Race Report: Watkins Glen

TL;DR check and replace hoses often.

Watkins Glen is a kind of mecca for many racing enthusiasts. Whether you’re a spectator, driver, or sim racer, it seems that the Glen is really popular. I’m not really sure why that is. I’ve driven 10 tracks in the real world and about 50 in simulation, and it’s not in the top half of either list. I won’t make you endure the simulation list, but here’s the real track list.

  1. Thunderhill West
  2. Sonoma Raceway
  3. Buttonwillow Raceway Park
  4. Laguna Seca
  5. Thunderhill East
  6. Thompson Motor Speedway
  7. Watkins Glen
  8. New Hampshire Motor Speedway
  9. Carolina Motorsports Park
  10. Willow Springs

So what do I have against WGI? Two things: (1) it’s dangerous (2) it’s not very interesting. I like technical tracks that have compromises, off-camber corners, blind apexes, and decreasing radii. I don’t like long straights. In fairness, WGI does have some interesting sections. The inner and outer loops are pretty great, but in general, the corners are just too far apart. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fun track. And I’ll still add a couple of days to a work trip to go racing at The Glen. Which is how I ended up racing there this weekend.

My brother had just done a bunch of work on his Miata. He upgraded the brake, clutch, header, wheels, and had a fresh motor build controlled with a Megasquirt. He also made some trick custom bodywork with a fastback, splitter, wing, and side skirts.

IMG_7470

Sadly, the report from the practice day, which I missed, was that there was something wrong with the motor. It just wasn’t making any power. This despite paying for several hours of dyno tuning. We decided it would still be fun to race. For about 5 laps. The motor died on track. A radiator hose sprung a leak, causing the engine to overheat. After patching the hose, we got it started again, but the head was warped and mixing oil and water.

My brother came prepared with a spare head and gasket. So we set about the task of swapping heads. I say ‘we’ but it was really the other guys on the team. I would periodically fetch parts or food. Along the way, there were several unexpected adventures, like breaking the EGR pipe on the header and having to weld it back up. After some 8 hours, the car was all put back together and ready to race for day two.

The weather forecast was for rain, and it rained plenty. I went out first because I didn’t drive at all in practice. I spent most of the time watching the gauges and sniffing for trouble. Although you don’t use your nose much in racing, it’s a surprisingly useful diagnostic tool. I didn’t smell steam or oil, but there was a lot of unburned gas in the air. I didn’t have much confidence in the 15×9 225/45/15 RS4s in the rain. I tested the limits of the tire early and found they broke away very quickly. My job as first driver was to check the car out, not race for position, so I lapped at six tenths.

In my ~50 minutes on track, I saw a quite a few cars off track. Some of the slower drivers were really slow. But there were some really fast ones too. There were caution flags in some corner or other almost every lap. When I saw the course go to a full course caution, I brought it in as planned. In the pit stop we added 1 can of gas and a lot of oil. Apparently the mild oil leak was getting worse. Great, just great.

Our next driver spun the car on the first time through the inner loop. He decided the conditions were a bit too treacherous for him and brought it in a few laps later. The next driver’s stint was cut short by running out of gas. No, the fuel gauge doesn’t work, and our estimation of fuel usage was off (probably because it’s running very rich). He went back out again and was running good laps until he saw our friends’ car in the T6 graveyard.

And that’s where we decided to end the day. I suppose we could have raced more for the love of racing. But the car wasn’t competitive and had a decent chance of getting wrecked. The oil leak was also a concern. It’s much easier to drive a car up on a trailer than push it up if the motor croaked. I’m sure our competitors thanked us for the oil we weren’t leaving out there.

It was a pretty frustrating weekend for the whole team, but especially for my brother, who had nothing to show for all his time and money. After event fees, consumables, and travel expenses, it turns out I paid about $1000 for 50 minutes of yellow-flag-riddled track time. Sadly, this shit happens all the time in racing. Let’s be more specific about that last statement and take a look back at some racing history.

  • MR2: DNF, DNF, PX, PX, DNF, DNF = 2/6 finished
  • Miata 1: PX, PX, DNF, PX, PX, PX, P3, P2, PX, DNF = 8/10 finished, 2 podiums
  • Arrive-n-drive: P3, PX, DNF, PX, PX = 4/5 finished, 1 podium
  • Miata 2: PX, PX, DNF = 2/3 finished
  • Yaris: PX, PX, P3, PX = 4/4 finished, 1 podium

The actual cause of each DNF is listed below.

  • MR2 spun bearing – unknown cause
  • MR2 broken axle – inspection showed it was cracked
  • MR2 blown head gasket
  • MR2 spun bearing – clogged oil pump
  • Miata – broken suspension from off course
  • Miata – overheat from radiator hose leak
  • 240SX – blown head gasket
  • Miata – overheat from radiator hose leak

That’s only considering races. I’ve also had to go home early on HPDE days. Here’s the tally on that

  • MR2 spun bearing – unknown cause
  • 325E overheat – broken motor mount led to radiator leak
  • 325E overheat – leaky radiator hose
  • 325E blown head gasket

Certainly each platform has its specific weaknesses, but it’s surprising how often radiator hoses fail. Although we did get back out and finish, one of my arrive-n-drives involved a lot of down time from a leaky automatic transmission line.

There’s probably a bunch of mechanics out there shaking their collective heads at me. Duh, of course you need to inspect and replace hoses all the time. Sadly, I suck at car maintenance. The real problem here is that I have very little desire to become good at it. That’s written all over my racing history.

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3 thoughts on “Race Report: Watkins Glen

  1. Not for nothing but perhaps you need to try and drive WGI in a fast car. I assure you when you’re doing 2:00 laps or less it’s quite interesting (but still dangerous). Can’t believe you rank Thompson (generally the least-loved track in the Northeast) above The Glen!

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    1. I’m sure that WGI is much more interesting in a fast car, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable driving that fast. The damages to car and driver at high speed are just too great. If I was independently wealthy with no dependents, I might think differently. You can call me a chicken and I won’t argue. My ideal course is actually some kind of rally thing with a mixture of dirt and pavement.

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