The old adage is that practice makes perfect, but NASA Championships competitors know better. Any of them will tell you that only perfect practice makes perfect, and that’s what Thursday at the 2023 National Auto Sport Association Championships is all about.
As crews prepped cars and competitors took to the track for the first time before three days of heated competition, they had a lot of things to accomplish. Drivers had to get a feel for the track and find the marks they’re going to use and get the car set up to their liking. Of course, the final days of summer in western Pennsylvania can bring fickle weather, and wet conditions Thursday morning and afternoon presented additional challenges for NASA drivers.
We walked the paddock and spoke to a cross section of NASA drivers in some of the more popular racing and Time Trial classes. Here’s what they were trying to accomplish on Thursday.
Time Trial 1
NASA Time Trial is a series in which drivers dig deep to drive their fastest error-free laps. Obviously, running an error-free lap is a tall order, but for Time Trial drivers it needs to be as close to perfect as possible. Drop two wheels and your entire session doesn’t count.
NASA TT driver Derek Fletcher brought his potent 2023 Chevrolet Corvette Z06, the first ever to compete at a NASA National Championships. Driving on new, stock tires because racing slicks aren’t yet available in the size of wheel that comes on the car, Fletcher is finding his way around PittRace after driving from his home state of Arkansas.
“This is a fully street legal production car. Basically, I just put it in racetrack mode, and I came here to get familiar with the track. I know that I need to be under 2 minutes a lap to even be competitive, and I know that I need to be under about 1:54 to even get close to the podium,” Fletcher said. “So, what I’m doing today is just trying to memorize certain parts of the track, trying to see where my friction circle is, so to speak.”
Fletcher is going to run the event on one set of tires, and the tires he has aren’t designed for rain, so Fletcher is hoping for good weather. He’s also hoping to use his TT efforts to raise awareness of congenital heart disease, a heart condition some people are born with, which can change the way blood flows through the heart.
“That’s what a Heart Like Mine Foundation is, and that’s why Milwaukee Tool and Windshield Wow are on board just because they support that foundation,” Fletcher said. “And what we do is we help kids and families affected by congenital heart disease. They could be in a hospital for months and months at a time. Some of them lose their jobs, they can’t pay bills, things like that. So that’s where we come in, and so that’s what this is all about. We’re out here having fun and raising awareness at the same time.”
NASA Texas Spec Miata driver Vinnie Baratta came to Pittsburgh International Race Complex with less information than any other track where he has competed at a NASA National Championships event. It’s not like Daytona or Laguna Seca where he and his team have lots of laps, plenty of video to review, tire and setup knowledge. Baratta also doesn’t know the track very well, so he’s trying to learn it as quickly as possible, because a lot of his competition does have a fair amount of experience here at PittRace.
“There’s a lot of blind stuff here, a lot of rhythm stuff, a lot of kind of arrhythmic, awkward stuff where the esses just don’t feel natural. And then the blind stuff and turns 3, 4, 5 is still a big old mess for me,” Baratta said. “So, yeah, the plan for today is to sort out the little places that we’re not quite happy yet. For me it’s 3, 4, 5, and then start dialing setup in a little bit and then see where we are at the end of today.”
Despite the steep learning curve on ostensibly every facet of competing at a National Championships event, Baratta said he’s enjoying learning the track and looking forward to dialing in the car further for the big field of Spec Miatas he’ll be facing off against in the qualifying race Saturday and the 45-minute Championship race Sunday.
“(The track) is growing on me. It makes you really, really think about where you’re going, makes you really hustle, and especially where you don’t have a lot of markers up there,” he said. “You’re focused on vibrations, you’re focused on sounds because your eyes can’t do a whole lot because it’s completely blind. Where are the revs at? It’s about what am I feeling a lot more than what am I seeing. So, it takes a lot of sensory input to get some of this stuff figured out.”
Baratta has three days to get it right.
For Ken Deja, the practice sessions at Pittsburgh International Race Complex are about building confidence before qualifying and the Spec Iron championship race.
“When I first got a car like this, I had an incident in it, so it’s just building up my confidence, learning how the car is going to react, how it handles, what it does, some of the quirkiness of it,” Deja said. “For me, it’s just building that confidence again, and it takes me a while to kind of get up to speed. But once I do, I feel good, and I start going.”
Deja’s uneasiness is understandable considering his accident happened at the Pittsburgh course. With the incident in the rearview mirror, Deja is focused on better learning the car and enjoying the National Championships.
“For me, this is about coming out here and just having a race weekend with my friends,” said Deja, who made the trip from Wauconda, Ill., a small town north of Chicago. “It’s a great community and this series is growing. I think part of it’s because everyone sees what we do and how well we get along, and just how everybody helps each other.”
Deja’s goal for the weekend is to stay with the middle of the pack as he continues to learn the car. He’s raced Pittsburgh International Race Complex four times, most recently in July with the Great Lakes Region. Deja has been busy reviewing his track notes, relearning the track and studying the best parts to attack.
While the forecast is calling for a chance of rain, Deja is prepared with new rain tires in the trailer. He’s hoping the tires stay in the trailer.
“I thought since I’m here, I should have a proper set of rain tires if it rains,” Deja said. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed, (but) because I bought them it’s not going to rain.”
Teen Mazda Challenge
If you didn’t already know, NASA’s Teen Mazda Challenge provides opportunities for drivers as young as age 13 to compete within the Spec Miata class at regional NASA events nationwide and, of course, the NASA Championships.
One Teen Mazda Challenge driver who made the trek to PittRace for the NASA Championships is 14-year-old Aryton Grim. A NASA Great Lakes Teen Mazda Challenge driver in his first season with NASA, though with 10 years of experience racing karts, Grim has run more than 100 laps at PittRace. Like drivers of any age, Grim is trying to make the most of every session on track on Thursday.
“The value of practice is very important because you need to get your car set up for the race and the weather can sometimes not be in your favor and you have to change stuff. And then the weather could be good, then you have to change it back,” Grim said. “But that’s why practice is helpful because then you have time to mess around with the car, setup and all of the stuff that you need to do to get faster.”
In addition to racing at the NASA Great Lakes regional event here at PittRace in July, Grim has been preparing the car and training at home on a simulator. Grim is looking to be on the podium and he thinks he can find a bit more speed on track to be able to do that. That’s the kind of performance we have come to expect from Teen Mazda Challenge drivers.
Honda Challenge 2 driver Kenneth Martinez got his rookie license in 2018, and this is just the second Championships event he’s attended. His first NASA Championships was at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2019.
After a practice session, Martinez had the front of his car on jack stands to inspect the brakes and wheels. Martinez starts his practice sessions conservatively and begins to build speed as he becomes more familiar with the nuance of the track and gains confidence in the car.
“I’ve always been like that. Even in sports that I play, I always practice, warm up slowly and then work my way up and get faster as I go. And I’m the same way here at the track,” Martinez said. “So my goal today is just to make sure nothing’s going to fall off the car. And trust is the number one thing. Once you trust the car, first session, just make sure, shake it around, make sure everything’s good, and then progressively start to push more and more and more. My goal for today is not to put down the fastest time, it’s just to get a comfort level of the car, see if it needs anything.
Because he has competed in one Championship, Martinez knows that Sunday is the most important day. In addition to a regular maintenance regimen that keeps the car in top shape, Martinez doesn’t take chances during the lead-up to Sunday’s Championships race. That way, he not only has the pace he’s been building all weekend, but also a good car that will serve him well during the 45-minute Championship race.
“I don’t want to take any risks today to make sure I save the car for the most important day, which is Sunday,” Martinez said. “If I maintain the car at that high level, I don’t really have to do too much work to it. So I like to keep the car at that point. It worked well at the last race, so it was right where I wanted it. I don’t really need to touch the car, just change the fluids, buy some extra new tires for the qualifying race and the Sunday race.”
German Touring Series 3
John Huebner wanted to learn the PittRace course before the National Championships weekend, but with three kids involved in traveling sports, he couldn’t fit it into his busy schedule. That made Thursday’s practice sessions even more critical when the racing counts this weekend.
“I’m honestly just trying to learn the track right now,” said Huebner, who is running in German Touring Series 3. “This is my first time here, so I want to learn my turning points, check for markers around the track.
“I can generally pick up on tracks pretty well. I knocked a couple seconds off the second session from the first session. That’s really all I’m looking to do is drop time each time out.”
Huebner described the PittRace course as a technical track, comparing it to Summit Point Motorsports Park in West Virginia. “You’re constantly moving the car from side to side,” he said. “The goal is to have fun and bring the car home in one piece.”
After a couple of practice sessions, Huebner was busy wrenching his car. The BMW developed a vibration on the track, and he noticed the steering wheel was slightly off center. Huebner also didn’t realize how old the tires were on the car.
“I’ve got one R7 and three A7s on the car,” Huebner said. “Again, today is really about learning the track for me. I’m not worried about setting fast laps. I just want to improve each time out (there). That’s the only goal for today.”
With the kids busy with hockey and basketball tournaments and a third trying out for a club basketball team, Huebner traveled solo from Raleigh, N.C. He’s keeping tabs from a distance between practice sessions.
“My wife is not too happy with me right now,” he said with a laugh.
Competing in his first NASA National Championships, Rich Brainerd is approaching it as a traditional race weekend. He ran a regional race at PittRace course in July to get prepared for this weekend.
“There were a couple of things that I was trying to learn to improve myself,” said Brainerd, who is competing in the 14-car-deep Spec E46 class. “There’s a couple of blind corners here, which are tricky, especially (turn) 14. It all comes down to how it times out and what you can do.”
Brainerd was hoping for a little rain during Thursday’s practice sessions, so he could run the PittRace course dry and wet. “It hasn’t rained, so I’m really curious to see how the track is going to be wet,” he said.
During the regional race in July, Brainerd played with setup, and during Thursday’s testing, he made small adjustments to the shocks and the BMW’s ride height.
“The S (turns) here are so different than the rest of the track, but you have to kind of balance so the idea would be to have some oversteer and some understeer,” said Brainerd, who lives in Rochester, N.Y.
Brainerd said while running the track over the summer, he found it tough to pass other Spec E46 cars. “That was pretty eye opening actually,” he said. “That opened up what I think are some good passing zones that someone else might not think are likely, so we’ll see how that works.”
Because there is a large field of Spec E46 cars at the National Championship, Brainerd said Friday’s qualifying could be the difference on whether a racer is standing on the podium on Sunday. Some drivers are holding back so as not to reveal the true capabilities of their cars, but Brainerd doesn’t play that game.
“Qualifying is hugely important in our class,” he said. “I think qualifying could be a big advantage.”