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!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Gaining Confidence!

We have come off a period where a lot of travel was by car. Along the way, there was plenty of time to reflect on what we had learnt on the race track as part of the high performance driver education.

Perhaps no better place to put what had been learnt into a real world scenario was driving the Pacific Coast Highway between Carmel, CA and Cambria, CA – a 100 mile stretch of road clinging to the coastal mountain ranges flanking Big Sur and perhaps one of the world’s great drives. Always fighting back the effects of erosion, the road winds around the many cliff faces before diving into canyons where the driver faces fierce switchbacks.

Margo was the driver for all 100 miles, and what an improved performance. Not as far as speed was concerned as the highway’s treachery deters any all-out attack, but in terms of a new sense of confidence. I saw in Margo’s reading of the road, and the attention she paid to cambers and apexes, a new-found level of confidence I had not seen before, and a determination to drive smoothly and precisely.

And that’s where the true joy of driving lies!

It was only a week or so ago that we turned up for our second weekend session at the race track – this time, outside of Bakersfield at a place called ButtonWillow. We visited this track a few weeks earlier with the intent of watching how others tackled the course as well as to get a general idea of what to expect facilities-wise. And to be very blunt – there’s nothing there. It’s cut from farmlands and while a little elevation has been introduced it’s a far cry from what we faced at Willow Springs only a few weeks earlier.

And it was hot!

Over the two day period we saw temperatures that pushed well past 110 degrees F and at one point, before lunch on Sunday, we noted how much cooler it was – even though the thermometer was telling us it was still 99 degrees F. Staying hydrated was a real issue – on the Sunday, we demolished five 20oz bottles of water and seven bottles of a sports drink, between the two of us!

It was during the first briefing session that we found out that for this weekend, we would be tackling the track in the opposite direction. Rather than driving it clockwise, we would be circulating in a counter-clockwise direction. All the reading we had been doing in preparation for the weekend proved to be of little use and without a doubt, we were a little unsettled as a result. But we soldiered on – viewing this as all part of our learning curve.

My first two sessions on the Saturday morning were less than impressive. Previously, at Willow Springs, my instructor had been Tom and I had quickly picked up on the advice he was providing. However, for this weekend, I was under the guidance of Ryan who I had seen racing a Mustang in the highly competitive American Iron series and where he hadn’t been beaten on any of the tracks that I had been to. So there was definitely nothing wrong with the instructions I was getting. The picture here is of me holding up more experienced drivers!

ButtonWillow is a very technical track with very few breaks between corner complexes. Two of the corners (Buttonhook, and Star Mazda Turn) were essentially “stop corners” with little opportunity to do much more than to come to a stop. There was a high speed set of corners (the Esses) that you had to get right or else give up entirely on Star Mazda Turn. And then there was the four corner sequence (Cotton Corners) where you had to ignore the racing line for the first two corners and concentrate solely on getting the third and fourth corners right! It was a case of sacrificing your line through the first two corners so that the exit of the fourth became just an extension of the back straight that followed. It was critical to nail that exit at the right point to maximize the amount of time you could be full on the throttle. Elegance and precision through the first two corners made it impossible to get through the corners that followed and reduced any possibility of carrying speed onto the short back straight.

With all of this requiring complete attention and being aware that any tire off the pavement meant a little “agriculture excursion” it was not surprising that just getting around the circuit at all was the major task of the morning. I had convinced Ryan that I knew my way around two or three of the corners, could work on improving in a couple of others, but with no real clue about the rest I approached the final two sessions with a lot of determination.

Stay smooth, and the speed will improve!

I began to improve in the third session which turned out to be highly eventful. I don’t know what it is with the third session but just as it had been at Willow Springs, everyone decides that they are all racers! In the download session following the third session, Fulton, our lead instructor, reported that 8 of the 14 cars had excursions into the dusty infield! Anyhow, I continued to sort out the corners and made it to the checkered flag – significantly smoother than in the previous sessions. But then, I too, had an incident!

As I passed the checkered flag I began to exchange observations with Ryan and lost track of where I was. Ryan then pointed out that I was now right on top of Sunset corner and that perhaps breaking might be the right thing to do. Realizing I had little track left, I stood on the breaks as hard as I could, and pulled down sharply on the steering wheel. On reflection, I shouldn’t have done this (and my brain was preparing me for disaster), but the Corvette didn’t miss a beat and around it went. Yes, we dropped some width of both left-side tires into the dirt that was visible to the flag marshals monitoring us, and I felt the Antilock Braking System (ABS) kick in, but the Corvette was unperturbed – it remained on line, heading for the next corner.

In the last session, the improvements continued and my lines were getting a lot better. By the last lap, I was passing cars on the straight and really coming to grips with the track as I began to explore some of the limits. On the final lap I let the car push out wide on the exit of Sunrise Corner and again, felt a piece of the rear left tire touch the dirt but this time I was prepared (and looking) for it and while, strictly speaking an “incident”, I had no issues with maintaining my line. Driving the final cool-down lap I was quietly pleased that I had improved through all four sessions and that I had completely avoided any of the dreaded agriculture excursions undertaken by many of my colleagues!

We returned to the track early Sunday morning as it was now Margo’s time to turn laps. And once again, Tom was her instructor and she re-joined a group of drivers who were now well-known to us. Getting to know our fellow drivers is very important during the early stages of learning the courses as with familiarity, comes understanding, and out on the track allowances are a lot easier to make for drivers we have interacted with at each download session.

The first two sessions proved difficult to Margo as well. Coming to terms with the course and in particular, remembering where she was at any point of time, troubled her throughout the day. With such uncertainty, it became difficult to prepare for the next corner and this began to unsettle her and disrupt her smoothness. So during the second session, she backed off the speed and really took time to look at the track. This wasn’t missed by Tom who asked, quite politely, whether she would like to engage the cruise control! The picture I have included here is of Margo sweeping through a corner – growing in confidence with every lap!

Over lunch we began to look hard at the track maps and to think of ways to memorize different landmarks. At ButtonWillow, it does get down to looking at changing colors in the track pavement and chipped concrete ruble strips. With the track as flat and featureless as it is, every small feature takes on an importance that in other circumstances would be easily overlooked. Yet they did hold the clue for a smooth performance.

In the minutes that led up to the start of the third session, Tom offered to take Margo for a couple of laps as a passenger in the Corvette so that she could develop a little clearer picture of the overall track layout. And this really helped. As she changed back into the driver’s seat and took off after the rest of the field, she began to figure out the easier corners. Quickly she became smooth through the Esses and through the Riverside, Truck Stop, and Bus Stop sequence. She even began to come to grips with the complexities of the East Loop’s Cotton Corners!

With the final session, she was able to build on her smooth lines through these corners and to see her speed begin to inch up until previously inconceivable entry speeds became routine. With her knowledge of the course improving, and with the Corvette responding to better balance, she began to look at improving her line through some of the more difficult corners as the session wound down. Confidence began to grow, and Tom was delighted – and clearly demonstrated his support for Margo to all who were in the grandstand overlooking the start / finish line when she passed a slower car down the main straight on the last lap!

A week or so later we went for a drive in the canyons behind Malibu – roads that we have driven many times before. But for the very first time, Margo’s experience from the days at the tracks, was clearly visible - even more in evidence then when she drove down from Carmel, two weeks earlier. She was a lot more confident and was able to drive through many corners without lifting when before she had been hesitant and breaking before and in the corners. It’s just a delight to see.

In a couple of weeks time we head back to Willow Springs for our third session and it will be very interesting to see how much knowledge we take back with us and whether the experiences we have had translate into even smoother lines through the track. I am hopeful, but we will just have to wait and see. But at any rate, the opportunity we have to participate at this level is proving to be the most enjoyable part and I am certain that as we roll up to the track we will be just as ready to go as the rest of the drivers on the grid!