The 2003 Offseason was a regular whirlwind of activity. Unfortunately, your average whirlwind is more an agent of chaos than anything else, and so was our offseason.
Firstly, after the disaster that was the 2002 National Championship, it became clear that there was a lot that we didn't understand about the car. Same surface, same tires, same conditions, two days later, and the car goes from a championship winner to an absolute dog. "Frustrating" doesn't even begin to describe it.
Of course, it's one thing to bitch and moan, and it's another to do something about it. So we decided to knuckle down, go back to square one, and start learning all we could while throwing away all the assumptions we had made over the past few seasons. Assume everything we knew was wrong, that all our successes had been primarily luck, and start from scratch.
A good chunk of the motivation for doing this came from a discussion we had with Carroll Smith. Carroll came to Nationals (courtesy of the hard work arranging the visit by Hoosier Tom) and we had an opportunity to grill him at length. His advice - measure and model the car, learn what it was doing (right and wrong) and then start fixing the mistakes.
So we did - and the results are chronicled on the Car page.
Alongside of this work, we also knew we needed more racing-specific education beyond just the usual books. So we enrolled in a Claude Rouelle Seminar which wound up being a fantastic idea. 42 hours of instruction in three days, and the lion's share on the vehicle dynamics stuff Carroll had advised I work on. Not only did I learn a ton of useful information, but I also got to rub shoulders with some pretty impressive people and make some nice contacts (which has paid off!) I'm thinking of making this an annual affair. (Consider yourself warned Claude!)
Most of the results of this offseason work have been overwhelmingly positive, with one major exception. Part of our "measure and model" process was to do a bunch of shock work. ShockTek, our former damper partner, had done a lot of good things for us, but one item noticeably missing was that they failed to ever provide shock dyno sheets. As a result, we really had no idea what the shocks we had were actually doing. We needed to fix that, and as we had suspicions that the ShockTeks were tuned to a different spec than what we needed, we needed to find a new damper partner to either work with the ShockTeks or provide different shocks.
Ultimately, we went to a company called Moriss Dampers, partially because a good friend had used them with good results, but also partially because their office and shop was located 3 blocks away from my workplace. I have learned the value of being able to keep a close eye on suppliers....
As it turned out, Moriss was a complete and utter waste of my time. Not only did they renig on every promise ever made, not only did I catch the proprietor in a number of bald-faced lies, but I also watched them screw customer after customer. Deadlines meant nothing to them. At one point, the average turnaround time for a set of shocks was over nine months (no matter what the promised delivery date was). Even worse, 90% of the parts for these shocks were bespoke, meaning that if you needed spares, the downtime was every bit as bad as if you needed new shocks from scratch. And as a final injury, the shocks were grossly over-engineered, meaning that they weighed at least three times more than they had too - this has value in a rally application (where durability is more important than anything) but for us - no.
So after 6 wasted months, I got the hell out of Dodge, and started working directly with Bilstein on my own - with much, much better results.
Even so, extracting one's self from a bad partner/supplier relationship is every bit as nasty as going through a bad divorce. I'm not just the driver and the engineer, I'm also the team owner, and this sort of crap weighs heavily on me - not the sort of thing for building team morale.
And then there was the other thing....
As I've mentioned before, I'm not a rich man (from a motorsports perspective) It's all I can do to keep the operation above water sometimes, and I rely heavily on the contributions of sponsors.
Sponsors fall into two categories: there's the "contingency sponsor" who provide some level of assistance (sometimes money, sometimes free or reduced-price product, sometimes special service or lead time on new products) but usually only as a reward for performance. In other words, "win first, goodies later". Contingency sponsors really, really help out a lot, but sometimes it can feel like a bit of a Catch-22 - no goodies without a win, no win without the goodies.
But there's another kind of sponsor; much, much rarer, and much more precious - the sponsor who will take a chance on you and your operation, and provide assistance before you ever get anywhere. These guys are taking a hell of a chance, because there's no promise that any of their investment will EVER pay off. From their point of view, it's money pissed right out the window, on the off chance that it might fertilize a flower or two when it lands. Wanna guess at the percentages of that ever working out?
I've got a number of these sponsors: Buschur Racing, Forced Performance, TRE Transmissions, and Clutch Masters. ShockTek, when they were still in business, were one of these guys too. None of these companies are big multinational conglomerates that can write off sponsorship costs - when these guys give, they feel it. And what's more, most of them have their core business centred around DSM drag racing, meaning that what I do is on the fringe of the fringe. None of them had any reasonable expectation of seeing ANY payback for their contributions.
And then a freaking miracle happened, and we won the ProSolo SM Championship, and on top of that, the really big deal Honda Street Challenge Championship.
This is huge stuff. This is on par with Allan Kulwicki (the privateer Winston Cup driver, backed by small-fry sponsor Hooters) managing to win the Winston Cup back in the early 90's. This is like Minardi managing to win the F1 Driver's Championship (which has never happened, and is likely never to happen). To be sure, ProSolo is more than a few rungs down the ladder from Winston Cup and F1, but within the context of our sport, this is huge news.
Against all realistic expectations, I managed to pull out the goal that would actually see some sort of payback for the people who had faith in me and my operation. While I'd never be able to deliver national TV and the front page of USA Today, at least I'd be well covered by the SCCA house media, which has reasonable and decent exposure. This was going to be as good as it ever got.
And then.... nothing.
The coverage in SportsCar (the SCCA house magazine) was practically an afterthought - no pictures, just a little sidebar to their Nationals (the amateur event) coverage. It should have been front-cover news, but we got nothing - certainly no sponsor mentions. And then, to add insult to injury, the SCCA website didn't cover the results AT ALL. It was like the event didn't even exist. In fact, I'm bringing the trophies with me to the 2003 DSM Shootout just so I can actually prove that I really did win, and didn't just make the whole thing up.
The SCCA really let me down, and even after I gave the principals an earful when I ran into them at PRI (which was tough to do, because I consider these people to be my friends) nothing improved.
A precious, precious opportunity was lost, and there's no promise that it'll ever happen again.
That too was weighing heavily on my mind, and in fact, it totally sapped all my motivation for getting ready for the upcoming season. I skipped the Florida race for the first time in four years because... well, why spend the money? Why make the investment when there was not going to be any payoff?
I came very close to quitting racing at that point, or at least, maybe going back to drag racing where at least I knew I could generate the kind of press that the sponsors deserved. Steve Johnson, are you taking notes?
There was, however, one little ray of sunshine.
A crew from HiRev Tuners came out to Nationals last year, and thanks to a timely nudge from King Underdog Hayward Wagner (the only SCCA official to ever understand marketing) they filmed an interview with me. I expected nothing from it, but as it turned out, they actually aired the segment and included a nice chunk of their interview with me -including a crawl down the side of the car where all the sponsors got airtime. Hooray!
Strange, huh? I can't get exposure in the SCCA house organ for love nor money, but then actually deliver some national TV. Go figure.
So I finally managed to extract myself from Moriss, get my car reassembled, and work up the motivation to go testing - but that's another chapter....