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 …