2002 DSM Shootout

Every year, the Diamond Star Motors Shootout (held by Buschur Racing) draws the DSM faithful back to Norwalk Ohio. Over a thousand lovers of the Eagle Talon, Mitsubshi Eclipse, and Plymouth Laser (plus some random Galants and 3000GTs/Stealths) converge for two days of drag racing, autocrossing, and bench racing.

I have a real love-hate relationship with this event.

On the one hand, I get to hang out with a whole different crowd than I normally do. Single-marque events like this are like a great big family reunion. You get to touch base with a lot of people who you really only see in person once a year, including a small but enthusiastic cadre of "fans" who follow my season via the Internet and these articles. It's always great fun to see old friends and make new ones. Some drivers hate PR stuff, but I genuinely enjoy talking to people.

On the other hand, this is the single highest-pressure event of the year.

The issue at hand is that most of my sponsors make parts specifically for DSMs. "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" is never truer than at the Shootout. When the team does well in front of a thousand potential customers, the phones ring at the order desk. When we don't do well, no matter what the reason, then the phones don't ring. Autocrossers get precious little exposure; the Shootout is the DSM-tuner-industry equivalent of prime-time TV coverage.

My sponsors are more than just business associates, they are my friends. I want to see them get value for their money, and that means doing well.

The truly frustrating part is that the events at the Shootout aren't what we normally do. I almost never do any drag racing any more (I don't want to risk a season by breaking the driveline) and while there is an "autocross" at the Shootout, it has little more in common with a real ProSolo than the name - the issue is the site. Pro autocrosses take place on huge grippy concrete pads, with lots of room for manoeuvre and highly technical courses. The Shootout Autocross is held on a series of narrow and slippery "streets" that make up the RV park for the dragstrip, and due to so little running space, winds up being a slow, tight exercise in "death by slalom". It is totally unlike anything we see in the course of the season, and doesn't give us the opportunity to really show what we are capable of.

It's a bit like putting an F1 car on a go-cart track. Yeah, it's going fast and turning, but it's not the same.

This year was made even worse by the fact that I missed last year's event when the car broke two days before it was time to compete. Driving to Norwalk to explain to the sponsors that I wasn't going to be there with a running car was one of the lowest points of my career to date. I owed these guys. They got cheated out of their investment last year, and I was determined that this not happen again.

And to add even more uncertainty, this would be the first time on a dragstrip in two years. It would be the debut of the GEMS ECU, the FP Big28 turbo, and the TRE transmission, and I had no clue at all how they would hold up. The ECU in particular I had no real handle on where the state of tune was, and it was absolutely necessary that I not blow up, and that I go faster than I had before.

So I showed up in Norwalk more than just a little bit worried. "Terrified" was more like it.

The first day was the Autocross, and the course was every bit as tight and nasty as I was afraid it would be.

Lest anybody think I'm ripping on the organizers, their hands are totally tied. The site sucks, and there's no alternative site within 50 miles. What's more, well over half the competitors every year are driving in their first event, and are well into "red mist mode". If the organizers try and open up the course, then it's really easy for newbies to get in over their head and have a high-energy agricultural excursion. Put in enough cones to slow the newbies down, and then you get guys like me whining about how tight the course is. It's a total no-win situation, and I blame nobody for erring on the side of safety. It's just really really frustrating. I want to put on a good show, and the site just doesn't allow it.

As it turned out, I was a good second faster than every other car there. Unfortunately, I also hit cones on all those fast runs, and my only clean run was mere thousandths on the unhappy side of the winning time, so I wound up third. A moral victory, if not an actual one. Hey, you gotta be fast AND clean to win, and I didn't put that together, so more power to the guys that beat me. Good job guys.

Then, the next day, and the dreaded drag race.

Happily enough though, I had come up with a strategy that would minimise my exposure to disaster but maximise my sponsor exposure. I would attempt to qualify for the Quick 8 class.

Like the name suggests, the Q8 is for the eight quickest cars. Entrants get three qualification runs, and then the top eight qualifiers run off in single-elimination for the overall win.

No way was I going to qualify. Not in my wildest dreams. Not unless 20-odd cars spontaneously combusted. But I'd be qualifying alongside the big spectator draw cars, so when people ran to watch them, they'd see me too. Make three runs, and Bob's yer uncle - my sponsorship commitment upheld, my exposure to the buying public maximised, and my exposure to driveline damage minimized.

Everybody wins, and that's a good thing.

But it was equally important that I be fast. Running Q8 with the big boys and going slow would be embarrassing - and counterproductive. So it was with no small amount of butterflies that I pulled up to the line for my first qualification run. Oh, and to add that last little twist, we were running a 0.400 Pro tree, not the 0.500 bracket tree. I've never run a 0.400 all-the-yellows-flash Pro tree in my LIFE!

The lights flashed, and I immediately lost my freakin' mind. Got a good launch, but then threw the 1-2 shift way too early and bogged it. Missed the 2-3 shift entirely. And then managed to erase the data log from the run. And it was SLOW - 13.3 @ 100 or so! Arrrgh!

When I lined up for the second run, all the nerves and butterflies were gone. It's funny, but once competition starts, the red mist falls into place, and the nerves go away. I was bound and determined not to screw up again. The drive went better, but the result was similar: 13.2 @ 106.

The 106 was encouraging, because that was actually a record MPH for me. But I was getting monster wheelspin off the line, and the ECU logs revealed that the engine was absolutely drowning in fuel, to the tune of 10:1 to 9.5:1 A/F ratios!

What's more, boost was falling off to 18 PSI through the traps from a wastegate set pressure of 24 PSI. On the plus side, the car wasn't knocking at all, and the EGTs were nice and cool, in the 1400F range. It didn't look like I was going to hurt it, but it was SLOW SLOW SLOW

So I pulled some fuel out of the map, added a degree of timing, and made sure to line up in the rubber laid down by the car preceding me for my last run. And then I noticed who I was running up against - John Shepherd, who drives the fastest drag race DSM in the world.

Lights flash and I'm gone. It hooked better (but not perfect) and I ran 12.8 @ 106 - but I treed the hell out of Shep and beat him to 60' Ha!.

DG treeing the hell out of John Shepherd

Thank freakin' God! A 12! That at least backed up my performance from 2 years ago, with a new record MPH. Still WAY slower than it should have been, but at least I was no worse off than I had been previously. The sponsors were happy, I was happy, and the car wasn't broken. A victory!

And then we got a nice surprise. For the first time ever at a Shootout, Mach V was sponsoring an "Ultimate DSM" prize, awarded to the fastest combination autocross and drag time. Thanks to a strong autocross performance and a decent drag time, we won! So it looks like we're the "Ultimate DSM" for 2002. And along with that came a $500 gift certificate from Mach V, so that made for a decent enough weekend after all. Thanks guys!

It is clear though that the car needs a lot more tuning before I can pull off the 11 that I know it is capable of, and the fuel computer in particular needs a lot of work, so I'll be seeing to that right away.