Until last year, I had spent most of my life in Florida. There is a lot to love about the state, but it was time for a change for my family and my business. Now a year removed from the state, and I don't miss too much about it besides the family and friends that still reside there. One thing I do miss, however, is Sebring International Raceway. It is simply one of the most unique and storied race tracks in the United States, bar none.
While I have only driven at a small sampling of southeastern U.S. race tracks (seven at the time of writing), I am confident in saying that Sebring is in it's own league. Thankfully, I have some truly awesome friends in Florida, and I've had the chance to go back and race there a few times over the last year. A huge thank you goes out to Carlos from Condor Speed Shop for lending me his very own Spec E9X race car for this Sebring April '22 event.
Carlos's E90 is the very first Spec E9X race car; the first of many for the new NASA Spec class that he is campaigning. His car already has a storied race career, having won the NASA Championships in Super Touring 5 (ST5) last season. It was part of a double-national title effort by Carlos, since he also won the Spec E30 Championship. I played a small role being the crew chief for Carlos' Championship effort, and I had an absolute blast doing it. We will get deep into that story another day.
Thus far I've wheeled the Spec E9X during 5 events and at 3 tracks (Road Atlanta, Sebring, and Homestead). As a life-long E30 and E36 guy, it has been truly eye-opening driving the modern E90 platform on-track. It is simply sublime. So much so that it kind of had me down about my own E30; it simply didn't compare. Thankfully, through some pretty drastic setup changes, I've been able to emulate and capture a little bit of the E90 driving experience in my E30. You can read about that process in this article.
Getting back to the Spec E9X: since I don't have a wheel to wheel racing license yet, I entered the car into Time Trial 5 (TT5), the same class I have been competing in with my E30. In 2021, when this car won the ST5 Championship, I would say that it was very close to being "maxed out" for the TT/ST5, give or take a few pounds or a few horsepower. This year, it's not quite as optimized, because NASA increased the power:weight modifier for Toyo RR tires. The RR is the spec tire for the Spec E9X class, and the same tire we ran last year. That means the car can now shed some more weight or pick up some more power, but that is not the goal of the Spec E9X class, so for now TT/ST5 is still the best generic class fit for the car.
While Carlos and I had intended on doing some specific setup and tire-related testing that weekend, I had one real goal in mind: to finally, officially, secure the TT5 track record. The record stood at 2:33.5, held by my my friend Joshua Feingold. You see, I had already once beaten the record in my E30 over a year prior, but I had made a doofus mistake that cost me the official record.
In February 2021, piloting my E30 at Sebring, I was feeling confident on a set of sticky Hoosier R7s. Having come from 200tw street tires, the R7s were an entirely new ball game for me. The immense grip was frankly unfamiliar, and so was the sudden loss of grip at their limit, which came with seemingly no warning when compared to the understeer and squeal that a street tire prepares you with.
After a turning a 2:34 on my second lap of the session, I sensed blood in the water, and with no traffic around, started pushing harder. The next lap was a 2:33.0; I had beaten the record by half a second! Feeling that the car had more in it, I kept pushing: the next lap was a 2:32.2, another eight tenths faster! I should have come in to the paddock, but instead I kept pushing, egged on by my predictive lap timer.
On the third lap, I nailed turn one, resulting in a predictive time into the 2:31.x range. Sebring is a long track at nearly 4 miles, and the intense focus needed for back to back record laps was taking its toll on me. Exiting turn 5 on the third consecutive push lap, I unfortunately spun the car and backed it into a tire wall. Since any "four off" (four wheels off the racing surface) results in a DQ for the entire session, my best lap of 2:32.2 did not officially count, and I did not hold the record. It was a major bummer, but a good opportunity to learn from my mistakes.
Needless to say, back at Sebring in 2022 driving the very capable Spec E9X... I was out for revenge! It was time to finally own the TT5 record.
On the first day of the April event, I spent the morning sessions battling some ABS and pad deposit-related braking issues in the E90. I really had to baby the brake pedal, and it took a while to get a feel for the car. In one instance, I messed up the brake zone and came into turn 17 too fast, resulting in a big slide that brought me fairly close to the outer wall underneath the bridge (see photo below). Even so, my pace in the morning was decent, consistently running 2:33's and 2:34's, and I was growing more comfortable in the car.
Despite the early morning issues, the incessant braking vibration, and a rained-out afternoon session . . .
In the third session of the day I was able to officially set the TT5 track record with a time of 2:31.879! With the previous record being 2:33.550, it was an improvement of 1.7 seconds, and I was thrilled. The lap wasn't very pretty and it included several mistakes, but nevertheless I had gotten the job done.
With several of my friend's cars likewise needing minor repair that evening after the rain passed, I took the time to put new rotors on the Spec E9X. The next morning I did a bed-in procedure, and was glad to see that all of the brake shutter issues were gone. With much more braking confidence, I had pretty fast and consistent pace throughout the second day, but the aging tires and Florida heat were keeping me about 0.5-1 second slower than the record from the previous day.
With the event winding down, I had no expectations going into the last session of the weekend. However, in the 3 o'clock Florida heat and with 18 heat cycle Toyo RRs, in a lap that still included several mistakes, I was able to go another 1/10th faster and re-set the record with a 2:31.745. Back to back TT5 class wins and lap records capped off a very fun and successful weekend.
It's a pretty cool feeling to now have two Florida TT5 track records (Sebring in the Spec E9X and Homestead in my own E30), but I am certain neither of the records will stand the test of time. Why is that? Well, it's partially because neither car is truly optimized for the class, but it's mainly because I am barely an average driver! To illustrate, Carlos ran just one session in the Spec E9X all weekend, on the same old tires, and did a 2:30.4 – about 1.3 seconds faster than I did an hour later. We are both confident that with a few setup tweaks and a set of sticker tires, the Spec E9X will easily be turning high-2:20's. That is without accounting for it not being fully optimized for TT/ST5, because it's not intended to be! It's built for it's own class, after all.
My record at Homestead is a little bit more solid and more in line with the class differential between TT4 and TT5, but I am sure that record will fall as well. All it's going to take is a class rivalry in TT5 that pushes the competition, like Joshua Feingold and I had going during the 2020 season. Or, maybe a wheelman from another region or another class will show up and just break it – who knows.
Florida records aside, TT5 currently has a lot more competition in my new Southeast home-region than it does in the Florida region (more details in my Road Atlanta race report). Thus far I have been in the mid-field or even at times a back-marker in the SE TT5 field, which is stacked with some seriously fast drivers and well-setup cars. I'm not bummed about that, not in the least. The challenge is motivating to me, and I know it's going to help me grow as a driver.
I truly look forward to learning from the experience of being the slow guy in a deep field of SE TT5 cars.
Big thanks to Condor Speed Shop, Carlos, Christy, Matt, Curtis, and Jonathan for helping out so much, and making this weekend and record possible. 💜