachometer and a couple of switches. The doors where flimsy pieces of metal, and there was absolutely no sound barrier between the incredibly loud exhaust and cab. So, like anyone else, I strapped myself in and put on my helmet, which hid the massive smile on my face when Julian brought this monster to life. After a few donuts to warm up a new set of tires, we headed onto the track. It was still raining but only moderately. When the track workers sounded the go horn, we were off like a bat out of hell. The conditions were soaked, yet this didn’t stop the car from accelerating at an incredible rate. When we entered turn one, Julian snapped the car sideways. My first thought was that he was going way to fast and that he flicked the car way to hard, so I was ready for a spin. However, Julian was instantly on the power and the car started drifting through the turn. I was getting hit in the face by 70-90 MPH rain, but it did not bother me as the car slid through the track with a screaming turbo and an exhaust that was popping like a machine gun. The car had so much grip and power that it would accelerate after he initiated drift. I had never gone so fast in a car that was sliding at 90 degrees.

I was not able hang around for the actual Pro Am competition as I had to be in school early the next day and quite a drive ahead of me, but it was such an eventful weekend that I will never forget my first time attending a Lone Star Drift event.

 

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The 100 Acre Roller Coaster

The plan was to try and get a top 5 finish in regional group 2 through safe and consistent driving. That plan went out the window real quick.

Ready to Rally

We arrived in Salem Wednesday night with a new, not thoroughly tested setup on the car, a co driver who hadn’t even heard of stage rally till 2 months prior, a small handful of spare parts, a handbag full of tools, and a crew consisting one man who drove from North Carolina whom I had not met in person until the day before the rally.

Immediately after registration I received several panicked messages from a team member in California telling me my NASA log booked roll cage would not be accepted by Rally America. We stayed up late looking through rulebooks and locating fabrication shops around town and leaving messages that we may need last minute work. Thursday morning we did not attend recce and instead waited at the scrutineering location to have the car looked at as early as possible so we could make additions last minute if needed. After a short meeting with the Chief Scrutineer it was determined that my roll cage was well beyond minimal requirements, but I would need to add a couple of gussets before attending another Rally America event.

Recce

We immediately departed for recce, but were only able to see three of the ten different stages in the rally. We returned to town and made short work of scrutineering. However, a small mishap resulted in a severe crack in our windshield. My Co Driver Logan contacted about 15 shops attempting to locate a new one. We did. To have it installed it required us to be up at 3 am the day of the rally and drive to a shop an hour away. After a few hours of a sleep and a very early morning, we had the windshield on and were ready to start the rally. Although, the time used prevented us from attending the shakedown stage.

Cracked Windhsield
New Windshield Installed

So we started stage one, without a proper recce and no full speed testing for the car or our communication in actual rally conditions. The first few stages went as well as they could as we tested grip levels and worked on our communication with stage notes. We decided that if we ever were to take a stage win it would be on the super special as it is just like rallycross. So we drove flat out and found ourselves in a three way tie for the win. Our confidence was a little too high after the super special and on the following stage we put the car into a dirt berm backwards around a downhill right four at about 60 mph. The damage was minimal with a bent exhaust. We continued on and decided to pace ourselves the remainder of the day. We drove very conservative as the nighttime came and the rain began. The water had little effect on grip levels and after small scare when passing a limping car we finished day one. We returned to the hotel and after seeing the unofficial results, We realized we set good times before being given 1 minute 40 seconds in penalties for time card errors.

Bent exhaust from berm impact

Knowing that we did so well with a small crash and working through teething issues with driving and stage note delivery, we decided on day two we were going for the win.

Stage one of day two (stage 10 in the overall rally) was cancelled due to a car having a severe crash after the cattle guard jump and blocking the stage. We drove through the stage at transit speed and when passing the car of Piotr Fetela, we got our first real look at how serious a crash can be. Before that the idea of the bad crash was just something you see on youtube videos. Seeing the mangled Subaru was stomach turning as we wondered if the crew was ok.

We arrived at and completed the second and last stage of loop one without incident and in 4th place 13 seconds off the lead. In the following loop we finished stage 3 with the 3rd fastest time in class, stage 4 with the 2nd fastest time. Two thirds way through stage 4 our intercom turned off and when flipping the on/off switch didn’t work we were forced to finish without it. During transit to stage 5 we discovered that the power cable plug had broke off at the connection point. A problem that could have been solved had the wires not touched and also blew the fuse for the comm.

Lost control downhill into water

We started stage 5 (stage 14 overall) with me giving Logan the simple instructions of, “say the notes as loud as you can using your lungs, but do not scream them. I will not be able to understand if your voice is to raspy.” We started the stage bouncing off the launch control with no intentions of driving slow. It became very clear very quick that I would not be able to understand precise instructions in the conditions and that Logan would not be able to read every line in its entirety without loosing his voice before the end of the rally. But he responded to this by giving a mixture of short hand notes and hand signals to get me through. I continued to drive as flat as possible with some side of caution as I could hear the severity of the turns but not the direction they were going. As we came into the first major water splash I let off the throttle in an effort to not suck in water. This was a mistake. The car turned perpendicular to the direction of the road and we slid downhill into the water preparing ourselves to roll. It was luck that kept us on our wheels.

Team cheering us on for not rolling the car

Within a moment of the car stopping I was putting it in reverse to correct my direction and continue. The drivers broken down on location seemed to be excited for our lucky escape. After the following major water splash across a low bridge the car began to misfire. We assumed we had sucked some water into the intake and continued to drive flat hoping to blow out the engine. Mean while Logan is still doing his best to yell stage notes and guide me to the finish. We finished with the 2nd fastest stage time in class.

Oil jug intake box

In service, with Logan being an Engineer, he built a custom airbox for our intake filter out of an old oil jug and repaired the intercom. The car ran fine during most of the 47 minute transit to the first stage of the final loop. As we closed on the stage start, the misfire returned. We could do nothing by then but hope it sorts itself out. At the stage start we lost a cylinder completely. We raced the 6.84 mile stage with 3 cylinders, carrying as much speed as possible into the corners and finished with a 3rd fastest stage time. During transit to the next stage the idea came to me to unplug the engines coil packs and blow them out… We were firing on all 4 cylinders again.

We began the next stage with a new found confidence after realizing how much speed we could carry into corners when down on power. By this time our communication was on point and we finished the stage 1.5 seconds behind the stage winner as we drove absolutely flat out. Or so we thought at the time.

fist bump

A fist bump and the words, “lets do this,” is what preceded the 10 second count down into the final stage. What happened after the count down hit zero could not have been foreseen by us or anyone else who cared to follow our progress. The phrase, “a bat out of hell,” comes to mind, but I don’t believe it is a powerful enough statement. The car was perfect, our communication was perfect, the roads were perfect.

Passing BRZ

We were carrying more speed into corners than we had been all weekend, we were staying flat over every blind crest, we did not make any mistakes. Somewhere mid stage we caught the dust of the slowing Subaru BRZ in front of us with a flat tire. Driving blind we continued to push flat out. Soon after we saw tail lights. We followed the Subaru into the long water crossing over bridge sideways with no intentions of lifting off the throttle. The driver identified us behind him and pulled aside. This somehow encouraged me to push harder. The next few miles were wet and slippery. This didn’t slow us down. A few minutes later the conditions were dry and we were in the dust of the next car up the road who started 2 minutes before us. We crossed the finish line hollering and trying to wrap our brains around what just happened. We won the stage for regional group 2. We were the fastest regional 2wd car by 13 seconds. We set the 3rd fastest time against the National 2wd drivers and the 14th fastest overall out of 41 cars. All this in our 150hp Ford Focus with a stock gear box and open differential being co driven by first time co driver and a driver who only had 120 stage miles under his belt before the start of the weekend.

Final Stage Results

The park ferme’ was exciting as we met up with all of our fellow competitors and told stories of our speed, crashes and good times throughout the weekend. Some time after we loaded the car up and proceeded to the post rally dinner and award banquet were the final results would be posted.

Upon hearing the results were up, I rushed across the room to observe my final stage time and see my class finish. I was shocked to see I had somehow accumulated 1 minute and 20 seconds in penalties. Upon protest it was revealed to me that we overlooked an incorrect time on our time card. It had us as reporting 8 minutes after our set arrival time to ATC 14. Without the penalty I would have won my class by 24 seconds. At the time I wasn’t quiet sure how to feel. I had just had the best most enjoyable drive of my life and had only intended to get a 5th place finish tops before the weekend started. It was bitter sweet because I just made it onto the podium at the event that at one point I only dreamed about. When I started competing in grassroots rallycross 5 years ago, the dream was to make it to the 100 Acre Wood rally. The rally that was consistently won by Ken Block, the man that I’ve followed and looked to mimic since first discovering a gymkhana video.

Logan and I walked up to retrieve our trophies after being announced as, ”the boys from Texas,” (which made me feel proud that we could represent our state and all of its drivers) and after posing for a quick picture I had to look down as I walked to my seat to hide the tears under the bill of my hat. The evening was very emotional for alot of reasons. We ran into so many issues and let none slow us down and I’m not sure if we had something to prove, but if we did I would say we succeeded.

Awards Dinner

It took my first good nights rest in days for me realize what we accomplished was incredible no matter what position is written on the trophy. We walked out of our hotel the morning after to see it was snowing, which made our moods even better and we soaked in the sight. Then we loaded up our gear and began our drive back to Texas, with smiles on our faces and talks about our next event together. We became a team that I hope never parts after just one weekend of rally.

Snow
Rocking out on Electric Avenue

I would really like to thank Logan for participating in the event with me and working through everything that happened with a high spirit. Thank you Jake for driving all the way from North Carolina to be our only crew member and making those services run as smooth as they did. Who knows how different the event would have gone without you.