OK, hang onto your hats for this one. It’s epic, in the classical sense, which isn’t necessarily good for the Internet attention span, but in terms of what you can learn from these three drivers, epic is great.

This year’s TT3 competition at the NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires was diverse. The Champion, Denis Clavette had a BMW E46 M3 with a straight six. Second place Dan Westerwick’s Ford Mustang GT had a V8 and third-place finisher Andrew Bakun’s Porsche 944 Turbo had been repowered with GM LS3 V8 power.

It’s always interesting to see how drivers will respond to questions that require them to share their secrets. These drivers might not have shared all their secrets, but given the length and quality of their answers, they shared a lot of them.

You don’t have to read the whole story. We asked each driver the same questions, so you can align your reading with the car they drive, which might be the same as yours. Make no mistake. There’s a wealth of knowledge in play here.

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We were eager to talk to Dennis Clavette, who won the TT3 Championship in 2019 at Mid-Ohio. Turns out, he was happy to speak with us, too.

When you go out for a TT session, what is your approach?

When it comes to official timed sessions, all of the hard work is done before I even grid up.

I live on the Gulf Coast and had never driven at Mid-Ohio before. I tend to be a slow learner, so I wanted to maximize my chances to be competitive. I spent a bit of time on iRacing in an MX-5 Cup car learning the track. For TT, I find there is a point of diminishing returns on simulators, so my main objective was to imprint in my mind the track layout and the line. Then in May, I signed up for two days with NASA and two days with another organization. I had my coach Scott Heckert work with me for two of those days and he was able to help me find about 4 seconds.

From there, I spent many nights driving the track in my mind before I went to sleep, visualizing the things we worked on.

In September, I made sure to sign up for the test and tune day to get as much track time as I could. After every session, I would download my data and my video and make detailed notes on where I was gaining and losing time and then picked three things to work on for the next session. It was hard to get a single clean lap, but I could see that I was continuing to improve based on the data.

To get ready for Saturday, I wanted to have the best grid position I could get, so I ran stickers on Friday and posted a time good enough to be gridded first in TT3 and eighth overall. I kept this position the rest of the weekend, so I never had to deal with traffic in the official sessions.

As far as each timed session goes, I have my two to three things that I want to make sure I get right. A lot of people will pop up their predictive timer but I find that it often works against me causing me to either overdrive or give up if I make a mistake. I just put it on static timer and give it all I have from start to finish. I will usually only drive two or three hot laps before coming in and banking any improved times.

Does your approach change as the temperatures change throughout the day?

Being from Texas, where it gets quite hot after lunch, I used to think that my only chance at a personal best was in the second morning session of any given day, while ambient temperatures were still cool, but the track was a bit warmer and rubbered in. However, last year I watched my coach break my personal best by 5 seconds at VIR in 95-degree weather on 12-plus heat cycled tires. Any amateur drivers can set their personal best, even in the warmest temperatures, because there is always time to be gained out there.

My best and winning time came in the midafternoon on Saturday. I was hoping to beat it Sunday morning, but even with cooler conditions I wasn’t able to put it all together.

What are the small things you can do throughout the day to maximize the car?

The main thing for me is to keep the car running and reliable. When I come off track, I like to keep the engine running for a bit so that water and oil continues to circulate and cool the engine. I have learned the hard way that nuts and bolts like to come loose, so I have most critical components marked with paint. I’ll check those each session. I look for cracked or deformed rims. Check pressures. Check oil levels. I don’t tend to play with suspension settings because I am not good enough to really feel small changes, so I just avoid that distraction altogether.

The main thing to maximize the car and maximize the driver through data analysis and visualization throughout the day.

How do you keep tabs on your competition?

Ahead of time, I looked at the entry list. I already knew several of the entrants. I had watched Dan Westerwick’s videos well ahead of even the May event because Mid-Ohio is his home track, and followed him on RaceHero throughout most of the season. Dan is a great guy and great driver and won every regional event this year, set some track records, and built up a stockpile of sticker tires. Another driver this year that had a great chance to win, but suffered a mechanical issue on the last day was Jens Polte. I had driven with him several times on the East Coast. Many others I did not know. I looked at their submission forms to see what types of cars they were driving. I also looked up results from their regions to see how they had performed.

At Nationals, I looked at Race Hero after each session. I also monitored the ST3 results to see what kind of times cars with similar builds were posting. I believe the fastest times were in the 1:30’s. That always gives you something to aim for. I hung out with Dan quite a bit during the event, so we kept pretty close tabs on each other.

What role did car construction play in your success in this year’s championships?

The last year has been tough with respect to the car’s construction. I spun two bearings last September and spent the winter rebuilding the engine. Some of the parts that I installed during the rebuild led to some additional engine problems and I had to buy and rebuild a second engine. Two weeks after installing the second engine, I ran it for the first time at Mid-Ohio in May. The engine and car ran well, though I did lose a trailer axle on the way home. I wanted to get some additional time to shake out the engine and the car and the driver before Nationals. At my next event in June, I lost my starter. I tried again in August and lost my ECU. Two weeks before Nationals, I got a replacement computer and was able to run one last event.

Mechanical and electrical issues at the track are a huge distraction and really take away from your ability to just focus and drive fast. Even at Nationals, I had a CAN Bus issue that caused my gauges to act wonky. Fortunately that was easily fixed and the car ran well and strong for all four days.

How did you choose your car for TT3 competition?

When I switched from HPDE to Time Trial, I wanted to run in what was TTB at the time, but my car had too many modifications and it classed out in TT3. At the time, I was 6-7 seconds off of first-place times, but little by little I was able to add power, trim weight, upgrade aero, and improve my driving to eventually became competitive in TT3 in the Texas Region. We had a really strong TT3 group for many years with three of the last four National TT3 Champions coming from Texas. I live in Louisiana now, but store my car at VIR to drive against some of the best drivers at some of the best tracks in the nation.

You’re obviously a fast driver. Why do you choose Time Trial over racing?

I completed the BMWCCA Racing School in 2013 and many of the drivers from that particular class continued on to wheel-to-wheel racing. I raced a bit with Lemons/WRL team for a couple of years and really enjoyed it. Racing is an entirely different beast and requires a bit more strategy and tactics than TT. However, I have stopped short of prepping my own car for racing for a few reasons. Racing is a significant jump in time and money as well as being harder on the car itself. On a typical TT weekend, I may only run two sessions of 2-3 laps on each day. I am running the car full out during these laps and I just think it’s tough to ask the car to do this for 2-3 20-plus minute race stints per weekend. I know others do, but if I were to race this car, I would certainly dial it back a bit for long-term reliability. Also, the cost of racing is much higher in my estimation because you’re going through a lot more consumables and hitting maintenance milestones much sooner than in TT. That being said, I just love to compete and TT is a very cost effective way to scratch that itch.

Dan Westerwick finished second in TT3 at the 2019 NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires at Mid-Ohio. We also caught up with him, to find out what he was willing to share.

 

When you go out for a TT session, what is your approach?

Since I mostly use Hoosier A7s and have a heavy car, I only have a few good laps in each session before the tires and engine get too hot. My best times are typically in hot laps two and three. At most tracks, my tires are not warm enough when starting the first hot lap, and pushing hard right at the green flag will just make the tires overheat sooner.

Instead, I use the first hot lap to test grip, look for track debris, and gauge how much space I need to leave behind the car in front of me. Then, I push 100 percent in hot-lap two and continue until my lap times start climbing or I encounter traffic. However, there are a few exceptions. Depending on the weather, I’ve found that I need to push 100 percent in my first hot lap at longer tracks like Pitt Race and National Corvette Museum.

Once I drive at least one good lap, I start reviewing data to see where I can improve. If I’ve driven parts of the track faster in the past and the weather is good, I should be able to match it. I also review corners that I approached differently to see if the new lines or techniques yielded better sector times. I then prioritize a few parts of the track that are costing me the most time and work on them in the next session.

Does your approach change as the temperatures change throughout the day?

I find that sessions in the early afternoon are generally slower than those in the morning. Depending on the track and weather, it’s not surprising to drive one second slower in the afternoon. I think there’s no sense in burning through good tires in those sessions. Instead, I’ll swap to older tires and practice sections of the track that I find most difficult. The next morning, I’ll apply what I learn to further drop my lap time when conditions are more favorable. I also use the afternoon sessions to simply have fun and give people rides.

What are the small things you can do throughout the day to maximize the car?

I think most people are doing this, but I keep a close eye on my fuel level. I add enough gas to keep a small buffer over my minimum weight and avoid starvation issues. Otherwise, I just stick to the basics: checking tire pressures, fluid levels, and brake pad thicknesses.

I don’t make car setup changes during the weekend unless I’m testing something new or troubleshooting a problem. I think if you’re starting with a decent suspension setup, you’ll typically have better success with fixing handling issues by changing your driving style than by wrenching on your car. If I can repeat a specific issue and can’t remedy it with driving changes, I’ll make one adjustment at a time and see what happens. It’s easy to incorrectly associate faster lap times with a setup change rather than better driving, better track conditions, or masking another car problem. Therefore, I only keep changes if I’m confident the performance improvements can be attributed to them.

How do you keep tabs on your competition?

Just like in HPDE or racing, you can learn a lot from other fast cars by following them. Observing where you catch them and where they pull away from you can provide valuable information about how you might change your line or driving behavior. If they’re consistently pulling away from you in similar track layouts, it might prompt you to experiment with your design approach. For example, you might want to prioritize straight-line speed even at the expense of cornering speed.

Otherwise, I check the session results online, and sometimes I stop by my competitors’ paddock spots to chat. I’ve learned a lot from sharing video and data with my competitors, and I think many of them have too. Ideally, you both drive faster by learning from each other.

What role did car construction play in your success in this year’s Championships?

I’ve made improvements every year, and I’m still learning what works and what doesn’t. I’d hardly call my car optimized, which should be obvious when comparing my lap times to the top ST3 times from the championships. However, after a lot of experimentation, I’ve found ways to make my stick-axle behemoth keep up with platforms that typically dominate the ST3/TT3 field, namely M3s and Corvettes.

It’s probably not surprising that I’ve put a lot of work into aero development, and it seems to be paying off. The ST3/TT3 aero rules are fairly open and provide many options for increasing front downforce. In ST4/TT4, it would be a lot more difficult. That being said, I haven’t seen a huge difference in my lap times from aero development. It’s just enough to close the gap to cars that are more capable from the factory.

My general approach to car construction is to design everything around the tires. A lot of people might roll their eyes at this, but I don’t think weight really matters in TT as long as you’re using appropriately-sized tires. The ST/TT classing is based on weight/power, but that doesn’t really matter at 100 mph. Power/drag is a better metric at speed, and you can improve it by adding power if you also add weight. That being said, there is no universal solution that applies to all cars, and testing is vital for success. Between experimenting with suspension setup and using tire temperature data, I’ve learned a lot over the last few years. I’ve found some of the setup changes that work well for my car actually contradict typical Internet advice, so I think it’s important to keep an open mind and validate your changes with data.

What role does car preparation play in your success, in general?

Preparation is critical not only for being a successful driver ,but also for enjoying this hobby. I would much rather work on my car at a relaxed pace in my garage than at the track where it might be 40 degrees and raining. I would also rather spend my time socializing between sessions than frantically searching for spare parts or tools that I forgot to pack. Mental preparation is a key advantage on the track, and I’ve noticed that my lap times suffer if I’m not completely focused on my driving. I avoid this by ensuring I’m at my paddock spot about 10 min before I need to drive to grid, and I drive to grid about 10 min before the session begins. This gives me some extra time for when I inevitably forget to add gas to the car — or have a similar oversight — and it allows me to stay relaxed and focused on the track.

How did you choose your car for TT3 competition?

The short answer is that I didn’t. I bought this car without any intention of driving it on a racetrack, and I planned to keep it as a daily driver except for an occasional autocross. After a few of my friends convinced me to take it to a track day, I was hooked. After a couple years and a dozen HPDE events, it became a dedicated track car and it then evolved into something designed for TT3 competition.

As much as I love driving this car, if I started over I would probably choose something else. It’s been reliable, but it’s not the most capable platform and requires a substantial consumables budget. Depending on the weather and number of laps I drive, I can burn through a set of front brake pads in one weekend. Even if I only drive two to three hot laps at a time and skip afternoon sessions, a set of tires and brake pads are unlikely to last more than three weekends. Consequently, I tend to drive fewer laps per weekend, and I think this hinders my progress as a driver.

What do you do during an event to plan and prepare for the next?

I reflect on what I learn at each event and think about how I can improve at the next one. This involves a couple hours of reviewing data and video from the event, including whatever I can get from my competitors. Finally, I identify at least one way I can drive differently or design the car differently to go faster at the next event. Without trying new things, it’s easy for your driving or car performance to stagnate.

You’re obviously a fast driver. Why do you choose Time Trial over racing?

Racing sounds like fun, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s affordable with my car. With the Time Trial format, I only need to drive a few laps per day, and that allows me to limit consumable expenses if I’m on a budget. I realize this reeks of the sunk-cost fallacy, but there is a large initial cost of building a new car or buying one that is already race-prepped. Eventually, I’ll probably get bored with my car, and I’ll likely switch to one that is more practical for W2W racing. However, that won’t be in 2020.

That brings us to Andrew Bakun, who finished third in TT3 at Mid-Ohio. He also had some great techniques for Time Trial competition.

Andrew Bakun’s TT3 LS3-powered Porsche 944 Turbo.

When you go out for a TT session, what is your approach?

I’ll try to make sure my car’s ready to go on track well in advance of driving down to grid, so I can be confident in the car before and during each session, and focus on my driving instead. Little things like running low on fuel, forgetting to adjust tire pressures or check fluids, and so on, have a tendency to create big distractions on track at just the wrong time, so I do everything to avoid those little “surprises” by going through a short checklist before suiting up.

Before I jump in the car, I’ll typically have two or three corners picked out that I want to improve, based on data and/or video from previous sessions. While getting geared up, I’ll try to run through those areas of the track in my head, picturing how I want to approach them, and really focusing on what I want to do differently in the next session: brake later, adjust an apex point, get on the throttle sooner, etc.

Once I get down to grid, I try to relax and focus on visualizing a full lap or two, really keeping in mind those areas I want to improve. I’ll also make note of which competitors are going out that session, since some guys run full slicks that take a while to get up to temperature, and that may change my approach during that session.

On the track, I’m generally pretty conservative with my driving, and I like to work up to my limit within each session. My first lap is not typically my fastest. Making incremental changes helps me more easily figure out what works and feels good and what doesn’t. I always try to stay out for the full session to maximize seat time, and also try to give myself time to experiment with slightly different lines or braking points toward the end of each session, when there are fewer competitors on track. Plus, I find it really beneficial to be able to drive that cool down lap and go turn by turn at a slower pace, thinking about what I did right and wrong in each corner, while trying to drive my ideal line to build good habits for the next sessions.

Finally, after each session, I’ll try to review my data, and look at where I improved and where I lost time, and make notes of what I did differently so I can understand why I ran faster or slower. When possible, I’ll also try to sit down with fellow competitors to compare notes between each session, so that I can figure out what they’re doing differently in areas where they’re faster.

Does your approach change as the temperatures change throughout the day?

Although we see some big temperature swings throughout the day in our region, especially at events towards the beginning and end of season, I don’t find myself making any drastic changes as the temperatures change. With my old turbo setup, I used to try to focus on running a few fast laps early in the session during those hot, middle-of-summer days, because the heat definitely affected the turbo motor a bit more than some of the NA cars out there. Now, with a more reliable — fingers crossed — LS3 setup, the motor runs more consistently, and I don’t have to worry about things like heat soak or oil temperature as much.

Instead, I’ll focus on making sure tire pressures are set appropriately for each session, being more diligent about not overheating tires when the track surface is hot, and most importantly, paying attention to when I’m starting to get too hot, which puts me at more risk of making mistakes.

What are the small things you can do throughout the day to maximize the car?
Personally, I try to minimize the number of changes that I make to the car throughout the weekend. I’ll adjust tire pressures as needed, and potentially adjust damper settings and aero slightly during the first few sessions at a new track, but I really try to limit it to that. Even though we get up to five sessions per day, I want to make full use of each of those sessions, and not throw one away because I set a sway bar way too stiff, etc. Instead, I try to focus on what I can do with my driving to run faster. Given where I’m at now, I know there’s more opportunity for improvement with my driving, as compared to small adjustments I can make to the car at the track.

How do you keep tabs on your competition?

At the track, I’ll keep an eye on results after each session, and talk to the guys who make big improvements in their times from one session to the next to see what they’re doing different. But, I’m always trying to run my fastest regardless, so I try to focus on what I can do to improve throughout the weekend.

Outside of each event, I try to review videos from competitors who are running similar times and see how their approaches differ. I also try to exchange data with others so I can learn what that different line or later braking point means in each turn. It’s really eye-opening to see how quick a tenth or two in each corner add up to a second or more per lap, and it always seems like there are a couple of areas on track where my competitors are doing something different that I want to try at the next event. I have a lot of fun reading through build threads and talking about changes in car setup between each season, but I find it even more enjoyable to talk about what we can do as drivers to improve our times, and grow as a group.

What role did car construction play in your success in this year’s championships?
The short answer is that car construction played a big role in being successful at Mid-Ohio this year, by enabling more seat time and inspiring confidence to drive faster through increased reliability.

Due to all the track time I’ve given up to issues small and large, I decided to make the jump to an LS3 motor last year in hopes of improving reliability, so that I could focus on my driving. Although the Internet makes it seem like engine swaps are a trivial thing, getting a big swap like that to integrate well into a track car, and to make it behave reliably, is actually a pretty tall order. There were a lot of bugs to work out with things that you’d think were minor details, like the hydroboost system that significantly affected the steering and braking behavior of the chassis. Although it seemed like the big V8 setup was finally much more dependable toward the end of last year, the final event of last season ended with a big bang, with my fresh, de-tuned crate motor, with dry sump, throwing a rod on a long straight without warning, and for no apparent reason. That left me pretty shaken, so with big help from the shop, I dedicated last winter to looking even more closely at how to address the small weaknesses with the new setup.

Fortunately, with many small improvements and a new, bulletproof engine, this season was much less eventful, and I’ve finally started running a little faster than I was a few years ago. While that doesn’t sound like a big achievement, I’m more confident in the car than ever before, and it has much more potential this time around.

How did you choose your car for TT3 competition?

I actually never planned on running TT3 with this car originally. My initial plan, when I started running autocross, and DE with NASA Northeast, was to turn my S2000 daily driver, and my only car at the time, into a track toy. However, I quickly found out that in order to be competitive, that would mean making a lot of compromises and spending a lot of money on a street car.

With that in mind, I started looking for a more “expendable” car that drove similarly to the S2000, and one that was already track-prepped. People steered me toward the 944, so I ended up finding a Turbo S prepped for another race series, with the intent of racing it wheel-to-wheel with that club.

Instead, I found that NASA hosted more frequent track days and offered lots of track time, so I stuck around, and soon found myself working my way up the rest of the DE ladder with Great Lakes, after I relocated to the Midwest. I liked the way the car was set up, and at the time, I still intended to go wheel-to-wheel, but I was unsure of which class I wanted to run with. When I graduated from HPDE4, I started running in TTB, experimenting with the setup to see where the car would fit best. After some issues early on, I rebuilt the engine with stronger internals, and though that didn’t make more power, I ended up getting re-classed into TT3 soon after the formation of that class. Of course, that led to putting effort into making the car run faster, trying to build it to the limit of what class rules allowed.

From there, I’ve always enjoyed the way the car handled, on top of the fact that it’s different from the other cars running in the faster TT classes. So, though I’ve been tempted to jump into an E36 several times before, even recently, seeing how those cars are so fast with the right driver in TT4, the uniqueness of my car and the fact that it’s still a capable platform are why I’m still running it in TT3.

What do you during an event to plan and prepare for the next?

I make an effort to take video and log data during each session, making notes about how the car handles at each track, and how it responds to small changes. Most importantly, I note down any issues I have with the car, whether mechanical or handling related, so I can address them off-track, before the next event.

I also keep track of the adjustments I make to my driving, so that I can see how slightly different lines and brake points translate to faster or slower lap times and speeds. Later on, when I analyze my data in more detail off-track, I’ll use these notes to more easily pinpoint the exact effect these changes had, so I can decide what to do differently the next time I’m at the track.

You’re obviously a fast driver. Why do you choose Time Trial over racing?

As I said, I actually intended to run wheel-to-wheel when I originally picked up my 944. However, I still find myself drawn to TT because it pushes me to continue improving my skills as a driver, and lets me drive to my max potential every session. Lots of the TT drivers in my region are really talented, so we’re always learning from one another and pushing ourselves to go faster and faster. At the same time, we also work really well together on track, so everyone can run to the best of their abilities each time we’re out on track. It’s this competitive, yet cooperative environment that really appeals to me.

While I’m competitive by nature and would really like to try wheel-to-wheel at some point, the satisfaction I get from going out on track and extracting the most from my car any my driving during each session will keep me coming back to TT. As our rules set is further refined to encourage more competitors to run with us, hopefully we’ll see more racers crossing over to TT during future events, so that we can run larger, more competitive fields, and continue to grow into better, faster drivers.

Image courtesy of Downforce Media

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