How To Get a Lola Indy/ChampCar on the Track
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This section is chocked full of my opinions so take it for what it is, or is not, worth.
How I got started in vintage racing: I retired a few years back and took the time to pursue the mechanical hobbies I had neglected in the previous ten years of building a business. Motorcycles were my passion from childhood. However, I soon learned that leathers are used to keep all the parts in one bag when you go down. Cars seemed much safer and, as it turns out, they are.
The first step was the Panoz school at Road Atlanta followed by a few runs of a Lotus Elise Sport 190 in HSR's Sports Challenge Group 1. A little investigation led to my next car, a Chevron B36 two liter sports racer. I spent the next year and a half learning how to stay out of other's way on the track. The next step on the ladder was a Chevy Spice GTP car. Although I spent 2003 running the entire BOSS series, I look forward to running the P car some in 2004.
I entered vintage racing as a big F1 fan. Somewhere along the way that changed. During one of the Atlanta events, I had a chance to watch Duncan Dayton come down the hill though turn 12 then lightly touch the brakes before turning in to one at about 150 mph and heading up the hill in Jacques Villeneuve's championship winning 1995 Reynard Indycar. It became obvious what my next challenge would be so I set off in search of an Indycar. I bought Scott Pruett's 1995 Lola Firestone Indycar and began the restoration process. The technology, construction fit and finish of Lola's cars is fantastic. The car came completely apart, all bits went out for crack testing, the engine was refreshed and the assembly process began. I did have to add some "Unser Bumps" at shoulder level just to fit in the car. Be sure to check you fit before you consider one of these things. Once complete, it was time to run the car.
A quick note about F1 cars. They are brilliant works of engineering art. I really wanted one. However, part of my joy comes from working on my own cars and thus I quickly came to realize that F1 cars were fun to look at but no joy to run. A modern F1 car (one running something newer than a DFR) is designed too close to the limit to be run reliably with a reasonable amount of work. Indy and ChampCars, on the other hand, are customer cars designed to run five hundred miles at an average of 230 mph without coming unglued. There is documentation, drawings and spares to be had along with a good supply of people in Indianapolis that know the cars. Lastly, Cosworth is very supportive of vintage racing and thus there is a ready supply of engine help. They are not as fast in corners as an F1 car, but, I think you will find they are every bit as fast in corners as a vast majority of amateur drivers want to go. In addition, they are competitive. Just look at Duncan Dayton's 49 in an Indycar at Road America versus Larry Connor's 51 in a 92 Benetton F1. Both run in the 10s at Road Atlanta. Lastly, I can afford to buy and run ChampCars.
The Firestone car was the first open wheel car I had driven. Combine that with very little information on setup apart from that provided by the Lola documentation and I was in for an adventure. It took three events to begin to come to grips with the car. We ran it too soft and too low. Once we moved from the old ChampCar inventory of tires to the new vintage tire (ChampCar molds used by the sportscar side of Goodyear to produce new 250 compound tires) and learned the new tires, I was in a position to learn how to drive the car. It has been two years and I am still learning. The following is a quick summary of the learning curve.
First, chuck the carbon brakes. The Firestone car came in speedway trim complete with carbon brakes. If you have never used them before, set them aside. An Indy/ChampCar in street course trim will pull over three Gs on the brakes with steel brakes while providing excellent feel and initial bite. Before I ditched the carbon brakes I had no confidence in stopping and was being passed by F5000s in the braking zone! Second, realize that these cars run a lot of down force, run close to the ground and thus are run VERY stiff. I run spring rates of 2200/2400 front and 1600/1800 rear. Running 1.3" front ride height and 1 1/4" rake with this spring package will have the car lightly touching over bumps at speed. Mortals need about 2 degrees negative camber in front and 1.2 in the rear. One eight total toe out in the front with the same toe in on the rear is a good starting point. With these spring rates, the cars have little mechanical grip. Use too much throttle on corner exit and you will melt the 250 compound tires off the car (as in chunk them in six laps at Road America on a hot day). The above will get you on the track with a safe setup.
Now that you are on the track, the fun starts. EVERYONE spins on cold tires, just watch the professionals. Get some heat in them before you think about accelerating leaving a corner by accelerating hard once the car is straight and braking hard in a straight line with plenty of margin before turn in. You will soon learn how to push the front through corners until you get bite. Do not think of trusting the rears until you can stand on it in second gear in a straight line. I have ripped a rear wing up spinning from pole at the start of a race. Pace laps should be used for lots of light the rears followed by threshold braking to get some heat in the tires. Even with this, you will feel like a sitting duck at the start. Get used to it and do not push your luck.
On average, I am five seconds a lap faster in the open wheel car when compared to the P car. For example, I last ran a 41 at Watkins Glen in the Spice and a 35 in the Shell car. I once thought G forces would be fun. They are not and it takes a lot of getting used to thinking and acting when your head is being ripped to one side. Try to imagine turning for an apex and correcting for the back stepping out when you next ride a very nasty roller coaster. I do not think there is a coaster around that gets you to a sustained 3+ lateral or longitudinal Gs. With some practice, you will get used to the beating and will come to appreciate learning how to turn in at previously unbelievable speeds. I still can not come close to a ChampCar's potential. For example, I know I can lift, downshift one gear and turn in to Road Atlanta's turn one at 150 mph in a ChampCar. I just know it. However, my brain will not let me stop brushing the brakes and turning in at 142! The car NEVER moves. It should; I just can not bring myself to do it. It is hard to push these cars on high speed corners.
On the flip side, all of my cars have been set up with stiff springs and no ride height support. This is a good place to start when you want to learn how the cars blow down at speed and how much of that movement is spring compression and how much is tire squish. However, there are two areas where this approach hurts you. First, you loose a tremendous amount of mechanical grip when the car is sprung so stiff. Second, ChampCars make more downforce as they get closer to the ground. By running stiff springs, the car only approaches the deck at top speed. 2005 will be devoted to two aspects of tuning. First, and most important, will be the introduction of ride height control. Spring rates will be reduced by 25% and third spring assemblies will be used to keep the car from hitting the deck. This will dramatically improve lower speed mechanical grip while allowing the car to run lower sooner. Hopefully the lap times will fall. The second tuning item will be dampers. To date, I have yet to touch a damper adjustment. The complexity of this subject really does require its own page. Please see Suspension for more information.
If this sounds like fun, you may want to check out how to get one and run it.
Updated Running Information
Tires have turned out to be an interesting issue. We have consumed the initial 250 compound tires with Goodyear having now produced a batch of the harder 470s. I will begin running the harder tires in 05 and will add my findings to this page.