Thursday, April 30, 2009

Are we humans? Or are we dancers?


Well after the adventures of the previous month at Cal Speedway (Auto Club Speedway) it was good to be making a fresh start. We had talked about it for many nights and remain convinced we did the right thing in not turning any laps when we weren’t fully focused. We had heard so many stories of cars going backwards into the high-speed walls of the big oval that not taking any chances seemed to make a lot of sense to us.

The picture above is of Margo alongside the new car early Saturday morning and just after we had been through Tech Inspect. Our plans for the past few weeks did change and we ended up driving back to our Boulder home in the Escallade but we did decide to start a new chapter and to take the Infiniti G37S to the track. Our “momentum” car – and every time we make that comment we can see a wry smile spreading across our head instructor Fulton’s face. “You guys,” he would start and then walk away!

Consistent with starting a new chapter, and as forecasted in the previous blog posting, The G37S carries the #2 signage as #1 will always be the ‘Vette. Frankenstein is now in the garage, on a tickle feed, and in need of new shoes and socks! In the downtime since Cal Speedway, I took another look at the tires, brake pads and rotors. And they are in worse shape than at first thought – wear bars showing through on the Pirelli’s, the perimeter lip on the rotor’s very pronounced, and the pads worn all the way to where the sensors will begin to tell me to change! So probably, a couple of sessions on the high-speed, banked Cal Speedway circuit may have done us in – we may have indeed dodged another bullet. At the very least, the return trip home on LA’s freeways may have been very difficult.

The big question among our fellow drivers was all about whether we would even return. I had posted some comments on the NASA HPDE Forum – and many of the answers were anything but encouraging. But they weren’t altogether far off the mark either, and I took some time to address the main points. In the words of a couple of the contributors, yes, I did “suck it all in” and showed up for another crack at it. Key among the concerns? Wanting to have the same instructor across a weekend, and splitting time in the car each day!

The picture below is of Margo with our instructor Steve, lined up and prepared to take to the track for the start of Saturday’s second session. I had completed the first session an hour earlier and I was pretty anxious to see how well Margo faired. I had been very pleased with Steve and had found my way around the track from the time the session opened. Yes, I was going to spend some time that weekend looking at my lines through the sweeper before the esses, and there was always time to explore other lines through the buttonhook. Ryan had called for all sessions to be clockwise on ButtonWillow course #13 and I have to admit, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite courses.




What had always impressed me with this relatively short course have been the variations a driver has had to face. Depending on how you count turns, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on this topic, there are more than 12 and as many as 30+ turns. And when you get them right, there’s a flow to the track that is akin to the movements of a dancer where - so much is communicated from only a few minor inputs. Indeed, after completing one session, Steve was quick to point out that we truly danced our way around the track!

The point remains, however, that ButtonWillow is a very technical track that highly rewards those with the patience to find their own line around it. Some turn sequences – those following Cotton Corners, for instance – can be completed with a single steering input. And when you get it just right, the rewards are indeed tangible as you carry more speed to the Bus Stop that leads you into the fabulous high-speed turn that is Talladega. Perhaps not of the caliber of Big Willows turns 7, 8 and 9 but all the same, generating the same kind of excitement.

Saturday finished with Pizza and Beer – and a chance to catch up with a couple of the other drivers. Margo had experienced trouble focusing during her second session but Steve managed to work with her to sort it out and her last session of the day was terrific. Much improved too, she was looking forward to Sunday. I had tried to sort out my lines and in the end, was pretty happy with what I had achieved.

Before my first session Sunday morning, I enjoyed two separate outings with instructors. First up, it was an opportunity to observe the most advanced HPDE4 / TT group, and in a race-prepared Mustang driven by my previous day’s instructor, Steve. Unfortunately, after two laps, he broke the drive shaft. But it was enough to open my eyes about the right line to drive, and I was able to later apply what I had seen when it came to my time on the circuit. Seemed like I was cursed - this was now the third time out with the more experienced drivers when something went wrong.

This failure had followed one back in late ’08 at Willow Springs with Fulton in his Mustang, when he had been forced to a halt with fuel problems. Then earlier this year, and again at Willow Springs I had been with Carlos in his ‘Vette, only to spin off the track after three or four laps. Two laps with Steve on Saturday certainly didn’t give me any confidence to ask others to take me out – but Fulton stepped in and asked if I would like to be his passenger in a “borrowed” M3. No way would he leave me thinking I was only ever going to experience a handful of laps!

And can Fulton drive - coming as soon as it did after the laps in Steve’s Mustang, I could see the subtle shifts and adjustments he made with his lines (and finding ways to be quick, completely off the line, as he passed). Steffen, who I have mentioned in earlier blog postings and who had started out with us in HPDE 1 last year, was doing his first laps in HPDE 3 and Fulton stuck to the tail of Steffen’s BMW barely inches from his bumper – but Steffen never lost his cool. That was impressive, too!

I took to the track myself only a few minutes after the ride with Fulton, and left the pits in third (Margo had pre-gridded the car in my absence) and, for some reason, they had waved the HPDE 1 cars out onto the track ahead of the more experienced HPDE 2. Cautious during the warm up lap, as I had just been in two very fast cars and had seen the consequences of others being too aggressive after being a passenger, I watched the track, found the line, and for the first time (and thanks to the Infiniti), got into a rhythm.

With the warm-up lap completed, and with the session flagged open, I passed Mark’s Nissan 350Z and then, on the second lap pulled up alongside the Porsche Carrera of my fellow student Charlie, who pointed me by. The track opened up in front of me, and for the rest of the session I went very well finishing the twenty minute session by catching the tail end of the slower cars that had started behind me. I had been worried about Dave in his Civic SI as well Joe in his Z06 ‘Vette, but I didn’t see anyone. The question from Charlie, after we had pulled off the track, was about who had been driving the Infiniti! His instructor had told him, “Richard's instructor is probably driving the car, so let him go, see if you can stay with him, and watch his lines! But no, I had no chance.” Perhaps the best complement ever!

As the day progressed I began to work on a couple of different lines - and during the third session, I lost it completely as I missed an apex (by about 2 feet) and wide enough to get me out of shape for the following sequence of turns. For readers who are familiar with driving ButtonWillow clockwise, I had the rear brake away from under me as I tried to pinch the turn that leads to the Bus Stop. Oh well, lots of dirt came to rest in Charlie’s Porsche, as he slowed when he couldn't see the track! Again, it’s all about focus and I had lifted my eyes, only for a fraction of a second, to check my rear view mirror and to see how close Charlie was, but it was enough for me to miss the line through the apex that led to my undoing.

The picture below is of the Infiniti after a session completed and as we head for our parking. Attentive eyes may recognize the Factory Five GTM Supercar in the background – brought out to compete in the HPDE 4 / TT events. A relatively new car from Factory Five it caught our attention from the first time we saw it – a well sorted-out lightweight body on what was all Corvette underneath, but with a mid-engine set up visible beneath the rear hatch’s Perspex covering. Now that’s a track Corvette done right!


While Sunday had been very productive for me, Margo had struggled to regain her focus. While she had enjoyed her last session with Steve, our instructor for Sunday had been Scott, another accomplished racer. Finding herself in the middle of an aggressive group of drivers and as courteous as ever, Margo had spent most of her time providing point by’s and had left herself with very few laps with which to work. It sometimes happens, but it then becomes very hard to retain focus – something that is essential for tackling the turns of ButtonWillow.

We left the circuit pretty pleased with our selves after what had happened the previous month. The Infiniti? What a surprise - the body rolls, the tires squeal the whole time, but turn off the electronic aids (DVC Off) and put the auto transmission into sport mode (DS - but don't touch the paddles) and the characteristics of the car changes - the computer recognizes you are at the track, and begins to downshift as you brake hard and puts you into a gear better suited for exiting the corner all rather magically. It was fun!

We will be taking the Infiniti to Willow Springs. The advantage it has over the ‘Vette is that you stop worrying about the car, and focus on learning the track. While we are pretty comfortable with the Willow Springs circuit, having driven it a number of times, we are still far from being smooth, or fast, and taking the Infiniti will certainly help us to do that.

The only thing that we will miss this time is the dancing we did at Buttonwillow, particularly through the esses, as well as between the Eastern and Western loops. It really is that light feeling you get when you move with grace. An experience very few of us ever get to enjoy, and we are so happy to have experienced it – even if we captured it only for a moment.

Will we continue to split the sessions? And will we continue to work with different instructors? Yes, we will continue to stick with the plan. It will mean our progress may not come as quickly as for others but heck, we have no intentions of becoming racers, and this does ensure we will continue to have fun! And for us, that continues to remain our sole focus.

No comments: