Taking a break from the trials and tribulations of building and sorting a brand new race car, I'd been enjoying the summer with the odd karting date with Mrs. Racecarnology and Hats, running a few test days in the BTM Motorwerks 19 car, hitting the odd training ride, and just generally enjoying the fantastic weather of Silicon Valley. I'd even found a new day job which has been the most excellent company to work at since I can remember.
In the midst of my revelry, I got a call from Ali Arsham, the USTCC organizer that a long-time USTCC competitor was looking for a ringer driver to drive his car at the next event at Buttonwillow Raceway in a few weeks' time. He put me in touch with Rich Peterson, someone I'd raced against first at the San Jose Grand Prix in 2005 - would I like to drive his car - he'd just completed some power upgrades and 'thought there might be a podium' in the car with the right driver.
A short conversation later with some assurance that all my experience in BMWs wouldn't detract from my ability to toss his Mini around, and the deal was set.
Rich's Mini is a 1st generation supercharged Mini, and it became quickly obvious that it was a very different beast than either of the BTM Motowerks Spec e30s, and even my old USTCC car, the BTM Motorwerks 328ti. With a short wheelbase, FWD, and a very extensive cage, it turns and squirts into whatever hole you point it at immediately. I was also unprepared for the engine upgrades...the details of which I remain culpably unaware, other than it wails to the point that I needed better ear plugs, and that it doesn't stop pulling until the fuel cuts out at 7700 rpm. Rich had done a very nice job at building a solid little car.
My first few laps in warm up went well, feeling the chassis out and figuring out what the engine and brakes would do - more and more as I tried harder. NASA Socal was running the #13 CW configuration, with the bus stop, but cutting out the Star Mazda turn for the sweeper. The Mini could be put very deep into the Offramp, practically ignoring the bumpy entry, but through bumpy Cotton Corners was difficult to get it to stay on the ground. But once through Grapevine and into the Bus Stop and Riverside, the stick of the little car was most impressive, flat on the gas all the way through Phil Hill. My mind spun with possibilities not just of where I could find more time with the little car, but also where it would be most racy against the other fine USTCC competitors and where racing opportunities would most likely present themselves later in the day. The car had a lot of good qualities, and would give several good racing opportunities.
The first qualifying session went well, and we started the Saturday race on the second row in 4th. Curt Simmons, the 2007 champ on pole, Brandon Kraus, and Pete Bovenburg all in front of me, and Dave Brown multiple time champ right behind. The start was an unusual rolling start for USTCC, and nobody had a clear advantage going into Turn 1. The other three cars stacked up in Cotton Corners, and Dave Brown in his Mitsubishi got alongside the Mini, finally ending side by side as the Mini got a better run out of Grapevine and got back ahead.
Ironically, both Pete and Brandon suffered mechanical issues early in the race, and while I held off a charge from behind first by Felipe Cabezas' Mazdaspeed 3, then later a recovered Dave Brown, I found myself nipping at Curt's heels for the lead. As I caught up, I found I could carry much better speed through Riverside than the SRT4, and made a few different attempts going into and out of Phil Hill, before finally getting by Simmons coming out of the esses. Rich would later recall seeing his car come around the final turn onto the front straight in first, and he sounded very happy to see his hard work lead a professional race.
After that point, it was a matter of the typical drivers' conundrum - hold on to good laptimes while making the car last to the end of the race. I shouldn't have worried, though, given the mild temperatures and relative lightness of the car, it felt like it could have kept going at 100% all day long.
Sunday proved to be a more difficult challenge. Between missing a driver's meeting (something a so-called pro driver shouldn't do!) and some weight adjustment, I qualified a little further back in 7th. Making things even more difficult, the NASA changed the course to exclude the bus stop, one of the Mini's favorite parts of the track, and the temperature climbed higher giving me concerns that the little 1.6 would suffer from heat-related issues.
The usual USTCC standing start proved quite event-filled as I lined up right behind Curt Simmons, but as the green flag few, he stalled his car leaving me with very little room to get moving. Two other BMWs got by the Mini, and I had my work cut out for me.
Brandon, Felipe and Pete took off and I ended up clawing my way back past the BMWs, right up to Dave Brown's Lancer's bumper. I was able to poke the Mini's nose in a few times, but the straight run through the Dog Leg gave less advantage to the Mini than it had the previous day.
Dave pulled out a three length lead that we fought over, and got some help holding me off.
To anyone that's raced at Buttonwillow with a full track of hard-charging nutballs, one of the well-known features are the incredible dust clouds that can gather when someone puts a wheel or two or a whole car off into the dirt. Being in the middle of California's Central Valley, the runoff areas are flat and quite uneventful, but the prehistoric lakebed dust is fine, and can easily be shot a hundred feet in the air by a speeding race car with hot tires.
It just so happened that I chased Dave over Phil Hill, and he was able to dive into the sweeper ahead of a lapped car. As we looked into the turn, we realized there was the mother of all dust clouds just hitting its peak as we turned toward the esses. Dave bombed into the cloud unfazed, but the lapped car hit its brakes just as it entered, disappearing into the cloud to slow somewhere unseen.
Slowing myself to avoid hitting a mystery-dust shrouded car, I turned off the track and cut a path through the dust and dirt, finally rejoining halfway through the esses. I'd managed to avoid collecting another car as a hood ornament on Rich's lovely Mini, however, Dave's Mitsubishi had taken advantage and gained a half straightaway on me that I wasn't able to regain.
Ironically, none of the other cars broke or went terminally off the track, so I brought the Mini home in 6th, safe but dusty, and plenty of grit between my teeth.
Up at the front Brandon managed to score another victory just tenths ahead of Felipe and Pete, and they managed to spray plenty of champagne to hose off the Buttonwillow dust in the usual USTCC podium ceremony. The Mini ran some very good times though, especially in the standard #13 configuration - just a few odd circumstances kept us from a much higher finish. USTCC's season finale will be at Infineon in early November, here's hoping that Rich has us back for another chance on the most technical, twisty track in California. Seems like it would suit a Mini.
Pictures and video to follow!