USGP, More Photos

I shot something like 800 pictures over the three days. Good thing the film is free.

I didn’t take a monopod because I read that they were prohibited. I also read that lenses longer than 10″ weren’t allowed. Neither was the case. I took my usual 15-85 zoom, which isn’t nearly long enough to properly shoot the cars on track. And I was so enamored with taking the 500mm lens rather than thinking it through. That lens is really good at being small and lightweight. But it’s slow, and the required adapter doesn’t help the optical qualities. I’d have been better served by taking the 70-200.

Of the 800 pictures, I only took 86 on race day.

In short, I failed to follow the 6P Principle.

This panorama was taken on the grass in front of the Turn 1 grandstands. The black rectangular object is not a video screen but a loudspeaker. It’s like a ribbon speaker.

An old Formula One car running in the Masters Historic Racing series. I didn’t get a program, and I haven’t found an entry list online, so I don’t know anything about the car or driver.

The pro photographers had a window in the fence directly below us. They’re right on the access road, and a van dedicated to moving these guys circulated the track on that road all day. These two had to coordinate what they were doing – it wouldn’t do to have one of them using the telephoto while the other is doing pans.

Another oldie.

This was the only guy I ever noticed shooting the wrong way. Nikon guy, no doubt.

More oldies.

This one came out better than I expected. Compare it to this one.

This was where we watched the race. This pano was taken Saturday. On Sunday there were more maybe three times as many people here.

2017 United States Grand Prix

This was Chad’s trip. He did all the heavy lifting, all the logistics. He reached out to me with a question phrased as a hypothetical: if you were to go to the Formula One race, would you go for race day or all three? Where would you sit? Next you know, he’s made lodging accommodations, ordered the tickets, and rented a Cadillac.

Thursday we’d drive Denver to Scott’s place in Liberty Hill, TX. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the track, and return Monday. Fifteen hours of driving each way, sandwiched around three long days. Our housing was sixty miles from the track, so another seven and a half hours in the car.

Most of the way there we followed my route from June, altered only for the different end point. We made one navigational error – in Lubbock where I didn’t see the exit for the loop road until too late. We violated both Rule #1 and Rule #2 without remorse, beginning and ending each day’s journey in the dark, and covering about a third of the miles on the Interstate.

When renting the car Chad elected to purchase the damage waiver. He thought it seemed a bit high, at just under a quarter of the week’s rental fee. I told him I never buy it, being covered between my credit card and my own insurance. But then again, I’ve never had any incidents.

It’s still total darkness at 6:30am in late October an hour west of Austin. I’m driving. We are making good time up a two lane state route. The car in front of us is just taillights, a bit ahead of the reach of our headlights. The lights ahead take a bit of a hop. A split second later our lights reach a deer carcass, dead center in our lane, dead. We hit it square, a quick crack/thud combination that lifted the car a bit.

No warning indicators illuminated, the car felt fine, nothing seemed out of whack. We pulled into a gas station in the next town a few miles up the road. The front fascia was broken, smeared with blood in three places, but not missing any pieces. An inspection of the undercarriage revealed a big bone wedged up against the exhaust. The car smelled vaguely of cooked meat for the next couple hours.

I’m guessing Chad was happy to have bought the damage waiver.

Having jumped ahead to nearly the end of the weekend, I’ll dispense with any pretense of chronological order.

We were slow to the track on Friday, but sorted out off-property parking right across the street. Our purpose Friday was to scout the best location for race day. Although the track is only slightly more than a mile longer than Mid-Ohio, it seems a lot bigger when you’re walking around it. We only managed to cover about half the territory, never venturing anywhere near turns nine, ten, and eleven.

We spent the most time on the hill above Turn 7, which has a nice view mostly over the fences, all the way back to Turn 2. There was no overtaking here, but we got to see the cars change direction several times. We could also see glimpses of the cars across the track, through 13 and 14 and then again through 18.

We also spent some time on the grass in front of the grandstands at Turn 1. This grandstand might be the best vantage point on the property. Get high enough, you can see a good chunk of the track, a prime overtaking area directly in front of you, the main straight below and to the left where nice field glasses or a long lens would let you see the action in the pits.

We were there for the Formula One cars, of course, but that’s not all. We also had some historic cars, the Formula Four support race, and people getting rides in the pair of two-seaters. The F1 cars were much quieter than I expected. Off throttle the engines make a noise like the hitting the rumble strips, but louder. Funny, I don’t hear it on TV. The historics sounded fantastic. I think the best sounding cars of the weekend were the two-seaters. High revving and loud, we could hear them from our parking spot.

The support paddock was open to all fans, and we got a nice look at the old cars. The paddocks at all the Champ Car events I’ve attended were much more crowded; this was surprisingly crowd-free. But we didn’t visit it on race day, so that probably made a big difference.

I don’t think they’re releasing attendance figures, and I’m not particularly adept at judging crowd sizes. At our parking lot, I asked one of the attendants how many cars they parked in their lot. He said last year it was 200 on Friday, 400 on Saturday, and 600 on Sunday. He also said there were more cars on Friday this year than there were last year. Last year’s attendance was reported at something like 290,000. So I’m guessing half of them for race day; and perhaps fifty thousand on Friday and a hundred on Saturday.

Slumming with the amateurs

In the minutes before the lights went out for the start, a group of skydivers jumped from planes overhead. At the Broncos games, they bring the game ball to midfield. Here they didn’t even land on the property. One was flying the US flag, another the Texas flag.

Texans are nuts for their flag. It’s flown everywhere. We passed dozens of ranches proudly flying both national and Texas flags. I always understood that the national flag should be flown higher than lesser flags; evidently Texans don’t see their flag as lesser than the US flag as it was without exception flown at the same height. They put it on everything. I’m used to seeing the Colorado or Arizona or California flags primarily as flags. Sure, they’re on the occasional building or t-shirt. But the Texas flag is everywhere. There were several designs of event tees available; more with the Texas flag than the US flag.

Casual

We were subject to some official misinformation. Materials we read indicated we couldn’t bring lenses longer than ten inches, and tripods, selfie-sticks, and monopods were strictly verboten. In actual fact, giant lenses and monopods were commonplace. Scott kindly lent me a monopod and one of his long telephotos.

I struggled with my reflex lens. I hand-held on Friday. Very difficult. Focusing was a challenge. With the monopod the second day things were easier, as I could simulate a tripod by bracing the monopod against the lawn chair. Scott’s telephoto was much easier; auto-focus and image stabilizer. And much faster. I tried to shoot all the cars the first two days and relax on race day. I shot about 800 pictures, none of which are stellar. We confirmed in June I’m no Lewis Hamilton, and this weekend that I’m no Bernard Cahier.

As you’d expect, prices for food, drink, and merchandise were high. I had a giant sausage one day, piled high with onions for $14, a six cheese mac with bacon for $12, and a trio of sliders for $17.25. Yikes! Beers were nine bucks and up. The lowest priced t-shirt I saw was thirty bucks. Hats for fifty. Polo shirts eighty five.

Water was widely available. They had a number of giant dispensers around the facility. I watched them pour two hundred pounds of ice into one that wasn’t at a water source. I carried my empty container in and refilled it as necessary.

All in all, I enjoyed myself. I look forward to going to another one, but I probably won’t return to Austin for F1 in the next few years. Maybe I need to think about Montreal…

 

COTA On Reflection

It’s confirmed. I’m no Lewis Hamilton. And I’m no Martin Scorsese. And I present videographic evidence.

This is the first time using two cameras. I kept the Hero 4 in the usual spot and used the suction cup for a rear facing view. I used the rear facing camera for the sound, as it’s right on top of the engine and a bit out of the wind.

I was using DashWare to render the gauges and data, but it quit working. I installed the latest version, no help. So I found another one, Race Render, but haven’t paid for the full version yet. So it’s demo mode – can’t do more than three minutes.

This is basically my entire third session. Rolling through the paddock, onto pit lane and onto the track. Then every car I saw, whether I was passing or getting passed. Then exiting the track and returning to my spot. But there’s not a whole lap in there, so I added my fast lap of the day.

Thursday I was notified my photos were available to download. This is the fourth time I’ve bought pictures. It’s the first time I didn’t drive away with the pictures. The photographer (PhotoMotion) did a good job, not the best of the bunch, not the least. I guess that doesn’t sound too complimentary, but the truth is I’m happy with the results and feel I got good value for the money.

No doubt where this picture was taken.

If I’m in front, that means I’m winning, right?!

I’m not real happy about the taped numbers.

From the third session.

The Austin Hill Climb?

When I travel to these tracks, I’ve been asked how wherever I am compares to other places I’ve been. This is my twelfth track, so it’s a fair question.

The Facility

This is the sixth track I’ve lapped that has hosted a major league race. Others are Portland International Raceway, Laguna Seca, and Elkhart Lake, which were perennial entries in the ChampCar calendar, and Sonoma and Pikes Peak International Raceway, which hosted NASCAR. This one’s Formula One. It doesn’t have that patina of age yet, and only time will tell if it gets it. (Does anybody talk about the F1 track at Indy?)

Circuit of the Americas dwarfs the others when it comes to infrastructure. It’s on the biggest piece of land, has the biggest grandstands, biggest parking lots, the most and best appointed garages, biggest meeting rooms. It can handle the most spectators. It has large video screens and the best public address system. Plus, it’s all still pretty much brand new.

This is the best facility I’m ever likely to visit for a track day.

The Track

I enjoyed driving on this track. A number of other folks talked about how smooth the track is compared to others they’ve been to. It’s smooth, but it’s not without its undulations and bumps you have to account for under braking.

My favorite tracks feature interesting elevation changes, a combination of fast and slow turns, with some blind or otherwise challenging apexes, and lots of run off. I really don’t like walls anywhere near my car. COTA does have elevation changes, but it basically boils down to one hill to climb, then slalom down. Perhaps I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to run on tracks that have a lot of terrain. COTA falls squarely in the middle of the road by this metric.

I believe it’s the fastest track I’ve been on. I’m over 100mph three times each lap with a top speed of 120. Each of these straights end in second gear left turns, so it’s a heavy braking track, too. (I wasn’t in the Lotus at Road America. It’s possible RA may be as fast.)

There is a lot of run off here, and most of it’s paved which is new for me. I never put a wheel off. HPR, ORP, and Thunderhill are in wide-open spaces where if you go off you’re just going to mow some weeds. You do some agricultural driving. Here, when you go off you may as well be in a parking lot. Obviously, the surface is in excellent condition. Although none of the other tracks I’ve driven were better, all the newer tracks have nice surfaces. So I was pretty comfortable pushing a bit.

And there are some fun bits to push through. I found the esses challenging and I enjoyed the carousel (almost as much as the one at Road America).

The Track Day

Edge Addicts ran a very professional operation. It was well organized and well staffed. The event ran on schedule but for a slight delay late. I never lost any track time due to an on track incident. There was an outfit there to help you with tire pressures and other services. A professional photographer was on hand to get good photos for everybody.

I didn’t ask for a car count. I’m assuming they want more cars than I want, given the price of operating the facility. There were a lot of cars there, but it didn’t feel crowded. The track day fees for one day would pay for three days at HPR (but I’m spoiled; it’s more like two days at a California facility). There were a lot of nice cars there. Didn’t see anything like a Lemons car. Everybody was well-behaved.

Sessions were short, about twenty minutes each. I’d rather have four twenty five minute sessions than five twenty minute ones – it also means fewer in and out laps. I got five “fast” laps each session, so more than a quarter of my track time was either an out lap or an in lap. A side effect of the short sessions is that cars are released onto the track nose to tail. Immediately you’re in a train of cars. At one point I was tenth in a line of fifteen cars. The flaggers just held up their blue flags for the whole string. With the shorter sessions they’re pretty much forced to get everybody out quickly.

For my California track days, at least, another side effect of the shorter sessions is the need to hustle people back to the pits when the checkered flag is shown. At home the in lap is done with the idea that you don’t use your brakes, let them cool off. Here, like on my California trip, we kept going fairly fast. But I was able to not use my brakes until making the final turn into the paddock.

The Bottom Line

I had a good time. I’m happy to have done this.

 

COTA Blitz: The Road Home

Sunday, June 11

In general, I don’t like going the same way, to and from. I prefer a loop. A loop for this trip would be impractical. What I ended up with, though, was nearly as good: a dumbbell. Different routes for about two hundred miles on the Austin end and between home and Amarillo on the Denver end.

It was sunset when I approached the wind farm near Sweetwater. The windmills were in silhouette in darkening amber. There’s a red light on top of each turbine. The light flashes on and off; a few seconds on, a few seconds off. That rhythm gets interrupted depending on which way the wind blows. If the blades are facing you, they pass in front of the light.

These things are laid out in rows. Generally, due to the route the road takes, it just looks like a random assortment of the things. But every now and then you get to look down a row of five or six of them. Groups of thirty or forty had their lights synchronized such that they’d all go off and on at the same time.

Arrived at the motel and went to check in. No reservation. Hmmm. They asked if I had the right motel. I have gone to the wrong place before but pretty sure I got the right place this time. I checked my phone. Here’s the record of my phone call: I called this number last night. “Yes, that’s us.” How is it I can make reservations two different ways and still not have a reservation? I’m glad they weren’t booked up.

Monday, June 12

Just out of Snyder they’re erecting a windmill just a couple hundred yards off the highway. Shortly after I passed the site, I passed two blades on transporters. Probably not for the same site, as they only had a short section of the pylon completed. Near Lubbock I saw another piece of pylon heading the same way. Makes me wonder how many they’re still building. I also can’t help but wonder why they’re all white. I’m guessing they’re not painted, as that would seem to be a big maintenance nightmare. Is it a law that they’re white, or a result of an engineering issue?

North of Lubbock on I-27 I think a train honked at me. It was going the other way on a line with no grade crossings for miles. One quick blast of the horn and done.

I stopped at Boise City for lunch. When I got back on the highway, a sign indicated it was 287 miles to Denver. That was the only sign with mileage to Denver the entire trip until I got on I-70 at Limon.

I didn’t like the road in Oklahoma. The expansion strips were wide and drummed the car with a staccato beat.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever changed time zones by traveling north.

On the map, the road is arrow straight though there are some small variations. But it does rise and fall, and the horizon is no longer razor sharp. We’re crossing grassland, prairie. Not farmland, and doesn’t appear to be ranching, either.

I’ve lived in Colorado for about forty years. I’ve never been to about a quarter of the state – everything east of I-25 and south of I-70. Kit Carson, Eads, and Lamar were just names in weather reports. They’re still pretty much just names in weather reports to me, but I’ve driven through them!

There was a lot of truck traffic. It looked like most of it was going the other way, as I caught and passed only a few tractor trailer rigs. But southbound it was not uncommon to see trains of five, six, seven rigs.

I didn’t get rush hour traffic until Northfield, which was better than I expected. Only six or seven miles of it; much less unpleasant than ninety miles of I-25.

I’m happy to be home. Now it’s time to get the bugs off the car.

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.

COTA Blitz: The Road to Austin

What the heck am I doing?

I got it in my head some time ago that I should run laps at Circuit of the Americas. I think It’s pretty cool to drive my car on just about any race track, but to drive on a current Formula 1 track cranks the coolness factor up a notch or three.

I started planning this trip late last year. For a while it looked like David might make the trip too. He’d trailer his car, which meant he’d be able to take my track wheels. The scheduling just didn’t work out, though. So I’d do it solo, marathon style, shortest elapsed time, minimum vacation days used.

It’s a thousand miles each way, thirty hours driving time. To spend a day driving. A week after collecting the car from the shop, where it spent one hundred days. No shakedown cruise, just straight into battle, so to speak.

The days leading up to my Portland and Laguna Seca trips were filled with pleasant anticipation, a buzz of excitement. This time it’s a bit different. Those trips were scenic drives with many good Lotus roads. They were vacations. This will be more akin to spending a long weekend crossing the Russian Steppes.

COTA Blitz!

Friday, June 9

I left the house promptly at 3pm, hoping to arrive in Clayton, NM around 8pm. This was optimistic. I didn’t have a motel reservation in Clayton. The thinking was that if I was making good time I could make it to Dalhart, TX. If not, there are half a dozen motels in Clayton availability shouldn’t be a problem.

The two obvious routes out of town are I-25 through central Denver or C-470 to US 85 and catch I-25 at Castle Rock. I chose the latter. Things weren’t starting well. I should have taken Sheridan but took Wadsworth instead. It was backed up. I-70 to C-470 is the next leg, and I-70 was a parking lot for a few miles. C-470 wasn’t any better until nearly Chatfield.

Going down US 85 I briefly considered taking the back road, CO 105, to Monument. But I figured I was in a hurry and didn’t have time for the scenic route. In retrospect, the back road probably would almost certainly have been faster. I-25 was stop and go until the Larkspur exit, never getting over about 20mph. Then, there was an accident on the north side of Colorado Springs that had traffic snarled.

It took me over three hours to get to Pueblo. South of Pueblo the traffic thinned out to more what I expected. Now I could follow Ryan’s advice to modulate my engine RPM’s. The speed limit is 75, which I obeyed until somebody faster passed. Then, once I left a reasonable gap, I matched speeds with them. After a few miles I’d slow back to the limit. Lather, rinse, repeat. This got me all over the map between 4,000 and 5,000 RPM. The earlier stop-and-go covered the lower ranges.

I quit violating Rule #1 when I got gas at the junction with US 87 in Raton. Fueling up, I was approached by a gentleman who was gassing up his rig. “I had a 2002 Esprit, sold it a while back to Dez Bryant of the Cowboys.” He pulled out his phone and showed me Dez Bryant sitting in a yellow 25th anniversary Esprit. “That’s one car I’m not wanting to see again. I’m afraid it’ll have 25” wheels.” He bought it new, said it was number 25.

“I went to that ell-oh-gee a few years back.” “The one in Aspen?”, I ask. “Yup, the one in Snowmass.” He’s a Corvette guy. I asked him what he had, he listed off five or six. I lost count. “The Esprit was just sitting. So I sold it.” I told him I was heading to Circuit of the Americas. “Oh, you’ll enjoy see-oh-tea-ay!”

While this conversation was going on, a woman with a little kid, perhaps 4 years old, approached. “He wants to look at your car.” I asked him if he wanted to sit in it. Mom had to go back to the minivan for her cell phone so she could get a picture.

No longer violating Rule #1, I would soon be breaking Rule #2. The sun was setting behind me, and entering Des Moines the road bends slightly south. This put the rising full moon directly in front of me, sitting large on the horizon. The last 40 miles or so were in the dark. Parts of the road had recently been repaired but not yet painted, adding to the degree of difficulty. I keep a keen watch for the flash of eyes in the darkness. I passed the carcass of a deer or antelope on the shoulder, I couldn’t tell which.

When you enter Clayton from the west the road goes over a railroad overpass. On the far side of the overpass the police had a car pulled over in the right lane. Not on the right shoulder, but still on the road. The speed limit is 30 through here. A couple blocks later, a police cruiser coming the other way turned his lights on and flipped a U-turn right in front of me. I was going 28. There were two or three cars ahead of me in that block; I don’t think anybody was going 35 but one got pulled over. Looks like Clayton is working on generating some revenue!

I headed to the Super 8 at the opposite end of town, passing plans B and C on the way. It didn’t look like there were a lot of cars in the lot, which I took as a good sign. There was nobody at the front desk, though. I pushed the bell a couple of times, trying to be patient. Then I tried the bell on the outside of the building. Just then another gentleman came in and asked if I’d pushed the button. A few moments later, a clerk finally materialized. “I don’t know how many rooms I have, if I even have any rooms. Are you two together? I might have a queen smoking room.” We are definitely not together. She called her manager and finally was able to give a report: they had one queen non-smoking, one queen smoking. Having arrived first, I claimed the non-smoking room. The other guy left.

This week on “What Did I Forget?”: pajamas.

Saturday, June 10

I wanted to get an early start, as I’d lose an hour about ten miles down the road when I entered Texas and the Central time zone.

I loaded up the car, strapped myself in, turned the key and pushed the button. A quick “tik tik tik tik.” I wondered if I’d accidentally left an interior light on or something. It started up just fine at the gas station in Raton, but not here. Accessories worked okay, just no crank. There were some folks in the parking lot so I asked if I could get a jump. Friendly people; one provided the cables, the other the jump. So I was on the road pretty much on time. Hopefully, running the car a hundred miles would charge the battery and all would be well.

I won’t bother with turn by turn navigation. I ended up on a lot of different roads, and many of them had multiple route designations. I didn’t have an atlas, I put my faith in Google. I simply entered my hotel address as the destination and said “no tolls” and let it guide me.

But after my luck with this strategy on the Laguna Seca trip, why would I do it again? Crossing Texas is nothing like crossing Nevada. I was happy with the route. It skirted Amarillo and Lubbock, the biggest cities on the way. It was a mix of US highways, Texas highways, and Interstates, but probably as little of the latter as was possible without adding a lot of time to the drive.

Much of the morning was spent crossing the Caprock Escarpment. This is a geological formation that is notable for its flatness. There’s not a tree or river to be seen; the terrain is as flat as a table, no sign that water has ever flowed here. The extreme western end is in New Mexico. It stretches from the Oklahoma panhandle on the north to a point roughly east of El Paso on the south, and its eastern edge is east of Lubbock. It’s a big place. Featureless, dull, with roads that are the antithesis of Lotus roads: flat and straight. This is crop circle land, literally: farms featuring center-pivot irrigation, mile after mile.

The only relief from this monotony is a stretch between Channing and Bushland, on Texas routes, where you descend through a valley that has somehow managed to be eroded from its surroundings.

I stopped for fuel in Amarillo, at the extreme southwest corner of the loop highway, Texas 335. Unfortunately, the car again failed to start. We live in a time of technological marvels. I was able to consult my phone to get a list of auto shops, with hours of operation and phone numbers. As this was Saturday, though, quite a few were closed. And the first two I tried that were supposedly open failed to answer. My third try was a Firestone shop.

After some bad experiences decades ago with Firestone I was reluctant to try them, but they were now my best shot. I called them, told them I needed to get to Austin before dark and asked if they could help. They said yes, so I had a destination. It took me all of about 90 seconds to get a volunteer to give me a jump start. This friendly gentleman also gave me directions to the very Firestone shop I had just talked to.

Within ten minutes I was at the shop. They quickly diagnosed the problem – it was indeed the battery – and were able to provide a replacement of the same brand and model. I was in and out in a bit less than an hour, and everyone there was friendly and helpful. I was back on the road a bit after 11am.

With the phone doing the navigating, I typically don’t even hear it chime when I get text messages. Even when I do hear them, I certainly don’t bother with them until I get to my next stop. At one point Ryan texted, wondering how the car was running. I let him know of my difficulties, and he was quite supportive. It really means a lot that he took a few minutes out of his busy day. He’s working to support a car in the Ferrari Challenge, one of the several events in Montreal this Grand Prix weekend.

The next stretch of road was I-27 southbound toward Lubbock. We’re back atop the Caprock Escarpment, straight, flat, and boring. Just before arriving on the north end of Lubbock I started seeing the icons of Texas: longhorn cattle and oil pumps. I felt like I finally entered Texas.

I much prefer US highways to Interstates. But in Texas there is often little difference between the two. Many of the miles I’ve traversed on US 87, US 84, and US 183 may as well be Interstates. They’re four (or more) lanes, divided highways, often with limited access. Exactly the kind of roads I try to avoid. Luckily, they don’t have nearly the truck traffic we see on the Interstates.

Google skirted me around Lubbock on the loop highway and sent me southeast on US 84. This is very much oil patch territory. Each farm and ranch had a number of oil pumps. It looked to me like only about a quarter or a third of them were in operation, bouncing slowly up and down. The scent of Texas Tea was in the air. As the road descends from the Caprock, not only the terrain is transformed. The flora changes dramatically from ranchland to what we’re more used to seeing in stereotypical television and movie versions of Texas. But the bigger transformation, to my surprise, was from oil wells to windmills.

My first thought was, “Wow, there are hundreds of windmills!” This is wrong. There are not hundreds of windmills. There are thousands. While only a fraction of the oil wells are actively pumping, well over ninety percent of the windmills were spinning. There are more than ten thousand windmills generating power in Texas and my route takes me through the largest concentration of them.

I remained on US 84 until the junction with I-20, which I took for only a short distance. When you get to Sweetwater on I-20, there’s a windmill blade, maybe sixty feet long, by the side of the road with “Life is Sweet in Sweetwater” written on it. By now, we’ve been passing windmills for nearly a hundred miles. And still they line the horizon. Somewhere around Brownwood I find myself back on US 84 and finally we leave the windmills in the rearview mirror.

The remainder of the route follows US 183 south. I’m somewhat amused by the directions Google provides. We follow 183 for twenty or thirty or more miles and are directed to make a right turn to remain on 183. This happens five or six times before we finally get to Austin where 183 becomes an urban Interstate: four, five, or six lanes wide, elevated, with much traffic.

I was not so good today modulating my engine speed. There’s some degree of that that occurs naturally, being that the roads I traveled pass through many small towns. The speed limits drop from 75 to 70 to 55 and on down to 45, 35, and 30. Then back up through the progression on the other side of town. But on the open road I pretty much stuck to the speed limit, which is a nearly universal 75.

I checked in to the motel at a quarter to eight. I hadn’t eaten dinner but didn’t want to get back in the car, so I wandered down the road a couple of blocks and found a dive Mexican restaurant. I was one of only a few customers. Had two beers and two tacos. Tasty tacos and refreshing beer, sure hit the spot.

Got online to make reservations in Snyder for the way back. I didn’t want to risk not having a room, after the near miss in Clayton. I used Expedia; selected a motel, entered my credit card info, and pressed submit. No reservation showed up in my account. So I called the motel. They had no record either of my reservation, so I asked for one. No problem, she says, and reserves me a room.

It has been a long day, leavened with a little stress from the problem battery. And I have a big day tomorrow. Drivers meeting is at 7:15, so I need to be checked out of the hotel not much after 6:30. Time to hit the hay.