Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dalmatians, and other dog tales …


There’s no escaping the fact that with the early onset of winter this year there’s little opportunity for any further track time. The blue Corvette is ready to go – new suspension, new alignment and ride height, and with the track-ready wheels and tires mounted. Each time I walk past the car that is sitting rather forlornly in the garage it is a reminder of how much I miss track weekends and just how good the Vette really is – yes, close on 65,000 miles with all by 20,000 running the forced-induction (FI) set up and with some twenty five track weekends under its wheels! And the picture above is of the car laying idle, but hooked to its faithful battery charger, waiting for the seasons to change. Keeping it company, and just as likely to be spelled from any further track driving duties is the Viper; every bit as reluctant to test step outside with snow on the ground!

Our home track, High Plains Raceway, is also out of action but less so due to early snow falls. The track is undergoing resurfacing so that come early next year it will be in pristine condition. When coupled with the fact that the track outside Pueblo, Colorado, is also being resurfaced then the prognosis for track days in Colorado in 2012 is looking real good. We have not made the trip down to the Pueblo Motorsports Park yet and we will take a close look at it for next year as we commit to spending more time in-state, with perhaps just a single trip to the West Coast – most likely, to join NASA Northern California - for another shot at laying down some laps at Infineon, Sonoma. Perhaps it’s even time to think about visiting the track at Hastings, Nebraska as part of a return visit to Omaha!

Whatever the plans for 2012 turn out to be our approach to track days has taken yet another turn – with less emphasis on the competitive side and more attention given to just having fun. I realize that even with four years of track experience under my belt, I will never be running with the more advanced and highly competitive groups as I just don’t have the time to put into learning the tracks. And there’s the additional consideration now about the costs of tackling circuits every month – the wear and tear on the Vette has been considerable and to continue to enjoy these outings will necessitate dialing back some of the aggression and working even harder on being smooth! Yes, old # 116 is a good car and is a lot of fun on the track but it is beginning to show its age and will need considerable more nursing than in the past if it’s to continue to be the go-to car in the garage come track weekends.

The other element that has arisen is that with my evolving business pursuits I am spending more time travelling – and much of this is being done on short notice. Having participated in Information Technology (IT) events in South Africa and India, vendor kick-off meetings in Denver and client meetings in cities as far away as Paris and Rome, it’s proving difficult to commit to events in advance. As much as I would have liked to have closed out the year with an event in Southern California – perhaps returning to the Auto Club Speedway or even Willow Springs – there simply was no time. As I pull together my thoughts for this posting I am back on the west coast only days after returning from a mix of business and vacation time along the Adriatic Coast and as much as I truly do enjoy track days, I enjoy time spent with my peers speculating on where IT is headed just as much as I like my time behind the wheel!

Perhaps the best thing that happened on this latest trip to Europe is that it gave me time to catch up on my reading. Top of the list was a book everyone has talked about for a long time, and so it was with a lot of anticipation that I turned the first pages of the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” only to find that I was immediately hooked by the storyline. Yes, it’s a dog’s-eye view of a racer’s life alright, but it is so much more. Author, Garth Stein, has done a superb job of translating what is often taken for granted when it comes to track days. For those who have spent any time at all around race tracks and who have enjoyed conversations with real racers, and who have been fortunate to have them provide feedback on their abilities, this book will resonate well.

In the early chapters the reader is introduced by Enzo, the dog, to the thought “that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny” and it strikes a chord within all who read the book. After all, there’s little we can blame for any misfortunes experienced on the track – not the car, other drivers or even officials – as it all comes back to what we do. “Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.” Tied to this is the ever-revealing truth that we always go where our eyes are looking and as I recall the many incidents I have experienced, more than anyone, am aware that during lapses in concentration I have brought about my own misfortune!


A little deeper into the book, the reader is exposed to how racers truly prepare for track outings – yes, they take the time to walk the circuit and examine every square inch of track. As Enzo explains it, his central character, Denny, jogged around the entire track as “you can’t really see a track from inside a race car travelling at one hundred fifty miles per hour or more … you have to get out and feel it.” Why the necessity? Racers look for every possible advantage and in this instance, Denny is hoping to find “visible seams (on the track surface) that he might use as braking zone markers or turn-in points. Could he find better grip slightly off the established racing line? And there were tricks to the camber of certain turns, places where the track appeared level from inside a car but were actually graded ever so slightly.” For as long as I can recall, participating in National Auto Sport Association (NASA) events, our instructors reminded us to walk the track and as anyone who has walked the main straight of Willow Springs knows all too well the steep upward angle the track takes as it begins to bear left into the nicely cambered turn one is not immediately apparent from behind the wheel. The picture above was taken last year and captured me leading my good friend Brian, for just the briefest of moments, as we both headed into that turn at Willow Springs.

Right angle turns, such as you find with turn one at Willow Springs, have no right to be taken as fast as drivers do, but over the years by lifting my entry speed a few miles an hour with each lap, I am finding that I can turn into this corner at 100 miles per hour, when only two years earlier sixty miles an hour seemed extreme and perhaps even reckless! I have as yet not completed walking all of the tracks I visited, but at many of the circuits I have walked alongside them and felt the dips and rises that make up much of any circuits pavement. Yes, the sage advice from all those who have helped me along the way to simply get out there and walk the track is really something I now need to do pursue as a matter of routine.

But this is not only true of race tracks, as it equally applies to many of the highways and country byways we frequent. Is the surface beginning to break up and are the edges crumbling and uneven? Is there grip or does it feel greasy? A few hard-braking attempts as well as a couple of “late apexes” generally can tell you what is underfoot and prove extremely helpful should you be called upon to take defensive actions. That which we manifest is before us! On the trip back to the west coast I have driven the southern interstates for the first time since I traversed them in the Vette on the way to Spring Mountain and of course the memories came rushing back – all the expectations Margo and I took with us on the occasion proved premature as misfortune overtook us very early in the weekend. However, coming as this trip has, so soon after our excursion to Atlanta, has given me an opportunity to see more of America than I had ever imagined when we first looked at what tracks we would visit this year. And to some extent has more than made up for all the mishaps and breakdowns that have happened along the way.


The picture above is of the Vette up on the hoist inside the great facilities at Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch (MSSR). It was the time when we found our oil leak was terminal and that our ambitious plans for the following week were dashed. We had hoped to combine the promotional side of our time at the track with other business pursuits only to see much of what we had hoped to do fade away as we went about renting trucks, trailers, and rental cars as well as flights back to Boulder. And yet, all it took was the installation of the wrong hose and from that moment, events escalated to the Vette failed. Yes, certainly, that which we manifest is before us!

And through the year, the mantra of driving the car you have kept echoing in my ears – sure I would like a little more torque and sure, I would like to have a taller final drive ratio and definitely bigger brakes, and racing slicks would be terrific, but I had none of these and just had to work with what I had. In many respects, even with a big torque car such as we have with the Vette, there’s a lot to be gained from respecting the power and treating them as though they are momentum cars, particularly at times when the weather isn’t perfect and where the track surface may be compromised. Avoiding the dramatic acceleration and subsequent hard braking that unsettles the Vette, and looking at ways to simply let the Vette have an opportunity to flow with the track has given me a lot more satisfaction than I’ve ever experienced in the past. Truly, we are the creators of our own destiny!

Between this trip to the west coast that will take us from San Diego, California, all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada, and the trip to Atlanta that gave us the opportunity to sample the tail of the dragon, we squeezed in a short trip to Italy as well as a cruise on the Adriatic and along the Dalmatian coast on one of the small vessels that make up the Seabourn Cruise Line. Before we left I had considered renting Vespa scooters along the way as there are many rental shops at the ports we were to visit, but after the mishaps Margo experienced only a few short weeks ago, we elected not to pursue this option. I had been hoping to be able to retell the adventure from a different perspective but no, this particular trip to Europe saw us walking everywhere. With the less hectic pace this proved to be, I managed to see more than I have done on previous visits.


The picture above is from the fjord that leads to Koto in Montenegro – an amazingly beautiful township lying at the end of one of the fjord’s arms. In the background is a small island that was built by simply dropping stones into the fjord and creating a platform. For more than two hundred years, the locals came to the site in the ships and unloaded rocks, and today there’s a small chapel built on the platform that has proved popular with the sailing communities down through the centuries. The patience and persistence across many generations has to be admired, and again, it took my thoughts back to the track. Some weekends, after putting a lot of effort into my track sessions I am left wondering whether I had somehow regressed with very little to show following the many laps I covered.

But making progress on the track is a funny thing. In fact, until you actually get into a car and drive it on a track, it’s all rather academic. Concentration, once you are settled behind the wheel becomes paramount with memories of previous sessions put to one side. As Enzo was to reflect on the occasion he was a passenger for a few fast laps with Denny, “I intellectualized that I would enjoy being in a race car. Until that moment, I didn’t know. How could anyone know until he sits in a car at race speed and takes turns at the limits of adhesion, brakes a hair from lockup, the engine begging for the redline?” With every lap, there’s always progress being made and even if it’s unclear as to precisely how much progress has been made after a weekend at the track, your subconscious continues to work overtime, layering one experience on top of the other and developing knowledge that otherwise simply couldn’t be intellectualized or assembled any other way.

It will be hard to stay out of the garage, just as it will be difficult not to speculate on what will happen in 2012. The Vette looks anxious and I know it must be shivering even as the temperatures continue to drop. But the plight of the Vette isn’t being ignored, just as my subconscious continues to file everything away. Whatever transpires now will be my own doing and I am hopeful, as I am at this time of year following every other season, that next year there will be even more fun-filled weekends ahead for Margo and me – as yes, how can you ever know until that next time when once again you pull on your helmet and for one more time sit in the car!