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.

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