Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking back on '08

We have been in Boulder, Colorado for almost three weeks and first thing tomorrow morning, we will head back to Southern California. The picture above is of Margo alongside the other ‘Vette – the C5 Z06 that is our “other car” when in Colorado – but no longer playing the part of an “umbrella girl”, having swapped the T Shirt in favor of something much warmer!

For some time we have been contemplating driving the Z06 back to Southern California, and taking it to the track for ’09. We had been reconsidering whether to continue our driver education in the C6 Z51 ‘Vette, or to try the Z06, as the Z06 chassis is pretty good and the 6-speed manual affords a lot more control over power delivery to the rear wheels. All we would need to do is to replace the tires (still the original tires from 2003), upgrade the brake pads and swap out the brake fluids for something with higher temperature tolerances. Could be the way to go!

From our first outing, under the tutelage of the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) High Performance Driver Education (HDPE) program, we were “hooked” and even with the crazy business schedules that we both maintained, we found time to participate in five weekend events in 2008. Starting as raw rookies, with no previous track experience whatsoever, we found the HPDE track sessions really helped develop our driving skills.

Looking back to that first outing at Willow Springs, it was all about learning how to remain informed while out on the track and about communicating with the other students. Everyone wanted to go fast – after all, as we were often reminded, all participants in each session were going in the same direction, there were no speed limits, and we were all out to have fun! But still, there was a need to be safe and to be aware of what was going on around us. We quickly learnt that going fast meant coming to terms with the track, understanding the mechanics of cornering, and working as hard as we could to eliminate errors. And for “newbies” like us, this proved difficult as so much was going on with inputs arriving rapidly from many sources.

If the first weekend at Willow Springs was about communication, the following weekend at Buttonwillow was all about the pursuit of smooth lines. For the weekend, all sessions were run counter-clockwise. But developing a smooth approach, whether changing direction or accelerating / braking, that is consistent and can be repeated lap after lap, leads to faster laps and we both saw our track skills show their first signs of improvement. We also came to terms with corners where maintaining the correct racing line just had to be sacrificed so that the car would be in the right place on the track to capitalize on a following straight.

Our return to Willow Springs a month later gave us the opportunity to look for “cues” around the track to further help us with braking and turn-in. Some of them were tiny and demanded precision on our part. And we really came to rely on our peripheral vision. But we also learnt two other important lessons – at any track, the way to improve was to do so gradually and with small, manageable adjustments. And we learnt how important the brakes were – the only car control that, on most cars, affects all four wheels.

Early in the morning sessions, we were hitting 75 mph and couldn’t see anyway to lift our speeds to 90 mph or even 100 mph. No way! But by increasing our speed slowly and in small 3 to 5 mph increments while keeping in our comfort zone, we were able to realize much higher speeds by the end of the day’s last sessions. And as we drove home after that third weekend of track sessions, we shared a huge sense of accomplishment knowing that we were making progress.

NASA’s HPDE program has four levels – an intro level for novices that is aimed at drivers new to the track and unfamiliar with the demands the track will make; a beginners level for those with some prior track experience and no longer needing an instructor but still working on being smooth and predictable; an intermediate level where passing opportunities become a lot more are generous; and finally an advanced level where passing is allowed everywhere on the track!. At this advanced level, according to NASA’s web site you will be “now experiencing the joys of doing it right in a safe environment! You can now enjoy high performance driving at its finest.”

But after three weekends, all we could see were many more sessions as novices. There were still many more laps to be completed before either of us could consider moving on up to beginner status! But we were having so much fun it didn’t seem to matter, and we felt comfortable driving among familiar faces some of whom were progressing about as quickly as we were. It was encouraging to watch as a few of these drivers moved on to the beginners group sometimes only after a couple of weekends on the track.

Our first three events spanned the months of May through July and we weren’t to participate again until October. The effects of the economy with the run-up on gas prices led to the cancellation of the August weekend and although NASA eventually put together a one-day event, by the time we heard about it we had already made alternate plans.

With the break in the program, we took another look at the C6 ‘Vette and decided to supercharge the LS2 engine. After the upgrade we had very close to 500 rear-wheel horsepower, with 465+ lb-ft of rear-wheel torque, courtesy of A&A Corvette Performance in Oxnard, California. Check out And we upgraded the brakes with higher tolerance brake fluids and stronger pads courtesy of HAWK.

For our return engagement starting in October, it was back to Buttonwillow for something completely different. On Saturday all sessions were held run clockwise around the track and on Sunday, counterclockwise. And Buttonwillow is an extremely tough circuit to learn. Unlike Willow Springs 9 corners, Buttonwillow has, depending on who you talk to, more than 30! Frequently, even with our eyes firmly elevated and looking well through approaching corners, we “lost our way” and were unsure of where exactly were we on the track.

But we learnt the very important lesson of working backwards through the corners – looking at the corner’s exit we then began to work out apex’s, turn-in, and breaking points. We also learnt that there’s practically no right way through any corner and that what we were all trying to accomplish was to minimize our time in them. Races were never won in the corners – sometimes lost I have to believe – but on the straights. It was on the return visit to Buttonwillow early in November where this message was really driven home.

“The quickest driver goes as straight as possible (for as long as possible) and never lifts (off the gas)! Pro-drivers are either at, or transitioning to, full throttle / brake (at all times).” The return visit to Buttonwillow saw all sessions run clockwise and my instructor gave me the OK to run as part of Group 2. And of course, as has become the pattern with first-time Group 2 (and even Group 3) participants, I had my first big spin. But I survived and as we drove home, we were already talking about planning weekends in ’09 around NASA events.

I have emphasized some of these points in the previous blog postings related to each event. But none of this would have happened without a lot of help and encouragement along the way. And I would like to recognize the many friends and business colleagues who have helped out.

Our colleague Chris had first raised the topic after he told us about his own adventures on the track in his Porsche 911 Turbo. But it was over a lengthy lunch with another business friend Hal, where we learnt about NASA and of the “novice-friendly” approach they provided. Chris and Hal have both continued to provide moral support, as has Simon who works with me here at GoldenGate and races a Miata. Robert, too, who has had the opportunity to teach racers as well, has been always quick to provide insight and advice each time I asked him.

Once we joined NASA we received considerably help and advice from Jerry Kunzman of Northern California and Ryan Flaherty of Southern California – even stepping in to help us complete our first online event registration. We are now enjoying our time with the Southern California region of NASA.

But special thanks need to go to the instructors – John, Fulton, and Tom. They all provided the leadership, and Tom was in the car with us for most of the weekends and without Tom, I am not sure we would have made it through all five weekends. We are glad John provided us with links to film he had made of sessions at the tracks – and viewing the film really helped us both. It has also been John who has helped provide me with critiques of many of these blog postings and for that, I am very appreciative as well.

Hal, and Andy of A&A Corvette Performance, continue to provide us with technical assistance and have been of enormous help to us both. Andy has put in many hours of programming effort – much of it going well beyond what I had expected as part of the supercharging upgrade and for that, we are extremely grateful. And Hal has been quick to educate us whenever we have emailed him with a question – we look forward to watching Hal race in ’09, and wish him all the best in the American Iron series.

What’s next for the C6 ‘Vette? We have talked about a number of things – do we change the wheels and tires and upgrade to something a lot wider? Surely, more rubber to the ground will help getting the power down and improve traction! Do we change body panels to accommodate these changes? Do we upgrade the brakes – swapping out the current rotors and calipers and go with bigger six-piston calipers on the front? Surely, beefier brakes can only help! What about safety? After the big spin at Buttonwillow should we add a harness bar and upgrade to a six-point harness and throw in a racing seat?

I have always enjoyed modifying vehicles – the “cruiser” motorcycles we ride in Boulder have been substantially modified. But I now have reservations about doing anything more to the ‘Vette until we get deep into the ’09 program. We have still many outings to go before we can say we have the C6 sorted out. And with cars, it’s making small, measurable changes that are important – changing everything all at once is probably not a smart move. We were told, tactfully, that it would be pretty stupid. Perhaps taking the smaller, lighter Z06 could be the best option after all.

It’s now New Years day and we are to drive back to Simi Valley. But the weather forecast for our trip through the Rockies has been anything but promising. Oh well! So much for the plans for the Z06. We will wrap the Z06 in its dust cover, and leave it in the garage – it will be a return trip in the SUV again. I had really been looking forward to taking the Z06 on the long drive to the coast.

When 2010 rolls around, we may again consider taking the Z06 to California. For this coming year however, it will be a full calendar of events for the C6 Supercharged LS2 ‘Vette. It may not be the perfect car to use for learning and the wheels and tires may require changing anyway, but then again, this is all about the driver and it will be the source of a lot of fun as we head back to the track! Yes, we want to go faster and yes, we enjoy it. But even more importantly, we want to become better drivers and we enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie of the race track.

See you all at Willow Springs in March …

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Coming to terms with Frankenstein

I am a little disoriented – but I can see the wall approaching rapidly. I can even see the protective tires surrounding it – it’s the wall that divides the track from the “hot pits” and has proved to be a very strong magnet over the years, pulling in cars on regular basis. I am not completely sure of what driver input I am providing to any of the controls and the wall continues to get closer!

If I destroy the car on this wall, I will be pretty upset.

Before leaving Simi Valley I had driven out to A&A Corvette Performance at Oxnard as Andy had wanted to give the engine software a quick check to make sure there were no new “codes” showing or any strange entries in the tables that manage the fuel mix to the engine. But it all checked out OK, and he made sure the computer was providing us with a slightly richer fuel mix. I had already added a measure of 100 octane gas to the tank to bring up the overall octane reading to 95 and, for good measure, added a pint of oil as well. Even though the forecast was for milder temperatures, I wanted to make sure the engine temperature stayed cool during the weekend’s track activities.

The picture at the top of this posting is of Margo alongside the car before the start of the first session on Saturday morning. Every team needs its “umbrella girl,” and I wouldn’t dare to have asked for anyone else – wearing an A&A Corvette Performance T Shirt, no less!

Buttonwillow is the most technical track NASA’s HPDE Southern California (SoCal) students tackle and our previous outing had us going clockwise on the Saturday and then counter-clockwise on the Sunday – very little opportunity to develop a good sense about the layout of the track and where the exit points were. But this time, we would spend all weekend running clockwise and I was looking forward to a lot of track time.

Saturday’s sessions proved to be very entertaining and had drawn a variety of cars to the event. The owner of Margo’s company, Dale had arrived with his Shelby Series 1 – a car very seldom seen at the track as less than 250 were ever produced back in the late ‘90s. Every time he edged across to “pre-grid” he drew quite a crowd and many times I saw participants taking photos.

The picture below is of Dale leading myself and a fellow participant who drove an early Mustang. The two of us went on to pass Dale but I suspect that was only because Dale was really taking good care of his “ride”. Joining us too for Saturday’s sessions was a white Lamborghini Gallardo and I stuck with it for a couple of laps before its driver signaled me to pass – there’s nothing quite as enjoyable as being able to pass an Italian exotica!

With each session, I had been getting better, working back from my exits I was beginning to get on the gas earlier with every lap, and my speed was increasing markedly. At a download session following an early outing HPDE’s chief instructor John, quoting a former NASA SoCal member, told us that "the quickest driver goes as straight as possible and never lifts", with the goal being to minimize our time off the gas. “Pro drivers are either at, or transitioning to, full throttle / brake,” he advised.

I am now beginning to remember – and the wall is so close. I had stepped on the gas before completely unwinding the steering, following the turn-in to the previous corner, and I had the wheels pointing back to the middle of the track. The ‘Vette is supercharged, and an automatic, and with me getting onto the gas a little more earnestly than before, the transmission had kicked down two gears unexpectedly. This unloaded all of the engines substantial torque onto the rear end, quickly lighting up the tires and loosing traction. The car spun immediately! And at speed!

And the car is Margo’s – she’s going to be really angry with me.

One of the benefits of having Dale’s in attendance is that he brought with him a couple of friends who had a motorhome. For the first time, we were able to hang out in something a little more luxurious than the small square of blue tarpaulin we had been using at all previous events. And Sunday lunch was something new for us – thick tender steaks cooked just the way we like them and the picture here is of Dale taking a plate of them to the grill.

We went for a walk after lunch, after the big meal, as the third session wasn’t till just after 3:00pm. For this, my final session of the weekend, I would be joining the HPDE 2 drivers for the first time and I was nervous. But as we passed a group of BMWs, our instructor John approached us and asked whether he could drive our car in an upcoming HPDE 3 event – and would one of us care to be his passenger. Of course Margo jumped at the opportunity to see a good driver at work.John didn’t care for Corvettes (or Mustangs, or Vipers), particularly when supercharged, and considered them poorly suited to tracks like Buttonwillow, but he was curious all the same. “Let’s see what this car can do and let’s just see if it’s any fun to drive!” So the two of them took the ‘Vette and joined the other intermediate drivers in HPDE 3 at pre-grid. I climbed the stairs to the grandstand to see how it went but after the first lap, they didn’t reappear.

An agonizing amount of time passed before John slowly drove into the hot pits and pulled up alongside the “black-flag” marshal with the ‘Vette covered in dust. Every driver who leaves the track has to come into the pits to explain what had happened, and to assure the black-flag marshal that he was OK to return to the track, and that there was no damage to the car. John jumped out, looked under the front of the car, and went back onto the track - driving a lot slower for the remaining laps. Finally, John brought the car back in as the session wound down.

“How did it go?” I asked, followed by “What happened out there on that early lap?” John took off his helmet and fixed me with a stare that told me the answers weren’t going to be good! “This car is dangerous! Frankenstein is lurking up a few revs higher, and if you go there, he just wrenches the car from you!” He then went on to explain “there’s way too much torque and it’s unpredictable. When it does hit, it lights up the tires so quickly that it becomes a very difficult car to control!” Margo told me later that John had it break away from him several times, fully taxing his driving skills – and John is a superb driver with many years of competitive driving behind him.

“Can you turn off the supercharger for HPDE events? And can you figure out how to drive this car using the gear-shift paddles as right now, manually shifting gears with the paddles is putting a huge load on the drive-train?” Hearing this from John was pretty depressing after all that we had invested in the car. All I could think about was what to do now, and whether the ‘Vette had truly become a liability. And the picture below is of “the team”, having been told about the presence of Frankenstein, pondering over what to do about it.

I had little time to think further on this as I had to prepare for my own time on the track. I would be lining up with HPDE 2 drivers for the first time – Tom, my instructor was out on the track racing in his event and wouldn’t make it back in time. Readers may recall that at Willow Springs, on my very first weekend with NASA HPDE, I was left without an instructor for one session and went out on the course alone. But this was to be completely different. Tom had been pleased with my progress over the weekend and felt I was ready to step out of the novice group and make the big leap to the beginner’s group. I was nervous, and a little anxious, and knew that I had to keep my head and remain calm.

“I will keep it pretty conservative for the first couple of laps and take a good look at the track conditions and just see how the tires are behaving,” I told Margo. And then they waved off the HPDE 2 drivers and the session started. The first session of the day always starts under a full-course “yellow flag” as all the drivers settle in. While it’s the only time a full-course yellow is used, the first lap of every session is viewed as a warm-up and this session was no different. No one passed and no one really hit the gas pedal hard.

But come the second lap, the cars picked up speed and I was pleased to be maintaining a constant gap behind the C6 Z06 ‘Vette ahead of me. Behind were a couple of quick cars as well but the spacing between us all seemed to be holding steady. Perhaps I was ready for this group after all. And I began to build more speed and to minimize my time off the gas.

The corner that leads to the main straight, called “Sunset,” is a sharp ninety degree turn following a small straight that exits the esses. I had been applying more breaking than I needed before the turn-in so that the car was settled, so that I could hit the exit to the main straight without any drama. But with each lap, I was getting onto the gas earlier than the time before as I looked to carry more speed down the main straight, While the ‘Vette has a heads-up display, I rarely check to see the speeds realized but with your peripheral vision you couldn’t miss the three digit figures as they come up.

It’s all happening way to quickly – but I am going to hit the wall for sure. When the wall seemed to be right on top of me, I either lifted off the brake and added a little steering input, or the original spin direction was tracking differently to what I had expected, but the wall went by. I regained some control and steered the car up a paved service road running perpendicular to the track. And the spectators gathered at this end of the track all began to cheer as the car finally came to a halt. I haven’t destroyed the car! There’s not a scratch on it!

Margo is still going to be angry for scaring her like that!

Reversing out of the service lane, I crawled gingerly into the hot pits and stopped at the black-flag marshal’s post. “Can you tell me what happened? Is the car OK?” carefully composing my thoughts I told him how the spin started on the track. I hadn’t dropped any wheels into the dirt, or spun as a result of being off the track, and that I just hadn’t been prepared for the torque that had been unleashed with the unexpected down-changes made by the auto transmission. “OK, out you go!” he smiled.

I was now definitely off the pace and only picked it up again with one or two laps left. Walking back into the classroom for the download, I just knew I would have to explain it all to my fellow drivers and be prepared for an outburst from John. But I wasn’t the only “off” and John was very easy on me. He just gave me that look – you found Frankenstein, didn’t you?! The meeting was short as we had to get the cars ready for the final session of the weekend, and of the year.

Margo was joined by her instructor Tom who was aware of both incidents – but was having more fun teasing John about it than being overly concerned about my own performance. He just wanted to know if I knew what I had done and after telling him, he was fine. But Margo couldn’t settle into the session – she was a little spooked by the events of the afternoon and was missing turn-in points,. She had done a good job at gaining speed and confidence in the previous sessions. After a few laps, Tom suggested he drive the car and show her that the ‘Vette is just fine on this track, supercharger and all.

From the grandstand, where I had gone to view the session, I saw them come into the hot pits to do the driver change and then watched Tom put down some laps. And what a series of laps he put together – the tail only coming out briefly in “cotton corners” during the first lap but after that, smooth and fast laps rolled by, one after the other. Tom didn’t push it to the limit, he just drove it smoothly and I was once again impressed with the ‘Vette. And Tom enjoyed his exchange with John as he returned to the paddock – I wasn’t close enough to understand all of what was exchanged, but something about being unfamiliar with torque cars did come up a lot.

The program for the year is now over. The dates for next year’s events have been posted and they are marked in our calendars. And no, John, there’s no Frankenstein lurking under the gas pedal. We all looked hard, but we couldn’t find him. Perhaps I was the liability and the car was just fine – and that I could easily understand.

Margo assures me that if I had not been as aggressive with jumping on the gas, and just squeezed it judiciously, I would not have been putting her car in harms way … and she may be right, you know. After talking on email with a “racer” who said that I should imagine a raw egg between my foot and the gas pedal of the supercharged ‘Vette … I can see why, just this once, Margo may be right!

Friday, October 17, 2008

The pedal on the right ...

Track sessions this month were held at ButtonWillow, a difficult track favoring the “technicians” of our group, more capable of wringing the best from their “momentum” cars. This would be the first time out for the new, supercharged Corvette, and from our previous experience at ButtonWillow, we couldn’t have picked a worse track!

This is where the agile Honda Civics, and Mazda Miatas, drive everyone nuts – swarming behind the more powerful “torque” cars. The track serves up uneven surfaces, turns with changing radiuses and corner sequences that simply don’t reward those who try to follow conventional "racing lines"! So the question really was – could a 580 bhp supercharged ‘Vette even stay on the track, let alone be fun!

But before heading to the track, preparation began on Thursday, and the picture above is of the ‘Vette on that hoist at A&A Corvette Performance. Andy, of A&A, had shown me an enhanced air-to-air intercooler for the supercharger that had fins added at both ends. These fins formed a rectangular box structure that better fed cool air to the main radiators and, following testing, had decreased the coolant temperature remarkably. He also added a plate that insured the air coming through the mouth of the ‘Vette only went to the intercooler, with the radiator drawing air from under the body as well as through the new openings created with the addition of the intercooler fins. So we went ahead and made the changes.

It wasn’t until late Friday afternoon before the ‘Vette was finally ready for the drive to ButtonWillow, and well into Friday evening before we pulled into the driveway of our hotel. Driving on any track is very serious undertaking, and the better prepared you are, the better you will be able to adapt to the changes that take place over the weekend. But messing with the car, this close to the weekend, had only added to our anxieties!

For the weekend event, the organizers had added a wrinkle that was going to keep all of us off-balance. Saturday’s session would have us driving the circuit clockwise, but on Sunday we would be driving it counter-clockwise. Every part of the track you thought you had figured out on Saturday was going to be of little value comes Sunday, as we tackled essentially a completely new track. And bucking our usual trend, as well as the advice of others, we decided to stay more engaged over the weekend by alternating driving sessions - Margo driving the second and fourth sessions each day. The picture I have included above is of Margo safely completing one of her Sunday sessions.

Participation across the weekend was much higher than I had anticipated. In part this had to do with twenty plus Honda S2000 roadsters joining the classes, but it also had a lot to do with the weather, as temperatures were in the mid 70s F. When I wrote an earlier posting, back on July 3rd, Gaining Confidence! I covered the events of the weekend of June 21st and 22nd. The temperature, back on that Saturday, had pushed past 110 degrees F. With the much lower temperatures of fall, the driver ranks swelled appreciably. And many familiar faces returned for the weekend.

Joining us was Zac, in his silver Ford Contour (#7), and we had soon found ways to get around his car at Willow Springs - but here at ButtonWillow, it was to prove to be an entirely different situation. Over the weekend, I rarely saw him and he drove extremely well!

Julian brought his black Honda Civic (#111) back to the track and he performed very well again. Julian is with the military, as I recall, and getting time on the track was a great way for him to relax. We have had many discussions with Julian and I recall taking some film of him at Willow Springs.

Back again, was Annie, with her blue Nissan 240SX (#907). The first time I remember seeing Annie was on the track where she was all over the back of our ‘Vette, looking for opportunities to pass. I think I have improved a little since then but we do seem to find each other out on the track. I am not completely sure, but I think Annie has now advanced to High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) level 2, and starts the session in the group of drivers ahead of us.

One driver that is definitely in the more advanced HPDE 2 group, and we have seen a number of times, is Steffen. Driving his green BMW 325 (#37), he started a couple of times from the front of the line. Steffen can really drive and I took the opportunity to watch him during one of my breaks. All weekend, however, a very well-driven Chrysler Crossfire SRT-6 and a very quick Honda S2000 would eventually find their way around him.

Not joining us in HPDE 1 and 2 anymore is our good friend Carlos, with his black Corvette C6 (#707). He was with us earlier this year, but now he has become a regular participant in the HPDE 3 sessions. At this level, the driver education becomes a lot more serious with more attention given to better communication with your fellow drivers, as more of the track is open for passing. It was Carlos who showed us the modifications he had made to the engine of his ‘Vette that led to our own interest in exploring further performance options for our car.

Electing to alternate sessions definitely kept Margo and I engaged across the weekend. It also kept us fresher and we were more alert towards the end of the day. But with the limited outings we really struggled to master the circuit and spend most of our time trying to determine exactly where we were on the circuit and to prepare for what we thought we would next encounter. We weren’t always correct and our speed wasn’t always matching that of others on the track, but we continued to have a lot of fun. And this was no fault of the ‘Vette – it performed faultlessly, and more than met our expectations. Going faster would surely come with more time in the car, and from driving more laps, as you really do need to know this track well!

Before her very last outing, the fourth session on Sunday, Margo had pulled on her gloves and helmet, and was focused intently on the track marshal who controlled our access on to the track. “The pedal on the right is the accelerator!” And then again, “the pedal on the right is the accelerator!” Thinking it was her instructor Tom she turned to him and was about to say something, when again there came the booming directive “the pedal on the right is the accelerator!”

Turning to her left this time, Margo came face-to-face with the face of one of our chief instructors, Fulton, filling the entire driver’s-side window. Always bemused by the antics of Margo and myself, and our approach to HPDE, Fulton just can’t help messing with drivers as they are about to leave the pits. And yes, we could go much faster – this is, after all, about speed! After all, for crying out loud, we had a supercharged ‘Vette!

My sessions did improve and I did manage to pick up the pace as the weekend unfolded. After each session we would park our car back and head for the “download sessions” where we would be given feedback on the session just completed, and the picture above is of the ‘Vette parked alongside our “working pits”. Fortune was with us as neither of us experienced any off-track incidents over the weekend.

The circuit is notorious for attracting cars to the end of the pit wall, and to the tires “protecting” the concrete. There was one major incident with the wall over the weekend and it, unfortunately, involved one of the best turned-out teams participating. A beautiful white Ferrari F430 ended its weekend, late Saturday afternoon, by soundly hitting the end of the pit wall head-on, completely demolishing the front left of the car. It was a sad sight to see the car with shattered pieces of carbon fiber and plastic hanging out through the passenger side window delivered to one of the better motorhome–transporters. And a huge reminder that anything can happen on the race track.

The Santa Ana winds had begun to sweep down the canyons of Los Angeles as we departed Friday night. I am not sure what real effect these winds have on people but there are many books written about the unfortunate turn-of-events that befall folks as the winds arrive. Unfortunately, for all us driving on the track, it just meant that there was a lot more dirt being blown onto the tracks, and even though there were still a couple of “offs” as cars left the track, we all had to deal with difficult driving conditions, and remembering that you just can’t mess with concrete walls!

And remembering to take full advantage of the pedal on the right wasn’t always easy to do, given the conditions. Supercharging the ‘Vette certainly did provide its moments and thundering down the main-straight, hanging it all out on Talladega, and powering through “the Esses” brought with it a wonderful sense of accomplishment. And managing to stay with a well-driven NSX of a fellow student, as happened for me late on Sunday, simply added to the fun!

Driving the first and third sessions meant that I was at the wheel on both days for session three – a notorious time for incidents of all kinds, and for some reason the session where everyone thinks that they have the track all sorted out and its flat out the whole way. I have only put two wheels “off” once during one of these sessions but otherwise, I have come through unscathed. On Sunday afternoon, I really did begin to come to terms with the track, and to pick my way through the challenges the track provided. And I was very pleased with what both of us were achieving and with the absence of any drama.

Unfortunately, during my last outing, a BMW M3, blew its motor at the “Bus Stop” that connects the track’s West Loop to the East Loop and the decision was taken to end the session early. While the Santa Ana winds had been messing with the conditions, it couldn’t be blamed for the incident, and while the driver did a good job getting off the racing line quickly, fluids and parts still found their way onto the track. As track time is split between HPDE sessions and real "races", and as a real race followed this session, it became an easy call to make to shut down the “student sessions”, and clean it all up.

After the event, it was back to Andy and the lads at A&A Corvette Performance. Andy had asked me to bring the car back as a precaution, as he wanted to see if any of the programming had failed or re-set during the weekend track sessions. He was as curious as I was to see how the car faired – it’s not all that common for customers supercharging their ‘Vettes to take them straight to the race track. And adding power, as we had done, did create concerns over how much heat would be generated by the new engine configuration. The picture here is of Jessie fixing the panel over the supercharger hoses that had somehow come loose on the way to the track but hadn’t caused us any problems. Fortunately for us!

In one of the last download sessions, talk had turned to the design of the track as Fulton asked about any issues with corners. He and John, the other lead instructor, had paid a lot of attention to “working backwards” through the cornering process – something they do each weekend to help us improve our skills and they break every corner down into the four elements “breaking, turn-in, apex, exit”. The whole process of driving smoothly is to find a way to turn each track into as many “straights” as you can, and to maximize the time you are on these straights – breaking, as well as accelerating.

It was during this question time that drivers asked about the right lines through certain corner sequences. “There’s no right way to get through it – but when you realize that you don’t gain any real advantage in these corners – you just work on minimizing your time in them” explained Fulton. In other words, there’s no right line through the “button hook”, just as there’s no good way to get through Corner 4 at Willow Springs. In both cases, they are there to upset the rhythm of drivers who may think that have the track all figured out! “In every circuit, you will find a corner that is just there to mess with your head,” Fulton concluded!

Mess with our heads! I had been anxious about the time we had taken messing around with the intercooler. I had been more than stumped by the organizers decision to run each day’s events in different directions. And I had enough to worry about with the winds dumping dirt on the track and watching out for concrete walls. And then I find out the track designers like messing with our heads!

And this is what will keep bringing me back to the track – not to keep working on the parts of the circuit that contribute little to smooth driving – but to understand that there’s portions of the circuit where you should be spending time very focused on lines and exits. And that there are sections you just muddle through, making sure your exit speed doesn’t compromise your speed down the following straight. Messing with our heads may be what the designer had in mind, but only if you let the track get to you.

For us both, it’s on to the final weekend event for the year, and to keep adding to our “experience-curve” as we put down more laps. In the end, if the only area left for improvement is to revisit these difficult corners, then I am sure we will both be extremely pleased drivers, but until then, I’m not letting any of these corners mess with my head! And that pedal on the right? Just got to keep working on that as well!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Almost ...

This weekend we managed to fit in a trip down to Anaheim to visit the Orange County Auto Show sponsored by the magazine Motor Trend. I have developed a liking for some of the editorials in this magazine and given the chance of a one year free subscription, just for attending the show, I couldn’t resist. Even though this meant navigating more than fifty miles of LA freeways on a Saturday afternoon, in light rain – the first for the season, getting the chance to look at the new Corvette ZR1 up close certainly seemed fair enough compensation.

The trip down was uneventful except for the slight detour we took through a Disney parking station, when we should have been at the Anaheim convention center, but the helpful folks at Disney soon had us headed out of the garage and in the right direction. As we had bought our tickets online, and had an e-ticket receipts, gaining entry to the event went very smoothly. And without any fuss at all, or lengthy queuing, we were standing on the floor of the exhibition hall.

And almost immediately and quite unexpectedly, I was overcome by a sense of déjà-vu. In early September 2001, Compaq had held a user event that brought together users from the Tandem user community (ITUG) and the Digital user community (DECUS) for the first time. I was the Summit Co-Chair that year with responsibility for the running of the Tandem portion of the show.

We had extensive vendor participation in the exhibition halls – and the event was well attended. Come Tuesday morning, September 11th, and it all changed as we watched in horror the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. It was then my task to stand before the community and advise them of what we would be doing to help everyone cope with the situation, knowing full well that some in the audience were directly impacted by the loss. Walking back into the exhibition hall seven years later, as I was now doing, for the very first time since those tragic circumstances, and looking at all the cars, gave me an eerie feeling.

This was the first car show I had been to since my brother Greg and I had attended a car show in Sydney back in the early ‘80s. Not much had changed - the cars looked gorgeous, and the picture at the top of the page is of me looking into the engine bay of the new Corvette ZR1. And the picture below is of me taking a really close-up look at the Nissan GT-R, the car appearing so much better than in any magazine photo I had ever seen. It will definitely shake up the status-quo!

The stands that attracted the biggest crowds were the Mercedes Benz, Audi (yes, they had an Audi R8 on the stand), Nissan, and Pontiac. For any Australian, to see “pride of place” on the Pontiac stand being given to the old Commodore V8 and to the humble Holden Ute albeit, dressed up as Pontiacs and with an attendant hovering over them dusting and cleaning them, brought a wry smile to my face. After spending a couple of hours looking at every exhibit, we pushed back out into the light rain and headed home.

And then we had an “almost” – and I should have expected it, and I should have known better! With only a few miles to go before reaching our home in Simi Valley, and after stopping off for an early dinner, I had turned onto a long, two-lane entrance ramp that climbed up to the freeway above. With a number of cars moving slowly up the inside lane, I changed to the outside lane and began to briskly pass them – until I saw the lane merge to the left and with a large SUV beside me. So, I pushed down a little harder on the throttle, and it happened!

The light rain had made the road surface just a little slick. We were driving the newly supercharged ‘Vette with the automatic transmission still trying to figure out its role in the new scheme of things. As my good friend reminded me “You have so much hp now that you can literally spin the car accidentally on a ‘straight away’ in the rain, without even changing the position of the steering wheel ... just the torque imbalance in the rear will pitch the car sideways!” So even though I only eased down lightly on the throttle, the increased load convinced the transmission to change down a gear, with the result from the arrival of a lot more torque, it set the rear-end free!

I really do dislike it when others are so right! I should have been prepared for it to happen and to anticipate it better! As we drifted left towards the side of the SUV, I eased off the throttle and looked to regain some steering, only to find the Vette now headed to the right and straight for a large pole. I gave the steering a little correcting nudge, as small as I dared, as I wanted to make sure that if we were to hit anything, it would be the embankment ahead of the pole. At the very last minute, and much to my surprise, the car regained traction and my final steering input was enough to bring the car back in line with the entrance to the freeway - so we escaped without incident. All the while, Margo was on the phone, chatting with her Mom, and only when I heard the high pitched “ouch” did I know that she wasn’t missing out on any of the excitement! Only after we looked at the car in the garage did we see grass caught up in the wheel-well and stuck under the GM emblem that adorns our flanks.

Almost …

The weekend before, we had been in Boulder where our good friend Lyman who had accepted an invitation to join us on a motor cycle ride across the front-range peaks and to see the colors of fall - as the Aspens put on quite a show! Every year I try to find time for the ride, taking the big cruisers up into the mountains, and it’s always a lot more enjoyable with company. But Margo had to spend time with her family this year as her mother was not well, and so having Lyman free up time on his calendar to join me on the ride, was a real treat!

There is a magnificent scenic ride across the top of the front-ranges that is called the Peak-to-Peak highway. In summer, it can become a procession, as visitors pack the highway – it offers tremendous views of the Continental Divide and several prominent 14,000’ peaks are easily viewable. The picture I have included here is of Lyman taking some time out to look at the views.

Rather than riding it all in one stretch, I had decided to break it into two loops – with a 100 + mile ride for Saturday and Sunday. The northern route taking in Estes Park and with a great view of Long’s Peak, the tiny hippie township of Ward, and then returning home down the Boulder Canyon, would be tackled on Saturday. The more technically challenging: southern route out of Golden, and up through Black Hawk before coming down through Pinecliffe on Colorado Highway 72 would be Sunday’s ride.

As it turned out, Sunday’s ride was very enjoyable – but Saturday’s trip in and out of Estes Park had its moments. As many times as I have ridden up into the mountains, I should have expected the unpredictable, and I should have known better. Just because it had been 80 degrees along the foothills and with sunshine bathing the landscape, it didn’t mean that the conditions would be the same at higher altitudes. And just because we had jackets over our t-shirts, there would be no guarantee that it would be of much help to us if the temperatures dropped. I should have known better …

As we crested the last summit and caught the view of Estes Park below us, the skies above us opened-up, and we rode headlong into a violent thunderstorm. The lightening strikes were so close that we could hear the thunder above the noise coming from the open exhausts on our cruisers. Once again, a sense of déjà-vu came over me. And once again, it involved the Tandem user group!

Back in 2004, along with a group of friends from Australia, Andrew Price, of ACI, and I rode these same cruisers from San Jose up through Yosemite and down Nevada to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley – more than 1,700 miles as part of an “extreme team-building” exercise! As we drove down from the South Rim and left highway 89 for Kayenta and the entrance to Monument Valley, we rode straight into an electrical storm. We had seen the first light drops appear as we headed out of the Canyon’s car park but the brief period of lightening that followed really alarmed me. And now, the same anxieties I experienced on that ride were returning with a vengeance.

I scanned the horizon and it looked like the best option was to bypass Estes Park and to exit early onto the Peak-to-Peak highway. I had a quick exchange with Lyman and no sooner had I outlined the plan, then the rain really came down in torrents. The traffic we were in came to a complete halt. With few options other than staying put and becoming targets, we rolled the bikes over to the edge of the road and drove down the emergency lane until we could cut across to our left and exit up the highway as the rest of the traffic inched its way into the township.

We began to climb, once again, but the weather became even worse. This time, we were being pelted with hail! As I glanced at my left arm, smaller hailstones were beginning to accumulating on the sleeve of my jacket, and I began to seriously fear for the worse and became a little concerned that hyperthermia may set in. But I should have been better prepared and yes, I should have known a lot better …

After a few short miles, we rode out of the storms and into sunshine. None the worse for wear and after only a few more miles, as dry as when we started. So we stopped along the highway at the township of Ward to better warm-up over a burger. The picture above is of me at a table and no! I hadn’t taken a direct hit from the lightening! But the rest of the journey proved less eventful – we did encounter rain again but this time, barely a few drops.

Almost, again …

Next weekend we will be back at the track. This time, it will be the circuit at ButtonWillow outside of Bakersfield, California. In an earlier posting, you may recall how surprised we were to find that we had to drive the track counter-clockwise after reading as many reports as we could on the experiences of others driving clockwise. Well, this weekend, we have been advised that we will be doing both – counterclockwise on Saturday and then clockwise on Sunday.

Our usual routine has been for me to drive all day Saturday and then for Margo to drive Sunday – but this time, we will be alternating sessions throughout the weekend. This will significantly reduce the lap time we will experience for either course layout – and our instructor has advised against this and for all the right reasons. However, our ambitions to become racing drivers are long gone and the goal we both share is to have fun so we will just take it easy and alternate sessions.

This time driving the car will be new experience as we have not taken the ‘Vette out to any track following the addition of the supercharger – so learning the car, and the track, and sitting down after each session to prepare each other, will be a lot of fun. Regular readers may recall in the posting of July 3, ’08 - Gaining Confidence! – that, as I was finishing a Saturday session, I “dropped some width of both left-side tires into the dirt that was visible to the flag marshals monitoring us”, and had an incident report filed. This is something I am really going be trying very hard to avoid as I prepare for taking to the track again.

And this time, I am hoping for no déjà-vu experiences and, quite honestly, I am preparing for the best! I do know a lot better and the past ten days have done a lot to reinforce that message.

No more almosts, this time around …

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Whoosh, and Blur!

It was only a week or so ago that my good friend and former boss, Chris, emailed me about his latest outing on the track. Chris was back east and he was clearly lapping the course in a Lotus Super 7 – or one of the many derivatives of this well known model. Racing a Super 7 just has to be a whole lot of fun and a return to the early days of motor racing, when all the cars were roughly the same and it was the superior driver skills that won on the day.

When I moved to London in the early ‘70s I had the good fortune of being able to go to Caterham and to the small workshop that existed there at the time – I have no idea what it looks like today, but back in those days, it was just a very small village operation. It had been only a short time before my arrival at the garage that Lotus had decided to leave the Super 7 market, and had handed over the rights, as well as a lot of supporting technology, to the garage at Caterham. From that date, the car was renamed the Caterham Super 7. I was given a ride around the local roads by a sales representative, and the fun I had – even as a passenger - of ripping around back street corners remains with me to this day. And it was only due to lack of money at the moment that I just didn’t walk out owning one of these fabulous roadsters.

But the major item in Chris’s email had very little to do with the Super 7 – appearing with Chris on the track that weekend was a brace of Corvettes! Not just any ‘Vette, mind you, but a number of brand new supercharged ZR1 models. According to Chris “these are the 630hp versions they have been homologated to try and beat the Aston Martin DB9s that are currently beating up on the ‘Vette in the American Le Mans series. Unfortunately the ZR1’s were very closely guarded and I did not get a chance to drive one – all I can say is that when those things go by you, there is a giant blowing sound preceded by a blur of something on four wheels … “

Whoosh, and blur! I like it …

For readers of the previous blog postings, you will know by now that we have just returned to Simi Valley after a number of trips across the Rockies – back to Boulder each weekend for a couple of weekends, back to back. All the time, our C6 ‘Vette had been in the shop at Oxnard where Andy and his team at A&A Corvette Performance had been hard at it installing a supercharger, as well as upgrading the fuel delivery components, and adding a more aggressive exhaust system with new headers, collectors, and long pipes back to the factory issue mufflers and tailpipes.

But now we have the car – we picked it almost immediately after arriving home from the last trip. Of course, we really liked the workmanship and the photo I have included at the top of this posting is of Margo admiring the completed installation. For readers of my industry association itug-connection blog, the item posted last week, Blood and corpses everywhere! Really? leads off with a photo of the installed extractors. Works of art, in my opinion, and a shame that you very rarely get to see them. And on the way home, with Margo riding shotgun behind me, I punched the throttle pretty hard to see what would happen – and was pinned to the seat! Wow!

And welcome to our own world of whoosh and blur – a phrase Margo began to repeat routinely with every “hard acceleration” we did. We had tested the car on the dyno, and the results were pretty impressive. We had started out with a car that had about 350 Rear Wheel Horse Power (RWHP). The results from the dyno showed that we now had 498 RWHP and our torque was a much-improved 467 lb – ft!

For those who prefer to make comparisons based on what manufacturer’s report where horsepower is measured at the flywheel, rather than at the rear wheels, we started out with a regulation 400 hp, and saw the improvement climb to 593 hp. That positions us between the current Z06 (505 hp) and the new ZR1 (630 hp).

Whoosh and blur – and its now our daily drive! Ummm, not so quickly …
Unfortunately, after the drive home, a lot of things began to go wrong – we decided to take turns driving and returning to our local mall, misjudged how low the car had become (now one inch lower) , and cracked the radiator protection bar – bending a number of bolts and just generally messing up the front end. The next morning, it sounded bad, so we headed to our local Chevrolet dealer only to find that it was work for the body shop. Into the shop the car went for another extended long weekend.

But in the back of my mind, I was a little bothered at how rough the car had been – it wasn’t smooth at all, and gear changes were pretty dreadful. The ‘Vette is an automatic, and it had become extremely uncomfortable to drive. When we picked the car up from the body shop, it was back to Andy as almost immediately the dreaded check engine symbol lit up. You could elect to ignore this – and some folks do. But I wanted everything to be right and a very patient Andy took the car back and ran the diagnostics only to find out that his previous engine re-programming really hadn’t taken – we have a “slow learning” computer apparently, and it was causing problems.

There were two more afternoons at the shop before all the data was finally accepted by the computer and what a difference – the car had become so much better. Easy-to-drive at low speeds, but quick to come onto the power while remaining very smooth through the gear changes that followed. A completely different experience from what we had seen that first afternoon.

Whoosh and blur was back on the road! Well, sort of …

But on the drive home, Margo believed that the air conditioning was now not working. I looked at the gages and assured her it was all right! Well she would not give in! No worries – a quick visit back to the Chevrolet dealer next morning and we would get it all checked out. Oh what a nightmare … the screw that tightens the top clamp of the supercharger’s air intake hose had punctured the air conditioner compressor. Alarmed that his lads had made a mess of things, Andy asked me to come right back. But after a quick inspection, it was the body shop who fixed the broken radiator protection bar that had messed with the unit and ended up causing the damage to the air conditioning compressor – so another day without the car.

Northern California possesses some of the best coastal highway drives anywhere in the world. The deep ravines that carve their way to the sea form gaping holes between the wooded headlands, and there are all types of bridges spanning these breaks. As you leave the greater Los Angeles area and head north, the first section of highway that really is a must-drive highway, starts just after Hurst Castle at San Simeon. For the next sixty miles, the road clings to the cliffs and twists back through bridges in the ravines. All the time, the views up the coast are spectacular. There is another shorter section, just after you leave Santa Cruz, and finally, a third portion just after you leave the GoldenGate Bridge and head for Stinson Beach and the drive up through Bodega Bay.

The picture I have included here is of us enjoying a short coffee break at the only “espresso” cart in Stinson Beach. Check out the subtle, LeMans Blue Vortech Supercharger decal on the rear glass panel behind the door – that’s the only external indication that perhaps the car is no longer a garden-variety ‘Vette!

Popular with surfers, Stinson Beach was closed for the weekend as a great white shark had been spotted just outside the surf break. We had decided to head out to Point Reyes, and that turned out to be a bad decision – the road was really badly chewed-up and pot-holed - we bottomed everywhere, and the sound of our front spoiler dragging across every wrinkle in the road’s surface caused us to cringe in anticipation of more damage to come. But we survived, and closer inspection of the car’s front end showed no permanent damage – just some pretty severe scrape marks.

Looping up past Sea Ranch and then cutting across to highway 101 gave us a couple of wide open, and empty, two lane highways to push the car a little harder – and it proved to be a dream to drive. No anxieties anywhere along the way, and we were safely back in our San Francisco hotel by early evening. For the drive home, we headed down to Monterey for the drive back along scenic highway 1.

We would be only back in Simi Valley for one day before turning around and returning to San Jose for meetings in the South Bay. So driving down highway 1 gave us a great opportunity to see how well the car handled, and how effortlessly it would accelerate past slower moving traffic. On both counts, we were very pleased with the car’s behavior. There were a few times where the supercharger could be really heard whistling as it spooled up and delivered great chunks of power! We have both begun to enjoy the sound and have come to understand what Chris was referring to as ZR1s had passed him.

“Time for a little whoosh and blur?” Margo would ask, and each time, I knew we were about to cut loose and pass a car or two. For me, as the passenger though, I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps a little more breaking might be a good idea!

And so, during the short time we were back in Simi Valley, we upgraded the braking capabilities of the car. We installed new brake pads – HAWK High Performance Street pads for “superior stopping power” – that were “ideal for street usage, with the occasional track day outing”. Perfect! After spending an evening following the instructions on bedding-in / burnishing the pads, it was back up the coast for the final leg in our Californian excursion.

The picture I have included here is of us behind a police car – for some reason, the officer decided that being in front of us was a good strategic move. The car performed perfectly and the breaks never made themselves known as they, too, worked flawlessly. We quickly eat up the miles and with perfect weather along the coastline, really enjoyed ourselves. On both occasions, Margo had been the driver along highway 1 and it wasn’t until the final trip back to Simi Valley that I was able to get behind the wheel. It was early Saturday afternoon and with the weather holding, the continuous streams of traffic never really gave us any opportunity to explore the limits further.

And that’s probably a good thing. While we generated quite a few surprises with the addition of the supercharger, not all of them positive, we are really looking forward to seeing how big a difference it makes when we drive back to Colorado - far from the oxygen rich sea-level driving we have been enjoying along the California coastline. Equally as significant, we are looking forward to returning to the track, and to the supervised conditions that we have come to enjoy as well.

We will be back at ButtonWillow next month and we are both very curious about how the car will now perform. Perhaps it is not the ideal track for the car, with this much torque on hand, as ButtonWillow is a very technical track with few opportunities to exploit the engines newfound life. However, it should still give us some clues as to what to expect on faster tracks, like Big Willow!

It took many sessions with Andy, at A&A Corvette Performance, to sort out the programming and dial in the right codes. But he did a fantastic job, and I can’t say enough about how well he treated us during the process. The end results, however, are pretty spectacular and the sheer driving pleasure it is providing us has more than made up for any early teething troubles. Bookending a long weekend “mini vacation” with the needs of a business trip, both of which required us to drive up to San Francisco, gave us the opportunity to put another 2,000 on the clock – and almost as many smiles on our faces.Whoosh and blur!

Chris certainly couldn’t have described it any better, and now the phrase has become part of the private language Margo and I share and signals something pretty special is about to happen!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Crisscrossing the Continental Divide …

After our weekend at Willow Springs International Raceway (July 12 – 13), we found ourselves without a racing weekend until early October. The race weekend planned for August 9th – 10th was cancelled by our club – National Auto Sports Association (NASA), and although a one day session was organized at the last moment, we were not able to adjust our schedules in time. Our next weekend at the track will be in October, when we had back to the track at ButtonWillow and this time, we hope, we get to drive it clockwise and arrive better prepared.

But the time away from the track has given us an opportunity to do more behind the wheel of our daily drives. We had been talking about this for a few months; what our time on the track has exposed is that following our regular routines would see me behind the wheel and give Margo little opportunity to drive. So for the past couple of weekends, as we criss-crossed the continental divide, Margo gained a lot more time behind the wheel, tackling mountain passes and carving through canyons, having a whole lot of fun as well.

The cancellation of the August race weekend was due to higher gas prices and to a spluttering economy, so I was very curious as to whether traffic would be down from the levels we had encountered in previous years. This was peak holiday time, with many families depending on the highway to get to their favorite mountain and lake vacation place. While we would be looking to enjoy our time behind the wheel and to have fun driving, nearly everyone else was trying to get from point A to point B as cheaply as they could – would we see any changes at all?

The first weekend following Willow Springs saw us head north and into the mountains behind Santa Barbara. West of the San Gabriel Mountains, and a little east of the Sierra Madra Mountains, there’s a highway that takes you through the Los Padres National Forest that we have really come to enjoy since moving to Simi Valley. It is highway 33, and for 60 miles it traces a route between the small resort township of Ojai, tucked in the hills up behind Ventura, and highway 166 that takes you west to Santa Maria. What makes highway 33 a delight to drive is that it is a tight mountainous highway with countless switchbacks and blind crests it is quite exciting at times.

The photo I have included above was taken after we had descended from the summit, with only ten miles to go to the junction with 166, but it clearly shows the landscape on the right of the picture – a large rugged mountainous area to the west of where we had been driving. If you look carefully, you should be able to just make out the images of burnt pine trees – for many miles, the forests to the west of highway 33 had suffered enormous damages in a major fire last year.

Highway 166 west of the junction with 33 provides you with a wonderful, undulating road that winds its way between small rural townships. The valley widens on its way to the coast, with the road becoming more sedate as the curves open up with larger radiuses. As you traverse the small foothills of the mountains, now to the south of you, you are given a great opportunity to develop an eye for the smoothest lines through each new turn.

The day turned out to be great and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. But the crowds we had seen only a year ago were gone. We had most of the mountain passages to ourselves and it was easy to take a picture with nothing else on the road. And when it came time for us to stop at a café we had frequented in the past, it was closed… After just one weekend, it was hard to generalize - but the price of gas seemed to be having quite an effect! If your only requirement was to get from Point A to Point B, then perhaps you were missing the joys and challenges that come from driving a picturesque, twisting road.

The following weekend, we made our first trip back to Boulder, Colorado. We took off late Friday afternoon and headed up Antelope Valley on highway 14 before hooking up with highway 58 at Mojave that took us into Barstow where we picked up Interstate 15 for the short run into Las Vegas. We spent the night at Las Vegas, far from the strip as our plans called for a lot of time behind the wheel on Saturday.

The trip to Boulder, Colorado began in earnest after we leave Las Vegas. We continued up Interstate 15 only as far as St George, Utah where we turned onto highway 9 East for the spectacular drive through the lower parts of Zion National Park. Here the road passes through tunnels, as it hugs the canyon wall, and the views of the surrounding hills, in every shade of red and orange imaginable, make it one of the great drives. Leaving the park we turned onto highway 89, a road we have become very familiar with over the years. But this time, we were only going to drive a few miles, as we were taking the exit to highway 12 east, and heading for Red Canyon and the northern extremities of Bryce Canyon National Park. The picture below is of the remarkable rock features alongside the road through Red Canyon.

The section of highway 12, as it heads for the small township of Boulder, Utah, it takes you through the Dixie National Forest where the only way down from the high plateaus is along the spine of a very narrow ridge with both sides of the road dropping away into deep canyons. Just when you think there’s no way for the road to narrow any further, it simply plunges down the side of a ravine that gives you an absolutely breath-taking entrance into Boulder. The picture I have included here is from one of the vista points along highway 12 before the road descends into Boulder.

At the township of Torrey, we turned on to highway 24 for the drive down Capital Reef National Park, as we followed the Fremont River into Hanksville. We then continued north on 24, as it took us back to Interstate 70 and taking in the formations across the broad plains, we could easily visualize being on the moon’s surface – only with many more shades of red!

After spending the night in Grand Junction and kicking back with a few well-timed Mojitos, we left early the next morning for Delta, a few miles down the road on highway 50. Filling the car with gas, and grabbing a cup of some of the worst coffee I have ever tasted, we turned east onto highway 92 for the drive onto the northern rim above the Gunnison river and part of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The picture below is of the view from the canyon rim. Gunnison is a great little township with a good coffee shop, just off the main highway, and a place we now make a point of stopping at whenever we drive through the area. The afternoon run takes us out of Gunnison and its beautiful waterways up over Monarch Pass (11,312 feet) and down into Salida, a town that isn’t much more than a place to stop for gas before turning north on highway 285 and the run back into the suburbs of Denver.

While some stretches of road in the national parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon – had a lot of vehicular traffic and the going was pretty slow on some stretches, all other passages were wide open and mostly deserted. This gave us a lot of highway for practice and we took advantage of it as we sought out the best lines through the corners and worked on placing the car at the right exit point. Repetition is a great teacher and so over the course of many hundreds of miles we could see our confidence rising – as we continued to have a lot of fun. At all times we were conscious of our responsibilities on public roads, but the absence of traffic for mile after mile really helped us develop. But again, the destinations were never really as the journey – who cares where Point B is!

When it came time for the drive back the following weekend, we tracked a similar path back but this time, instead of heading into Delta via highway 92 we continued on highway 50 to Montrose where we caught up with former HP liaison to the ITUG Board, Patty Fennel. Patty was enjoying a short vacation from Cape Town, South Africa, and was spending time with her father who lives in the town. It was a lot of fun talking, revisiting the times when both Patty and I were on the ITUG Board.

As we really did want to see Utah highways 24 and 12 from the opposite direction, we tracked back through some of the same townships and the picture below is of the landscape around Green River, Utah captured eaarly in the day. Instead of driving the exact same route into St George, we left highway 89 at Long Valley Junction and turned west to take the mountain highway down into Cedar City, a reasonably difficult stretch of highway that twists and turns continuously over the ridgeline behind Cedar City. It was a great experience and, once again, provided us further opportunity to work on our technique.

Only as we left townships did we run into traffic of any density, but we did begin to see a lot more motorcycles on this trip. As we pulled up our driveway late Sunday night, having spent a lot of time in the desert on the last leg of the trip, and dehydrating more than we expected – a major mistake - we already began to think about the next trip.

It was over a very early morning coffee that Margo suggested we take a route through New Mexico as she had never been to Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Essentially follow Interstate 40 until it intersects with Interstate 25 and drive up through the heart of Colorado. I had not taken this route before and was curious as to what we would find. And determined to carry a lot more water with us – and lots of ice!

My first thought of crossing large portions of northern New Mexico was that we would see nothing but desert, but as I looked at the maps, I saw that much of the route would follow the “mother road”, America’s main street, Route 66! Back in 2004, I had ridden a motorcycle over some of these roads, and one of the highlights had been to ride a section of the original Route 66 as it connected Kingman to Williams, Arizona. I had joined some mates from Australia and together we spent four days on the road taking the slowest, most scenic route possible between San Jose, California and Boulder. We referred to it as an “extreme team building”, as all of us worked for Insession/ACI at a time, and we were headed for a week long series of meetings in Boulder that would result in a strategy for the next 18 month. Oh, but I digress…

After following a regular path out of Simi Valley and arriving at Barstow early Friday evening, we turned east onto Interstate 40 and headed for Needles rather than turning north onto Interstate 15 as had been our usual route. No sooner had we done so, than the signposts pointing to the old Route 66 began appearing and it was onto one short strip we ventured for gas outside of Needles. If traffic had been patchy on the first two trips, with very few cars, apart from what we encountered inside the national parks, all that changed on Interstate 40. For mile after mile, the big rigs lined the inside lane. And this was where we saw the only highway accident on any of our crossings. There certainly wasn’t any evidence, this time out, suggesting high fuel prices were putting a damper on motorists’ plans. Getting to Point B seemed to be important again!

We spent the night in Williams, where we had dinner at Rod’s Steakhouse situated right on the original Route 66. Not a place I would highly recommend but for a little piece of history, worth stopping at once. The next day it was off to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with time allowed for a brief stop on the corner of Winslow Arizona, to snap a few pictures, and to buy a T-Shirt! And wonder what the heck the Eagles songwriter had been thinking about – it’s miles from anywhere! The road through eastern Arizona and into western New Mexico was anything but boring or tedious. There was initially miles of high desert, but this gave way to forests and views of the mountains to the north. We arrived in Albuquerque earlier than expected and had time to walk around the old town square and yes, to buy even more T-Shirts!

That night, we found a place that served great Margaritas and we kicked back for the night. The following morning, it was north on Interstate 25 as we put Albuquerque behind us and, once again, the signposts reminded us that Route 66 was close by, finally leaving us outside Santa Fe. Out on the interstate, there were even more motorcycles – and the groups were beginning to get much larger! But the mornings drive surprised us as we continued to climb higher into heavily timbered mountains. I knew nothing of this part of the world so every mile brought with it surprises.

We found a great family Mexican restaurant at Trinidad and when we stopped for gas around Walsenburg, the gas station turned out to be a small museum with cars from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s on display. The number of motorcyclists continued to increase, and then it hit us – they were returning from the rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. During the previous trips we had seen them heading for Sturgis and now they were all returning home. It only took a couple more hours before we were back home in Boulder.

The route we had selected hadn’t turned out to be all that challenging. We certainly shared a lot of time behind the wheel, but we didn’t experience anything like what we had a week earlier. Would we take this route again? Probably, but only if we needed to stay well clear of the Rockies and needed a safer, all-weather route back to California. As it now stands, we still have another trip to complete in September, but with our arrival in Boulder, this ended our three weekends of adventure.

The crossings of the Continental Divide had provided us with a timely distraction, as the C6 Corvette we drive at NASA’s HPDE events, was in the shop. We had given it to the folks at A&A Corvette Performance to add a Vortech supercharger, upgrade the fuel delivery capabilities, and to change the exhaust system to something a little more competitive.

But I will leave the details on how this turns out for a later posting and after we have had some time to come to terms with the cars potential. It will also take some time before Andy and his team at A&A smooth out all the wrinkles, as I am confident they will do, but once its all sorted out, I will provide further details.

The trips across the south west were certainly educational. The higher fuel prices have certainly deterred many from using their cars for vacations. While the main interstate highways were well travelled, the secondary highways were all but deserted. And businesses were loosing out badly and we saw many stores with “closed” signs posted. For vehicles with limited fuel range there is now cause for concern as well, and you do need to plan ahead. Big cruising motorcycles with a range of only 100 miles may not be able to take on some of the roads we covered. And that’s going to be a disappointment for many.

On the other hand, the scenery remains spectacular and the vastness of the south west was the real story. Yes, we both gained from the extra time behind the wheel and no, not everyone is vacationing in their cars, or unconcerned about what comes after Point A! However, talking about the miles we had logged over a relaxing Martini, I don’t think I will ever loose my enthusiasm for the roads that carve through the high plateaus of this mountainous region of America.

The driving may have taken our thoughts away from what was happening to our beloved Corvette, but in the end, it didn’t really mount to much as it was the drive that mattered most of all. Even now, as I write this posting, I have to admit I am really looking forward to when late September rolls around and we pull out the maps once again. And I do not care if we go from Point A to Point B or vice versa! It is about the journey…..

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Staying smooth! Making adjustments!

Once again, we only gave ourselves a few days to prepare for our third outing to the race track. This time, we were headed back to the high-speed Willow Springs track – the one marketed as the Fastest Track in the West. We spent the July 4th weekend back in Boulder, Colorado, with family, but had also taken time out to catch up with a number of friends.

Part of the plan, in returning to Boulder, was to give Margo as much opportunity to drive the 6-speed stick-shift Corvette and to just re-familiarize with driving the “stick shift” model. After driving through the countryside, Margo improved considerably, but it only reinforced for me that she just needs to drive more often. As with most couples, whenever we take off on a trip, I tend to gravitate to the drivers side while Margo heads for the passenger seat – and this only started in the years we have been married! I am now very aware of this and when we take sight seeing trips I take the passenger seat half the time. Not easy, believe me. Duh!

In the few days before we headed to Willow Springs, we did watch film of the track. John, our first High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) 1 program instructor, has posted film taken from inside his car for a number of twenty minute sessions on the track. John maintains a blog - - and I highly recommend checking out the videos. We found them of great help.

When Saturday morning rolled around, we elected to follow the same pattern as we had done the previous two outings. I would drive every session on the Saturday, and Margo would drive all the Sunday sessions. By the way, we chose that scheme thinking the continuity of the education through the day would be a good thing. We never thought about the need to be engaged personally to enjoy the experience and to have fun: in the future we will alternate sessions, with each of us driving on both days. It was only a few minutes after the car passed the “Tech Inspection”, and the OK sticker applied to the windscreen, that we found that an extra session had been added to Saturday’s program – in all, there would be five sessions, not four. Staying hydrated, as was the case at ButtonWillow, was going to be the priority.

We breezed on through the mandatory drivers meeting and once again, took off for the HPDE 1 & 2 session with Fulton, who again was standing in for John. John’s back continues to trouble him, and we can only wish him a speedy recovery! Fulton took us over the layout of the track and concentrated on getting us to think backwards – now that we knew we had to get the exit correct, as we made good exits, we needed to work back to where we hit apexes correctly, turned-in at the right place, and managed our braking with controlled squeezes.

An early observation Fulton made, stayed with me all weekend, and it involved the brakes. You only have one action that influences what is happening at that crucial interface between your car and the road, and that is the brakes! It’s the only control that works with all four wheels. As the sessions progressed through the day, this would be a theme we would come back to many times, and an area I really focused on and worked on improving. Braking hard was what it was all about, for sure, but applying too much brake really messes up many corners. Nowhere is this more evident than at the end of the main straight and getting through turn 1!

For the first session, I led off the HPDE 1 cars and followed the HPDE 2 cars out onto the track. Once the green flag was waved and the session opened, I picked up speed pretty quickly and the film that we had been watching the previous nights really played an important part. The track felt familiar, and I knew where to go. In the short space of two laps, I had passed all but three of the HPDE 2 drivers, and not for a moment did I feel I was extending myself beyond my abilities. It was during this second session that I began to think through the places where I could lift my speed, as I was planning on spending the afternoon sessions staying smooth and predictable and looking for faster lines around the track.

And this is when the second observation by Fulton made all the sense in the world. If you can’t repeat a line, then it was an accident! If you nail a great exit simply by chance and have difficulty finding the line in subsequent passes, then you need to slow back down and rethink your approach. The afternoon sessions would be all about understanding where I was on the course and exactly what inputs I was feeding into the controls.

For the first two sessions my instructor, John, had me really concentrating on the two corners I still didn’t have sorted out and where my lines weren’t exactly predictable. My speed had risen as my knowledge of the course, and my confidence, grew and now corners took on much different appearances. In fact, the corners I had sorted out at lower speeds became more of a problem as the speed went up, and at Willow Springs, turns 3 and 5 emerged as problem areas for me.

After lunch, I had a different instructor, Darren. He is an Aussie and he immediately put me at ease. With Darren, it was all about looking for the “cues” – those little markers around the track that helped you determine where to brake, where to turn-in, and where to focus as you exited. Peripheral vision became extremely important as once you knew what you were looking for, you had to more-or-less be aware of them so that you head was turned, and your eyes focused, solely on your point of exit. It was of absolutely no value to stare down the markers once you found them.

For the most part, these cues were tiny. Going into turn 3, I had to locate a small, 3” wide by only 1” high reflector, planted firmly into the blacktop. You often see these on freshly laid bitumen as temporary lane lines before the real lane lines are pained. Imagine looking for just one such reflector, run over many times so it was more dark yellow than white, and the “feel its position” as you come off the brakes and begin to turn in right at that spot.

Lap after lap I improved, as I began to sort out turn 3. Not quite the case for turn 5 which continues to need work as I increased the speed, but I have pretty much let the sessions replay in my mind of late and I have a good idea of how I will approach it next time. And I can’t wait to get back. I think that’s when we started talking about alternating sessions throughout the weekend, rather than alternating days as we have been doing. I think Margo could see right through it, as she said it is a great idea ... but next time around.

Five sessions did turn out to be a grueling experience and when I returned to the hotel, I slept for ten hours. All too quickly it was time to check out of the hotel, relax over breakfast, and then top-up the car with gas. We had seen a reference in the program to separate sessions for “SoCal Vipers” on the Sunday, and wondered what that was all about, but no sooner had we driven into the corner gas station, than from off the highway began a procession of Dodge Vipers. Watching them putting down laps, even for hardened Corvette owners like us, it was hard not to like these “flying asps”!

What a sight – with every color group present. There was a three-day old Viper SRT10 American Club Racer (ACR) model, bought just days before in Nebraska, and driven across the Western States to make it in time for the event. While a handful of the drivers were competitive, and turned some extra laps in the HPTF 4 Time Trial sessions, for many of the owners, this was their first experience on any track and so they joined us for the first HPDE 1 and 2 briefing sessions.

For those that want to read one Viper driver’s perspective, check out:

Margo arrived at the pre-grid section a good fifteen minutes ahead of the first Sunday’s session start time, but had an instructor, Carlos, join her almost immediately. He went straight to the Corvette and asked Margo is she kept the air conditioning running and when she confirmed he became her instructor for the rest of the day. Word must be circulating among the instructors, it would appear. By the way, at the previous adventure at ButtonWillow she also had a radio on during one of her sessions, and did not even notice!

Now, Carlos races a Mustang and this turned out to be a good background for assisting in Margo’s development. The Corvette is a “torque” car and not a momentum car. As such, its approach to the track is quite different and a couple of critical points on the track, it takes a slightly different line. Very quickly, this became apparent to Carlos and he did a great job of helping Margo find the right line around the track. By lunch-time Sunday she was already looking at ways to improve her times and about how and where to lift her speed.

After each 20 minutes driving session there is a “download” meeting in the classroom where students share their experiences and learn from each other. It was pretty cool to see how, despite their competitive nature, the guys in the class were willing to apologize to each other for wrong passes and for unwillingly blocking each other. There was a camaraderie and true sportsmanship in the classroom.

It was in the download session that the third observation made by Fulton really struck home. To be fair, Fulton was repeating a key point John had made almost two months earlier. If you take a particular part of the track at 75 mph – it’s really hard (and likely very eventful) to then take it at 100 mph. Incremental adjustments is what high performance driving is all about. Knowing that the car can actually do 100 mph through a part of the track is all part of the driver education process.

To get a better feel for what Fulton was talking about, and to get a better sense of where the limits really were when a car is driven quickly, I hitched a ride as a passenger in Fulton’s car and went out on the track during Margo’s third session. With good suspension set-up, great brakes, and a set of sticky tires, the the red Mustaing was ablt to muscle its way through turns at speeds considerably higher than I thought possible. It was one of those “once-in-a lifetime” experiences! You can actually see a picture of Fulton, in his red Mustang, checking out Margo’s lines and “schwarming all over her bumper” when we were last at ButtonWillow, in the previous blog posting “Gaining Confidence” (JULY 3, 2008).Margo had come out with the expression “schwarming all over her bumper” during her first download session as she appealed to the guys to be patient with her and assured them that she would let them through on the next straight. Well, she never lived it down, and the word “schwarming” was used one way or the other in the remaining download sessions.

It was incredibly satisfying for her, and for me to see her, exit turn 9 and pass lesser powered cars on the main straight. You may have seen in the picture, at the top of this posting, what appeared to be a Police patrol car. Well, in fact it was – from the Long Beach Police Department. The LBPD brought a “retired” police cruiser to the track as part of the community awareness program – very creative!

And the picture I have included here is when, just before being allowed out on the track at the start of the third session, they turned on the lights. While I hadn’t witnessed it previously, evidently one group of drivers had been subject to a display of lights while out on the track and that really had come as a surprise. During my session on the track, I had passed this car and I have to say, it made me a little uncomfortable knowing I was passing a Police car at more than 100 mph. But it was pleasing too, in a strange and probably illegal way.

It was a very tired Margo on the drive back. And in a completely different mood from that which she experienced following her first full day at the track two months earlier. This time she thought that the end came far too soon, and she was deriving great satisfaction from having improved out of sight. Into turn 9 at 90 mph and not feeling the least uncomfortable, was a huge step up for her. Yes, there’s still a long way to go, and I think she likes the idea of further visits to the truck. To be honest, neither one of us “graduated” to the HPDE 2, a goal I have for next year, as we both have work to do!

We now have a break before our fourth weekend, on October 11th and 12th. It will be back in ButtonWillow and perhaps this time, we will get to drive the course clockwise. Theoretically, this will have given us three different courses traveled over the four weekends. But no matter what way around or what the temperature climbs to, we are both quite anxious to pull on our helmets, lace up our driving shoes, slip on our gloves, and head for the track!