2002 SCCA Ft Myers National Tour

There's nothing quite like spending time in Florida in February, and the decision to move the Meridian, Mississippi National Tour to Florida on the weekend following the Pro was simply brilliant. Lying by the pool, lounging in the hot tub, chasing a stupid little white ball all over a golf course... that's the way to spend February.

But all too soon, the week was over, and it was time to go racing again.

Tours use a different format than Pros - instead of 12 runs over the same course with standing starts, you get two sets of 3 runs (on two different courses) spread over two days, and the starts are usually set up so that you cannot launch into the run.

Pros play to my strengths. Tours magnify my weaknesses. But the Tour format is also the format used at the National Championship in September, so it's good to get as much practice as I can in it. And strangely enough, when this event was run in Meridian, I managed to win it both times, so I guess that makes me the defending champion of sorts.

On Friday, they set up a little practice course, and you can take up to six runs on it. On my first practice run, the car is all numb and slidy and hard to drive, but with successive runs (taken pretty well back to back) the car came in, and pretty soon I was turning competitive times. All the usual suspects are there, plus an older M3 with a new M3 motor stuffed into it that looks pretty quick. Feeling pretty pleased, we waited for practice runs to finish, and went out to walk the course.

"Death by Slalom" pretty well sums it up. Long slalom, followed by a couple of kinks, followed by a long slalom, followed by a couple of kinks, followed by a long slalom, yadda yadda yadda. Not a particularly technical course, but very, very busy.

Saturday AM comes along, and with it comes the weather from Meridian - cold, wet, and miserable; I mean, just NASTY.

This makes things interesting. You would think that an AWD car would have a massive advantage in the rain, but I don't own any rain tires any more. Instead, I'm on "might as well be slicks" Hoosiers (that don't like the cold either) and the car is set up way too stiff for these conditions. I normally can borrow rain tires from some friends with an FS Mustang (did you know that Mustang Bullit wheels bolt right up to DSMs?) but FS is running in the same heat, so no dice - we'll be on the Hoosiers. We put the shocks on full soft, and hope for the best. Eric and Kent (in Eric's single turbo Supra) are on Kumho inters, as is "Catfish" Sammy Strano (who is afraid of Marcus's Mustang in ESP, and so is bottom-feeding SM in an attempt to win tires)

And then something even more interesting happens: the rain stops, the wind picks up, and the course starts to dry out.

My first run, I have no idea how the car is going to behave, so I'm more than a little timid, basically feeling the car out. The time, accordingly, sucks, but I do learn that there is a good deal more grip than I thought. The second run, I push a lot harder, but the car is all numb again and I'm having a lot of trouble keeping it under control. Three cones from the finish, it gets away from me, and I spin it - and the time sucks. The last run, same problem. I almost lose it in a different section, but I reel it in (bleeding away time in the process) and manage to put a clean time down (even though it's not very impressive, at least it's far better than my first two times)

Well, that's it then. I'm something like 6 seconds off the lead, and there's no way I'll ever be able to make that up. We're done then. We're sitting 10th.

Weather sucks.

But with no money on the line and no series points (Tours are stand-alone events) this is an opportunity to practice and learn. So we can't win this one - so what? We'll see what we can do tomorrow.

The crew chief and I discuss why the car felt so numb, and we guess that the tire pressures never came up like they did in the back-to-back runs during the practice session. Accordingly, we make a big jump in tire pressure, re-stiffen the shocks, and go home to sleep.

Sunday AM. New course, but cut very much from the same cloth as the first. The weather is back to sunny and warm.

With the first run, the car feels MUCH better, so it seems the tire pressure call was correct. I start leaning on the car a little, and the times are coming down. We're still off from where we should be, but that appears to be more of a course flow problem than anything technical. With all these slaloms, there's a lot of time in anticipating where the course goes, and in a couple of sections I'm anticipating in the wrong direction and losing a little time each time.

But we follow the same strategy we used in the Pro - every run, find two or three areas for improvement, and work on those specifically in the next run - and it seems to be working. The times come down to what I consider the lower edge of "competitive" and are in fact good enough for 5th place on the day; 1.5 seconds back instead of 6. It's almost enough to move me up a spot, but Kent winds up 0.007 seconds ahead of me in 9th. Shades of last season!

We finish 10th, but good progress has been made, and good things have been learned, so it turns out to be a positive experience. Best of all "Catfish" gets beat by the BMW, so no tires for you Sammy!

So far, this bodes well for the coming season. The car feels good, I'm starting to get my confidence back, and nothing broke.

There's a couple of months before the next race, and for the first time in a long time, I actually can't wait for it to arrive.