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!