Sunday, December 2, 2012

(181) Driving According to the Chump #8: Transmissions

In addition to the onboard videos I post to Vimeo, I also have a Youtube channel. On Youtube I have a lot of racing stuff, mostly the same stuff as on Vimeo, but I also use it for other things I am interested in as well, which is why I usually post the blog related videos to Vimeo instead of Youtube.

On my Youtube channel, I have video from the Exotic Autocross I did last month, as well as a couple of my more exciting and interesting race onboards. Some of these videos have a good amount of views, some of them have very little. But what is surprising is that in spite of the allure of a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, and the excitement of a race car crash, my most popular video continues to be this:


My feet.

Why?

I couldn't tell you. But I can make a couple of guesses, and the reality is probably a combination of all of these factors and more.

For one, good racing footwork videos are sort of hard to come by. Broadcasters do not show it much, and amateur racers are usually using the camera for recording the track. Many cars also do not have much room in the footwell, so getting cameras down there can be tough sometimes.

For two, drivers (like me) probably don't think videos about their feet are all that interesting. I certainly didn't expect that video to get very many views at all, much less over 10,000 (it's at 14,500 as I write). My second-most-watched video is also of my feet, but on my simulator pedals. That one's at 8,000 views. Not exactly front-page material, but compared to my other videos that is a lot.

And for three, I think people just want to learn about transmissions and how to use them. The major point of watching racing footwork is to see heel-toe, a downshifting technique.

So let's talk about using transmissions. Then I will talk about heel-toe and how to learn it (and it's permutations, like double-clutch shifting). I start with the basic mechanics because it is important to know how those work for various types of transmissions, so that you can apply the footwork accordingly. For conciseness, I will omit old technology that isn't really used any more, like sliding mesh transmissions, and I won't go into too much technical detail because that is readily available elsewhere if you're mechanically inclined. For now, anyway, this blog is about driving, and even doing the basics is going to make for a really long post. I will omit left-foot braking, because that is it's own post that I will do at some point.

I'll start with something modern, but basic (mechanically).


Constant Mesh

Constant mesh transmissions go by a lot of names. "Dog box" is one, another is "crash box", among others.

A constant mesh transmission is named so because if one gear is rotating, all the gears are rotating because they are all meshed with each other. The gears are separated from the drive wheels by bearings, and from the engine by the clutch. Moving the gear stick moves a selector fork which moves a smaller gear called a dog. Sometimes it's also called a "dog clutch". It's kinda both a clutch and a gear. The dog is what engages the gear to the wheels, so that the gear is not spinning freely on the bearing. In a 6-speed transmission, you will have 3 dogs for the forward gears; a dog for 1st and 2nd, another for 3rd and 4th, and a third for 5th and 6th. The dog just moves back and forth between the gears and meshes with the face (side) of the selected gear with it's teeth. Once a gear is engaged, the other gears continue to spin freely on their bearings until the driver shifts and a new gear is locked in.

So, since we have two gears trying to mesh teeth, they have to be spinning at a similar RPM in order to do so. If either one is going too fast relative to the other, such as, say, upshifting from 1st gear to 4th gear, the gears will not be able to engage and they will grind, adding some nice metal chunks to the transmission oil. Oil loves metal chunks.

Not really.

However, the transmission should be set up so that changing - briskly - from one gear to the next in sequence (for instance, 1st to 2nd) should be a very doable affair. The adjacent gears should be well within the "engagement window" for the dog, as long as you don't sit there for a hundred years with the clutch pushed in. If you do, the dog will lose too much RPM and fall out of the window.

If the dog and the gear are perfectly synchronized, the gear will engage without a sound. To say that is hard to do is the grandest of understatements. Fortunately, they do not have to be perfectly synchronized - they only need to be within a certain RPM window. If they are within the window, but not synchronized, the gear will make a "clack" noise as it is engaged. If you've ever sat next to a bike at a stop light while he selects first gear, you'll know the sound. It's a nice, satisfying "thwack".

But I don't ride bikes, so that's as much as I can say about that.

The method of working a constant mesh transmission in a car (usually a racing car these days) depends on the type of gear selector the car has. The car could have any number of selection methods. It could be a classic H-pattern selector like in most street manuals, or it could be a fore/aft lever, or it could be a paddle system; and these systems can have further functionality via electronics and/or hydraulics.

A dog box transmission, without a housing. The yellow bits are the selector forks.

H-pattern

You might find an H-pattern gear stick in an older Formula Ford or a GT car built before the turn of the century (that's Y2K, not 1900). Up until about the early 90s, F1 cars also had H-pattern dog boxes.

Firstly, in order to get moving, you need to almost simultaneously push the clutch in and select first gear. The reason being, the gear needs a little RPM relative to the dog in order to mesh while the car is sitting still. If both the gear and the dog have stopped rotating, neither are going to mesh because the teeth are almost certainly out of synch. Thus, if you sit there for more than 3 or 4 seconds with the clutch pushed in, and then try to select a gear, you probably won't be able to do it because the gears have stopped moving. To fix this, move the stick back to neutral and release the clutch pedal to get the gears moving again with the engine. Now push the clutch and promptly select first gear. Thwack. You're ready to go.

Shifting on the move is pretty much normal. Just push the clutch and move the stick to the next gear. As long as you don't dawdle the gear will go right in. It will probably make another thwack if you have a quiet engine. Same goes for up and down shifts. The fun begins when you want to stop using the clutch.

This is a more natural progression than it sounds. A lot of dog box drivers who think they are using the clutch actually are not. They may dab at it a little bit, but for a fast shift with a dog box the clutch doesn't have time to go all the way to disengagement and back before the shift is done. If it does, the driver is slow at shifting the dog box. Since the gears only need to be in a general RPM window to engage, the clutch is really only there for getting moving and for allowing the driver to pull the car out of gear if needed (like with a stuck throttle that literally holds the gear in place unless the torque is disconnected from the transmission - hopefully via a clutch and not an engine explosion).

So all you really need to do to make a shift in a dog box equipped car is to stop the engine torque, and to do  that all you have to do is lift off the throttle. Once you've done that you are just one quick, decisive movement away from a lightening fast shift to the next gear. This needs to be done, however, before the compression of the engine sends negative torque back through the transmission as it drags the car's speed down, making it hard to pull the car out of gear again. You solve this by putting pressure on the gear stick prior to lifting. Then, when you snap off the throttle, the gear will come out automatically and you can engage the next one, promptly. That's called "pre-load".

Now that we know how to use an H-pattern selector, the explanations for "sequential" shifters are going to be much quicker.


Sequential stick

You will find sequential sticks in current-day Formula Fords and F2000s, as well as in most modern GT racing cars like Porsche Cup cars and Le Mans GT cars from the late 90s to late 00s. A sequential stick has a stick in the same place as an H-pattern, but the stick is only able to move forward and back. You usually pull the stick backward for an upshift, and push it forward for a downshift. This is done for efficiency of movement - if you are accelerating, the G force is pushing you back, so it is easier to pull the stick backwards. When you are braking hard, the G force is pushing you forward, so it is easier to push the stick forward to downshift. Some of these sticks can be fairly stiff to move, so it helps a lot in long races.

When you move the stick, you are only moving a ratcheting drum with grooves cut in it. The selector forks are set in the grooves so when the drum rotates, it moves the appropriate selector fork (and thus, the dog) to the next lower or higher gear. The other internals of the gearbox are the same as before.

The ratcheting selector drum in a sequential dog box. The grooves are clearly visible.

Since most of the internals are the same, we use the same methods as the H-pattern for shifting. Clutch in and select first gear quickly, and apply pre-load to the stick before shifting. If you don't do it right you may find yourself stuck between gears, in what's called "false neutral". The gearbox is in neutral, but if you push forward or back on the stick to up or down shift, you will find a higher-numbered gear that is not next to "true neutral" (those being 1st and reverse). To fix a false neutral, you'll need to use the clutch and upshift or downshift to the gear you were originally trying to select.

If you are in true neutral, to get to reverse, you usually need to pull a knob or a lever to be able to select reverse. This is to keep drivers from going down too many gears, going past neutral, and selecting reverse in slow hairpins. While you are moving, first gear is usually as far down as you can go, at which point the stick will simply not be allowed to move forward.

As for pros and cons, it is much easier to do no-clutch shifts in a sequential, because the stick only has to go one direction and you don't need to find the gate for the next gear. Of course, you can't skip gears, so there is one downside.

Some stick sequentials have a hydraulic system instead of direct linkage. This makes it easier to change gear, especially in powerful cars.


Paddles

With a paddle system, you will generally have two paddles behind the steering wheel - the right one upshifts, and the left one downshifts. The paddles send signals to a hydraulic system that moves the same sort of ratcheting drum as before.

Shifting us stupid easy. Pull the right paddle to upshift. Pull the left one to downshift. You're done. The computer does the rest, including lifting the throttle and using the clutch, if necessary (most racing paddles don't use the clutch on upshifts, but street paddle systems usually use the clutch).

In racing cars, the clutch is usually manual as far as getting the car moving is concerned. Some cars retain a third pedal for this, others use a third paddle, or both a third and a fourth paddle behind the steering for the clutch. It goes back to automatic clutch for shifting.

The paddles on an F1 steering wheel. Top paddles shift, bottom paddles control the clutch.

But why would you have two clutch paddles? In racing cars that do a lot of standing starts, this works out to be very handy. In F1 cars, for instance, the driver will pull both paddles prior to the start. When the lights go on, the driver will let one of the paddles out to the slipping point of the clutch (let's say the left one), while keeping the other (right) one pressed down. When the start lights go out, the driver lets go completely of the right paddle, and continues holding the left paddle at the slipping point, gradually releasing it as he speeds up as normal. This way, stalls are reduced drastically, and the driver can get a more consistent start.


Synchromesh

By now you've probably figured out that normal street cars have very little of this behavior in their gearboxes.  Streets cars do use constant mesh gearboxes (remember, all the gears are meshed and spinning), but street cars have the addition of a new type of dog, called a synchronizer, or a cone clutch. That last name is pretty graphic as to how it works.

The dog still has to mesh with the face of the gear similarly to before, but this time there is a safety device between it and the gear. The cone clutch equalizes the RPM of the gear and the dog prior to meshing. This makes the gearboxes a bit quieter (no more "thwack" noise), and mush easier to use. But there is a downside. It adds quite a lot of resistance to the gearbox, and slows down shifts quite a bit.

You might think that simply removing or wearing out the cone clutches would turn your normal street transmission into a racing dog box. Unfortunately, it won't, because the dogs are designed with more teeth and are much harder to engage smoothly without the synchronizer. The engagement windows are much smaller. If you tried to shift it quickly like you might a dog box, you would just get an earful of grinding metal.

Synchromesh gearboxes generally have unsynchronized reverse gears, but, contrary to a somewhat popular belief, that is not what makes the "reverse gear whine" you hear while backing up. That's to do with helical versus straight cut gears.


Straight cut and helical gears

Straight cut (also called spur) gears are your traditional view of a gear. They have numerous straight teeth coming out of the gear. A helical gear has teeth cut diagonally along the circumference of the gear. Helical gears are used in street cars, and spur gears are used in racing cars.



Spur gear on top, helical gear on the bottom.


But why use these different gear designs at all? Well, helical gears are used in street cars because they are quiet. Spur gears whine when they rotate while meshed. Helical gears are stronger, since they have more area in contact with each other. But, for physical reasons I don't really understand, the transmission cases need to be stronger with helical gears. Since compactness and lightness is paramount in racing cars, that is why they utilize straight cut gears. Street cars also use straight cut gears for reverse because reverse is a lot less likely to be beaten on from bad shifting, so it doesn't need to be especially strong.


Downshifting

That's the basic mechanics and usage of gearboxes done and dusted, so now lets go a little more advanced.

Downshifting is probably the primary reason why my little foot-on-pedals video is my most popular. Downshifting is tricky to learn and takes a while to master. I had to practice on a simulator for weeks before I got decent at it, and months before I was doing it automatically.

Downshifting is tricky for the basic reason of needing to hit three pedals simultaneously with only two feet. But why do we have to hit all three pedals to begin with?

Think of a system of gears. Let's start with two gears, which are selectable, connected to an engine at one end and wheels at the other.

In 2nd gear, the ratio is 1:1 - meaning, for every revolution of the engine, the wheels also turn one revolution. In 1st gear, the ratio is 2:1, so for every two turns of the engine, the wheels turn once.

We start out moving forward in the lowest gear, and we reach 4,000 RPM after accelerating. This means that according to our ratio, the wheels are turning at 2,000 RPM. The engine starts to get noisy, so we decide to shift to 2nd gear.

Now, the wheel speed has not changed - we're still rolling at some MPH - but the ratio of engine RPM to wheel RPM has changed. Since the rotating parts of the engine are not connected to anything solid, the engine is the weakest link, so the engine loses RPM to match the wheels. Since the 2nd gear ratio is 1:1, the engine will spin down to 2,000 RPM, the same RPM as the wheels.

But what happens if we decide we want more noise and we shift back down to 1st gear? The same thing happens, the engine gets dragged up to the appropriate RPM to match the wheel speed and the gear ratio, in this case 4,000 engine RPM for 2,000 wheel RPM. Except, it is a lot harder to spin up an engine than it is to spin it down, and we get a big jolt, the car bucks, and our passenger is very mad at us.

In racing, this unsmoothness is quite disastrous. It could cause you to spin, crash, or outright break something in the drive line. So what's the solution?

The solution is to pause before releasing the clutch, and spin the engine up using the method it was designed with - the throttle. Upon releasing the clutch, the car should not buck or jolt.


Learning rev matching

Using the throttle to spin the engine up - or down - to match the wheel speed for the gear you are in is called rev matching. The process goes like this.

You're in 3rd gear and you want to change down to 2nd, smoothly. Put the clutch in, select the lower gear as normal, use the throttle to raise the engine RPM, release the throttle, then release the clutch.

It sounds complex on paper, but there is only one new step to add - using the throttle. So let's practice that first.

The best way to do that is to sit with the car running, in neutral, with the hand brake on. We're just going to play with tapping the throttle. Tap the throttle, and try to hit 2,000 RPM. Keep tapping until you hit 2,000 RPM every time. As long as you get within about 200 RPM of your target, the shift would likely have been a smooth one. Different cars have different behaviors here - some rev up really fast, others are slower. You'll have to use different amounts of throttle to hit different RPMs in different cars.

Once you're comfortable "blipping" the throttle, try downshifting on the move. Accelerate up to 3rd gear, then hold speed. Clutch in, select 2nd gear, give the throttle a tap just like you were doing while stationary, and release the clutch smoothly. If you did it just right, you should not feel anything.

While you're practicing this, keep in mind that using more revs is better than using less. It is easier to be smooth - and easier on the car - if you over-rev than if you under-rev.


Heel-toe

It gets tricky when we want to do this rev-matching business while braking. If we're braking with the right foot and clutching with the left foot, what do we do about the throttle? The solution is heel-toe.

To practice heel-toe, as before, put the car in neutral while stationary. Put the ball of your right foot on the brake. Half of your foot will probably be hanging off the pedal. This is what we want. Now pick up your heel and, while maintaining pressure with the ball of your foot, place you heel over the throttle. Now press with your heel, again while maintaining pressure with the ball of your foot. Try to hit 2,000 RPM again and practice until you can do it every time, without moving the brake pedal.

The position. Assume it.

Now you should be able to transition to rolling practice just as you did before, only this time you will be braking while downshifting from 3rd to 2nd. Once your shifts are perfectly smooth, you've learned heel-toe.


Double-clutch

There is very little point to learning double-clutch with modern transmissions, but I will describe it.

Double clutch shifts are just like regular shifts, except there is one more step added - releasing the clutch while the stick is in neutral. A double-clutch shift goes like this:

Clutch in, move gear stick to neutral, clutch out, clutch in, move gear stick to next gear, clutch out.

The reason to do this is to basically do the synchronizer's job. It makes the dog synchronize with the gear, assuming the engine is at the right RPM. During a double-clutch downshift, the throttle is blipped while the clutch is out and the gear stick is in neutral.

There is very little reason to double-clutch with any constant mesh transmission, whether synchronized or a dog box. It is only useful in old "sliding mesh" transmssions, where double clutch was required to get the gears to spin so that they could engage.

Ten tips, and then this tome is complete.


Ten tips for using (modern) transmissions:

1. For a dog box, clutch in and select first gear quickly.

2. For learning heel-toe, it is best to first focus on rev-matching, then incorporate braking while downshifting once that is comfortable
.
3. When blipping, more revs is better than too little revs.

4. If downshifting and rev-matching for each gear in sequence is too much to handle, try skipping gears and making bigger blips to compensate. For instance, instead of 4th > 3rd> 2nd, just go 4th > 2nd, with a larger blip.

5. Downshifting is not for slowing down the car. It is for selecting the proper gear. The brakes slow down the car. Unless the car is badly set-up, then the engine can be used to help slow the car (for instance, the brakes are inadequate as in old Grand Prix cars).

6. When using a dog box, pre-loading the gear stick prior to shifting will make your life a lot easier.

7. If you get stuck in false neutral using a sequential stick, use the clutch to get back into the gear you were trying to shift to.

8. Double-clutch is pretty much useless in constant mesh transmissions.

9. If you read this entire thing, you are awesome.

10. The number one goal of heel-toe downshifting is to maintain constant pressure on the brake pedal, because slowing down is the most important thing a car does.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

(180) A lifestyle better than I ever imagined

Up till a few months ago, I didn't think instructing would be my thing. I figured I would enjoy driving only, and that teaching other people would just be depressing because I wasn't driving.

But that turned out not to be the case last weekend, when I worked as an instructor for a supercar autocross experience at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The event was run by Imagine Lifestyles, a supercar rental company.

The basic idea behind the event is to let people drive 3 laps in one of the available supercars of their choice. On the lot we had a good variety: the Lamborghinis were 2 Gallardo LP560-4 Spyders and one Gallardo LP550-2 Bicolore, and the Ferraris were two F430s (one coupe, one spider), a F430 Scuderia, and a 599 GTB. 

It was not a traditional racing school environment, with classroom sessions and multiple on-track sessions throughout the day. As instructors, we had to focus on getting people up to speed comfortably and quickly. It was a challenge and my personal method went through a lot of adjusting during the weekend.

During the first day, we had fewer customers due to it being a Thursday. Still, this was a lot of people due to the short sessions and high interest in the program. We had 250 the first day. With 18 instructors, that works out to approximately 13 students per instructor. Since it was a slower paced day, we could afford to do more talking prior to hitting the autocross in order to get the students really well prepared. Once we were out on track, the instruction was more limited and hands-off, simply because the students already knew what to do.

Once the quantity of customers picked up, though, we had to start changing our instruction style. By Saturday we were literally getting the students right in the cars, introducing ourselves as the instructor, and telling them to go over to the start line after showing them how to use the paddles for the transmission. I only got to stress looking ahead and being smooth before we were launched off the start line for 3 high speed laps. This caused me to switch to a more hands-on approach out on the track, telling the drivers where to look, exactly where to brake and turn, and all the rest. The students handled it really well, and almost everyone I taught showed big improvement in just 3 laps. I felt really proud of them.

This increased efficiency meant we could do more drives. On Saturday, we gave about 530 drives to 450 customers. I didn't hear numbers for Sunday, but it felt like even more. During the 4 days, I had about 83 different students, assuming we all shared the instruction equally. It was definitely more people than I could keep track of.

I got to spend time in most of the cars. The only ones I didn't get to ride in were the two Gallardo Spyders. From what I hear, this turns out to be a good thing because not too many of the instructors enjoyed riding in those cars. They said that it was really hard to be smooth in them, and so the instructors ended up getting knocked around a bit by their drivers. Combined with the high dash, limited visibility, and claustrophobic passenger area, some even got motion sick.

The Ferraris were another matter. All of them were very comfortable to ride in, the 599 especially. The 599 was probably my all-around favorite car. Heavy, yes, but it is very powerful and has surprisingly good handling. Also roomy and comfortable. It has the best seats I have ever sat in. Body hugging, but still soft enough and extremely comfortable. Beautiful in almost every way, as well.

The highlight of the weekend was definitely the instructor drive-arounds, though. Every now and then a customer would purchase an instructor demo session. This is when we got to wheel the cars hard and show what the car could really do.

This is a video of the first time I got to do one of these laps, and it was in a Ferrari F430 Scuderia.



Ferrari F430 Scuderia helmet cam footage.

It was incredible. The Scud is a race car, no question. For me, the most impressive thing about the car was the differential.

I have never experienced an electronic diff for myself, so I was highly curious. During braking, you can tell the car is tighter. It doesn't tip into the corner like unassisted cars do when you trail brake as you turn in. You go faster, yes, but it doesn't really pivot like you expect it to. Then, when you get off the brake, it rolls very freely. As you apply the throttle, you can feel the car shimmy, and then set, and you take this as your cue to floor it. The car rockets off the corner effortlessly.

It's glorious.

Also glorious is the Lambo V10 in the Gallardo Bicolore. I got to drive this car near the end of day 4. The Bicolore has 50 more horsepower than the Scud, but is heavier. I was absolutely giddy with excitement at the prospect of driving this car, and it shows on camera because I won't shut up. The car makes you high on life and full of energy. This car would be an absolute blast to drive every day. I hope my passenger wasn't annoyed with my antics.



Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Bicolore helmet cam footage.

I still giggle to myself every time I see that video. I still think it would have been better if I just shut up and drove. But it is what it is.

Overall I had an absolutely great time. Imagine Lifestyles really did a great job running this event. They said they want to come back next year, and if they do, I am definitely going to try to do this event again.

I actually enjoyed teaching so much, I'm looking at getting a full time instructing job. But as that idea is just in it's infancy, we'll explore it later.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

(179) Hired

It's been a little bit since I updated you guys, so here it is!

My primary objective for the past 10 months has been to get back into a race car. While I haven't achieved that goal quite yet, I now have a better idea of how I am going to achieve it.

My past plan was to try to develop a portfolio of internet businesses. This has not progressed for various reasons, one of which is that I just don't find it very rewarding or motivating. While that is on the back-burner, and still very much a possible route I may follow, for now I will pursue what does give me a sense of accomplishment, which is computer programming. Demand for computer programmers is high, so the job security is great, and the pay is more than adequate to get me racing again. Of course, there are problems.

One of the problems is my education is lacking. I don't have a high school diploma, so I can't enter a college to earn a degree in computer science. I can fix that by getting a GED, which will allow me to get into a 2 year college. While I'm at community college, I can earn a high school diploma by completing college level courses which earn high school credit much faster than high school courses. Basically, 3 units at the local community college translates to 10 credits to a high school diploma. I need 180 credits to qualify for the high school exit exam so that process would be greatly accelerated over doing high school level classes. With a high school diploma, I would be eligible to enter a 4 year university if I decide to go that route. Better to get it done now and be ready should the opportunity present itself. A 2 year degree should be more than enough to get me a good job, though, especially since I am building computer programs for my portfolio right now. I already have a good grasp of three programming languages.

Of course the downside to this process is it will take some time. Right now I'm scoring pretty highly on evaluation tests (okay, let me be honest, I am destroying the tests - except for math), so the GED part should be quick enough to get me into a degree program by next year. I may be able to land a job with a good employer at that point if I can prove I will complete the degree, or I have a good portfolio of released programming work.

So, that's it for the road map to a job that will likely take a lot of time but will have a more predictable and reliable income than "build websites to sell stuff on the internet." But what about racing?

Well, I am going to try to stay close to racing as well as I can, so that means trying to get a job as an instructor. Working as a racing or performance driving instructor has a lot of advantages. Most instructors are independent contractors, so they have a lot of freedom about where they work. They get to drive every now and then, which is good for keeping skills somewhat in shape. Plus they get to meet tons of people that are highly interested and at least relatively well invested in motorsport. That last bit is really good for networking.

So, since it's such a good deal, I went and got myself an instructing job with Imagine Lifestyles (www.imaginelifestyles.com), a supercar rental company that occasionally organizes autocross experience events using exotic cars. I am going to help instruct a 4-day event with Lamborghini Gallardos and Ferrari F430s at Candlestick park in San Francisco from October 25th to the 28th.

What's really cool is not only do I get to introduce people to driving truly great machines, but I will probably also get to drive them some myself, because instructor hot laps are offered to show the clients what the cars can really do. Now that, that would be awesome.

I'm really excited to do my first event as an instructor. I will definitely update you guys when that's done, and I will see if I can get some helmet cam video (not sure about the company policy on that, but I will try).

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

(178) Is Italian car now

This blog is entitled "Chump to Champ" and so far, the "Champ" part of it hasn't happened.

That changed on Sunday.

On Sunday it became official that I am the Novice Champion in the SFR region of the SCCA Solo championship.

It's not Formula 1, but it is as good a place to start as any.

Rewind the clock a bit and Scott and I are standing in the office of Roger Kraus Racing speaking with Brandan Kraus and Bryan Nemy about upgrades for the Subaru. After a fairly lengthy and in-depth discussion, we decided to get new tires, which were kind of required after the last event's shredding action, and to adjust the alignment to try and address the understeer of the car. Later, we installed a beefier anti-roll bar in the rear of the car.

We considered a lot of options in tires, and the tire that offered the best match for our needs appeared to be the Dunlop Direzza Sport Z1 Star Spec (whew). The tire features a lot of rubber in contact with the road and not a lot of cuts in the tread. This makes for good dry weather grip. When the tires were mounted we had Kraus Racing increase the front camber to -2 degrees, and add some rear toe-out. These two changes would help to front get sucked into the turn, and the rear pivot outwards more, respectively.

The Dunlop Star Spec is a very racy looking tire.

The roll bar ended up being a Perrin 22mm bar, which is 6mm thicker than the stock bar. The Perrin bar is also adjustable with 3 different mounting positions. We had Premier Auto Service install the bar to the middle stiffness setting. This adjustability will allow us to tune the balance of the car fairly well. The anti-roll bar basically makes the wheels it is connected to stay closer to the body of the car as the body leans. By putting a stiffer bar in the back, this means that the inside rear tire will be lifted off the ground more in a turn, reducing rear end grip, while at the same time causing the front inside tire to sit with more weight on the ground. All the sway bar does is change how the weight of the car is distributed as the body leans over. Roll bars are very powerful, and can either make the majority of the weight of the car sit in the front or the back as it corners, simply by tuning the roll bars.

Also, it's red.

Red ones go faster.

So did these changes help? I was certainly very curious to find out.

On Sunday we woke up at 5 AM and headed down to Marina. Hotels were over $400 per night for the Monterey Reunion weekend so we kind of had to.

We each took our first runs and I included our immediate impressions in the video.


Round 11 helmet cam footage.

Apologies to the entire country of Italy for my tremendously horrible accent.

It's an enormous improvement and while it could use a little fine-tuning (I think we can set the roll bar to the stiffer notch, as it still understeers a little), it's a really nice handling car now. I thought the extra stiffness would make it a but unruly, my logic being that  there was a reason Subaru made it so pushy. But nope, it's still a fuzzy teddy bear with no sharp edges. Just a really easy car to drive, and with these tires even more so. Dad was immediately quicker, getting to within 1 second of my best time of the day.

And with that best time, I won the 11th round, scored a perfect points result in the championship, and made it official that I am now Novice Champion. Happily my dad also got a good result, finishing 3rd for round 11 (only a tenth of a second behind the Mini Cooper in 2nd), and scoring a fantastic 2nd place in the championship. An Evans 1-2 in our first season! Could it get any better?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

(177) Perception of Curiosity

I'm sitting here watching coverage of the rover Curiosity's landing on Mars. It's nearly there. Curiosity is a one ton nuclear powered rover that is much larger than any rover to come before it. I'm watching via the stream and viewing a simulation of Curiosity's progress at eyes.nasa.gov. It makes me wonder how this 2.5 billion dollar machine will change our perception of nature over the next 686 days of Curiosity's planned operation.

I get asked by some people how racing changes my own perception of reality. It is not a common question but I think it is an interesting one.

I suppose the first thought one might have is that racing, or doing anything that is exciting and potentially dangerous, results in normal day to day happenings becoming intolerably boring. This might be the case for some drivers but I don't find it to be the case for me.

I do find myself more relaxed these days, but I can't say I'm bored. I find myself contemplating a lot more. I also find that I am reacting to various things in a much calmer way than I used to. I also find I'm appreciating things that I didn't used to appreciate. I think the calmer portions of life have more meaning for me, somehow. I'm also not getting frustrated anywhere near as much as I used to. I think I might appear bored from the outside, but I don't feel bored.

But it's hard to say. These things could be a result of simple aging, or experiences that I've had other than racing. In any case, I feel like my mindset is a least in part a result of racing. I feel like I'm better off for it. Although the idea that racing is wholly responsible for my mindset is not out of the world of possibility.

Even though racing is less dangerous now than it was 40 years ago, it still feels quite dangerous at times. It is definitely a high stress environment. It could be that trying to think clearly in that environment has a big effect on the driver's mindset in other situations.

Well, Curiosity just set down, and everyone in the control room is going berserk. A new chapter in space exploration will begin changing everyone's perception of reality, no high stress environment needed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

(176) Tire shreddin'

The theme of the weekend this time at Golden Gate Fields for the 10th round was difficulty.

The first difficulty was the course. The front section was very fun and fast. The back section was very low speed, and you were basically cornering from the half way point of the track until the end. You mess up one corner, and the rest of the series is blown, all the way to the finish, unless you have some real remedial skill.

The second difficulty was the lack of runs. We were cut down to 3 runs due to time constraints. That meant we have to adapt more quickly and be more precise. I think this put a lot of pressure on Scott, and he suffered a couple big mistakes that put him in 5th spot.

The third difficulty was the competition. I ended up losing 1st place to Maxim Lukichev in the novice class by just 2 tenths of a second after handicapping took place. Our cars were in separate categories, so even though his time was slower than mine (by just a couple hundredths), the field leveling system resulted in Max getting a faster "indexed" time. I got 2nd. I might have retaken the top spot if I hadn't blown the final corner of my final run. It was neither of our best races.

The fourth difficulty was the tires. The Subaru WRX has Dunlop SP Sport 01 performance tires, and, well, take a look at the front ones.


Eeeeee....

Ouch.

That's called tread separation. Now, normally tread separation occurs between the steel belts of the tire and the rubber carcass. But this is different. This is like the tire is shedding off a top layer of rubber, revealing another layer underneath. Back when I was road racing, we would do this intentionally to our tires by shaving the tread off with a machine, revealing juicy, slick and sticky rubber underneath. There is still plenty of rubber left on the tire in this case, probably a good 5 or 6 32nds.

Even so, I think a new set of tires is required. We might talk to the dealer about it because this is usually a defect. But it might not be, because both front tires are doing this. These are the tires that came on the car. I wonder if they will ask about it when they see the grains... (Those are the little ripples in the tires that result from rubber rolling across the surface as the car corners hard. It's actually a decent pattern on these Dunlops which shows they handle the heat of autocross pretty well, just not the shearing factor obviously.)

In any case, it's not good for the grip of the tire. It should be an even surface. Not all of the tire is in contact with the road in this condition.

So, those were the foibles. Here's the fun bit:


SCCA Autocross Round 10 helmet cam footage.

The next round on the schedule was sadly canceled. That means there is only one round left, at Marina Airport in the middle of next month.

While I didn't win last weekend, I still carry a perfect score as far as the points go, with 1600 points. With two current drop races and no more being added, that means I'll have to finish in first spot one more time to secure a perfect championship score which would be 1800 points.

No matter what happens, though, I will still be novice champion.

Dad is sitting in second spot in the points race, and Michael Bajer is in third. Scott is far enough ahead of Michael that as long as dad earns points in Marina, he will keep second place. It looks like I will finish 1-2 with my dad, which would be incredibly cool.


Monday, July 9, 2012

(175) That's a lot of Mazdas

On Saturday I took a trip over to Sonoma Raceway (previously Infineon) to take a look at the first race of the SFR SCCA Spec Miata festival and Sonoma Sprints.

This race was something new for the region. Normally SCCA races are split into National and Regional weekends. If you want to go to the Runoffs to vie for a national championship, you have to do National races to earn the points to qualify. Regional series are their own championships and don't give you a spot at the Runoffs.

The Sonoma Sprints are a combination of National and Regional races. The regional racers benefit from longer races (the national races have to be 14 laps or 45 minutes, whichever comes first), and the national racers benefit from increased car counts. It's a win-win. Plus the region doesn't have to spend extra money on a separate event for the national drivers, as the national race at Thunderhill was never really popular with locals.

Add the Spec Miata Festival on top of that, and you've got a big field of cars. 73, to be exact. Standing in the middle of the grid, looking out over the sea of Miatas in all directions was a sight to behold. I've never seen that many cars on one track in person before. I rushed up to turn 2 to snap pictures because this was going to be a big one. This is what it looked like.





 
73 Miatas stream through turn 2. You'll notice my old yellow and silver car, now designated 61, in the final snap.

And no one got spun or wrecked. It was incredible. They were four wide at one point, which you can see in picture 3.

It looked to be a very successful event for SCCA. I'm just very sorry I couldn't be out there. Maybe next year!

On Sunday my dad and I took the Subaru to the 9th round of the SFR Championship solo series at the Golden Gate Fields horse race track.

The parking lot we had was in a beautiful location. It's right next to the water of the bay, with the horse race track just up the hill and behind a fence. There is a little beach near by, which seems to be a popular spot for kite surfing. The surface could use a repave, but it's really not too bad. Still, it chews tires a bit more than the other venues on the calendar.

I've been here before. Last month Scott took an Evolution autocross school where he got some very good instruction while I watched. I think it helped him a lot as he showed a lot of improvement this weekend.

The course we had was very enjoyable. Fast, but fun, and a good test. The layout encouraged you to make the best possible use of the racing line. This resulted in me grabbing a couple cones in the first two runs, and my dad hit his first cone in competition, ever! It's good to have courses like this that emphasize clean runs. Dodging cones is what autocross is all about!

I ended up picking up the pace in my 3rd and 4th runs, mostly because I wasn't incurring penalty cones. I grabbed another win, more narrowly this time (by 4 tenths), and Scott got a 4th in a pretty competitive field.



Round 9 helmet cam footage, now with dad-cam.

Not sure if this format will stay as swapping the camera back and forth takes time (we trade off runs so it's more fair). Scott is getting better at diagnosing his runs by himself, so I may not need to ride along for much longer.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

(174) Driving enrichment center

I hate computers. I love computers. They can do many things, and I hate when they do not, but I love when they do. I even know a little bit of programming. That is not impressive, but it is enlightening.

A computer is somewhat like a human. It has a brain, it has memory (both short and long term), it has eyes and senses. It has a voice. A computer is faster than a human, but it is not as powerful. A human computes very slowly, but a human has the ability to do lots of computations at the same time, while the computer can only do a few (depending on how many processor cores it has). I often wonder if my computer has any sort of experience. The components seem to be there for it. But if it does, no doubt it is very different than ours.

Computers need humans to function. The web browser you are using to read this was caringly programmed, line by line, by a human, or even many humans. That program is installed on the operating system, such as Windows or Mac OS, which is a logic machine that operates the computer. Without that operating system, the computer does nothing. All the operating system does is flip electrical switches. It takes control of the switches and tells the switch whether to be on or off. By flipping switches very quickly, a program can send instructions to the processor via the operating system in order to solve a problem.

Those problems can be very simple or very complex. In cars, these problems tend to be complex. And the programming needs to be executed well, otherwise the problem will not be solved.

Computers can be found in some surprising places in cars. Of course, most people know about the engine control unit. In addition to keeping the engine running, the ECU can do other things like sending data to the gauges and calculating fuel mileage.

Another common one is the anti-lock braking system. The ABS senses when a wheel stops rotating relative to the other wheels, and adjusts the brake pressure of that wheel to get it rolling again. You also have traction control, which does the opposite for driven wheels in order to stop wheelspin. Stability control is the third common handling-oriented system, which senses when the car yaws relative to the direction of travel, and uses subtle brake pressure to adjust the yaw to something more optimal for the inputs the controller receives from the steering and the pedals. Basically it plays with the angle of the car in a turn.

Of course, none of these systems make the car handle better or worse. The magic is in the programming, which tells the computers how to react given certain conditions. The better the programming, the better the system works.

A lot of people are afraid of programming because it seems mysterious and delicate. Programming is, at it's core, not breakable. What you type is what you get. It is the flow of pure logic that dictates how the components of the system are used. It's not like an engine, which could work perfectly for hours and then blow up because some part reached it's stress point. If a program doesn't work, then it never has worked and it never will until the programming is altered.

This is one of the reasons why electronic throttle linkage (throttle by wire) is becoming standard. The programming is simple (even at my basic level I could write a program to do it 100% reliably), and as a result the whole system becomes much more reliable and safer than a cable. Multiple redundancies are put in place, and failsafes are built into the program to account for any failings of the mechanical parts. It's not the programming that breaks, it's the program that acts as a safety net for the mechanical parts.

I think this fear of the program comes from the use of desktop computers, which frequently have problems resulting from conflicts. Conflicts between programs or hardware. But a desktop computer is an extremely complex thing compared to a simple throttle control program on a closed system with no threat of conflicts.

The throttle by wire program reads a voltage from a sensor under the throttle pedal. That program basically looks like this:

[get the voltage of the throttle sensor and store it in a value];

[use the stored value to apply a new voltage to the motor that opens the throttle by an equivalent amount to the pedal depression];

And that's it. Depending on how the operating system of the ECU is set up and what programming language it uses, it probably is literally just two lines of text, and is probably less characters in total than what I wrote. Of course, supporting programs need to be written to do things like verify the opening of the throttle, and to build functions around detecting and applying voltages. But why am I even going into it? Because like anything, it's important to understand something before one says "yes, it's good" or "no, it's not good".

Of course, now we are getting into the whole issue of "driving purity". There are a lot of people out there who do not want computers in their cars for various reasons. I do not think they are valid reasons, and here is why.

The basic anti-computer argument goes like this: "the computer does things for me (changes gear, manages brakes, etc), and as such, I feel less involved with what the car is doing and I do not like it. I prefer to be in direct control of all of these systems."

The fatal flaw being that the car already does so much for you. Is a differential anti-driving-purist, because it manages the driven axle's traction better and gives more grip? Is a synchronizer gear anti-driving-purist, because it helps you change gear more smoothly and consistently?

Back in the day, all racing tires had tread on them, even in the dry. They didn't know that a slick tire had more grip. Is a slick tire anti-driving-purist because it provides more grip and helps the driver go faster? They also didn't have wings. Are wings also an abomination of driving spirit because they help the driver?

Even in the 1950s, they had plenty of tech to assist the driver. Differentials, of course, were one of those things. They also had automatic timing on the engine, whereas older cars had manual timing that had to be advanced or retarded while driving. Is that impure, because it assists the driver? Are disk brakes impure as well, because they don't fade as much as drums, and are safer and more powerful for the driver to reduce speed? A constant mesh transmission is another assistance device. They used to be sliding mesh, with all the gears resting stationary and they had to be manually spun up in between changing gears. A constant mesh transmission doesn't need that because all the gears spin. Is a constant mesh gearbox undesirable to driving purists?

Practically everything on a modern car has received upgrades, improvements, and sometimes even complete replacements to make them better, easier to use, safer, and faster.

Of course, the devices I'm mentioning are still mechanical. I think in light of this consideration, it is pretty clear that software is the culprit. But how different is it really?

In the typical examples of electronic handling programs such as stability control and traction control, people sometimes think of them being a sort of almost magic device that is separate from the mechanics of the car somehow. Of course, they're not. And there are better examples of this.

Consider the differential. It is in essence a purely mechanical computer. A clutch-type limited slip differential receives rotational data from the axles and adjusts the clamping force inside the diff via it's clutches to increase or reduce locking force between the axles. This response is highly tunable. It affects how "freely" the car can turn, drastically changing the way it responds and the level of grip in the driven wheels.

Racing cars, and even a lot of road cars these days, have electronically controlled tuning of this differential and have had so for many years. Not only can the driver tune, on the fly from the cockpit, the response of the diff, but a computer program can even do it for them, millisecond by millisecond, in the middle of a corner. Ferraris have included this type of differential for a number of years. The Nissan GT-R also has these types of diffs in it's all wheel drive system, as do other high end, very fast sports cars. These programs take away the inherent problems with "set and forget" mechanical diffs and allow it to adapt to new situations that don't quite fit the original mechanical tuning of the differential.

If you're an ardent racing fan you may remember the Williams Formula 1 team using another type of electronic system in 1991 and 1992. They took the fight very successfully to McLaren with their active suspension system in '92. The car could resist lowering it's nose while braking, or rolling in the corners, and even redistribute the weight of the car to help the driver.

Ayrton Senna was one driver who was adamantly against the tech at that time. He was driving for McLaren, and McLaren was getting hammered by Williams. Williams' cars were better. Ayrton famously came out against the tech by saying it took little skill to drive. Of course, he did not say this in 1987 when Lotus first tested the tech on his car for the season. In '87, Ayrton loved it. Being a driver, I know that we will complain about anything if things aren't going our way. Nigel Mansell, one of the Williams drivers at that time, loved the tech, and he said in an interview that it had greater possibilities to come. Nigel was the first driver to use active suspension in an F1 season in '83, driving for Lotus. He won the '92 season with the Williams system.

Nigel's prediction for great things might have been, assuming the system was allowed to be developed. Which it wasn't, because 1993 was the last time F1 raced with any kind of electronically controlled active suspension. Imagine what kind of technology we would have today, almost two decades later, had the rules not forbid its use, or the use of any other electronic system. The only car that I know of to have an active suspension system like in the old F1 cars is the McLaren MP4-12c, and the Pagani Huayra. Other cars have magnetic ride control (also amazing), but it is not the same as adjusting the attitude of the car with hydraulics.

Paddle shift technology was also being developed around that time in F1, and look at the amazingly fast and smooth systems we have on cars now. There are even paddle shift transmissions that do not have a drop in torque while changing gears. Of course, that has been banned in F1 too...

Which gets us right to the most prominent part of the argument. Paddle shift versus stick shift. The full, automatic, precise, fast experience versus the slow, imprecise, more involved system for swappin' cogs.

A paddle shift is faster, no doubt about that. Ignoring the seamless shift transmissions, a dual-clutch gearbox with electronically controlled, hydraulically actuated paddles can shift in less than 10 milliseconds. For reference, and blink of a human eye is usually between 300 and 400 milliseconds. And you can get this tech in Volkswagens. Now that's impressive. And that feels good to drive.

But does it make you less of a driver? I mean, does it make you less important as a cog in the machine of driver and car?

No.

Think about it. If you're no longer focusing on downshifting, heel and toeing, while braking at 100MPH to slow for the next corner and be ready to accelerate out of it, don't you think you'll be able to take that same concentration you used for shifting and apply it to braking? This is, of course, assuming the program works well. A bad component is a bad component, whether electronic or mechanical.

Will it make you faster? Definitely. Just like getting better tires or a better diff or better whatever. Will it make you faster than the guy that was already faster than you using the old unassisted cars if you were to both race the new assisted car? No. Well, most likely no. If the old fast driver fails to adapt to the new systems, he wasn't really the fastest driver anyway. Assuming the cars are identical, of course. The only time a driver will not be critically important to the car is when a driver does not need to do anything to control the car. As long as the driver has control of the direction and speed of the car, this game will be all about skill. Naturally, we must also distinguish between a safety feature and a performance feature. Things like stability control and traction control can be tuned to be safe, rather than fast.

So, in this whole affair, have we solved the whole pure/impure driving thing?

I don't think there was a thing in the first place. Because we don't even know what "pure driving" is yet. So I'll tell you what I think.

Pure driving is driving any vehicle, in any condition, to the best of your ability given the situation. That means being the fastest driver. The smoothest driver. The most violent driver. The safest driver. The most ruthless driver. The most kind driver. Any kind of driver. Purity resides with the driver, not the car.

That also means driving all types of cars with skill and precision. Coupes, sedans, convertibles, trucks, SUVs, cars with different layouts and configurations, cars with and without electronics. A pure driver should do it all, and love it all.

So I don't think electronics infringe on driving purity. I believe the opposite - they enrich driving.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

(173) Familiar faces

I'm sorry I'm a little late on this post, this week is a bit hectic.

The weather for Saturday's 8th round in the SFR Solo Championship was beautiful. Oakland always delivers on that front, pun intended.

In walking the course, it looked rather busy. There were almost no straights and there were plenty of tight spots to thread the needle through. My first run incurred a cone, but the runs after that went pretty smooth. After my third run I was sitting on a 47.0, and I thought it was pretty quick but there was plenty of room for improvement. I have trouble gauging my pace in autocross. In road racing I have a tuned sense of how busy my body is and how it relates to my speed. I know what intensity level results in a fast lap, a slow lap, and a lap where I try way too hard. If I'm sawing at the wheel in road racing, I shake my head. On the other hand, if I'm sawing at the wheel in autocross, I may be doing it just right because that is how quick the course is.

As a result of this, I can surprise myself when I thought I had a pretty good run and then do it nearly 2 seconds better in the next. That's what happened in my 4th run. I got it down to a 45.7, and earned another win. That's 7 in a row now.

This is good for me. It's teaching me new ways of listening to what the car is doing other than simply paying attention to what I'm doing with my inputs as a driver. I'm looking more to the outputs of the car. Not that I wasn't before, but it's a bigger factor now in my driving.

So here's the video. Scott also did well by scoring a 4th place out of the most competitive field of novices so far.



Round 8 helmet cam.
 
The next day I went down to visit Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, which was hosting the San Francisco Region SCCA for the Spec Racer Ford Festival. A friend of mine, Seth Reid, was racing in his first race weekend and I figured I'd stop by to watch. Seth has been volunteering for the SCCA on the tow crew for a long time, and is writing a blog about his experience during his first race weekend here: Grip Theory  

It was also nice to catch up with people in the paddock and watch the racing. After ALMS a month ago, SCCA weekends in the paddock seem so calm and relaxed. There is no hype or TV frenzy or media promotion, just racers enjoying the sport. I do miss it.

I'm no great photographer but I did get some shots I like.


Group 5 cars under caution.


Ed Railton, my car owner from last year, races through Corkscrew in his #01 Spec Racer Ford.


Seth comes through not long after in his 39 car. There were tons of Spec Racers out for this festival race!


Overlooking my favorite corner on the track, turn 6, also known as the Salinas Off Ramp. Don't go off that cliff!


Ed had one of his best races ever, blasting from 12th to 4th in 30 minutes.



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

(172) Don't run through the lights

The 7th round of the SFR SCCA autocross series was last weekend and it was another good result!

It was absolutely perfect weather for our morning runs. Thankfully, Oakland Coliseum is only about half an hour's drive away, and we get going early enough to beat the commute traffic that heads to the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco.

The first run of the day felt pretty solid, but I smacked a cone in the final section. The course started out by leading straight into a long slalom. This is new to me. We've had slaloms before, but those were all unevenly spaced and irregular. This slalom was consistently spaced from start to finish. I found it fun, and dare I say it I started doing it very well in the later runs. There was a strange shift point prior to it, but it wasn't too bad.

The last section, where I smacked the cone on the first run, was a series of chicanes with uneven pacing. It was challenging and very entertaining to thread the car through it smoothly.

 Scott takes the first slalom. Photo credit Mark Mervich.

Scott started off at a good aggression level (it seems to be very critical to get a good mindset and focus at the start, and carry it through the rest of the runs in autocross), but the mistakes kind of snowballed and he was having trouble recovering in the last two runs. The good news was that since he started off well, he got up to a reasonable speed quicker and was able to set a time that landed him in 2nd for the day.

In my 3rd run I spotted a cone that was knocked over. The cone spots are marked, and any cone that is misplaced on a run entitles the driver to a re-run. The idea is that everyone competes on the same track, and if a cone is not where it should be, that is not the same track. Besides this, track workers could get confused when a car zooms by an already knocked over cone. They may call in a penalty when it wasn't warranted, which is an understandable mistake. There are lots of cones out there to keep track of. I made the most of my rerun and set a new best time. My final run went even better and I felt really good about most of the corners, especially the first slalom. That run earned me the win.

Then we worked. I was running for cones, but this time I signed up for the station near the finish because I thought the chicane section would be fun to watch. It was, and someone nearly spun and took out a few cones. So I ran to set them back up, but after a shout from the grid area, I realized that my path was going to take me through the timing lights which track the lap times of the cars on course! I tried to jump over the beam, but I failed and I ruined a couple of in-progress runs. Whoops. I started paying much more attention to which cones were being hit and whether they were after the lights or not, so I would remember to run around them instead of through them.



Round 7 helmet cam footage.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

(171) A little bit of motivation

It's been a while since I've been to an American Le Mans race, which is weird because I watch all the races on TV and ultimately it is my racing dream to end up there!

So I took the opportunity to go to the Monterey race this time. The day started out very foggy, and the racing was delayed by an hour.

Saturday started off with the Playboy MX-5 Cup and Skip Barber Mazdaspeed Challenge cars taking the green flag for a 45 minute event as the damp fog was lifting. Kenton Koch, one of my friends from the 2010 Skip Barber Karting Scholarship Shootout, ended up winning the Challenge class in both races in only his 2nd sports car race weekend. Another up and coming Mazda driver, Elliott Skeer, took his first professional win in the Cup class on Friday, but unfortunately slipped down to 6th yesterday due to the damp conditions. Elliott was invited to, and won, the 2011 Mazdaspeed Shootout after winning the 2011 NASA Teen Spec Miata Challenge West and is the newest driver on the sports car side of the Mazda Motorsports Development ladder.

The next cars on track in anger were the Cooper Tires Prototype Lites. Two classes again, L1 and L2. Another of my Skippy friends, Tristan Nunez, was driving his L1 car and utterly dominated the weekend with back to back poles and wins. Tristan was awarded part of the scholarship from the Skip Barber Karting Shootout in 2010.


Tristan Nunez leads the Lites field through turn 3.

The IMSA GT3 Challenge cars were next, and I was impressed by the size of the field of 28 cars. Madison Snow ended up winning the race on Saturday. His mom, Melanie Snow races with him in the GT3 series, which is really cool (it is Mother's Day, after all).


The IMSA GT3 cars scream into turn 10 near the camp grounds.

And then came the feature event. The 6 hour race with the American Le Mans series cars.

The race start was very exciting. The P1 class was completely dominated by the Muscle Milk car, and the LMPC and GT classes both had amazing battles in the first half of the race. The Aston Martin lead the field for the first few laps until they had a botched pit stop during the first caution. Once the Aston was out of the way the Porsches, Corvettes and BMWs went berserk.


 The ALMS cars take to the track for the race start.

The only really big incident of the race (that I know of) was the crash between the Level 5 Motorsports P2 entry and the 17 Flex Box GTC car near the pit entry. The Porsche had heavy impact with the wall and the P2 car took a good hit on the rear corner. The Porsche eventually took back to the track, sans hood and front bumper. Porsche's rear-engine layout triumphs again!

Races like that make me want to race even more, and it motivates me to keep reaching for my dreams.

Anyway, it was a fantastic day and I got to meet up with a bunch of friends I haven't seen in a while. Here are some more pictures!


The 17 Flex Box entry before (wonderful paint job)...


... and after. Ouch. But the engine is safe!


The GT battle was intense!


My favorite place to watch at turn 6.

Monday, April 30, 2012

(170) Perfection is possible?

I have a conundrum.

What is a perfect victory?

Simple question, hard to answer.

Perfection implies flawlessness. If perfection is truly only attainable by being flawless across the board, then perfection is not attainable, because the universe and everything in it is not flawless. Of course, that also depends on what a flaw is to you. Some would see human anger as a flaw. Others would see human anger as a trait, that is neither bad nor good - it just is, like an element. Hydrogen, for example. If all "flaws" are not flaws at all, and are simply traits that "be," then does that mean everything is perfect regardless of what state it's in, since flaws don't really exist? I find this kind of compelling. In a sense, "it is what it is."

Ultimately, our perception of "flaw" is determined by us, the definers. Definition is just a democratic way of determining what words are used for. The most common usages determine the definition of a word. This is why one should not seriously get wrapped up in semantics - ultimately, it means what we say it means. And what we say can change. But I'm not being serious here, I'm playing.

I've struggled to define the word "perfection" for years. I'm afraid to say I am no closer to defining it now than I was then. So let's leave it for now and explore it later.

But what about victory? That's the other part of the phrase I'm trying to define.

In racing, it is often said that "a win's a win, whether by a mile or an inch." This states that there is no degree to a win. You win, or you don't. By how much makes no difference. Doesn't it though? Doesn't a win by a mile have a different effect on the minds of the winner and the loser over a win by an inch? Does not a close finish give hope to the runner-up, while a crushing defeat leaves the runner-up with lost hope and the winner more elated? This seems to indicate that a win is not simply a win. Domination above and beyond simply winning is possible.

In the San Francisco region of the SCCA, there are 13 total autocross events scheduled for the summer series. Last weekend was round 6. In the rules, each 4 events competed adds one drop round in the points championship, which means that if 13 rounds are run, the competitor with the 9 best finishes wins the championship.

I currently have 5 wins in 5 visits. Each win is worth 200 points, so I have 1,000 points.

If I win 9 rounds, I will have the highest effective points score possible at 1,800.

Is that a perfect victory? A flawless victory? A domination? I don't know. All I know is that's the best I can do given the rules. And I will chase it.

Update: I did not realize there were 13 rounds scheduled, not 8. I have corrected the numbers. Perfect eh?

Let's finish off this pretentious post with some video, and a dose of reality. I'm getting a big head.



Round 6 helmet cam footage.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

(169) Fifth time's the charm

The day of the fifth round of the SFR SCCA championship autocross season was met with rather fantastic weather. Our afternoon run group had perfect weather for all of our runs.

The course was interesting. There were many short slaloms, and a few very slow hairpin corners. It was not a long course but it was lower speed, so it took the same amount of time as usual, around 43 seconds in our WRX. One of the tricky bits about the slaloms was that the first two you had to enter on the right, but then the next one you had to enter on the left. If you didn't have your eyes looking ahead, it was easy to get confused about where to go next. Autocross in general is really good for practicing heads-up driving. It's very important to have your eyes follow the course so that you're not making snap reactions to which way it's going.

My dad is getting faster, too. He was only one and a bit seconds off my best time.

My best time ended up being a 42.882, and Scott's was a 44.566. We took first and second in the novice class respectively! On my fastest run I thought I hit a cone, but I must have just brushed it because it did not penalize me.

A friend of my dad's, Bill, was also experiencing his first autocross event last weekend. I took him on my two fastest runs so he could see what it was all about. I love introducing new people to the sport. When people go for fast rides or even try driving fast themselves for the first time, it puts a smile on both our faces because they are experiencing something new and wonderful, and I get to relive that wonderment a little bit. It's halfway selfish but I don't mind admitting that.

So, here's my point of view from the day!



Round 5 helmet cam footage.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

(168) The wins of the father

This last weekend was another autocross. Unfortunately I wasn't able to go.

On Friday I woke up and I couldn't lift my head off the pillow. Scary moment. I've never suffered from sleep paralysis or anything like it, and having difficulty getting up isn't an issue for me. It turned out to be a muscle that seized up while I was sleeping - probably in an awkward position. It was preventing my head from tilting, and it was incredibly painful if I tried to force it.

I could have probably survived the road trip to the Monterey coast, but it would have been very uncomfortable. And even then, actually strapping on the helmet and subjecting my neck to g-force was worrying to say the least. I have a high pain tolerance, but I couldn't even push gently on the side of my head.

So, my dad took the car down to the event without me. On the day of the event, round about mid day, the muscle finally unclamped itself, but it was still very sore. It's still sore, actually. But at least I can move my head.

It was a stroke of luck for Scott, because he ended up grabbing the win in the novice class! I'm proud of my dad for getting his first win.

Congrats dad! Photo credit Jess Escobar.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

(167) Hoping for rain

Last weekend it rained a bit. I was hoping for a monsoon, frankly, because I thought it would be cool to try the WRX at the limit in the rain to see how good the AWD system really is. But alas, it was done raining before we got there at about 7:30 am.

There was still enough water on the track to make it interesting, although it dried out pretty quickly. By the time we took our 4th runs it was almost all gone.


Coaxing the car into the first real corner on the track. Photo credit my friend Joshua Fine.

This course had a lot of slaloms in it, and they were giving me problems. I kept attacking them aggressively, and the car didn't like that too much as it would kind of wallow from side to side.

There were also a pair of very slow speed, decreasing radius turns that really required a lot of finesse to get right. Very easy to over-slow, and very easy to plow straight through. A lack of good reference cones on the second of the two cause a lot of people grief, and almost every car washed out wide in this corner. A very high speed approach )for autocross - top of 2nd gear) didn't help the toughness of the corner.


Pushing the car hard into this corner on my last run. Photo credit Joshua Fine.

 In my 2nd and 3rd runs I clipped cones, and that incurred a 2 second penalty on each. But I refocused and did my fastest run in my last run and got the win. Scott managed a sound 4th.

Helmet cam!



Round 3 helmet cam footage.

Monday, March 12, 2012

(166) Seriously, I have no clue what I'm doing

Continuing the autocross theme this week, we head to Marina, California for the second round of the San Francisco Region championship series.

At the first event there were a huge number of entrants - about 230. This time there were 100 less, so the parking lot was much less crowded.

My dad and I started out by working the 3rd run group. Every competitor has to work. Workers do really simple things like score and replace knocked cones, report the score to the timing chief over the radio, and display red flags to cars to get them to stop if there is a safety issue (spun car, workers out of place, etc). Working before you run is nice because you get to see a few of the corners and watch people go through them a few times.

The course was longer than last time, and more complex - lots of turns leading into slaloms. I liked the look of it.

Scott's runs went pretty well. He got faster and faster as the day went on, though the first run resulted in a DNF due to missing one of the slaloms. His best time ended up being a 54.166, and that works out to a 44.470 after the index was applied. Good for 4th in the novice class.

I set my fastest time on my second run, a 50.661 (41.593 indexed), and while my 3rd run was going to be a few tenths quicker (according to my stop watch), I DNF'd going through the final slalom, partly because I forgot where it was and partly because the car was understeering really bad at that point because I was adding too much throttle. The fourth and final run was 3 tenths quicker but I tipped a cone in a stupid spot. With my time from the second run I ended up winning the novice class again!



Round 2 helmet cam footage!

I'm enjoying autocross a lot and it's keeping me on top of my game driving wise. I just wish I knew what I was doing. That's why I'm in the novice class!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

(165) Crossing over

You may remember when I wrote about getting the new family car, a 2012 Subaru WRX, I think I mentioned that my dad was interested in taking it autocrossing.

Well, last weekend, we did.

Since I have no financial ability to race road courses on my own at the moment, autocross is a good way to stay in driving shape without spending very much money.

Basically, for 35 bucks you get a few runs at a course laid out in a parking lot with cones and chalk. Complete the course in the fastest time and don't hit cones because you'll get a time penalty for each one. Really simple, and a great way to have a lot of fun in everyday cars in competition. SCCA puts on the events, as do other clubs.


For the first run I coaxed mom to go for a ride. She was stony silent through the whole run, but she started shouting how awesome it was once we crossed the finish line.

I didn't find it quite as exciting as club racing, but you can't have as much for such a small cost.

We entered the car in the D Stock category. But since we are rookies, we elected to compete in the Novice class. The Novice class is one of the "indexed" classes. Basically, each class has a handicap that adjusts the final time based on a multiplier. Once the multiplier is computed, every class has equal footing to compete against each other.

Now you may be wondering why an experienced road racer is going into the novice class. The reason is because I have been briefly exposed to cone-dodging before. I know how different of a discipline it is.

In road racing, you have the opportunity to get practically unlimited attempts at perfecting the course prior to actually racing on it. Only money and scheduling is stopping me from going out to Infineon for a day of lapping in a race car in order to gain a better understanding of the track. Unless major construction occurs, the track will not change very much by the time I next race there.

Autocross travels to a variety of different sites, and those sites don't change very often, this is true. However, the course is always different for every event. A huge portion of the skill of a competent autocross driver revolves around extremely quick learning. I'm not familiar with learning a track in such a way. You literally cannot be methodical. A run may be around a minute long, and you may only get 3 or 4 runs. 4 minutes of track time and 4 attempts to set the fastest time possible. At a road race, I will have usually between 40 minutes to an hour of track time with around 20 laps of practice and familiarization prior to the first race. And that doesn't count previous visits to the track.


My dad, Scott, taking a run. The Subaru designers really outdid themselves. From this angle, with this lighting especially, the WRX sedan is gorgeous.

And the spontaneous nature of the sport is only half of it. Throw in another twist in the form of a very tight track at speeds less than 50 or 60 mph (when, in road racing in a Spec Miata, per-lap average mile per hour is in excess of 75 mph with top speeds approaching twice that of autocross), and you've got a very different discipline indeed.

I fully expected to do okay, but not to break any records.

My dad took the car for the first run to get acquainted with the course. I did the same soon after, taking mom for a joyride which she enjoyed immensely.

At first I turned the traction control system off. I wanted to feel how the car was set up mechanically first. It felt pretty good. Being an all wheel drive car, the engine sends half of it's power to the front tires and half to the rear. This is a recipe for some understeer and the car does push a bit. But it is controllable and it doesn't completely wash out the front grip. It is suitably agile.

The car isn't a tank but it's not a flyweight either. It weighs 3,300 pounds. Naturally that tends to pull the body around a bit as you brake, accelerate and turn,. The car has a tendency to really dig into one corner of the car at a time an that gives it a hoppy feeling as it bounds from corner to corner.

On the second run I turned the system on to see how that would fare. It didn't go well. The computer seems to have an aversion to accelerating while turning. It's so conservative, in fact, that it simply will not allow you to reach the limits of adhesion. If you enter a corner faster than it wants you to, it slows you down with additional braking. If you try to accelerate back up to the speed you intended to corner at, it won't let you, because it cuts the throttle according to how much steering you're using. And with the system on, any press of the brake will cut the throttle as well, so you cannot use the gas and the brake at the same time.

Thankfully this is all disabled by a button on the dash and the car becomes cooperative again. I will actually start disabling the system when I drive it on the street, because I do not have faith that the car will respond in a way that I am trained to expect if I have to make an emergency maneuver. This is not a fault of traction control as an idea, mind, it is just a fault of this particular system. A good traction control system will work with a driver, and I have experienced systems that do just that. This one tries to control the whole car by itself. Slightly over-reaching, in my opinion.


I don't think this level of cornering ability is possible with the computer activated. By the way, all of these lovely images are courtesy of Doug at hkophoto.smugmug.com

In any case, with the computer sleeping serenely via that special dashboard button, the car will corner like a champ. It has wonderful traction coming out of the corners and the engine is superb. I would not believe that the car was turbocharged if I didn't see the turbo under the bonnet.

Anyways, you probably want to hear about the rest of the day, so I will direct you to the video I got from my helmet camera.


SFR SCCA Solo 2012 Round 1 helmet cam footage.

There are still things to work on. My starts need to be a bit faster (I was trying to be gentle because I hear the 5-speed is kind of delicate), and there was probably at least a second on the table in my 3rd run.

So how did we do? Well, my dad, Scott, got 5th out of 16 in the Novice class with an indexed time of 37.852, and I got first place with an indexed time of 34.727.

I'm pleased with our results to say the least! I'm proud of my dad for doing so well at his first event and I can't wait to do it again.