Sunday, September 25, 2011

(151) Nationalism

Last week I upgraded my racing license from an SCCA regional to an SCCA national. It was time to renew anyway, and I have obviously completed the requisite 4 races. So I might as well pay the extra ten bucks and get the upgrade huh?

I already feel the weight of increased responsibility on my shoulders.

Really all it does is allow me to enter national-points events, and to go to the national runoffs if I so desire. I may do that one day. It won't be this year, and probably not next year either, sadly.

Speaking of next year, it's about that time when I gotta start thinking about what I'm going to do. This year has flown by. I've been kept really busy with training, simulating, and of course putting that all to good use racing. That's kept my mind very focused on it, and I think my writing is showing that. Most of the blogs I've written this year have been about racing. Yes, it's a racing blog, but I haven't really sat down to just type my thoughts very much this year. Maybe that's a good thing. In any case, I'm doing that right now. But back to next year.

The short story is, there are no plans. Facts are starting to take over a little bit. Facts like my near-22 years of age, facts like my finances, facts like getting my own pad, a sustainable cash flow, boring real life stuff. Stuff I'm really not good at.

My parents have been amazing to me. I don't talk about them anywhere near enough. They come to all my races. Dad helps in the pits and keeps me organized. Mom provides everything else, including the silver and yellow matching folding chairs which look great next to the car. Mom and dad helped me get my career started when there was little hope of me being financially and emotionally able to start it myself (at 18, what did I really know?). With my transition to fullsize cars, my career is officially started, and now I need to take over.

So next year I am going to be financially responsible for my racing.

That means I'm going to be on a real shoestring budget. And until things get solid, I won't know how much racing I will be able to do. In the meantime I am working on starting up an internet-based business. It's unorthodox, but I know the internet very well and I believe I can make it work. Fortunately the business I've picked has virtually zero startup cost. In any case, some of the money I earn will go to racing.

I'm fairly certain I will continue to race in SCCA in 2012, most likely still the Spec Miatas. But I want to try other types of cars next year, if I can. I still have lots to learn, even after 3 years of racing school, and trying new cars will really accelerate my learning. That fact will probably make my event participation haphazard - one month in a Formula Vee, another in a Miata, yet another maybe in a BMW E30. I probably won't be in it for any championship.

But these are predictions. I once wrote that humans are terrible calculators. Extrapolating from that viewpoint, humans are even worse fortune tellers. I'm sure 2012 will hold plenty of surprises.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We still have at least 5 races left in 2011 (maybe even 6)!

First we finish out the season in Spec Miata. There are 2 races at Mazda raceway Laguna Seca next weekend October 1st-2nd. It's another one of those two-day compacted weekends. So far the attendance roster is the thinnest we've seen this year, only 31 Spec Miatas are registered as of today. After seeing fields of over 50 at Infineon, it's really easy to say "only" 31. Considering the economic situation right now, that's still a pretty sweet number. Even in a "cheap" class, it's still hard on people. It's amazing to have 60-car fields at all.

After Mazda Raceway we head to Thunderhill for October 21-23, which is going to finish out the season with the final single-race. Double the points are on offer, so this is a big one to make count. At the end of the weekend, the Racing Driver's Club (of which I'm a member) is holding a 4-hour endurance race called the Illgen Classic, and I'm going to be driving in it using the 78 Spec Miata I've been using this season. The team isn't final just yet, but you'll hear all about it prior to the weekend once everything is sorted out.

A week after that is a little surprise. On the 29th there is going to be a get-together of most of the old crew from karting at Jim Russell (Jim Russell has changed it's name to Simraceway Performance Driving Center in partnership with a new simulator hitting the market). We'll run some races on the Infineon karting circuit and just generally have a blast. It's going to be good to see the guys again, and getting back in those trusty old karts. I've heard they've made some improvements.

Then comes the big one. And this one is also not final.

The National Auto Sport Association 25 Hours of Thunderhill is the longest road race in the country. It's a true test of even the best drivers and cars. Naturally it runs non-stop through the night, rain or shine. We will modify the car with a more powerful lump (engine), and run it with 4 or 5 drivers. The stints will probably be on the order of two hours at a time in the car. That comes in December.

I couldn't think of a better way to end out 2011 than with the 25 hour.

In terms of the SCCA Sunoco championship, I'm looking good for at least a 3rd place finish in my rookie year in SSM. I'm 4th in points behind my team mate, Dave Allen. However, Dave is going to have to drop two races from his points total at the end of the season, whereas I do not, since I missed two SSM points finishes earlier in the year (you'll recall I had to change classes when the motor had to be rebuilt at the Spec Miata Festival race, and that prevented me from getting SSM points). I'm 10 points behind Dave so assuming he drops races worth more than 10 points (which he will), I will claim 3rd place at least.

Mike Niemann and David Petruska occupy the first and second spots, and they are both far enough ahead that I don't have a chance at catching them. This is the top 5 as they sit now:

1 Michael Niemann: 262
2 David Petruska: 258
3 David Allen: 188
4 Gregory Evans: 178
5 Alan Gjedsted: 168

Dave Allen and I have similar pace at the moment. I'm faster at Mazda Raceway, though, and with two races there coming up, I stand to gain some points on him.

The tire situation is playing out well, too. The Toyo RA-1s look to be good for about two race weekends plus a test day for running the tires in and making them fast. I will use my Infineon set next weekend at Mazda Raceway (which is a track that is hard on tires, but Infineon is easy on them, so they have plenty of life left), and the final set I will use at Thunderhill. The set I am saving for Thunderhill is really fast. So it works out perfectly - four sets of tires for 7 race weekends and 4 test days (the test days were in order to run the tires in and make them fast). I won't be doing test days before these race weekends, though, so I will need to be fast out of the gate. Both the enduros will each eat their own sets of tires of course.

Wish me luck!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

(150) Driving According to the Chump #6: At the Office

Wow, it's been over a year and a half since I last talked about driving techniques. I've learned a lot since then so I should probably write another Chump article.

This time I want to talk about your working environment - the office. How you interact with the office is going to determine your performance on the track. If your working environment is inhospitable for whatever reason, it's going to upset you in certain ways, and that's going to translate into mistakes, bad judgement, frustration, and just plain slowness.

The office of a racing car does not usually look very pretty. Typical racing cockpits are full of plain, functional, sometimes depressing-looking equipment - straps to hold you down like some kind of weird operating chair, panels with large gaps, exposed metal, wires and tubes all over the place, copious amounts of cheap plastic, exposed epoxy and welds, and, naturally, lots of duct tape. You wouldn't think that kind of aesthetic would result in a pleasing place to be. The secret is ergonomics.

 A Porsche race car cockpit. This is pretty luxurious as far as race cars go.

Ergonomics make the whole thing tick. The racing driver must be happy, otherwise he won't go very fast. So the cockpit has to be able to let him use the controls with ease and precision, and it has to be comfortable.

Yes, the racing cockpit is loud, hot, and vibrates the heck out of you - but it is the initial comfort which negates these things in a lot of ways and makes it bearable.

Comfort in the cockpit is down to a number of key areas:

The seat (very important) and how it hugs your body.
The driving position.
The ease of use of the controls and the control positions.
The visibility.
The safety devices, including escape means.
Auxiliary equipment such as radios, cool shirts, elbow or knee pads, ventilation, and ear plugs.

If these areas are well implemented, the cockpit becomes a very nice place to be and work.

So let's start at the top, shall we?

The seat.

The seat is easily the most important bit for making a comfortable work environment. If the seat doesn't fit you properly, then no amount of tweaking in the other areas is going to make much of a difference.

The seat does not need to be very soft. You're not going for Cadillac leather and mountains of foam and feathers here. It doesn't need to be bare metal but it should be fairly rigid. This is a safety measure in addition to a performance measure. The more seamlessly you mesh with the car, the more you can feel it, and the safer you'll be in a crash - the car will take the energy of the impact for you.

As such, a hard foam-insert, form fitted seat is undoubtedly the best option. The driver basically sits in a bath of expanding foam covered with trash bags. He stays there until the seat hardens. As long as the driver doesn't grow too much, the seat insert will work for years and years and remain as comfortable as ever. It can take a few tries to get it right, because the driver needs to sit very still and hold the ideal position (which is a very neutral spine and hip position). The main problem with a traditional seat is that they tend to force a driver into an unnatural position. The seat designers will do everything in their power to ensure the best fit for everyone, but everyone is a little bit different, so even the very best Recaro seat will never be a perfect fit off the shelf.

With a form-fitted insert seat, the driver can adopt their most natural, comfortable position, and the seat will hold them in place perfectly for as long as the insert remains rigid.

The driving position.

The driving position, after the seat itself, is next on the list of important comfort features. It's also the most involved

The ideal driving position allows you to see easily, to reach all the controls without stretching, and to ideally operate said controls.

As we all know from driving road cars, adjustable steering and pedal position is just as important as adjusting the seat. Unfortunately most racing cars do not have adjustable steering. Most pedals can be bent or otherwise manipulated side to side or up and down, but again very few can be moved forward and back. Most of the adjustment in a racing car comes from moving the seat around. Fortunately, because race seats are bolted down and usually don't have electric motors or rollers under them, they have quite a wide range of adjustment.

Now, the most important feature of setting up the driving position is to be comfortable operating the steering, pedals and shifter. Since everyone is different in size and proportion, my method of setting the seat might not work for everyone. But I encourage you to try it, because you might find you like it.

The first thing I do when fitting into a new car is to reference the seat distance and height relative to the pedals. I find that my pedal work is best when the bottom of the seat is as level as possible with the pedals. Sometimes in street cars this is hard to do - I usually just drop the seat as far as it will go, unless that impacts my visibility.

Sometimes formula cars actually have the pedals well above the bottom of the seat - this is fine, as long as they aren't too high. "Too high" is hard to quantify because of the varying levels of recline available in modern formula cars. In a modern Star Mazda car, for instance, the driver is practically laying in bed. Really, the only thing you're trying to avoid is having your femur bone's range of motion restricted by the bottom of the seat. You need the full range of movement from each of your leg joints available.

You get the full range of motion by setting the pedals at the right distance. I choose the longest pedal (usually the clutch in street-derived cars, but in racing cars sometimes it is the throttle) and set the seat so that when I press the longest pedal fully, it is not a stretch, but it uses the most range of motion in my joints possible. For example, when I press the clutch to the floor in the Miata, my leg is very nearly straight, but my ankle is not, thus avoiding stretching. This also makes heel-toe much easier - you're just moving the feet around, not the whole leg.

There is a similar philosophy when setting the distance from the steering wheel as well. You should be able to keep your hands at the 9 and 3 positions throughout as much of the rotation as possible. In reality this will probably be about 120-140 degrees from center, maybe a little less.

The method for achieving this is a little more involved. First, the center of the steering wheel should be level with your shoulders. That will give you the most range of motion with your arms up and down. Second, the steering wheel should be close enough to you so that at no point does your arm become straight, and it should not be so close that you have your arms bump your torso during the rotation.

Now, it may be that you drive a formula car that has 12 inch wide front tires, 3,000 pounds of downforce and no power steering. If so, the steering will be quite heavy indeed (IndyCar drivers have equated it to carrying a 35 pound weight in each hand while trying to turn).

If this is the case then you're going to have to sit closer to the wheel in order to not get destroyed physically while driving the car. The situation is also different on ovals. Again, the grip generated on an oval is high, so the steering is heavier than a road course would be. Plus the corners are long, so stock car drivers sit with the wheel very close to them so that they can really lean into it and not get tired.

The reason why I prefer to put the steering as far away from me as possible without having straight arms is because that causes me to use my wrists and forearms more than my upper arms and shoulders. This goes for the pedals, too - using your ankle and calf to push is more precise than your thighs and hips. The further down the limb you go, the more delicacy you get. Try writing a note with your elbow, or balancing on your knees. The downside is this uses more energy, since the smaller muscles are less efficient for doing heavy tasks. So you have to compromise. How much power do I want, and how much precision am I willing to give up to get it?

Note that this "extend and gain precision" philosophy doesn't apply to everything. One thing I like to equate it to is handgun handling. If you watch the fastest speed-shooters, you will see that they reload the weapon very close to their body. When free-handing something like that, it is usually best to have it close to you in order to have better control over it's mass. Pedals and steering are different though. You're not holding the steering or pedals in the air, they are supported by the car. Pedals and steering are like the trigger on the gun. When you pull a trigger, it is better to have the tip of your finger contacting the trigger, rather than shoving the whole finger completely through the trigger guard and pulling it with your knuckle. The reasons are the same - giving yourself the greatest possible range of movement engages your precision muscles more.

You can see this at work sitting at your desk. Simply pretend you're holding a wheel, and try turning it while it is close to you and far away. Pay attention to your forearm and wrist movement. You will see your forearms engaged more with the wheel further away. Alternatively, try holding a weight with your arm extended (but not totally straight). Count the seconds. Now try holding it closer. You will be able to hold it up longer with it close to you because compacting your arm (reducing the range of movement) causes you to use the larger muscles closer to your torso (upper arms and shoulders). That's why you move the steering closer when you want more strength. It's just leverage really.

Finally, third and very importantly, the steering should be as straight up and down as possible. Many, many street cars have tilted steering wheels, and this causes the driver to stretch too much at the top, and compact too much at the bottom of the rotation. Sometimes this is the only way to fit the steering, however, since there is limited room in the engine bay for the steering shaft and any accompanying joints (like those required for a straight steering wheel).

This is some video I got in a practice session at Infineon. I wanted to see what I was doing as a driver, and it shows my seating position and control manipulation pretty well.

Driver view.

Now, based on what I wrote above, you will probably find things wrong with my seating position. That's the idea!

The first thing you'll probably notice is my arms are very, very nearly straight when they reach the top of the wheel. I would absolutely not put the steering any further away than this. The Miata's steering is very light for a racing car, and even with this extended driving position I don't even get close to having tired or sore arms after a long 4-day weekend. If I was driving the Skip Barber Formula 2000, I would be closer to the wheel because it is heavier.

The problem is the Miata's steering wheel is not straight up and down. So when my hand goes to the top of the wheel, the arm extends further. The other problem is the HANS device attached to my helmet. You'll notice that even with the reclined driving position, it still shoves my head forward a little bit. If I make the seat a little more straight up and down in order to get my shoulders a bit closer to the wheel, I'll be forced to stare at the dash, not the road.

You will also notice the wheel is slightly too high. I decided to compromise the steering just a tiny bit in order to be at a more comfortable level with the pedals. Comfort is the goal here. The best driving position in the world is of no use if it makes the driver uncomfortable. If any of the things I say here make you uncomfortable, drop them and forget them. Being uncomfortable on the race track isn't just slow, it can be dangerous. So I decided to compromise the method a little, and gain more comfort.

Very briefly I want to talk about what the driver should be doing once everything is set up to his liking. This is slightly off topic so I'll make it quick.

The most important thing is to relax all the muscles not related to driving, or supporting the driver, and to only have the muscles as tense as they need to be, especially with the steering. If you look at the video again and pay attention to my hands, you'll see they are only gripping the wheel enough to keep it from coming out of my hands. In fact some of my fingers aren't clasped at all.

Also, when I turn the wheel, I pull it down, I don't push it up. The outside hand does less work. Pulling down utilizes gravity, and a more natural feeling grip on the wheel. Of course, you probably shouldn't do it all with one hand and just let the other be limp, but I emphasize pulling down.

Oh, and you'll also notice I reposition my hands on the wheel occasionally. It's a nasty habit that I've been trying to kick and I've been doing it less and less. I only do it in the Miata for some reason.

The rest.

The post is already running a bit long so I'll touch on the other points.

Regarding visibility, you need to be able to see the track, but you don't need to see the hood of the car. Being in a race car I sit pretty low, both for the pedals and to keep the weight low in the chassis. I can probably see the track disappear about 20-25 feet in front of the nose. If you take a look at my onboard race videos, the camera is a bit higher than my eyes. Racing drivers look far down the track. If you look 20 feet in front of the car, there is virtually no time to react. I can see well enough to see where the car is placed on the track, and I can see through the side windows properly. I could give myself a better view of the road directly in front of the car, but doing so would make me uncomfortable using the controls, so overall there wouldn't be a gain. And make sure you have a big mirror - my rear view mirror extends all the way across the cockpit and offers tremendous visibility. The side mirrors should be adjusted to give you a view of what's beside the car. The rear view mirror is for the stuff behind you, the sides for the stuff beside you. Properly set up mirrors practically eliminate blind spots.

What properly set-up side mirrors provide. A large rear-view mirror takes up the rest of the blind areas.

On safety devices, choosing the most comfortable safety devices does a lot to make the cockpit more bearable. A lightweight, breathable suit with enough nomex layers to give you good protection is worth investing in. My suit (a Sparco X-light) has 3 layers and weighs a lot less than most 2-layer suits. The HANS device is the most comfortable and practical head restraint solution I've tried, and once the belts are on you don't even know you have it. Speaking of belts, making the belts properly tight also helps comfort. The belts should be uncomfortably tight while in pit lane, but once you get out there and the vibrations start settling everything in, properly tight belts hold you in and make you more secure and comfortable.

There is a trick to properly tightening the belts. The first thing you should do is to clasp and tighten the lap belt. Get the lap belt as tight as you can make it with it clasped across your pelvis. The reason is to make sure it stays in contact with your pelvis while you tighten the shoulder straps. A lap belt that rides up and sits on your gut can cause you tremendous problems in a frontal crash.

With the lap belts tightened, now you can tighten the shoulder belts. Pull the straps so they are snug over your neck restraint device and won't slip off. Next comes the big trick. It is often claimed that shoulder belts cannot be properly tightened by the driver. This is false. You just have to do it right.

Let's tighten the right strap first. Bring your left hand over your chest and grab the end of the strap. Now bring your right arm up and place your forearm on top of the left hand. This is to provide extra leverage and to allow the next step to work.

With the arms in place, now all you have to do is push/pull down on the strap with a pretty good amount of force. As you do this, drop your right shoulder down an inch or two.

Repeat the process on the left side, switching your left and right hand positions. Your belts will now be so tight they will hurt. Once you start rolling down pit lane, adrenaline and vibrations will remove the pain. I've found that with my HANS device, I can get the belts tighter because of the padding under the device that makes the whole thing a lot more comfortable.

Just make sure to take the extra 2 seconds and arrange your manhood properly if you have an anti-submarine belt. You don't want anything out of order once you have your belts tight - it's not fun, especially in the braking zones.

While you're out on the track, give your shoulder belts a pull every couple of laps, just to make sure they are staying tight.

If you don't have a window net, you're not racing. I'm pretty sure every wheel to wheel racing series mandates a window net, or window protection of some kind. Window protection allows you to lift the visor on your helmet safely. Doing so makes the heat much more manageable. A cool suit is a godsend, and a must on really hot days. If you have a ventilation system, make sure the intake is filtered, or in a place that can get cool air without delivering smoke and dirt into your face.

Also make sure that you know and practice the escape procedure in your car. Get good at opening the window, unbuckling, and climbing out without opening the door, all with your eyes closed. If you're confident you can get out even with the door smashed and on fire then you'll be more confident on track.

A radio, even for club racing, is very useful if you have someone to spot for you. Even if the information is just about local yellows it will still be a huge benefit. If you get a radio, invest in some custom earpieces. Custom earpieces will fit under the helmet much, much better. Even if they are simply for sound protection, it's still worth getting custom fitted plugs.

Finally, the gauges are also very important. All the information should be available to the driver, from speed to oil pressure, with the most important information being large, centrally located, and possibly brightly colored. You should have lights that tell you when to shift. I don't, and I wish I did. If possible, the information should be digital. This helps with relaying info to the team, or self-diagnosis. It's one thing to see that the water is running hot at 2 o' clock, it's quite another to see that it is at 208 degrees.

An AIM data display, with RPM, shift lights, speed, current gear, oil pressure, lap time, water temperature, and room for other custom value displays such as tire or brake temperature. These types of gadgets make me drool.

All these things help you perform on track.

Ten tips to a good working environment:

1. Relax as much as you can, and take a light grip on the wheel. Your driving will be much more lucid.
2. Do your best to get the optimum range of movement of your limbs given the seating/control adjustments available to you.
3. Don't be afraid to compromise your seating position a little in the name of comfort.
4. Use comfortable safety solutions and practice using them to escape the car. It will boost your confidence.
5. Get visibility where it matters. You don't need to see 5 feet in front of the car, but you do need good mirrors that are set up properly.
6. Get a custom-fitted seat if you can. If not, use of firm foam pillows can improve your off-the-shelf seat.
7. Make sure the auxiliary equipment functions simply and is reachable with your belts tight. A confusing start-up procedure is disastrous should you stall. Simple is fast.
8. Try to maximize ventilation to the driver, but also don't let dirt and stones into the cockpit.
9. A steering wheel that is straight up and down is important, if possible.
10. Breathe evenly and calmly. Holding your breath might be necessary in some corners if you are driving a very high-G car, but for everyone else you need to breathe, and don't forget to blink.

Monday, September 12, 2011

(149) Shark attack part 2

And so our little story continues.

After the morning's 4th place finish I was feeling pretty good. The SCCA gives out complimentary trophies to competitors. If there are more than 10 cars in a race, they give trophies down to 4th. If more than 20, they go down to 5th. For the first race of a double weekend, you get a nice picture trophy with your name and your finishing position. You get to pick which picture to use. It's really swell, and they had a great picture of me waving to the volunteer corner workers on the cool down lap.

The damage incurred during the race to the passenger door was purely superficial. All that was required was a duct tape patch in order to make it clear to corner workers that the damage was from a previous session. If you don't do that you might get called in at the end of the session for body contact.

With the car patched up I headed out for afternoon qualifying.

The weather was looking really good so I knew the track would be grippy. Maybe that gave me a little too much confidence, because I over-drove slightly. I put it 4th in Sealed Spec Miata and 28th overall with a 1:59.933. I was only one and a bit tenths behind my team mate, Dave Allen.

Since Infineon is my home track with a pretty simple 40-minute drive to home, I was able to sleep in my own bed at night. But the real benefit was I got to wash my nomex undersuit every night. Only this night I forgot to get it out and let it dry, so in the morning it was still soaked and it wouldn't dry for the race. So I broke out the karting gear - an old Alpinestars t-shirt and a pair of soft shorts.

The race was unfortunately delayed due to a formula car incident in the previous group. The ambulance was busy delivering drivers to the hospital, with minor injuries (or so I hear, that might not be accurate - as far as I'm concerned, hospitalization is never minor). Since the ambulance was not at the track, racing could not continue. So the start was delayed a couple of hours.

The start of the race was much tighter this time. I started on the outside this time, presumably because someone did not start. We were 3 wide through turn 1, and I had very little room to work in turn 2. The 2-wide business continued through turn 6.

On the second lap I found myself wishing for my nomex undersuit. The car's exhaust runs right by my right leg, so it gets hot in the footwell. My legs were sweating, and the heavy nomex suit was flapping wetly against my legs on every shift and in every turn. It was not pleasant, and very distracting.

Still, I managed to keep my pace high, and I ended up setting my fastest lap of the weekend at a 1:59.218, which was only about one hundredth of a second faster than Dave Allen (1:59.229). After the 3rd or 4th lap, I found the car was acting more overtsteery than usual. The increase in temperature from the delay must have cause my tires to over-pressurize slightly, giving me less grip in the rear and making the handling a little trickier. The highlights of the race are scarce, but there were a few key events.

About halfway through the run, David Petruska and Juan Pineda had an unplanned coming together in turn 11. This left Juan with a stalled car and David with a damaged one. Dave is usually a front-runner in Sealed, most of the time finishing ahead of me and Dave Allen, but this time he had to let most of the field pass by due to his damage.

Towards the end I get on the tail of Cameron Rogers in the black 74 and Jon Davies in the 25, both SMT drivers. Cameron got a run on Jon going through the downhill section, and I could see he was setting up a pass in turn 10. I decided to follow him past Jon. So I tucked up close to Cameron, probably no more than an inch or two off his rear bumper, and scavenged another position. Coach Ric said he was "doing jumping jacks" while watching that move. I guess that means he thought it was pretty slick! In the very next turn Cameron had a big slide and slightly over-corrected, temporarily giving me his spot. It did not take him long to re-acquire the position due to his much more powerful SMT engine.

In the end, I finished in 3rd spot with Dave Allen in 2nd. Premier Auto Service lands both cars on the podium! Car owner Ed Railton was very happy about that.

Enough blabber, just watch the race!

Race 10 full onboard footage.

I really prefer these types of races, the sort of long distance fights where pace over the whole run matters more than the face-to-face brawling Spec Miata normally incurs. It's like the difference between the O.K. Corral gunfight and a sniper duel over a thousand yards. One is about reactions and ferocity, the other about precision and planning. I'm good at both, but I prefer the latter.

It was an awesome weekend and I'm very, very pleased with the results. Even if Dave Allen gained some points on me in the championship. We'll see how that plays out when we head back to Mazda Raceway next month.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

(148) Shark attack

Everything old is new again.

In a lot of ways I never really got to experience Infineon Raceway. I spent almost 3 years learning my craft there is Sonoma, but I never turned a wheel on the main circuit. All of my time was spent at the kart track at the top of the hill.

It's been over a year since I last took the trip up to the north end of the bay to race in anger.

The weekend started as many do with a test day. Once again I had brand new tires, shaved to my preferred tread depth (in other words, no tread, just a swath of even rubber), that I had to wear in before I would become truly competitive.

My coach, Ric McCormick, has worked at Infineon as an instructor for years innumerable, so the first order of business was a stop-and-go drive around the track at 7 AM. We talked of the line, reference points, and how to "scare the paint off the walls".

During the drive I gained new appreciation for how hillfully wonderous the track is. Almost every straight and turn is uphill or downhill, zigging or zagging. It is quite one thing to stand at the edge of the circuit and think "that looks steep" or to drive on it quickly and think "that was steep", and yet another to stop halfway up the hill to turn 2 and think "this is steep"! To say the majority of the circuit is aggressively inclined is a tragic understatement. It is unique in the US, with only a couple of other circuits world-wide that rival the topographic attitudes on display at Infineon.

The car is all ready to go!

And so the first session began. The first objective being to look after the tires, and treat them nicely so that they would live a rich, productive life down there, face-first on the tarmac. If you don't love your tires, they won't love you. They are fickle beings, and they have a short, difficult life.

Session complete, tires sufficiently loved, and here comes Ric with his magic clip board of go-faster secrets. Let the learning commence.

Every session I was going faster and faster, getting cleaner and cleaner. Ric was helping me polish my aptitude to a sheen. Technical and physical corrections, mental corrections, even some persona corrections are part of Ric's bag of driver-tweaking tools. I'm getting much better at applying the racing line. Now Ric is mostly focusing on the finer details of how to ride the wave of grip as I fly in to and out of corners.

By the time the fifth and final session was completed, I had a few 1:59 laps on the clock and the tires were feeling good.

My dash-mounted Rumblestrip lap timer was giving me a bit of trouble throughout the day. The system has an infrared sensor that points out the side of the car. The sensor is tripped by a box that sits on the pit wall. It's a really handy device because it enables me to view the lap time "delta" - essentially whether my current lap is faster or slower than my fastest at any given moment. The problem is, for some reason the sensor was picking up two separate boxes on the pit wall. This plays havoc with the results! The delta would go haywire, sometimes showing me plus or minus two seconds corner to corner.

The other challenge was the disparity between the Sealed Spec Miatas like mine, and the more fully constructed engines in the SMT class. The SMT cars have a good 10 or 15 more horsepower in some cases, so they have a lot more umph to get them over the hills that Infineon tosses at us. They also lose less power in the heat.

95 degree weather, the hills, and the power disparity meant the SMT drivers were about 2 seconds per lap faster than the SSM drivers.

 The weather was beautiful for the weekend, despite the Thursday test day heat.

In qualifying I got a fairly clear track and I managed to put together a 2:00.504 lap. I over-drove a little, and everyone's times were a little slower that session. Still, it was good enough for a 3rd place start. I was happy. 3rd in SSM meant an overall starting position of 26th, out of over 50 cars. The SSM pole time was set by David Petruska at a 1:58.472, which put him in 12th place overall. My Premier Auto Service team mate, David Allen, was starting 6th in SSM and 32nd overall with a 2:00.871.

26th place meant I was starting on the inside for turn 1, a long sweeping left. The ideal position was to the outside, which would set me up well for the 2nd corner, a somewhat tight right.

So, my plan was to pump myself up for the start of the first race, begin on a high aggression charge, and try to carve out a path to the outside in order to have optimum gains through turns 2, 3, and possibly even 4.

At the start, I got my charge on, and started trying to dice my way over to the outside. I saw smoke, cars contacted, and I ducked back over to the inside. So much for that plan.

I stayed inside for turn 1, which put me outside for turn 2. I held on to the outside as best I could. Once through turn 2, I had some room to work. 84 Dave Allen was behind me, and ahead of me the 6 driven by Matt Rose side by side with the red 24 of Kim Henriksen. Kim and Matt went two-wide into turn 3, and in the second half of the corner Matt tagged the rear of Kim, slowing Matt and sending Kim to the dirt.

I gave the brake a rub to avoid running into Matt, hoping David would see from behind and not hit me. He didn't, and I continued past Matt in turn 4.

Matt came back at me in turn 6, however, and he had the inside. I drove it in hard on the outside, determined to hold on. I did, but the superior power of Matt's SMT Miata meant he motored by on the straight.

In turn 7 he braked hard and late, so I downshifted an extra gear to 2nd, played conservative, and ducked under him in the middle of the corner. It paid off, and now he was stuck behind me for the run down the hill.

 Turn 8, about 90 MPH.

In turn 11, the hairpin at the end of the lap, I caught back up to the next main pack. Joe Kalinowski in the 55 was getting pushed around. Matt was still hounding me, and he took his opportunity to use the power down the start/finish straight to overtake.

In turn 2 Joe and Cameron Rogers in the 74 were still going at it, and Cameron got pushed wide. Matt and I seized the opportunity to squeeze by in turn 4.

I followed Matt through turn 6, and as he was exiting, his car began to get away from him. I trusted him to gather it up quickly so I continued on my regular line at full power. The slide got worse and worse, and as Matt finally caught it, he intercepted my line and I had to evade. That upset my car quite a bit, and it slid out from under me. A trio of SSM cars, the gray 16 of Dave Stone, the red and black 32 of Dave Anderson, and Dave Allen all streamed by me. I fell into line behind Dave. That's the 16 Dave.

I dispatched Dave Stone in turn 11 after getting a run through turn 10, and began working on Dave Anderson.

A few laps later I got run into by the 25 driven by Jon Davies. He tried to overtake in turn 4, which is a legitimate move, only he locked up the brakes and slid into me. The hit wasn't hard, just enough to send me into the rubber marbles and from there into the dirt. The thing is, his fender was damaged from the start. It had a sort of reinforced joust sticking out of the side. It was not difficult for that implement to slice my door open like a tin can.

I didn't know sharks liked sheet metal.

The damage was only cosmetic (the glass window underneath wasn't even touched), so I went into damage control mode. I was now in 6th place in SSM. I needed to run my race in order to gather up as many positions as I could in my class, and forget about dicing for overall positions that gave no points.

After I verified the car was mechanically undamaged, I started laying down fast, consistent laps that would ensure a good overall race pace. Basically, don't make any more mistakes.

I tried to make my pass attempts as efficient as possible, but that is really hard when you're trying to pass cars a class above yours.

At the mid point in the race, Dave Anderson spun his car in turn 11. I caught right up to him and began chasing. This was now for 5th place.

A few minutes later a full course caution came out for a blown engine in turn 11. I was really happy about the caution (not the blown engine). It would compact the field and I'd have a better chance of catching up!

The safety crews outdid themselves and had the whole thing cleaned up in 1 lap. As soon as the yellows came down, Dave Anderson pounced on Dave Stone in turn 11 and took 4th place. I was now chasing Stone, who had rather severe engine trouble - smoke was leaking out from under his car. He pointed me by in turn 5.

I chased Dave Anderson for another few laps. We were gaining on the cars in front.

On the final lap I saw plumes of smoke billow from under the tires of Dave's car in turn 11. He drove in deep, started to slide, and slightly over-corrected. I sauntered by on the exit and took 4th place at the line.

It was an awesomely exciting race, and definitely worth a watch.

Race 9 full onboard footage.

The next race of the weekend will have to wait till some other time!