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The fire damage is evident on the Arrive Dream team car. (Nathan Byrd Racing photo)

BYRD: A Promising Weekend Up In Flames

JOLIET, Ill. — Entering the weekend of F1000 racing at Autobahn Country Club, things appeared very promising.

I knew my biggest rival, four-time series champion Alex Mayer, was not going to be there. He had won basically every race this year that he finished while I was slowly becoming more competitive over the course of the year. His absence at Autobahn indicated to me that I had a good shot at not just another double podium weekend, but a sweep of both races!

Adding another two wins under my belt would’ve been a major boost in my confidence entering next season and would have concluded this season with F1000 perfectly!

Unfortunately, mechanical woes held us back and I was unable to achieve the perfect sweep of the weekend: fastest in every session with the win in both races.

Starting the weekend on Friday, we had four test sessions that essentially helped everyone dial in their cars at a track that nobody in the series had raced at before besides me. I didn’t realize that I was coming into the weekend with a tactical advantage over the competition. This meant I could focus more on dialing in the car and pushing the limits while my competitors were stuck also having to worry about learning the track. We were consistently faster than the competition, which was awesome since we were running on worn tires. We experimented with different aero settings and had a good idea of what we wanted to carry forward into Saturday.

Saturday consisted of two sessions of practice and then qualifying for race one. I was fastest in the first practice, but encountered a mechanical issue during the second session. We were unable to get the engine replaced in time for qualifying. Though, I didn’t have a chance to win the pole, a short field meant I would start outside of row three.

With a new engine in place, we were ready for race day. Upon race start, I took fifth entering the first turn. I was about to start thinking about passing for fourth but before I knew it, I was passing him on the inside as he was spinning in turn two.

Now in fourth, my goal was to stay with the lead group and slowly pick them off one by one. However, the car was experiencing a substantial understeer problem that prevented me from carrying the speed I was previously capable of in the high-speed corners that would normally be flat-out. I had to adjust my driving over the next few laps to hang with the front group.

I also noticed that I might’ve been down on power compared to the competition, but I knew I could make up in the infield what I lost in top-end speed on the straights. But again, that’s assuming the car’s setup is perfect. Turns out taking a car apart and essentially splitting it in half to replace the engine might affect the setup a little bit.

And without a session to test the setup to see how it is, a couple laps into the race I realized very quickly that we were going to struggle mightily to get that first place finish we so desired. While that was a blow to my expectations, I still managed to go forward. After taking third place, I challenged Steve Hamilton for second. I drag raced him down on the inside into turn 11 where I outbraked him to such a degree that he spun out.

With only a couple laps left to go, I ran hard to close the gap to leader Shane Prieto. With a few more laps I might’ve been able to make a move on him, but the pace differential wasn’t one where I could run him down and pass him in only two laps.

Unfortunately, me and the Arrive Drive team finished second.

It was a difficult pill to swallow given how fast we were on Friday and Saturday. However, we were determined to do better in race two. We knew what setup changes we needed to go pole in qualifying and we did just that, establishing a track record in the process.

After winning the pole, we felt good that we could hold the lead and pull away from the field. However, that’s not the way things unfolded.

Coming to the green flag, a warning light told me that I had negative oil pressure. I only had one-way radio communication to my team so I couldn’t let them know about it. I was concerned because no oil pressure leads to the engine expiring. However, I was also starting pole and I didn’t want to risk losing out on a win. I was hoping a sensor was loose because the engine seemed to be running fine. I took the risk and took the green flag.

However, entering turn one, second-place Prieto was trying to make a move on the outside and I was so concerned about my oil pressure that I wasn’t focused on racing. He ended up passing me exiting turn one and had the inside going into turn three.

While I was worrying about my oil pressure for the first couple of laps, Prieto pulled to a two-second lead. Realizing the car seemed to be holding up OK, I chalked the negative oil pressure up to a faulty sensor and turned my focus toward running down Shane.

I ran hard and a few laps later I had caught Shane and began my pass exiting turn six, taking the inside line away for the kink of turn seven and getting hard on the brakes for turn eight to complete the pass. I drove to an eight-second lead.

At this point, I was concerned about finishing the race and the engine not blowing up. I convinced myself that we were going to win the race. There was no way anybody was going to catch me. Well, not quite.

 Coming to the start-finish line with five laps to go, I felt the entire car sort of tense up. In this moment, the car lost power and I knew disaster was about to strike. I tried pumping the throttle and I didn’t get any response and then, BOOM!

The tension in the car evaporated and I felt a big release of energy behind me as the engine blew up, jolting the car. My first thought was to stop the car and get it into neutral but the clutch had stopped working and the shifter was non-functional.

I stopped it at an unmanned corner station. As smoke from the engine fire began to billow around me, I scrambled to get out of the car as quickly as possible. I escaped and jogged to the corner station hoping to find a fire extinguisher.

There was one and I picked it up. But I was surprised by its weight and then realized that I had no idea how to operate it.

Luckily for my dignity and for the car and team’s sake the emergency response crew pulled up a few seconds later, so I just handed the extinguisher to one of those fine gentlemen and he extinguished the fire.

The entire time I was feeling guilty that I hadn’t pulled the car in at the beginning of the race and saved the engine. When I finally arrived back at the paddock I told my crew chief that it was probably my fault that the engine blew up and that I should’ve come in as soon as I saw the warning light.

I was immensely relieved when he told me that they saw the negative-oil pressure readings on the telemetry system and that it was simply a sign of what I suspected all along, a sensor issue. He told me that if I was experiencing an oil pressure issue I wouldn’t have even gotten to lap two and that they would have called me to the pits.

This news lifted a weight off my shoulders as I thought I had messed up big time and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Turns out the only thing I messed up was not pulling the fire extinguisher lever while I was in the car.

Luckily, in the end we escaped with miraculously minimal fire damage compared to what we thought was going to be the case. Unfortunately, that finish marked the end of my season in the F1000 series and I was pretty bummed to say the least.

Despite a promising weekend up in flames, there were some highlights to the weekend that I can’t help but to look back on fondly as a reminder and marker of my continued progress as a race car driver.

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