Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Fifth Element

It wasn’t to be, after all; we missed the final weekend of NASA’s Southern California (SoCal) region’s 2009 program. It was going to be touch and go anyway as we had just returned to Los Angeles, having spent a week in Sydney, Australia. On arriving in Simi Valley, a family emergency arose that saw us spending the weekend navigating the Interstate system instead, as we drove back to Boulder.

However, we had spent a weekend at Buttonwillow Raceway in October, and had really enjoyed it. I am very pleased to write that we are both showing signs of improvement and the good form we had demonstrated at Cal Speedway the previous month turned out not to be an anomaly. The picture above is of the Corvette before heading to Buttonwillow, leaving the car wash, where it had caught the attention of the local Simi Valley constabulary – the new black and blue color scheme suggesting to the officers present that it would make the perfect backup for their mobile command center. In case they needed to get somewhere in a hurry, of course!

We have built a friendship with Brian and Jan, our Starbucks buddies in Simi Valley. After spending weekends with them at Willow Springs and Cal Speedway, they joined us for the weekend at Buttonwillow – a track they least liked to drive in their ‘Vette. Brian had made some major modifications to the car and was a little anxious to see how it would perform. With a new cam, new intake manifolds (port and polished), new headers and long pipes, and re-mapped engine software, his ‘Vette was putting out more power than a showroom version of the C6 Z06 ‘Vette.

And the weekend at Buttonwillow saw us once again, as it just so happened, spending our last outing for 2009 in our C6 Z51 Corvette Coupe. Supercharged, with improved transmission software, and newly shod with Toyo R888’s on wider wheels. The picture below gives you and idea of how the old Pirelli tires looked, compared to the new tires, after dutifully supporting a year on the open road as well as 6 weekends at the track.

Two weeks before Buttonwillow, however, and with Fall making its first appearance across the Rockies, we signed up for a three day weekend at the new High Plains Raceway (HPR), just outside Byers, Colorado. This was only an hour’s drive from our house in Boulder, and we had been relishing the thought of checking out this new track. Two different clubs would be running programs, with the Colorado Exotic Car Association (CECA) running on the Saturday and NASA’s Rocky Mountain region running a full program on the Sunday. And did I mention the track had an open lapping day on the Friday!

Brian and Jan flew in and spent the weekend with us in Boulder – but this time, our car of choice would be the Infiniti G37S coupe. We were growing fond of this car and found it the ideal choice with which to learn a new course. Brian, on the other hand, had arranged through a friend, to learn the track in a Viper SRT/10 roadster and the picture below is of the odd looking team that resulted. I never did get to see much of Brian and he quickly adapted to the “black asp!”

The track had opened earlier this year. And what a treat! With corners labeled “Danny’s Lesson”, “Ladder to Heaven”, “High Plains Drifter”, and the “Prairie Corkscrew”, the track took full advantage of the many elevation changes the location afforded. And spending Friday afternoon to figure it all out? Priceless! It was an experience well worth the time invested – it made the rest of the weekend’s outings more enjoyable!

Unfortunately, this time Margo remained in Boulder, tending to the family – but what an experience she missed! As you would expect from an open lapping day, the caliber of participants spanned the full range from novice to out-and-out racer. At one point, I was on the track at the same time as well-known NASA NoCal “American Iron” racer, and just to have the opportunity to watch his lines, at least until he rapidly disappeared into the horizon, was well worth every penny I spent! Later, I took a few laps with him as his passenger, and really appreciated his skills!

NASA Rocky Mountain region runs a much less formal program than any of us, familiar with SoCal, are used to. But the instruction provided by David Wright, Group 2 instructor, was the equal of what I had experienced at SoCal. At one point, the head instructor, Kevin Rogers pulled aside all the Group 2 drivers to caution us that drivers, new to Group 2, often experience a falling away and become frustrated. They begin to miss apexes, and stop using “all of the track”. For those with an interest in progressing to Group 3, it was important to stay focused on these basic fundamentals of driving, as bad habits are so easy to develop at this critical juncture and, left unaddressed, were likely to keep them from joining Group 3, should that be their objective!

Even with the basic elements of cornering well understood however, I found myself continually in traffic and, with more passing opportunities, coming upon braking areas from everywhere on the track that gave me a different perspective on corner-exits every time. This led to me making some pretty frenetic adjustments, earlier in the weekend as I drove in smaller groups, with many more passing zones, as I struggled to nail my braking points. But with the words of Kevin in the back of my mind, I worked hard on hitting my apexes and on using the whole track!

With the opportunity to spend time alongside a racer in his street ‘Vette, as well as with my friend Allen who frightened the life out of me in his Viper, especially when he did a late pass on Brian in our Infiniti Coupe, with Jan alongside as a passenger, I was given the perfect opportunity to really come to terms with the track. When we finally left HPR late on Sunday, after two and a half days of track time, the brakes on the Coupe were in a pretty sad state - the original equipment pads weren’t really designed for the heat that we generated - and the rotors looked pretty badly scored. The Coupe’s original Bridgestone tires, even though they performed extremely well and much better than I had anticipated, had been scrubbed down past the wear bars and looked every bit as bad as the brake rotors!

And the question we asked ourselves as we headed back to California was whether we really wanted to track multiple cars, or were we going to revisit tracking just the ‘Vette. Both cars were in need of new tires, some attention given to their brake rotors, and new sets of brake pads. It seemed pointless to spend the money on upgrading and maintaining both cars for track days. After much discussion, we decided to go back to the much-maligned ‘Vette. The picture below is of the afternoon we spent changing the wheels and tires on the ‘Vette having just replaced the front rotors as well as all four sets of brake pads.

The first reaction from our instructors was dismay as they caught sight of the Toyo R888s. What were we thinking? Circulating with HPDE Group 1 and 2 drivers, they were likely going to hide a multitude of driving sins, so we were informed. But we liked the feel and given that we had no aspirations of ever becoming racers, we managed to complete eight sessions without putting a wheel in the dirt. Certainly, the “turn-in” was much quicker and, once warm, the grip was terrific!

Following the success we experienced at Cal Speedway, and then again during the previous outing at Buttonwillow, we decided that I would drive all the sessions on Saturday and Margo will take the Sunday sessions. It may not be the best option but we continue to push back on taking two cars to the track – it is, after all, just a sport where the objective for both of us is to spend the weekend having fun and staying safe. And splitting the days this way ensured that we came away from the track having achieved exactly that – fun, in a safe environment. Over the course of the weekend, however, I was to learn even more about the track, and the ‘Vette.

Running in Group 2, I was with two or three particularly good drivers for HPDE “newbies.” They improved a lot, as the day progressed but during the first session, where I led the group out onto the track, I was just a little more familiar with the course and was able to put together a number of consistent laps. Fulton Haight, our instructor, set himself up for us to play “follow-the-leader” so that we could all get a better feel for the line, and it really helped. By the third session, however, I was no longer able to keep up with the lead two or three cars and two of them were “promoted” to Group 3 by the end of the day.

In the ‘Vette, I wasn’t putting together enough good back-to-back laps and I was a little down on speed. I now have a T-Shirt that reads “I’m not consistently good, but I’m sporadically great!” And that about sums up how I felt by the end of the weekend! The track gradually showed less hostility towards me and the ‘Vette, yet it’s way too soon to think of it as a friendship!

Watching Margo was quite the revelation. Starting out cautious, with an instructor fully aware of how she approaches each session and how she works best with minimal input, she continued to improve with every lap. Margo, more than anything else, drives smoothly and “manages” the gas peddle. The big ‘Vette is so easily thrown off-line, but I never saw as much as a nervous twitch all weekend with her behind the wheel. As the last session of Sunday came to an end, the smile was as big as it was genuine, and the degree of satisfaction from her accomplishments about as high as I have ever seen it.

For the weekend, we were able to enjoy the “creature comforts” we rarely experience at the track. Brian and Jan had just purchased a luxury 36’ RV and had tailored their ‘Vette to the track. So suddenly lunches and dinners became something we looked forward to and Saturday night’s cocktails and steaks proved exceptional. The picture above is of “Team Corvette” early morning Saturday.

Brian had been running very well and, following on from his experiences at Byers HPR, even though he didn’t particularly care for the Buttonwillow course, he was always mixing it with the quickest drivers in the group. In talking with Brian, he told me how their Group 3 instructor talked about the “fifth element’ – yes, there’s the exit and working back from the exit, there’s the apex, the turn-in point, and the braking zone. These four elements we are all very familiar with – but a fifth? Yes, you need to be aware at all times of your “position.” There’s no point to blindly master a specific line if you are rarely going to be given an open track!

In a rush, it came back to me. As I laid down laps at HPR only two weeks earlier, and where there had been a lot more passing zones, I frequently had to make adjustments as I approached braking zones, and as I transitioned to the turn-in, from different track positions with every lap. I had been preoccupied with trying to push the car to a spot on the track where I was comfortable, prior to braking. What I hadn’t realized was that I was experiencing first hand the subtleties that come with driving in traffic. I still have so much to learn!

No clearer demonstration of this was given to me then when Fulton came to me late Sunday afternoon and asked whether he could take the ‘Vette out in a Group 3 session and would I like to come for the ride. The instructors were still concerned about the “drivability” of the ‘Vette, particularly when the automatic transmission was controlled by the paddle shifters. Last year, early attempts at smoothing the torque delivery through programming changes had made the car difficult to control. Fulton suggested that if I was serious about continuing with the ‘Vette in 2010, he needed to see just how drivable it could be in the hands of someone more experienced competitively driving a high-torque car.

“I will drive a few laps as though I was a Group 3 driver,” he suggested as we left the hot pits. But after a few laps without incident, it was becoming clear he liked the big ‘Vette. Turning to me, he simply said “sweet!” And then he pushed the car a lot harder yet still below the level I am certain he could have if it had been his own car, and passed every car we came across. Physically man-handling the ‘Vette in a manner it would be many years before I could emulate, Fulton’s driving of the ‘Vette revealed a side that exemplified the true nature of America’s sports car!

The track is no different whether you participate in Group 1 or in Group 2. It’s no different if you are in the more advanced HPDE Groups, either. And it’s definitely no different for the racers. Irrespective of the level of experience any one of us may have, the track remains constant. The only issue I now have is that I am less able to get a clean lap as there’s always traffic with “trains” to join. With the tracks less hostile, and the car more manageable even as I become aware of the fifth element, 2010 should be a blast! Already the planning has begun and the upcoming holiday season looks to be nothing more than a minor distraction!