Trackday Diaries: So Very Tired
“Hey!” Across the parking lot, my brother was yelling at somebody. “HEY! DO YOU HAVE A FLAG AT THAT CORNER? YES? YOU DO? YOU REALLY HAVE A FLAG? ARE YOU SURE? ABOUT HAVING THE FLAG? YES? THEN WAVE THE FUCKING THING NEXT TIME, YOU IDIOT, SO NOBODY GETS KILLED!”
It was ninety-four degrees at noon, with no shade available anywhere, and tempers were flaring. My son was sitting a hundred feet away in Bark’s Fiesta, making a waving motion at me that I interpreted as If you don’t leave your corner station and get me water, I’ll die in this hot car like a dog. But then he gave me a thumbs-up, which my paranoid mind interpreted as I just want to let you know you’re a great dad… before I die from the heat.
This was shaping up to be the worst autocross ever. For some of us, anyway. For my brother, who had already said that he wanted to go home at lunch. For my son, who was dying of heatstroke. For me, too; my leg hurt like hell wouldn’t have it and I felt sick to my stomach. Most of all, for the thirteen extremely annoyed men in their M3s and STIs and whatnot who were being taken to school by Danger Girl. For her, it was the best autocross ever. But it would get worse.
It had seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. Brother Bark had agreed to coach Mrs. Baruth through her sixth-ever autocross. The three of us would all share her Fiesta ST, which would allow us to compare data at the end of the day. It was, frankly, necessary. I’m an abysmal autocrosser, as long-time TTACers know, and Danger Girl had already progressed past the point of being able to obtain anything useful from my half-assed “coaching.”
The problem was this: When DG bought the Fiesta from Matt Farah earlier this year, it had come with some fairly beat-looking Michelin Pilot Sports on the factory alloys. When we reached Vail on our drive East, the road was closed to any car without chains or snow tires, so we pitched the Michelins and bought Blizzaks. Once we got home, we didn’t need the snow tires. So I bought DG a set of Sparco wheels and some tires.
The tires in question were Sumitomo HTRZ IIs. They have a treadwear rating of 360. I figured they would be good in wet weather and they would last a long time. They were also cheap. I did not figure that DG would decide to do a whole season of autocrossing and trackdays with them.
TireRack considers the Sumitomos to be “Ultra High Performance Summer Tires.” That sounds really good, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s worse than “Max Performance Summer Tires,” a category that arrived about ten years ago with the Kumho MX, and it’s even worse than “Extreme Performance Summer Tires,” the current belles-of-the-ball in the street tire game. Compared to the Bridgestone RE-71, the current favorite of Fiesta pilots on the SCCA Solo National Tour, the Sumitomos are about two seconds a lap slower.
For a Novice like Danger Girl, having greasy tires is actually helpful to the learning process. Everything happens at a slightly lower speed, so you have more time to correct your mistakes. This is why I do not, as a general rule, agree to coach novice trackday drivers who show up with Hoosiers or Toyos on their cars. You’d be surprised how many of them there are. It’s our modern consumer culture. Are you going to a racetrack? Good! Make sure you have special shoes, and special hats, and special clothes, and special tires!
The truth is that you’re best off starting your autocross career, or your trackday career, with tires that are less than perfectly grippy, for the same reason that you’re best off starting off in something slower than a Viper TA 2.0. You’re going to make mistakes, and not all of them are going to be recoverable. How much kinetic energy do you want to have when you make those mistakes? The most correct answer is: about as much as you get with a first-gen Miata on all-seasons.
For that reason, I never considered it a problem that Danger Girl had Sumitomos on her autocross car. She was still winning the Ladies class pretty much everywhere she went. For the first five events of the season, I drove my old Boxster S with year-old Falken RT615Ks. Four out of five times, they were good enough for me to take home a trophy and/or a top-five PAX finish. The Falkens don’t get as much love as they should from the autocrossing crowd. They are hugely durable but they’ll also let you hang the car’s tail out at will.
I knew I wouldn’t exactly set the world on fire driving the Sumitomos, but I hadn’t considered what Bark’s reaction would be to the situation. For years, he competed in National Solo at the absolute top level, driving fully-prepared cars as a teammate to two multiple National champions. Apparently, one year he and his team put on new tires for every run. Twelve sets of new Hoosier tires, each of them having just fifty-seven seconds in the sun before being consigned to history’s dustbin.
Well, if that was “the Show,” then driving the Fiesta with me and DG was like being sent down to the Durham Bulls. In our first runs, Bark put 2.5 seconds on me easy. Then I started getting better, and he got worse. “These fucking tires!” he screamed. “I don’t want my name on a piece of paper next to these times.”
“Hey,” I whispered over my back to Danger Girl, “get a picture of Bark’s name on that paper over there, next to those times.”
At the end of four runs, we were 0.4 seconds apart. Consider that I outweigh Bark by eighty pounds and I had my fifty-pound son riding along with me for my runs, and the true gap was probably even smaller. DG, to her credit, was just 1.2 seconds behind me. Bark had conscientiously coached her through three course walks and she was doing just what he’d asked her to do. At the lunch break, she was in fifth place of eighteen Novices, ahead of some fellow in an M3 who apparently was so angry about losing to her that he’d sent his friend over to look at her car to see how she was cheating and to offer some passive-aggressive commentary about “a Fiesta doesn’t weigh as much as a BMW, of course it’s gonna do better.”
At lunch, Bark stated that he wanted to go home, unless we drove over to his favorite tire shop in Florence and put Bridgestones on. There wasn’t enough time for that. My son stated that he wanted to go home, get his TopKart, and beat the Novice class. I indicated that I would be okay with going home. Only Danger Girl wanted to stay. Since the whole point of autocrossing this year was to get her up to speed, we stayed.
In the afternoon, however, the Sumitomos proved they had another treacherous trick; they got slower in the heat, even though we brought pressures down. DG’s form looked even better but her times were suffering. Then it was time for me and Bark to drive. While I waited in line at the start, it began to rain. Lightly at first, then with Katrina-esque force. By the time I got the flag, there was standing water everywhere. I drove straight from the start to the finish. Then I drove back to Bark.
“Do you want to…” I asked
“…pack the fucking car and leave? Yes, very much.” So Bark and I packed the car. But we couldn’t leave, because Danger Girl had won a trophy. So we stayed for the trophy. At the end-of-event meeting, when DG went up to get it, we three Baruth men yelled “Sumitomo!” all at once. To my knowledge, this was the best finish in a motorsports event ever recorded by the HTR Z II.
Bark and I took second and third place in class, respectively, behind a woman in a Miata. It wasn’t particularly close. “I don’t want to ever drive that car again,” Bark said, “until you get RE-71s.”
“I’ll order them today,” DG replied.
“No you won’t,” I interjected. “You need to spend some more time on these crummy tires.”
“No you don’t,” Bark interrupted. “You need decent tires now.”
“I need decent tires now,” DG repeated. It was like a Jedi mind trick. They both turned and looked at me. As an admittedly third-rate autocrosser, my opinion was valueless. I walked off to talk to my son. “Did you have fun today?” I asked.
“Uncle Bark,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “says we need better tires.”
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Trackday Diaries: So Very Entertaining Makes me want to go out and buy a Fist... must resist....