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!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

For a hot time ...

It was a relief to finally be in cooler weather. The mountains of Colorado came as a welcome break after two days of driving through the high deserts of the western half of America. The late afternoon climb out of Simi Valley up through the Mojave desert, the early evening run across to Las Vegas, the passage next day south of the Grand Canyon and the increased desolation that leads to the “Four Corners,” with the final run through to Farmington, New Mexico where we spent the second night, saw temperatures routinely climb through three figures. Standing as we were, snapping off pictures, along side the twists and turns of the “million dollar highway” as it descended into Ouray, we just let the cold mountain air wash over us. The picture at the top of this column is of the blue ‘Vette framed by high, snow-capped peals of the San Juan ranges.

We needed to get the Vette back to Colorado to have her smog tested, and to pick up the new tags that Pyalla Technologies was happily sponsoring. Yes, we were looking forward to installing the PYALLA1 vanity plates after waiting many months. Spring sessions on California tracks were now behind us and once again, we were planning on spending a few days at the new track outside Byers, Colorado – High Plains Raceway (HPR). With turns yet to be named in honor of famous drivers it still generated a lot of excitement as plans were made.

Opened only the year before, the circuit lacks the facilities you normally expect to find at a track but from what we had been reading, it looked like there had been some improvements from our previous outing but there was no way you would ever mistake it for a glamour track! No “Brabham’s Bend” or “Montoya’s Mangle” yet we still had to face “To Hell on a Bobsled” and “Niagra” that had led me to observe, in last year’s September 18th post, “The Fifth Element”, of how important it was to be prepared. In that post I wrote “with corners labeled ‘Danny’s Lesson’, ‘Ladder to Heaven’, ‘High Plains Drifter’, and the ‘Prairie Corkscrew’, the track took full advantage of the many elevation changes the location afforded. And spending Friday afternoon to figure it all out? Priceless!”

The trip across the high desert hadn’t been kind to us. As we made our way across Arizona, the temperatures really began to climb and as we approached the exit we had planned on taking, that would give us a run through Monument Valley, we drove into a red dust storm. I have seen pictures of these desert storms when I had lived in Australia and knew they were a frequent occurrence, but until you actually drive into such a weather system you do not fully appreciate how difficult the driving conditions can become. With lights on and speeds reduced, it was still a nerve-wracking experience. It lasted for the rest of the afternoon and even as we drove into Farmington, the visibility only improved slightly. Walking to dinner proved to be extremely difficult so we picked the Outback Steakhouse right next door!

Taking the Vette to Colorado for smog testing meant we had to drive it to our local Boulder facility and subject the car, now supercharged, to testing. I was still thinking about the poor weather conditions of only two days earlier when we lifted the hood. Red dust was everywhere and not a single surface was without some evidence of our passage through the storm. Not unexpectedly, we failed the smog test the first time, but after an email exchange with Andy of A&A Corvette Performance, we took the car to the local tuning shop, Dragon Racing, only a few miles east of our Boulder home, and after backing out the timing and leaning the fuel mixture a little, we were able to pass the smog test. The car was now good to go but even so, looking at all the red dust that accumulated, I took the car to the local GM dealer for an oil change, just to be sure.

Our good friends Brian and Jan were joining us again for this year’s outing – this time, they, too, were driving from Simi Valley to Colorado in the red ‘Vette, but this time with street tires and no Hoosiers! Brian had thought through his options but he didn’t want to miss out on driving through the mountains so previous plans to trailer the car were put to one side. The picture above is of the two Vettes parked in the driveway the day before we took them to the track.

Just as we did last year, we registered for an open lapping day at HPR. This would give us the opportunity to re-learn the track and to just dial ourselves back in to what we just knew would be a difficult, yet extremely rewarding track. Margo stayed behind, not wanting to take a day off from work. We knew from pervious experience that the number of cars participating would be far less than for any club outing but all the same a lot of cars did make it to the Friday lap day.

Glenn, the track manager, set up two groups that were loosely categorized as slow, and fast. Electing which group to join was left solely to each driver so, still a little rusty from almost two months away from any track, I started out in the slow group. However, this would mean that there would be four thirty-minute sessions for each group before lunch with another four following the break – this was not your typical day out with clubs like NASA or even Speed Ventures. The picture below is of our group, trackside, with cars about to head out of the paddock and onto the track.

Last year I remember our good friend Hal returning from a lap day and telling me of how the oil temperature had climbed way too high, the brakes had been worn down to nothing, and the tires were completely shot. With little supervision, other what comes from each drivers own experience, it’s easy to see how any car can be driven into the ground on lap days. I have to admit, as 8:00am arrived, I was a little concerned how the big Vette would respond to this kind of abuse! But when it came time to drive onto the track, I found I was more concerned about how consistent I would be and about how much of the layout I would remember from a year ago.

I had decided to focus on turn 1 – after a short front straight, there’s a sharp left-hand turn that is not quite 90 degrees. After the warm up lap I found that I could accelerate onto the straight, change up a gear as I crossed the start/finish line, but then I would stand on the brakes late and hard and found myself turning in a little late. This line had me pinching the turn and not tracking out to the right side edge of the track where the fresh foundation for a rumble strip had been laid. Always a clue, I had missed both the rumble strip foundation on the turn’s left side apex as well as on the right side exit. Working back from the exit, I finally figured out that I didn’t have to brake as hard as I had been doing to turn in a little earlier and just get a tire on the rumble strip foundation, and let the car track out all the way to the right where I could execute a straight line shot to the braking zone preceding the next right hand sweeper,

Confidence began to build but when it came time for the cool-down lap, I again eased up on my concentration. Figuring I could skip the use of brakes and drive through the turns I was still carrying too much speed as I came around turn 1. Even with all the attention I had paid to it, I knew there was no way that I would make it – so I simply let the car drop four wheels off the track and continued around the turn with a much wider arc than anyone else had attempted. Returning to the paddock I found, much to my relief, that there had been no witnesses to my minor indiscretion! But it was a wake-up call all the same. Even during cool-down laps, you can never let you mind wander too far away!

I continued to work on turn 1 during the second session but when it came time for the third session, I switched groups and joined the fast group. Brian had been driving the red Vette in this group and I thought it would be fun to join him – so we went out for four laps with him leading and then we swapped positions as he tucked in behind me. “How did I go,” I asked as we pulled ourselves out of our cars. Brian looked at me rather sternly and responded, “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.” Brian was running the Vette with street Michelin tires and I knew he was off his normal pace a little, but even so I felt pretty down. “Hey, I thought we were going pretty fast,” I tried to add before Brian gave me an all-knowing look.

As we drove back onto the track for our final session before lunch, the temperature was really starting to climb. It was already 90 degrees and in the thin air at this altitude, I was seeing the car temperatures climb much higher than I had ever seen before. Engine oil and transmission fluid temperatures were beginning to close in on 300 degrees for the first time. Ever! It was as if the drive across the desert never happened and the cool mountain air was a lifetime ago. While I was now getting through turn 1 consistently, I was beginning to work on turns 7 and 11 – both taken at speed as uphill sweepers with decreasing radius and a little off-camber that all added to the excitement. As the session wound down, I was hitting more of the apexes and using the track, all of it, and I was staying in touch with a group of very fast drivers.

Unfortunately, during lunch a situation developed and the ambulance had to transport a participant to the local hospital. Glen was forced to close the track until another ambulance could be located but by this time and knowing that Saturday would be another full day, we decided to preserve the cars and head home. Lifting the hood after the fourth session, I was surprised to see power steering fluid leaking from under the cap of the power steering reservoir. Having had the car serviced only the day before I put it down to an over zealous mechanic filling it a little too full, but the left fuel rail cover looked liked it had been cleaned with Armor All!

Saturday was Margo’s day on the track and it was a return visit to the NASA Rocky Mountain region. We enjoyed our time with them last year but this would be Margo’s first time on the track. And what a start! Leading out the High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) group 1 and 2 drivers, Margo stepped on the gas and as she entered the track at the exit of turn 2, she quickly accelerated through turn 3 and onto the long back straight such that as she began to brake for the dog-leg turn 4 at the end of the straight, she had already separated from the other drivers by almost the full length of the straight. Coming across the start-finish line on her third lap, she was already into the stragglers at the back of group 2! I just couldn’t believe it and the photo above is of Margo exiting turn 1 at speed!

How did she do? How did she feel after only a couple of outings this year? Pretty terrific! “This is a great track and having had the opportunity to look at it from the passenger seat with Brian,” she began, “really helped me sort out where I was on the track. I didn’t loose perspective as I sometimes do on new tracks!” Margo’s instructor was a fellow Corvette driver who campaigns a C6 Z06 in time trials. He was very laid back and watched Margo complete a couple of laps before providing any feedback and this is exactly what Margo was looking for. All too often Margo has had either enthusiastic instructors who just can’t help themselves and need to provide her with an almost continuous stream of input, or she gets an instructor that provides only an advice to point everyone else by!

Coming back into the paddock after the second session, it was clear Margo was picking up the pace and really having fun. As I lifted the hood for her, there again was the tell-tail power steering fluid oozing onto the fuel rail cover. Once again, I simply put it down to the over-zealous folks who serviced the car. Temperatures were running very high and with the altitude, I checked in with Hal to get a little more insight as to what to expect. “For the Vette the limits are 315 for engine oil temp and 260 for coolant,” he emailed me. “The computer knows … the car will go into limp mode if any design limit is exceeded!”

We were planning on leaving the track shortly after lunch as we had an early start Sunday morning to make it back to Simi Valley by Monday lunchtime. Looking at me checking out the car and looking as if I really wanted to drive it, Margo gave me the opportunity to drive the last session before we went home. It was getting even warmer and we were now drinking sports drinks at every opportunity.

Taking the Vette out onto the track one last time felt fantastic and I was determined to hit the apexes and track out to the edges. “Remember, to pick up the coupons,” Brian instructed, “at every apex you can collect a coupon if you get it just right!” I immediately caught his drift and I must have come back with a bucket load of them. Mentally working my way around the track all day, I was able to put down some of my best times, pulling a further 10 seconds off my previous bests of Friday. Not that I carry a transponder … these measurements were actually taken by Brian’s wife Jan who was using her iPhone – so the precision may be questionable!

How quick had we been going? On Michelin PS/2s, Brian recorded a 2:14 whereas, according to Jan's iPhone, I was a good 10 seconds slower on Toyo R888s recording a best time of 2:24. On my cool-down lap, I took the time to check my gauges. Oil temperature was at 280, coolant only at 235, but the transmission temp was all the way over in the red and 272! “None of those temperatures are terrible, per se,” came back Hal, but all the same, I was now a tad concerned. I had never seen the needles push this far around the dial! The final photo here is of the Vette slowing down on its cooling lap with its newly-installed vanity plate clearly visible.

For the first time Margo and I completed a weekend with the car intact and with a lot more confidence! After a little more than two years driving the big Vette on tracks it really has got us hooked! We had fun, and we shared the fun with our friends – seems like a great way to enjoy a Memorial Day weekend! If only it hadn’t been so darn hot …