Dan Gardner and JD Nissan NX2000 Win National Championship
National Auto Sport Association (NASA) TTF Championship Won by 158 Thousandths of a Second
REDONDO BEACH, Calif. - Just a few short days ago, at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Dan Gardner, driving the Jackson-Dawson Nissan NX2000, took the championship honors at NASA's inaugural national championship event. Gardner won the TTF class by a scant 0.158 seconds in one of the most highly-contested battles in any class.
Gardner and his team emerged victorious after fighting off mental demons that resulted from three spins and almost hitting the pit wall on a rain-soaked test day the day before competition began.
"When you look at the in-car footage, it's truly scary watching us almost hit the pit wall," said Dan Gardner. "Then when you compare it to our winning footage on Saturday, it's amazing we actually got there. That track is like ice when wet, and there are a lot of bad things that can collect you if you go off. This was a mental victory above all else."
Prior to shipping the car out to Ohio, Gardner and crew chief, Chris Viscovich, meticulously prepped the vehicle and continued their massive spare parts acquisition, which included securing items such as:
- Control arms
- Brake calipers
- Brake lines
- Rocker arms and shims
- Wheel hubs and bearings
- Throttle body
- Brake rotors and pads
- Drive belts
- Tie rods
- Fuel rail with injectors
In total, the team would take 90 gallons of spares with them to Nationals in order to be prepared for any contingency. In fact, crewman Blair Judson (an Ohio local) had on-hand a spare engine and transmission should that be required as well.
"You don't come 2,500 miles to let a mechanical failure cost you a championship," said Viscovich. "Even if it took working all night every night on the car, we weren't going to surrender regardless of the nature of the failure."
Like many times in racing, when you come the most prepared, nothing ever goes wrong. And that was certainly the case for the four days the team spent driving one of the most challenging tracks in the United States. The only items that were done that were more than basic checks were swapping out a set of front brake pads, changing the brake fluid/bleeding the brakes, putting in new spark plugs, putting the rear swaybar on full stiff, and resetting base ignition timing. Nothing ever failed, a testament to the thousands of hours of work the team has invested over the last year and a half on the vehicle. This is a vehicle that has over 200,000 miles on its chassis.
Crew chief Viscovich patiently went through the entire car each and every time the car came off track, and performed an even more in-depth inspection at the conclusion of each day.
"If it wasn't for Chris nothing that we achieved at Nationals would be possible," said Gardner. "His countless hours over the last two seasons, and his meticulous inspections at Nationals were invaluable. In essence, you not only put your success in the hands of your crew chief, you put your life in his hands as well. There's simply not another man on this planet that I'd entrust my life to, on or off the racetrack."
The team carefully tracked the weather forecast prior to leaving for Ohio. Things were not looking good, especially for test day, a day the team had hoped would bring familiarity with the track along with good tire temps and pressures…not to mention some baseline lap times. A storm system was settling over Mid-Ohio, and when the team arrived at the track on Wednesday morning the track was soaked and the ominous sky portended more rain.
A quick session or two had Gardner frantically sawing at the wheel to keep the car from looping end over end. Coming onto the front straightaway, Gardner felt the car twitch and head straight for the pit wall. A mad shuffling of the steering wheel finally got the car straight again, unscathed but leaving Gardner nerve-wracked.
Helpful professional race driver and instructor, Tommy Byrne, reviewed the team's in-car footage, and quickly concluded that the rear bar needed to be disconnected for the wet conditions. He then proceeded to hop in the car with Gardner and show him both the wet and dry line.
After coming into the pits, Gardner hopped into the driver's seat, and although the car felt a bit better, he was tentative with the throttle which kept the car sliding on turn in. Further, thunder started to boom, while lightning filled the sky repeatedly. It was time for a mental break. The team decided to get competition tech inspection out of the way, so there was one less thing to worry about as the day went on. Following tech, and toward the very end of test day, the sun peaked out of the clouds. Gardner jumped on the opportunity to drive a somewhat dried out track. This turned out to be a good thing, as Gardner gained a bit of confidence during one last 20 lap blitz. He wasn't turning super-fast lap times, but the car was stable and he again began to get comfortable with being on-throttle.
Times settled right around the 2:00 minute mark. Yes, the track was still a tad wet, but the times were around 10 seconds off what the team predicted would be needed to secure a win.
The team's practice session on Thursday, the first competition day, left them with a time that would place them at an unimpressive fourth on grid in class. The track was still wet in the morning, but would get a bit better throughout the day. For the first competition session, the team turned a 1:57.094, still seven-tenths behind the third place driver, Ken Brewer in a Toyota MR2. Again, the team was gridded fourth, but Gardner turned up the wick a bit and ran off a 1:55.014, almost a second ahead of Brewer. This secured the team the number three spot on grid for Friday, right behind the Midwest Regional Champion, Bill Marquardt, driving a Mazda Miata.
On Friday morning, Gardner asked Viscovich to hook the rear swaybar back up, as it looked like the day would be mostly dry. The practice session wouldn't count for grid, but preliminary times of 1:53.xxx let Gardner know that he'd be hot on Marquardt's tail for the first competition session of the day. Gardner wanted more oversteer, so with the front bar set on full soft, he had Viscovich go full-stiff in the rear, for as much rotation as possible, short of disconnecting the front bar entirely.
On the out lap of the first session, Gardner gave the red Miata some room, but once the green flag dropped, Gardner made the decision to create some space up front, rather than try to battle for position with Marquardt later on. He rushed a long line of cars into the Carousel, dipping inside of the Miata. Coming out of the turn Gardner nailed the throttle and pulled the Miata slightly on the front straightaway. Marquardt would then tuck in behind Gardner going into Turn 1, and Gardner would not see him again. When the times came in, the team had posted a 1:52.226, just 0.074 seconds behind the leader, Steve Fuss, in a 1,900-lb. VW GTI on Hoosiers.
During Friday's final competition session, the track started to fall off, and despite driving hard, the team was only able to turn a 1:53.176. Fuss's times had dropped off as well, along with most of the competitors, and that would give Gardner the number 2 grid position behind the leader for the first competition session on Saturday, the final day of competition.
The team was able to use their in-car footage on Friday night to figure out how to find that last little bit of time that would be needed to win the race. Driving coach, Eric Fletcher, graciously volunteered his time, giving Gardner pointers on how to drive the track to gain time. He also provided Gardner with mental exercises to help visualize what needed to be done.
Gardner also made a call to John Wu, engineer at tire sponsor Nitto. The team had two sets of NT-01 R-Compound tires. One was the set that they had been using, with several heat cycles, but less tread depth. The other set was a fresh set with full tread depth. Wu told the team that he thought that the new set shaved to 2 or 3/32nds would be fastest. The team scrambled that night and the next morning to find an onsite or offsite vendor that could shave their tires for them. It was not to be. No shaving machine could be found, and so with a little bit of wind taken out of their sails, the team elected to run the new tires as is for the competition sessions on Saturday. At Fletcher's advice they also replaced the front pads and swapped brake fluid, performing a thorough bleed in the process.
Staged behind Fuss for the first competition session on Saturday, the team knew that if the track grip dropped off late in the day, this would be their only chance at victory. Viscovich wrote "Speed of Light Fast Tires" on the new set to help encourage them along while Gardner sang out "How to Save a Life" by The Fray to try to stay loose and relaxed. The song had somehow become the team's theme song throughout the competition.
Gardner was right on Fuss's bumper for a lap or two before a higher class Porsche and Mustang split them up. Gardner kept driving his lines, hoping to gain on Fuss by posting faster and faster lap times. The green oil temp warning light came on, indicating temps in excess of 250 F. A catastrophic failure wasn't likely, and Gardner knew this meant he was driving the car harder than he had before. Still he could not gain on Fuss. Lap after lap he drove harder and harder, but the tires were starting to go away, and he didn't think he had beat out the leader.
When he came into the pits he told Viscovich, "Chris, I didn't do it; I couldn't catch him. I drove the car as hard as I could." Meanwhile, Viscovich was taking tire temps, reporting back temps in excess of 200 degrees F, evidence that Gardner was driving the car extremely hard. He finally came to the driver's window and said, "Dude, you did it. They announced it, you beat him, you pulled ahead."
Gardner got out of the car and looked at the live results, which still showed Fuss ahead, but that was apparently only the last lap recorded in the session. Judson and Viscovich told Gardner to go to timing and scoring and see for himself. Gardner scanned the posted times and thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. He had run a 1:51.247 to Fuss's 1:51.405. He looked at it over and over again to make sure he wasn't reading it wrong, before running back to the garage.
He picked up Viscovich in the air, celebrating for a moment, but knowing there was still one final session to run. The team hoped the track would start to fall off, but it was not to be. Indeed times for the group ahead of Gardner suggested that they were comparable to earlier in the day. There would be one last battle.
Gardner was now in the number 1 spot on grid, and would have to deal with Fuss right behind him. As the cars took to the track, Gardner again started singing to calm his nerves, but stopped as soon as the green flag dropped. Fuss locked his brakes momentarily going into the Carousel as Gardner took the inside line. The two just about rubbed mirrors, staying side by side as close as two cars can get through the turn and into the kink leading onto the straightaway. Gardner decided to alter his double apex line rather than risk a collision with the VW. In doing so, Fuss got a brief run on him coming onto the straight, and pulled ahead just barely as the two got ready for Turn 1.
Gardner gave Fuss an eyeful of Nissan lap after lap, as the two ran within thousandths of a second of eachother. Toward the end of the session a TTE Focus and Mazdaspeed Protégé split Gardner and Fuss, and the rest of the session was run slower, as tires and brakes started to fade away.
All cars were required to go to impound after the last session, and Gardner and Fuss emerged from the cars shaking as they immediately embraced one another. A true battle had been fought, and neither knew what the times were. When the times finally came in Fuss had ran 28 hundredths of a second faster. The times, however, did drop off. Gardner ran a 1:52.019 to Fuss's 1:51.991.
And with that, Gardner's 1:51.247 would be the lap that secured the victory. Both first and second place in TTF would be coming back to California, but the championship would go to Gardner and the SoCal region.
"Somehow we did it, " said Gardner. "We had to fight every bit of the way. Steve was a great competitor. We were gladiators, and there was honor. If I had easily walked away with the championship, sure, it would have meant something, but it means so much more to have fought this hard for it. 158 thousandths of a second! We did it!"
But driving the car was but one piece of the formula. Chris Viscovich made sure Gardner could keep his mind on driving by taking on every drop of responsibility for the crew activities.
"I told Dan I would make sure he didn't have to think about working on the car," said Viscovich. "I just wanted him to focus on driving and staying relaxed. We all have a job to do, and when everyone does it well, great things can happen. Well, great things did happen. Nissan power, baby!"
Title sponsor Jackson-Dawson was on-hand to witness the victory. Their support made a lot of things possible, and the team was excited (if not a bit under pressure) while they were there.
"Winning at the first ever NASA National Championships is really something," said Dennis Kiser, Vice President - Client Services, Jackson-Dawson Communications. "Even the best guy doesn't win every time, but we believed Dan could do it. We're just happy to be a part of this all. A National Championship…what more could a title sponsor ask for!?"
The JD NX2000 is currently fitted with
- Nitto 205/50R15 NT-01 tires
- Recaro Pole Position Seats
- Progress Technology coilovers, front and rear swaybars, and lower control arm brace
- Mossy Performance: OEM parts, Crown stainless brake lines, Unorthodox Racing pulleys, Hose Techniques silicone radiator hoses
- Carbotech Panther XP10 brake pads
- Optima RedTop battery
- Hitachi alternator and starter
- G-Force 5-point harnesses, racing suit, gloves, and helmet
- Active Tuning grounding kit
- The Tire Rack Kosei K1-TS 15x7-inch wheels
- Custom Steel water temp sender adaptor
In addition, tire mounting, balancing, and repair are performed by America's Tire Co., graphics are done by G5 Designs, car care products are supplied by Mothers Polish, and dyno testing services are supplied by Harman Motive.
Images of the racecar with new graphics at Mid-Ohio can be found at http://gallery.aboutgardner.com/gallery/Mid-Ohio-Championship-September-2006