Saturday, July 19, 2008

Staying smooth! Making adjustments!


Once again, we only gave ourselves a few days to prepare for our third outing to the race track. This time, we were headed back to the high-speed Willow Springs track – the one marketed as the Fastest Track in the West. We spent the July 4th weekend back in Boulder, Colorado, with family, but had also taken time out to catch up with a number of friends.

Part of the plan, in returning to Boulder, was to give Margo as much opportunity to drive the 6-speed stick-shift Corvette and to just re-familiarize with driving the “stick shift” model. After driving through the countryside, Margo improved considerably, but it only reinforced for me that she just needs to drive more often. As with most couples, whenever we take off on a trip, I tend to gravitate to the drivers side while Margo heads for the passenger seat – and this only started in the years we have been married! I am now very aware of this and when we take sight seeing trips I take the passenger seat half the time. Not easy, believe me. Duh!

In the few days before we headed to Willow Springs, we did watch film of the track. John, our first High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) 1 program instructor, has posted film taken from inside his car for a number of twenty minute sessions on the track. John maintains a blog - http://myracingdays.blogspot.com/ - and I highly recommend checking out the videos. We found them of great help.

When Saturday morning rolled around, we elected to follow the same pattern as we had done the previous two outings. I would drive every session on the Saturday, and Margo would drive all the Sunday sessions. By the way, we chose that scheme thinking the continuity of the education through the day would be a good thing. We never thought about the need to be engaged personally to enjoy the experience and to have fun: in the future we will alternate sessions, with each of us driving on both days. It was only a few minutes after the car passed the “Tech Inspection”, and the OK sticker applied to the windscreen, that we found that an extra session had been added to Saturday’s program – in all, there would be five sessions, not four. Staying hydrated, as was the case at ButtonWillow, was going to be the priority.

We breezed on through the mandatory drivers meeting and once again, took off for the HPDE 1 & 2 session with Fulton, who again was standing in for John. John’s back continues to trouble him, and we can only wish him a speedy recovery! Fulton took us over the layout of the track and concentrated on getting us to think backwards – now that we knew we had to get the exit correct, as we made good exits, we needed to work back to where we hit apexes correctly, turned-in at the right place, and managed our braking with controlled squeezes.

An early observation Fulton made, stayed with me all weekend, and it involved the brakes. You only have one action that influences what is happening at that crucial interface between your car and the road, and that is the brakes! It’s the only control that works with all four wheels. As the sessions progressed through the day, this would be a theme we would come back to many times, and an area I really focused on and worked on improving. Braking hard was what it was all about, for sure, but applying too much brake really messes up many corners. Nowhere is this more evident than at the end of the main straight and getting through turn 1!

For the first session, I led off the HPDE 1 cars and followed the HPDE 2 cars out onto the track. Once the green flag was waved and the session opened, I picked up speed pretty quickly and the film that we had been watching the previous nights really played an important part. The track felt familiar, and I knew where to go. In the short space of two laps, I had passed all but three of the HPDE 2 drivers, and not for a moment did I feel I was extending myself beyond my abilities. It was during this second session that I began to think through the places where I could lift my speed, as I was planning on spending the afternoon sessions staying smooth and predictable and looking for faster lines around the track.

And this is when the second observation by Fulton made all the sense in the world. If you can’t repeat a line, then it was an accident! If you nail a great exit simply by chance and have difficulty finding the line in subsequent passes, then you need to slow back down and rethink your approach. The afternoon sessions would be all about understanding where I was on the course and exactly what inputs I was feeding into the controls.

For the first two sessions my instructor, John, had me really concentrating on the two corners I still didn’t have sorted out and where my lines weren’t exactly predictable. My speed had risen as my knowledge of the course, and my confidence, grew and now corners took on much different appearances. In fact, the corners I had sorted out at lower speeds became more of a problem as the speed went up, and at Willow Springs, turns 3 and 5 emerged as problem areas for me.

After lunch, I had a different instructor, Darren. He is an Aussie and he immediately put me at ease. With Darren, it was all about looking for the “cues” – those little markers around the track that helped you determine where to brake, where to turn-in, and where to focus as you exited. Peripheral vision became extremely important as once you knew what you were looking for, you had to more-or-less be aware of them so that you head was turned, and your eyes focused, solely on your point of exit. It was of absolutely no value to stare down the markers once you found them.

For the most part, these cues were tiny. Going into turn 3, I had to locate a small, 3” wide by only 1” high reflector, planted firmly into the blacktop. You often see these on freshly laid bitumen as temporary lane lines before the real lane lines are pained. Imagine looking for just one such reflector, run over many times so it was more dark yellow than white, and the “feel its position” as you come off the brakes and begin to turn in right at that spot.

Lap after lap I improved, as I began to sort out turn 3. Not quite the case for turn 5 which continues to need work as I increased the speed, but I have pretty much let the sessions replay in my mind of late and I have a good idea of how I will approach it next time. And I can’t wait to get back. I think that’s when we started talking about alternating sessions throughout the weekend, rather than alternating days as we have been doing. I think Margo could see right through it, as she said it is a great idea ... but next time around.

Five sessions did turn out to be a grueling experience and when I returned to the hotel, I slept for ten hours. All too quickly it was time to check out of the hotel, relax over breakfast, and then top-up the car with gas. We had seen a reference in the program to separate sessions for “SoCal Vipers” on the Sunday, and wondered what that was all about, but no sooner had we driven into the corner gas station, than from off the highway began a procession of Dodge Vipers. Watching them putting down laps, even for hardened Corvette owners like us, it was hard not to like these “flying asps”!

What a sight – with every color group present. There was a three-day old Viper SRT10 American Club Racer (ACR) model, bought just days before in Nebraska, and driven across the Western States to make it in time for the event. While a handful of the drivers were competitive, and turned some extra laps in the HPTF 4 Time Trial sessions, for many of the owners, this was their first experience on any track and so they joined us for the first HPDE 1 and 2 briefing sessions.

For those that want to read one Viper driver’s perspective, check out:
http://www.viperalley.com/forum/viper-discussions-srt/66978-hot-lapped-2008-acr.html

Margo arrived at the pre-grid section a good fifteen minutes ahead of the first Sunday’s session start time, but had an instructor, Carlos, join her almost immediately. He went straight to the Corvette and asked Margo is she kept the air conditioning running and when she confirmed he became her instructor for the rest of the day. Word must be circulating among the instructors, it would appear. By the way, at the previous adventure at ButtonWillow she also had a radio on during one of her sessions, and did not even notice!

Now, Carlos races a Mustang and this turned out to be a good background for assisting in Margo’s development. The Corvette is a “torque” car and not a momentum car. As such, its approach to the track is quite different and a couple of critical points on the track, it takes a slightly different line. Very quickly, this became apparent to Carlos and he did a great job of helping Margo find the right line around the track. By lunch-time Sunday she was already looking at ways to improve her times and about how and where to lift her speed.

After each 20 minutes driving session there is a “download” meeting in the classroom where students share their experiences and learn from each other. It was pretty cool to see how, despite their competitive nature, the guys in the class were willing to apologize to each other for wrong passes and for unwillingly blocking each other. There was a camaraderie and true sportsmanship in the classroom.

It was in the download session that the third observation made by Fulton really struck home. To be fair, Fulton was repeating a key point John had made almost two months earlier. If you take a particular part of the track at 75 mph – it’s really hard (and likely very eventful) to then take it at 100 mph. Incremental adjustments is what high performance driving is all about. Knowing that the car can actually do 100 mph through a part of the track is all part of the driver education process.

To get a better feel for what Fulton was talking about, and to get a better sense of where the limits really were when a car is driven quickly, I hitched a ride as a passenger in Fulton’s car and went out on the track during Margo’s third session. With good suspension set-up, great brakes, and a set of sticky tires, the the red Mustaing was ablt to muscle its way through turns at speeds considerably higher than I thought possible. It was one of those “once-in-a lifetime” experiences! You can actually see a picture of Fulton, in his red Mustang, checking out Margo’s lines and “schwarming all over her bumper” when we were last at ButtonWillow, in the previous blog posting “Gaining Confidence” (JULY 3, 2008).Margo had come out with the expression “schwarming all over her bumper” during her first download session as she appealed to the guys to be patient with her and assured them that she would let them through on the next straight. Well, she never lived it down, and the word “schwarming” was used one way or the other in the remaining download sessions.

It was incredibly satisfying for her, and for me to see her, exit turn 9 and pass lesser powered cars on the main straight. You may have seen in the picture, at the top of this posting, what appeared to be a Police patrol car. Well, in fact it was – from the Long Beach Police Department. The LBPD brought a “retired” police cruiser to the track as part of the community awareness program – very creative!


And the picture I have included here is when, just before being allowed out on the track at the start of the third session, they turned on the lights. While I hadn’t witnessed it previously, evidently one group of drivers had been subject to a display of lights while out on the track and that really had come as a surprise. During my session on the track, I had passed this car and I have to say, it made me a little uncomfortable knowing I was passing a Police car at more than 100 mph. But it was pleasing too, in a strange and probably illegal way.

It was a very tired Margo on the drive back. And in a completely different mood from that which she experienced following her first full day at the track two months earlier. This time she thought that the end came far too soon, and she was deriving great satisfaction from having improved out of sight. Into turn 9 at 90 mph and not feeling the least uncomfortable, was a huge step up for her. Yes, there’s still a long way to go, and I think she likes the idea of further visits to the truck. To be honest, neither one of us “graduated” to the HPDE 2, a goal I have for next year, as we both have work to do!

We now have a break before our fourth weekend, on October 11th and 12th. It will be back in ButtonWillow and perhaps this time, we will get to drive the course clockwise. Theoretically, this will have given us three different courses traveled over the four weekends. But no matter what way around or what the temperature climbs to, we are both quite anxious to pull on our helmets, lace up our driving shoes, slip on our gloves, and head for the track!

2 comments:

John Matthew said...

Richard,

I always start my comments this way, but it's such a pleasure to read your experiences on your blog.

Thanks for the nice comments about my track videos, I hope they provide some source of entertainment and education.

It's also good to see that you are seeing what it takes to drive fast. If I read back to your first WSIR blog, your approach is much more agressive and without (for lack of a better word) respect for the car and racetrack. I think both you and, Margo can fully appreciate what you, your car and the track are capable of now.

It is this knowledge now that will take you years to improve upon. You will see your skill rise, then plateau, rise again, plateau, etc. Going out with better drivers (like Fulton, myself, Darren, etc) will help you rise above those plateau's.

I'm sorry I missed these last two events, but thankfully Fulton turns out to be one hell of a classroom instructor, as one hell of a driver, even if he does drive a mustang (although word has it he's in the market for a BMW M3).

Take care, and I'm working hard on fixing my bac

Mark Whitfield said...

Wow... it's a NonStop narrative oasis... I like it... I have bookmarked your new Buckle-Up haven at www.markwhitfield.net. Good read... I need to angle my monitor from the bedroom ceiling on a bracket for bedtime reading (or I guess I could just get a PDA)... but that would be too easy like choosing NonStop over IBM...