Friday, September 18, 2009

Give me a “brake” – concentrate!

National Auto Sports Association (NASA) events take a break over the summer months as attention switches to the annual NASA Championships. This event is for racers, and not for students like us participating in the High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program, so we just have to wait. After the successful weekend at Auto Club Speedway at the end of July, our next weekend with NASA will be in early October when we return to Buttonwillow.

We are planning on continuing using the Infiniti for the last two weekends of the season, as these will be held at Buttonwillow, and we have become better drivers at this track following the switch to the Infiniti coupe. But the weekend at Auto Club Speedway has fueled our enthusiasm for getting even more track time, so we decided to explore opportunities outside of NASA.

Our good friends Brian and Jan, who have joined us for several weekends with NASA, have spent time on the track with Speed Ventures, and as this club’s next event was planned for Laguna Seca, we thought we would join them. Not as participants, but as observers to see how other clubs ran track days. But we still had a lot of fun – and the picture at the top was taken of Brian and me dropping down through the famous “Corkscrew” at Laguna Seca.

Brian was extremely generous as he took Margo and me out for sessions, even though we both knew that Brian backs off a tad when there are passengers along for the ride. All the same, we have now experienced Laguna Seca up close and we are looking forward to penciling in a return weekend as part of our program in 2010.There had been a number of changes made to Brian’s ’08 C6 Vette, following the weekend at Auto Club Speedway, which had significantly improved the engine’s performance. More aggressive camshaft, new intake manifold (with a beautiful port and polish job), and American Racing headers with long pipes – the final dyno readings showing he now had about 470 “real-world” rear–wheel horse power.

As impressive as these figures were for the naturally-aspirated ‘Vette, since Brian was driving the 300 plus miles to and from the track he elected to stay with street tires and brakes. There were some anxious moments before driving out onto the track but as the laps unfolded, he made the adjustment, and the car ran smoothly and consistently all day. His best times came in the last couple of laps of the last session when he decided to “have a go.” But the ‘Vette is likely to get “new shoes” shortly as well as brakes (the rotors were beginning to crack again) and they were a concern for him at Laguna Seca. No question, this could quickly turn into a nightmare if his brakes weren’t up to the job!

Parked, as we were, among the other ‘Vettes, there were still many other interesting cars to look at. A transporter had come down from Alberta with a BMW, two Porsches, and a C5 Z06 ‘Vette. This group caught my eye as back in the ‘70s I had lived in Edmonton, Alberta, and driving down to Monterey had to have been quite the adventure. Across from us was a young lad with a nicely prepared supercharged Acura NSX that performed extremely well on the track. Nearby was a Radical powered by a Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle engine that turned in some of the fastest lap times. The picture below is of the ‘Vettes, preparing for the next track session.

I had trekked up to the mid-point of the corners in the corkscrew, as I wanted to see Brian in action. I was with Jan who had brought along her camera as, in this session Margo would be Brian’s passenger. But what caught my attention was a new Nissan GT/R “Godzilla” that had arrived late in the morning and was now out on the track and mixing it up with a BMW M6 coupe. Brakes squealing, front ends forced down hard onto the track and scraping loudly, and the roar of the exhausts as drivers jumped back onto the gas - experienced from only a few feet away - was an astounding sight! More theater than you could experience from watching a Cirque du Soleil performance. I loved it!

Seeing the transporter from Alberta reminded me of a night, back in the mid ‘70s, when I took a walk around my hotel in Boise, Idaho, and came across a BMW dealership. Only a few weeks earlier I had taken delivery of my own new BMW 530i from an Edmonton dealer, but on this showroom floor, sparkling under floodlights, stood a new BMW 630i. I though it was the best looking coupe I had ever seen. Now, standing trackside at Laguna Seca, I watched the M6 battle the GT/R, only to see it falter and fall behind, unable to maintain the pace. The early effort had reduced the BMW’s brakes to mush!

As Brian’s ‘Vette rolled into the paddock from the next-to-last session of the day, with Margo still strapped in as his passenger, his front right Michelin began to loose air and within seconds was flat. Running my hand over the tread, I detected a small leak and on closer inspection, it revealed a small puncture most likely from a nail or screw that had been picked up earlier. Probably on the drive up to the circuit as the track was being kept very well groomed. After the heat cycles the tires had gone through, whatever had made the puncture had probably been ejected.

Removing the wheel and throwing it, somewhat dejectedly, into the back of our Vette, we headed into Monterey to find a tire shop … not quite the finish to the day we had anticipated. Over a Starbucks, as we waited for the tire to be patched, we began talking of our next outing. We had joined the group with Speed Ventures to check it out and really like the way club organizer, Aaron, ran the show. And while Margo and I certainly enjoyed the opportunity, as passengers, to familiarize ourselves with the circuit from the right hand seat, we still wanted to get more track time ourselves. Anywhere!

Checking out the NASA web site, I came across the site of NASA’s Rocky Mountain region. With our primary residence in Colorado, it seemed understandable that we should check them out and I came across an invitation to register for an event at the new High Plains Raceway (HPR), east of Denver. The event would be for one day only – Sunday September 27th. That seemed extremely fortuitous, as Margo was going to be back in Colorado that weekend working out of our house, and tending to family obligations.

NASA events usually span a weekend so, being curious about NASA only running a one day event, I dug around a little to find that the weekend would be shared with another club, the Colorado Exotic Car Association (CECA). I had seen emails about CECA from another club I belonged to, and as I searched for a registration page for the September 26th event, I came across an opportunity to spend a Saturday on the Colorado State Patrol Driving Academy Track. It was a small facility but the club was only expecting thirty cars to show up. This looked absolutely perfect for what we waned to do – a whole day out on the track!

So, just a week later, we found ourselves atop a messa, behind the city of Golden, Colorado, waiting to get through the padlocked gates of the Academy track. And the photo above is of cars lined up waiting to get to the facility. While I was half-heartedly expecting to see patrol officers lined up in the pits and acting as corner workers, perhaps even taking down our license plate details, there was no State Patrol presence whatsoever. And with only a small group of very sociable participants, the amount of time on the track was wonderful – the complete opposite end of the spectrum to anything we had previously experienced with NASA, or even with Speed Ventures.

When I posted the previous blog entry covering our weekend at the Auto Club Speedway (a.k.a. Cal Speedway) I wrote of how I enjoyed time driving “solo” and of how it was “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.” I also wrote of how I “had arrived relaxed, ready to drive! And the progress I made was a reflection of the emotional investment I had put into my preparation.”

At the Academy track in Golden, what I had experienced a few months earlier at the Auto Club Speedway, Margo experienced first hand as well. I had volunteered to be a corner worker and spent more than an hour watching Margo drive the car for two thirty plus minute sessions. And what a sight! A little anxious at first, as she built on the experiences from her early morning sessions, she quickly developed a rhythm. We had taken the car onto the course during the lunchtime “parade laps” and checked out our braking points and where we should turn in, and this proved helpful for both of us.

Below is a diagram of the circuit, for those who not be familiar with it, and I was stationed as a corner worker at turn 5. I had a view of each car as it left the pits, and then made its way up through the “chicane” made up of turns 1, 2, 3, and 4 and climbed up to turn 5 – there were several elevation changes that made the track very interesting. After completing turn 5 the cars went flat out over a small bump before braking for entry onto the main straight.

It was during the second session that Margo aggressively pursued a new Calloway supercharged Z06 Corvette, only to be given a “point by” a few laps later. Maintaining a pretty consistent separation for the duration of her session, she matched it with a pair of hot Vipers – one of them a grey ACR driven by a New Zealander, Tony. After returning to the pits, Margo was invited by the Calloway driver to get in under the shade of his awning as they settled in for a bit of a chat. With an open session beckoning, it was my turn behind the wheel of the car.

And yet again, after only a couple of laps in this next to last session of the day, a brief lapse in concentration saw me spin the car in turn 6. And yes, it was a case of when in spin, both feet in! But it was strange – where were my brakes! It was enough to hear Brian worry about his at Laguna Seca, but now I really needed mine! The car kept on powering through the thick undergrowth, throwing out vegetation in all directions, before finally stalling. On came the dreaded “Check Engine” light but, after restarting the car, I was able to reverse out of the scrub and then I attempted to drive back to the pits.

The car simply wouldn’t go – no matter how I feathered the gas peddle, I couldn’t bring the car back up to speed. Seeing Tony in the pits alongside his Viper, I asked him to jump in and check it out and Tony promptly lit up the car – nothing wrong with the car at all. And I just couldn’t figure it out. But the lapse in my concentration ended the day for us as we headed, yet again, to the local tire shop to have the wheels taken off and the tires removed and the bead checked. A one and a half hour process that the lads at Golden’s Big O tire shop simply did it for free! I decided: my next set of tires? I am going to ive them a chance to bid!

It wasn’t until we took the car back to the dealer on Monday morning, for a follow-up service and where the engine codes generating the Check Engine message could be analyzed, that we found out that I hadn’t been on the clutch and brake but rather the gas peddle and brake. Momentum and the disorientation that comes with a spin, had seen my feet move to the right. And afterwards, the car had refused to go fast as I had simply put the car in 5th gear …

Sitting outside another coffee shop, yet again, waiting for the tires to be checked and cleaned, wasn’t quite the way we had expected to finish the weekend. But the car will find its way back to the track and, as we sipped our coffees, once again we began to talk about the upcoming event with CECA and NASA. I can’t say enough about the wonderful support we received from the CECA club – the organizers and the participants were all terrific and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

But I have to work on my concentration – three major spins over the course of a year. Each time I was distracted by other cars – drivers I had grown to know quite well had me looking around for them. Checking my mirrors at just the wrong moment! The sessions at the Auto Club Speedway had been completely incident free but I had been tagging along behind an excellent driver (our friend Jan), and concentrating hard on following her lines.

Alone, often in front of drivers I know, and letting up on my concentration has led to my undoing of late. Clearly, this is something I need to work on. Staying focused no matter the distraction, and eliminating the mistakes they cause, is becoming a priority for me. I really don’t want to finish another weekend in a coffee shop contemplating what-ifs!

I don’t want to miss out on the final sessions of the day - I would really like to end this pattern! I have sipped way too much coffee over the past couple of weekends. And I truly would enjoy the break!