Monday, October 25, 2010

Taking it up a level ...

I’ve been enjoying a relaxing week back home in Boulder, Colorado, where I’m surrounded by the evidence of the changing seasons. Every now and then, the clouds pull back and I can see the continental divide covered in white: the snow is certainly falling in the high country. And later today, I will be starting on yet another trip to California to wrap up this year’s program – returning to NASA So Cal for their event at Buttonwillow, and then closing out with a full weekend with Speed Ventures at the Auto Club Speedway. Only a few weeks ago, I was in California, for a weekend with Speed Ventures at Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR) a return to the circuit better known as Big Willow!

The picture at the top of the pages was taken by our friend Mark, who had driven up first thing Saturday morning and had brought with him another friend, Kevin. All the pictures of Saturday’s action included here were taken by Mark. Saturday, we were sharing the track with the participants in the “SubieFest”, a gathering of Subaru’s from all over the country, and I joined the only event open to Speed Venture participants which was the open-passing, point-by’s optional, “Green” group.

As can be seen from Mark’s picture, not everyone escaped the drama of a track day. Just as Mark was setting up to film our Corvette on-track, an over-zealous Honda S2000 driver spun out approaching turn 4 having dropped two tires off the track exiting turn 3 – one of the few places on Big Willow where the situation can deteriorate rapidly, if you try to return the car to get back on track too quickly! Then again, even experienced drivers can make mistakes and the weekend saw a lot more mistakes being made, particularly in turns 8 and 9, than we had seen in several years and we lost count of how many clouds of dust were kicked up by errant drivers missing the exit out of turn 9!

For the Corvette teams of Brian and Jan, and Margo and me, our weekend had started Friday night when, once again, Brian and Jan arrived in their motor home, trailing the red Vette, and we arrived in the Escalade, towing our U-Haul trailer with the blue Vette aboard. The trip had gone smoothly although, as I had strapped our Vette onto the trailer, I had noticed wetness around a lower connection of the power steering cooler and simply wiped it clean. There were no traces of a leak on the garage floor and I thought nothing more of it. As we settled in for a quick snack in the motor home, Brian’s friends Gary and Carla arrived. This weekend, we were enjoying the company of several friends!

The picture above is of an early outing Saturday morning, as I head toward the top of the track and into turn 4. While participating in the Green group is still far from a racing experience, the skill levels of all involved are very high. I had experienced an outing with advanced drivers on my last open lap day at Colorado’s High Plains Raceway, and hung in with real racers during my time on the Nurburgring last month, I was more than a little anxious as I took to the track the first time. My early nervousness wasn’t helped when it was announced that Green group drivers should be on the grid twenty minutes after the mandatory driver meeting!

While it was great to have company and to have friends standing trackside, moving up a group was still a stressful undertaking. The first session with the Green group was a period of adjustment and I felt less than satisfied with the results and had to settle with the more experienced drivers catching me after only three or four laps. In the second session however, I began to pay more attention to my lines and even began to look at who were the “rabbits” and who had less experience. The faster cars were now taking five or more laps to catch me. By the third session, I was beginning to feel at ease, although I was experiencing the first signs that perhaps not all was well with my tires.

Coming to a stop in the pits before lunch there were now ominous traces of fluid, originating from somewhere under the front of the car spotting the pavement. There was more bad news as our faithful Toyo R888 tires, first fitted for the last NASA event at Buttonwillow in 2009, had now seen fifty-plus heat cycles (which was pushing well beyond anything the manufacturers had recommended) weren’t behaving as predictably as on previous sessions. However, I felt they could make it through the weekend but all the same, lying inside the Escalade were a full set of Michelin PS/2 street tires, that I had loaded just in case. The picture above is of me passing the Mitsubishi Evo during the first session after lunch.

Earlier in the day I had been consistently waiving past a group of cars but during the session before lunch, I had wondered whether all the drivers were of equal experience and capabilities. In particular, there was a BMW M3 that didn’t pull away from me and whose lines through corners I chose not to emulate. In the fourth session, as we all circulated on our first lap out and as tires came up to temperature, I waived past a couple of cars, but not the BMW M3. Rather than watching him in my mirrors, I lifted my eyes and focused more intently on my exits all the while doing little mental exercises so as not to lose concentration. After two laps the BMW had fallen back considerably, and after four laps, I could no longer see the car.

All weekend I had been working on my approach to turn 5 and my exit out of turn 6. Focused as I was, it wasn’t until late in the final session that I noticed Brian in his red Vette closing in on me, and as I came out of turn 9 I passed a slower car only to see Brian pull out, three wide. It was then a sprint down the main straight but in all the excitement, I didn’t lift to give Brian the space he needed for the upcoming corner. After all, he had to know what he was doing. Fortunately, he negotiated turn 1 safely, but there was a moment …

Brian and I spent much of the evening discussing that final session and the excitement it had momentarily generated; I did apologize and I am sure Brian knows I will not be as reticent to let him move across again! Over several apple martinis that have, of late, become the specialty of our hosts, Brian and Jan, and with the slow cooked pork tenderloin, cooked to perfection, this maneuver continued to be dissected many times.

Sunday, was Margo’s time on the track, and this time she was running in the “Black” group, the high intermediate level with Speed Ventures. There had been too many “trains” of cars last time out with the “Blue” low intermediate group for Margo’s liking, so this was going to be a new experience. After all, Margo had completed one more lap than I had on the Nurburgring and seemed quite capable among more experienced drivers. The picture above is of Margo, during her earliest outing, heading towards turn 2.

The first session for Margo had looked good for the first few laps. She was aware of her situation and waived by the more experienced drivers. Unfortunately, it was a brief, unsettling moment, as the tires lost their grip coming down the hill into turn 5 that threw her right off her game. A little “spooked” by what happened, she backed-off and coasted around the track. Returning to the pits, we noticed the leak we had seen yesterday getting much worse and after a quick look under the car, I found a loose connection at the bottom of the power steering cooler that, after tightening, fixed the leak.

Much worse, however, were the tires, and the second session proved even more difficult for Margo, so in the break between sessions, I changed all four tires back to our street Michelins. Margo spent the third session back out on the track with the Black group, but it was visible that she was off the pace. Returning to the pits for the third time, the car looked good; no leaks, brakes working, and the tires holding. The distractions of the day however, and the constant checking of her mirrors, together with the remnants of earlier anxieties, were proving to be a little too much and Margo was losing confidence in her abilities. The lunch break couldn’t have come at a better time!

Still uncomfortable with the car’s behavior, Margo went out for one more session. Lunch had been spent thinking about how to best drive the car on street tires and what to expect in terms of braking and turn-in, but Margo felt that with the set-up, she would give it a go! Pulling off the grid and accelerating hard for the first turn of the opening lap, she looked good and pulled away from the cars behind her. The photo here, as with the previous photo, supplied by CaliPhotography, as Mark had returned home late Saturday, is of Margo enjoying the company of a very aggressive Mustang driver dropping down into turn 5.

Coming in early, it was obvious that Margo simply wasn’t having fun any longer. There had been too many early incidents that had shaken her confidence and there had been far too many distractions. Cars had finished up on their sides atop berms and there had been a roll-over out of turn 9. Wrestling with the Vette as it struggled for grip, entertaining many good friends, and watching several of the wrecks as they happened, unsettled Margo to the point where she could no longer enjoy her time out on her favorite track and coming in when she did was a very smart move.

There would be other days and there would be fun days again on other tracks. This weekend, however, could be viewed as another learning weekend and one that neither one of us had previously experienced. The Vette is a very difficult car to drive well and we are still far from being capable of driving it anywhere near its limits. The automatic transmission remains its Achilles’ Heel and dogs us at every track as we wrestle with running with paddles or in full auto. The 2010 season was now coming to a close and yet, Margo still wanted to get more seat time. Distractions or not, being at ease with the car and enjoying herself, remained Margo’s goal.

With Boulder enjoying a late fall and the weather holding, I took the motorcycles for a ride. I have a Honda VTX1800 while Margo has a Yamaha V Star 1100 and both have been tweaked and dressed-up. Once out on the road and without distractions, I worked even harder on being smooth and found that looking well past corner exits I could stay in a higher gear and, pulling though the exit, less effected by any sudden additions of torque, I rode more smoothly than I had in months; I routinely take to the bikes and simply practice, and use time on the bikes to improve my technique. With a motorcycle, on the open road it’s more a case of staying focused or fall off. Or worse! Riding alone and as focused as I was reminded me of how badly any endeavor can become with distractions no matter how unintended or minor they may be.

The picture above is from late Saturday as I returned to the pits and of Margo walking to greet me. I’ve always enjoyed having company and the presence of friends is always appreciated. However, it is us who have to make adjustments when it comes to weekends at ta race track, and for us to find ways to deal with the distractions that their presence creates. After all, for many years it had been the two of us who had been providing the distractions to so many others we had visited. I spent too much time thinking of how to make their time with us more enjoyable, when I should have been lifting my eyes and looking further down the track.

WSIR remains our favorite track. We have driven around it more than any other track and after three years and seven weekends it will be hard to find something we enjoy more. However, even though we have the Vette settled down and ready to go, Margo is looking forward to a weekend all to herself as we are returning to Buttonwillow to enjoy the company of our good friends at NASA So Cal. There’s still a full weekend at the Auto Club Speedway with Speed Ventures before the season ends for 2010, but the opportunity to spend time alone, soaking up laps at Buttonwillow will, for Margo, be therapy and something she so much wants to do. For me, watching her circulate once more and stepping out of the Vette sporting a contagious smile? Priceless!