After deciding not to compete for a spot at the 2015 Daytona SCCA Runoffs, it wasn’t long before I began casting about for a fall race to finish the season with. After contemplating numerous dates and tracks around the country, one event persisted in piquing my interest: the American Road Race of Champions (ARRC) at Road Atlanta. Atlanta Region does a nice job in putting on this late season classic and I wanted to defend my title from last year. At least I knew the way back to that venerable road racing circuit located some 56 miles northeast of the city of Atlanta itself.
After racing at the Rocky Mountain Division finale at High Plains Raceway in August, one similarity of note was the extremely affordable entry fees for both races. This year, the ARRC entry fee held the line on pricing once again: $300 for two qualifying sessions and the ARRC race itself (20 laps or 40 minutes, whichever came first). As a frame of reference, that’s almost the same entry fee SCCA charged for the last Road Atlanta Runoffs back in 1993 and with a race distance comparable to the National Championship race! Beyond being a good value, the ARRC attracts stellar Improved Touring fields and both Honda and Mazda offer significant contingency awards for top ARRC finishes.
For 2015, there was one important difference: rain. While the tow through Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee presented some wind, it wasn’t until I crossed the Georgia state line that the H2O got REAL serious. My original plan was to pay for one practice session on Thursday, but the gullywasher that greeted me had other ideas. While I’d raced in the rain at this 2.54-mile circuit almost 23 years ago—and some experience is better than none—the soaked track, slippery runoff areas and hard barriers remained the same. Road Atlanta is a high-speed circuit, and there are usually only three outcomes to practicing in such nautical conditions. Tip-toeing through the conditions with no damage is the best option, while the latter two are serious damage with a salvageable racecar, or REALLY serious damage resulting in a lump of twisted steel on the trailer. As it stood, I elected to save my money and see what Friday qualifying would bring us.
You just know it’s going to be a tough day when the rain starts beating SIDEWAYS on the windows of your hotel room at o’dark thirty. By the time I reached the pro paddock of the track, however, it had stopped. After looking at the conditions, I elected to go out for morning qualifying on a set of scrubbed-in BFGoodrich R1-S tires and look for a dry line. While the track had puddles off-line, the racing line seemed to be drying. That impression lasted until I started pushing hard and touched one of the painted lines at the exit of one of the corners and had to quickly catch a car that wanted to swap ends! The usual grip never came in even as the tires warmed, and I was relieved to get the checkered and find the pit lane entry (far to the inside of the bridge turn where it was easily missed). Despite abysmal qualifying times, things were looking up as only an occasional light sprinkle from the grey skies came through the rest of the morning. That lasted until about halfway through lunch, when the skies opened once again for a serious drenching. What’s a racer to do? Get out the rains and forget about any fast times, that’s what!
Funny thing is, despite the downpour, my qualifying times improved considerably as the added grip allowed me to quickly find the limit and stay off any painted lines. Driving a few feet off the usual dry line in some turns allowed my Nissan to find traction on pavement that wasn’t as slick. Once I adjusted my line, corner entry became more predictable, although in most you could not go nearly as deep into the high-speed braking areas. After methodically adjusting my threshold braking distances, I could get to the turn-in point at a speed that allowed me to drive (rather than plow or slide) through the turn. Racing in the rain also meant I couldn’t always hit the apex of each turn (primarily because water tended to puddle there). The weather forecast seemed to change by the hour, and as the day came to a close, I left the car on rains overnight. I had a sneaking suspicion those tires might not need to be changed for the race the following morning.
Yet more swollen, grey skies greeted us on race day, and Road Atlanta remained wet after yet another overnight soaking. Despite some temptation, I elected to start the race on full wets and found this was the right choice. The start was a bit ragged as the rising sun made it difficult to see the green from my eighth position on the grid. Most of my fellow competitors were on the gas, and I fought to retain track position for the first half of the opening lap. Fortunately, this hand-to-hand fighting quickly gave way to finding a good race rhythm and pulling away from the competitors around me. Having functional wipers, headlights and even a heater helped in these conditions! Soon I was making progress to close on the car in front of me, a D sport racer-type vehicle that I could catch on the long backstraight, but couldn’t come close to outbraking. On lap seven, the first serious full yellow came out when a similar STU car spun coming off turn 12. That’s a particularly harsh place to go off, and the car went across the gravel trap and into the tire barrier backwards at the bottom of the hill. The pace car came out while it took three laps to extract the driver and his mount.
The restart was clean, but again, I was slow on the draw at T12 as the leaders warped back to speed as the green came out. Still, I was more fortunate than some, as ill-advised passing attempts at the end of the backstraight resulted in body damage and broken wheels for some cars. I nearly fell prey to the same trap, as I reached 130 MPH terminal velocity but found the slick braking area (and my own red mist) had me running out of room at turn 10. I fought to keep the Z out of the gravel trap and was able to reenter without incident, but gave the competitor behind me renewed hope of catching me in the closing laps. Despite giving up a big lead, I was able to hold him off and begin pushing again. The track surface never really dried throughout this early morning race, and some sections actually became more slippery as the race went on. Chalk that one up to Georgia clay retaining the moisture and allowing some sections (like turn four) to have water wicking back up. This is nothing like our sandy Colorado soil, where the water simply sinks in and disappears. As the laps ran down, it was satisfying to turn some of the fastest times toward the end of this drama filled race. To see the checkered flag fly and take my second ARRC class win in two years would make the long tow home easier to bear. The ARRC does it right with all class winners receiving checkered flag victory laps, podium interviews and gold medals. Interestingly enough, I shared the victory celebration with Andy Devoto, the STU winner who races in many of our RMDiv events. Andy even beat me for the longest tow to the ARRC this year, as he traveled from his home in Wilsall, Montana. Well done!