Friday, March 30, 2007

Auto Cross

Heading to Driveway this weekend for an autocross (autox if you're cool) training class. I figure, it's better than NOT driving...

Autocross is way, way more common than road course driving. The speeds are lower, and there's only one car on course at a time, so there is a perception of more safety. We're lucky to have Bill Dollahite and his driveway in town to practice.

The Driveway is aptly named. It really is the circular driveway to Bill's house. It's 0.8 miles long, surfaced and curbed like a racetrack, and on top of about a 3 foot road bed. It's actually a very nice course, just very short.

Bill is an ex-CanAm racer and team owner. He's an excellent driver and has interesting friends. The LCC has adopted him and his driveway, so we'll be out there alot, I hope.

The car is ready. All I have to do is swap tires and the seat and load it on the trailer and I'm good to go. Last time I went, I was on street tires. This time, I'll use up the rest of the slicks.

The list of little detail items that I need is growing. A video cam. A probe pyrometer. Oil catch can. T1 sway bars. 04 shocks. Wood for the trailer. Paint for the truck. Going to have to make a list and prioritize.

Been watching video from Road Atlanta. I'm going there, because my lovely wife bought me a gift cert! So cool. Will be a nice vacation, but have to start prep now. Getting the car there wil be interesting. Not sure Sheri is ready to stop for gas every two hours, but that's what towing the car is like.

We're back in the gym again, this time to stay. Sheri's knee is worse, and we are finally out of options and forced to actually exercise. Sheri is swimming, and doing exercises that her therapist assigned. Feeling better already, and I have slipped back into the eliptical/weights routine like I never left. It hurts though; my arms felt like they were going to fall off for a couple of days. The only hitch is that we have to wake up at 0515 to get to the gym. Ouch!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

March at TWS

So many changes! Since last time I went on track, three months ago, much has changed about the setup. I bought a truck and a trailer. A race seat went into the car, after much adjustment and cursing. Money was spent in great bunches. Now, I feel like I'm pretty much set for the next couple of years, except for consumables. Total for the truck and trailer rig was $5300. Seat was $100 (great deal there!) and the mounts for it were another $445 (had to have them modified, as the back of the thing wasn't low enough.

The track was TWS, counterclockwise. Sheri almost went with me, but had stuff to finish up before GDC this week, so missed out. I had one of the best weekends I've had in a long time, though I wish I could have had my wife along.

To start with, Josh, Edgar and John all went in and helped me buy a trailer. My budget for such was $1500. I found a trailer but it was too expensive. I lamented this fact to my friends. Next thing I knew, Josh had contacted the seller, negotiated the price down and then tapped Edgar and John to help him make up the difference.

Truly, I have the best of friends driving with me.

One of the biggest changes in the last few months is in my friend Josh. He used to spin all the time; running hard on the edge of what his car could do, and frequently over it. He's through that gauntlet and is now crazy fast. He's turning out to be a good driver, and growing into his modded corvette very well.

Edgar is driving his Subaru like he stole it. He's moved into Yellow group, and is loving it. He's another one that has really got into the sport and is now lugging his tires to the events and changing to race rubber. He's amazingly fast and fearless for a yellow student.

John had our only mechanical issue this weekend. His power steering pump went out, and it's not an easy thing to get repaired. He went home on Saturday night, which sucked. John is the most like me in terms of driving style. He's methodical, careful and fast. I missed him on track.

There were many Corvettes there this weekend, as the Big Boys came out to party. They are John Page (21st Century Muscle Cars), SW, and Ryan from Austin. All are very wealthy, and have been driving cars all their lives. They are very, very fast. They drive whatever they like, but have settled on Corvettes for the most part. John is a (perhaps the only) licensed Ligenfelter installer and shop in the country, so his choice is obvious. SW (an Indian man with a history of making money on real estate and cars) drives a regular looking red 'Vette that is anything but. Ryan has a yellow one. They go to TWS so much that they should have parking plaques. When I see them coming on the track, I give them a wide berth, as they are generally much faster than I (more horsepower and about a zillion hours of seat time will do that). It's fun to watch them though, and John throws a mean cookout.

Ostentatious wealth example: SW broke a timing chain Saturday, so he goes back to Austin and brings the backup car: The Ferrari. Yowza.

I had a "big moment" on Saturday. In the second run of the day, after the track was warm, a yellow race-converted Corvette spilled coolant all over turn 12. I was three cars behind and didn't see it happen (unlike oil which generally smokes when it spills, coolant does not). I was at full throttle and just at the apex of 12 when I started to slide. Not much to do save run off, sideways. I went all the way around in the dirt, 360 degrees. Both feet in as the car swapped ends (save the transmission!) and was able to get back underway quickly. My biggest fear was getting smacked by someone else coming through the same stuff, but I was able to get going and to the pits (I always check the car after a full off road excursion like that) for a check.

Normally, an off like that would rattle me, but this time, I was quite calm. I knew what had happened as soon as it was starting to go, and saw I wasn't going to hit anything. I had all the time in the world to decide what to do. The only nerve wracking thing about this one was that I had become part of someone else's problem. I think that this is the biggest danger of driving anywhere (road course or to work in the morning). It's a good life lesson as well. Sometimes, you have to just put both feet in and ride out the spin.

By far the most fun was on Sunday. I got back into the rhythm of the track and steadily turned faster and faster times. It was a little like a dance that gets faster and faster as the song goes on. Finally, at the end of Sunday, I got in a group of cars that was going about my speed. We had a Porsche Boxter, a BMW M3 Roadster (highly modified), me in the Z06, and a modded C5 Corvette. We were so close to the same speed that the margin was whether one of us hit an apex six inches off, or dead on. Breaking a rear tire loose on the carousel was a critical mistake. We swapped leads about as many times as we turned laps. All too soon, the checkered was out and it was time to pack up and head home. I could have gone just a few more laps anyway, as the car was about out of fuel! I burned almost a quarter tank in the last session.

I know this is my sport because at the end of the weekend, I felt recharged. Sometimes, you come back from a weekend of exertion, and are simply tired. It feels like you haven't had a weekend at all. Not this time. I loaded up the car, hopped in the truck and drove back to Austin smiling all the way.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Texas World Speedway

TWS is my favorite track. It's for sale now, following the death of the owner, Dick Conole.
I only met him once, at an event in 2005. He loved the track, and the folks he hosted there.

I hear that his kids do not want the track. Of course, it is likely that they are facing down a huge inheritance tax hit, so selling it is the only realistic option. I hope that it's sold to an entity that keeps it as a racetrack. It may very well not be, as it's in a growth corridor for College Station. We shall see.

Part of why I write this blog is to practice writing. So, you are going to read a description of TWS.
The best time to see TWS is in the morning. You drive in along highway 6, from College Station. The highway is always under construction, so the exit that takes you to the track is always different. The landmark is a Lonestar sign, a big tall one that stands on the front of the track property.

You turn east across an overpass and notice the backside of the grandstands. It looks like a big hill, with a structure on top of it, set way back from the road. You can't see the bleachers, as they are built into the opposite side of the hill. There is a chain link fence near the base of the hill. Tall, unmown grass covers the field in front of the hill, and ignores the fence as it climbs to the top. It's a pasture without cattle. It may have been meant as a parking area, but there are not any other clues.

The sun comes up over that hill, but since it's still low when you get there at 0630, it's not yet in your eyes. You drive up a road to a small gate house that guards a break in the fence. Past the gatehouse, and only visible as you near the house, are two tunnel entrances. A sign informs you that no bulk fuel is permitted. This is the driver's entrance. The tunnels lead you into the infield. There is another entrance someplace, one that leads to the stands, but I've never been to that one. The tunnels are egg-shaped in cross section, and they are different sizes. Another sign tells you the dimensions of the tunnels. There are watermarks on them too, as the tunnels flood when it rains hard. You have to sign a waiver at the gatehouse to enter the infield. The tunnel takes you down and through the hill. When you emerge, you come up and into the sun. There's nothing to block it now.

There's a sharp left turn in the road, and now, looking back to your left, you can see the enormity of the grandstands and the size of the place. Texas Motor Speedway is larger, but this place is pretty huge. It seats many thousands of people. The stands are not especially safe now, and wasps are the only spectators on that side of the track. The structure at the top of the hill, the control tower and elite boxes, is in disrepair. To your right, you can see the large leaderboard/display system. You're now well inside the main oval racetrack, headed for the pit area. To your left is the banked front straightaway. The grandstands march down to the edge of the track, and end in a concrete wall The wall is adorned with "Texas World Speedway" and painted in a red white and blue theme. There is a checkerboard stripe at the start/finish line, under the flagstand that projects out over the track.

On the nearside of the straight is pit row. There are stands there too, covered as the grandstands are not, and in similar disrepair. These are used however, as they give an excellent vantage point for the whole of the front straight.

The track started life as an oval superspeedway; heavily banked at the narrow ends, and on the front straight and flat in the back straight. The roadcourse uses the front straight and then turns downhill inside of the end of the oval, then straight at right angles to the back straightaway, then turns to make a back lobe of track (and a fast back course) and then turns back infield to get back onto the other end of the straight. There are diagrams of the track at the website. There are also other possible layouts, but the 2.9 mile road course is by far the most common configuration these days.

Pit row is not used for track days. The cars pit in the large paddock area in the infield. There, three huge covered garages sit. There are 90 or so pits here, with long worktables to hold your gear. There's power but no wireless or network connections; this place was built before those things. There is a concession stand near the front entrance, in a building of its own. They serve surprisingly good coffee, hamburgers for lunch and breakfast tacos that we eat with hands already black from car servicing in the morning chill. An old mexican man and his wife run the stand.

The place has a sad feeling to it, faded glory. Still, the asphalt is always kept in good repair, and the surface and drainage are maintained. It's the largest track that's regularly available to amateur drivers in Texas. I think that rather than arriving at dawn, we've made it just before sundown, so we'll enjoy it while it's here.