Friday, December 3, 2010

It was wet! It was windy! But we adjusted ...

We found out Thursday afternoon: Saturday’s event would be cancelled as the weather would not be cooperating with periods of heavy rain forecast. Not to be put off by the expected poor weather for Saturday we were keeping our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t rain on Sunday and that we would get at least one full day of driving.

Margo had spent all day lapping Buttonwillow only two weeks ago, so even though Sunday was usually “her time on track” with Saturday now cancelled, she graciously forgo her planned outing to let me have one last track day for the year.

The weekend was to be spent at Fontana, California, the venue being the Auto Club Speedway. As this was also to be the last event in the Corvette Challenge year-long program, there proved to be plenty of Corvettes on hand with the west-facing portion of the garage complex given over to housing just the ‘Vettes!

I could have just as easily driven the ‘Vette to Fontana, as it’s less than a hundred miles away. However, loading up the ‘Vette onto a trailer and using the Cadillac Escalade as a support vehicle as we have been doing of late, seemed to be the smarter thing to do, and the picture above is of Team Pyalla Technologies ready to head to the track.

Towing the car across LA on a Saturday afternoon proved uneventful, as traffic was light, and we arrived in Fontana in daylight and were able to unload the ‘Vette and tuck it away inside a garage. However, returning to the facility early Sunday morning, the rain was coming down by the pail full! A quick check of the infield showed large pools of water and the entrance to the section of turns leading onto the oval’s main straight, and simply called “the complex”, had multiple rivulets running across the track!

Deep pools of standing water could be seen up and down the infield straight, a favorite stretch of track for all drivers. As we watched the first cars, from the most experienced “red group”, it was hard not to sympathize with them as they tried to find safe passage along this treacherous stretch of flooded pavement!

The talk among the drivers had more to do with the wind than the rain and the more optimistic drivers began to point to breaks in the clouds. Surely, with the rain now showing signs of easing, the wind would help dry the track even if it made those of us standing outdoors miserably cold.

As the plans were reworked late Thursday, and after the news of Saturday’s event being cancelled our friends and fellow “Vette drivers, Brian and Jan, elected to leave their RV back in Simi Valley. Surely it made little sense to drag it to Fontana for just one day’s use! The wind continued to strengthen even as the rain began to ease and the only place to stay warm was inside the Escalade. This became the plan for both Margo and Jan who sorely missed the warmth of the RV.

As the clouds continued to thin out and as the rain eased, we were able to see the mountain range directly behind the track, probably less than ten miles away. Visible on the mountain peaks was the snow that fell overnight, and the picture above is of the scenic view everyone at the Auto Club Speedway just couldn’t miss seeing! As we broke away from the drivers meeting and began to pursue critical pre-session inspections of the car, I couldn’t help remembering an event from earlier in the year where poor weather, too, had been a factor!

Returning from the circuit with a car that was in as good a condition as when it arrived, I had ended that earlier post by admitting how we so often talk about being consistent and about being smooth, but when driving in the rain, these guidelines become even more important. For some reason, seeing water everywhere, I recalled that previous blog posting. Keep it smooth and bring the car home in one piece!

Participating in the “green group” of racers, Brian was already on the track as I drove into pre-grid. He would be participating in the Corvette Challenge, his fourth event of the year. Mine was a group of very nervous drivers bringing their cars out of the paddock and into pit lane, and even though I would be joining the “black group” of high intermediate drivers, some of us were anything but comfortable as we watched the rain coming down.

Brian could be easily heard as he passed the start/finish line to our right. Just as I had street tires on the Vette, so too did he – although, with 345 X 30 X 19 rear tires, I’m not so sure their ability to pump water from beneath the wheel as effective as my less aggressive and much “narrower” 305 X 30 X 19 rear tires. All the same, watching as Brian circulated with a group of other competitive ‘Vettes it wasn’t hard to miss their desire to squeeze out quicker and quicker lap times!

The picture above is of me walking alongside the ‘Vette and checking out the other participants. I normally take time to talk to the other drivers in my group to get a better sense of who was circulating with me and this time, it was pretty easy to tell who was calm and who was nervous. It was going to be a great day on the track!

Earlier in the year, while we were at WSIR mid-summer as I recall, Jan had been keeping an eye firmly on her iPhone. Her grandson, Colton Herta, was participating in the International Kart Federation (IKF) “Grand Nationals” where he placed first in the Junior 1 Comer class. More impressive still, for the first time ever in a karting national’s final, Jan’s grandson Colton started last and in a 15 lap event worked his way past all other competitors to take first place to become Rookie Sportsman champion.

However, this weekend was even more important for Jan, as young Colton, not yet a teenager was participating in the final series of the 2010 SKUSA Pro Tour (International Race) that was being held a little north of us in Las Vegas. This had been a three-weekend race series, with two races per weekend, and already Colton had scored a 2nd and a 3rd first time out, improving to take two 1st places the second time out. This weekend would be the final weekend and it would determine whether he wins the series, and with it, the chance to go to Italy to compete with the Europeans. And oh, did I mention he isn’t even a teenager yet?

It was finally time to step onto the track. Lining up midway along the group of slower, more timid, drivers, it was a testing experience. Staying in higher gears and avoiding selecting second gear at all costs, I began to see first-hand how much water was on the track, and it was a case of simply looking for a line that kept the car balanced as long as possible. On the second lap, exploring different braking points coming into the buttonhook that leads onto the long infield straight, I dropped two tires over the rumble strip but the big ‘Vette steered true and it wasn’t an issue.

The picture above was taken during that early session and as I finally caught up with the ‘Vette ahead of me, whereupon I was given a point-by that allowed me to track a little higher for the pass. With High Performance Driving Education (HPDE) events such as this, it’s not about racing but about developing the requisite skills and accumulating the experience that might take you into other forms of motor sports.

There’s always more than a little adrenalin generated, however, when the opportunity to pass presents itself! Particularly when it’s in the banking on the main straight at Speedway, where the big ‘Vette really gets to stretch its legs and speeds of 150 mph are regularly exceeded!

Prior to Margo taking the ‘Vette to Buttonwillow earlier in the month we had taken the car to RPM in Santa Clarita. On a recent trip to Andy and the lads at A&A Corvette Performance, where much of the work on the ‘Vette has been performed, I had run into Charlie of RPM and enjoyed a lively conversation with Andy and Charlie on the benefits of camshafts!

Proprietor Charlie knew a thing or two about tuning Corvettes and I had been unhappy with the way torque was being managed following the installation of the Vortech supercharger. We talked about what I wanted to achieve, and why I wanted to use the automatic’s paddles to select gears, and together with Austin, they fine-tuned a couple of the tables used during gear changes.

What a difference! Immediately the transitions between second, third and fourth were the smoothest I had ever experienced – I could even change-up a gear midway through a corner without unsettling the car. However, while we didn’t require shifts into fifth gear to circulate around the track at Buttonwillow, in daily use it’s a must-have, and when I first hit the paddles to change-up up to fifth, all hell broke loose!

I returned to RPM and Austin went back to basics, finding an upgrade to the software from G.M. that we then installed into the transmission control unit, or TCU. He re-applied the changes that he had made earlier, and presto! The smoothest transitioning automatic gearbox I’ve ever experienced! For me, Austin and Charlie are the closest thing to miracle workers I have come across.

The weather pundits had proved to be right after all, and by lunch time and with the rain having eased up considerably, the winds that had been blowing all day had dried out much of the circuit. The more serious participants, Brian included, began switching to slicks as participants in the Corvette Challenge only had one session remaining with an opportunity to improve on their lap times. And every ‘Vette driver was anxious to make sure he made good use of the break in the weather!

As for my third session, with the track almost completely dry, I remained on street tires but quickly settled into a grove. So much so that those watching me hand timed me at 2 min 3 secs. Consistency certainly pays off and I was only a few hundredths off the same time for a couple of laps where I faced little traffic. Previous unofficial hand timing had me circulating around 2 min 10 secs so this represented considerable improvement over prior outings. Still well of the pace of those in the Green and Red groups, but ever so gradually, now down to close on 2 mins, I was inching closer to their times.

The picture above is of me coming into the paddock after the third session – holding up my hand to signify five seconds of improvement, obviously. Jan was nearby, relying in emails and text messages to keep her informed on how Colton was performing but the early news wasn’t looking good.

In an earlier race, inspection of his kart found minor measurement discrepancies that once again, would relegate him to the back of the field. How his engineer missed the measurement in question however brought consternation to the family! With the competition as strong as anything Colton had faced all year, starting from the back of the grid was certainly going to damper his spirits.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to catch up with Brian as he had come back into the paddock as I was driving out of pit lane. However, I knew that his third session hadn’t been without incident as he had driven to the “black flag station,” alongside pre-grid, for a quick inspection; four wheels off and a spin! Since the “off” came early in the session, I suspected the Hoosiers he had mounted during the break had not come up to temperature! The first words we exchanged on my return confirmed that yes, something like that had occurred.

It was getting dark when I came off the circuit for the last time. Brian already had his trailer hitched to his truck and only had to drive his ‘Vette up the race ramps and onto the trailerThe paddock was deserted and now getting colder.

Margo stepped out of the Escalade to tell me that Brian and Jan were in the driver’s room where the trophy presentations were under way. As we had much to do and knowing how disappointed Brian had been to come off the track, I waited for him to return to the cars before I asked him how he went.

The picture above pretty much tells its own story although I’m not sure in which hand Brian holds the trophy! He had managed to overcome the earlier incidents to finish first in his group on the day, and third overall for the season. But Jan came with news of her own, direct from her daughter in Las Vegas. Colton had just finished third, but in so doing, had won the championship – yes, he was off to Italy next year! Somehow the symmetry didn’t escape me as Jan had watched her husband Brian score a first and end the season with a third while her grandson Colton scored a third to finish the season with a first!

Driving home, there was still a little rain falling in places, but the big ‘Vette had performed well and best of all, it was straight and without a scratch. And for our family, this would be all the trophy we needed! But then, there’s next year only a few months away …

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The "big off"

Walking to the far end of the western loop of the Buttonwillow circuit, towards the sweeping Star Mazda corner, I turned in time to look back to turn 1, Sunset, only to see Margo straight-lining into the infield a huge cloud of dust rising all around her. I had walked past the Esses so as to get a better shot of her driving through them, but watching her kicking up a dust storm stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t even have time to snap a picture! Little drama eventuated as Margo slowed the car, brought it around to where she could rejoin the circuit, and looked for a favorable sign from the corner worker.

After leaving Margo without a ride on three separate occasions this year, we registered for a Saturday’s outing with the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Southern California (SoCal) region in their High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program – and rejoined longtime friends for only the third event this year. Having done so, I felt it is only right that most of the seat time should be given to Margo although, I was hopeful that she would, at some point, appreciate my plight and offer me the big Vette for one session. But when it came time to join the first session, Margo was all smiles and I should have known better. This was going to be her day on the track and the picture above is of her already on the grid, about to head out onto the track.

This year I had cooked the power steering fluid that had finally led to the serpentine belt braking at Willow Springs. I had worn out the brakes at Laguna Seca, and then in the return visit to Willow Springs I had shredded the tires to where there was nothing left. What a guy! So with near-new, slightly oversize, Michelin Pilot Sport street tires on the Vette, and everything checking out just fine, this would be a good opportunity for me to act as crew chief and to sit back and watch Margo enjoy herself. Yeah, but I wasn’t too upset, not in the slightest, and all the while I held onto a ray of hope for just a one session! On the other hand, being the crew chief provided me with opportunities to snap away with the trusty Nikon -a surprising first for us as we had completely ignored taking the camera with us for the past three years!

Margo is now running in the NASA HPDE 2 group. Her recent outings with Speed Ventures, participating in their Blue, Purple and even Black “intermediate” run groups, together with her coolness-under-fire for five complete laps of Germany’s Nurburgring only two months ago, were proving helpful in settling Margo into the rhythm that can be expected when running at this level. I wasn’t anticipating instant success but I was sure she would improve significantly over the course of the day. As joinedthe grid for the first time, I was somewhat relieved when I saw Terry Free opt to jump in alongside her to help Margo sort out the line after being away from the course for a year.

Terry races a yellow C6 Z06 Corvette in Super Touring-R 1 (STR 1) and had performed well at the recent NASA Nationals at Miller Motorsports Park, finishing second according to the results published on the NASA web site, and I couldn’t have wanted anyone better to sit alongside Margo. Terry has seen us at NASA events through the years and had provided me with tutoring last time I was on track with NASA at the Auto Club Speedway. While Terry had important end-of-season racing to pursue later in the day, he was able to join Margo for the first two sessions and, for a couple of laps, took the wheel of the blue Vette himself at the start of a HPDE 3 session just to show Margo how well the Vette would handle the track and to provide just another perspective on lines she may want to follow next time out. Coming off the track following the second session, Terry told Margo that she had improved 100% on her first session outing! The picture above is of Margo leaving the starting grid and heading onto track following her session with Terry.

It was late in the day when I had begun to walk to the furthest end of the track with the thought of getting a couple of photos of Margo but from a different perspective to those I had already shot. It was also a distraction for me as I was sorely missing the opportunity to participate in a session but as each session completed, Margo was showing no signs of wanting to step away from the car. Earlier in the week I had emailed Fulton Haight and hinted at the likelihood I would step in and do a session, maybe two, late in the day. “No way you are going out and messing up my run groups third session. After the last few blogs it is apparent that you have lost your way in a car and are in grave need of clarity behind the wheel or some momentum time,” was the immediate response from Fulton. He then pushed home his point even deeper, “maybe we should make you go out in the right seat with your wonderful bride for a tune up ... oooh! Can't do that in HPDE ½, though (can we) ... Just kidding ... mostly!”

Just as Terry had competed in the NASA Nationals, so too had Fulton. We have known Fulton for several years and I have enjoyed every time he has offered me a ride in the passenger seat of his car, whether a Mustang or a BMW, whatever he was driving on the occasion. At the Nationals, Fulton had gone one better than Terry and driving a BMW M3 in the Time Trial – D (TT D) group, picked up the win. Not giving up completely, as I wanted to make sure I could step into the Vette should Margo ask me, I asked Fulton if he would mind me joining the third session. “I would suggest we have you go out with me in the first session, as a passenger, to get you the lay of the land and then take Margo's place in the second session before the group gets up to speed so you are not a rolling chicane (with all that horsepower) as the group picks up speed in the 3rd session,” was the almost immediate response from Fulton! The picture above, however, was taken later in the day and shows Margo negotiating the esses at speed!

Good thing Fulton and I are friends and yes, I did get to ride along as a passenger in the BMW M3 he had driven to record the fastest time in the Nationals. A “rolling chicane” among his quicker students? Now that was hard to take but somehow, all I could see was Fulton’s grin so I went along with it; turns out Margo’s run with Terry behind the wheel of her Vette in the HPDE 3 event was Fulton’s plan as well, so he was looking out for Margo. During the first session, with her instructor Terry alongside, Margo had been anxious to make sure she didn’t hold back faster drivers as she relearnt the track.

In the passenger seat of Fulton’s M3, I had a good look at how she was fairing but just as we caught her, in the run up to Magic Mountain, or Lost Hills, or whatever it’s called these days, she gave a point by on the wrong side, for a pass in the wrong place and, watching the cars around her, dropped two wheels off the track. She didn’t even stop by the black-flag marshal for a quick check! However, for the rest of the time we watched her, it was clear to both Fulton and I that her lines were indeed excellent so there was more than enough positives to come out of the incident that no further penalties were applied. After two complete sessions with Terry tutoring her and following a couple of laps in the passenger seat, completing the third session proved to be a turning point for Margo.

Everyone who drives with Margo is aware that she has their desire to have fun and enjoy themselves very much on her mind. For this session, it was no different and standing as I was with the father of another participant, he drew my attention to how Margo’s first movement coming onto the main straight was to look in her mirrors and begin to waive by whoever was behind her – a distraction that took her away from the “line” and effectively clipped seconds from her time. But as any observer family with HPDE programs can vouch for, moving up a group often results in a brief let-down period as drivers adjust to their new circumstance and Margo was showing she was no different from anyone else. And looking back across the track I could see Margo continue maintain good lines and the picture above is of her driving out of the track’s famous sweeper, the buttonhook!

Apexes are missed and there’s a tendency not to track out on exit – we all pay to use the whole track but it’s sometimes difficult to do when you are with a new group of drivers. “I will arrange for Margo to go out with her instructor driving in HPDE 3 if there is not a conflict to keep her moving along. As usual, I would prefer if you did none of the above as from your blog it seems Margo could use some track-love time...would be a fitting penance for your breach of tire etiquette (at Willow Springs) for you to watch her burning up your new tires,” came a later response from Fulton. I couldn’t respond to this and just had to admit that he was right.

Margo had to make a mandatory stop at the black flag station at the end of pit lane. A marshal stationed there had to check out the state of the car, not to mention the condition of the driver. This has become a familiar routine for me but was a new experience for Margo. As I continued my walk back from the esses I began to wonder whether, being the last session of the day, I would see Margo return to complete the last laps. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes had passed, there was the Vette pulling out of pit lane and heading once more onto the track. A short period to settle down, making sure the tires, brakes, and steering were all working, and she was once again picking up the pace.

I have to admit that the big off a few laps earlier was the result of what we had discussed only an hour earlier. Coming in from the circuit after the third session where she had spent time giving the cars behind her point-bys, she agreed to see if spending less time looking in the mirror and more time working on her lines through the turns could lift her speed onto some of the shorter straights, and so open up some separation between her and the much slower cars that had been catching her all day. The opening laps of the final session certainly seemed to suggest that this was exactly what she was capable of doing and in a relative short period of time, there were several car lengths between her and the cars that started with her. The picture above is of Margo pulling hard down the main straight with prospects of even more improvements to come!

As I watched Margo leave the track at turn 1, and as I watched her recover, my immediate concerns for her welfare were quickly put to rest and as she continued with her lap and passed me at the exit of the esses, I was proud of her and of the way she handled the situation. Margo had not left the circuit during any of her sessions for all three years she has been on the track and yet, on this day, she had first dropped two wheels and then all four wheels in a significant “off”. Going faster, she had told me, made her adjust her brake points and she had been aware of the need to brake a little earlier. However, just as importantly, it also meant braking harder and in the lap where she went off, her first braking effort had only transferred weight onto the front that in so doing, left her with few options as she went to the brakes a second time only to lock-up the rears and spear right off the circuit.

Fulton’s closing comment in the email exchange followed advice from previous times when he suggested, “I am sure it is too much to ask you to use a momentum car that would be much faster for both of you?” Driving the big Vette, however, may be slowing our development time, but just completing the day in one piece and performing a lot better during the last session than in the first, remains very much its own reward. It’s hard to give up on the car and there certainly are a lot easier cars to master, but after three years, ever so slowly, it’s starting to come together and it would be so hard to step into anything different.

The “big off” then? All part of learning, she responded with a smile! The picture above is of Margo crossing the start-finish line for the last time and all the way home, she half apologized for taking all four sessions, but with an innocent smile proceeded to remind me just how many occasions there had been this year where I had done all the driving, leaving the car in no condition for further track use. I guess that’s fair, and later the only discussions were about our next outing – our last for the year.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Taking it up a level ...

I’ve been enjoying a relaxing week back home in Boulder, Colorado, where I’m surrounded by the evidence of the changing seasons. Every now and then, the clouds pull back and I can see the continental divide covered in white: the snow is certainly falling in the high country. And later today, I will be starting on yet another trip to California to wrap up this year’s program – returning to NASA So Cal for their event at Buttonwillow, and then closing out with a full weekend with Speed Ventures at the Auto Club Speedway. Only a few weeks ago, I was in California, for a weekend with Speed Ventures at Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR) a return to the circuit better known as Big Willow!

The picture at the top of the pages was taken by our friend Mark, who had driven up first thing Saturday morning and had brought with him another friend, Kevin. All the pictures of Saturday’s action included here were taken by Mark. Saturday, we were sharing the track with the participants in the “SubieFest”, a gathering of Subaru’s from all over the country, and I joined the only event open to Speed Venture participants which was the open-passing, point-by’s optional, “Green” group.

As can be seen from Mark’s picture, not everyone escaped the drama of a track day. Just as Mark was setting up to film our Corvette on-track, an over-zealous Honda S2000 driver spun out approaching turn 4 having dropped two tires off the track exiting turn 3 – one of the few places on Big Willow where the situation can deteriorate rapidly, if you try to return the car to get back on track too quickly! Then again, even experienced drivers can make mistakes and the weekend saw a lot more mistakes being made, particularly in turns 8 and 9, than we had seen in several years and we lost count of how many clouds of dust were kicked up by errant drivers missing the exit out of turn 9!

For the Corvette teams of Brian and Jan, and Margo and me, our weekend had started Friday night when, once again, Brian and Jan arrived in their motor home, trailing the red Vette, and we arrived in the Escalade, towing our U-Haul trailer with the blue Vette aboard. The trip had gone smoothly although, as I had strapped our Vette onto the trailer, I had noticed wetness around a lower connection of the power steering cooler and simply wiped it clean. There were no traces of a leak on the garage floor and I thought nothing more of it. As we settled in for a quick snack in the motor home, Brian’s friends Gary and Carla arrived. This weekend, we were enjoying the company of several friends!

The picture above is of an early outing Saturday morning, as I head toward the top of the track and into turn 4. While participating in the Green group is still far from a racing experience, the skill levels of all involved are very high. I had experienced an outing with advanced drivers on my last open lap day at Colorado’s High Plains Raceway, and hung in with real racers during my time on the Nurburgring last month, I was more than a little anxious as I took to the track the first time. My early nervousness wasn’t helped when it was announced that Green group drivers should be on the grid twenty minutes after the mandatory driver meeting!

While it was great to have company and to have friends standing trackside, moving up a group was still a stressful undertaking. The first session with the Green group was a period of adjustment and I felt less than satisfied with the results and had to settle with the more experienced drivers catching me after only three or four laps. In the second session however, I began to pay more attention to my lines and even began to look at who were the “rabbits” and who had less experience. The faster cars were now taking five or more laps to catch me. By the third session, I was beginning to feel at ease, although I was experiencing the first signs that perhaps not all was well with my tires.

Coming to a stop in the pits before lunch there were now ominous traces of fluid, originating from somewhere under the front of the car spotting the pavement. There was more bad news as our faithful Toyo R888 tires, first fitted for the last NASA event at Buttonwillow in 2009, had now seen fifty-plus heat cycles (which was pushing well beyond anything the manufacturers had recommended) weren’t behaving as predictably as on previous sessions. However, I felt they could make it through the weekend but all the same, lying inside the Escalade were a full set of Michelin PS/2 street tires, that I had loaded just in case. The picture above is of me passing the Mitsubishi Evo during the first session after lunch.

Earlier in the day I had been consistently waiving past a group of cars but during the session before lunch, I had wondered whether all the drivers were of equal experience and capabilities. In particular, there was a BMW M3 that didn’t pull away from me and whose lines through corners I chose not to emulate. In the fourth session, as we all circulated on our first lap out and as tires came up to temperature, I waived past a couple of cars, but not the BMW M3. Rather than watching him in my mirrors, I lifted my eyes and focused more intently on my exits all the while doing little mental exercises so as not to lose concentration. After two laps the BMW had fallen back considerably, and after four laps, I could no longer see the car.

All weekend I had been working on my approach to turn 5 and my exit out of turn 6. Focused as I was, it wasn’t until late in the final session that I noticed Brian in his red Vette closing in on me, and as I came out of turn 9 I passed a slower car only to see Brian pull out, three wide. It was then a sprint down the main straight but in all the excitement, I didn’t lift to give Brian the space he needed for the upcoming corner. After all, he had to know what he was doing. Fortunately, he negotiated turn 1 safely, but there was a moment …

Brian and I spent much of the evening discussing that final session and the excitement it had momentarily generated; I did apologize and I am sure Brian knows I will not be as reticent to let him move across again! Over several apple martinis that have, of late, become the specialty of our hosts, Brian and Jan, and with the slow cooked pork tenderloin, cooked to perfection, this maneuver continued to be dissected many times.

Sunday, was Margo’s time on the track, and this time she was running in the “Black” group, the high intermediate level with Speed Ventures. There had been too many “trains” of cars last time out with the “Blue” low intermediate group for Margo’s liking, so this was going to be a new experience. After all, Margo had completed one more lap than I had on the Nurburgring and seemed quite capable among more experienced drivers. The picture above is of Margo, during her earliest outing, heading towards turn 2.

The first session for Margo had looked good for the first few laps. She was aware of her situation and waived by the more experienced drivers. Unfortunately, it was a brief, unsettling moment, as the tires lost their grip coming down the hill into turn 5 that threw her right off her game. A little “spooked” by what happened, she backed-off and coasted around the track. Returning to the pits, we noticed the leak we had seen yesterday getting much worse and after a quick look under the car, I found a loose connection at the bottom of the power steering cooler that, after tightening, fixed the leak.

Much worse, however, were the tires, and the second session proved even more difficult for Margo, so in the break between sessions, I changed all four tires back to our street Michelins. Margo spent the third session back out on the track with the Black group, but it was visible that she was off the pace. Returning to the pits for the third time, the car looked good; no leaks, brakes working, and the tires holding. The distractions of the day however, and the constant checking of her mirrors, together with the remnants of earlier anxieties, were proving to be a little too much and Margo was losing confidence in her abilities. The lunch break couldn’t have come at a better time!

Still uncomfortable with the car’s behavior, Margo went out for one more session. Lunch had been spent thinking about how to best drive the car on street tires and what to expect in terms of braking and turn-in, but Margo felt that with the set-up, she would give it a go! Pulling off the grid and accelerating hard for the first turn of the opening lap, she looked good and pulled away from the cars behind her. The photo here, as with the previous photo, supplied by CaliPhotography, as Mark had returned home late Saturday, is of Margo enjoying the company of a very aggressive Mustang driver dropping down into turn 5.

Coming in early, it was obvious that Margo simply wasn’t having fun any longer. There had been too many early incidents that had shaken her confidence and there had been far too many distractions. Cars had finished up on their sides atop berms and there had been a roll-over out of turn 9. Wrestling with the Vette as it struggled for grip, entertaining many good friends, and watching several of the wrecks as they happened, unsettled Margo to the point where she could no longer enjoy her time out on her favorite track and coming in when she did was a very smart move.

There would be other days and there would be fun days again on other tracks. This weekend, however, could be viewed as another learning weekend and one that neither one of us had previously experienced. The Vette is a very difficult car to drive well and we are still far from being capable of driving it anywhere near its limits. The automatic transmission remains its Achilles’ Heel and dogs us at every track as we wrestle with running with paddles or in full auto. The 2010 season was now coming to a close and yet, Margo still wanted to get more seat time. Distractions or not, being at ease with the car and enjoying herself, remained Margo’s goal.

With Boulder enjoying a late fall and the weather holding, I took the motorcycles for a ride. I have a Honda VTX1800 while Margo has a Yamaha V Star 1100 and both have been tweaked and dressed-up. Once out on the road and without distractions, I worked even harder on being smooth and found that looking well past corner exits I could stay in a higher gear and, pulling though the exit, less effected by any sudden additions of torque, I rode more smoothly than I had in months; I routinely take to the bikes and simply practice, and use time on the bikes to improve my technique. With a motorcycle, on the open road it’s more a case of staying focused or fall off. Or worse! Riding alone and as focused as I was reminded me of how badly any endeavor can become with distractions no matter how unintended or minor they may be.

The picture above is from late Saturday as I returned to the pits and of Margo walking to greet me. I’ve always enjoyed having company and the presence of friends is always appreciated. However, it is us who have to make adjustments when it comes to weekends at ta race track, and for us to find ways to deal with the distractions that their presence creates. After all, for many years it had been the two of us who had been providing the distractions to so many others we had visited. I spent too much time thinking of how to make their time with us more enjoyable, when I should have been lifting my eyes and looking further down the track.

WSIR remains our favorite track. We have driven around it more than any other track and after three years and seven weekends it will be hard to find something we enjoy more. However, even though we have the Vette settled down and ready to go, Margo is looking forward to a weekend all to herself as we are returning to Buttonwillow to enjoy the company of our good friends at NASA So Cal. There’s still a full weekend at the Auto Club Speedway with Speed Ventures before the season ends for 2010, but the opportunity to spend time alone, soaking up laps at Buttonwillow will, for Margo, be therapy and something she so much wants to do. For me, watching her circulate once more and stepping out of the Vette sporting a contagious smile? Priceless!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Respect the ‘Ring!

For nearly two weeks Margo and I had been driving around Europe on business and yet we still found time for some much-anticipated downtime. As chance would have it, we were able to spend a day and a half at Germany’s Grüne Hölle, the world famous Nordschleife, or North Loop, of the Nürburgring! The name Grüne Hölle, or Green Hell, is a reference to how it was once described by former F1 driver, Sir Jackie Stewart. Located within the Eifel forest that separates Germany from Belgium, the Nürburgring winds its way through dense woodlands for 21 kilometers, or 13 miles and, with elevation changes of almost a thousand feet, it’s an absolute must for anyone with an interest in cars. The picture at the top of the page is of our first evening in the township of Nürburg.

This adventure started at Frankfurt airport where we had landed ten days earlier. We rented a car, as I was to meet with business colleagues in Munich and Mainz, and wanted to visit Lake Garda and Lake Como in Northern Italy. Having crossed the Alps to get to these lakes, it seemed a simple step to then push on towards Nice and to spend the weekend on the French Riviera, the Côte d'Azur. While I had been a passenger many times in Germany this was the first time I actually occupied the seat behind the steering wheel.

Our first surprise on arriving at the car rental desk in Frankfurt was to find that the automatic Mercedes Benz C200 we had requested wasn’t available and that we had been “upgraded” to a 6-speed manual BMW 318 diesel. Little did we know at the time how beneficial this was going to be, but at the time, Margo was none too pleased. Our second surprise was how little of the much beloved German Autobahn remains unrestricted, where you can drive your car flat out. Much of the Autobahn these days is limited to 130 kilometers / hour and frequently we ran across limits as low as 100 kph – yes, this represents speeds of 90 mph on down to about 60 mph and a far cry from what we had been hoping for…

We hadn’t come to check out the Autobahns, or to see how fast we could drive on public roads. While the towns and villages we passed through had a certain charm and the early signs of autumn were clearly visible, sight-seeing wasn’t our priority either. What we did come to try however, was the Nürburgring and as we sat down to dinner each night the discussions quickly turned to what was yet to come – and with each passing day it was harder to hide our mounting excitement!

We had contracted with a local Nürburg company, Ron Simons Racing (RSR), that rents track-ready cars. RSR is more than just a race car rental company, however, as it develops complete programs and it really is the best place to start for any first-time visitors to the ‘Ring. Following numerous email exchanges with proprietor Ron Simons, he put together a program for us that would see us driving the Nürburgring in a Lotus Exige S 240. Pulling up outside the RSR premises, we could see the car already prepared and it was proving ever more difficult to mask our excitement. The picture above is of Margo and our friend, Jan Kenny, relaxing in the drivers lounge.

Starting with a two hour guided tour of the Nürburgring in the Lotus we would be driving, we were given our first opportunity to look at the track and to view a selection of critical corner sequences. Thomas Lennackers, a former BMW test driver and now an instructor with RSR, walked us through the racing lines and provided us with cues on braking areas and turn-in points and these tips were to prove very helpful. The following day we would be venturing onto the track and participate in a closed track-day session where we could drive as many laps as we liked. The Grüne Hölle would no longer be an image on our computer screens, but be right there, under our wheels! The more we talked with Thomas, the more we came to understand how the ‘Ring demands respect.

From the time we had landed in Frankfurt we had been watching the weather and as the afternoon progressed, we could see a system moving in from the northwest. The following morning we had to get to the RSR premises by 7:00 am and be ready for a drivers briefing at 8:00am but, as we departed our hotel, all we could see was rain! As we pulled into the RSR car park, our cars were already up on lifts and tire changes were being carried out at a rapid clip. Off came the slicks we drove on yesterday and on went the more heavily grooved rain tires.

We had missed catching Ron the day before as he had been on the other side of the Eifel Mountains with another group of drivers lapping the almost-as-famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – the site of the F1 Belgium Grand Prix. This morning however, he was back at the facility and leading the driver briefing. About thirty drivers participated and as he went through the inventory of cars that would be heading to the track he paused and asked who would be driving the Lotus cars and upon seeing us, requested we stay behind for an additional briefing. “This track can kill you,” he started, “you will be better off if you delay your arrival and let the track dry out!” The picture above is of me tentatively driving the Lotus out of the RSR garage the previous afternoon.

Joining us for the event were our good friends from Simi Valley, Brian and Jan Kenny, fellow Corvette drivers with whom we have spent many weekends at tracks in California and Colorado. They had arrived in Germany a day ahead of us and had joined us for our weekend on the Côte d'Azur. They were much more experienced drivers and they weren’t in any hurry to get onto a wet track. An hour later, we gingerly stepped into the cars and carefully drove the short distance to the paddock that led onto the track.

After a little nervous banter and watching a couple of cars returning, a lot worse for wear on top of flat-bed recovery trucks, we ventured out through the staging area and onto the track. The circuit is entered about two-thirds down the main straight via a short “hot pit,” and we let Brian and Jan lead the way. Upon entry, this straight ends with a high-speed dog-leg turn to the left that opens onto a short straight before rounding a right hand turn, followed almost immediately by a tight left hand that then propels you into the flat right hand turn that leads to the start / finish line. Crossing the start / finish line for the first time, the full impact of trying to comprehend what 13 miles of track can throw at you finally hit home. The picture below is of both of us standing in front of a track map looking anxiously around as other cars begin to head out onto the track.

The plan had been to run a series of two-lap sessions with myself behind the wheel for the first session and then Margo taking over for the next two-lap session. In this way, Margo would at least get her first view of the track from the passenger seat. Merging onto the straight for the very first time as we headed to the start / finish line we were immediately given a taste of reality as a number of Porsche’s passed us in a blur as they came to the end of the long straight, driven perhaps as much as 100 mph faster than what we were doing. And it just didn’t let up!

Mixing it up with us during that first session were groups of Porsche 911 Turbos and GT3s, as well as the occasional GT2. There were a handful of BMW M3s – far fewer than we had expected – but many more Ferraris including the new F458s and even a new 599 GTO. We sighted our first Aston Martin V12 Vantage and there was a Mercedes Benz SLS Gullwing and both were competing rather aggressively with the Porsches. The real surprise however was just how many Nissan GT-Rs there were circulating on the track, as well as a smattering of Corvettes and a lone Hennessey Viper. Rarely seen on the Autobahns, but watching them routinely pull away from us, these “imports” were certainly more than holding their own against their German and Italian brethren.

Ron had gone to great pains to let us know how dangerous the track would be and how costly any mishap would prove – particularly as this was a track day where there were no speed limits. Every apex would be aggressively attacked and holding the “race line” meant nothing whatsoever as the much faster race cars pushed past us on either side. Having a passenger proved to be an advantage as they could watch the mirrors and call out cars as they approached – “there’s two on the right and one on the left!” And perhaps much worse – “there’s a train of ten or more cars coming and they are hotly contesting positions all around us!” In time however, and as the nerves began to settle down, our speeds began to climb and the passing moves became a lot more predictable.

My goal for the first session was to see if I could build on the basics – look for the corner exits and then work backwards to pick up the apex and brake and turn-in accordingly. Thomas had given us a lot of advice the day before, but during the first lap, there was little time to even think about track position. However, as we started the second lap, the brain began to slow everything down and I was able to recognize some corner sequences and begin to drive more smoothly. Pulling off the track and into the paddock for a driver change, with the car undamaged, was a wonderful feeling!

Margo was quick to jump into the driver’s seat and wasted no time in pulling back onto the track. The picture above is of Margo heading out of the paddock for the first time and looking for the entrance into the hot pits. Having viewed the track for two laps, once out on the track she improved more quickly than I had been able to do, and seemed at ease behind the wheel. Driving the manual BMW rental car for a couple of days was proving to be beneficial as she smoothly executed gear changes. But once again, Margo set the ground rules when it came to no uninvited comments, and I had to bite my tongue and just let her drive. All the same this was hard on me as I wanted to give her a few pointers after my own time behind the wheel. Unfortunately, with all that was happening on the track, she let me know in no uncertain terms, that my input was proving to be anything but helpful!

Brian and Jan had asked to have their Lotus equipped with a multi-camera video set-up and, after lunch, we strapped ourselves into their “video car”. Grateful for the opportunity, we would each do a single lap and record it as evidence that we had survived the Grüne Hölle! I drove the first lap – but this time, having earlier completed a lap as a passenger with Brian, and getting a better perspective of the track, I upped my game and pulled onto the track carrying more speed and then I held the gas down hard through the dog leg before entering the turns that took us across the start / finish line.

Knowing that the video would be recording everything, I tried a little harder and I thought I was really motoring! That is, until the train of race cars blew past! The more aggressive racers would quickly disappear around a corner but every now and then, one of the cars that passed me wouldn’t be quite as fast and this allowed me to follow them for a couple of corners and observe their lines. Continuing to lap the circuit in this manner and looking for the cues Thomas had pointed out the previous afternoon, I began to develop more consistency and my confidence grew considerably. Margo was really impressed with my driving, and gave me a number of “thumbs up”. By the time I came onto the final long straight I really began to feel more at ease with the track and as we did the driver change, I was sure Margo would do well too! The picture below is of Margo anxious to get around to the driver’s side of the Lotus.

And doing well she did! With even more laps under her belt, Margo went after it, but this time, on a dry track, the other drivers were becoming even more aggressive and there was barely an unchallenged apex for her to work with. There were still many Porsches, Ferraris and Corvettes mixing it up on the track but from where I sat, it looked like Margo was taking it all in her stride. At one point she was determined to hold her line and claim the apex – so much so that she closed the door abruptly on a Porsche GT3 that forced the driver to stand on their brakes. Go Margo! It wouldn’t be until much later, after we viewed the video, that we would see the other cars lapping in the 8 to 9 minute range, perhaps some a little faster, as we cruised, relatively speaking, recording more leisurely times some 3 to 4 minutes off the pace.

In the final sessions of the afternoon and with the track completely dry, Margo did another two laps while I completed one more, before the gas needle began to hover on empty. Entertaining ourselves on the Grüne Hölle, as we had done, and concentrating as hard as we did the whole time - terrified about joining the scenery - left us with very little energy. Completely exhausted we elected to end the day at the local gas station picking up souvenirs. Will we return? Are there more laps still left in us?

Laguna Seca is a beautiful track and the circuits at Willow Springs and the Auto Club Speedway provide challenges. But all of them fade into the background when compared to the Nürburgring Nordschleife and so, perhaps yes, if the opportunity presents itself again, we will be back! About that, I have no doubt and the respect we developed for the ‘Ring will be with us for as long as we continue driving our cars!

Monday, August 30, 2010

It's all starting to slow down!

It’s becoming quite a pattern, and one I am more than acutely aware of, as it’s an indication that progress is being made. Each Tuesday before a track weekend we are finding ourselves in the shop at A&A Corvette Performance, the big Vette up on the lift, and either Jessie or James busily working hard on last minute adjustments. We are now driving the Vette much harder than we ever have before, and components are beginning to wear out fast and the stress this is generating on some parts requires almost constant attention.

This past Tuesday however, we were still trying to track down a gremlin that was kicking on the Check Engine Light and throwing up the message “Engine Hot / Air Conditioning Off” in the two line Driver Information Center (DIC). It had first appeared as we were driving to the track at Laguna Seca, but after saving the ECU program, installing a GM fix, and reloading the program, we thought we had it licked, yet barely a day later, up came the message again. Swapping thermostats seemed an obvious next step and this we did, going back to the original. As we had been working with the programming we took another run on the dyno and the picture above is of the Vette strapped down firmly as it was being prepared for a couple of runs!

I am often asked about the effects of taking Margo’s “daily drive” to the track and of the merits in tracking an automatic. For the most part, these questions center on the costs associated with having the car track-ready and of ensuring that all parts subject to wear are replaced. I usually shrug-off these questions with a simple “not too much!” or “the Vette is just a natural!” and leave it at that. However, the parts that suffer the most are in many ways directly associated with the car being an automatic – tires and brakes. Cars that are taken to the track will wear out their tires and brakes and there’s no escaping the costs that this represents, but when the car is an automatic, there’s a tendency to push harder on the brakes and this adds additional loads to the tires so everything tends to wear out a little quicker.

Towards the end of her sessions at Laguna Seca, Margo had made an early return to the pits complaining that she had no brakes at all and readers of the previous blog post, following that weekend at Laguna Seca, may recall how she hadn’t been too thrilled to find she had nothing to slow her down at the top of Laguna Seca’s notorious corkscrew. Before returning to Southern California I had taken the Vette to the far end of the infield parking lot and sure enough, a couple of hard braking stops following short bursts of acceleration told me the brakes had gone, most likely overheated, but also well-down on pad depth judging from the amount of brake dust visible on the wheels.

The picture above is of Jessie installing an LG Motorsport front brake cooling kit that, together with upgraded pads (this time, it would be Hawk’s High Performance plus (HP+) pads) should help us better manage the Vette’s ability to stop. Heading for a weekend out on the “Roval” at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, brakes were going to play a very important role. As for the numbers following a couple of runs on the dyno at A&A Corvette Performance well we were all a bit surprised. As we prepared for Laguna Seca the month before we had changed the air-to-air intercooler and bolted on new Z06 mufflers that included the option to pass right through but the results were impressive.

The big Vette pulled a best run that gave us 545.12 rear wheel hp with a max torque of 490.90 – up from 497.66 rear wheel hp and a max torque of 466.16 almost two years earlier. This now puts the Vette fair and squarely in supercar territory as, allowing for the loss through the automatic transmission, hp as measured at the engine was greater than 650hp! All achieved with just a better breathing engine – any wonder that our attention had so quickly turned to ensuring we had more than adequate brakes as we headed to Fontana!

After what had happened to us at Willow Springs and then seeing what had happened to Joe’s Z06 at Laguna Seca, we decided the time had come for us to trailer the Vette to the track. The extra cost could be simply categorized as insurance. While our good friends Brian and Jan Kenny had invested in a terrific aluminum trailer for the red Vette, they were paying a princely sum in Southern California to have it stored so with our budget already stretched to the breaking point, we paid a quick trip to U-Haul.

The thought of gremlins bighting once again, and causing further havoc this weekend, was never far from my mind and as we drove our Caddie SUV to the track Friday afternoon, pulling the Vette atop of the trailer, all I could think about was what next would go wrong. I kept recalling how cool I had been when telling those folks who asked about the costs, and of my enthusiastic endorsement of how great the Vette was, but all the same, the past two weekend outings had proved to be anything but routine. Was it going to be overheating issues? Brakes? or tires? Or, something completely different? And I couldn’t help but wonder if I was just having the same thoughts as any car team manager the day before a big event!

For me this weekend was going to be about Margo. We would again be participating in an event put on by the folks at Speed Ventures, a first for us at the Auto Club Speedway. This has been a circuit that hasn’t provided positive feedback for Margo and, as we prepared for her sessions, we openly talked about simply forgetting everything that she had previously been told. Instead, she spent the time Saturday as a passenger with Jan Kenny as she drove their red Vette. Margo very much became Jan’s “project”, and the opportunity to check out the track from the passenger seat proved invaluable for Margo. Readers may recall how I wrote in the post of August 2009 “Johnny needs a fast car …” of how, in my Sunday afternoon sessions, I had followed Jan closely and knocked some ten seconds off of my lap times, unofficially of course, as our good friends had hand-timed us on their iPhone. Over the course of four sessions, Margo was to knock 30 seconds off of her lap times but earlier in the day, the picture above (photos by captures her keeping the very quick Audi R8 at bay!

As for me, my time on the track was taking place as Margo was spending time with Jan. For the first session Saturday, I had Jan’s husband, Brian, in the passenger seat providing me with some insight but that first session on track, however, could only be described as casual as I was trying hard to remember the lines I had learnt last time out earlier in the year. On the second session, with a couple of suggestions from Brian, I really went after it and was quietly pleased with what I was doing.

When it came to the third session, Brian again joined me as a passenger and my improvements were visible to him. I passed the entire field including a Ford GT mixed in with the pack of Ferraris. Again, it was a mandatory point-by protocol and the only car that gave me trouble was a replica Peter Brock Cobra that I sat behind for a couple of laps. As for my times, all that I could get from Brian was “thrilling” and yes, unofficial as it may have been and based on the times of the cars with me, I had pulled my time down from the early 2 min 10s to 2 min flat, perhaps even a couple of hundredths quicker.

The picture below is from earlier in the day as I was pulling away from a Ford GT that had given me a point-by coming as we came off the oval. Earlier in the day I was really focused on my lines and really working the car but even after backing off as I did for this last session, as our chief instructor was fully aware of the possible onset of driver fatigue given the heat on the track, I ran a couple of laps at 2 min 03 sec. On the penultimate lap of the day, I didn’t dive quite as low into turn 1 but rather, ran high the whole time and, in doing so, managed to get by the replica Peter Brock Cobra coupe as it tracked back up and behind me. As the final session of Saturday ended, I was so relieved that the car hadn’t let me down and that I would be handing over to Margo a Vette that had finished the day as strongly as it had started.

Sunday morning arrived and it was time for Margo to take to the circuit and the line-up on the grid looked intimidating. The Sunday was a day our hosts, Speed Ventures, were sharing with a Ferrari club and the paddock was littered with Ferrari V8s and V12s. Big, Maranello 575s were sharing space with F360s and F430s. Margo found herself gridded ahead of a Ferrari 355 GTS cabriolet with a Ferrari 2360 coupe a few rows back. She joined an intermediate group and had elected to drive by herself, but thrown in with her in this group were a couple of Audi R8s as well as a Maserati GT. While many of the drivers were first timers to the track, they were all itching to see how well their cars would perform.

Waived out onto the track for the first time Sunday morning, Margo was running out front for the mandatory full-course yellow lap but then she quickly waived a couple of the cars past her. Unfortunately, among the group that passed was the Ferrari 355 GTS and with mandatory point-by’s in effect, Margo spent most of the session counting the number of support screws that held the license plate to the car. No point-by! OH well – there was a lot more track time to come.

Undaunted, when it came time to take to the track for the second session, Margo was aware that there were truly three or four fast cars (the Audi’s, the Maserati, and a Ford) but the rest of the field was evenly matched. Whereas Margo had used the first session to settle into the car and to get a much better feel for the layout of the track, this time she really began to pick up the pace and we recorded much-improved lap times on the iphone. From her early leisurely 2 min 50s plus, she dropped down into the 2 min 40s clipping a second off each lap as she developed more confidence.

By the time the session was over, she was really looking very good and standing on top of a luxury box near the steep banking of turn one, unoccupied, as they all were for this event, I could see how well she was settling in and watch the consistency of her lines. Yes, Margo was still making sure the faster cars could get by but, with every lap, there seemed to be less and less cars closing in on her bumper. The picture below is of her really hitting her apexes, something she was to show me time and time again – way to go, Margo!

The temperature was now really climbing and with the heat in the car while stationary, as they lined up for the start of each session, I became the “bottle boy” making sure Margo stayed hydrated. For the start of the third session, she had lined up at the front of the faster of the two groups and was waived off first. By the time I had reached my observation point on the bridge that crossed the longest straight on the infield, Margo had open up a significant lead, disappearing into the complex that precedes the entrance onto the oval before the second placed car had exited the button-hook that made up turns eight and nine.

It would be a full two laps before the faster cars in the group had passed the much slower second placed car and to reel her in, but those early laps in clear air really helped Margo develop a lot more confidence. Lap times that had been in the 2 min 40s and 50s fell dramatically and Margo began lapping around 2 min 20 seconds – a full 30 second improvement on her morning session times! Both of us continue to participate in High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) events where sessions on the track are followed by downloads from experienced instructors. Lap times are not important and we don’t run with a transponder but we can’t stop our friends from telling us about the improvements we make. Unlike the downloads we experience with NASA SoCal where technique was emphasized, at Speed Ventures the focus is on track awareness and communication – a valuable lesson we take with us every time we merge onto an LA freeway!

The final session of the day for Margo came as long shadows were being cast across the track and all the drivers were showing effects of the heat earlier in the day. Times came back a little and there was less excitement. I had been joking with the driver of the Maserati about how he was holding everyone up and that he should be trying a little harder, but in that final session, he had to abort his exit from the oval, electing to run deeper into the oval’s back straight before turning around to rejoin the field. This gave me an opportunity to apologize to him and to remark on how his car wasn’t slow after all, it just couldn’t go around corners. Fortunately, he took it in the spirit it was intended!

The weekend overall could best be described by the enthusiasm coming from Margo. “Everything slowed down! I had time! I could even see all the corner workers,” she told me on the way home. As for me, nothing broke – given all the contingencies I had planned for, driving home in an overweight SUV and towing the big Vette seemed to be an anticlimax. On the other hand, if taking the trailer truly was an insurance policy, it was worth every penny. Next month? Well it’s the biggie – a full day on the north loop of the Nurburgring and about that, we will all just have to wait.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Did someone say Bucket-List!

Tucked into the rolling hills, only a few miles from Monterey Bay, is the Laguna Seca track – known worldwide as the venue for the United States round of the MotoGP World Championship. This is now the only true Grand Prix held on American shores. For car enthusiasts like myself however, this has always been among the elite road courses where I have wanted to drive.

In the post of September 18th, 2009 “Give me a “brake” – concentrate!” I wrote of how we really enjoyed the opportunity to participate as spectators at a Speed Ventures event held at that track. We were at Laguna Seca “not as participants, but as observers to see how other clubs ran track days. But we still had a lot of fun,” I had explained in last year’s post before remarking on how “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!” When Speed Ventures published their calendar for 2010 we penciled in the weekend and began making plans.

In the August 2010 issue of Car and Driver there was a feature article on “America’s best road courses – an insider’s guide to our favorite circuits”, where the author had written that “the U.S. is also home to some of the finest road-racing courses in the world … and have elevation changes, blind corners, and distinct personalities.” Making the cut as one of the five best road courses, of course, was Laguna Seca and the personality of this track was best summarized by the author when he said “then there’s the Corkscrew, the left-right corner that plunges downhill and is the course’s signature turn. The first few times through, you’ll think you’re falling off the planet.”

Readers of last month’s blog “... finally succumbing to heat!”, however, will recall that our weekend at Willow Springs had left us with a car that needed a lot of attention before it would see another track. And the picture at the top of the blog is of both Vette’s at the shop with the blue Vette up on the lift – notice the PYALLA vanity plates now gracing the rears of both cars! We now have the C5 Z06 with us in California, but continue to resist the temptation of taking it out onto the track although, with what happened at Willow Springs, we did think twice about the possibility.

In the four weeks between events, as I described in that post, we had replaced “the power steering pump, reservoir, pulley, as well as yes, restoring the power steering cooler that had been removed when the supercharger had been installed. Also … upgraded (was) the air-to-air intercooler as well as the radiator – both to units with superior cooling characteristics. The new radiator includes integrated coolers for the engine oil as well as the transmission fluids. Taking off the wheels revealed that we had nothing left on the brake pads either!” What we also did was change the thermostat to a new 160 degree F unit (versus the factory 180 degree F unit), wrapped the transmission fluid lines that passed the exhaust headers in insulation, and upgraded the rear muffler and tail pipes with a modified C6 Z06 system - the same setof mufflers aspictured in the earlier post of May 13, 2010 "Changes aplenty".

For anyone familiar with track cars, this represented considerable change and required a trip back to A&A Corvette Performance of Oxnard for additional last-minute minor adjustments, but what a difference! This many changes, however, had its downside and it would surface on our way to the track Friday morning. After a quick break for Starbucks and a little extra gas, we suddenly had “Engine Hot / Air Conditioning Off” appear in the two line Driver Information Center (DIC). After checking fluid levels and hose connections to no avail and following a short track-side deliberation, we drove to the local GM dealer in Monterey.

The plan had been for Margo to drive Friday and for me to drive Saturday – after our last outing where I had been left with a non-starter, Margo had wanted to make sure she had first opportunity to drive the big Vette. But standing outside the GM dealer in Monterey and expecting to hear more bad news, we decided to change the plan with me driving the Friday sessions and Margo driving on Saturday. The news from the GM mechanic was encouraging, as it looked like there was a software glitch with a sensor, so he simply reset the code and after a quick road check with him watching the numbers, I was given a thumbs-up and we were good to go.

Friday morning saw us setting up a mini Corvette Corral – Brian and his wife Jan were again with us and had his C6 Vette prepped and ready to go. Joining us for the weekend was Joe, who we have known since our earliest outing with NASA three years ago, and he had brought his black C6 Z06. Both Brian and Joe would be competing in the same category during Saturday’s Corvette Challenge, but unlike last month where Brian had recorded a faster time than Joe and edging ahead of him by .05 seconds, both drivers looked anxiously at the much larger field that had gathered. It was going to be a little more difficult this time to get a podium finish, let alone a win! Returning to the paddock and to our Corvette Corral we heard of how Joe had just avoided calamity as the car in front of him had lost its engine and spewed oil over the track, temporarily closing it down.

Before the luncheon break, I lined up in the Blue group for low intermediate drivers, and began to prepare for my first outing. After a couple of laps however, I quickly realized that I was going to have my work cut out for me. The picture above is of me diving down through the Corkscrew and, as it would be revealed in other photos that I was to see later, way off the apex of the right-hand turn that is the second half of turn 8. Turns 2 and 9 were also causing me some concern. As the day progressed, while I gained more confidence with each lap, I was unhappy with the way I was handling my apexes. At one point I dropped all four wheels of the track exiting turn 2 as I had focused too intently on watching the apex, and completely missed the exit. Rookie mistake, again!

During the late afternoon, Margo took an orientation ride with Brian as he began to improve on his times. Brian no longer makes any concessions for Margo as she has ridden with him on several occasions. Each time Margo returns to the paddock exhausted! Brian has put a lot of time into ensuring he has really good brakes and they test the limits of the seatbelts each time he applies them – Margo and I have both been in the car with Brian and the Vette’s ability to scrub-off speed as rapidly as it does with Brian behind the wheel, is a testament to how capable the Vette is in the hands of someone with Brian’s capabilities.

While I was unofficially timed right on the 2 minute mark ( by Brian’s wife Jan using her iPhone) , Brian had dropped down through the 1 minute 50 seconds getting a best time of 1 minute 41 seconds. It was during one of these quicker laps, and with Margo in the passenger seat, that the young lad piloting a new Mitsubishi Evo lost control of the car exiting turn 6 and spun across the track and into the wall. Hitting rear-end first the Evo continued spinning and bouncing off the wall … every panel was damaged with the front visibly crushed, and the incident closed the track. It was another close call for sure, and right in front of Brian and Margo!

Returning to the paddock after the final session of the day, I was pleased to be able to hand over the intact Vette to Margo. However, during that last session I began to detect some brake fade – instead of replacing the pads with the same as before Hawk HP Plus pads, there was some miscommunication with the lads at Andy’s shop and we had reverted to Hawk HP Street. Whether it was the increased temperatures, or simply wearing through the brake material a lot faster than on previous outings, the feeling they gave me during those last few laps didn’t instill a whole lot of confidence. On the way back to the hotel they seemed to get a bit better as the car cooled considerably, but I was still a little anxious as we headed into Saturday’s sessions.

In the Car and Driver feature on America’s best road courses, the most attractive part of driving at Laguna Seca was its surroundings. “Most tracks are in the boonies, but Mazda Raceway is close to Carmel and Monterey and a sea of hotels, restaurants, and shopping,” the author remarked and that night saw us at one of the finer seafood eateries enjoying the view over Monterey Bay. Evenings spent at the tracks at Buttonwillow and Willow Springs were a distant memory! As we awoke Saturday morning, however, the peninsular lay deep in marine-layer fog, and the temperatures had plummeted.

Margo would be running in a slightly tougher group than I had been as she was in a new group, Purple. After having had a couple of sessions with Brian and having talked-through a couple of laps, Margo was quietly confident and didn’t expect any surprises. And the photo above is of Margo coming to a stop in the paddock after that first session, and she had indeed done very well. Having never driven the course, she had been careful during the opening laps but gradually had picked up speed just as I have watched her do so many times before.

For the second session, I was given approval to go out with her so long as I “said nothing at all!” Unfortunately, I just couldn’t help myself, and after one lap, she pulled into the pits, and threw me out! My comments were not appreciated and even though it turned out that I was helping her, and photos taken at the Corkscrew confirmed my observations, at the time they were not welcomed! As I had been forewarned, I did not argue and just jumped out of the car while I could see that she was smiling to herself. In the final session, Margo began to pass cars and was feeling a lot more comfortable with the course. The picture below is of Margo attacking the corkscrew!

Not even the Corkscrew stood in the way of her enjoying herself. But as the laps wound down and end of the session approached, she came off turn 6 carrying a good amount of pace only to find, as she reached her braking point for turn 7 that leads to the Corkscrew, that she had no brakes! Standing on them with everything she had still had little impact, but having been through the Corkscrew several times with Brian at much higher speeds she didn’t panic and simply steered the car down through the turns – and the big Vette never missing a beat. Heading straight for the pits, she drove sheepishly into the paddock, relieved that the car was still in one piece!

For our friend Joe driving his black Z06, there would be no such luck. Margo and I had walked through the pit entrance and were standing alongside the pit wall as the Corvette Challenge began their warm-up laps. Wanting to see how Brian and Joe would perform, we waited for the field to come through turn 11 and onto the main straight. We could hear the cars well before seeing them but as the first Corvettes passed us we were quite unprepared for what would come next.

Working hard behind the wheel of his Z06, Joe had been getting on the gas a little earlier each time through the turn, but this time, overdriving the Vette he just tracked out a little further than before and dropped a rear wheel onto the artificial turf that bordered the rumble strip. Perhaps only a few inches of tire made contact, but it was enough to break loose the Vette’s tail and Joe spun across the track and right into the pit wall. The force of the impact moved the concrete barriers, as the Z06 crumpled along its right hand side – the airbags inflated and as the dust settled, we could see Joe moving freely within the cabin. Pinned against the pit wall he waited as the tow truck was dispatched. While it was a close call for Margo and myself, a matter of ten or fifteen feet away, it was another stark reminder of how violent the sport can be and the picture below is of the Z06 as it too was deposited alongside the back wall of the paddock.

The author of the Car and Driver article featuring Laguna Seca wrote of the changes made to the track and of how “the added tightness has made Laguna a technical challenge, with a mixture of slow, medium, and fast corners that flow together beautifully if you get it right. If you overdrive the track and have a bad day, your brain will explode trying to figure out where you’re losing the time.” This pretty much sums up the weekend for us. We could see how the track could reward those who managed to exploit its flow and how savagely it could punish those who overdrove it – the line was very thin and crossing it was all too easy to do.

We have another event in a month’s time when we return to the high speed “Roval” track at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. We will be taking a good look at the brakes and having the car’s engine management software checked out. But the Vette continues to amaze and impress us and there’s no question that the rewards it gives to those drivers prepared to throw it around will always ensure a lively weekend!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

... finally succumbing to heat!

Just two weeks after our outing at High Plains Raceway in Colorado we found ourselves trackside, once again. This time we were spending the weekend at a track we have grown to really like, the venue for our very first adventure onto a track anywhere in the world, Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR). Also known simply as Big Willow, this track looks relatively simple on paper, with only nine turns, but the more familiar it becomes the more every driver comes to realize how difficult it is to master and how much punishment it hands out to the cars that tackle its pavement.

It was Ernest Hemingway who said “auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports ... all others are games.” While we are still participating in sessions established as High Performance Driving Education (HPDE), where our cars are not officially timed, it doesn’t stop others following us with their iPhones – yes, there’s an application for that! But strap yourself into a modern car, line up along a track’s pit lane, and the emotions are the same as if you were really racing. And we all think we can drive really well! In an interview with Jeremy Clarkson on the BBC program Top Gear, Jay Leno remarked how “race car driving is like sex – all men think they’re good at it!”

Returning to Big Willow, now into our third season with HPDE programs, I was determined to improve on past performances and to stay focused throughout the day. In all previous outings I could recall having one, perhaps two, good sessions with the rest quite forgettable. Lapses in concentration have held me back more than I care to admit, but having spent some time on the phone talking to other drivers over the past couple of days, and fully aware of my failings, I was going back onto the track knowing that there was much to be done before I would ever consider myself good at it!

The photo at the top of the posting is of me alongside a Lamborghini Murcielago roadster. A fabulous car and not a regular participant at events of this type (the usual crowd turns up in well-turned out Mustangs, Porsches, Corvettes and Hondas), but the appearance of a true exotica always draws attention. So much so that we missed the later arrival of a couple of Ferraris including my all time favorite, the Ferrari Maranello 575! This weekend was not a typical one, as we were spending it with Speed Ventures rather than with NASA, and we were quickly coming to realize that they attracted a different crowd. Speed Ventures members value their time on the track above all else. For Saturday, we would be getting four 25 minute sessions plus a bonus fifth 20 minute session.

Regular readers may recall that in the blog posting of September 18th, 2009 “Give me a “brake” – concentrate!” I wrote about the weekend we spent as spectators at a Speed Ventures event at Laguna Seca. We specifically went to the Monterey circuit to see how Speed Ventures operated and whether we would have fun.. We came away from that experience certain that we would, and as Laguna Seca is a circuit we so much want to drive, we have already registered for their July 2010 event. Spending the weekend at Big Willow was our way to experience Speed Ventures trackside. Perhaps a little cautious of us, but we wanted to gauge the competency of those we will most likely meet at Laguna Seca and if the weekend at Big Willow told us anything at all, the level of experience as well as commitment to having fun, was every bit of what we had hoped for. Laguna Seca is going to be a fun weekend!

For this weekend at Willow Springs, I would be driving Saturday and would be running in the Black group for high-intermediate drivers, far removed from my earlier experiences with beginners and track newbies! Margo would be driving Sunday and she would be running in the Blue group that caters for low-intermediate drivers. The program for both Saturday and Sunday gave us three sessions before lunch with two more after lunch. Margo was really looking forward to getting a lot of seat time by herself. It’s not that she doesn’t want or need further instruction – her NASA instructor at HPR two weeks before had proved to be a very good teacher – but she’s reached a point where she just needs time by herself. This would be her sixteenth track weekend, and her sixth time on Big Willow.

In my last post “For a hot time ...” I described the experience I had in a lead – follow session with our friend, Brian Kenny. Brian drives a tuned C6 Corvette Coupe that like our C6 Vette, has been set up by Andy and the team out at A&A Corvette Performance. For four laps I had followed Brian around HPR and then he would wave my by, and follow me for four laps. In that last posting, I wrote of how Brian had responded to my question of how I looked with ““you missed every apex and you didn’t track out all the way as you exited – you left a lot of the track unused! Apart from that, you looked pretty good.” This time I was determined to use the whole track and to let Brian see me hitting the apexes!

Catching up on Formula 1 Grand Prix events that I had TiVo-ed, I was watching the qualifying session for the upcoming European Grand Prix when I heard Speed Channel commentator David Hobbs admonishing one of the drivers, telling him “you’ve got to be able to use the curbs!” Remembering my previous weekends at Big Willow, I began to develop a rhythm and had settled into hitting the curbs, or rumble strips, whatever, for every apex and exit – I began to fully exploit all of the track. The picture above (provided by CaliPhotography) is of me rounding turn 4 and looking down at the Lambourghini off in the distance.

My first two sessions went smoothly. I found a couple of cars quicker than the rest and I waived them past. These sessions had open passing but a “point-by” was mandatory. Once I recovered from the surprise that comes with seeing drivers wanting to pass everywhere on the track, I quickly adapted and began to enjoy myself. Our Vette proved very capable on this track and before too many laps, I was passing some of the smaller displacement cars. I continue to run with Toyo R888s and remain very impressed with the grip they were giving me as I worked to improve my speed through Big Willow’s turn 2 “sweeper” as well as through the final sequence of turns 6,7 8 and 9 that lead onto the main straight! The stickier Toyo’s allowed me to significantly increase my speed through these turns as the day progressed.

As I came in from the third session however, I pulled up to a stop next to Brian’s Vette and popped the hood. As Brian peered at the engine, there was immediate alarm from him. Getting out of the car I could see fluid all over the left hand fuel rail cover, and the top of the power steering reservoir was missing. Recalling the observations late in the second day at HPR, where there had been seepage from under the power steering reservoir cap, I couldn’t recall whether I had failed to tighten it or not. I had checked the cap to see if the fluid level was OK, but just couldn’t believe I hadn’t tightened it sufficiently! A quick lunchtime visit to the nearby AutoZone store and I had a replacement cap as well as additional power steering fluid.

One of the advantages of running in the Black group is that I could take passengers. For the very first time, I was able to take Margo for a ride. During the morning sessions I had seen my times come down from 1 min 50 sec to the high 1 min 40 sec and eventually to as low as 1 min 42 sec. I would start out the first session after lunch a little less aggressively and then finish with a couple of faster laps. There was little traffic but the excitement of the day came when I finally caught the big Lamborghini Murceilago and where I was given a “point-by” as we entered turn 8, not the easiest place to pass, but I nailed the apex and let the car track all the way out before bringing it back through the apex of turn 9 and onto the main straight. The Vette never looked unsettled and handled itself well.

Taking time to check my gauges during the cool-down lap however told me a whole different story. Engine temperature was through 310 degrees and the Transmission temperature simply read XXX! The car was overheating in conditions far cooler than we had experienced at HPR. And there it was again, fluid seeping from around the power steering reservoir cap. With only one session left, I was determined to take it easy and hold the Vette together for Margo’s Sunday outing.

However, as I talked with Margo and asked her how I had looked out on the track, she was very honest with me. “You are not taking the ‘Omega” properly! You turn into turn 3 too early, you can use even more of the track at the top of turn 4 and you don’t turn in aggressively enough through turn 4!” Ouch – but as I looked back at the fourth session, she was right! I had really worked hard on turns 6, 7, 8 and 9 but had let myself ease up on the critical sequence that led to those turns.

On the second lap of the final session of the day Margo, who once again was my passenger and proving to be a great instructor, was quick to congratulate me on my improved line through turns 3, 4 and 5! And it was clear from where I sat that she was genuinely pleased with the effort I had made. It wasn’t just a one-off performance, as on the three lapses that followed I nailed the sequence exactly as I had before. Aha! Consistency! However, coming up on a black C6 Z06 that I had begun to reel in and havoc cut loose! The power steering gave up just as I was entering turn 7 and it took all I had to pull the car through turns 8 and 9 where I then headed into pit lane and back to our “camp.”

Limping alongside of Brian’s Vette, the temperatures once again were as high as I had ever seen them, but this time as we popped the hood the radiator fluid exploded from its overflow reservoir. All around me drivers were pleased to see that it didn’t happen out on the track – coolant is extremely slippery and no driver wants to come across pools of it on the racing line! Looking under the hood revealed a pretty ugly sight. The power steering reservoir cap was missing, as was the serpentine “fan” belt. There was a tear in the hood’s insulation and shreds or plastic from the belt were scattered everywhere. The car would have to be towed home – a first in three years of track weekends. The picture above is of the Vette aboard Brian’s trailer.

Brian and his wife Jan were leaving Sunday morning to prepare for a vacation in Las Vegas but they graciously stayed behind to help us out. And the task of getting the Vette home wasn’t going to be easy. However, Brian had participated in the Corvette Challenge program and ended up with the best time in his group (a 1 min 30.1 sec) just pushing our good friend Joe in his Z06 into second place by .05 secs. Walking back to his RV, carrying a first place trophy, was more than enough compensation for what was now looking like a late departure Sunday.

Returning to our Vette the morning after, we discovered that we had left the passenger side door open all night and this had flattened the battery. We needed to start the car, even briefly, just to get it up onto the trailer. Before attempting this however, we needed to swap the tires on Brian’s Vette for those on our Vette as we would be driving his Vetter home. There was no room on the trailer for two Vettes and Brian’s Vette had Hoosier race tires mounted. So, we found a second low profile jack, swapped the tires all round and with a long set of jumper cables we were able to top up the battery sufficient enough to start the car and drive it onto the trailer.

Margo was going to miss her day on the track and for that, I was pretty depressed. She would now be venturing to Laguna Seca where she would be facing a new track and a new group of drivers. Not exactly what we had planned. As for the Vette, even as I write this post, it remains at A&A Corvette Performance torn down and inspected with a lot of work to be done. The picture below clearly shows the radiator missing and a lot of the major plumbing components removed. The power steering pump had failed, the shaft overheated, and the pulley had “walked” off the shaft taking the serpentine belt with it!

Reporting the incident to friends I know it was perhaps a business colleague, Mike, who summed it up best when he observed “power steering fluid takes a beating on a track like Willow Springs with the long sweeping turns. The fluid is under extreme pressure and builds temperature any time the wheel is off center and quickly reaches the boiling point.” Mike added that “once it boils, the observed failures can be: fluid expulsion, blown cap, blown reservoir, blown hose or pump lock up. Pump lock up leads to belt failure. Sticky tires compound the situation. An upgraded power steering cooler sounds to be in order.”

All up, an expensive exercise in that we are indeed replacing the power steering pump, reservoir, pulley, as well as yes, restoring the power steering cooler that had been removed when the supercharger had been installed. Also being upgraded is the air-to-air intercooler as well as the radiator – both to units with superior cooling characteristics. The new radiator includes integrated coolers for the engine oil as well as the transmission fluids. Taking off the wheels revealed we had no brake pads left either!

In many ways we consider ourselves fortunate. Nothing happened out on the track and we didn’t impact the other drivers. We met drivers we had seen at other events and everyone we approached for help was only too quick to provide assistance. The fellowship among participants was really heart-warming and the speed with which everything we needed appeared Sunday morning was greatly appreciated. Brian and Jan left for the vacation a little later Sunday afternoon and neighbors, seeing the Vette up on the trailer, parked outside our Simi Valley townhouse, were quite bemused by it all!

Power steering fluid may indeed be the “forgotten fluid” as Brian later suggested. The marked improvement in times that we had seen over the past three outings, and the extra grip the Toyo’s provided, overwhelmed the standard offerings. And the circle of high performance driving continues, as each upgrade highlights a deficiency elsewhere and each deficiency addressed only leads to a search for another upgrade!

There’s never a final component or fluid or pad that goes on, only the need to watch for what next develops as a weak link. But then again, we ruled out bull fighting and mountain climbing a long time ago and we just don’t have the interest in playing games any longer. Sure hope Andy and the lads can get the big Vette back on the road in time for Lagun Seca!