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!