Topic: #33 Ford Festiva @ Road America - From worst to first
Since writing stories seems to be pretty normal these days, I thought I would put our adventure into words in case anybody cares. We are the #33 Bright Yellow Ford Festiva - aka We Are Not Really From Iran.
Our story started two years ago; April 2012 at Gingerman raceway. We showed up with a completely stock and original 1993 Festiva that we shoe-horned a Mazda BP into and changed nothing else. The front end was original, brake lines rotted, radiator too small, etc. The car was actually so sketchy to drive, that one of our A&D Drivers simply refused to drive out of fear for his life. We blew up very quickly, and stayed up all night replacing the engine with several spare parts. We were fortunate enough to win the “I Got Screwed” award because we got screwed out of winning the “Heroic Fix”, which was claimed by the Apocolyptic Celica.
The rest of 2012 and start of 2013 was forgettable, but we started to figure out how to make the care safe to drive and how to keep it on the track. Go-Fast parts for a Festiva are few and far between, so we were forced to engineer parts from other cars and make them fit. Putting together a breif list, the car has parts from a Mitsubishi Mirage, Mazda 323, Ford Escort, Mazda Protégé, Subaru Legacy, Mini Cooper, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, and most importantly, Home Depot. The clutch linkage on the car is actually constructed from a Door Hinge from the hardware store. As you might expect with such mix of parts, little things kept keeping us from being competitive for a win. Some days it was just silly black flags, but other times we would drop a plug wire, or lose a brake line, or drop an engine mount, and the small fixes kept coming up. We finished around 20th overall though for about 4 or 5 consecutive races. Not terrible, but not what we wanted.
After Autobahn 2013 we re-themed the car with a sweet new paintjob, working headlights, new custom body work (courtesy of our good friend Darren Besic), a new number on the side (#33), and we set off for the true 24-hour race in Texas. Unfortunately I was unable to attend this race, but my team took the car down anyway. The judges loved the new theme, the car ran strong, we finished 30th, and we won Organizers Choice. By all accounts, it was a successful first 24-hour race but again we were not competitive for a win due to little things. One of the bolts holding the door-hinge operated clutch fell out, for example…
The last race of 2013 in the Midwest was Road America. I knew with us being one of the smallest cars out there, with just a rinky dink four-cylinder engine, we had no chance of being competitive at Americas Fastest Road Course. Since I missed the race in Texas though, I just wanted to get out there so we signed up and went. Test day at Road America was a little too rich for our blood so we skipped it. Pre-race we went through the car with a fine-tooth comb, changed a few minor things, and crossed our fingers. One of our drivers had never been to the Facility before, let alone step foot on the track.
As the race started, the car felt great. The cold temperatures kept the engine running strong and it was making good power. Gas mileage was definitely down though, and after running for only an 85 Minute opening shift, I was out of gas and pitted from the top 6 overall. We barely made it up the hill to pit lane, as the car was sputtering and cutting out continually around the entire last lap. I made it to the top, pulled out of the hot pits, added oil, and then headed into the hot pits for gas and driver change. It wasn’t until I got out of the car and took a piss that one of my teammates told me that we were towards the top of B-Class. Our fast lap at that point was good though, in the 3:11 range.
Our second driver went out, and came back in about 40 minute later to serve a Passing-Under-Yellow penalty. Painful to say the least, but at least he didn’t crash! It was a quick penalty though, and we decided to fill the car back up with gas since it was in anyway. We told the driver to go back out and extend his shift for an extra 30 minutes. We figured that might pay dividends at the end of the day. Throughout the rest of the day, we all kept a keen eye on Race Monitor. As our next few pit stops came and went, things were looking good. None of our other drivers got penalties, we had no mechanicals, we were still stopping for oil every pit stop, and as the time ran out we were still towards the top of Class B. In fact, ourselves, the #38 Tiger Camaro and the #108 Solo Cup Escort kept swapping positions back and forth. As one of us would pit, somebody else would take the lead, and so on and so forth. The three cars continued to all run flawless afternoons, and churn ever-closer to the top 10 overall.
As the checkered flag came near on Saturday, the Camaro got in front of both of the other cars on track but everyone was on the same lap so it was no big deal, right? Wrong! The Camaro came up the start finish straight, crossed the line, and directly behind him dropped the Checkered flag. Our Festiva and the Escort crossed the line with 111 Laps and our day was done. The Camaro however, got to complete the lap they had just started and finished with 112 Laps. The ¼ of a Lap that we were behind, turned immediately into 1 Full Lap for Day 2.
After Saturday we brought the car into the pits for examination. We found an outrageous oil-leak that had coated the entire engine bay and underbelly with a nice coat of Rust-Protectant. Much of it appeared to be coming from the Valve cover breather, so we constructed a drip-pan and crossed our fingers. We rotated tires and inspected the brakes as normal. What was not normal though, was what we found on the front brake pads. The Carbotech XP8 Racing Brake Pads that had been on the car for 5 races already (Including a 24-hour race) had now worn down to the rivets and were completely toast. The only spare pads we had, were used pads from a Junkyard. Ouch! We frantically called parts stores in the area, and were lucky enough to find somebody with a compatible part in stock. We bought the most aggressive street pads we could find and installed them hoping they wouldn’t hurt our speed too much.
Before the race Sunday Morning, I took the car out onto the streets to bed in the new pads. Just as I got back to the track, Judge Phil walked up and told us that they were starting the top 3 in each Class up front instead of the usual top-10 overall. We topped the car off with fuel and headed out onto the grid just behind the Camaro and ahead of the Escort. I took the first stint again, and as the green flag flew I was able to pass the Camaro and get back on the same lap as him; albeit 3 minutes behind. I spent the entire shift trying to close that gap, got my best lap time down to 3:09.97, and because they pitted just before us we were in the lead when my shift was over.
The next several hours went very smoothly; driver changes were quick, the car ran very strong, and we continued to swap positions with the top 3 as everyone stopped for fuel. With a few hours left in the race, it was clearly down to just these three cars and it was becoming increasingly obvious that nobody was going to have a mechanical issue. We were going to have this fight on the track. We were instructing our drivers to drive to a specific lap time; we knew that we could do the day on 4 stops but only if we managed to stay within our pit windows by not driving too fast. Race time dwindled down quickly and we were frantically trying to figure out the strategies of the other teams. We had been keeping an eye on the Camaros fuel windows, and when we saw their lap times start to tumble we realized they were not playing a fuel saving game. They were going to push as fast as possible because they knew they needed to make an extra stop anyway. Our lead shrunk rapidly until it disappeared and we began falling behind. Their driver was making time on us at a clip of 12-20 seconds per lap.
TL;DR – This is where it gets good.
With 75 Minutes to go, we called in our driver for our final stop. I was going to get in the car for the final shift and push as hard as possible. No time for saving fuel anymore. We made sure the car was full, I jumped in the car, and we set off. It was our quickest pit stop of the weekend and it’s a good thing. As I came out of Pit Lane, the Camaro was bearing down on us up the straight. I gunned the engine; who cares that it wasn’t up to temp and I wasn’t warmed up! I used every RPM that little car had, and we were somehow perfectly Side-By-Side with the Camaro into Turn 1. I knew I needed to keep the Camaro behind me so that we were only 1 lap down. We battled side-by-side down the hill towards turn 2 and I just got a nose before the braking zone. I started to pull away and was working as hard as possible to grow that gap. I knew this was perhaps my only chance to gain some time back before they made their final stop for a Splash and Go. Our little Festiva ran 3:10 after 3:10 after 3:10 as the lead grew slowly.
A handful of laps later, they were gone from my rearview but as I was coming across Start/Finish I saw them exit Pit Lane and head into turn 1. We were now on the same lap, with 30 minutes to go, and we were 20 Car-Lengths behind. Their driver was cold and I was in a groove though. I was on their rear bumper by Canada Corner of that lap and as we came onto start finish with 25 minutes left in the race, the Camaro and I were storming up the hill. We caught the #108 Escort and the Run EXP all at the same time at the end of the straight. The EXP let us all go into turn 1; the Escort First, then the Camaro, then me. Heading down the hill into turn 2, the Camaro missed his braking point by just a few feet. I slid on the inside and pushed hard down to turn 5. I had a slight lead by the Sargento bridge, but the Horsepower of the Camaro kicked in and about halfway down the straight he took the spot back and pulled in behind the Escort.
Coming into the brake zone at turn 5, at about 110MPH, the Camaro went for a pass on the Escort but I noticed they both braked a bit early. I kept my foot in the gas and dove to the inside in the tiny gap the Camaro had left. HARD HARD HARD on the brakes, downshift to 2nd gear, and we entered turn 5 three wide. Exiting turn 5 I had a nose on the Camaro, but I wasn’t clear. As we got to the top of the hill, I cleared his nose by an inch, moved back onto the racing line, and nailed turn 6 and 7 creating a small gap. I knew that was the pass for the lead, but that there was a long way to go. I knew that any yellow flag, and he would be right up on me again. If a yellow flag clears on a straight, the Camaro can drive away and we’re hosed. I did everything I could to go and get cars between us. Coming up the straight I saw my team jumping up and down and fist pumping and that just motivated me more.
I continued to run the fastest laps of the weekend, using every single revolution that engine was willing to give. It was win or blow up at that point. I’ll admit I was being very aggressive with lap traffic, but I had no choice. Passing on the inside, passing on the outside, same difference! The Camaro was not falling behind as I expected though. He was hanging right with me as he whittled his fast laps down also. From a 3:14, to a 3:13, to a 3:12 until he was matching my 3:10s. In the final 10 minutes of the race I got my personal best of a low 3:09 and got a little lucky with lap traffic. Using all of those revs though had knocked our fuel gauge pretty darn low though. I started to shift a little earlier, but I knew I couldn’t exactly rest. Every time through start finish, I saw the flagger checking his wristwatch. I knew time was getting close. Finally entering turn 1 I saw the corner worker rolling up his Yellow flags and I knew that meant it was the final lap. I just kept telling myself to nail the braking points and breathe. As I came up to start/finish for the final time, and saw the flagger waving the checkered flag, and the Camaro in my rearview, it was an unbelievable thrill. We had won Class-B and finished an awesome 11th Overall out of 80 cars at a track where horsepower ussually is king.
After Fourteen and a Half hours of racing, we had somehow managed to win Class B by a mere 8 seconds racing against a car that couldn’t be more fundamentally different. 4Cyl FWD Econobox vs. 8Cyl RWD Muscle Car. What an an absolute blast! I'll never forget this weekend, that's for sure.
An enormous thanks to everyone out there this weekend for running the smartest and cleanest races I’ve ever been a part of. Apologies to anything that I was aggressive with at the end as I was running for my life from the Camaro. Thanks to the Lemons Staff for hosting a race at such an epic track. Thanks to Matt Key and the #38 Camaro Team and the #108 Escort for an extraordinary challenge and for being such awesome competition. Most importantly though, thanks and congratulations to my teammate and co-owner Andrey (Russian), and to our other drivers Dave (almightydave) and Matt Arrowsmith. Everyone did an awesome job out there! A big thanks also to the guys like Jim and Darren who helped us build the car to where it is today.
We're excited for 2014, and we're going to work hard this winter to make sure that we're even faster for the spring. Here's to more awesome Midwest racing!
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