J.R. Hildebrand – A Diff-erent Task

Written by Team USA. Posted in Driver Blogs, J.R. Hildebrand

Published on September 29, 2008 with No Comments

Sausalito, Calif. (September 29, 2008) – Doug Mockett is not merely a staunch supporter of the Team USA Scholarship program. As you will know if you’ve spent any time with him, he is one of the most genuine fans of auto racing that you might ever meet. He has a keen sense of what the sport that we all thrive on is really about, and fortunately for all of us that are able to work with him through the Team USA program, he is willing to help us reach our goals.

You must also understand that Doug is not just a fan but a participant as well. And you must further understand that he is not your average hobbyist racing driver. If you asked him about the race cars that he owns, he might say that he has a big Olds, a Cooper, and maybe throw in that he owns a vintage F1 car two. Don’t be fooled by the nonchalant tone with which these words slip easily out of Mr. Mockett’s mouth. In fact he owns two Coopers. One is a relatively modest Formula Junior car; the other – which, as he says, “looks almost exactly like the Junior, just on small steroids” – is a 1961 Team Camoradi Formula 1 T-53 which carries the distinctive American colors of white with a blue stripe and was driven in its day by Masten Gregory. That “big Olds” is really a flame-encrusted 750-horsepower fully-caged raging beast that he straps himself into on the dirt backroads of Mexico every year at 170+ miles per hour, and those F1 cars are from an era where aerodynamics was hard to pronounce and the cars drove like a sick cross between a Formula Ford and a top fuel dragster. So as modest as Doug Mockett may sound, he is really quite an unmodest fellow when it comes to sitting in a racing car. And on occasion, he has let me get behind the wheel, which leads us to the real story.

I am originally from Sausalito, California, and do currently reside there though I spend most of my time in Indianapolis during the year. I effectively grew up at Sears Point, now Infineon Raceway, which happens to be the home of Doug’s 1975 Penske PC-3 Formula 1 car. The car is raw, with the 3.0-liter Cosworth DFV fed through its massive, protruding air scoop, small front tires, huge rear tires, wedge-shaped front end, narrow body and a rear wing comparable to the decklid spoiler on my Firebird. It is all business. At least it’s all business for going straight in a hurry! It leaves a bit to be desired in comparison to more modern equipment regarding its handling and braking abilities; but that’s actually what makes it so much fun to drive.

Last Friday, I was called upon to diagnose a potential issue with the Penske, and as you can imagine, I was quick to agree to it since it’s such an experience. Being an older car with such high output, there is a lot of stress on the rear-end of the car as it tries to transfer power to its enormous rear tires, and was supposedly making a fairly violent noise and shudder under hard acceleration. Since I’ve driven the car on a number of occasions now, it became my job to discern how the car had changed from the past, if at all, and if I thought there was anything seriously wrong. So I strapped in, warmed it up, and was on my merry way.

As with any situation in which there is an unknown with the performance or reliability of the equipment, I took it easy for a few laps to see if I could create the issue without driving the car too hard. I’d have to admit that, while often on the limit on some sections of the track, I haven’t ever driven the Penske flat-out as it’s obviously not mine and, in the big scheme of things, it’s not particularly safe. So I cruised around a few seconds off what I consider my “normal” pace and really didn’t come up with much. The tires were old, the rear of the car was pretty freed up it seemed, but it was hard to tell much without pushing it. I came into the pits, left the car running, conferred briefly with Jon Ennik who works on the car, and with all the temps and pressures looking good, I was left to my devices to sort the ol’ girl out. And that of course, my friends, is when things tend to get interesting!

Even just out of the pit lane in third gear, the sweet sound of the 3-liter V8 that you literally rest against in the driver’s seat seemingly pumps adrenaline through you as it climbs through the revs up the hill toward Turn Two. The car requires a fair bit of brute force and trickery behind the wheel to get it where you want to go, and much of that manipulation is handled by your right foot rather than just your hands. It’s busy, but the platform of the car is soft enough that as long as you’re focused it’s not impossible to keep it under control. It took me a lap or two to get up to speed, still wary of whatever issues the car may have, and eventually I began to hear and feel what I was looking for – but only when I was hard on the gas under heavy lateral load, so that made this task suddenly a bit more exciting! The car was clearly much more loose throughout the corner than it had been when I had driven it previously. To put it mildly, the car was a handful!

After just a few laps, the car developed a pretty massive vibration on power-down, almost a grinding sensation in the rear of the car, that was clearly linked to the drive-train. It would happen in parts of the track where the differential was really loaded up, where I was really putting my foot in it while the car was turning on a relatively tight radius and was trying to lock up the diff to spin both tires rather than just one. After a couple sessions and a few ineffective changes to the chassis to see if we could make the problem any better or different, we called it a day.

On Monday I went back up to the track to check in and see if Jon had made any progress in taking the rear end apart. He took the differential and its housing out and while there was nothing catastrophically wrong, it was clear that its friction surfaces were quite worn and it was in need of a little help in order to properly do its job. Jon is a former Atlantic, Indy Lights, and Indy Car mechanic who spent most of his professional working days with Thomas Knapp and Genoa Racing throughout the ‘90s, so he’s certainly no slouch when it comes to figuring things out. So at the same time that we sat there and looked at the Salisbury diff to sort out what was right and wrong, I got an excellent tutorial in a visual sense of how it actually works. The differentials that are in today’s Atlantic, Indy Lights, and Indy Cars are hardly any different, so it was quite relevant and a great additional learning experience for me to be able to put the terminology that we use in the debrief room and the feeling that I know they create, together with the technical details of what is actually happening inside the car. We finally got it all figured out.

And best of all, we have to schedule another test day to make sure we got it right. Who knows, maybe by then I’ll have some reason to get to see what she’ll really do?

J.R. Hildebrand

Here is a link to some in-car video of me driving the Penske: http://vimeo.com/1770691

The entire clip is 27 minutes long, so my suggestion would be to open the link, click play when the video appears on the screen and then pause it. You will see that it will then begin to load the video. Wait until the entire video is loaded before watching any of it. Once the video is loaded, forward to 10 minutes and 20 seconds into the video for a couple laps of mayhem! You can also see our quick debrief and a quick run at the end as well.

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