By Jim • 

Sports Fan: Auto racing: Upper gears prove evasive again

It’s called “The Ridge,” which is an appropriate name for a race course that climbs a ridge, rises and dips through 16 turns in stunted forest land just outside Shelton, Washington.

Oh, there is a main straight, but after turn one, it’s an uphill climb, with a number of left and right turns that the driver perceives as “blind” until he and his machine power over the many crests offered on the challenging track, which was built in 2011 and is considered “in development.”

My first experience at the track, which I’d never seen before Friday, August 8, was a verbal mapping of the course by a fellow driver, who tried to explain the layout of the venue, where the apexes or turn in points and exit points were located. I think I lost the BMW driver at corner three or four — my mind’s eye was not processing the information quickly enough to “see” the corners clearly.

So when Saturday morning’s practice session began, I was a rookie on a brand-new course, one I’d only seen in a couple of videos, which really didn’t offer a true picture of the hilliness of the track, the blind turns (“Which way does this turn go?” I thought as I climbed several hundred feet and crested a rise.) Yes, I should have arrived early Friday for a track day, where some locals could lead me at reduced speeds around the venue.

But I had to deal with things as they stood, and as I began to pick up speed toward the end of the straight leading out of the pits, I noticed that the old bugaboo that plagued me during the Rose Cups at Portland International Raceway in June — no upper gears, at least on a regular basis — was still rearing its ugly head.

This problem was not overly serious on the ridge itself, as the twisty nature of that sector required only the lower gears, but coming out of turn 16 onto the main straight, I soon reached third, then struggled to engage fourth gear with my paddle shifter. Once in a while, fourth, maybe even fifth, would engage, but the engine was still over-revving (redline is 12,000 revolutions per minute), and I was afraid of blowing an engine in the first practice session, so I feathered the throttle at the end of the main straight, dropping down to third while climbing through the first series of turns.

It went that way for three laps of the early morning session, and since I was struggling to find four, five and six on a regular basis, I pulled into the paddock and sat in the car for a while, musing over the problem and how to solve it... with my limited mechanical skills.

A couple of drivers came by, stopped to chat and offer their input about the shifting problem. Several sounded like they knew what they were talking about, but for the next session, Saturday’s qualifying, my only crew member, wife Molly, and I agreed that we’d make one more effort with the same settings for the linkage.

Same scenario: three laps of qualifying, with the upper gears vague, and the engine crying out for mercy, which required backing off the throttle frequently during the short run. At that point, one of my group mates suggested we try an adjustment on the Flat Shifter system by moving the device slightly forward, hoping to engage the upper gears consistently.

Molly and I made the recommended changes, not confident that the result would be positive for the 20-minute Sports Car Club of America’s Northwest Regional race that afternoon. And, our intuitions were dead-on... unfortunately.

On the pace lap for the regional, I got up to speed on the twisty upper portion (“the ridge”) of the track, but when I reached the last series of turns before the straight, I realized the adjustment we had made was not the correct choice. Now, instead of having four gears or so, we had maybe three, so coming out of turn 16 for the green starting flag, I went from gently coaxing the paddle shifter to engage another gear to bullying the device to catch a higher gear and make the start.

Finally, realizing I was not improving things by forcing the issue, I pulled off the course as the green flag dropped and I watched my groups 2 and 9 mates speed off toward turn one, with me parked in the dirt. I waved my arms to get the officials’ attention, but they had a hard time seeing me over the concrete barriers, so I sat there, engine off, for about five minutes before a truck arrived to flat tow me to the paddock.

And what a ride it was! Since the track is still under development, some of the exit points from the track are not paved, so I was towed through dirt and rocks for over a hundred yards, scraping the low-slung belly pan of my P2 OMS sports racer at the high points. When I finally arrived at my spot in the paddock, Molly and I took the front body off the car and discovered a number of large rocks on the pan; many smaller rocks were imbedded in the still hot slicks, which we picked out before making the decision to end our weekend early and not attempt to make more adjustments to the shift mechanism and risk blowing an engine or worse.

So Sunday morning, when we returned to the track from our hotel in Olympia, we loaded the car into the trailer and said good-bye to our friends, forsaking Sunday’s practice and qualifying sessions and the afternoon race.

We dropped the car off at our mechanic’s shop in Aurora and agreed that we’d attend a track day session at Portland International Raceway sometime soon to work out the transmission bugs. Right now, we’re not sure if it’s the Flat Shifter system itself or some other problem.

Even at the highest levels in racing, I’ve discovered after over forty-five years of competing in sports car events, mechanical problems are not always easy to pinpoint. This time, I think, we’ll chase down the problem and get it right. As I learned early-on, you can’t win unless you finish.

That’s our goal at the next event — to be around at the checkered flag.

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