Sunday, April 5, 2009

Best laid plans ...


Margo and I spent a short time Friday walking along the beach at Point Dume. It wasn’t what we originally had planned to do that day but it was sunny enough, and it gave us a chance to relax. And the picture above is of us framed by the coastal scenery of this popular spot along the Malibu coastline.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, this was the weekend we were to be at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. In fact, in the final paragraph of the posting of March 13, 2009 Preparation? Just Drive! I had expressed just how excited I was to be even thinking about driving on that track, suggesting that there would be “lot’s of film to watch, as we have never been to this circuit.” I closed with “but if the turn of events of the past weekend are anything to go by, I have a much better feel for all the preparation I have to do. And the car will be just fine, thank you very much!”

The lead up to the weekend’s planned event had been quite exciting. A friendship that we had developed over coffee at Starbucks next to our condo with Brian and his wife Jan - fellow Corvette owners (actually Jan owns a BMW, but Brian is the Corvette fanatic)- had generated their interest in participating with us in the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) program. I had mentioned Brian in the blog posting of March 1, 2009 “Sunday, March 1, 2009 Preparation! Preparation! Preparation! as it was Brian who advised me to take a closer look at the suspension and wheel alignment that led to our visit with Dave up at North Star Corvettes.

The Southern California region conducts High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) events and we had often talked about this with Brian and Jan, and for this outing they had decided to register as well. The photo below is of our Corvettes parked side by side outside Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon. Brian had only just returned from West Coast Corvettes where he had installed new wheels and tires – upgrading to wider Michelin Pilot Sports Cup tires, a much softer and stickier tire well suited to the track. Brian also had added new adjustable sway to help counter the impact from tires providing a lot more grip.


Before heading to the track Thursday night, I had the car back up on the hoist for a thorough safety inspection and followed up with both Dave at North Star (there was some minor fluid seepage around two of the new braided metal brake lines, and that turned out to be OK), as well as with Andy at A&A Corvette Performance (we found a large hole in the interior panel behind the supercharger, and that turned out to be simple road damage). The timely responses from both Dave and Andy were impressive and I continue to turn to them whenever I have concerns.

We drove from our hotel to the Auto Club Speedway early Friday morning, and headed straight for the technical inspection area to be checked and stamped before we would be let out on the tack. While waiting in line we were able to catch up with fellow drivers Steffen and Carlos and they were just as eager as we were to get out onto the track for the first time.

As the tech inspect "pass" decal was applied, nothing could have prepared us for what was to follow. And for those readers who may have caught my most recent business blog posting of April 1, 2009 Prepared, body and soul! they would have read of how “this weekend didn’t go to plan. While nothing on the car failed, and there were no incidents, I never made it out onto the circuit itself. Even though the car was prepared mechanically, it turned out that I wasn’t prepared emotionally.”

Well, although this was not a part of the original plan we had for Saturday we whiled away the time driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, and the picture below is of Margo, captured a little later, walking along Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, checking out the shops. And the Yellow Rolls Royce convertible that she is passing is parked outside this shop every weekend – whether you like the yellow livery or not, it makes quite a statement. You can always count on seeing great cars while walking this street and the day didn’t fail to deliver the usual mix of Ferraris , Maseratis , Aston Martins which routinely distracted me from any further viewing of the window displays.


After all the preparation we had undertaken for the car, we were just not prepared for a change to our plan and to not take turns driving on all three days. At Willow Springs only a month earlier, we had begun to talk about the goals for the coming year. When we attended our first weekend with NASA I was so pleased that we made it through to the Sunday afternoon without an incident and as we headed home we were already talking excitedly about the next outing. At that time, just being comfortable with being on the track, lapping with our fellow drivers and not holding up anyone, was about as aggressive a goal as we had set for ourselves.

But with the conclusion of the first weekend of 2009 I began to talk about moving up – and not just up from the novice “Group 1” drivers to join the beginners in “Group 2”, but to see if I could graduate to the intermediate “Group 3” under the watchful eye of “Mad Dog” Mike. This came as a surprise to Margo, who thought we are just enjoying a weekend outing on the track, with no intentions to become racecars drivers. Yeah, my “competitive gene” emerged … and this idea about my advancing to the next level had unfolded in a discussion with our instructor, Tom. He proposed that, as Margo and I wanted to track just the one car, by separating us into these two different groups, Margo would get a lot more track time and have the opportunity to advance as well.

What we did not know at the time was that Tom and Fulton (who shares the leadership of Groups 1 and 2 with John), had talked about change in our goals and, in proposing the new plan – entirely for our benefit - only ended up really surprising both of us. Fulton strongly recommended we take to the track with a different instructor, as well as strongly encouraging us to really reconsider spending a full day in the car rather than alternating sessions each day.

The enthusiasm with which Fulton embraced the pursuit of our new goals only managed to completely unsettle us and in the subsequent dialogue between Margo and I, our communication broke down completely. We became an unhappy couple! Something I take full responsibility for. As I wrote in my business blog “Prepared, body and soul!” you simply cannot drive “onto a racetrack when not in synch with everyone (as it) is never a good idea."

The unexpected turn of events got to me in ways I hadn’t imagined and experiencing a track that included a NASCAR-style oval with high-speed banked corners, just couldn’t be considered without our complete attention. This was a very serious track where the big torque cars like Mustangs, ‘Vettes, and Vipers accelerate well past 160 mph! Not for the timid or faint of heart is driving a lap of this track. Certainly, not for anyone as distracted as I was, or as badly bent out of shape as I had become.

Sunday is a good day to spend at car dealerships. While others may avoid walking onto car lots until they have to – I view it as a perfectly fine recreational pastime. Waking late Sunday morning I headed down to the local Mercedes Benz dealer where I knew they had new SL’s on the floor. Sure enough – I found the car I was looking for, an AMG SL 6.5 BiTurbo.

The picture below is of me checking it out as the salesman opened it up for us. At some of our recent outings with NASA, the instructors had been less than impressed with our newly supercharged eight-cylinder Corvette, and was strongly recommending that we loose four cylinders. This was an attempt to encourage us to learn how to drive in a less powerful car.


What then would be a better time than now, I thought, to turn up with four more cylinders and not with one supercharger but two turbochargers – but no, perhaps my sense of humor wouldn’t go over too well. Still it was worth the thought. But as we both looked at the Benzes, we realized that we were still not old enough to contemplate driving them – even down Rodeo Drive!

We have had a number of conversations with NASA SoCal volunteers and I think both sides have come to better understand each other. While it was pretty easy to talk about moving to more advanced groups, as I had been doing, I still need to spend more time on the track learning the circuits and improving my skills. I am comfortable driving in Group 2 on some circuits – ButtonWillow and Willow Springs are both tracks where, after a “refresher” ride with an instructor, I am at ease in Group 2. I can see myself easily staying in this group for the remainder of the year, and revisiting my goals to go beyond that only after the full year is behind us.

After all, Margo and I are only doing this to have fun and to go fast – not to develop the skills of racers! Our friend Brian had a great time. Sitting down with him this week it was clear that he had enjoyed himself immensely. We had really been looking forward to seeing him drive just as we were hoping he would see us both out on the track.

When Brian registered for the weekend, and in recognition that he had driven the track several times last year and had completed three days of instruction at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at Spring Mountain, Nevada, he was welcomed into Group 3. We were really pleased to hear the next time we caught up for coffee of how in one session he had recorded equal fastest time!

Will we be deterred by the events of the past weekend? Will we call it a day and move onto something else? When we drove into the garage early Friday afternoon, I went back to work and didn’t even unpack the car. It wasn’t till much later that weekend before I unpacked the luggage, tools, and icebox and the Corvette has looked a little unloved as it sits to one side.


But we will be returning to the program and today I completed registration for the upcoming April weekend at ButtonWillow – perhaps our least favorite track. There is still so much more improvement we would like to make. The next three weekends will see us covering a lot of miles – and all of them in the Infiniti G37S (pictured above) that has become our daily drive. Perhaps, with all this time in the coupe, it’s time to consider taking it to the track in April. Relative to what else we have in the garage, a venerable momentum car!

And possibly, the Infinity is a much better platform in which to develop our skills. The Corvette is definitely the car that gives us the most fun and we will continue to run it at tracks like Willow Springs and Auto Club Speedway – but for Button Willow, perhaps it is time to turn the page and begin Chapter 2. We haven’t completely settled on doing this but we have a lot of time to talk about it.

I closed out the previous posting with “if the turn of events of the past weekend are anything to go by, I have a much better feel for all the preparation I have to do.” Looking back, I can now reflect on how this applies equally to us as humans as it does to the car. And I am the better prepared now for having been through the experience. Let’s enjoy the track – having fun (safely) and going fast!

2 comments:

dan said...

Do Buttonwillow in your Vette!
Or take both cars.
It's the most challenging (and safest) tracks in So Cal!
Fontana is scary with the banking, at Buttonwillow there's nothing to hit if you go off (just endless farmland), just keep "both feet in" and go off in a straight line if it comes to that!

(From your friendly volunteer NASA
tech inspector)

dan said...

Do Buttonwillow in your Vette!
Or take both cars.
It's the most challenging (and safest) tracks in So Cal!
Fontana is scary with the banking, at Buttonwillow there's nothing to hit if you go off (just endless farmland), just keep "both feet in" and go off in a straight line if it comes to that!

(From your friendly volunteer NASA