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 …

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