“Looks like you brought a grenade launcher to a gun fight”

“Looks like you brought a grenade launcher to a gun fight”

That’s what one observer said when he saw the #01 Superlite SLC at the 13 Hour Charge of the Headlight Brigade at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) this weekend. And while we avoided actual gunplay, we did have a pretty intense fight happening on the track, where the 13 hour race would unfold with lots of drama.

Team Superlite Cars brought the NASA Super Unlimited National Championship-winning #01 car to the enduro to validate the complete vehicle package in the grueling conditions of a 13 hour race. It was clear that we had the speed to be a sprinter—but could we also run the marathon, with the different requirements that that discipline required? In simpler terms, we were fast, but could we last?

Now, keep in mind that the longest the SLC had ever run before was the 45-minute National Championship race, and that this was only the cars 5th race weekend ever. And that we’d added several hundred pounds of weight with a new air-jack system and some other mods. We also had a different engine for the enduro (a completely stock LS3 that meant we had about 200 less HP than we’d been running all year). Even worse, we were restricted to running DOT-legal tires, instead of our really grippy regular race slicks, so we had a new setup to deal with. And in what would turn out to be a crucial change, we had to modify the fuel system to reduce the capacity to 25 gallons, down from 28.

It was also our first enduro, so we knew we had a lot to learn.

But we also had a lot of confidence in the basic package, and thought that at least some of the NASA experience would translate to the enduro. We wanted to do more testing, and so we ran a test day on the Thursday before the race to shake down any problems from the changed configuration. We even had the car on a dyno, and validated that it was indeed a healthy LS3. While we we there, we leaned the car out a bit to try to improve fuel economy. We knew that all of the other cars were planning on stopping much less frequently than us for fuel, so a powertrain with the right combination of economy and power was key. During the dyno session, the transmission oil cooler split, and dumped that familiar nasty-smelling trans fluid on the dyno floor, but we patched it up, and then went out for a few sessions, mostly to try to establish fuel economy figures, and give our new driver lineup a chance to get some seat time in the car.

This was important, since only Ryan Ellis, our regular driver, actually had any time at all in the car- none of the other drivers had ever been in the car. We had a great driver lineup, starting with Ryan, and adding Josh Hurley, VW TDi Cup winner and a successful GrandAM driver, Norm Goldrich, a very experienced IMSA driver, Daytona 24 hour winner, and NASA Super Unlimited competitor, and Victor Seaber, head of the VIPER organization based at VIR. All of them got a limited amount of time in the car, and all were able to turn very fast times in the race, despite only a few laps each before their race session. That speaks very highly to their skills, and to the overall stability of the car, even as the setup had changed radically since the NASA race season.

Friday, the day we had to qualify, was cold, And very wet, as rain pelted the track surface, causing running streams that coursed over the track, and pooled in places where you didn’t want to hit standing water- like the front straight kink. The weather was supposed to be dry when we were doing tire planning for the race, but we’d brought rain tires for the race as a caution. However, all we could find in our size that we wanted to spend were street tires. We thought this would be a reasonable compromise. This turned out to be a mistake, as we couldn’t get heat in them, they wouldn’t evacuate water fast enough to keep the car pointed straight, and were just generally frightening once they actually got on a wet track. The local race tire places didn’t have anything in our size, or had plenty of good rain tires that weren’t DOT-legal.

So we went to Plan B and began canvassing other teams to see if we could cadge a set of rains- any DOT-legal rains would do. As luck would have it, Mitchum Motorsports was there running a Miata or two for some customers. They also run a Camaro in the GrandAM GS class, and had that car there for display. It turned out that they also had a spare set of rains for the Camaro, right there in the trailer. They were much smaller that our regular size tires, and looked somewhat comical in the rear, where they were tucked waaay inside the fenders. They were too small to put on our rear wheels, and a little narrow for even the fronts, but we mounted all of them on 4 front wheels and slapped them on the car. They were a different height, and so we had to adjust the wing and overall rake. But they were all we had. And they were actual rain tires.

Unfortunately, we acquired them just as the qualifying session was closing, so we didn’t get any time.

As a result, we were gridded last in a field of over 60 cars.

We were confident that wouldn’t last long, and started Ryan, as he had the most experience in the car, and also some rain experience with the SLC.

By the end of his first stint, he’d brought the car from last to around 5th or so, and pitted for Josh to take over. He had set some rocket-speed times in that stint, just screaming by cars as if they were welded to the pavement as he knifed through the field, passing cars in groups. There was one small problem, however, and that was that the car had picked up a stumble we hadn’t seen before. It was so bad that by the end of the first stint, Ryan was actually getting passed on the straights by Miatas. But he was still turning the fastest times of the race, despite the terrible loss of power. In a reversal of the norm, the SLC was now being driven like a momentum car, making up lost time on the straights by high corner speeds, and some very deep braking. But the stumble would prove to be a decisive factor as the race unfolded.

Nevertheless. that was an amazing opening stint, and got the attention of pretty much everyone in the paddock. We had yet to finish the race, but we were on a mission!

With the car firmly in striking position of the lead, and the track beginning to dry, new DOT Hoosiers were mounted, and with a fresh fuel load, Josh took over and began to pound out a series of fast laps that would eventually catapult the SLC into the overall lead for 19 laps.

Eventually he, too, pitted with the dreaded stumble, which we were beginning to believe was fuel starvation. We knew we had plenty of fuel on board, so we weren’t actually running out of fuel in the tank, but it was clear that the engine wasn’t seeing what it needed. After a few fuel cycles (during which we would lose 2-3 laps each) we began to see that it was clearly fuel-level related. The car would run fine for about 20 minutes, then begin to falter, getting progressively worse until it almost didn’t have enough power to make it up the pit road into the pits. We thought that the fuel displacement devices we had inserted into the fuel cell to reduce the capacity to a enduro-legal size were actually being sucked up against the inside of the bladder where the outlet was, blocking the fuel flow. The simple way to make our sprint-legal fuel cell smaller turned out to be an Achilles heel, as we now had an effective tank size of about 10 gallons or so before we began to signs of serious power loss due to fuel starvation.

So we threw out our carefully planned strategy (we had computers, and spreadsheets and everything), and began thinking about how we could last- and hopefully win- with an engine that would only run at full power for 20-30 minutes, and would need a refuel every 30 minutes, instead of the 90 we had originally calculated would be needed to win. We now knew what was meant by the expression “Men make plans, and God laughs at them!”.

Our new plan was simple: overpower the opposition with our superior lap times, even as we would pay a terrible price for having to stop for fuel 2-3 times as often as we had originally planned.

It was a brilliantly simple plan that would have worked, given the speeds the SLC was turning when it was healthy.

But then the enduro gods turned away from us and we had a series of small disasters, each of which were recoverable, but as a whole, made life very much more difficult.

To put these in context, remember that the final result was that the SLC finished on the lead lap, after 13 hours of intense racing. The team was less than 2 minutes from capturing the overall win as the checkers waved.

· We served two penalties (a stop-and-go, and a 2-minute stop and hold) for allegedly passing under yellow. We disagreed, but those penalties were served. They cost about 4 minutes in total, against the two minutes we lost the overall win by.

· We broke another cooler- this one during the race itself- and had to go back behind the pit wall for repairs, where a replacement engine oil cooler was fitted, and the car sent back out, but not before losing 10 or 15 minutes of time. Absent that, we surely would have had, and maintained, a comfortable lead.

· Because the rules stated that the drivers had to be out of the car when refueling, the driver change process was key. We lost 3-4 minutes in a couple of problem driver changes in the race. Just having the belts buckled up faster would have made the difference and made a third place podium into a first place podium.

· And finally, the last stint was when we were going to go all out to let Ryan loose the dogs of enduro war, with no artificial rev limit (we’d imposed a rev limit of 5000 RPM in the race to conserve fuel, as we thought we were fast enough as it was, and didn’t need the extra 2000 RPM we had in reserve). We thought if we gave him a stint that was short enough that he could go flat out without the persistent fuel stumble, he could make up the time we were behind. He made up most of it, and got back on the lead lap, stalking the leaders with consistently fast times. But the times weren’t as fast as we knew the car was capable of running. The crew was puzzled, but grateful anyway that the car had indeed finished the race, and on the lead lap.

It all made sense when the car came in after the race: Ryan rolled out of the car and headed for the pit wall – coughing, and barely able to breathe. It turned out that the right-side muffler had broken off, and he was being poisoned by CO that was coming back into the cockpit. So he had driven a courageous stint, with still very fast times, even as he was gradually being suffocated by an ever-slowing car.

That last stint pretty much typified the weekend for us- extreme performance, extreme sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. The drivers who were able to go fast and stay out of trouble, the crew who worked tirelessly (Dan, Toby, Mark and Wade all did their usual superb jobs, working through the night to get the car ready and make changes before the next session), and of course Fran, who had the vision and the ability to lead to make it all happen. None of it would have happened without them.

Maybe we didn’t win overall in our first enduro. But we learned a lot from the race, all of which goes back into the program to make the SLC even more formidable as a street, track and race weapon.

Even if the car is so fast already that some people think it’s like bringing a grenade launcher to a gun fight!
Great write up as usual Will. It was like being there while reading it. Congrats again to all involved! Driving up 57 spots with the fuel window handicap is ridiculous. Incredible.
Again, Will excellent report on race. I'm sure all of us at home where excited and waiting to hear what was going on.
Thanks for putting some "visuals" to the timing data stream that we were watching yesterday. It was a supurb race and a very well deserved podium! Congratulations to all!
Nice write up Will and Thank You. It was a good read. Congrats to the whole team for the impressive results. The fact that there were all those problems and the teams ability to deal with them, combined with the overall performance of the car makes the finishing position even more impressive than, dare I say it, an overall win.

Well done.