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!