Road racing was the only form of racing that I knew for the first eight years of my career. Even though I was an avid NASCAR fan as a kid, always watching the races and playing the video games, I got my start in Karts. They taught me everything I knew as far as racecraft, control, set up, and driving in general. I raced karts for about eight years, throwing in some Skip Barber Formula Car races and Star Mazda events at the end of that spree, and when I decided to make the switch to NASCAR, everything changed. I had to learn a whole new style of racing: A different style of racecraft, a different idea of car control with a 3400 lb. stock car, and I had to learn how these cars are supposed to feel turning only left.
Fortunately, I was working with one of the most professional teams in the Golden Gate Racing Team. With the help and, yes, patience of team manager Steve Portenga, chief mechanic Chris Sager and engineers Keith Van Houten and Dean Clark — and the support of team owners Jim and Patti Offenbach – I came to grips with what, at times, seemed like an alien form of motorsports. And, unlike past generations of road racers who tried to make the switch to ovals, I had the chance to practice 24/7 on iRacing.com. While focusing on my oval racecraft, I also experimented with tweaks to tire pressures and the chassis to better understand the ins and outs of oval track setups.
When I got my first opportunity to get back on a road course, this time in my NASCAR K&N Pro Series West car, it was almost relief; a sense of pure enjoyment and comfort. That was four years ago, at Sonoma when I managed a fifth place finish in my first full race attempt at a road course in the K&N Series. I’ve come a long way since then.
Last year I scored my first win in the K&N Pro Series at the road course in Brainerd, Minnesota. There was some major significance in the fact that my first win came on a road course. It actually had some sentimental value to me of course, but it also led to a breakthrough year, scoring two more wins on ovals. Since that first win the road courses have been the first tracks I circle on the schedule that I see as my “power” races, and Brainerd was the first race I circled on the 2013 schedule.
Coming in to the weekend it was a mirror image of last year’s event. I arrived in MN to cloudy skies and rain, and then found out that my crew chief and car chief had missed their flight in Phoenix, which happened in 2012. Then it got really coincidental when I saw them the next morning and heard they had gotten pulled over on their way to the hotel when they finally landed but didn’t get a ticket — the exact same scenario that happened in 2012.
I showed up to the track with confidence. Knowing we had the same car that we had when I won the year before, but things were different. After a brief talk and guide lap around the track I was informed that the track had completely changed since 2012. It was repaved all the way around and 10 feet wider, with no curbing now. The few things that made the track so unique to me were gone, which was disheartening, but one of those things you have to overcome in a matter of minutes in this industry. You have to move forward and get that out of your head and focus on how to conquer the new layout.
“Conserve the equipment. Don’t get off the track. Keep all the fenders straight.”
Our car was fast right off the trailer as it has been so many of the past 15 races, thanks to the incredible job Steve Portenga and the Golden Gate Racing Team crew does at the shop. We clocked in third quickest at the end of practice knowing that we had a very good long run car. Qualifying wasn’t too much different as I managed fourth quickest, with the gap to first being less than a tenth of a second.
Going in to the race was our strong point though. We knew what we did last year to win the race, and had the same game plan: Conserve the equipment. Don’t get off the track. Keep all the fenders straight.
The start was hectic as cars went every which way coming in to the 90 degree left hander. Off the track, three wide, banging doors, you name it . . . all of which gave me a little leeway to settle in to third, gap the car in fourth, and just ride right in the tracks of the leader and second place, never spinning or pushing the tires, and focusing on my marks and where I had advantages. The race went this way for the next 30 laps, pretty clean with a few cars blowing motors, and one or two cautions to cover for that but the pace, and our positioning stayed the same. Cycling through pit stops for gas went as planned and all was smooth until a red flag came out with about 17 to go. A car had blown up on the front stretch and the clean up process was roughly 20 minutes which gave us time to sit and recap on the race a little, cool our tires and seemingly most important, give the clouds a chance to roll in and cover the sun.
On the restart I lined up on the outside front row, and got a good door-to-door run to the green flag keeping things clean through Turn One, and kind of clean through Turn Two. The inside row had the jump through the left hander but as the leader and third started fighting coming off the right hand Turn Two on to the long straightaway my chance came. I shot to the inside forcing a three-wide maneuver through the flat out, 145 mile an hour Turn Three and jumped in to the lead, not looking back.
Something was playing in my favor as several of the front running cars lost tires and were forced to pit, or went off the track, which helped me jump to an eight second lead coming to the white flag. Seeing the white flag was the biggest relief I’ve known for a while. Knowing the gap I had I could settle down and have a nice and easy final lap to bring the car home. Kind of.
Coming down the back straight away the car started to wiggle fiercely. Out of the right hander off the back stretch the car was all over the place and we clearly had a tire going down, the left rear. I had six corners left, three lefts and three rights, one of them being the crucial, long right Carousel. I took every advantage I could through the lefts, trying to load the car on to the right rear and put the power down, and the situation being what it was, I wasn’t about to give up and baby the car. I was convinced I need to put down a qualifying lap – with a flat tire.
As I came in to the long left hand Carousel I thought we were done. The weight of the car on that flat left rear was too much: I nearly had to park the car to make it turn and second place was closing fast. As soon as I got out of the corner the finish line was in sight. I hammered the gas running the car through the gears, nearly losing it on the straightaway and managed to cross the finish line a mere .9 tenths of a second ahead of second place.
As the crew screamed and celebrated over the radio I couldn’t even come up with words. I’ve never known relief, or luck, if you can call it that, like that. The car control I learned from years in karting, formula cars, iRacing, and all the seat time I’ve ever had combined to allow me to drive that car at its full potential that last half a lap with a flat tire, and allowed me to bring home my fourth career NASCAR K&N Pro Series West win.
22 year old Michael Self is a development driver for Richard Childress Racing who has been regularly competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West since 2010 with the Golden Gate Racing Team. Upon joining GGRT, Self was advised to join iRacing and he has since used motorsports simulation as a fun tool in his development as a race driver, a development which has carried him to four wins (so far) in NASCAR K&N Pro Series competition