2010-05-28

A beginning of a great adventure

Autocross is a great gateway drug, but after three years of nothing but dodging cones, I decided to take the leap into running high-speed events on road courses.

The objective is to get a racing license and to participate in club racing events, but for now, High-Performance Driver Education (HPDE) is the way to go.

After some deliberation, and taking into account my friends' input, I purchased a race-ready spec Miata from a guy named Bill in Modesto. I more or less stumbled upon this car on Craigslist, and had no idea how special this car was when I first called the number in the ad. Turns out, Bill has been involved in the local racing community for ages, used to own and operate the Altamont speedway, and is only selling his race cars (yes, plural!) because he wants to retire from the sport and concentrate on other things, which include dirt bike racing and playing poker.

The car has very little left from the parts that were put on it in 1990. From an aluminium radiator, air intake, a Rebello racing engine, to the transmission, suspension, and the differential, the car has been taken apart and built for performance.

When I realized what I was looking at, I gave Bill some cash for downpayment and we agreed to meet in two weeks to set the car up.

You see, Bill said that he would sell me a "ready-to-race" car, and that meant that alignment and corner-weighting with me in the car, as well as putting in the racing seat and the 6-point harness, plus a passenger seat and harness, would be included in the purchase price.

Awesome!

Then finally, last weekend, I got to drive my car for the first time, at Thunderhill Raceway. Because it is a race car, it is not street-legal, and I did not drive an inch in it before shaking hands on the purchase.

On Friday I took off work early, and met Bill at the track. Bill has generously offered to tow the car to the track, because he was going there to advertise his other race car for sale. It only got better from that point.

Not only did Bill help me with the installation of the passenger harness (which required modification of the head rest to fiddle the shoulder straps through), he also took over the duties of my crew chief for the rest of the weekend.

The man took the car to tech, got it as close to passing as we could with the parts available at the track, measured my tire pressures as soon as I got off the track, and let me borrow his other car's rain tires when it began sprinkling on Saturday afternoon.

He helped me with tons of advice and also introduced me around, so that I will have a few good connections next time I go to Thunderhill without him.

He also helped me find a garage to share, but that's a whole other odyssey. Ask me, and some time I will tell you about that too.

For now, let us concentrate on the actual driving event. This was my first HPDE, and the first time driving on track. Needless to say, I was quite a bit nervous, but also very excited about this new adventure.

This weekend, NASA was running the event, and they were running the track backward, meaning clockwise. They had a number of other things going on in addition to HPDE, such as a spec Miata race, some other classes of cars racing, time trials, and just open track time for advanced drivers. For as much as they had going on, the event was running like clockwork.

The driver meeting was at 7:30 in the morning, and right after going over the flags and safety rules, we got paired up with our instructors

My Saturday instructor Ray was perfect for my first day out: He worked on getting me comfortable with the track, learning the line, and figuring out braking zones and flag stations. I also got to ride with him and another driver for a few laps to see the track at speed. By the end of my second session, I got my tires to operating temperature, which I did not expect to be doing so fast. That was the highlight of my day.

After the day was over, NASA hosted a barbecue with some pina coladas, wine and beer. By the time I got to my motel, I was drop-dead tired from all the excitement of the day. I fell asleep visualizing the track and the racing line, turn by turn, lap after lap.

Day two surpassed even my wildest expectations. I got paired up with a different instructor on Sunday, PJ, who drives an E30 BMW with the 4-cylinder engine. He took me on a couple laps and I got a much better feel for the track, now that I actually remembered the succession of turns and the line you are supposed to take through them.

I watched PJ's hands and feet, how much input he was using for each turn, and tried to match that by "driving" in the passenger seat, to get some muscle memory. Because the track does not change much each lap, once you know it by heart, it is easier to pay attention to other things than just what's in front of the hood.

When it was my turn to drive and we got into the car and started going, PJ was really good about giving me clear direction, and sometimes correcting my steering or yelling "Gas, gas, gas!" That sort of thing actually works best for me when I am approaching my own comfort limits, because in stressful situations like this I am very good at tuning most things out, and polite suggestions about giving it more gas or brake won't register. On the first day, I was insecure enough not to be going too fast to scare myself, but on day two I got to push my limits quite a bit.

More than once I would be accelerating from turn 2 to turn 1 and through it to the main straight (remember, running reverse course!) and my gut would be screaming: "We're gonna DIE!!!" At the same time PJ would yell "Gas, gas, gas, more gas!" and I would hang on to the wheel and stay floored, and guess what--we all lived to tell the tale.

I was coasting off the adrenalin I got running on track for days after.

This post would not be complete without mentioning how perfectly the Miata is set up. I can claim none of the credit, so I'll just give great kudos to Bill and Tom who set it up for me. The car has insane grip and I was able to quickly catch up with much "faster" cars in the turns.

Like this one time when a Porsche Cayman passed me on a straight and proceeded to park it at the very next corner. There is limited passing in the beginner groups, so I had to ride his bumper all the way to the main straight, where he pointed me by, but never got off the gas. No matter how much I love my Miata, but on a straight it is no match to a 6-cylinder engine.

So we were quickly approaching turn 15 and I was going to have to fall behind and let him get ahead, because that's my responsibility as the passing car that we both make it through the next turn safely. Thankfully, the Cayman's instructor must have told him to lift, so I barely squeezed past him and into the turn. That was the last time I saw him in my mirror. Love the little Miata!