Saturday, April 28, 2012

A tale of two reds …

When this title first came to me I immediately thought my readers would associate this headline with red wine, and while I am not averse to sampling a good red at any time, but given the season, it’s really a time when a man’s fancy turns to thoughts about the track. After suffering through innumerable snow storms and looing heavenwards for any signs that warm weather was imminent, pulling the car from the garage for the first time and prepping it for the track proved every bit as satisfying as tasting a better red wine!

Much has already been covered in previous postings of how, after many discussions, Margo and I elected to retire the big blue supercharged C6 Corvette in favor of our little red C5 Z06 ‘Vette. Having it assume the mantle of the garage queen this past decade did sit well with this car, I have to believe, so prepping it over the past couple of weeks provided a lot of fun. Out with the old clutch, transmission and differential fluids – still in original condition from when the ‘Vette rolled off the production line in 2003, replaced with quality fluids better able to sustain the heat that comes with track outings, and of course, on with a new set of tires. Conservative, mind you, as after talking to the technicians at TireRack we threw on a set of Bridgestone RE 706 sports, and we hope they can make it past mid-season.

The picture above is of the rig we took to High Plains Raceway (HPR), a still relatively new track, to the east of Denver. We spent several weekends at this track last year, so with a new car the thinking was that sorting it all out on familiar terrain would be a good start to the year. This would be my first time behind the wheel of this car on any track, and I was anxious to see just how well it stood up, as it was for all sakes and purposes, in stock, off-the-showroom floor, condition, and even a decade later an amazing testament to just how well put together this model of ‘Vette had proven to be.

Earlier plans to sell the C6 ‘Vette have been shelved for the time being. It desperately needs new tires, new brake rotors and pads, and a retune to better accommodate the properties of the much bigger De Witts radiator. It will also have to have its high-flow cats swapped out for the bigger factory units but I suspect, done properly, we will end up with a very inexpensive daily drive. However, all the talk about heading to the track in the red ‘Vette and of pushing the blue ‘Vette to the back of the garage, hit a nerve with our good friends, Brian and Jan, as shortly after we communicated our plans for a track day, they registered with NASA SoCal region for a weekend at Buttonwillow.

The picture above was taken from a similar vantage point, and is the other red, the more powerful and better handling C6 Coupe that Brian has refined to the point where it is a very serious track car and in the emails and text messages that followed, the enthusiasm of the Buckles had proved contagious with the Kenny household. It would prove to be a weekend where messages would be traded rapidly as we kept tabs on each other’s progress.

For us, perhaps the most significant change with switching to the C5 Z06 was the switch from an automatic transmission to a manual. Simply lifting on the automatic, on approach to a turn, and the C6 ‘Vette would change up a gear. Step on the gas, and all too often, the C6 ‘Vette would change down two gears – usually at a very inappropriate time – and the resultant torque delivery would break the rear end free. Furthermore, the final ratio was very small – 2.40:1, or thereabouts – and the big C6 ‘Vette would simply bog exiting the turn. Using the paddle shifts was even trickier, as the time-delay was so sizable that you would be pressing the peddle at 5,000 rpm simply hoping it all would happen, as the tachometer needle swung up to the 6,250 rpm mark. In the end, it proved to be all rather hit-and-miss and difficult to manage, to where consistency of any sort would result.

Margo and I would be splitting time, with Margo registered for the morning sessions while I would take the afternoon. The event was lightly attended, although the following days would be catering to an outing of the local region of the Porsche Owners Club, and early afternoon many more luxurious transporters did began to arrive. But with so few cars on track, the day wasn’t divided into sessions but rather, you could enter the track at any time, and stay on the track for as long as you liked. For Margo and me, however, we didn’t push past 30 minutes so this gave us the opportunity to be on track for four separate stints each.

While this was to be my first outing in the C5 Z06, this wasn’t the case for Margo. On the previous Sunday, Margo had registered with the NASA Rocky Mountain region to participate in their HPDE sessions at the Pikes Peak International Raceway (PPIR). A little over 100 miles due south of us, it called for a very early morning ”wake-up call”, but it was going to be the first time we took out our new Featherlite trailer, loading up the C5 Z06, and towing it behind our SUV – a shake-down trial for me with respect to making sure I had the tie-downs secured correctly, the right race ramps purchased to alleviate any painful front-end (of the ‘Vette) scraping, and in general, just to see if I could handle it all. And handle it all I was able to do, even as we drove through overnight snow as we passed through Colorado Springs.

The picture above was taken of Margo as she opened the session and took the green flag. The circuit at PPIR is similar in concept to what we have encountered in the past at The Auto Club track in Fontana, CA – it combined a portion of a banked NASCAR oval track with a road course made up of a series of short straights, sweepers and esses in the infield, that we now call a Roval configuration. For Margo, the time away from the track had been lengthy and for the most part, this had been my fault entirely. The times Margo had been left with a car with no useable tires, or brakes, or was simply no longer drivable have been well-documented in previous posts, so giving Margo the first track outing all to herself was just the beginning of the payback – and she enjoyed every minute of it.

The opening laps of the first session were tense but as the session wound down, Margo put in two or three really good laps and surprised her instructor, Scott. He was able to use this early accomplishment to help him encourage her to better come to terms with the track’s layout. Scott’s message was very simple and one we often overlook when turning up at a new track – visualize it all, and visualize it at the speed you would actually be driving the course. The second session built on the last laps of the first session and while there were still a few cobwebs and Margo was cautious with her choice of gears, there were still many encouraging signs that the choice in ‘Vettes would prove beneficial.

However, the chance to run all four HPDE sessions was cut short by the weather. As lunchtime came around, the wind had strengthened and the temperature had started to drop. Rain appeared in short bursts as a developing system began to gather strength in the mountains behind the track, and we overheard one instructor advising another group to pack up and head for the highway as there was now snow falling at Monument, just north of Colorado Springs where the summit passes through 7,000’. Not willing to chance our hand so early in the season, we packed up quickly and headed for home and sure enough, it was snowing at Monument, but there was still plenty of daylight and we completed the crossing with few anxious moments.

That was the previous Sunday and now it’s Friday and the weather had changed yet again. Calm winds with a thermometer pushing on upwards of 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 Celsius). The nice thing with HPR with open lapping days is that it is all self-managed, where the cooperation between drivers is extremely high. There was a Viper ACR on track with a driver gaining valuable seat time in preparation for the upcoming One-Lap-of-America that now included the HPR circuit as part of that week’s event. There were also massive V8 powered Indy cars from a bygone era that exhibited unbelievable levels of grip.

And there were a bevy of Porsches all working out the winter kinks prior to their event the following day. The other really nice thing is that it is one of the few chances I ever had to sit in the passenger seat while Margo drove – and it proved to be a really cool experience. Margo simply improved with every lap she drove, and she later thanked me for the absence of any hysterics during the sessions she was on track.

Margo picked up exactly where she had left off the Sunday before, and it was encouraging to see. With the time away from the track – almost two years – she wasn’t all that sure that the desire to do track days was still there. But sure enough, it all came back and the enjoyment factor reappeared as if it had never left. The picture above is of Hal and me, alongside his new Porsche 997 Turbo and in front of entertainment central, our new mobile command center. Hal was instrumental in us taking our cars to the track and has mentored us through the years – whether it’s a ride-along with instructional guidance or simply explaining what happened to us in an email exchange, Hal has always been available to help us out, and we both believe we are the better drivers for the effort he has put into helping us.

As Hal had only registered for the afternoon sessions, it gave me the opportunity to be on track with him and that’s always an experience in and of itself. It was during the second session where I came across him coming on track and as he was warming up his tires, I was able to pass the Porsche. For the remainder of the session, we played a little follow-the-leader, firstly with Hal behind me and then deeper into the session, with me behind Hal. And for a moment, it dawned on me – I was on track and keeping up with a very experienced and successful NASA American Iron pro racer. Wow!

Back in the paddock, I went up to Hal as he unclipped his helmet. “Did you see who was next to me?” Hal had taken the young son of a racer with him, and so I had a much clearer understanding of why we had been as close as we had to each other – he was running perhaps six tenths and here I was doing my very best to simply stay in touch. There’s still a very long way to go … “What did you think of Margo?” Hal had been quiet following Margo’s return to the pits so his response caught me a little off-guard. “She’s now more aggressive than she used to be; she needs to work on her gear change as the back kept stepping out – but she caught it every time and didn’t lift. She certainly has improved!” My last session ended early, as I overheated the transmission fluid and better-judgment ruled the day, but it had been a blast all the same.

What of the other red C6 ‘Vette? Brian and Jan were now ensconced at Buttonwillow and the picture above was of Brian relaxing, the BBQ about to be fired up, and an Apple-tini in hand. The car was off the trailer but clearly, from what can be seen in the background, NASA SoCal participants were already beginning to arrive. Brian would take to the track on Saturday, well after we had wrapped up our Friday sessions, but even with this bucolic scene, there were little signs of the excitement about to unfold. Track days are always an adventure, but at Buttonwillow, running the big course 13 clockwise, there were plenty of elevation changes, off-camber turns, and dips in braking zones to keep every driver tightly focused. At the first glance, this red ‘Vette may seem to be a handful on a circuit favoring momentum cars, but Brian is the measure of the track and always does well – P1, last session of the day, I heard whispered somewhere!

Brian is an experienced hand when it comes to driving an RV and towing a trailer with a track car on board. But for me, the trip out to HPR was just another shake-down trial as I continued to gain experience driving a rig that now stretched almost 60’. Passing other vehicles was certainly exciting and pulling in for gas or coffee, an adventure altogether of another kind, just pulling back onto the highway intact and with nothing fallen off was enough to bring a smile to our faces. And we have some big trips ahead of us.

The fun factor of being on track at HPR was so high that we have now reserved more time for later in May. Then a week or so after that we drive the full rig to Rosamond for a weekend at Willow Springs. The significance of this pre-Willow return to HPR is that there’s still a lot we both need to learn about driving our red ‘Vette. There’s no chance of any P1s with Margo and me behind the wheel – and we are still not prepared to run with a transponder. We are not racers, nor are we engaged for any reason other than to improve our driving skills. But there’s no hiding any more - the smiles across our faces each time we return to the paddock, and for that reason alone we have really warmed to little red!