|Road Atlanta 2005
Peachstate Region PCA Club Race
Road Atlanta, April 2,3, 2006
Tough Times at Road Atlanta
By: Dr. Frank Celenza, 924 GT5s
Racing is a sport of emotions that can run the gamut from the highest elation to the absolute worst tragedy. After our team?s double victory at Sebring, which was nothing short of heroic, I was looking forward to the next race, both to find out if my visit to Sebring was a fluke and to experience the fantastic challenge that is Road Atlanta. As always, I was fully aware that anything could and likely would happen.
In contrast to the flat and featureless airport runways of Sebring, with its slabs of concrete and constant surface transitions, Road Atlanta is a true road course, in the grand tradition. It?s a smooth rolling ribbon of natural terrain asphalt and yet updated to modern facility standards, the best of both worlds. I had driven here briefly in 1999, when the One Lap of America rolled through, and although I did maybe 10 or 15 laps total, I remembered it well. It?s a difficult and daunting track, with high speeds and great elevation changes. Brock Yates himself warned us on that day that this was a big boys? track and to treat it with respect. Sure enough, we wrecked at least 5 cars on that day.
Friday Test and Tune
As always, the DeMan Motorsports team was well prepared, and we arrived with four cars running in five classes, but only after flight delays due to inclement weather, which continued to plague the Friday Test and Tune schedule. We were standing around all morning as it rained on and off, and just when we were getting ready to leave the track, it started to clear. Track time went on sale for cheap and we suited up. I was considering buying a set of rain tires to insure that I?d get out, but a dry line started to appear, so I went for it.
In the first session, fully six weeks since last driving the car, I was fumbling the footwork, and not feeling comfortable with my lines or my gear selection. It was time to consider why I do this; others were flying by. However, things started to come together in the second and third sessions and I was getting more comfortable and faster. My manager and radio man, Joe Cassana then made an observation that was a breakthrough; ?I think you?re downshifting too early in the braking zone going into turn one, I hear that little motor over-revving as you approach.?
?Well, if that?s the case,? I told him, ?that?s occurring in three or four areas of the track, not just there.? So, in the last session I concentrated on entering turns by getting hard on the brakes and saving the downshifts until just before turn-in. Everything felt better. I was going in much deeper, being kinder to the car, carrying much more speed and with greater control.
Further, I eliminated two second gear corners by tearing through both turn 7 and the chicane under power in third. I?d gotten a lot of track time now and I was confident that I?d be running up front for the rest of the weekend. I can recall gaining on a 944T
coming off the uphill turn five, and when he jinked left to pass a 914, I ducked right. We sandwiched the 914 and I blew by both in one shot. Under the bridge at turn 11, where it?s so steep it feels like you?re driving the car off a cliff, I passed another 944T down the inside on the gut-sucking drop to the critical high speed turn 12, where I?d drift the car right to the edge, foot flat to the floor in 4th and grabbing 5th by the start finish line. Everything was working right, and this on old tires that were clearly shot. I purchased and mounted a new set for Saturday qualifying and Sunday?s race, after a team meeting to discuss tire management. I was quietly hoping to dominate once again.
Saturday Practice and Qualifying
The whole morning was unsettling. It was cold, windy, and raining on and off. At one point, they had to shut down while it snowed for 15 minutes. In Atlanta! We even had to tape off some front end ducts to get the car to run at operating temperatures, once we got to run. There were a lot of incidents, particularly with the big and really powerful (not to mention; expensive) cars. They were getting wheelspin everywhere on a cold track and going agricultural. The track kept shutting down to clear broken cars, and everyone was getting impatient.
I?ve been to victory lane now, so my focus was on the big picture, hoping to end my weekend there. In other words, I was not going to do anything stupid to risk the car, unless it was at a critical time and worth it. So, in the morning warm up, I just went out to motor around, as there were wet patches I was still on the old tires. For the second and last practice session I went out to heat cycle the new tires, so again; just motoring around, but getting a feel for a higher level of grip. Time sheets were distributed and although I was a little dismayed to see that I was fourth in my class, I was fully aware that I hadn?t been standing on it yet, not even as fast as yesterday. I knew that I easily had 4-5 seconds in hand, and I was only .1 sec behind the next car, a yellow 911. But, as fate would have it, that one tenth would turn out to be the most expensive and consequential lousy tenth of a second in my whole life. If only I?d have been gridded one car further forward, the disaster that was about to unfold would not have. Same for about 100 other if only?s that are still bothering me.
You see, we were gridded according to those times sheets to line up for practice starts. We were to come down two by two, take the green and race to turn 6, then reform in present position and do it again. Three of these practice starts and then a 5 lap fun race just as an exercise. Later in the day would be official qualifying for Sunday?s race. So, my strategy was to move up a bit with each start, as feasible, then try to get to the front during the fun race, but not to risk anything because none of it mattered. I didn?t even put the sticky tires on, electing to save them for qualifying.
We come down the hill, I?m on the inside of row seven, exiting turn 12 I see the green waving and I stand on it in third and see a gap up the inside which I ease into as I upshift to fourth. This means I?m probably doing 85-90mph and accelerating when the yellow 911 appears sideways from the left crossing totally perpendicular in front of me. I didn?t even have time to brake and I T-boned him so hard that it sent me right into the
inside concrete retaining wall even harder. The impact there sent my car 6 feet in the air, according to everyone along the pit wall, then spinning down the grass backwards. My feet were knocked off the pedals so I then backed into the wall for a third impact that finally stopped the car.
?Frank! Talk to me! Say something,? was Joe?s frantic request.
?I think I?m ok, my shoulder hurts,? I responded.
?There was nothing you could do, that guy pulled a ridiculous move, not your fault at all.?
The EMS crew was right on it, and I knew to stay in the car unless there was a fire, so I did. Eventually they helped me out and into the ambulance as a requirement, but I was already planning on X-rays. In the medical hut, I confronted the driver of the 911.
?What were you doing, what happened??
?I put my wheels in the grass and lost it,? was his feeble reply.
?What for, why would you do that, it was only a practice start,? I responded.
?Well, I?m really sorry,? was all he could say.
?Well, my car is a total wreck now because of your stupidity, so if you?re so sorry I think you should be writing me a big check,? as my temper started to flair.
The medics picked up on this and escorted him to another room to avoid an ugly confrontation.
So, we were released and I went to look at my car. It had been flat bedded to our area by now. All four corners were hit, the front was the worst. The car was incredibly strong to hold up to that impact, actually multiple impacts, but the damage was extensive. The crew went about assessing the situation and cleaning it up, and we even had to go down to the wall to retrieve some bodywork. The front end looked like a total mess. Both struts bent, control arms folded, front sub-frame tweaked, one wheel bent, broken oil cooler, bodywork ripped off and broken, who knows what else. I?d seen enough of my fantastic piece of rubble, so I went off to file my accident report to the scrutineer, as required by the rules.
Up in the control tower, the scrut?s told me that the whole thing unfolded right under their window, and they were well aware of what had transpired. I was exonerated of all blame and did not get a 13 for the incident. Apparently, the moron had put all four wheels in the grass and in typical novice fashion tried to regain the track under power, then lost it and turned hard right across the track. Photographs later confirmed that. ?We?ve dealt with him,? I was told.
?What does that mean?? I asked.
?It?s scrut-speak for he?s been reprimanded appropriately,? I was reassured.
They explained to me that they don?t publish or reveal penalties, for concern that it would affect other competitors? driving if they knew who was and wasn?t racing on probation. I had to leave it at that. On my way out, another official quietly murmured ?He?s no longer with us.?
So that was it, and I was out. My first incident in so many years after so many track events, frankly; I was anticipating something like this for a long time, it just has to
catch up with you. I was happy that the car was so strong and protected me as well as it did, and especially grateful to have been wearing a Hans device, no question it saved me, my neck was not even sore. My shoulder was, though. I was also happier to crash a race car than my beautiful street C2S, since sold. They?re much easier to fix.
That evening, I iced and martinied down and went home to cry, but I really wasn?t that upset. Actually I was most grateful that I would be in my office working on Monday. In the big picture, it can always be much worse. A big shame that my camcorder jammed and missed what would have been one hell of a clip.
Near the end of the day, one of my teammates, John Stickler, was out lapping in his newly built 2.1 twin turbo 911. This car was a beauty, DeMan had built another masterpiece that nicely exploited the rule book, and it was a ringer. Many observers took interest in this car and realized what we had there, but late in the day the transmission locked in gear and was damaged beyond trackside repair. It was either a driver error or more likely that the motor was too powerful for that gearbox, but the point was that now we were down to two cars and two more spectators.
It?s race day, but I?m in the hotel watching the Grand Prix on TV, as I know Stickler is, not wanting to go to the track, when the phone rings and it?s Rick.
?Frank, I just put some wheels on your car and spun a few doughnuts in the parking lot. The running gear seems fine, the motor is perfect, it won?t be so bad, it looks like we can fix it for Lime Rock. Now, are you on this team or not? Get out here with us at the track!?
Okay, so I dress, check out and show up in time to watch my own class race, and that was a particularly painful experience. I saw cars that I had been passing running up near the front on this gorgeous day at this fabulous track and I could only watch and wonder. Obviously, the fire still burns. I?m healthy and one crash the wiser. Our home track, Lime Rock Park, is the next stop. We hope you can be there to share it, April 29/30.
We?ll be there with an even better car.
Yours in sport,
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