Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Once more, an opportunity to enjoy time together on the road

Can’t escape it any more. Road trips mean all but one car stay behind. These days, with our off-premise storage housing our Corvette and trailer as well as our RV, the company command center, it means that our Jeep SUV and the mean-looking Bimmer M4 will be locked away. In all seriousness, who wouldn’t opt for the Bimmer i8 with its miserly demand for fuel? Never experienced anything like it before – it is even better on the gas mileage than any of our cruiser motorcycles! We had a very minor scrape on our trip to Dallas a couple of months ago, but it was all repaired nicely and now, with our minds at ease over how it looks, we have chosen the i8 for the last two business trips we have taken. After all, it is set aside for business purposes and it meets the demands of business easily.

However there is more to this tale than simply the choice of vehicles. Whereas the previous month’s trip had been to California and took in many miles along its famous coastline, this time we drove deep into the heartland of America. We would be passing through Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana on our way to Ohio. For my Australian friends, this is probable the equivalent to driving deep into the interior of Australia. If the trip from Sydney to Adelaide is just over 850 miles, we covered more than 1,400 miles, each way, which for the benefit of our European friends is more like taking a trip from Frankfurt to Lisbon.  Which reminds me that that would be a fun trip to do with a choice of many different routes. Ohio in August can be very, hot but not this time as we encountered wet weather for most of our time in Columbus where our meetings took place.

After more than two years driving the i8, what has been our impression of the driving experience? Once you get accustomed to the piped-in engine noise (a reminder that for every action there is a reaction so yes, hitting the gas pedal hard should make the engine sound angry), it is among the most relaxing of cars we have ever owned. Better than the 5-series and 7-series Bimmers we have owned in the past and considerably quieter than the sports cars we tend to gravitate towards. 

However, the decision to get the i8 was driven by the fact that we see it as the future for cars. We haven’t been big fans of pure electric vehicles but hybrids? Out here in the west, with the roads we chose to drive on, we never wanted to face any restrictions based on range, so hybrids looked to be our best bet. Are there even any fast charging stations way out in the middle of America’s loneliest highway, US highway 50? We have never seen any but then again, when it comes to the i8, power train options aside, it's always been easy to attract passengers!

So, how has this hybrid performed over the years we have had it and the nearly 20,000 miles we have driven. One word perhaps comes to mind almost immediately – stupendous. This car meets, or exceeds nearly every criteria we set for it. It’s all-wheel drive when it needs to be. It’s pure electric when we tool around town, so much so that those standing nearby simply don’t hear the car as it approaches them.

Hit the gas hard in order to pass more than one car on a two-lane highway and it leaps – perhaps not as much as our Viper or Nissan GT-R used to, but pretty close. As for the 6 speed gearbox, which we weren’t sure about at first, well, it matches all our needs all the time seamlessly and when we select manual mode and use the paddle shifter it’s lightning quick. Our M4 has a double-clutch automated manual and the two seem to be about the same as far as speed. Over the past two years we developed a system for packing bags into the car and even with the restricted trunk option, using the back seat – yes, it’s a true 2 + 2 exotic – we haven’t had any trouble packing for a long trip. 

We broke the trip into three stages, giving us around 450 miles to cover in any given day. That meant we had one day where we covered an excess of 500 miles, but at no time did we experience any discomfort, seating wise. Again, the seats look kind of skinny on first sight but they have proved to be exceptionally comfortable on our longer trips. No complaints whatsoever in this department. The infotainment system though, well, what can we say. It’s more hit or miss than anything that looks routine but since we only use the SAT radio and Navigation, we seem to muddle through most of the time.

We are now onto our second set of tires – the first lasting 15,000+ miles before becoming as bald as they could be and still be drivable. Our previous trip to California had me checking the depth of their tread each morning as we headed back home but there was just enough to ensure we could corner the car as we normally did. However, when the tires arrived from TireRack and we saw old up against new we could see that we definitely got our money’s worth from the originals. As for brake wear, rotors and pads are still all good and will see out the three years we planned on keeping the car. We did replace a cracked front windscreen almost a year ago, which was a saga as no one but BMW can see the drive train and of course, the front window required material that pulled away from the hood revealing the electric motors so only a “specialist” BMW’s window replacement company could do the work. And no, I still haven’t seen any of the drivetrain of the i8 after all this time.  

You pass many big rigs out on the highways of America. So much is transported by these behemoths that after a while, you pretty much ignore their presence on the road. However, every now and then you come across something that tells its own story. This time we passed three bright red Firestone transporters. We have seen these rigs a couple of times before, trackside, at major motor sports events. When it comes to Indy races, Firestone provides the tires and as each event is set up, you can walk past stacks of tires, mounted to wheels, with driver names and car numbers clearly visible on each stack. Firestone collects all the tires after each event and then brings brand new ones to the next event with a choice of tire hardness provided in accordance with the requirements of Indy – sometimes they are hard compounds whereas at other times they can be super soft and of course, there is always a liberal supply of wet weather tires. 

Passing these big transporters had us speculating about where they were headed but as the weekend for Indy was going to be at the Pocono “triangle” course on the eastern side of Pennsylvania, just a tad south of Interstate 80, this time they would be transporting fresh tires for all the participants. At this time, if you haven’t already heard the news there was a horrific high-speed crash that hospitalized the rookie driver, Robert Wickens, who in earlier years would simply have not survived the crash – the carbon fiber “tubs” utilized in both Indy and F1 are practically indestructible – and with speeds in excess of 210 mph, the energy that needs to be dissipated following a crash wreaks unimaginable destruction on all components. Safe to say, the Indy community let out its collective breath once the news broke that Wickens was cognizant of his surroundings as he was airlifted to a hospital.

Seeing this transporter did remind us both that next month, we will be taking to the road once again as we head to Sonoma to see the final race of the year for the Indy cars. We will be joining our good friends Brian and Jan Kenny and together, with the RVs, we will be entertaining (and being entertained) by folks close to the Andretti team as Bryan Herta is the Kenny’s son-in-law. One immediate benefit for me is that a quick email exchange with Bryan got me a pay-to-ride seat in the Andretti Indy car (the two-seater, fighter pilot style), where I will enjoy two hot laps of the Sonoma track and experience what it really is like inside a modern Indy car. 

I am sure there will be a post to follow so look for it late next month. Again, many thanks to Bryan and to the Andretti organization! One final note about Sonoma? Grandson Colton Herta may take the seat of a real Indy car for the first time but at this stage this is as much me being hopeful as it is anchored in anything real. With only a handful of races left in the Indy Lights series, Colton is in second place and next year, we will likely be able to watch him running full time in Indy. So fingers crossed! Regardless; getting my own ride on the Sonoma track in an Indy car? Priceless!

Of course, once we had settled into our hotel in Columbus, Ohio, it meant finding a good place to eat. Unfortunately, where we were meant that there really wasn’t any fine dining options to be found! With little fuss or push back, we spent our first evening at an English Pub, the Old Bag of Nails Pub in the company of good friends Tim and Craig! Suffice to say, it provided a variety of pub food selections so it was time to chow down on fish and chips. The next night we hit a BBQ smokehouse and then on our last night, it was Chinese. Nothing to get excited about and nothing to write home about! However, the company we had each night was good as we were with old friends from the time we all worked for Insession – the Australian company that moved its head office to Boulder before selling to ACI Worldwide. Those were great times for all of us so, as you could expect, what followed were many conversations covering shared experiences.

The drive home was different. On a previous trip where we took the Maserati GTS to Toronto, Canada, we stopped in at Indianapolis where we overnighted before driving all the way back  on US highway 36 that ends in Estes Park, Colorado. This time, we overnighted in Peoria, Illinois, before driving all the way back on US highway 34 that, like 36, ended in Estes Park. Why the two highways, starting in Chicago, finished up in the tourist spot, Estes Park, we have no idea but now we have driven both of them and this is a continuation of our desire to spend time on highways apart from the interstates. You cannot drive them at the speeds set for the interstates but you see so much more as you drive through small townships and many, many, almost ghost towns.

But then, once home, there was the obligatory washing of the car which we did the very next day and with that, we once again parked the car in the garage alongside the M4. Musing to ourselves, the next trip we take will be in the M4, but then we realized our next trip would involve the company command center so no, the M4 will just have to wait. As we closed the garage door we wondered what stories will the i8 share with the M4?  And just like that, we closed the door on yet one more adventure on America’s open road and headed through the door for the evening’s first martini!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Ridin’ the storm out …

To begin with, our outing to High Plains Raceway (HPR) was anything but a routine track weekend. While this is the tenth year of going to road courses and trying our hand behind the wheel of one car or another, we were returning to our home track after three plus years. Not entirely of our own doing, mind you, but being homeless last year with all of our cars in storage while we lived out of our company command center, our comfy RV, afforded us little opportunity for weekends at the track. In the years before becoming homeless, Margo had undergone complex back surgery that limited her appearances more or less anywhere there were cars. And then of course, our grandkids decided to show up, but that did leave us with twin boys that have proved to be a lovable handful!

But no longer do we have to put stops to our plans; we pulled the RV and the red Corvette out of storage, hooked up our trailer to the RV and loaded the Corvette having applied the appropriate numbers and decals mandatory for such an outing. The weekend of track time was organized by the National Auto Sports Association (NASA), with an open lapping day Friday preceding the more formal weekend program NASA typically runs. Open lapping was just for those who had signed up for the NASA weekend, so it wasn’t terribly crowded. Even as we were pretty pumped to get behind the wheel of the Corvette we considered it more than prudent to get out there the afternoon before the NASA event proper so as to reacquaint ourselves to the track. Although, after nearly a decade visiting HPR and racking up probably a thousand laps, it didn’t hurt to give it one more look as you never know, HPR Manager, Glen, may have made changes in our absence.

The plan was to run four 30 minute session Friday afternoon and to make it even more livelier we invited good friend and former Tandem Computers colleague, Jim Miller, together with his wife Dale, to join us with the option for Jim to be a passenger in the Corvette for at least one outing. The plan was to also put up the grill and cook a nicely marinated tri tip steak supported by appletinis – our traditional “end of sessions” beverage whenever we are trackside for the evening. Nothing could possibly go wrong, now could it? The Corvette, a C5 Z06 that is completely stock save for a few beefed-up components like brakes, suspension and drive train along with more temperature-tolerant fluids and oils, remains an ideal choice to run on this two plus mile road course. And for the majority of Friday afternoon, everything went to plan. 

However HPR management, concerned about how the weather was developing, elected to simply throw the track open to anyone who cared to finish the day with “just a few more laps.” Having already completed three thirty minute sessions I was feeling very confident about the way the Corvette was running and with my own progress over the course of the afternoon. While muscle memory was helping me out a great deal, the first session had really been an eye-opener as I was hesitant to push the Corvette as hard as I knew I was capable of doing. However, as I left the pits and entered the track for those last couple of laps, little did I know what would lie ahead of me. The clouds looked ominous, true, but how bad could it get?

After two laps I was just settling into a rhythm – this is, after all, a track that rewards a smooth driver – and heading into turns four and five that led to Danny’s Lesson, a tricky tight decreasing radius horseshoe turn, I came eye-to eye with a tornado that was on the ground just on the other side of the main road paralleling the track. Wow! As I had never seen a tornado before I was curious and took a good long look at it. The sky had darkened considerably doing little to mask the menace the tornado represented. There was no moon in sight, mind you! Just an eerie sense of imminent doom!

Unfortunately, my passenger Jim didn’t share my interest in the twister and implored me to get back to the infield as quick as I could. The track at HPR is now bordered by electronic boards in lieu of flags and at each flag station bunker, they would flash yellow, red, etc. lights in much the same way as flag marshals would – but of course, there are no black lights. In the place of the black flag, HPE has programmed the lights to alternate red and blue (emulating a police cars lights) and when I encountered this pseudo black light, I knew everyone else was taking the tornado very seriously.

So how close did the tornado get to our car? Pulling into the pits Bob, a racer with NASA, snapped a photo and when I saw it, I realized the tornado had been only a hundred yards or so away. Needless to say, no sooner than I had pulled up to the RV than the heavens opened and the rain came down in bucket loads! All I could think of was that old 1970s song by REO Speedwagon: 
Ridin' the storm out, waitin' for the thaw out
On a full moon night in the Rocky Mountain winter

This was a far from a routine event. To say there was a moment or two where I began to question my decision to take the Corvette out to HPR was an understatement. But then, in a matter of just a few minutes, it was all over and the clouds began to part and before long, we had blue sky overhead once again. Forget the moon, the sun was out! That’s not unusual for storms like this – they appear suddenly and just as quickly, they are gone. Fortunately, it all happened before dinner so we were able to shake a couple of martinis and grill the tri tip steak! And enjoy the company of Jim and Dale for the evening.

Saturday was a whole different ball game as NASA began its two day event for HPDE drivers and racers. The early morning driver meeting went smoothly enough coming as it always does after a couple of slow laps around the infield looking for where Tech Inspect has set up its desk. Yes, for HPDE, each car is checked for roadworthiness, safety and each time the Corvette is checked out I am always just a bit nervous as I am never sure what has changed from the previous outing. Given the three plus year break, I was sure to be hit with something and it happened! The life of my safety harness was coming to an end and I would be required to change it shortly, but for this weekend, I would be good.

The driver meeting quickly wrapped up and we all headed for our cars. We were the second group on track and we were all pretty keen to see what the track looked like after the torrential downpour that followed the brief appearance of the tornado. Key issue for me out on track was, yet again, my lack of sustained concentration together with quickly falling into bad habits. In many ways, I started the day in cruise control, braking too early and for too long and not getting on the gas quickly enough (or hard enough) as I rounded each corners’ apex. All rookie mistakes to be sure which left me giving “point by” passing to everyone on track!

When NASA Rocky Mountain puts together a weekend program for HPDE drivers, it usually involves combining HPDE 1 and 2 groups, running a separate HPDE 3 group and then another combination but with the much more experienced HPDE 4 group running with those drivers pursuing Time Trials or TT. Not so this weekend. I am currently a HPDE 3 driver and for the Saturday sessions, HPDE3 would be combined with HPDE 4, with the upshot being that there would be forty plus advanced drivers on track.

Compounding the situation was the addition of those drivers looking to gain their competition licenses to oud expanded group and they would be doing some very interesting drills while on track, including running off-line and far away from what the HPDE drivers viewed as the racing line. Should be fun, we were all told as fleeting glances were exchanged among the group. Lining up in the hot pits meant there were two lines of twenty plus cars snaking around the concrete wall all the way back to the RVs parked on the infield. 
Having spent Friday on track for as much time as I had circulating with mostly racers prepping their cars for the weekend, I wasn’t too fussed to be in such a large group and as the day progressed, I was able to work on a couple of aspects of my driving. I was clearly rusty following time away from the track so in many ways, it was like being back in HPDE 2 as I gradually came up to speed.

With Saturday’s lunch break came even more cars to the event to where parking space was hard to find and gradually, the only places left to park were on the grass well away from the infield. Even with my mid-morning arrival on Friday, I was relegated to the very back of the infield, barely visible among the other transporters and spectator vehicles. However, on track Saturday was notable for two items – the hold session was held under full coarse waving yellow flags as the moisture left behind after Friday evening’s storm gave rise to very foggy conditions, so much so that on Saturday morning there were bunkers with flag marshals that couldn’t see the next bunker. 

Observing flags is very important even when they are electronic flags depicted on LED light boards. Yellow means no passing; maintain your position and yes, drop back the speed just a tad. Run at eight tenths. So it was a surprise to hear during the post-session download that five or six cars passed under yellow and that at eight tenths, a couple of cars managed to get four wheels off the track. Put it down to first session nerves but at our level, this was unacceptable. It was a muted group that returned to their cars to prepare for the next session.

The second session was memorable only because the fog started to lift and we were able to pass pretty much everywhere on the track. Of course, we were cautioned about dive bombing corner entries and there was to be no passing once into the braking zones. All went well and then it was time for the luncheon adjournment. I took time to refill the Corvette with 98 octane gas and tried to relax; after lunch, that dreaded “third session” would be held and if history told me anything, this was the session where it all went to hell in a handbasket! And what a session it turned out to be …

If has become popular of late in competitive cooking shows for a commentator to throw in a surprise ingredient that has to be integrated into the meals being prepared and this is known as the “curve ball.” And NASA proved to be not all that different to one of those shows, announcing that the combined HPDE 3 and 4 groups along with the Competition folks would be waved off under a green flag. What this involved was driving around the track, under yellow, in single file at about seven tenths speed and then, after covering about three quarters of the circuit, bunch up into three groups with drivers pairing up behind a designated “pole sitter” who would then control the speed of the group. It was this driver’s responsibility to accelerate when the green flag began waving and for the dive into the first corner, there wouldn’t be any necessity to point-by anyone! 

It was on; given that the first turn was tight and could only really accommodate two cars, it was surprising to see this group manage their spacing and positioning in such a way where there was no NASCAR style door banging. Everyone behaved! Talk about the highlight of the day and as another curve ball, just I was about to pull out onto the track, a NASA “coach” jumped into my passenger seat to take a good look at my driving skills and after that start and with a couple of laps under our belt, he proved very helpful.

He immediately noticed how early and gently I was easing onto the brakes and then how cautiously I rolled onto the gas at the apex. A little more encouragement later and I had cut my brake point in half and powering on as I reached the apex really did the trick. At last, I was getting someone and the number of point bys I provided declined significantly. As the day came to an end it was time to fill the tank with gas and get it back into the garage.

I could do more of this and as the day came to an end, well, of course all I could do was think about the next outing which immediately brought a sizable frown to Margo’s face. Oh well … after so much fun, for me, I guess this will have to wait till next year as our calendar for the remainder of the year is already shot to pieces, but then again, I doubt we will be caught ridin’ out the storm any time soon! What an experience! And yes, extremely thankful to be able to park the Corvette, unscathed, in the garage once more.