Friday, December 3, 2010

It was wet! It was windy! But we adjusted ...

We found out Thursday afternoon: Saturday’s event would be cancelled as the weather would not be cooperating with periods of heavy rain forecast. Not to be put off by the expected poor weather for Saturday we were keeping our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t rain on Sunday and that we would get at least one full day of driving.

Margo had spent all day lapping Buttonwillow only two weeks ago, so even though Sunday was usually “her time on track” with Saturday now cancelled, she graciously forgo her planned outing to let me have one last track day for the year.

The weekend was to be spent at Fontana, California, the venue being the Auto Club Speedway. As this was also to be the last event in the Corvette Challenge year-long program, there proved to be plenty of Corvettes on hand with the west-facing portion of the garage complex given over to housing just the ‘Vettes!

I could have just as easily driven the ‘Vette to Fontana, as it’s less than a hundred miles away. However, loading up the ‘Vette onto a trailer and using the Cadillac Escalade as a support vehicle as we have been doing of late, seemed to be the smarter thing to do, and the picture above is of Team Pyalla Technologies ready to head to the track.

Towing the car across LA on a Saturday afternoon proved uneventful, as traffic was light, and we arrived in Fontana in daylight and were able to unload the ‘Vette and tuck it away inside a garage. However, returning to the facility early Sunday morning, the rain was coming down by the pail full! A quick check of the infield showed large pools of water and the entrance to the section of turns leading onto the oval’s main straight, and simply called “the complex”, had multiple rivulets running across the track!

Deep pools of standing water could be seen up and down the infield straight, a favorite stretch of track for all drivers. As we watched the first cars, from the most experienced “red group”, it was hard not to sympathize with them as they tried to find safe passage along this treacherous stretch of flooded pavement!

The talk among the drivers had more to do with the wind than the rain and the more optimistic drivers began to point to breaks in the clouds. Surely, with the rain now showing signs of easing, the wind would help dry the track even if it made those of us standing outdoors miserably cold.

As the plans were reworked late Thursday, and after the news of Saturday’s event being cancelled our friends and fellow “Vette drivers, Brian and Jan, elected to leave their RV back in Simi Valley. Surely it made little sense to drag it to Fontana for just one day’s use! The wind continued to strengthen even as the rain began to ease and the only place to stay warm was inside the Escalade. This became the plan for both Margo and Jan who sorely missed the warmth of the RV.

As the clouds continued to thin out and as the rain eased, we were able to see the mountain range directly behind the track, probably less than ten miles away. Visible on the mountain peaks was the snow that fell overnight, and the picture above is of the scenic view everyone at the Auto Club Speedway just couldn’t miss seeing! As we broke away from the drivers meeting and began to pursue critical pre-session inspections of the car, I couldn’t help remembering an event from earlier in the year where poor weather, too, had been a factor!

Returning from the circuit with a car that was in as good a condition as when it arrived, I had ended that earlier post by admitting how we so often talk about being consistent and about being smooth, but when driving in the rain, these guidelines become even more important. For some reason, seeing water everywhere, I recalled that previous blog posting. Keep it smooth and bring the car home in one piece!

Participating in the “green group” of racers, Brian was already on the track as I drove into pre-grid. He would be participating in the Corvette Challenge, his fourth event of the year. Mine was a group of very nervous drivers bringing their cars out of the paddock and into pit lane, and even though I would be joining the “black group” of high intermediate drivers, some of us were anything but comfortable as we watched the rain coming down.

Brian could be easily heard as he passed the start/finish line to our right. Just as I had street tires on the Vette, so too did he – although, with 345 X 30 X 19 rear tires, I’m not so sure their ability to pump water from beneath the wheel as effective as my less aggressive and much “narrower” 305 X 30 X 19 rear tires. All the same, watching as Brian circulated with a group of other competitive ‘Vettes it wasn’t hard to miss their desire to squeeze out quicker and quicker lap times!

The picture above is of me walking alongside the ‘Vette and checking out the other participants. I normally take time to talk to the other drivers in my group to get a better sense of who was circulating with me and this time, it was pretty easy to tell who was calm and who was nervous. It was going to be a great day on the track!

Earlier in the year, while we were at WSIR mid-summer as I recall, Jan had been keeping an eye firmly on her iPhone. Her grandson, Colton Herta, was participating in the International Kart Federation (IKF) “Grand Nationals” where he placed first in the Junior 1 Comer class. More impressive still, for the first time ever in a karting national’s final, Jan’s grandson Colton started last and in a 15 lap event worked his way past all other competitors to take first place to become Rookie Sportsman champion.

However, this weekend was even more important for Jan, as young Colton, not yet a teenager was participating in the final series of the 2010 SKUSA Pro Tour (International Race) that was being held a little north of us in Las Vegas. This had been a three-weekend race series, with two races per weekend, and already Colton had scored a 2nd and a 3rd first time out, improving to take two 1st places the second time out. This weekend would be the final weekend and it would determine whether he wins the series, and with it, the chance to go to Italy to compete with the Europeans. And oh, did I mention he isn’t even a teenager yet?

It was finally time to step onto the track. Lining up midway along the group of slower, more timid, drivers, it was a testing experience. Staying in higher gears and avoiding selecting second gear at all costs, I began to see first-hand how much water was on the track, and it was a case of simply looking for a line that kept the car balanced as long as possible. On the second lap, exploring different braking points coming into the buttonhook that leads onto the long infield straight, I dropped two tires over the rumble strip but the big ‘Vette steered true and it wasn’t an issue.

The picture above was taken during that early session and as I finally caught up with the ‘Vette ahead of me, whereupon I was given a point-by that allowed me to track a little higher for the pass. With High Performance Driving Education (HPDE) events such as this, it’s not about racing but about developing the requisite skills and accumulating the experience that might take you into other forms of motor sports.

There’s always more than a little adrenalin generated, however, when the opportunity to pass presents itself! Particularly when it’s in the banking on the main straight at Speedway, where the big ‘Vette really gets to stretch its legs and speeds of 150 mph are regularly exceeded!

Prior to Margo taking the ‘Vette to Buttonwillow earlier in the month we had taken the car to RPM in Santa Clarita. On a recent trip to Andy and the lads at A&A Corvette Performance, where much of the work on the ‘Vette has been performed, I had run into Charlie of RPM and enjoyed a lively conversation with Andy and Charlie on the benefits of camshafts!

Proprietor Charlie knew a thing or two about tuning Corvettes and I had been unhappy with the way torque was being managed following the installation of the Vortech supercharger. We talked about what I wanted to achieve, and why I wanted to use the automatic’s paddles to select gears, and together with Austin, they fine-tuned a couple of the tables used during gear changes.

What a difference! Immediately the transitions between second, third and fourth were the smoothest I had ever experienced – I could even change-up a gear midway through a corner without unsettling the car. However, while we didn’t require shifts into fifth gear to circulate around the track at Buttonwillow, in daily use it’s a must-have, and when I first hit the paddles to change-up up to fifth, all hell broke loose!

I returned to RPM and Austin went back to basics, finding an upgrade to the software from G.M. that we then installed into the transmission control unit, or TCU. He re-applied the changes that he had made earlier, and presto! The smoothest transitioning automatic gearbox I’ve ever experienced! For me, Austin and Charlie are the closest thing to miracle workers I have come across.

The weather pundits had proved to be right after all, and by lunch time and with the rain having eased up considerably, the winds that had been blowing all day had dried out much of the circuit. The more serious participants, Brian included, began switching to slicks as participants in the Corvette Challenge only had one session remaining with an opportunity to improve on their lap times. And every ‘Vette driver was anxious to make sure he made good use of the break in the weather!

As for my third session, with the track almost completely dry, I remained on street tires but quickly settled into a grove. So much so that those watching me hand timed me at 2 min 3 secs. Consistency certainly pays off and I was only a few hundredths off the same time for a couple of laps where I faced little traffic. Previous unofficial hand timing had me circulating around 2 min 10 secs so this represented considerable improvement over prior outings. Still well of the pace of those in the Green and Red groups, but ever so gradually, now down to close on 2 mins, I was inching closer to their times.

The picture above is of me coming into the paddock after the third session – holding up my hand to signify five seconds of improvement, obviously. Jan was nearby, relying in emails and text messages to keep her informed on how Colton was performing but the early news wasn’t looking good.

In an earlier race, inspection of his kart found minor measurement discrepancies that once again, would relegate him to the back of the field. How his engineer missed the measurement in question however brought consternation to the family! With the competition as strong as anything Colton had faced all year, starting from the back of the grid was certainly going to damper his spirits.

I hadn’t had an opportunity to catch up with Brian as he had come back into the paddock as I was driving out of pit lane. However, I knew that his third session hadn’t been without incident as he had driven to the “black flag station,” alongside pre-grid, for a quick inspection; four wheels off and a spin! Since the “off” came early in the session, I suspected the Hoosiers he had mounted during the break had not come up to temperature! The first words we exchanged on my return confirmed that yes, something like that had occurred.

It was getting dark when I came off the circuit for the last time. Brian already had his trailer hitched to his truck and only had to drive his ‘Vette up the race ramps and onto the trailerThe paddock was deserted and now getting colder.

Margo stepped out of the Escalade to tell me that Brian and Jan were in the driver’s room where the trophy presentations were under way. As we had much to do and knowing how disappointed Brian had been to come off the track, I waited for him to return to the cars before I asked him how he went.

The picture above pretty much tells its own story although I’m not sure in which hand Brian holds the trophy! He had managed to overcome the earlier incidents to finish first in his group on the day, and third overall for the season. But Jan came with news of her own, direct from her daughter in Las Vegas. Colton had just finished third, but in so doing, had won the championship – yes, he was off to Italy next year! Somehow the symmetry didn’t escape me as Jan had watched her husband Brian score a first and end the season with a third while her grandson Colton scored a third to finish the season with a first!

Driving home, there was still a little rain falling in places, but the big ‘Vette had performed well and best of all, it was straight and without a scratch. And for our family, this would be all the trophy we needed! But then, there’s next year only a few months away …