Sunday, December 25, 2011

Memories? Fuggedaboutit!

It’s time to look back at what transpired in 2011. While returning to living full time in Boulder, CO, was definitely the highlight of 2011, when it came to adventures on the track and the fun we had behind the wheel, unfortunately, the needle was firmly planted in the other direction. The year 2011 had to have been the worst of years. But then again, if learning to drive quickly and safely on a race track was easy to do, America’s many road circuits would be full of participants every weekend!

The picture above is of the 70’s era Pontiac Trans-Am I purchased for US$2,000 shortly after arriving in America. For the third time! Yes, I had spent several months in 1977 living in Dallas, Texas, where I rented a Pontiac Grand Prix for the duration of my stay, and when I returned in 1986 I had bought a used Pontiac Grand Prix for US$2,000 that I kept for all of that year. If I am residing in America, it would seem then, there will be a GM car in the driveway. And yet, I still harbored feelings for my most memorable possession of my youth, a Holden Torana SLR5000 - a lightweight sedan with a five liter V8 shoe-horned beneath the hood –I was forced to sell it before making that first trip to America.

The point here is that loyalties run strong through Australian families – yes, my father only owned Holdens – and this is not unlike what I have observed among families here in America. But if you had any second thoughts of how strong this emotion ran across Australian families then check the video (voiced by Russell Crowe) that was filmed prior to the start of the 2010 Great Race – the Bathurst 1000: What stands out in two quotes coming from Crowe – neither I suspect original, but catchy nonetheless.

The first quote, reflecting the gulf that separates the fans of GM from those who support Ford, has Crowe observing that “it’s tribal … there’s only red and blue on the mountain; there’s no beige!” The second quote, about the history of the event, hits a lot closer to home as Crowe reflects on how “reality will prove a harsh mistress!”

For many of years you could lap the circuit at a reasonable, safe, speed (of course in the early hours of Sunday morning, when the track was still open to the general public) and wave to the gathering crowd – something I was able to do back in October, 1975. Yes, I have done a lap of the old course at Bathurst and anyone looking at the back window of our blue C6 ‘Vette will not miss the decal from the Mount Panorama circuit right alongside the one depicting the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

GM has been the manufacturer of choice for me for so many years and it should come as no surprise that for the past four years, as I have been a student of road courses, it has been behind the wheel of a sixth series Corvette coupe – affectionately known to all who own them as the C6 Vette. It was two years ago (the second year as a student) that I thought I was making progress, a circumstance that was confirmed as I progressed from NASA HPDE 1 classification and into HPDE 2. And it was only last year where I squeezed in ten weekends of track time and where I really thought I was making progress, even if I did continue to struggle to sustain my concentration for the duration of each session.

Yes, if it truly was easy then everyone would be doing it, no matter the age or gender. Maintaining the necessary levels of concentration any road circuit demands for anything more than 20 minutes remains a challenge for all of us, save that selected few who test themselves in endurance races. It was during my last outing in the ‘Vette at High Plains Raceway (HPR) when, following a really big “agricultural excursion”, I calmed down, checked out the car, and proceeded to lay down laps for just over 40 minutes.

And the level of exhaustion that followed wiped me for the rest of the day. Save for one late-afternoon 20 minute session, I was done! However, the chance to be able to lay down as many laps as I did that day at HPR - at a reduced pace so that I could take a really good look at the track - gave me the chance to hit my braking and turn-in points consistently (while tracking all the way out as I made use of all of the track), so much so that this overcame much of the frustration that had developed through the year.

There are no more intense moments than when on the grid waiting to be flagged onto a hot track. While this is not a racing session and the cars are lined up based on experience and observed skill levels, all the same the tension is palpable. This was filmed last year when at Willow Springs, and while the camera focused on me initially, as it pans back through the grid, you will catch a glimpse of our good friend, Brian Kenny, in his red Vette behind two other cars, well to the right of the grid – and that was where you found the better drivers. On the extreme right, as I found myself, well… that needs no further commentary!

Readers may recall the first planned event of the year was sidelined after I found oil dripping from the ‘Vette only three days before it was to be driven to Infineon. And then snow closed the track at HPR for our first local outing. The much anticipated run at Spring Mountain Motorsport Ranch came to an abrupt halt early in the second session of the first day as a supercharger seal let go. Only a few weeks later I messed up badly with my first outing of the year with the NASA Rocky Mountain region, bringing down the wrath of the organizers in only my first session of the day – so much so that I only ran two more sessions before calling it quits. My final outings at HPR were marred by a suspension that had clearly given up, and where those driving with me remarked of how the car looked like an old dog lifting a hind leg in order to relive itself.

If it had been a bad year for me then it was considerable worse for Margo. I gave her very little opportunity to be on track. In looking back at the year I recall her behind the wheel of the ‘Vette on only one occasion and that was for only a few laps before the lack of any working suspension saw her abandoning the session. Now she is adamant that in 2012 she will be the first driver out each and every weekend, and that it will be my time to watch from the bleachers! Indeed, it may be the second day before I ever get behind the wheel!

But the year did have some bright moments as we continued to enjoy our friendship with Brian and Jan Kenny. Yet again, they came across to Boulder to join us for a weekend at HPR, and even though they had the opportunity to be behind the wheel of our Viper SRT/10 – I know Brian is anxious to return with his own C6 Vette, more than capable car that should excel on this track. Next year I am sure we will see their red ‘Vette on a trailer behind their new diesel truck! And yes, before I forget, their grandson, Colton Herta, won his Kart series championship, again, and congratulations are in order for him achieving this where not everything had gone his way.

Flipping through the pages of the December 2011 issue of Road and Track I came across an opinions column written by former F1 champion, Emerson Fittipaldi. I wasn’t surprised in the least as I read of how, when he offers “advice, I tell aspiring racers several key points. First, they must have passion and dedication and also be prepared for frustration, because that’s part of motorsports”. Jeeze Emmo, who would have guessed! Frustrations are all part of the deal? No kidding!

However with the time I did spend on the track, even as I knew the ‘Vette had its faults, I found my style of driving changing through the year. At many of the tracks the course simply winds across a featureless landscape. True, there are a few fixed landmarks that can help, but for the most part these tracks are simply laid in fields with only marginal elevation changes. Whenever I come back to driver meetings there are always those who ask the instructors to show them the racing line and to tell them what to look for before turning in and I have found the information provided only of marginal use.

The big ‘Vette, even now with 560 rear wheel horsepower being delivered through a very low final drive – something like 2.4:1, has little grunt when it comes to leaving corners. It’s all I can do to try and manage the throttle so that I can have something left to carry me into the following straights. The video clip above is from happier times as I run down the main straight at Willow Springs.

The ‘Vette is an automatic, but with paddles that are slow to acknowledge driver inputs – a tug on a paddle often needs a full second before anything happens. Trying to punch a shift with the paddles at 6,000 rpm will not cut it – rather, I have to time it such that as the revs build and swing through 5,250 I flip the paddle in order to execute a gear change before the rev limiter cuts in around 6250 rpm. In other words, I’m making a lot of adjustments as I try to keep the car running smoothly.

“You are driving this torque beast as if it were a momentum car,” was the puzzled response early this year, and in effect I was. And just as importantly, it wasn’t the landmarks and terrain changes that I was looking for to determine my brake and turn-in points, but rather getting a sense of rhythm going where I felt I wasn’t upsetting the ‘Vette too much. Markers were fine, but for me, I was more determined on keeping my eyes focused a lot further down the track and trying to just let the car find an optimal way around the track.

Imagine my surprise when I came across a passage in the book by Garth Stein “The art of racing in the rain” where the dog, Enzo, describes how his master, Denny, tells him of how “’I’m finding my visuals,’ he explained to me. ‘Turn-in points, braking. Some guys drive more by feel. They get in a rhythm and trust it. But I’m very visual. It makes me feel comfortable to have references.” Yes, I can relate to this in every sense, and in a way sighed with relief as I read these few short sentences.

I am taking with me, though, much to reflect upon over the winter months. Not just that I am a driver more comfortable with developing a feel for circuits than simply responding to an ever-changing landscape dotted with potentially multiple markers, but for me, and just as importantly, a stronger connection to those driving with me on the track. There was one instance where a driver turned up in his wife’s Infiniti sedan, as I recall, who after only one session declared “I’ve found my boat!” - it was a reference to an earlier remark he had made on his wife’s advice that he takes up fishing or something similar in his retirement.

There was another time where a driver brought his brand new BMW Z4 coupe, the latest model, and never having been on any track came up to me and asked if he could ride along to get a sense of the track “this is all new to me!” By lunchtime of that same day, I was finding it difficult to simply stay with that Z4 – not a young driver by any stretch of the imagination, but definitely someone who figured things out pretty quickly.

The camaraderie that develops in the paddock is unmistakable and there are plenty of times where wrenches are borrowed and bottles of water provided freely. For me, it’s always exciting to return to your spot in the paddock and to share your experience with those nearby. Yes, the year was so frustrating for me and there were times where my neighbors were content to leave me well enough alone. Leaving any track early, and in the passenger seat of a tow truck, needs no further explanations.

And so it was interesting to read Peter Egan’s observations in that same issue of Road and Track. “There’s something about a track session that simply energizes people and leaves them with a strange, lingering high. You can see it after any (session) - a group of drivers standing around talking a little faster than usual in a high state of animation.” Throw in the relief that comes with still being in one piece and with a car that can still be driven and you have a pretty good image of what weekends at the track feel like. All of this was nicely captured in the video above another good piece of cameraman-ship from our friend from Simi Valley, Mark MacWhirter, who was also responsible for the other two clips.
I was so disappointed with myself this year. And I was more than a little upset to have the ‘Vette sidelined as often as it was – looking through the pictures I used in the posts for 2011 there’s more than one snapshot of the car in the garage, up a lift, with one piece or another lying on the floor. In the picture above, the ‘Vettes are lined up in front of the house with the blue ‘Vette looking better than it has in some time. I have always been a GM fan and my association with Pontiacs, Chevies and Holdens has spanned multiple decades. However, with snow falling and pictures of cars all around me, I am ending the year with thoughts only of what will be our plans for 2012. It surely couldn’t be any worse and hopefully, with a little luck, it may actually be a whole lot better.

Very early in Stein’s book, “The art of racing in the rain”, he makes the observation through the eyes of his dog, Enzo, “balance, anticipation, patience. These are all vital. Peripheral vision, seeing things you’ve never seen before. Kinesthetic sensation, driving by the seat of the pants. But what I’ve always liked best is when (Denny) talks about having no memory. Good or bad. No memory is time folding back on itself. To remember is to disengage from the present. In order to reach any kind of success in automobile racing, a driver must never remember.”

And perhaps with this, there’s no better way to close the chapter on the year that was 2011. Already it’s a distant blur and I seem unable to recall the specifics all that well. Maybe that’s just how it is meant to be – on to a great 2012!