The story behind my Tail of the Dragon picture

The Road Atlanta Time Trial and the ARRC

I had driven Road Atlanta once before: a December LeMons race back in 2017. It snowed on the drive in, which was an ominous sign of what was in store for us that weekend. We scrapped our plans to camp at the track and instead got a hotel room; we set up our paddock space and hoped that we didn’t have to do any wrenching on the car we brought with us, a borrowed Honda Civic hatchback. Luckily for us, the car ran the entire race without any issue, and none of us bent any sheet metal or got black flagged. Despite the snow, it was nearly a perfect weekend of racing.

That was also my very first experience doing wheel-to-wheel racing. My very first ever pass was in The Esses, a near pants-shitting experience as I passed on the outside of a Ford Ranchero that was a roadblock in the turns but left me in the dust on the straights. But by the end of the weekend, I had done enough passing such that I was perfectly okay going three wide down The Esses if I knew there was space for the car.

I got plenty of seat time there at Road Atlanta, but I had always wanted to go back with my own car and see what it was like. So when the SCCA announced that Road Atlanta was one of the National TT stops, I knew I had to go.

I arrived at Road Atlanta on Saturday morning of the ARRC. The first thing you see when you roll up to the gate is the massive hill that Turn 11 crests over. As I was waiting in line to sign in, I watched GTL race cars come over Turn 11 and hurtle themselves down the hill into Turn 12. I can never look at that hill and not get a lump in my throat, haha.

The time trialers were all paddocked in the “Pro” section of the paddock area, or the infield paddock area. (The road racers were paddocked in the outfield paddock area.) I dragged my tire trailer to the Pro paddock and decided to set up shop next to Kevin Gu. Kevin is a fellow Detroit Region guy, and had driven his white EF Civic hatchback down for the time trial. His car is built to Street Touring Sport (STS) rules.

Kevin at the wheel of his EF Civic.

The time trialers got two sessions for Saturday, all in the afternoon, and three sessions on Sunday. I unloaded the Miata, swapped the front brakes, and bolted on the track tires and waited for my turn to head out on track.

I was running in the first Advanced group, and we were the first ones out. There was a little voice inside my head repeatedly yelling, “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this!” as I pulled the Miata out of the pit lane and onto the race track.

It didn’t take long for the track line to come back to me. As it was the first session of the weekend and I was doing in a personal vehicle, I still exercised plenty of caution. But by the third lap, I was already going 90%.

But something was amiss. As I was going down the back straight, I was getting this worrying vibration at 100 mph. I decided to call the session early and bring the car in.

Still, could have been worse. One driver in the following groups had a catastrophic engine failure in his Toyota MR2, coasting into the infield pit lane trailing a long line of oil from Turn 11 and with fire shooting out of the engine cover. Emergency response teams converged on the car and put out the fire, then towed the car back to the paddock, right next to where Kevin and I were paddocked.

Nate’s MR2 before a hole was blown through the engine block.

With the help of some other folks in the paddock, we managed to get the rear engine hatch open and gazed upon the mechanical destruction. It was while we were looking at the window in the engine block that I thought, man, it sucks to come out to an event and immediately lose out on the fun of an entire weekend. So before my rational mind could intervene, I blurted out to the owner of the MR2, “Hey, wanna drive my car?”

A few sentences later: “I’m sorry to ask, but what was your name again?”

Nate, the owner of the MR2, accepted my offer. I told him that I was chasing down an issue myself, but that I was pretty sure the car would be good to go for Sunday.

I took the wheel off the right front corner, grabbed the brake caliper, and rocked it back and forth. There was a lot of movement. In the past, I had many instances of pad knockback which resulted in shitty feeling brakes, and the brakes currently felt similarly shitty, but never had it resulted in a heavy vibration. But the vibration was coming from this corner, and this corner had the crappiest rebuilt caliper of the pair I put on the car earlier in the season. Perhaps the bores for the sliding caliper pins were too worn? Maybe there was not enough grease and the caliper was sticking open? Could it be a wheel bearing issue?

Good thing I carry a spare wheel bearing with me! I grabbed the spare RX8 front wheel bearing from my stash, only to discover that it didn’t have the right ABS sensor plug. Okay, never mind then. The wheel bearing on the car still felt good anyhow.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m not running brake spring clips? Since there was plenty of downtime between my first session and the second, Kevin and I decided to hit up the local auto parts stores in search of brake hardware.

I found my spring clips at an Advance Auto Parts store. I bought them, but was informed that if I ordered right now, they could get me a rebuilt caliper that day by 6 o’clock via the last delivery run of the day. Kevin said, you came all this way to run Road Atlanta, might as well get a new caliper and see if it fixes the problem. I ordered the rebuilt caliper.

We went back to the track. I installed the spring clips for the brake caliper. I also grabbed the anti-squeal shims from my Hawk HPS brake pads and wedged them in between my Hawk DTC-60 pads and the calipers to take up slack from the sliding pins. It was a pretty absurd solution, but I went back on track, and the brakes immediately felt better, and the pad knockback was drastically reduced. The car wasn’t shaking itself as much as it was flying down the back straight.

At the end of the session, I told Nate that the car was gonna be okay for Sunday, and that he should inform the powers that be that he’s running my car for the three sessions on Sunday.

I went back into town to pick up my brake caliper and returned back to the paddock. I decided to take care of the caliper in the morning when it was light, and chilled out for the rest of evening with everyone else. As I was camping on site, the first thing I did when the sun came up on Sunday morning was stumble out of my tent and make an immediate beeline to the toolbox. I had the new caliper on the car in minutes, and had Nate help me bleed the brakes, all before Kevin got back on site from his hotel.

I went out for my first session of the morning, and the brakes felt as good as they had ever been for the past few years — perfectly acceptable, but not excellent. Still, it was a massive improvement from Saturday, and I was glad to have gone the extra distance to change out the caliper, even though I had new Wilwoods sitting at home waiting to go on the car after the event was done!

On Sunday, I was pushing the car as hard as I could. I quickly discovered that the car could easily handle The Esses at full throttle, though I was still trying to figure out the best way to exit Turn 5. I was braking later and later for Turn 10a, starting at the 200 yard marker and eventually getting down to the 100 yard marker by the end of Sunday. I slowly built up the courage to take Turn 11 and Turn 12 flat out, with Turn 12 being particularly hairy because it’s a concrete canyon with no runoff room. (Someone in a Hyundai Veloster learned that the hard way when they lost it coming out of Turn 12 and hit in the infield wall just before the start/finish line.) I’m still not sure if I’m doing Turn 1 right — it’s a scary, fast right hand sweeper going up a hill, and downshifting from 5th gear to 4th always has me sweating the possibility that I’ll money shift a car I have to drive 12 hours back home.

Driving the Miata on track.

But I managed to get myself down to a mid 1:45. Data shows that if I cleaned up my mistakes at several points of the course (the biggest ones being my frequent botching of Turn 7, which is unfortunately the turn that leads onto the longest straight on the track), I can get into the high 1:44s.

Nate took my car out on track for all three sessions and did pretty well all things considered. He managed to land himself in the 1:46s.

Nate driving the Miata.

Kevin managed to land second in his class, Tuner 5, with a 1:50 fastest lap time. Come to think of it, the LeMons car I drove here was an EF Civic just like his, and I don’t think I managed to lap the car (albeit in race traffic) around Road Atlanta any faster than the mid 1:50s. (I want to say we were turning 1:55s during the race.)

I officially took third in my class, Tuner 4, though the truth is that I was fourth. John Hunter ran his Tuner 4 ND Miata during the event, but I suppose that as one of the event staff, he ran unofficially. The top three on the class was Charles in his AP2 S2000, John Hunter in his ND Miata, and Brandon in his BRZ. With the NC, I’m nearly always the car with the lowest amount of power in Tuner 4, and I’ve come to accept that I have no chance in hell in keeping up with the other cars if there’s anything resembling a middling straightaway. My newfound 150 wheel horsepower wasn’t enough to keep me in the chase once we hit the long back straight.

But I got the third place award for Tuner 4. I also was awarded the Spirit of Time Trials honor for the bravery of lending my car to someone I barely knew.

At the end of the event, Kevin and I packed our things and we headed north to the Tail of the Dragon.

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