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!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Preparation! Preparation! Preparation!

When one year’s program comes to an end and there’s a break between the last event of year that’s ended and the first outing of the New Year, there’s scarcely a time when you are not thinking about your car, and about your own capabilities as a driver. Will the experience gained in one season automatically carry into the next? When you return to the track, even a familiar one, will lessons learnt be forgotten or will it just be a case of picking up where you left off the year before? I sure hope it will be just like with riding a bicycle: somehow it all comes back to me each time I pick one up!

If it were only that easy! I suspect that with just one year of experience under our belts, and with so much more to learn, it will be slow going for the first couple of sessions. There’s a reason why the High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program conducted by the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) starts with a Novice program (HPDE 1) before you move on up to the Beginners program (HPDE 2) and I am certain that I will need a couple of outings back in HPDE 1 before I venture up the next rung of the ladder. But will it be that straightforward? I need a lot more lap time, and a lot more seat time (in the ‘Vette) - but will ’09 see any improvements? After almost destroying the ‘Vette in the last event of the ’08 – will I still have the confidence to even try to improve? Or will I be watching everyone else move past me?

Since that last outing at Buttonwillow in early November ‘08, the winter months had us discussing our expectations for ’09 – Margo and I have spent a lot of time in the car commuting between Southern California and our home in Colorado. We also squeezed in a number of excursions up into the Bay area. These talks gave us an opportunity to look back on the year. And to talk of the times spent in crummy hotels, and the hours spent in MacDonalds!

Our conversations frequently drifted into opinions as to what to expect in ’09 – whether this year would be our last with NASA as we move on to do other things, whether we just participate in car club outings, or whether we immerse ourselves more deeply into the sport. And it hasn’t solely been all talk, there were some actions with the ‘Vette as well with time spent in the “shop”. The picture at the top of the page is of the ‘Vette, one cold and wet winter’s morning, outside of North Star Corvettes in Mountain View, California.

As well as spending time touring the Western States, I have spent evenings emailing good friends who are already successful racers. And I have been watching film of the tracks – spending one weekend watching the NASCAR race form the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Watching TV, as part of “research,” is always a good story! But the advice that I received, and the film and TV I watched, all confirmed that all I needed to do to the ‘Vette was a little minor “tweaking” in the months before the events of ’09 started in earnest.

As last year ended, you may recall how I remarked in my final post of ‘08 that I had “always enjoyed modifying vehicles – but I now have reservations about doing anything more to the ‘Vette until we get deep into the ’09 program.” And for once, I decided to follow my own advice as we went about sorting out a number of smaller, “manageable” items. The priority was to get the car to a “baseline” for consistent, repeatable, track times – in other words, simply check out the four key areas to do with engine and drivetrain; chassis, suspension and brakes; wheels and tires; and safety. And just “tweak” what really required attention, and nothing more.

I was most concerned about smoothing the torque delivery, not that the car was delivering so much more – something like 470 lb-ft at the rear wheels. By way of comparison, the magazine Vette, in its August 2008 issue, had put the latest Z06 Vette on the dyno and only managed to record 419.05 lb-ft at the rear wheels – and that made it the most powerful Z06 they had ever tested. We were producing another 50+ lb-ft and this was getting into ZR1 territory. And all the time, we were sending this power to the rear wheels through the standard GM automatic transmission! With every up-shift, the “torque shock” we felt through the drivetrain and the impact it had – stepping out the back-end each time - definitely was a “tweak” we needed to do. I wanted to see if we could rework the programming to settle the car down so that it could be driven a lot more smoothly.

We took the ‘Vette back to Andy of A&A Corvette Performance and he worked on the engine management software. By reworking a selection of the tables used to determine the fuel and air mix needed Andy reduced the torque shock transmitted through the drivetrain. And after several high-speed runs on the freeway, it may have just done the trick! Our first track outing will be the ultimate test, however, and we are keeping our fingers crossed that the work Andy did will help overcome the anxieties we have had.

Winter mornings are pretty bleak – even in Southern California. And when not commuting across the West, we found ourselves at the local Starbucks most mornings where we have developed camaraderie with a local contractor, Brian. Running a successful general and electrical contracting business has allowed Brian to pursue his love of Corvettes as well, and last year he took his C6 LS3-powered Vette to a number of track days. Brian had asked us “have we corner weighed our car? Have we lowered it to factory-low specifications?” Unclear of the implications, we polled out our friends as to whether this was necessary and whether we should include it among the “tweaks” being contemplated. After all, it did fall into the category of “chassis, suspension and brakes!” “A good performance alignment (like this) can do wonders, although you typically have to compromise a little for the street,” was the response in an email from Robert, a former racer and instructor.

I had a brief email exchange with our friend Hal – he campaigns a Mustang in NASA’s American Iron series and was instrumental in bringing us to NASA’s program – before eventually deciding to go with his recommendation to drop the car off with Dave Bonar of North Star Corvettes in Mountain View, California. With the understanding that the ‘Vette would continue as Margo’s “daily drive” he took a look at the brakes, the chassis height, and the wheel alignment.

The picture above is of the car after stainless steel brake lines were installed. “You talked of a spongy brake pedal as important (first step),” Dave reminded me as they swapped out the old lines and the photo above is of the new stainless steel lines installed. After completing the installation of the lines, in went Motul DOT 5.1 Brake Fluid to better withstand the temperatures generated during track sessions. He then lowered the ‘Vette to factory-low settings. When this was completed the ride height was 25+” Front (25 ¾” Left; 25 ½” Right) and about 28” Rear (27 7/8” Left; 28 1/8’ Right). I had also asked Dave if he was corner-weighing the car – something I had heard other ‘Vette owners say that they have had done.

The picture above is of the car still in the maintenance bay, prior to it getting a custom four-wheel “track” alignment. “Your alignment is more on the conservative side … give the car at least two days of track runs to improve your driving skills, Dave began before we do anything more, and then adding “(perhaps) I did not emphasize, (but) the "Delta" weight change was about 60 lbs.” When I reviewed the computer results, we had more positive castor, a small amount of negative camber, and just the slightest toe-in. Conservative, as Dave had told me, but enough all the same to provide a more responsive turn–in than before. The picture below is of the car up on the lift undergoing the four wheel alignment.

I went back to Starbucks and caught up with Brian. I showed him the charts and we agreed that this was a good beginning. “What about wheels and tires? Have you anything else in mind?” asked Brian. For sure, having the car’s brakes, chassis and suspension looked at and tuned for very moderate track use was a great start –should I be doing even more? Shouldn’t I really throw on the big wheels and perhaps a DOT-rated track tires, a set of Hoosiers, perhaps? As I was leaving North Star Corvettes Dave had shown me a great set of forged wheels with street legal (barely) Hoosiers and I had been greatly tempted. Ahhhh, perhaps another time!

Last year I had mounted a set of Pirelli P Zero Rosso tires to the stock rims and we run them for all five weekends. While I wasn’t completely sure the Pirelli’s hadn’t hardened-up on us (yes, there’s plenty of tread left but if the tire has hardened, that’s of little value) – I would like to make it through another two or three weekends before I do anything more. Given all the mods we had done to the brakes, ride height, and alignment, this really wouldn’t have been in keeping with the manageable changes I had contemplated, so I am going to defer doing anything until we have a lot more information. And I am loath to swap out the rear fenders to accommodate wider wheels and tires – Margo and I just like the look of the stock appearance of the C6.

As I went over my logic with Brian, he came back with “and what about safety?” The first time we participated in a NASA event it was at Willow Springs. Just before lunch we had stood horrified as a Mini Cooper S misjudged the entry onto the main straight and had speared across the track and onto the infield. The Mini hit an irrigation ditch and flipped many times. When it came to rest, it was a flattened twisty cue of metal bearing no resemblance to the Mini we had watched only moments earlier. Driving on a race track, even when it is part of a driver education program, will always have its risks and the thought of destroying the ‘Vette during the session often crosses our minds.

But the one lesson we learnt from the terrible accident we witnessed at Willow Springs was to approach safety improvements very cautiously. Unless you put the complete package in place – roll cage, seat, and harness – you may run the risk of compromising you safety and this is not something I would want to do. For the degree of competitiveness I experience in the sessions I participate, I am happy with the standard ‘Vette package for now. This may change in the future, but I am happy with what the ‘Vette provide right off the showroom floor.

The program in ‘08 showed us how much fun it is to take a street car to a high performance driving school. It taught us so much about the impact every driver input can have on their car – and it developed a better appreciation of the skilled race drivers like Hal and Robert really are. As I was about to leave Mountain View, Dave told me that he attended Northern California NASA events. How did he do? Turns out he routinely wins the events he enters: after all, it’s his business. “No serious ‘Vette owner would come to a specialist shop, like North Star Corvette, if the shop’s car came 6th, or 25th, or last he remarked. “Would you?”

And he had a point – it’s nice to know you have been well looked after and I think we will be going into ’09 with valuable lessons behind us - none more so than the continuing appreciation Margo and I have that it’s all about having fun. And of enjoying ourselves, as safely as we can!

On to ’09 and may we have one heck of a time!