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ZoomCubedRacing at Road Atlanta with NASA SE December 3-4, 2011

Posted by John Dawson on December 28, 2011

Running my RX7 at Road Atlanta has been a goal of mine for a number of years and I finally had the opportunity to do so on the weekend of December 3rd and 4th.

I trailered the car to the track and if you don’t believe Google Maps, believe me–it is a long ways to Road Atlanta from Aydlett. The Avalanche towed the car easily for 575 miles at highway speeds. Towing a 5000 pound trailer takes a toll on fuel economy as my fuel bill for the trip nearly equaled my entry fees. That being said, I love my Chevy truck.

My Chevrolet Avalanche overlooking the front straight

I arrived at the track in time to set up my pit area and get tech inspected. I met my great friends Tom and Richard at the track. I first met up with Tom and Richard at Charlotte when we happened to pull in together to set up our pit space. They are great guys and excellent drivers. Tom lives near the track and was nice enough to host us at his beautiful home for the weekend.

Tom's Jetta, Richard's E30 and John's RX7

Saturday morning we woke up to freezing temperatures and arrived at the track to find the windows on the cars all frosted over. The cars fired right up and after scraping windshields, we were ready for a day on track. Tom and Richard had both run at Road Atlanta before, but the track was new to me. They gave me some pointers before I went out, but it wasn’t until I was on track that I could see what they were talking about.

Fast company on grid waiting for our next session

The first session was really crowded and traffic caused the pace to be slow. That was fine with me as I was still getting acclimated to the layout of the track. Road Atlanta is absolutely incredible. I am calling it my favorite track. It is challenging and sometimes unforgiving. Though it has some technical sections, it also has probably the longest straight of any track that I have driven. The braking zone going into turn 10a is one of the most intense that I have driven. The Hawk Blacks never failed me all weekend long.

A section that I had been warned about was the downhill section after turn 10b/11 and heading into turn 12. A bridge runs over the track right at the crest of the hill leading down to turn 12. As you approach the bridge, you can see nothing but blue sky. The track was nice enough to paint some squares on the bridge so that you can choose an entry point indexed off of one of the squares. Once you crest the hill and start down, it feels like you have been shot out of the end of a cannon. The world falls away and you are really hauling towards an unforgiving turn 12. Your mind is overwhelmed by the fact that on either side of the track are the entrances to the outer pit road and the inner pit road. The first few times that you come through there at speed, it really gets your attention. Turn 12 leads onto the front straight and getting it right will allow you to carry all of that speed headed down to turn 1. I found a line that worked well for me and if you had the guts, you could catch cars in that section very easily.

Another part of the track that me and the RX7 loved was a section called “the esses” between turns 4 and 5. If you worked this section correctly and weren’t afraid to use the “gators” you could make this section nearly straight. It was also partially downhill which allowed you to pick up a lot of speed. Coming into turn 5, you start slightly uphill which gives you some good grip for braking. Again, the little RX7 could make up some time in this section and it became my favorite part of the track.

As the day progressed, I got more acclimated to the track and my lap times got progressively better. I really had to work at turn 6 and 7 to develop a line that would help me take momentum into the long straight. My biggest challenge came when I caught high horsepower cars in this tight section, some of which would nearly stop at turn 7 and use their horsepower to pull away on the straight.

The temperature warmed up throughout the day and Saturday afternoon was beautiful. Tom’s VW Golf suffered from some fuel delivery trouble that he eventually sorted out and Richard’s Spec E30 ran well throughout the day. We had a great pit setup with a tent, coffee percolator, chairs, and a heater. Pitting with Richard has its advantages.

Tom's Jetta

Richard's E30

After a great evening at Tom’s house and a delicious chicken dinner, we headed back to the track for Sunday morning. Sunday morning was cold and it never warmed up. On track action was fast and busy.

Unfortunately, Road Atlanta yielded more than its fair share of bent sheet metal. A number of incidents of car to car contact and two really scary accidents involving cars hitting retaining walls kept the rescue and recovery crews busy. One of the car vs wall accidents occured behind me during a session on Sunday and resulted in a lengthy red flag. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in any of the accidents. The lack of injuries can be credited to the safety equipment that each driver was using.

My weekend at Road Atlanta opened my eyes to the dangers of the sport that I love so much. Sunday afternoon, I had the closest call of my driving career. After running through the esses at full speed, I misjudged my entry to turn 5. I was still on the outer “gator” when my braking point arrived. I hit the brakes at a time when the right front suspension was fully loaded and the right front wheel was on a painted surface. This immediately sent the car into a slide like I had never experienced. I have driven this RX7 for the past 15 years on a number of different tracks and in autocross. I always brag that the car never does anything that surprises me. I cannot say that anymore as I entered a slide at turn 5 that I wasn’t able to control. My initial reaction was that I could keep the car on track and make the next turn. I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to stay on track as I was sliding sideways, looking out the passenger side window, at nearly 90 MPH. I was headed towards a “sandtrap” that was filled with pea gravel. Not wanting to enter the sandtrap sideways and take a chance of rolling the car, my goal was no longer to stay on track, but to enter the sandtrap as straight as possible. I immediately turned the wheel full opposite lock and nailed the throttle. This whipped the car back the opposite direction and got me almost straight as I jumped the gator and hit the sandtrap. Hitting the deep pea gravel slowed the car instantly. It felt as though someone had thrown an anchor out the back of the car and I was being held in place by my seatbelt and my torso strap. Having regained control, I drove the car through the trap and back onto the track–careful to stay offline as I was now spewing gravel out from underneath the car. At the point that I was entering the sandtrap, I was sure that I was going to break the front valence and damage the exhaust system. Inspection in the pits surprisingly found no damage to the car.

A unique perspective--lengthy red flag at the Mazda bridge

Upon reflection, I realize that the level of safety that I have built in to my car is insufficient for the level at which I am now driving. In fact, the forces of hitting the sand trap, broke the back off of my driver’s seat–actually shearing off a metal post–as my body pulled forward against the torso strap.

Road Atlanta was my last event until next season. I have already decided to spend some money on the following:

New Helmet with HANS anchors
Aluminum Racing Seat
5 point harness
HANS device

I love driving on the track and hope that I have a good 30-40 years ahead of me to continue doing so. During the course of that 30-40 years, there is a good chance that I will wreck a car and I need to be ready.

Despite my excitement on Sunday, the most dangerous part of any track weekend is still the drive to and from the track. I will update the blog through the offseason as I continue work on the car for next year.

See you on track!


ZoomCubedRacing report for NASA SE at CMP October 22-23, 2011

Posted by John Dawson on

Craig and I both attended the NASA SE weekend at Carolina Motorsports Park (CMP) on October 22-23, 2011. CMP is a great track that is well suited for momentum cars like the RX7 and Miata.

After passing tech and setting up our pits on Friday evening, we retired to the Colony Inn for some much needed Coors Light and Chips Ahoy cookies–a ZoomCubed tradition. The addition of Candy Corn to the party in celebration of Halloween may have been a bad idea though. In the words of Forrest Gump, “That is all I’ve got to say about that.”

Saturday morning at the track was very chilly! The cold air was good for the engines, but not helping with grip. Our first 2 sessions on track were a battle for traction as the tires were slow to build heat. My scariest moment of the weekend occured Saturday morning in turn 9 when a little too much speed, combined with a cold track had me way looking out the driver’s side window to see where I was going. Some “opposite lock” and fancy throttle work got the RX7 back in line. Thanks to my buddy in his Ferrari 308 who gave me plenty of room to catch the car. By the afternoon, the temperature rose and the grip level did as well. Both cars ran great and we had a blast.

Saturday night we hooked up with our good friend Tom and went out for a nice dinner. With memories of the previous evening fresh in our minds, we drank only sweet tea and retired early.

Sunday was a great day at the track. We had plenty of track time and good friends to run with all day long. Craig and I left the track about mid afternoon and headed back towards North Carolina.

CMP was my first chance to really test out my Hawk Black pads. During a hot weekend and a particularly fast session at CMP last August, I experienced some slight brake softness in my RX7 for the first time. The nearly new Hawk HP+ pads seemed a little over taxed that day. A few track events later at Charlotte, I ran into some softness again and made the decision to move to a more aggressive pad. The Hawk Blacks have a higher initial bite than the HP+ and maintain the same bite level when the brakes get really hot. They seem easier to modulate when hot than the HP+. The operating temperature for the Black pads is higher than the HP+ and I have to remember to warm them up during my out lap. The switch to Hawk Blacks was a good move and I plan to use these pads from here on out.


Summit Point Shenandoah Circuit event with BSR Friday at the Track

Posted by John Dawson on July 19, 2011

I am back from a great one day track event at Summit Point Shenandoah Circuit. The Saturday only event was hosted by BSR and is part of their “Friday at the Track” (FATT) program. This is one of two each year that are not held on Friday, but rather on a Saturday.

I had planned to leave early on Friday the 15th and work remotely from the hotel that afternoon. As usual, my day off started with me going to work and attending client meetings. I was able to break away about 1:00 and head towards Summit Point.

In my Avy with the RX7 in tow, I set off for Winchester, VA where I would stay for the night. As I made my way through Chesapeake, I saw the dreaded flashing lights on the “Urgent Traffic Information” sign. I tuned into VDOT’s AM information station and found out that there were problems at both tunnels. Doing the tunnel shuffle is no fun and I have been there before. Sometimes you guess right. On Friday, I did not. There was an accident at the Monitor Merrimac with traffic backed up 6 miles. There was a disabled vehicle at the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and traffic backed up 3 miles. I figured that the disabled vehicle would probably be cleared by the time I arrived, but after I had committed to the HRBT (264 interchange is my point of no return,) I realized that I had made a bad choice. By the time I caught up with the traffic, it was backed up 5 miles and the backup had spawned numerous rear-end collisions that were not helping matters. 15 minutes at a dead stop and 1 hour rolling at 5-10 miles per hour later, I was through the tunnel.

I made my way to 64 between Newport News and Richmond, and the 0 to 70 to 0 game that is played out there almost every day. That is a story for another post.

The Avy pulled the RX7 with ease over some steep grades and I was glad to finally see the Days Inn at Winchester. I have to put in a quick plug for my humble Days Inn. It is not an architectural wonder on the outside but it is clean and cheap. $44 a night got me free continental breakfast, all the channels, free wifi, micro/fridge, a/c that would make an Eskimo homesick and a toilet with a good strong flush.

Saturday morning arrived and I headed towards the track. There is a nice guy that works the gate at Summit Point who has been there for years and he always gives you a big good morning and a smile when you arrive. I don’t know his name but seeing him is part of the experience. He asked me if I was a FATT driver. I told him I was just big boned. At any rate, he pointed me to the Shenandoah Circuit bridge and I proceeded to the paddock and unloaded the car.

One of my favorite parts of a track weekend is meeting new friends and this weekend was no exception. There are so many passions in a track day paddock that make the mix of people very interesting. I made quick friends with a number of drivers. The cars were as varied as a new Ferrari, an Aston Martin to the usual BMW’s, Corvettes, Miatas, and Subarus. My paddock neighbors had 2 Police Interceptor Chevrolet Caprices that made really cool track toys. Rotary power was well represented with 3 FB RX7’s, my FC, an FD, as well as an RX8.

The track day went well. Shenandoah is described as one of the most technical race courses on the east coast. I had driven on this track once before in a really hard rain. It was difficult to learn under those conditions, so I wanted to give the course another try. Now that I have spent more time on the course, it is not my favorite, but I love the variety and believe that it is an excellent training ground for any driver. There are so many turns on Shenandoah, it really is a great equalizer. High horsepower cars seemed to have little to no advantage over the smaller and lighter cars. One thing that I noticed the most was that there is really no time to rest on this track. You are almost always setting up for your next turn. There are about 3 short straights, but only one gives you much time to take a quick glance at the gauges before you are at the next turn. By the end of the day, I had established a nice line that was working well for the car and I was building speed. I plan to go back as I want to master the course.

BSR also gave us time on the skidpad with their training cars. The old Crown Vic Interceptors were surprisingly fun to drive. During the skidpad training, the instructor had control of the gas and the brake and the student only had steering control. The instructor would play with the gas and intentionally get the car to oversteer while the student would work to catch it. He progressively would get the car more and more out of shape until you were driving sideways while looking out the driver’s side window. It was a strange sensation and excellent training.

The RX7 ran well, but at the mid-point of my track season, I intend to give it some much needed TLC over the coming weeks. I am having some minor hot transmission issues and another Mazda driver who rode with me to observe thinks that it is fluid related. I am going to swap out my Royal Purple synthetic to a yet to be determined fluid. I am also replacing my rubber engine and transmission mounts with polyurethane mounts to give me more positive shift action while the car is in transition.

My next scheduled event is CMP with NASA-SE October 22 and 23rd. I will probably sneak in another weekend at Summit Point Main before then. The season will end at Road Atlanta the first weekend in December. As soon as we can get our gallery fixed up, I will post some pics. Stay tuned.


Quick Turnaround

Posted by John Dawson on July 5, 2011

With my track event at Summit Point (Shenandoah Circuit) coming up in 2 weeks, I have a short period of time to prepare. I started the turnaround on the RX7 after work today.

The RX7 survived the weekend with no damage, but I have a lot to do to get ready for the next event. My new brake pads arrived while I was in Charlotte and I installed them today. They are Hawk Blacks and are a change from my usual Hawk HP+. HP+ pads have been great to me over the years and I think that the Black formulation will work even better. This past weekend, the HP+ were up to the task of braking the RX7 when I had open track. My method is to brake as hard as I can for as short of a distance as I can. Charlotte has one really hard braking zone when you come off of the oval into the infield. Some maintenance braking is required in the infield, but usually only to settle the car.

When I was in traffic, I would occasionally get some softness in the brakes in the infield section. Some drivers were braking going into Nascar 3 which was surprising to me. There was plenty of grip there and I preferred to run it wide open. I found that if I had to follow a car into Nascar 3 and use brakes there and not get a pass before I entered the infield, I started to get some softness in the brakes. In traffic, I could not control the start of my braking zone. I was behind one car that started their braking a good 200 feet before the start/finish and rode them all the way into turn 1. This same driver then broke for every turn in the infield and used his big V8 to pull away from me on the straights. At the mercy of the lead car, I was overheating the brakes. I never got what I consider to be brake fade, but the softness in the pedal was unnerving. I am hoping that the Hawk Blacks will tolerate the heat more.

I also bled my brakes and put in all fresh fluid. It is amazing how good new fluid looks compared to what comes out, even though I bleed before every track event. I run a good DOT4 fluid that I have used for years that works very well for me.

My next step on the turnaround of the car is the full undercarriage inspection. With my off-track excursion on Saturday, I want to make sure that there is no damage that I missed in my inspection at the track. I will also spend some time retorquing suspension bolts and checking for play in the steering and wheel bearings.

If I don’t run into anything that needs attention, my goal is to wash the RX7 and load it on the trailer Sunday. I roll out for Summit Point on Friday the 15th.


NASA Firecracker Run at Charlotte Motor Speedway

Posted by John Dawson on July 4, 2011

ZoomCubed Racing had a great weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I made the trip with the RX7 and ran HPDE.

This was my first visit to the roadcourse at Charlotte and it was much better than I had expected. The course follows most of the Nascar oval and dives into the infield just after start/finish. The infield is interesting with cambered turns and even some elevation change. I really enjoyed the course and regret that NASA only makes one visit per year. I am ready to go back.

I towed the RX7 behind the Avalanche. The tow was uneventful which is good. My truck has the factory towing package and I have beefed it up with a huge auxiliary transmission cooler and a full conversion to synthetic Dexron VI ATF. The Avy ran cool and pulled the load easily in some hilly terrain with the AC running the whole time. I will be towing to Summit Point in two weeks, so the small hills of NC’s Piedmont were a good warmup for the West Virginia trip.

I rolled into CMS on Friday afternoon and pitted beside some great folks. Richard and Tom were both in my run group and we became quick friends. Richard was driving a spec E30 prepared BMW and Tom has a full race prepped Volkswagen GTI. We set up our pit space and Richard erected 2 nice canopies to give us plenty of shade. Richard’s son (Rich) was also at the track with his spec E30 which was running in the Lighting races. Rich pitted nearby and his girlfriend Stephanie made sure that we all stayed on schedule and were well fed. A word to the wise–if you find a beautiful girl like Stephanie who doesn’t mind hanging out at a racetrack all weekend, don’t let her get away!

After setting up the pit space, I headed to my motel. In keeping with my practice of staying in cheap motel rooms on race weekends, this weekend’s accommodations did not disappoint. I paid $44 per night and I got what I paid for. It was clean enough and the AC worked. Actually, a word on cheap motels. I have stayed in some of the cheapest. I have to say that for $44, I got free wireless internet, free parking, 75 cable channels (including Speed), and free continental breakfast. On the other end of the scale, I have spent nights at the Waldorf Astoria in midtown Manhattan and the Ritz Carlton at South Beach Miami. Both of those high dollar places charge to park, charge for internet, get about 13 cable channels, and breakfast costs about $30. I’ll take my $44 motel any day.

Both days at the track were 100% sun, 100% humidity, and 100 degrees. That gets us to the third circle of hell. There were no bugs, so we didn’t have to move to the fourth circle.

Track action was intense. My first session was used to get acclimated to an unfamiliar track. There was a lot of traffic which was fine as I was still working out a line.

We got down to business in session number 2. Traffic was still heavy, but I worked my way through the train. During this session I tested the limits and in turn 6, I found them. After an off line pass on another car, I came into 5 too hot and early apexed. I made it through 5, but I was way off line at this point and unable to get through turn 6. There were a lot of “marbles” off line which made it more difficult to recover. As the car started to rotate, I was able to catch it, but I was going off course. I chose to drive off course on my terms. With “both feet in” (clutch and brake,) I scrubbed of a little speed before I left the pavement. What I thought was soft, grassy runoff was actually part of the campground for Nascar weekends. I skipped across grass, then gravel access road, then grass, then access road and finally I came to a stop. A very bumpy ride! The good news is that I made it to the pits and there was no damage.

As the weekend went on, I was able to get much faster by testing different lines. From the exit of turn 6, I was able to keep wide open throttle through the oval until start/finish. Running wide open through Nascar 3/4 requires a lot of faith in your equipment. The RX7 never let me down.

Years ago an instructor gave me some good advice. After a ride along, he told me that I had a nice car that was reliable and consistent. He urged me to resist the temptation to buy a newer or more powerful car and to concentrate on becoming the best driver of second generation RX7’s on any given weekend. I have been driving this RX7 for almost 15 years and the instructor’s advice was sound. My RX7 never does anything that surprises me. I know what the car likes and what it dislikes. I know the sounds and the smells and its feedback. My journey with the RX7 has been a great one and it is only the beginning.


Another video of John on track at NCCAR in his RX-7

Posted by cdawson on October 3, 2010

Part 1:

Part 2:


Craig at NCCAR in his Miata

Posted by cdawson on October 1, 2010

Part 1:

Part 2:


John running his RX-7 at NCCAR

Posted by cdawson on September 29, 2010

This was split up into two 10 minute sections.  More videos to come later:


On any given weekend, more Mazdas are road raced than any other brand

Posted by John Dawson on August 22, 2010

Time for some Mazda video goodness!


Hurricane PCA HPDE at CMP

Posted by John Dawson on

Craig and I attended the Hurricane Porsche Club of America(PCA) HPDE at Carolina Motorsports Park held on August 14th-15th along with our friends Rob and Graham. It was a great event and with the changes to the back section, I have added CMP back to my list of approved tracks.

This was an important event for the RX7 as I was testing out a number of changes and upgrades that I made since my last event at NCCAR. The car ran great and I am very pleased with the results of my hard work.

I really have to thank my wife, Tammy, for the use of her truck to tow the car down to South Carolina. I should mention that the RX7 is Tammy’s as well. She owned it before we were married and I always joke that I am just the driver and Tammy is the car owner. (No, she doesn’t have a sister–she is one of a kind.) It is nearly a 7 hour drive from my home and her beautiful Avalanche is a lot more comfortable than the RX7 with poly bushings, bad AC, and loud exhaust. Despite a crappy Uhaul trailer whose inertia brake kept sticking, the Avy pulled my RX7 with ease.

IMG_1052

This was also the first event for my new Dunlop Direzza Z1 Star Spec tires. After running Falken Azenis (both RT-415s and RT-615s) over the past few years, I decided to make a change. The Direzzas were a welcome change from the Azenis. The biggest difference was that the Direzzas did not overheat and get “greasy” the further I went into the sessions. The tires are very predictable and have lots of grip. Once you pass the limits of adhesion, they seem easier to pull back in line than the old Azenis. The driving characteristics at the limit actually remind me of my old Yokohama AVS Intermediates.

IMG_1056

The Hurricane PCA runs a great event. The folks were very friendly and everyone seemed to have a good time. I was running in yellow group with some really fast cars. Though I was the lowest horsepower car on the track in my run group, I was not the slowest, which was pretty cool. My old girl hung with some impressive cars that were much newer and 10-15 times her value. Traffic was never an issue in my group and passes were quick and clean. I hope to run this event again next year.

Craig’s Miata ran great on the track as well. For a momentum track car, I think that the best answer is Miata. They are quick right out of the box and Craig showed it by wearing them out in the twisties. As I was waiting along the track fence to take pictures, (CMP has really poor spectator access) I could always hear Craig coming. It sounded like an angry bee. And just like an angry bee, the Miata could really fly and was relentless in its pursuit.

IMG_1103

Next up for ZoomCubedRacing is the NASA-SE event at the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research (NCCAR.) This will be our second event at NCCAR which I now consider to be my home track.

With the RX7 having spent much of the summer on jackstands and me spending many of my weekends at my new job, I won’t make it to VIR or Summit Point this season. Maybe if I put it in writing in a public forum, I might keep my resolution–I am going to run more track events in 2011.