Saturday March 22, 2014. It’s 4AM. I sat in a dark, deserted parking lot in my car, rubbing my eyes. I’d had only 4 hours of sleep before coming out here. To my dismay the Starbucks wasn’t even open yet. I was waiting for 86DRIVE co-founder Jessie, aka “MyRx”, to show up. He arrived a few minutes later, GT86 headlights gleaming in the darkness. Starbucks wasn’t going to open for another half hour, so we decided to hit the road and start our long journey up to Thunderhill Raceway. We had a long drive ahead and we figured we’d just pick up some coffee at a stop along the way. I handed J. one of my two-way radios so we could chat on the way up.
About 2 hours later, we arrived in Willows, CA just in time to see the sunrise. “This place is so different now,” J. said. “The last time I was up here, none of this was here.” It had been almost 10 years since his last visit.
“Wait until you see the track,” I replied over the radio. “The 25 Hours race has really put this place on the map.” A smooth and gently curving country road takes you away from I-5 and into the softly sloping hills in which Thunderhill Raceway is nestled. The winter rains had turned the usually golden-hued grassy hills a lush green.
Having arrived a little late due to a much-needed caffeine and bathroom stop, we found that the limited covered parking areas were all taken so we did the next best thing and found parking right in front of the main building. Again J. marveled at all the improvements to the track facilities in the past 10 years. I started unloading and prepping the car while J. went inside to talk to the NCRC event organizers. By the time I was done it was time for our drivers’ meeting so I went inside and found J. The driver’s meeting was rather short and to the point, a welcome change from the beginners/“solo” group that I had been running in previously. In the solo group they spend a fair amount of time discussing the various flags used on track and safety, which is of course very important but after you’ve heard the same spiel 7-8 times it does get old. This was my first time running in the intermediate/“point-by” group.
At this point we also completed and submitted our 86CUP registration paperwork which mostly consisted of indicating what mods were on our cars and adding up our modification points to determine what class we would belong in for scoring purposes. With 2.125 mod points, my car fell squarely in the Street class. J. and his Vortech-supercharged FR-S was in the Modified class, and we also met two other gentlemen (Brian and Austen) who were going to be running in the Stock class.
After the meeting we found Darius, the timing and scoring guy and signed up for the transponder rentals. Then
we went back out to our cars and found fellow 86DRIVE member Scott “Pwolf” parked nearby. He had come out from Sacramento to just spectate and hang out with us. He’d also brought his camera and took some great photos throughout the day. We finished setting up, attaching our transponders to the cars, and before long our point-by group was being called to the grid over the PA system. It’s go time. Oh shoot, I forgot to set up my GoPro camera. No time to mess with it now, so I head on out to the track.
Session 1. It had been several months since I’d last been on track here, so the first session was mostly about reacquainting myself with the course. And identifying the key passing zones. To my chagrin there were a lot of high-powered BMWs and Corvettes in our group, and so I got myself in the habit of pointing all these faster folks by. Anyways the first session ended without incident and I returned to the paddock. Everyone was all grins when we got out of our cars, and we talked excitedly about how much fun it had been. Before the next session we stopped by the Timing station again to make sure that our transponders were working properly and being read by Darius. The next 3 sessions were the real deal, when our timing would count for the 86CUP scoring.
I hadn’t filled up the gas tank upon arriving at the track, so after that 1st session I was nearly empty. I drove over to the on-track gas pumps and put in about 8 gallons of 100 octane fuel. At $9/gal that was not a cheap fill up, but I figured a little extra octane mixed in with the remnants of my tank of 91
wouldn’t hurt and only help. The engine retards timing a bit when it finds lower 91 octane fuel so bumping it up to about 95-96ish would ensure it was running optimally and not reducing power on track.
Session 2. Off to a great start, I had a clear track all to myself for a while, enjoying the feeling of speed and the wonderful views of the green hillsides. I started to come up on other traffic after a few more laps, and slowly reeled in a black S2000 with a huge wing on the back. He definitely had more power on the straights but was braking much earlier (credit goes to my upgraded Project Mu brake pads for allowing much later and harder braking!) and not carrying as much speed in the corners. Eventually I got the point by from the S2000 to pass on the front straight, but in my rearview I saw another fast moving car coming up from behind. I moved over and let this RX-7 (FD) pass before I turned in for T1. I followed him through T2 and started closing the gap at the exit. As we approached T3 I thought to myself, “oh, he’s taking a wide line going into T3. I wonder if he knows that’s not the ideal line for T3…” He missed the braking point, got on the brakes late as he crested the small hill, and brake lights still on, started to swing the rear out in a slow spin. I slowed delicately as I crested the hill, and he came skidding to a stop on the track as I coasted towards him. Once I saw he had come to a complete stop I veered around the car and continued on my way. The rest of the session was uneventful and I put in a last lap of 2:25.
Session 3. A pretty good session. Early in the session there was a yellow caution flag out as one of the BMWs spun off track, but after that we picked up the pace. I was starting to really use the brakes and was feeling pleased about how they felt after switching to Project Mu Club Racer pads all around and installing Stoptech SS lines in the front. I definitely could feel/hear the tires locking up a little under hard braking at T1 and T10, so ABS was kicking in and I realized I was going to have to practice my threshold braking technique. The car was also wiggling a little under braking, so a mental reminder to be going perfectly straight before the hard braking. Plenty of faster traffic was coming up behind me so I had to point by quite a few cars. M3, Porsche, Corvettes all whisked by in quick succession. I caught up to another white FR-S near the end; but it turned out not to be J. My best lap from this session was 2:22.
Session 4. Last officially timed session of the day. I started out with some clear track but after a lap or two started running into traffic. Some of the faster cars came up and I backed off the pace to let them pass. Then I caught up to some slightly slower cars and rather than be aggressive I kind of hung back and followed them for a while. As a result my times were not great and I finished the session without improving my lap times over the previous session.
At this point the official scoring was done, the 5th and last session would not count for purposes of the 86CUP. A few of the others said they were done for the day and would not even go out for the 5th session. I considered calling it a day myself, but I was still feeling like I had some faster laps in me and I wanted to try turning off traction control. I had been running in Sport mode and both saw and felt that the traction control was intervening in places where I didn’t think it was needed. Earlier in the day I had felt I needed that extra security blanket, but I felt confident enough now to try going without it. So I held the TRAC OFF button down for 5 seconds and pulled the helmet on for one last go.
And out we go for Session 5. The track was pretty clear, as the day goes on fewer cars tend to come out for the later sessions. Maybe it’s part mechanical attrition, or just the more experienced guys knowing when to quit while they’re ahead. Knowing that the less experienced guys start to get a little fatigued without realizing it, and at the same time are maybe pushing just a little bit harder, and often that’s when they will get in trouble. All of these thoughts floated in my head as I entered the course. Don’t bonk. Don’t push too hard. But the car felt good and the tires continued to deliver phenomenal grip. The confidence was there, so I continued to push a little more. A few faster cars passed me up, including a blue S2000 that just sounded amazing. And quickly growled off into the distance. But when a WRX wagon came along and passed, that was when something clicked inside me. I decided to give chase and see if I could keep up with it. The next few laps it was give and take, the WRX pulling away in the straights with more power, but I gained ground again when the tighter sections came. By keeping the WRX in my sights I was able to see and mimic its line and I focused on later braking and carrying more speed through the turns. The tires, which up to this point had been fairly quiet, started to screech a bit more. The grip was still there though and I continued to marvel at how well the tires were handling the pace. Same with the brakes, it felt like the upgrades I had done really improved the feel and consistency with which the brakes were doing their job. Before I knew it the white and then checkered flag were out, and it was time to come back in. My best lap: 2:18! I certainly wasn’t the fastest, nor the slowest out there on the track, but I had knocked about 4 seconds off my “official” time, so I was pretty happy with that. Thanks, Mr. WRX Wagon! That guy was like a personal trainer for me, sometimes you need someone to push (or pull) you a little harder to achieve better results.
All in all, a great day at the track, nothing broke and everyone went home safe and sound. Definitely a lot of fun participating in the very first NorCal 86CUP, and because I was the only participant in the Street class, that meant I was fastest in my class for the day! Haha, I don’t think I am quite worthy of the title ‘champion’ just yet. I’m pretty sure anyone else who shows up and runs in the Street class will probably whup my ass in short order with little effort. But it’s so much fun to be a part of it and I am not super competitive so I will enjoy being in it regardless and I do hope others will join in.
Some stats of the day:
Laps driven: 33
Total track distance driven: 97 miles.
Money spent at the track: $76.50 for 100 octane gas; $25 for transponder timing; $0 for food (thanks for bringing the burgers Ed!)
Maximum speed: 107.1mph
Fuel economy on track: 10MPG!
Special thanks to:
Jessie (aka MyRx) for organizing the NorCal 86CUP series, in conjunction with NCRC.
NorCal 86CUP sponsors CounterSpace Garage, LPI Racing, and Mann Engineering.
Scott Grasso (aka Pwolf) for taking some great photos at the track all day!
All the other participants in 86CUP.
More track videos to come, in a future update.