My Hot, Wet Italian Track Day
Twenty-five (mostly) Alfa Romeos bombing around Hallett Motor Racing in a rainstorm? What could possibly go wrong!?
The annual Alfa Romeo Owners Club of Oklahoma track day at Hallet Motor Racing Circuit is always a blast, and usually is preceded by my frantically wrenching to get my 1987 Alfa Romeo Spider prepped for the track. This year was no different. If you're up for a long read, see the sister post to this one about what all I had to do to get here.
One year a go, I blew my Alfa's head on the track. With the Alfa Owners' track day looming again it is time to get to wrenching!
2021 was my third year attending track day and it has always been a blast. Last year, however, things got a little too literal and I managed to blow the head gasket on my Alfa before noon. Undeterred, I dove it the 45 minutes home, grabbed my Volvo C30, and rejoined track day after lunch. I also boiled the clutch on the Volvo, but that just means I on the edge of performance! Or I hadn't changed the clutch fluid.
Come Rain or Shine
As the 2021 track day had already been rescheduled once due to rain, we knew the event was going to happen rain or shine. The forecast was grim, but when I woke up at 6AM, the weather was mild and dry. An auspicious start! I had a 45 minute drive to the track and wanted to be sure to get there just after the 7:00AM gate opening as the covered paddocks are first come first serve. Luckily I'd staged everything the night before, so all I needed to do is get dressed, pack my cooler, and let the dogs do their thing. By 6:30AM I was on the road, cautiously optimistic the rain was going to hold off and we were going to have a dry track day.
That optimism lasted about 10 minutes, after which...
The rain was torrential, but I survived. Unfortunately the car did not. By the time I got to the exit + tollbooth for the track, the engine wouldn't idle. I nursed it to the track and began troubleshooting, an activity I should be very good at by now!
Ultimately we decided... we didn't know what the hell was wrong with it. Part of the problem seemed to be with the engine temperature sensor which I'd "fixed" but reattaching, but didn't replace the connector like a smart person would have. That, however, wasn't all of the problem. Either way, lots of fussing with the engine got it to idle enough that it wouldn't die randomly and actually fell damn good driving around, so I "sent it," as the kids say.
This was nearly my first time driving the Alfa in the rain, partly because it is a convertible and partly because the wipers didn't really work before today, but it was certainly my first time driving it fast in the rain. I was nervous, but excited!
It did not go well
On the first turn of my first lap, I spun off. That... sort of set the tone for the rest of the day.
Ignore the timestamp
I was far from the only one having issues, mind you, but it seemed like hitting a corner at any speed (or sometimes just going in a straight line) was a task beyond my poor little Alfa in the rain. I thought driving in the rain, learning how to control slides and acting like an idiot at slow speeds would be fun! Mostly it was embarrassing, scary, and unhelpful. In my mind I wasn't going fast enough to have these problems and yet even on careful, controlled laps I'd get the back end out. Further there seemed to be no consistency or reason for it. Some club members helpfully tried to help by coaching me on lines, technique, etc but any time I wasn't going painfully slow, I'd spin.
Mercifully around 11:00AM the sky opened up and the track owners called an early lunch. Apparently while a little rain is alright, in a full on downpour like this the track tended to flood, which would not be fun for anyone.
After a two hour "lunch," the rain mostly subsided and the track drained, so we resumed.
At this point I should mention that while the Alfa Club track day is usually Italian cars only, the rules have been bent in the last couple of years due to extenuating circumstances. In 2020 we had a ton of people drop out due to the pandemic, understandably, so the event opened up to friends of the club. My friend Brady joined and enjoyed it so much that he both has been doing a ton of track days since, but also got invited back this year. Additionally, this year a lot of the club members also brought non-Alfas due to the rain, so in addition to Brady's FRS we had a GTI, a Jag, a A3 wagon, and a host of other random vehicles.
All that is to say, after the rain stopped I took the opportunity to do a ride-along with Brady in his "Alfa Romeo" FRS... and quickly realized that while my driver skill is low, the speeds at which he was going into the corners and not ending up in a ditch were substantially higher than what I was managing. I'll be the first to admit this is an apples and oranges comparison, but the cars are of similar size, weight, and weight distribution. What gives?
Despite that demoralizing and somewhat nauseating set of laps in the FRS, I decided to go out on the next run, determined to keep it on the track. This lasted until the last turn, at which I lost it while traveling in a straight line.
Not turning. Barely braking. Just driving in a straight line... back end stepped out and I was off. Again. For the last time.
Because I was over it.
I wasn't learning anything about car control or even the limits of my car because they'd strike well before my brain thought they should. Maybe if it was just me and the corner workers weren't getting increasingly irritated by my incompetence I would have stuck with it, but I pointed the car towards the pits, managed to make it without spinning off, and never looked back.
I was done.
On the bright side, this opened me up to taking more photos! When I bought a new DSLR earlier this year I vowed to bring it to track day and take some photos. And so I did!
And it was a lot of fun! Overall I took 435 photos, of which I decided 53 were worth deleting and 141 were worth editing and exporting. Not a bad hit rate! I am really pleased with some of the panning shots, but really struggled with white balance on a day the seemed to have at least three seasons. The only real downside of taking all these pictures is there are no heroic photos of my own car!
Racing Driver Excuses
While clearly I can't drive like a professional, I can certainly make excuses like one! Lets talk about why I think my car was so wayward!
I think there were a number of problems the culminated in my having a bad time on the track. The first were the running issues that developed on the way to the track. At low RPM and/or low throttle, the engine was surging a bit, which was not ideal for smooth acceleration/ deceleration. Additionally, a longstanding issue with throttle stiction popped up and of the many things I had brought with me, spray cleaner and/or lube, the usual fix, was not on the list. This also made smooth operation difficult. On the "good but bad" list was also that the either the engine refresh or the over-fueling seemed to have given the Alfa a significant power bump, at least according to the butt dyno, which usually would be great but today not so much.
Random photo to break up the wall-o-text
All that said, in my opinion the biggest factor in my poor running was tires. The tires on my Alfa have date code 5014, which if I am reading right means they are just over 6.5 years old, having been produced in December of 2014. The sidewalls and tread look great, with nary a trace of dry rot or cracking, but apparently after this long in the Oklahoma heat and a bitterly cold winter (no climate controlled garage for me!) was enough to make them hard. Looking up the rule of thumb for tires I came across this article about tires (and Paul Walker) on The Drive. While it doesn't explicitly say "yeah you tires sucked Akio" it does spell out a lot of the same problems and goes on to talk about experiences on similarly old tires to mine.
So that makes me feel somewhat vindicated, if still very embarrassed.
Yes the track workers were talking about the black Spider who couldn't keep it on the track. Yes, I suspect my fellow Alfa club members were also talking about it. Yes even days later this still fills me with dread that only whiskey will erase.
Look, I am in no way a great track driver, but I'm OK! Or at least I thought I was. This was... an humbling experience and one I would like to forget. Sooner rather than later, preferably.
But that is OK!
More than anything else, track day is about getting to know your car, flaws and all, and having fun with your peers, and I did do a lot of that.
Despite the poor running and poor driving, I still had a lot of fun. The Alfa club members are awesome people that I always enjoy getting a chance to hang with, with the added bonus of having a close friend around too. I also really enjoyed getting work on my car photography and am really pleased with some of the pictures to come out of this.
I came away with a small list of things to fix on the ordinarily affidabile Alfa, but no damage to anything other than my pride, and that is a good thing. I'm sure I'll be back on the horse next year and in the interim... I think I'll start shopping for tires.