Friday, July 30, 2010

Did someone say Bucket-List!

Tucked into the rolling hills, only a few miles from Monterey Bay, is the Laguna Seca track – known worldwide as the venue for the United States round of the MotoGP World Championship. This is now the only true Grand Prix held on American shores. For car enthusiasts like myself however, this has always been among the elite road courses where I have wanted to drive.

In the post of September 18th, 2009 “Give me a “brake” – concentrate!” I wrote of how we really enjoyed the opportunity to participate as spectators at a Speed Ventures event held at that track. We were at Laguna Seca “not as participants, but as observers to see how other clubs ran track days. But we still had a lot of fun,” I had explained in last year’s post before remarking on how “Margo and I certainly enjoyed the opportunity, as passengers, to familiarize ourselves with the circuit from the right hand seat, we still wanted to get more track time ourselves!” When Speed Ventures published their calendar for 2010 we penciled in the weekend and began making plans.

In the August 2010 issue of Car and Driver there was a feature article on “America’s best road courses – an insider’s guide to our favorite circuits”, where the author had written that “the U.S. is also home to some of the finest road-racing courses in the world … and have elevation changes, blind corners, and distinct personalities.” Making the cut as one of the five best road courses, of course, was Laguna Seca and the personality of this track was best summarized by the author when he said “then there’s the Corkscrew, the left-right corner that plunges downhill and is the course’s signature turn. The first few times through, you’ll think you’re falling off the planet.”

Readers of last month’s blog “... finally succumbing to heat!”, however, will recall that our weekend at Willow Springs had left us with a car that needed a lot of attention before it would see another track. And the picture at the top of the blog is of both Vette’s at the shop with the blue Vette up on the lift – notice the PYALLA vanity plates now gracing the rears of both cars! We now have the C5 Z06 with us in California, but continue to resist the temptation of taking it out onto the track although, with what happened at Willow Springs, we did think twice about the possibility.

In the four weeks between events, as I described in that post, we had replaced “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 … upgraded (was) 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 that we had nothing left on the brake pads either!” What we also did was change the thermostat to a new 160 degree F unit (versus the factory 180 degree F unit), wrapped the transmission fluid lines that passed the exhaust headers in insulation, and upgraded the rear muffler and tail pipes with a modified C6 Z06 system - the same setof mufflers aspictured in the earlier post of May 13, 2010 "Changes aplenty".

For anyone familiar with track cars, this represented considerable change and required a trip back to A&A Corvette Performance of Oxnard for additional last-minute minor adjustments, but what a difference! This many changes, however, had its downside and it would surface on our way to the track Friday morning. After a quick break for Starbucks and a little extra gas, we suddenly had “Engine Hot / Air Conditioning Off” appear in the two line Driver Information Center (DIC). After checking fluid levels and hose connections to no avail and following a short track-side deliberation, we drove to the local GM dealer in Monterey.

The plan had been for Margo to drive Friday and for me to drive Saturday – after our last outing where I had been left with a non-starter, Margo had wanted to make sure she had first opportunity to drive the big Vette. But standing outside the GM dealer in Monterey and expecting to hear more bad news, we decided to change the plan with me driving the Friday sessions and Margo driving on Saturday. The news from the GM mechanic was encouraging, as it looked like there was a software glitch with a sensor, so he simply reset the code and after a quick road check with him watching the numbers, I was given a thumbs-up and we were good to go.

Friday morning saw us setting up a mini Corvette Corral – Brian and his wife Jan were again with us and had his C6 Vette prepped and ready to go. Joining us for the weekend was Joe, who we have known since our earliest outing with NASA three years ago, and he had brought his black C6 Z06. Both Brian and Joe would be competing in the same category during Saturday’s Corvette Challenge, but unlike last month where Brian had recorded a faster time than Joe and edging ahead of him by .05 seconds, both drivers looked anxiously at the much larger field that had gathered. It was going to be a little more difficult this time to get a podium finish, let alone a win! Returning to the paddock and to our Corvette Corral we heard of how Joe had just avoided calamity as the car in front of him had lost its engine and spewed oil over the track, temporarily closing it down.

Before the luncheon break, I lined up in the Blue group for low intermediate drivers, and began to prepare for my first outing. After a couple of laps however, I quickly realized that I was going to have my work cut out for me. The picture above is of me diving down through the Corkscrew and, as it would be revealed in other photos that I was to see later, way off the apex of the right-hand turn that is the second half of turn 8. Turns 2 and 9 were also causing me some concern. As the day progressed, while I gained more confidence with each lap, I was unhappy with the way I was handling my apexes. At one point I dropped all four wheels of the track exiting turn 2 as I had focused too intently on watching the apex, and completely missed the exit. Rookie mistake, again!

During the late afternoon, Margo took an orientation ride with Brian as he began to improve on his times. Brian no longer makes any concessions for Margo as she has ridden with him on several occasions. Each time Margo returns to the paddock exhausted! Brian has put a lot of time into ensuring he has really good brakes and they test the limits of the seatbelts each time he applies them – Margo and I have both been in the car with Brian and the Vette’s ability to scrub-off speed as rapidly as it does with Brian behind the wheel, is a testament to how capable the Vette is in the hands of someone with Brian’s capabilities.

While I was unofficially timed right on the 2 minute mark ( by Brian’s wife Jan using her iPhone) , Brian had dropped down through the 1 minute 50 seconds getting a best time of 1 minute 41 seconds. It was during one of these quicker laps, and with Margo in the passenger seat, that the young lad piloting a new Mitsubishi Evo lost control of the car exiting turn 6 and spun across the track and into the wall. Hitting rear-end first the Evo continued spinning and bouncing off the wall … every panel was damaged with the front visibly crushed, and the incident closed the track. It was another close call for sure, and right in front of Brian and Margo!

Returning to the paddock after the final session of the day, I was pleased to be able to hand over the intact Vette to Margo. However, during that last session I began to detect some brake fade – instead of replacing the pads with the same as before Hawk HP Plus pads, there was some miscommunication with the lads at Andy’s shop and we had reverted to Hawk HP Street. Whether it was the increased temperatures, or simply wearing through the brake material a lot faster than on previous outings, the feeling they gave me during those last few laps didn’t instill a whole lot of confidence. On the way back to the hotel they seemed to get a bit better as the car cooled considerably, but I was still a little anxious as we headed into Saturday’s sessions.

In the Car and Driver feature on America’s best road courses, the most attractive part of driving at Laguna Seca was its surroundings. “Most tracks are in the boonies, but Mazda Raceway is close to Carmel and Monterey and a sea of hotels, restaurants, and shopping,” the author remarked and that night saw us at one of the finer seafood eateries enjoying the view over Monterey Bay. Evenings spent at the tracks at Buttonwillow and Willow Springs were a distant memory! As we awoke Saturday morning, however, the peninsular lay deep in marine-layer fog, and the temperatures had plummeted.

Margo would be running in a slightly tougher group than I had been as she was in a new group, Purple. After having had a couple of sessions with Brian and having talked-through a couple of laps, Margo was quietly confident and didn’t expect any surprises. And the photo above is of Margo coming to a stop in the paddock after that first session, and she had indeed done very well. Having never driven the course, she had been careful during the opening laps but gradually had picked up speed just as I have watched her do so many times before.

For the second session, I was given approval to go out with her so long as I “said nothing at all!” Unfortunately, I just couldn’t help myself, and after one lap, she pulled into the pits, and threw me out! My comments were not appreciated and even though it turned out that I was helping her, and photos taken at the Corkscrew confirmed my observations, at the time they were not welcomed! As I had been forewarned, I did not argue and just jumped out of the car while I could see that she was smiling to herself. In the final session, Margo began to pass cars and was feeling a lot more comfortable with the course. The picture below is of Margo attacking the corkscrew!

Not even the Corkscrew stood in the way of her enjoying herself. But as the laps wound down and end of the session approached, she came off turn 6 carrying a good amount of pace only to find, as she reached her braking point for turn 7 that leads to the Corkscrew, that she had no brakes! Standing on them with everything she had still had little impact, but having been through the Corkscrew several times with Brian at much higher speeds she didn’t panic and simply steered the car down through the turns – and the big Vette never missing a beat. Heading straight for the pits, she drove sheepishly into the paddock, relieved that the car was still in one piece!

For our friend Joe driving his black Z06, there would be no such luck. Margo and I had walked through the pit entrance and were standing alongside the pit wall as the Corvette Challenge began their warm-up laps. Wanting to see how Brian and Joe would perform, we waited for the field to come through turn 11 and onto the main straight. We could hear the cars well before seeing them but as the first Corvettes passed us we were quite unprepared for what would come next.

Working hard behind the wheel of his Z06, Joe had been getting on the gas a little earlier each time through the turn, but this time, overdriving the Vette he just tracked out a little further than before and dropped a rear wheel onto the artificial turf that bordered the rumble strip. Perhaps only a few inches of tire made contact, but it was enough to break loose the Vette’s tail and Joe spun across the track and right into the pit wall. The force of the impact moved the concrete barriers, as the Z06 crumpled along its right hand side – the airbags inflated and as the dust settled, we could see Joe moving freely within the cabin. Pinned against the pit wall he waited as the tow truck was dispatched. While it was a close call for Margo and myself, a matter of ten or fifteen feet away, it was another stark reminder of how violent the sport can be and the picture below is of the Z06 as it too was deposited alongside the back wall of the paddock.

The author of the Car and Driver article featuring Laguna Seca wrote of the changes made to the track and of how “the added tightness has made Laguna a technical challenge, with a mixture of slow, medium, and fast corners that flow together beautifully if you get it right. If you overdrive the track and have a bad day, your brain will explode trying to figure out where you’re losing the time.” This pretty much sums up the weekend for us. We could see how the track could reward those who managed to exploit its flow and how savagely it could punish those who overdrove it – the line was very thin and crossing it was all too easy to do.

We have another event in a month’s time when we return to the high speed “Roval” track at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. We will be taking a good look at the brakes and having the car’s engine management software checked out. But the Vette continues to amaze and impress us and there’s no question that the rewards it gives to those drivers prepared to throw it around will always ensure a lively weekend!