Thursday, September 20, 2018

That “flying fickle finger of fate” together with a little serendipity and a whole lot of good fortune!

There is a lot of truth to the saying, “being in the right place at the right time” and you can tie yourself up in knots trying to figure out just how it all happens. But as I look back through the years at the people that have entered my life it’s all happened without any planning or scheming and yet, many of these accidental encounters have turned out to be life changing. Top of the list, naturally, was how Margo and I met – me from Sydney, Australia, and Margo from Warsaw, Poland. Even as our paths had crossed almost the day I stepped onto the campus of Tandem Computers, the journey wasn’t linear by any means.

And then there was the chance encounter with John (JR) Robinson in the offices of Nixdorf Computers at a time when his company was just three people and the future looked anything but assured. It was JR who encouraged me to go to California to join Tandem Computers and work on a mutually beneficial program featuring his product. In the 1960s we called it “the flying fickle finger of fate,” according to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and it has become very noticeable through the years!

However and completely unrelated to work or to any IT projects I was associated with at the time, just by happenstance, I ran into a fellow Corvette owner sipping a latte at the Starbucks in the Simi Valley’s Wood Ranch shopping center. “Do you race that Corvette?” The question came from out of nowhere, but looking at the tables there was only one table occupied. Without missing a beat, I turned and responded, “Yes, I sure do!” This was the summer of 2008 and Margo and I had only just started out driving on track with the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) and we had managed all of one track weekend.

So yes, we raced the Corvette, although technically, we were participants in the more educational-focused High Performance Driver Event (HPDE) program. “Well, come over here and join me for coffee,” was the immediate response. “I have asked everyone who has driven a Corvette into the parking lot whether they race or not and you are the first to say that you do! Let me introduce myself; my name is Brian Kenny.”

Fast forward ten years and Margo and I find ourselves camped trackside at Sonoma, alongside the extended Kenny’s family as we watch the Kenny’s 18 year old grandson, Colton Herta, participate in his inaugural Indy race. Yes, following two years racing Indy Lights cars at 16 and 17 years of age, having competed in Europe in the UK-based MSA Formula series at 14 years of age, finishing third in the series (remember, he was just 14 and the youngest in the series) where he shocked the Brits scoring four victories to finish third overall and along the way, helped the United States win the Nations Cup.

The following year and still in Europe, he raced in the
Euroformula Open Championship at just 15 years of age, finishing third in the series with four victories, six podium finishes and five pole positions. All while spending most of his early teens away from family and friends even as he still had to attend to his school work. How many of us would have been prepared to do that and yet, it’s really what commitment is all about and Colton certainly was committed at this stage and was doing all he could do to establish himself as a potential future professional race car driver.  

Along the way, as the picture above so clearly depicts, with Colton holding onto the winners check, he beat out Lando Norris (the chap on the right of the picture) who only recently was promoted to the big leagues in F1, becoming a full time driver for McLaren in 2019. Let’s remember this picture, as I am sure one day their paths will cross again – maybe at the Indy 500 in a couple of years’ time given all the rumors circulating about McLaren’s entry into Indy racing.

But this weekend, the accomplishments of the past four years will be little more than distant memories as he steps up to race in the big leagues full time next year. Yes, he will be a pro racing Indy cars. Fortunately to us and again, purely by happenstance, as the Indy Lights program wrapped up two weeks ago, an Indy team gave him the opportunity to race in the last race of the Indy series of  2018 as a way to introduce him to the senior program.

And yes, you could have found Colton Saturday morning, under the tents in the middle of the vendor stands, tableside together with Wil Power, Tony Kanaan and the rest of the pros, signing autographs. At one point in the practice sessions he topped the leader board with the fastest lap time set in his Chevy powered car carrying the number, 88. It was only for an instant and by the time I pulled out my camera, his time had been eclipsed. As a rookie, his goal was to simply to take it all in and not mess up as the series final has four drivers in contention for a series win and that was very much on his mind!

In the ten years that conversation about racing Corvettes has led to us spending numerous weekends in Las Vegas, more dinners that I care to recall at Mastro Thousand Oaks, as well as Las Vegas and yes, even vacations together. Readers of post to this blog will come across numerous references to the Kennys throughout the decade that has passed and together Brian, Jan, Margo and I have vacationed in Europe and Australia even as we have spent time in Zion National Park and even in Albuquerque for the Hot Air Balloon Festival. This weekend, again all rather serendipitously, I was able to cross one more item off the list – I rode in a modified two-seater Indy car around Sonoma.

Honda has a program “Ride of a Lifetime” and I scored a ride – yes, I paid for it well, actually, it was a father’s day gift from Margo – but it didn’t come about without yet more input from that flying fickle finger of fate. When I logged onto the web site, I could book a seat almost anywhere Indy races were being held except Sonoma – seat time was sold out. So I emailed the Kenny’s son-in-law, Bryan Herta, who co-owns the Andretti – Herta team whose driver just happens to be Marco Andretti.

Over the course of just a few short years, Bryan Herta Autosports (BHA) has chalked up two Indy 500 wins, first with Dan Wheldon and then with Alexander Rossi – both wins coming as a result of clever strategy decisions made race by Bryan Herta. Yes, for the upcoming Indy series final race here in Sonoma, son, Colton, will be on a different team than dad, Bryan. “It’s just a business,” was the only response I got from Bryan when I asked him about that on the Friday night of race weekend.

On the other hand, Bryan’s intervention on my behalf secured me a ride in the two-seater Honda-powered Indy cars, a guest of Andretti’s. And yes two-seater Indy cars are managed by the Andretti team as a joint undertaking with Honda. And my driver when the day finally arrived? None other than legendary, Mario Andretti himself! A man of few words, mind you, but there I was behind the helmet of one of the most famous racers of all times having won Formula One, Indy and just about everything else.

Simply watching him walk up to the race car you have just sat in, pull up his drivers suit and then jump into the seat ahead of you, well who knew? There would be four two-seater Indy cars on track that day and I scored Mario! Not only that, but the outing is for just one lap around Sonoma however, as I was first in line, not only did they put me in Mario’s car but as he needed to warm up the tires, I did two laps – a warm up followed by a high-speed lap. And what laps they were! Yes the car was fast but the amount of grip and hence the ability to brake and corner are simply unimaginable until you have ridden inside an Indy car!

As much as this weekend has been about Indy cars and back-seat rides and about Bryan Herta and his team (and yes Marco qualified in the “quick six” for the first time that I can recall), it has mostly been about Colton Herta. And while he did top the leader board with one quick lap early Saturday morning, when it came to qualifying the setup of his car wasn’t to his liking as it caused considerable understeer to be generated. This didn’t help and when he pitted and put on the sticky red tires, it got worse. “Too much grip from the reds meant I couldn’t turn – the rear was just gripping too well,” said Colton afterwards.

So he didn’t make it out of the first qualifying series but will he change the setup? “Don’t think so; as the race progresses and tires degrade, the understeer will likely go away and maybe I will have a car I like!” I would like to say that being at Sonoma isn’t all about racing, but then I wouldn’t be providing an accurate report. Yes, it’s all about the thunder of 900 hp Indy Racers barreling down the short main straight before driving up through turn one and then into one turn after another all taken at speeds not even the two-seater Honda driven by Mario could emulate.  

It’s also about the time waiting in between sessions and thankfully, we have our company command center with us as we were at business events during the days leading up to this weekend’s event. So in that regards, waiting isn’t all that bad with all the mod cons of home within reach. Margo and Jan Kenny did make it to a nearby winery for a little wine tasting but it is all about the event. I have to admit with all the fires that scorched Napa and Sonoma I was a tad concerned about the current vintage but it seems like the grapes are doing just fine as the photo Margo shot for me clearly illustrates.

So what was the final race of the series like? How did Colton go and yes, who finally won the title for 2018? History will record that this Indy race was the last to be held at Sonoma as a new deal has been cut to run this race at Laguna Seca going forward. Fortunately, history will also record that in the very first Indy race at Sonoma, among the drivers was none other than Bryan Herta and so fittingly, it was the younger Herta closing out Indy at Sonoma. However, it was also a first after a fashion as the race held four descendants of other champion racers as joining Colton in the race was Graham Rahal, son of Bobby Rahal, Pietro Fittipaldi, grandson of Emerson Fittipaldi and of course, Marco Andretti son of Michael Andretti and grandson of Mario – a historic occasion all around.  

Before the race, Colton was happily eating lots of protein and taking it easy. Around noon I caught up with Colton biting down on a steak and when I asked him how he felt, his response was minimal as it was succinct, “ask me again in a couple of hours but for now, I am OK!” I didn’t get to see him again until after the race when he returned to the Kenny’s RV where we were all sipping martinis, as usual. Dropping into the nearest chair, he was spent. Never mind that he had driven some 80 plus laps among the best Indy racers on the planet. 

In the Indy Lights series just wrapped up Colton finished second overall with the winner being a young and really good racer, Patricio O’Ward. Together, Patricio and Colton would be on track racing for the same team and against all odds, Patricio made it into the final six Indy racers for the “Quick Six” race for pole where he finished up fifth. Colton had nothing on offer with the set-up he had and qualified nineteenth. Things didn’t go any better for Colton in the race and Patricio found it difficult to stay with the leaders, although he did finish in the top ten.

But then again, this taste of what lay ahead for both young racers became a lot clearer following the Sonoma Indy race – a new team was announced and they had chosen both Colton and Patricio as their drivers for 2019.For the previous two years, both drivers had raced in Indy Lights under the umbrella of Andretti but with Colton racing for Andretti Steinbrenner Racing and the relationship between the young Steinbrenner and Colton was easy to see. As the news broke of a new team ownership pairing coming together, Steinbrenner partnering with relative Indy newcomer, Harding Racing, this announcement didn’t come as a surprise for many Indy followers:

With neither racer yet to reach 21, the creation of the team with these sends an ominous warning to the rest of the Indy racers that fresh talent is coming to play and they are part of a team that doesn’t take losing easily – just look at the success of Those Damn Yankees over the years! Writing about those Yankees, at the time of the announcement the Yankee baseball organization gave Colton the opportunity to throw out the first pitch at Yankee stadium and again, I have to wonder, was that an accomplishment on Colton’s bucket list? When Colton’s picture appeared on the Jumbo-Tron, look closely as he was already being identified as the Harding Steinbrenner driver of car #88!

When Colton’s picture appeared on the Jumbo-Tron, look closely as he was already being identified as the Harding Steinbrenner driver of car #88! And what else did Colton get to do while with the Yankees? He just tweeted: "Thank you very much @Yankees was able to hold Babe Ruth’s last home run bat from 1922!!"

I have had many items on my bucket list, but being able to cross off the list, running in an Indy car with Mario Andretti driving was definitely a check mark I didn’t think would ever happen – I saw him race in the F1 event at Long Beach back in 1977, so it has been many years. And then there was spending a weekend with a team that ran Indy for the very first time only to win even more accolades as future winners for a brand new Indy team well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Talk about that fickle finger of fate! Who could have guessed the weekend would deliver so much for the families involved. In an Indy car, with Mario Andretti? You have to be kidding, right, and yet it happened! And oh yes, Margo visited Cline vineyards and returned with a great bottle of red so there will be much to celebrate in the coming days. Well done the Kennys, the Hertas and the Andrettis! Well done Steinbrenner and Harding! And yes, well done Colton!  

And I need to thank the many parties that provided photos for this post - Brian Kenny, Racer Magazine and AutoWeek  

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The bikes are gone …

There was a time, way back in the early 2000s, when the idea came to Margo and me to ride motorcycles. Together, we signed up for lessens that eventually led to us both to getting our motorcycle riders endorsements added to our respective drivers’ licenses. Cool! We were still very young back then and immortal. And so a two decades long adventure began. Of course, any opportunity to purchase an entirely new wardrobe meant a lot to Margo and while she stopped short of buying nail polish matching her purple trimmed motorcycle, I have to believe the thought crossed her mind more than once. 

My own adventure with motorcycles began when I was still a teen and at high school in Sydney. Friends at my school bought motorcycles as our final year came to an end and I thought that bikes were pretty neat and there was many a later afternoon spent hanging around their homes as they “played” with their bikes. Honda was the manufacturer of choice back then and, for a while, 250cc / 305cc twins were as big a bike as Honda sold in Australia. Working the summer at an underlay felt manufacturer, I saved up enough to buy my first Honda – a 250cc CB72. This was a sports bike, very light and its handling properties were excellent.

However, I never took a lesson and for two years, rode the highways along the coastline of New South Wales without a license. You see, if you gained a license it was only a provisional license and for one full year subject to cancellation following any incident that came to the attention of the police; zero tolerance for infractions of any kind during that probation period. I understood very quickly that I would never make it so I exploited a serious loophole in the system. Carrying only a learner’s permit technically, I didn’t have a license, so the only penalty I was subject to was a fine – and I paid a lot of fines during the years I stuck with that plan.

I also had lots of accidents! Untrained and unaware of the mechanics of cornering, I cannot recount the number of times I went into a corner too “hot” only to drop the bike. I went through a period where that Honda was in the shop being straightened more times than it was on the road. So, without giving it any second thoughts, I bought a used Yamaha 75cc motor scooter just to tool around on whenever the Honda was in the shop. Overnight I became a Honda and Yamaha fan but the two-bike affair didn’t last all that long as yes, you guessed, it! Both of them ended up in different shops at the same time …

I had my Honda 250 customized in such a way that the local constabulary recognized it as I rode by to the point where, at one time and leaving Sydney’s central business district, while stopped at a traffic light, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Shocked, I turned around to see it was the hand of the law. What on earth, I thought, before the policeman asked me, “don’t you recognize me?” He was the same officer who had pulled me over and ticketed me the previous Friday night and it was now Monday morning. “Don’t tell me you were pulled over by more than one policeman this weekend – I recognized the bike but I didn’t recognize you wearing that heavy coat!”

Customization was something that wasn’t so much along the lines of what we see with custom motorcycles today but rather, after taking the Honda apart, I removed the Honda badges, made the gas tank flush, filled with a little body putty and repainted a much brighter red. And then, every single piece of metal I could take off the bike, including the frame and the front forks, I had chromed – yes, this little red Honda stood apart from any other example motoring along Sydney’s roads. Was it loud? Well, a pair of twin piped Dunstall racing exhaust from England to give it the four tailpipe look went on and even as I was working in the data center of the steelworks in Wollongong, the operators could hear me arriving over the noise of the un-baffled IBM mainframe 1403 printers as they ripped through boxes of continuous stationery. No, standard bikes in off the showroom floor trim weren’t for me even back then, all those years ago.

Returning to the 2000s, once Margo and I had our motorcycle riding endorsements affixed to our driver’s licenses, we waited until we had finished building our Niwot, Colorado, home. At that time, there was plenty of garage space available to store a motorcycle or two or three. In fairly quick succession, we started with a small Suzuki for Margo and a mid-size Honda for me. The Suzuki was traded on a Yamaha Warrior for me, which gave Margo my Honda V Twin which was traded on a Yamaha 1100 V Star in pretty quick order. A third motorcycle was then bought so I could join Margo on her Yamaha cruiser; this time, it was a Yamaha 1600 RoadStar.

We had the Yamaha cruisers extensively customized and we had our helmets repainted to match each motorcycle. As for the Warrior, it was a brute and I loved to ride it, but after just a couple of years, a smooth-talking Yamaha salesman convinced me to trade it in on an R1 “1 liter” sports bike which for a gentleman of my age and physique was madness. So it too went in short order and Margo and I settled in on two cruisers for the next decade plus – Margo on the Yamaha 1100 while I returned to the Honda fold having purchased a Honda VTX1800 “110 cubic inch” heavy-weight cruiser and they looked pretty good parked between our normal daily drives!

In popular culture, motorcycles have become a metaphor for freedom and a life spent on the open road. Author Michael Sears, in a blog post supporting his 2015 novel, Ling Way Down, probably described it best when he said: 

“The great metaphor for the melting pot that is the United States was next door to our convention.  At the motorcycle show. Unless you ride, or know a rider or two quite well, it may be easy to dismiss the whole phenomenon as a fringe movement, populated by criminals, crazies, and sufferers from male menopause.  While the purchase of a motorcycle may be - along with decreased libido, weight gain, and depression – a symptom of early dementia among men, I discovered that the world of motorcycle lovers encompasses so much more.

“The first stereotype to fall was the idea that motorcyclephilia is solely a male condition, the only women involved being the babes in black leather bustiers and Daisy-Mae shorts who pose for the ride-customizing ads in the back pages of some of the rougher magazines.

“If the cowboy is the quintessential American hero, then bike riders are the modern equivalent.  The motorcycle has replaced the horse for the man – or woman – who rides off into the sunset in search of freedom and the next challenge.”

Margo and I didn’t quite fit the mold. When we first started riding around Boulder County, she encountered almost no women riders. However, what she did encounter was a community made of individuals from every walk of life who welcomed her with essentially open arms whenever we stopped for gas and other motorcyclists were present. She also become aware of “the wave” – no matter what road you were riding, even the baddest, toughest, biker we passed would take their left hand off the handlebar to give Margo a wave which, of course, she returned with a mix of surprise and amusement. We had become cowboys and we were enjoying it immensely! 

It took a year or two but sure enough, the rides around Boulder became rides around Colorado until eventually we were riding across state lines and into Wyoming and Nebraska. Over time we found our motorcycles living on battery tenders for much of the year. Winter months weren’t favorable to riding motorcycles although one January, I took the Honda VTX on a ride to Laramie and back as the temperature climbed into the mid to high 60s. This was covered in a March 9, 2008, post to our business blog, Real Time View From higher altitudes!

I guess you could say the end came when one weekend, with both cars and motorcycles having lain idle for the winter, with two cars in the shop for repairs and maintenance we were left without transportation. So one bike would be traded for another, smaller, city car that we could use for fun and essentially, a substitute for motorcycles! The natural choice was the Mini Roadster and the victim turned out to be my Honda 1800. Ouch, but the Honda didn’t go quietly. Riding it to the gas station the big Honda decided to break down – so it arrived later that day at the Mini dealership atop a tow truck. This left us with just the Yamaha 1100 which I gradually eased away from riding it only occasionally each year. 

Make of it what you want but there was something about knowing that there was still one motorcycle in the garage that well, kept me feeling pretty good at night. Margo wasn’t quite up to sharing in the “fog of youth” like I tended to do on occasion as, just a short time before the sale, she had fallen from her Yamaha. During the final turn into our street, following a nice afternoon ride for coffee, down she went. With bones in her hand broken, Margo never again felt the same way about her Yamaha. Even as she admitted later that she had messed up and failed to properly manage the turn using her rear brake, it didn’t really make amends for the pain she suffered over the next couple of weeks as her hand began to mend.  As for her Yamaha – it looked a little cross-eyed for a while before we had it fully repaired.

And so our days of motorcycle adventures have come full circle as just a few weeks ago, we sold the Yamaha to the local motorcycle shop. Looking at it for the last time, alone in the garage, was an emotional time for me. Almost two decades to the day after we gained our motorcycle endorsements! The motorcycle may very well have replaced the horse for those who ride off into the sunset in search of freedom and the next challenge but, closer to home and to how Margo and I found a shared hobby late in life, it’s not the only way to enjoy freedom, challenges and the allure of the open road. As we continue to zigzag across America, in cars, SUVs and RVs, there has been one constant the whole time. It’s not even the trip we are on at the time – but the one that comes next. Ever since we were married, we plan trips two at a time – the immediate journey and the one further out.

Motorcycles were always about doing something right now but they are now gone and we don’t feel as though life has relegated us to arm chairs and hammocks. A spirited ride up a Colorado front range canyon in the M4 is nothing to scoff at nor is a long day’s drive across the prairies in the i8. And then there are track days in the Corvette Z06. Notice a pattern here? What that first Honda did for me was to foster the desire to do something beyond standard and to look for something that is just a little more off-the-wall than usual.

Yes, we have a Jeep but it’s an SRT. We have a Corvette but it’s a Z06 and as for the BMW yes we have a coupe but it’s an M4 and, as for the 8-series coupe then yes, it’s not a regular coupe but the hybrid i8! So while we adhere to the adage of never say never and have already stopped by the local bike shops to look at a Harley trike and a Can-Am Spyder – a more sedate and indeed age appropriate way to pick up where we have left off – it’s nice that Margo and I can reminisce over rides taken throughout the nearly 20 years we have been married.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Once more, an opportunity to enjoy time together on the road

Can’t escape it any more. Road trips mean all but one car stay behind. These days, with our off-premise storage housing our Corvette and trailer as well as our RV, the company command center, it means that our Jeep SUV and the mean-looking Bimmer M4 will be locked away. In all seriousness, who wouldn’t opt for the Bimmer i8 with its miserly demand for fuel? Never experienced anything like it before – it is even better on the gas mileage than any of our cruiser motorcycles! We had a very minor scrape on our trip to Dallas a couple of months ago, but it was all repaired nicely and now, with our minds at ease over how it looks, we have chosen the i8 for the last two business trips we have taken. After all, it is set aside for business purposes and it meets the demands of business easily.

However there is more to this tale than simply the choice of vehicles. Whereas the previous month’s trip had been to California and took in many miles along its famous coastline, this time we drove deep into the heartland of America. We would be passing through Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on our way to Ohio. For my Australian friends, this is probable the equivalent to driving deep into the interior of Australia. If the trip from Sydney to Adelaide is just over 850 miles, we covered more than 1,400 miles, each way, which for the benefit of our European friends is more like taking a trip from Frankfurt to Lisbon.  Which reminds me that that would be a fun trip to do with a choice of many different routes. Ohio in August can be very, hot but not this time as we encountered wet weather for most of our time in Columbus where our meetings took place.

After more than two years driving the i8, what has been our impression of the driving experience? Once you get accustomed to the piped-in engine noise (a reminder that for every action there is a reaction so yes, hitting the gas pedal hard should make the engine sound angry), it is among the most relaxing of cars we have ever owned. Better than the 5-series and 7-series Bimmers we have owned in the past and considerably quieter than the sports cars we tend to gravitate towards. 

However, the decision to get the i8 was driven by the fact that we see it as the future for cars. We haven’t been big fans of pure electric vehicles but hybrids? Out here in the west, with the roads we chose to drive on, we never wanted to face any restrictions based on range, so hybrids looked to be our best bet. Are there even any fast charging stations way out in the middle of America’s loneliest highway, US highway 50? We have never seen any but then again, when it comes to the i8, power train options aside, it's always been easy to attract passengers!

So, how has this hybrid performed over the years we have had it and the nearly 20,000 miles we have driven. One word perhaps comes to mind almost immediately – stupendous. This car meets, or exceeds nearly every criteria we set for it. It’s all-wheel drive when it needs to be. It’s pure electric when we tool around town, so much so that those standing nearby simply don’t hear the car as it approaches them.

Hit the gas hard in order to pass more than one car on a two-lane highway and it leaps – perhaps not as much as our Viper or Nissan GT-R used to, but pretty close. As for the 6 speed gearbox, which we weren’t sure about at first, well, it matches all our needs all the time seamlessly and when we select manual mode and use the paddle shifter it’s lightning quick. Our M4 has a double-clutch automated manual and the two seem to be about the same as far as speed. Over the past two years we developed a system for packing bags into the car and even with the restricted trunk option, using the back seat – yes, it’s a true 2 + 2 exotic – we haven’t had any trouble packing for a long trip. 

We broke the trip into three stages, giving us around 450 miles to cover in any given day. That meant we had one day where we covered an excess of 500 miles, but at no time did we experience any discomfort, seating wise. Again, the seats look kind of skinny on first sight but they have proved to be exceptionally comfortable on our longer trips. No complaints whatsoever in this department. The infotainment system though, well, what can we say. It’s more hit or miss than anything that looks routine but since we only use the SAT radio and Navigation, we seem to muddle through most of the time.

We are now onto our second set of tires – the first lasting 15,000+ miles before becoming as bald as they could be and still be drivable. Our previous trip to California had me checking the depth of their tread each morning as we headed back home but there was just enough to ensure we could corner the car as we normally did. However, when the tires arrived from TireRack and we saw old up against new we could see that we definitely got our money’s worth from the originals. As for brake wear, rotors and pads are still all good and will see out the three years we planned on keeping the car. We did replace a cracked front windscreen almost a year ago, which was a saga as no one but BMW can see the drive train and of course, the front window required material that pulled away from the hood revealing the electric motors so only a “specialist” BMW’s window replacement company could do the work. And no, I still haven’t seen any of the drivetrain of the i8 after all this time.  

You pass many big rigs out on the highways of America. So much is transported by these behemoths that after a while, you pretty much ignore their presence on the road. However, every now and then you come across something that tells its own story. This time we passed three bright red Firestone transporters. We have seen these rigs a couple of times before, trackside, at major motor sports events. When it comes to Indy races, Firestone provides the tires and as each event is set up, you can walk past stacks of tires, mounted to wheels, with driver names and car numbers clearly visible on each stack. Firestone collects all the tires after each event and then brings brand new ones to the next event with a choice of tire hardness provided in accordance with the requirements of Indy – sometimes they are hard compounds whereas at other times they can be super soft and of course, there is always a liberal supply of wet weather tires. 

Passing these big transporters had us speculating about where they were headed but as the weekend for Indy was going to be at the Pocono “triangle” course on the eastern side of Pennsylvania, just a tad south of Interstate 80, this time they would be transporting fresh tires for all the participants. At this time, if you haven’t already heard the news there was a horrific high-speed crash that hospitalized the rookie driver, Robert Wickens, who in earlier years would simply have not survived the crash – the carbon fiber “tubs” utilized in both Indy and F1 are practically indestructible – and with speeds in excess of 210 mph, the energy that needs to be dissipated following a crash wreaks unimaginable destruction on all components. Safe to say, the Indy community let out its collective breath once the news broke that Wickens was cognizant of his surroundings as he was airlifted to a hospital.

Seeing this transporter did remind us both that next month, we will be taking to the road once again as we head to Sonoma to see the final race of the year for the Indy cars. We will be joining our good friends Brian and Jan Kenny and together, with the RVs, we will be entertaining (and being entertained) by folks close to the Andretti team as Bryan Herta is the Kenny’s son-in-law. One immediate benefit for me is that a quick email exchange with Bryan got me a pay-to-ride seat in the Andretti Indy car (the two-seater, fighter pilot style), where I will enjoy two hot laps of the Sonoma track and experience what it really is like inside a modern Indy car. 

I am sure there will be a post to follow so look for it late next month. Again, many thanks to Bryan and to the Andretti organization! One final note about Sonoma? Grandson Colton Herta may take the seat of a real Indy car for the first time but at this stage this is as much me being hopeful as it is anchored in anything real. With only a handful of races left in the Indy Lights series, Colton is in second place and next year, we will likely be able to watch him running full time in Indy. So fingers crossed! Regardless; getting my own ride on the Sonoma track in an Indy car? Priceless!

Of course, once we had settled into our hotel in Columbus, Ohio, it meant finding a good place to eat. Unfortunately, where we were meant that there really wasn’t any fine dining options to be found! With little fuss or push back, we spent our first evening at an English Pub, the Old Bag of Nails Pub in the company of good friends Tim and Craig! Suffice to say, it provided a variety of pub food selections so it was time to chow down on fish and chips. The next night we hit a BBQ smokehouse and then on our last night, it was Chinese. Nothing to get excited about and nothing to write home about! However, the company we had each night was good as we were with old friends from the time we all worked for Insession – the Australian company that moved its head office to Boulder before selling to ACI Worldwide. Those were great times for all of us so, as you could expect, what followed were many conversations covering shared experiences.

The drive home was different. On a previous trip where we took the Maserati GTS to Toronto, Canada, we stopped in at Indianapolis where we overnighted before driving all the way back  on US highway 36 that ends in Estes Park, Colorado. This time, we overnighted in Peoria, Illinois, before driving all the way back on US highway 34 that, like 36, ended in Estes Park. Why the two highways, starting in Chicago, finished up in the tourist spot, Estes Park, we have no idea but now we have driven both of them and this is a continuation of our desire to spend time on highways apart from the interstates. You cannot drive them at the speeds set for the interstates but you see so much more as you drive through small townships and many, many, almost ghost towns.

But then, once home, there was the obligatory washing of the car which we did the very next day and with that, we once again parked the car in the garage alongside the M4. Musing to ourselves, the next trip we take will be in the M4, but then we realized our next trip would involve the company command center so no, the M4 will just have to wait. As we closed the garage door we wondered what stories will the i8 share with the M4?  And just like that, we closed the door on yet one more adventure on America’s open road and headed through the door for the evening’s first martini!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Ridin’ the storm out …

To begin with, our outing to High Plains Raceway (HPR) was anything but a routine track weekend. While this is the tenth year of going to road courses and trying our hand behind the wheel of one car or another, we were returning to our home track after three plus years. Not entirely of our own doing, mind you, but being homeless last year with all of our cars in storage while we lived out of our company command center, our comfy RV, afforded us little opportunity for weekends at the track. In the years before becoming homeless, Margo had undergone complex back surgery that limited her appearances more or less anywhere there were cars. And then of course, our grandkids decided to show up, but that did leave us with twin boys that have proved to be a lovable handful!

But no longer do we have to put stops to our plans; we pulled the RV and the red Corvette out of storage, hooked up our trailer to the RV and loaded the Corvette having applied the appropriate numbers and decals mandatory for such an outing. The weekend of track time was organized by the National Auto Sports Association (NASA), with an open lapping day Friday preceding the more formal weekend program NASA typically runs. Open lapping was just for those who had signed up for the NASA weekend, so it wasn’t terribly crowded. Even as we were pretty pumped to get behind the wheel of the Corvette we considered it more than prudent to get out there the afternoon before the NASA event proper so as to reacquaint ourselves to the track. Although, after nearly a decade visiting HPR and racking up probably a thousand laps, it didn’t hurt to give it one more look as you never know, HPR Manager, Glen, may have made changes in our absence.

The plan was to run four 30 minute session Friday afternoon and to make it even more livelier we invited good friend and former Tandem Computers colleague, Jim Miller, together with his wife Dale, to join us with the option for Jim to be a passenger in the Corvette for at least one outing. The plan was to also put up the grill and cook a nicely marinated tri tip steak supported by appletinis – our traditional “end of sessions” beverage whenever we are trackside for the evening. Nothing could possibly go wrong, now could it? The Corvette, a C5 Z06 that is completely stock save for a few beefed-up components like brakes, suspension and drive train along with more temperature-tolerant fluids and oils, remains an ideal choice to run on this two plus mile road course. And for the majority of Friday afternoon, everything went to plan. 

However HPR management, concerned about how the weather was developing, elected to simply throw the track open to anyone who cared to finish the day with “just a few more laps.” Having already completed three thirty minute sessions I was feeling very confident about the way the Corvette was running and with my own progress over the course of the afternoon. While muscle memory was helping me out a great deal, the first session had really been an eye-opener as I was hesitant to push the Corvette as hard as I knew I was capable of doing. However, as I left the pits and entered the track for those last couple of laps, little did I know what would lie ahead of me. The clouds looked ominous, true, but how bad could it get?

After two laps I was just settling into a rhythm – this is, after all, a track that rewards a smooth driver – and heading into turns four and five that led to Danny’s Lesson, a tricky tight decreasing radius horseshoe turn, I came eye-to eye with a tornado that was on the ground just on the other side of the main road paralleling the track. Wow! As I had never seen a tornado before I was curious and took a good long look at it. The sky had darkened considerably doing little to mask the menace the tornado represented. There was no moon in sight, mind you! Just an eerie sense of imminent doom!

Unfortunately, my passenger Jim didn’t share my interest in the twister and implored me to get back to the infield as quick as I could. The track at HPR is now bordered by electronic boards in lieu of flags and at each flag station bunker, they would flash yellow, red, etc. lights in much the same way as flag marshals would – but of course, there are no black lights. In the place of the black flag, HPE has programmed the lights to alternate red and blue (emulating a police cars lights) and when I encountered this pseudo black light, I knew everyone else was taking the tornado very seriously.

So how close did the tornado get to our car? Pulling into the pits Bob, a racer with NASA, snapped a photo and when I saw it, I realized the tornado had been only a hundred yards or so away. Needless to say, no sooner than I had pulled up to the RV than the heavens opened and the rain came down in bucket loads! All I could think of was that old 1970s song by REO Speedwagon: 
Ridin' the storm out, waitin' for the thaw out
On a full moon night in the Rocky Mountain winter

This was a far from a routine event. To say there was a moment or two where I began to question my decision to take the Corvette out to HPR was an understatement. But then, in a matter of just a few minutes, it was all over and the clouds began to part and before long, we had blue sky overhead once again. Forget the moon, the sun was out! That’s not unusual for storms like this – they appear suddenly and just as quickly, they are gone. Fortunately, it all happened before dinner so we were able to shake a couple of martinis and grill the tri tip steak! And enjoy the company of Jim and Dale for the evening.

Saturday was a whole different ball game as NASA began its two day event for HPDE drivers and racers. The early morning driver meeting went smoothly enough coming as it always does after a couple of slow laps around the infield looking for where Tech Inspect has set up its desk. Yes, for HPDE, each car is checked for roadworthiness, safety and each time the Corvette is checked out I am always just a bit nervous as I am never sure what has changed from the previous outing. Given the three plus year break, I was sure to be hit with something and it happened! The life of my safety harness was coming to an end and I would be required to change it shortly, but for this weekend, I would be good.

The driver meeting quickly wrapped up and we all headed for our cars. We were the second group on track and we were all pretty keen to see what the track looked like after the torrential downpour that followed the brief appearance of the tornado. Key issue for me out on track was, yet again, my lack of sustained concentration together with quickly falling into bad habits. In many ways, I started the day in cruise control, braking too early and for too long and not getting on the gas quickly enough (or hard enough) as I rounded each corners’ apex. All rookie mistakes to be sure which left me giving “point by” passing to everyone on track!

When NASA Rocky Mountain puts together a weekend program for HPDE drivers, it usually involves combining HPDE 1 and 2 groups, running a separate HPDE 3 group and then another combination but with the much more experienced HPDE 4 group running with those drivers pursuing Time Trials or TT. Not so this weekend. I am currently a HPDE 3 driver and for the Saturday sessions, HPDE3 would be combined with HPDE 4, with the upshot being that there would be forty plus advanced drivers on track.

Compounding the situation was the addition of those drivers looking to gain their competition licenses to oud expanded group and they would be doing some very interesting drills while on track, including running off-line and far away from what the HPDE drivers viewed as the racing line. Should be fun, we were all told as fleeting glances were exchanged among the group. Lining up in the hot pits meant there were two lines of twenty plus cars snaking around the concrete wall all the way back to the RVs parked on the infield. 
Having spent Friday on track for as much time as I had circulating with mostly racers prepping their cars for the weekend, I wasn’t too fussed to be in such a large group and as the day progressed, I was able to work on a couple of aspects of my driving. I was clearly rusty following time away from the track so in many ways, it was like being back in HPDE 2 as I gradually came up to speed.

With Saturday’s lunch break came even more cars to the event to where parking space was hard to find and gradually, the only places left to park were on the grass well away from the infield. Even with my mid-morning arrival on Friday, I was relegated to the very back of the infield, barely visible among the other transporters and spectator vehicles. However, on track Saturday was notable for two items – the hold session was held under full coarse waving yellow flags as the moisture left behind after Friday evening’s storm gave rise to very foggy conditions, so much so that on Saturday morning there were bunkers with flag marshals that couldn’t see the next bunker. 

Observing flags is very important even when they are electronic flags depicted on LED light boards. Yellow means no passing; maintain your position and yes, drop back the speed just a tad. Run at eight tenths. So it was a surprise to hear during the post-session download that five or six cars passed under yellow and that at eight tenths, a couple of cars managed to get four wheels off the track. Put it down to first session nerves but at our level, this was unacceptable. It was a muted group that returned to their cars to prepare for the next session.

The second session was memorable only because the fog started to lift and we were able to pass pretty much everywhere on the track. Of course, we were cautioned about dive bombing corner entries and there was to be no passing once into the braking zones. All went well and then it was time for the luncheon adjournment. I took time to refill the Corvette with 98 octane gas and tried to relax; after lunch, that dreaded “third session” would be held and if history told me anything, this was the session where it all went to hell in a handbasket! And what a session it turned out to be …

If has become popular of late in competitive cooking shows for a commentator to throw in a surprise ingredient that has to be integrated into the meals being prepared and this is known as the “curve ball.” And NASA proved to be not all that different to one of those shows, announcing that the combined HPDE 3 and 4 groups along with the Competition folks would be waved off under a green flag. What this involved was driving around the track, under yellow, in single file at about seven tenths speed and then, after covering about three quarters of the circuit, bunch up into three groups with drivers pairing up behind a designated “pole sitter” who would then control the speed of the group. It was this driver’s responsibility to accelerate when the green flag began waving and for the dive into the first corner, there wouldn’t be any necessity to point-by anyone! 

It was on; given that the first turn was tight and could only really accommodate two cars, it was surprising to see this group manage their spacing and positioning in such a way where there was no NASCAR style door banging. Everyone behaved! Talk about the highlight of the day and as another curve ball, just I was about to pull out onto the track, a NASA “coach” jumped into my passenger seat to take a good look at my driving skills and after that start and with a couple of laps under our belt, he proved very helpful.

He immediately noticed how early and gently I was easing onto the brakes and then how cautiously I rolled onto the gas at the apex. A little more encouragement later and I had cut my brake point in half and powering on as I reached the apex really did the trick. At last, I was getting someone and the number of point bys I provided declined significantly. As the day came to an end it was time to fill the tank with gas and get it back into the garage.

I could do more of this and as the day came to an end, well, of course all I could do was think about the next outing which immediately brought a sizable frown to Margo’s face. Oh well … after so much fun, for me, I guess this will have to wait till next year as our calendar for the remainder of the year is already shot to pieces, but then again, I doubt we will be caught ridin’ out the storm any time soon! What an experience! And yes, extremely thankful to be able to park the Corvette, unscathed, in the garage once more.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Strange roads and even stranger sights – yes, one more summer road trip is in the books!

It was barely a week that passed before we were packing our bags again and heading back out onto America’s highways. For this trip, we had the BMW i8 back in the garage following its minor traffic accident in Plano, Texas, so it once again became the chosen mode of transportation. Our BMW M4 was given time off following its trip to Las Vegas for the HPE big tent marketing event, HPE Discover 2018. It continues to surprise us how well the i8 is suited to grand touring and there is ample room to fit our soft bags along with a couple of soft suit carriers. With summer prices for gas skyrocketing, having a hybrid that only needs a top-off of its miniscule gas tank every three hundred miles or so, it proved an advantageous choice once we crossed into California and saw how expensive gas had become – almost $5 at one gas station!

This trip would take us back to Las Vegas and then on to Simi Valley, California, before we turned north to Half Moon Bay for a week of meetings over the other side of the hills and much deeper into Silicon Valley. We elected to drive to the west coast using the backroads that took us through Capital Reef, Dixie National Park, and we then kissed Bryce National Part before heading into Las Vegas. We have driven this route a couple of times now, but as with any trip we embark on, the time of year and the prevailing weather meant that it provided a different vista for us. And the roads had been upgraded, too!

This post is a story of differences – different routes, different hotels and different people. The true value that comes from travelling by car soon becomes obvious – there are no real schedules and no lines to join. Business continues to do well and it offers us more opportunities to plot our own course and it is this newfound flexibility that, for Margo and me, is a true testament to “luxury in modern times.” Not to put down any of you good friends who head to the airports and fly from town to town as we have both lived that lifestyle, but to be able to spend time together is, as they say, priceless. And a lot more – we have gone out of our way to have cars we enjoy driving so they rarely stay in the garage long and this past week and a half in the i8 more than doubled the pleasure of being together, enjoying the ever-changing scenery western United States provides.  

Las Vegas, for the July 4 holidays, wasn’t our original intent and we didn’t see any fireworks – why is it that so many cities now put on their fireworks displays the evening before? July 3? What have we missed all these years? But Vegas is always Vegas and having only just returned from spending a week in Vegas for HPE Discover it was a lot more relaxed this time, with no meetings to attend. On the other hand, we are now into our second year of publishing the digital magazine, NonStop Insider, and as it so happened, we spent a goodly bit of time hunched over our laptops editing the final submissions. 

Fortunately, our colleagues in Scotland helped out a lot and we were able to go live July 12 and if as yet you haven’t been following us on this new undertaking, check out the link: Margo is the Managing Editor and it is proving to be a lot of fun working with the HPE NonStop community even as we continue to grow the readership so yes, if you visit the site, make sure you click the button and become a subscriber. Vegas meant more than work, of course. We have been dining at Mastro’s almost from the time it opened and we make sure each time we stop by The Strip we take the time to enjoy one of Mastro’s finest steaks. And the martinis as well – this is the home to the smoking appletini served over dry ice!

While the price for fine dining seems to be creeping skyward with each visit, we did save a lot of money even as we tucked into another great steak. Directly across from the entrance to Mastro’s Ocean Club is Christian Louboutin, and a visit there never ends well. But not this time – Margo finally found the pair she had been looking for, with a discount she appreciated, but the fit just wasn’t comfortable. So no, not this time. No Prada purse and no Jimmy Choo shoes! So dinner was a pleasant escape from what otherwise could have been a more costly outing. We finished our July 4 evening at the Paris hotel in the bar where there were the dueling pianos and that too has taken on an almost ritualistic air as we stop by whenever it’s late at night and we are down at that end of The Strip.

With a shorter day’s driving ahead of us we skipped breakfast electing instead to drop in on the 1950s dinner, Peggy Sue’s. An attraction on the interstate, after you pass through the agriculture gates into California and alongside a massive Marine Logistics base, the food can only best be described as average but  it’s always a heck of a lot of fun to check out the small print on the photos and other memorability plastered all over the walls. After eating lunch for some unclear reason we elected to finish with a slice of banana cream pie and that was a huge mistake. We both looked at each other as we continued our drive into Simi Valley and asked each other, what have we done? 

The coastline of southern California, just north of Malibu, is one of the most spectacular coastlines anywhere in the world. Coming from an Australian who happened to grow up spending a lot of time on Sydney’s fabulous beaches, this is really saying something. As the photo above attests to, the isolation is complete even if just around the tip of this particular section of coastline lays the bustling masses of humanity that invade Malibu around the clock. 

This is one more reason why we do the driving that we do – add opportunities to find peace and quiet to the list that includes flexibility and choice of roads. If not now, at this point in our lives, then when? Those following us on Facebook know we are finishing the lower, walk-out, level of our Windsor home for exactly the same reason. If not now, then, what are we waiting for and, isn’t it a lot better to be able to enjoy our home while we can? Returning to old haunts and checking out all the sights we grew to love so much reinforced the decision we elected to make years ago to get out there to join our friends as often as time allows.      

What drew us to Simi Valley this time was a combination of work and social interactions. We were able to catch up with a former client even as we took advantage of our good friends’, the Kenny’s, swimming pool.  California is all about backyard grills and time spent in the pool. It’s also about dropping in on fishing ports and sampling seafood right off the boat. Our destination this time was Brophy’s at Ventura and the day provided perfect weather even if it was a tad hot – on this day, it was hotter than Las Vegas and that rarely happens along the coast. While we were in Simi Valley temps climbed as high as 118 degrees, so spending time by the water or in the pool shouldn’t come as a surprise. As this road trip was primarily business focused, I have to admit we did feel a little guilty spending the weekend in this fashion. On the other hand, there are many roads that lead to California and taking one less travelled seemed to us to be more than enough compensation for taking time away from home.

The Saturday night proved memorable as our hosts, Brian and Jan, threw a small dinner party that saw us rekindling friendships with folks we had gotten to know so well when we lived in Simi Valley. Even though we returned to Boulder in 2011, time has been very kind to all of us and the conversations picked up pretty much from where they left off. There were some new faces, of course, and when the Kenny’s friend, Maurice, turned up in his newest car, a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera, it proved to be too much eye candy to ignore. But once outside, guess which car then attracted the most attention – yes, the i8 and it came as a surprise to Margo and me to find out from Maurice that only the V12 Lambos came with scissor doors! One surprise came when our former client remarked, on arriving for the evening, when he and his wife said, OK so that’s the Buckles new car and it’s yellow, again! There have been stranger sightings through the years …

There is no question whatsoever about the best route from Simi Valley to Half Moon Bay is via the Pacific Coast Highway and then up 101 for a short spell before crossing over to the coast and driving California Highway 1. Well, almost no other option, if you want to experience California coastal living at its finest! Unfortunately, after passing Cambria, it all went downhill for us and even though the bridge near Big Sur has been fixed, a new landslide had closed the highway so it was back to good old highway 101, one more time. We did manage to get back to highway 1 at Monterey and then continued all the way up to Half Moon Bay, but somehow, we felt robbed. I guess we have to leave it for another time.

Margo’s niece, Asia, and her husband Jens live in a development that is part of the Ritz Carlton complex a little south of Half Moon Bay proper. Although we did manage a fish dish port side in Half Moon Bay it was all too tempting to eat at the hotel and so yes, we did try out a different restaurant each night before wrapping up our stay returning to the kiosk we visited the first night. Listening to the mournful sounds coming from a bagpipe made the setting of the sun experience rather special, more so than the piper pointing out a pod of whales that happened to be passing by close to shore. And yes, I was able to see three separate whale spouts thanks to our friendly piper. 

Following our business pursuits that took us to nearby Palo Alto, the trip home was one that followed a very familiar course, at least for me. We had made plans to pass through Yosemite – with a side visit to the park itself also part of the plan – cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Tioga Pass (some 9,900+ feet), swing by Mono Lake before taking the craziest road on the planet – California Highway 120. Staying overnight at Tonopah (yes, Queen of the Silver Camps) we then took the Extraterrestrial Highway that swings thought a number of air force “protected areas” before picking up Interstate 15 outside Cedar City.

There is a reason why this route was familiar to me, if not to Margo. It was back in 2004, as I recall, that Margo allowed a small group of her Insession management team to leave the ITUG event in San Jose to ride motorbikes back to Boulder. You read that right – myself and colleague, Andrew Price, rode our big motorcycle cruisers for all of the 1400 miles it took to get us back to Boulder. Riding sweep was Peter Shell and Neil Coleman in our Cadillac Escalade. Talk about your extreme team building then this just has to be one of the better examples you could ever find as we put in 400+ mile days for four days. This may be a story for another time but I cannot leave it alone before referencing how well Andrew rode our bike from Durango to Boulder while suffering from one of the worst bouts of food-poisoning we had seen: Don’t eat the fish in Durango is all I can add!

Fast forward almost fourteen years and Margo and I elected to stay in the very same motel that our group had stayed in all those years ago.  I just don’t happen to recall the additional signage pointing to where motorcycles could park but then again, maybe our small cavalcade may have started a tradition for the motel. Tonopah would be as far as we would go as we followed that previous route as we headed east to drive the Extraterrestrial Highway. Then again, all those years ago, we had headed south to Las Vegas where some of us swear we saw strange sights indeed that could only be best described as other worldly.

More correctly identified as Nevada State Route 375 (SR 375), the Extraterrestrial Highway stretches for almost 100 miles before you come across anything remotely representing civilization, although the township of Rachel does everything it can to get you to stop (but no gas, mind you) and there are plenty of stylized images of aliens plastered on decaying buildings along the highway. But again, this was a road we just had to take and if folks think US Highway 50 is the loneliest highway in America, think again. SR375 has it all over that busy thoroughfare. On the other hand, residents sighting our i8 gliding noiselessly down the highway may have thought they had seen one more tangible piece of evidence that aliens are among them. Surely the i8 is otherworldly enough to start those still living out that way talking to each other! 

We did pay a price for this latest business trip. It wasn’t the gas, as we barely touched a drop, but rather, we wore the tires down to where there wasn’t any tread left. Fortunately, in today’s internet world, we ordered a replacement set and they were ready for us as we walked into our garage. Perhaps it was symbolic after a fashion – how often do we say we drove the doors off this or that car? This time, it wasn’t the doors, but the tires. Oh well – small price to be paid, in reality. But tires weren’t the only thing waiting for us as we quickly unpacked the i8. Headed to the kitchen and there we were able to round up the first martini for the night. 3,000 plus miles to see strange sights? Priceless!