Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's a wrap!

In winter the blue Corvette takes on a completely different persona. Pictured here, parked outside our neighborhood Starbucks, stripped of all the trappings of racing and bereft or any numbers, glass roof removed, it looks like any other daily drive.

But oh, how looks can be deceiving! With chrome wheels and road tires installed and nothing in the body work to detract from its “I’m just a coupe” demeanor, it rarely gets a second look. Yet what lies beneath remains so delightfully wicked and, at times, flat out scary!

After another year of taking it out onto the race tracks of Southern California and Colorado, of enjoying enumerable quick laps among the many friends we have gained, it’s time to look back at what’s transpired over the past twelve months and to take an early look into what may transpire in 2011.

This past year certainly proved memorable. In terms of the number of weekends spent on the track, 2011 represented a significant step up over either of the two prior years. When we first began participating in organized High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) events we envisioned participating in no more than five or six events a year, but in 2011 we somehow managed to squeeze in ten. Not just in California or Colorado, but enjoying our first adventure into the world at large, and savoring one of Europe’s best known venues – the north loop at Nurburgring!

The picture of the Vette outside the Wood Ranch Starbucks in Simi Valley is appropriate for many reasons. It’s where our friendship with Brian and Jan developed and where in time, fellow coffee lovers Mark, Kevin, Ken, Dan, and Bill became friends – simple Monday morning stories about the weekend’s adventures tended to generate increased levels of interest as the months unfolded. On one occasion we had the pleasure of having Mark and Kevin spend a day with us and I have to believe, it will not take all that much before Kevin finds a way to join us on the track!

But the Vette being parked outside Starbucks is significant for one other reason. Over coffee with Brian, while Margo was out running errands, I emailed her for insight into how she felt about the program for 2010 and the many weekends spent trackside. While it wasn’t completely unexpected, her response nonetheless, contained a number of gems that I have to admit accurately summed-up our various achievements and yet, on reflection, confirmed for me that in the end, this is just a recreational pastime, a hobby, a practical distraction from all that happens during a busy work week. For us, this is not the start of a new career or our entrance into a new lifestyle but rather, pure escapism!

The paradox - how to improve while not damaging the car!

The starting point for Margo, as she responded to my email, was the simple observation “I have respect for all property and I have never believed that cars grow on trees, so when I observed my husband, in my car, headed very rapidly towards a wall, my reaction was ‘not my car!!!!!’”.

In the same sentence, Margo then added “going off the track is irresponsible, in my opinion, as it indicates to me that the driver cares more about impressing folks, who do not really get impressed anyway, than about the well-being of the car!” On this point, of course, I tend to disagree as I point out that anytime a car is taken out onto a track, there’s always an element of danger and that there’s simply no way to participate and to improve without the occasional “agricultural detour” as our friends Hal and Kim called these “offs” and there is always an element of danger to the driver, as well as the car.

Of the many pursuits we could have taken up, the very process of learning and acquiring skills, of figuring out where to brake and where to turn, brings with it a measure of risk that can never be eliminated if the participant truly wants to develop as a driver.

Retaining at least a modicum of humor, as well as reflecting on her central European heritage, Margo then finished with “never believed that cars grow on trees? That could imply that I believe husbands grow on trees ... Hmmm, where I come from it sure was indefinitely easier to get a husband (or two) than to get a good car!”

The price of today’s recreations!

It was a natural development out of her initial observations that Margo would then raise the subject of costs – not with respect to repairing a damaged car, but rather, the cost of just getting the car back into track condition after each event. “There’s a sad realization that being on the track ruins the car; so much so that on several occasions the car became un-drivable after just one day, leaving me with no chance to enjoy the second day,” Margo reflected.

And yet there she was, as the weekend wrapped-up, not just disappointed at having not been able to drive fast, but counting the cost as well. “I sure had to pay for the repairs every time, as we had to put the car back on the road – it’s my daily drive after all; and that does not feel all that fair in retrospect!”

Wear and tear proved costly during 2010 and many of the blog postings addressed situations where brakes had been worn down to nothing and where tires ceased to be up to the job of keeping the car on the track. And then there were the “surprise fluids”, like that used with power steering that simply couldn’t take the additional stresses and in failing, created much more havoc under the hood than we could ever have suspected.

Ten outings and the cost is still being tabulated; but as I watched the figures scroll up the screen, I know that this is going to finish up being way more expensive than I had ever contemplated when I had first given consideration to this pastime!

The emergence of the “social racer”!

The news isn’t all negative and the remaining observations by Margo weren’t as bleak as her opening lines. “I believe I have accomplished what I set out to do - I am feeling comfortable to join friends at a track event, and as may be the case with those who ski, I am now quite happy to be a ‘social racer’ just as they are ‘social skiers’”.

For Margo and me, with our roots far removed from the America we enjoy so much, the thought of being able to take our car to a race track for the weekend was inconceivable. Just the thought of having a car in the garage that had been bought purely for fun, is so far removed from anything we could have expected in our youth, that we often overlook the accomplishments we have made.

Cars represented a means of transportation and while some models gained our attention as we checked them out, as teenagers it never occurred to either of us that we would be given the opportunity to simply drive them as fast as we could. It still gives us cause to smile and we often remind ourselves that one day, one authority or another, will wake up to what we are doing, and take away our privileges!

However, among all the excitement these weekends have generated, Margo did add that she was “not prepared to go to every event that is on offer from every club in 2011; perhaps three or four events a year is about all I now want to do”. Regaining her sense of humor she then slipped in how she still has a need to develop an acceptable game of golf, just as she enjoys picnics in the wine country!” She also made a New Year resolution to see her Daughter more frequently!

Focus! Focus! Focus!

When we first took to the track, back in 2008, fear was the dominant emotion. After a session of only six or seven laps, it took every ounce of energy we could muster just to climb out of the car. A bottle of water or sports drink later, and we still were shaking from the experience. As raw rookies, those early weekends were ones of survival where primal instincts kicked in and adrenalin pumped unabated through our bodies.

But familiarity proved to be not just a plus, but a thief – stealing our attention the more we circulated a track. Familiarity gradually saw us develop better technique and helped us become smooth, but it also tricked us into letting our minds return to more mundane pursuits!

“Being distracted and not concentrating - what a difference!” Margo would often return from a track outing and grab her PDA, anxious about an ongoing problem with her work. And at times like these, her on-track performance suffered noticeably.

“While thinking of stuff when driving around the track, as I sometimes did,” Margo wrote, “I could not remember the sequence of corners even if my life kind of depended on it!” However, there were some good times where “on those occasions when I did concentrate, the results were so much better!”

It was common knowledge to all those who drove in her group, don’t worry about her first session of the day as it will be slow; and as for the first two laps of the remaining sessions, she will be waiving everyone else past as she looks for a clear track. The results at the end of the day however showed significant improvement, and this year saw Margo not only drive with a more advanced group where there was passing everywhere on the track, but she completed five laps of the Nurburgring during a closed track day, where manufacturers had brought developmental race cars to the circuit!

Going Fast! Having Fun!

It’s the well-known mantra of the clubs we join for these weekends; what are we here to do? Drive fast! Have fun, and to do so, in a safe, well managed, environment. This year, we have really come to understand this message and with each event, we have eagerly anticipated the weekend’s arrival!

Our protocol for weekends at the track evolved considerably and perhaps, it was this process that led to Margo’s earlier observations. We began trailering the Vette to events and we switched to a stickier tire – running most of the year on Toyo R888s with considerable success. Brake pads had been upgraded to Hawk HP+ a little earlier, and we had added ducting to direct airflow to the front brake rotors which really helped extend the life of the rotors.

But with more frequent appearances at the tracks, we began to recognize more of the participants and we began to feel more at ease with the officials and the other participants. 2010 can perhaps be best considered as the year Margo and I made real progress, became more at ease behind the wheel, saw considerable and indeed consistent improvement in our lap times (even as they were hand-timed by others who watched us both), and developed many new friendships.

“The social aspect of track events and making friends - yes, I enjoyed it,” Margo closed out her email. She then suggested that “whatever we do and wherever we go, we meet people that share our interests whether it’s cars, or golf, or skiing, or simply reading books and enjoying a bottle of good wine! Each group may seem different at first yet, in many instances, the friends I now have share more than one of my interests!”

There will be real challenges ahead and we will shortly be changing gear and beginning our preparations for 2011. But already the plans we had first laid out appear to be in flux as business travel and work commitments are shutting down our options. It’s increasingly apparent that Margo’s initial musings on doing perhaps just three, maybe four, events a year will come to fruition.

No matter, there’s still weeks to go and we will put a program together of one kind or another and yes, the big Vette will remain our track car and, in time, will be plastered with numbers and decals once again! We may enjoy the social aspects of these weekends but also there’s still that huge adrenalin rush every time we fire up the car and perhaps, just for that reason alone, you may come across us at one track or the other so do come on by, take a little time out, as we will surely enjoy your friendship!