2010-10-24

Mein Wagen tut was er will

So the Bavarians have figured out how to make a pretty solid car which goes fast and makes all kinds of good noises doing it, but they just don't seem to have that electrical thing down.

Yesterday on the way home from Thunderhill I was enjoying some tunes on the radio (yes, I need an auxiliary input wired in!) when suddenly the music cuts out.

Silence.

I glance over to the radio display and there it says "BMW assist inactive."

Bah! We knew that! The subscription for the first couple years is included in the price of the car, but that time has long come and gone, and I had no intention on renewing.

I crane my neck to look at the BMW assist panel--two buttons, one with an "SOS" on it, and one to call for mechanical assistance. The "SOS" button is blinking.

Great. How do I cancel that and get my radio back?

Also, why did my car decide to call the cops anyway? I was not particularly abusive this time around, just cruising down the highway after two days of driving hard the other car.

Was it jealous that the Miata was getting all the attention? It must have not gotten the memo that I took it on two agricultural excursions, and one near-off during that time.

Anyways, I try to cancel the "SOS" and am not succeeding. Turning off the radio helps temporarily, but then the message "BMW assist inactive" comes up again, and the "SOS" button blinks.

I expect that any second a helicopter-load of angry Bavarians will disable my car remotely, then parachute down and whisk me away to an undisclosed location for interrogation about what kind of emotional and physical abuse I was inflicting on poor Bubba the Beemer.

All the while of course I can't have my radio back. I have a few brief successes, but less than a minute after, the SOS cuts in.

Thankfully there is no sound alarm going off, or I would have to pull over and see if turning the car off and on again would do any good.

This continues for about 40 minutes or so, then suddenly Bubba changes his mind about calling for help from BMW, and I get my music back for the remainder of the three-hour trip.

2010-10-22

Who's driving your car?


This is the first time a fortune cookie actually made sense. I spent a day today driving around in circles, and not really getting ahead. I felt like I was stuck and could not break through to the next level.

I was running Open class and a race today, a total of 9 sessions, for 3+ hours of track time, all in all.

I drove all over the place, just not on the line, and messed up entry after entry, having to fight the car coming out of so many corners.

Towards the end of the day, April, a kick-ass driver, came over to me and mentioned that she saw me drive sloppily out there and said: Drive the line, and the cars will come to you. So for the final three or four sessions, I concentrated on driving the line cleanly and precisely, lap after lap. I got a bit better, but still far from great.

My main challenge today seemed to be my desire to keep up with the fast drivers -- both in the Open class and in the race. So much so, that I was no longer fully focused on my own driving. Today was a good example of what instructors mean when they say, you have to "be the driver," because today I was not the one driving my car. Every car that passed me, every car I tried to catch, they all contributed, yet I was not really at the wheel.

I wish I got my head out of my ass sooner, so that I could practice a good line longer. Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

Positives of today: I got a ton of seat time, and nailed the succession of turns 6-7-8 once so well that I carried 100 mph (161 kmh) through turn 8. This was the fastest I ever went there, and the car felt great, solid, pushed out gently almost all the way to the rumbles, yet gripped and shot out straight into 9.

Another good thing was to have practiced in a race setting. Even though I did not place well, I ran practice, qualifying, and two races, and finished them all. I avoided contact and had one controlled off in the second race.

Coming around turn 3, which is a blind turn obscured by a hill, I saw four or five Miatas in a skirmish, and one of them was in a spin, already pointed at 90 degrees to the way we all were going. I was not sure whether I would make it through there before the sliding car crossed my path of travel, so instead I braked, causing the rear end to come around and driving off the track and somewhat up the hill at pretty much a right angle. I backed onto the track and resumed the race. Car was unharmed, as far as I could tell.

Additional positive was getting more comfortable sliding the car on the track. Turns 2-3-4, if taken aggressively, will make your car slide quite a bit. Not in the same way as in a drifting competition, but you'd feel the rear tires slipping a fair amount, while still maintaining good traction. When you are unfamiliar with this feeling, it is somewhat unsettling, and it took me a while to get used to. I think today was the first time I felt comfortable enough to let the car slide around turns 2-3-4 in succession.

I guess all in all, I made some progress, but I have a lot to learn still. My goal for tomorrow will be to remain patient and to be 100% present while driving. Shut off any distractions and be the driver of my car. Concentrate on driving a good line, and have fun doing it!

2010-10-14

Going round in circles

So now that we spoke about being a woman in racing, how about discussing why being a race car driver is such a huge part of my identity these days.

Don't forget, after learning how to drive in Berlin back in 2002, I never took the license test (ran out of money, and saw no need for getting a license in a country where busses and trains are all-pervasive).

I survived quite happily until moving to North Carolina in 2005, when it became apparent that driving was essential for any sort of successful living in that part of the United States.

My first car was a 1999 Mazda Miata, which came equipped with a double-diagonal roll bar, a cold air intake, and some suspension upgrades.

I named the car Bonnie, and kept it for just about two years, in which time the car transformed me from a bloody novice driver into an avid autocrosser and an incorrigible gearhead.

So five years and three cars later, I am deeper into motorsports than I would have dared to dream even a year ago. I got a dedicated race car, and am spending as much time driving it on the track as my paycheck will allow. More, even, as my long-suffering credit cards will attest.

On clearer days, I sit back and wonder, what keeps me coming back to track for more? Well, there are a few reasons. Some better than others.

First of course is the speed and the excitement of overcoming the gut feeling of impending doom when I steer the car into a turn at speeds that make me cringe. The "OMG, we're going to DIE!" followed by the adrenaline rush and euphoria when I make it safely through the corner. Lather, rinse, repeat indefinitely.

It is pretty cool that the thrill can be repeated quite reliably. One track no longer scares you? Well, there are many more to learn. The car is no longer enough for you to piss your pants? There are always faster cars. Striving for that perfect lap is no longer thrilling? Go into racing wheel-to-wheel. And on and on it goes.

And that is another good reason for me to keep coming back: The fact that you're never finished learning. There is always something you did not know, and someone will generously share their knowledge with you. It is in a way similar to martial arts, where no matter how good you are, there is always someone more advanced than you, and there is always a new challenge waiting just around the corner.

One of the biggest kicks I get out of driving is the experience of what I call "honest learning," something that cannot be faked. Let me illustrate my point. Like many of my readers, I have gone to school (for entirely too many years, but that's beside the point), and now I am a tech marketing professional. I have been in tech marketing as long as I remember making money, and though I get to pick up a new trick here and there, what I do for a living hardly ever changes. Even my biggest professional achievements are increments on years and years of doing the same thing--never an entirely new thing.

Not so with driving, where most of us arrive with merely adequate preparation, and have to master something completely new to them. Every second shaved off the lap time, every apex hit just so are objectively measurable and also something that I could not do even a year ago. Picking up a new skill and mastering it over time gives me a true sense of accomplishment. Every time I go to the track, I have new goals and new challenges and though it is very much a moving target, and I may never get perfect, seeing measurable improvement always makes my day.

Finally, there's the camaraderie, the socializing going on in the paddock, and a healthy dose of competitiveness. The social aspect is like the icing on top of an already perfect cake. Yes, I don't eat sweets, but the analogy still holds for most of my audience. I could probably go out and drive month in and month out and never talk to anyone, but finding the right group of people to run with, and meeting new friends who are just as nuts about cars and driving as I am simply makes my happiness complete.

If you still aren't getting why I like driving so much, come with me, and I'll show you :)

2010-10-13

On being a woman in racing

It is no secret that racing is at the moment a male-dominated field. Being a social science major, I wonder about things like why that is and how it could be changed to be more representative of the actual gender ratios in the society. Not sure I am ready to present my theories to the public yet, but I wanted to take some time to share my experience being a woman race car driver.

The currently accepted gender roles (stereotypes) also tend to assign genders to professions and activities, leading to certain occupations being almost exclusively associated with a particular gender. Look at the picture, where the scientist and the fire fighter are men, and the teacher and the nurse are women.

Similarly, being a race car driver is something that is considered gender-appropriate for a man, and as these things usually go, men are the ones who mostly go into racing.

At the same time the perception of racing, which in no small part has been influenced by the media, is that women are only allowed in the pit lane, as "trophy girls" wearing spandex and showing cleavage for visual enjoyment of male drivers and the audience.

There is no objective reason for it to be this way. Power steering and power brakes have leveled the playing field (assuming that an "average" woman has less physical strength than an "average" man FWIW), but even without power steering, I don't find myself at a disadvantage running a Miata on road courses.

There is no scientific reason for women to enjoy speed and lateral Gs any less than men, just go to your nearest roller-coaster for a representative sample!

Also, not all performance driving events are races, and there are participation opportunities for all aggression (and testosterone) levels.

And lastly, sexism does not run rampant at the track. I have bought my spec Miata and ran each month since May this year, and so far at the track, nobody was a dick to me, and everyone was nice and helpful.

Sum total, the world of amateur racing has been consistently defying every gender discrimination stereotype I could think of. Nobody has ever said or done anything that would make me feel uncomfortable, be it an unwelcome advance or a comment about what "girls" are and are not supposed to do. Car people turned out to be an extremely welcoming bunch.

To be perfectly honest, I do wish that I were less of an exception when I go to the track. Believe it or not, I don't always like to stick out like a sore thumb, and would appreciate some female reinforcement. Women would find that it's a very non-threatening environment if they only got their asses in gear and came to one of these events, that I can no longer imagine not participating in.