A Rookie National Champion’s Secret: SPK

by / Saturday, 14 July 2012 / Published in News

By NASA 2010 SpecE30 National Champion, Frans Hansen

I come onto the main straight with good speed and pick up a tow from the race leader. I’m closing up quickly approaching the braking zone, one to two lengths behind. I decide to make my move for the race lead at turn one, under braking. My competitor’s brake lights come on. I go in deeper, past my standard marker. No guts, no glory, right?

The gap closes. I dive inside. I have some overlap. Now — hard on the brakes!  Just then, my competitor turns in, aiming left for the apex. He can’t see me! I’m right in his blind spot, my right front wheel next to his left rear. I turn left more.  I must slow faster.  I press the brake pedal harder, but the rears start screeching. Not good… collision course… unavoidable… BAM!

A hard hit like this means major damage to both cars in practically every class of automobile racing! Moreover, serious injury to one or both drivers is also highly possible.

Fortunately for me, I’m in a 13 horsepower Sodi RX7 kart, on track at Summit Point Kart (SPK), in Summit Point, WV.   SPK has the fastest concession karts in the country (including the 28hp RX250s which top out at 85 mph!), where top racers from around the region come to test their skill.  As soon as I re-join the track and complete my lap, I receive a firmly pointed and open black flag.  I ruined my race and hurt my pride, but I’m physically unscathed, and the karts are un-damaged.  I’ll take hurt pride over bodily injury and thousands of dollars in repair bills, any day!

Although I had raced karts a few times as a young teenager, I hadn’t driven one drop of competitive driving in over 20 years until I hopped in a concession kart for kicks in early 2009.  Once I re-acclimated myself to vibrating one inch off the ground at over 50 mph, I found that I had the touch to run decent lap times. 

Trying to follow the region’s best, though, I quickly realized that one fast lap was simply enough to look pretty on the time sheet.  Fastest lap didn’t mean much when you finished the sprint race in 7th place. The winning racers were braking at the same spot, hitting identical turn-in points, clipping every apex, and tracking out with only centimeters to spare, on every turn, on every lap of an entire race, all while keeping the slip angle of their tires at ideal angles for maximum grip and speed, corner after corner.  Because SPK’s karts are so evenly prepared, margins of victory typically came down to one or two tiny mistakes over the course of an entire 7-15 lap race.

When I ran actual race groups, I found myself making mistakes right and left in traffic. When leading, I’d shut the door on a passing kart who had full overlap inside me, bouncing myself right out of the picture.  When overtaking, I would make kamikaze pass attempts from too far behind, just like the opening example above, costing myself the race. Other times, when closer, I would make half-hearted passes, failing to get enough overlap, and ending with the same result.  As I progressed, I learned when to pull the trigger.  I also learned to fully commit. At first, “fully committed” passes meant I’d make a clean pass, and then fly off towards the other side of the track, for an easy over-under by my competitor. This was some improvement though, as coming out of the turn in the same position was better than a DNF.   

After hundreds of pass attempts in 2009, I started showing consistency. I learned to bide my time in the race, thinking of the bigger race strategy instead of trying to make the highlight real with a bonsai move in one corner. I figured out when to pull the trigger. I understood how to commit. I learned what types of passes I could stick, and what types of pass attempts would just slow me and my competitor down enough to be caught from behind by another racer. 

Weekend after weekend, I made my way to SPK for “arrive and drives” (open track time sessions) and “Grand Prix (race) Sessions”. Hours of practice and experience cost $25 or less per session (including helmet and race-suit use), and better still, there was zero cost for equipment, maintenance, repairs, towing, or storage!  Each arrive and drive I ran offered me 90-120 corners to work on my braking points, turn-ins, apexes, track-outs, and kart control. Each 10-15 lap sprint race session I entered provided me roughly 5 or more close-quarter overtaking experiences.

After hours upon hours and days upon days working on my consistency and my dueling skills, I signed up for the SPK Fall Championship series. My practice paid off with a heat win on the first day and then ultimately with the 2009 SPK Championship League title!

Big time bug-bitten, I asked friends and family about trying to move up to automobile racing and then decided to try the highly competitive, yet very affordable SpecE30 series from NASA (the National Auto Sport Association). I took my first ever serious on-track laps in a 1987 325is BMW in early January 2010, completed my mandatory racing/competition school requirements, and headed down to the NASA season opener at Virginia International Raceway as a driver entrant in late February!

Admittedly, adapting to the speed, roll, and balance of a full size car versus a kart took much longer than I expected. It was at least four entire 3-day race weekends, on top of all the schooling time, before I was comfortable enough to really drive the SpecE30 at the limit and to start to challenge the region’s top drivers.  Once I did find my comfort zone, however, everything started to feel nicely familiar. Braking, accelerating, under steer, over steer: all the same handling characteristics that I got to know so well in the SPK karts were right there in the BMW. Everything is just bigger, and perhaps paradoxically, has to therefore be handled that much more delicately! Without a finer touch, under steer pushes harder under the car’s heavier weight, over steer slips out faster with the extra power, and body roll is more dramatic and upsetting with a much more dynamic suspension. All the kart handling lessons applied here — it’s was just time to fine tune those skills.

My first race weekend down at VIR, a challenging course for any racer, let alone a rookie, was an eye opening experience. In the Saturday race, I under-estimated how quickly full size cars can take each other out of a race, when a competitor veered off turn 1 on the opening lap, and then shot back across the pavement when he steered his wheels back from the slippery dirt and grass, grabbing the asphalt. Sunday, I settled into a safer start and quickly found myself running time trial type laps. The closest competitor ahead of me was turning 1-2 seconds faster times per lap, and the person behind me was similarly spaced in distance.   After four full 3-day weekends of racing at both VIR and at Summit Point Motorsports Park, I had steadily improved my lap and qualifying times. I had even started to make a pass or two for position each weekend. Every day was an exhilarating and inspiring challenge. 

I could see however, the importance of keeping up my visits to Summit Point Kart, to keep my racing and passing skills sharp.  By my estimation, it could take me 6 years racing automobiles to attempt the number of passes for position that I had opportunities for in just two 6-week SPK Championship Series leagues!

I continued to focus on seat time in the 325is, and race time in SPK’s Sodi karts, getting stronger every weekend. It paid off as I worked my way into third place in the SpecE30 points standing after a strong summer. Given my improvement, I also decided to live one of my dreams and rent a car for the SpecE30 National Championships in Salt Lake City Utah!

2010 NASA SpecE30 National Championship Event – Miller Motorsports Park.

I arrive at Miller Motorsports Park before sunrise on Wednesday, September 15th, to find my jet black ride waiting for me under her tent.  With different seat and steering positioning, a different car set-up, and a very different handling feel from my mid-Atlantic rental, I spend the morning almost re-learning the basics. Racing at a new track for the first time is also a challenge. I run data acquisition after each session, and think of all the different types of corners I had to master in the numerous track variations at SPK and other circuits I’ve run. The Wednesday practice day closes with me towards the back of the competitive pack, a whopping 3 seconds off the pace of “the Kid” (a young racer from the east coast who is fast like “Billy the Kid”) and “the Champ” (the 3-time SpecE30 National Champion).

Subtle set up changes make Thursday morning more promising. However, I’m still unbalanced entering and exiting many turns, as this BMW continues to handle very differently to me.  I draw on my karting experience of how to manipulate weight transfer in different types of corners, by coming on the breaks and throttle at different times and with different pressure levels and I start to tame my fast new friend. I improve each session out, and take third in the afternoon’s qualifying race, won by the Champ. My times improve even more the next day, putting me on pole for the Friday afternoon qualifying race. I’m out-dueled by the Kid, but I avoid any stupid rookie moves to take a solid second place and ensure a front row start for Saturday’s National Championship.

Fortune winds up with me, the Rookie, starting on pole for the main event! Practicing my standing starts pays off, as a solid start keeps the Champ squarely on my outside all the way down the opening straight. Still, “the Vet” (a cagey hard-nosed racer from the west coast), has an absolutely perfect start from third and quickly takes me on the inside. Damage control is crucial for the race’s first turn, as I don’t want to lose more spots. The Champ is famous for his late braking heroics, and having struggled with my break set-up all week, I know I’m overmatched coming into the braking zone.  From karting, though, I know that position is king. I go in just deep enough, not to risk locking up or overshooting, but enough to box-out the champ and keep him outside. I hold my turn-in a fraction of a second longer, and the Champ is forced to follow my lead.

On lap two, I feign a move under braking into the Black Rock Hairpin, and the Vet moves left to cover. I quickly track back before turn-in to set up a faster exit. My momentum carries me to the inside of the Vet for Right Hook and I make a real move under breaking. The Vet lives up to his name, though, and, watching his mirrors like a hawk, instantly closes down for a very early apex! Our cars touch, and I quickly back off. Without the experience of hundreds of passes at SPK, I would have stubbornly stayed in this one – and that would have cost me a disqualification and the race!

No body damage, and no change of position, and I’m still in the hunt. Unfortunately, my backing off cost me speed on the exit of Right Hook, and the Champ slides down to my inside right, heading down the mini-straight before the flat-out “Witchcraft” bend. I squeeze down, but the Champ already has over 50% overlap.  Again, I need to survive an incident and/or a DQ, so I let him through.  I stay on the Champ’s bumper for the remainder of the lap. He protects left going into Release, sacrificing some exit speed onto the main straight. I catch a nice draft, and together with solid horsepower, I am able to pull far enough ahead on the inside to keep the great late braker at bay one more time.

Still right on the tail of the Vet, I realize that barring a mistake, it may take two to three consecutive corners to stick a pass on this fighter. I look inside on Black Rock Hairpin and then again on Right Hook. The Vet protects heavily to the inside on consecutive corners. This affords me superior exit speed out of Right Hook, and I pull along his inside for the wide-open Witchcraft right bend. The Vet is out in the rubbery debris and slippery marbles now, so this will be my corner. Unless of course, he is courageous enough (or maybe crazy enough?!) to keep the pedal to the metal? He is! The Vet continues to surprise me! We’re now side-by-side approaching the quick downhill Attitudes. My outside line into the left-hand ess is enough to keep me alongside, but not surprisingly now, the Vet closes down hard into the next quick downhill right. Crack! I’m forced to move up over the curb and take out a plastic apex pylon. I concede yet again … but it’s only lap three.

How many times did I go for all the glory on lap three in an SPK Grand Prix, only to botch the entire race! Not this time. I’m all over the Vet in every turn. He will bobble eventually.  My good fortune comes earlier than expected, just a few corners later.  Approaching a back-marker into Club House Corner, the Vet guesses left and “wrong”, and I go right and “right”. I take the lead in the Championship race, and I’m feeling fast!

Whoa brother! I can’t get ahead of myself now. This is no time for visions of sugar-plums or championship trophies dancing in my head. One missed shift, or one missed brake or turn-in point, and I would be back stuck behind a couple of guys that don’t play well with others! Not to mention that a short lapse in focus is an easy way to wind up going off at turn one near 120 miles per hour.

Brake… down-shift… turn in… apply throttle… hit apex…up-shift… track out… shift again… hustle over for the next turn. Breathe. Every turn. Every shift. Every piece of road needs my full respect. The thousands of laps that I put in 2009 and 2010 at Summit Point Kart were now gold.  They helped me build the level of concentration that it takes to turn lap after lap at the car’s limit.  I took that experience and cranked out thirteen more solid laps, built a four second margin, and took the 2010 NASA SpecE30 National Championship crown!

Thank you, Summit Point Kart!