Modified

For the past decade, my mind has been fabricated around this thought that cars should do what they are asked without putting up a fuss, and that they are entirely straight forward in their operation. To any car guy, this clearly indicates I haven’t had a project car in quite some time. There is something to be said about a car that’s “almost there” though.

This Super White 300ZX, for example, takes what I thought to be simple, and complicates it beyond all means. Ordinary things, like starting the car. Four attempts… The first three of which emitted noises that only mechanics love to hear. Despite this, the owner, Ashraf, loves his car. That may say something about Ashraf and his taste in cars, but more so I think it says something about our love of project cars.

Considering project cars in particular, one must appreciate and give credit to the eternal, perhaps unnatural optimism and restraint that a car guy possesses. In any enthusiast’s toolbox, there’s a wide array of destructive apparatus to put a car out of its misery, and yet the busted knuckles will prevail until that proverbial errant electrical glitch is solved (or found).

Ashraf’s 300ZX (much like this article) is a work in progress. It actually started off life as an N/A model, but was converted to TT (as it should be). It’s seen plenty of upgrades and work done, but it is nice to know that it is still being worked on. It’s effort to actually drive it but that’s just the nature of how it was built. It’s got a tricky clutch, it has manual steering, its not particularly quiet, but where it counts is in the speed department.

Quite a lot of time has passed from the last time I drove a car like this. A car who’s power delivery was… volatile. All of the mods have clearly done their job, and have done so very well indeed. Maybe it was my first impression of the car’s finicky nature that I didn’t fully trust that much forward acceleration, but I never really had enough time to fully feel comfortable with the Z. That depth of knowledge of a car’s intimate behavior is why Ashraf sees something in this car that I haven’t had the time to see yet. He knows what it can do, he knows what’s strong and what needs a bit of TLC.

Next spring, I’ll hopefully be able to spend more time with this machine but all of the stories of its build reminded me of one thing important. Project cars are like New Years Eve: Endless preparation and hype, one sleepless night of fun.. followed promptly by a massive headache and the uttering of “I’m never doing that again” but you always do it again anyway.

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The state of things.

“Formula 1, it seems, keeps getting ruined and it keeps getting better.”

Words from journalist, and idol of mine, Peter Egan in the October 1985 issue of Road & Track Magazine. Oh my, how those words ring true thirty years on. Egan of course was talking about the Detroit GP in that specific context, a race that Keke Rosberg stood upon the top step in the podium. This past weekend’s race in Brazil, it was Keke’s son, Nico, who took first place, but a lot of the same can be said about the current state of F1.

In the midst of ‘silly season’ with Marussia team folding last week, Caterham possibly close to follow suit, a controversial ‘double points’ final-race, awful sounding cars, it has become easy for me to find truth in Peter’s words when he says “Formula 1 has made so many heroic efforts to lose my support and suppress my enthusiasm, but has never succeeded, in spite of itself.”

It hasn’t lost my interest one bit. The dominance of Mercedes has absolutely nothing to do with why I think this 2014 season has been particularly exciting for F1. This season brought about the new engines, which lets face it, sets no one’s heart on fire. We also get to deal with some fairly silly tire rules which now puts the race in the engineer’s hands, as the driver cant push any more. Oye. Yet all of the panache, all of the excitement, the shrill feeling as you lean forward in your seat and watch the 5 lights go out… it’s all still there. The battle up front may simply be between two silver cars, but at Interlagos that race still went down to the wire. Hard fought positions for the remaining podium spot are also the kinds of things that keep me intertwined and watching every race… live (yes I’m one of those die-hard nutters that is up at the wee hours of the morning to watch). As well just a few weeks ago we saw an example of how things have drastically changed in the sport..

Bianchi’s crash in Japan is still very fresh in our minds, and although danger in motorsport used to be a draw for some, that thankfully isn’t the case any more. Safety is a change that each and every one of us are always thrilled to see, though it never enters our mind till something tragic does happen. It’s now a shock to see someone injured, let alone with the injuries that Jules suffered.

So despite all the new silly technical regulations, the ho-hum sound from the cars, the human element still remains. It’s not a video game. Yet.

Get better soon, Jules.

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Unnecessary Roughness

As most men (and some women) are apt to do, I’ve named my car. It’s a decree of personality bestowed upon a hunk of metal that otherwise would seem lifeless… or so I fool myself into thinking.

Through the years, luck has granted me the chance to wheel around a wide array of cars. Each and every single one leaves a certain impression, some more so than others (in both good and bad ways). Cars like the F458 are quite clear in their intentions to excite the inner teenage racer in you (even if you are 57), where others like the Hyundai Elantra ‘Blue’ went a different direction and listed the emotional experience in the name of the car.. There are hidden gems though, like the Ford Fiesta, which due to its eagerness to involve the driver is actually quite spritely to drive despite its humble HP rating. This begins the process of painting the picture for a car’s personality.
When it comes to my own set of wheels, neither a name, nor a personality made its self present for quite some time. This is most likely due to pampering it during the first few years in my possession. Big mistake. It was stored in winter. It was waxed regularly. It was quieter than the vacuum of space. It personified everything you expect from a Mercedes: do everything asked without fuss. There was one day though, where it decided to quit being such an introvert, and oddly enough it was at the most unexpected of all places.

Turning a wheel in anger was not what engineers had in mind when building the W202, and yet one day, I decided the C-class should have a crack at it. The first track-day experience was underwhelming. It leaned, it rolled, the tires roared in protest, but on the plus side, it soldiered through perfectly ok. Where other cars had over heated, boiled brakes, had to change tires or were driven on to a trailer after the day was done, all I did was turn the key in my ignition. So I did it again a few weeks later and took it to another track day. Surprises abound, it did the same thing: consistently underwhelming. This began to slowly expose the car’s tough-as-nails personality. An unshakable confidence in knowing it’ll be perfectly fine with any task at hand.

Empowered with this new knowledge, I began to abuse properly employ the car more and more. Some changes were made for her to cope with the high speed driving, but not much else was done. . . And that’s when it hits you. You just referred to your car in human form. A certain aspect of the car has found its way into your heart, and now you have gone out of your way to nurture it.

But there’s still something lacking. . . What the hell do you call the thing? Referring to your car as “she” or “her” just makes you indecisive, and you can’t really just throw a name at it. It has to fit. I settled for “Amy” simply because it’s one letter different from AMG. I wish my story were more exciting, but then again the car isn’t thrilling either. I also didn’t even like it at first, but I let it stay, and it stuck.

Funny though how once a name is applied, you start to find more and more to like, even if the car overall is mediocre. There are cars much more powerful, faster, better looking, better sounding, with lest rust and easier parts to work on. But I wouldn’t count on any other car to be this reliable. It has failed me to a count of zero times (aside from my folly of leaving the lights on..). Even non-mechanicals have been impressive in their own regard. Music pumped through the Bose stereo (with obligatory cassette adapter) is actually very crisp and clear. Plus those seats! They are the bench mark (pun?) by which I judge all other seats. Three hour journeys leave you fresh and invigorated.

So what would this make of a person? Amy, personified would be your friend that you were told to work with. Spending time quietly together with little interaction. That is until you went out for a few after work… Not the best looking, or most athletic, but never lets you down, always makes you look forward to the time you spend together, and lets you have a little fun when you want it.

Attachment is an unfortunate side effect. Since Amy still runs flawlessly, it will genuinely be tough to justify finding a suitable replacement. Time dictates this will happen soon, sadly. Listing the number of cars that can rival the previous accomplishments is a heavy task, though I am sure they are out there. Until that day comes, the RPM’s will still be used liberally.

What an amazing car.

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Chicagoland Petrolheads Help Tornado Victims

Never discount the positive impact that can be brought to the world by a handful of car guys. On Sunday Nov 24th, a group of friends, part of the “Chicagoland Petrolheads and Car Spotters,” organized a trip to help those at the center of the tornado outbreak earlier this month in central Illinois.

Packing their sports cars and SUV’s, the group of over a dozen car-enthusiast friends carried every need and necessity imaginable to the disaster stricken town of Washington Illinois.

Rather than just bringing down donations, the guys went ahead and called down state to ask specific things that they were in need of. Manna Thrift, a thrift store just outside of Washington, IL were humble and gracious in the donations of food, shovels, baby formula, hygiene products, and much more.

Together, the group brought more than 15 car-loads of goods, but more importantly, they lifted the moral spirit of the town as well. In a heartfelt message from Manna Thrift, a thank you to Chicagoland Petrolheads was written:

“It does my heart good to see young people doing the right thing even after hurdles were placed in their way. So glad we could be a part of it. Their excitement was contagious. Thank you my friends for reminding me why we do what we do. You inspire me to keeping pushing forward regardless of the obstacles we face.”

Roy, one of the Petrolheads that helped replied:

“Speaking for the Chicago Petrolheads and Car Spotter club: we appreciated your hospitality and want to thank you personally for the walking tour you gave us and for the eye opening stories you shared. To Kyle and everyone else at Manna Thrift: thank you!!!”

It is truly something else to see that this amount of good can still exist in the world. We should all be thankful and give some gratitude and appreciation to these guys. There would be too many names to list here for everyone involved, from those who drove down from Chicago with the donations, to those who helped in contributing items, and even those coordinating the event. I’d thank them as a whole. Well done Chicagoland Petrolheads and Car Spotters!
For more information, and to give a shout-out of appreciation, visit:

Chicagoland Petrolheads and Car Spotters
https://www.facebook.com/groups/134447813334101/

Manna Thrift Store
https://www.facebook.com/MannaThrift

Patrick Morgan is a Chief Driving Instructor for the Chicago Region SCCA.  He is a lifetime veteran of all things automobiles and is currently managing driver development for international racing sanctions. Patrick can be reached for questions atrackoutmultimedia@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter @pmorganracing.

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D’oh!

As hard as we try, we don’t always get it right. Yes, automotive journalists in general are fairly astute individuals. We read news papers. We study trends. A lot of times we even scribble notes at events in order to remember things. All of this comes in handy when our job calls upon us to use this insight and cast a prediction of the auto industry. A good amount of time, we hit the nail right on the head. Other times? Well, that’s what this article is for.

Predictions regarding the automobile industry have been around since the beginning of the automobile. News on new technology was, and always has been, a hot topic of automotive discussion. The ability to stay ahead of the competition is similar to a war tactic: predict the guy’s next move and beat him to it. What we are going to discuss here is the ability to get things completely wrong. Astonishingly so.

For the most part (sadly), safety is one of the things that comes from governmental regulations. While most manufacturers had innovative safety programs it was government mandates that made items standard, such as a three point seatbelt, airbags, and traction control. Of my research in this, airbags stood out. These little balloons of safety have been responsible for saving untold numbers of lives, but there were growing pains associated with their public acceptance.

Road & Track had an extremely in-depth look at airbags in its May 1979 issue. Being the automotive authority they are, one would think they could foresee the benefits and merits we see now today. That’s not so. Their language in particular was quite alarming as to how wrong we can sometimes be;

“R&T finds the airbag mandate to be a gamble at best, and at worst a formula for disaster for the nation’s highway safety objectives”

They didn’t just stop there. The even included a publisher-paid postcard that could be sent to Washington D.C. (including a 2nd card that could be passed along “to a concerned friend”). Of the 7 page article, there were maybe two or three small parts were they reported slightly positive news in that airbag inflation didn’t harpoon cigarettes into one’s throat, or harm those who wear eyeglasses.

What’s more interesting to look back on is the technology thought to propel our cars forward in the future. In the late 50’s, Paxton (our beloved manufacturer of superchargers) attempted to build a steam car called the Phoenix. Road & Tracks article on this was somewhat limited in scope due to the car being non-driveable. The power-plant its-self was the highlight of course, seeing as steam was not widely used in the automobile since the beginning of the century. The engine, a 6piston, 3 cyl, dual crankshaft unit had only seen dyno time and never was put in the car. Development hadn’t come along quite enough to make it a reality, and the whole project was ultimately scrapped.

In R&T’s January 1967 issue, they touched on the electric car, and also spoke words that resonate true nearly 47 years later.

“…any new power source must offer some advantages over the old while matching the old in most characteristics.”

Clearly, seeing the same issues over and over is not new. We haven’t just started playing with the electric car, in fact we’ve been at it for quite some time. One of the things we have been able to overcome in terms of similarities to gasoline engine is power. The Tesla Model S scurries to 60mph from a standstill at a remarkable 5.1 seconds. But two big problems remain: range, and charging time.

In the 1967 issue, they did cover range. To describe it as “optimistic” is a bit of an understatement. Research was submitted by Dr George Hoffman, a research engineer at the University of California. Unfortunately, all of his templates for range were for a car who’s battery weight was equal to 50% (!) of the car’s total weight. The batteries proposed were of the metal-air type, and understandably little was mentioned on how they would be re-charged, or how long it would take.

Same problems then, same problems now.

Range:

Tesla’s website has “over 300 miles” touted, but there’s some small print that needs to be read. This range is under ideal circumstances, at 55mph, with the bigger 85kw motor, in 70 degree temps, with no a/c… you can see where this is going.

Now, lets take another look at this. Most electric cars are usually geared for people who live in the city and don’t have to travel far. So you live in Chicago, you fell for Tesla’s as-advertised price, it’s winter and 32 degrees out, and you have ‘banker’s hours’ at work (you leave at 5pm). Well, if you factor in the advertised monthly price (the smaller power package is the one advertised), the probability that you enjoy staying warm, and it’s dark out, your 300 mile range is now 160 miles… Technically speaking, your range has been cut in half before you even open up the door. 160 miles is still impressive, no doubt. In fact, it’s likely more than you’ll need on any given commute to and from work. When it comes to charging, you’ll have to adopt a certain mentality: charge early, charge often.

Recharging:

Recharging is great when you have a 220/240v outlet available, but most common households only have these where a washer/dryer plugs into. Apartments in the city (which is generally where you’d think these cars are aimed) have an assigned patch of concrete for you to park on, but otherwise have little to no support for plug in vehicles. At time of writing, there’s a grand total of 4 public charging stations in the Chicago metropolitan area. I was unable to find any apartment parking areas designated as being friendly to EV’s.

To be fair, loose infrastructure is an argument that can be said of most alternative fuels, so lets not completely condemn the electric car for being slightly ahead of that. What does need to be noted as the biggest concern is the time it spends immobile, leashed to an electrical outlet. Again, using Tesla’s website, I dialed in a 40 mile range per day, with a 110v outlet to plug into. My charge time was over 12 hours. Albeit, if equipped with a 220v outlet this time is shortened, but still timed in hours rather than minutes.

The alternative.

So is it possible we are completely wrong about the electric car, such as we were with airbags? It’s quite possible. To sit here and not offer up a suggestion or alternative would make my entire article pointless so, I offer CNG. Compressed Natural Gas comes out of the ground at an incredibly high octane, and already the infrastructure is growing rapidly with a large number of fleet vehicles using the stuff. CNG runs with an internal combustion engine, so it’ll act exactly like a car acts, it’s refueling does not take any large percentage more than a gasoline fill-up, and importantly too, is safer.

Could I be completely wrong on my prediction that CNG will take over where gasoline will soon leave off? It’s possible. There’s a few reasons why I stand by CNG though. When you consider though that it does things much in the same way that gasoline does, with the added benefit of reduced cost, plus a cleaner burn, it’s hard to ignore it as an alternative. Plus with an expanding infrastructure for domestic fuel, there’s a substantial positive impact this will have on the US economy.

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Green racing.

When the word ‘motorsport’ normally enters one’s head, we tend to think of roaring engines, exciting action and impressive speed. What rarely is associated with the sport however is economy, CO2 emissions and the reduction of a carbon footprint. Despite this, Argonne National Labs has been using motorsport as the perfect test-bed for new energy efficient and energy conscious solutions for our current oil dependence.

In 2008, the initial Green Racing Protocols were published. This allowed for one centralized concept to be used by racing sanctioning bodies, auto manufacturers and others interested in the environment. Since then, several racing series have used this platform for racing, such as the European sanctioning body of FiA. FiA’s highest profile event, the 24 Hours of LeMans, has seen prolific use of the Green Racing Protocol, with E85 fueled Corvettes winning in their class, and Audi dominating in recent years with diesel and diesel-hybrids cars, in addition, Peugeot diesels and Toyota hybrids also have participated at this race.

Before a car is even filled with fuel, incredible environmental impacts have already begun to happen. Common perception of the green house gas emissions problem exists only from the time you put fuel into your car, until that burn fuel comes out of the tail pipe. The process of getting that fuel to your tank though is where Argonne National Labs has made a breakthrough. Its clear that automakers are looking to put something other than petroleum based products through their engines, and one alternative that Argonne Labs has put to the test is cellulosic E85. This is a bit different from the corn-based E85 fuel you currently see on the market. The differences are mainly down to what the Ethanol is made of (the “E” in E85 of course, standing for Ethanol). Current market E85 is made from corn, whereas cellulosic E85 uses other inedible plant byproduct, resulting in a much less expensive fuel, and more importantly a much easier and efficient processing of the fuel.

Factoring in the rigors of motorsport for testing, an LS3 V8 from General Motors (essentially what you’d find under the hood of a Corvette), was put on an engine dyno for comparison and testing of the two configurations the engine would take: one with a carburetor and 100 octane racing fuel (standard ‘tried and true’ racing engine configuration), and another configuration using a cellulosic form of E85 Ethanol with catalytic converters. The results in initial testing showed a lot of promise, and warranted the use of an E85 prepared engine in a stock car race. The confidence to go racing with an engine fueled by E85 should tell you one thing: the power is there. In fact on dyno testing, power was higher over most of the rev-band. It was now time to see if that would translate to a real-world environment.

October 2010, right in Illinois’ own back yard, the race car powered by the new engine ran at La Crosse Speedway for it’s first event. It placed a very respectable 14th out of 65 entries. But more importantly, this brought a cost conscious and energy conscious mindset to racing. See, over the course of the weekend, the equivalent racing fuel is on average about $10.00/gal, where as E85 is under $3.00/gal. Although fuel consumption is higher when the racing car is at full race speed, the total petroleum consumption (non-renewable energy) is nearly equal to that of a Toyota Prius, due to the Ethanol being a renewable energy source. Also too, given the reduced energy required to convert, ship, export and process cellulosic E85 compared to gasoline, if run on pure Ethanol, the racing car also produces less green house gases than this Toyota as well.

The network for E85 fuel is steadily starting to grow, but there is a very big potential to be tapped in the racing environment. Not only will it make consumers more comfortable with a different type of fuel (“win on Sunday, sell on Monday” can very much apply to fuel as well as car brands), but it will also bring confidence in the product. Auto racing has the second largest television audience in the US, and has a very large grass-roots participation level as well. There are nearly half a million amateur racing participants (drivers and teams) in the US, and also the US is home to nearly 1300 oval tracks and road courses. The attendance for these grassroots events numbers in the millions annually.

There is a very large, and ready audience for this type of new technology. The biggest benefit is that you use it the same way as gasoline. There is still a lot of hesitation among the public about electric vehicles and E85 quickly absolves that. There’s no waiting for a battery to charge, and you don’t have to worry about battery pack life. It’s a car that just runs off a different, less expensive liquid. In fact, the only difference that you’d notice is a lower price per gallon, and a yellow handle at the gas pump.

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Miles away.

“I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!… He hit me!”

I wont soon forget the moment I heard Ricardo’s words through my set of headphones… I was fearing for the worst. I was fearing game-over. With all of the work that had gone into this weekend, it would have been a shame to be out and forced to retire before even getting to the half-way point.

The work to get us here started more than two weeks earlier. Coming back from a racing school in Chicago, Ricardo’s intent was to take his newly acquired MX5 out to Homestead Miami Speedway for the FARA Endurance racing weekend. As things happen, the car wasn’t ready. It had absolutely no engine, or transmission inside of it, plus the amount of work to be done to the car didn’t fit within the timeframe needed for completion. His ability to get behind the wheel was soon looking in serious doubt, and the only alternative was to rent a car of questionable quality. If racing gods existed, they proved themselves in more than one way on this weekend. Somehow through the excellent work of a team-mate, a Nissan 350Z was sourced for a very inexpensive fee to rent. Sure it bumped us up one class, but it was a race car, and a well-built one.

Saturday morning: head to the track, register, wait. Ricardo’s first time on track (first time on this track with a car he’s never driven) was not going to win any awards and this was expected. The power of the Z was a fair bit more than the MX5 cup and Z3 school cars he’d been in before. This didn’t hold him back from progressively gaining serious speed, though I personally wasn’t able to keep track of his positions, or his lap times. Frustratingly, I forgot to get a race monitor app for my phone, so I was left being his eyes in the sky. From grandstands, I helped him spot some of the faster cars approaching during the banked-oval portion of the track, and it seemed to work out fairly well. Communication codes were developed and we began making ourselves more efficient. A nice pace in practice was soon found.

Serious tones started to emerge after practice, realizing we actually had a shot at this. His pace was getting there, the first-time nerves were gone and his natural speed began to show. Qualifying crept up slowly, and we got him out a little early just to be safe. Lap after lap, he began circulating with very good consistency. All of the sudden when reading the results from qualifying, we got a shock: he qualified third in class!

The time to celebrate was a bit short at hand though as we had one hour to re-prep the car and get him back out on track again for the race. Anyone familiar with race weekends knows that one hour on the schedule usually means about 40 mins of actual time to get things done. This was no different for us and we almost scrambled to get him on track. We even neglected to start our on-board cameras (or so it seems, as we had no record of the race).

3:00 p. m.:  As the cars head off pit lane, and do exactly one pace lap, the start/finish flagger puts down the yellow flags. “GREEN GREEN GREEN!” I shout to Ricardo through the radio, the instant I see the flagger’s arm motion to wave the green flag. This began what amounted to an excellent sparring course that had a position changed at least twice per lap. Locked into a battle with a Lotus, Ricardo handled himself well, driving a very clean race. I simply observed how he was reacting to traffic, at this point not giving any pointers. I wanted to see if he had the natural racers-edge. He did.

After about 40 min of watching him battle it out, I went down to the pit box from my observation point on the grandstands. During this time, I can only see car as it passes a short area of the front straight, otherwise I’m completely blind to what it’s doing for the remainder of the lap. Despite this, Ricardo continues on. Suddenly, as I’m helping the other driver get ready, I stopped cold.

“Guys, he just told me he’s been hit…”

I honestly didn’t even know what to do at that moment. “Ricardo, is the car ok?” After a moment, he replies “I don’t know, I think we may be done, it was a hard hit, from the Lotus” he replied. Many expletives were said within the confines of my own head.

That Lotus was the first car to appear around the corner approaching pit-lane, and it did not look good. The entire front-right fender and headlight area were completely gone. I feared a bow-legged and limping Z was about to come into view, but.. damage to the Nissan was not evident at a distance. Only when he pulled up closer, I could see a slightly bent-in back fender. Without even thinking, I reached in and yanked out as much of the bumper as I could, only afterwards realizing how damn hot the thing was. Other crew members jumped over, and with the combination of strong hands and some pry bars, we got the fender pulled back out enough to put the car back on course. At this time, Ricardo jumps out of the car and our second driver is in, to bring it home to the end of the race.

Tension could be easily felt in the air, mainly because we didn’t really know how the car fared in the accident, and partly by me because I didn’t want to find out in the worst way possible. As the car pulled steadily out of pits from my vantage point, it at least looked to be ok. “How is it?,” I bark into the radio as he makes his way through the in-field. “Seems good so far.” Now positioned on top of the pit garage grandstands again, I watch our blue Nissan ease its way onto the back straight and enter the banking. Thinking back, I only had a quick chance to look at the damage, and it hit the rim mainly but that was just scuffed, not bent. No fender rub either, but my God I was nervous watching it go out for the first time. My heart could have been beating harder than ever, or it could have been stopped. Surprising enough, our tough little car had a good first few laps after the accident, and continued to soldier on.

Away from timing and scoring, I couldn’t tell what position we were and, minutes soon wore themselves away to the finish. Assuming we lost too much time in the pits, I casually walked my way back to our team garage to get some food, saw the checkered flag fly, congratulated our drivers over the radio on a job well done and started to get myself a snack. It was only after approaching winners circle that I saw our car in it, and suddenly was greeted with hugs from every team member.

“We got a podium!?”

“Patrick, WE WON!”

“As in..  first place?” At this point, I finally realized what had happened.

The Z and the Lotus were going at it so much, and pushing each other so hard, they ended up creating a gap from the cars behind them, in combination with a mechanical issue from the leading BMW, and the Lotus taking it’s self out during the contact with our car, we somehow wound up in the lead.

Elated doesn’t quite sum it up. I had to thank the team for letting me be part of such an incredible process. Complicated by a language barrier, I went with their tactic of job-well-done style hugs. All of this sweetened by the fact that I could see my team, my guys, go to the top spot.

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