Woah! What a rush!
Round six of the 2023 Optima Search For the Ultimate Street Car visited Daytona International Speedway this year, running the road course configuration… at night!
This was going to be a test. The Probe had never been taxed like this. The closest would probably have been our trips to Road America and COTA back in 2020, but the car wasn’t turbocharged back then. The Daytona road course layout actually uses most of the speedway tri-oval, which means sustained elevated speeds, but then you have to throw out an anchor to enter the infield portion of the course without crashing into something, then right back out onto the speedway, throw the anchor out again for the bus stop, then all the way back around to the start/finish line.
But before we got to the fast bits, we had to get through the first day of autocross and D&E. That wasn’t easy. It was HOT.
This event was a Thursday-Saturday schedule, with check-in and tech on Thursday. The QA1 Autocross, Lingenfelter Design and Engineering Challenge, and the Lucas Oil Road Rally were Friday, and the Peak Performance Challenge and the Falken Tire Hot Lap challenge were Saturday.
We got in late Thursday, too late to check in, but we were able to drop the car at the track and head for the hotel. Even at 9pm, the weather was swealtering. The heat would be challenge the entire event.
Friday morning saw us sail through tech, we jumped in the D&E line and got that done right away, and by noon the heat index was well past 110F. We were drinking 24-32 ounces of water an hour just to keep up with the sweating and still manage to go pee about once an hour. It was a challenge for the cars, too.
Falken’s RT660 is a fantastic tire, but it is not heat tolerant. We got two good runs out of the car in the morning, and they were done for the day. Greasy and imprecise. BUT! During the second run we had enough grip to move the suspension. We lost almost all the camber on the right side and the right front wheel was toed out quite a bit.
Thankfully, the Road Rally was mercifully short and we limped it to the end of the day.
Saturday worked out really well. Since we were running the road course at night, the day’s schedule didn’t start until noon. Instead of sleeping in, we headed to a hardware store where we grabbed a few yard sticks, a level, and a few tools. We headed for the track where we reset the toe on the car and prepared for the afternoon.
The Peak Performance Challenge was fine. It’s still my weakest segment. It’s normally won by the car with the most power and the best ABS system. A 210hp front wheel drive car with non-working ABS and an alignment problem isn’t going to do well. But, after two runs, the alignment hadn’t shifted, so we were confident on make a road course lap.
And so we moved on to the road course. There were two sessions in the heat of the afternoon, and two after dinner at night under the lights. In the first session, the heat was again a problem. The tires were not happen. On the infield portions, it was greasy and pushy. But once we got out on the big track, the car came alive.
The experience of being on that track with that banking going that fast is hard to describe. When you try to look ahead, where you usually see horizon all you see is more track. When you get up above 130mph, things really start to move quickly. Steering inputs have to be super smooth, because if you upset the car, you will crash, and crashing at these speeds is never a good thing.
In our first session, I pointed one of my class competitors by in the infield because of the afore-mentioned tire issues. He was just faster there and I didn’t want to hold him up. He disappeared… for a minute. Then I made the exit onto the main track and hammered it. The car accelerated quickly past 120 and we were on that Miata’s tailpipe all the way through the bus stop, across the start finish, and back into the road course, where he again gapped me, but then I caught him again on the back half of the lap.
Now, this wasn’t a problem. For the first time on that track, that was as fast as I needed to go. I think I did two or three full laps, saw the oil temp was up past 260 and decided to pit in. The best go-round of the early afternoon session was a 2:32 and some change.
I chose not to go out for my second afternoon session. It was just too hot. We chilled out for bit, got some food, then checked the D&E scores when they were posted. We did amazingly well, scoring 66 points and ending 3rd in class, just 4 points out of second. The strategy was to let the car (especially the tires) cool as much as possible, then try again once the sun went down.
And that’s what we did. The first evening session under the lights ended abruptly. Another car blew a transmission and caught fire. The caution ruined my one lap, and we were black flagged so the car could be recovered. 2:44 time. Not good.
But the second evening session was a completely different story. It was 9:40pm. The sun was completely down, the lights were on and the temperature had dropped from an afternoon high of close to 100F (heat index above 110) to 89F. I was gridded last in my run group, too. No need to worry about letting anybody by, eyes forward! On the outlap I gapped the car in front of my by about fifteen seconds to avoid catching them on the oval, and went for it. The cooler tires handled the infield section much better, and I was able to keep my foot all the way in the throttle until ~6500rpm in 5th gear. At that point, the car was hitting boost cut, so that was as fast as it was going to go.
That speed was a GPS verified 143.6 miles per hour (video shows 142, but that’s a rendering issue, I have the log). In a $500 Ford Probe
The lap time was a 2:27. Five seconds faster than the morning session.
With the oil again above 260 degrees, I pitted in after the one flyer. I’d done enough and pushing it any further likely wouldn’t result in a better lap time.
At the end of the event, we were 4th in class and 39th out of 93 that registered, though only 52 managed to complete the entire event. The attrition was staggering. This track is hard on equipment and drivers, and the heat only made it worse. I am extremely proud to have completed this event in a car I built in my garage. What was anticipated to be an event where points were hard to come by saw us netting 365 points and leaving us firmly in 6th place overall for the year in class. This point total significantly improves our chances of qualifying for the invitational in Vegas.
There is one event left in the series, Virginia International Raceway, October 6. We are registered and will be going to try to win an invite outright.
In the meantime, we need to fix the alignment and one of the driveshaft boots failed and slung grease everywhere. Big mess.
Big thanks to Jenni for once again being the best crew and travel companion in the world. Huge thanks to my parents for watching my kid and my dogs. Big shoutout to the FM3 crew for putting on another amazing event, and finally thanks to all series and class sponsors like Geaux Moto for making it possible for normal people like me to do extraordinary things like driving on Daytona International Speedway at night.
Watch this space for an update after VIR!