Shame at La Junta

I’ve run laps at La Junta one time before, two years ago with CECA. I really had a good time. I describe the track as “rinky dink” yet outstanding: it’s short and flat with six right turns and only one left turn. And yet it’s the only track I’ve been on with a turn that I can take at 100mph. On street tires.

I’ve been wanting to get back there. Last year I made a half-hearted attempt to get the LoCo track rats to do a day. Nothing came of it. This year I put in a bit more effort. After a series of emails with Ryan and Dave to come up with a few possible dates I reached out to Allan at La Junta Raceway to see what we could do. And so we had our first LoCo Track day at La Junta Raceway.

Saturday, October 12

Google Maps tells me La Junta Raceway is 192 miles from my house. The sensible thing to do would be to get a room, as I did last time. But I often get up before 5:00am when I’m hiking, so why should I treat this any different? So I packed the car last night and set my alarm for 4:40. I was out of the house at 5, at the gas station in La Junta a few minutes after 8, and at the track in plenty of time for the 8:30 drivers meeting.

Entry was $100, which is about what HPR charges for half a day. We were hoping we could get 5 Lotus out there. We did get 5 signed up, but Dave’s Elise is up for sale at FoD and his Porsche is leaking fluids, so he scratched. When I looked at the roster Thursday evening there were 9 cars. We had six show up and one of those wasn’t one of those 9.

We ran in two groups: LoCo at the top of the hour, the “mixed group” at half past. It wasn’t so much a mixed group as a German duo: a Porsche and an M series BMW. Allan provided pizza for lunch and coffee and donuts for the drivers meeting.

The meeting had all the usual stuff: talk about the flags, passing, entering and leaving the track. The unusual stuff took up most of the agenda.

My first visit here we ran the whole day counter-clockwise. This is the orientation the track was built for. Today we’d do the morning sessions clockwise and do the normal way in the afternoon. So that was a big topic in the meeting. There are non-trivial concerns when running the track the wrong way. One of the (concrete) corner bunkers is on the outside of the exit of a turn and there are no tires on this side of it. There’s a giant cottonwood tree on the outside of the end of the fastest turn on the track. And the end of the pit wall would be a bad thing to hit.

Oregon Raceway Park was designed to be run in both directions, and that’s what we did on my visit there. I found it disorienting and never had enough laps to get comfortable on it in either direction. La Junta is much smaller and simpler, and I was certainly comfortable running it the normal way. Our first session was only about fifteen minutes as we got a late start. But that’s okay. It was still fairly chilly. Nobody would be going very fast with cold tires on a cold track.

I ran with the top off, as usual. Under my driving suit I had my sweater and hoodie. I was bulky but warm. By the second session I shedded those layers as the weather turned ideal. Sunny, calm, mid-60’s or even low-70’s.

The track is adjacent to the airport. Back in WWII it was La Junta Army Airfield, a training base that accommodated a large number of twin engine aircraft on its three runways. Deactivated in 1946, it’s much calmer these days, and only two runways have been used since then. The track uses the southern end of the disused runway and taxiway. I may have missed one or two, but I saw four or five planes and a helicopter all day. The helicopter is that of the local medical transport outfit.

One of the pilots stopped by and visited with us. Interesting guy. Flew for the Marines for 26 years, recently started doing medical transport. Works seven days on, seven days off; twelve hours on, twelve hours off. He had lots of questions about the cars. I loved his language. The cars are ships, horsepower is thrust, speeds are in knots. Upgraded brakes and tires are “varsity” brakes and tires. I’m surprised he didn’t call us drivers “pilots”. I told him if he could borrow a helmet I’d give him a ride.

Got him strapped in, told him I wouldn’t be able to hear him once we were going, and headed out. He was very enthusiastic, giving me a big thumbs-up after each turn. Then I made a mistake. Exiting the fastest turn and onto the long straight, I miss the shift from fourth to fifth and instead did fourth to third. I caught it in an instant and got into a correct gear. Damn. But nothing happened. Well, it seemed nothing happened. Half a lap later when I entered a braking zone and lifted off the throttle the car made a bad rattling noise. I went back to the paddock.

It sounded and felt good on the throttle, only making the rattle off throttle. After a short trip around the paddock I didn’t drive it again. I did start it twice more for a few seconds each time. The consensus was a rattling exhaust or a broken motor mount. I didn’t say anything about my missed shift. We took the diffuser and access panel off and poked around. No problems with exhaust or motor mounts. Listening to the last few seconds I ran it, it was clear to me it was inside the motor. I’m screwed.

Finally somebody asked if I’d missed a shift.

I lied. I said “no.”

Why did I do that? Obviously, I should have led the investigation with the admission that I missed a shift. Would have saved everybody the trouble of looking for rattling exhaust or broken motor mounts. Why did I lie?

I’ve driven stick shift cars for thirty years, more than four hundred thousand miles, and about fifty track days. Only missed shifts I’ve ever made have been second to fifth instead of second to third. Never the money shift.

For a long time, I’ve taken pride in the notion that I’m kind to the equipment, getting more miles out of brakes and clutches and tires than most of my peers. But this notion is under assault: twice I’ve had suspension bolts fail on the track, had wheel lugs fail, broke a motor mount, and replaced the clutch at 80,000 miles. Now the money shift.

I also take some measure of pride in thinking of myself as an honest guy. I claim to value honesty, openness, and transparency. If I was open and transparent I’d have said I missed the shift first thing. If I was honest, I wouldn’t have denied it when asked.

We gave up looking at my car when the pizza arrived, and I tried to relax for the next few hours. When I could think of things other than the events of the morning the time seemed to pass faster. So when Kevin asked if I’d like to ride with him and maybe drive his car for a couple laps of instruction I agreed. I’m not an instructor. I often have to reflect on events after the fact to realize exactly what’s going on. My videos help a lot on this. Maybe I rely too much on the videos, and if I didn’t have them I’d be better at being in the moment.

In any event, I did my best to see what tips I could share with Kevin. This is only his second track day, so he’s a bit of a clean slate. I didn’t try to communicate anything to him until after we did a full lap, then I tried to correct his line in a few places. In general, he wasn’t getting the car close enough to the apexes, he tended to apex early, and often didn’t let the car run out to the edge of the track exiting the corners.

After five laps we swapped places and I drove. I drove three laps; an out lap, a hot lap, and an in lap and we switched back. He then drove another five laps. His times after seeing what I did improved by four or five seconds a lap, and were more consistent from lap to lap. He’s so new at this, I’d expect his times to steadily improve with practice without my input, but I think I helped him out quite a bit.

The guy in the BMW was there giving a ride to his grandfather who used to race cars back in the fifties. The grandfather, whom I’d never met before and who, to this point, I’ve exchanged maybe a dozen words with, said if he still had his trailer he’d get me and the car home. You meet some pretty nice folks at the race track. (Addendum: I wasn’t the only mechanical victim of the day. The BMW driver had a broken strut and when we left, his car was still out on the track.)

The obvious next issue was how to get the car home. The obvious answer was to ask Ryan what it would take to get him to drive his Exige home and put my car in his trailer. All it took was to ask. Ryan is a lifesaver.

Ryan drove his car and I drove the truck with trailer. I got out of the gas station before he did, so we were separated from the start. He’d programmed the GPS in the truck to navigate to his house so I didn’t bother with using my phone. This turned out to be a problem. The truck’s satnav didn’t know there’s a bridge out. I stopped and consulted my phone. It said I could go a few hundred yards ahead to take a county road east. I should have turned around right there, but instead I followed my phone’s directions.

I got to this first county road and it looked like somebody’s driveway. Phone says there’s another one up ahead. So I went to the next one. It was a nice gravel road, but it looked like it dead-ended. On I went. The next county road was a just a double track, like a single lane jeep road. No way I was going to pull this trailer down any of these roads.

So I had to turn around and go back. I got to sort of a wide spot and managed to flip a u-turn without sinking into the shoulder, having to back up, or jack-knifing the rig. The detour took me six miles east to cross the river, then six miles back to the road I was on. But I think it was still a better route than dealing with the construction on I-25.

Ryan was using his phone for nav, so he got routed across the river without incident and was now almost ten miles ahead of me.

Our first waypoint was Limon, where we could stop and grab a bite. But this is quite a bit up the road, so I had plenty of time to reflect on the day. I was pretty down about my driving error and tried not to think about how much it might cost to repair. I was also quite ashamed about lying about it.

I phoned Michael and confessed about the money shift. I was originally thinking we’d take the car home, but given our limited resources it was obvious the best plan was just to drop it off at FoD. The LoCo meeting was scheduled for the next day, so I’d be able to explain it all to Ryan and discuss the way forward. (Oh dear. I generally don’t use last names here, but we now have two Ryans in the story. I was going to use last initials, but they’re both Ryan C.)

We dropped the car at FoD at about 8:00pm. Ryan offered to give me a lift home, but that’s not an optimal choice. I took a Lyft instead.

Sunday, October 13

The meeting was scheduled for noon, so I got there about 11:30. Ryan was right there when I pulled up, and I gave him my tale of woe. It would be the first of many tellings, as we had a nice turnout. Before long, I realized I was a topic of conversation. Everybody knew the story pretty quickly. So it goes. I was a little surprised that so many people weren’t familiar with the term “money shift”.

I told Ryan to take his time getting to it. I’m sure he has a few cars in front of me. He’ll take a good look at it and let me know the diagnosis and we’ll discuss a treatment plan.

Here’s the video. A couple of laps to get a feel for the track when going the wrong way. Note the unprotected bunker (0:34), the tree (1:00), and the end of the pit wall (1:07). I had a couple of faster laps later in the session, but the forward facing camera died half way through. Evidently, I need to plug that camera into the charger after every session.

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