Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Coming to terms with Frankenstein

I am a little disoriented – but I can see the wall approaching rapidly. I can even see the protective tires surrounding it – it’s the wall that divides the track from the “hot pits” and has proved to be a very strong magnet over the years, pulling in cars on regular basis. I am not completely sure of what driver input I am providing to any of the controls and the wall continues to get closer!

If I destroy the car on this wall, I will be pretty upset.

Before leaving Simi Valley I had driven out to A&A Corvette Performance at Oxnard as Andy had wanted to give the engine software a quick check to make sure there were no new “codes” showing or any strange entries in the tables that manage the fuel mix to the engine. But it all checked out OK, and he made sure the computer was providing us with a slightly richer fuel mix. I had already added a measure of 100 octane gas to the tank to bring up the overall octane reading to 95 and, for good measure, added a pint of oil as well. Even though the forecast was for milder temperatures, I wanted to make sure the engine temperature stayed cool during the weekend’s track activities.

The picture at the top of this posting is of Margo alongside the car before the start of the first session on Saturday morning. Every team needs its “umbrella girl,” and I wouldn’t dare to have asked for anyone else – wearing an A&A Corvette Performance T Shirt, no less!

Buttonwillow is the most technical track NASA’s HPDE Southern California (SoCal) students tackle and our previous outing had us going clockwise on the Saturday and then counter-clockwise on the Sunday – very little opportunity to develop a good sense about the layout of the track and where the exit points were. But this time, we would spend all weekend running clockwise and I was looking forward to a lot of track time.

Saturday’s sessions proved to be very entertaining and had drawn a variety of cars to the event. The owner of Margo’s company, Dale had arrived with his Shelby Series 1 – a car very seldom seen at the track as less than 250 were ever produced back in the late ‘90s. Every time he edged across to “pre-grid” he drew quite a crowd and many times I saw participants taking photos.

The picture below is of Dale leading myself and a fellow participant who drove an early Mustang. The two of us went on to pass Dale but I suspect that was only because Dale was really taking good care of his “ride”. Joining us too for Saturday’s sessions was a white Lamborghini Gallardo and I stuck with it for a couple of laps before its driver signaled me to pass – there’s nothing quite as enjoyable as being able to pass an Italian exotica!

With each session, I had been getting better, working back from my exits I was beginning to get on the gas earlier with every lap, and my speed was increasing markedly. At a download session following an early outing HPDE’s chief instructor John, quoting a former NASA SoCal member, told us that "the quickest driver goes as straight as possible and never lifts", with the goal being to minimize our time off the gas. “Pro drivers are either at, or transitioning to, full throttle / brake,” he advised.

I am now beginning to remember – and the wall is so close. I had stepped on the gas before completely unwinding the steering, following the turn-in to the previous corner, and I had the wheels pointing back to the middle of the track. The ‘Vette is supercharged, and an automatic, and with me getting onto the gas a little more earnestly than before, the transmission had kicked down two gears unexpectedly. This unloaded all of the engines substantial torque onto the rear end, quickly lighting up the tires and loosing traction. The car spun immediately! And at speed!

And the car is Margo’s – she’s going to be really angry with me.

One of the benefits of having Dale’s in attendance is that he brought with him a couple of friends who had a motorhome. For the first time, we were able to hang out in something a little more luxurious than the small square of blue tarpaulin we had been using at all previous events. And Sunday lunch was something new for us – thick tender steaks cooked just the way we like them and the picture here is of Dale taking a plate of them to the grill.

We went for a walk after lunch, after the big meal, as the third session wasn’t till just after 3:00pm. For this, my final session of the weekend, I would be joining the HPDE 2 drivers for the first time and I was nervous. But as we passed a group of BMWs, our instructor John approached us and asked whether he could drive our car in an upcoming HPDE 3 event – and would one of us care to be his passenger. Of course Margo jumped at the opportunity to see a good driver at work.John didn’t care for Corvettes (or Mustangs, or Vipers), particularly when supercharged, and considered them poorly suited to tracks like Buttonwillow, but he was curious all the same. “Let’s see what this car can do and let’s just see if it’s any fun to drive!” So the two of them took the ‘Vette and joined the other intermediate drivers in HPDE 3 at pre-grid. I climbed the stairs to the grandstand to see how it went but after the first lap, they didn’t reappear.

An agonizing amount of time passed before John slowly drove into the hot pits and pulled up alongside the “black-flag” marshal with the ‘Vette covered in dust. Every driver who leaves the track has to come into the pits to explain what had happened, and to assure the black-flag marshal that he was OK to return to the track, and that there was no damage to the car. John jumped out, looked under the front of the car, and went back onto the track - driving a lot slower for the remaining laps. Finally, John brought the car back in as the session wound down.

“How did it go?” I asked, followed by “What happened out there on that early lap?” John took off his helmet and fixed me with a stare that told me the answers weren’t going to be good! “This car is dangerous! Frankenstein is lurking up a few revs higher, and if you go there, he just wrenches the car from you!” He then went on to explain “there’s way too much torque and it’s unpredictable. When it does hit, it lights up the tires so quickly that it becomes a very difficult car to control!” Margo told me later that John had it break away from him several times, fully taxing his driving skills – and John is a superb driver with many years of competitive driving behind him.

“Can you turn off the supercharger for HPDE events? And can you figure out how to drive this car using the gear-shift paddles as right now, manually shifting gears with the paddles is putting a huge load on the drive-train?” Hearing this from John was pretty depressing after all that we had invested in the car. All I could think about was what to do now, and whether the ‘Vette had truly become a liability. And the picture below is of “the team”, having been told about the presence of Frankenstein, pondering over what to do about it.

I had little time to think further on this as I had to prepare for my own time on the track. I would be lining up with HPDE 2 drivers for the first time – Tom, my instructor was out on the track racing in his event and wouldn’t make it back in time. Readers may recall that at Willow Springs, on my very first weekend with NASA HPDE, I was left without an instructor for one session and went out on the course alone. But this was to be completely different. Tom had been pleased with my progress over the weekend and felt I was ready to step out of the novice group and make the big leap to the beginner’s group. I was nervous, and a little anxious, and knew that I had to keep my head and remain calm.

“I will keep it pretty conservative for the first couple of laps and take a good look at the track conditions and just see how the tires are behaving,” I told Margo. And then they waved off the HPDE 2 drivers and the session started. The first session of the day always starts under a full-course “yellow flag” as all the drivers settle in. While it’s the only time a full-course yellow is used, the first lap of every session is viewed as a warm-up and this session was no different. No one passed and no one really hit the gas pedal hard.

But come the second lap, the cars picked up speed and I was pleased to be maintaining a constant gap behind the C6 Z06 ‘Vette ahead of me. Behind were a couple of quick cars as well but the spacing between us all seemed to be holding steady. Perhaps I was ready for this group after all. And I began to build more speed and to minimize my time off the gas.

The corner that leads to the main straight, called “Sunset,” is a sharp ninety degree turn following a small straight that exits the esses. I had been applying more breaking than I needed before the turn-in so that the car was settled, so that I could hit the exit to the main straight without any drama. But with each lap, I was getting onto the gas earlier than the time before as I looked to carry more speed down the main straight, While the ‘Vette has a heads-up display, I rarely check to see the speeds realized but with your peripheral vision you couldn’t miss the three digit figures as they come up.

It’s all happening way to quickly – but I am going to hit the wall for sure. When the wall seemed to be right on top of me, I either lifted off the brake and added a little steering input, or the original spin direction was tracking differently to what I had expected, but the wall went by. I regained some control and steered the car up a paved service road running perpendicular to the track. And the spectators gathered at this end of the track all began to cheer as the car finally came to a halt. I haven’t destroyed the car! There’s not a scratch on it!

Margo is still going to be angry for scaring her like that!

Reversing out of the service lane, I crawled gingerly into the hot pits and stopped at the black-flag marshal’s post. “Can you tell me what happened? Is the car OK?” carefully composing my thoughts I told him how the spin started on the track. I hadn’t dropped any wheels into the dirt, or spun as a result of being off the track, and that I just hadn’t been prepared for the torque that had been unleashed with the unexpected down-changes made by the auto transmission. “OK, out you go!” he smiled.

I was now definitely off the pace and only picked it up again with one or two laps left. Walking back into the classroom for the download, I just knew I would have to explain it all to my fellow drivers and be prepared for an outburst from John. But I wasn’t the only “off” and John was very easy on me. He just gave me that look – you found Frankenstein, didn’t you?! The meeting was short as we had to get the cars ready for the final session of the weekend, and of the year.

Margo was joined by her instructor Tom who was aware of both incidents – but was having more fun teasing John about it than being overly concerned about my own performance. He just wanted to know if I knew what I had done and after telling him, he was fine. But Margo couldn’t settle into the session – she was a little spooked by the events of the afternoon and was missing turn-in points,. She had done a good job at gaining speed and confidence in the previous sessions. After a few laps, Tom suggested he drive the car and show her that the ‘Vette is just fine on this track, supercharger and all.

From the grandstand, where I had gone to view the session, I saw them come into the hot pits to do the driver change and then watched Tom put down some laps. And what a series of laps he put together – the tail only coming out briefly in “cotton corners” during the first lap but after that, smooth and fast laps rolled by, one after the other. Tom didn’t push it to the limit, he just drove it smoothly and I was once again impressed with the ‘Vette. And Tom enjoyed his exchange with John as he returned to the paddock – I wasn’t close enough to understand all of what was exchanged, but something about being unfamiliar with torque cars did come up a lot.

The program for the year is now over. The dates for next year’s events have been posted and they are marked in our calendars. And no, John, there’s no Frankenstein lurking under the gas pedal. We all looked hard, but we couldn’t find him. Perhaps I was the liability and the car was just fine – and that I could easily understand.

Margo assures me that if I had not been as aggressive with jumping on the gas, and just squeezed it judiciously, I would not have been putting her car in harms way … and she may be right, you know. After talking on email with a “racer” who said that I should imagine a raw egg between my foot and the gas pedal of the supercharged ‘Vette … I can see why, just this once, Margo may be right!