Sunday, September 23, 2012

It’s a Friday kind of Monday …

August nights may indeed be hot, but as I observed when closing the previous post, fall is on its way and with the arrival of September we certainly have enjoyed more variety in temperate conditions. And yes, last week, it rained, and heavily at times, but above 10,000 feet there was just a dusting of snow that still could be seen through the weekend. However, we still had one more outing in August and this time, it would be the last Monday of the month – a first for us, as we had never before ventured to the track on days other than Friday, Saturday and occasionally, Sunday. And the picture above is of us at High Plains Raceway (HPR) getting ready to head onto the circuit even as the heat began to make its presence felt.

Margo is working very hard on an event she manages for a non-profit association. As the Chief Meetings Officer (within associations, they avoid the title Chief Events Officer for very obvious reasons – the CEO role being otherwise filled), Margo is responsible for pulling a program together and ensuring that it is properly (and aggressively) promoted, and the weekend had seen Margo working the phones pretty heavily, almost to the point of exhaustion. Heading for the track, I already knew the symptoms but sure enough, once we had set up base camp and unloaded the Pyalla Technologies “Track Days” command center, Margo called it quits for the day. Whereas in all previous outings Margo had run four sessions in the morning before handing the car over to me for four (but usually only three) sessions in the afternoon, I would be in the car all day.

Well, almost all previous outings we had split the day in half, but the very last time out it had been all Margo. Readers may recall how I wasn’t able to be on track the last time out with NASA Rocky Mountains (all my own doing, mind you) and of how Margo had all day Friday and Saturday behind the wheel – some nine or ten sessions, as I recall, over the two days we were trackside – so letting me have as much time on track as I wanted was certainly a situation I was going to take every opportunity to enjoy!

There’s now no question at all about our choice of Corvettes when it comes to a track outing – the older 2003 C5 Z06 that has stood in our garage for more than eight years has proved to be the hands down winner in our books. The C5 Z06 runs so hard all day yet there’s been so little to worry about. Margo had encountered some abnormalities with the clutch last time out, and readers may recall how I had observed that I am going to have to do something about the clutch fluids – it’s just so hot out on the track, and being left without a gear is never a nice experience. Well our good friends at the Corvette Spa changed out the fluid and upgraded to one with a tolerance for much higher temperatures and that seems to have resolved the issue.

We still have a reoccurring issue with the transmission fluids overheating but that will be something we address more cautiously, as it is a well-known issue for C5 Z06s, but it’s also one that is easily resolved – just back off for a couple of laps and wait for the warning light to go out! Will we add a transmission cooler at some point or work on the ducting to ensure better airflow – do the rear brakes really need their ducts? For the moment, this issue is just a discussion point and with cooler temperatures on the way, I suspect we will be fine with what we have. The picture above is of me adding gas to the tank – there are times where I sure do think about the benefits of owning a hybrid as we go through two tanks of gas for each of the days we are on track for more than six sessions.

Fluids upgraded. Brake rotors and pads upgraded. And new tires installed at the start of the year. Yes, it’s the usual, as the immediate priority is grip and being able to stop. The C5 Z06 has more than adequate torque and horsepower for circuits like HPR – yes, I am routinely passed by more experienced drivers in cars more powerful than the red ‘Vette, but for the most part, I have watched my lap times come down to where the magical 2 minute mark is in sight. I don’t have a transponder on the car and I am not participating in any timed events, as I am simply enjoying the High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) experience, but others with me that are timing their cars or filming each lap have started sharing with me heir times and when I am behind them the whole way, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate.

While chatting with other participants I joined in a conversation between a new, first-time attendee who had brought his new Corvette ZR1 – essentially an earthbound rocket of the first order. This is one very serious car and a contender for the fastest lap honors when it comes to flying laps of the Nurburgring, only recently relinquishing the title to final iteration of the Generation IV Viper ACR. But this time around the astute owner brought an instructor with him (complete with the instructor’s C6 Z06), and during the conversation, this instructor made a very pertinent observation. “Gaining seat time and practicing is fine but only up to a point,” he remarked. “Every morning, I sing in the shower but I am as flat as a tack and no matter the practice, I don’t improve. The point with track time is that practice is only of value once you come to recognize the correct way around the track and for the casual, open-lap-day participant, it’s not always obvious whether they even know what the proper line is!”

I took this all to heart and began to rethink my own approach to the track. Cemented firmly in my mind is the mantra “late apex, safety” and yet, the more I looked at my approach the more I came to realize that in apexing as late as I was doing, I was unsettling the car with more extreme steering input. So, at the top of the Prairie Corkscrew, I began turning in just a fraction sooner and began playing with opening up the turn and low and behold my path through the subsequent esses that led onto the main straight saw me carrying more than 80 mph past the start / finish line. Not a whole lot but when improvements now can be measured in tenth of a second, this is a pretty good start. Now I am working on smoothing my passage through turn 10 not to mention turn 6.

All day I was watching my tire pressures – remembering, left side, low! In other words, with the predominance of right hand turns, pressures on the left side of the Vette would always rise faster than the tires on the right side. So yes, after many sessions at HPR, I finally have come up with a formula that ensures that the bulk of laps are on tires where the pressures are equal and where the tire profile produces a tire shape with the most “tire on the track” as possible. But then, just as I needed to put in gas routinely, so too each morning I needed to add more air – returning home after a full day on track I found my pressures were down to less than 20 lbs! Then again, I did four 30 minute sessions before lunch and then another three 20 minute sessions after lunch. As for being on track on a Monday, all I could think about were the words of that well-known song, “It’s a Friday Kind of Monday” with the lines

“I used to waste my time on Monday
Monday was a waste of time
But everything was changed in one day”

Would I sign up for another Monday? For sure! Did I tell you there were far less participants than we usually see on Fridays and did I mention that for one 30 minute session I didn’t see anyone else on track? Adding fuel and air seemed to be a small price to pay and yes, the new brakes continue to deliver and the old street tires continue to provide grip – you just gotta luv Mondays!

At some point Margo and I will take up golf. We have a winter break planned for the period between Christmas and the New Year that includes time in Palm Springs where we are going to give golf another shot – there’s more we want to do than simply hang out at race tracks month after month. And of course, living in Colorado simply rules out being on track for five months of the year, so it’s off to warmer climates and after all the times we just blew right on through Palm Springs on our way to Simi Valley, it seems only appropriate that we take some time off to smell the flowers and yes, the turf, that flourish around the links.

In the meantime, we have fall upon us so it should come as no surprise that we elected to follow our time at the track with a weekend up in the high country – this time in the district east of Aspen’s Independence Pass. It seems equally appropriate that trips like this, to view the Aspen tress turning gold, should be taken in a convertible. So with our Viper SRT/10 roadster freshly cleaned and looking its best, we powered our way up the mountains and enjoyed the scenery. We crossed Independence Pass from west to east only a few months ago with Margo behind the wheel, but this time it would be my turn. And again, the week had been tough on Margo and she simply “curled up in her corner” of the car and relaxed.

For those not that familiar with Colorado, the drive to the lakes, appropriately called Twin Lakes, takes us past Dillon with its secondary roads leading to Breckenridge and Keystone ski fields, on to Copper Mountain where we turn southwest and head to Leadville. All the while, the climb continues and the trees begin to turn golden. You catch pretty much every shade of green as the leaves die and the corresponding colorful quilts that cover the mountain’s flanks are not to be missed should you be in Colorado at the right time. It’s no mistake that Colorado greets arrivals on the interstates with the slogan Colorful Colorado. And the picture below? It was one of the times that Margo unwound herself from her seat and stretched her legs – and yes, the postcard-like scene was only inches away from the main road.

With our last outing at HPR we may be even tempted to agree with the songwriter that “everything was changed in one day” – the opportunity to enjoy an open lapping day free from the traffic that so often shows up on the Fridays was not just surprising but also a reminder of how much fun it can be to go fast. We buy the cars we do today that are so well-engineered for speed that it is a shame that the majority of drivers never get to experience what they can do – and circuits are now being developed across the country.

Still, the Corvette C5 Z06 is proving itself the ideal car for track days. It’s light, turns in well, and is easy (and comparatively cheaper) to maintain – when the season finally winds down, apart from changing the fluids, all we have done to the red ‘Vette is replace the brake rotors and pads. New tires had gone on late last year and this was a part of routine maintenance, as after eight years the original tires had long ago passed the point of providing the grip the car deserved. Bridgestone tires have worked well on this car so we just replaced our Michelins with them on the blue supercharged ‘Vette and when it comes time to replace the tires on the track car – something we will need to plan for early 2013 – then it’s hard to look past Bridgestone tires. Well, perhaps we will take a peek at the Kumho Ecsta XS tires that other Corvette drivers are seeing provide them with even greater value.

For the remainder of the year we have plans to return to the circuit at Pikes Peak International Raceway – a “roval” circuit combining part of a NASCAR style oval with an infield road course (of the same variety as the one we have experienced at Fontana, California, but not as long) – as well as one final foray into southern California to close out the year at Buttonwillow.  There may be one more opportunity to spend time on the HPR circuit, but this is still very much a day-to-day proposition and if it means we will be out of tires before Buttonwillow and we will pass on any further outings. But will it be a Friday outing should we return? Or a Saturday? All I now know is that if there’s any more Monday sessions on offer it might prove real tempting and just what we need to leave up the weekends for the actives we really want to pursue. After all, what else can you do on Mondays!