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  • Russell Soto

Back In The Saddle - A Break From The Pandemic

Hi everyone! It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Understandably, racing in general has been affected by this global pandemic, which in turn has affected my opportunities to get into a race car. So what I’ve been doing is participating in a great deal of sim racing in the last few months (I will write another blog about that), and also continuing to look for ways to finance my racing. However, with the folks at Lucas Oil Advanced Racing School coming to New Jersey Motorsports Park, I could not miss the opportunity to get some seat time by testing in their formula car.

Never have I been more happy to see a truck in front of me

This was two days of lapping around one of the best race tracks in the Northeast, with feedback from some extremely competent instructors after every session. I had not driven anything in anger since the Ferrari Challenge car at Modena last December, and the last time I’ve driven a Lucas Oil formula car was for the 2018 Shootout competition.

That makes almost 2 years of an unwelcome hiatus, mainly due to lack of funding. Yes, the Lucas Oil series is going on, but we need over $60,000 dollars to compete (plus travel, etc.), and we just don’t have the budget. With the pandemic we had decided to just regroup for next year – but testing at NJMP allows me to stay current, dust off the cobwebs and see where I stack up on skill and ability relative to other active racers. So we welcomed the opportunity and set off to Milville, New Jersey, to see what was up.

The format for school was three half-hour sessions each of the two days, with data acquisition on the second day’s second session. A track orientation is given by one of the instructors, and after a driver’s briefing we quickly set off for the morning session.

New Jersey Motorsports Park is a complex of two state-of-the-art road courses and a karting track, all named after WWII Fighter Aircraft (the complex is located next to an airport). “Thunderbolt” was the track we’d use those two days. The other track is called “Lighting” and the karting complex “Tempest.”

The lay of the land

The Lucas Oil car is a Ray GR11, with an Elite 2.0 liter engine producing 140hp at 6,000 RPM. At first glance it may not seem like much, but the entire thing weights about 1,200, which is nothing. This is enough to propel the car to speeds exceeding 130 MPH, depending on track and gearing. Tires for the school are Cooper CS-5 Ultra Touring – regular street tires with not as much grip as racing slicks, which makes the car all the more challenging and fun to handle through the high-speed sweeping bends of the Thunderbolt track. The car obviously is not as powerful as the Ferrari I tested in Italy, so posting fast lap times in it is all about conservation of momentum - a fine art that requires a delicate, smooth touch. One needs to make the car dance through the bends to a consistent, steady rhythm.

The result of this? I Immediately posted times five hundredth of a second off the fastest driver, who is a series regular. Every single driver in my group was a series regular getting seat time before the race there, so I was extremely pleased to come so excruciatingly close to their fastest driver.

A "full chat," like a fish in the water

What was even more encouraging is the feedback I received from the instructors. I was lucky to have my driving examined by R.C. Enerson, current Indy Car driver, as well as Pippa Mann – also an Indy Car driver who has not only competed in the Indy 500, but also FIA Formula 2. Also amazing were Glenn McGee, a sim racer who became iRacing World Champion, who turned his experience into real world racing. Running this event was our friend Gerardo Bonilla, Head Instructor and one of the best people I’ve met so far in racing.

With fellow sim racer Glenn McGee

All were extremely exacting, and frankly demanding - absolutely nothing is missed. As I said before, these cars require precision, smoothness and consistency, so every little detail in your driving affects your lap time each lap. That being said, I couldn’t believe how complimentary they were of my driving from the start – but even happier that there was practical advice for finding even more speed and time in my driving.

Listening to advice, taking notes, driving the lap in my mind

Day 2 saw very different track conditions, and we were all struggling with grip. Track temperature has an incredible effect on tire performance, and it’s generally difficult to get tires to work, especially the street tires we were all using. Still, the first session was fantastic for me – I really did feel even more “dialed-in” with the car than in the previous day. I again felt that if this was a race weekend, I stood a good chance at getting pole position and at least a podium against these seasoned, league drivers – heat and all.

Exiting a chicane - we're smooth and under acceleration, a good exit

The feedback from the instructors seemed to support that, as they had very little left to critique. I was told I had reached the point where not much can be observed with the naked eye, and that going forward we’d have to rely on data acquisition to see where I could gain hundredths or thousandths of a second. My technique for Turn 1 in particular was very favorably compared to that of one of the instructors, who is an IndyCar driver – needless to say I felt very happy when I heard that!

Beneath the mask lurks a broad smile of satisfaction!

However…ego trips are punished very hard and quickly in racing, as I was brought back to earth to learn one of the cardinal lessons of performance driving: You must start with absolute comfort in the car. It was a hard lesson: Normally, you have a custom-fitted seat, which entails sitting on a bag full of foam paste that molds exactly to your body as it dries into a solid foam. But because we were sharing cars with another group, all of us had to grab seat cushions which were either foam pieces, or discarded pieces of seat molding. These were more than enough to do the job.

Electrical gremlins strike - off to hydrate real quick on a hot, sweltering day

But while the mechanics fixed an electrical issue in my car, I accidentally misplaced one of the foam pieces I was using. As a result, I could not get quite comfortable in the car for the second session on day 2. While I still posted consistent, competitive times at the sharp end of the grip, they were not as fast as I knew car and driver were capable of. The loss in time (tenths, hundredths, thousandths) was very painful indeed. This goes to show you that performance driving starts with making your car fit like a glove!

Absolute speed starts with absolute comfort

With the comfort and electrical issues resolved, the third and last session of the second day was an absolute joy. “Dialed-in” once more, I had absolutely no problems getting the most of what the car had to offer. Because of the difference in track temperatures, none of us could approach our times from the previous day, but felt I scored a small, personal victory when one of the other drivers told me he was surprised I was running the times I was posting with the track conditions we were all experiencing.

Car back "on song," driver back on point - blistering laps in NJ heat

It was a great recovery from the second session, but again it’s all about smoothness and consistency. I’ve heard it so many times that it seems cliché, but when you get into a rhythm, driving becomes instinctive, an activity that you almost do without thinking – and you get into a zone when the strains on your body and the scream of the engine become ways through which you feel absolutely connected with the car. I found myself here, in a place where you discover ever tighter levels of connection and concentration, allowing you to reach higher levels of performance, almost with each lap. This is what I love about what I do, and I hope to continue doing it as much as I can.

The smile is back - a great recovery

In the end, all the instructors – as well as some of the other coaches and drivers - said I really should be racing, at this point. Obviously, I agree, but as you well know there’s the not-so-small detail of not having a budget. A small consolation is that at least I was able to qualify for my SCCA Full Competition License, which means that I am able to drive anything in any SCCA-sanctioned event. Now all I need is the opportunity for sponsorship, so that I can show everyone what I can do.

Kid's fully legal now - Sorry, address redacted for security reasons

I want to thank you very much for reading this – I am actually starting a regular video vlog as well, where I’ll be sharing more news and details not only about my driving, but about motorsports in general, all from my perspective. I look forward to bringing you some great content. Stay tuned!

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