Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A father's advice ...

The preparation for a weekend at the track has become a ritual, really! Typically, it involves changing the street wheels and tires for a wheel and tire package that I have set aside for track use only. The shiny chrome wheels, shod as they are with Michelin Pilot Sports are probably a good set-up for the track, but I have become fond of the black wheels and the Toyo R888s that see only track day usage. Once the wheels have been changed it’s a visit to the local car wash for a comprehensive bucket-wash and hand wax before I affix the car’s distinctive 116 numbers. The picture above is of the car in the garage as I go about changing the wheels.

As I was working on the car, preparing this time for a weekend at the Auto Club Speedway, where only a short time before NASCAR had held its annual event, I recalled the many weekends that were spent watching my father perform maintenance on the family car, back in Sydney, Australia. Whether it was cleaning the carburetor, calibrating the spark plugs, or changing the head gaskets, my father was a great “wrench” man! All the while, watching him meticulously working on the car, all I wanted to know was whether it was finished or not, and could we go for a drive! He never had the opportunity to go to the track in those early post-war years, when resources of any kind were scarce, but helping me jack up the big ‘Vette, changing the wheels and tires, torque-ing the lug nuts, would be tasks he would have been only too willing to help me perform.

The Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, formerly Cal Speedway, has proved to be a popular venue for club events. It’s always a thrill just to drive under the main straight and into the infield. When we participate in events at the Auto Club Speedway, we rent a garage close by our good friends Brian and Jan. Parked alongside their Corvette it seemed as though the garages held nothing but Corvettes and the picture below shows a Corvette C5 Z06 at the far end, with a C6 ZR1 alongside us. While the other tracks we visit favor the nimble “foreign cars” like Porsches, BMWs, and the ever-present buzzing cloud of Hondas and Mazdas, the Auto Club Speedway draws in the big cars; the Mustangs, Vipers, ‘Vettes, together with a sprinkling of new Challengers and Camaros.

The layout of the track used by the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) is called the “Roval” and it includes the main straight of the NASCAR oval through to the steeply banked turns 1 and 2. Halfway down the back straight a ninety degree left-hand turn, that’s followed immediately by a ninety degree right-hand turn, takes you onto an infield road course. A final set of turns, simply called “The Complex”, brings you back onto the main straight. It had been about a year since I was last on the circuit, so when it came time to drive under the luxury boxes and into the hot pits, I was a little anxious.

With five minutes remaining before I was to drive onto the track, even though I was driving in NASA’s High Performance Driver Education (HDE) Group 2 with no need to take an instructor with me, I saw Terry Free alongside the pit wall and waved him over to the car. Terry campaigns a Corvette Z06 in time trials (TTU) and I’ve never turned down an opportunity for driving with an instructor.

What a disaster! As we were about to depart the pits, Terry gave me an earpiece / mic set up so we could better communicate, but after only a hundred yards or so out on the track I could tell we would be having problems. I couldn’t understand one thing Terry was saying! The more I concentrated on what he was coming through the earpiece, the less attention I was paying to the track. My lines simply fell apart and I could hear Terry attempting to make even more suggestions. Then the automatic transmission decided to give up. On the third lap, using the paddle mode, as I like to do, the gearbox wouldn’t shift out of third gear. Imagine leaving the complex and driving out hard onto the Oval, listening as the engine revs climbed past 6,200 rpm only to find no more gears!

Quickly shifting out of the automatic’s sport mode to just the regular drive mode yielded nothing – all I had was the last gear selected in sports mode. Third gear was all I had and nothing I did would entice the gearbox to give me anything else. So, I took a deep breath, backed off a little, and finished the session in third gear. Backing off further for the cool-down lap, I was despondent and worried about how the weekend was going to turn out.

After the ritual of preparing the car and having it look as good as I could get it, to end up with a gearbox that wasn’t reliable was a return to earlier times where I had experienced similar occurrences, but where I had been assured by the GM tech’s who had taken a look at the problem that the issue had been resolved. The picture above is of me crossing the start / finish line during that morning session.

There was little time to worry about it as the download meeting, following the first session, was lengthy and it was then back out onto the track. For the second session, I was out on the track by myself, and began to settle down – the first session nerves firmly behind me. I just pulled tightly on my seat belt and took the car slowly for the first three laps to check it out and it was only as I started the third lap that the transmission once again locked itself firmly in third gear.

With way more torque than anyone sensibly could use, I just decided to run the session in third gear and to use the time to practice my lines and to work on finding a smooth line around the track. If this was all the car I had, I was going to have to figure out a way to wring the most from it. As the session was winding down, and with only a couple of laps to go, I shifted between sports and drive modes one more time, and suddenly found the drive mode working! I had gears with shifts that were pretty slow, mind you, but I began to figure out where gear change-downs could be induced and how heavy on the gas pedal I needed to be to force the change without overloading the rear-end with too much torque.

The picture above is of me coming down from the banking on the exit from turn one following a fast run down the main straight. The third and fourth sessions of the day turned out to be much better as I overcame the shortcomings of the transmission and used the delayed changes to my advantage. The previous outing at the track I was barely breaking into the 2:25s but during the third session, Jan had been hand timing me on her iPhone and clicked off 2:12s, then 2:11s, followed by a succession of lower times until I dropped to 2:07:01 as the session ended.

On the fourth and final session of the day I backed-off a little as my brain was beginning to slow down, and yet was still happily circulating with lap times of 2:08s. To be clear, having a friend time you on her iPhone is not competitive driving, certainly not TT (Time Trial) where a transponder is attached to your car, and split seconds can be attributed as much to my improved performance as to Jan being perhaps slow to hit the button, but all the same I was pleased!

Sunday was Margo’s turn out onto the track. Due to other commitments, Margo only joined us late Saturday afternoon and had missed much of my time on the track. While she had spent just one session on the circuit a year ago, this was essentially new territory for her and she had some anxieties about what lay ahead. The picture below is of Margo passing the start / finish line during her first session.

The early going turned out to be difficult. The skill levels of the participants was significant, with several of the Group 2 drivers, with the experience from four sessions the day before, being a lot quicker than the rest. Compounding this was the appearance of some new arrivals arriving with more powerful cars. There were now a couple of Corvette Z06s in the group as well as some race cars. And after a few laps they were into the pack of Group 1 drivers where instructors were keen to waive them by.

The final session of the day went smoothly for Margo and the picture below is of her throwing the big ‘Vette through a series of right, then left, corners leading into the complex. Clearly visible in the picture is Margo making full use of the track with the car nicely dancing over the rumble strip encroaching into the corner’s apex. Margo did not enjoy her experience, and now wants to consider other options including attending other club events where she’d be left alone to practice – the input she is now receiving is no longer helping her at this point. As we had two cars at the track, it was a long and lonely drive home. However, over cocktails, we began to plot anew what our goals really are for track days.

This past weekend we had thought we would be joining NASA for their outing at Buttonwillow, but our plans changed as we headed in the opposite direction. The Long Beach Grand Prix, where I had seen my first F1 event in March, 1977, was the venue for the second round of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Again, our good friend Brian was with us and we took advantage of the hospitality on offer in the Corvette Corral. Brian’s wife Jan is the mother-in-law of Bryan Herta, a former CART / Indy / ALMS racer who is now the very proud owner of an Indy Lights team - Bryan Herta Motorsports. This weekend they would be fielding a two car team for drivers Sebastian Saavedra and Stefan Wilson. Last time out, Saavedra had earned a spot on the podium and expectations were high for the team to again perform well.

One benefit of the relationship was that Brian was able to join the Bryan Herta Motorsports team in the pits for the qualifying laps, Saturday, as well as for the race, Sunday. The race proved frustrating for Wilson but Saavedra brought his car home in fourth place. Brian was standing alongside Saavedra’s father and as Brian congratulated him on his son’s good fortunes, Saacedra’s father remarked “Sebastian understands well what I always taught him; if you don’t have a first place car, don’t drive it like one! Drive the car you have, finish the race, and take the points!”

Checking the web for results of the Indy Car race later, I came across the online publication PaddockTalk and read a posting by M Sulka on the fortunes of Wil Power, an Australian racer with Team Penske and a pre-race favorite to win the event. Unfortunately, Power only managed a third place finish and, according to the Sulka, Power had remarked, "once it became clear we weren't going to win … I just consolidated my position, and tried to get good points." Almost the same expression as Brian had heard in the pits of Bryan Herta Motorsport. These comments, coming as they did as I was developing the storyline for this blog posting, it only served to remind me of what went through my own mind that weekend at the Auto Club Speedway.

It’s still a surprise to me how much good advice a father can provide. In the Saavedra family, it certainly made a difference. Last year I missed another NASA weekend at Buttonwillow as my father passed away and we made the trip back to Sydney to attend his memorial service. His last car? Yes, he bought a stick-shift sports car and only reluctantly gave it up a short time back when his diminishing eyesight made trips just a tad too exciting for my sister, Judy.

Would he have wanted to help me with my routines? I have no doubt he would. My father never saw me at the track, but we frequently discussed at length our outings with NASA. I was never given the good advice for racing that Saavedra received from his father, but the love I have for cars, and for driving, definitely was a gift from my father.

I could complain about the car all I wanted, that weekend in Fontana, to anyone prepared to listen. As racers know only too well, to finish first, you first must finish! There wasn’t much that I could do about the Corvette’s automatic gearbox, of course, but like Power and Saavedra, I simply had to reconcile with the fact that the Corvette was only going to give me what it had, and I was just going to have to drive the car I had!