McLaren 650S Spider

I met Kevin on our club drive over Trail Ridge Road. We were parked together at the Alpine Visitors Center and again at our next stop. He has an Elise, but that day he was driving his freshly purchased orange 2015 McLaren 650S Spider. As you might guess, his car was the center of attention everywhere we went.

It’s natural to assume that anybody driving a McLaren is going to field a bunch of questions about the car. And it’s not much of a stretch to think that a guy wearing a race track hat and with numbers on his car might find himself in a conversation about track days. So, naturally, the topic of Kevin taking the McLaren to the track came up. And, of course, I had to ask if I could drive it.

Before long, it was all arranged.

Thursday, July 22

I like these Thursday evening sessions. The heat of the day is over, and there aren’t as many cars as usual. Generally, the first hour is broken into fast and slow groups, with the rest of the evening open for everybody. You can run in the dark if you’re hardcore, and there’s always the chance of showers.

Kevin and his wife, Erin, were gassing up when I arrived. We picked our spot in the paddock, trying to have enough room for four cars. It was Kevin and Erin, myself, Scott (Elise), and his friend (BMW M2). We got checked in, then attended the drivers meeting.

I reminded Kevin that I’m not an instructor, but that I’m happy to give him some tips. We agreed that the best sequence would be for him to ride with me in the Elise, then I ride with him, then I drive his car.

With Kevin as passenger, we did an out lap, then four full laps, then an in lap. This is Kevin’s first time on a track, so when he got behind the wheel, he’d only really only been on track for four laps. And he’s only had the car for a short while, and there’s no place on the streets to really drive the car. So he was facing a daunting task. Add to that, my lack of awareness: I didn’t think to make sure he had all the drivers aids enabled.

Let’s just say his first few laps were difficult.

I’ve never had any instruction on the track. And when I visit new tracks, I like to figure them out on my own. At Portland International, I had an instructor for a session, more of a navigator, really, and again for a few laps at COTA. There wasn’t a lot of communication – with the engine right behind my head, with a helmet on, and a case of tinnitus, I can’t hear anything the passenger might be saying. So it’s down to hand signals. With only 15 or 20 laps of this sort of thing, I really don’t know what I’m doing.

I was not giving him any help at all for his first couple of laps. I wasn’t really sure what to do. But after a while I got comfortable. The first signal I needed was to brake: I held my hand out, palm down, and pushed down. I don’t know if that’s generally the signal, but he understood immediately. I quickly had four or five signals and none were misunderstood. All right! I’m helping!

The big thing, though, for his first session behind the wheel was that he had disabled some of the aids. That unnecessarily added to his difficulties. He was facing a steep enough learning curve as it was. He turned them all back on at the end of that first session.

I faced a bit of a learning curve myself. As a passenger, I got a sense of the power of the car, and felt the braking. But it’s not the same as driving. We had it in automatic mode, so all I needed to do was brake and steer, but that was plenty. Starting it wasn’t a problem, but Kevin had to put it in drive for me, as I couldn’t figure it out on my own.

I think, given my experience, if I had a couple of full days with this car, I could drive it fast with some of the aids turned off. I think.

It’s quite a machine. At 650hp, it’s the most powerful car I’ve driven. It’s almost three and a half times the horsepower of the Elise. On the other hand, it weighs over fifty percent more than the Elise. Still, it has a much higher power-to-weight ratio than the Elise. It’s on bigger, softer tires, it has bigger brakes, and active aero. We drove it with the top down.

You put your right foot down and the car just launches out of the corners. We hit 137 on the highway straight. That’s 25mph faster than I’ve done in the Elise. I managed to go at least 10mph faster on all of the straight bits of track.

I felt challenged by the braking and cornering. The Elise is very light. Even the two cheap race cars I drove were pretty light. The McLaren felt very heavy to me. I’m not sure how often the computers stopped me from doing bad things, but I don’t think it was often. A few times, I felt a bit of delay on the throttle exiting turns, but I didn’t really feel the sorts of things I felt when I was a passenger in the Ferrari 458. Nothing obtrusive.

In the Elise, I use a CG lock on the seatbelt. Without it, I’d move around quite a bit more. The McLaren just has regular seat belts. I felt secure in the seat and didn’t move around at all.

Visibility was pretty good. Or, at least, not any worse than the Elise. Except in one case: under heavy braking. The rear wing pops up as an air brake. It fills the rear-view mirror. I never did get used to it. I kind of like knowing where any following cars are when I’m hard on the brakes.

Somewhere around here, I’d give you my lap time. But I don’t have a lap time.

And I don’t have a video.

I ran the lap timer with the phone in my pocket. I’ve done that a number of times before and not had any issues. But today the GPS track it recorded is not anywhere near where I drove. It was fine in my car, mounted to the dash, but miserable in my pocket.

As to the video, I took a suction cup mount that I had in a drawer. I exercised it the night before, but when I went to put it on his car, it broke. I had a backup plan, though. I had also found a curved adhesive mount and stuck it on my helmet. I didn’t want to put it on the vinyl, so I put it below my visor. It was out of my sight, which was good. But it was facing too low. All I got was ten minutes of the steering wheel, dashboard, and my arms and lap. Not exactly compelling viewing.

I will recount two notable incidents.

When I exited the track the first time in his car, the track manager, Glen, motioned me to stop. “You crossed the commit line.” This is a major foul. There’s a white line separating the track from the pit exit. You’re not to cross this line. I was certain I didn’t cross it. “Yes, you did. I just got a call from the corner worker.”

After we parked, I went to talk to Glen. “I don’t want to argue, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t cross the line.” He repeated that the corner worker reported me; it was not Kevin. “I can show it to you on the video.” Please do. He rewound the footage, found the McLaren, ran it a couple of times over. “You are correct. You did not cross the line.” Vindicated!

My second time in the McLaren, I finally put together a nice lap. I don’t know how nice a lap it was, sadly, but it felt good. The previous lap I missed my braking point going in to turn 4, the fastest place on the track, and ran quite wide. For a while I was thinking I wouldn’t keep it on the track, but in the end I had six inches to spare. But that’s not the second notable incident.

The lap after my nice lap, the car felt quite sluggish under acceleration. On the long straight, we only got up to 100. Then I saw the warning: “High Clutch Temperature”. A few turns later, we were definitely in limp mode, unable to top 35.

“Sorry I broke your car!”

By the time we parked, the warning was off and all was well again. I believe Kevin did get the same thing later in the evening. It doesn’t seem right to me that it would overheat like that so quickly, but perhaps it’s partly to do with the mode we were operating the car in. I really don’t know anything about it. There are two selectors with three or four positions in each. Perhaps we were using a combination that wasn’t expected on the track.

In addition to me giving him a ride in the Elise and attempting to give him hand signals when he was driving, we tried to do two lead/follow sessions. The idea was, he’d try to follow my line through the turns but not pass me on the straights. I had it in my mind that I’d go slow. But I didn’t go slow enough. I’ve seen enough first timers on track to know they’re going to be slower than me. Maybe much slower. I didn’t account enough for that.

As well, we had to deal with traffic. A couple of times, cars that Kevin would wave by wouldn’t pass me. So we got separated a few times. And for one of these sessions, I was giving Erin a ride. After I got a certain distance ahead of Kevin, I put my foot down and turned my fastest lap of the day. Gotta show off for the passenger, right?

Normally up at the start of these reports, I give an inventory of the cars in attendance. I didn’t wander around and talk to any of the other drivers. This time, it was all about the McLaren.

I had a blast.

I can’t thank Kevin enough.

Ferrari Day Redux

I’m a little behind in getting things recorded. That’s not a habit I want to form.

Sunday, September 8

This is the second track day hosted by Ferrari of Denver this year. I was happy to be able to do one, and even given what I experienced at HPR, I was quite happy to have another free track day.

This one was billed by LOCO as a “Club Social Track Day”. FoD puts it together for their Ferrari customers: a free day at the track with access to an instructor, feed everybody pizza, hang out with guys who have a Ferrari or three. We Lotus folks tag along, kick in for the corner workers, and pass every Ferrari that ventures out. So it wasn’t exactly free, but a $40 track day (including lunch) is tough to pass up.

We had a good Lotus turnout: Tat, Kevin, Eric, Will & Kat, and myself in Elises. Ryan in his Exige, Peter in his Evora, and William with the Cortina. (I hope I didn’t miss anybody; one of the perils of not writing these up promptly.)

The supercharged guys weren’t having the best treatment when it comes to point bys. I was only held up once all day; everybody gave me a prompt signal. Ryan posted a video (that I can no longer find) of him following Eric and being held up several times. I was just a bit behind them, and I guess after getting passed by bright orange cars they may have been more vigilant by the time I got there.

One guy in particular was slow. He was in a grey FF. I passed him twice in three laps. Think about that: the lap is 1.4 miles long. I went 4.2 miles in the time it took him to go 2.8.

They had a press car there from Lotus: an Evora GT. I almost didn’t drive it. I’ll never be in the market for an Evora, new or used. This particular example is an automatic and on suboptimal tires, so that wasn’t particularly enticing. But Tat said I should drive it; all the LOCO people would give short write-ups to William for the next issue of Remarque. So why not?

Evora GT

Given the vast difference in comforts the Evora holds over my car, I didn’t pay particular attention to the interior appointments. The cockpit of the Evora is hands down vastly superior to my go-kart. Ingress was much easier than the Elise, obviously. The seat was comfortable yet firm and supportive. Visibility is about what I expected: limited to the rear but otherwise good. I adjusted the seat and the mirrors, selected sport mode and drove. Given the car is an automatic and not on proper tires I was expecting a less than stellar experience.

I wasn’t allowed free reign in the Evora, but I wasn’t driving parade laps, either. I wasn’t allowed to wring its neck and they did a data dump after every driver. Full throttle was okay on the straights, but keep it cool. Six tenths, maybe.

Once I got out on track, the first thing I noticed was the down shifts. It took me by surprise going into the first corner. It was quicker than I expected for an automatic, and the sound was unexpected. And I didn’t expect it to go down two gears where I only go down one. I took it easy for a couple of laps, getting used to the car. The Evora is twelve or thirteen hundred pounds heavier than my Elise, but it didn’t feel heavy. I found the handling very neutral. I have CG locks in the Elise; just regular belts in the Evora yet I felt well planted and didn’t miss the CG lock.

The cabin is quieter than I expected; I could easily hold a conversation with my passenger. In the Elise it’s pretty much hand signals on the track.

Throttle response was immediate. I didn’t put the brakes to much of a test, but I did hurry a bit through the turns and the precise handling made me smile. The purist in me would want a manual transmission, but I was rather impressed with the auto.

It sure would be a fine car to take on a cross-country road trip for an HPDE day.

I haven’t made the time to put together a video yet. I didn’t improve my best lap time, so there’s not much point in just putting up a lap or two. I did go through the footage to make some notes. I was passed only by the orange Lotuses of Ryan and Eric, while I made twenty passes. They weren’t all Ferraris, but I did pass every Ferrari I saw on the track. Maybe I’ll put together a compilation of passes.

Mid-Ohio Trip – Autobahn Track Day

Day 6 – Thursday, May 30

Autobahn Country Club is a country club that, instead of being focused on golf or tennis, is all about performance driving. Members there have access to a race track that can be run in three configurations (North, South, Full Course), a skid pad, and a go-kart track. They can build a garage on-site for all their toys. Most such facilities are open only to members and their guests, but Autobahn sometimes hosts club track days. When I started planning this trip, I thought it would be worth a shot to ask if I could lap there on a guest pass of some sort. After a few emails and phone calls, it was all arranged.

And so, here I am, ready to see how the other half lives.

It was a leisurely morning as I didn’t need to be at the track until 9am. On Thursdays they run a later schedule that varies through the summer, based more or less on when the sun sets. So my first session wouldn’t start until 10:20am. Before that, I needed to visit their instructor. It wasn’t to get any instruction, per se, but to cover all the stuff we usually cover in the drivers meeting.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The clock radio in my room went off at 6:10 this morning, tuned to a Spanish language station. Much of this trip I’ve been getting up at 6:10, but today I wanted to sleep in a little longer. Didn’t happen.

Went downstairs for breakfast. Same fare as the hotel in Toledo, likely because it’s the same chain. The TV was on the news as it usually is in these places. I’m never particularly interested, but the weather report did catch my attention. They said that this May is now officially the wettest May recorded in Chicago history: a bit more than 8 inches of rain. We get about 14.5 inches of precipitation all year in Denver.

At the track, after getting registered at the front gate, I went to the clubhouse to introduce myself to Ron, the fellow who arranged for me to be here. He told me a bit about the place – when they opened, how many members they have, what improvements they’re working on, and so forth. Then he took me down to meet Tony Kester, one of their instructors. I guess you could call him their resident Stig. He raced professionally for some time, participating in the American Le Mans Series as well as at least one 24 Hours of Le Mans. (A golf club has golf pros, a tennis club has tennis pros, ergo a track club has race pros.)

We covered the usual drivers meeting material – flags, passing rules, passing zones, their LED lights, entering and exiting the track – and sent me on my way. I unloaded the car in an out of the way place. (“Over there by the bleachers is probably best. Members aren’t used to people laying out a bunch of stuff” as those who don’t have garages on-site probably trailer their cars.) Then I headed on to the track.

By now I had two wristbands. One said that I’d paid, the other that I’d had my meeting with Tony. (Presumably members get different color wristbands that indicate they only need the one.) The drill is to go to the end of pit lane and stop. Race control will have you sign in (actually, he just asked me my name) and when they’re ready they’ll release you onto the track.

The first session was horrible. Although it wasn’t raining, it rained overnight and there were rivers running across the track. Not just one or two, but nearly everywhere. At the time, I think there were only three turns that were dry. I crawled around the track. Even so, I was going sideways quite a bit. Not “sideways, this is fun!” but “sideways I’m not in control!” I put four wheels off once and was sliding around quite a bit. It was not fun.

As well, I managed to pick the wrong configuration for the lap timer so I wasn’t getting any data (I had selected the North course instead of the South course). In this case, good riddance. There wasn’t any worthwhile data from this session.

Back in the clubhouse I talked to Ron again. “Have Tony show you the wet line.” Great idea. We tracked Tony down. Rewind a bit here. When Tony and I had our little drivers meeting, somebody showed up and asked him if he gave rides to a couple of guys yesterday. “Yes, both at the same time. It was really wet. I don’t think they puked, but they sure looked sick.” So Tony gets a car (an Audi RS5 Quattro, I believe) and takes me for a ride.

The first time around he’s more or less on the line you’d take in the dry. Periodically, he’s doing massive steering inputs or abrupt throttle or brakes to see how much grip there is. It’s a little unsettling. The next two times around he’s following the “wet” line, which is taking the outside of the turn rather than hitting the apex. He was giving a running commentary: “It’s good here. Still pretty slick through here. You have to avoid this puddle” and so on. The wet line works most places, but not all. Anyway, I think I get the idea and he drops me off and puts the car away. His parting shot was, “It’s easier with all-wheel drive!”

While Tony was schooling me on the wet line, a Corvette was out on the track. Well, he was out part of the time. He put it well off the track in the same location I did, but while I was able to regain the track, he needed a tow. He gave up after that, having completed two laps. His times were in the three minute range, probably about what mine were.

After my lesson from Tony, Ron came and found me. He tells me he’s signed me up to drive their BMW M2 Competition Coupe for their touring lap session. In this session we’ll be driving around behind the pace car, not above 50mph or so. No helmet required. They have a Jag I’d like to drive, but Ron tells me it’s always reserved. So the M2 works for me. During the course of the day, several people tell me that’s their favorite car of the bunch. (They have a dozen or so cars for this purpose – Audi, Lexus, BMW, the Jag.)

By now I see that I’m the only one dumb enough to waste his time at the track today. It’s just too wet. And the consensus is that the track won’t dry out, and we may actually get more rain. I’m not exactly pleased. I’ve decided that this whole thing may be a waste of my time and money. If it’s not going to get any better, I may as well leave and do something else. I was pretty down.

But I go out for another session. It’s still wet almost everywhere. I can’t follow the line I’d like to learn: the fast way around a dry track. I can’t turn in where I want, or apex where I want, or brake where I want, or even shift where I want. I’m always looking for the water. It’s drying out a little. I think. Maybe. But I manage to keep it on the track. For a long time. Technically, each run group is given a twenty minute session. But because I’m the only idiot out there, they’ll let me run until I give up. So after 35 minutes I give up. The good news is, I manage to steadily improve.

At lunch time I discover that I’ve somehow lost my credit card. It’s not my only one, so it’s just a pain in the ass and not a total disaster. No idea how I’ve lost it. I didn’t leave it at registration, and haven’t had to use it since. Where could it have gone? Anyway, after lunch is the touring lap session. Just as I’m finishing my sandwich, a gentleman comes by to give me the keys to the BMW. Well, a key fob anyway. There’s no such thing as a car key any more. Then he says, “Not to be demeaning or anything, but do you know how to put this car in park?”

Move the gear selector to “P”? This is not the correct answer. “When you pull into the parking space, leave it in drive and turn it off.” We head off to the cars for the laps. It takes me a few seconds to figure out how to get it into drive. Old dog, new tricks, I guess. It has paddle shifters but I don’t even try to figure this out.

BMW M2 Competition Coupe

Heading on to the track it’s the pace car, another BMW, me, and the Jag. We’re following the dry line even though there’s still quite a few wet spots and puddles. After a few laps it’s pretty obvious to me that we’re doing pretty good lap times. We’re not going very fast down the straights, but we’re not really slowing for the turns. I manage to dig my phone out of my pocket and get the timer running. I didn’t try to turn off any driver aids, but perhaps not all the nannies were enabled. I managed to get it somewhat sideways through the puddles a few times, as did the other BMW driver.

By the time we exit the track my soul has been a little bit crushed. Our parade laps were faster than what I managed the previous session. When I got out of the car, the other BMW driver was talking to Kyle, who was driving the pace car. “Thanks for those last two laps!” Kyle winked and said, “We never went over 50, did we?” Then I showed him my lap timer and my times from my previous session. He laughed (not in a malicious way). It is somewhat funny.

I got to talking with Kyle. He noticed my HPR hat and asked how I liked the place. He says he’s been wanting to run there but hasn’t been able to make it work yet. I told him about the facilities, that it’s a bit crude (no running water, for example) but that the track itself is great. He said he’d worked at a place like that: in the middle of nowhere and porta-potties instead of toilets. I asked him where that was. “Oregon Raceway Park”. Hey, I’ve been there!

By the time of my next session, the sun had been shining for a while, and we had a little breeze. The track was very nearly dry. I started really trying to get on it, on the dry line. There were still a few places where I couldn’t do it, where I had to adjust to avoid some water, or tiptoe through a turn to avoid spinning, but I was easily faster than before. All my laps were under two minutes, and my best was 1:53.27. Not a particularly fast lap, but maybe better than I’d have done in my first session had it been dry all day.

I had two more sessions after that. I improved my time to 1:48.05. In the clubhouse, they have a screen that is constantly updated with members times. All (or maybe just most) members run with transponders. Their times are displayed on a large monitor. I don’t have a transponder, of course, so my times weren’t included. But by now there were two members out running their spec Miatas. They were lapping in the 1:43’s. Tony asked me which Miatas they were. I described them and he said they were both very good drivers. He thought my time was pretty good given the conditions, my tires, and my lack of experience on this track.

Yours truly

In my penultimate session, I managed to kill another bird (my second on this trip). For a short while I was concerned it was stuck to my car somehow, mashed into the grill or something. Next time around the dead bird was in the middle of the track. At least is wasn’t in a place where I was going to run over it again.

In the last session I failed to improve my time. I got close, but couldn’t best it. (I’d have liked to run a few more laps, but I timed it perfectly. At the gas station down the street I pumped 9.8 gallons of gas into my 10 gallon tank.)

I finished the day with a beer in the clubhouse, packed up all my stuff, made a final search for my missing credit card, and hit the road. My first stop was the gas station a couple miles down the road. I’m glad it wasn’t any farther: I poured 9.8 gallons of gas into my 10 gallon tank.

My last session started at 6:05, so I didn’t leave the facility until about 7. On the way back to the hotel, at a stoplight a guy in the next lane told me my right headlight is out. So now I’m missing the right front turn signal and right headlight. There’s no damage from the bird strike, so I guess I’m just lucky all my lights are going dim at the same time. (Luck is when bad things happen; everything else is skill.)

Addendum: I found my credit card a couple days later, and now all the turn signals are working again. So it’s just the headlight.

Today’s miles: 72 road, 126 track Total miles: 1,729 road, 407 track

Autobahn Impressions

This is a very nice facility. This is the third track I’ve been to that is “members only”. The first was ORP, mentioned above. When I was there, it was more primitive than HPR. The other is Woody Creek, also very primitive. Nothing primitive about Autobahn.

The track is more or less what I expected. We’re in Illinois, so I was expecting it to be as flat as a tabletop. It did have some subtle elevation change, just enough to catch the eye but not enough to challenge the driver. Drainage was a bit of a problem, but as alluded to earlier, this was the rainiest May recorded for the area. In addition to the rivers that ran across the track there were several places where the water percolated up through the asphalt. They really have worked hard on drainage, but what can you do in extreme conditions?

For most of the day, I had the place to myself. The aforementioned Corvette made two laps, and a couple of Miatas ran maybe a dozen laps each. When they left the track, they headed to their garages. So I never met another driver all day. I met quite a few Autobahn employees in the clubhouse, and perhaps one or two members who were there but not driving. The lack of other drivers to talk to was largely due to the track conditions.

Having the place to myself was a bit odd. It was great not having to deal with any traffic at all. Every lap was unimpeded. That’s never happened to me before and probably never will again. On the other hand, track days are very much social events. I like wandering around the paddock talking to the other drivers. Mine was the only car in the paddock. But I’m sure if the conditions had been more normal I’d have had somebody to talk to.

I’m not a man of the means required to be a member. My guest pass was a one-time thing, as a courtesy to an enthusiast passing through. If I lived in the area, I’d go back for a club day (North Woods Shelby Club runs there). I think it’s great that they open the facility up to non-members occasionally.

In spite of the rocky start, I had a great time. Everybody was friendly and made me feel at home. So I give a tip of the hat and a hearty “thank you” to Ron and the rest for hosting me.

LeMons B.F.E. GP 2018 – Part 2

Sunday June 10

I arrive at the track a few minutes before 8. The weather forecast for today calls for high temperatures a few degrees warmer than yesterday. One of Brett’s great decisions was to rent one of the carports to keep us all out of the sun. Instead of brilliant clear blue skies, we have some smoke that has blown in from the wildfires near Durango. I don’t think it will help with the heat, though.

Tiny discs

When I left the track last night I was under the impression that the brakes had been completed but Brett told me he’d worked on the car until nearly 3am again. When they installed new pads there was an issue. They kept an old pad on one side of the rotor and put a new pad on the other and things were still a bit tight. I’m not sure what the implications of that might be, but I don’t think pad wear was the critical issue. When they bled the brakes, the fluid that came out was quite dark. I think the controlling factor is that the discs are so small. They’re not vented and can’t shed the heat, so the fluid cooks.

I don’t know that “all is forgiven”, but when I got to our carport, Jan was applying my name to the car. The guys continued to make tweaks to the car, and continued to struggle with fuel filter issues. By now we had a number of little water bottles filled with the backwash from the filter, each with a thick layer of sediment on the bottom.

Jan is out first in the car. She’s out about an hour. James is next, also about an hour. I’m up third, Brett wants me to go an hour and a half. While Jan is out, James and I spend some time shooting the breeze. We talk about lap timers and he downloads RaceChrono. He had been playing around with a different one, one that also does video. They made an attempt to mount his phone onto the dashboard of the car with zip ties, but that really had no chance. I told him it would work with the phone in his pocket, so that’s the route he went. I saw a tablet in one of the cars nearby; that looks like a good way to go. You can mount it securely and the display is plenty big.

Jan in the car

I help refuel the car twice. For LeMons, it only takes two people. Each must be in full gear – driving suit, helmet (with visor closed), gloves, fire proof shoes. One pours the fuel and the other stands ready with a fire extinguisher. The driver can’t be in the car. Yesterday, I poured gas during the one refueling exercise I participated in. Today I did both roles once each. During the second refueling of the day, I had to help Hank get back into the car. When I was buckling him up, I made the mistake of taking off my gloves. This is a big no-no and could have gotten us penalized.

In my stint in the car, I again try to count laps. Yesterday my 22 laps took an hour and nineteen minutes. That’s from the time I started the lap timer to when I stopped it. To get an hour and a half, I should count laps again and go an extra lap or two. So I get to 22 and go one more before exiting the track. When I get to our garage, nobody is expecting me. Hank isn’t suited up and nobody else is there. Brett arrives and asks how I’m doing. I say I’m doing fine and that I figured my time was up. He tells me I should do 3 more laps to give Hank time to get suited up. When I’m out of the car I find the lap timer has logged 23 laps. So clearly I’m unable to count.

I really thought I was doing a better job counting. How hard can it be to count to 22, you may wonder. Each time I crossed the start/finish line I’d announce to myself the count. I’d repeat it in turn four. I’m sure if I was the only one on the track it would be dead simple. But whenever I’d get stuck in a clump of traffic, with cars passing me and me passing other cars, it can get quite busy. It takes all my concentration.

Attrition has been working on the car count the whole race. There are a number of cars in the paddock when I start my session and traffic is noticeably lighter than yesterday. I am able to run several laps without having to pass or be passed. But I occasionally hit clumps of traffic. At one point, we’re going three wide up the hill on turn 11. Still, there are some really aggressive drivers who I must take action to avoid hitting when they’re passing me. One BMW steals my apex in turn 2, then gives me a wave. I take it as a “thanks for letting me by”, but when I relate the story to James he suggests that perhaps it was a “sorry” wave. Funny how there’s no doubt in my mind in the heat of the action but afterwards I can accept the possibility that it wasn’t exactly how I saw it at the time.

I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m seeing lots of “unique” racing lines. I’ve done in the neighborhood of a thousand laps at HPR and certainly a bunch of the drivers on track this weekend are here for their first visits. Many, undoubtedly, have never lapped anywhere before.

I don’t know if it’s because there’s less traffic or I’m just getting used to the car, but today I ran nine laps that were faster than my best lap yesterday. James says his best lap was a 2:41, which is a pretty good lap considering his lack of experience. He said he thought Jan was running more like 3:00 (but I’m not sure how he knows). When I later reviewed the video of the wheel coming off yesterday, I see that Hank’s times were in the mid to high 2:40’s. I would assume everybody’s times were better today than yesterday.

Hank came back in after only a few laps – fuel filter problems again. It worked fine for me, but seemed to crop up after we put more gas in the car. Not every time, but often enough. They back flushed the filter and sent him back out. Again, he was in after a lap. Turns out the filter wasn’t installed quite right. There was a tense moment between the mechanics but Brett reestablished the chain of command, the car was fixed, and Hank was back on track.

By the time Hank was in the car, the tenor of the race changed for us. I hadn’t been at all concerned with the results. I figured we had no chance at a win of any sort, so I wasn’t particularly interested in how we compared to anybody else. Brett now told us that we were in a race. One of the awards is the IOE. He explained it as the Index of Effort, or doing the most with the least. Turns out it’s the Index of Effluency. Our competition for this award was a Pinto station wagon. At that moment, we each had run the same number of laps. We needed to finish with more laps than them to win the IOE.

There’s an app available to keep on top of the results, but I didn’t bother installing it. Also, the post a hard copy of the standings in the classroom. The standings show our place, how many laps we’d run, and our fastest lap. That fast lap was a close match to my fastest lap according to RaceChrono. So I was fastest in the car. I expected this, as I have much more track experience than the other drivers.

Brett kept Hank in the car the rest of the day. We fueled him up one more time. James and I went looking for current standings with something like half an hour to go. By then we were up by 5 laps. As long as we didn’t have a wheel come off again things were looking pretty good. Nobody had run double the laps we’d completed, but half a dozen had run a hundred laps more. We had a couple of hours in the pits, so that would account for maybe 40 laps.

A big crowd gets all lined up where the cars come off the track when the checker flew to cheer all the cars. Standing at the fence, we met the crew of another car. They were in our class (C), and a lap ahead of us until their car broke down just before the checker. So we not only beat the Pinto but moved up from 6th to 5th in our class. There are three classes: A, B, and C. Aaron described them as “might win”, “might finish”, and “good luck”.

When Hank got out of the car, I asked him how the brakes were. “They’re gone. Double pump and get just a little braking in the rear.”

Turns out the IOE award is one of the top trophies, if not the top. I believe it has the largest cash prize. It also means Brett gets a free entry to the next LeMons race. The trophy is an overturned car with the driver running away. All the drivers get patches, too. We got the award because of the issues we had in getting the car running Friday, the fuel problems Saturday morning, and the wheel coming off Saturday afternoon. We had no gauges: no fuel gauge, no speedometer, no tach, no temperature gauges. By the end of each day we had no brakes.

Conclusion

We had 5 drivers in the car and turned 157 laps. (At least, that’s what I recall. I can’t find the official results.) If they were equally divided, that’s 31 or 32 laps each. I ran 45 laps according to RaceChrono. Hank undoubtedly ran more. Brett didn’t drive at all the second day, so he shortchanged himself. I certainly got more than my share of seat time, in spite of my lack of participation in getting the car built and keeping it running.

My instructions were to be kind to the car; not to rev too high, not to abuse the brakes. I think I did this, not only taking good care of the car but turning consistently fast laps. I’m sure there’s a fair amount of luck involved, but I was the only driver who didn’t have any problems with the car.

As to the car, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. This LeMons car is not at all like my Arrow. About all that’s the same is the body and the steering wheel. It’s a different engine and transmission. Mine was a 1.6l 4-speed, this has the 2.6l and 5-speed from a Fire Arrow. The wheels and tires on the Lemons car are bigger than on mine, and the car rides maybe three or four inches higher. My young self thought the car handled well, but of course my young self had no real clue. This LeMons car has considerable body roll due to the high ride height. When I was in the car, everything worked, but all felt … imprecise. I occasionally had trouble finding 3rd gear (never missed a shift, but struggled a few times). In the uphill right hand turn 11, I often experienced a nasty hop in the rear end under acceleration. I was able to alter my line in that turn and by not getting on the throttle as early or as hard more or less eliminate it.

Brett’s take on LeMons racing is that it’s more for and about the mechanics than the drivers. I have no aptitude for working on cars and it’s not particularly interesting to me. That is, it’s not something I want to learn, at least not in the context of running a LeMons race. For me, it’s all about driving the car. I’m more an “arrive and drive” guy. I’ll be surprised if Brett asks me back.

I have to thank Brett for letting me drive his car, and big thanks go to everyone on the team. They really put forth a great effort and they’re fully deserving of the IOE trophy. Aside from some tension early Saturday, I enjoyed the weekend.

LeMons B.F.E. GP 2018 – Part 1

What is LeMons?

24 Hrs of LeMons is an endurance racing series for cars costing less than $500. There’s an emphasis on absurdity. The title is a parody of the long running annual 24 Hours of Le Mans race, and lemon cars. Teams of four or more drivers compete for up to 24 hours.

These races set themselves apart from the typical road race by the unusual penalties and punishments dished out by judges, as well as a blatant disregard for traditional motorsport politicking. The series is similar to the ChumpCar World Series which developed out of it (and which I ran at Road America in 2015), but retains a more carnival-like atmosphere. The cars and teams tend to have themes and costumes. The series has been in operation since 2006.

Teams come from all over the country to enter these races. This weekend’s race has entrants from Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Illinois, and Michigan, and who knows where else.

The Car

The first car I owned that was titled in my name was my 1978 Plymouth Arrow. I bought it new in May of 1979 for $4,604.19. I had been looking to buy one for several months. I’d made offers on them and been turned down. There were five Plymouth dealers in Denver at the time, and I visited all of them. In January of 1979 I made an offer of $4,600 for a car at Colorado Chrysler Plymouth. They turned me down. It was this car that I bought for $4.19 more five months later. I drove that car 192,000 miles before trading it in. It was nothing like a race car. Shortly before I replaced it, I timed it from 0-60 at 22 seconds.

My old car, photo circa 1982

I met Brett when I was arranging with Dennis to drive his Chump Car. Not long after I met him, Brett sent an email to the group telling us he had an Arrow he wanted to turn into a race car. I couldn’t believe it. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen one since I got rid of mine back in 1987. I went to his house and he showed me that he had three of them. This was a few years ago and I had more or less forgotten about it. In December, for some unknown reason, I wondered if he had ever gotten around to building his Arrow race car and reached out to him. I told him if he built it I wanted to drive it.

I told him I had no mechanical aptitude and just wanted to drive it. He and his team worked frantically for about six months getting the car ready. I made a few token appearances but was fundamentally uninvolved in developing the car. But I had talked to Brett about costs and agreed to his fee. I bought my Lemons license and wrote Brett a check. As the race approached we were still in touch via Facebook, going over trivia such as what our uniforms were and whether I’d camp at the track or commute. They were working feverishly on the car, and I thought I’d made it clear that I had nothing to contribute mechanically speaking. And Brett never made any specific requests to me for help, so I thought we were good.

Saturday June 9

I arrived at the track about 7:30 and found the team. I greeted Brett and he asked if I was there to race. “Yes, I am.” But he’s upset with me because I wasn’t helping on the car. They’d had some long nights, staying up until 3am and I was absent. They all assumed I was going to be a no-show today and he’s not sure he wants me to drive. He wants to think about it; he’s ready to give me my money back and send me home. This is clearly not an empty threat. They have the drivers names on the car and my name isn’t there. While he’s thinking about it, he said I should take my gear and get checked in.

My clothing passes tech and I get my tech sticker placed on my helmet. They check my name off the drivers list.

In the mean time, the team is making the final adjustments in preparation for getting the car to pass tech inspection. One of the problems they’d been having included a fuel leak near the fuel filter. Also, the filter had clogged up, so they find a replacement (a giant filter that would work on a Ford F-150 truck) and install it. With the car running, there’s no leak and they call it done and drive it over for the inspection. It passes.

The car runs, but we had no gauges: no fuel gauge, no speedometer, no tach, no temperature gauges. Brett gathers us drivers around and goes over some final instructions. The object is to get the car to the end of the race tomorrow afternoon. Don’t stress it, don’t overtax it. Keep it under 5100 rpm (without a tach!). Go easy on the brakes. Then there’s a deal for charity. Do we want to contribute $100? That would be $20 each. We agree, but (as is usual for me) I’m carrying about $12 cash. I tell Brett I’ll pay him back tomorrow and he agrees, but gives me an exasperated look.

While they were getting Jan in the car I managed to mount the old GoPro. I have a spare battery for the old camera so between the two cameras and extra battery I should be able to get video for three drivers. Each camera should run about an hour and a half. I don’t get it turned on, though. (It looks like Jan spotted the camera and tried to get it running, but there are two clips totaling less than 30 seconds, so she didn’t get it figured out. I assume it was Jan; whoever it was had a helmet on and I can’t see their face.)

Jan is first in the car. While she’s driving, we need to get some supplies. Brett divides the list among us, sending me and Steve to get gas. We throw eight 5 gallon containers into the back of his truck and head off to the truck stop twenty miles away for fuel. I pump the gas and Steve grabs some Mountain Dew and snacks. I learn that, at this gas station at least, you can only pump $95 worth of gas on a single transaction. I do another transaction for $43 more. I pumped forty one and a half gallons into our eight 5 gallon jugs.

Along the way we chat. He’s an interesting guy, spent a number of years in the Navy on nuclear submarines. He’s had some rough times and faces some challenges. We’re gone about an hour and at one point in the conversation he mentions that they had a guy who just wanted to drive, which is frowned upon by the team. I’m not sure whether he’s talking about me or not.

When we get back we find that the car has been out for only one lap. Brett reimburses me for the gas, and I clear my $20 debt with him then.

Bad gas from filter

James goes out next, comes back in pretty quickly with a fuel filter problem again. I have all my gear on the ground near the rear of the driver’s side of the car. As part of their diagnosis/fix of the problem, somebody has taken the gas cap off the car and when they blow compressed air through the fuel system, gas fountains out of the tank, drenching all my gear. Only moments before I had picked up the SLR, so it didn’t get doused. But all that was in the bag – my drivers suit, Nomex underwear, Nomex socks, driving boots, both GoPro cameras and the bag of accessories – got drenched as did my helmet sitting next to the bag. I spread all my gear out to get it dry, wipe off the cameras, squeeze out the gas soaking the padding in my helmet. My undershirt wasn’t hit too badly, but my long johns got it pretty good across the front. It all dries fairly quickly but everything I have smells strongly of gas.

I’m next in the car. I managed to swap the camera so I know I have a fresh battery. We have no radios, no pit board. How long should I stay in the car? Brett says it’s hot and I won’t want to be out long. I tell him otherwise; that I will have no problem staying in the car as long as he wants. He wants me out for an hour. I figure 20 laps will be about an hour and attempt to count my laps. I miscount, come in after 22. Half way through my stint a piece of the roll cage padding comes off. It’s a piece of plastic about four inches long. It rolls around by my feet, never getting stuck behind any pedals but annoying me several times. By now my groin area is a bit uncomfortable because of the gasoline on my long johns. It’s not bad and goes away shortly thereafter. They were dry by the time I put them on, so perhaps it was just my imagination.

At the end of my session I am black flagged. We were told that we can race after we pass the incident that caused the yellow flag. I’m following two cars and after we pass the tow truck, I pass the other two cars. It looked like the first guy was holding up the second and I got a good run. But no, we’re still under yellow and I get black flagged immediately. When I report, I tell them I’d passed the tow truck and thought we could race. “Don’t you think it was odd you passed somebody in this car?” But most cars were slow in the corkscrew and turn 3. Many are on the brakes when I’m on the throttle, so I’m faster than a lot of cars in those spots. Two or three other cars are reporting for their black flags immediately behind me so I wasn’t alone.

Later, a driver for one of the other teams comes up to us for a chat. He was a car or two behind me when I got black flagged. He says, “You got robbed!” He agrees with me that we had passed the incident and were okay to race. The track had not yet gone full-course yellow until after I made the pass. Previous corners had one white flag and one yellow. It wasn’t until after the start/finish that I saw two yellow flags. He said the corner worker at the station that flagged me wasn’t paying full attention and had to look up from her phone to wave the black flag at me. While it’s nice to have somebody siding with me, and I find it odd that so many of cars got flagged at the same time, I have to take his report with a grain of salt.

Hank is next in the car. We want to call him in for fuel. Brett and I are waiting near the pits for him but he never shows. Finally we see him on the flatbed. He’d had a wheel fall off. A spacer failed and the front left wheel went its own way just before turn 7. The arrival of the flatbed and stricken car draws a crowd, everybody snapping cell phone pictures. Hank looks a bit forlorn sitting in the car.

Hank in the stricken car draws a crowd

One of the teams nearby loans us a wheel that fits. After an hour to effect repairs, the car is back on the track with Brett behind the wheel. He gets called in because of a report that we’re leaking fuel. The LeMons guys can’t smell gas, so it’s not us. Brett thinks it’s the multi-colored 5 series BMW (which turns out to be the car driven by John F, one of my Lotus friends). Brett goes back out. I hang around the LeMons guys, curious to see what they’re doing. One looks at me: “Are you with the 5 car?” Yes. “Go to race control and watch the video to see where your wheel went.” I do. Glen tells me we can retrieve it with a truck after the track goes cold.

Brett stays out for the rest of the day (about another hour). A few minutes before the checkered flag we see him coming back being pushed by Glen on his quad. Brett ran it out of gas and ran it out of brakes.

We go looking for Glen to get permission to take a truck out for the tire. Can’t find him. We ask the LeMons guys where Glen is so we can get his clearance to go retrieve our wheel. They say no motorized vehicles are allowed on the track without Glen’s permission and are a miffed that we’re even looking to bother Glen. So we have to walk out with a wagon to get it. I borrow a wagon from the team next to us in the garage and we go searching. Aaron and James ride bikes, I drag the wagon. On the track, rolling the wagon behind me, my inner six-year-old wants to jump in the wagon and go sailing down the hill. I resist the temptation.

Glen is out sweeping the track. He stops and we talk. “I thought you were going to take a truck out to find your wheel.” LeMons guys said we couldn’t, and didn’t seem to like us looking for you.

We spend 20 minutes searching before we find it. I’m wearing shorts, traipsing through waist-high weeds and thistle. I get a bunch of burrs in my socks and later learn I got about twenty mosquito bites. Aaron and James ride back to the paddock and I trudge along pulling the wagon, chatting with a group of guys out walking the track.

Retrieving the missing wheel

Back in the paddock, they’re replacing the brake pads and fluid. I worked the brake during the flush, which is about the limit of my technical expertise. Brakes flushed, I ask Brett “would you be upset if I asked to leave now?” I get permission. It’s 9pm.

When I get home and start copying the video files to the hard drive, I discover that the gasoline has damaged the plastic on the housing for the newer GoPro. I’ll need to get it replaced before I go to Road America.

ChumpCar Road America – Part 3

Race 2

Sunday morning was sunny with scattered clouds and a bit of a breeze. The forecast was to be a bit cooler than yesterday, with a better than 50% chance of rain starting after two. The possibility of rain factored into the driving sequence. Phil was game to take on the rain, so he volunteered to be last. Dennis needed go earlier because he had to start packing the trailer for our departure. The final determination was for me to be first, Dennis second, Lauren third, Phil running anchor.

We arrived at the track a bit before the 8 o’clock drivers meeting, which only took a few minutes as there was nothing much to add after yesterday. Evidently nobody did anything unique out there that needed to be called out to the general group.

Yesterday I had planned to start the lap timer on my phone and leave it in my pocket hoping I’d get some good data logged. In all the excitement of my first stint in a real race, it wasn’t on the top of my list and I forgot all about it. Being first in the car was helpful for me as there was no driver change. The day got started without any drama and I remembered to turn on the lap timer.

They have us go on the track at a quarter till so we could do a formation lap to check everybody’s transponders. There is no starting grid; it didn’t matter where I went out relative to the other cars. I was slow getting on track and I ended up “tail-end Charlie”, which was okay by me. I was so late on the track I didn’t catch the field until the lap was nearly done. Being last meant I wouldn’t be getting dive-bombed by twenty or thirty faster cars in the first lap or two.

One more lap around and then the call came through on the radio: “Green! Green! Green!”

I guess a number of the other drivers in the slower cars had the same idea as me, hanging out in the back of the pack. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to pass a half dozen cars on the first green lap. A couple of them were faster cars, though, not yet warmed up. They got back around me the next lap, along with a couple cars that came out of the pits late.

On the first three green laps, cars immediately in front of me had issues in the chicane after the Carousel. The first lap an MR2 went too deep and was in the dirt. On the second lap two Miatas nearly came together. One driver gave the other a thumbs up, but I’m not sure it wasn’t ironic. The third lap was a repeat of the first but with a different car. Nothing like a little excitement to get your blood going in the morning!

Things quickly settled down and I found myself running similar speeds to a Dodge Neon painted up like a Holstein – a black and white cow. I was faster than he was in the turns but slower on the straights. I got by him on the outside on the Carousel and kept him behind me for a few laps. But every time we’d get to the end of one of the three long straights he’d be right up on me. I was disappointed when he managed to get by me. I took it as a challenge and made a real effort to put some pressure on him. I was confident I was faster than him.

It was a good dice. I forced him into a number of errors in the turns but wasn’t able to capitalize on any of them until I had a good run on him into the Carousel, where I passed him again. The next lap he went into the pits and I was looking forward to having some laps without him slowing me down. Imagine my dismay, then, to find the Holstein in front of me a lap later, after their driver change. Their second driver wasn’t up to the standards of the first and I dispatched the cow car quickly.

On the second half of my stint I was able to get a few laps where I wasn’t busy dicing or getting passed and I was able to concentrate on improving my times. I made a bit of a breakthrough on turn 1 and felt I was much faster there than yesterday. I was hoping to make a similar advance on turn 2. I managed to get it right a few times but not consistently. I was happy that fewer of the fast cars were able to catch me in the twisty bits between turn 5 and the Carousel.

Like yesterday, I managed to put together some consistent laps and managed a 3:15.8. Woo hoo!

Too quickly I was told my stint was over and it was time to pit. The driver change went better today – I managed not to forget to take off the wheel. I did bang my knee on the way out, but it went better than yesterday.

The lap timer worked flawlessly. It logged my best lap as 3:15.75 while the unofficial time displayed for us was 3:15.808. As the speedometer in the car doesn’t work, we had no idea what sorts of speeds we were attaining until now. I managed a top speed of 106 on the straight going into turn 5, and about 100 on the other two straights. I was going 80 to 85 in the Carousel.

When Dennis was on track, I took the camera and went to turn 5 to see if I could get a decent picture. I sat in the bleacher there for a few laps then tried another vantage point. I didn’t see much of the track this way, but didn’t want to be away from the pits for too long.

IMG_1939s

Dennis negotiates turn 5

Dennis had some excitement on his stint when a car ahead of him went off in the Carousel, head first into the wall and bounced back sideways across the track. This turned out to be the team next to us in the paddock – a black Maxima. Later Dennis radioed in for us to get brake fluid ready for some maintenance. We checked things out; didn’t need to add any brake fluid but the left front tire had some chunking on the outside edge. We replaced the tire and sent Lauren out on the track.

She surprised us by coming back into the pits a couple laps later. She said that after the Carousel the steering wheel wasn’t straight. She wondered at first whether she had just not put it on correctly in the pits, but then going into Canada corner she didn’t have any brakes. She managed to use the transmission to slow herself down and make the turn. Then she was feeling like the front left wheel was coming off and she limped back to the pits. We jacked up the car (when I say “we” here, I mean Dennis and Phil) and looked for a problem. I will only mangle the description of the problem, so I’ll simplify and say that it was a problem with the wheel bearing. It ended up being terminal and our day was done.

It was disappointing that Phil and Lauren didn’t get to drive, but the car and all the drivers were still in one piece and everybody had a good time, so nobody was really complaining.

IMG_1949s

Exiting turn 14

The silver linings for the day were that we didn’t get rained on at the track and we were able to pack up and be on the road headed home a couple of hours early. Frankly, we were expecting the day to be cold and wet, but although the morning was a bit on the cold side with a bit of a breeze, the day was sunny and comfortable.

I mentioned some of the folks we met while waiting to get into the track on Friday. In the paddock, we had some neighbors with a giant rig with two cars. They were from Wyoming. They consider HPR their home track, even if it is “out in the middle of nowhere.” As opposed to Gillette, WY, right? In the pits we were neighbors with a team from South Dakota who also visit HPR regularly. It’s cool to see we weren’t the only long distance warriors.

Homeward

We missed the rain at the track, but it found us as we were crossing into Illinois. The truck stop restaurant we ate at had a sign proclaiming they had been voted the healthiest menu. Don’t know who did the voting, but I wouldn’t have thought it above average for a truck stop restaurant.

We spent the night in the same Davenport hotel as before. In the same room, to be specific.

By Sunday, Phil and Dennis were tired of my stories so we listened to a bit of George Carlin and a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink, on disc.

A wide variety of topics were discussed in the many hours in the truck. Sunday we sort of did a project post-mortem on the trip, what we should have done to be a better team.

I think it’s an interesting issue. Our mistake with Lauren’s radio in Race 1 cost us a lap. We might have made the podium had we not botched it. We also almost made an error during refueling. Dennis had nearly put the nozzle in when Phil was still attending to the car. I stood there thinking “He’s not supposed to start until Phil’s done” but took no action. Luckily, Dennis caught himself in time. But perhaps the biggest error was to not take the wheels off the car and checking everything out.

Dennis used to fly planes. With that history, it seems to me a natural that he work on some checklists for the races. Starting with, maybe, a list of possible checklists! I’m not likely to do more than one of these a year, so it would probably be good if I could practice a pit stop. To do it right would require all four drivers, and everybody would have to do each job at least once.

Afterword

On the way home Dennis asked me how I would compare this race to my club days. My immediate response was “I’ll have to conduct further research!”

I’m not sure it’s fair to compare this Road America race to a club day or an open lapping day. The big appeal of this race, for me, was the venue. I would love to drive Road America in the Elise but that’s not too likely in the foreseeable future. Driving somebody else’s car there is a fine substitute. So it might be more fair to compare this trip to the track day portion of my Portland trip.

There are more differences than similarities. The similarities are that I’m on a road trip to a new and exciting track. The biggest difference is that I’m in a different, slower, car. Instead of being alone, I’m part of a team. I’m not just bombing around the track, my laps are toward a goal and I’m running a much longer session. Although it’s a race, it’s seldom I’m ever in a position to move up or down in the standings, so in that regard is it much different than a lapping day?

I enjoyed the track immensely. I feel like I could have the track figured out pretty well with a couple dozen more laps. I never put even two wheels off and managed for the most part to avoid the nasty rumble strips in turn 5 and Canada corner.

I look forward to having the opportunity to do a similar trip in the future – a road trip to a distant track. Maybe something in California?

I had a great time, I look forward to doing another one. Thanks to Dennis for making it all possible and to Phil and Lauren for the great companionship.

And last but not least, a hearty thanks to Tina and Mike for putting us up, and putting up with us.

ChumpCar Road America – Part 2

Race 1

The day started with a drivers meeting at 8:15. It was much like the drivers meetings for all the club days or open lapping days I’ve attended. Nothing particularly stands out in my mind about it, except that they indicate slow (i.e. non-race) vehicles on track with a red cross rather than the usual white flag. These would typically be presented alongside yellow flags. The tow trucks are there because somebody went off. These are experienced corner workers; like for my track day at Portland Int’l Raceway, these guys have flagged big-boy races.

The Race started at 9. Phil is first in the car. Cars are actually sent out a few minutes before 9 so they can do a lap or two to check that the transponders are working as they pass the start/finish line. There isn’t a green flag as such – the course is green when the yellow flags are put away. We get under way pretty much on time.

Dennis has ChumpCar’s timing and scoring app installed on his phone so we can see how things are going. It gives us the number of laps run, last lap time, and fastest lap time. Phil puts down some nice laps, is pretty quickly under 3:20 per lap. By the end of his stint, he has recorded a 3:12, which turns out to be the fastest lap for the team.

There are fifty cars on in the race in four classes. We’re in class A, which is the slowest class. Our opponents in this class are mostly Miatas. We have a Miata engine in a heavier car, so we’re at a bit of a performance disadvantage, plus we’re carrying our three lap penalty. There are only a handful of Class A cars competing and we’re confident we can finish on the podium, but three laps is a lot of ground to make up.

Phil’s hour and forty minutes is over pretty quickly for us and quicker for him, I’m sure. Lauren is in the car next. Like me, she’s never driven the car before and we only practiced getting in and out of the car once. Because we’re fueling the car, our stop will last a minimum of five minutes by rule. In theory, this means we shouldn’t feel hurried. Theories are wonderful things, but the reality is that we all feel pressure to do things quickly. If you’ve never practiced something and try to do it fast, you’re likely to make mistakes.

Our mistake for Lauren was failing to do a radio check before we release her. We try to talk to her but get no response. We don’t know if she can hear us or not, but we certainly can’t hear her. That leaves us no option but to call her in by showing her the pit board. When she comes back in, we find that not only was one of the connections undone but the radio was on the wrong channel. Dennis fixes these problems, a quick check tells us everything is working, and we send her back out. This mistake essentially costs us another lap.

Judging by her lap times, she didn’t take long to settle into the car and get a rhythm. Before long she’s turning laps consistently in the 3:25 range. I’m up next, and I’m starting to get a bit anxious. I’m due in the car about 12:30, and by 12:15 hadn’t even given lunch any thought. One of Dennis’s daughters has brought a big spread of food out for us and I manage to eat a brat before I have to get in the car.

There are more right turns than left turns, and the big right turn is the Carousel. Dennis and Phil decided that we should swap the tires from left to right as the left side will be showing much more wear. The tires are directional, so I’ll be running them the wrong way. Doing this is only a problem if it rains; with the tires going the wrong direction they’ll be very bad in the wet. The weather is sunny and dry so it’s not an issue; rain isn’t in the forecast until tomorrow afternoon.

Lauren and I do the driver change while Dennis and Phil swap the wheels. The driver change is a bit quicker in spite of me not being able to see the buckles with my helmet on. It feels like forever before I’m strapped in, but the car is still in the air when I’m ready. Then it’s time for fuel and I wait patiently and compose myself. Fuel in, they release me and I head down pit lane, stop to have the timer removed from the car, and enter the track.

Almost immediately I’m swamped by faster cars. What have I gotten myself into? On my club days, we can only pass in limited places, and with a point by. On open lapping days it’s open season and I thought I was prepared for this, but it’s a bit of a shock at first. To add to the discomfort, I don’t really know where the braking and turn in points are or even which gear to be in, so I’m trying to figure all that out at the same time.

By the second or third lap Dennis is on the radio telling me I just did a three thirty something. After those hectic first few laps I start to relax a bit. The guys in the pit can’t see where I am (unless I’m on the front straight), so sometimes they’re on the radio at inconvenient times. There are places on the track where I can’t hear them, just static. When I get a message when I’m being passed by two cars in the middle of a turn I understand why Kimi Raikkonen might say “Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing!”

Several laps later, I feel like I’m getting into a groove. Dennis tells me I’m turning laps in the 3:17 range and I feel I can continue to improve. I’m starting to feel comfortable; I’m thinking that it’s all about confidence and I’m getting more confident.

I’ve driven the track many times on the computer, but that pales in comparison to the real thing. Television and video games don’t do the terrain justice, but at least I know how the track is laid out. Some turns I figure out quite quickly; they become simply a matter of practice. On other turns, I have to change my approach as I get faster and I don’t get them figured out the first day. And then there’s the Carousel. No other track I’ve been on has anything like it. It seems to go on forever. Nobody passes me in the carousel, but I make a pass there, which induced a bit of a pucker factor.

Dennis radios me that I’ve been out an hour. On lapping days, I’m usually out for a half hour at a time. Last week at HPR I did over three hours in my car, but it was a half hour at a time. This hour seemed to fly by. My stint will be over all too quickly. It is over all too quickly.

When it’s my time, I exit the track and go up the hill in pit lane. I stop for the official who puts an egg timer on the hood of the car. Then I head for our pit. I stop the car and manage to get unbuckled. I climb out of the car, forgetting to take the steering wheel off. I feel like an idiot. Although it’s a bit on the chilly side, I’m fairly drenched in sweat. But I feel great – I feel I could go another hour.

Dennis is last in the car. He quickly gets up to speed, and regularly turns 3:15 laps. When we’re not in the car, we take turns on the radio. But mostly it’s just waiting around. Dennis’s daughter’s family brought some good food – I snacked on fruit salad and drank lots of water to stay hydrated.

At the end of the day we were fourth in our class, 26th overall. Most of the cars behind us had mechanical problems.

IMG_1925s

L to R: Dennis, Lauren, me, Phil

 

Ford GT

It was only the second time I met Kent when I asked him what I had to do to drive his Ford GT. This was on the Braille Rally last year. I was delighted when he answered, “Buy me a six pack of craft beer.” Unfortunately, he left before I exchanged contact info with him. Since then, I’ve been keeping my eye out for him. I finally connected with him at the Concours a few weeks ago.

I asked him if his offer was genuine or if it was just a polite way of putting me off. He responded that the price had gone up to two six packs and we exchanged cards. One Friday he emailed and said I could drive it that Saturday. I had plans and felt it would be poor form to cancel, so I told Kent that didn’t work for me. Then I worried I wouldn’t get another chance.

But persistence won out and we arranged to get together yesterday for a beer. So with painters tape holding one turn signal in and the other one missing, I drove the Elise to Kent’s. I even was lucky enough to score a parking spot right in front of his house. We went to his garage and he gave me the nickel tour. He has some very nice automobiles, any of which I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to drive, but the Ford GT stands out for me.

I can’t say that the GT is the car I most want to drive of all cars ever made. I can only dream of driving an F1 car. Likewise, I’ve never even laid eyes on many supercars you see on Top Gear. At museums and auctions I’ve seen dozens of fantastic cars that I never had any realistic chance of even sitting in, let alone riding in. But I’m hard pressed to come up with any other car that given a chance to drive that I’d choose over of the GT.

2014-07-04 16.29.45sMy specific request was, “I don’t even want to drive it fast, just around the block.” So after the tour of the garage, he backed the GT out and we headed to Strange Brew for beer. On the way, he gave it just a little kick in the pants. Just that little squirt of the throttle was … sublime.

But before quenching our thirst, we switched seats and Kent directed me on a short circuit of the area. We got on I-25 and then immediately off. I really wanted to punch it but I took it easy – you never know what other drivers will do. Then we made a wrong turn and had to turn around. I made Kent a little nervous when it took me a couple tries to find reverse, but we made it back to the Strange Brew without incident. I’m used to getting a lot of attention in the Elise, but I don’t think I ever had a guy in the next lane at the light yell at the top of his lungs, “That is an awesome car, man!”

Over beer we swapped car stories. His are much better than mine. It started raining when we were chatting and Kent needled me a bit – “Now I’m going to have to wash it.”

2014-07-04 16.29.54sIt took me quite a while to stop calling these cars GT 40’s. When the GT was at the SEMA show in 2003, it was labelled GT 40. But there was an issue with rights to the name, so it ended up just Ford GT. Kent has a small poster made from materials from that SEMA show in his garage. And he had GT 40 graphics made up and applied to the doors.

I was quite surprised how easy the car was to drive. I was expecting a brute. It was quiet, had a smooth ride, was comfortable. It has leg room to spare; I did not drive with the seat all the way back as in most cars. It’s a very wide car, the driver and passenger sit quite far apart. Rear visibility was a bit worse than the Elise. The wing mirrors are small, and the a-pillars are so big if you’re short you won’t be able to see the one on the drivers side. And ingress and egress require a wide parking spot – you pretty much have to open the doors all the way.

I can’t thank Kent enough for letting me drive his car. We’re barely acquaintances. And I understand why exotic cars don’t get driven much, but I always kind of felt that a car that isn’t driven isn’t fulfilling its destiny: cars are made to be driven. So I think it’s great that Kent drives his cars, and I’m happy he shared his passion with me.