8 Hour Enduro at Virginia International Raceway, June 14, 2003
On June 14, 2003, the RC Imports Team participated in the Charge of the Headlight Brigade, an 8 hour endurance race at Virginia International Raceway (VIR). The driver lineup for this event was Rick, Cindi, and Michelle Ellinger; and Rob Coch. The actual decision to participate in the event was made while the team had 4 days off following the May 31st 12 hour endurance race at Summit Point, and prior to the June 7 Grand-Am Cup Race at Fontana Speedway.
The VIR facility offered a practice day on the Friday prior to the event. Cindi and Rick had already participated in two sprint races at VIR this season. As Michelle had never driven the full course at VIR, and neither Michelle nor Rob had participated in a race this season, they decided to take advantage of the test day. Not wanting to put the extra mileage and wear and tear on car 85, they brought both car 85 and 86 to VIR for the test day. Accompanying them for the test day was long time crew member Mike Wetter.
The test day had very few cars show up and the track ran fewer groups for longer sessions. Michelle and Rob were able to take advantage of almost 4 hours of testing time, putting nearly 200 miles of practice and testing on car 86.
The official event offered no practice time on Friday, only laps behind the pace car to check the adjustment of any supplemental lighting. As the 85 car had the lights set from the 12 hour Summit race two weeks prior, the team chose to get a nice meal and a good night's sleep. The Saturday schedule consisted of only a 45 minute qualifying session, which was driven by Michelle, who was driving the 85 car for the first time, with Rob running 4 laps to feel out the car.
Soon after the qualifying session, Dave Irvine and Pat Bartholow, who had graciously agreed to come to VIR as Crew, arrived. Dave and Pat, along with Mike Wetter as fueler, had helped the RC Imports team achieve the 2nd in class and 4th overall finish at Summit Point only 14 days earlier. All three were generous enough to go back out there to do it all over again.
The team strategy was simple; Michelle would drive first, as she had never driven an endurance race, with Rob driving second, Cindi driving third, and Rick driving the final segment of the race, which would consist of about 80 minutes of darkness. The heat was a definite factor throughout the day, and as each driver got out of his or her car, an SCCA paramedic was on hand to check on the driver - more than one driver was taken to Medical for fluids and observation following collapses getting out of a car.
Since lap times are a great indicator of a driver's attention, alertness, and physical condition, the team's original plan was to keep Michelle on track for about 2 hours or so, if her lap times remained consistent and then have Rob get in the car for a similar session. This strategy was based upon the fact that a double yellow was scheduled for 6pm so that food and beverages could be taken to corner workers.
From the first lap the team and crew had an immediate concern - Michelle's in-car radio was not functioning properly, while the crew could hear her, she could not hear them. With no way to let Michelle know she could be hear, after several laps Michelle stopped radioing the crew. While radios are not essential, they are a great tool, and allowing the driver to both convey and receive information as needed. Equally important, it lets the driver tell the crew when she or he will be coming in to the pits. With no idea when Michelle would be in, the crew had the fuel ready to go at the one hour mark, with Rob in the pits waiting to be the next driver.
At about the 90 minute mark, the track announcer broadcasted that car 85 had gone off track, but had reentered and continued. Hearing this, the crew told Rob to put on his helmet and get ready to get out. Dave went out to the wall in hopes of manually signaling Michelle to come in. Michelle for her part, instinctively knew that unless the car had a real problem, she should not just show up on pit lane unexpected. Instead, Michelle had reentered the track following her incident, and was being careful to get the mud off the tires before getting the car back up to speed. As she came down the front straight, she was manually signaling to the crew, so that they would be ready when she hoped to come in a lap later. Dave and Michelle acknowledged each other's signal and a stop was set for the next lap.
Michelle had driven consistent laps for 90 minutes during part of the hottest part of the day, with most laps being 10 seconds better than her best Friday practice laps - truly an achievement for her first endurance race. As there had been no radio communications, she had done this without the benefit of the occasional back-and-forth from driver to crew, and without any input on her pace or lap times.
During the first pit stop, Rob helped Michelle out of the car, loosened the belts, and waited to get in while the car was being fueled. He began his session by feeling out the car, and while the car and track were quite slippery, he worked on settling into a rhythm and a steady pace. After a couple of laps when Dave asked how the car felt, Rob radioed back that all seemed okay, and asked for a shift point. The shift point was set at 6000 RPM, which was hoped would give the needed fuel economy to go the 2 1/2 hours till the 6pm yellow. About 90 minutes into his session, Rob managed to get the gearshift stuck in 4th gear going into the Oak Tree. He lugged the car out of the turn and back to pit lane, where Pat un-jammed the linkage, and Rob resumed his session. Rob did note that some tape work was done to the left rear of the car before he pulled out of the pits. Prior to this Rob had worked the car to 7th place overall.
For much of his session, Rob was running time similar to the other cars on the track, since VIR is over 3.2 miles in length, there were times when 10 or more laps would go by without encountering traffic. As 6pm grew near, the fuel gauge was reading almost empty. At just after 6:10pm, 2 hours and 40 minutes after he began his session, Dave radioed Rob, telling him the Double Yellow was out - time to pit. Rob handed the car over to Cindi in 9th place.
Next in the car was Cindi, who after refueling and one tire change, went out and ran a lap under yellow and came back in for a second tire to be changed. This allowed Cindi to catch back up to field, and then pit again, helping the team to take full advantage of the Double Yellow and the slow pace of the pace car. As the green flag fell, with Dave giving Cindi the "green" over the radio, Cindi got a good jump on much of the group and was able to pass several cars before turn one. Rob had radioed in that sunglasses might be a good idea, as it was getting hard to see turns two and three, but instead of having to deal with the sun, Cindi had to deal with an overcast sky and an even higher level of humidity. After an hour, the heat and humidity had Cindi ready to get out of the car. She drove till about 7:10, which would hopefully let car 85 and Rick make it to the finish on fumes.
Rick was able to get in, and the evening began to fall, he soon found the visibility getting bad, not due to bad lighting or bad weather, but because the windshield was getting layered in bugs. To make matters worse, the windshield washer was not working and there was no way for him to clean it. As he short-shifted the car to conserve fuel, he had to focus just to find the few reference points that were still visible. As 10pm approached, the low fuel light was flickering- if it came on steady the team would have no choice but to pit and fuel the car, which would likely mean losing a lap. The rules governing this event required fuel stops to take at least 90 seconds, and that 90 seconds did not start until the driver was out of the car. Add back the time to come down pit lane, getting in and out of the car, and getting back up to speed and you have the equivalent of a race lap. The fuel however held out, and with only an occasional sputter, Rick took the checkered flag in fifth place overall, and first in class.
As the trophies were being awarded, they were cut short and an absolute downpour began, with lightning to light up the sky. The RC Imports team packed up what they could and went off to celebrate the finish and for a good night's sleep.
The drivers would like to thank Mike Wetter our fueler, Pat Bartholow our crew and tire man, and Dave Irvin our crew chief, for the generous donation of their time - without them we could not race. The whole RC Imports team would also like to thank all the workers who traveled to VIR for this event - without your gracious donation of time, nobody could race.
The RC Imports team, with Rick Ellinger driving, will be at Watkins Glen on June 20-21 followed by Mid-Ohio on June 27-28, both for the Grand-Am Cup.