Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Fifth Element

It wasn’t to be, after all; we missed the final weekend of NASA’s Southern California (SoCal) region’s 2009 program. It was going to be touch and go anyway as we had just returned to Los Angeles, having spent a week in Sydney, Australia. On arriving in Simi Valley, a family emergency arose that saw us spending the weekend navigating the Interstate system instead, as we drove back to Boulder.

However, we had spent a weekend at Buttonwillow Raceway in October, and had really enjoyed it. I am very pleased to write that we are both showing signs of improvement and the good form we had demonstrated at Cal Speedway the previous month turned out not to be an anomaly. The picture above is of the Corvette before heading to Buttonwillow, leaving the car wash, where it had caught the attention of the local Simi Valley constabulary – the new black and blue color scheme suggesting to the officers present that it would make the perfect backup for their mobile command center. In case they needed to get somewhere in a hurry, of course!

We have built a friendship with Brian and Jan, our Starbucks buddies in Simi Valley. After spending weekends with them at Willow Springs and Cal Speedway, they joined us for the weekend at Buttonwillow – a track they least liked to drive in their ‘Vette. Brian had made some major modifications to the car and was a little anxious to see how it would perform. With a new cam, new intake manifolds (port and polished), new headers and long pipes, and re-mapped engine software, his ‘Vette was putting out more power than a showroom version of the C6 Z06 ‘Vette.

And the weekend at Buttonwillow saw us once again, as it just so happened, spending our last outing for 2009 in our C6 Z51 Corvette Coupe. Supercharged, with improved transmission software, and newly shod with Toyo R888’s on wider wheels. The picture below gives you and idea of how the old Pirelli tires looked, compared to the new tires, after dutifully supporting a year on the open road as well as 6 weekends at the track.

Two weeks before Buttonwillow, however, and with Fall making its first appearance across the Rockies, we signed up for a three day weekend at the new High Plains Raceway (HPR), just outside Byers, Colorado. This was only an hour’s drive from our house in Boulder, and we had been relishing the thought of checking out this new track. Two different clubs would be running programs, with the Colorado Exotic Car Association (CECA) running on the Saturday and NASA’s Rocky Mountain region running a full program on the Sunday. And did I mention the track had an open lapping day on the Friday!

Brian and Jan flew in and spent the weekend with us in Boulder – but this time, our car of choice would be the Infiniti G37S coupe. We were growing fond of this car and found it the ideal choice with which to learn a new course. Brian, on the other hand, had arranged through a friend, to learn the track in a Viper SRT/10 roadster and the picture below is of the odd looking team that resulted. I never did get to see much of Brian and he quickly adapted to the “black asp!”

The track had opened earlier this year. And what a treat! With corners labeled “Danny’s Lesson”, “Ladder to Heaven”, “High Plains Drifter”, and the “Prairie Corkscrew”, the track took full advantage of the many elevation changes the location afforded. And spending Friday afternoon to figure it all out? Priceless! It was an experience well worth the time invested – it made the rest of the weekend’s outings more enjoyable!

Unfortunately, this time Margo remained in Boulder, tending to the family – but what an experience she missed! As you would expect from an open lapping day, the caliber of participants spanned the full range from novice to out-and-out racer. At one point, I was on the track at the same time as well-known NASA NoCal “American Iron” racer, and just to have the opportunity to watch his lines, at least until he rapidly disappeared into the horizon, was well worth every penny I spent! Later, I took a few laps with him as his passenger, and really appreciated his skills!

NASA Rocky Mountain region runs a much less formal program than any of us, familiar with SoCal, are used to. But the instruction provided by David Wright, Group 2 instructor, was the equal of what I had experienced at SoCal. At one point, the head instructor, Kevin Rogers pulled aside all the Group 2 drivers to caution us that drivers, new to Group 2, often experience a falling away and become frustrated. They begin to miss apexes, and stop using “all of the track”. For those with an interest in progressing to Group 3, it was important to stay focused on these basic fundamentals of driving, as bad habits are so easy to develop at this critical juncture and, left unaddressed, were likely to keep them from joining Group 3, should that be their objective!

Even with the basic elements of cornering well understood however, I found myself continually in traffic and, with more passing opportunities, coming upon braking areas from everywhere on the track that gave me a different perspective on corner-exits every time. This led to me making some pretty frenetic adjustments, earlier in the weekend as I drove in smaller groups, with many more passing zones, as I struggled to nail my braking points. But with the words of Kevin in the back of my mind, I worked hard on hitting my apexes and on using the whole track!

With the opportunity to spend time alongside a racer in his street ‘Vette, as well as with my friend Allen who frightened the life out of me in his Viper, especially when he did a late pass on Brian in our Infiniti Coupe, with Jan alongside as a passenger, I was given the perfect opportunity to really come to terms with the track. When we finally left HPR late on Sunday, after two and a half days of track time, the brakes on the Coupe were in a pretty sad state - the original equipment pads weren’t really designed for the heat that we generated - and the rotors looked pretty badly scored. The Coupe’s original Bridgestone tires, even though they performed extremely well and much better than I had anticipated, had been scrubbed down past the wear bars and looked every bit as bad as the brake rotors!

And the question we asked ourselves as we headed back to California was whether we really wanted to track multiple cars, or were we going to revisit tracking just the ‘Vette. Both cars were in need of new tires, some attention given to their brake rotors, and new sets of brake pads. It seemed pointless to spend the money on upgrading and maintaining both cars for track days. After much discussion, we decided to go back to the much-maligned ‘Vette. The picture below is of the afternoon we spent changing the wheels and tires on the ‘Vette having just replaced the front rotors as well as all four sets of brake pads.

The first reaction from our instructors was dismay as they caught sight of the Toyo R888s. What were we thinking? Circulating with HPDE Group 1 and 2 drivers, they were likely going to hide a multitude of driving sins, so we were informed. But we liked the feel and given that we had no aspirations of ever becoming racers, we managed to complete eight sessions without putting a wheel in the dirt. Certainly, the “turn-in” was much quicker and, once warm, the grip was terrific!

Following the success we experienced at Cal Speedway, and then again during the previous outing at Buttonwillow, we decided that I would drive all the sessions on Saturday and Margo will take the Sunday sessions. It may not be the best option but we continue to push back on taking two cars to the track – it is, after all, just a sport where the objective for both of us is to spend the weekend having fun and staying safe. And splitting the days this way ensured that we came away from the track having achieved exactly that – fun, in a safe environment. Over the course of the weekend, however, I was to learn even more about the track, and the ‘Vette.

Running in Group 2, I was with two or three particularly good drivers for HPDE “newbies.” They improved a lot, as the day progressed but during the first session, where I led the group out onto the track, I was just a little more familiar with the course and was able to put together a number of consistent laps. Fulton Haight, our instructor, set himself up for us to play “follow-the-leader” so that we could all get a better feel for the line, and it really helped. By the third session, however, I was no longer able to keep up with the lead two or three cars and two of them were “promoted” to Group 3 by the end of the day.

In the ‘Vette, I wasn’t putting together enough good back-to-back laps and I was a little down on speed. I now have a T-Shirt that reads “I’m not consistently good, but I’m sporadically great!” And that about sums up how I felt by the end of the weekend! The track gradually showed less hostility towards me and the ‘Vette, yet it’s way too soon to think of it as a friendship!

Watching Margo was quite the revelation. Starting out cautious, with an instructor fully aware of how she approaches each session and how she works best with minimal input, she continued to improve with every lap. Margo, more than anything else, drives smoothly and “manages” the gas peddle. The big ‘Vette is so easily thrown off-line, but I never saw as much as a nervous twitch all weekend with her behind the wheel. As the last session of Sunday came to an end, the smile was as big as it was genuine, and the degree of satisfaction from her accomplishments about as high as I have ever seen it.

For the weekend, we were able to enjoy the “creature comforts” we rarely experience at the track. Brian and Jan had just purchased a luxury 36’ RV and had tailored their ‘Vette to the track. So suddenly lunches and dinners became something we looked forward to and Saturday night’s cocktails and steaks proved exceptional. The picture above is of “Team Corvette” early morning Saturday.

Brian had been running very well and, following on from his experiences at Byers HPR, even though he didn’t particularly care for the Buttonwillow course, he was always mixing it with the quickest drivers in the group. In talking with Brian, he told me how their Group 3 instructor talked about the “fifth element’ – yes, there’s the exit and working back from the exit, there’s the apex, the turn-in point, and the braking zone. These four elements we are all very familiar with – but a fifth? Yes, you need to be aware at all times of your “position.” There’s no point to blindly master a specific line if you are rarely going to be given an open track!

In a rush, it came back to me. As I laid down laps at HPR only two weeks earlier, and where there had been a lot more passing zones, I frequently had to make adjustments as I approached braking zones, and as I transitioned to the turn-in, from different track positions with every lap. I had been preoccupied with trying to push the car to a spot on the track where I was comfortable, prior to braking. What I hadn’t realized was that I was experiencing first hand the subtleties that come with driving in traffic. I still have so much to learn!

No clearer demonstration of this was given to me then when Fulton came to me late Sunday afternoon and asked whether he could take the ‘Vette out in a Group 3 session and would I like to come for the ride. The instructors were still concerned about the “drivability” of the ‘Vette, particularly when the automatic transmission was controlled by the paddle shifters. Last year, early attempts at smoothing the torque delivery through programming changes had made the car difficult to control. Fulton suggested that if I was serious about continuing with the ‘Vette in 2010, he needed to see just how drivable it could be in the hands of someone more experienced competitively driving a high-torque car.

“I will drive a few laps as though I was a Group 3 driver,” he suggested as we left the hot pits. But after a few laps without incident, it was becoming clear he liked the big ‘Vette. Turning to me, he simply said “sweet!” And then he pushed the car a lot harder yet still below the level I am certain he could have if it had been his own car, and passed every car we came across. Physically man-handling the ‘Vette in a manner it would be many years before I could emulate, Fulton’s driving of the ‘Vette revealed a side that exemplified the true nature of America’s sports car!

The track is no different whether you participate in Group 1 or in Group 2. It’s no different if you are in the more advanced HPDE Groups, either. And it’s definitely no different for the racers. Irrespective of the level of experience any one of us may have, the track remains constant. The only issue I now have is that I am less able to get a clean lap as there’s always traffic with “trains” to join. With the tracks less hostile, and the car more manageable even as I become aware of the fifth element, 2010 should be a blast! Already the planning has begun and the upcoming holiday season looks to be nothing more than a minor distraction!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Give me a “brake” – concentrate!

National Auto Sports Association (NASA) events take a break over the summer months as attention switches to the annual NASA Championships. This event is for racers, and not for students like us participating in the High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program, so we just have to wait. After the successful weekend at Auto Club Speedway at the end of July, our next weekend with NASA will be in early October when we return to Buttonwillow.

We are planning on continuing using the Infiniti for the last two weekends of the season, as these will be held at Buttonwillow, and we have become better drivers at this track following the switch to the Infiniti coupe. But the weekend at Auto Club Speedway has fueled our enthusiasm for getting even more track time, so we decided to explore opportunities outside of NASA.

Our good friends Brian and Jan, who have joined us for several weekends with NASA, have spent time on the track with Speed Ventures, and as this club’s next event was planned for Laguna Seca, we thought we would join them. Not as participants, but as observers to see how other clubs ran track days. But we still had a lot of fun – and the picture at the top was taken of Brian and me dropping down through the famous “Corkscrew” at Laguna Seca.

Brian was extremely generous as he took Margo and me out for sessions, even though we both knew that Brian backs off a tad when there are passengers along for the ride. All the same, we have now experienced Laguna Seca up close and we are looking forward to penciling in a return weekend as part of our program in 2010.There had been a number of changes made to Brian’s ’08 C6 Vette, following the weekend at Auto Club Speedway, which had significantly improved the engine’s performance. More aggressive camshaft, new intake manifold (with a beautiful port and polish job), and American Racing headers with long pipes – the final dyno readings showing he now had about 470 “real-world” rear–wheel horse power.

As impressive as these figures were for the naturally-aspirated ‘Vette, since Brian was driving the 300 plus miles to and from the track he elected to stay with street tires and brakes. There were some anxious moments before driving out onto the track but as the laps unfolded, he made the adjustment, and the car ran smoothly and consistently all day. His best times came in the last couple of laps of the last session when he decided to “have a go.” But the ‘Vette is likely to get “new shoes” shortly as well as brakes (the rotors were beginning to crack again) and they were a concern for him at Laguna Seca. No question, this could quickly turn into a nightmare if his brakes weren’t up to the job!

Parked, as we were, among the other ‘Vettes, there were still many other interesting cars to look at. A transporter had come down from Alberta with a BMW, two Porsches, and a C5 Z06 ‘Vette. This group caught my eye as back in the ‘70s I had lived in Edmonton, Alberta, and driving down to Monterey had to have been quite the adventure. Across from us was a young lad with a nicely prepared supercharged Acura NSX that performed extremely well on the track. Nearby was a Radical powered by a Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle engine that turned in some of the fastest lap times. The picture below is of the ‘Vettes, preparing for the next track session.

I had trekked up to the mid-point of the corners in the corkscrew, as I wanted to see Brian in action. I was with Jan who had brought along her camera as, in this session Margo would be Brian’s passenger. But what caught my attention was a new Nissan GT/R “Godzilla” that had arrived late in the morning and was now out on the track and mixing it up with a BMW M6 coupe. Brakes squealing, front ends forced down hard onto the track and scraping loudly, and the roar of the exhausts as drivers jumped back onto the gas - experienced from only a few feet away - was an astounding sight! More theater than you could experience from watching a Cirque du Soleil performance. I loved it!

Seeing the transporter from Alberta reminded me of a night, back in the mid ‘70s, when I took a walk around my hotel in Boise, Idaho, and came across a BMW dealership. Only a few weeks earlier I had taken delivery of my own new BMW 530i from an Edmonton dealer, but on this showroom floor, sparkling under floodlights, stood a new BMW 630i. I though it was the best looking coupe I had ever seen. Now, standing trackside at Laguna Seca, I watched the M6 battle the GT/R, only to see it falter and fall behind, unable to maintain the pace. The early effort had reduced the BMW’s brakes to mush!

As Brian’s ‘Vette rolled into the paddock from the next-to-last session of the day, with Margo still strapped in as his passenger, his front right Michelin began to loose air and within seconds was flat. Running my hand over the tread, I detected a small leak and on closer inspection, it revealed a small puncture most likely from a nail or screw that had been picked up earlier. Probably on the drive up to the circuit as the track was being kept very well groomed. After the heat cycles the tires had gone through, whatever had made the puncture had probably been ejected.

Removing the wheel and throwing it, somewhat dejectedly, into the back of our Vette, we headed into Monterey to find a tire shop … not quite the finish to the day we had anticipated. Over a Starbucks, as we waited for the tire to be patched, we began talking of our next outing. We had joined the group with Speed Ventures to check it out and really like the way club organizer, Aaron, ran the show. And while Margo and I certainly enjoyed the opportunity, as passengers, to familiarize ourselves with the circuit from the right hand seat, we still wanted to get more track time ourselves. Anywhere!

Checking out the NASA web site, I came across the site of NASA’s Rocky Mountain region. With our primary residence in Colorado, it seemed understandable that we should check them out and I came across an invitation to register for an event at the new High Plains Raceway (HPR), east of Denver. The event would be for one day only – Sunday September 27th. That seemed extremely fortuitous, as Margo was going to be back in Colorado that weekend working out of our house, and tending to family obligations.

NASA events usually span a weekend so, being curious about NASA only running a one day event, I dug around a little to find that the weekend would be shared with another club, the Colorado Exotic Car Association (CECA). I had seen emails about CECA from another club I belonged to, and as I searched for a registration page for the September 26th event, I came across an opportunity to spend a Saturday on the Colorado State Patrol Driving Academy Track. It was a small facility but the club was only expecting thirty cars to show up. This looked absolutely perfect for what we waned to do – a whole day out on the track!

So, just a week later, we found ourselves atop a messa, behind the city of Golden, Colorado, waiting to get through the padlocked gates of the Academy track. And the photo above is of cars lined up waiting to get to the facility. While I was half-heartedly expecting to see patrol officers lined up in the pits and acting as corner workers, perhaps even taking down our license plate details, there was no State Patrol presence whatsoever. And with only a small group of very sociable participants, the amount of time on the track was wonderful – the complete opposite end of the spectrum to anything we had previously experienced with NASA, or even with Speed Ventures.

When I posted the previous blog entry covering our weekend at the Auto Club Speedway (a.k.a. Cal Speedway) I wrote of how I enjoyed time driving “solo” and of how it was “not a criticism of the instructors I had been given, or a suggestion that I needed to ignore the feedback they provided, but rather a recognition that for many of us, progress only comes when we get the opportunity to ‘talk ourselves’ around the track.” I also wrote of how I “had arrived relaxed, ready to drive! And the progress I made was a reflection of the emotional investment I had put into my preparation.”

At the Academy track in Golden, what I had experienced a few months earlier at the Auto Club Speedway, Margo experienced first hand as well. I had volunteered to be a corner worker and spent more than an hour watching Margo drive the car for two thirty plus minute sessions. And what a sight! A little anxious at first, as she built on the experiences from her early morning sessions, she quickly developed a rhythm. We had taken the car onto the course during the lunchtime “parade laps” and checked out our braking points and where we should turn in, and this proved helpful for both of us.

Below is a diagram of the circuit, for those who not be familiar with it, and I was stationed as a corner worker at turn 5. I had a view of each car as it left the pits, and then made its way up through the “chicane” made up of turns 1, 2, 3, and 4 and climbed up to turn 5 – there were several elevation changes that made the track very interesting. After completing turn 5 the cars went flat out over a small bump before braking for entry onto the main straight.

It was during the second session that Margo aggressively pursued a new Calloway supercharged Z06 Corvette, only to be given a “point by” a few laps later. Maintaining a pretty consistent separation for the duration of her session, she matched it with a pair of hot Vipers – one of them a grey ACR driven by a New Zealander, Tony. After returning to the pits, Margo was invited by the Calloway driver to get in under the shade of his awning as they settled in for a bit of a chat. With an open session beckoning, it was my turn behind the wheel of the car.

And yet again, after only a couple of laps in this next to last session of the day, a brief lapse in concentration saw me spin the car in turn 6. And yes, it was a case of when in spin, both feet in! But it was strange – where were my brakes! It was enough to hear Brian worry about his at Laguna Seca, but now I really needed mine! The car kept on powering through the thick undergrowth, throwing out vegetation in all directions, before finally stalling. On came the dreaded “Check Engine” light but, after restarting the car, I was able to reverse out of the scrub and then I attempted to drive back to the pits.

The car simply wouldn’t go – no matter how I feathered the gas peddle, I couldn’t bring the car back up to speed. Seeing Tony in the pits alongside his Viper, I asked him to jump in and check it out and Tony promptly lit up the car – nothing wrong with the car at all. And I just couldn’t figure it out. But the lapse in my concentration ended the day for us as we headed, yet again, to the local tire shop to have the wheels taken off and the tires removed and the bead checked. A one and a half hour process that the lads at Golden’s Big O tire shop simply did it for free! I decided: my next set of tires? I am going to ive them a chance to bid!

It wasn’t until we took the car back to the dealer on Monday morning, for a follow-up service and where the engine codes generating the Check Engine message could be analyzed, that we found out that I hadn’t been on the clutch and brake but rather the gas peddle and brake. Momentum and the disorientation that comes with a spin, had seen my feet move to the right. And afterwards, the car had refused to go fast as I had simply put the car in 5th gear …

Sitting outside another coffee shop, yet again, waiting for the tires to be checked and cleaned, wasn’t quite the way we had expected to finish the weekend. But the car will find its way back to the track and, as we sipped our coffees, once again we began to talk about the upcoming event with CECA and NASA. I can’t say enough about the wonderful support we received from the CECA club – the organizers and the participants were all terrific and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

But I have to work on my concentration – three major spins over the course of a year. Each time I was distracted by other cars – drivers I had grown to know quite well had me looking around for them. Checking my mirrors at just the wrong moment! The sessions at the Auto Club Speedway had been completely incident free but I had been tagging along behind an excellent driver (our friend Jan), and concentrating hard on following her lines.

Alone, often in front of drivers I know, and letting up on my concentration has led to my undoing of late. Clearly, this is something I need to work on. Staying focused no matter the distraction, and eliminating the mistakes they cause, is becoming a priority for me. I really don’t want to finish another weekend in a coffee shop contemplating what-ifs!

I don’t want to miss out on the final sessions of the day - I would really like to end this pattern! I have sipped way too much coffee over the past couple of weekends. And I truly would enjoy the break!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Johnny needs a fast car …

The weekend before last saw our return to Cal Speedway, which is better known these days as the Auto Club Speedway. This is a major facility that hosts NASCAR and Indy Racing League (IRL) events, and is a far cry from the usual tracks we drive. The centerpiece of the track is the banked oval familiar to all who watch NASCAR events, and the photo above is of me, on the banking between turns T1 and T2, during a late morning session on Saturday (photos by

“The oval (that you will drive on) is, technically,” our instructor Fulton later explained to me, “NASCAR 1 (entry) and NASCAR 2 (exit).” For groups like National Auto Sport Association (NASA), we use the “Roval” configuration that combines part of the NASCAR banked oval with a road course laid down within the infield. What Fulton was telling me was that we would be driving down the main straight of the oval – shaped more like a “D” than a true oval – and rounding turns T1 and T2 before exiting part way down the back straight. And as the picture above illustrates, the sensation that comes with driving on a banked track, and following the lanes that are so visible on our TV sets whenever we watch NASCAR events, is unlike anything we had previously experienced in our High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) sessions.

We approached this weekend with some trepidation. Readers may recall from the posting of April 5th, ’09 “Best laid plans ...” that our last trip to this venue had seen us poorly prepared mentally. It was during an extremely stressful period for both, Margo and I, and we had arrived at the track emotionally drained. As I wrote at the time, “while nothing on the car failed, and there were no incidents, I never made it out onto the circuit itself.” Even though I had taken extra steps to ensure the ‘Vette was good to go, I wrapped-up that post with the observation of how “I have a much better feel for all the preparation I have to do” and being prepared to drive on the track “applies equally to us as humans as it does to the car.”

How far we have come since April! We arrived at the track relaxed, and looking forward to going fast and enjoying ourselves. We had reserved a garage so we could be out of the sun and have a place where we could simply hang out. Our good friends Brian and Jan had their garages alongside – Brian with his C6 ‘Vette coupe, and Jan with her “Dinan 3” BMW 328 coupe. Even so, nothing quite prepared us for the sensation that comes from driving through the tunnel, running directly beneath the track, and surfacing in the paddock behind the pits with the grandstands towering over us. We certainly had moved up to another level, at least as far as atmosphere was concerned.

“The secret to a low lap time at Cal (Speedway) is to hold your foot all the way down on the throttle as you enter, apex, and exit T2 - the big banked turn at the end of the banked straight,” recommended Hal, a racer and a good friend of ours, who is familiar with the track. He then added “the infield is a bunch of reasonably long straights tied together with non-technical turns. It is important to make every one of those infield straights be as long and as fast as possible.” Non-technical turns! Ah the luxury that comes with experience!

As for me, at that first session on the track Saturday morning, the turns looked as intimidating as all heck, and working backwards from the straights and figuring out which corners were throwaways took all of Saturday to sort out. But with guidance from my instructor Derek, I was able to gradually piece it together and, a little sooner than I had expected, I fell into a rhythm that saw me tracking smoothly and developing a consistency. And with that, a growing sense of confidence. I was definitely improving on previous sessions at other tracks.

Cal Speedway rewards those who bring their fast cars, and as I passed the “big-torque” cars lined up for tech-inspect, Mustangs, ‘Vettes (even a new Corvette ZR1), and a pair of menacing black Ford GTs, all I could think of was the song by Chris Rea, “Johnny needs a fast car” and its opening verse:
“Johnny needs a fast car
Johnny needs it bad
Johnny always do the best whatever Johnny has
Johnny needs a fast one
Johnny needs it now
You got to give him something to let him show you how”

I wasn’t going to be showing anyone how, but the sentiment rang true all the same as around me the expressions on the faces of the drivers reflected how they hoped they had brought a fast car! And so the time came to drive out onto the track – and it was everything I had expected. It was big and easily accommodated all the participants for each session, and the picture above is of me in traffic during an afternoon session on Saturday.

It was during the third session that I was once again reminded about letting my concentration slip. I had been lapping with Fulton directly behind me – this time he was not in his red Mustang, but in John Matthews’ tattered, red, early model BMW M3. With only a little more than 200 rear-wheel hp, it was a grossly-underpowered momentum car if ever I have seen one. Not! Pound for pound, this car is ferocious and John has laid down some very quick times in it – but unlike on previous occasions, I didn’t let Fulton’s antics get to me and I concentrated solely on the track ahead. Although I had given Fulton a point-by, he stuck with me for a couple of laps, but eventually he passed me as we approached the first infield chicane that led to the “button-hook.”

Still no concerns – but out of the corner of my eye I saw that Margo was in the passenger seat. And, clearly enjoying herself, as Fulton’s guest! So I turned, smiled, and waived to her – a natural response I thought – only to hear Derek remind me that I better get myself back on line for the chicane, or there would be no way that I could carry the speed I had into the button-hook. Ooops! The focus quickly returned, and all was OK – just a little “unsettling of the car” as I exited the button-hook, and not anything I hadn’t managed to catch before. It was a reminder, however, of the necessity to be completely focused on the track, at all times, no matter the situation, and it was a quick whack across my “mental” knuckles!

The Infiniti G37S coupe that Margo and I were driving was plenty fast enough for our skill level. But even so, we were to find out that the effects of aerodynamics couldn’t be ignored – no matter what line I took, or how early I came down hard on the gas in the complex leading to the oval, the car simply wouldn’t go faster than 125 mph. (After the weekend, I took the car back to Infiniti to learn more of the “governor” restricting top speed only to be told that there wasn’t one!) As my racer friend Hal reminded me, it could be that “you may have run out of hp, and settled in at 125 - pushing a big chunk of air …” Turned out, “Johnny” didn’t have his fast car after all!

The good news that came with my efforts on Saturday was that on Sunday, Derek signed-off for me to move up to Group 2! For me this was a big deal – but for those unfamiliar with NASA and the HPDE program, this simply meant that I had successfully completed the “novice” program and could now participate as a “beginner!” Following her session on the track Sunday morning, Margo proved incredibly accommodating and suggested that I might benefit from more track time, running in Group 2.

Returning to the track in time for Sunday’s second session, I was hand-timed by Brian, with his iPhone. no less, lapping at 2 mins 18 secs. Sessions at this level are not timed – this is driver education after all - and while these times were nothing to get too excited about, what I was pleased to see was that I was putting together multiple laps with the same time. Consistency! Yes, at last. For me, this was pretty pleasing until Margo reminded me of how Jan, in her BMW coupe, had started positions ahead of me and had finished (after just 8 laps) half a lap ahead!

For the afternoon sessions I decided to drive behind Jan and take a closer look at her lines – and I improved considerably. And the picture above is of me, in traffic, managing to hang in with her. Returning from the third session, Brian looked at me and said “where did that come from! After watching you this morning – you took a big step up! That was a whole new level of driving!” Given a little space, and some separation from the others in the group and the distraction that came with being in a pack, I managed to stay in a lead group of three for the whole session!

I think that everyone who decides to take a car out onto a track, and to learn how to drive it better, gets a huge lift from any positive feedback. And when it comes, it only fosters a desire to improve even further. The added sessions that Margo so generously gave to me, made the difference, and I just cannot wait to get back out onto the track. Again, my thoughts took me back to the Chris Rea song, and to the next verse:
“Johnny needs a fast car
Johnny needs a break …
He'll always make it look good
You'll always see him smile
Give Johnny a few inches and he'll give you back a mile”

And talking of fast cars, the ‘Vette-faithful may be wondering where’s our C6 Supercharged ‘Vette! Will it be returning to the track any time soon? This week we began working to get the ‘Vette ready for the track, and the picture below is of the ‘Vette being fitted with new brake rotors and pads – yes, after six weekends on the track, there was nothing left. We will also be replacing the tires as they, too, took a beating and look a little worse for wear. However, we are in no rush to bring it back this year and we will be watching NASA’s 2010 program to see what makes sense – we still have much to learn about each track.
As far as Buttonwillow goes, our next venue, we will continue with the Infiniti and we may continue driving the Infiniti at Buttonwillow indefinitely. The track provides little reward for drivers, with our level of experience, who turn up in big-torque cars – but at Willow Springs and Cal Speedway, it may be a different story. The storyline, for the weeks ahead, however, will not be about our choice of cars, but about the progress we make with more time at the track. And I am really beginning to enjoy my time driving in group 2!

“There comes a time,” suggested Brian, “when you need to just focus on driving the car and not trying to second-guess what is being suggested by your instructor!” Alone in the car, trying different lines, and with nothing to distract me, I settled down and found the consistency I was looking for. For me, driving Sunday’s sessions alone in the car, time seemed to slow down and I could see so much more of the track. It felt as though I had more time to brake, turn-in, and exit. “Without instructor distraction you may find you improve and retain more information from session to session,” added Fulton.

This is not a criticism of the instructors I had been given, or a suggestion that I needed to ignore the feedback they provided, but rather a recognition that for many of us, progress only comes when we get the opportunity to “talk ourselves” around the track. As with any other discipline, whether sailing or flying a plane, there is a need to “solo” and to come to terms with your limitations and with what you can and cannot do. This past weekend, I came to appreciate what I needed to do for me to become consistent and smooth.

After all, this past weekend we had arrived relaxed, ready to drive! And the progress I made was a reflection of the emotional investment I had put into my preparation. Among good friends, as well as those eager to see us progress, and with levels of stress down considerably from the last time we were here, the results truly exceeded anything I had thought possible and, as improbable as it seemed only a few weeks back, Cal Speedway could easily become a favorite track of mine – one I will eagerly look forward to next year. I sure will return the favor, and give Margo extra sessions the next time we visit.

And the “Johnny’s” may just have their fast car … but then, maybe not, and perhaps after all it’s just not that important!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Further tales of two 'Vettes!

This weekend we will not be at Buttonwillow, after all. A family illness necessitated our return to our home in Boulder, Colorado, where we will be spending the next couple of weeks, and we have no chance of a quick dash back to participate in NASA’s HPDE event at what has quickly developed into our favorite track. We hear this weekend the cars will be circulating in a counter-clockwise direction, whereas the previous time it had been clockwise. Check out the post of April 30, ’09: Are we humans? Or are we dancers?

Perhaps the saddest sight to see is both of our cars sitting in the garage hooked up to battery charges, as pictured above, where they will remain until much later in July. With the arrival of the July 4th weekend we head to Copenhagen for a much-anticipated cruise, courtesy of Princess Cruise Line, around the Baltic that will take us to a number of Eastern European cities, including St Petersburg, Russia, Tallinn, Estonia, and Gdynia, Poland. In the meantime, it try not to think about the Corvette (and the Infiniti, of course) locked away in a garage, some 1,000 miles away from Colorado, in our other home in Simi Valley, California. And look for a post on this adventure next month – but I am digressing.

While walking along the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder a few nights ago, Margo and I ventured into a notorious T-Shirt store: it has some of the funniest ones I’ve ever seen. And I came across one that illustrated my digressions: it said “Of course I don’t have ADD. Look, there’s a rabbit!”

Simi Valley has developed into quite the Mecca for Corvettes, and there’s been barely a day go by without seeing one a little out of the ordinary. There’s a very active Simi Valley Corvette club that regularly meets at a little Italian restaurant nearby and whenever they gather in the car park, there’s always a lot of well turned-out Corvettes to look at.

This is also the neighborhood where Margo and I first met our good friends Brian and Jan – they too drive a C6 Corvette that they take to the track, so it was pretty easy to form a friendship on this basis. They also track a BMW 328 coupe, just as we track the Infiniti G37S coupe, so there’s always something to be discussed each time we get together – over apple-tini’s! (Brian and Jan introduced us to this amazing drink, which when served at Maestro’s together with a touch of dry ice, looks like a witch’s brew, but tastes fabulous!)

While waiting for a latte at the local Starbucks, only the other week, in pulled a beautifully restored 1966 C2 Corvette with a big-block 427! The driver owns a custom motorcycle shop but, his custom cruisers aside, this Corvette is very much his pride and joy and the picture here is of it parked right outside the café. In between business transactions that he was actively pursuing at the time, we were able to exchange a few pleasantries as we both waited for our coffees.

But this is not the end of the story. The next day as I walked across to Starbucks, on my “morning tea” break, I spotted what I thought was the same red C2 Corvette parked by the café again. This time however, I am really taken by surprise. As the photo below suggests, it is not the same Corvette but something equally as special. The license says it all – it’s a 64 Z06! While many Corvette owners know that the C5 and C6 models included a Z06 performance option, the original Z06 performance option came out with the introduction of the 1963 C2 – but I wasn’t sure about a ’64! Seeing the license plate really made me curious!

We may be far away from our C6 Corvette and missing the opportunity to be Buttonwillow, but we shouldn't be expecting to get too much sympathy as we have a 2003 C5 Corvette Z06 in the garage of our Boulder home. This is our back-up car and while recently we were tempted to take it out for a track session at a new circuit just opened to the East of Denver, we hesitated. With two cars spending time at the track, do we really want to take another car onto the track? The Z06 is very special for us, as it was our first Corvette. It is not something we are likely to sell, or trade, anytime soon. But owning a Z06 has given me the opportunity to come to appreciate the heritage of the Z06. For a picture, check the earlier Looking back on '08

As I walked closer to the car claiming to be a 64 Z06, it certainly didn’t look like a typical C2 restoration – for starters, it had modern C6 wheels and, clearly visible through the spokes, what looked suspiciously like Z06 brakes. And the suspension appeared to be modern as well. As I walked alongside the car, sure enough, there on the right fender was a current C6 Z06 “505hp” badge. Look closely at the photo I have included below. The car was a hybrid put together by Greg Thurmond, owner of GTS Customs – check out his site

Well, I quickly sent him an email – his wife had driven the car that morning to Starbucks – and later that day I dropped by his shop located, imaginatively enough, on Simi Valley’s Easy Street! Who knew! What Greg basically does is accepts pretty distressed C2s (and C1s for that matter) and then takes a highly modified C4 frame that he chops around a bit, before dropping in C6 engine, including today’s latest LS7. There are other power-plant options, and when I suggested installing a Supercharged LS3 “Stroker” I seemed to recall Greg even knew my friend Andy Green out at A&A Corvette Performance.

The last time we attended a NASA weekend at Buttonwillow we were able to get up close to Corvette’s of a completely different ilk. We came across a team competing with a Factory Five GTM Supercar. For those who may not be familiar with this car, Factory Five has set about creating a Corvette for the track that’s done pretty much about right! The big difference from any other Corvette that circulates the track is that this is a mid-engine set-up, with the beauty of the LS7 fully visible underneath the rear window, a la Ferrari. For more information, check out the Factory Five web site:

There has been a lot of discussions of late on blogs and in online forums about the failures of both Chrysler and Chevrolet. And a lot of it had to do with their respective performance cars – would FIAT even bother to continue producing the Viper, for instance. And would the new GM even want to have the Corvette remain part of Chevrolet – or would they be looking for a buyer for this product as well? Or, are there already enough “models” in the ‘Vette family that could sustain it as a separate “marque” alongside of Chevrolet and Cadillac?

Chrysler is out of Chapter 11 and FIAT management is in place – and to the surprise of many I suspect, the first plant put back in operation was the small shop that produces the Viper. So perhaps it’s not all that bad for America’s super cars, and perhaps we will continue to see both cars developed even further. And while there is discussion on the blogs as to whether Corvette needs a mid-engine “racer”, or even a four-door model (as Porsche, Aston Martin, and even Lamborghini are planning to produce) to sustain it as a stand-alone marque – the consensus, as of today, is no it does not need anything additional. The basic C6, the optional C6- Z51 (as a junior track car), the C6-Z06 (as “the” track car), and now the C6-ZR1 “Supercar” give the marque a substantial product lineup, better than nearly anything else from the more famous manufacturers.

While Buttonewillow is not the best track for the big American torque cars like the Viper and the “Vette, every time you hear one blast down the main straight, it still sends shivers up my back. There’s absolutely nothing like the sound of the current crop of large displacement, high-revving, big-iron (mostly alloys, of course, these days) engines! But for Margo and I, this track will continue to remain the venue for which we think the Infiniti G37S coupe is the best option. We simply have learned so much more about the track from the driver’s seat of this car, than in all previous outings in the “Vette.

But our Supercharged C6 ‘Vette will be making a comeback. Even if it’s early next year! The hidden lesson for us both is that nothing comes for free, and with all the enjoyment we have had to date from participating in NASA HPDE events, the cars have taken a beating. Right now, the ‘Vette is facing new rotors and brake pads (with a change of fluids), and new tires. The Infiniti, too, will probably need new brake pads after the next weekend outing – which, according to the calendar, will see us return to Cal Speedway and that’s a track that typically is pretty heavy on everything, including brakes! It’s all become a case of managing the “variables” of the two cars – and looking to make sure we do invest any additional money in only what we need!

I have already begun the email exchange with Andy at A&A Corvette Performance and I will let him “freshen-up” the Vette in a month or two’s time, once we are back in Simi Valley. Andy can easily do the brakes and perhaps we will change the tires as well. Maybe even add an anti-sway bar that is a little stronger – and adjustable. Oops - that’s probably an example of “not really needed!” May have to cross that out! And maybe it’s even worth considering changing out the rear-end for one of Andy’s taller units 3.1:1 perhaps? Oops – maybe a bit extreme and not really necessary at this time! The ‘Vette has the standard rear-end that comes with all automatics (around 2.4:1), and getting more torque to the pavement may have advantages at tracks like Willow Springs! Yes, definitely, that’s what we need – more torque to the pavement! Ah, but the list is growing.

In one of our more-recent L.A. freeway drives, we must have run over something, (most likely rubber that had separated from a truck tire), that rebounded underneath the car. When we last had the ‘Vette up on the lift, it had a large piece of an underbody panel missing, with a substantial hole revealing the inner-workings of the windshield washer receptacle and its associated plumbing –probably not an ideal situation for future track outings. But Andy knows what will be required and it will be included in the list as well. So it’s not just being on the track that generates all the maintenance items on our check-list, but being Margo’s daily drive the ‘Vette comes with a price!

Logic dictates that there’s little sense in messing up two cars as we continue with NASA’s HPDE program – and looking at both the Infiniti and the ‘Vette, it’s the ‘Vette we really love to drive. The Infiniti is serving a wonderful interim job in helping us learn the tracks – and the ease with which a “momentum” car, like the Infiniti coupe, gets around the track lessens the distractions that otherwise arise from a big torque car where throttle management becomes so critical. And ‘Vettes belong on the track –their history is liberally sprinkled with success from every corner of the planet. Even when the prettier examples are restored, as Greg does so well, they still need to perform as well as they look!

Having experienced tracks with a few less cylinders has had its advantages and definitely improved our relationship with the organizers, yet Margo and I do so miss “Frankenstein”. And if what we have learnt from the Infiniti translates to better management of the beast when it is next out on the track – then the lessons have been well worth it. Already, 2010 doesn’t seem all that far away and the next three or four outings will only help in better preparing us for the inevitable return of the ‘Vette. After all, there’s only so many times I can look at the photo at the top of this posting without cringing and being overcome with remorse – life on battery feeders is no life for a car, engineered to deliver in a way only the ‘Vette can!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A tale of two ‘Vettes!

The weekend at Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR) proved to be a great experience for Margo and me. We had been looking forward to it and the circuit didn’t disappoint. Our first outing onto a race track back in 2008 had been at Willow Springs and now we consider it to be our “home track.” At the same time, we always associate Big Willow with our ‘Vette and it seemed a little odd to arrive, early Saturday morning, driving something other than the big fella!

The ‘Vette remains Margo’s daily drive and there’s rarely a weekend in Southern California when we can’t be found driving along the coast or up through the canyons. The photo above is of a recent drive along Mulholland Highway where the resident photographer from “” happened to snap us on a descent into the local watering hole. The ‘Vette is limping a little these days, battered from six weekends of track duty but as we arrived at the track, fate would intervene and the ‘Vette wouldn’t be left out, finding its way back into the weekend’s activities.

For those reading the NASA Forums, and checking out the postings for HPDE, they will have read of how Margo and I have been considering different ways to approach weekend sessions sharing the one car. We first went with me driving all four sessions on Saturday and then Margo having all the session on Sunday. We then tried alternating sessions across the whole weekend. But now we are back to driving for the full day – all four sessions – and I have to admit, driving all four sessions back to back to back to back really helped with our education, and particularly for Margo who improved out of site.

But a lot of this had to do with not only the encouragement and support the NASA leadership provided but with the access we were given to “passenger seats” alongside Fulton Haight who heads the HPDE 1 and 2. On Saturday, Margo had several outings as Fulton drove his Mustang, as well as John Matthew’s M3 and, on Sunday, I was given the same treatment as well. The was an unexpected bonus that we both appreciated.

On Saturday, as we waited to take to the track for the first session of the weekend, I was alongside a BMW B7, the Alpina-modified 750 limousine with a supercharged 4.4-liter V8 churning out 500+ horsepower. Behind the Alpina was an Ultimate radical powered by a Corvette LS7 engine that also churned out 500+ horsepower. Perhaps my complaint that the Infiniti G37S was a “momentum” car wasn’t too far from the mark after all. And the photo below is of this eclectic mix of cars.

My instructor for the day? Well, there was a last minute change and in jumped John Matthews – NASA SoCal’s HPDE Director with oversight for all HPDE programs. “So, let’s see how well you drive, Richard. I will be looking at how you use your hands, and where your eyes move as we lap the circuit,” John announces over the earpiece I now have wedged into my helmet. Was I nervous? My first session was the worst of the day and definitely a step backwards from my previous outing at the Big Willow. I don’t think I hit a single apex and I didn’t take advantage of the full width of the track with any corner exit I completed. And the speed I was able to carry suffered accordingly. So much for home track advantage!

Yes, it was an experience alright – but I had little time to dwell on it as the next session started shortly after the first session’s download completed. But this time, John modified his approach and gave me time to drive a few laps before he provided further input. And with each session, I improved. Due to scheduling conflicts, as John was also participating in Time Trials, he missed my third session but the instructor who stood in for John again let me work on my lines with only brief interruptions as he helped me find better lines.

During these early sessions, I had seen Fulton in his Mustang Cobra closing in on me as he paid close attention to how I was driving. And I could see Margo sitting alongside him. Fulton would lead the HPDE 2 drivers out, drive the right line, and watch as the students emulated his moves. He would then wave on by two or three cars and watch the next group – this proved to be an effective way to monitor the progress of the slightly more experienced HPDE 2 drivers. Then he would be off chasing down any other car with ease – he was clearly enjoying himself in the role of teacher! But I was encouraged to see him paying some attention to me.

My final outing of the day saw me under John’s tutelage once again. The position of my hands had been fine but John did teach me to look much further up the track as I approached turn 3, and to look for the exit out of turn 9 and I improved significantly. It did make a big difference. Unfortunately, in the G37 coupe, there were enough differences in geometry that I just didn’t nail turn 1 as well as I had been when in the ‘Vette last time out. I turned in too late, and never quite managed to get it right – even though I knew what I needed to do.

Pressure? Well that arrived in a hurry during that final session. For a couple of laps with John, I had Fulton driving John’s M3 (with Margo as a passenger) pressing me so closely that it looked like it was old-school NASCAR drafting. No, I couldn’t see the plates on the front of the M3. Once I caught the back of my car, as it tried to come around, exiting turn 3. Yes, I was trying, and yes, I continued to miss the turn-in to turn 1 but otherwise, I was happy with the way I was handling the situation and after a few more laps, I waved Fulton by and he went after other drivers. These were good times, after all!

That night we caught up with our good friends Brian and Jan who joined us at our hotel. Jan brought her BMW Dinan 3, a “tuned” 328, while Brian brought his C6 ‘Vette. Relatively new to NASA, having participated only once before, Brian would be joining other intermediate level drivers in HPDE 3 that is led by Mike “Mad Dog” Peters. This would be the first time I would be seeing him drive among a highly competitive group of drivers – HPDE 3 has provided more than its fair share of excitement over the years – and I was interested in seeing how it turned out for Brian.

The picture above is of the pre-grid for HPDE 1 and 2 early Sunday morning. I am about to jump into Fulton’s Mustang as Margo is joined at the front by Jan in her BMW coupe. While we waited for the session to start, I was able to watch Brian up close, and he impressed the heck out of me – he was running the big ‘Vette on wider, super-sticky, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, and he was one of the quickest cars in HPDE 3. There’s still no substitute for a big American V8 unleashed in anger! And Brian had a ‘Vette that simply bellowed, and watching him and knowing there was another one locked away for the weekend, made me just a little envious! Brian’s session ended, and HPDE 1 and 2 drivers turned into the hot pits and headed out onto the track.

The G37 coupe was running well and Margo was having fun. With each lap it was easy to see that she was picking up speed and her lines looked pretty good. She wasn’t having the same trouble I had had with turn 1, and I could see her confidence growing. As for Jan, from the moment she drove onto the track it was clear that this was familiar territory! Turns out that Jan has been to Willow Springs many times before, and Big Willow is one of her favorite circuits. Watching her pull away from the others in her group, she demonstrated a degree of smoothness that I could only hope to replicate on some future outing. She was good!

During Brian’s first HPDE 3 outing, Jan had worked the pit for him – reading tire temperatures as he came into the hot pits halfway through his session. But this was a distraction for Jan, so I volunteered to perform the same duty during his second session. While Margo and Jan headed for their cars, I was standing by the pit wall as Brian’s group completed the warm-up lap. But it was very different this time – there was a pace car leading a small group of drivers that had separated from the rest of the pack. And Brian was leading that group. As the pace car left the track, the green flag dropped, and they were off.

I watched as the big ‘Vette out-accelerated the other cars, and continued on deep into the braking zone. Brian had just installed racing pads and he was using them well – braking late and hard before rolling onto the gas and driving through turn 1. This turn exits behind a small grandstand so the cars are momentarily out of sight. The next thing I saw was a large cloud of dust – someone had left the track. I looked as cars come out of turn 2, but Brian was no longer with the leaders!

He appeared a little later well back in the second group – it was his ‘Vette that had slid from the track. Black flagged, he exited the track quickly and headed for the black flag station where the car was checked. The news wasn’t good. Even though nothing looked wrong with the tires, a low tire pressure warning message appeared on Brian’s console screen. Air was escaping from a rupture somewhere.

There are two things that are problematic with these particular Michelin tires – they need heat before they become effective. Unfortunately, following a slow warm-up lap behind the pace car, they hadn’t come up to temperature. Brian had simply asked too much from tires that were still relatively cool. The other issue with these tires is the thickness of their sidewalls – and, as Brian went off, a stone had punctured the sidewall of his right rear tire with disastrous and un-repairable results. This we later discovered as we had the tires checked at the trackside tire shop. Times were now not looking good for Brian.

While he talked to the tire folks, I had a good view of Margo coming off her warm-up lap and I saw her pass two cars a few yards before the braking zone leading into turn 1. After completing the pass she quickly pulled back onto the line, braked hard, accelerated through turn 1, and was gone. It was just so good to see that I shouted and tried to get Brian’s attention. But Brian did need to get to his download session or Mike would have been less than impressed. He gave me the keys to the ‘Vette as and headed off to catch Mike, so I put some air back into the tire and drove it as gently as I could back to the entrance of the track where I parked it alongside the gatehouse.

The sessions continued and Margo kept on improving. The picture above is of Jan and Margo on pre-grid where, this time, Jan was at the head of the line of HPDE 2 drivers. And I was to be, once again, Fulton’s passenger, where I would enjoy a great view of them both – close enough to hear every gear change and to see every steering input. The third session of the day has been notorious for “offs” as it comes late in the day, after everyone has relaxed over a good lunch. But there was little to talk about at the end of the session with no major incidents of note – everyone communicated well. And once again, Margo had been a little quicker than on previous outings. And Jan wasn’t passed by anyone other than Fulton who watched her for a few laps before letting her go.

With the close of the last session, Fulton turned up with a new set of Simpson Driving Gloves in his hand. “To the most improved driver in the field today,” he began, “I have this gift and it goes to Margo! She progressed to where she had entered turn 8 at more than 100mph! And I can recall when she had barely been able to maintain 60 mph!” And the driver of a Honda Civic SI turned to me and said “I have been trying to pass your wife all day, and hadn’t managed to do so once. She can really drive!”

“These were the best of times. These were the worst of times,” so wrote Dickens as he began his Tale of Two Cities. And the news from Brian wasn’t good – he now had no way to get the Vette home as there just weren’t any spare Michelin’s to be had. Not in the size he needed – and the last picture here is of our blue ‘Vette, back in Simi Valley, with its rear wheels being removed.

Brian had left his ‘Vette back at the track and had come around to “borrow” the rear wheels from our ‘Vette so that he could swap his “holy” tire for something he could drive home on. We hadn’t planned on involving our ‘Vette in any way – but now it was helping get another ‘Vette home.

I am still in awe of the ‘Vettes, and while we will continue to lay down many more laps in the G37 Coupe, there will come a time when the ‘Vette makes it back. A number of folks came up to me and asked me when the ‘Vette would be back and, I have to admit, I sorely miss Frankenstein. But then again, the next time it does make it to the track, Margo and I will be better prepared to enjoy it, and to wring the best out of it!

Until then, it’s the G37 Coupe that will rack up the miles as we continue to figure out this sport involving cars … should we stiffen the sway bar? Would a better wheel and tire combination help? Should we consider a wheel alignment more suited to the track? A little negative camber and a small amount of toe-in? Oh yes, come these better times and there’s no end to what could be done!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Are we humans? Or are we dancers?

Well after the adventures of the previous month at Cal Speedway (Auto Club Speedway) it was good to be making a fresh start. We had talked about it for many nights and remain convinced we did the right thing in not turning any laps when we weren’t fully focused. We had heard so many stories of cars going backwards into the high-speed walls of the big oval that not taking any chances seemed to make a lot of sense to us.

The picture above is of Margo alongside the new car early Saturday morning and just after we had been through Tech Inspect. Our plans for the past few weeks did change and we ended up driving back to our Boulder home in the Escallade but we did decide to start a new chapter and to take the Infiniti G37S to the track. Our “momentum” car – and every time we make that comment we can see a wry smile spreading across our head instructor Fulton’s face. “You guys,” he would start and then walk away!

Consistent with starting a new chapter, and as forecasted in the previous blog posting, The G37S carries the #2 signage as #1 will always be the ‘Vette. Frankenstein is now in the garage, on a tickle feed, and in need of new shoes and socks! In the downtime since Cal Speedway, I took another look at the tires, brake pads and rotors. And they are in worse shape than at first thought – wear bars showing through on the Pirelli’s, the perimeter lip on the rotor’s very pronounced, and the pads worn all the way to where the sensors will begin to tell me to change! So probably, a couple of sessions on the high-speed, banked Cal Speedway circuit may have done us in – we may have indeed dodged another bullet. At the very least, the return trip home on LA’s freeways may have been very difficult.

The big question among our fellow drivers was all about whether we would even return. I had posted some comments on the NASA HPDE Forum – and many of the answers were anything but encouraging. But they weren’t altogether far off the mark either, and I took some time to address the main points. In the words of a couple of the contributors, yes, I did “suck it all in” and showed up for another crack at it. Key among the concerns? Wanting to have the same instructor across a weekend, and splitting time in the car each day!

The picture below is of Margo with our instructor Steve, lined up and prepared to take to the track for the start of Saturday’s second session. I had completed the first session an hour earlier and I was pretty anxious to see how well Margo faired. I had been very pleased with Steve and had found my way around the track from the time the session opened. Yes, I was going to spend some time that weekend looking at my lines through the sweeper before the esses, and there was always time to explore other lines through the buttonhook. Ryan had called for all sessions to be clockwise on ButtonWillow course #13 and I have to admit, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite courses.

What had always impressed me with this relatively short course have been the variations a driver has had to face. Depending on how you count turns, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on this topic, there are more than 12 and as many as 30+ turns. And when you get them right, there’s a flow to the track that is akin to the movements of a dancer where - so much is communicated from only a few minor inputs. Indeed, after completing one session, Steve was quick to point out that we truly danced our way around the track!

The point remains, however, that ButtonWillow is a very technical track that highly rewards those with the patience to find their own line around it. Some turn sequences – those following Cotton Corners, for instance – can be completed with a single steering input. And when you get it just right, the rewards are indeed tangible as you carry more speed to the Bus Stop that leads you into the fabulous high-speed turn that is Talladega. Perhaps not of the caliber of Big Willows turns 7, 8 and 9 but all the same, generating the same kind of excitement.

Saturday finished with Pizza and Beer – and a chance to catch up with a couple of the other drivers. Margo had experienced trouble focusing during her second session but Steve managed to work with her to sort it out and her last session of the day was terrific. Much improved too, she was looking forward to Sunday. I had tried to sort out my lines and in the end, was pretty happy with what I had achieved.

Before my first session Sunday morning, I enjoyed two separate outings with instructors. First up, it was an opportunity to observe the most advanced HPDE4 / TT group, and in a race-prepared Mustang driven by my previous day’s instructor, Steve. Unfortunately, after two laps, he broke the drive shaft. But it was enough to open my eyes about the right line to drive, and I was able to later apply what I had seen when it came to my time on the circuit. Seemed like I was cursed - this was now the third time out with the more experienced drivers when something went wrong.

This failure had followed one back in late ’08 at Willow Springs with Fulton in his Mustang, when he had been forced to a halt with fuel problems. Then earlier this year, and again at Willow Springs I had been with Carlos in his ‘Vette, only to spin off the track after three or four laps. Two laps with Steve on Saturday certainly didn’t give me any confidence to ask others to take me out – but Fulton stepped in and asked if I would like to be his passenger in a “borrowed” M3. No way would he leave me thinking I was only ever going to experience a handful of laps!

And can Fulton drive - coming as soon as it did after the laps in Steve’s Mustang, I could see the subtle shifts and adjustments he made with his lines (and finding ways to be quick, completely off the line, as he passed). Steffen, who I have mentioned in earlier blog postings and who had started out with us in HPDE 1 last year, was doing his first laps in HPDE 3 and Fulton stuck to the tail of Steffen’s BMW barely inches from his bumper – but Steffen never lost his cool. That was impressive, too!

I took to the track myself only a few minutes after the ride with Fulton, and left the pits in third (Margo had pre-gridded the car in my absence) and, for some reason, they had waved the HPDE 1 cars out onto the track ahead of the more experienced HPDE 2. Cautious during the warm up lap, as I had just been in two very fast cars and had seen the consequences of others being too aggressive after being a passenger, I watched the track, found the line, and for the first time (and thanks to the Infiniti), got into a rhythm.

With the warm-up lap completed, and with the session flagged open, I passed Mark’s Nissan 350Z and then, on the second lap pulled up alongside the Porsche Carrera of my fellow student Charlie, who pointed me by. The track opened up in front of me, and for the rest of the session I went very well finishing the twenty minute session by catching the tail end of the slower cars that had started behind me. I had been worried about Dave in his Civic SI as well Joe in his Z06 ‘Vette, but I didn’t see anyone. The question from Charlie, after we had pulled off the track, was about who had been driving the Infiniti! His instructor had told him, “Richard's instructor is probably driving the car, so let him go, see if you can stay with him, and watch his lines! But no, I had no chance.” Perhaps the best complement ever!

As the day progressed I began to work on a couple of different lines - and during the third session, I lost it completely as I missed an apex (by about 2 feet) and wide enough to get me out of shape for the following sequence of turns. For readers who are familiar with driving ButtonWillow clockwise, I had the rear brake away from under me as I tried to pinch the turn that leads to the Bus Stop. Oh well, lots of dirt came to rest in Charlie’s Porsche, as he slowed when he couldn't see the track! Again, it’s all about focus and I had lifted my eyes, only for a fraction of a second, to check my rear view mirror and to see how close Charlie was, but it was enough for me to miss the line through the apex that led to my undoing.

The picture below is of the Infiniti after a session completed and as we head for our parking. Attentive eyes may recognize the Factory Five GTM Supercar in the background – brought out to compete in the HPDE 4 / TT events. A relatively new car from Factory Five it caught our attention from the first time we saw it – a well sorted-out lightweight body on what was all Corvette underneath, but with a mid-engine set up visible beneath the rear hatch’s Perspex covering. Now that’s a track Corvette done right!

While Sunday had been very productive for me, Margo had struggled to regain her focus. While she had enjoyed her last session with Steve, our instructor for Sunday had been Scott, another accomplished racer. Finding herself in the middle of an aggressive group of drivers and as courteous as ever, Margo had spent most of her time providing point by’s and had left herself with very few laps with which to work. It sometimes happens, but it then becomes very hard to retain focus – something that is essential for tackling the turns of ButtonWillow.

We left the circuit pretty pleased with our selves after what had happened the previous month. The Infiniti? What a surprise - the body rolls, the tires squeal the whole time, but turn off the electronic aids (DVC Off) and put the auto transmission into sport mode (DS - but don't touch the paddles) and the characteristics of the car changes - the computer recognizes you are at the track, and begins to downshift as you brake hard and puts you into a gear better suited for exiting the corner all rather magically. It was fun!

We will be taking the Infiniti to Willow Springs. The advantage it has over the ‘Vette is that you stop worrying about the car, and focus on learning the track. While we are pretty comfortable with the Willow Springs circuit, having driven it a number of times, we are still far from being smooth, or fast, and taking the Infiniti will certainly help us to do that.

The only thing that we will miss this time is the dancing we did at Buttonwillow, particularly through the esses, as well as between the Eastern and Western loops. It really is that light feeling you get when you move with grace. An experience very few of us ever get to enjoy, and we are so happy to have experienced it – even if we captured it only for a moment.

Will we continue to split the sessions? And will we continue to work with different instructors? Yes, we will continue to stick with the plan. It will mean our progress may not come as quickly as for others but heck, we have no intentions of becoming racers, and this does ensure we will continue to have fun! And for us, that continues to remain our sole focus.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Best laid plans ...

Margo and I spent a short time Friday walking along the beach at Point Dume. It wasn’t what we originally had planned to do that day but it was sunny enough, and it gave us a chance to relax. And the picture above is of us framed by the coastal scenery of this popular spot along the Malibu coastline.

As regular readers of this blog may recall, this was the weekend we were to be at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. In fact, in the final paragraph of the posting of March 13, 2009 Preparation? Just Drive! I had expressed just how excited I was to be even thinking about driving on that track, suggesting that there would be “lot’s of film to watch, as we have never been to this circuit.” I closed with “but if the turn of events of the past weekend are anything to go by, I have a much better feel for all the preparation I have to do. And the car will be just fine, thank you very much!”

The lead up to the weekend’s planned event had been quite exciting. A friendship that we had developed over coffee at Starbucks next to our condo with Brian and his wife Jan - fellow Corvette owners (actually Jan owns a BMW, but Brian is the Corvette fanatic)- had generated their interest in participating with us in the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) program. I had mentioned Brian in the blog posting of March 1, 2009 “Sunday, March 1, 2009 Preparation! Preparation! Preparation! as it was Brian who advised me to take a closer look at the suspension and wheel alignment that led to our visit with Dave up at North Star Corvettes.

The Southern California region conducts High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) events and we had often talked about this with Brian and Jan, and for this outing they had decided to register as well. The photo below is of our Corvettes parked side by side outside Starbucks on Wednesday afternoon. Brian had only just returned from West Coast Corvettes where he had installed new wheels and tires – upgrading to wider Michelin Pilot Sports Cup tires, a much softer and stickier tire well suited to the track. Brian also had added new adjustable sway to help counter the impact from tires providing a lot more grip.

Before heading to the track Thursday night, I had the car back up on the hoist for a thorough safety inspection and followed up with both Dave at North Star (there was some minor fluid seepage around two of the new braided metal brake lines, and that turned out to be OK), as well as with Andy at A&A Corvette Performance (we found a large hole in the interior panel behind the supercharger, and that turned out to be simple road damage). The timely responses from both Dave and Andy were impressive and I continue to turn to them whenever I have concerns.

We drove from our hotel to the Auto Club Speedway early Friday morning, and headed straight for the technical inspection area to be checked and stamped before we would be let out on the tack. While waiting in line we were able to catch up with fellow drivers Steffen and Carlos and they were just as eager as we were to get out onto the track for the first time.

As the tech inspect "pass" decal was applied, nothing could have prepared us for what was to follow. And for those readers who may have caught my most recent business blog posting of April 1, 2009 Prepared, body and soul! they would have read of how “this weekend didn’t go to plan. While nothing on the car failed, and there were no incidents, I never made it out onto the circuit itself. Even though the car was prepared mechanically, it turned out that I wasn’t prepared emotionally.”

Well, although this was not a part of the original plan we had for Saturday we whiled away the time driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, and the picture below is of Margo, captured a little later, walking along Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, checking out the shops. And the Yellow Rolls Royce convertible that she is passing is parked outside this shop every weekend – whether you like the yellow livery or not, it makes quite a statement. You can always count on seeing great cars while walking this street and the day didn’t fail to deliver the usual mix of Ferraris , Maseratis , Aston Martins which routinely distracted me from any further viewing of the window displays.

After all the preparation we had undertaken for the car, we were just not prepared for a change to our plan and to not take turns driving on all three days. At Willow Springs only a month earlier, we had begun to talk about the goals for the coming year. When we attended our first weekend with NASA I was so pleased that we made it through to the Sunday afternoon without an incident and as we headed home we were already talking excitedly about the next outing. At that time, just being comfortable with being on the track, lapping with our fellow drivers and not holding up anyone, was about as aggressive a goal as we had set for ourselves.

But with the conclusion of the first weekend of 2009 I began to talk about moving up – and not just up from the novice “Group 1” drivers to join the beginners in “Group 2”, but to see if I could graduate to the intermediate “Group 3” under the watchful eye of “Mad Dog” Mike. This came as a surprise to Margo, who thought we are just enjoying a weekend outing on the track, with no intentions to become racecars drivers. Yeah, my “competitive gene” emerged … and this idea about my advancing to the next level had unfolded in a discussion with our instructor, Tom. He proposed that, as Margo and I wanted to track just the one car, by separating us into these two different groups, Margo would get a lot more track time and have the opportunity to advance as well.

What we did not know at the time was that Tom and Fulton (who shares the leadership of Groups 1 and 2 with John), had talked about change in our goals and, in proposing the new plan – entirely for our benefit - only ended up really surprising both of us. Fulton strongly recommended we take to the track with a different instructor, as well as strongly encouraging us to really reconsider spending a full day in the car rather than alternating sessions each day.

The enthusiasm with which Fulton embraced the pursuit of our new goals only managed to completely unsettle us and in the subsequent dialogue between Margo and I, our communication broke down completely. We became an unhappy couple! Something I take full responsibility for. As I wrote in my business blog “Prepared, body and soul!” you simply cannot drive “onto a racetrack when not in synch with everyone (as it) is never a good idea."

The unexpected turn of events got to me in ways I hadn’t imagined and experiencing a track that included a NASCAR-style oval with high-speed banked corners, just couldn’t be considered without our complete attention. This was a very serious track where the big torque cars like Mustangs, ‘Vettes, and Vipers accelerate well past 160 mph! Not for the timid or faint of heart is driving a lap of this track. Certainly, not for anyone as distracted as I was, or as badly bent out of shape as I had become.

Sunday is a good day to spend at car dealerships. While others may avoid walking onto car lots until they have to – I view it as a perfectly fine recreational pastime. Waking late Sunday morning I headed down to the local Mercedes Benz dealer where I knew they had new SL’s on the floor. Sure enough – I found the car I was looking for, an AMG SL 6.5 BiTurbo.

The picture below is of me checking it out as the salesman opened it up for us. At some of our recent outings with NASA, the instructors had been less than impressed with our newly supercharged eight-cylinder Corvette, and was strongly recommending that we loose four cylinders. This was an attempt to encourage us to learn how to drive in a less powerful car.

What then would be a better time than now, I thought, to turn up with four more cylinders and not with one supercharger but two turbochargers – but no, perhaps my sense of humor wouldn’t go over too well. Still it was worth the thought. But as we both looked at the Benzes, we realized that we were still not old enough to contemplate driving them – even down Rodeo Drive!

We have had a number of conversations with NASA SoCal volunteers and I think both sides have come to better understand each other. While it was pretty easy to talk about moving to more advanced groups, as I had been doing, I still need to spend more time on the track learning the circuits and improving my skills. I am comfortable driving in Group 2 on some circuits – ButtonWillow and Willow Springs are both tracks where, after a “refresher” ride with an instructor, I am at ease in Group 2. I can see myself easily staying in this group for the remainder of the year, and revisiting my goals to go beyond that only after the full year is behind us.

After all, Margo and I are only doing this to have fun and to go fast – not to develop the skills of racers! Our friend Brian had a great time. Sitting down with him this week it was clear that he had enjoyed himself immensely. We had really been looking forward to seeing him drive just as we were hoping he would see us both out on the track.

When Brian registered for the weekend, and in recognition that he had driven the track several times last year and had completed three days of instruction at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at Spring Mountain, Nevada, he was welcomed into Group 3. We were really pleased to hear the next time we caught up for coffee of how in one session he had recorded equal fastest time!

Will we be deterred by the events of the past weekend? Will we call it a day and move onto something else? When we drove into the garage early Friday afternoon, I went back to work and didn’t even unpack the car. It wasn’t till much later that weekend before I unpacked the luggage, tools, and icebox and the Corvette has looked a little unloved as it sits to one side.

But we will be returning to the program and today I completed registration for the upcoming April weekend at ButtonWillow – perhaps our least favorite track. There is still so much more improvement we would like to make. The next three weekends will see us covering a lot of miles – and all of them in the Infiniti G37S (pictured above) that has become our daily drive. Perhaps, with all this time in the coupe, it’s time to consider taking it to the track in April. Relative to what else we have in the garage, a venerable momentum car!

And possibly, the Infinity is a much better platform in which to develop our skills. The Corvette is definitely the car that gives us the most fun and we will continue to run it at tracks like Willow Springs and Auto Club Speedway – but for Button Willow, perhaps it is time to turn the page and begin Chapter 2. We haven’t completely settled on doing this but we have a lot of time to talk about it.

I closed out the previous posting with “if the turn of events of the past weekend are anything to go by, I have a much better feel for all the preparation I have to do.” Looking back, I can now reflect on how this applies equally to us as humans as it does to the car. And I am the better prepared now for having been through the experience. Let’s enjoy the track – having fun (safely) and going fast!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Preparation? Just Drive!

It really doesn’t matter how well you prepare for a weekend at the track, it’s not until you roll out of the hot pits and onto the track for the first session before you can tell whether the preparation was worth it. You can watch a lot of videos of other drivers, and feel as prepared as you can be, but there’s never any substitute for getting in the car and just “having a go” by yourself.

It is the first weekend of the new calendar year and the setting was the main track at Willow Springs – better known as Big Willow - just a little to the west of Rosamond, CA. It’s on the edge of the Mojave Desert and with spring still weeks away, the daytime temperatures were on the chilly side – perfect for any “forced-air induction” engines. And the C6 ‘Vette we take to the track has a very big forced-air induction engine. Conditions couldn’t be better!

The picture at the top of the page is of cars in pre-grid prior to one of the afternoon races and it was the first time I could recall seeing so many NASCAR-style cars, although I was to later find out that they were participating in the American Stockcar Challenge (ASC), an event our association, National Auto Sport Association (NASA), is supporting. The association organizes events for racers, as well as for students participating in their High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program.

Margo and I were students in a combination class of HPDE Groups 1 and 2, catering to Novices and Beginners, with instructors to help us out. After all, this was part of a program that would let us take our street cars safely onto race tracks, and to have fun experiencing the exhilaration that comes from driving more rapidly than we would ever consider doing on public roads. But it wasn’t just about going fast – it was about understanding how our car respond to the inputs we provide, with the objective of becoming better and more knowledgeable drivers.

In my previous blog posting on March 1st, ’09 “Preparation! Preparation! Preparation!” I gave a complete rundown on all the work we did following the last event of ’08. The week before the event we did change the engine, transmission, and differential oils. We also took the car back to Andy at A&A Corvette Performance for a routine check of the programming, and to give the engine bay one final inspection.

After all, it had been four months since we were last out on a track. Yes, the car was as well prepared as we could make it. And the picture below is of the ‘Vette about to leave the garage for the track with the growing collection of specialty oils and fluids clearly visible behind it. And then it was time to roll out onto the track for the first time, Group 1 students following their slightly more experienced colleagues in Group 2.

The warm-up lap was uneventful – I was the first car from Group 1 out on the track and I let a little separation open up between myself and the last of the Group 2 cars. The Flag Marshall waved the green “session open” flag, and as usual, everyone jumped on the gas. The track was cold, but on street tires, we were OK – but all the same, I felt the rear-end step out a little as I stepped harder on the gas leaving turn 3. It was easy to catch and I corrected without any second thoughts, and for the next couple of laps, managed to pass a few of the Group 2 tail-enders.

By mid distance I could see that I was catching the BMW ahead of me – so as I exited turn 5, I let the momentum push me out to my left, and I set myself up for a pass as soon as I was through turn 6 – a slight crest with a blind apex and exit. After a couple of laps, I had become familiar with this sequence of turns and didn’t think anything more about them as I focused on the BMW just ahead. Unfortunately, I had drifted a little off-line. I was turning as the ‘Vette crested the small rise so that, as I eased on the gas, and the suspension began to settle with the weight of the car mostly over the rear wheels, the car now pointed towards the infield. And that’s exactly where I went.

A few seconds before the agricultural excursion began, I could hear my instructor Tom suggesting something – but I couldn’t quite make it out (later, Tom told me that he was telling me to take it easy; from the time I approached the crest, Tom knew that I was going off the track)! We were both a bit surprised when all that happened was a brief spell of good old Aussie back-road driving. I kept the car straight, controlled it as it settled and then, with no other cars bearing down on me, returned to the track.

In the driver “download” classroom session that immediately followed the outing, it was a simple “off” to explain. Driver exuberance! And while I caught it, I really wasn’t prepared to be in the dirt that early in the day – while watching the film the week prior to the event I had become aware of other cars leaving the track but it never really prepared me for such an eventuality. As I headed back to our make-shift pits, it was all I could do to put the memory behind me.

The next track session saw Margo take her turn – and what a revelation. After the warm-up lap she immediately began to move up the field. As a spectator watching from behind the pit wall, I saw her pass a car on the back straight, then another on the main straight and continued passing other cars for the next few laps. She was really enjoying herself and she was driving smoothly and, with confidence, going a lot faster than in any other previous outing. At one point I watched her pull out going down the main straight, three wide, and pass two Porsche 944’s that had been chasing each other! The fuzzy picture I have included below is of Margo exiting turn 9 and coming up to speed on the main straight.

It wasn’t until after the session completed that she told me she couldn’t read any information on the ‘Vette’s heads-up display (HUD). She didn’t know what speed she had been doing - when she had been able read the display, every time she approached 100 mph she had backed-off. Well there was no evidence of her backing off this weekend and she really enjoyed herself. High horsepower car and all!

And it wasn’t only about how fast she was driving, she was taking some corners a lot better than I was able to – Margo was going about as fast as I was but she wasn’t standing on the brakes as hard. It looked to me like she was carrying more speed through the corners and the ‘Vette wasn’t hampering her development as a driver. A good friend of ours, and a racer in another NASA series, emailed me after the event to say:

“There is truth to the remark that it is harder to learn to do everything right in a high horsepower car. Lots of high horsepower drivers will over brake at corner entry because they know that they can roll on tons of power at corner exit, etc.”

And after watching Margo drive, I realized that I had been doing just that – accelerating hard, driving deep into the braking zone and braking hard, scrubbing off a lot of speed as I looked for the exit, only to then accelerate just as hard as I could. The problem with this approach was that I was unsettling the car, and not giving it any chance to be smooth. Margo, in comparison, was driving a little less aggressively but was hitting her braking zones, turning in for the corner better and, as a consequence, was driving through some of the more difficult parts of the track a lot better than I had been doing. Perhaps, afer all, she may end up being number 1!

Sharing the car, as we were doing, meant we were only driving for half the time of other drivers. But in so doing, we stayed mentally fresh and neither of us had to face being a spectator for a full day. Late last year we had entered two cars for one weekend, but we didn’t go on with it, preferring to continuing to share the one car. We were still treating these weekends as fun and even if it meant taking twice as long for us to progress through the ranks, it was worth it. As our good friend went on to add:

“I wouldn't let any of this bother you guys in the least. You should be in absolutely no hurry to advance. And advancing is not a carrot of any kind, really. The track is exactly the same in group 1 as it is in group 4.”

All the same, I still wanted to see what it was like to participate in a Group 3 session. So late in the day Sunday, I was invited to ride with a friend who had been in Group 1 sessions with us last year, and to see for myself what it was like in Group 3. He drove a C6 ‘Vette with some engine and chassis modifications, and he was running the same size rims as I was, but shod with slightly better tires. I had watched him on several occasions and could see that he really get around the track quickly.

I was very curious as to what it would be like but, I am not ashamed to say, I wasn’t anywhere near prepared for the intensity of a session like this – yes, I had been watching film of Group 3 and 4 cars, but it helped very little in communicating how much better the drivers were than we faced in the Group 1 and 2 sessions.

For me it further reinforced how poorly I had been taking turns 1, 5 through 7, and 9. It wasn’t as if my friend wasn’t braking as hard as I had been, as he was coming in much “hotter” than I was, but about the amount of speed he carried to the apex and how this launched him into the exit and onto the straight. As our Group 1 and 2 instructors kept reminding us, a couple of extra mph out of the corner often translates into 15 to 20 at the end of the straight! After this ride, I had no quarrel with that calculation,.

My instructor Tom had suggested that, for the coming year and on tracks I have already driven, I could consider starting with the Group 2 drivers. Depending on how well I went, I could possibly even consider starting in Group 3 later in the year. So, as I left my friends ‘Vette and went across to thank Mike, the Group 3 lead instructor, I told him how I thought I may be “graduating” into his group, come end of the season!

“No way!” came the response from our Group 1 and 2 chief instructor, John. “Get rid of four cylinders, and you might stand a chance!” responded our other lead instructor, Fulton. Both of these instructors have been very supportive and I was unprepared for what they said. “Look at buying an older BMW 325 and you will do a lot better,” they both suggested. But our instructor Tom then quietly told us that we were doing fine. I was about 80% there, and Margo was about 60% - and no, we shouldn’t give up on the ‘Vette. And our good friend finished his email exchange with us by pointing out that:

“There is a school of instruction that believes you need to start with 4 cylinder momentum cars. Namely, some people advocate:
Low powered karting -> higher powered karting -> 4 cylinder formula cars without aeros -> 4 cyl formula cars with wings -> .....
The counter thought is drive what you ultimately want to drive … look at all those transitions above and all the relearning that goes on with each transition!”

We had approached the weekend by making sure the ‘Vette was well-prepared. We had invested time and money in making sure the car would drive exactly as it was meant to and that we could be sure that it accelerated, turned, and braked as good as any other high horsepower car on the track. But what I hadn’t been prepared for was the poor grades I rated for the effort I put in on the track. There’s so much more I have to do, clearly, before there’s any further thought of advancing.

One thing I am considering doing next time is to turn off the HUD. Having seen how well Margo performed, when she couldn’t see it, made me wonder how much time I spent glancing at the instruments and checking the displays. I had been told that driving quicker was all about making incremental adjustments – inching up a few mph, for instance, every time through a turn – but what I was doing was spending more time checking than looking down the track. No wonder I was sacrificing smoothness, and missing my turn-in points.

So perhaps John and Fulton were not too far from the mark after all. As unprepared for their outburst as I was, perhaps I did need a bit of a wake-up call. Perhaps it really wasn’t about changing vehicles, and of stepping away from a high horsepower car! Could it be just a case of me taking time to prepare myself?

Over the last year I have been given so many suggestions and so much advice – was it time to just put it all aside and concentrate on driving? In the months ahead, I am certainly going to stop trying to balance everything I read and hear with what I am doing in the car – backing off the speed a little and just focusing on driving smoothly. It’s certainly worth a shot and who knows, maybe what car I am driving will not matter in the least.

And now it’s on to the next event at the very fast California Speedway; lot’s of film to watch, as we have never been to this circuit. But if the turn of events of the past weekend are anything to go by, I have a much better feel for all the preparation I have to do.

And the car will be just fine, thank you very much!