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!