Sunday, May 1, 2011

Just got in to the Windy City …

Sitting on a rickety chair inside a shack that could just as easily be described as a man-cave, dotted as it was with pictures of mechanical paraphernalia typical of an old-school auto repair shop, I was trying to stay warm as I inched the chair closer to the wood-burning pot-belly stove that occupied pride-of-place in the center of the room. Looking out through the large windows, I could see the pavement of a race track, scaled-down from what I was used to driving, although it was easy to pick out the course elevation changes and tightly grouped turns – this was a circuit designed for Karts and we were a long way from our home in Boulder, Colorado. While the calendar told us it was Sunday, and it was April with spring only two weeks away, outside it had begun to snow; again!

It’s now a little warmer and three weeks have passed since that Sunday morning, just outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and we have just arrived at our hotel in Chicago. We have just checked in to the Westin hotel and our gracious hosts have upgraded us to a suite right on top of the river and the views across the water to familiar landmarks of Chicago are impressive. We elected to drive from Boulder to Chicago by way of Omaha and Davenport and spent Friday night enjoying dinner right on top of the Mississippi in full-flood as it rides-out the normal heavy run-off as spring snow melts several states away.

Sitting comfortably ensconced in our hotel room, now several thousand miles from the wine district of Northern California, it’s a lot easier retelling the story of how we managed to make it to the track for our first sessions of the season. The picture above is of Margo enjoying the view from the hotel window on a sunny, yet still breezy, Chicago afternoon.

It’s no coincidence, I believe, that when United airlines publishes in their magazine stories of three perfect days spent in one of the world’s finest cities, they nominate three days. In all the time I have spent in Chicago, I have to believe with this trip I am closing in on three perfect days; not quite there yet and definitely not with contiguous days – but if the breeze backs off a little from being a force 9 gale, we could get close! To having our third perfect day in Chicago!

It’s no coincidence either that often we just have to wait for fortunes to change. Sometime it’s just not going to happen the first time. Or even the second time. In that time of year when we shake free from winter to enjoy the early warmth of spring, it’s not unusual to have to wait, and this year, third time out was our lucky break! Trying to stay warm in that shack well to the north of our Boulder home, however, we thought we would never get the chance to unleash the big Vette and see how rusty our driving technique had become following almost five months away from the track!

Waking at our usual 4:30 am and prepping the Vette for the trip to Colorado’s High Plains Raceway (HPR) is always a lot of fun and routines have developed. We always pull into the local market at Bennet, the last township before we exit the freeway at Byers, to gas up the car and grab a Starbucks and this Sunday we followed the exact same routine. As we left the freeway at Byers however, and began the ten mile drive along highway 36 out to the track, the overcast skies and light rain that had been with us since we left out home turned ominous. With perhaps three miles to go, what we had first thought was residual hail stones, as we had experienced a brief hailstorm overnight, turned out to be snow. Cresting the last hill before we turned through the gates of the track, it was a full-on snow storm with several inches of accumulation on the road.

The big Vette has achieved much in its life with us but being an effective snow plow doesn’t rank among her finer moments! Of course, the entry road included a slight uphill gradient before we made it to the circuit’s gate that proved quite treacherous and as I began executing a u-turn, unaware of the narrow pavement hidden beneath the snow, dropped two tires into the mud. The only other accomplishment the Vette proved inept at doing was off-roading. Clearly stuck, with little evidence any other drivers were heading for the entrance gates, I let the Vette slide back down the hill until I could ease it over the lip of the pavement and back onto something more solid.

The picture above is of the HPR circuit in winter as the track descended to round “Danny’s Lesson”, a very tight turn that leads into the section of the track named “High Plains Drifter” that precedes a tight turn that drops you into the esses, a part of the track that’s called “To Hell on a Bobsled!” Today however, and as the picture clearly illustrates, there wasn’t a single feature we could recognize and as the track retains no snow removal equipment, it would not be reopening until warmer weather arrived to melt it away!

We had hoped to catch our good friend Hal and over a mid-morning breakfast of omelets and poached eggs back in Boulder, we finally connected with Hal. “Want to try another track up in Wyoming – the weather looks a lot better up there? It will be cold and windy but the weather seems to be holding!” Why not – so after having driven 150 miles in occasionally treacherous conditions, we made the 100 mile drive up to Wyoming!

We hadn’t realize it was a Kart track and after the rain we had to endure in Sonoma, and now the snow this weekend, standing as we were around the potbelly stove, we called it quits and made the best of the day by grabbing a late brunch with Hal back in Fort Collins. Would the third time out prove lucky? Could we finally spend a session or two out circulating in sunshine and on a clean track?

Two weeks later, and following the same early morning routine, we pulled through the gates and into the paddock. The track looked clean enough and there was sunshine. But it was bitterly cold and windy – just delightful for those attending but having to wait their turn before getting into the car and onto the track. The photo below is of Margo alongside Hal as the two head to the track late early in the afternoon.

Pulling onto the track for the very first time in 2011, I was nervous and as I discovered very quickly, rusty. The car was fine, but the brain needed a little more exercise! For the first two laps, I eased into the spirit of the day cautiously, aware that being in the fast group, there would be some experienced drivers and that we would all be watching each other. The Vette was running strongly, all gauge needles were pointing where they were supposed to, but on street tires and brake pads, I had to make adjustments when it came to braking and turning in. However, not quite quickly enough as on the third lap, passing the start/finish line, I braked too late and drove off the track; a couple of deep breaths later, I brought the car around the outside of the first turn and rejoined the field. Yes, I was rusty …

When it came time for the second session, Margo jumped into the passenger seat for a couple of laps to get a bit better orientation of what came when and what followed next! There’s never any substitute to taking a good look at the track and no matter how many words are used to describe the experience, they all fall way short of actually seeing it yourself. All went well and after lapping for five minutes, I pulled into the pits and let her out. By now, I was getting into the swing of things and I was really enjoying my time on the track, but all too quickly there came another wake-up call.

This time, it was at the crest of the section of track “Ladder to Heaven” that precedes the blind drop down through the “Prairie Corkscrew” where I was too late getting onto the brakes and in a move reminiscent of the infamous Laguna Seca move Alex Zanardi put on Bryan Hurta at Laguna Seca as they approached that track’s famous Corkscrew, I straight-lined through the outside of the turns and powered right back onto the track as it led to the last turn before the main straight. And pulled away from the two cars behind me much to the amusement of both of them! “New line through the corkscrew, eh Richard?”

Hal had arrived at the track and for the third session, followed me out onto the circuit. Over our brunch in Fort Collins a few weeks earlier, I had asked Hal to have a good look at how I drove this track and in particular, how I made use of the whole track, something I often forget to do. The session this time went without incident – a minor wobble or two – and I was tuned-in to what the tires and brakes were giving me and I drove accordingly. “You used all the track, you were changing gears where I thought you should, and consistently with each lap,” Hal said, nodding approvingly, “and you used all the track while you were making full use of the rumble-strips as you tracked out and I could see air under the tires at several points. Don’t track out any further – you’re not racing!”

Leaving the pits for the fourth and final session of the morning, I could see Hal was still in the paddock. Hal had brought the BMW 335i, and even with street tires and brakes, in Hal’s hands it was a highly capable vehicle. As this was my last time out, I pulled clear of a couple of cars and as I turned in for the tight radius corner before dropping down through the esses, I caught a quick glimpse of Hal midway along the back straight. Concentrating on what I was doing I still couldn’t help casting a quick glimpse over to the back straight and with each lap, I was pulling away a couple of car lengths at a time.

Driving conservatively as I am sure he was, if Hal had elected to put in a couple of quick laps in the BMW I am sure it would have been a completely different story but often it’s just little incidents like this that provide you with enough encouragement just to keep at it; returning to the paddock for the final time, much of the rustiness accumulated through the winter months now shaken lose, and I was quietly confident that I could improve significantly in the months to come.

Standing in the cold and wind for more than five hours had proved difficult for Margo. The track at HPR has nowhere to go to get away from the wind and while she was staying hydrated, the weather was sapping energy out of her with every hour that passed. When it came her turn to go onto the track, she just wasn’t “in the moment”, and overhearing the conversations between Hal and myself on tire wear and the minimal capabilities of street brakes, she returned from the track early. One small item that I had failed to convey to her was that powering down the back straight, drivers faced a fierce headwind so much so, that it was pushing the car around and as my speeds pushed through 100 mph and eventually as high as the mid 130’s, it was proving quite a handful!

As she complained bitterly about how poorly the car performed, following his own session Hal took Margo for a couple of laps in the Vette. “Runs fine,” was the response from Hal, “although you are ready for a big brake kit; it’s time you upgraded!” Little help for Margo who decided to call it a day; her energy was spent and she just wanted to get warm! It had taken three attempts and holding up under unpleasant conditions across a number of states, but we made it and our calendar of track weekends has officially started.

I finished the previous post with a reference to these upcoming lapping days at HPR and of how we relished the thought of paying it a visit. Even as I wanted an end to the wet weather we had faced all weekend long at Infineon, little did I expect to see snow and then bitterly cold winds! We have a weekend planned for Spring Mountain, just outside Las Vegas, and another circuit that will be new for both of us but this time, I am making no predictions about what to expect or what we hope to achieve. For sure, we will not be facing the same weather as we now have here in the windy city!

It could just as easily turn out to be three perfect days in the desert and yet, with all that we have gone through, who knows! Safer to hold off speculating about anything when it comes to track days and all we both hope for is a straight car that we can drive home – and a great steak dinner at Mastro’s in Thousand Oaks before we head up the California coast, taking the long way home!