Road America – September 3-5, 2010

Ever since I began reading about Road America in Road & Track magazine – particularly in Peter Egan’s columns – I have wanted to visit there. He makes it sound like such an idyllic place and such a great track that you just want to experience some of the atmosphere. The beautiful Wisconsin countryside, the quaintness of Elkhart Lake, the magic of the track itself, the camaraderie in the paddock, the pleasure of camping among like-minded people – they all contribute to the siren song. Once I began to experience the satisfaction and excitement of spirited track driving, I knew I would have to include Road America on my list.

I knew that the Chicago Region of PCA had scheduled its annual TRAC weekend of Club Racing and Driver’s Ed for the Labour Day weekend at Road America.  When my son Scott told me he wanted to return to university in St. Catharines on September 1, I realized that I would be about 35% of the way there. I could drop him and his furniture in St. Catharines and carry on towards Wisconsin, arriving the day before the driving would begin. So I quickly contacted the registrar and co-chair to confirm the eligibility of myself and my car, since there were some restrictions described on the Chicago web site. They were planning only two run groups – those with cages and racing seats and those without – so there would be no problem for me to participate in the second group (DE-2). I registered for the event and made plans for the 1400 km trip (each way), intending to camp at the track but to use motels for the overnight stays I would need while travelling.

As the magical date of September 1st approached, I made lists of all the equipment and supplies I would need for camping and started to lay it out, to be ready for packing at the last minute. We made a few last minute improvements to Scott’s car – such as replacing the automatic transmission range sensor – to ensure that it would survive its trip to St. Catharines and run reliably for the foreseeable future. I had a technical inspection conducted on the Porsche and made sure I had packed all the usual track tools and supplies that might be required for a three-day event.

At 7:13 AM on September 1, we set sail for western Ontario, with Scott and his friend riding in Scott’s car and me alone with the truck, trailer and Porsche. The boys went to Tim Horton’s for coffee while I headed straight to the highway, which turned out to be a mistake. I expected them to catch up to me before we got to highway 401, since I was driving at the speed limit and I expected them to be going a bit faster. When they hadn’t caught me before I reached the old Brockville service centre, I pulled into the entry lane and waited. I couldn’t reach Scott on his cell phone, which began to concern me a bit. But I figured they had the stereo turned up or the ringer turned off accidentally, so I tried not to worry too much. After about 15 minutes I decided to drive through the service centre site – which is under reconstruction – to wait in the exit lane. Of course the boys chose this exact moment to pass the service centre, when I couldn’t see the highway. I waited in the exit lane for another 10-15 minutes until Scott finally phoned to say they were at the Gananoque exit – about 15 minutes ahead of me. I jumped on the highway and made good time to our scheduled rendezvous at a Napanee gas station, when I learned that Scott’s cell phone had been in the glove compartment! Duh!

After that it was pretty smooth sailing, with another gas and food stop at Port Hope before tackling the midday Toronto traffic. I asked Scott to follow me through Toronto because of the traffic volume and intensity, plus the necessary lane changes to work our way down to the Queen Elizabeth Way from 401. That was probably a wise idea, since the Toronto traffic was especially crazy and there were several places where Scott might have missed a turn. When we reached the QEW in Oakville traffic was very heavy and the outside temperature was 35 C. Thank heavens for air conditioning! Eventually we reached his new apartment in St. Catharines, almost 7 hours after starting out.

I left St. Catharines about 2:15 and drove through to Sarnia with one quick stop for lunch, buying more gas just before crossing the bridge into Michigan. There was only a brief delay at the border crossing, where the guard asked a few questions on where I was going and why. He did a quick search of the truck’s bed and peered through the Porsche’s windows, then sent me on my way. The weather changed almost immediately, as the skies clouded over and a light rain began to fall before I reached my overnight destination in Flint, MI around 7:00 PM. The Super 8 motel was acceptable and cheap, with paper thin walls and chatty neighbours. But I befriended them for a while and learned that she was from Ottawa, so we had a nice chat. It rained most of the night and the parking lot was one huge puddle, but the truck and car were unmolested and I was able to leave there about 8 AM Thursday morning following a really nice hot shower, still in a light drizzle.

I stopped near Lansing for gas and a snack and finally began to see some signs of sunshine in Indiana. As I reached Gary, IN, I followed the Mapquest directions and took a toll road which I suppose is intended to be a bypass. But it was under heavy reconstruction and consisted of numerous lane shifts, narrow lanes, big bumps and potholes and generally rough conditions. It was so rough in places that the trailer’s beavertail bottomed out and scraped the road. By the time I was finished paying tolls to get through Gary and Chicago, I had paid at least $18 which I hadn’t expected. On the Dan Ryan expressway, approaching Chicago’s downtown core, I passed the White Sox stadium and could see the lower half of the very impressive skyline. The upper half was completely enshrouded by fog and cloud! Traffic was very slow and very heavy – it took about 45 minutes to get around the central area.

After clearing the Chicago traffic, it was a straight shot up the west coast of Lake Michigan. At the rate I was going, I should arrive at Road America well before the paddock would open at 5 o’clock. Once in Wisconsin, the sky cleared the temperature went up from 23 to 28C – things were looking up! When I got to Milwaukee I began to look for a left lane exit from highway I-94 W to I-43 N, as per the Mapquest instructions. However, Mapquest was wrong! The left lanes led to the 894 bypass and I couldn’t get into the right lane because of heavy traffic. So I took a detour of at least 40 km as I went west of the city to the first exit and circled back on state highway 18, through the northern ghettos of Milwaukee. Eventually I found highway 57 N, which led to I-43 N and I got back on track – all of this without a map! From then on it was clear sailing until I reached Road America around 4 o’clock, being passed by several Porsches and transporters going to the same place.

Everyone had to wait outside the track in an open area near Turn 14 until the procession could begin through the Kohler tunnel under the track. I walked over to the registration building and signed in, asking the man behind the counter where I could pitch my tent near the showers and paddock. The fellow behind me in line volunteered to help me by showing me on the track map where I should be able to find a good site. After going to the track office to pay for camping, I walked back over to where I’d parked and found the same man had parked right next to me. His name was Mike and we struck up a conversation, along with another neighbour. By the time we were all able to enter the paddock, Mike and I had become friends and I ended up spending the whole weekend in his company whenever I wasn’t at my campsite. We had to wait quite a while after 5 o’clock to actually enter the tunnel, since the dozens of teams with large transporters and reserved paddock spaces were given priority. There was an amazing assortment of very expensive equipment and race cars there for the Club Racing – Cup cars costing over $250,000 and many, many GT-3’s and other high-end Porsches.

After driving around the infield once, I found a place that was appealing for a campsite inside of Turn 3 – a short drive from the showers and paddock. As I began to set up the tent, light rain showers started to fall. The rain became quite heavy by the time I had the rain fly on the tent and I barely got my gear into the tent when the skies opened and it simply teemed with heavy rain and a major thunder storm. I had to stay inside for about three hours while the storm passed through, with lightning and thunder right over head for quite a while. Eventually it stopped and I was able to get a surprisingly good sleep before awaking at 6 AM to prepare for the track.

In the morning it was still overcast and threatening rain, and pretty cool. I dried off the car and applied racer’s tape to secure my large magnetic numbers and then went to the tech inspection shed. After a return to the campsite to retrieve my registration packet which they needed, I was frustrated again by them closing tech so the driver’s meeting could begin at the tower. By the time the meeting ended, there wasn’t enough time left to get through tech and start my first on-track session on time. Mike had volunteered to take me around for a couple of laps in his car to show me the line, so we did that in the few minutes remaining in my stint. It was useful and appreciated, but I learn better by doing than by watching, so I was looking forward to the next stint to experience the track for myself.

At both 10 AM and 1 PM on Friday I had two good stints in which to learn the line and search for more speed. There was a lot of traffic to deal with, but it wasn’t a problem until late in the second session when an impatient guy tailgated me coming out of Turn 7, expecting a pass signal on the right. But the racing line between Turns 7 and 8 is on the right hand side, so I gave him a passing signal for the left and he quickly jigged to that side and went roaring past. There was no contact, but he was very close behind coming through 7. For the 3 o’clock stint, it began raining lightly and the track got pretty slippery because of all the rubber that had been laid down by the many race and DE cars. Numerous cars pulled off the track rather than drive in those conditions and I eventually did likewise, after sliding noticeably in several turns, including Carousel. That’s not a place where you want to get loose.

Let’s take a lap around this 4.04 mile track to understand the way it’s driven. The Start/Finish line is at the highest point on the track, about halfway along the 3025 ft front straight. Around the 200 ft marker begin slowing and braking for Turn 1, downshifting to third gear just before turning to the right around this 90 degree corner. Accelerate hard away from the apex, heading downhill past the marshal at Turn 2, towards the next 90 degree right hand corner at Turn 3. There’s no need to shift up, since the car reaches 6000 rpm just about exactly where the braking zone begins. Look around the corner and turn in, a little earlier than you may expect, to apex mid-corner and accelerate hard on the next long straight. Keep the throttle wide open as you run up through third and fourth gears, hitting 6000 rpm just as you must begin to slow down for the downhill braking zone for Turn 5. It’s best to stay on the left side of this 2636 ft straight until the braking zone, since the track falls away to the right if you’re on the right hand side. Brake hard and downshift to second for the left-handed Turn 5, which is the slowest corner on the track. Don’t go wide on the exit here, because the rumble strip at the right side is very bumpy and can upset the car’s ability to accelerate quite severely. Accelerate up the hill towards the bridge through second and third gears, braking after the crest and the bridge for the 90 degree left-handed Turn 6. Accelerate hard from the exit on track right towards the left edge to set up for the fast right-handed Turn 7. Lift slightly and/or tap the brake before turning into 7, since running wide or clipping the apex can be very unsettling due to the harsh nature of the rumble strips.

Accelerate hard down the hill in third gear, reaching 6000 rpm as the braking zone arrives for the left hand Turn 8. It is another 90 degree turn with no banking, so it is not possible to carry a lot of speed here. Accelerate hard towards the next bridge, short-shifting into fourth gear just before turning for Turn 9/10 which is Carousel. Enter the turn from mid-track, tapering closer to the right as you swing around this 180 degree curve. Accelerate to balance the car and especially to build speed once you reach the turtles at the very late apex, to get a good run down to Kink (Turn 11). Be very careful entering Kink – it is the least understood and most dangerous corner on the track. It is important not to miss the early apex and not run off track at the exit, as the concrete walls loom large on the left and right. Accelerate all the way down to Canada Corner (Turn 12) as you weave first right, then left, then right and finally left again along this 2736 ft section. If you’re going to let cars past, stay tight on the left side since the track is not very wide through this series of small bends. Brake hard, downshift to third gear and late apex Turn 12, staying on the left side after the exit to set up for Turn 13. This corner is uphill to the left, with a blind apex and line of sight until you crest the hill. You can run quite wide on exit, so stay in the throttle and use all the road, just tucking back in towards the left at the last second to avoid the grass on the right. Drive straight towards the braking zone for the last corner – Turn 14 – leaving your braking quite late and following your vision to apex late. Get on the throttle as early and as hard as possible for the long run up the hill on the front straight. This hill rises 90 ft and requires all the engine’s power to reach the top in third gear, shifting up just before the crest at 6000 rpm or a little more. You can now see the starter’s bridge and can make the final run to the Finish line. My best time on video was about 3 minutes fifteen seconds. The racers were in the neighbourhood of two minutes twenty seconds – quite a disparity!

Friday night I cooked a burger at the campsite and was ready to have some dessert, when Mike and a couple of other guys came by in their trucks to pick me up and go into Elkhart Lake. That was a pleasant surprise and we went to a bar called the Brown Baer, where we had a few beers and some wings and spent a couple of hours shooting the bull about politics, health care, things Canadian and, of course, cars. One of the guys was named John and he’s planning to open a brew pub in Chicago, so we talked a lot about that business and the restrictions/regulations he faces. He hung out with Mike and me for the balance of the weekend as well. I was delivered back to the campsite and spent a very cold night snuggled into my sleeping bag, with my head inside to preserve the heat. In the morning it was only 8 degrees Celsius on the truck’s thermometer!

Saturday morning I had two good stints and achieved my best lap times. I tried starting further back in the long queue to reduce the number of cars that would have to pass me and was largely successful. I then had a nice hot shower and went to town to refuel the car with 93 octane, after making myself some lunch. There was only one additional stint Saturday afternoon, in which Mike followed me for a lap or two. During this stint there were two Boxsters that spun off in front of me, in Turn 1 (with no damage) and in Canada Corner (with a medium-strong impact to the right-hand concrete wall). When we stopped Mike mentioned that he’d seen a bit of oil smoke coming from the left side, so I lifted the engine cover and found oil all over the fibreglass cover. Some had dripped down onto the exhaust manifold and was causing the smoke. I went back to the camp site and cleaned off the oil; then I ran the engine to see if I could identify the source of the leak. The only place I could see oil forming was from under the fibreglass cover, near the front end of the engine beside the vent housing. This was very puzzling, so I phoned Chris (the engine builder), to explore the issue. The only potential source we could identify was the low oil pressure light switch, which sits on the top of the engine near the centre. If its Bakelite core had broken down, it could leak a small stream of oil up the centre.

I didn’t have time to do anything else Saturday afternoon, since there was a concours and banquet scheduled for that evening in Elkhart Lake. So I got cleaned up and changed and grabbed the camera, taking the Porsche into the town. I hung out with Mike and another friend named Randy, who has a beautiful 930 Turbo, while we admired the other cars and strolled around the pretty resort area. There are two great hotels and condo development right beside the water, called Siebken’s and the Ostof Resort. There was a really good buffet banquet around 7 PM, where I met others named Dave (has been to Mosport) and Gorman and Sara (who both drive). We had cocktails before the meal and I ordered a Jack Daniels with no ice and a touch of water. When the waitress brought the drink, none of us could believe our eyes. It was an Old-Fashioned glass filled to the brim with undiluted Jack! There was no way I could or would finish it, so I shared it with John and Mike. It had to be a fourple!  Afterwards Mike led me back to the track by way of a twisty, dark side road that was a lot of fun in our cars.

Sunday morning the sun was shining, although it still wasn’t particularly warm. After another great bacon-and-eggs breakfast from the Coleman stove, I made a diaper for the oil pressure switch, using the top of a plastic coke bottle, a paper towel and lots of duct tape. I did the first stint at 9 o’clock and found a small amount of oil on top of the engine, but nowhere near as much as before. So I assumed that we’d correctly identified the source of the leak and I prepared for the second and last stint at 11:30. Meanwhile I checked voice mail and found a message from Chris suggesting that maybe the problem was a loose or broken rocker arm and that I should remove a valve cover to check. Thinking that we’d correctly identified the oil switch as the problem, I did no such thing before the last stint.

The session began well enough, but when I reviewed the video afterwards I could see that my lap times were 8-10 seconds slower. At the time, it just seemed that I couldn’t maintain as much speed because of heavy traffic. After 4-5 laps, disaster struck. Going into Turn 5, the engine lost a lot of power and made an ugly B-R-R-R noise. I pulled off the track to the left and waited for help to arrive. There was very little smoke and no oil dripping from the engine, but the safety crew called for a flatbed truck to remove the car at the end of the session. When I tried to start it in order to load it onto the trailer, it wouldn’t fire and was reluctant to turn over. Fortunately another new friend named Patrick was nearby and he helped me push it down a slight incline and onto the trailer. I decided to pack up and hit the highway, rather than stick around for the racing and delay the diagnosis any further.

I quickly packed all my things, had a light lunch, got cleaned up and hit the road around 1:30 PM. After a fairly uneventful drive across flat Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I arrived at the motel in Sault Ste Marie (Canada) about 9:30 PM Eastern time – a drive of 7 hours. The only mildly interesting thing that happened en route was a near miss with a family of deer that had started across the road in front of me. Fortunately they turned back as I was braking hard and nothing bad happened. I left the Sault around 7 AM Monday and followed highway 17 all the way to Ottawa, covering 800 km in ten hours. It rained all the way across Ontario and the temperature never exceeded 20 degrees – a far cry from the day I left.

I am really glad I went to Road America, since I had wanted to for so long. But I won’t be going back anytime soon. I didn’t find the track to be enjoyable, since every long, fast straight section was followed by yet another flat 90 degree turn. In comparison, Watkins Glen flows much better, with each sweeping turn being followed by another similar curve of different proportions. I did a total of 400 km on track and 3025 km on the highway, saw some interesting countryside and cities and made some great new friends.

But I came home with a sick engine that put a pall on the whole affair. Now it remains to investigate the cause of the engine failure and to have it rebuilt once again. This is what we’ve found so far:

Diagnosis: Plug #3 broken ceramic but still attached, plug #2 looks normal, plug #1 broken and missing ceramic + burned electrode; Compression #1 – 25 psi, #2 – 105 psi, #3 – 0 psi, #’s 4-6 normal at 155 psi. What could cause all three left cylinders to fail? Carburetor? Camshaft? Bad valve springs? Won’t know until the engine has been dismantled.

Photos are posted at  http://s229.photobucket.com/albums/ee234/kilrwail/Road%20America%203-5%20Sep%202010/

Video is available at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3zlN1lG8Sc

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