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?