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.