Saturday, January 30, 2010

Looking back on 2009

Where did 2009 go? It’s a cliché, but the years seem to be flying by and while I was assembling my thoughts and preparing to write, a check of my calendar tells me there’s only a week to go before we begin a new year of track events. At least we had some down time during the holidays to pull corks from some good wine and the picture above shows a couple of fine Australian wines – a 1998 Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon alongside what turned out to be an even better 1996 Lindeman’s Padthaway Shiraz.

The wines had developed wonderfully as they had aged, and it was difficult not to feel sorry that the number of bottles I had on hand were limited. The past couple of years has seen the cellar become somewhat depleted as we have failed to replenish the inventory as often as we have helped ourselves to our stash. Then again, we wouldn’t want any of the wines to go off and turn to vinegar either. The aging of wines, on the one hand, brings with it the promise of better things to come and as I think back on our track days in 2009, I can see some definite signs that improvements are happening.

In 2008 we managed to make it to the track for five weekends, but in 2009 we made it to the track for seven weekends. Whereas in 2008 we lapped just two circuits – three if you count driving around one track clockwise and counter-clockwise, in 2009 we lapped five different circuits. We continued to gain experience at Willow Springs and ButtonWillow, but we found the time to add weekends at the Auto Club Speedway at Fontana, California, the Colorado State Patrol Driving Academy course at Golden, Colorado, and the brand new High Plains Raceway at Byers, Colorado. We even managed a session as passengers around Laguna Seca.

Along with the weekends at the track, we not only built experience but we also built friendships. It wasn’t always easy and we had our moments but we did develop friendships with the instructors and track support volunteers at NASA Southern California. With their help and guidance we certainly came on strongly towards the end of the year. We also developed friendships with other drivers – Joe, Carlos, Steffen – all of them made significant strides through the year and have become terrific drivers. We also developed a very strong friendship with Brian and Jan, who we first met at the end of 2008. We spent many weekends with them and I was able to pick up a lot of tips from them as we continued to review the weekend in the weeks between each event.

When I wrote the final post for 2008, I closed with the remark “when 2010 rolls around, we may again consider taking the Z06 to California. For this coming year however, it will be a full calendar of events for the C6 Supercharged LS2 ‘Vette. It may not be the perfect car to use for learning and the wheels and tires may require changing, but then again, this is all about the driver and it will be the source of a lot of fun as we head back to the track! Yes, we want to go faster and yes, we enjoy it. But even more importantly, we want to become better drivers …”

Full calendar of events? While we had high hopes for participating in all the events run by NASA SoCal, we didn’t quite make it. Combinations of our own anxieties and stress, the demands of business and a number of family situations, cut into our weekends at the track but through it all the management of NASA was very supportive. And for the kindness and support they showed us, we were very grateful.

Become better drivers? Sharing the one car is something that we enjoyed doing and it kept us both involved as each weekend unfolded. But it was effectively cutting our time on the track in half. We continued to experiment by first alternating sessions with each of us driving two sessions on each day, and then switching to what we had done on some weekends in 2008 – each of us driving for a full day with Margo driving all of Sunday’s sessions while I went out first and drove all the sessions on Saturdays. By the end of 2009 we found we gained more experience when driving all four sessions of a day and will continue with this pattern as we begin 2010.

A perfect car? We started with the C6 ‘Vette but after the first weekend, switched to the lesser-powered, “momentum” car, our Infiniti G37S coupe. For several outings, it certainly proved to be a good vehicle for learning new circuits. However, after only four weekends, we had demolished its brakes and rotors and worn out a set of tires. So we finished the year back in the C6 ‘Vette. By no means a perfect car, but we decided that if we were committing ourselves to improving our skills, it was pointless to trash two cars and as we had already earmarked the C6 ‘Vette as our track toy, we were better off staying with it.

Margo certainly showed the most improvement. Her first outing at Willow Springs was essentially a fresh start as the break between the seasons had been lengthy. But it was not a case of starting from nothing, as quickly the track took on some familiarity and she showed some consistency. By the end of that first day, she was looking forward to her next outing. When Margo returned to Willow Springs a couple of months later, our instructor Fulton presented her with a set of racing gloves for being the most improved driver and I had the chance to see the improvement first hand – from the passenger seat of Fulton’s ride as we tucked in behind Margo for a few laps.

From her early outings where she wasn’t sure where the track was going, Margo was now carrying a lot of speed through Willow Spring’s notorious turns 8 and 9 and her line onto the main straight was spot on! It became apparent to all of the instructors that Margo takes two or three laps to settle into any sort of a rhythm with the car. But after these initial laps, Margo lifts he eyes and looks further down the track and becomes smoother and more consistent. Standing alongside the track, this is very easy to see – and the picture above is of her, several weeks later, cresting Magic Mountain at ButtonWillow!

Perhaps the best testament to Margo’s improvement came when she spent two 30 minute sessions back to back on the tight, technically-challenging Academy track at Golden, without an instructor in her car!. Following a basic triangle shape, with a chicane in the middle of the triangle’s longest straight, the track also included several quick changes in elevation that unsettled the car. But despite this she managed to chase down a brand-new Callaway Corvette to be given a point by, and then tucked in behind two Vipers and stayed with them for the remainder of the session. I was lucky to see this up close as I volunteered to be a corner marshal and was the flagman during her two sessions. She maintains that being in a car by herself actually lifted her game.

The C6 ‘Vette remains a handful. Margo continues to drive it in full auto mode with no use of the “optional” paddle shifters. Nevertheless, with the experience she gained in the Infiniti coupe, the big ‘Vette is still the car she enjoys driving the most. After all, it’s her “daily drive” and the car she spends the most time in so even though it may be holding her back and slowing her development, she plans to continue driving it. For 2010 I have to say I will not be surprised at all if she does indeed develop into the better driver and shows me up with more consistent and smoother laps!

As for me, the year proved to be a very “mixed-bag” as I tried to put together consecutive “good laps.” In the last event of 2008, I had finished my day by spinning the ‘Vette coming onto the main straight at ButtonWillow, only missing the pit wall by inches. So I was very determined to exhibit a little more care with every lap I drove and to be aware, at all times of my position on the track. I really wanted to concentrate better and to remain focused on being smooth – consistency and smoothness will see speed increase, I have been told time and time again!

In the first session of my first weekend, at Willow Springs and in the “Vette, I stepped on the gas a little too soon after coming out of the tricky turn 5 and where there’s a crest that un-weights the car, as I looked to pass the car in front of me. Sure enough, the back came around and I had a little agricultural excursion but I kept the car straight and returned to the track once the cars behind me had passed and it was safe. The first weekend at ButtonWillow, during the third session, I recall, I missed an apex that positioned me poorly as I rounded a turn just prior to “the Bus Stop” and looped the car again. And during the last session at the Academy track at Golden, I spun the car when I stepped on the gas too soon (again) coming onto the main straight.

The issue for me throughout 2009 was concentration. As simple as it may seem, I had difficulties focusing for the full twenty minutes and I struggled to be consistent. I may put together three or four good laps in one session, but struggled to repeat them only an hour or so later in the following session. The picture above is of me looking ahead during the last weekend at ButtonWillow, but for the most part I was guilty of looking everywhere except where I should have been looking. I had never given any serious consideration to thinking about the mental aspects of driving before attending my first track day, but after two years this has now become the most important aspect of my future learning. For 2010, I really do have to sort out this aspect of my approach to driving and to figure out a way to block out all other considerations – oh look! There goes a rabbit!

Against this background, I still managed to improve and with the weekend at Auto Club Speedway, I managed to move up to HPDE 2. I am now driving sessions only under the watchful eye of the head instructor as I no longer have an instructor in the passenger seat. Of course, the first couple of times out came with some anxieties, but I have found that I am dealing with less distractions without the additional guidance. Not that I am not in need of the guidance, mind you, but for the most part I now know my way around each of the tracks and what I am working on is making sure I hit braking zones, turn-in correctly, put a tire right on the apex where it needs to be, each time, and exit using all of the track!

Leafing through the pages of Cycle World a few weeks ago, I came across a feature story by Mathew Miles on Ride Craft – “Be a better rider!” The story was about a new motor cycle riding school that had opened outside Birmingham, Alabama, and he explained that the “school curriculum focuses on the following: visual awareness and concentration; body position and steering; cornering lines and reference points; gear selection and shifting; braking, staying smooth and controlling panic.” It then told of how chief instructor Ted Cobb told the class “don’t worry about speed … rather, focus on finding reference points, looking up the track, and smoothly applying the throttle and the brakes. The speed will come later – naturally.” Cobb closed with stressing “we need you to anticipate, not react.”

This is exactly what our instructors had been telling me for the past two years. Stay with the fundamentals and you will improve! Yet, I still wasn’t convinced that I was giving myself enough time and that I should be trying to drive more laps. When I asked the national chairman of NASA, Ryan Flaherty about this, he responded with “every single lap should yield an improvement however undetectable. Let’s say you do 8 laps in a session. That is 32 laps in a day doing the same thing. An apex is an apex so while the tracks change, the fundamentals remain the same. 32 laps x 8 events= 256 laps of potential learning. Will you become a more skilled driver? Absolutely.”

Our “sophomore year” proved to be a mixed year for us. We had improved over 2008, and we understood how much further we had to go and the difficulties that we faced. I am now a lot less concerned about moving up to the more advanced HPDE categories as I was a year ago. If either of us improves, then this will just happen! The track remains the same no matter what group you drive in – and that’s the only challenge we are both interested in. Improving our concentration, staying focused and fully aware of our track situation at all times, and working on being smooth for the full twenty minutes!

Looking ahead to 2011 and beyond, we want to diversify a tad and spend more time riding our motorcycles and playing golf. 2010 is probably the last year of attempting to get to all NASA events we can – and Margo keeps reminding me that we need to reserve a few weekends for wine tasting, too! And with that, just as I said at the end of 2008 – see you all at Willow Springs next week!