Steve Cook: Driving at Sonoma Historics 2015

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Steve Cook offers his take on racing at the 2015 Sonoma Historics

I accepted Mike Kearney's (car owner and Seven Enterprises' co-owner) invitation to participate in the race, but to say that I was a bit nervous about my “guest drive” in the vintage-style “Junior” Mini is an understatement. Doug Peterson often drives this car, and I've been a fan of Doug's since I first watched him race at Sears Point in “The Black [Fortech] Mini” (in 1975 I think ) and watched several of his Runoff wins. Also, this was my first race weekend in a Mini, though I had a lot of front drive GT4 experience back in the 1990's, winning the SCCA Runoffs in a Honda CRX in 1997. Add in the rivalry between several other Mini racers there, and I felt more than a bit of pressure to give the #11 car a good outing. Mike K. had a plan, and it worked almost to perfection. More on that later…

For Friday’s first practice, Mike had a set of well-used tires on the car. I was concerned, but it was part of a greater plan. We would be on optimum rubber for the important sessions to come. The used tires gave me a feel for the car's behavior on less-than-new tires, exactly as it would be for the first laps of the race on new but cold tires. I spent the session working on lines that could be used with less grip on hand. We set respectable times and things looked good.

The second session we put on a lightly-used set, and the plan (again, there was a plan) was to pick up the pace. At the faster speed, a misfire presented itself when picking up full throttle exiting the carousel, turn number six. It felt like a fuel issue as it was only felt in that long higher-G left-hand turn. It was slightly felt in turn one, also a left. Everywhere else the engine ran with the expected and appreciated Fortech thrust. Late in the session, the engine coughed and dropped a cylinder. The safety crew pulled me in, and after a short cool down, Mike K. set to checking things out.

The misfire was a broken rocker shaft. Of course, Mike had a spare. He fitted the assembly after a complete cool down and draining of coolant, as a few head retaining nuts are removed to do the job. Then he set off to cure the misfire. Mike tested fuel pressure and found it on the high side. A quick resetting, a new set of spark plugs, and we were looking good for the qualifying race on Saturday.

We started the race in 13th spot; the race start was clean, and a more seasoned cold-tire Mini driver, Don Racine, made a nice move around me on my left for the position. With Dennis Racine in my mirrors, I put my head down and set off after Don, catching and passing him under braking in turn 11, the hairpin. A full-course red flag came out just before the end of the race for a major engine failure and subsequent spin and shunt by a Lotus Élan. We ended up in front of all the other Minis, but my best lap was .1 second slower than Don's best, so he would start in front for the main event race. Mike did some quick recon work and found that Don was on fresh rubber. We had fresh rubber for the race, that was the plan. Fresh sticker tires are 1 to 1.5 seconds a lap quicker for laps two to six versus scrubbed tires, if you could get the best out of them, or that's what I think Mike said.

Sunday was race day, and with a 9:30 start it was overcast, gray, and much colder than the previous sessions. The order of Minis was Don, me, Dennis, and Nick Martin. There was a Marcos between me and Don. I scrubbed the new tires like crazy on the pace lap. We weren't going to get swamped at this start! I got a better start, now knowing what to expect from the tires, and held the position behind Don. Don built a one second gap on the first lap, but that was quickly overcome with our now optimum fresh rubber. Going in to turn 11, Don protected the inside. I feigned an inside pass, and Don moved to cover. I jumped back to the left and with a longer arc, but more speed, made an outside pass. Yes, we passed a Mini in turn 11 on the outside!

The gap increased easily and soon I was on the tail of a Lotus 7. The Lotus had better straight line speed, but the #11 Mini was awesome through the high-speed esses. I passed the Lotus on the outside in turn 9, probably the fastest part of the track.

With clear track, the lap times dropped. The second lap was a 2:01.5. Lap three was a 1:59.2. Then we had a clear track and ran off a 1:58.4 followed by a 1:58.8. Three 1:59's followed and we had a 35 second lead over Dennis Racine as Don had pulled off with mechanical issues. On the 11th lap of an expected 13, we come to the “almost-but-not-quite” part of our weekend. Entering the esses, I made it cleanly through the left hand turn 8. As I turned right for 8A, the car pushed wide, and ran over the exit curb. When the tires dropped off the curb onto the soft dirt, the car hooked back onto the track and exited the track to driver’s right. During this I had taken off enough speed that the impact with the tire wall was slight, but our most awesome weekend was done. I was devastated and was reluctant to meet Mike in the paddock. But, he knew something I didn't. The next car through that turn complex had also gone off, up track from my display. That incident was much more serious and pointed to something on the track surface that had led to our “off”.

Mike, to his credit, was giddy. We had entered new territory with the vintage #11 Mini, the 1:58 bracket. Mike said if the incident had happened early in the weekend we would have pulled the dents in the fenders out and gone back out. Gotta love that kind of old-school racer attitude!

Mike has still more tweaks to do on the car to make those quick lap times more repeatable. Twin master cylinders, so we can be more rear brake balance. That will help the low speed corner entry as trail braking can help rotation. Lowering the front ride height will get done during the fender fix.

We pulled some nifty video from all the sessions with a Reply XD 1080i lipstick cam. Again, thanks to everyone at Seven, mostly of course Mike and Mary, and a good friend back in Seven’s machine shop, Steve Maxwell.

I bought my first car, a 998 Mini from Mike's brother Mark, back in 1974. I only had it for a few years, but it served me well. I met my wife of 35 years and some great people with that little car, and still call many of them good close friends.

Thanks Mike!

~ Steve Cook

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