I had been crewing for John Blouin’s Equipe Pumpkin for about a year when I passed the MCO Race School in 2002. In 2003, I rented the “Pumpkin”, a 1971 Datsun 510, for 3 races – two at Shannonville and one at Mosport.
I had only one race weekend in 2004 at Mosport. It rained the entire weekend, and never got above 5°. We were all cold and miserable.
I had 2 races that weekend, and both were DNF (Did Not Finish). In the first race on Saturday, the crew chief didn’t fill the fuel tank and I ran out of gas. In the longer 40 minute race on Sunday, the car ran out of battery power and stopped. We had removed the alternator over the winter to save the weight, but this depends on ensuring that the battery is always fully charged. In this case, the battery was not charged overnight; additionally, the cold temperature also impacted the battery life.
In 2003, I won the CRCA Race Driver of the Year trophy. Other names on that trophy include Paul Tracy and Ron Fellows.
Photos are available in the gallery.
Below is the article I wrote for the MCO Link magazine describing my rookie season. It was published in 2003.
My Rookie Year
The metallic destruction begins before the clutch pedal is completely released. Unable to cope with the the demands placed upon it by a clumsy driver, the valves float and are hammered into the head by pistons moving 17 meters per second. Now attempting to compress metal at an 8.5:1 ratio instead of fuel-air mix, the connecting rods break and throw more shrapnel into the self-destructing motor.
That’s how I imagined my first weekend of racing would end – a spectacular fireworks of metal and oil freed from the confines of the engine block because of a blown downshift. Being a novice in motorsport is to be afraid of the unknown.
My first weekend in Road Racing was the CRDA weekend at Shannonville in 2003. I was with two other novice drivers, Eric McKinnon and Albert Cohoe. There were many unknowns for me that weekend. A car I had never driven – a bright orange Datsun 510, one of two ‘Pumpkins’ owned by John Blouin. I had almost no experience with a rear wheel drive – I’ve been driving FWD compacts for 12 years. No power steering or brakes – the compacts had both. And of course the fear of screwing up and hitting something or someone in a car I had only rented.
The last unknown on my novice weekend was the weather. It was supposed to rain, which really put The Fear into me. In fact, I was terrified. The only known quanity was that I was familiar with the Shannonville track from schools and lapping events in the previous 2 years.
The Friday evening of the CRDA weekend, I had my first experience driving the Pumpkin. Bennett Leckie, the crew chief, had me drive up and down the access road and around the paddock. This did little to calm my fears; there was no passenger seat, so Bennett could only hold on to the rollcage to prevent him being thrown around in the car. It was getting dark and the car had no lights. With no assist, the brakes took more effort than I had anticipated. The paddock was overrun by small children on bikes, and I was so terrified of hitting them that I could not focus on driving the car.
I did not sleep well that Friday night.
My first session on Saturday was qualifying for the Toyo Touring series. Albert had already been out for the GT Sprints qualifying. Eric and I were co-driving in Touring series; he would race the 20 minute race in the afternoon and we would split the 40 minute race on Sunday.
I thought I knew what it would be like, but in almost every respect, I was quite wrong. I expected to be a nervous, heart-pumping wreck while waiting on mock grid for the first time, but when I arrived at mock grid, I felt very calm. Once buckled in, I focused on the task ahead. I later attributed this to my Solo-II experience, that ability to block out distractions and concentrate on the course map in the minute before getting the green flag.
I started the engine at the 3 minute mark – enough to warm up the engine, but not too long as to overheat. The Datsun, as with most race cars, did not have radiator fan.
When the mock grid marshal gave the signal to enter the course, I almost stalled pulling away. Yikes! Driving from mock grid to the end of pit lane emphasied the lack of power steering and brakes. Once out onto the track, the controls lightened up as the Pumpkin got up to speed. I had about 2 or 3 laps to learn the car before traffic began to lap me.
The fear of a missed downshift was very real – it was the first weekend on the rebuilt L16 motor. Saturday was spent breaking in the motor. I was limited to a maximum of only 3500 rpm, indicated with a red tattle-tale on the tachometer. I soon discovered that there is no power below 1500, so Saturday was spent within that narrow 2k rpm band.
And I was slow! I’m embarrassed by the actual times, but then I already knew I would qualify last, so there was no pressure to try too hard. With no more than 3500rpm, I got below 2 minutes on the Pro track near the end of my session.
For me, it was far more important to use the session to learn the car and learn to watch the mirrors. The Datsun had a wink mirror, spanning the top of the front wind screen, offering an excellent view of the track behind me. Because the Shannonville track is so flat, I could easily see cars in corner 2 while going through the hairpin (10) – they would pass me before corner 13. For the drivers coming from behind, there was no doubt about my novice status – John had put a 1 meter tall triangle on the back window with bright yellow racers tape.
What surprised me the most about being on the track was the noise. I knew the sound of the Datsun well enough, having crewed for the team the previous year. I could guess what the other cars would sound like as they passed me. But it was the sound of every little pebble, stone, tire marble and even fine dirt along the back straight hitting the bottom of the car and the inside of the wheel wells that was unexpected. With no sound insulation – just a thin steel sheet for a floor – it sounded like I was in a rolling tin can full of rocks.
After 20 minutes, my track time was up. I waved madly at all the marshals on the cool down lap while I was screaming inside my helmet, I was so happy. Back at our camp area, I unbuckled the belts, lept out and jumped for joy around the car, an ear-to-ear shit-eating grin on my mug. I had done it; faced the challenge, kept the hell out of everyone’s way, stayed on the black and had so much fun.
Saturday’s racing ended early, so the track was opened for a 40 minute practice session. Eric took the first 15 minute stint, and I was able to stay out for about 20 minutes. It had started to drizzle, but there was no standing water.
This session very important for me, as I was able to get comfortable with driving in the wet by driving conservatively. I wasn’t out to set records, I just wanted to conquer the Fear of driving a race car in the rain. I drove smooth and cautiously. It would be another two years before anyone told me about the wet racing line.
At the end of the day, the crew took the Pumpkin out for some lapping to break in the motor. That would allow the drivers to use the entire rev range on Sunday.
The next weekend, also at Shannonville, the team owner John was out driving his car, the other Pumpkin. He and I went out together for the first session. Before going out, he made sure I knew that it was not a good idea to pass the team owner, and he started calling me Reubens (after Reubens Barrichello).
It was a lot of fun to be out with another car of roughly the same performance, but it ended too soon, as Johns car overheated. In the next sesion, John’s engine would grenade on the first lap. My luck held and I would not have any serious problems all year.