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!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


A nice post, and one to start off the new '09 season.

I hope you and Margo stay with NASA and keep it as one of your mainstay hobbies, but I understand there's only room for so much fun in ones life.

From the conservative front (again), moving up to a different tire will add serious times, speeds and dangers to your experience. I would say stick with the street tires (even the hardened Perellis) for now, until someone (i.e. an instructor) tells you you need more grip.

I'm anxious for this season as well, I got the M3 Dyno'd the other day for Time-Trial classification (new for '09) and turned out a 210 Hp to the rear wheels, not too bad for a 11 yr old 6-cyl (normally aspirated) m3.

see you next week