Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rain dancing ...

We are home in Boulder. We have one furnace not working and all the while, the snow keeps coming down. I have lit the gas fires but the air has a distinct chill to it – this time, I can’t wait to get back to California. I have pulled out the maps to look at routes and I25 north to I80 “across the top” seems to be about the only option, and we will leave Sunday before lunch with hopes of making it back to the West Coast by Tuesday. The picture above is looking out our back door, past our BBQ and into a small grove of Aspens, and it’s a picture I shot with little enthusiasm to walk any further from the warmth of the house.

Viewing weather maps, and looking up small townships to check the local conditions, have become part of our routine these past few months. As the time for our first outing with National Auto Sport Association (NASA) program, High Performance Driver Education (HPDE), approached there was no question about it. I was getting concerned. We had paid our registration fee several weeks before the event, with little concern about weather conditions, but as the week before the event wound down it became pretty clear, we would be in for a wet weekend!

For readers who check out my business blog you may recall the post of February 10th, ’10 “Taking the party to the village …” where the opening paragraphs talked about driving in the rain. For two years now Margo and I have discussed how we wouldn’t turn a lap if we encountered rain – after all, the ‘Vette was her daily drive. All 600+ horse power. How would it handle in these conditions? Would I have the patience to just dial it back a tad, and take it easy? Or would I be the first one to slide off the track and return to the pits covered in mud! The look of concern on Margo’s face clearly suggested it would be the latter!

In the lead up to the weekend event at Willow Springs International Raceway (Big Willow), I had taken the ‘Vette back to our local dealer for an inspection as it had been several months since we were last at the track. Everything checked out OK – the brake pads were showing signs of wear but would be fine for one or two more weekends. There were new tires on the car – for the last event we participated in ’09 we changed up to Toyo R888s, much to the consternation of our instructors, but after only eight heat cycles they looked pretty good and we had kept the ‘Vette off the street. All the same, it was definitely a case of keeping our fingers crossed as we took to the track for the first session on Saturday, with rain coming down in a steady stream.

Saturday would be my day behind the wheel, and I lined up at the head of the HPDE Group 2 to see that there was only one other student. Another car did show, as we peeled out of the hot pits, but all the same, the field was way down compared to previous outings at Big Willow. The track is a fast track that suits the big horsepower cars and there had always been a solid showing of Mustangs, Corvettes, and Vipers but not this weekend. As I waited for the session to start, I did step out of the car to look at the main straight only to be greeted with large pools scattered randomly along the length of the straight. Oh boy, I thought, I wonder what effect this will have on our cars as we all get onto the gas as we accelerate hard on this section of the circuit.

No matter how many times I have been to a track, if an instructor comes up to my car, they are always welcome to join me. I’m not proud, and there’s still a lot I can learn from someone watching me as I continue to sort out my lines. Sitting nervously by myself, as a Group 2 “newbie” and having only driven one session before by myself, I was greatly relived when Mike, an instructor I have talked to and who races a Factory Five Cobra, asked if he could come for the ride! The picture above is from a little later in the day but it gives an accurate portrayal of what were the conditions out on the track.

I was clearly rusty the first time out. Missing apexes and not letting the car track out as I should. My hands gripped the wheel about as tightly as they could – I was hanging on for the ride. As for the pools of water on the main straight, I learnt very quickly to avoid them when accelerating! Visibility wasn’t that bad so there were no concerns on that front, but feeling the car moving around under me was very unsettling. The tires worked wonderfully well and as they warmed a little more with each lap, confidence finally returned and I eased up on my grip of the wheel.

I was once again working on the sequence of turns that make up the “omega” – turns 3, 4, and 5, and I was beginning to find a rain line I liked. What was a new experience for me was ignoring the lines I had previously followed as they no longer worked as effectively in the rain – I didn’t track out quite as wide before turn-ins as I had on previous outings (leaving a little margin for error), braking was a little sooner and gas pedal depressions weren’t as aggressive. Smoothness really was the byword of the day – every input whether turning the car, braking, or accelerating all had to be done fully aware that any unsettling of the car that could easily see it break traction and head for the infield.

I was still a little uneasy about being out on the track, and as the session ended I was grateful to be back under cover. By the time the second session came around, the nerves were on edge again. Lined up in the pits, I had decided to drive by myself and to see how much of Mike’s suggestions I could implement and repeat consistently. With only the two cars in Group 2 we were able to take to the track with a little separation between us and the cars in Group 1. Fulton, our instructor on the track, was once again leading us for a few laps before waving us by so he could check on the others. After the green flag was waved and the session started, I stayed focused on Fulton as I continued to try different lines. After only a couple of laps, I had one of the worst experiences, ever, on the track and one that saw me come into the pits to compose myself.

Unaware that I had attracted a Saturn from Group 1 that had tucked in close behind me, I was completely taken by surprise as I began to turn-in at corner 5 only to see a black Saturn pull right inside me, door handle to door handle! The Saturn took away any option I had to complete the turn and I had to swing wide to avoid him, and brake hard so I didn’t leave the track. I had just been effectively “dive bombed” on a section of track that was closed for passing. The incident brought the two cars so close together that I still can’t believe I missed running into him. As I came back up to speed, I was shaking – where did he come from? Why had I missed him in my mirrors? And what was he doing overtaking in a section off-limits to passing of any kind?

In the subsequent download session the incident was duly noted, and an explanation was requested by John, our head instructor. “He braked earlier than he had before, and I found myself without brakes. Rather than running up the back of him I swung inside and then, had to turn in more quickly than I had wanted to in order to avoid T-boning him!” Ryan, the driver of the Saturn, sought me out later to apologize and I could easily tell the situation had shaken him as well. “Your lines were pretty good so I tucked in behind you to follow you, but I ended up following you a little too closely!”

The picture above is of the conditions on the track following the luncheon adjournment. Groups 1 and 2 don’t return to the track until well after 3:00pm and by this time, the rain had stopped and the track had dried out. With a small group of cars behind me, I was able to settle in and after four or five laps began to lap some of the slower cars in Group 1. Traditionally, the third session of the day has been notorious for “offs” and the list of guilty parties given to John for the download has sometimes included more incidents than participants. But on this occasion, there were no reports and John was about as pleased with himself as I have ever seen him! “Well done, and see if we can finish the day with a clean sheet!”

Between sessions I sought out Mike and asked him if he would like to come with me for the last session of the day. Could he just see how I had worked on his suggestions and adjusted to the conditions of the track? Without a further thought, Mike came up to me in the pits, helmet in hand, and jumped into the passenger seat. This would be my last session of the day and, not unexpectedly, the rain came down once again. Perhaps not quite as heavy as we had encountered in the morning sessions, but enough all the same to see pooling, once again, on the main straight. My fellow Group 2 driver, a young lad in a well-tuned Audi A6, wasn’t going to be joining the group this time as he had damaged his radiator last time out and the car had been “retired.”

After three sessions and no “offs” I was finding a line that seemed to work for me. A few minor inputs from Mike and I quickly settled into a line, lap after lap. Not a tire off the track, not an apex pinched, and not an exit reigned in too tightly. By the second to last lap, I passed all of the Group 1 cars and Mike’s reaction was positive and encouraging. “A big improvement over your first session, and pretty close to perfect for the conditions; well done,” was the response from Mike and with that, I was pleased to be able to return the car to Margo in the same shape as she had given it to me in the morning!

As fortune would have it, Sunday dawned sunny and dry. We could see the surrounding mountain ranges and the higher elevations were all dusted in snow! Big Willow has thrown heat-waves at us, as well as bitterly cold mornings. To have seen off the rain came as a welcome relief, and Margo couldn’t have been happier. The picture above is of her out on the track mid morning. Margo was teamed with Terry, her instructor, and the pairing was a good one, as Terry races a Corvette. “She isn’t afraid to go fast,” Terry informed me as they returned to the paddock.
Watching Margo from the grandstand at the end of the main straight it was clear Margo was taking a little time to adjust and as always, a little anxious about messing up the lines of more aggressive drivers behind her and wanting them to pass at the first opportunity. However, she quickly settled in and watching her through turns 6, 7, 8 and 9, I could see she hadn’t forgotten much from her last outing in ’09. Margo was having fun and with a dry track, was using it all as she gave the big “Vette it’s head!

Margo’s second session would be the last of the weekend as we had to return home and attend to a number of outstanding business items. The picture above is of a close-up of Margo concentrating hard behind the wheel of the ‘Vette as she came out of turn 2 and headed for the omega complex. As in the earlier session of the morning, Margo didn’t put a foot wrong and easily improved her pace around the circuit. And as she came back into the paddock for the last time, the smiles were obvious. Terry was pleased with her progress and, for the first outing of ‘10, Margo had set a pretty impressive starting point.

The final picture, below, is of “Team Corvette” preparing to depart. Once again, we had the good fortune to share the weekend with Brian and Jan Kenny and to enjoy the comforts of their spectacular RV. Enjoying a quiet Martini Saturday night while Brian was slow-roasting pork ribs, was an experience we thoroughly enjoyed. Brian continued to improve his times in the red ‘Vette, but already discussions were turning to what further improvements could be made to the car to keep up with Joe in his black Z06 ‘Vette. We will need to make sure we invite Joe to our Corvette paddock when we get to the upcoming event at the Auto Club Speedway.

Track conditions will always be changing. Whether the thermometer climbs into the high 100s or sinks below freezing point, the track remains the same and it’s the participants that need to make adjustments. We so often talk about being consistent and about being smooth, but driving in the rain, these guidelines become particularly important. Realizing that the line is very different from the dry weather line was quite a surprise but I was able to make the adjustments. On the return trip home, we were already beginning to put together our plans for the next event. And relishing the opportunity to go fast, have a lot of fun, all the while doing so with safety. There just can’t be a better recipe for a great weekend, no matter what Mother Nature may throw our way!

Now, all we have to do is get out of Boulder and make it safely back to the coast. See you all at Auto Club Speedway in a few weeks time!