Friday, May 20, 2011

(140) Hooked on driving

Dedicated readers may remember the tire situation during the season opener at Thunderhill. I had a set of test and practice tires that I was using for, well, testing and practice. These tires had a good amount of track time on them. I used them during the test day prior to the race weekend, and then I got a new set which would be my "competition" set, used for races and qualifying.

Unfortunately I did not know one key characteristic of the Toyo RA-1: they take a while to get to optimal grip. About 5 sessions, in fact. That's a downside, but the upside is they last absolutely forever and they will only get faster and faster as more and more "heat cycles" (cool to hot then back to cool again) are put on them. Most guys set their fastest laps as the cords begin to show.

I decided to run the faster test set during the races. The race set only got 2 heat cycles on them and at that time they were about 1.5-2 seconds per lap slow.

This leaves me the task of running in those new tires. And since there is no test day before the race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on the 28th, I needed to find something to run in the meantime.

Enter Hooked on Driving, a track day company. They provide venues for you to run your car, street or race, in structured sessions for much less than it costs for a full test day. They had an event at Infineon Raceway so I signed up, simply to run the track a little bit and get my tires run in.

Track days are days set up primarily to run non competition licensed drivers in street cars on race tracks. Ferraris, Audis, BMWs, and Porsches are fairly common sights. There is usually absolutely no competition, and very conservative passing rules, such as mandatory wave-bys and designated passing zones such as the front straight.

Fortunately for me Hooked on Driving has more liberal passing protocols in the race car group. A wave-by is all that's required.

The goals for the day were fairly laid back. Learn the track, get data for mental imaging, get the tires up to snuff, and do a 2:01 lap time or under.

The first session I took it really easy. I had it set in my head that I wouldn't really push past about 90% for the day, more like 80 or 85% in the first session. That would get enough heat in the tires to start affecting the compound and getting them to come in. I got the lines set in my head and made sure my steering inputs were right the first time as much as I could. And I avoided the turn 11 pit wall.

Throughout the day I just started working the cornering speeds up, then the throttle-on points sooner (to provide more exit speed), then moved the braking in closer in most corners. In the middle of the day I started taking turn 8, a pair of 90 MPH esses, with my foot flat to the floor. The car loved those turns and felt incredibly stable through there.

Around lunch time I met up with some of my past coaches, Andrew Shoen, Jeff Sakowicz and Mike Hill who were instructing an Audi event. It was good to catch up with them and share some stories.

In the afternoon the track started getting really grippy, and the tires were feeling really good. I eventually got down to a 2:00.9 lap time. That's about 3 seconds off the quick guys in Spec Miata but like I said I wasn't really trying to push too hard. A bit more effort and I could see a full second coming off that time fairly easily.

It was a very enjoyable day since there was no competition to worry about. Just driving and having a ball.

I think I'll do more track days at some point. I just don't have a road car that's suited to it.

There have been some developments in the Spec Miata field recently. A hole in the rules has been closed.

Sealed Spec Miata requires that the engine be dyno'd by MCE racing at Thunderhill. The cars have to be below 115 horsepower. The engine is then sealed and everyone forgets about it. This used to be a one-time deal, so naturally people found a way to get around it and boost their horsepower after the engine gets sealed.

A change has been made to that. Cars can now be disqualified for being over the power limit. SCCA will be doing more dynamometer testing. Some cars have been found to be over the limit, and so can no longer compete in SSM until the power is brought back down. It's resulted in one particular very fast racer switching classes.

It's a good change in my opinion. Why wouldn't you continue to enforce the horsepower limit that you set for when the engine was built and sealed?

The field might be shaken up a little bit on May 28th, which is the date for the next race, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Friday, May 13, 2011

(139) Porsche test drive, plus one

A couple weeks ago, my dad got a letter from Porsche. It was an invitation for two. The occasion was the Porsche World Road Show. Naturally, we RSVP'd with all due gusto.

No one is really sure where the invitation came from. Might've been through something at SCCA, or possibly Skip Barber, or perhaps even something he signed at a car show.

In any case, the event was an invitation to drive many of Porsche's best sports cars in an autocross-type event in the parking lot of Candlestick Park in San Francisco (home of the 49ers, that's American football for the rest of the world).

The only downside was that we had to get up at 5 AM to beat the traffic to our 7:30 registration time. Not too bad, since we're used to it.

Being San Francisco, it was foggy and cold and windy when we arrived. Arrayed out in front of us, to drive, was a selection of Porsche's lineup; the benchmark 911 Carrera (in base, S, and 4S trims), the sophisticated Cayman (in S and R trims, the latter having not even hit showrooms yet), and the frisky Boxster (in base, S, and Spyder trims).

I thought what I would do, since this is basically supposed to be a test drive +1, I'll devote a section to each car and compare them. I'll also throw in some technical specs just to get an idea of where they fit in the lineup, since Porsche makes so many cars (there are over 20 versions of the current 911 alone).

 Two Porsche 911 Carreras and a Cayman exiting the "pits".

Porsche Cayman

MSRP: $65,520
Engine: mid-mounted 3.4 liter flat six cylinder
Horsepower: 320
Weight: 3031 lbs
0-60 MPH: 4.6 seconds

The first car up is the Cayman, both the S and R versions. The Cayman is basically a Boxster with a roof, and is the middle model in the sports car line. All of the cars were equipped with Porsche's 7-speed Doppelkupplung transmission. Loosely translated that means "dual clutch". We'll call it PDK for short, because if I try to say that one more time, my tongue is going to fall out.

Basically, the PDK has two half-sets of gears and two clutches. Both gears are engaged at the same time, so when you want to upshift, you simply pull the paddle and the car swaps clutches (and thus, gears) in about 8 milliseconds. There is an imperceptible drop in torque, and no jolt as with traditional e-gear systems with only one clutch. On the downchanges the computer is flawless in matching RPM and road speed, and is perfectly smooth.

The Cayman S itself was a very good car to drive. On the default suspension settings (that is to say, the softest settings), the car still felt very lively. The front end of the car is very "darty" on turn in and the overall feel is of extreme lightness and balance. On the exits the rear end had a skittesh tendency when on the power, but the amount of information the car transmits to the driver makes this virtually a non-issue. Not only does the car let you know very early when a slide moment is coming on, it also lets you know exactly how large that moment is going to be and that allows you to get on top of it very quickly.

The Cayman S feels playful, and has a little of that innocent "yeah, yeah, let's go!" kind of enthusiasm that dogs give you when they're about to go on a walk.

You needn't worry at all about getting too enthusiastic, however, since the Porsche Stability Management will kick in and save the car if you have a catastrophic collapse of talent. Normally stability programs interfere a lot with the driving, even below the limit. Porsche's program is purely a "save me" program. In other words, it won't kick in unless it thinks you need serious help. It will let you hang out around and even a little over the limit all day, but if it senses a spin, it will very capably and smoothly bring the car back into line.

You can occasionally feel the system make a very slight adjustment to the car every now and then, particularly over big bumps, but the changes are subtle and I doubt a novice driver will even realize they are being assisted. Unlike a lot of others systems, the program is also completely disableable, so you can spin and drift to your heart's content on the track.

The Cayman R.

The Cayman R feels much more serious than the Cayman S. The engine note seems a little growlier and the car is tuned to have a little more of a racecarish feel. There is more understeer in the R, seemingly to accommodate the extra ten horsepower, and the whole thing seems to have more grip due to the 150 or so pounds that have been pulled off the curb weight. I wasn't a huge fan of the R. It's very impressive and definitely a very good car, but I think if I were to choose one to own it would be the S. I just prefer the playful feel in road cars. Race car handling only helps you on the limit. Playfulness you can feel at any speed.

Porsche Boxster

MSRP: $51,520
Engine: mid-mounted 2.9 liter flat six cylinder
Horsepower: 255
Weight: 3009 lbs
0-60 MPH: 5.3 seconds

The Boxster is the baby in the Porsche range. It's the least expensive, it has the smallest engine, and the least horsepower. You might think it's the lightest, but it's not quite.

The initial impression of the basic Boxster is one of squidgyness. Even with the suspensions settings in their hardest mode, it feels like it rolls just a little too much and the result is a slightly sluggish feel at turn in and corner exit. It doesn't feel like it has enough torque, even though the horsepower number is perfectly acceptable for a car like this.

The Porsche Boxster.

All of these problems are fixed in the S version of the car, however. You'll pay another $11,000, but it's well worth the upgrade, since you get a 3.4 liter engine with 310 horsepower and much more usable torque, much improved suspension, bigger tires with more grip, and definitely the giddyest feeling Porsche in the range. While the Cayman S may have an excited feeling, the Boxster S feels absolutely inconsolable with untamed anticipation. It's really like riding a frisky horse, except you don't have the worry of being bucked off. The car is genuinely excited for you, not for itself. This is absolutely the purest sports car feeling I've ever beheld. The handling is very similar to the Cayman S, just with all this added feeling.

The next rung up the ladder is the Boxster Spyder. This is a fairly new version, and in my view one of the best looking Porsches ever made, though that seems to be a point of contention. It has a completely redesigned top and rear end. Inside it's a symphony of simple, as it doesn't even have door handles, just a cloth loop, and the soft top isn't powered - you need to build it, like a tent. The point of keeping it so simple is to save weight. The car only weighs 2866 pounds.

The Spyder is only slightly more expensive than the Boxster S, and you do get 10 more horsepower as with the Cayman R/Cayman S situation. Just like the Caymans, though, the Spyder has more serious handling than the S, with more understeer and stability, and much of that unbridled enthusiasm is gone. Horses for course, or somesuch.

The Porsche Boxster Spyder.

Porsche 911 Carrera

MSRP: $83,080
Engine: rear-mounted 3.6 liter flat six cylinder
Horsepower: 345
Weight: 3164 lbs
0-60 MPH: 4.5 seconds

And here we have it. The best for last. The legendary benchmark 911 Carrera.

I've had the pleasure of driving a 911 before, a 1983 Sport Classic, down a mountain road. It wasn't a race track, but I could still feel the various handling traits. It was quite an experience.

The modern 911, however, is in a totally different league. It has twice the horsepower of the old Sport Classic to start with, and the handling has been changed significantly, though many of the basic traits are still there.

In most ways the modern Carrera handles much like the Skip Barber F2000 race car I was driving last year. With so much weight in the rear, it produces some interesting effects. The throttle pedal becomes the major stabilizing force, and hard trail braking becomes a very precise affair. Slightly too much brake, and the front tires get easily overwhelmed and you understeer heavily, even before you hit the anti-lock brake system. Too little brake, and the car gets very squirrely as you turn into the corner.

The throttle pedal acts in a similar way. If you sensitively push the acceleration to the absolute limit of adhesion while exiting a corner, you get a tremendous amount of understeer, just before the tires start to spin and the tail steps out. Not enough throttle, or turn while off the throttle, and the car will want to spin. The whole setup is designed for maximum launch coming out of corners, while sacrificing the entry. If you're looking for a car to learn how to go "slow in, fast out", a 911 is probably your best bet.

These traits culminated in the reputation the early 911s gained as widowers. Inexperienced Porsche drivers would enter a corner faster than they meant to, and they would sharply lift or tentatively rub the brake. This would cause the car to spin out with little warning. The proper way to do it was to keep at least 20 or 30% throttle and motor out of the corner with the weight loaded on the rear wheels.

The difference these days is that countless hours have been spent by the Porsche engineers to minimize the dangerousness of this kind of handling. The result is that the modern Carrera now gives you plenty of warning, if you know what to listen for. If you don't know what to listen for, the Porsche Stability Management will sort it out for you.

Needless to say, the 911 is a very different beast than the cars we looked at earlier. The 911 Carrera feels much more mature than the other cars in the lineup, but it doesn't feel as serious as the Cayman R or the Boxster Spyder. It sort of feels like a Cayman S that's had a few more years and a few more pounds put on. It's wiser, more experienced, but it still seems to enjoy the fun of the journey in a kind of reflective, more thoughtful mode. It's not a pretender, but it's not arrogant and it doesn't make a large fuss. It still works out 3 times a week. Does that sound like babel to you? It kinda does to me. That's what the car drums up for me, anyway.

The legendary Carrera. Jeez I'm short.

The S version of the Carrera feels very similar to the base model, but a little more capable in terms of outright grip and a lot faster on the go pedal - it literally surges forward, very hard. Which it would do, because it's got the 3.8 liter engine with 385 horsepower. It's got bigger rear tires, but it also weighs a little more, both of which add a little to the already pretty severe understeer. All that for a $12,000 upgrade.

However, for $19,000 over the base model, you can have the Cerrara 4S at $102,380. And yes, you would be right in assuming the 4 means all-wheel drive, which is pretty much the only real difference between the Carrera S and the C4S, save for even larger 305 mm rear tires. The Carrera 4S has nothing of the original's corner exit understeer. It feels slightly slower to respond at initial turn-in, but my lord it grips when you use the go pedal. Amazingly, mid-corner grip is no lower than the two-wheel drive S, since they both weigh the same, despite the supposed extra weight of the all-wheel drive system in the 4S!

The C4S is by far my favorite car that I drove during the Porsche World Roadshow. Considering it was a no-cost event, we got tons of time in the cars and we got to push them fairly hard. We also got solid instruction from the Porsche Driving School instructors. Porsche just gained huge kudos points in my book.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

(138) Fitting my fitness

Last time I talked about my mental training, working with setups on the simulator. This time I'll talk a bit about my physical training.

My PT is still evolving, but I'm starting to zero in on what works for racing drivers.

At the moment I'm on a daily workout. I do about 10 minutes of very fast-paced, varied exercise when I wake up. My basic workout is:

3 sets of 30 pushups
2 sets of 60 lunges (30 each leg each set, and I usually start with these because it gets my heartrate going)
2 sets of 45 situps
1 set of 35 bicycle crunches

It doesn't sound like a lot, because it's not. The point is to do it every day.

I rarely stick to that exact schedule, though. Doing it every day, it would be easy to get into a groove and improvement would stagnate. So I randomize it. Some days I'll do more of one thing and less of another, sometimes I will pace down, or pace it up, or even just focus on one exercise altogether. One thing I always do is vary my pushups. In each set I will set my hands at different widths to get different muscle groups - closer together usually yields better tricep results, further apart gets more of your chest. Sometimes I do pushups with my feet up on a chair just to change things a bit. I also do all of my exercises at different speeds. Sometimes I'll do lunges or pushups incredibly slowly, sometimes taking as long as 6 or 7 seconds for each push or lunge. Racing drivers have a lot of constant resistance in their physical strain - corners can be very long some times. It's good to train the body to get used to it.

I also really like bicycle crunches because they get a lot of muscles in your middle, plus they're really hard (which is why I only do 35 or so of them in 1 set). Regular situps get the rest of the ab muscles. Core strength is really important for a racing driver.

After I get done with my workout, I do a balance exercise. I just stand on one leg with my eyes closed and count to about 100 seconds. Then I do it on the other leg. I can't do a full 100 yet, my record is about 35. My balance is actually pretty bad, I think. That's why I'm working on it. Coach Ric suggested that one to me.

Then there are two extra things that I do randomly throughout the day. One is working with Power Putty. I only recently got this stuff. It's basically silly putty with a stabilizing agent added to make it more viscous. I got the maximum strength and I just work it when I'm not doing anything with my hands for a while. Within a week of using it I noticed increased hand bulk, especially in the palms. If you use it right it gets your forearms too.

The second extra random thing is simply pushing on the side of my head. Building neck strength is hard, and I don't trust any of those crazy harness contraptions. So I just push on the side of my head and try to resist. It works fine.

But this is still an evolving program. It's actually about time I added another routine to my daily workout. I might bump it up to 15 minutes soon too.