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!