Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Colorful Colorado

 
When you drive into Utah from Colorado you can’t miss the billboard that marks the transition, declaring ever-so-subtly that you are “Leaving Colorful Colorado”. However, on our most recent trip west our destination was Zion National Park, en route to Las Vegas, where we were catching up with Brian and Jan Kenny. For all the years I have been in business Brian has been my mentor, helping me to better understand the finer points of running a business. And did I mention that Brian also drove a red Corvette, likes apple martini’s, and was just as fond as I am of succulent bone-in rib eye steaks, slow cooked country style boneless pork ribs, and together with his wife Jan, finds the time to join us at road courses around the western states of America!

The month of October proved to be heavily skewed to travel and it was again the routines associated with travel – the desperate last-minute packing, the stress over plane schedules and the adjustments that had to be made to the loss of control you have the moment you line up for security screening, and thereafter, dealing with airline staff. It seems of late that the first moment of relaxation that you can truly enjoy comes as the airplane door closes – no matter the class of travel you select these days, they are all pretty horrible. So much for the romance of travel!

Fortunately, business took us to Dresden and Munich, Germany, and to Vancouver, Canada, before we left the “comforts and luxury” of plane travel and stepped into the Pyalla Technologies “Track Days”’ Command Center. Perhaps the best purchase we have ever made, the RV, is proving to not only be an enjoyable escape (from the daily grind) but the ideal way to see the country that lets us opt out from having to unpack, repack, return rental cars and so forth as we pursue multi-city business activities – and the picture above, the tranquility that comes with parking near a stream surrounded by natural beauty, was taken as we pulled into Zion National Park. Colorful Colorado? Well, having spent essentially a long weekend at the park, Zion certainly gives the state of Colorado a run for its money!
 
 
October did start out with yet another track weekend – this time, participating in the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) Rocky Mountain region event, held at the Pikes Peak International Raceway, just south of Colorado Springs. The small amount of time we had limited us to the Saturday, so we made sure we arrived Friday afternoon so that we could set up “Camp Buckles”, slowly cook the requisite quantity of country-style, boneless pork ribs, chill out with an apple martini and socialize with out neighbors. As our time was limited Margo graciously stepped aside and let me run all four sessions with NASA.

The team at NASA sprang a surprise on us that proved rather challenging. Even though this would be my first time on track at PPIR, they decided to run the “Roval” counterclockwise. Combining more than half of the former NASCAR oval with an infield road course it felt really strange to be flying up the banking and turning right into turns 2 and then 1. I can just imagine the reaction to the regular NASCAR drivers, if just once, they were informed that they were going to race “the other way around”. Then again, with only a limited number of road courses available to the club, it certainly was a simple way to add variety to the program.

When NASCAR pulled support from this rather small oval course – the Roval NASA uses is about 1.3 miles long and is one of the shortest courses NASA includes on the calendar – the track hadn’t attracted the crowds necessary to support NASCAR, and today, there are signs of decay visible even as you pass the venue on Interstate 25. However, the calendar for PPIR is gradually filling in – first with the appearance of real NASCAR cars as part of the “Petty Experience” and more recently, Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving is partnering with PPIR for a new business venture that brings Bondurant’s world-class driver education to the track. It was hard not to miss their presence and seeing a clone of the famous Aussie V8 Supercars in the pits, it proved too good an opportunity to pass up. The picture above is of the 2 door, and 4 door, variants of the Corvette with Bob Bondurant providing a bevy of Pontiac G8 GTs that were based on the same GM Holden Commodore that underpins the Aussie V8 Supercars. 
 

 
 Running the track at PPIR counterclockwise, or as NASA renamed it, RIPP, certainly provided drivers with a completely different experience. The layout of the infield, where rumble strips had been installed, was a little hard to read at first, as tire marks weren’t necessarily indicative of either the student or racer line. It took all of the first session to really come to terms with this layout particularly the counter-intuitive exit from the Oval, where a very late apex for the initial turn was required and where there were almost no cues to capitalize on for either braking or turn in. There were cones set up but these weren’t necessarily a good thing as every driver can tell you, cones have a habit of moving. 

Once again, the vehicle of choice was our tried and true fifth generation Corvette Z06 (C5 Z06), a high horsepower “torque” car that could easily run all day in third gear. Or, fourth gear for that matter.  After a few laps, it became a matter of the Vette driving half the track in third gear and then the other half in fourth. Experimenting with down-changing to second gear only unsettled the car and actually slowed it down when it came time to rejoin the NASCAR oval. There’s still very little substitution for cubic inches, even on short and tight circuits, so this gave me the extra time to work on simply being smooth. And yet, it’s simply not that easy to pilot a powerful car through all the turns as smoothly as I would like, although I have to admit, as the picture above shows, it’s still highly rewarding driving one of the prettiest cars on track.

As this was my first time on the track, NASA assigned an instructor to me and for this I was indeed very thankful. Not only did I get the benefits of someone who knew the track, but with Ric, I received some very opportune coaching. In all my years with NASA, at key times, it seems that the instructor that walks up to me and asks whether they could ride along has turned out to be an excellent tutor, and this time, I was extremely grateful for the input Ric provided.  It took only a couple of laps for Ric to observe that I was sitting back too far from the steering wheel and after a simple adjustment of my seating position, the improvements were immediate. Not only that, but with the Corvette’s stick shift, I was a tad too busy entering critical corners – onto the brakes, select the gear, then accelerate through the apex. Sounds simple but I had been trying to do too much and was suffering missed gears and apexes, as I did my braking too late.
 
 
  I had taken our other stick shift roadster out the previous week, as the weather had proved too good to simply spend afternoons watching television. Driving through the front ranges of Colorful Colorado, pictured above, gave me ample opportunity to shift gears as much as I liked, and driving something as cramped as an SRT Viper, I didn’t notice that I was seated much closer to the steering wheel than in the Vette. Ric’s observation proved so good that now I am pulling the seat forward in any car I take out of the garage – the huge advantage that comes with much better seat placement is that I can actually see the fenders and where is the “edge of the car” - something that clearly helps out a lot when you are still trying to master being smooth.

Needless to say, the weekend at PPIR with NASA was a blast. The Vette really proved versatile as it easily negotiated the twisty infield of the Roval, and when it came time to put the Vette back on the trailer for the return trip home, I felt I had improved more in one day than I had all year – an observant coach is well worth running across even for someone exhibiting the occasional ADD, as Margo often points out. There’s always a price to be paid, of course, and as Saturday’s sessions continued, the tried and true Bridgestone tires started to look the worse for wear. Unfortunately, as I unloaded the Vette late Saturday, it was clear that the left front tire had chorded badly, so onto the Tire Rack web site I went and ordered a replacement set. There would still be one more event for the year and the tires just weren’t going to make it.

Once again it was the Corvette Spa that changed the tires for me, and this time, when it came to making sure the alignment was correct, we elected to set up the Vette with GM recommended settings for use on road courses. It will be interesting to see how this works out as there’s quite a bit more “negative camber” and “toe-in” than before, back and front. Hopefully, this will give us more bite as we turn in but we will just have to see. As much as I have welcomed working with Curt at Corvette Spa, our relationship is about to ratchet up a level – over the past couple of months I have wrapped up a wholesale deal with A&A Corvette Performance of Oxnard, California, and over the winter, I hope to be able to launch a new business endeavor for Pyalla Technologies, LLC “Track Days”, as Margo and I will be offering a number of Supercharger “upgrade” packages to local Coloridians.

 
The month may have started with a track weekend, but as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, it definitely finished on a high note, in Zion National Park. The picture above taken early in the morning shows just how close to the mountain peaks we were able to camp. It had been tough to navigate all the twists and turns through the park to our campsite no matter how close I had the seat to the steering wheel but the end result certainly justified the effort made.

There’s always friendly competition between the states and it’s hard to ignore all that Colorado offers visitors, but chilling out in the canyons of Zion was certainly an unexpected delight. And one we will perhaps enjoy again next year, where we may look at adding a visit to Bryce Canyon as well. Walking up the canyon to where “The Narrows” start is something I would advocate that everyone considers at some point. While we called a halt to proceeding any further, Brian and Jan ignored the cold waters and continued on up for another hour or so and the photo’s Brian took made us rue the chance to have joined them.

There’s never any competition between drivers participating in High Performance Driver Education events with NASA – that’s not the objective, but as participants improve their skills and move up the ranks from HPDE 1 through HPDE 2 and onto HPDE 3 and 4, it’s never truly far from any drivers mind. How did I do? Did you see my last couple of laps? Wasn’t I terrific staying with that Porsche? There’s no question each and every participant thinks that he or she can do a lot better. And the language that is generated by drivers, as we leave the driver downloads, can be every bit as colorful as Colorado’s foliage. Or Zion’s soaring sandstone cliffs! Nonetheless just as each state vies with every other state, it’s all in good humor with the only tangible result shared with every national park that I know is that yes, we will be back again to revisit the experience. And soon!

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