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|“Gone in sixty Seconds”|
After a few laps on track, Tristan Littlehale steers his BMW E36 M3 into the paddock, climbs out of the car and within a few minutes is on a laptop to parse over the data from his track session. Littlehale isn’t focused on the performance of his car. The 24-year-old racer looks inward to improve his lap times.
“Everybody wants to throw the next change at the car, and Tristan is willing to throw the next change at the driver,” said racer Glen McCready, who paddocks with Littlehale and leads the data analytics role for the TC Design Motorsports racers.
It’s this data-driven approach that has helped Littlehale win NASA’s Western States championships during his rookie season in GTS2 in 2014, which enabled him to compete in the Mazda Race of NASA Champions, and in GTS3 in 2015. Littlehale, who races in the Northern California Region, is aiming to make it three in a row.
Whether on the racetrack or a mountain bike course, Littlehale is accustomed to winning. Spend a few minutes talking to him and Littlehale sounds more like a motivational speaker than a mechanical engineer.
“Success starts with the love of it and then comes the passion,” said Littlehale, who lives in Saratoga, Calif. “From the passion brings all the preparation. I want to succeed in with whatever I’m trying to achieve.”
Littlehale got into auto racing at age 16 after his father, Kent, took him to a car-control clinic for teenagers. After the class, Kent Littlehale encouraged his son to do autocross. They shared an old Lexus and the younger Littlehale turned his attention to auto racing instead of mountain biking, despite being on a team that advanced to a national championship.
By the end of his junior year of high school, Littlehale wanted a faster car, so he bought an older BMW. The BMW served as his daily driver and track car as he graduated high school and went to the University of California, Riverside, to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.
Southern California has a thriving autocross scene and he felt right at home. Littlehale was so good he won two autocross championships, but he was looking for more. He put a full cage in the M3 and started racing with NASA his senior year, traveling to Northern California once a month to compete, even with a heavy college course load.
Tony Colicchio first met Littlehale when he was in high school and he brought his BMW into TC Design Motorsports in Campbell, Calif., for some work. Colicchio now serves as Littlehale’s driving coach and handles setup on the car.
“I call him my little protégé because he pretty much does what I say, and listens,” Colicchio said. “He has a very, very strong drive. He’s like the perfect client.”
Littlehale installed a data system on Colicchio’s advice and realized there was more to the system than tracking lap times. The team also uses the data to support the general health of the car, monitoring functions such as the oil pressure, fuel pressure and oil temperature.
They incorporate the information into the maintenance schedule to replace parts prior to breaking. Littlehale maintains the car at the home of his girlfriend’s parents to keep costs in check, and must find the time during 60-hour workweeks at an engineering consulting company in Silicon Valley.
“If you look at the race results, the car has never had a DNS,” LIttlehale said. “That’s because we always make sure it is in tip-top mechanical shape before the weekend, during the weekend and after the weekend.”
Littlehale leaves the setup to TC Design, recognizing that Colicchio has a deeper understanding of how setup changes affect the car. Colicchio won several national championships with other drivers, a primary reason Littlehale picked the race shop.
“We always had a plan. It wasn’t just that we were throwing parts at a car,” Colicchio said. “He sees what the big picture is. It’s not getting overwhelmed in the details, but just making sure what he is working on … is getting him to the goal of winning nationals. That’s what his goal has always been since I met him.”
Littlehale acknowledges he is an aggressive driver, something Colicchio is working to tamp down.
“Doing bicycle racing early on I had a good feel for speed and control of what was happening underneath me,” Littlehale said. “So when I’m on the track I tend to drive right at the limit and not to go beyond that limit.”
Littlehale shares the credit for his racecourse success with paddock members such as McCready who are willing to make repairs on competitor’s cars.
“What really helps me be able to come to the track and operate the way I do is because I’m not a one-man team,” Littlehale said. ”I have my racing family to help me.”
Littlehale has since sold the mountain bikes from his days in junior competition, using the money to buy parts for the BMW. He kept one of the bikes to use at the track.
“That’s the cycling I get on the weekends, biking around the pits, whether it’s talking to a fellow racer or going to the car shop for parts,” he said.