Friday, April 8, 2011

Follow or spin!

It’s raining heavily and there are rivers flowing across the circuit, with several pools collecting in all the wrong places. We are looking out across Infineon Raceway, formerly Sears Point, and there’s a major pond, Sonoma Lake, across the approach to the back straight and everywhere there are chunks of turf littering the track, evidence of where participants have spun and left the track! Yes, the weather puts a whole different spin on track weekends!

The forecast had been for a wet weekend at Infineon but all the same, looking at weather maps and watching brightly colored circles move across the charts didn’t fully prepare us for what we were now encountering. Driving cautiously that Friday afternoon, as we picked our way around the pools of standing water scattered around the paddock behind the grandstands, was depressing and yet, the sound of cars accelerating past the start-finish line reminded us that track weekends were held in all weather conditions. Adapting to what we found on the track was all part of the program.

The picture at the top of the page is of the view across the circuit looking drab under the clouds that just kept coming in all that weekend! We have history with this track even though we hadn’t driven a lap. It was at a NASA Northern California event, back in 2008, that we first showed our faces at a circuit. The invitation to take a look and experience a weekend of events was extended to us by our good friend, Hal, an extremely competitive racer in the American Iron series and simply hanging around the trailer for a day and a half had us hooked!

When we first went through the calendar of events for 2011 we immediately penciled in this event’s dates. And we were quick to register as soon as the web site began to accept registrations. Part of what we planned to do for 2011 was to experience a couple of new tracks – we had long ago foregone any pretentions to being real race car drivers and were simply looking forward to taking in the atmosphere of circuits we wanted to say we had driven!

Our good friends Brian and Jan had arrived a little ahead of us and had set up the RV that would be the headquarters for Kenny’s Corvettes! We welcomed the invitation to spend the weekend in the RV as the road conditions outside the circuit weren’t any better and drivers’ encountered difficulties with the roads all weekend – many missing briefings early Sunday morning as trees had come down during Saturday night. The picture below is of the paddock, early Saturday morning, as cars began to occupy every spare patch of black-top.

As for the team Pyalla Technologies Corvettes, we would not be participating as drivers. With all the planning that we did, our plans for the weekend deteriorated as I pulled the Vette out of the garage early Wednesday morning. There in the middle of the garage where the Vette had stood was a very thin oval stain that felt ominously greasy to the touch.

An urgent dash to the local dealer proved that there was a leak and that it was terminal. Pulling the front right suspension off the car revealed seals leaking around the power steering pump, small ruptures in a couple of the hoses passing oil from the crank to the supercharger and yes, the water pump was also leaking. Parts would be required and the best guess at when we would get the Vette back were for later the following week!

Left with no track car, as well as our ride to Sonoma, we reluctantly transferred our belongings to the All-Wheel-Drive Datsun Skyline we occasionally take trackside and headed into the mountains for the two-day trip to the coast. Bitterly disappointed, it proved to be a very quiet trip!
Walking the paddock with Brian late Friday, having seen the water pooling on the circuit, the unmistakable exhaust note of a big Corvette shattered the relative peace of the afternoon. Sure enough, it was Terry Free and the Corvette he has campaigned for a couple of years. Pushed out of the garage, it was about to head out onto the track. With his spotters seated high in the stands, where we had all gathered, it wasn’t hard to miss the conversations!

“There’s a river flowing across the track as you turn in under the bridge following turn 1; there are slippery surfaces as you go through turn 4 and head for the carousel; and where turn 9 should be there’s a lake!” The picture below is of Terry at speed on the main straight. Terry has given us a lot of his time as an instructor. As competitive as Terry is, and despite the focus he needs for his own events, it’s not uncommon to see Terry heading to the pre-grid of a lowly novice event where inexperienced drivers await instructors.

Terry was in a class of his own for the weekend. He was the only participant of his group to show for the weekend event and as he chalked up two wins, he would be heading to the nationals later in the year. Not a bad weekend, and as he walked from the garage for the last time, he couldn’t hide how pleased he was walking from a car that was still in one piece!

In the lead up to the weekend, NASA had been in touch with us and we knew our instructor would be Mike DiGiacomo, another Corvette driver who participated in Time Trial events. Of course Mike was disappointed to see us without a car, but quickly consented to taking us both out for a couple of sessions to get better acquainted with the track.

In the first briefing session of the morning, the chief instructor bemusedly noted how today, with the weather as it was, “even the drivers with momentum cars of only 100 horsepower get to experience what it’s like driving a 1,000 horsepower car in the dry! And yes, the high torque cars have to be driven as smoothly as any top flight momentum car. The rain is a great equalizer!”

Mike invited me to join him for a session with the HPDE / TT group, but even for Mike the tire set-up he had for the weekend was unable to cope with the conditions and after a few laps we headed back to the paddock. As I strapped myself, tightly, into the passenger seat of Mike’s C5 Z06 Corvette, I wasn’t sure what to expect as cars continued to leave the track and the sight of the tow truck, lights flashing, heading onto the track became a routine we lived with for the rest of the weekend.

Apart from staying on the track, as Mike pointed out, driving in the rain is an opportunity to smooth out your lines as the speeds are significantly lower and there’s more time to take in the surroundings. “Don’t stray onto painted surfaces such as can be found on brightly colored rumble strips,” he pointed out and at Infineon, “don’t late break or suddenly accelerate but rather, apply progressive, gradual braking before lifting quickly and easing onto the gas pedal just as smoothly – no ‘sudden anything!’”

“Work on just one aspect of your driving – take the extra time to try to sort out one area of the track that’s been a problem in the past!” Mike then pointed to the track surface and advised “look for different pavement ‘patches,’ those fresh, darker colored strips applied to fill in holes – they have different adhesion characteristics and today, the racing line has two important corners with patches in critical areas. Avoid them; find a different line, otherwise spinning becomes inevitable!”

Only a few garages down from Terry was our good friend Mike, campaigning his Camaro, “Plum Crazy” in the Camaro Mustang Challenge (CMC) events and working as hard as Terry had been to accumulate enough points to make it to the nationals this summer. As we had seen last time out, Mike had brought the family and when it came time for the first race, Mike and the family were hopeful that he would do well, despite the conditions.

The picture above is of Mike getting a great start. At the first flutter of the green flag, Mike really jumped on it and pulled away from the other contestants as they went through turn 1, under the bridge and up the steep climb to turns 2 and 3, a sequence that briefly took him out of view. Cresting the rise before the drop into the carousel, Mike was a clear leader and the distance separating him from the other drivers had opened up significantly. Apparently out of sight, the second placed car had left the track and in so doing, had slowed the cars behind him.

For the remainder of the race, Mike put on a good show holding off the rest of the pack before taking the checkered flag. One race down and one win! And the car was in the garage, undamaged, as “straight” as when it had left less than an hour earlier.

When it came time to race Sunday afternoon, Mike once again led for a number of laps before the second placed car, a Mustang, put on an overtaking move up the hill into turn 2 that brought the small crowd to their feet. With one win already, Mike settled in and held on firmly to take second place and enough points to qualify for the nationals!

Sunday had seen the conditions deteriorate further as overnight wind gusts had knocked out all power to the track – the officials in the control tower, the scorers manning timing stations, the cafĂ© and shops, all powerless! Of course, somehow I managed to sleep through it all – but stepping out of the RV, the evidence of the gusty conditions overnight could be seen throughout the paddock!

The rain was a great equalizer. It wasn’t just a case of the smaller cars behaving as if they were more powerful or that staying clear of the racing line was a prudent decision to take, but that the conditions were the same for everyone who ventured onto the circuit. It was obvious that it was an unlikely venue to see dramatic door to door racing; bringing a car back to the pits in one piece was celebration enough!

Our host Brian had brought his Corvette to the event on Michelin street tires, opting to put aside the set of racing wheels and tires he normally installs. Slightly narrower, and with a better groove pattern, even so, there were moments when a certain uneasiness with what was happening kept the adrenalin flowing free and fast! The picture below was taken late Saturday afternoon, as the sun made a brief appearance but even so, the water on the track is clearly visible.

In one of the early sessions Saturday I had the opportunity to ride with Brian and it took every ounce of restraint for me not to become fully engaged as a back-seat driver. Having driven around the Nurburgring “north loop” with Brian in equally poor conditions as we faced at Infineon, I knew full well how appreciative Brian was of unwarranted coaching! All the same, it wasn’t easy being a passenger!

I was in the passenger seat for one of the more exciting moments. Having sat behind an Audi A3 “Quattro” and a Porsche Turbo for several laps, the Audi finally gave Brian a point by. Disposing with the Audi, with minimum fuss, we came upon the Porsche in battle with another driver using the entire track. Coming down the main straight, the Porsche pulled out and Brian followed, but rather than moving off the line the Porsche stayed out, with Brian on the outside of him – both cars well to the right as they passed the braking zone before turn 1 for the pull up the hill and under the bridge.

The track had been drying and the right side, as far out as Brian found himself, was an unknown environment, but he stayed with the outside line as both of us begun to inhale noticeably, and eventually managed to squeeze out enough track to complete the pass. As we exhaled appreciatively, I caught a wry smile on Brian’s face – we made it!

As the skies darkened late Sunday, very few drivers remained for the final sessions. In the receding light Brian’s Corvette returned to the trailer and we both headed for the exit. We had business commitments that night that would see us remain in the Bay area for a short time, and little did we realize what lay ahead on the trip back to Boulder.

The last we saw of Brian and Jan and the RV was as we left the circuit and their return trip proved uneventful. On the other hand, no sooner than we had passed Auburn, east of Sacramento, the snow began to fall. By the time we had reached the summit, we were in the middle of a full-scale blizzard that had caught the weather forecasters, as well as the California Highway Patrol, by surprise. Even with its very capable AWD system, the Skyline was still shod with summer tires and the conditions created some very tense moments.

As we lay stuck in stalled traffic just the other side of Truckee, all we could think about was the “what if’s!” What if we had stayed longer in the Bay? What if we had trailered the Vette as we had done for most of last year? What if we had driven the Vette on summer tires – all 650+ horsepower! What if we left this late night madness and grabbed a hotel for the night!

When Brian returned from his first outing in the rain he had suggested that today, with the level of comfort he had on the track, it was going to be a case of “follow me, or spin!” When we heard that the lanes were all blocked as tractor-trailer rigs had spun passing each other, which sealed it as we peeled off the interstate and rode out the night!

The final picture above is of us outside Reno, putting gas into the Skyline; with sunshine in abundance. In no time at all our thoughts took us to what we could expect to see in Boulder and to when we could pick up the Vette. After all, there was an open lapping day coming up in April at the local track, High Plains Raceway, just east of Denver, and we knew we just had to pay a visit! Enough of this wet weather and enough of sliding in the snow, and let’s get the season started!