Sunday, December 25, 2011

Memories? Fuggedaboutit!

It’s time to look back at what transpired in 2011. While returning to living full time in Boulder, CO, was definitely the highlight of 2011, when it came to adventures on the track and the fun we had behind the wheel, unfortunately, the needle was firmly planted in the other direction. The year 2011 had to have been the worst of years. But then again, if learning to drive quickly and safely on a race track was easy to do, America’s many road circuits would be full of participants every weekend!

The picture above is of the 70’s era Pontiac Trans-Am I purchased for US$2,000 shortly after arriving in America. For the third time! Yes, I had spent several months in 1977 living in Dallas, Texas, where I rented a Pontiac Grand Prix for the duration of my stay, and when I returned in 1986 I had bought a used Pontiac Grand Prix for US$2,000 that I kept for all of that year. If I am residing in America, it would seem then, there will be a GM car in the driveway. And yet, I still harbored feelings for my most memorable possession of my youth, a Holden Torana SLR5000 - a lightweight sedan with a five liter V8 shoe-horned beneath the hood –I was forced to sell it before making that first trip to America.

The point here is that loyalties run strong through Australian families – yes, my father only owned Holdens – and this is not unlike what I have observed among families here in America. But if you had any second thoughts of how strong this emotion ran across Australian families then check the video (voiced by Russell Crowe) that was filmed prior to the start of the 2010 Great Race – the Bathurst 1000: What stands out in two quotes coming from Crowe – neither I suspect original, but catchy nonetheless.

The first quote, reflecting the gulf that separates the fans of GM from those who support Ford, has Crowe observing that “it’s tribal … there’s only red and blue on the mountain; there’s no beige!” The second quote, about the history of the event, hits a lot closer to home as Crowe reflects on how “reality will prove a harsh mistress!”

For many of years you could lap the circuit at a reasonable, safe, speed (of course in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the track was still open to the general public) and wave to the gathering crowd – something I was able to do back in October, 1975. Yes, I have done a lap of the old course at Bathurst and anyone looking at the back window of our blue C6 ‘Vette will not miss the decal from the Mount Panorama circuit right alongside the one depicting the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

GM has been the manufacturer of choice for me for so many years and it should come as no surprise that for the past four years, as I have been a student of road courses, it has been behind the wheel of a sixth series Corvette coupe – affectionately known to all who own them as the C6 Vette. It was two years ago (the second year as a student) that I thought I was making progress, a circumstance that was confirmed as I progressed from NASA HPDE 1 classification and into HPDE 2. And it was only last year where I squeezed in ten weekends of track time and where I really thought I was making progress, even if I did continue to struggle to sustain my concentration for the duration of each session.

Yes, if it truly was easy then everyone would be doing it, no matter the age or gender. Maintaining the necessary levels of concentration any road circuit demands for anything more than 20 minutes remains a challenge for all of us, save that selected few who test themselves in endurance races. It was during my last outing in the ‘Vette at High Plains Raceway (HPR) when, following a really big “agricultural excursion”, I calmed down, checked out the car, and proceeded to lay down laps for just over 40 minutes.

And the level of exhaustion that followed wiped me for the rest of the day. Save for one late-afternoon 20 minute session, I was done! However, the chance to be able to lay down as many laps as I did that day at HPR - at a reduced pace so that I could take a really good look at the track - gave me the chance to hit my braking and turn-in points consistently (while tracking all the way out as I made use of all of the track), so much so that this overcame much of the frustration that had developed through the year.

There are no more intense moments than when on the grid waiting to be flagged onto a hot track. While this is not a racing session and the cars are lined up based on experience and observed skill levels, all the same the tension is palpable. This was filmed last year when at Willow Springs, and while the camera focused on me initially, as it pans back through the grid, you will catch a glimpse of our good friend, Brian Kenny, in his red Vette behind two other cars, well to the right of the grid – and that was where you found the better drivers. On the extreme right, as I found myself, well… that needs no further commentary!

Readers may recall the first planned event of the year was sidelined after I found oil dripping from the ‘Vette only three days before it was to be driven to Infineon. And then snow closed the track at HPR for our first local outing. The much anticipated run at Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch came to an abrupt halt early in the second session of the first day as a supercharger seal let go. Only a few weeks later I messed up badly with my first outing of the year with the NASA Rocky Mountain region, bringing down the wrath of the organizers in only my first session of the day – so much so that I only ran two more sessions before calling it quits. My final outings at HPR were marred by a suspension that had clearly given up, and where those driving with me remarked of how the car looked like an old dog lifting a hind leg in order to relive itself.

If it had been a bad year for me then it was considerable worse for Margo. I gave her very little opportunity to be on track. In looking back at the year I recall her behind the wheel of the ‘Vette on only one occasion and that was for only a few laps before the lack of any working suspension saw her abandoning the session. Now she is adamant that in 2012 she will be the first driver out each and every weekend, and that it will be my time to watch from the bleachers! Indeed, it may be the second day before I ever get behind the wheel!

But the year did have some bright moments as we continued to enjoy our friendship with Brian and Jan Kenny. Yet again, they came across to Boulder to join us for a weekend at HPR, and even though they had the opportunity to be behind the wheel of our Viper SRT/10 – I know Brian is anxious to return with his own C6 Vette, more than capable car that should excel on this track. Next year I am sure we will see their red ‘Vette on a trailer behind their new diesel truck! And yes, before I forget, their grandson, Colton Herta, won his Kart series championship, again, and congratulations are in order for him achieving this where not everything had gone his way.

Flipping through the pages of the December 2011 issue of Road and Track I came across an opinions column written by former F1 champion, Emerson Fittipaldi. I wasn’t surprised in the least as I read of how, when he offers “advice, I tell aspiring racers several key points. First, they must have passion and dedication and also be prepared for frustration, because that’s part of motorsports”. Jeeze Emmo, who would have guessed! Frustrations are all part of the deal? No kidding!

However with the time I did spend on the track, even as I knew the ‘Vette had its faults, I found my style of driving changing through the year. At many of the tracks the course simply winds across a featureless landscape. True, there are a few fixed landmarks that can help, but for the most part these tracks are simply laid in fields with only marginal elevation changes. Whenever I come back to driver meetings there are always those who ask the instructors to show them the racing line and to tell them what to look for before turning in and I have found the information provided only of marginal use.

The big ‘Vette, even now with 560 rear wheel horsepower being delivered through a very low final drive – something like 2.4:1, has little grunt when it comes to leaving corners. It’s all I can do to try and manage the throttle so that I can have something left to carry me into the following straights. The video clip above is from happier times as I run down the main straight at Willow Springs.

The ‘Vette is an automatic, but with paddles that are slow to acknowledge driver inputs – a tug on a paddle often needs a full second before anything happens. Trying to punch a shift with the paddles at 6,000 rpm will not cut it – rather, I have to time it such that as the revs build and swing through 5,250 I flip the paddle in order to execute a gear change before the rev limiter cuts in around 6250 rpm. In other words, I’m making a lot of adjustments as I try to keep the car running smoothly.

“You are driving this torque beast as if it were a momentum car,” was the puzzled response early this year, and in effect I was. And just as importantly, it wasn’t the landmarks and terrain changes that I was looking for to determine my brake and turn-in points, but rather getting a sense of rhythm going where I felt I wasn’t upsetting the ‘Vette too much. Markers were fine, but for me, I was more determined on keeping my eyes focused a lot further down the track and trying to just let the car find an optimal way around the track.

Imagine my surprise when I came across a passage in the book by Garth Stein “The art of racing in the rain” where the dog, Enzo, describes how his master, Denny, tells him of how “’I’m finding my visuals,’ he explained to me. ‘Turn-in points, braking. Some guys drive more by feel. They get in a rhythm and trust it. But I’m very visual. It makes me feel comfortable to have references.” Yes, I can relate to this in every sense, and in a way sighed with relief as I read these few short sentences.

I am taking with me, though, much to reflect upon over the winter months. Not just that I am a driver more comfortable with developing a feel for circuits than simply responding to an ever-changing landscape dotted with potentially multiple markers, but for me, and just as importantly, a stronger connection to those driving with me on the track. There was one instance where a driver turned up in his wife’s Infiniti sedan, as I recall, who after only one session declared “I’ve found my boat!” - it was a reference to an earlier remark he had made on his wife’s advice that he takes up fishing or something similar in his retirement.

There was another time where a driver brought his brand new BMW Z4 coupe, the latest model, and never having been on any track came up to me and asked if he could ride along to get a sense of the track “this is all new to me!” By lunchtime of that same day, I was finding it difficult to simply stay with that Z4 – not a young driver by any stretch of the imagination, but definitely someone who figured things out pretty quickly.

The camaraderie that develops in the paddock is unmistakable and there are plenty of times where wrenches are borrowed and bottles of water provided freely. For me, it’s always exciting to return to your spot in the paddock and to share your experience with those nearby. Yes, the year was so frustrating for me and there were times where my neighbors were content to leave me well enough alone. Leaving any track early, and in the passenger seat of a tow truck, needs no further explanations.

And so it was interesting to read Peter Egan’s observations in that same issue of Road and Track. “There’s something about a track session that simply energizes people and leaves them with a strange, lingering high. You can see it after any (session) - a group of drivers standing around talking a little faster than usual in a high state of animation.” Throw in the relief that comes with still being in one piece and with a car that can still be driven and you have a pretty good image of what weekends at the track feel like. All of this was nicely captured in the video above another good piece of cameraman-ship from our friend from Simi Valley, Mark MacWhirter, who was also responsible for the other two clips.
I was so disappointed with myself this year. And I was more than a little upset to have the ‘Vette sidelined as often as it was – looking through the pictures I used in the posts for 2011 there’s more than one snapshot of the car in the garage, up a lift, with one piece or another lying on the floor. In the picture above, the ‘Vettes are lined up in front of the house with the blue ‘Vette looking better than it has in some time. I have always been a GM fan and my association with Pontiacs, Chevies and Holdens has spanned multiple decades. However, with snow falling and pictures of cars all around me, I am ending the year with thoughts only of what will be our plans for 2012. It surely couldn’t be any worse and hopefully, with a little luck, it may actually be a whole lot better.

Very early in Stein’s book, “The art of racing in the rain”, he makes the observation through the eyes of his dog, Enzo, “balance, anticipation, patience. These are all vital. Peripheral vision, seeing things you’ve never seen before. Kinesthetic sensation, driving by the seat of the pants. But what I’ve always liked best is when (Denny) talks about having no memory. Good or bad. No memory is time folding back on itself. To remember is to disengage from the present. In order to reach any kind of success in automobile racing, a driver must never remember.”

And perhaps with this, there’s no better way to close the chapter on the year that was 2011. Already it’s a distant blur and I seem unable to recall the specifics all that well. Maybe that’s just how it is meant to be – on to a great 2012!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dalmatians, and other dog tales …

There’s no escaping the fact that with the early onset of winter this year there’s little opportunity for any further track time. The blue Corvette is ready to go – new suspension, new alignment and ride height, and with the track-ready wheels and tires mounted. Each time I walk past the car that is sitting rather forlornly in the garage it is a reminder of how much I miss track weekends and just how good the Vette really is – yes, close on 65,000 miles with all by 20,000 running the forced-induction (FI) set up and with some twenty five track weekends under its wheels! And the picture above is of the car laying idle, but hooked to its faithful battery charger, waiting for the seasons to change. Keeping it company, and just as likely to be spelled from any further track driving duties is the Viper; every bit as reluctant to test step outside with snow on the ground!

Our home track, High Plains Raceway, is also out of action but less so due to early snow falls. The track is undergoing resurfacing so that come early next year it will be in pristine condition. When coupled with the fact that the track outside Pueblo, Colorado, is also being resurfaced then the prognosis for track days in Colorado in 2012 is looking real good. We have not made the trip down to the Pueblo Motorsports Park yet and we will take a close look at it for next year as we commit to spending more time in-state, with perhaps just a single trip to the West Coast – most likely, to join NASA Northern California - for another shot at laying down some laps at Infineon, Sonoma. Perhaps it’s even time to think about visiting the track at Hastings, Nebraska as part of a return visit to Omaha!

Whatever the plans for 2012 turn out to be our approach to track days has taken yet another turn – with less emphasis on the competitive side and more attention given to just having fun. I realize that even with four years of track experience under my belt, I will never be running with the more advanced and highly competitive groups as I just don’t have the time to put into learning the tracks. And there’s the additional consideration now about the costs of tackling circuits every month – the wear and tear on the Vette has been considerable and to continue to enjoy these outings will necessitate dialing back some of the aggression and working even harder on being smooth! Yes, old # 116 is a good car and is a lot of fun on the track but it is beginning to show its age and will need considerable more nursing than in the past if it’s to continue to be the go-to car in the garage come track weekends.

The other element that has arisen is that with my evolving business pursuits I am spending more time travelling – and much of this is being done on short notice. Having participated in Information Technology (IT) events in South Africa and India, vendor kick-off meetings in Denver and client meetings in cities as far away as Paris and Rome, it’s proving difficult to commit to events in advance. As much as I would have liked to have closed out the year with an event in Southern California – perhaps returning to the Auto Club Speedway or even Willow Springs – there simply was no time. As I pull together my thoughts for this posting I am back on the west coast only days after returning from a mix of business and vacation time along the Adriatic Coast and as much as I truly do enjoy track days, I enjoy time spent with my peers speculating on where IT is headed just as much as I like my time behind the wheel!

Perhaps the best thing that happened on this latest trip to Europe is that it gave me time to catch up on my reading. Top of the list was a book everyone has talked about for a long time, and so it was with a lot of anticipation that I turned the first pages of the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain” only to find that I was immediately hooked by the storyline. Yes, it’s a dog’s-eye view of a racer’s life alright, but it is so much more. Author, Garth Stein, has done a superb job of translating what is often taken for granted when it comes to track days. For those who have spent any time at all around race tracks and who have enjoyed conversations with real racers, and who have been fortunate to have them provide feedback on their abilities, this book will resonate well.

In the early chapters the reader is introduced by Enzo, the dog, to the thought “that which we manifest is before us; we are the creators of our own destiny” and it strikes a chord within all who read the book. After all, there’s little we can blame for any misfortunes experienced on the track – not the car, other drivers or even officials – as it all comes back to what we do. “Be it through intention or ignorance, our successes and our failures have been brought on by none other than ourselves.” Tied to this is the ever-revealing truth that we always go where our eyes are looking and as I recall the many incidents I have experienced, more than anyone, am aware that during lapses in concentration I have brought about my own misfortune!

A little deeper into the book, the reader is exposed to how racers truly prepare for track outings – yes, they take the time to walk the circuit and examine every square inch of track. As Enzo explains it, his central character, Denny, jogged around the entire track as “you can’t really see a track from inside a race car travelling at one hundred fifty miles per hour or more … you have to get out and feel it.” Why the necessity? Racers look for every possible advantage and in this instance, Denny is hoping to find “visible seams (on the track surface) that he might use as braking zone markers or turn-in points. Could he find better grip slightly off the established racing line? And there were tricks to the camber of certain turns, places where the track appeared level from inside a car but were actually graded ever so slightly.” For as long as I can recall, participating in National Auto Sport Association (NASA) events, our instructors reminded us to walk the track and as anyone who has walked the main straight of Willow Springs knows all too well the steep upward angle the track takes as it begins to bear left into the nicely cambered turn one is not immediately apparent from behind the wheel. The picture above was taken last year and captured me leading my good friend Brian, for just the briefest of moments, as we both headed into that turn at Willow Springs.

Right angle turns, such as you find with turn one at Willow Springs, have no right to be taken as fast as drivers do, but over the years by lifting my entry speed a few miles an hour with each lap, I am finding that I can turn into this corner at 100 miles per hour, when only two years earlier sixty miles an hour seemed extreme and perhaps even reckless! I have as yet not completed walking all of the tracks I visited, but at many of the circuits I have walked alongside them and felt the dips and rises that make up much of any circuits pavement. Yes, the sage advice from all those who have helped me along the way to simply get out there and walk the track is really something I now need to do pursue as a matter of routine.

But this is not only true of race tracks, as it equally applies to many of the highways and country byways we frequent. Is the surface beginning to break up and are the edges crumbling and uneven? Is there grip or does it feel greasy? A few hard-braking attempts as well as a couple of “late apexes” generally can tell you what is underfoot and prove extremely helpful should you be called upon to take defensive actions. That which we manifest is before us! On the trip back to the west coast I have driven the southern interstates for the first time since I traversed them in the Vette on the way to Spring Mountain and of course the memories came rushing back – all the expectations Margo and I took with us on the occasion proved premature as misfortune overtook us very early in the weekend. However, coming as this trip has, so soon after our excursion to Atlanta, has given me an opportunity to see more of America than I had ever imagined when we first looked at what tracks we would visit this year. And to some extent has more than made up for all the mishaps and breakdowns that have happened along the way.

The picture above is of the Vette up on the hoist inside the great facilities at Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch (MSSR). It was the time when we found our oil leak was terminal and that our ambitious plans for the following week were dashed. We had hoped to combine the promotional side of our time at the track with other business pursuits only to see much of what we had hoped to do fade away as we went about renting trucks, trailers, and rental cars as well as flights back to Boulder. And yet, all it took was the installation of the wrong hose and from that moment, events escalated to the Vette failed. Yes, certainly, that which we manifest is before us!

And through the year, the mantra of driving the car you have kept echoing in my ears – sure I would like a little more torque and sure, I would like to have a taller final drive ratio and definitely bigger brakes, and racing slicks would be terrific, but I had none of these and just had to work with what I had. In many respects, even with a big torque car such as we have with the Vette, there’s a lot to be gained from respecting the power and treating them as though they are momentum cars, particularly at times when the weather isn’t perfect and where the track surface may be compromised. Avoiding the dramatic acceleration and subsequent hard braking that unsettles the Vette, and looking at ways to simply let the Vette have an opportunity to flow with the track has given me a lot more satisfaction than I’ve ever experienced in the past. Truly, we are the creators of our own destiny!

Between this trip to the west coast that will take us from San Diego, California, all the way to Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada, and the trip to Atlanta that gave us the opportunity to sample the tail of the dragon, we squeezed in a short trip to Italy as well as a cruise on the Adriatic and along the Dalmatian coast on one of the small vessels that make up the Seabourn Cruise Line. Before we left I had considered renting Vespa scooters along the way as there are many rental shops at the ports we were to visit, but after the mishaps Margo experienced only a few short weeks ago, we elected not to pursue this option. I had been hoping to be able to retell the adventure from a different perspective but no, this particular trip to Europe saw us walking everywhere. With the less hectic pace this proved to be, I managed to see more than I have done on previous visits.

The picture above is from the fjord that leads to Koto in Montenegro – an amazingly beautiful township lying at the end of one of the fjord’s arms. In the background is a small island that was built by simply dropping stones into the fjord and creating a platform. For more than two hundred years, the locals came to the site in the ships and unloaded rocks, and today there’s a small chapel built on the platform that has proved popular with the sailing communities down through the centuries. The patience and persistence across many generations has to be admired, and again, it took my thoughts back to the track. Some weekends, after putting a lot of effort into my track sessions I am left wondering whether I had somehow regressed with very little to show following the many laps I covered.

But making progress on the track is a funny thing. In fact, until you actually get into a car and drive it on a track, it’s all rather academic. Concentration, once you are settled behind the wheel becomes paramount with memories of previous sessions put to one side. As Enzo was to reflect on the occasion he was a passenger for a few fast laps with Denny, “I intellectualized that I would enjoy being in a race car. Until that moment, I didn’t know. How could anyone know until he sits in a car at race speed and takes turns at the limits of adhesion, brakes a hair from lockup, the engine begging for the redline?” With every lap, there’s always progress being made and even if it’s unclear as to precisely how much progress has been made after a weekend at the track, your subconscious continues to work overtime, layering one experience on top of the other and developing knowledge that otherwise simply couldn’t be intellectualized or assembled any other way.

It will be hard to stay out of the garage, just as it will be difficult not to speculate on what will happen in 2012. The Vette looks anxious and I know it must be shivering even as the temperatures continue to drop. But the plight of the Vette isn’t being ignored, just as my subconscious continues to file everything away. Whatever transpires now will be my own doing and I am hopeful, as I am at this time of year following every other season, that next year there will be even more fun-filled weekends ahead for Margo and me – as yes, how can you ever know until that next time when once again you pull on your helmet and for one more time sit in the car!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Taming the Dragon?

Even as I harbored thoughts about of perhaps one more track day, I awoke this morning to snow. Lots of it! Everywhere I looked there was snow piled high; the picture above was what I was treated to as I opened the garage door and made my way out the few feet to the Caddy Escalade. Having spent the past four years commuting between Boulder, Colorado, and Simi Valley, California, I had managed to be in California for most of the past four winters, and so it was quite a rude awakening. And did I mention it was cold, too? Yesterday temperatures had hovered around 80 degrees, but this morning it was some fifty degrees lower!

The Escalade now has to fend for itself, outside, in whatever weather visits us, as all four garage spaces are now occupied. The reality of returning to Boulder meant that we now have four cars in addition to the two motorcycles, in addition to the Escalade, and so I am just waiting for the day my neighbors remind me that the rules of our little community disallow any permanent parking of un-garaged cars. But I just can’t think about parting with any of the cars – perhaps a two car lift for one of the garages is in order. Could work – I wonder what weight constraints we have, as we excavated under all of our garages, expanding our basement, and turned the space below the garage into our working offices.

But at least the Corvettes are warm, feeding happily from the CTEK trickle-feed battery chargers we have in place, and likely will have powered-on for the next couple of months, maybe through to spring? Although there’s a lot of excitement that comes with the season’s first snow fall, as it does paint the countryside in gorgeous monochromatic tones, I just know it will only be a few more weeks before we begin daydreaming of warmer days ahead. Then again, how fitting to be writing of winter again when it seems that it was only a few months back when snow had prevented us from turning our first laps at High Plains Raceway (HPR) – check the photo in the post of May 1st, 2011 “Just got in to the Windy City …” - it is midway through that post, and is of the track covered in snow!

Business this month has seen me heads down in front of my keyboard wrapping up a number of business white papers. My trip last month to India certainly did impact my schedule and I have been playing catch-up ever since. Compounding the situation was the need to accompany Margo on a trip to Atlanta, and early on we had agreed that it would be a good opportunity to see the countryside and taking the Escalade seemed to be the right choice, knowing that weather can be so unpredictable at this time of year.

In the back of my mind I knew that the trip home, again, weather permitting, could take us north to Knoxville, Tennessee, a route that would let us see the remaining colorful leaves of fall covering the smoky mountains. Leaving Atlanta we would just pass through a corner of North Carolina before crossing into the south-eastern corner of Tennessee and anyone familiar with the geography may already be second-guessing where I was headed. If there’s any doubt remaining, when I identify the tree in the picture above as the famous “tree of shame” at Deals Gap it can mean only one thing. We had arrived at the start of the Tail of the Dragon!

The drive to Atlanta had followed the direct approach, a series of interstate highways that took us from Colorado through Kansas and into Missouri, before cutting through the bottom of Illinois and on down through Kentucky and Tennessee to line us up for the quick run into Georgia. There hadn’t been any drama and the trip went by without a hitch. On the other hand, what we were looking forward to driving on our way back was nothing like the highways we had experienced on the way to Atlanta.

Quite the opposite, and while we have driven Colorado highway 550, “the million dollar highway” from Durango to Ouray Colorado, several times (once, on motorcycles with a colleague from Australia), not to mention the byway from interstate 70, west of Green River, where the combination of highways 24, 95 and 261 takes you to Mexican Hat at the very bottom of Utah, as well as the Pacific Coast Highway along the California coast between Cambria and Carmel and through Big Sur I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but Tennessee’s infamous highway 129 delivered!

A twisting collection of turns on a road that crosses the mountains, and as best as I could tell, serves little purpose other than to provide entertainment for all those who relish such challenges, all up 318 curves in just the 11 miles, and by way of comparison, the Nürburgring in Germany that we drove around last fall only had some 150 + turns in its roughly 12 miles! The drop into Ouray on highway 550, and the plunge down from the elevated butte and into Mexican Hat on highway 261 as spectacular as both had proven to be, even as they were sparsely covered rocky outcrops, the heavily timbered landscape of the Smoky Mountains was to give the road a completely different feel and provided very little visibility as to what lay beyond each corner!

No question, leaving Deals Gap there were some anxieties. I had no idea what to expect, although looking at the tree of shame and reading the comments penned to metal and glass, it was pretty obvious that this road didn’t suffer fools kindly. There would be no guard rails for most of its length, and at one point the narrow ribbon of road runs along a small spine of rock with fall-away on either side, dropping to the rivers far below. The weather was good, it was late afternoon, and the muted light filtered through the trees still wearing their fall colors that gave us a vista unseen anywhere else in our recent travels.

I had picked the Escalade up from service at the local dealer in Boulder only a few days before we set out for Atlanta, the most extensive servicing cycle the Escalade has ever undertook: having passed 125,000 miles, on went new shocks (rear), new brake rotors and pads, new lines for oils and fluids and a complete service of all transmissions - it’s All Wheel Drive (AWD) - as well as new plugs and injectors. Having the big SUV this rigorously serviced is an expensive undertaking, but not when I think about the benefits of taking it along on this trip. And the picture above is of us about to enter a particularly challenging series of corners (the picture courtesy of the photo crew from and yet I still found time to take my hand from the wheel to signal thumbs-up!

At one point we stopped to talk briefly to the driver of a Viper SRT/10 roadster that had just pulled off the road. He wanted to stop and take photos, he told us, but Margo and I had our doubts. Pouring from the vents in the hood, as well as from the gap between the hood and the front windscreen, was the most “white smoke” we have ever seen. Even on track days! Whatever he had been doing or how hard he had been driving, something wasn’t right, and it was too much smoke to be “just the brakes”. This is definitely the place, if you really want to push your car to the limits, and should it be motorcycles that are your preference then this is possibly nirvana!

The corners kept coming – trying to keep count of the 318 turns was impossible as they just kept on coming. There are several folks who have asked me about how valuable is participating in National Auto Sport Association (NASA) track “driver education” programs, and how relevant it would be when it came to every day driving: the drive up and over the tail of the dragon left me in no doubt as to the value NASA provided. And it was as much about the basics that comes to the fore – keep your eyes up and look through the turn to find the corner exit, late apex “everything”, and limit trail breaking as much as possible using the short straights wherever possible to scrub speed!

The picture above is of the big Escalade exiting a turn and it’s already clear that there’s load on the suspension! Not by race car standards, mind you, but something that was clearly communicated to driver and passenger with each turn completed. Again, the photo is courtesy of the roadside crew from and this time reader’s familiar with the many track outings that we have enjoyed will recognize number 116 as they will the decals from both NASA and Speed Ventures. Today, sitting outside the garage where it has taken up semi-permanent residence, the rear window sports an additional motif – a decal from Deals Gap no less – alongside the track image of the Nürburgring. Tacky perhaps? All the same, it brings a warm smile to my face each time I drag the trash can down to the curb!

However, once we had completed our “run over the course” the first thing Margo and I discussed on the last leg of our trip into Knoxville was how soon would it be before we brought the big ‘Vette this far east? After all, with all that we observed, this would be ideal. Better still? Perhaps even chance our hand with the AWD Datsun we have as our back-up for winter should the Escalade become unavailable – the car is a beast when it comes to roads like this!

Either way, Chevy or Nissan, we want to revisit this highway at some point – perhaps after squeezing in a weekend at VIR. I think one of the NASA regions holds events on this circuit and the big 'Vette would be perfect! But no, for this trip to Atlanta it hadn't been an option as the 'Vette was still in the shop. Even with two Corvettes and as passionate as I am about Tandem and NonStop in my business life, the "back-up" Corvette is just configured differently and doesn't lend itself to long trips where there's shared driver responsibilities. Yes it's a manual whereas the big 'Vette is an auto!

The talk of the ‘Vette really highlighted just how much difference there is between driving on the track and driving on the open road. No matter the challenges thrown up by a highway, even as technically challenging as Tennessee highway 129, you are never driving at ten tenths! It’s more like three or four tenths at best and there’s considerable difference, although in hindsight, we are still wondering what the driver of the Viper had been up to! Consideration of others on the road takes precedence, and when you have traffic legitimately coming towards you, it does change everything when you keep so much in reserve. The brakes may seem like they’re working hard, and the smell of oil and other fluids suggest temperatures have climbed, but compared to how the car feels after a session on a race track… there’s really no comparison.

And this is fortunately for the best, as I would rather not read about anyone driving their car on the road as they do at the track. Even when it comes to their favorite freeway off-ramp! Yet throughout the few miles that took us into Knoxville all discussion about driving the ‘Vette over this mountainous highway was as if we could drive it at track speeds with corner workers stationed along its length and crowds gathered at every vantage point. It’s just that kind of road that takes you back to when racing was pursued on public roads and where, as is still the case on the Isle of Man, the local population turns out in force.

So, what of the big ‘Vette? The picture above was sent to us by our newest friend, Curt Ingram, as the ‘Vette was moved outside his shop, Corvette Spa. Readers may recall how last month I was filmed by Curt’s good friend Warren, and how on review of the video it was clear the shocks weren’t doing their job. Driving to Atlanta and back gave Curt ample time to put the car up on jacks and take a good look. Now the car has a new set of Bilstein “sport” shocks, and restoring the Toyo R888 shod wheels to the car, a new alignment. Further surprises came when we saw how badly the toe-in had been – camber and caster had been fine but the only way to describe the poor effects from the tow-in was to suggest that the car would have crabbed its way through turns!

Curt was kind enough to email this latest photo of the ‘Vette just as I was planning the route back home from Atlanta, and as hopeful I had been at the time to take it one more time to the track, it’s now clear that with the arrival of winter it will be just the three walls of the garage that will entertain the car for the next couple of months. Spending all those years in Southern California, as we have done for the past four plus years, rather spoiled us, but then again we have really little to complain about living in Boulder.

The first snow of the season is always special and for the next couple of days we, as will much of the local population, will simply revel in the novelty of it all. It will wear off, of course, and our thoughts will just as quickly turn to thoughts of spring, and as I sit at my keyboard there will be a check of both the NASA and Speed Venture sites looking for news about the program for 2012. After all there’s Infineon we still need to visit and there’s Laguna Seca and perhaps Big Willow we want to revisit, but for now, and with the recent exploits in Tennessee behind us, it’s a quiet brandy and a warm fire, and that suits us just fine!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Eating my own dust!

The opportunity to return to High Plains Raceway (HPR) outside Byers, Colorado, and about 50 miles east of Denver gave me the chance to return early to the scene of what was a pretty dreadful weekend last time out. While the company had been terrific, and the weather perfect last time at this track, I let myself down when it came time to put my experience to the test and so I was anxious to take another look at the circuit. Memories were still vividly painted in my memory and I really wanted to demonstrate some degree of improvement, even if it was just for me.

The picture above is of the Corvette covered in dirt and weeds following a big off in the second session of the day – an ominous start to the day. I had elected to return to the circuit on one of the track’s open lapping days, and it being a Friday there were only a small number of participants. The track would be free to exploit for eight hours and so my plan was to run four sessions before lunch – three each of about 20 to 25 minutes and one of 40 minutes, and then wrap up the afternoon with just two 30 minute sessions.

Luxury! And a far cry from a typical club outing where the normal track time is limited to just four 20 minute sessions. I also took eight bottles of Gateraide and a dozen bottles of water in my ice “esky”, as we call these coolers back home in Australia, since I wanted to stay hydrated throughout the day! All the same, I was going to make sure I had plenty of downtime between sessions so I packed a small fold-away chair into the Vette along with the esky. Unfortunately, Margo would not be joining me for this outing as her work schedule had ballooned and there was simply no way for her to escape her commitments. It would be a strange feeling all the same not to have her nearby!

The first session was uneventful and already I picked up on what I had missed only a few weeks before. Turn 7, what the circuit management had named “High Plains Drifter”, turned out to be an almost classical uphill sweeper and whereas in my previous outing I had been attempting to late apex I began to turn-in a little earlier, without braking. It certainly looked like it was less disruptive for the big Vette’s and tracking out wide as I was now doing allowed me to carry more speed into the braking area before the more difficult turn 8 that preceded a series of esses known as “To Hell on a Bobsled”!

This first time out, I had a passenger with me. A driver new to the track, and indeed new to track days, had brought with him a new Z4 sDrive35is – a somewhat lengthy description of a pretty potent roadster. The “novice in a Bimmer” approached me and asked if he could ride along to get an up-close perspective of the track. Even though I was a little apprehensive, the Vette proved very docile and even though it was early in the day, when it came time to return to the paddock I had not only improved on my lines through turn 7 but really improved on turn 11 as well. My passenger thanked me profusely and later in the day, with the Z4behind me, the Bimmer newcomer showed few signs of being a novice!

Leading to the steepest climb on the circuit at 10 degrees, when it comes to rounding turn 11 you really have to continue deep into the braking zone before turning-in late, in order to set up the kink that bisects the “Ladder to Heaven” run! I was sensing that this would be a transition day and I was looking forward to catching up with newfound friend and fellow Corvette driver, Warren, who would drop by later in the day with his silver C5 Z06.

Tire pressures have become an important consideration of late when driving HPR, so before I left for the second session, even with the tires very warm, I eased the pressure back to 28 lbs on the passenger side, and 27 lbs on the driver’s side – the track having a majority of right-hand turns. I am still coming to terms with the science of all of this and all I wanted to do was to make sure that as I returned to the paddock after each session, the pressures would be the same all around and only be as high as 34 lbs, maximum. Experience was telling me that running with the Michelin Pilot Sports as I was, the Vette seemed to handle better when the tire pressures didn’t climb much beyond this level.

Onto the track, this time alone in the car, I took it easy for a couple of laps but then began to really work on the lower half of the track. I was pretty happy with the way I ran through the turns leading onto the long back straight and then the quick downhill plunge through turns 4, 5 and 6. Turn 5 is called “Niagara” and turn 6, “Danny’s Lesson” so you can appreciate how much elevation change is involved. However, everyone seems to be able to master this first sector and it’s what follows that has proved the bigger challenge.

The picture above is of the engine bay as I came to a halt in the paddock and threw open the hood. Yes, it was well into the session when I exited turn 8, as I had done several times already, when a dormant Frankenstein appeared after an absence of some three years! Readers may recall how, in the post of November 12th, 2008, “Coming to terms with Frankenstein” NASA SoCal HPDE Director, John Matthew, had driven the Vette with Margo as passenger only to lose the car twice.

His observation at the time? “This car is dangerous! Frankenstein is lurking up a few revs higher, and if you go there, he just wrenches the car from you!” John then explained “there’s way too much torque and it’s unpredictable. When it does hit, it lights up the tires so quickly that it becomes a very difficult car to control!” Since that early outing, Charlie and Austin at RPM Motors, Inc. had worked some magic on the way the automatic transmission handled the new-found torque.

Again, readers may remember about where, in the post of December 3rd, 2010, “It was wet! It was windy! But we adjusted ...” I referred to how they fine-tuned a couple of the tables used during gear changes. And what a difference it had made - immediately the transitions between second, third and fourth were the smoothest I had ever experienced and I could even change-up a gear midway through a corner without unsettling the car. Well, not so fast …

When Frankenstein hits, he does so with ferocity and as I changed up a gear exiting turn 8, the car’s rear broke immediately to my left and drove me off the track. I lifted and steered into the spin, braking only as the infield begun scrubbing-off the Vette’s speed. It was all over very quickly but I had executed a pretty lazy 180 degree slide that deposited half an acre of dirt onto the track. Unfortunately, perhaps more inside the car … coming up for breath and spitting dirt, I restarted the car, waited for a break in the traffic and drove slowly back to the black-flag station for a quick check. Even though all looked OK, I elected to ease the car back into the paddock and give it a good look.

The car was covered in dust, and I had eaten quite a bit of dirt as the wheels had thrown up a considerable cloud. But apart from a front valance mount that had popped, and was easily pushed back into place, there was no damage done to the car. My own pride, on the other hand, well – let’s just say I grabbed a bottle of water and sat quietly in my chair for an extended period. Once the Vette had cooled down, I went and checked the tire pressures and torqued the lug nuts.

Of course, the circuit’s management came by to have a few words and they were satisfied with my explanation and at ease that I knew what had happened. In reality they were more amused by it! I offered to walk back to the turn and help sweep off the dirt but they had already dispatched their tractor to look after that minor inconvenience. My front valance had always hung low with the leading edge of the front spoiler almost on the ground but now it was on the ground! When this was drawn to my attention by track staff I simply reminded them that it had always been close to the ground. No worries …

Inside of an hour, I was back on the track. I was still looking over my shoulder to see if Warren had arrived and as he drove into the paddock, his racing slicks on a custom-built dolly towed by his Vette, he elected to set up right next to me and before he did anything to his own car, he jumped into the passenger seat for his own up close look at the track. But this time, it wasn’t the layout of the circuit that was of interest, but my own approach to getting around it that was of interest.

And what a difference another set of eyes can make. “Track out even more as you exit turn 8 – don’t pinch it! And yes, track out exiting turn 8 as well! Go much deeper into your braking zone before turn 13, at the top of the ‘Prairie Corkscrew’, and turn in a little more aggressively so you open up the kink, or chicane, that precedes entry onto the main straight!” Wow – after only a handful of laps, not only was the Vette better balanced but the circuit became easier to round.

One of the reasons I had returned to HPR and to make the trip out to join Warren was that last time out, running hard down the back straight, the Vette experienced a little instability. At first, we weren’t sure if it was the car’s electronic aids, or “nannies”, kicking in or perhaps, it was the line I had used and where I may have straddled the pavement creases. But after a few laps, the diagnoses from Warren came quickly. “You have driven well past the life expectancy of your shock absorbers,” he said. “After 62,000 miles and some 25+ track weekends, they are letting you know it’s time to replace them!”

To confirm this, in a session later in the day, Warren let me pass him before he tucked in behind. We then did several laps before he re-passed me. In the paddock following what was the next to last session of the day for me, he told me he had been filming me and when we looked at the video the following week the initial diagnosis was hard to overrule. There was so much rear body roll that the comment was made that it looked just like a dog lifting its hind leg as it relieved itself. A quick check with my good friend Hal, and yes, we will be looking to replace with a set of Bilstein sport shocks.

The previous time at HPR I had participated in a NASA regional High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) program, and had been looking to progress to HPDE 3 for intermediate level drivers. As last month’s post reflected, I had seriously messed up my first session such that the results of my assessment were overly skewed by what I had done earlier in the day. However, after this last outing at HPR only a few weeks later, it was obvious to me that my lines weren’t where they should have been and any misgivings I had about the way the assessment was made is now a moot point.

The passion is still there and yes, my heart remains in the pastime. I really do enjoy it. But I sure do enjoy it so much more when Margo has time to participate. There will likely be one more outing for the year, although it may be restricted to just a couple of afternoon sessions but at least I am beginning to comprehend the complexities that make up the HPR circuit. Perhaps the team at NASA Rocky Mountains were on the money – no, there’s no substitute for lap time and there’s no easy path to gaining experience. You may end up eating a lot of dirt but you just have to get out there and learn!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Trackin' round the Rockies!

Now there’s no need to plan for the trip back to Boulder - after nearly five years of commuting to Omaha, Nebraska, and then Simi Valley, California, the wheel has finally stopped spinning and we are able to treat our house in Boulder truly as our home. Yes, the garages are full as we went about consolidating what was spread across multiple locations, and while I had done my best to join Margo as often as I could at her townhome in Simi Valley, neither of us ever felt really at home there.

As for the blue Vette, number 116, we finally were able to enjoy it once again. In the last post, “We need (more) new pumps!” the team at Rocky Mountain Competitive Research (RMCR) determined that our fuel pump was on its last legs and simply couldn’t keep up as revs rose, so a replacement pump was ordered and this time it would be the fuel pump normally reserved for the C6 Z06. When I was advised of its arrival I took the Vette once more to Colorado Springs. What a difference!

So, where do we stand today? Let’s turn to the charts. The first chart at the top of this page (click on any chart for a bigger picture) is what transpired at A&A Corvette in the summer of 2008 when the Vortech supercharger was installed. Stock figures for the C6 Vette coupe were 348.23 hp with 338.07 lb-ft of torque. All figures are measured at the rear wheels and are adjusted for sea level. With the supercharger installed, and an initial dyno tune performed by Andy, the new figures were 497.66 hp with 466.16 lb-ft of torque.

However, this was just the start of the journey. Following the power steering pump failure during the summer of last year, and as part of the rebuild that followed, we upgraded the intercooler (to be safe) and replaced the stock muffler system with one from a Z06 where a butterfly valve was added that could be manually flipped to give the inside two pipes the capacity for unrestricted flow.

The second chart here is of the dyno figures Andy generated following the repairs and much to our surprise, the results were pretty impressive. A jump to 545.12 hp and 490 l-/ft of torque.

The final chart below was produced just as we arrived at RMCR where Mark had been running the Vette on the dyno following the change of fuel pump. After we had a run on the dyno that produced figures of 588.43 hp and 510.67 lb-ft of torque, we backed off a little and made the fuel mix a little richer higher up the rev range for the engine’s safety. What this latest chart reveals is that we have pretty much 570 hp and some 500+ lb-ft of torque and where the shape of the torque line tells its own story – this blue Vette will really pull!

Now for a weekend at High Plains Raceway with an open lapping day on the Friday and an opportunity to join our friends at NASA Rocky Mountains for a full day of sessions on the Saturday.

Considerable planning had gone into preparing for the weekend and not everything revolved around the preparation of the Vette. For the occasion we would be joined by our good friends Brian and Jan from Simi Valley, and while I would be driving the Chevrolet, they would be entertaining themselves in the Dodge – once again, a “loaner Viper” from good friends of theirs.

Arriving at the track early Friday morning and bringing with us some 1300+ hp, was quite a treat! The picture below is of the pair, the Viper and the Vette, having spent the night parked in our garage!

Margo would not be joining us; a change in careers prompted by our return to Boulder has her fully committed, time-wise. Furthermore, her last time out was cold and windy and she just wasn’t at peace with the track. We have been asked on several occasions whether we would be continuing with this activity and I was still hopeful that we would. Margo, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic.

When the time came to roll out onto the track for the opening session, Friday, I was determined to give it my best. There were a few moments arising from just being a little rusty, but I was ready for the second session when Brian offered to ride along as a passenger. Brian usually circulates in HPDE 3 and in NASA Southern California events has of late been asked to observe candidates in HPDE 3 that are looking to move to HPDE 4. As I do Hal’s, I value Brian’s judgment very highly.

After 30 minutes circulating the track among the fast group, where racers were fine-tuning their cars for the upcoming weekend, all Brian offered was “drive like that, as consistent and as smooth as you were, and you will easily make it into HPDE 3. You’re ready. There were a few times when I thought your brakes might fade but you managed them well and there were no incidents late in the session.” And the picture below is of the two of us thundering down the main straight with just a glimpse of the back straight at the top of the picture.

It was only a few weeks earlier that my good friend Hal had followed me around the track, as readers may recall, in the post of May 1st, 2011, “Just got in to the Windy City …”. Hal races in the American Iron series with NASA Northern California and as I said, I value his judgment highly, so I was pretty pleased with his observations. “You used all the track, you were changing gears where I thought you should, and consistently with each lap,” Hal had said, “and you used all the track while you were making full use of the rumble-strips!”

I went out on the track for four more sessions, a total of six thirty minute sessions in all, and worked on a couple of different lines through two of the turns – turn 7 “High Plains Drifter” and turn 11 “Bobsled”, and the climb up through the “Ladder to Heaven” – and as these were tough, right-hand uphill turns requiring finding just the right trade-off between traction and retaining momentum, in the Vette, with the power it had, both turns were proving to be a handful!

Inevitably, Saturday morning arrived. In the weeks leading up to the NASA event, there had been a number of email exchanges with all involved at NASA about being approved to drive in HPDE 3, and I was unsure how the process would work, but as the driver meeting wound down I was called me out to join a number of others for a briefing.

As succinctly as possible I was informed of what would be expected, who would be joining us (as passengers, conducting the evaluations) and then letting us know that should we be invited to join HPDE 3 there were already too many entrants and our participation in an HPDE 3 session would be deferred until the next event.

Rushing quickly to the HPDE 1 and 2 briefing, as I needed the wrist-band to go on track, I caught up with the group only as the wrist-bands were being handed out. There had been no time left to catch up on the group’s protocols or to listen in on grid and starting procedures. Where are the passing zones? I asked those around me. Are they opening the front and back straights? Unsure of what I heard in response I left in the belief that for HPDE 1 and 2, both passing zones would be in effect.

With little time to prepare further, I had to grab my helmet and head for pre-grid. Joining the group a little late I already had five or six cars ahead of me, and catching the attention of one of the evaluators I jokingly said that yes, I was sure appreciative of NASA not wanting to judge us on our first session. Nerves were still raging and it was difficult not to be anxious. Finally, rolling onto the track I thought that with all the preparation and coaching I had received over the past couple of months it would be a simple formality before I was driving in HPDE 3!

And then the disaster out of nothing more than a rookie mistake. Would there be a full course yellow, as is typical first time out? Again, no one responded but watching the flags I could tell that yes, there was a full course yellow for the first lap. But as I came out of turn 15, the exit from the Prairie Corkscrew, I could see the green flag waiving, signifying the start of the session. On entering the front straight, I romped on the gas and quickly passed a couple of cars.

Negotiating the next couple of turns easily I entered the long back straight and, an open track ahead of me, I pulled out from the other drivers and passed them all, braking deep into the turn that dropped cars down a short incline. With nothing ahead, I really focused on my line. Yes, I wanted a repeat of yesterday’s consistency. The picture above is of the big Vette rollicking down the Prairie Corkscrew!

Pulling onto the main straight for the end of the first lap under green, I had already caught the tail of the HPDE 1 drivers so I easily rounded a couple of them. Again, on the back straight and now three wide I eased passed a sizeable group and was back into clear track. Pulling quickly through the turns and continuing to build speed, this time I entered the main straight only to see the black flag being waived furiously with 116 being held above it.

“What were you thinking? There’s no passing on the main straight with this group and remember, point-bys? They are mandatory for all drivers in HPDE 1 and 2 and one point-by, one car, and never any three-wide passing, not under any circumstances!” And the condemnation kept on coming. NASA runs 20 minute sessions so all I had time for was a cool-down lap and it was back into the paddock.

Still, there was no let up as each returning student who passed me had their instructor trying their best to educate me further. At least, I think that’s what they were so earnestly conveying; it was hard to tell amid all the ruckus being thrown up!

I attended the download all the same, but slinked back to the wall and kept my head bowed. Oh yes – my car number was called and I was given a true education on the finer points of driving at this level. And for me, the weekend ended with that meeting.

My heart wasn’t in it and as I picked up Joe, my evaluator for HPDE 3, just as the second track session began I was still so angry at myself and just about at anyone else I came across. However, as best as I could I behaved myself and lapped the tracks as a much-humbled HPDE 2 driver.

“You demonstrated situational awareness expected at HPDE 3; you were consistent with each lap; and you lapped at a speed HPDE 3 would require,” Joe informed me, but it will be up to the others to confirm your move up. And of course, as you would surmise at this point, this elevation to the higher group was not granted. “Your lines through turn 7 weren’t consistent, as was your approach to turn 13, the Prairie Corkscrew,” was the consensus followed by the expected “all you need is a little more coaching.”

Never mind that this comment came from the instructor behind me, even at a time when I was explaining to Joe the different lines I had been trying through turn 7 – yes, they weren’t consistent as I was showing him how difficult it was to drive all 700+hp through an uphill sweeper turn without it breaking away!

It was disappointing to end the weekend on this note. I did go out for one more session but not only was my heart not in it, my brain was wondering miles away, so for my own safety as well as that of others around me, I came back into the paddock early. After expressing my feelings to everyone I could find – how could they let anyone onto the track un-briefed as they did; what were they thinking!

After all, looking back through these blog postings, it’s been more than a year since I last drove with NASA and after more than a dozen events in race groups of all capabilities, forgetting about the point-bys was not surprising.

Never would have happened in Southern California on John Matthew’s watch, of that I am sure! But even as ranted and kicked sand high in the air, I really had no one else to blame. The assumptions I made were wrong, and Dave had every right to be critical, but I did recover and I did drive pretty well for my second session, and I will leave it at that.

Margo and I are now looking at how we will end the year. It’s been tough on her with the conditions against her, and a Vette that’s not quite made it into her hands those times she’s been to the track. The expenses this year have mounted to an unsustainable level, so we need to come to terms with that as well.

We pursue this pastime for fun and for Margo it’s likely to be starting close to the bottom once more. Not in terms of driving ability, but in terms of overall enthusiasm It was only a few weeks ago that Fulton Haight, an instructor with NASA SoCal and a winner last year at the Nationals, emailed with the observation “you are right Margo developed a special feel at Willow that should carry her well at other venues as well.”

Next month will be a big test and I hope she will find the peace she needs to settle back into the driver’s seat, as I for one really miss having her trackside on these weekends. Winter will arrive shortly and our ability to turn laps at HPR will be curtailed, but there’s always that one more opportunity and for that, I remain very thankful. Perhaps I do need to take a closer look at my lines through turns 7, 11 and 13 after all!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

We need (more) new pumps!

The drive to Colorado Springs is now becoming a routine event for Margo and I, and from Boulder it’s just over 100 miles. Each way! More trips than I had anticipated, of course, but then there are some early signs that progress’ being made. The photo above is of the ‘Vette on the dyno at Rocky Mountain Competitive Research (RMCR), generating some new numbers for us to check out.

So much has happened since the last post that it’s hard to know where to start. Readers may recall however that we had taken the nearly mortally-wounded C6 Corvette Coupe to A&A Corvette Performance, following a rather traumatic incident while on track at Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch (SMMR), just west of Las Vegas, Nevada. A simple puff of whitish smoke was all that was required to see me heading for the pit lane and as I approached my parking space, I dropped oil everywhere.

The friendly GM mechanics at SMMR, normally assigned to maintaining the Corvettes of the Ron Fellows Corvette performance driving school, inspected the ‘Vette only to detect oil seeping from a seal in the Vortech supercharger. Readers may also recall that we loaded the ‘Vette onto a U Haul trailer and delivered it to Andy at A&A Corvette Performance, in Oxnard, California. It was only a short time later that we heard the news that the last mechanic to work on the ‘Vette had mistakenly swapped out the oil return hose from the supercharger back to the engine block, replacing it with a water pipe rather than an oil pipe. And it had compressed when bent, and pinched off any possibility of oil flowing back to the block.

Rather than enjoying a week touring the California coast in the Corvette, Margo and I ended up making a quick dash up to Palo Alto for a number of business meetings before heading east and home to Boulder, Colorado. In place of the Corvette we had a Chevie Aero, courtesy of Budget car rentals – not exactly a track car, mind you. But we made it home in one piece and, avoiding conversations with our neighbors, we packed for our trip to Europe.

A weekend in Warsaw, Poland, for the memorial service for Margo’s mother, who passed away early last year, was followed by a few days in Paris and a weekend in Frankfurt where we caught up with business clients. However it wasn’t all business, and we did sample a couple of fine restaurants in Paris. The return trip took us back to Los Angeles, where our good friends Brian and Jan picked us up and entertained us until we could return to Oxnard and retrieve the Corvette.

While we had been away, Andy and his team had been busy. The supercharger had been returned to Vortech, where on examination it was determined that it could be repaired. The main seal was replaced but a quick check of the turbine fans showed some fatigue with some chipping so it was replaced. The fan that was installed was a more recent design, what Vortech call the Si trim, and being a little more efficient, produced another couple of pounds of boost. Just perfect! And exactly what we needed – more power! Oh boy …

When it came time to pick up the ‘Vette and begin the drive back to Boulder, Andy was sure we needed another dyno tune as we were certainly going to be a little too lean at high revs, but we assured him it would be a cautious drive home. It was Andy’s offside, Steve, who gave us all the info about RMCR and its proprietor, Mike.

With all the driving that Margo and I have done over the past five years, commuting as we had been doing from our home in Boulder to the townhouse we rented in Simi Valley, you would think that the thought of one more 1,000 mile drive would be anything but a fun drive home. But of late, we have really come to enjoy the solitude of the open road and even though it had only been a few days earlier when we had been strolling down the Champs Elysees, we couldn’t wait to get going.

We overnighted in Las Vegas and were able to easily push through the remaining miles to home the following day. For one reason or another, a 700 mile day on the Interstates is just a normal day’s driving for us these days and with two drivers, there’s little fatigue involved as long as we stay hydrated. This trip however proved to be rather special – whatever Andy and the lads had done, the big ‘Vette was delivering incredible mpg numbers. We watched rather shell-shocked as the range from our measly eighteen gallon tank began stretching from 300 to 400 to well past 500 miles with averages well into the 30 mpg. Unheard of, for a car with a lot more than 600 horsepower at the engine!

When you think something is too good to be true, then it usually is, or so the old saying goes. As I stood next to Mike’s offside, Mark, as he wound up the revs of the ‘Vette now firmly tied-down on RMCR’s dyno, the lines on the graph produced some odd wiggles. And it was proving difficult to maintain fuel pressure at 60 pounds – it was dropping down to as low as 24 pounds. After all those miles across the desert and the excitement from getting 30+ mpg, it was pretty obvious we had a fuel pump on its last legs.

The drive down to Colorado Springs I had done myself and the ‘Vette was my ride back home, so I was going to have to return to RMCR as soon as I could set aside time for the return trip. I was also going to have to coordinate with Margo for the ride back, as Mike would need the car for a couple of days. All because we replaced the water pump and the power steering pump and, with oil apparently seeping from a hose attached to the supercharger, replacing it as well.

With a folder full of paperwork, and a picture, I returned to the GM dealership where the original maintenance work had been done. It was my local Cadillac / Buick / GMC dealer and much to my surprise, they listened and then read the reports and the next day the service director phoned me to tell me a check was ready for me to pick up! I have been a customer of this dealership, McCadden of Boulder, for more than 15 years but all the same, this was a fantastic response – all the work done by Andy as well as the tuning by Mike! Fully paid for, by the McCadden services team!

I still recall as we left SMMR a few months back a fellow participant saying “don’t worry, it’s only money!” But at this point, I have to admit, the well is beginning to run dry. Like many other participants, Margo and I are looking to curtail one of our favorite pastimes. In the last post, readers may recall me writing of how NASA Rocky Mountains looks increasingly as if it will become our new home. With an event coming up in August and at the High Plains Raceway, this will more than likely be our one big weekend for the year. The Friday preceding the NASA event is an open track day and another good opportunity to get a little seat time under my belt. No question at all, I need the time!

My enthusiasm for this pastime remains but I also recognize that Margo has been hard done by for most of this year. When I look back at the last event of 2010, when the track conditions were miserable, it was Margo who gave up her allotted sessions on the Sunday after the Saturday sessions were cancelled. And it was Margo left standing in the bitterly cold winds of late spring as I put down laps at High Plains Raceway. Yes, it was Margo who was left without a car to drive at Spring Mountain. I feel quite the cad!

I have had a number of emails and a couple of phone calls where I was asked about our future plans and whether we would continue. Of course, everything will be predicated on us having a reliable vehicle and on that count, I have my fingers crossed that finally, after nearly two months of poking, prodding and in general, hammering away, our beautiful ‘Vette will be ready to go. I never want to hear anything more about new pumps – we’ve replaced them all! Well, perhaps with the exception of Margo’s pumps, those with the really high heels … now, Margo does likes pumps!

But when it comes to future events in California, at tracks we have come to enjoy so much, perhaps I need to become a little more realistic. We have so many friends supporting these events that it will be difficult to stay away, but that may end up being the case. Perhaps we will figure out a way to drop in on perhaps just one event – Laguna Seca will always be a draw card, as Margo and I just love the Monterrey peninsular. And maybe, just maybe, a quick trip for old time’s sake to Willow Springs – the very first track we placed a timid wheel on!

Margo is still quicker than I am through turns 8 and 9, and I just need to work on that for a bit longer. Then again, the recipient of instructor Fulton Haight’s award of a pair of driving gloves for the most improved driver at the track in 2009, perhaps Willow Springs is Margo’s special track and maybe I will never scale to the heights she’s managed to reach no matter how many laps around the track I complete. Carrying 130+ mph into turn 8? Truly remarkable! After all, the ‘Vette is just a coupe and there’s been nothing done to the suspension or brakes other than adding Hawk pads …

As I scan my emails, other options are opening up and they are all offers to participate in events here, in Colorado. Perhaps it is time to take stock and to be just a little more realistic. I will never become a racer but that was never part of the plan. For as long as Margo and I have talked about taking a car to the track the overriding objective was to simply be safe, and to have fun! I’m thinking long and hard that this is perhaps the best advice any participant has even given me so yes, it is time to put the fun back into our track weekends and adjusting to the tracks of Colorado looks like it will fit with our plans perfectly.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

No respite on Spring Mountain ...

Well, if it wasn’t that darn snow again! Yes, it’s the middle of May when every other sign screams spring and yet the weather map suggests winter isn’t about to let up anytime soon. The mountain passes high up in the Rockies were still wrestling with the icy fingers of winter and, apparently, failing to regain control. There would be no way to safely traverse the continental divide in our Corvette. Interstate 70 would be a no go. We had committed ourselves to a tight schedule as I had business to attend to on the west coast, but prudence overruled and we headed south on Interstate 25.

I had thought about renting a trailer and towing the Vette behind the Escalade SUV, as we had done so often last year, but the trip would be long and the Vette would pass as an adequate touring car. Not the first time we had driven to a weekend track day and not the first time we had to be watchful of the weather.

Fortunately even though the snow began to fall in the early morning hours, Interstate 25 had warmed sufficiently overnight ensuring that there was no accumulation and we made it out of Colorado in good time. Arriving in Las Vegas late afternoon Friday, after travelling for more than 1,100 miles, the big Vette hadn’t missed a beat! My spirits were high and I was really looking forward to the weekend.

The picture at the top of the page was taken during the first outing at Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch - the pictures of the Vette on the track were taken by Mike La Putt of As the background of the photograph suggests, there’s absolutely nothing out here except the desert. However, the Motorsport Ranch is a new-age country club catering to members who like to drive their cars without worrying about law enforcement and natural beauty was never a consideration. And did I mention that condos have been constructed alongside the track, each with garages, and that these condos are available as rentals to anyone who cares to spend the weekends in pursuit of this pastime.

Hot and dry, and as featureless a place as you can imagine, but if you track Corvettes it’s absolutely a must place-to-go. After all, its home to the Ron Fellows Corvette performance driving school and if you should be among the fortunate few to purchase the Corvette ZR1, this is the place that they send you as part of the car’s purchase program.

When you exit the highway at Pahrump, Nevada, you drive into the infield paddock by passing over the circuit. When the track is “hot” with sessions under way, there’s a passageway running beneath the track that allows cars to enter and exit the paddock, and I had my fingers crossed that I would not be taking advantage of this “feature”. Sure enough, our good friends Brian and Jan had marked out an area for us alongside their Vette, and as we drove towards them this bright and sunny morning I couldn’t wait to get onto the track.

This is the home of the Corvette driving school after all, so there had to be some consideration given to these massive torque cars. Ever since we had taken up the hobby of motorsport, we had shied away from the smaller, twisty tracks preferring those with some opportunity to stretch the big Vette’s long legs, and yet this track, on first sight, looked more like Buttonwillow. And yet, there they were lined up trackside – Vettes of every year and color, several Nissan GT-Rs, and of course, Vipers.

I am careful about using the term hobby as for Margo and me; the word hobby brings with it a lot of baggage. However, I couldn’t help but recall the last outing I had at High Plains Raceway where the participant next to us had driven the family Lexus IS350 up from Texas. “I don’t fish, hunt, or play golf,” he told us, and my wife wants me out of the house and encourages me to take up a hobby, “so I am going to give motorsport a try.” When we caught up with him later in the day he told us he had called the wife, telling her “I have found my fishing boat! Yes, I now have a hobby!”

After the driver meeting and learning of where we would all meet for our mandatory download sessions, it was time to grab a helmet, strap ourselves in tight and head to the staging area alongside the hot pits! The picture above typifies how my first session unfolded – eyes in my mirrors, and giving timely point-byes to everyone.

For a moment, I thought I was back on the Nurburgring among a pack of works’ teams, and I had my work cut out for me just sorting out a couple of the easier corners. I would revisit the more technical corners later in the day but my initial priority was to develop a kind of fluidity through the sections I recognized. Developing consistency through a couple of sections would be how I would develop the confidence needed when it came time to tackle the trickier, more technical, elements of the circuit.

Course designers always try to mess with your minds. Just when you think you can see your way through a section of turns, you find that the camber isn’t what you expected or there’s a slight change in elevation that unloads your suspension right when you are looking for as much traction as possible. The surprising element of Spring Mountain is that it does have elevation changes and while we aren’t talking about changes of hundreds of feet, with severe climbs and runaway down-hills, all the same, Spring Mountain presents drivers with numerous challenges that aren’t apparent from looking at track maps or from watching film.

After a couple of laps it’s not surprising that this doubles as a performance driving school. Compressed into the circuit were examples of pretty much every combination of turns with varying locations of apexes, so much so that mastering this circuit is definitely an achievement drivers can be proud of – indeed, “mastering” is perhaps a poor choice of words as very few drivers will master this circuit, I suspect, without a lot of seat time.

As the session began to wind down I was able to get in a couple of quicker laps – still way off the pace of others in the group, but with enough of a glimpse of the potential of what I might be able to do to encourage me for the next session. This was the first time I had driven a circuit where the flags were electronic – combinations of lights being used to communicate with drivers - so it was with a sense of relief that I caught the waving checkered flag and began my cool-down lap before returning to the paddock.

I had only caught a glimpse of Brian as he took his Vette onto the track in the session before me, but from what I saw of him, circulating with the other Vettes he too was erring on the side of caution. It was surprising to me, as several years ago Brian had attended this performance driving school and while we weren’t driving the same configuration I knew he had been very anxious to push his Vette as hard as he could. After several modifications, the Vette coupe was now a significantly better set-up for lap days than the stock Corvettes he had driven at the school.

It was during my last laps of the first session that I really did see some pretty good drivers and among the more impressive cars on the track was a new Cadillac CTS-V. The picture above is of me maintaining my line through the turn before waiving him on to pass me. He was having fun and yet, was patient with me, the circuit newbie, and I caught up with him after the session to take a look at the set-up of his car. It proved to be anything but standard so next time out I would see if I could drop in behind him and watch his lines.

Walking back through the paddock following the download session I came across Brian. “I’ve just been schooled at the school,” he informed me. He had completed his download and he had been frank with his fellow drivers in admitting that he too was in learning mode. The circuit really was a new experience and sorting our way through the cones and concrete barriers had proved more difficult than any of us would admit. I asked him if I could join him for his next session and he readily extended an offer to me to strap into his passenger seat.

Each time I join Brian at a circuit I have not been to before, I try to hitch a ride early in the day. In the passenger seat I get to experience the track with a highly competent driver whose lines are usually spot-on and the education is something I take with me. I rarely match Brian’s speeds but just getting a look at the track in this fashion is priceless! Brian has anything but a standard Vette and with the suspension modifications, the wide-body kit with Hoosiers, and the Willwood big-brake kit, his ’08 coupe has become quite the track beast!

Returning to the paddock it was time for me to jump in the blue Vette and grid up for the start of the session. As I pulled back from my parking spot, Brian’s wife, Jan, called for me to stop. “Were these oil marks here when you pulled in or are they new?” Popping the hood we check the lines and couldn’t feel anything with moisture so I let the incident pass without further concerns. After all, it was only two months ago that I had the power steering pump, the water pump, and the oil line from the supercharger, where there had been some seepage, replaced. Everything up front in this part of the engine bay should be working just fine!

As the session opened I pulled onto the track with an older red Mazda RX7 behind me, but after getting a couple of laps under my belt I began to open up the car. I was becoming a lot more confident with the layout of the track and after two laps I could see I was easily pulling away from the Mazda. With 550+ rear-wheel horsepower this wasn’t surprising, even though getting it all down on the track was never easy to do. A quick check of the mirrors and there was the red Mazda right on my bumper! So, I knuckled down and concentrated and began to open up a small gap.

For whatever reason I looked back as I was negotiating the turns of the infield portion of the track and, with a gear change, I caught a puff of blue-white smoke from my exhaust. Another puff on the next gear change so up went my hand and into pit lane I pulled. The red car blew right past – it wasn’t the Mazda RX7 at all but a new Ferrari California, out for a little fun on the track. Slowing to negotiate my way through the paddock, I turned into my parking spot only for the engine to let go. Oil everywhere and as we lifted the hood, it was as though fountains had erupted! Buckets of kitty litter began arriving and all around thanked me for getting the Vette off the track.

Another weekend at the track, and another Saturday ending without a car to drive home. What was even worse, no Vette for Margo to drive Sunday. Again! I just couldn’t believe it, and as I sat alongside the car, dejected and wondering what next to do, I just had to let the car cool down before we could look for the cause. Pulling into one of the bays of the Corvette school, a quick check by the mechanic told a sad tale. A major seal in the supercharger had let go and it was terminal. I would have to get the Vette back to A&A Corvette Performance in Oxnard, for them to have Vortech check out the supercharger.

The picture above tells its own story. A local AAA flatbed trailer transported the Vette back to our hotel in Las Vegas and a U Haul truck and trailer provided us with transport back to Oxnard. It all happened so quickly. One minute I am matching it with a Ferrari and the next I’m standing alongside a mortally wounded Vette. Unfortunately, the Vette has been a little fragile of late, so the discussions with Andy at A&A focused on really taking a good hard look at the whole set-up.

Fortunately, a phone call a few days later told the story. The wrong hosepipe had been used for the oil return from the supercharger; it had crimped, restricting the flow of oil returning to the engine block and under the load that it experienced on the track, oil built up within the supercharger until the seal gave up!

As we steered the wounded Vette under the track on our way, even more narrow than it had appeared earlier that morning, and stood in the desert waiting for the AAA tow truck, if finally hit me. We will never mix track weekends with business again nor will we drive the car out of state – yes, there’s a trailer somewhere in our future, and we long for a nice comfortable RV with A/C and a rest room.

And yes, NASA Rocky Mountains looks increasingly as if it will become our new home … now, when is their next event?