Monday, December 1, 2014

Nothing sidelined us in 2014 – track time was down but road time was very much up!

As I wrapped up the last post for 2013 I made the observation that with the onset of winter we were limited to just one car, that being the Jeep, summer tires and all! I also made reference to how our thoughts were already turning to spring and for 2014 to be a time for further exploring of the Americas. How little did I know and how central to our plans the Jeep became. Contrary to what some of you thought, this red Jeep of ours has been the go-to vehicle for most of our travels and oh yes, if I were to sum up 2014, it was a year where we explored the Americas “to the extreme”!

However, before we dig into that a little further, we have celebrated Thanksgiving and are preparing for Christmas. The snow has already made its presence felt and by all accounts, the ski fields in the mountains to the west are going to provide a splendid playground for all those so inclined and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we saw a few more visitors drop by than in previous years. While the house has been on the market for over a year, there have been no offers and Margo and I are resigned to the fact we will likely remain in the village of Niwot for quite a while – not a bad second prize, I have to admit.

We returned to Boulder from California only a week or so ago and we timed the trip perfectly ducking between serious winter snow storms such that we had more sunshine overhead than clouds, although not entirely unexpected, the winds across Wyoming were fierce so much so that light, high-profile vehicles were prohibited from being on the interstate. Even so, we passed two big rigs on their side – a reminder that the winds of Wyoming are unforgiving at this time of year. In retrospect, looking back at 2014, while it was a year that yes, passed quickly, we covered a lot of ground literally and figuratively and there was very little that sidelined either of us.

A short time ago I had cause to visit the garage and there’s been quite a change this year – gone is the Viper SRT/10 but in its place, the Jeep SRT/8 looks every bit as beefy as the Viper. When I consider that the price of the Jeep was only a tad shy of $10K less than the price of the Viper (back in 2008), it does make me realize that the price of toys is just going up and I suspect we are now on the slow, gradual, slide that leads to compact cars and minivans. Not! No, there’s little chance that will happen but future purchases will be measured against that old stalwart expression, “instead of what”?

But the picture above is very symbolic of 2014 – there were wonderful times on track in the Corvette about which much has been written even as most of our seat time on America’s highways was behind the wheel of the Jeep. In the other garage sit the Maserati GT-S and the Nissan GT-R, both on battery tenders and pretty much left to wait the arrival of spring, that saw use only on major summer treks including to Las Vegas and to Los Angeles where they both felt very much at home.  Compared to the Jeep, absolutely luxurious to drive and vehicles that brought smiles to our faces with every outing but with winter, unfortunately, they have been pushed out of sight to be totally ignored until conditions improve.

We sold the Viper and for a good price it turned out to be – a matter of a few weeks later Dodge dropped the price of new Vipers from $15K to $30K chipping away considerable value from the previous models. But the bigger story is that for the first time in goodness knows how many years, all of our vehicles, motor cycles included, fit into our garage - all that is except the RV and the car trailer. While none of the neighbors ever complained, it was against the policy of the home owners association to keep a car on a driveway and we are now breathing easier – there’s nothing more uncomfortable than being nervous about answering the doorbell on the off chance it’s one of the association’s board members coming to ask us to move a car, or two.

This year has seen a lot of road time for sure, but it’s also been a time where Margo and I did a lot more together than I can recall ever doing. Margo headed into back surgery late July and it was a difficult but necessary procedure – Margo had reached a point late in 2013 where she experienced difficulty walking with both nerve and bone causing her considerable pain. The good news is that the surgery went spectacularly well and she is completely over all the pain she had previously experienced. However the down side was no opportunity to spend time in the race car so her time on track was zero and our enthusiasm for attending track events somewhat diminished. 

If I were to summarize our many trips across America this year, the picture above tells the story. Out in the middle of nowhere we would find a Starbucks and take the time to stop, relax, and smell the coffee. As I said, the Jeep became almost a second home but having an opportunity to stretch our legs, take a look around, and simply let the stress seep from our bodies, was a priceless experience (to paraphrase that popular commercial’s message). If the Jeep always looks clean, it’s a trick of photography as it took a pounding – we drove it to the south, to the east coast and to Canada and several times to California and Nevada, and it never missed a beat.

While the days of 750 plus miles didn’t happen this year, we still did more than our fair share of 600 plus miles – sometimes, back to back. When you take into consideration that we drove from Boulder to Chicago in two days and then just a day and a half to get to Philly, you get the picture. As for Toronto to Boulder – well, that was an easy three day excursion. Margo once told me to be careful what I wished for, in case it came true, but we have become strong advocates of driving versus flying even though both of us passed the million mile mark with one carrier, United, several years ago and in so doing, enjoy many flying perks with Star Alliance.

Fortunately, being careful about what we wished for definitely has its upside and this was especially the case this year. The company command center is becoming a staple in our routine travels – when any business opportunity comes up where driving the RV becomes an option then we jump at the opportunity. While we will never become professional race car drivers, we enjoy to participate at track events and it provides for us the opportunity to market our company – many HP engineers, for instance, race cars and it has helped cement our relationship with HP at certain levels. As for clients then the chance for a ride along is rarely ignored and this helps differentiate our company.

Being in business together, as is the case with Margo and myself, while enjoyable in and of itself is a lonely experience all the same. While we know our jobs, there’s much about running a business where we remain novices and so, enjoying the support and fellowship of other likeminded business folks even if they aren’t in the same marketplace, is something we have come to value highly. On our last outing to Nevada in the command center we were able to enjoy a weekend with such folks – Brian and Jan Kenny. Even deep inside a national park, there was still an opportunity to share a bucket of ice cream (and yes, an apple martini or two) and talk business.

Brian and Jan are a familiar site at race tracks we visit, indeed early in the year we share calendars and pick events where we will all be participating. In the last couple of years, Brian has advanced considerably – yes, the advantage of youth – and is now “racing” in NASA’s Time Trial division. At a joint Northern and Southern California NASA event at Laguna Seca he recorded the fastest time for his group and that was a bittersweet moment as the previous year, at the very same track, having recorded the best time in his first session he had an on track encounter with the wall that negated that time. That particular incident sidelined the Kenny Corvette for almost a year so being back on track with Brian at Colorado’s High Plains Raceway was certainly a highlight of 2014. 

Tidying up the garage with the approach of winter and checking that the cars are all on battery tenders gave me the opportunity to snap the photo above. Nothing out of the ordinary, perhaps, and yet to the keen eye there’s one more track decal applied. For me, the opportunity to participate in the Dodge SRT program and run laps at Road Atlanta was a highlight. Even if I felt the SRTs on hand weren’t a match for the Corvette, the fact that the SRT line-up included a Jeep SRT identical to ours, meant that I came away with a couple of sessions driving a Jeep on a race track and given the wet conditions and poor visibility on an unfamiliar track, the fact that I recorded my best time in a Jeep speaks volumes about its capabilities.

Would we like to run our Corvette around Road Atlanta – with the experience already gained, you bet! But as happenstance would have it, there is now more likelihood of a weekend in 2015 spent on a track a little further north, at Watkins Glen. Business colleagues of ours turn out to be also members of NASA – real racers, not HPDE participants like us – and late in April, 2015, there will be a weekend for NASA at Watkins Glen. And this really goes to the heart of what we like doing these days. Not for us spending time at just one or two tracks and becoming “experts”, but using the opportunity to visit other tracks as an excuse to see more of the country not unlike what others interested in golf may elect to do!

Before closing this post, I have to add a couple of comments about Brian and Jan’s grandson, Colton. Nothing sidelined Colton this year and while he outdrove others in similar cars in the formula he pursued this year, the win on Malaysia was a stand-out performance the likes of which both families didn’t really expect. Having Brian and Jan at our home while this all transpired and getting the updates, lap after lap, was exciting to be a part of. 

What’s next for Colton in 2015 I can only speculate about at this time, but with F1 drivers now only 17 years old, turning 15 next year means Colton will likely be taking another step up an inevitable ladder leading to something similar and our best wishes go out to him and his family. It’s not like Margo and I are making reservations for Spa in 2018 (2017?) but who knows, these days, and we have always liked that part of Europe! Sneak in another session on the Nürburgring Nordschleife on the other side of the Eifel forest and it could be the perfect week!

The Jeep saw more usage this year than we had anticipated even as our Corvette spent fewer days on track. A lot of this had to do with Margo recovering from her surgery about which I can say  a lot more – it’s just so good to be able to write about the progress she has made and the absolute out-of-sight improvement in her wellbeing. She will be back behind the wheel of the Corvette in no time soon and that’s something I am looking forward to – it’s been a bittersweet experience having an opportunity to drive other tracks but without being able to share the experience with Margo first hand, it’s all been rather a hollow! I miss being in the passenger seat while she nails apexes just right!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The A, B, Zs of Fall!

Autumn leaves, Bermuda waters and Zion park – all in the month of October. Racking up the miles, on our return from Western Colorado (last post) we drove the Jeep to the east coast, hopped aboard a cruise ship to Bermuda, became leaf-peepers on a northern drive up the Hudson River Valley before stopping by Montreal and Toronto, and then on our return to Boulder swapped the SUV for the RV and headed to Zion National Park.

For many readers, this has all the appearance of a normal month for the Buckle family, but even by our standards, it was a tad extreme. However, the opportunity presented itself and we took full advantage of the circumstances and in the process, covered a good portion of the planet in the process. When it comes to the fall here in North America, a very strong case can be made that it is the most picturesque time of the year and in our travels we came up with more than ample evidence to concur. Fall is colorful and fall is just a great time to hit the highways (and seaways).

There was a strong business component to all of this that cannot be overlooked. I had the opportunity to give presentations in Philadelphia and Toronto / Mississauga, not to mention a business dinner in Chicago and an important stop at New Britain, Connecticut. Finally, business necessitated a short trip to Nevada by way of Utah as well – all of which allowed us to draw up the itinerary that we did. Nevertheless, it’s not over yet as shortly we head back to northern California for the annual gathering of NonStop users, but more about that next month. The picture above was taken as we approached New York after a weekend spent in New Britain. 

Adding New Britain to the itinerary happened at the last moment. Since we would be wrapping up business on the Thursday and we didn’t need to be in New York before Sunday, Margo discovered quite by accident that the township of New Britain contained a large Polish community and that there were restaurants, bars and delis worth exploring. In fact, because of its large Polish population, the city is often playfully referred to as "New Britski”, according to local sources. A couple of internet searches later and we had reservations for two nights and in no time, we found ourselves on the Jersey turnpike that traces the New Jersey shoreline directly opposite the Manhattan skyline.

There was a delay continuing our journey north, unfortunately, as an early morning fatal accident on the George Washington bridge forced us to detour further west than we had planned, but regrettably, the more time we spend on America’s highways, running into such incidents are not unusual – indeed on our final day as we were driving back across Nebraska, we ran into one more such fatal accident and it bothers both of us that there’s still no let up on our national highways in such incidents.

Getting to New Britain proved interesting – in the fullest meaning of the word! The township was a ghost town, in many ways, with multiple deserted factories. Evidence of the days when the city earned its official nickname, “Hardware City” because of its history as a manufacturing center and as the headquarters of Stanley Black & Decker, it was clear that industry had relocated elsewhere. A rusting cityscape was all that remained and it only added to a sense of a “typical Polish township” from the soviet era. However, once inside the local deli, it was all smiles from Margo as the display cases brought tears to her eyes so much so, she simply had to leave the place before purchasing any of the sausages on offer. 

How often can you say you were truly lucky? When are there occurrences that go way beyond serendipity? The business meetings in Philadelphia and Mississauga were separated by almost two weeks necessitating us spending time on the east coast and with New York beckoning, we just had to go there – it seemed all rather logical. Until we began checking out hotel rates; ouch! Our plans had called for eight days (seven nights) in New York where I could work during the day and catch a Broadway show or two, along with a couple of good meals at nearby restaurants, during the evenings. However, a budget of $500 per day was quickly passed, with estimates going much higher.

Exasperated, by pure chance, we came across a cruise ship offering from Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). Long before we had put together our itinerary, we had looked at fall cruises that took in New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces – something we have wanted to see for some time. However, the cruises quickly became almost as expensive as staying in New York, but then we received a phone call from NCL asking us why we didn’t complete a reservation for a fall cruise. Too expensive, I responded but before I hang-up, our “personal concierge” at NCL suggested we might like a cruise to nowhere, utilizing the port of New York. Quickly it became clear that the ship, the Breakaway, would stop in at Bermuda but here was a way to enjoy three Broadway shows, drop in on several good restaurants, including Cagney’s Steakhouse, and for a very small premium over the lowest fare on offer, we could get a verandah suit.

Looking at a fare that came to just over $500 each for the full eight days, and in no time, we had our cabin reserved. And what a great trip it turned out to be on nothing short of a monster-ship – the biggest I’ve ever sailed on by far! With a tonnage of 145,000 plus, a length of more than a 1000 feet and, most impressive of all, a beam of 170 feet, this vessel was huge! But a great escape from normal, so as to speak, and it fit our schedule perfectly. So it was a simple case of interrupting our drive with a boat trip into the North Atlantic. Sailing out of New York on a Sunday afternoon and watching the new One World Trade Center building glide silently by was worth the diversion. As for Bermuda? All we did was simply step on land to stretch our legs – we still have little feel for what’s on the island but perhaps, we will return to it again. 

The opportunity to sail to Bermuda came about following a season of less hurricane activity than normal. Unfortunately, about a week after taking this picture of Margo inside the harbor in Bermuda, Hurricane Gonzalo bore down on Bermuda severely damaging much of the southern and central portions of the island, but from what I was able to determine, with no loss of life, fortunately. The opportunity to simply kick-back, pull out the laptop and write and all the while look through the veranda out onto the open sea? Priceless! Well, at any rate, considerably cheaper than the alternate – a week on Manhattan! It was a far cry from driving that was for sure, and surprised many of our friends.

Over the years we have completed several cruises to several corners of the globe. We have sailed the Baltic, cruised the Danube, passed through the Straits of Malacca, sipped cocktails in the South China Sea, and ridden the big Southern Ocean rollers as they passed underneath on their way into the Great Australian Bight. We have sailed through a Force 9 gale in the North Atlantic that pushed us south, past our intended destination and much closer to Africa than planned, and we have sailed numerous catamarans from the Florida Keys to Hawaii to the Great Barrier Reef. I have even raced sloops inside Sydney Harbor and outside, in the Tasman Ocean. But never before have I been aboard a ship that exhibited absolutely no pitch or roll – so much so that for me, I became disoriented and unsure where I was. And that was before the cocktail hour!

The business end of the week saw us first in Montreal and then, in Toronto before finally making it to Mississauga. The drive to Canada was something we did last year, too, and the trip was covered in the post, Time spent on the track and on America’s byroads … Whereas last year we drove the Maserati at first we thought of taking the company command center this year where we would be able to entertain our clients. Talking to one client, such a prospect began to look real, but the opportunity to sail the Atlantic meant we would be crossing New York and experience suggested such a drive in as large a coach as we have would be a mistake, so we took the Jeep. However, once back in Boulder and needing to head south, we indeed took the coach.

As you may have surmised from the intro, with as much time as we spent on America’s highways again this year, there was no time for our monthly track outing. The Corvette stayed in the garage and probably is done for the year, despite the great weather we are currently enjoying. As much as we love our track outings, and the friendships we have made trackside, at heart Margo and I remain “grand tourers” – enjoying the drive even more than the destination on most occasions. The trip back east put another 4, 600 miles onto the Jeep’s odometer, not to mention chewing out a set of front rotors and pads, but the quick change to the coach and heading into much warmer weather was something we both had been looking forward to.

The business we had planned for Nevada was to be easy and as such, would give us time to stop by one of our favorite national parks, Zion. It’s popularity with us is due to how easy it is to see the sights and how well the park looks after coaches like ours – maneuvering almost 40 feet of big rig through a tree covered park is never trivial, but somehow with familiarity it’s becoming a simple task to accomplish. Even with the demolition of a couple of low hanging dead branches, we came home with little damage to show for our trip – probably a first for our family. Also contributing to the popularity is the ease with which our good friends Brian and Jan made the decision to join us - indeed, it was through Jan's work that we had the campsite we had. Brian remains our business mentor and with the business changes Margo and I are experiencing right now, it was good to be able to  talk with someone who was able to bring an objective view to the discussion.

For me, the highlight was definitely the hike up Zion’s famous “Narrows”. It’s a riparian activity of course, but rather than a walk by the river it’s a walk in the river. The views, on the other hand, as the canyon narrows considerably, is well worth it and as tiring as it proved to be, I made it as far as I could safely negotiating and that took all day. Parked under a mountain simply called The Watchman was a further reminder of just how close everything inside the park is and of how quickly one can take it easy. Again, we set up the office so I could continue working early mornings and again, at night, but there was no denying that a long weekend in the bush proved to be a great way to come down off the insanely hectic weeks that had led up to this trip. In less than two weeks’ time, we will be back in the Jeep tackling not just the Rockies in winter but the more hostile Sierras as well as we return to Silicon Valley for yet one more conference!  

Looking back at posts written over the past couple of years so many of them have ended with yes, there’s more to come … Whether it was a fault of either of our parents or simply an extension of what they all liked to do, Margo and I are not sure. But the one thing we do know is that given the opportunity to live and work in America, why not see it all! As I pull out and ratty, dog-eared, copy of a map of North America’s highways and highlight in yellow yet another highway we have driven, it’s not so much the roads painted yellow that stand out but just how many more roads are out there – so yes, track months continue to remain of interest, but a return to the open road? More A, B, Zs? Absolutely!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

It's HPR again and I've got time on my hands ...

This month it was back to enjoying track sessions at High Plains Raceway (HPR), outside Denver, Colorado. Even though the previous month had provided us with the opportunity to enjoy the delights of the Road Atlanta course, it was behind the wheel of other peoples cars and that never quite cuts it when it comes to really enjoying time on track. Throw in the awful weather Atlanta provided, a bunch of nose-heavy high-output vehicles (for the most part), and while it provided moments of fun, overall it was less than fulfilling.

HPR has become our home track and in many ways it is a lot more fun turning up for the open lapping days than participating in organized events. That’s not to say National Auto Sports Association (NASA) doesn’t do a great job of putting on a full-on track weekend, but rather, where Margo and I are at competence wise, getting the opportunity for essentially unlimited time on track for less than $200 is well worth it. NASA has been very good to us through the years and we continue to check out calendars to see if we can make an event but what’s even more important for us has been the friendships that have developed over time.

While it was Margo and I who introduced our good friends, Brian and Jan, to NASA, our shared enthusiasm for fast times on famous tracks has seen the friendship strengthen over time. It was no surprise then for Brian and Jan to hitch the trailer to their Chevy pick-up and drag their Corvette to Boulder. The differences between our two vehicles are too numerous to chronicle in this post, suffice to say all that they have in common is that they are both red but even in the choice of colors, both are different shades of red. While our C5 Z06 is completely stock, save the fluids and brake pads, our friends’ C6 Coupe is anything but stock, and fully capable of blowing away C6 Z06s that may show up on track.

Mid-week there had been rain and at first, our track day didn’t look all that promising. The HPR circuit had been subject to a lot of rain before we arrived, with the last overnight deluge cleaning the surface of the track so much so that it was pretty “green”. While I was running on street tires, Brian was running on full-on racing slicks, so he elected to skip the morning sessions preferring to go on track after a little more rubber had been deposited. With the morning temperature still cool the track was anything but ideal for a fast high-horsepower vehicle.

Fortunately for me, I was able to take Brian along for a ride. As much as Brian isn’t all that comfortable being in the right-hand side seat, it was an opportunity for him to renew his acquaintance with what for him is becoming one of his favorite tracks. It took several laps before my brain warmed up, and along the way I made some pretty weird gear selection choices, but overall, I soon settled into the rhythm that for me is what I like doing on this track. Get the speed just right, tackle turns with just one steering input, and suddenly it becomes a whole lot of fun.

With Brian electing to run the afternoon session he was able to set up his GoPro in our Vette. After all these years I have no video of me on track filmed from inside the car, so I was looking forward to what may transpire. I wasn’t to be disappointed as looking at film is very educational, but I have to admit I was aware of the camera’s presence and for the first couple of laps I was anything but accurate with the placement of the Vette. However, about four laps into the session I began taking advantage of the whole track and stopped pinching some of the faster turns, and this is something I have to work on right from the outset.  

The clip included above is about 20 minutes and it shows how empty the circuit can be on open lapping days. As I recall, there was a gathering of Audis with a BMW or two, plus a couple of Porsche 911s, but our two Vettes were the only representatives of the marque and when I was on track with the GoPro, all that I saw was a single BMW and a pair of Audis, one of which was a fully prepped racecarwhich I prudently let by before I began wondering whether or not I could hang with him.. After I decided to give it a try he pitted and I had no other opportunity to see what might have happened.

Afternoon brought Brian on track and what a difference. I went with him for one session and  again I saw the track in a completely different light. With so much mechanical grip, his C6 Coupe eclipsed any time I was looking at by ten or more seconds right off the bat. Oh yeah, and Brian is a far more competent and experienced driver than I am, and one that really does exhibit levels of concentration I can only dream of reaching. For one session we put the GoPro camera back in his car with him laying back behind me to better film my lines and the only reason I’m not including it here was that the film further highlighted just how much more room for improvement there really was (for me)! 

Track days – even simple open lapping days as we were enjoying – are still extremely beneficial for drivers looking to develop the “muscle memory” link that is all so important for smooth circulations of the track. I’m closer here, at HPR, than anywhere else but I still have to devote more time. I have now calculated that I have driven more than a thousand laps and yet, I still consider myself to be in the learning phase and it further highlights just how good the professional drivers really are as they race each other. As much of an amateur that I am, however, there’s no getting away from the fact that even with my level of competence, it’s a whole lot of fun to be behind the wheel, going fast, enjoying the time on track where everyone is going in the same direction and there’s no side streets or traffic lights! 

One reason why open lapping days are as enjoyable as they are is that when completed, they leave the weekend wide open. With Brian and Jan in town and fall having just started, it was a great time to become “leaf peepers”! Saturday we took in the sights of Estes Park while Sunday was a driving day as we headed back to Grand Junction. Not only was the wine beginning to flow, but nearby Palisades was the Peach capital of Colorado and something not to be missed. For Margo and me, pictured above, looking down on a forest alongside the Gunnison River as autumn colors began to break through, the reasons for making the trip each year becomes pretty obvious! 

It has become a ritual for Margo and me to spend one September weekend on Colorado’s western slopes taking in the scenery and sampling the wares of the region. Readers who check previous posts from Septembers past will recognize the tradition (and the peaches reference), and while we usually elect to make the journey during the Labor Day weekend, this time we were a few weekends later and enjoyed the fact that fewer people were on the roads. Brian and Jan were essentially driving back to Simi Valley, with us along for just the first leg of their trip, but being able to pull into any sight unaffected by other travelers was a new experience so much so that for anyone planning on visiting western Colorado I would strong recommend waiting till after Labor Day.

Our track day had involved using our command center in order to provide Brian and Jan some respite from the otherwise bleak conditions of a dreary prairie outpost. Fortunately, in bringing along the RV we were able to check out all that would be required for a longer excursion planed for late October. Business would likely be taking us back to Nevada but on the return trip, we would have time for another weekend in Zion’s National Park. It has become very easy to attract business colleagues into the command center whenever we use the RV for these purposes and on more than one occasion it has helped us close business. Having said that there’s no escaping just how much Margo and I enjoy the self-contained that comes with having an RV and we plan to continue exploiting it in this manner for many years to come.  

Before completing this post let me mention Brian’s and Jan’s grandson, Colton Herta. This year saw Colton move up one more rung of the ladder that leads to some serious open wheeler seat time whether it be F1 or Indy Racing League. If you talk to Colton, now 14, it’s definitely all about getting a seat in F1 and it’s not out of the question that this will happen at some point. Colton competed in the F2000 series this year with events taking place at the same time and often on the same tracks as the more senior Indy Lights and Indy Car events. Unfortunately, turning 14 the weekend of the very first event in the series meant that he missed the opening round and as the season progressed, it became very clear that his team was giving him a car that was just a tad off the pace.

However, when the opportunity came to race in Malaysia on the same track as F1 cars use, he jumped at the opportunity. As Racer magazine was later to post, “Fourteen-year old Colton Herta had his first two races in the AsiaCup Series races at Sepang, Malaysia, Saturday, collecting first- and second-place finishes. The championship, for Formula BMW cars, is run by Peter Thompson's Meritus.GP organization. This weekend's event is rounds 5-8 of the 12-round series, there are two more races on Sunday.” Unbelievable! Up against experienced drivers who had been already racing for the season and he grabs pole, then a first place and a hard fought second, with the Australian driver, Jake, passing him on the very last turn (and yes, Jake is 20 years old).

Of course the family was very pleased to hear the news even as it kept the Kenny – Buckle household up until the wee hours as we followed updates directly from the track. I have covered Colton in previous posts and watched him progress from Karts to entry-level open wheelers to F2000. Colton even managed to get a seat in a 650 hp Red Bull Global Rallycross GRC Lites car for the X Games in Austin this year – where the games organizers acknowledged that “It’s finally happened: a driver born in the 2000s will take part!” Even as I sit in our Vette, with time on my hands these days even as I continue to develop the necessary muscle memory needed to be a good driver, it’s very clear that any thoughts I ever had of racing cars are well and truly behind me and like a number of others in the extended Kenny – Buckle family, all I can do is join in with others in admitting, “we all want to be Colton!”

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Round and around in the Georgia rain!

To break with tradition, and as an opportunity to try something completely different, we signed on to the Dodge SRT program for a track outing. The opportunity to lay down laps at Atlanta’s famous and stunningly beautiful Road Atlanta track was too hard to let pass by, so last month we actually caught a plane to try our hand on an unfamiliar track in cars we knew little about. Arriving in Atlanta very early on a Friday morning we had time to check in, eat breakfast and catch a few Z’s as the Saturday would be a very full day. Our steads for the day would be a selection of Dodge SRT 392 “Hemis”, and as can be expected, they were present in every color imaginable.

Margo and I have been circulating tracks around the world now for several years. It’s always been a part of the plan to visit as many locations as we could and readers will recall our adventures have extended to include time on track for both of us in Germany (on the world famous Nordschleife, or North Loop, of the Nürburgring) and just for me in Australia (on not quite so famous Eastern Creek, now renamed as Sydney Motorsport Park). Dreams and “bucket lists” do not give enough credit to the memories you make when on famous tracks but all the same, simply being in a fast car on a famous track is reward enough.

Take these images and then think about famous tracks in North America and you get the idea. There’s absolutely no way Ferrari or Red Bull will ever come knocking on my door so track time is more about the mere opportunity to drive fast than it is about becoming faster – and so, Margo and I have come to terms that it’s the variety that’s important and not proficiency at a select number of tracks, so again, circulating around Road Atlanta in someone else’s car was simply an opportunity too good to give up!    

But first, the bad news. Waking early Saturday morning to give us plenty of time to make the trip from our hotel to the track we were immediately greeted with a tropical downpour. The rain was simply arriving in waves and we were drenched before we made it to our rental car. For this outing, coming as it were just a week before Margo was scheduled for back surgery, it would be up to me to represent Team Buckle – Holen and I have to admit, seeing such heavy rainfall didn’t put my mind at ease. Let’s see, powerful rear-wheel drive cars, an unknown track and oh yes, it’s wet as the dickens! Simply lovely.

Margo told me 2014 will remain permanently ingrained in her memory as the year track outings were solely for me and that she just came along and spent her time looking for a comfortable position! True, but with her back now scraped, fused and screwed together with 6 titanium bolts she should be as good as new next year and I am sure we will figure how to finagle a drive for her on another great track.

The whole point of the exercise from the SRT perspective was to give existing owners of SRT vehicles an opportunity to experience a variety of SRT configurations solo, on an autocross circuit, head-to-head on a mirrored pair of circular courses, and then follow-the-leader on the road course. The narrow inside-the-cones affair for the autocross and head-to-head experience for me was a waste of time and not my cup of tea, but the road course? It couldn’t have come soon enough. Jumping into a big rear-wheel drive “floating” Challenger SRT, with little visibility out the windscreen and very little weight over the rear wheels, the Challenger lived up to its name – a challenge alright!

Watch the in-car video below and it will give you a feel for what the experience felt like – the lead car, driven by a professional, would gradually lift the speed as he became comfortable with the degree of car control the followers exhibited, and of course I drew the ire of my fellow drivers when I hung back a tad to get a better perspective of the track. By implication, pulling back a little (and out of the spray thrown up by the leader) meant the pro driver backed off the speed and slow, pains-keeping, laps wasn’t the goal. But hey, not my car, not my track and not my real idea of fun! Somehow, I managed though through the set two lap formula. 

I managed to join this program as we had bought an SRT but the SRT in question was a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. Basically, a complete misfit and the answer to questions no one asked. Jeeps are delivered “trail ready”, with little badges confirming as much, while the SRT was neither trail ready, nor for that matter suitable to any sojourns offroad. This was the proverbial beast designed to scare the heck out of your friends as you attacked twisty back-road canyons. Not for the faint of heart; instead of program selections such as mud or rock crawling, the Jeep SRT comes with setting like sport, track and the ever-popular launch control.

However, as the day progressed I began to look forward to my time behind the wheel of the Jeep SRT. Whereas the Challengers and Chargers had the older six-speed auto transmission the Jeep had the much newer eight-speed transmission with quick-response paddle shifters. Throw in a few extra pounds – probably as much as an additional 2,000 pounds – and this unorthodox track car relished the conditions and I was quick to connect with the vehicle. With a dozen or so laps under my belt in the edge sedans and coupes, the big SUV more than held it’s own on track and there was never a question of not keeping up with the pro driver. Go faster, was all I could think!

Play the video above and you will soon realize my quickest time came in the Jeep SRT. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone as the all-wheel drive set up gave me plenty of pull out of the corners and yes, Road Atlanta has corners. Lot’s of them, up hill and down dale, and with a combination of different cambers to really throw the car around – being smooth for a whole lap was yet one more challenge. As the day progressed, my lines around the circuit became more predictable and by the end of the “experience” I really got to like the track – yes, we have to go back but hopefully, under better conditions. As we left for the day, there was a large sign letting everyone know that in a few days time, NASA was holding an event at the track and that brought a smile to both our faces. Maybe, next year and this time, in our track Corvette!

If Atlanta gave us the feeling of being in the tropics, where we ate each night helped confirm that feeling. Yes, that’s Margo on the veranda of the local Bahama Breeze restaurant digging into a salad while my coconut shrimp (with sweet chili sauce) was already close to being polished off. And yes, that’s water we were drinking as we tried to stay hydrated the whole time we were in Atlanta – flying is a bit of a novelty for us these days and it took us longer than we thought to recover from the short flight from Denver. However, Georgia is a great place to visit and so we literally soaked up as much of it’s atmosphere as we could.

Originally, we had planned our time in Atlanta to include a little business but cancellations brought about by changing business circumstances left us to look out for ourselves and we ended up managing just fine.  Dodge parent, Chrysler, really tried hard to give us a great day at the track but both the weather and the vehicles themselves worked against this really happening for the company. When asked what I thought of the cars I gave a polite, pass! Actually, to be truthful I was probably a little too forward with my comments that spanned the spectrum from pedestrian and dreadful. It’s clear after a day on the track that the focus of the Dodge SRT team was the quarter mile and after just a couple of drives, you quickly come to appreciate that in the right hands, these cars certainly could dominate the drag strip.

Having said that, the real track car – perhaps the best interpretation of the SRT mission – was missing from the fleet. No, there were no Dodge SRT/10 Vipers on hand! While the crew from SRT made it no secret that they would certainly have enjoyed having a few in the program, with prices climbing closer to $150,000 this wasn’t going to happen any time soon. The new generation Viper is a very track car and in the ALMS Tudor series is doing extremely well – performing much better than I had thought possible for such a new car. After nine rounds of competition, Corvette leads the standings, but the Viper is in second place a mere six points behind the leaders (264 vs 270 for team Corvette). As for the Aston Martin, BMW, Porsche and Ferrari teams, they are a long way behind and this may come as a surprise to those less familiar with GT racing.

When it comes to our own, generation four, Viper - it’s no more. Getting it’s very last wash from Margo, after six great years (and only 10,000 miles on the odometer) we found ourselves driving the snake only two or three times a year and with an urgent need to ensure all of cars could be garaged – yes, winter is on its way – it made sense to scale back to just four vehicles. Sad to see the black mamba snake – not the real Black Mamba Viper, mind you - leave us, and who knows? Would we buy another? It’s possible but for the moment, unlikely, as our first nod would go to the new Corvette, but for many years now Margo and I are reluctant to ever say never.

As a track car the few occasions when we did take it on track it gave us a heck of a lot of fun – just don’t over rely on second gear to power out of turns, mind you. We have run high performance education sessions at both High Plains Raceway and the track at the Colorado State Patrol training facility and that was experience enough. I have even taken a number of clients out for a few “parade laps” to give them a taste of what the Viper can do and none of them came back disappointed. If someone comes along with a very low mileage generation four ACR in very orange, with black stripes, then maybe, just maybe, things may be different. And there’s a story there that will have to wait for another time.

Returning to the Corvette C5 Z06 parked in the garage, it now has a new track decal applied. Yes, we added a track decal for Road Atlanta even though it was in another vehicle. I know for sure Margo would really like to experience this track and perhaps there will be an opportunity in the near future. There’s still the VIR track as well as Watkins Glen that we would like to try, but for now, even as fall begins to make its presence, we have one more Friday at High Plains Raceway to look forward to an then, that will be it for track days in 2014. As for Georgia well yes, each time we return to the Jeep SRT in the garage, and fire it up, we definitely have Georgia on our minds! 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Familiarity breeds contempt? Well, kind of …

A major reason for moving up to higher level within the National Auto Sports Association (NASA) HPDE program is to get away from the “trains” that often form behind drivers new to the program or to the track. Having been a participant at NASA events for six years, and having worked my way up to HPDE3, I was very familiar with the expectations of all who drove in this group and yet, returning to Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR), it was as if I was starting from the very bottom – yes, I had a lot on my mind that weekend but there was little excuse for me to hold up other, more experienced drivers.

It had only been a short time before making the trip to the western edge of the Mojave Desert that I had been behind the wheel of our C5 Z06 Corvette driving lap after lap around Colorado’s High Plains Raceway (HPR). In the years I have spent at HPR, I have accumulated more than 500 laps – possibly as many as 1,000 laps –pretty much every surface crack is now a familiar landmark and every color change in the blacktop a cue. So much so, that last time out on HPR, two Cobra replica drivers pulled in behind me and followed me around the circuit to better familiarize themselves with the “student line”. Returning to WSIR where I completed my first ever lap was a return to familiar surroundings and yet, for that first session I was missing practically every mark and, having left the pits first, it wasn’t long before half a dozen cars were lined up behind the Vette.

Southern California (SoCal) now runs open passing all around the track and this surprised me, as normally HPDE3 sessions with other NASA regions only open select portions of the track for passing. However, as I had many sessions of open lapping at HPR, not to mention a couple of years at Speed Ventures track days where it was open lapping as well, I wasn’t too concerned and I felt confident my familiarity with the track would serve me well. Unfortunately, this didn’t turn out to be the case and with the more powerful Vette I delivered one of those classic performances where on straights I drag-raced the Hondas and Bimmers only for them to gradually catch up in the turns where I failed to provide point bys!

We arrived at WSIR on the Friday afternoon preceding the weekend event and this gave us time to set up camp Kenny – Buckle. However, within the first hour, trailers began unloading all around us confirming that the Kennys had chosen a good camp site for us. Many years ago, or so the story goes, NASA broke away from Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) because the family atmosphere was being eroded with the arrival of motorhomes and big-rig transporters. Yet, here we were, relaxing in our respective TVs. 

Looking around the paddock it was hard to think much had changed, as today NASA is supported by families that arrive driving the very same, once-dreaded, motorhomes and big-rigs including major sponsors such as Mothers Car Care, Factory Five and the Mazda 7s, all quick to tape-off space for their entourage. Compared to some participants, what the Kennys and the Buckles bring to the track is only a slight step down from the more professional set-ups but “roughing it smoothly” has always been our style. And in the desert, AC rules!

It never ceases to amaze us that upon arrival at a track so many participants promptly decide to re-build their cars. Gearboxes are pulled apart, differentials swapped out, suspension members replaced – so much activity, it made us wonder what they did between events. Before the weekend wound down we came to the conclusion that track weekends weren’t about track time as much as it was an excuse to get away from the family and hang out with friends and to tinker with each other’s cars. At any given moment, their social engagements were interrupted with a couple of quick laps on circuit, of course, but for those committed to racing with NASA the total time on track each day couldn’t have amounted to anything more than 45 to 50 minutes.

There’s a lot of history surrounding WSIR and readers of popular car magazines will recognize the name. When it comes to magazines headquartered on the west coast, it is WSIR that hosts many of their comparison tests. The facility includes a number of courses catering to different groups but for NASA participants, it is typically the main circuit – Big Willow – that is the main attraction and from our first time on track, back in late May, 2008, Big Willow has become our favorite track. It didn’t come as a complete shock then as I walked into the classroom “download” session, immediately following that first track outing, to be given a chilly reception.

“Does everyone here know Richard Buckle,” head instructor, John Matthew, began. “By now, you should be familiar with his car – the red Corvette with the number 161! It was Richard that led us around the track for the first couple of laps!” Oh well, it was going to be a great weekend and I looked around for a place to hide. I may be forgiven for not giving a point by during the first lap, as the circuit was under a full course caution – no passing – and standard operating procedure for the first lap of the session. However, once we began the second lap, I should have paid a lot more attention to my mirrors. While the session was run with open passing, and point bys were expected (but not mandatory) on the straights, point-bys were a must for passing in the turns and I didn’t give a single point-by for two, maybe three laps. What were those waving blue flags all about, I wondered, and as I looked in my mirrors I thought, umm … there must be some faster cars further back in this group. Aren’t we all having fun!

From the very first time on track I paid attention to what was going on around me and above all else, I wanted to make sure others were having as much fun as I was having so I just pointed everyone by. Both Margo and I realized early on that we would never be world-beaters and that our track time was all about driving fast (for us) and having fun. These days however, Margo thinks I have become a little more competitive and exhibit early signs of wanting to pass everyone else with little consideration for whoever may be behind me. If any readers of this post were among those I held up during that first session, I truly am sorry for spoiling your fun – it won’t happen again.

If the first session was a wake-up call, what followed was far worse. Returning to the track a little before noon, I was all over the place. So much so that after just a couple of laps I took myself off the track, travelled slowly through the pits while I collected my thoughts, paused and waited for a gap in the traffic, and gave it another try. Halfway through that lap I realized I wasn’t improving – it was a really hot day with temperatures well past 100 degrees F and the car was sliding more than I had previously experienced, sapping whatever confidence I still retained. My tires had more than 60 sessions on them, over two plus years, and all I could think of was that the tires had finally given up. However, when I came back into the hot pits a second time, I had officials check for anything that looked abnormal and they gave me a big OK. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t settle into any sort of a rhythm and a lap or two later, abandoned the session. It happens – the track didn’t come to me as quickly as in the past and any confidence I had based on familiarity was definitely gone. It was hot and I was unsure of the car, and I was letting worries of the day get to me – I had to change the plan. Immediately after lunch, I gave the Vette to Brian to take it on track with my group, and with me as a passenger. Finally, it all clicked and I began to relax. With re-fired enthusiasm, I went on track for the fourth session and after letting four or five cars past, I had a clear track and settled into a familiar rhythm, once again. According to Brian, my last three laps were all within a couple of seconds of each other and as the photo above captures, I had pulled away from the slower cars behind me. What a relief!

I just couldn’t wait to get back to camp Kenny – Buckle and let everyone know how relieved I felt. There was still one more session (a “bonus” short fifth session as a reward to all those who had made the trek into the heat of the Mojave) and of course, Sunday as well. But it wasn’t to be! Pulling into my parking spot I could see Brian coming towards me all smiles and then, as I completed the turn, I saw Brian’s smile being replaced with a puzzled look. As I pulled myself out of the Vette I too picked up on what puzzled him – air escaping from the front left tire. After exiting the circuit, while driving through the infield paddock, I picked up a blade from a retractable knife. While I was able to get the tire patched, I could no longer go on track, so with the best run of the day behind me, unfortunately, it proved to be my last.  

Weekends at the track with the Kennys is a lot more than just laying down laps on whatever circuit we were visiting. The social aspect of our get-togethers is what really pulls us back to the track and, in particular, to NASA SoCal events. In the weeks leading up to each track weekend, there’s much discussion over menus and adult beverages. Whether it’s chilled white wine or superbly shaken martinis, camp Kenny – Buckle suffers little. Of course, it’s the lighter fare – wine, as well as food – for the nights before days on track but once the serious side of track weekends is over, then it’s an opportunity to unwind with our favorite chilled “green ones”. That’s right, among the Kenny – Buckle troop, partaking of the Apple Martinis (Ketel vodka, with just a splash of Pucker sour apple for color) has become a well-established, and much anticipated tradition.

Also part of the tradition are tacos the first night followed by grilled marinated tri tip steak the next night and preparation is a most serious occasion, as depicted above, as Brian tends to his special sauce for the tacos. When we get back to Boulder the Vette will be returned to Curt of Corvette Spa for a check-up and new tires - a routine both Curt and Margo have become familiar with. Finding Curt and having him watch over Margo and me the way he does, is a godsend. While we both like to drive, neither Margo nor I have a single mechanical bone in our bodies and we truly trust Curt to ensure we arrive at any track well prepared. No long nights under lights pulling an engine apart for us – could you pass me another taco and top off my chardonnay?

John Matthew and Fulton Haight were right to give me the lecture that they did after the first session. However, they were also quick to pick up on me struggling in the subsequent outing and were keen to help me through it, giving Brian the go-ahead to take me out for a sighting session. They were considerate and indeed, running across SoCal regional director Ryan Flaherty, as busy as he was, he too found time to encourage me – it’s still all about driving fast, being safe and having fun. Back as I now am, in Boulder, I just can’t wait for the next outing and while I am familiar with my home track, I will never take time at any other track for granted; no, not ever again. Yes, the Vette may know its way around but as for me, well, I’m still very much a “gentleman rookie” even as I give it all another year!


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Down to some serious business …

Following numerous references of late to smiles, it was all business this month. After an absence from the track of nearly six months, it was a case of picking up where we had left off last year. With the balmy days of late spring displacing the final throws of winter, it was good to be able to load up the company command center, hitch up the trailer, and load the track car. Once again, for 2014 track days, it would be the 2003 C5 Z06 Corvette providing all the excitement.

The Vette was starting its third year as the go-to track car and it’s proving to be a very good choice. Of any Vette you could choose, this one is the easiest to drive, the simplest to maintain, and the least difficult to clean and prepare. During the winter months, the ten years plus battery elected to literally explode and being a complete novice when it comes to replacing batteries after such a terminal occurrence, when I first went to investigate the problem, I swept aside all the water with my bare hands. First, there’s never really water lying about after a battery blows up and secondly, you should never touch anything in the engine bay without gloves on. It took several days for the burnt skin to recover but I guess it could have been a lot worse.

A new battery, a check of saved engine codes (it’s not at all helpful when you forget to turn-off the helpful electronic “nannies” and then expect one system to correct another as is likely to happen when you hurl a street car violently sideways and execute a perfect 180 degree turn) and an inspection of brake rotors and pads as well as the overall condition of the tires. The street tires mounted towards the end of 2012 are still providing excellent mechanical grip and show only marginal wear after some forty sessions on track. Unbelievable. If you must know, they are Bridgestone Potenza RE760 Sport and will set you back a tad over $700 – for a set of four from Tire Rack! The indicated treadware number is 340 – something you wouldn’t think twice about for a track tire but I have long since given up on what this actually translates to for these tires; grip is every bit as good as the Toyo R888s I once used on the blue Vette.  Again, unbelievable!

Friday open lapping track days usually attract a motley group of cars that often includes vehicles you wouldn’t be caught dead driving. However, this wasn’t the case this time as the red team arrived, or so it seemed. Parked end to end alongside one stretch of the paddock were a red Viper, Audi S5, Ferrari F458 and, missing from the photo, a red C7 Corvette. In the background, you may see the red Mustang that also made it to the track so it seemed only natural to park our rig adjacent to this group. They all sounded “racey” and they all looked the part but unfortunately, their time on track was limited to just a few sessions early in the day so I was unable to add an additional splash of red.

And there was a reason behind their fleeting appearance. Earlier in the week a tornado had touched down briefly just a few miles south of the track and the pattern for the week had seen violent thunderstorms appear each afternoon. However, lunchtime saw only light scattered clouds and with the track looking particularly clean, I didn’t give the weather a second thought. For me, it was a perfect afternoon with temperatures hovering in the high seventies, Fahrenheit. Making only slight adjustments to the tire pressures (at HPR, running clockwise, it’s always sensible to start out with less pressure in the left hand tires as you load up the left hand side with mostly right hand turns) I ran three 30 minute sessions.

The red team had left and circulating on track when I finally added my splash of red were a pair of beautifully decked-out replica Cobra open seat sports cars. With big block Ford 427 engines installed, they definitely sounded the part but after a few laps in the first session, it became apparent that they were new to the track. Passing them, I noticed they fell in line behind me and stayed with me for the rest of the session. In the third session, it proved difficult catching them and after I returned to the paddock for the last time, they came and thanked me for hanging out with them  – they were able to watch and learn from my laps and they really appreciated the education! I now have more than a thousand laps at High Plains Raceway under my belt but I never thought following me would ever be of value to anyone, so the thanks I got was much appreciated.

With the balmy days of spring came weekend outings into the mountains and the Maserati and Viper proved to be great choices for Saturday afternoon drives. For anyone who is contemplating driving Colorado’s famous Peak-to-Peak highway, it’s an outing I would strongly recommend. It’s still not overpopulated with vehicles and yet this highway offers one of the best views of the continental divide  –  and the peaks remain  snow covered even in late June. Tucked away in the woods are numerous little cafes and bars  – our favorite being the one just to the north of  the village of Ward.

To our surprise, underneath a make-shift awning, a small band was playing and passersby were taking up benches around the stage. A great place for chili and hamburgers, the addition of live music made it hard to beat and we were reluctant to pull away without having listened to at least one chorus. But this is what makes driving in the mountains such an escape. You just don’t know what to expect next and having already been surprised in years past by moose and bears stumbling onto the road, it’s not a place to traverse with any speed. For some time now we have contemplated buying a secondary license plate frame with the words, “My need for speed ... I left at the track!”

In a couple of days’ time we will be packing up the RV once again for the week long trip to southern California. The plan is to spend some time with clients and then stop by Willow Springs International Raceway (WSIR) for a weekend with SoCal NASA  – the club whose track events we like to support. At   one point NASA, or National Auto Sport Association (and unrelated to the space program with the same acronym), broke away from its more famous sibling, Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) so as to provide a more family-friendly environment. The appearance of the big rigs and transporters of the semi-professional participants began to take away from the grassroots club atmosphere. Well, times may have changed but today, as I drive into the paddock of any NASA event, it’s hard to miss all the big rigs and transporters parked by the cars and I have to wonder, are there further changes ahead?

Before we begin to prepare for the trip to southern California, there are many more BBQs to enjoy and with the evenings still quite hot, we are better off grilling outside. Or so the theory goes – and with a good bottle of red wine, grilled corn and potatoes at hand, who can blame Margo for kicking back and leaving me to slave over the hot grill. As you will have noticed from the picture at the top of this post as well as what is showing behind the bar, our trees and bushes have flourished with the afternoon thunderstorms. We have even experienced a little humidity for the first time in ages - and it’s rather pleasant. For those watching their complexion, just a little humidity really helps. Or, so I am told!

Looking back at the Friday on track, we are realizing that we get as much enjoyment from just a couple of sessions late in the day as we used to get from a whole weekend on track. The travel is still the big item for us - just being on the road is reward enough for us. As much as we enjoy catching up with good friends on track weekends, we are starting to plot a different course for the future. Looking ahead, it’s going to be a lot more of sightseeing and a lot less of racing (although, as I will quickly add, with NASA and with the High Performance Driver Education program, we aren’t racing but rather, participating in sessions). The move to the C5 Z06 Vette certainly has trimmed the track time budget but to be fair, there’s much more we would like to be doing so I suspect that time is coming where we will only be contemplating two or three outings a year, all of them around the Denver area.

Perhaps it’s the evening atmosphere with good BBQ and fine wine but we are definitely mellowing-out. Change does come and we do adjust, and the company command center has changed our lives in numerous ways. No longer dreading domestic flying - we continue to drive to client meetings more often than not with the RV being our first choice for transportation. But with change comes some uncertainty as we do love the cars we have  - in many respects, we view them as our children and parting with them will be traumatic. Talking of change, living along the front ranges of the Rocky Mountains ensures we enjoy every season and often in just one day. The thunderstorms have returned and the rain is pelting down. 

The sunny backyard of just a few minutes ago is awash in rainwater and we have retreated indoors. Of course, the flora welcomes the rain and it’s as if we can hear the plants growing - rainforests in Colorado? No likely and yet, this is developing into quite a different summer to those of previous years. I guess it is time to pack up and head for California.  This is serious business after all, and there are clients to meet, steaks to be devoured, and a great track to enjoy and no, a little rain never hurt no matter the timing!  

Saturday, June 7, 2014

It’s great to be greeted with smiles …

The arrival of spring is in evidence everywhere I look. The trees have all their leaves, there are birds everywhere and the pool covers are off, so it has to be spring. The photo above was hastily snapped early this morning as the task of clearing the last reminders of the long winter continue. It was a very long and hard winter, with temperatures as low as I can recall, so just being outside enjoying the warmth of spring makes a big difference. Saturday and Sunday evenings were spent around the BBQ and helped set the stage for more entertaining to come.

However, the inclusion of this photo is also a reminder that the house is up for sale with the real work beginning this week. Repairs and maintenance have been aggressively pursued since early December and just this last week, further landscaping was completed. The fountains are working and we have an icemaker! The home looks as good as it ever has and this week there will be a formal open house, arranged by our realtor, for a group of invited guests. Right now, with the house prepped the way it is, our realtor is all smiles!

While it is still way too early to talk about where we will next reside, there is no doubt there will be a place somewhere along the Colorado front ranges, but with the work emphasis once again swinging back to California, there’s a distinct possibility that a second residence may be acquired. However, from previous experiences and with one eye ever watchful over tax implications, our next home may indeed be in Nevada. It’s a canvas with some paint applied but at this time, it’s hard to tell if there’s a picture taking shape. 

Last month, I enjoyed an afternoon behind the wheel of the Corvette Z06. This has been our track car for a couple of years now and the more outings I have the more we are convinced we should have started out with the Z06, manual and all. The Vette is a delight to drive and extremely forgiving – with so much torque. From turn 1 at Willow Springs to turn 1 and turn 4 at High Plains Raceway, it only take a little braking effort with no down-change to 3rd gear required as the torque simply pulls the car all the way through the exit. In so doing, the Vette remains well settled and better set up for the corners that follow.

However, with the late start of the season following the hard winter, the Vette is going in for service as I am working to better cool the transmission – a higher rated fluid is being introduced as well the installation of a more accessible fluid reservoir. Minor work, but with my travel schedule this past month and into next, the next time on track for the Vette will be early July when I take the big rig across to southern California for a return engagement with the folks of NASA SoCal. This is an annual trek the whole family enjoys and ever since we acquired the RV, our entertainment central and overall, weekend command center, life trackside has never been better.

As I mentioned in the last post, May was to see me travelling to client meetings in both southern and northern California and it’s a trip I always enjoy taking. The route to southern California would be via Las Vegas, and in a departure from stop-overs of the past, I elected to stay at the Hilton alongside Lake Vegas. Yes, that’s right, Lake Vegas – who could have guessed? The Hilton is joined by the Westin as one of two hotels that anchor a lakeside village and its exploration gave me my first inkling that there was a lot more to Vegas than the strip. Perhaps a small lakeside dwelling would be the shot for our next residence! 

The two photos’ here depict different parts of the hotel – the one immediately above a reminder of Florence’s famous medieval arched bridge, The Ponte Vecchio, that spans the Arno River. The photo above that? The courtyard at the back of the Hilton Lake Vegas, leading to the village, and it could have been taken in any one of many locations across Italy. Perhaps it was the overall European small village atmosphere that attracted me and next month, when I return to Las Vegas for HP’s annual marketing event, I will more than likely pay this hotel a return visit.

Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club is just a dozen or so miles away and with the prospect of that becoming a regular venue for weekend track sessions certainly makes a life in Vegas worth deeper consideration. Of course, the restaurants and entertainment are hard to overlook, but the big item here is that winters are mild and there’s very little chance of having to shovel snow. So often, the obvious is ignored and having spent the better part of eight years passing through Las Vegas on the way to somewhere else, perhaps it’s time to give the town a closer look.

The biggest selling point of a weekend in Vegas has to be the quality of the restaurants now open for business. Of course, that immediately calls out for attention Mastro’s Ocean Club restaurant in Crystals at CityCenter. With all the cross-country commuting to Simi Valley, if it wasn’t for Mastro’s in Thousand Oaks, life would have been a lot harder to take. Looking at the options we have along the front ranges, there are several establishments that approach the quality level of Mastro, and yet, ultimately, they aren’t Mastro!

I had to laugh about it but all the same, I just had to stop by the Ferrari and Maserati display in the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel. The background here is worth revisiting as it was referenced briefly in the post of February 18, 2009, in my business blog, Real Time View. In that post, Game changers! I included a photo outside a car display set up at the Palazzo Hotel as I couldn’t get into Wynn’s back then. Well, for free, that is – you had to pay a fee if you didn’t own a Ferrari or a Maserati. However, this time, I walked in and flashed my key fob and was greeted with a warm and friendly smile.

Among the display cars were some Indy cars including those driven by Andretti and Mears. I candidly remarked that the display looked as though it was an upmarket pawn shop featuring those cars lost when big bets turned sour, but it didn’t generate anything near the warm and friendly smile I received on entry. It would have only cost me $10 to enter, but having spent as much as I did on the Maserati, it was now free – what a deal! The math just speaks for itself!

This is the 100th anniversary of Maserati and the events being planned to celebrate the occasion are growing – and yes this includes a special package trip to Maserati’s headquarters in Modena – but my calendar for 2014 isn’t cooperating. However, as disappointing as this is proving to be, there’s not enough that can be said about touring in a Maserati. It blends just the right mix of power and comfort you would expect from a modern grand tourer and with most of Interstate 15 that crosses Utah posted at 80 mph (131 kph) it can stretch its legs and cover a lot of ground. 

Having time to make the trip to northern California a more leisurely affair, I elected to drive California’s highway one – the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH. A perennial favorite, I will drive this road every chance I get, and with clear skies and no evidence of an afternoon’s drive being spoiled by low hanging ocean fog, it would be a quick pit stop for fuel at Cambria and then I would be off. Standing by the side of the Maserati I watched a local patrolman drive by and then pull a U-turn that brought him back to the same gas pump. He was driving one of the GM Caprice police cars – the stretched version of the Holden Commodore – and he came over to me with a huge smile on his face.

“It’s one of the first GM cars on the force,” he said. “It has the Corvette V8 and the brakes are great. Just wish it had a little more clearance as I have to take to the back roads on occasion.” As soon as I responded he realized I was an Australian and he was quick with the response. “So, you know what this car is capable of then, but all the same, would you like to swap for an afternoon? I don’t know who would create the bigger surprise!” Sometimes, you just run into an officer who is friendly and in this case, we talked some more, but there would be no ‘get out of jail for free’ card on offer. As I pulled out of the station his eyes followed me every inch of the way – was he just giving me a head start, I wondered?

Missing out on time at the track certainly cannot be countered with touring pursuits and yet, selecting the Maserati as I had done on this occasion went a long way to offset any disappointment I felt. Next outing for the Vette will be to Willow Springs and it will be a return visit to southern California, but with the RV I will likely overnight in Vegas. It will be a battle for the AC unit to keep the temperature down, but it will mean getting yet another take on life in Sin City. Lived in a trailer? Sure have – and got the tee shirt to prove it! For now, however, it is back to Villa Lyon and to whether it will find a buyer for a reasonable price, but who knows? Next post may see more of the future picture colored in, but whatever transpires, there’s still plenty more track sessions to come and about that, the picture is less oblique. As my good friend Brian would say, go Vette, go!