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!

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