Lime Rock is a historic track that is short in distance, but big in challenges. The lap speed average is over 90 miles per hour and the lap time is sub-one minute, giving little time to relax. With almost forty Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge cars on track, the traffic can be overwhelming, and for this reason, Lime Rock is nicknamed the “Bull Ring”. Unfortunately HART‟s #93 car did not make it out alive!
Lime Rock is an old track tucked into the quiet hills of Connecticut and, to appease the locals, racing is not allowed on Sundays. Because of this, the schedule for the weekend would be very tight, having Practices One, Two, and Qualifying all on the same day. Another challenge to the weekend would be the heat and humidity. The ambient temperatures would be well into the 90s, and the track temperature was up to 140 degrees. Fortunately, Practice 1 (and the race) would be run in the morning, allowing a little bit of a break in the humidity. The HART team planned to run on old and new tires in the first session to get an idea of how the balance might change in the race. There was not a lot of time to make changes, so the team focused on running different setups on each HART car to evaluate a wide range of tuning in a short period of time. For this weekend, Steve Eich was back in #92, sharing the car with Cameron Lawrence and Chad Gilsinger would once again pair up with Ryan Eversley.
By the end of Practice 1, both cars were working well, but the #93 car‟s balance was more neutral and this allowed for a better overall lap time. The #92 was a little more oversteer-focused, and this helped protect the front tires a little more, but made the car more difficult to drive. The team was happy with the results and made a plan to get both cars closer to a middle ground to achieve a faster overall lap, but also provide better longevity over the course of the race.
Practice 2 was right after lunch and nearing the hottest part of the day. Both cars had new setups; the #92 softened the car a little, but kept some toe-out character on the rear axle. The #93 played with stabilizer bar changes and damping characteristics. Starting the session, Eich had a great lap in #92 and placed the car in the top five. Both #92 drivers were happy with the balance and setup of the car. In #93, Gilsinger was struggling with more understeer. The crew was able to work on the balance, but the overall grip was lacking. Eversley struggled with the same issue, but HART was able to make some directional improvements by the end of the session.
With qualifying being only a couple hours away, the team worked quickly to get the cars ready. The drivers of #92 were happy with the setup, so general vehicle prep was all that was required. The plan for #93 was to get the car closer to the #92 setup. This would require a quick H&R spring change, and also a full realignment to increase the toe-out setting on the rear axle (this would help turn the car at corner entry). Fortunately, the HART crew has plenty of experience and was able to turn around the cars with time to spare, despite the compressed window. Eich was ready to hop in #92, while Gilsinger would be getting in #93 for qualifying. With Lime Rock being such a short track, it would be very difficult to find a significant gap so it was important for the teammates to work together. Gilsinger led Eich on track, and the two knew they had to get good laps in early, before the tires fell off from the excessive heat. With track temperatures above 140 degrees, the tire temps would exceed 250 degrees within a few laps (40-50 degrees hotter than optimal). Both drivers were able to put in solid laps, good enough for fourth (#93) and sixth (#92) place on the grid. After only a few laps, both drivers brought the cars back into the pits in order to save their tires for the race. Continental Tire Series rules mandate that you must start the race on the same tires on which you qualify. Both Eich and Gilsinger were ready to do another lap if needed, but held in the pits to conserve their tires. In the end, their times held up, meaning that the two drivers would be nose-to-tail to start the race.
The race was set to start just past 10 a.m. ET, and the cars had to be ready for the Fan Walk by 8:30 a.m. Saturday, so the team had to work late on Friday to get everything done. Luckily, HART has the best truck driver around, and he went to search for dinner while the crew got to work. Fortunately, #93‟s balance was much better in qualifying, so there were only minor changes needed, and the rest of the preparation consisted of standard bolt torque checks, fluid checks, and general parts replacement. The HART team was able to finish up by 8 p.m. and get back to its hotel in time for a good night's rest.
The HART cars were on the grid bright and early for the pre-race Fan Walk. Fortunately for the drivers, the humidity level had abated, but the ambient temperatures were still expected to be in the upper 80s. The team was feeling good about a strong finish for both cars, and devised multiple strategies to avoid a stack up in the pits. As the race went green, both drivers had great starts and moved into the third and fourth positions by Turn 1. Gilsinger was putting pressure on the two leaders early, while Eich was trying to hold off a couple of cars fighting for position. The Mazda cars are very strong at Lime Rock and Gilsinger knew he would struggle to get around them, so he just tried to stay behind them as long as he could. The #93 was able to stay in third position, but started to fade a little as the front of the pack caught lapped traffic. Eich was busy trying to stay ahead of another Mazda; he ultimately lost that battle, but still stayed in the top five. Just as Gilsinger was settling into a groove while running a solid third, the nightmare began. Gilsinger was flat-out on the front straight in fourth gear and KABOOM!!!!!!!! There was a loud pop sound from the engine bay, followed by a large vibration. It was clear that something was wrong and Gilsinger slowed the car to a controlled pace. The gauges looked fine and the car was still revving somewhat normally, so Chad was hoping for the best and praying it was just a drive shaft (the #92 car had broken a driveshaft here last year). He limped the car back to the pits and then, just before the car came to a stop, the oil pan let go and dumped Red Line Oil all over pit lane! A cylinder rod had failed and put a hole in the oil pan and block, and the race was over for #93.
Knowing there was nothing they could do for #93, the team now focused all its efforts on #92. Eich was still running strong, now in fourth place, and Cameron Lawrence was getting ready to take over behind the wheel. The team was almost to the halfway point of the race, but had some margin within the fuel window, so HART decided to pit #92 right at the start of its window. Once again, the team had an amazing stop and got the car back on track in the same position.
Lawrence now had to manage the tires for an hour and thirty minutes with a couple Porsches and a Mazda catching up quickly. Normally, there is at least one caution period in the later stages of the race which helps cool off the tires on the Civic Si, but this time HART would have no such luck. Lawrence was able to stay in the top five until the final fifteen minutes of the race, but the tire degradation was just too much. The Porsche and the Mazda were running over a second faster than the Civic by the end of the race, and the #92 was a sitting duck. Lawrence did everything he could but finally had to give up the positions in the final few laps. To make matters more challenging, he also had to work the car back and forth on the final lap, as the car was also running out of fuel. At the checkered flag the #92 came across the line in seventh place, but the real disappointment was that the #93 did not score points and now dropped out of the top few spots in points. In one positive note, Gilsinger was able to run the fastest race lap and the team showed competitive pace. It would just be nice if HART could get Lady Luck to be on its side more often.
“I'm really happy with the way the Civic Si performed at Lime Rock,” said #92 driver Steve Eich. “We didn't have anything for the Mazdas, and our FWD configuration limited our long-run pace on this bullring of a circuit, but our chassis setup was balanced and we had some super close racing that I'm sure the fans enjoyed."
“That was the quickest setup change I've ever made on our car prior to a session with an extremely tight time window, and we hit the target dead on. It was very rewarding to see it pay off with Chad securing a top five qualifying position. We had bad luck in the race, but HART proved once again how it can train Honda engineers to make key decisions under pressure," said chassis engineer Ryan Breed.
HART‟s next event will be at Road America, August 5-6. Gilsinger and Eversley teamed to win this race last year, so the team is hoping to repeat that result.
You can follow all the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge action on the IMSA website, www.imsa.com
The Lime Rock Park race will be televised on Fox Sports 1, Sunday July 31st, at noon EST.
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