At NASA Great Lakes’ recent Mid-Ohio event, Dave Royce, NASA’s Chief Divisional Director, said to me, “Of all people, why aren’t you doing the Matrix Race?”

The lure of this Matrix Race was simply too great because for the first time in history, we would be using the short-course layout. If you’re familiar with the track, you’ve noticed a paved section just past Turn 1 that shortcuts the Keyhole and connects the one-two straight to the back straight.

For this first event, the Matrix Race doesn’t use traditional NASA car classifications and adapts the idea of bracket drag racing to road racing. It’s a run-what-ya-brung and declare-a-time structure, and as long as your car meets NASA’s safety regulations and you have a NASA competition license, you’re free to race.

According to Royce, matrix racing is a format that enables any car with a NASA annual inspection to compete, regardless of its build spec. That is, no restrictions on performance modifications. Any tire, any engine, any gearbox and any induction. Any suspension, any gears and any wheel combination may be used. Apart from meeting the requirements for racecar annual safety, a driver or owner may build a car to his own unique performance specs. Royce said the idea behind the Matrix Race is to make racing as fun and as easy as possible.

“The concept is to create a class where door-to-door racing is the primary focus,” he said. “Where the car can be unique yet competitive, where there is no pre-event classification paperwork to complete, and no dyno certificate to submit. Even more fun and enjoyable is the elimination of post race technical inspection. No technical build rules means no post-race teardown.”

At the track a driver can expect to have a practice, qualifying and a race, similar to other NASA racing formats. When on track, all NASA race rules apply and drivers are racing for position. The first person across the finish line in each class at the end of the race wins the class.

Classification is determined by the lap time set by the driver/car combination that day. Once the lap times have been set in qualifying, the race director uses a proprietary calculation to organize cars into a class that will yield competitive racing for each driver. Drivers will always be in a class with competition so a driver will never be in a class with only one car. What is unique and fun is that a driver knows he will be classed next to a car with similar lap times each time he races.

The format meant I was competing against cars from very different categories, including Honda Challenge, American Iron and Spec Iron. The two longest straights at Mid-Ohio have been shortened, so the power advantage of the big V8s is negated, making my Civic competitive with an unusual group of cars.

My car is PTE-ready, so the only question for this first Matrix Race was to determine an optimal lap time to declare for the race. Having never driven that layout and having no historical data to use, I took an educated guess and hoped that I wouldn’t break out from my category.

Lining up on the pace lap among cars I typically don’t race against increased my anxiety a notch or two. Could I trust these drivers? Can the drivers of these big V8-powered cars actually see my tiny Civic?

With a well-timed start, I find myself passing a handful of cars before Turn 4. The real challenge, however, is how to set up for the new Turn 2 at speed. I reckon that using my same braking point for Turn 1 with a later turn-in should work — and it did.

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This new Turn 2 layout compels you to attempt late-braking passes and I’m lured into trying one on my teammate, Doug Kowalczyk. Thankfully, Kowalczyk is a head’s up racer and doesn’t turn into me while I’ve got a wheel locked and slide past in front of him.

The rest of the race is pretty uneventful, but it’s refreshing to compete against cars with a greater power-to-weight ratio on the Mid-Ohio short course layout. In the end, I finish second among a group of a half-dozen cars.

After a successful introduction at Mid-Ohio, Royce says the Matrix Race concept is still in development and will continue to evolve based on making racing more enjoyable and easier to participate. Watch for it at upcoming NASA race events, maybe even in your region.

Just like any race start, the beginning of the Matrix Race at Mid-Ohio was action packed, with lots of passing and crowded turns.

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Image courtesy of Tom Hitzeman