2010-05-31

A beautiful day to have the top down

Running a few errands this afternoon, I spotted a black targa-top Ferrari 308 in the lane next to mine. I caught up and merged in front of it, just to enjoy the view in the mirror while puttering along El Camino.

The two of us drove a few blocks like this, and then it was my time to make a right turn. I looked in the mirror to catch the glimpse of the car one last time and saw that it turned into the same road after me.

At the next light, he pulled up next to me. I could not help but look over. He smiled, and I smiled back at him.

"A beautiful day to have the top down," he said, referring to both our cars going topless.

"I know, isn't it?" I replied, and then the light changed and we went each on our merry way: I turned into the shopping center and he continued on straight ahead.

Funny that this very brief encounter with a fellow car aficionado is still making me smile hours later. It's the little things.

Spatial perception trouble

I have been looking around on OKCupid lately, and noticed that while I think San Francisco is really not that far away from the South Bay, the City dwellers don't see it the same way. More than once would people reach out and then quickly follow up with "But you are so far away!"

I drove out there many times, and took the train, too. Usually you can get there in an hour. It's not the end of the world, really, and yet...

I was exchanging messages with one guy and was going to suggest to meet up, when he implied that a trip outside the City was not in the cards. "No car," etc. "But look me up next time you're here."

I politely said that if he was not interested in me enough to even entertain the idea of taking the train to meet, I would see better use for my time than looking him up next time I was in SF.

His response: "Are you fucking kidding me? Delete!"

Well, good fucking riddance.

2010-05-30

Things I do for driving

Let me tell you a bit more about my track weekend, but this time concentrate more on the time I was not at the track. Specifically, let me tell you about the Safari Motel, how I ended up there, and how I lived to tell the tale.

Now, let me back up to the time when I first got the Miata. I had no garage at the track yet, and no readily-available way to transport the car there anyway, so I did not sign up for any track days, lest I have to miss them, because the car won't be there on time.

Bill, being so full of win and awesome as he is, found someone willing to let me share their garage, on Monday, 17th of May. He also said he'd transport the car there for me, so suddenly, the event that very next weekend, 22nd and 23rd of May, was no longer out of reach. Bill encouraged me to sign up, and as there were still beginner spots available, I did on the same day.

I am forever astonished that not everybody's lives revolve around driving and racing, but apparently Chico State University was having a graduation that same weekend, and all hotels in the area were booked full.

It did not help that I forgot to take care of booking the hotel until Wednesday evening.

In any case, I failed to find any vacancies using the popular travel web sites, like Expedia and Orbitz, and was casting my net ever wider, until somewhere I came across the name of a motel that was not listed in other places: The Safari Motel.

The site did not offer any information on availability, just a phone number, so I called. Amazingly, they had a room available, and I booked it right then and there.

Then I went to look for reviews. There weren't any. There was a Safari Inn in a neighbouring town, but this one was barely mentioned anywhere.

I found one real estate listing selling this hotel from 2008, and also looked at it in Google StreetView. Neither seemed to bode well for me, but sleeping in the garage at the track did not present a better option, so I decided to see just how bad it would get.

I got to the hotel the first time after Bill and I finished installing the passenger seat belts in the car. We were going to have dinner together, but I wanted to make sure to stop by and get the key before too late.

They said they had no vacancy, but there were only two other cars parked in the lot. One of them later turned out to be the owner's. The lock to the room was touchy, but I got the door unlocked, inspected the room quickly and was about to leave as Bill waited outside, when the neighbouring unit's door opened and a disheveled-looking man came out.

"You're the new neighbours?" he half asserted, half asked.

"Yeah," I said vaguely.

"The guy was in that room there before you, he was noisy as hell. He was trouble. They had to call the cops and get him out of there."

"We won't be noisy," Bill came to the rescue, while I mentally high-fived him. No need to let the dude know I will be in that room alone. Purple belt or no belt, I'd rather sleep than practice self-defense.

"Oh, you're alright," concluded the neighbor. "That guy, he was not all there. Talked to himself, threw things around. That sort of thing."

"Well, we will go have dinner now. You have a good night sir," I said and we headed to local Denny's for a nine p.m. "breakfast."

After dinner, I dropped Bill off at the track where he was staying in a friend's mobile home, and got back to the motel. I locked the lower latch and tried to lock the deadbolt. It was hitting on the plate in the door frame. So I lifted the door up by the handle and the deadbolt slid in. Victory!

This is when I realized that I forgot to bring in anything suitable as a weapon from the car. Like my torque wrench. Or the handle to the hydraulic jack.

I tried to open the deadbolt, but to no avail. Lifted the door, but the damn thing would not budge. I was locked in.

I called the front desk. And they helpfully told me to lift the door. I said that I did, and the deadbolt was stuck, and they relented and agreed to come out and help me.

Ten minutes later, they weren't there (all the way from across the parking lot), and I decided to try the deadbolt a few more times. In a frantic effort, somehow, I managed to get it unlocked. That's the exact moment the owners (a middle-aged couple) picked to show on the scene.

"It works," they proclaimed.

"No, it doesn't," I said, "Come in and look."

The husband came in, as I demonstrated how much harder it was to unlock the door than to lock it.

"Oh, I see," he said, after futilely fighting with the deadbolt, locked in with me for a number of very long minutes.

Together we unlocked the door, but in the process we discovered that my window did not lock at all. The owners promised to fix both issues in the morning, as well as free me when it was time for me to head for the track at 6:30 a.m., and with this, left.

I went to the car and weighed my weapons options. The torque wrench is a precision instrument, and would be a shame to damage, so I settled on the jack handle, made of tubular steel. Heavy enough to be formidable in anyone's hands. I put it on my nightstand.

Thus armed, plus protected by a number of noise-making objects in front of the unlocked window, I went to bed. Once the momentary excitement over the spartan accommodations passed, my mind went immediately back to Thunderhill and I fell asleep running the track over and over in my head.

The night was uneventful, quite to my delight, as was the next night, and I can say I had a good night's sleep both times. The owners followed through on the door repair, and put a screw into the window frame to prevent the window from sliding open. Not very elegant, I admit, but functionally sound and frankly, par for the course for this motel.

If I have a choice, I will not stay there again, but given none, I bet I would.

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!

2010-05-25

Making progress

So after the first two months at work I have finally made some visible progress on the communities homepage.

This is not to say that I have not achieved much at all, but most of that was behind the scenes. I got a Help community started, worked with volunteer community moderators on succession planning and elections, stuff like that, but this Monday the first major design change took place.

Behold: Before and after.


Before, the main section of the page is dominated by sliding boxes with featured communities' names written on them. The UI is not self-evident, and the majority of clicks go to the visible boxes, while there are 15 or so there.


After, the featured communities are listed clearly, and one of them is featured more than others. This one community will change once every two weeks or so, depending on whether there is much going on there, like a launch, an event, or some such.

I know, this is not really a radical change, but it is a start, and more subtle changes will follow, hopefully resulting in an overall improvement of the communities user experience.

And that, my dear friends, is one of the reasons I come to work every day: To make the communities' users' lives easier.

2010-05-10

Moving on up

Hardwood floors are great. As long as the upper floors are soundproofed. Now, my upstairs neighbours are actually any city dweller's dream: Never a party, no loud music, no dogs, no fights or protracted make-up sex thereafter. But complete absence of soundproofing makes it possible for me to hear when one of them takes their pants off and the belt buckle hits the floor over my head.

Something needed to change, and I tried sleeping pills and white noise, but in the long run, a move to the upper floor seems to be the true solution to this situation. So today I looked at the first-floor corner unit in my apartment complex, because in a few weeks, the upper counterpart will become available, and I am seriously thinking of moving up.

The place is slightly bigger and is cut nicely, with much more light and space in the living room, a touch more closet space, but seemingly a smaller bedroom. It costs $100 more a month, though.

The only concern is that it faces the street on one side, and that noise could potentially be an issue, however street noise will be much less noticeable on the second floor.

2010-05-09

Gassed, stoked, and ready to go...


...Well, almost. Still need to move the shiny track toy to its new home at Thunderhill Raceway and get a harness for the passenger seat. The car had no passenger seat at all to begin with, but Bill Kabage, the former owner, was kind enough to throw in a stock Miata seat, so all I need to buy and install is some race-legal restraints.

I have been spending way too much time window-shopping for harnesses, helmets, racing suits and gloves online already. Sigh.

Aside from that, I will renew my SCCA membership, and probably join NASA, so I can run their performance driving schools.

I missed the only NorCal SCCA competition license school offered this year, which was in March. Thankfully, NASA have them through the year, and if you complete a requisite number of days, you cat take the test and get a comp license even in the middle of the season.

My car has both SCCA and NASA log books, so I can run with either club.

Once I have done that, I should be set for the rest of the year. The car is ready to run, and Bill gave me and extra set of Hawk pads, and a second set of wheels with tires on them, plus two more sets of unmounted tires. They're all used, and not really suitable for 10/10ths driving anymore, but they should be plenty to learn on.

I am waiting to hear back from Bill or Tom at Competition Autowerks who both have a few leads on people who are looking to split garage space and rent. A garage goes for $500 a month at Thunderhill, and up to four people can share one, making it a much more affordable proposition to keep the car at the track.

Until the end of this year, I expect to just run events at Thunderhill and not worry about transporting the car to other tracks. Next year hopefully I will know more people and will learn a thing or two about what options there are to move cars around.

2010-05-03

Evolution school Phase 2 at Great America

My Evolution Solo 2 driving school experience yesterday was a little bit of a disappointment, but a nice refresher course on looking ahead and driving well by integrating your brain and your body, and using verbalization and visualization to pick the best line.

The thing is, that I went to their direct competitor's Phase 1 event last March back in North Carolina, and yesterday I took Evo's Phase 2, thinking that the two programs were roughly equivalent and that it will be building on what I learned in Phase 1.

However, their phases, though covering the same content are numbered differently. And Evo's Phase 2 = Solo Pro's Phase 1, so it was the same course. Not a bad refresher to take every three to five years, but considering that I just took it last season, I could have skipped that.

Additionally, when I was running the first training session, I got shorted on my runs. They had a bunch of people from the Phase 1 which was the day before, so they did not communicate clearly how many runs I was supposed to get. So after the instructor got out of the car during the first run group in the morning, I should have run a couple more times, but he did not say anything, so I went straight back to pit. When I then went to work, I saw people getting 2-3 more runs, and realized I did not get all mine.

I approached one of the instructors and explained that I did not get all my runs earlier, and he said, "you'll get a few runs extra in the next session," so it was all good.

All in all, I spent so much time visualizing my runs and plotting the line yesterday, that even today, walking around the campus to get lunch and back, I kept catching my brain looking ahead, picking out the next few "elements" like trees, benches, or tables, and imagining a line to follow around them.

I will have to wait till later in the month to practice this some more on the course though. Setting up the Miata on Saturday, and tasting some sake with Carlota on Sunday.

2010-05-01

Battle scars


What you see here is just an example of more than a few cone marks my car brought home today. We had a blast at the Santa Rosa airport with the Redwood Region PCA. The shocks, though noisy as ever, seem to work, and the car was as well-behaved as ever, with tons of grip and not a trace of the moody snap-oversteering that has plagued us for so long.

I needed a run or two to trust the car again, but soon after, we were flying down the runway, dancing around cones, like we always used to.


Most of the cone marks magically appeared after my codriver's runs, so he owes us some detailing and buffing work, but since he managed to run quite a few impressive times, we are more than happy to forgive him. He'll still have to help us with the buffing though. Because pretty Hondas should not run around all scuffed up like that!

We each had a total of 12 runs, five in the morning and seven in the afternoon, and towards the end of the event I got a bit carried away, resulting in a brief sideways agricultural excursion, which in turn caused the above bruise on my knee, even though I was wearing knee protection. Oh well, serves me right.

My one-before-last run was a historic first finish in reverse. Coming out of a long-ish straightaway towards the finish line, in the final right-hand curve, I hit some pavement change under acceleration and my rear promptly ended pointing to the front.

Since my car was stopped only a meter or two from the finish line, I put it in reverse and crossed the laser beam that way. Then quickly cleared out of the way for the car behind me to finish.