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 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.

Laps in the Chrysler

April 2, 2017

I joined Lotus Colorado before I had a Lotus. At my first meeting John Arnold announced a track day at a brand new track, High Plains Raceway. I asked him if he’d laugh at me if I took the Chrysler. “What kind of Chrysler?” So the first car I ever drove on a race track was the Chrysler.

I have no idea what sort of times I put in that first day. In my misspent youth, I hung out a lot at Malibu Grand Prix playing pinball and video games. Their big attraction was the cars. They were rotary engined, bigger than go karts, capable of seventy miles an hour in a straight line. The track was a half mile long, never more than twenty feet in a straight line. Most folks had no problem putting in a 65 second time. My first shot I thought I was really hauling ass. It was 90 seconds. That first track day in the Chrysler, I thought I was really hauling ass. For the last couple years I’ve wondered what sort of time I could to in the Chrysler today, now that I know the track and have sort of learned how to drive a car fast.

So why do I bring this all up?

Several weeks ago I paid for an afternoon of lapping on April 2nd. Then I took the Elise in to the shop for some work. Unfortunately, she’s still there, five weeks and counting, likely some more weeks to go. I’ll save the gory details for another time, but the short version is that a defective Toyota part has caused some complications.

I made a half-hearted attempt to give my sessions to somebody else but found no takers. So I decided to satisfy my curiosity and run a few laps in the airport limo. The plan was to do an out lap and two or three laps then quit.

That first time, the 300M was ten years old and had been garaged all her life. Now she’s about to turn eighteen and has been sitting outside for seven years. The clear coat is peeling like a bad sunburn; windshield is cracked; rear-view mirror is off for the fourth time, adhesive failure. She’s tired, wanders a bit on the highway, needs new bushings all around. Any more than a few laps would be cruel to her.

When I got off the highway in Byers, the check engine light came on.

I ran a few laps anyway.

What an entirely different experience than the Lotus. The steering wheel feels giant when wrestling the car through the turns. I was all elbows, like a power forward grabbing that contested rebound. The car is nearly twice the mass of the Elise. It has more rubber on the ground and has brakes about the same size as the Elise. But with all that weight I felt like I was driving a bus, giant steering wheel and all.

After only a few laps the brakes were getting pretty hot. The pedal would get long along with the stopping distances. Not long into the session I also noticed that the car figured out I was doing something unusual as it turned off traction control for me. Pretty clever.

I expected to be the slowest car on the track, so I ran with the novice group. I wasn’t quite the slowest car. I only ran two sets of laps, an hour apart. The first session, I spent most of my time waving cars by me. A couple of very slow cars waved me by. I didn’t get anything like a clear lap. The second session was better in spite of being stuck behind a truck the whole time.

It was an F-150 Lightning. I don’t know my trucks. I’m working under the assumption that it’s an SVT because if it’s an older one, I got owned by a bigger, older vehicle with less power. This guy slowed me down only slightly. He had more power, could pull me on the straights and up the steep hills, I caught him in the twisty bits. I could have gone a little bit faster if he’d have let me by, but it’s always fun to run nose-to-tail with somebody doing similar lap times. Even if you can measure them with an hourglass.

There were two Lotus there, Ryan with his orange Exige and a new guy with a red 05 Elise. I think he told me his name was Cory. He’s had the car a bit over a year and this is his second track day. It’s supercharged. He gave me a ride and I tried to give him some pointers. I didn’t say anything for a couple of laps, to get a sense of how fast the car would go. I thought it would be a bad idea to suggest my braking points if he’s going ten miles an hour faster.

The car seemed to be more of a handful than mine. I think the track pack makes quite a bit of difference. I’m sure I’d have a better sense as a driver than passenger, but there seemed to be quite a lot more pitch and roll.

After we got the checker, he kept pushing it. I figured he’d go until we caught the guy in front of us, but he kept going fast, too. Then, cresting the hill in turn 7 he lost it, fully sideways one way, then fully sideways the other, big swings of a pendulum. The second swing wasn’t as big and I thought for a split second that he caught it, but no. The car was half in the weeds, showering us with dust and dead grass. He had a GoPro mounted on the windshield, but I don’t know that it was running.

Before we left, I wanted to put some air back in the tires. The car stalled when I went to back it up to the air hose. And it was reluctant to start when I was ready to leave.

So, here’s the lapping video nobody really wants to see:

CECA at CSP

Saturday, August 20

I was the beneficiary of Scott’s misfortune. He had registered and paid for the track day with CECA at the Colorado State Patrol training facility. But his car was still in the shop. The original plan was I’d show up for a while and he could give me a ride. Instead, I ran in his place and I gave him a ride.

This was my third time here, the other two were back in 2012 and 2013. Back then the dirt road leading to the facility was heavily rutted and a challenge to navigate. We had to crawl up, often switching from one side of the road to the other to avoid bottoming out. It was a pleasant surprise to see that it has been substantially improved. It’s hardly the same road. This road will never get ruts like it used to.

There was a nice turnout. The event was limited to forty cars. I had heard that with a week to go there were only eleven entrants. I didn’t count but would guess there were twenty five or thirty cars. I could be over estimating, though. CECA allows second drivers for free, so several cars went out in more than one group. In any event, CECA is back to break-even for the season

Nissan Skyline GT-R

Nissan Skyline GT-R

It was an interesting mix of cars. There was another Elise, Mark, who’s had his pretty blue car for only a few months. A Caterham made up the rest of the Lotus contingent. There was quite a group of 1960’s cars. CECA days always have a Hertz GT 350. There was also a nice orange Mustang fastback, a green Firebird, a white Falcon (1964, maybe?), and a red Corvair that smoked like he was spraying for mosquitoes. There was a later Mustang, a race car, but pretty beat up, and a recent GT 350. A few Miatas, a few very expensive 911’s, two silver Scion FR-S’s.There must have been a Corvette, certainly, but… perhaps not.

Two cars in particular attracted my attention. I couldn’t help but notice a Nissan Skyline GT-R, right hand drive. Not a flashy car, grey inside and out, but unmistakable. It has something I’ve never seen on a coupe or sedan: a wiper for the back window.

The other was a recent Mustang. Metallic blue, with gold stripes, a GT-500 Super Snake. He just had it dyno’d – seven hundred ninety something horsepower at the flywheel. He thinks it’s capable of 180mph and says that to get it to 200mph it would cost an additional $20,000. He was running in the green group and we were never on the track together.

Mustang GT 500 Super Snake

Mustang GT 500 Super Snake

I have no data from my earlier visits. I may have had a lap timer on my old phone, but if I did the data is long gone. Laps are counter-clockwise and cover about 1.4 miles. Depending on how you count it’s either eight turns or three turns and a chicane. A lot of the guys say it’s flat, but that’s not true. There are two big humps that make some passengers nauseous. And the entry of one turn has enough downhill grade to make late braking more challenging. One thing I like about it is that there are no long straights: it’s not a horsepower track. That said, I manage to hit 100mph twice each lap (well, most laps) and average 70, which is a higher average speed than I manage at HPR.

Caterham

Caterham

The weather couldn’t have been much better. It was cool in the morning, clear and calm. It stayed clear, with the usual brilliant blue Colorado sky, but never got hot. In the morning, oversteer was a common complaint. Everybody expected it to get better as the track got some heat into it, but my car felt loose all day.

Scott seemed reluctant to take a ride. He said he didn’t want to slow me down with the additional weight of a passenger. But I like giving rides. I told him I don’t really notice much change in the car, and doubt that my times are significantly slower. We speculated that it might be two seconds a lap here. It turned out to be more like a half second. I was able to do a 1:13.6 in the second session and 1:13.4 in the fourth. Most days my times improve each session so I might have been able to do a 1:13.5 in the third. With Scott as a passenger, I managed six laps in the 1:14’s with a best of 1:14.1.

When Scott got out of the car he complained of a bit of nausea. I hope it was the humps and not my driving. I missed a lot of apexes and took some funny lines. And made my biggest mistake of the day: braking too late on the downhill section. I couldn’t get the car around the corner and put four wheels off. I wasn’t black flagged but should have self-reported. I didn’t. I had the car straight and under control, down to 25mph.

The fourth, final, session was open track – all groups could run. But a number of people had had enough by then. There weren’t many cars on the track, even with whatever green and blue drivers were out. I managed six consecutive laps without traffic. Scott took a few laps in Mark’s car; he exited the track just as I was catching him. Then Mark drove and did the same thing. I was hoping to get his car on camera for a few turns but so it goes.

After the last session I had a nice chat with Bill and Heike. Bill had an interesting proposition. “The track,” he said, “isn’t really a track. We use it like a track but it’s really an endless two-lane highway.” He’s correct, of course. It’s built like a road. It has a crown like a road, it is striped like a road. The Troopers use it as a road. Bill suggests “Stay in your lane and see how fast you can do a lap.” Next time I come here I’ll have to give it a shot.

The video is two laps plus my off. The map gauge worked this time. I have no idea why it works sometimes and not others.

Laguna Seca Trip: Day 10 – Laguna Seca

Monday, July 18

The low flying planes quit buzzing the motel soon enough, and I was finally able to sleep a troubled sleep. I tried to remain positive. This couldn’t have happened in a better place. Eight miles away are the region’s Elise experts. I topped off the gas tank then headed to the track. When I arrived at the entrance to the track, another green Elise with a wide centered yellow stripe was behind me. There’s a entrance booth that was unmanned. I pulled aside and he pulled up. “Don’t stop here. Follow me.” So I didn’t, and I did. I just met Bryan.

GBMC2167sThe check engine light hadn’t come back on, not yet at least. But the car wasn’t warming up. I didn’t think I’d be able to run if it didn’t get up to temperature and by now it should have. Just as we enter the paddock we had to stop to sign the waiver. While I was queued up behind Bryan that the temperature finally got into the operating range.

We pulled into spots right up against the pit road, just a few car lengths from the pit lane entrance. After checking in, I went back to chat with Bryan. His 2005, Lotus Racing Green, not BRG, is his track toy. Supercharged, and sporting a new device for his exhaust to mitigate the sound. He’s had some experience at this track, but only his second time in this car.

GBMC2801s

Chasing Eleanor down the Corkscrew

There was an excellent turnout. As expected, a good proportion of Lotus. Mel, who I met yesterday, brought is ’74 Elan. There was an X180R race car, “Eleanor“, the second of two type 105 race cars built to compete in the SCCA World Challenge series. There were a ton of Elises and Exiges, a 2-Eleven. In addition, there was the usual complement of Porsches, Miatas, Minis, Audis, and BMWs. What I thought was a Noble turned out to be a Rossion. There were several Mustangs. Most were new, but there was a 1973  Mustang that was a race car when new and still is. A Cobra, I believe, and not a knock-off. Even an old Volvo station wagon Lemons car.

A Golden Gate Lotus Club track day is a well-organized event. Snacks were available at check in. The drivers meeting was efficiently run, everything covered yet succinct. The photographer, Dito Milian, spoke, giving pretty much the same spiel as he did on Friday. “If you’re in the front of a line of cars, it doesn’t mean you’re holding them up. In the picture it looks like you’re winning!” We were dismissed; let the festivities begin.

GBMC3885sI’ve been carrying a second helmet the whole trip. I’d invited people to Sonoma but I didn’t really expect them to show up. I had the spare helmet on my trip two years ago and never had a guest. Carrying it is a waste of space, and I should bring something else. But today Caleb showed up so it wasn’t a waste of space after all. I like giving rides. I’ve probably had riders at nearly half my track days. But nobody was ever as excited as Caleb. He was like a kid at Christmas.

IMG_2242s

Mel and his Elan

We would have a 20 minute session each hour and a twenty minute break for lunch. Everybody got seven sessions; I drove five and a half. To start the first session, Bryan offered to lead me around for two laps. He was giving a ride to another intermediate driver; would do two laps, drop him off, and resume. I could follow the two laps.

This worked out pretty well for me, he showed me a good line. The first session was a madhouse. It seemed like there were too many cars out. It’s partly down to the rush to do three sessions an hour – they release the cars from the grid quickly, not much space between cars, so we start the session bunched up. In the drivers meeting, they announced that if you spin or go four off in the first session, or put two off with a passenger, you’ll be the Bozo. They’d actually put a Bozo sign on your car. Although I put two off with a passenger it wasn’t in the first session, so I avoided being Bozo.

IMG_2246sThat first session never really loosened up. At home, checkered flag means cool down lap, don’t use the brakes. In this trip, checkered flag is “hustle home, boys.” Keep at eighty percent of your pace, and bring it in. Today checkers were displayed at 1 and 7. In this lap. We took the checker at turn one, so had nearly a whole lap. Even at the relaxed pace, half way through the lap I was setting my best lap time for the session.

In the second session the CEL illuminated again. I had talked to Rob Dietsch earlier. He said I’d have no problems running today and no problems driving home; the only issue will be extended warm-up times. Unless, that is, the misfire code returns. I wasn’t experiencing any misfire and when Rob checked the code it was just the thermostat. [In the subsequent two weeks, no codes have been thrown and warm-up times have been normal.]

Each session got progressively better, which is the usual case. Had I given more thought to it, I might have skipped the first session and run a later one instead. Each session was better than the previous. I was starting to figure out some of the turns, working out the braking points. I was getting used to the other drivers in the session.

IMG_2249sI don’t think I passed anybody in the first session. By the third session I was really starting to get comfortable. Now I was getting stuck behind an orange Exige. I’d get close to making a run on him and I’d have to let a faster car by. Finally got up on him, got large in his mirrors, but his extra horsepower let him pull me on the straights. Not being able to get around him, I let a space open up; I could start away from him in the next session.

As odd as it was that my fastest lap in the first session would have been my in lap, had it been complete, my fastest lap in the third session was the one where I made the most mistakes. That gave me confidence. Make fewer errors, I’ll obviously get faster.

I’m sometimes surprised at how fast my modern car is compared to some classic race cars of not that long ago. The X180R is a beautiful car, sounds fantastic, it was a real pleasure to get to see it in action on the track, to run with it on the track. I was surprised I was able to catch it so easily. One of my neighbors speculated the car had a timing problem and wasn’t running properly. But it shows how automotive technology has advanced that my little 2006 street car can outrun a championship race car from 1990.

The thermostat didn’t give me much grief. The engine didn’t cool down too much between sessions, except for the lunch break. I was now faster than Bryan, so he wanted me ahead of him on the grid. Unfortunately, it took two laps to get the temperature back up. I’m fifteen seconds a lap slower without the second cam. After the two laps, I took off like a scalded cat; was able to execute a pass on the orange Exige that had flummoxed me earlier.

GBMC1132sI improved my best time in each session, until my final aborted one. I put two wheels off twice, just barely, and was a little sideways or had wobbles a number of times but felt in control the whole time. With one lapse. In my final full session I came up on a black and yellow Mustang. He waved me by, pointing me right. I passed him on the left. After the session was over I found him in the paddock and apologized. Looking at the video, I see why I did it. He was moving right as he was pointing me right. Still, I was correct to apologize.

By mid afternoon, Bryan’s exhaust gadget was discoloring his license plate. He unmounted the device for the final session and was not black flagged. He didn’t need to use it.

I ran half of what I thought was the final session, due to low fuel. Okay, I admit I was beginning to get fatigued. I didn’t have the best night’s sleep, and we had gotten a good dose of track time. I certainly won’t complain that I didn’t get my money’s worth.

GBMC2987s

Bryan follows me into the Corkscrew

At the end of the day, Caleb asked me which of the three days was my favorite. It didn’t take me long to say that today was the best of the three. There’s no doubt that a big part of it is the iconic nature of the place. I still can’t believe I got to run laps at Laguna Seca. Incredible, the stuff of fantasy. Lapping Laguna Seca in a Lotus is definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

My feelings now are quite a contrast to just 24 hours ago. I’m relieved and elated, still somewhat adrenalized, looking forward to a sound, well-earned night’s rest.

At Willows we switched gears. Now we switch directions: homeward bound.

The upgrade to Windows 10 has interfered with my video editing. Although I haven’t been able to do one yet for Sonoma, I did manage to make this two lap clip, second lap is my fast lap for the day.

Laguna Seca Trip: Day 8 – Sonoma Raceway

Saturday, July 16

It’s an hour drive to the track from Danville. I should have left earlier; I didn’t realize how crowded it would be. I drove through the entire paddock looking for a place to park and ended up back near the entrance, closest to food. I may have gotten the very last spot. I was between two Miatas on one side, two Porsches on the other. On the other side of the Miatas is a Volcano Orange McLaren and on the other side of the Porsches is a silver one.

The place is a madhouse. Track Masters and Speed Ventures are co-organizers of the track event. Track Masters is also operating an autocross here in the parking lot so we’re quite crowded. I found the sign-in desk and submitted my paperwork, was directed to the classroom for the drivers meeting. This meeting lasted about an hour, about twice the usual length. Much emphasis was placed on the fact that there are concrete barriers in close proximity to pretty much the entire track. They called it a “professional driver’s” track: a track for drivers who’s cars are paid for by other people.

Between that and the large number of participants I was feeling less than happy.

They were running five groups: Red, Orange, Green, Purple, and Black. Four sessions, 25 minutes each, with the first Red and Orange sessions running during our meeting. I’m in Purple: Intermediate, Point-by passing. I could have run in Black, which is Advanced/High-Intermediate, Mixed Passing. Cars that don’t want to be passed without giving a point-by can put a red circle sticker on the back of the car. No sticker means pass at will. Being new to the track and on street tires I was more comfortable signing up for Purple.

I circulated the paddock area off and on all day, looking to introduce myself to any other Lotus runners. George found me. I’d been through the place once or twice without seeing his car, deep in one of the garages. He’s in an S1 Elise. After talking to him, it sounds like he has the same car as Tony from yesterday. George’s is yellow, Tony’s is green, but in all other respects the cars look identical to me. George didn’t seem to know about Tony. The only other S1 I’ve seen was at LOG. What are the chances I’d see two in two days?

IMG_2223sI found Josh and Tony parked together. Josh is running a 2-Eleven, Tony an orange Exige. I told them my story and Josh asked what size tires I’m running. It took me a minute to understand what he was really asking. He had a spare set of slicks and was offering to let me run on them. If I was more familiar with the track, I might have taken him up on the offer. Very generous.

Josh had some unwelcome excitement in the second session. After a couple of laps, Tony was behind him. Josh waved him by but in the process put two wheels off. When he came back on track he over corrected and spun, putting him in the wall. Broken left rear suspension and some fiberglass damage. I didn’t know any of this until after the session, other than seeing him parked beside the track. Our session was black flagged to get him off the track. It only took 10 minutes, but that really cuts the session short. I had two “fast” laps, but they were both heavy traffic and I was unable to get a clean lap.

IMG_2221sWhen I got off track, I headed over to see what had happened to Josh. They showed me the footage on their GoPro. Josh was assessing the damage when I took a picture. Tony says “You’re going to be in the magazine now.”

I really enjoyed the third and fourth sessions. I was getting more comfortable on the track and was able to improve my times by about three seconds each session. The fourth session was best – by now a number of cars had already left, so there was noticeably less traffic.

I chatted with a couple of other Lotus owners, whose names I’ve sadly already forgotten (I’m so bad with names). One had an ’06 Elise special edition (yellow, silver stripes). The other in an Chrome Orange S260 Exige. There was also a silver Exige there. I didn’t get to chat with him, other than to exchange hellos. As usual, all very nice, friendly folks.

IMG_2233sWhen we were all packing up I chatted a bit with the owner of the orange McLaren. He used to have an Elise. He said he wondered if it was too much. “Not too much money, too much car.”

IMG_2224sAt lunch, waiting in line for the nine dollar burger I asked the guy in front of me if his car matched his cap. “Of course,” he said. He was driving his Ferrari FF. On it’s release, it was the world’s fastest four seat car. He said he might be driving the heaviest car out there today: 4200 lbs.

Many of the guys I talked to said Sonoma was their favorite track. Of the two so far, I prefer Thunderhill. I’m a big fan of having plenty of run-off room. If I make a little mistake, like Josh made, I don’t want to pay a major penalty. Mowing the weeds is enough for me. There are a number of places on track here (turns 10 and 11 in particular) where I know I can go faster, but I’d hate to misjudge the grip level and end up in the wall. That said, my early unhappiness was forgotten. I’m happy to have come here once.

As always, I enjoyed the company of the people around me in the paddock. We had to team up to defend our territory. When we were out, somebody parked in Glen’s spot. They made an announcement on the PA for the car to be moved. The guy thought the spots were for customers of the Wine Country Motorsports store. We borrowed a couple of traffic cones to put in our spots while we were on the track.

There was an “official” photographer there. This guy did a lot of paddock shots and fewer on track. I already planned to buy two days of photos, and that wasn’t part of the budget, so buying any here was out of the question. The guy had some nice shots, though.

With the shortage of track minutes, I managed to drive back to Danville without needing to gas up. Quite a difference from yesterday, where I put 9.95 gallons into my 10 gallon tank a few miles from the track.

MJ and Rod made a nice tasty dinner for me and we spent the evening in conversation, with the failed coup attempt on the TV in the background.

Laguna Seca Trip: Day 7 – Thunderhill Raceway

Friday, July 15

Now the vacation shifts gears, so to speak.

It’s a quick 15 minutes from the motel to the track. The facility is pretty nice; they have two large canopies to park under. The one nearest race control, bathrooms, and meeting rooms was already full when I got there, so I had to park at the farther one. Late arrivals were out of luck when it came to shade. This can be quite important as the day progresses. It ended up being about 100 degrees, so shade is important to some semblance of comfort.

Checked in. All cars are required to have numbers. Evidently, that’s some sort of rule in the region, not just for this event. I could use painters tape to make a number, if I could borrow some, or I could purchase a set from them for five bucks. That’s a sticker for each side of the car and a smaller one for the windshield. I got #29.

GBMC6478sThey have an official photographer there – gotbluemilk.com. They have a trailer (“with triple air conditioning!”) full of monitors where you can view what they’ve shot. Pictures for the day are $75. For two-day events, they charge $115. Chatting with them, I discovered they would be in Laguna Seca on Monday, so I told them to bring today’s photos with them on Monday and I’d buy both days for the 2 day event price (even though it’s two one-day events, not a two-day event).

Hooked on Driving (HoD) runs four run groups. A and B had their drivers meeting together, then A went upstairs to a different room and had ground school. C and D were the advanced groups. HoD runs five twenty minute sessions. I’m used to 30 minute sessions and prefer fewer longer sessions than more shorter ones, even if it works out to be the same amount of track time. Fewer longer sessions means fewer in and out laps and more fast laps. Each group is limited to twenty five cars, which is a reasonable maximum. Twenty five cars over a three mile track means we’re generally well-spaced and had a good chance of getting a few unobstructed laps each session.

For the A and B groups, “download” sessions were held after each track session. We went over subjects such as the proper line for various turns, proper gear selection for a couple of the tricky places, and so on. The instructor in charge of the group went on track to get video of the cars in the group to illustrate the good and the not so good.

The first couple of laps of our first session were run under yellow flag with a number of instructors out leading us around. This lets us newbies get an idea of the proper line. I really enjoyed the track. It’s quite challenging with the blind crests and off-camber turns.

I make it a point to meet the other Lotus drivers at these events. Today we had two. Tony was there running his S1 Elise. He says it’s not street legal. It’s a race prepared car from the factory with roll bar, fire suppression, fuel and electrical cutoffs. It’s Lotus Racing Green. It’s left hand drive, which surprised me. Tony says it was sold in the French market. Rover engine, very similar in power to the Toyota in the Federal Elise.

Bo has an orange Elise. He’s had is about a year. Big wing, race seats, after market wheels, bigger diffuser. We were all running in the same group, so we sat together at the classroom sessions.

I don’t think all five groups were fully subscribed. At least one of the drivers in my group would normally run advanced instead, but those were full. For the most part, it was not a dissimilar group of cars to what you’re likely to see at HPR – the usual mix of Mustangs, Corvettes, Porsches, and so on. One car that stood out for me was a Ferrari race car, complete with pneumatic jacks.

IMG_2184sThe track is quite challenging. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, like HPR, so there is plenty of room if you make a mistake. If you go off, you just mow some weeds. It has a nice mix of high speed and low speed turns, off-camber turns, and blind crests. The facilities are nice as well, with air-conditioned classrooms and plenty of shade for the cars and drivers.

GBMC1197sI ran five sessions and improved my best lap each time. I was quite slow the first session; every lap in my second session was better than my best lap in the first session. If we ignore that first session, my time improved by five seconds a lap over the course of the day.

One of the great extras that HoD provided was the presence of a performance tire company. When we exited the track, we could pull into their area of the paddock and they’d get the pyrometer and pressure gauge, collect all the relevant data, and recommend changes. I struggle with setting my tire pressure; I think I got some good tips from them, it just remains to be seen if I put them to good use.

Like yesterday, it was quite hot. I don’t know what the official high temperature was for Willows. As I said, it was close to 100 degrees. This is the first time I’ve been at a track where they had a relaxed dress code. I wore my suit for the morning sessions while everyone around me was in shorts and short sleeves. I lost the suit for the afternoon and was much more comfortable. But it did feel a bit odd.

I stayed to the very end and was one of the last cars to leave the track by the time I got all packed up. I gassed up in Willows before heading south on I-5 to the Bay Area. I’m staying with friends the next two nights in Danville. It was almost exactly a two hour drive, hitting a number of interstates (I-5, 505, 680) before successfully placing me in front of my destination.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. The track was challenging but not frustrating, HoD ran a great event, and I always enjoy socializing with people with a common passion.

Here’s my fast lap: