Thursday, December 23, 2010

(127) 2011

Christmas time has arrived, and I find myself without a single item on my motorsports calendar. The off-season has officially begun. Luckily, motorsports down-time doesn't last long. So I need to get started in setting up 2011's activities.

But what shall I do? I didn't win any of the prize seats in the Skip Barber Shootout, so the sky's the limit.

From my experience at the Shootout, I've concluded what I need to improve as a driver - lots of track time, a slightly more public environment without over-exposing me, and, as always, at a relatively low cost. The choice seems obvious. SCCA.

The Sports Car Club of America is one of the USA's oldest sanctioning bodies. There are lots of experienced and newcomer drivers. Old and new cars. Regional and national competition. Moving to the SCCA, for me, is not a career choice, it's a driver choice. The SCCA will help me further assess where I am as a driver. I also already have an SCCA Regional competition license.

But what class to choose? The SCCA has a lot of classes. That choice, too, seems obvious. Formula F (formerly Formula Ford).

I need a class that meets only two criteria: cost less than $20,000 to run for a season of racing, and it must be an open wheel formula car. The two categories which meet those criteria are Formula Vee, and Formula F (it's going to be a real struggle not to put -ord after the F). Formula Vee is less expensive than Formula F, but you also have a lot less horsepower and grip. I think I can learn more from Formula F than I can from Formula Vee.

The 2011 San Francisco SCCA region's race schedule will span from April to October, with 13 races arrayed in a double-header format (the final race weekend is regional #13 and the Enduro). 3 weekends at Thunderhill Raceway, 3 weekends at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and 1 weekend at Infineon Raceway.

There are a few teams that provide Formula F services in the San Francisco region. "Renting" a car is the most expensive way to go in the long run, but I don't have the space or the expertise to store and prep a race car, and buying one outright and then hiring someone to store and care for it would cost much more than a season of renting. By racing someone else's car, I can focus on driving. I'll also learn how to work with a team. This is how it will be in the professional levels anyway.

All that's left to do is sign a team.

Happy holidays everyone.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

(126) 14th Annual Skip Barber Karting Scholarship Shoot-out

The Skip Barber Shootout was a blast.

I and 43 other young drivers arrived at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Friday morning to fairly decent weather, for December. My anticipation was high as we all piled into the paddock classroom and conducted the first meeting of the weekend.

The theme of the first day was pretty simple. The FIA Institute of Motorsports Safety is, of course, highly concerned with safe driving. As a result, in addition to the competition for the scholarships from Skip Barber and Mazda, the first day of activities is devoted mostly to motorsports safety. What better way to do that than Skip Barber's One Day Driving School program?

I myself did the two day program when I got my street license. But we can all use a refresher here and there. The first day's activities centered around learning safe driving principles in Mazda MX-5s on the autocross and Mazda RX-8s on the skid pad, as well as lessons on street and race track safety. My personal favorite was the MX-5 on the autocross. The latest iteration of the car is so light and responsive, it doesn't really feel like any other car I've driven. Mazda has definitely got the MX-5 recipe down to a fine science. I'm sure the grippy BFGoodrich sport tires were also a big factor there.

Driving the brilliant Mazda MX-5 on the autocross. I want one.

After getting a healthy dose of fun in the Mazdas, our group was up for driver interviews. Conducting the interviews were Bob Varsha of the Speed Channel, and Jeremy Shaw, President and Founder of the Team USA Scholarship. I was interviewed by Bob Varsha.

It's somewhat cruel circumstances. This was my first interview ever. I don't think I could have had a better interviewer: Bob made me look much better on camera than I actually am. I made pretty common mistakes - talking too fast, rambling a little, and some of my talking points were missing so I had to improvise a bit. I was pretty nervous. All things considered, I don't think it was that bad for my first interview. Definitely a few things to work on before I go on TV.

After the interviews and a van ride around the track, we settled into our F2000 race cars for the evening on the supercross. Business as usual here, except that half of the paddock was watered down from the skid pad, so half of the track was wet, and half was dry. This was my first time driving the F2000 in properly wet conditions, and it was a learning experience. I'll get to that in a minute.

The last group came off the supercross just as the sun went down. During my second session the sunset was in full glory. There was a massive cold front moving in and it made for a spectacular sunset. Driving an F2000 race car around at Mazda Raceway with a dramatic sunset like that as a back drop was pretty special.

The first day was a day to remember, and at the end of it I took home a voucher for a One Day New Driver School - the FIA is focused on spreading motorsport safety so all participants got vouchers to give to a teenage driver. We were encouraged by Mazda to distribute them in a stylish way, so I'm still working on that. Maybe I will find an interesting way to raise safe driving awareness.

The morning of day two was all about seminars. There were three in all: one from Barbara Burns about the media and the driver's role in it, one from Dean Case of Mazda about sponsorship and motorsports business in general, and another from Derek Daly, focusing on driver careers and what makes a champion. They were all incredibly informative and I took away a lot. However, none of us could wait to get on track once they were over.

After lunch, we did. And it was an interesting introduction for those of us in group 2 (of 4). The track was rather wet. It wasn't raining hard, but it was raining enough that a dry line wasn't cutting it. I tried to give and take with the rain line, most of the time only putting half of the car onto the grippy areas of the track. That didn't cut it, and my lap times were over 2 minutes (!).

Water! Water everywhere!

It's rather amazing how much grip Mazda Raceway loses when it gets wet. It's something to do with the surface I think. In any case, throughout the weekend, it was necessary for drivers to use full rim-shot rain lines if the track was even a little wet, and times in the wet generally stayed above 1:55.

Luckily for me, the rain was only a small part of my time on track - the rest of my sessions were nice and dry.

Day three and day four were all dedicated to track time in the F2000. Day three was pretty uneventful for me, driving wise. I took my feedback and applied it as best I could, and I got myself up in the time sheets. The weather continued to stay unpredictable - most of the time we just stood in pit lane shaking our proverbial fists at the sky in an effort to scare off the impending rainclouds, which almost all miraculously missed the track. It did start raining in the middle of group 4's session, but everyone else got clear running.

During my second session of the day I had an issue with the car. It was handling brilliantly and had plenty of power (all cars, even mechanically identical ones, have differing traits), but around about lap 5 I got a "false neutral" going into turn 9. I don't usually mess up shifts in the F2000. I thought nothing of it and continued down into turn 11, which is where the fun began.

Turn 11 is a full-on braking corner. You brake as late as you can, as hard as you can. It's easy to get wrong and run wide. I usually don't. But it's a lot harder to get right when your car won't stop, and mine didn't.

Well, it did stop, just not very well. I swung out wide through the hairpin and missed the gravel by the skin of my teeth. I came off the brake pedal and the car accelerated on it's own, hard, down the main straight. I continued down to turn 2 with the car driving itself. It wouldn't shift out of 3rd gear using the normal "lift sharply and pull the lever" technique, so I put the clutch in and shifted - the engine wailed as if it'd been stabbed.

The throttle was stuck wide open.

I got on the brakes very early and put my hand in the air, a typical "I'm going way slower than normal, please miss me" signal. I limped around very carefully in 4th gear to the pits. I did make it.

Evidently, someone had gone off the track right before I took the wheel. When you do that, gravel tends to get everywhere. A rock must have found it's way into an inconvenient spot in the throttle linkage and lodged itself in there, holding the throttle open most of the way. I switched cars and continued my session without incident.

Chilling out in pit lane, waiting for the next randomized car assignments.

Day four was crunch time. Time to assemble all of our learning in a last ditch attempt to impress the judges and get a leg up on our peers. The track was very grippy, my car was handling fairly well, and the tires were worn in. It was a good session, and I set my fastest lap time of the weekend - a 1:42.5. It was slower than I went on my 2-day Advanced school, but the weather wasn't quite as good and there was a puddle being kicked up on the exit of turn 4 that hurt everyone's times.

After everyone had completed their sessions, the judges deliberated. And deliberated. And deliberated. We waited hours for their decision, and finally, as the sun was close to setting, it came. I'll list the awards here.

Winners of the 2011 BFGoodrich/Skip Barber National Presented by Mazda scholarship:

Trent Hindman, 15
Danilo Estrela, 17
Tristan Nunez, 15, half season

Winners of the Skip Barber Regional Race Series scholarship:

Stefan Rzadzinski, 17
Kenton Koch, 17, half season
Scott Hargrove, 15, half season
Kyle Kaiser, 14, half season

No, I didn't win any of the prizes. But I don't feel bad about it. The competition was downright fierce, the level of talent shown incredibly impressive. And I understand why I wasn't picked - I am much older than the winners, and have less experience.

Still, I learned a lot, about driving, and about myself. I learned how much further I have yet to go, and how much work I'm going to have to do to get there. But most importantly, I had a ton of fun doing it.

Before I forget, here we all are standing on the front straight, along with the instructors and judges. I'm more or less 12th from the right, first one with the gray suit in the 2nd row.

Thank you Skip Barber, Mazda, BFGoodrich and the FIA!

All images credit Kelly Brouillet courtesy of Skip Barber Racing.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

(125) 14th Annual Skip Barber Karting Shoot-out preview

On Thursday, I leave for the 14th Annual Skip Barber Karting Shoot-out at Laguna Seca.

This is the reason why I've been doing so many Skip Barber schools. This will be a culmination of the last 3 years of training. This is a pivotal moment in my career. I thought I would be terrified, but I'm so excited I could burst.

First, a run-down.

The shoot-out is based on a simple concept - take some of the top karters from around the country and put them all on the same track on the same day in the same car to see who is best. The best two drivers each get a free ride in the Skip Barber National Presented by Mazda, worth about $50,000, and various other runner-up prizes for Regional Race Series seat time. In total, $200,000 in prizes are up for grabs.

The shoot-out involves no actual karting. We aren't out to determine the best karter, we're out to determine the best race car driver out of the 44 drivers who are signed up.

The program is 4 days long. On the first day, we are going to be driving mostly street cars on the autocross and skid pad. There will also be interviews by none other than Bob Varsha, the voice of Formula 1 on the Speed channel. Skip Barber isn't just taking driving into consideration - media talent and professionalism are also key criteria at the shoot-out.

On the second day the meat of the competition begins. Seminars will be presented in the morning on day two. There will be a media training seminar from Bob Varsha and Barbara Burns of Burns Media Group, a sponsorship seminar from Dean Case, Communications Officer at Mazdaspeed Motorsports, and Derek Daly will be doing a seminar about what it takes to be a professional driver.

After the seminars, we will begin our on-track sessions in the F2000. These will be 30 minutes long, and afterward we will be put through a points scoring system to help the judges decide who to pick as the winners. We will get 4 sessions during the competition and at the end, the panel will decide the winners.

Like I said, I'm so excited I could burst. I have no doubt that I can win this competition. There are lots of fast drivers competing, and I've met a lot of them. It's going to be tough competition. But I believe I can do it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

(124) Wrecked

My test day in the Spec Miata didn't go so great.

We arrived early in the morning and got the car ready to go. It was very cold, and the track was very green - almost no rubber was on the track.

Roger took it out for the first session since he's driven these cars before. If there was anything wrong with the car he'd be able to find it more easily than I. He drove it for about 10 laps and all seemed well, so I hopped in for the next session. I rolled out of pit lane and took to the track.

Being a new car and a new track, I took it conservatively for the first few laps. The car was being patient, no dramatics even in the freezing cold, and so I started picking up the pace.

I started to get used to the limited visibility in a small sports car, which is hard to live with at a place like Infineon - lots of hills, dips, and blind corners. Also walls.

Unfortunately I got to experience the walls in a way I don't want to repeat.

As I completed lap 5 I was nearing my self-imposed limit for that session - I wasn't going to push the car as hard as I could the first time out, so I kept it under 80% of what I thought the car could do. I was braking a bit early, being gentle with the throttle, just becoming accustomed to the car and the track.

As I approached turn 11 on lap 6 I set the car on the line, looked for my braking markers on the inside, started braking... and then hit the wall.

Which wall? The wall that separates the track from the pit lane entrance, on the left side of the track. Fortunately it starts as a tire wall. What happened was, I actually hit the wall with the left front wheel of the car. The tires stick out from the body a couple inches due to camber, the vertical attitude of the wheel. When the tire hit the wall it pulled the whole thing sideways, bending the suspension. It then sucked the car's nose to the inside, against the wall, and then spat me out into the middle of the track. The suspension was massively bent, the upper body panel above the wheel was bashed, and the wing mirror was folded in. A lot of the paint was gone from the front. The wreck crew had to get a flat bed for the car.

Basically, I placed the car where I thought it would be safe from the wall, and then ignored the wall while I hit my marks, which were on the inside of the corner. I don't know if I misjudged, or the car wandered a little during the half second I was on the brake. If I was 1 or 2 inches to the right, I would've cleared the wall.

Either way, I just drove into a (soft) wall at about 90 MPH. And that's a big mistake.

The hit didn't hurt. The belts were tight and my thumbs were not hooked into the wheel.

Larry, the owner of the car, wasn't too mad at me. Or at least he didn't show it. He was surprisingly cool about it. I felt really bad regardless. This wasn't like being dive bombed, or having something fail. It's just totally my fault.

Physically I'm fine. My shoulder is a little stiff, but nothing else. Like I said, it wasn't a bad hit.

A disappointing day. Time to move on.

Monday, November 22, 2010

(123) Just call me Hans

Today I picked up what should be the final piece in my racing wardrobe. Only this has absolutely no fashionable bearing whatsoever.

It's called a HANS Device. And it's pure safety.

The Head And Neck Support Device.

What it does is somewhat complex.

It sits on your shoulders, around your neck, and the two tethers attached to the top are then attached to the back of the helmet. The seat belts go over the "tongs" on the bottom and hold it in place.

It's design is to eliminate the risk of basilar skull fractures and other head and neck injuries by tethering the driver's helmet to the shoulders and belts.

Basilar skull fractures are quite rare for the general population. Street cars are now so good at dissipating energy in a frontal impact that there is very little risk of it in passenger cars, even at very high speed. Outside an automobile, basilar skull fractures are even rarer.

Racing cars are different. Racing cars are very stiff, and because of that don't dissipate energy very well with respect to the driver. Plus, the driver is strapped in extremely tightly, in addition to wearing a heavy helmet. Without proper measures, neck injuries are to be expected even in a light impact. Before the deployment of widespread head restraint, basilar skull fractures were too common in motorsport - most of you have heard of Dale Earnardt Sr.'s crash and death, and Roland Ratzenberger, Greg Moore and far too many other drivers from various forms of autosport have been killed by basilar skull fractures. When they occur, they are usually instantly fatal. Few people have survived them.

So, now, we have the HANS. The tethers keep the head from hyperextending forward. It's still possible to have a neck injury while using them, but the risks of most forms of hyperextension injuries are virtually eliminated. The energy exerted on the head and neck in a frontal impact is reduced by about 80% while wearing a HANS Device.

While reassuring, this post makes me fairly melancholy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

(122) Perspective

In 7 days I'm going to be doing a "test day" in a race prepared MX-5, suitable for SCCA's Sealed Spec Miata class, at Infineon Raceway. "Test day" is code for "driver development".

I've already met with the car owner (Larry Oka) and it seems like I'm in good hands. Larry's been running racing cars since the 70's and has had his fleet of 12 or so Miatas for a number of years.

During the day I'm going to share the car with Roger Eagleton, one of my racing buddies. If you have a good memory you'll recall he was one of my team mates for the karting enduro in 2009. The reason for pairing up being that, for one, it makes the day a little cheaper since we split the cost, and we can help each other learn since we both did a bunch of Jim Russell classes and races, so we know each other's driving. Larry is also a driver coach.

The car is a mostly-standard first generation Mazda MX-5 Miata. The engine makes about 110 horsepower, and has near-slick racing tires.

Why would I want to drive a car like this? It's not a bad question considering what I've been driving (karts and formula cars).

Well, a long time ago I did a Skip Barber driving school in street cars. That was just after my first year of karting if I remember right. They were street cars, but I still learned a bit about karting. By racing with suspension and differentials, I learned about what it means to not have those things, and my karting improved.

And so I adopted my firm belief in the importance of driving a variety of cars. It's one thing to learn that your car does a particular thing, and how to use or avoid that thing, but if you drive a car that does the opposite, you gain more insight into that thing that your normal car does. Perspective is a powerful thing. If the highest number known to you is 100, and one day you discover 1,000,000, suddenly 100 doesn't seem like such a big number.

So, it's a good idea to do a similar thing with cars. If all you've ever driven are cars with low power and limited slip differentials, it may be a good idea to get yourself into a high-power, locked-diff stock car for a day or two.

That's what I'm doing with the Miata. These past months I've been driving a rear-engined, 1,200 pound, sequential transmission, street-tire shod formula car. The Miata is a front-engined, 2,200 pound, H-pattern stick transmission, semi-slick shod GT car. It's going to change the way I think of the F2000 for the better. Which is good, because I'm going to need to be in top shape for the Skip Barber shootout in December.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

(121) Lapping in the fog, more fun than singing in the rain

Yesterday I went back down to Laguna Seca to get a final day of driving the Skip Barber F2000 before the shootout in December.

The weather was quite cloudy, and the morning had a lot of fog. During the first session, patches of fog were drifting over different parts of the track. It was really cool to enter thick fog at the top of the Corkscrew and emerge from it down in Rainey curve. Fortunately the cars have rain lights on them, not unlike Formula 1, so visibility wasn't much of an issue.

The fog left plenty of dampness on the track and it lost a ton of grip as a result. The cars were all in race trim since the first races of the winter series are this weekend. This meant the cars were a bit twitchier than I was used to. That, combined with the low grip, meant I was working the wheel pretty hard. About the best times we could hope for were low 1:43s or high 1:42s.

Still, I learned plenty. There were a lot of people there getting practice for the first races. We had 36 drivers I believe. A lot of them were also going to be competing in the December shootout, so I got to meet many of my competitors. It's going to be a great exhibition of talent.

We each did two very long sessions of lapping, with 3 groups taking part. Each session was about 35 minutes of driving. I didn't find that it beat me up too much. If I did 35 minutes straight in the kart I'd be somewhat beat, but this formula car is much less demanding. Still, I felt it this morning. A workout handles your stamina just fine, and I still had energy at the end of the day, but if you don't drive every week the little muscles you use won't stay conditioned, and I didn't drive at all in October. So I'm a little sore in certain places. Not as bad as driving the kart though.

The fog burned off for the 2nd session and we had some sunshine. The track didn't feel any better though.

Session 2 footage, with traffic.

I had two cars during the day. A white one for the first session, and then the blue one for the second, because the white one got repurposed. The blue one felt pretty nice. The gearbox was shifting especially smooth. It had more oversteer in it, though.

So what now? Well, while I'm waiting to compete in the shootout, I'm going to be testing an MX-5 with one of my friends at Infineon the day before Thanksgiving, now that I have my SCCA race license. Sharing a car for a day is more cost effective. Plus I want to get some experience in a race prepped sports car. There are a couple of issues with my driving I think can be solved by driving a street-derived car.

Next week I'm going to meet the owner of the car and figure out our goals for the test day.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

(120) Shootouts and licenses

Now that I've done my car-racing schools, what's next?

Well, the first thing I'm doing is I'm getting my SCCA regional competition license. Basically, since I've done the Skip Barber school I have now met the requirements for a license, and all I have to do is send in my medical exam and my letter of recommendation from the school and I should be all set.

If I didn't go to Skip Barber I would have to apply for a novice permit. To meet the requirements for a full license, I would have to do 4 races and two SCCA schools. By doing Skip Barber, I've skipped that step and I can get my full regional license right off the bat. All you have to do is pass a medical exam, which I've already done.

The regional license will allow me to participate in semi-private test days at any track in north America (test days are race-car exclusive track days, usually with only a few cars on track and only race licensed drivers are allowed to run), and it will allow me to race of course.

Now, as far as my immediate racing future, what's next?

As far as Skip Barber goes, I'm going to be doing a lapping day at Laguna in early November. This is just to get some extra seat time in the car before I go to compete in the 2010-2011 Skip Barber Karting Shootout, which is happening on December 3rd, also at Laguna.

The other interesting thing is that the end of SCCA's season usually involves an endurance race. This particular one is happening on October 15th. Why do I mention this? One of my racing buddies offered me a spot on his team.

Now, this may end up being too tight, since we do have to find a car to race (the car he was planning on running won't be available). But if we can find a car to drive and if SCCA grants me a license within the next 6 days, we'll be racing in a 4-hour endurance race at Laguna Seca in some kind of tin-top car (most likely a Miata MX-5, since there are billions of those in the San Francisco SCCA region).

Hopefully all of that works out and we get to drive. It's going to be tight. If it doesn't happen, then I will probably do a test day or two in the coming months, just to get the experience of driving different cars.

Quick update: it looks like the enduro isn't going to happen. The guaranteed grid spot date is behind us, and we still haven't got a car. If we entered now we might not even get a spot in the race, and the entry fee would be forfeit.

So it looks like I'm going to do a test instead.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

(119) Skip Barber Advanced Racing School

My advanced racing school in the Skip Barber F2000 went really well, I think.

The first day started off with more autocross sessions. Actually we ended up doing more autocross than the 3-day - we spent all morning dodging cones. Not very manly or dangerous, but it was fun to chuck the car around. I had some pretty large drifts, "large" being a relative term, since formula cars don't have much steering ability and thus can't hold a 90-degree slide like a dedicated drift car with special suspension geometry.

The on-track sessions in the afternoon started with lead-follows behind the Mazda 3s. When you're riding in the Mazda 3, it feels like you're going a lot faster than you actually are, since the car is a lot less capable than a race car (even though it has the same BFG G-force tires on it, which makes the car a lot faster than stock). Following the Mazda in the formula car, you realize how slow you were going before, since it's a breeze to keep up. It's still quite a capable family sedan, though.

 Laguna Seca, how I missed thee.

After the lead-follows were done, and we were re-acquainted with Laguna Seca, we started turn 2 braking drills. I'm still not 100% comfortable with the brakes. I'm getting very close, but getting that perfect threshold pressure every time is a bit hit or miss. At least I'm not locking up any more.

The brake pedal on these cars needs to be felt to believe. My mom tried sitting in the car, and I walked her through getting threshold pressure. I told her "push the brake really hard, until you feel the throttle under your foot" (since the throttle is positioned lower than the brake, so that at threshold pressure the pedals are even with each other and it's easy to blip with heel and toe). She pressed hard, and didn't feel it. I kept telling her to press harder. The harder she pressed, the greater the expression of disbelief on her face. The brakes really are that stiff. After 2 days, my foot was by far the sorest part of my body, which isn't saying much because I wasn't that sore. But even still, I was walking a little funny the next day. All my braking in the kart was done with the left foot. Now I have an even stiffer pedal, and I must use my unconditioned right foot.

I had a few things to fix with my braking, mostly line and timing sort of things, and I made sure to cure them quickly so they didn't become a problem. A session of free lapping ended the first day.

The corkscrew, turn 8. It's quite steep. From here, it's a 300 foot drop down to the bottom of turn 10.

The following day was spent entirely on track. The morning started out foggy, but it cleared up pretty quickly. Standard coastline weather. The order of the day was instructor lapping.

The instructors would get in their race cars and would drive around with us, watching us, showing us, and sometimes passing us for practice. I and another karter were paired up with Lonnie Pechnik, one of the instructors from my 3-day. He spent a lot of time chasing me, and I received a ton of good feedback as a result.

The car I was using was understeering quite a bit. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the front ride height was too high, since it took a good bit of effort to rotate it well with the brakes and when I got back on the power the understeer kicked in. This was a problem in the high speed corners, where you are on the throttle from entry to exit to keep the rear end under control. I had to limit my speed through turns 4, 6, 9 and 10 to keep from running off the road due to lack of front grip. Lonnie was having the same problem, and his suggestion to "drive around it", as he put it, was to let the car roll into the corner before applying the throttle.

Normally in the fast corners you need to get on the power before you turn for the corner, that way the weight stays on the rear of the car and it stays stable. If you have understeer problems, you stay off the power and allow more weight to transfer to the front of the car, giving you more front bite and less understeer.

Learning how to tame my turn-in with the throttle rather than the brake is totally new for me.

 Lonnie Pechnik chasing me into turn 11. This car is red, and the other is white, because the pictures with the white car are from the 3-day that I just now got in the mail. I drove this car in the 3-day when the white one had an issue.

In general I was going a lot faster. During the 3-day, I was being fairly conservative. I wanted to really feel the car out. During the 3-day, my lap times were in the 1:45 range, which is a little slow for this car. Now, my best times are in the low 1:41s. Amazing what just a little bravery can do.

So lets see what that bravery did eh?

Advanced school roll bar footage.

The camera is still having issues. I tried stuffing the housing with paper, since the camera was vibrating inside the case itself, but it only helped a little bit and made the audio worse. The next time, I will get some foam to place under the roll bar mount itself. That should take care of it. I also didn't quite tighten the mount all the way, and a couple of bumps knocked it askew.

These two days really reinforced how much more I'm enjoying driving cars. Karts are really fast and exciting, but the car is more satisfying somehow.

There is not a whole lot on the calendar at the moment. Over the next few weeks I'll talk about what is coming up at the end of the year, and what the plan of action will be for next year.

Monday, September 13, 2010

(118) New body

I've had a couple weeks to think about my 3-day school. I've thought about how I did, what I accomplished, and what I still have yet to learn.

In a week, I will go back for my 2-day school and learn even more.

But what am I learning exactly? What's new about this that's so different from karting? In some ways, my new body (the car, that is to say) is very different from the kart in some areas, and not so different at all in others.

For starters, the car has a transmission. It's not so bad, though. The pacing of the car is much slower. That is to say, the length of the braking zones, the length of the straights, the time you spend in the corners, is much more on a big track in a big car. So you don't feel as rushed, and even adding the shifting doesn't make it feel as frantic as the kart.

A lot of that is also due to the suspension. The car needs much calmer inputs just to keep from spinning out. You also have to be more "ahead" of the car. In the kart, if you get a slide, you just flick the steering and it's done. The weight transfers instantly, and it recovers right away. The car is more ponderous. Increased weight, and the addition of springs and dampers means that you have to be a lot more patient, and a lot more "pro-active" with your inputs. For example, in a slide, you can't just flick the steering quickly, then have it all over and done with. You need to get on top of the slide quickly, like the kart, but then it becomes a little bit of a contest. You have to hold the correction long enough for the car's momentum to stop it's rotation, then pre-empt the chassis by bringing the wheel back into line pronto, otherwise the car will snap again in the other direction. No matter how slow you are with the steering, that "tank-slapper" effect just doesn't happen in karts. I've never seen it, and I've never done it.

The other big difference is the way the rear wheels act. In the kart, the rear wheels are joined by a single axle. While this seems proper at first, it presents a physics conundrum. If the car takes a corner, the inside wheel will be covering less distance than the outside wheel. Because the chassis is between the two, the road will be trying to force the inside wheel to move (roll) slower than the chassis, and the outside wheel will be forced to roll faster than the chassis. This creates a rearward dragging effect on the outside edge of the car which will try to pull the nose of the car to the outside, creating understeer when no throttle is used. The solution in the kart is to jack the inside rear wheel up by having a flexible chassis and sheer cornering ability, but when you're using independent suspension in a car, this becomes very hard to do indeed (unless you're one of those short-wheelbase, front-heavy, oddly-shaped-suspension-geometry hatchbacks).

The solution for the car is a differential, which allows the two wheels to roll independently while still enabling power delivery. The basic type of differential is called "open". The wheels have an infinite range of speed difference. The outside wheel could spin at 100 MPH while the inside wheel could spin at 1 MPH and the car wouldn't complain much, and it makes normal turning quite optimal. The problem occurs when you try to get on the power.

The way the open differential has to function means that the wheel which loses traction first gets all the engine torque (it is popular to explain it as "the wheel with the least grip gets the most torque", but that is inaccurate, since the wheel needs to have very little resistance to warrant full torque to only that wheel, which generally means it has to be sliding first - if neither wheel is sliding or spinning, they get pretty much the same torque). This means that, since the car is leaning sideways and "unloading" the inside tire, the inside tire is going to let go first in a slide, at which point it will get most of the torque from the engine, pushing the rear wide and creating oversteer. This means that open-differential cars tend to have less acceleration ability coming off the corner. If the car were to have a "limited slip" differential, a differential whereby the difference in wheel speed is limited, this becomes less of a problem. The inside tire will still let go first, but with a limited slip diff, you can ensure that the outside tire is still getting a decent amount of torque from the engine.

So, at Skip Barber, I've gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. From fused rear wheels, to rear wheels that don't have any limits on how fast they can spin relative to one another. I seem to be doing okay with it, though.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

(117) Skip Barber 3-day Racing School

On the night of the 21st, my throat was itching.

I wasn't worried. It was probably just something I ate. My parents had been sick for a few days after getting some virus on the other side of the country. Since I hadn't shown any symptoms, I assumed I was immune. The itch wasn't itchy enough to cough, so I persuaded myself that it would just go away and tomorrow, on the way down to Laguna Seca, I would feel perfect. There was no way I could get sick just before my 3-day racing school at Skip Barber, my introduction to Formula cars.

Along came the afternoon of the 22nd, just an hour before we were set to leave, and the itch was still there. Nothing to do about it now.

The next morning in the hotel in Monterrey I don my nomex undersuit with my "civvies" over top. I looked a little bit like a hipster, with my acid washed blue jeans and brown T-shirt over my white turtle neck-ish nomex, only with worse color coordination. I do this because I don't like to feel rushed when I arrive at the track. All I have to do is pull on my overalls and lace up my shoes and I'm good to go. Normally I'd wear my full getup with my suit's top and arms tied around my waist, but that looks a little odd when you're sitting down to breakfast. As the days went on I stopped caring and just put it all on in the morning. The odd looks people give are amusing.

Upon arriving at the track and getting settled in at the Skip Barber classroom (which is smack in the middle of the paddock), we meet our instructors for the day: Jonathan Frost, Lonnie Pechnik, Jeff Rodriguez and Ricky Shmidt. We also get the order of the day- autocross.

The idea behind the autocross is just to explore what the car feels like under, on, and over the limit before we get out on the track and get up to high speed. No transmission, no big braking zones, just brushing the brake, turning, applying the throttle, a little bit of sliding and maybe a spin or two.

But before we could do that, we needed to have a look at the car we'd be driving. So we headed out to the grid to have a look-see.

Ricky Shmidt demonstrates the aspects of the R/T 2000, sans bodywork.

The Skip Barber R/T 2000 is a fairly simple machine, but not at first glance.

The first aspect is just getting into the thing. It's tiny. Once you've accomplished that, you have to do up the 5-point harness. The harness needs to be so tight it hurts, otherwise you can be in a lot of trouble if you crash at high speed. That's why street cars have auto tensioners and belt locks.

Now come the controls. Unfortunately, I didn't think to grab a shot of the dashboard, but I'll run you through it anyway.

The dials and lights, from left to right, are the water temp, the tachometer, the neutral light and the oil pressure. Just 3 dials. No speedometer.

The controls, from right to left, are the shifter stick (more on that in a moment), the steering wheel in the middle (obviously), the starter button just to the left of the tach, the master switch to the left of that, and down and all the way to the left is the neutral/reverse lockout.

Starting the car is more involved than just turning the key. First, you turn on the master switch (to the "up" position), which turns on all the electrics and cycles the fuel pump. Then you check to make sure the car is in neutral. If it's not in neutral, the neutral light will be off. To get it into neutral, pull out and hold the neutral/reverse lockout knob, and if you are in 1st gear, push the shifter stick half way forward until the neutral light comes on. Now you can push the starter button and it will come to life. You can still start the car in gear with the clutch in, it's just good to let the transmission get into it's groove. To get it into 1st gear, quickly press and hold the clutch and pull back on the stick firmly. If you hold the clutch in for too long before trying to get 1st gear, the transmission will lose synch and the gear won't go in, since this transmission has no synchro gears, unlike a street transmission.

1st gear goes to about 60 MPH, so no shifting is required for the autocross.

Waiting to go attack some cones. It's hot in here, wearing 4 layers of all-inclusive nomex.

After a few slow laps to learn the layout of the track (a sea of cones can be a little confusing at times), I finally got up to speed in my new toy. Oh man, what a blast! It's incredibly responsive, even with the addition of springs and dampers. I was quickly trail-braking and 4-wheel drifting my way through sweepers, switchbacks and hairpins alike. I was enjoying this much more than karting. So much more patience and smoothness is required, it's just a lot more rewarding to drive. Feeling a longer wheelbase pitch and pivot around you is much more addicting to me.

 Attacking the cones. Being careful not to run over the megaphone.

Though, it is a much larger car, and I did clip a number of cones while I was sorting out my new "body". Make no mistake, these race cars and karts are very much a suit that you wear. A suit with wheels and an engine.

 Lonnie Pechnik and his funny hat telling me not to brake so late.

After we all had our fun on the autocross, we headed back into the classroom to detail the next drill - shifting.

The idea behind the shifting, braking and downshifting drill was simple. We line up going backwards in the pit lane, and we'd drive out and make a left going to turn 11, the hairpin. We'd go down the front straight in 4th gear and when we got to turn 2, there'd be a braking point set up which was conservatively placed in front of the corner with plenty of time to slow down. During the braking zone, we'd downshift once, slow right down, take the corner nice and easy, then turn to the left and enter the pits backwards again. In the pits, there was another braking zone, again placed with plenty of time to slow down for the tight pit "entrance". Rinse and repeat. We had a rev limit of about 3500 RPM, so even in 4th gear we were only going maybe 65 or 70, at the most.

To upshift this car, with it's sequential transmission, all you have to do is lift the throttle and pull back the shift lever. It's not quite that simple though. You can't just yank it, you have to do it smoothly with your hand and sharply with your foot. To downshift, just brake, put the clutch it, push the stick forward, blip the throttle with your right foot, and release the clutch.

Blip? What's a blip?

A blip (like a small push) of the throttle while braking and downshifting is called heel and toe. It's called heel and toe because there are 3 pedals, and the only way to operate all 3 of them with 2 feet is to use part of one foot on one pedal, and the other part on another pedal. The heel and the toe are most convenient, so it's called heel and toe. But why do you have to do this in the first place?

Think about a normal upshift. If you go from 3rd to 4th, what happens that you can observe? The engine revs drop. You've switched to a lower ratio gear. In 1st gear, the engine might be turning 3 times for every 1 time the drive shaft turns. In 4th gear, the engine might turn once for every 1 turn of the drive shaft. It depends on the ratio of the gears installed on the car. In many cars, 5th or 6th gear actually means the engine crank is spinning slower than the drive shaft. That's called overdrive.

So if you switch from 3rd to 4th and the revs drop from 4500 to 3500, what do you think is going to happen if you switch back from 4th to 3rd? The engine will be moving slower than the drive shaft wants it to, and the rest of the drive line will drag the engine up to the proper speed. As you can imagine, this is quite unsmooth. It's also hard on the car. If you're braking hard, this will also probably momentarily lock the driven wheels.

To make a down change smooth, you use heel and toe. The process goes like this. You put the clutch in, you choose the gear you want, and while the clutch is still in, you use the throttle to rev the engine up to the proper speed for the new lower gear, and you release the clutch. If you did it right, you don't feel a thing, and your entire drive line will love you for all eternity.

It gets a little more complicated when you try to do this while braking. As I said before, 3 pedals, 2 feet. So, you use your toes to brake the car (or, more specifically, the ball of your foot), and you pivot your heel over to strike the throttle while you shift down. Heel and toe.

This whole process takes a fair amount of coordination to pull off, without missing a shift or adversely affecting your brake pressure, not to mention making it accurate enough to be smooth. That's the purpose of the downshifting drill. The Skip Barber car does have a sequential transmission, which can be both upshifted and downshifted without the clutch, but the only reason not to use the clutch with a sequential is if you left foot brake, and in this car the steering column is in the way. So you are literally forced to heel toe, and if you've got a spare foot, you might as well use the clutch and give the mechanics another few hundred miles before a transmission rebuild.

I did a couple of passes at the downshifting drill and I thought I was doing okay. I'm sure the instructors had plenty of notes for me, but all that was cut short when I crested the hill going back into the pits and saw a yellow flag. We pulled in, and I could see a car down at the end of pit lane that had crashed. I didn't see it, so I had no idea how bad it was.

It turns out, a young girl who didn't have a whole lot of experience had somehow missed the braking point, not slowed down, and hit the wall right in a spot with no tires. A helicopter was called in, because she was really hurt. We later learned that she hadn't tightened her belts all the way, and her helmet hit the steering wheel. She had a broken jaw, a broken ankle, and lost some teeth. The instructors said it was one of the worst crashes they'd ever seen at Laguna. A really terrible thing.

After a long wait for all the safety crews to finish, we eventually did get back out for a couple of lead-follow sessions to set up for the next day, which would be spent on the track. These were just slow speed recon laps to get us familiar with the layout and the line of Laguna, which, thanks to the simulator, I already had a good grasp of.

Day 2

The second day was all on the full track, though it was with a changing rev limit all day. At first it was 3500 RPM, but it ramped up to 4500 RPM.

The first sessions of the day were simple laps with a rev limit, only at the end of the lap you would stop in a cone box and get the feedback from the instructors over the radio. Then you'd be allowed to go on another lap with enough space from other traffic. I was starting to approach the limits of the car, and I was getting some really good feedback.

In between each group, the instructors would take students out in the vans to various corners to watch. They also did evaluation runs in the Mazda 3s so they could more closely observe our inputs.

 Sitting in pit lane, running through the last session and mentally applying the feedback I got.

Then we started braking drills. The drills were simple. Accelerate with no rev limit towards turn 11 from turn 10 and stop as fast as you can. Get your feedback at the apex then continue on down to turn 2 and do the same thing.

I struggled a little with the brakes. In the kart, I'm used to oversteer telling me when I've locked up (since the kart has rear brakes, locking up is the same as yanking the hand brake really hard). In the car, you have to pay attention to the front tires with your eyes. Plus, the brake pedal is a lot firmer than the kart, and I had to recalibrate my foot to modulate at those high pressures.

I had a couple of attempts in turn 11 where I nearly went off into the gravel from locking up, then releasing a little too much, then locking again.

Then I went off down to turn 2 and there was another student still sitting on the apex getting his feedback. So I tried to run wide but ended up sliding off the track and getting beached. There's always a first time to use a tow truck...

Braking drills just don't seem to go my way. I learned a bit though.

The day was really hot, over 100 degrees, and right before the last session I got a throbbing headache and a slightly upset stomach. I immediately downed two bottles of water and some ibuprofin, which seems to work better for me than acetaminophen (Tylenol). Fortunately the headache went away before the final session and I was able to concentrate again.

The final session was a free lapping session with a 4500 RPM limit. I started exploring the car in a more natural way and gathered a lot of good data to carry into day 3.

Day 3

Day 3 ended up having fantastic weather and I was no longer sweating buckets. And even more good news: no more rev limits! We were now able to use the full range of the car, and that meant shifting at about 6k RPM. Unfortunately, I had to switch cars, because the white one I had been using developed a problem with the clutch and kept stalling.

I think now's a good time to give up a video.

Day 3 helmet cam footage. Sorry for all the wind noise, but there is action!

This is from the top of my helmet, and it really shows how much smoother the whole thing is compared to the kart. Also keep an eye on my right leg as it heel-toes on the downshifts and snaps off the throttle on the upshifts. At the end of the main straight the car is doing about 105 MPH.

And here is a more traditional roll bar mounted shot.

Day 3 roll bar footage. Much better audio, but the vibrations cause anomalies. Duct tape will fix that.

My laps at the end of the day were in the 1:45s, which isn't really quick, but I was trying to be a little careful. Even after 3 days I was still feeling out the car, and the 3rd day was really the only time I could really get on it and learn it the "normal" way. I can find more time in the high speed corners, and a tenth or two just about everywhere. I suspect the slowness is in part due to old tires.

As far as damage goes, it's not that bad. After 3 days of driving this car, I feel like I've only done a half-day of karting. If I ever have any stamina problems in this car, I'll know I've gone soft. The steering is more vertical, however, and I was definitely using new muscles for that. My cold did end up taking over right after I got home, that's why I didn't update for a couple days. Fortunately I only had a sore throat during the actual school, so the timing was pretty good all things considered.

Whew. That's one of the longest posts I've done here. I should get a laptop so I can update once per day on these multi-day trips.

Anyway, I had an absolute blast, and I really, really can't wait for my advanced school, which is next month.

There are a couple more pieces I want to do as a result of this, so there's more to read in the coming weeks. What? I can't just dole it all out right now. Then you'd have to wait even longer for new stuff. Also, there should be some professional shots coming up in the next couple of weeks, which I will post, naturally.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

(116) Skip Barber 3-day Racing School preview

I promised a full preview of my 3-day Skip Barber racing school at Laguna Seca on the 23rd, so here it is.

The car I'll be driving is the R/T 2000, and open wheel formula car not unlike an F2000 car. It has a 2-liter single overhead cam Dodge engine (even though it says Mazda on the side) that puts out about 150 horsepower at 5800 RPM and 126 lbs-ft of torque at 5000 RPM. The engine used to make it's home in the Dodge Neon. Linked to the wheels with a 5-speed sequential transmission and housed in the back of a chassis weighing 1,250 pounds in total, it will jump the car from 0-60 in about 4.5 seconds and go on to a top speed of 135 MPH.

Fore and aft wings, and a set of BFGoodrich g-force tires, means the car has plenty of grip to boot. I'm a little fuzzy on the exact numbers. It probably won't flex my neck as much as the kart.

The Skip Barber R/T 2000.

The course itself, being a 3-day school, spans 3-days of course. The first day should be mostly dedicated to learning how to upshift and downshift the sequential transmission properly on the autocross course. The transmission is a straight dog box, which means there are no synchro gears between the dog ring and the face of the gear. This allows a faster shift without the need of a clutch, but it also means it's a little harder to master and requires quick, precise timing. The transmission is operated by a lever that only has 2 positions - forward, which starts a downshift, and backward, which starts an upshift. So you can't skip gears in either direction, hence "sequential". Most racing cars use this type of transmission. Most also have a "throttle cut" system that cuts fuel flow when the lever is pulled back, for an upshift. The R/T 2000 does not have this, so I will need to sharply lift off the throttle as I shift up. The transmission will probably be the biggest challenge for me, but we will see.

The second and third days will be mostly track focused, and I'll be driving on the full Laguna Seca circuit in a variety of sessions designed to exercise my passing and other techniques.

As far as my preparation for all this, I have all of my fire gear, I've been keeping my normal workout going, and I've been using the simulator a lot (which actually has a laser-scanned version of Laguna Seca and the R/T 2000).

I leave on the 22nd, and I'm ready.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

(115) White ninja

I got the rest of my fire gear today.

The first items in question are the gloves. I had a number of options that I was considering from Sparco. I really liked the sheer grippyness of the Tide gloves, which have little gecko-like feelers on them. But, increased price and decreased life (the feelers would no doubt wear off quickly) meant that in the end I chose the Tornado gloves, since they still offered really good grip and fit.

Sparco Tornado gloves. If I slap someone does Oklahoma get destroyed?

The second items on the list are the undersuit parts.

Single-layer nomex undersuits being all but equal in terms of burn rate, the primary concerns are breathability and itchyness. Yeah, really.

I wanted to stay a nice, brand loyal racing driver, but since no one is paying me to wear this stuff I just went with whomever irritated me the least (literally).

 Alpinstars nomex undersuit set. White ninja. Not irritating.

So there you have it. My superhero suit is complete. I feel like strapping a katana to my back and doing a wallrun.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

(114) IndyCar 2012

Last month the IRL released their plans for the 2012 IndyCar season.

You may remember, but a while back I wrote a bit about what I think the IRL should do about it. Well, it seems they read my blog because they sorta-kinda used a couple of my ideas (but not exactly).

First, the car. The IRL ran an open chassis design competition in which manufacturers like Lola, Swift, and Dallara offered up various concepts.

Dallara grabbed the contract. Dallara deigned and builds the current IndyCar chassis. It's good to go with the Italians, but I liked Swift's proposal a little more, aesthetically. The IRL had their reasons I'm sure.

One of Dallara's 2012 IndyCar concepts. Striking.

Don't take the styling too much to heart, though. Now comes the meat of the changes.

First, engine regulations are open. Teams will be able to use manufacturer engines. The engines themselves will be turbocharged, and will be limited to 2.4 liters and have a maximum of 6 cylinders arrayed in any configuration the maker chooses, be it boxer, V, or straight engines. The IRL expects horsepower to be between 500 and 700. Push-to-pass is, sadly, going to be a part of that, and it will offer an extra 100 horsepower for a limited time. I hope we see a good array of engine types, but I suspect they will mostly be V6 and I4 engines.

The chassis regulations are being opened up, too, but not quite as much. Manufacturers, be it a guy from his garage or Penske or GM, will be able to offer up aerodynamics packages for sale to the teams. The teams will be limited to two packages per season (presumably one for oval racing and one for road). The parts will need to be certified for sale by the IRL. The rest of the car, the tub, the shocks and suspension, and the tires still will be spec. It will be interesting to see how different the cars look.

The minimum weight is coming down, to 1,380 pounds, 200 less than the current car.

The price is also coming down. Quite a bit in fact. The chassis itself will cost $350,000 in what's called a "roller" configuration, meaning it has no engine. The "turn-key" configuration, meaning full package (chassis + engine) will be $385,000. That's about $110,000 cheaper than a turn-key Porsche 911 GT3 RSR (like you see in Le Mans GT2 competition). The price of the aerodynamics packages will be limited to $70,000, which sounds like a lot, considering that the engine only adds $35,000 to the price of the car. No word yet, as far as I'm aware, of who will be supplying the "official" engine (the one that comes with the car).

Finally, top tier American open wheel racing is going to be a Formula again. That, combined with the Formula One event in Texas, means a very interesting year is in store for American motorsport in 2012.

Monday, July 19, 2010

(113) Phasing

I hope you'll excuse the lack of postings as of late. For the past 6 months I've been averaging 2 posts per month. I'd like to bump that up to 1 weekly post, but I wonder to myself if I can manage to keep that rate of writing interesting.

You see, in the beginning, I had a lot to talk about. In 2008 I had a metric ton of posts describing my learning process. This whole thing was very new and I was very excited all the time. In 2009 I had a very active year with a lot of very exciting racing, and I'm sure it made for some good reading.

This year has been, so far, pretty transitional. My karting phase is winding down, and my car phase is going to come to life in the coming months. I have a lot of excitement regarding my upcoming schools at Skip Barber. Just another month and a half to go. It's my next big step on the ladder. Rung number two. So, naturally, I don't find myself thinking about much of anything else with regard to racing. I'm sure you all don't want me to just endlessly repeat my anticipation. Before I go for the first class, though, I will make sure to write a post detailing all of that, as well as my preparations. I will probably do that a week or two before the class.

I tend not to treat this blog like a diary. Not only do I not want to fill the internet with my own personal emotions and inner troubles, but I also don't think that kind of writing is very interesting. But then, you're talking to a guy that is more interested in how much horsepower his car has than the world views of poets.

Nevertheless, a few glimpses into my mindset have slipped by a number of times. I suppose you might say my mindset right now is eager, with a hint of waryness. Eager to prove that what I have gained from karting for 2 and a bit years will serve me well in full size cars, and that I can handle and even excel at this new challenge, and a little wary because of the numerous warnings that I've received about the differences between a car and a kart. No doubt there are differences, but which ones matter and which ones don't I'm not entirely sure about. While I have driven at race speed in a full size car with suspension and all that, I've never driven a fully fledged race car and while I have many theories as to what I'll need to bring to the table, I have little to go on at this point.

Any way, the point here is to let you all know that the sparse streak will probably continue for the next 4 weeks, as there is really nothing on my schedule racing wise. I'll try to find something to do, but no guarantees.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

(112) Off day

I've never really had an off day before. Not in racing anyway. 2 and a half years of racing and no really all around not so great days (performance wise). A few mediocre days, but no real bad days.

So I suppose it's about time I had one, eh? And had one I did.

The morning started out alright. I was 4th fastest in the practice sessions which is about normal for me at the beginning of the day. I don't enter with a bang. I like to work up to qualifying pace. It just seems more consistent.

Then, in the 2nd practice session, something happened. Don't ask me what. I really have no idea. For some reason, something was wrong. Could've been the kart, could've been me. Either way, I was 2nd to last in the times. The whole field was setting really close times (the entire field was within 1 second of the fastest lap), so that might have had an effect. I'm usually fine on the sprint tack. I'm not bad at it. It's not my best track, but it's not my worst either.

My performance (or lack thereof) continued into qualifying. I qualified on the last row (but not dead last), in 7th.

The mechanics offered to look over the kart to see if anything was wrong. I agreed. They changed the spark plug just for the heck of it but didn't find anything wrong with the kart.

One of my friends, normally quite fast, was also slower and qualified towards the rear. It might not have been a problem with us, but an unusual surge in performance from a lot of the other drivers.

The race was delayed because of a kart failing on the pace lap. We circulated for a while, I got impatient and spun the kart while trying to keep my tires warm. Very embarrassing.

The race start was fast, but the first lap was slow. There's not much you can do about that, being in back. You're kind of stuck and your passing opportunities are limited since you have to contend with the accordion effect (karts compress in the braking zone, and a once large gap between the two karts ahead of you shrinks, and you have no place to slot in should you attempt a pass).

On the 2nd lap I got passed going into Sand. I tried to salvage too much exit speed, and dropped a wheel. This instantly sucked me out into the dirt and I had to back out of the throttle or spin. I just rode it out and rejoined. The driver who passed me claims he didn't leave me any room, but I reckon I had enough to stay on the track. I just had too much speed.

The rest of the race was spent sparring for 6th spot. On the 2nd to last lap, one of the karts ahead half-spun and stalled (much like I did last year). He had trouble restarting and went to the back. The fight for 6th turned into a fight for 5th, which, with only 2 laps remaining, I had little chance of winning based on the gap.

I tried my best to catch up, but it wasn't enough and I finished 6th.

Round 6 helmet cam footage.

I suppose the fact that I didn't do any practice the week before could have contributed, but I don't think that was the only factor.

Depending on what my schedule with Skip Barber is going to look like, this might be the last time I drive at Jim Russell. I think that's unlikely, as I do want to come back and do the season ending double header and I'd like to do the Enduro again this year, but we'll see how things shape up.

Monday, June 28, 2010

(111) Simulating

Over the past couple of months, I've been stepping up my use of high end consumer simulators. Kind of more hardcore stuff, that not to many people play or use. The programs considered to be the most realistic things a person can use on their home computer.

It's been slowly changing my thoughts about virtual racing.

A while ago (a long while ago), I made an entry about the game "NetKar Pro". It was sort of unfavorable - I saw it as gimmicky and rough around the edges. While my opinion hasn't changed in a large way, a number of small things have.

Home simulators are still fairly primitive. They still have no real way of communicating G forces and a large portion of the other sensory factors. The computer wheels in use are still, on the whole, nowhere near powerful enough or subtle enough to capture the feel of a real car's steering. Very few pedals replicate the same behavior of real pedals (I'm thinking primarily of the brake in this case - simulator pedals tend to be travel sensitive rather than pressure sensitive). You can correct these problems with very custom, very specialized equipment, but it is hideously expensive. A few thousand dollars, at least. But mass produced wheels and pedals are getting better all the time.

But, there are a number of simulators out there that inspire confidence for the future. The three that do it for me are Live for Speed,, and NetKar Pro. All for different reasons.

 Live for Speed lacks a bit of graphical polish by today's standards, but it's satisfying to drive and features a large stable of diverse cars.

But let's get something out of the way first. There are two extreme camps with regard to the usefulness of these simulators - one camp that thinks you can become Michael Schumacher by playing, and the other camp that thinks simulators are completely worthless and sometimes not even fun. The former tend to cite various examples of people that started on video games and progressed to real racing (I'm one of them), as well as technique similarities between the best sim racers and the best real racers, which I will get into. The latter camp tend to cite real world experience as tainting the simulator experience, claiming that a simulator can never do real racing justice and that, in the extreme, even the best simulators are frustratingly unrealistic. As you'll see, there are valid points to both arguments.

Most of the opinions in each camp are further split between the three games I just mentioned. Most people consider one or two to be good and accurate, while the other one or two are not accurate (to varying degrees). This is down to the individual style and focus of each game, which I will gloss over. As to which camp I belong in, I wouldn't presume to tell you. I think there are some things you can be introduced to and grasp on a basic level in a simulator, some things that you cannot, and some things which you can even get somewhat good at on a simulator. I guess you could say I'm kind of on the fence. I'm a firm believer that the truth usually lies between two extremes. actually has the same Formula 2000 that Skip Barber uses in it's school program. Over the past couple of months, I've been driving it a lot in the hopes that what I learn in the simulator will carry over. So, in August, I will have a direct comparison to draw upon to tell whether simulators are actually useful. I've already learned a lot about the car, and the track, on the simulator. The virtual version of Laguna Seca in iRacing is actually scanned with lasers, so it is absolutely inch-perfect. I'll be able to compare both the car and the track. offers a high degree of visual and track surface accuracy with laser scanning technology, as well as official online race series held on a weekly basis.

I actually do want to do full reviews of each simulator, but that's for another time.

I do like racing games quite a bit. If you've been reading since the beginning, you'll know that it was video games that got me interested in racing. And, while not directly relevant to my form of racing (there are very few karting simulators), I feel like racing games have helped me in some ways.

I think the idea of a person learning to race solely on a simulator and then becoming successful in the real world is quite intriguing. There are a few different programs at the moment with that idea in mind, and so far they haven't produced any flops as far as I know. It's certainly plausible that someone who is fast in a game could be fast in real life. Let me explain that.

Driving a real race car is all about feel. You feel the G forces, primarily, and that tells you what the car is doing. Vibrations also have to do with it. Your senses can be extremely highly calibrated.

When you step into the simulator, you lose all that. You lose the G forces and the vibrations. Any real racing driver worth his weight will likely become confused the first time he uses a simulator. It's natural. Learning to drive in a simulator is a slightly different skill, but not an irrelevant one.

On the other hand, if you take a good sim racer, you see that most of his skill is from learning to drive something that has little feel. Most of his skill resides in his head and his eyes. Rather than feeling that he has a few degrees too much steering and a slight bit too much brake and correcting it through instinct as a real driver does, a sim racer sees that his car is responding badly and uses his technical knowledge to correct it. He has a limited amount of feel to help him.

NetKar Pro does the best job of supplementing the limited feel you have in a sim car and is very intuitive to drive.

The result is, if you take a sim racer and put him in a real race car, he will probably do better than the real driver trying the simulator, because the sim racer can still use his technical knowledge and his eyes in the real car, while the real driver can't use all of his senses in the simulator. The sim racer may be overwhelmed or intimidated by the (comparative) sensory overload from the real car, but he would adjust to that. When I first got on track for real, I didn't have all of the technical know-how (conscious or not) that a top level sim racer has. I wasn't driving the right simulators, and I didn't have enough time behind the virtual wheel.

What I'm getting at is, simulators are important from a mental aspect. Very important, I would wager. It's a theory I'm going to put to the test in about two months.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

(110) Patience pays

It was over 90 degrees and very windy for yesterday's race.

During the morning we had a tailwind going down the front straight of national reverse, and the karts were hitting the rev limiter all day. The top speeds were probably the fastest they've ever been.

I was about mid-pack during the morning practices, about 3 tenths off the fastest guys in terms of lap time.

I gathered myself together for qualifying, though, and put together a lap that was only 12 hundredths slower than the polesitter. I landed in 3rd. 2nd was only 12 thousandths off pole. The top 6 were separated by only 1 second. It was going to be anyone's race.

I figured I had a very good chance of getting 2nd, and more than a decent chance at a win.

The polesitter started us kind of far to the inside of the track, making the inside row a little squashed going into turn 1, "Sand". We were able to slow down enough to make it through safely, but it was a little iffy.

Rolling into turn 3, "Monaco", I decided to pass for 2nd, but I braked badly at turn 4, "Kramer" and let him back by, and another nearly followed, but I had a good exit and passed him into the esses.

After that I decided to just let the two leaders cruise, hoping they would begin to scuffle and I would slip by when one or both made a decent mistake.

After a little over a 3rd of the race I saw that 2nd was falling back from the leader and was not able to keep up, so I decided to pass when he made a mistake coming out of the final turn. I could have passed in a less damaging spot (I lost maybe half a second), but I had a really good run and my passing instincts kind of took over. In hindsight I probably should have taken him in Monaco or Kramer.

Either way, I was now in 2nd, with 3rd breathing down my neck. Despite getting into 2nd, the leader was still pulling away slowly but surely.

This continued until the penultimate corner where I had a bad exit. I looked over my shoulder and 2nd was right on my bumper. I knew he'd try a last-corner ditch attempt, but  when he didn't show up halfway through the braking zone I thought he'd backed off because of my defensive line. But, just as I turned in with full trail braking and slip angle in effect, there was his nose to my inside. There wasn't much I could do save jostle the wheel a bit in an attempt to scrub off some grip and slide to the outside slightly, but we still had contact and he half-spun and stalled behind me and lost a place.

I ended up 2nd, just 2.5 seconds behind the leader and with the fastest lap of the race.

Round 5 helmet cam footage.

A decently exciting race all around. I could've done way worse.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

(109) All suited up

Since I'm going to be driving full size cars in the fall, I need a new suit.

Why? Don't I already have a suit?

Well, the thing is, karting gear is mostly designed to be skid resistant. The risk of fire is very small, and even if an engine blows up right next to your elbow it probably won't involve much fire. So as a result my gloves and suit are made of a type of rip-stop fabric and if I were to turn over onto my head and ejected at 40 MPH I'd be well protected from road rash (my shoes are fire shoes, however).

Fire suits are made from soft, delicate materials like nomex. These protect against fire very well, but if I were to slide along a road at a good clip they would get shredded to bits. Horses for courses.

Fire suits are also very expensive. My karting suit cost about $200. A three-layer SFI-approved and highly rated fire suit will be more like $1,500 to $2,000.

So I was pretty thrilled when I walked into the Infineon pro shop (Wine Country Motorsports) and saw a very nice Sparco three-layer suit in my size and on sale for $1,100.

This is what a professional photo would look like if you removed all the talent.

It's a Sparco X-light, and it's got some very impressive features.

Firstly, it's very light, as the name implies. It's only a little heavier than my karting suit. Some of the other suits I tried on were just plain uncomfortable. Very heavy and warm. This is the lightest and the coolest one I could find.

It's also SFI 3.2A/5 rated. What this means is, each layer of the suit will last ten seconds under direct flame. So, being a three-layer suit, I will have thirty seconds to escape the burning car. Add another layer of nomex underwear and I've then got forty seconds. Tons of time. To be SFI rated the suit must also self-extinguish in less than 2 seconds. Now that's just plain impressive.

The other cool part of the suit is the "X-cool" treatment that Sparco gives it. It's a chemical treatment that helps keep you cool. It also releases a fresh minty aroma so you don't smell too bad after a race. Ain't technology great?

This is the single most expensive piece of clothing I own. And it's expendable.

But hey, it's got my name on it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

(108) Luggin'

I suppose I've been lucky so far. I've completed two seasons of karting without a mechanical mishap under my drivership. Generally, I'm rather fortunate, mechanically. Things always seem to work for me. Yes, the enduro last year was a large blow to our team. I wasn't expecting a repeat offense.

Today was rather confusing. The morning started off a little cool, like most mornings around the bay. In the first practice session the kart was working really well, and I a little less so. Six months off the beat will do that to you. I was second on the time sheets by two tenths and the coaches had a couple of small notes for me, nothing major.

It started to go down hill in the second session. I felt faster, I could tell I was using the kart better, more consistently, more delicately, in a finer manner. Getting closer to that limit. But the times went backwards. I lost two tenths, and I was dropping through the field.

Qualifying was again even worse. I made a mistake passing another driver and I ruined both of our laps by getting in way too hot and making him back off. Usually I stick to myself in qualifying, but another driver was close enough behind that backing off wasn't an option. Again I felt like I was getting to a finer point of car control, nailing the trail braking, carrying early, precise angle into the corners and making the kart work hard. The engines loved this perfect 75 degree weather and they had a good pop coming off the corners.

Despite my efforts, I landed in 6th spot, out of 12.

Something really just didn't add up. Some value that I wasn't accounting for. I had the school verify that timing and scoring was linked properly with my transponder in case I had been registering another driver's times. The transponder was linked perfectly.

After mulling it over on the drive home, I think I've narrowed it down to a couple things, or a combination of things.

Either my kart was setup and balanced in cooler weather, and the increase in heat, friction and the resulting high pressure was giving me less grip, or there was something else wrong mechanically, or the track was full of incompatible rubber that I was struggling on (unbeknownst to me, but I think I would've sensed that), or radioactive space particles were interfering with my brain synapses, causing me to think I was going faster than I actually was.

My money is on the space dust.

It started to creep into the back of my mind that today was not my day. I didn't let this thought get far.

I had a blazing start to the race. I went as soon as the flag man twitched. The rest of the field, from my point of view, didn't seem to scoot until the flag was all the way up. At the time, to me, this discrepancy felt like an eternity. In actuality is was probably about half of a tenth of a second.

I jinked to the outside immediately. In classic Evans style, I broadened the field to at least 3 wide going into turn 1. I had to check up, because it was a tight fit, and people were banging wheels and sliding. On the way down to the 2 complex, a driver tried to blast down the inside. Rule number one in passing. The car on the outside of the corner on the exit of a corner will get a better launch. I dispatched him from the outside into 2.

From there, I took it easy. The lead pack wasn't getting strung out, and I was keeping pace. I planned to wait for one of them to get it really wrong and then I would pounce in a spot that had a minimal impact on my total race time.

This charade continued until the end of lap 3. Suddenly, at the entrance to kramer (the corner after the long sweeper) I noticed a slight vibration from the left rear. I thought I had picked up a clot of clag from someone's tire. The vibration got worse through the next 3 corners. Finally, whatever it was really let go on the entry to the final start/finish hairpin, and the kart seemed to fall over and go all soft in the rear. I thought my wheel had fallen off. I looked quickly, and it was still there. I took the next corner, and it fell over again. I decided to give up and pit (one driver had already lost a wheel at about 50 MPH). On the way back I didn't push the kart at all, but because the left rear was broken, it slides around anyway. The field streamed by as I entered the pits.

It turns out that one of the wheel lug nuts had shorn off and taken the bolt with it. It's a wonder why the whole thing didn't just fly off at the earliest moment.

The mechanics took a very short time in replacing the hub and giving me a fresh tire. I headed back out onto the track, now 3 laps down.

The rest of the race was simply spent lapping, with a lot of looking over my shoulder to make sure the leader wouldn't catch me by the end.

I finished 9th, in the end. There was a pileup while I was in the pits, and there were a number of DNFs as a result.

Onabord footage from Round 4 of the Jim Russell karting series.

I re-watched the video about ten times, and I'm still not sure what I did to make the thing let go. I hopped a curb the lap before, but if it was that it stands to reason that it would've let go immediately after. I think the most likely explanation is that it was simply a defective bolt. Ever had a screw head just pop right off in your fingers? It's happened to me before.

Well, I'm not in a championship chase here, so I'm not as disappointed as I could be. I still finished the race. I guess that's all we can ever really ask for.

Sometimes, the space dust just doesn't go your way.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

(107) Rain school

When I saw the "chance of showers" weather forecast for today, my first practice session of 2010, I figured it would be just a few scattered droplets and at most the track would get a little damp.

Look at how wrong I was.

A boat and oars might have been faster.

It was an absolute downpour. But all was not lost!

The first session was mildly moist. We went out on slick tires since the sun was out and things were drying out. It was my first time on slicks in the wet and boy was it slippery. I have newfound respect for Formula 1 drivers who hold out through wet conditions on slicks. A dry line started forming in most corners, though, and it became faster and faster to stop using the rain lines.

Then the track dried out nearly completely. There were a few scattered patches of light dampness, but it was not in any critical spots. In the 2nd session I set the fastest time of the day, 55.9 seconds, which, considering that I haven't driven in 6 months, and the track was totally green and cold, is kind of impressive.

Then the rain came back. And it let loose a pretty good shower. It got everything wet enough for rain tires, and kept a heavy sprinkle going. Rain lines came into full effect, and I struggled. My entrances were fine, but I kept apexing too early and as soon as I started hard cornering on the rubber line it would just suck me into a vicious traction loss slide that is difficult to overcome at best. I spun a couple times at the exit of tic-tac-toe just trying to put too much power down in the wrong place with too much lateral load on the tires. Our times were a good 20 seconds slower than a good warm day.

A technical malady popped up with all the karts, and mine went first. As I was exiting the pits after a damage inspection from spinning off into the dirt, my engine cut out. I re-fired it and realized that it was missing heavily. I took the half a lap to circle around to the pits. Turned out to be a simple fix in the form of a new spark plug. We were not spending enough time at full throttle and these engines hate that. The karts all started feeling and sounding much healthier after the service (which took all of 30 seconds, since the spark plug is right on top).

Then the vicious clouds really let us have it for the fourth session. It felt like a monsoon. I decided to use the rain oversuit, which made me look humongous since I was wearing my normal impact suit underneath. Kept me very dry though (my hands still got rather waterlogged).

In the fourth session the rain lines needed to be hugely exaggerated. At some points we were almost running a high-side dirt line. My turn-ins for a number of corners were just a few inches from running out of road. Forget simply staying off the rubber line, if you weren't in the marbles, you had zero traction.

Nevertheless, my times improved over the more tame 3rd session. My fastest monsoon time was a 1:13.2.

Still, my kart control got a real workout and I'm sure it helped me overall. I learned a bunch more on racing in the rain. In California, every second of rain time is precious. We just don't get a lot here, at least during racing season. It was fun, too.

Friday, April 16, 2010

(106) The next rung

Over the past few weeks my dad and I have been planning and detailing my next forays into motorsports, primarily focused on getting me transitioned from karts to cars.

The result is this.

At the end of this month, I go back to Jim Russell driving the sprint karts. I'm going to do 3 race weekends from May to July. Originally this was to include 2 single race weekends and a double header, but a scheduling change has reduced that to just 3 singles. I'll get to the reason for this later. I'll probably do the Enduro again this year if it doesn't conflict with anything.

In late August, I'll be going down to Skip Barber at Laguna Seca for a 3-day school in the Formula 2000 and the MX-5 Cup (they will let me drive both cars). I'll mostly be driving the F2000, but I want to get a little bit of time in the MX-5 because I believe that driving a variety of cars is a must for every young driver.

Then late in September I will do the Skip Barber 2-day advanced school in the F2000 again at Laguna Seca to qualify me for the regional race series starting in October/November, of which I may do a full or partial season, I'm not sure.

Now is the reason for the karting races. Originally I had decided to not enter the Jim Russell series because I wanted to focus on cars, but then I got an email about the 2011 Skip Barber karting shoot out.

The Shoot Out is quite simple. 50 karters head down to Laguna Seca in December (2010), where they will be evaluated over 3 days of driving the F2000. The two drivers that show the most promise will get fully funded seats in the Skip Barber National race series in 2011 (worth more than $50,000), courtesy of Mazda and the FIA. About $100,000 in other prizes are up for grabs: regional seats, half-season seats, etc. In all they award about $200,000 in prizes. Read more about it here.

You have to be an active and current karter, so I need to do kart races in 2010.

I'm confident I can get one of those National seats, but even if there was no prize the coaching and seat time would be a great deal. Plus you get some media and sponsorship training.

Lots to look forward to. I'm going to be very, very busy at the end of this year. My career is really going to take off this fall. But, first thing's first, the karting starts at the end of this month with my first practice. Time to knock the rust off.