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!

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