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.