Arizona Region, SCCA School

by Donn Vickery, contributing editor

Last month, I completed my "second" SCCA driving school. Well, actually it was my first SCCA school; the SCCA allows one approved driving school, such as Bondurant or Skip Barber, in place of your first SCCA school. Since I have taken up a second residence (actually a new business venture) in Phoenix, I chose to attend the Arizona Region driving school held on the north course at Firebird International Raceway. The north course is a fast and furious track consisting of 14 turns and one very long straight, which just happens to serve as an NHRA drag strip several times a year. It is definitely a fun track (more on that later), however, it is also very technical. As a result, it may not be the best track for your first SCCA school.

The SCCA school consisted of a two hour class session (Friday night) and a full day of on-track instruction (Saturday). The SCCA's approach is very different from that of the independent schools. The classroom instruction deals only with SCCA procedures for flagging, technical inspection, gridding, and so on. In fact, the Arizona Region school featured NO discussion of driving techniques whatsoever. Similarly, the on-track instruction is much more informal. The instructors really act more like driving coaches; they assume that you are already familiar with basic racing techniques such as heel-and-toe downshifting, trail braking, passing, etc.. Fortunately, I learned these techniques (except for passing, more on that later, he he) at the Bondurant School.

Due to the wide variety of classes supported by the Club, SCCA schools typically group relatively similar cars together. The school I attended, however, was relatively small. So my group consisted of any closed wheel car - from ITC Rabbits to GT-1 Porshes. My rental for the weekend was on the slow end of this spectrum - a Spec RX-7. A Spec RX-7 is a '81-'85 single rotor Mazda RX-7, with a spefic set of allowed modifications including TMC springs, Tokico struts, LSD w/ rear discs, and a modified exhaust (w/ no headers allowed). The cars must remain street legal (including catalytic converters) and no engine modifications are permitted. So, suffice it to say, the Spec RX-7 was one of the slower cars in the pack. To make matters worse, my rental ride was more Stock RX-7 than Spec RX-7. The owner had not yet installed the allowed 2 1/4 in. exhaust, rear discs, LSD, or brake ducting...

My day started off on the queezey side. I had that same feeling that I had during the two races on day 3 at Bondurant. Basically, I was thinking to myself, "I wonder if these yahoos (referring to my fellow racers) know what they are doing?" I'm sure they were thinking the same about me. In any event, I was very aware of my mortality that morning... It didn't help matters that my instructor's name was Bob Coffin. I really wondered if that was some kind of an omen. But hey, after surviving a Ph.D. program, I'll do all kinds of crazy and stupid things... And, after the first track session, the fears disappeared.

A lap around Firebird Raceway is ... well... a blast. You exit the hot pits right onto the NHRA drag strip and accelerate flat out through the concrete canyon, until turns 3 and 4 (turns 1 and 2, which form a chicane, are not used by the SCCA). By flat out, I mean flat out. Even in the Stock/Spec RX-7, I was well into fourth before reaching my braking zone. (Sorry, I didn't check my terminal speeds. There is just too much going on at the end of the straight.) Turns 3 and 4 form a "carousel" that must be apexed very late. This was by far my favorite passing spot on the course. With an extremely low HP car, I had no choice but to overtake in the corners and turns 3 and 4 presented the best opportunity for me. For whatever reason, most of the school's participants were nervous at the end of the long straight (maybe my lack of HP made me more bold). Making matters worse for them, turns 3 and 4 form an extremely technical corner (racer-speak for a place you are likely to screw up here). On the other hand, for me, turns 3 and 4 seemed like an old friend; this section was virtually a carbon copy of the carousel at Bondurant and I used the exact same line I learned there. While at Bondurant, my instructor showed me the classic line, and a slightly earlier line that seemed to work just as well. It proved to be a fantastic way of overtaking other cars. I simply braked a little later than the others, pulled along the inside, and turned in just a hair sooner. By the time I hit the apex, I could gain one position almost every time. Too bad I would often lose the position on the front straight due to the lack of HP .... But more on that later.

If you hit the carousel just right, your inside wheel is grabbed by the uneven pavement at the apex to turn 4. The uneven pavement sucks you in toward the apex then you are flung out toward the hill overlooking turn 5. Using all of the track, you let the car drift over to the FIA rumble strip, nail the brakes (hard if you have HP) and turn in for the apex. If you hit turn 5 right, you will end up on the inside of the course, set up perfectly for the most dangerous turn on the track - turn 6. Here, the new concrete walls recently mandated by the NHRA make the Firebird course a bit more hazardous than in previous years. To avoid kissing the wall as you drift out of turn 6, you must take a very late apex. Still, to maximize your speed at the exit, you come perilously close to the wall. Make sure to bring a clean pair of undies...

Turn 7 requires only a quick flick of the wrist to hit the apex to your right. However, Turns 8 and 9 are also very technical and can cause problems. I tried a number of lines through this area, finally settling on a fairly wide approach to 8, turning in a little early, and sacrificing a bit of speed through 8 in order exit more quickly out of 9. However, no matter what approach I tried, the car always felt a little loose through here. In fact, I had two minor incidents in this area through the course of the day. The first incident occurred with the GT-1 Porshe breathing down my neck. Seeing him in my mirrors, I tried to carry just a little more speed through 8 and the back end came around as I tried to turn in to 9. I got it sideways, but avoided spinning, and came to a stop on the outside edge of the course. Fortunately, I kept the engine going and I only lost one position. The second incident occurred with fellow Z-car owner/racer Erik Messley on my tail in a very quick ITS 240. There was no way the little ITC Rabbit I was driving at the time (Rabbit you ask? More on that later...) could keep pace with Erik's ride, and, as before, I tried to carry just a little too much speed through 8 and 9. This time, I ended up sliding sideways through the apex, over the natural terrain for a few feet during which time I managed to straighten her out, and back on course headed the correct direction. So, as it turns out, I gave up the position the hard way... After this, it dawned on me that I really didn't need to speed up for the faster cars (sarcasm intended) and that I would be far better off to continue on at my car's own pace :) rather than driving beyond its limits.

Turns 10 and 11 form a quick chicane before the most important corner on the entire course, turns 13 and 14, which lead onto the straight. Generally, turns 10 and 11 were fairly uneventful. However, you could use these corners to set you up properly for overtaking in turns 13 and 14. This turned out to be my second favorite passing spot. However, I did not really discover its potential until the third track session. After the second session, Bob Coffin, my instructor, said "you are much quicker than the others through the corners, I want to see you do more passing in 13 and 14." To which I replied, "but they will simply repass me on the straights... won't it piss them off if I pass them right before the straights?" He replied, "maybe, but that's how you win races..." So, that's what I did for the next two sessions. Pass people in 13 and 14, and see how long I could hold them off. I found that, if I exited with as much speed as possible and let the car drift out to the NHRA wall on the outside of the course, I could hold off the ITA-ITC cars, and the true Spec RX-7s, until about half way down the straight. Then the game was afoot again. I have to admit, it was great practice! It was frustrating at first, but I truly felt that I ended up getting far more benefit by having to pass in the corners.

So, how did I end up in that ITC Rabbit? Well, it's a short story I promise. Bob Coffin was in charge of three drivers during the school. One of the other guys in my group had rented an ITC Rabbit for the school (from the same guy that rented me the Spec RX-7), but had never raced a front wheel drive car before. Half way through the school, he was struggling and feared he would "flunk" his second school. So, Bob asked me to trade cars with him. I had never raced a front wheel drive car either. But, I decided to give it a try since I was also considering ITC rides for the future. It turned out to be a blast, for a while. During the third session, the car was a screamer. I actually had more HP than the quickest Spec RX-7s so I could pass them both on the straights and in the corners. However, as luck would have it, in the last session (the race), the engine started to let go on my. So what happened in the race??? Well, it started off great. I started mid pack and was out running the Spec RX-7s, one of the ITS Zs, and an ITA CRX. But, on lap three, the engine started to let go... The temperature gauge started to climb and I lost HP. Fortunately, I managed to limp home for the finish. But, not before giving up numerous positions.

That's about all I have to report... except that my first race will be next month at Willow Springs in a rental ITC Honda. I also plan to rent a few more rides during the Spring. In the meantime, I will also be running the 280Z in Solo I (time trials) and II (autocross) events through the Winter, Spring and Summer. During the summer, I plan to transition the car from a BSP (solo) car to an ITS (road race) car. I hope to have the conversion complete by the Fall for the final two San Diego Region races.