Race Report: Buttonwillow

This weekend was the 24 Hours of Lemons race at Buttonwillow. My previous experience at this track a couple years ago. We had just rebuilt the MR2’s 20V 4AGE motor and travelled to Buttonwillow for a test day. After months of anticipation, 4.5 hours of driving, and $175 in track fees, my anticipation was at an all time high. The plan was for me to about 10 laps and then hand it over to my teammate/mechanic Bill. The moment I got in the car I was having such a good time that I had made a mental note to myself that I wasn’t planning on coming in until I needed fuel! I kept thinking to myself, “this feels like a racecar”. And it did. For all of 3 laps. Post-mortem analysis showed that all the bearings were spun. I feel the pain of that still.

This weekend, I brought down a much more reliable car, my B-Spec Toyota Yaris. It’s not a Lemons car, but I like taking it to test days before Lemons events because it’s the best bang for the buck. I can go on and off the track all day long for the price of a typical HPDE day. The icing on the cake is sharing the track with all the fun Lemons cars. I carpooled with John Pagel (Tech Chief of Lemons and owner of Evil Genius Racing). He towed me down and let me use his pickup-bed camper as my home for the weekend. What a guy!
I had two goals for the test day (1) learn the track (2) do a comparison test of Bridgestone RE-71R vs Federal 595 RS-RR. The 71R is the top of the line 200TW tire. Lots of people feel it’s more like a 100TW, and if you look at the NASA PT/TT rules, they equate it with some DOT R-comps. The RS-RR is the least expensive 200TW tire. I got them for $80 each.

I ended up doing a little coaching on Friday. A rookie racer asked me to drive her around the track since she hadn’t raced before. We did that for a half-dozen laps and were treated to a great mix of race situations. She got to see a car spin directly in front of us, idiots not using their mirrors, drivers using point-bys (or not), emergency vehicles doing live tows, yellow flags, white flags, and a Yaris embarrassing many faster cars. Later, she even drove my car. In Lemons spirit, I didn’t charge her anything and later they fed me. I also drove some of our team around the track as we were all new to Buttonwillow.

Speaking of the team, “NSR. Nut Sack Racing”, there were four of us: me, the car owner, a Lemons veteran (with decades of experience racing dirt bikes and sprint cars), and a rookie (with lots of jetski racing experience). The car was a 1980s Celica with a Ford 5.0 engine and an automatic transmission. It looked like it was from a Mad Max set.

The car passed tech easily and given a C class rating. Apparently they didn’t think we would do very well. Looking it over, I didn’t think so either. There was a smallish fuel cell that was supposed to last 2 hours with 12 gallons of fuel. My Miata and Yaris burn more than that… The tires were some off-brand summer tire that had already seen a couple races and didn’t look worn. The brakes were stock (disc front, drum rear) with OEM replacement pads. Despite this, the team had very high hopes. In fact, we thought we were practically guaranteed a first place win in C class if we just kept the car on track.

We started the day with the owner behind the wheel. He put down a 2:29 as a fast lap. Unfortunately, there were others in C class doing 2:24. Cheaters! Oh well, the plan still held. Stay on track and out of danger. After an hour and 40 minutes we got a radio call that the car had run out of gas. As we sat waiting for the tow truck to bring it in, we relaxed a bit because the race was most likely ruined.

I was next in the car. It stalled when I stepped on the pedal. Twice. Apparently you have to be very gentle at low RPM. The car was set up with a 2 gear shifter. After pulling it from Park to Drive, you put a trailer pin in the shifter so that it can only switch between Drive and L2. Then you just slam it up and down to change back and forth between the 2 gears. Whatever. I just left it in Drive the whole time.

From the moment I got on track, I pretty much hated the car. The brakes were terrible. Tiny OEM rotors and pads do not belong on a car with a 5.0L V8. You could use the brakes at most once per lap. Aggressive braking causes them to fade almost immediately. The motor, which is clearly the high point of the build, is good on the straights but weak in the corners (or so I thought). Unfortunately, you can’t use it fully on the straights because you have to coast long before the brake zone to keep from melting the brakes later.

How was the handling? Strange. Despite a much heavier front end than stock, there was massive understeer on corner entry. Mitigate that with trail-braking you say? No, I had to save the brakes for emergencies. Also, the brake bias was set too far to the rear, making such techniques a little sketchy. Once on throttle, the car behaved okay, but the suspension bottomed-out at several places on track. The net result is that a 2200 lb Celica with a 240 HP engine was slower than my Yaris (2250 lbs, 100 HP). The best I could manage on Saturday was a 2:24.

About an hour into my stint, I smell oil and look around to see which car it is. Mine! I am practically skywriting down the back straight. I pull into the pits and we look under the hood to find transmission fluid has coated the entire engine bay. Turns out that one of the hoses going to the transmission cooler sprung a leak.

The next driver out was our rookie. He only drove 30 minutes because the judges kicked him out of the car for spinning off course 3 times. It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools, but in this case the brake bias was partly to blame. None of the other drivers spun, so this was also a case of the driver not having the experience or ability to drive around the problem. I realized very early on that the brake bias was bad. So I always did straight-line braking.
You don’t get 3 black flags in Lemons without having to do something embarrassing. Our driver had to read a novel aloud. Sounds mild until you realize that it’s a NASCAR romance novel. Yes, they make romance books for men in which NASCAR racers bed cars and drive women. The page was turned to a sex scene. I’m an avid listener of books on tape. This was not a 5 star book or performance. Riveting though.

Our next driver was our most experienced racer. He’s got a long dirt racing resumé on 2 and 4 wheels. His career highlight was a $30,000 purse in a sprint race. He’s also raced Lemons a few times. So he knew what he was doing and drove an uneventful session. Over dinner, he told me that the transmission did a good job slowing the car down if shifted to low. Something to try next stint. Day 2 started with the same driver. He put down a couple of 2:31s but eventually got black flagged when he spun.

I got in the car next, excited to try out the transmission. Holy crap, it works. Both ways. On the way into a corner, I would hold the brake pedal down for a couple seconds, then shift to low and let the transmission do some work, then trail off the brake as I entered the corner. Once I hit the gas, the motor responded with a satisfying growl. On the straight, not much could keep up with it. Unfortunately, Buttonwillow has a lot of corners and the combination of tires and suspension really held it back. With a big brake kit, working suspension, 200 TW tires, and a larger fuel cell, this car could be on the podium in the A class.

The two race days were so completely different. On Saturday I was constantly shaking my head and praying I wouldn’t hit someone. On Sunday I was grinning and laughing. What changed? The brakes a little, but mostly my attitude. There’s a personal lesson in that. I need to be able to change my attitude faster than overnight.

I’m used to driving a momentum car, so it was a great thrill to be on the other side of the fight. It’s so much less work to pass someone on the straight and then park it in the corner. On my last lap I had a great couple of corners and a wide open track in front. It was going to be my flier. But I got a little too ambitious and went 2 off in Cotton Corners. I wasn’t sure if that was going to be a black flag today or not, so I went in to talk to the judges. No penalty, but I decided to end my stint anyway. Although I ruined what was going to be my fast lap, I still managed to record a couple of 2:19s in the session.

The next driver our was the rookie. He made a huge leap from the previous day and recorded a couple of 2:25s. Unfortunately, he came back to the pit on a cable. He spun off track (collecting another black flag – 4th if you’re keeping track) and then couldn’t restart the car. Back in the pit, the battery was reading 9V. We surmised that he drained it trying to restart. After charging the battery for a while, the car finally took the track with the owner at the wheel. Unfortunately the alternator was also going bad, and he came back after a half dozen laps.

We finished 4th or so in class and I had the fast lap in the class. The guys on the team were really great to hang out with. It was a typically great Lemons weekend. I really appreciated having my own living quarters on track, and that’s occupying my thoughts a little too much.

If the main reason you’re reading this incredibly long post is that you want to know if Federal 595 RS-RR is your next endurance tire, I had better finally say something on the topic! The RE-71R is faster. How much faster? Hard to say exactly. I was carrying a full load of fuel, the temperature was much higher, and there was more traffic. Even under those conditions the RE-71R is faster. Under the same conditions, I’m going to guess 1-2 seconds on a 2-3 mile track. If you’re at the pointy end of performance driving and rules prevent you from using R-comps, the RE-71R is a great choice. But it doesn’t last very long. In a typical endurance weekend, you’ll probably change tires between days. The current price of an RE-71R at DTD is $131. The RS-RR cost me $80, and look like they will last an entire weekend. Without considering mounting, the RE-71Rs will set you back $1048 while the RS-RRs are $320. Add mounting costs and the difference is about $800 per weekend. Some people will look at that and say “$800 is too much to pay” while others will say “$800 is a bargain for 1-2 seconds”. I’m planning on using the RS-RRs for the upcoming Lucky Dog race at Laguna Seca. If we find ourselves challenging for a class win, we may switch to RE-71Rs to get those precious seconds.

Later, we found out that RS-RRs overheat and die.

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