Monday, August 30, 2010

It's all starting to slow down!

It’s becoming quite a pattern, and one I am more than acutely aware of, as it’s an indication that progress is being made. Each Tuesday before a track weekend we are finding ourselves in the shop at A&A Corvette Performance, the big Vette up on the lift, and either Jessie or James busily working hard on last minute adjustments. We are now driving the Vette much harder than we ever have before, and components are beginning to wear out fast and the stress this is generating on some parts requires almost constant attention.

This past Tuesday however, we were still trying to track down a gremlin that was kicking on the Check Engine Light and throwing up the message “Engine Hot / Air Conditioning Off” in the two line Driver Information Center (DIC). It had first appeared as we were driving to the track at Laguna Seca, but after saving the ECU program, installing a GM fix, and reloading the program, we thought we had it licked, yet barely a day later, up came the message again. Swapping thermostats seemed an obvious next step and this we did, going back to the original. As we had been working with the programming we took another run on the dyno and the picture above is of the Vette strapped down firmly as it was being prepared for a couple of runs!

I am often asked about the effects of taking Margo’s “daily drive” to the track and of the merits in tracking an automatic. For the most part, these questions center on the costs associated with having the car track-ready and of ensuring that all parts subject to wear are replaced. I usually shrug-off these questions with a simple “not too much!” or “the Vette is just a natural!” and leave it at that. However, the parts that suffer the most are in many ways directly associated with the car being an automatic – tires and brakes. Cars that are taken to the track will wear out their tires and brakes and there’s no escaping the costs that this represents, but when the car is an automatic, there’s a tendency to push harder on the brakes and this adds additional loads to the tires so everything tends to wear out a little quicker.

Towards the end of her sessions at Laguna Seca, Margo had made an early return to the pits complaining that she had no brakes at all and readers of the previous blog post, following that weekend at Laguna Seca, may recall how she hadn’t been too thrilled to find she had nothing to slow her down at the top of Laguna Seca’s notorious corkscrew. Before returning to Southern California I had taken the Vette to the far end of the infield parking lot and sure enough, a couple of hard braking stops following short bursts of acceleration told me the brakes had gone, most likely overheated, but also well-down on pad depth judging from the amount of brake dust visible on the wheels.

The picture above is of Jessie installing an LG Motorsport front brake cooling kit that, together with upgraded pads (this time, it would be Hawk’s High Performance plus (HP+) pads) should help us better manage the Vette’s ability to stop. Heading for a weekend out on the “Roval” at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, brakes were going to play a very important role. As for the numbers following a couple of runs on the dyno at A&A Corvette Performance well we were all a bit surprised. As we prepared for Laguna Seca the month before we had changed the air-to-air intercooler and bolted on new Z06 mufflers that included the option to pass right through but the results were impressive.

The big Vette pulled a best run that gave us 545.12 rear wheel hp with a max torque of 490.90 – up from 497.66 rear wheel hp and a max torque of 466.16 almost two years earlier. This now puts the Vette fair and squarely in supercar territory as, allowing for the loss through the automatic transmission, hp as measured at the engine was greater than 650hp! All achieved with just a better breathing engine – any wonder that our attention had so quickly turned to ensuring we had more than adequate brakes as we headed to Fontana!

After what had happened to us at Willow Springs and then seeing what had happened to Joe’s Z06 at Laguna Seca, we decided the time had come for us to trailer the Vette to the track. The extra cost could be simply categorized as insurance. While our good friends Brian and Jan Kenny had invested in a terrific aluminum trailer for the red Vette, they were paying a princely sum in Southern California to have it stored so with our budget already stretched to the breaking point, we paid a quick trip to U-Haul.

The thought of gremlins bighting once again, and causing further havoc this weekend, was never far from my mind and as we drove our Caddie SUV to the track Friday afternoon, pulling the Vette atop of the trailer, all I could think about was what next would go wrong. I kept recalling how cool I had been when telling those folks who asked about the costs, and of my enthusiastic endorsement of how great the Vette was, but all the same, the past two weekend outings had proved to be anything but routine. Was it going to be overheating issues? Brakes? or tires? Or, something completely different? And I couldn’t help but wonder if I was just having the same thoughts as any car team manager the day before a big event!

For me this weekend was going to be about Margo. We would again be participating in an event put on by the folks at Speed Ventures, a first for us at the Auto Club Speedway. This has been a circuit that hasn’t provided positive feedback for Margo and, as we prepared for her sessions, we openly talked about simply forgetting everything that she had previously been told. Instead, she spent the time Saturday as a passenger with Jan Kenny as she drove their red Vette. Margo very much became Jan’s “project”, and the opportunity to check out the track from the passenger seat proved invaluable for Margo. Readers may recall how I wrote in the post of August 2009 “Johnny needs a fast car …” of how, in my Sunday afternoon sessions, I had followed Jan closely and knocked some ten seconds off of my lap times, unofficially of course, as our good friends had hand-timed us on their iPhone. Over the course of four sessions, Margo was to knock 30 seconds off of her lap times but earlier in the day, the picture above (photos by captures her keeping the very quick Audi R8 at bay!

As for me, my time on the track was taking place as Margo was spending time with Jan. For the first session Saturday, I had Jan’s husband, Brian, in the passenger seat providing me with some insight but that first session on track, however, could only be described as casual as I was trying hard to remember the lines I had learnt last time out earlier in the year. On the second session, with a couple of suggestions from Brian, I really went after it and was quietly pleased with what I was doing.

When it came to the third session, Brian again joined me as a passenger and my improvements were visible to him. I passed the entire field including a Ford GT mixed in with the pack of Ferraris. Again, it was a mandatory point-by protocol and the only car that gave me trouble was a replica Peter Brock Cobra that I sat behind for a couple of laps. As for my times, all that I could get from Brian was “thrilling” and yes, unofficial as it may have been and based on the times of the cars with me, I had pulled my time down from the early 2 min 10s to 2 min flat, perhaps even a couple of hundredths quicker.

The picture below is from earlier in the day as I was pulling away from a Ford GT that had given me a point-by coming as we came off the oval. Earlier in the day I was really focused on my lines and really working the car but even after backing off as I did for this last session, as our chief instructor was fully aware of the possible onset of driver fatigue given the heat on the track, I ran a couple of laps at 2 min 03 sec. On the penultimate lap of the day, I didn’t dive quite as low into turn 1 but rather, ran high the whole time and, in doing so, managed to get by the replica Peter Brock Cobra coupe as it tracked back up and behind me. As the final session of Saturday ended, I was so relieved that the car hadn’t let me down and that I would be handing over to Margo a Vette that had finished the day as strongly as it had started.

Sunday morning arrived and it was time for Margo to take to the circuit and the line-up on the grid looked intimidating. The Sunday was a day our hosts, Speed Ventures, were sharing with a Ferrari club and the paddock was littered with Ferrari V8s and V12s. Big, Maranello 575s were sharing space with F360s and F430s. Margo found herself gridded ahead of a Ferrari 355 GTS cabriolet with a Ferrari 2360 coupe a few rows back. She joined an intermediate group and had elected to drive by herself, but thrown in with her in this group were a couple of Audi R8s as well as a Maserati GT. While many of the drivers were first timers to the track, they were all itching to see how well their cars would perform.

Waived out onto the track for the first time Sunday morning, Margo was running out front for the mandatory full-course yellow lap but then she quickly waived a couple of the cars past her. Unfortunately, among the group that passed was the Ferrari 355 GTS and with mandatory point-by’s in effect, Margo spent most of the session counting the number of support screws that held the license plate to the car. No point-by! OH well – there was a lot more track time to come.

Undaunted, when it came time to take to the track for the second session, Margo was aware that there were truly three or four fast cars (the Audi’s, the Maserati, and a Ford) but the rest of the field was evenly matched. Whereas Margo had used the first session to settle into the car and to get a much better feel for the layout of the track, this time she really began to pick up the pace and we recorded much-improved lap times on the iphone. From her early leisurely 2 min 50s plus, she dropped down into the 2 min 40s clipping a second off each lap as she developed more confidence.

By the time the session was over, she was really looking very good and standing on top of a luxury box near the steep banking of turn one, unoccupied, as they all were for this event, I could see how well she was settling in and watch the consistency of her lines. Yes, Margo was still making sure the faster cars could get by but, with every lap, there seemed to be less and less cars closing in on her bumper. The picture below is of her really hitting her apexes, something she was to show me time and time again – way to go, Margo!

The temperature was now really climbing and with the heat in the car while stationary, as they lined up for the start of each session, I became the “bottle boy” making sure Margo stayed hydrated. For the start of the third session, she had lined up at the front of the faster of the two groups and was waived off first. By the time I had reached my observation point on the bridge that crossed the longest straight on the infield, Margo had open up a significant lead, disappearing into the complex that precedes the entrance onto the oval before the second placed car had exited the button-hook that made up turns eight and nine.

It would be a full two laps before the faster cars in the group had passed the much slower second placed car and to reel her in, but those early laps in clear air really helped Margo develop a lot more confidence. Lap times that had been in the 2 min 40s and 50s fell dramatically and Margo began lapping around 2 min 20 seconds – a full 30 second improvement on her morning session times! Both of us continue to participate in High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) events where sessions on the track are followed by downloads from experienced instructors. Lap times are not important and we don’t run with a transponder but we can’t stop our friends from telling us about the improvements we make. Unlike the downloads we experience with NASA SoCal where technique was emphasized, at Speed Ventures the focus is on track awareness and communication – a valuable lesson we take with us every time we merge onto an LA freeway!

The final session of the day for Margo came as long shadows were being cast across the track and all the drivers were showing effects of the heat earlier in the day. Times came back a little and there was less excitement. I had been joking with the driver of the Maserati about how he was holding everyone up and that he should be trying a little harder, but in that final session, he had to abort his exit from the oval, electing to run deeper into the oval’s back straight before turning around to rejoin the field. This gave me an opportunity to apologize to him and to remark on how his car wasn’t slow after all, it just couldn’t go around corners. Fortunately, he took it in the spirit it was intended!

The weekend overall could best be described by the enthusiasm coming from Margo. “Everything slowed down! I had time! I could even see all the corner workers,” she told me on the way home. As for me, nothing broke – given all the contingencies I had planned for, driving home in an overweight SUV and towing the big Vette seemed to be an anticlimax. On the other hand, if taking the trailer truly was an insurance policy, it was worth every penny. Next month? Well it’s the biggie – a full day on the north loop of the Nurburgring and about that, we will all just have to wait.