Tuesday, November 29, 2011

(158) New cars, new cars, and new cars

This weekend I'm going to be racing in the NASA 25 Hours of Thunderhill sponsored by the U.S. Air Force. This is going to be the largest single event I've ever participated in. There are going to be over 80 cars out on track from all over the country! There will be a lot of media, including television (for later broadcast on Versus), and many teams are crossing country lines to compete.

I'm going to be driving with team Premier Auto Service as I have been all year. My co drivers are going to be my team-mate Dave Allen, Joe Kalinowski and Jeff Annison. Car owner Ed Railton is also going to hop in for a stint.

It's going to be a tough race. 25 hours straight. We are entered in the E3 class with a new enduro-spec 1991 Mazda Miata with a brand new engine made specially for this race. It's got a big fuel cell for double the capacity, so the car should be able to race for 3 hours before needing refueling. We drivers are going to have to make the same distance in a stint. The good news is, it's got the manual steering rack. In the 78, the car I had for the season this year, had the power-assisted rack. Ed disables the power-assist and that makes for nice and heavy steering. The manual rack should be lighter, so that will make it easier to last the distance.

The other trouble is the driver size discrepancy. Joe is over 6 feet with long legs, I'm a little under 5' 8". I'm going to need a monster seat cushion.

Since the race is going to go through the night, the car has also been fitted with a rack of lights. This is going to be a new challenge for me, as I've never raced in the dark before. And Thunderhill isn't exactly known for being well lit. Fortunately we get some dusk-time practice. Maybe I can get dibs on the evening-into-night shift and the night-into-dawn shift.

Another new thing is going to be the tires. We are unrestricted in terms of tires, so we're going to choose something that's race-bred, like Goodyear or Hankook. Whatever we choose, we'll need five or six sets to make it through the race.

I'll be sure to write all about it next week! I probably won't get any actual racing footage, but I will be able to grab many pictures and hopefully some night-time practice onboards so you can see what it's like in the dark!

In other automotive adventures, I checked out the San Francisco auto show on Sunday. Most of this year's new cars seem to be hatchbacks. In particular I liked the Fiat 500, the Ford Focus, the Hyundai Veloster, and the Mini Cooper Coupe John Cooper Works edition. I think I want to test drive all of these cars. It seems this is the year of the hatches.

I've already gone out and test-driven the Ford Focus - good car, pretty decent handling, but could use more power (I'm sure the upcoming hotted-up ST version will alleviate that). Not unforgettable but very good. It certainly doesn't hurt that Ford gave me $50 for taking the drive! That'll pay for about 5% of one of the aforementioned sets of tires...

In other new car news, my dad has bought himself a brand new sports car - a 2012 Subaru WRX Sedan.

2012 Subaru WRX Sedan.

The car is amazing. He got it with the SPT performance exhaust which sounds absolutely killer. The other improvement was the short-throw 5 speed shifter and a beefed up shifter bushing. This vastly improves the main fault of the car which is a slack feeling shifter.

The car handles very well and has plenty of grip. The vehicle stability control system is pretty conservative and you can feel it working the all-wheel drive system most of the time during hard cornering, although it can be completely disabled. Subaru calls it "stuck mode" - sometimes the computer gets confused when one wheel is off the ground or has really reduced grip, like when you get stuck in a snow drift. With the system off, torque is applied to all four wheels equally.

The centerpiece is the motor. It doesn't make crazy horsepower, but it makes plenty (270). The nice part is the torque. You wouldn't expect a 2.5 liter with a turbo to make great torque, but this car will haul itself up the speedo with surprising gusto even in 5th gear at 3,000 rpm.

Those are only preliminary impressions though. I have done less than 80 miles in the car. My dad plans to take it to an autocross after the break-in period in order to really put it through it's paces.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

(157) I can only get this once

The San Francisco region SCCA award banquet was plenty of fun!

There were plenty of people there in the ballroom of the Hilton hotel in Pleasanton. Harry Mhoon Fair, Jon Norman, Gary Meeker, and Bob Stegall were all inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Board of Directors all presented their "board awards", a great many special awards were bestowed, as well as worker and race class awards being given.

I myself was rather shocked when my name was called as the "Rookie Driver of the Year". There were plenty of great rookies this year, and I'm really stoked and honored to get the award. I still don't really believe it.

I was also awarded the third spot trophy for the Sealed Spec Miata class. Here's a look at both trophies:

Thanks SCCA and GoPro for these awesome trophies!

This year GoPro decided to provide the money for all of the trophies presented during the dinner. I'm sure it was an expensive bill, so it's really awesome of them to do that.

If I get some stage pictures of all of the Spec Miata guys standing with their awards, I will update this post.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

(156) A quick reunion

The weekend of October 29 was a very special event. Basically, a lot of the guys from the old Jim Russell (now Simraceway Performance Driving School) kart race series, a series I participated in quite a bit, decided to gather together and do a day of reunited driving.

Problem is, the school doesn't do the race series any more. So we had to arrange to hijack a single advanced karting class for us to use to rac- I mean, practice green flag starts leading into open lapping sessions. With lap times.

There ended up being 9 of us in total. The setup was phenomenal - we had the track to ourselves, we could do our own schedule, and we had points, trophies, prizes, and gags. It was decided that we'd do a couple of practices, a qualifying session, and then two 10-lap heat races followed by a 15 lap main event.

Getting back up to speed in the karts didn't take long. I think driving full size cars has helped me go faster in the karts. I was carrying more speed into the corners than I ever have, although it's a little hard to judge since I was not using the normal 45 pounds of weight added to the kart. While the kart does accelerate faster with no weight, I feel like it corners better with the weight in. Without the weight the rear end gets very skittish, both when entering corners and when coming out while trying to put the power down. In any case, I felt like my technique was better.

The karts were outfitted with a new type of centrifugal clutch that really made them jump off the corners and not get bogged down. They were more fun to drive than ever!

The day was cool, and the track hadn't seen a race event in a few weeks, so the rubber on the track was minimal and so was grip. The most challenging thing to recall was the braking, since not only was the pedal much more sensitive, but the tires were not being their usual talkative selves, for whatever reason. I think it might have been the lack of rubber, since on cold days tires usually talk more.

In the first couple sessions I set the fastest times, despite a couple of the other drivers getting some special practice days before the race! I set times in the low 55s, which is right on my best pace.

I carried that pace into the 5-lap qualifying session, and I got the pole for the first heat race (sorry, practice start followed by open lapping).

The only problem for me was, we decided to invert the grid. So, while I got the pole time, I was going to start at the back. This posed a new challenge. Since I was light, I had a lot more acceleration than just about everyone else. It was going to be really easy to get myself in a lot of trouble right off the bat by starting at the back.

At the drop of the green, the karts in front of me fanned out and almost immediately went 4-wide. My driver-sense was tingling severely. I held my position in turn 1. Which turned out to be a good decision because a kart got sideways at the apex. I was able to capitalize on it and pass on the outside at the exit. I then passed another kart going into the turn 2 complex called Tic Tac Toe.

I continued to pick off karts for the first 3 or 4 laps. I found myself in the lead. From there it was a simple cruise to the finish.

Heat race 2 was the same deal at the start. I started in the back again, and this time turn 1 was calmer. But the drama began in turn 2. Two (or more) karts tangled in front of me, but it was a slow speed collision. I had very little choice in the matter, and I tried to position my kart to minimize the damage of the impact. I nosed into the side pod of one of the karts and came to rest with the other two. With no reverse gear, I simply leaned back and used my hands to roll the rear wheels backwards until I was clear. I fired up the engine and continued on. I lost about half a lap.

I did my best to work my way through the field as efficiently as possible, but I rushed a pass and lost some time. I wasn't able to catch up with the leaders and I finished 3rd.

The final event's starting positions were up for debate. We eventually decided to take the points positions of the mini-championship and invert that running order. I was leading, so, surprise surprise, I got relegated to the rear of the pack.

The start was fairly calm again. I bided my time. I had 15 laps to work this out.

I got through most of the field again in about 4 or 5 laps, but I still had the leaders to get. I got into 2nd place with about 7 laps left.

The leader was a keen racer with plenty of experience, and he was hard to pass. I eventually got a good run going down the main straight. I nosed along side. The straight isn't totally straight, so most fast lines make for the inside and hold tight to the edge of the road. I got most of my kart along side, but the leader started moving over. He kept coming. I had nowhere to go, so I eased the kart off track and took out a couple of cones at 65 MPH. Thankfully the starter, instructor Mike Hill, was heads-up and jumped out of the way. I rejoined the race in 4th.

I calmed back down again, and began working through the pack again. I did a much better job this time, and managed to get into the lead with enough laps to spare to take the win.

In the end, I snagged enough points to win the mini-championship with a safe margin. I walked away with a lot of very kindly donated hardware. I was awarded trophies for my pole position, my two wins, my 3rd place, one for fastest lap of the weekend (54.9), and I got two trophies for winning the championship - one driver-donated, one school-donated.

I also got the "Sassiest Costume" award, which was for my duct-taped orange pumpkin helmet which took me all of 15 minutes and 2 rolls of tape to do up.

It was one of the most fun days of racing I've had. It was wonderful to catch up with and race with everyone again!