Barber Trip 4: Raison d’être

I figured that it would be my luck that it would rain the entire weekend. After all, the track day gods have been, for more than a year, testing my resolve to run laps at Barber. Last year’s broken windshield and electrical problems and this year’s trailer hitch into my front clam and now my inability to lock the car. It would be trivial for the track day gods to park a rain cloud over the track.

Saturday was overcast most of the day. I saw my shadow for about 15 minutes. Overcast, but not threatening rain. There was much discussion in the paddock about the forecast for Sunday. I’d rather it not rain, but I won’t have any say in the matter so I don’t obsess about it. I had two people show me Sunday forecasts that were quite different. Some said rain at 3:00 pm, others said rain at 7:00 am. It did rain on Sunday, but it was over before 6:00 am.

Driving on the wet pre-dawn roads to the track, I couldn’t know that the weather would be good. I had been joking about the track day gods testing my resolve, exacting a heavy toll. The gods didn’t bring another deluge down upon my head, but they weren’t done with me yet. A quarter of a mile from the entrance to the facility, my check engine light came on.

I texted a screenshot of the code to my trusted advisors, cleared the code, and went on with my business. It’s an O2 sensor. The code hasn’t come back.

This is my third event with Chin Track Days, with a two-day event at Mid-Ohio and last year’s aborted run at Road Atlanta being the others. This experience taught me a few things. First is that Chin Events are more expensive than most. On a per-day basis, including this trip, my five Chin days are five of the six most expensive events. Only a day at Circuit of the Americas was more.

The second nugget of information, related to the first no doubt, is that the vast majority of cars entered are fast and expensive. I neglected to save a copy of the roster before the event (and Chin won’t share that info with me after the event), but the number of Porsche 911 GT3s and GT4s is off the chart. Average cost per car is higher than any other event I’ve been to, except the Ferrari customer appreciation days.

They put me in the Yellow group. This group includes all the novices and the solo intermediate drivers who haven’t been to this track before. I think It’s the best group for me. Passing is by point-by only, and only on the straights. Other groups are point-by, but passes can be done anywhere. Another advantage to this group is that it could get smaller. After Saturday, some yellow group drivers may graduate to a higher group leaving less traffic for me.

And, theoretically, running with the novices might mean that some of these fast cars won’t be going so fast because the drivers haven’t figured things out yet. A downside might be that novice drivers are struggling to cope with information overload and may not be as attentive as they should be to their rear-view mirrors.

Okay, enough prelude. On to the track.

What a track it is. The first thing I noticed, even in the pre-dawn dark, was that there is art all over the grounds. It’s mostly sculptures, from a giant woman soaking in a pond, to a bear in the woods, to trolls peeking out from under drain covers. There are impressions of leaves in the concrete like fossils, there’s a skunk on the stairs, there are giant dragonflies and metal insects. There’s a small herd of bison in the infield being hunted by some big cats. And a giant spider. Three different people told me “Barber is the Augusta of race tracks!” I’m not a golf fan, so the allusion is lost on me, but if everybody says it, it must be true!

Each day at a Chin event, the first session is open to drivers from all run groups. It’s a yellow-flag session, no passing allowed, to allow folks, especially those of us new to the track, to familiarize ourselves with the track and locate all the corner workers.

Two pedestrian bridges cross the track. I later walked across these bridges when I visited the museum. On my first lap of the yellow-flag session, I spotted the hanging lady under the first bridge. It’s a mannequin, and she’s hanging by her arms underneath the bridge. It was a little jarring, given the lynched doll I spotted hanging over the road yesterday in Mississippi. For just an instant, it freaked me out.

After that session, one of the other drivers asked me if I’d seen her. Of course I did! He told me that he ran an entire day without spotting her. He didn’t know about her until one of his friends asked him at the end of the day if he’d seen her. How can you go under that bridge 40 or 50 times in a day without noticing? Is it an unintentional test of a driver’s observational skills?

There are a couple of other notable mannequins on the track. There are two of them sitting on the wall where the cars enter the pits. I’m not sure if one of the mannequins is pushing the other off the wall or not. I’ll admit to another quick feeling of shock when I first saw them.

I have a practice of walking through the paddock looking for other Lotus drivers. For a short while, four of us were registered but two canceled. The only other Lotus was a blue 2005 Elise. I chatted briefly with the owner. He’s an instructor, his car is supercharged (265hp, he tells me), and he’s running on slicks. I tried to track him down a couple of times on Sunday, but we never reconnected. I was going to jokingly ask him if I could run a few laps on his slicks.

As usual, I’m running on my hard street tires. I get a lot of grief about it. Not so much grief on these road trips, but most track rats make it sound like they run on slicks or not at all. I’m not racing, so I don’t really care how my lap times compare to others. I’m competing with myself. How close to “maximum performance” can I get? For me, the skill is getting as close to the edge of performance as I possibly can. With hard tires, you get to the edge at a slower speed.

This weekend, though, I think I’d have been happier on stickier tires. There were only two cars in my group that were slower than I was. I looked at all the videos to count how often I was passed, but I did count passes in one session: I got passed 13 times and made 3 passes. If that was a typical number of passes in a session, and it was, over the course of 8 sessions I was passed well over 100 times.

Every time I pointed somebody by, it cost me about a second. Getting passed on the front straight compromises two laps. To get a decent time, I needed a “clean” lap – neither passing nor being passed. Because I was so slow, I got passed nearly every lap. Some of the Porsches were fast enough that I didn’t need to get off the throttle to let them by, but there were so many of them, I couldn’t always tell before the pass if I had to lift.

Had I been on my track wheels/tires, I reckon I’d have been 6 or 8 seconds a lap faster. That would have been fast enough to get me quite a few more clean laps. Cars that passed me twice would have only caught me once. And I’d have sometimes gotten an extra lap.

I didn’t have a target lap time in mind. My goal is constant improvement: to be faster in my last session than in my first. This I achieved: my fastest lap of the weekend was my very last lap. And that lap was compromised by letting a Porsche pass me on the front straight. Even with these tires, given a few extra clean laps, I might have reached a 1:50 lap time. Tall order, yes, as my best was a 1:53. But in one session, my timer said my optimal time was 1:49.

In addition to my eight sessions as a member of the Yellow group, each day ended with “happy hour” where people from any session could run. I joined in near the end of the session, thinking there’d be fewer cars. I lasted only 2 or 3 laps each day. On Saturday, I was getting passed left and right without giving point-bys. That didn’t happen on Sunday, so I’m guessing somebody mentioned it. In any event, the other cars were just too fast for me to enjoy myself and it was clear I stood no chance of getting a clean lap. So it goes.

Here are some more photos, including the giant spider.

I had a great time. I spent two days hanging out with people who share a common passion. Everybody played nice on the track. Nobody bumped into anything, but there was one red flag. A brand new Toyota Corolla GR lost its oil drain plug in turn 15 and spilled oil all the way down the main straight and into turn 1, where he spun out on his own oil. I’m guessing the track charged him four figures for the oil-dry they had to deploy.

Here’s the obligatory lap video.

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