Sunday, November 14, 2010

The "big off"

Walking to the far end of the western loop of the Buttonwillow circuit, towards the sweeping Star Mazda corner, I turned in time to look back to turn 1, Sunset, only to see Margo straight-lining into the infield a huge cloud of dust rising all around her. I had walked past the Esses so as to get a better shot of her driving through them, but watching her kicking up a dust storm stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t even have time to snap a picture! Little drama eventuated as Margo slowed the car, brought it around to where she could rejoin the circuit, and looked for a favorable sign from the corner worker.

After leaving Margo without a ride on three separate occasions this year, we registered for a Saturday’s outing with the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) Southern California (SoCal) region in their High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program – and rejoined longtime friends for only the third event this year. Having done so, I felt it is only right that most of the seat time should be given to Margo although, I was hopeful that she would, at some point, appreciate my plight and offer me the big Vette for one session. But when it came time to join the first session, Margo was all smiles and I should have known better. This was going to be her day on the track and the picture above is of her already on the grid, about to head out onto the track.

This year I had cooked the power steering fluid that had finally led to the serpentine belt braking at Willow Springs. I had worn out the brakes at Laguna Seca, and then in the return visit to Willow Springs I had shredded the tires to where there was nothing left. What a guy! So with near-new, slightly oversize, Michelin Pilot Sport street tires on the Vette, and everything checking out just fine, this would be a good opportunity for me to act as crew chief and to sit back and watch Margo enjoy herself. Yeah, but I wasn’t too upset, not in the slightest, and all the while I held onto a ray of hope for just a one session! On the other hand, being the crew chief provided me with opportunities to snap away with the trusty Nikon -a surprising first for us as we had completely ignored taking the camera with us for the past three years!

Margo is now running in the NASA HPDE 2 group. Her recent outings with Speed Ventures, participating in their Blue, Purple and even Black “intermediate” run groups, together with her coolness-under-fire for five complete laps of Germany’s Nurburgring only two months ago, were proving helpful in settling Margo into the rhythm that can be expected when running at this level. I wasn’t anticipating instant success but I was sure she would improve significantly over the course of the day. As joinedthe grid for the first time, I was somewhat relieved when I saw Terry Free opt to jump in alongside her to help Margo sort out the line after being away from the course for a year.

Terry races a yellow C6 Z06 Corvette in Super Touring-R 1 (STR 1) and had performed well at the recent NASA Nationals at Miller Motorsports Park, finishing second according to the results published on the NASA web site, and I couldn’t have wanted anyone better to sit alongside Margo. Terry has seen us at NASA events through the years and had provided me with tutoring last time I was on track with NASA at the Auto Club Speedway. While Terry had important end-of-season racing to pursue later in the day, he was able to join Margo for the first two sessions and, for a couple of laps, took the wheel of the blue Vette himself at the start of a HPDE 3 session just to show Margo how well the Vette would handle the track and to provide just another perspective on lines she may want to follow next time out. Coming off the track following the second session, Terry told Margo that she had improved 100% on her first session outing! The picture above is of Margo leaving the starting grid and heading onto track following her session with Terry.

It was late in the day when I had begun to walk to the furthest end of the track with the thought of getting a couple of photos of Margo but from a different perspective to those I had already shot. It was also a distraction for me as I was sorely missing the opportunity to participate in a session but as each session completed, Margo was showing no signs of wanting to step away from the car. Earlier in the week I had emailed Fulton Haight and hinted at the likelihood I would step in and do a session, maybe two, late in the day. “No way you are going out and messing up my run groups third session. After the last few blogs it is apparent that you have lost your way in a car and are in grave need of clarity behind the wheel or some momentum time,” was the immediate response from Fulton. He then pushed home his point even deeper, “maybe we should make you go out in the right seat with your wonderful bride for a tune up ... oooh! Can't do that in HPDE ½, though (can we) ... Just kidding ... mostly!”

Just as Terry had competed in the NASA Nationals, so too had Fulton. We have known Fulton for several years and I have enjoyed every time he has offered me a ride in the passenger seat of his car, whether a Mustang or a BMW, whatever he was driving on the occasion. At the Nationals, Fulton had gone one better than Terry and driving a BMW M3 in the Time Trial – D (TT D) group, picked up the win. Not giving up completely, as I wanted to make sure I could step into the Vette should Margo ask me, I asked Fulton if he would mind me joining the third session. “I would suggest we have you go out with me in the first session, as a passenger, to get you the lay of the land and then take Margo's place in the second session before the group gets up to speed so you are not a rolling chicane (with all that horsepower) as the group picks up speed in the 3rd session,” was the almost immediate response from Fulton! The picture above, however, was taken later in the day and shows Margo negotiating the esses at speed!

Good thing Fulton and I are friends and yes, I did get to ride along as a passenger in the BMW M3 he had driven to record the fastest time in the Nationals. A “rolling chicane” among his quicker students? Now that was hard to take but somehow, all I could see was Fulton’s grin so I went along with it; turns out Margo’s run with Terry behind the wheel of her Vette in the HPDE 3 event was Fulton’s plan as well, so he was looking out for Margo. During the first session, with her instructor Terry alongside, Margo had been anxious to make sure she didn’t hold back faster drivers as she relearnt the track.

In the passenger seat of Fulton’s M3, I had a good look at how she was fairing but just as we caught her, in the run up to Magic Mountain, or Lost Hills, or whatever it’s called these days, she gave a point by on the wrong side, for a pass in the wrong place and, watching the cars around her, dropped two wheels off the track. She didn’t even stop by the black-flag marshal for a quick check! However, for the rest of the time we watched her, it was clear to both Fulton and I that her lines were indeed excellent so there was more than enough positives to come out of the incident that no further penalties were applied. After two complete sessions with Terry tutoring her and following a couple of laps in the passenger seat, completing the third session proved to be a turning point for Margo.

Everyone who drives with Margo is aware that she has their desire to have fun and enjoy themselves very much on her mind. For this session, it was no different and standing as I was with the father of another participant, he drew my attention to how Margo’s first movement coming onto the main straight was to look in her mirrors and begin to waive by whoever was behind her – a distraction that took her away from the “line” and effectively clipped seconds from her time. But as any observer family with HPDE programs can vouch for, moving up a group often results in a brief let-down period as drivers adjust to their new circumstance and Margo was showing she was no different from anyone else. And looking back across the track I could see Margo continue maintain good lines and the picture above is of her driving out of the track’s famous sweeper, the buttonhook!

Apexes are missed and there’s a tendency not to track out on exit – we all pay to use the whole track but it’s sometimes difficult to do when you are with a new group of drivers. “I will arrange for Margo to go out with her instructor driving in HPDE 3 if there is not a conflict to keep her moving along. As usual, I would prefer if you did none of the above as from your blog it seems Margo could use some track-love time...would be a fitting penance for your breach of tire etiquette (at Willow Springs) for you to watch her burning up your new tires,” came a later response from Fulton. I couldn’t respond to this and just had to admit that he was right.

Margo had to make a mandatory stop at the black flag station at the end of pit lane. A marshal stationed there had to check out the state of the car, not to mention the condition of the driver. This has become a familiar routine for me but was a new experience for Margo. As I continued my walk back from the esses I began to wonder whether, being the last session of the day, I would see Margo return to complete the last laps. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes had passed, there was the Vette pulling out of pit lane and heading once more onto the track. A short period to settle down, making sure the tires, brakes, and steering were all working, and she was once again picking up the pace.

I have to admit that the big off a few laps earlier was the result of what we had discussed only an hour earlier. Coming in from the circuit after the third session where she had spent time giving the cars behind her point-bys, she agreed to see if spending less time looking in the mirror and more time working on her lines through the turns could lift her speed onto some of the shorter straights, and so open up some separation between her and the much slower cars that had been catching her all day. The opening laps of the final session certainly seemed to suggest that this was exactly what she was capable of doing and in a relative short period of time, there were several car lengths between her and the cars that started with her. The picture above is of Margo pulling hard down the main straight with prospects of even more improvements to come!

As I watched Margo leave the track at turn 1, and as I watched her recover, my immediate concerns for her welfare were quickly put to rest and as she continued with her lap and passed me at the exit of the esses, I was proud of her and of the way she handled the situation. Margo had not left the circuit during any of her sessions for all three years she has been on the track and yet, on this day, she had first dropped two wheels and then all four wheels in a significant “off”. Going faster, she had told me, made her adjust her brake points and she had been aware of the need to brake a little earlier. However, just as importantly, it also meant braking harder and in the lap where she went off, her first braking effort had only transferred weight onto the front that in so doing, left her with few options as she went to the brakes a second time only to lock-up the rears and spear right off the circuit.

Fulton’s closing comment in the email exchange followed advice from previous times when he suggested, “I am sure it is too much to ask you to use a momentum car that would be much faster for both of you?” Driving the big Vette, however, may be slowing our development time, but just completing the day in one piece and performing a lot better during the last session than in the first, remains very much its own reward. It’s hard to give up on the car and there certainly are a lot easier cars to master, but after three years, ever so slowly, it’s starting to come together and it would be so hard to step into anything different.

The “big off” then? All part of learning, she responded with a smile! The picture above is of Margo crossing the start-finish line for the last time and all the way home, she half apologized for taking all four sessions, but with an innocent smile proceeded to remind me just how many occasions there had been this year where I had done all the driving, leaving the car in no condition for further track use. I guess that’s fair, and later the only discussions were about our next outing – our last for the year.