In Search of the CENDIV Championship
copyright (c) 1994 by Terry Coates
There aren't too many good reasons to tow one thousand miles to a race in Brainerd, Minnesota. Some go because they need those last few points to qualify for Runoffs. Last year, we thought winning the Showcase Series points was a good enough reason. This year, we were in the unbelievable position of having a shot at the SSB Central Division Championship.
I say "unbelievable" because after the dismal finishes at Blackhawk Farms and Mid-Ohio, we were hopelessly behind in points. We had run a lot of races early, giving us six finishes (the maximum that can be counted) before everyone else. So despite the poor finishes, we were still second in points. That wouldn't last, however, unless we had some better results to replace the bad ones and increase our points.
After Mid-Ohio, the "unbelievable" part began. At Roebling Road, we started a string of five pole positions and four wins that brought us to within two points of the leader. A win at Brainerd would give us a perfect score of six wins and the Division Championship outright. A second place (to anyone other than the points leader) would still tie us for first in Central Division.
Brainerd's one mile straightaway followed by two long, flat-out turns makes it a horsepower track like none other. The MR2 would have to stay home while the Sentra went out to play. Some of the prep work was already done since we'd rented out it the week before, but there was still much to be done. We had it aligned and Pat Breakey, crew guy, patched a crack in the exhaust and gave it the waxing of a lifetime while I washed the underside and sprayed silicone on all the plastic parts. Hey, every little bit helps. We set sail Thursday afternoon.
We arrived Friday morning after the thousand-mile tow through the night. We had a brief nap before getting set up and giving rides for the "Press Day". My first laps were taken with Pat in the passenger seat and he couldn't have been too impressed. I was floundering. It had been a full year since I'd been on that track, but I also hadn't been in the seat of the Sentra for a terribly long time. I really was without a clue as to how to drive the thing.
As the press day faded into the test day, things brightened up. We were still two or three seconds off the pace, but the track seemed slow, accounting for some of the lost time. We were messing around with tire pressures, but we just couldn't get the Sentra to turn like we wanted. We certainly weren't the fastest down the straight, but we couldn't do much good in the twisty stuff either. We were getting close to the competition, though, when it began to rain.
It was a light rain and we could run within four seconds of the dry time with slicks still on the car. Later, on a wetter track, we could still run about eight seconds off the dry time. The competition was close, but we were slightly faster in the wet.
Saturday was dry and I knew we would have trouble qualifying well. I accepted an offer from a fellow Kumho driver, in SSA, for a healthy draft down the front straight. It worked. We went a full second faster with his draft than we could alone. And it was enough for the pole--that stretched our string of poles to six.
That night was the usual go-cart outing of SS folks. We had a blast and only one person got thrown out. We'll do better next year.
The Sunday forecast for rain didn't disappoint. It had rained overnight and started raining again before morning warm-up. We had rain tires mounted and took advantage of the warm-up to see where the track held water and how the car handled with the different tires. Pat made an educated guess on tire pressures and nailed it. The car was perfect. If the rain kept up, this was our best chance for a win. In the dry, it would be a struggle to stay with the faster cars. In the wet, there are no faster cars--just good tires and good drivers.
The rain continued into the start of our race. The front-straight of Brainerd is a drag strip and it becomes very slick in the wet because of the rubber, paint, and the puddles that build in each lane. The first two starts were waved off because the outside pole sitter pulled out of line to avoid starting in the mess. On the third pace lap he stayed in position long enough for the starter to throw an early green. I got a jump on the SSA car in front of me and pulled out to pass him. It was not to be.
I was instantly in standing water and all acceleration ceased. I dropped to fourth (last) in class inside a hundred yards. Finally, there was room to get out of the water and I worked my way inside for turn one. This turn is still flat-out in the wet, so I slowed only a bit and stayed down low. The third-place "B" car squeezed me a little so I put two wheels in the grass (mud) and made the pass. Turn two is also very fast, but a little more hairy, so the pack slowed quite a bit. I took advantage of this and passed the second-place car through the turn.
Now there was only one car in front of me: the current points leader. The guy I had to beat. There was no place to pass through the back section, but the third-place guy and I were all over him. I got a run going toward the final turn of the first lap and pulled alongside. He squeezed me a little, but there was room and I outbraked him. From first to fourth to first in one lap!
Down the front straight, the next two cars in class stayed with me. I lifted a little for turn one, braked a little for turn two and already they were dropping back. I watched the interval where I could, all the while running comfortable laps. The third-place car disappeared and the second-place car dropped steadily back. Eventually, I was completely alone.
The rain-shortened race went only fourteen laps, one lap short of full distance. Our win streak was extended to five. The margin of victory was just over twenty seconds. We are the SSB Central Division Champs.
Sitting here at the end of the season, it all seems unreal. What seems very real is the string of bad finishes. Everything after is just a blur. I swear I never got my toolbox sorted out for this season and now the year is all but over. Well, with any luck, I can come up missing a few important tools during a teardown at Runoffs.
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