Friday, October 28, 2011

Taming the Dragon?


Even as I harbored thoughts about of perhaps one more track day, I awoke this morning to snow. Lots of it! Everywhere I looked there was snow piled high; the picture above was what I was treated to as I opened the garage door and made my way out the few feet to the Caddy Escalade. Having spent the past four years commuting between Boulder, Colorado, and Simi Valley, California, I had managed to be in California for most of the past four winters, and so it was quite a rude awakening. And did I mention it was cold, too? Yesterday temperatures had hovered around 80 degrees, but this morning it was some fifty degrees lower!

The Escalade now has to fend for itself, outside, in whatever weather visits us, as all four garage spaces are now occupied. The reality of returning to Boulder meant that we now have four cars in addition to the two motorcycles, in addition to the Escalade, and so I am just waiting for the day my neighbors remind me that the rules of our little community disallow any permanent parking of un-garaged cars. But I just can’t think about parting with any of the cars – perhaps a two car lift for one of the garages is in order. Could work – I wonder what weight constraints we have, as we excavated under all of our garages, expanding our basement, and turned the space below the garage into our working offices.

But at least the Corvettes are warm, feeding happily from the CTEK trickle-feed battery chargers we have in place, and likely will have powered-on for the next couple of months, maybe through to spring? Although there’s a lot of excitement that comes with the season’s first snow fall, as it does paint the countryside in gorgeous monochromatic tones, I just know it will only be a few more weeks before we begin daydreaming of warmer days ahead. Then again, how fitting to be writing of winter again when it seems that it was only a few months back when snow had prevented us from turning our first laps at High Plains Raceway (HPR) – check the photo in the post of May 1st, 2011 “Just got in to the Windy City …” - it is midway through that post, and is of the track covered in snow!

Business this month has seen me heads down in front of my keyboard wrapping up a number of business white papers. My trip last month to India certainly did impact my schedule and I have been playing catch-up ever since. Compounding the situation was the need to accompany Margo on a trip to Atlanta, and early on we had agreed that it would be a good opportunity to see the countryside and taking the Escalade seemed to be the right choice, knowing that weather can be so unpredictable at this time of year.


In the back of my mind I knew that the trip home, again, weather permitting, could take us north to Knoxville, Tennessee, a route that would let us see the remaining colorful leaves of fall covering the smoky mountains. Leaving Atlanta we would just pass through a corner of North Carolina before crossing into the south-eastern corner of Tennessee and anyone familiar with the geography may already be second-guessing where I was headed. If there’s any doubt remaining, when I identify the tree in the picture above as the famous “tree of shame” at Deals Gap it can mean only one thing. We had arrived at the start of the Tail of the Dragon!

The drive to Atlanta had followed the direct approach, a series of interstate highways that took us from Colorado through Kansas and into Missouri, before cutting through the bottom of Illinois and on down through Kentucky and Tennessee to line us up for the quick run into Georgia. There hadn’t been any drama and the trip went by without a hitch. On the other hand, what we were looking forward to driving on our way back was nothing like the highways we had experienced on the way to Atlanta.

Quite the opposite, and while we have driven Colorado highway 550, “the million dollar highway” from Durango to Ouray Colorado, several times (once, on motorcycles with a colleague from Australia), not to mention the byway from interstate 70, west of Green River, where the combination of highways 24, 95 and 261 takes you to Mexican Hat at the very bottom of Utah, as well as the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coast between Cambria and Carmel and through Big Sur I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but Tennessee’s infamous highway 129 delivered!

A twisting collection of turns on a road that crosses the mountains, and as best as I could tell, serves little purpose other than to provide entertainment for all those who relish such challenges, all up 318 curves in just the 11 miles, and by way of comparison, the Nürburgring in Germany that we drove around last fall only had some 150 + turns in its roughly 12 miles! The drop into Ouray on highway 550, and the plunge down from the elevated butte and into Mexican Hat on highway 261 as spectacular as both had proven to be, even as they were sparsely covered rocky outcrops, the heavily timbered landscape of the Smoky Mountains was to give the road a completely different feel and provided very little visibility as to what lay beyond each corner!

No question, leaving Deals Gap there were some anxieties. I had no idea what to expect, although looking at the tree of shame and reading the comments penned to metal and glass, it was pretty obvious that this road didn’t suffer fools kindly. There would be no guard rails for most of its length, and at one point the narrow ribbon of road runs along a small spine of rock with fall-away on either side, dropping to the rivers far below. The weather was good, it was late afternoon, and the muted light filtered through the trees still wearing their fall colors that gave us a vista unseen anywhere else in our recent travels.

I had picked the Escalade up from service at the local dealer in Boulder only a few days before we set out for Atlanta, the most extensive servicing cycle the Escalade has ever undertook: having passed 125,000 miles, on went new shocks (rear), new brake rotors and pads, new lines for oils and fluids and a complete service of all transmissions - it’s All Wheel Drive (AWD) - as well as new plugs and injectors. Having the big SUV this rigorously serviced is an expensive undertaking, but not when I think about the benefits of taking it along on this trip. And the picture above is of us about to enter a particularly challenging series of corners (the picture courtesy of the photo crew from Killboy.com) and yet I still found time to take my hand from the wheel to signal thumbs-up!

At one point we stopped to talk briefly to the driver of a Viper SRT/10 roadster that had just pulled off the road. He wanted to stop and take photos, he told us, but Margo and I had our doubts. Pouring from the vents in the hood, as well as from the gap between the hood and the front windscreen, was the most “white smoke” we have ever seen. Even on track days! Whatever he had been doing or how hard he had been driving, something wasn’t right, and it was too much smoke to be “just the brakes”. This is definitely the place, if you really want to push your car to the limits, and should it be motorcycles that are your preference then this is possibly nirvana!


The corners kept coming – trying to keep count of the 318 turns was impossible as they just kept on coming. There are several folks who have asked me about how valuable is participating in National Auto Sport Association (NASA) track “driver education” programs, and how relevant it would be when it came to every day driving: the drive up and over the tail of the dragon left me in no doubt as to the value NASA provided. And it was as much about the basics that comes to the fore – keep your eyes up and look through the turn to find the corner exit, late apex “everything”, and limit trail breaking as much as possible using the short straights wherever possible to scrub speed!

The picture above is of the big Escalade exiting a turn and it’s already clear that there’s load on the suspension! Not by race car standards, mind you, but something that was clearly communicated to driver and passenger with each turn completed. Again, the photo is courtesy of the roadside crew from Killboy.com and this time reader’s familiar with the many track outings that we have enjoyed will recognize number 116 as they will the decals from both NASA and Speed Ventures. Today, sitting outside the garage where it has taken up semi-permanent residence, the rear window sports an additional motif – a decal from Deals Gap no less – alongside the track image of the Nürburgring. Tacky perhaps? All the same, it brings a warm smile to my face each time I drag the trash can down to the curb!

However, once we had completed our “run over the course” the first thing Margo and I discussed on the last leg of our trip into Knoxville was how soon would it be before we brought the big ‘Vette this far east? After all, with all that we observed, this would be ideal. Better still? Perhaps even chance our hand with the AWD Datsun we have as our back-up for winter should the Escalade become unavailable – the car is a beast when it comes to roads like this!

Either way, Chevy or Nissan, we want to revisit this highway at some point – perhaps after squeezing in a weekend at VIR. I think one of the NASA regions holds events on this circuit and the big 'Vette would be perfect! But no, for this trip to Atlanta it hadn't been an option as the 'Vette was still in the shop. Even with two Corvettes and as passionate as I am about Tandem and NonStop in my business life, the "back-up" Corvette is just configured differently and doesn't lend itself to long trips where there's shared driver responsibilities. Yes it's a manual whereas the big 'Vette is an auto!

The talk of the ‘Vette really highlighted just how much difference there is between driving on the track and driving on the open road. No matter the challenges thrown up by a highway, even as technically challenging as Tennessee highway 129, you are never driving at ten tenths! It’s more like three or four tenths at best and there’s considerable difference, although in hindsight, we are still wondering what the driver of the Viper had been up to! Consideration of others on the road takes precedence, and when you have traffic legitimately coming towards you, it does change everything when you keep so much in reserve. The brakes may seem like they’re working hard, and the smell of oil and other fluids suggest temperatures have climbed, but compared to how the car feels after a session on a race track… there’s really no comparison.


And this is fortunately for the best, as I would rather not read about anyone driving their car on the road as they do at the track. Even when it comes to their favorite freeway off-ramp! Yet throughout the few miles that took us into Knoxville all discussion about driving the ‘Vette over this mountainous highway was as if we could drive it at track speeds with corner workers stationed along its length and crowds gathered at every vantage point. It’s just that kind of road that takes you back to when racing was pursued on public roads and where, as is still the case on the Isle of Man, the local population turns out in force.

So, what of the big ‘Vette? The picture above was sent to us by our newest friend, Curt Ingram, as the ‘Vette was moved outside his shop, Corvette Spa. Readers may recall how last month I was filmed by Curt’s good friend Warren, and how on review of the video it was clear the shocks weren’t doing their job. Driving to Atlanta and back gave Curt ample time to put the car up on jacks and take a good look. Now the car has a new set of Bilstein “sport” shocks, and restoring the Toyo R888 shod wheels to the car, a new alignment. Further surprises came when we saw how badly the toe-in had been – camber and caster had been fine but the only way to describe the poor effects from the tow-in was to suggest that the car would have crabbed its way through turns!

Curt was kind enough to email this latest photo of the ‘Vette just as I was planning the route back home from Atlanta, and as hopeful I had been at the time to take it one more time to the track, it’s now clear that with the arrival of winter it will be just the three walls of the garage that will entertain the car for the next couple of months. Spending all those years in Southern California, as we have done for the past four plus years, rather spoiled us, but then again we have really little to complain about living in Boulder.

The first snow of the season is always special and for the next couple of days we, as will much of the local population, will simply revel in the novelty of it all. It will wear off, of course, and our thoughts will just as quickly turn to thoughts of spring, and as I sit at my keyboard there will be a check of both the NASA and Speed Venture sites looking for news about the program for 2012. After all there’s Infineon we still need to visit and there’s Laguna Seca and perhaps Big Willow we want to revisit, but for now, and with the recent exploits in Tennessee behind us, it’s a quiet brandy and a warm fire, and that suits us just fine!