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!