COTA Blitz: The Big Event

Sunday, June 11

I woke up a few minutes before 2am to a bit of a racket coming from upstairs. Was somebody doing jumping jacks in the room above me? Running in place? Definitely calisthenics. A few minutes later it was quiet. By now it had become obvious to me the true reason I woke up. Let’s just say I was having some gastric distress, perhaps a side effect of the tasty tacos.

I woke up for real at a quarter to 6. Got showered and checked out of the hotel. In the days leading up to my trip I kept an eye on the Austin weather forecast. A few days earlier the forecast for Sunday in Austin was 93 degrees. That didn’t sound bad to me, but I wasn’t taking the humidity into account. I had to wipe the windshield down with paper towels, there was so much dew.

On the way to the track, the sun was a red ball sitting on the horizon and a thin layer of ground fog filled the low spots in the land. There was no traffic. I didn’t see three cars together the whole way until I pulled into the gate at the track behind a silver Elise and a Porsche.

The track’s waiver wristband is pretty cool, as these things go. It’s a tubular fabric secured with a one-way sliding bead. Takes a pretty sharp blade to remove, I found out later. “Have you ever been here before? Know where you’re going?” Not me. “Through the tunnel, past the gas pumps, down a ramp on the right.”

This is a giant facility. It’s not as big a piece of land as Road America, but measured by the infrastructure it dwarfs everything else. Big grandstands, big parking lots, big video monitors, expansive garages. It has an amphitheater. For all that it is, I really didn’t see that much of it. The interesting bits, for sure, but I never left the garage area and the track surface. I’d like to attend the F1 race and see the place in the usual way.

At the bottom of the ramp the first car I see is a yellow Elise. It had the full aero package – big wing, splitter, big diffuser, half a set of side skirts. “Is this the Lotus parking?”

“Yep, pull right up.” Thus I met Eric and his wife. They are clear evidence I’m not the only one who makes trips like this. They lived here in Austin for a while, not long ago. They live in Detroit now, after a stint in the UK. On their way here they did a track day at Autobahn near Chicago. He’s run lots of European tracks and spent a lot of time at the Nürburgring. When he lived here in Austin he was a member at nearby Harris Hill Raceway. He reckons he’s done on the order of two hundred track days. He bought the Elise new back in 2004 and has made a number of upgrades. In addition to the aero, it’s supercharged and has all the requisite suspension bits. He’s run many laps here at COTA.

We walked over to the registration desk together. We got a schedule, an aerial picture of the track – not a map, and the turns were not numbered. My pack included two wristbands, the yellow one to indicate my group and the “tie-died” one to signify I’m a solo driver. After my experience with Hooked-On-Driving, and given the cost of the event, I expected them to have numbers available to us. At HOD they were five bucks for the set. Surely they’d have them here. Alas, that was not the case and many of us used painters tape.

We began festivities with the drivers meeting. For me it was actually two consecutive drivers meetings as we had our yellow group meeting immediately after. In both meetings we discussed the usual topics – signalling, passing rules, and flags. When they got to the debris flag, it went like this: “We’ll show it for one lap. After that, be aware that the debris may still be on the track. The flagger needs to be ready to show other flags so the debris flag won’t be shown continuously. The debris could be a part from a car, or it could be a critter like a turtle or rabbit.” I’ve seen birds and squirrels and ground dogs and, yes, rabbits. But never a turtle.

After the drivers meeting I had just a few minutes before my group was out. I got both cameras mounted and running. When I’m in a hurry is when I make mistakes, like not being sure the camera is running. Today is my first time running two cameras. Level up! On the drive yesterday my suction cup mount for the phone came unstuck. The heat killed it and I was unsuccessful getting it to work. So the phone spent the day in my pocket. It works, but I don’t like it. Since I can’t see it until after the session is over I have no idea how I’m doing on the track. The feedback is valuable.

Now I’m feeling the anticipation of that first lap, that first time on an F1 track. I’m pretty much only minimally prepared. Chad kept offering to bring his sim rig over so I could practice, but I declined. I watched several you tube videos. I searched for cars similar to mine to get an idea of the speed. Any videos I found with data were Exiges or supercharged Elises. The NA ones I found didn’t even have lap times. But I thought I at least knew which way the track went.

The first session I was at sea. I really had no idea where to put the car. The track is wider than others I’ve been on (though not as wide as I was expecting). There appear to be a number of different lines of rubber down. Whenever I was following two cars, they both ran different lines and neither looked particularly great to me. I struggled particularly with the esses.

My very first lap, the out lap on my first session, I saw a turtle on the rumble strip in the esses. It didn’t register with me. What did I see? A piece of bodywork? The next lap was carnage. The scene changed every time I drove through it. It wasn’t until our after session meeting that I learned what it was. One of the guys said he thought the shell was part of a brake disk.

After my first session, I took the SLR and went in search of my Lotus people. Including me, there were eight Lotus: five Elises (mine, two yellow, one silver, one red), two Evoras (silver and blue), and a black Exige.

The silver Evora belonged to Richard. He’s English. The Evora is not his first Lotus. He has a Rover Elise at his dad’s house in the old country. He still goes back and drives it.

The second yellow Elise was driven by an instructor here. He told me he had a busy day yesterday. He ran in all the groups except blue and logged 159 track miles.

The silver Elise was another Eric. I see very few Elige drivers wearing kneepads. Eric was. This naturally led me to relate the ordeal of the camshafts, with the result that my kneepads are missing, along with the rest of the contents in the box. He kindly donated his other kneepad to me. “I have a bunch of them, use them for go-karting. You can keep that one.”

I never did track down the owner of the red Elise. The black Exige was Rich, and his wife drove the blue Evora. I only talked to Rich briefly and never did make the acquaintance of his wife.

I didn’t think to ask the organizers about the car count. There were a lot of cars there. There were probably a hundred cars in the garages and more, like me, spread across the paddock. I’d guess at least twenty five cars were in the yellow group. At one time I found myself tenth in a string of fifteen cars. The corner workers just displayed the blue flag to everybody.

Before the second session I was talking to a guy who was driving a BMW. I told him how I was struggling to find my way. He offered to ride with me and give me pointers. Only instructors can be passengers, and he had the proper wristband. I didn’t realize he as an instructor, as he wasn’t adhering to the published dress code. But, sure, hop in. I told him I wouldn’t be able to hear him. He didn’t say or do anything the first lap, watching where I was going wrong. The second lap he started with some hand signals. He corrected my line in a couple of places and suggested an early fourth gear in the carousel.

With my passenger’s tips I was able to improve my time by about a second. I always wonder how big a penalty in lap times a passenger is worth. Even without his instruction, I’d have been faster in the second session than the first. It’s just a matter of how much. The only number I could hang my hat on was top speed. I managed 118 in the first session but only 114 with the instructor. I picked up three seconds in the third session and another in the fourth.

There were quite a few interesting cars – lots of Ferraris, a few Audi A8’s (all together in the same garage), a couple McLarens, and the usual large numbers of Corvettes, Porsches, BMW’s, and Mustangs. Also a few Dodges, including a Hellcat. In an afternoon session I pointed the Hellcat by me then managed to keep up with him until the end of the checker. He pulled far ahead of me on the straights, but I always closed up on him quickly under braking. That car weighs 4200 pounds and he struggled in the twisty bits. I talked to him after the session. The car is only a few weeks old, and it was his first track day.

My goals for the day were to turn a 2:50 lap and hit a top speed of 120mph. I never did accomplish the lap target, doing a best of 2:51.3, and on that lap did manage 120.5mph on the back straight. I’m confident that I could do the 2:50 if I had another day. By late afternoon I think the temperature was not in my favor on my street tires. In the final session I was getting sideways a lot. It was great fun, but doesn’t make for quick laps.

After lunch we were offered a tour of race control. I was expecting big things, this being an F1 track. It was somewhat better appointed than race control at HPR. Instead of two or three monitors showing all the camera views, there was a wall of screens showing dozens of cameras. One screen was devoted to a list of all black flag incidents. For today’s event, only a couple of people were working. For Formula One the place would be packed.

Our meetings were held in one of the rooms above the garages. You enter from the back. There are several rows of seats directly above the pits and across from the main grandstand. I stood out here for a few minutes. When the high horsepower cars blasted up the main straight the building shook. I can only imagine what it’s like when a field of F1 cars go by.

The event organizers also do F1 viewing parties here at the track. If I wanted to watch the Canadian Grand Prix, all I had to do was sit there above the garages. I didn’t want to know the results, though, so I minimized my time there.

I wandered through the paddock and garages several times. There was a wide variety of interesting cars. I spotted a yellow Ferrari with Montana license plates, but didn’t find the owner.

I didn’t have a full tank of gas at the start of the day, so after three sessions I went to the gas pumps on site. They had regular unleaded for about thirty cents a gallon more than typical retail in the area and 93 octane for five bucks a gallon. They also had high octane race fuel at eight bucks. I pumped three gallons of 93 hoping that would get me through the day. In the end, I cut the last session short by a lap or two because my low fuel light came on.

My last session was due to start at 4:00 and end at 4:20, but things got delayed a bit. There was a charity event of some kind. A bunch of Ferraris lined up at the back of the garage. They did some parade laps. I was standing next to one of the event organizers and heard a message on her radio: “No more than fifty miles an hour!” I told her I thought that hardly seemed fair. She said they were giving rides to blind kids. I bet they got a kick out of the sound and motion, even at slow speeds.

With the small delay, I didn’t get out of there until about five o’clock. After nearly not getting a room the previous night in Clayton I made reservations in Snyder. That meant I didn’t really have the option of finding a room any earlier. And with an ETA in Snyder of nearly 10pm it meant some more night driving.

It felt good to get out of the driving suit. It was pretty toasty and with the humidity the heat index was probably about a hundred. For the last session I briefly considered ditching the suit. If they let instructors out in shorts and short sleeved shirts, why not me. But I was a good boy and kept the suit on. Even with the heat, I felt pretty good at the end of the day. I’d been diligent about drinking a lot of water. Although I wasn’t exactly looking forward to five more hours behind the wheel, I wasn’t fatigued at all.

Note

I’m waiting on an email from the official photographer and expect to have those photos by the middle of next week. I’m also working on putting together a video or two. I’ll post an addendum when I have the images.

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