In one week, I’m headed to New Jersey Motorsports Park Thunderbolt for the first time ever. I’m going to a 24 Hours of Lemons race with my brother’s team. I’ve driven the car a couple times before, and it’s a Miata, so I’m sure I’ll feel right at home after a lap or two. The car will be themed as a pizza-delivering Ferrari 250GT (bread van) and shod with all-season tires.
As I’ve never been to Thunderbolt before, I’ve been doing my homework. What exactly does that mean?
- Sim racing
- Video analysis
- More sim racing
- Even more sim racing
NJMP has two completely separate tracks: Thunderbolt and Lightning. You can find Lightning for Assetto Corsa, but not Thunderbolt. That’s a pity, because it meant I had to renew my iRacing subscription for 1 month. NJMP is a “Tech Track”, meaning they never finished it, and never plan on finishing it. The graphics are a bit wonky, but it drives just fine. When practicing a new track, you might think it’s a good idea to try to find the most similar car to the one you’re racing, but I like driving multiple cars because each one might expose some hidden feature. And by feature, I don’t mean a go-fast zone, but rather a danger zone. Here are my notes after driving the ND MX-5 for one session. I posted a best lap of 1:31.054.
- T1 is not as slow as some would make it. Probably 3rd gear on all-seasons.
- T2 is pretty fast. Turn in hard over a blind apex. Lots of room on the exit.
- T3 is very fast. It can be taken flat out.
- T4 is pretty fast but you may have to sacrifice the exit if you want to make T5 good.
- T5 is slow, maybe even 2nd gear, and slightly over 90 degrees. There’s enough straight afterwards that optimizing this corner matters. There’s a lot of run out, so it is slightly bigger than it may first appear.
- T6 is probably taken with just a lift.
- T7 is medium speed. It’s probably best to stay on the inside all the way from 7-9 if there’s no traffic to pass. This corner looks a lot like 6 on the approach but is significantly slower. I can see some people running in too hot thinking it is T6. At least there’s a lot of grass out there.
- T8 is really about keeping speed long enough but not too long to the point where T9 is a panic.
- T9 is really tight, possibly 2nd gear. It’s a little blind, so care must be taken not to overshoot it. Better to play it tight to the inside to optimize T10.
- T10 is a really long lowish-speed carousel. Take the shortest path around, and when you finally get to the exit, go 3/4 track only, to set up T11.
- T11 and T11a should be flat out. If you track all the way out of T10, you may have to lift in T11, which sort of ruins the run though S/F.
- T12 is really fast and shouldn’t require any slowing. Not sure what the all-season tires will do though.
I loaded up a couple videos of NJMP Lemons races. I was confused at first because Lemons ran Lightning there one time and I didn’t immediately register that fact. I was thinking “what configuration are they using?” A totally different track! Once I had sorted that out, I looked for any meaningful differences between iRacing and real video. It turns out there’s a huge difference. Lemons uses the chicane at Turn 3. OK, so maybe that’s not huge, but it turns T3 into T3a, T3b, and T3c, and it changes the speed of T4 and may also affect T5.
More sim racing
In my second session (this time in NC MX-5), I found out that you can drive through the cones to experience the T3 chicane. You do get a penalty coming out the other side, but as long as you slow down at some point, you can give the time back. The chicane causes two problems.
- T2 is fast enough that the car may be in 4th gear. The second half of the chicane looks to be 3rd gear. Changing gears in the middle isn’t the wisest thing. So that means doing the 4->3 shift at the chicane entrance even though one could navigate the first half of the chicane in 4th. Oh well, better safe than sorry.
- The chicane significantly slows the entry to T4. This means it may be possible to go through T4 without braking. It depends on how much grip the Douglas tires have.
I think I ran a 1:32.x on the normal configuration and a 1:38.x on the (illegal) chicane after giving back the time.
Even more sim racing
I next tried the Skip Barber and got a 1:29.797. This was with baseline setup and default weather, of course. I was hoping to learn something new about the track, but instead I spent most of the time lamenting the rFactor 2 situation. The Skip Barber model on rFactor 2 is the best damn thing I’ve ever driven in the virtual world. It’s too bad they are fucking up that software. The iRacing Skippy is just way too easy to drive. I drove a few times through the chicane, and while it is ~5 seconds slower, the drive out of the chicane is pretty fast and I suspect that T4 is still very fast on approach.
The next challenge I wanted to do was some longer sessions. So back to the Miata with the goal of seeing how many laps I can run under 1:32 in a row. I ran 24 laps, all under 1:32. In fact, 1/4 of them were in the 1:30s, meaning that my endurance pace was now faster than my original sprint pace. I started with a full tank, which would have allowed more than 50 laps, but it was late at night and I was getting tired. I haven’t yet hit the point were my lap times have plateaued, but I’m feeling like I understand the track pretty well. I like the T4-T5 transition. Is it a Type II (in fast, out slow) or a Type III (compromise)? A little of both. I also like T8-T9-T10 because of all the different lines you can take through there. I expect to overtake a lot of cars in that sequence.
The team is doing the test day on the Friday before the race weekend. That will be the real prep for the race. Even though I’m a huge proponent of sim racing, every track looks and feels a little different in person. The first lap is always such a special experience. I’m really looking forward to it.