2011-12-25

Learning the ropes at Laguna Seca


As luck would have it, I scored two free days at Laguna Seca quite unexpectedly. The originally-registered driver could not make it, and so I took the spot, with quite a lot of squee and gratitude.

Prior to this, I have only driven at Laguna once, and my best time was around 2:02--very unimpressive, but I laid the groundwork. It could only get better from there.

Prior to going, I studied Dean Thomas' turn-by-turn guide to driving a Spec Miata on this track. Armed with that knowledge, and the familiarity with the track, I went to work.

As all my coaches and the handbooks say: Pick a goal whenever you go out, and focus on that one thing.

Laguna is unkind to underpowered cars, killing our momentum with sharp corners just before a long and steep uphill. Knowing this, I decided to work on the sequence of turns that determines your speed on the Rahal Straight, which lies between Turns 6 and 7. In a Spec Miata the Rahal Straight is a long and arduous climb. Whatever speed you manage to carry out of T6, is more or less the speed you'll be arriving at the Corkscrew (T8) with, plus/minus 3 miles an hour. Nailing Turns 3-6 was therefore my goal in life for the two days with Track Masters.

I used my exit speeds at trackout to see whether I made any progress in each of these four turns, with the goal being to get to lower to mid 80s at the exit of 6.

I did not spend much time practicing the other 2/3rds of the turns, but data says I improved them as well.

The embedded video shows one of my sessions on Day 2 of the event, which also happened to contain my best time for both days: 1:56:08. I was logging my runs with a DL-1 that I inherited from J., and he also superimposed it on the video.


Next time I am at Laguna Seca, I will continue working on the finer aspects of T3-6, but will mostly focus on Turns 9 and 10. A good lap time for this track is still 8+ seconds away, so I have my work cut out for me.


Music: P3 album by Amoria-RT and Happy by Bertycox

2011-12-21

Field guide to the common American car nut

The field and garden variety Car Nut is quite common across the continental United States, and is frequently easy to spot. It is not however widely acknowledged that a number of subspecies of the Car Nut exist in the wild, and this can sometimes lead to misunderstanding when attempting to interact with a Car Nut.

This guide will help you distinguish the eight main subspecies of the common American Car Nut and allow you to decide on the best care for the Car Nut in your household.

The Drifter

Preferred habitat: Drifting competitions, rarer autocross and track. The Drifter is also sometimes spotted at Tuner car shows and gymkhana competitions.
Preferred car: Rear-wheel drive with a lot of horsepower and skinny tires.
Most commonly seen: Driving their car sideways with smoke billowing from rear wheels. The Drifter believes that style points should be part of a motorsport competition, while timing isn’t as important.
Easily distinguished by: Stacks of destroyed tires and frequent visits to the used tire shop. Neon-colored wheels and accents on the car can also often be used to identify a Drifter in the wild.

The Poser

Preferred habitat: Wherever the Poser has the audience to show off their expensive car. Can be spotted at a local race track, an autocross competition, or doing a scenic drive in a flock of other Posers. The Posers will never self-identify as such, and frequently camouflage as Time Trialers, Tuners, or rarely Racers.
Preferred car: Whatever is new, shiny, and expensive.
Most commonly seen: Talking about their car or climbing out of the wreck blaming traction control.
Easily distinguished by: More money than sense and complete lack of driving skill.

The Racer

Preferred habitat: Race track, hill climb, rallye -- wherever there is competition involved. Can be frequently spotted in a flock of other racers, rubbing fenders in an attempt to get ahead of the pack. Can be provoked to drag-race from a stop light easily.
Preferred car: If it has wheels and a motor, the Racer will drive it. It better have rollover protection though.
Most commonly seen: Under their car, fixing damage from the latest race.
Easily distinguished by: Compulsive desire to race and a skinny wallet due to cost of fuel, tires, and frequent car repairs. Some have observed that the Racer may also have more money than sense, however this condition is reached by near complete lack of sense. When not racing or working on the car, the Racer will talk about racing incessantly.

The Spectator

Preferred habitat: In the grandstands, watching a racing event, attending a car show, or next to their mate or parent of a different Car Nut subspecies. This is a peculiar kind of Car Nut, who has less interest in driving or working on cars, and rather more interest in social interaction around them. The Spectator willingly follows their mate or parent to competitions.
It is important not to mix up a Spectator with a captive Audience, who usually is not a Car Nut at all, but has been captured and brought to the car event by their mate, relative, or parent.
Preferred car: Comfortable sedan or an SUV with many cup-holders.
Most commonly seen: Rooting for their race team. Also, often in a folding lawn chair, watching their Car Nut or engaging with other Spectators. It is not uncommon to see the Spectator help their Car Nut work on the car.
Easily distinguished by: The Spectator rarely touches the car and almost never has a helmet. Doesn’t have to compulsively spend the life’s savings on cars.

The Time Trialer

Preferred habitat: Autocross or a local race track. Can usually be spotted going for “that perfect lap.”
Preferred car: Modified just one point below what’s maximally allowed by class rules.
Most commonly seen: Trying to get some clear track to achieve the best lap time. Time Trialer is rarely seen swapping paint with other cars and is much more likely to politely let others by on track in exchange for a clean lap.
Easily distinguished by: Detailed knowledge of arcane classing rules and indices for their preferred type of competition. Just as competitive as a Racer, the distinguishing feature of the Time Trialer is a car that has little or no body damage from the competition. Frequently the Time Trialer will also have a skinny wallet due to car modifications.

The Tinkerer

Preferred habitat: Under the current project car, surrounded by a number of future and past project cars and loose parts. Can also be seen at a local Pick-n-pull junkyard, or at a parts store. You can usually spot a Tinkerer in their garage on a weekend. Be careful when approaching if your car needs any work: The Tinkerer will insist on helping you, which may render your car immobile for a long period of time if they get distracted by another project.
Preferred car: One that needs to be rescued from the crusher.
Most commonly seen: Driving a mid-1990s Toyota, because it’s the only car that runs.
Easily distinguished by: More than two of car carcasses on jack stands near the Tinkerer’s dwelling. The Tinkerer believes that they can tackle any car problem on their own.

The Tuner

Preferred habitat: Car show or a scenic drive in a flock of other Tuners. When not out proudly displaying the tuned car, the Tuner will be in the shop tuning it some more.
Preferred car: Has extensive modifications and body kits, some of which may actually diminish the car’s driving performance.
Most commonly seen: Socializing with other tuners and adding more modifications to the car.
Easily distinguished by: Energy drink attire and superficial understanding of vehicle dynamics. Of all Car Nuts, the Tuner is the one most likely to have a keen sense of appreciation for vehicle aesthetics. Frequently will have a skinny wallet due to the car modifications.

The Wannabe

Preferred habitat: Couch or online car forum.
Preferred car: While the Wannabe will frequently be involved in discussions about advantages of a Pagani Zonda over a Bugatti Veyron, they are most likely to drive a boring sedan.
Most commonly seen: Talking about things they have no real understanding of. The said talking most often is performed in an online venue such as a car discussion forum. The Wannabe is never seen doing any wrenching or performance driving, so to spot one in person, you may have to attend a family gathering or other social event where several Wannabes are present.
Easily distinguished by: Fearless readiness to jump into any automotive argument guns blazing. You can easily provoke a Wannabe to discuss any topic from suspension settings to advantages of a particular type of tires for competition, but beware that once started, they will not back out, so you need to be prepared to retreat and take cover.

2011-11-14

The digit counters fall

These have been some very track-loaded three weeks for me. I spent two days at Infineon last weekend of October and then two days at Thunderhill in the middle of the week right after that. Following that, another Infineon outing with NASA, and one last hurrah is happening at Laguna before the month is over.

The October event at Infineon has brought me a nice breakthrough, which allowed me to shave off full seven seconds from my previous personal best. I was full of anticipation, and a little bit of anxiety going to Thunderhill a couple days later, unsure whether my improvement was sustainable or just a fluke.

This here is a video from around noon on day One, where I was still working on pace. My data logger decided to not log the morning sessions, so I turned on the camera to have at least some way of timing my laps.

The logger agreed to work in the afternoon, so J. and I had some data to crunch in the evening and came up with a plan of attack for the next day. I made some notes in my track journal, and went to work in the morning. When we got back to the motel in the evening, I was astonished at how effective our plan was. I knocked off many more seconds from my lap times, finishing the two days with a very respectable 2:13 lap over the bypass.

What did I change in comparison to the day before?

  • Getting on the gas sooner (much sooner in 9, which resulted in me carrying 75 mph at the top of the hill instead of 60 before that)
  • Cleaning up and tightening Turn 14/15 which allowed me to be flat through most of the turn, and not just half of it
  • Working on the fear in 1 and carrying additional 5 mph through there
  • Later and less braking for Turn 2, flat on the gas very quickly, topping out of 3rd by the brake point for Turn 3
  • Faster transition to the left in Turn 4 (over bypass)
  • Finally overcoming the fear and not lifting for Turn 8
  • Moved from lazy shifts to quicker shifts (saving me at least 1 second over the whole course)

So what's next?

Next, I have an interesting challenge to solve. Now that I am no longer the slowest car on the track, I have trouble passing people who are not being too cooperative, such as powerful cars that motor me on every straight, yet hold me up in the very first corner. While it may have been very frustrating at the time, once I had some time to think about it in the paddock, it became clear that it is my problem to solve. I need to learn to pass in turns, and not have to rely on people lifting for me on straights.

How do I do that? Well, for starters I registered for the Art of Road Racing workshop at Thunderhill in January, where we will spend a lot of time working on passing and other race craft. I'll let you know how that goes, but let me tell you, I sat through a one-hour "teaser" session the authors gave at Infineon last Saturday and took away a ton of great insights.

A lot of driving relies on your ability to relegate the driving to your unconscious, and repetition is key to that, so another part of the plan is to drive and drive and drive. Stop for fuel and go again.

I have estimated that since I started my track career, I have driven at least 1500 laps around Thunderhill. So it is not surprising that my times there are better in comparison to what others are doing in Spec Miata than at Infineon, where I could have driven fewer than 500 laps so far.

All in all, I am about to finish the season full of enthusiasm and new comfort at the wheel. The goal of going back to racing once I reach a comfortable pace to qualify mid-pack is within reach and I hope to resume racing in the Summer of next year.

Here's to quicker laps!

So what's the fuss all about? 2014 C7 Corvette as fat and ugly as ever

UPDATE 2013-01-17: 2014 Corvette is still ugly.

Just looked at the pictures of the 2014 C7 that the Jalopnik author swears up and down are legit. So legit that someone is getting fired over the leak. And while I understand how management may not like the leak, and someone has to be made responsible, what I don't understand is what the fuss is all about.

The car appears to be more or less a C6 with a few style tweaks. The subtlety of Camaro-style taillights and more glass aft of the driver is lost on me. If nobody told me this was a future model rendering, I would have just happily believed this was a current production car.

Booooooring.

I have made a solemn pledge to buy a Corvette if they ever made a sleek stingray-bodied one again. Some Chevy product managers at a track day hinted that that was a possibility, but I guess my Bubba ze Beemer is not in any danger of being traded in any time soon.

2011-10-31

The big breakthrough

I have just come back from an awesome weekend at Infineon Raceway, where I have made an incredible breakthrough. Suddenly, I am going full six seconds faster around the track than my previous personal best!

What is most amazing is that it took no effort, and I was not even aware that anything was different until I looked at results.

I went out in Group 4, and kept running up on trains of cars, so that I even had to go through the pit lane just to get some open track. Back in the paddock, I plunked myself down on the steps of the trailer and proclaimed that Group 4 was full of Sunday drivers today and that I am not even sure I wanted to run in that group again that day. Kurt, who was listening to my bitching said, "Give yourself some credit, you were flying."

"Who? Me? No way, I was as slow as ever," I said and that was the end of that. I went out in Time Trials, then Mario asked me what my times were. I had not yet looked, so we went over to the tower to look at posted results.

To my great surprise, my name was not all the way at the bottom of the list, and the time next to it was 2:10 -- four seconds faster than the time I posted twelve months ago, and which remained firmly out of reach for me all of this season.

I hugged everyone in sight, and especially Mario, who has been coaching me for a number of events now, and helped me get more comfortable driving closer to the limits of the car. Two-ten! I could barely believe it. Much less so, because I did not feel like I went particularly fast at all. But indeed, it was not the Group 4 drivers being slower than usual, it was me being faster!

With more of Mario's coaching, I was able to knock off three more seconds off my time, arriving at a 2:07 lap -- which was my goal for the weekend.

I was fastidiously logging my runs with a data acquisition system, and asked Mario to drive my car for a few demo laps, so that I could compare my driving to his. He drove at a comfortable 8/10ths pace, which did not require much correction or countersteering and turned a 2:03 time. Later, using the logging software's ability to combine your best sector times from your entire logged laps into one theoretical one, I learned that had I consistently nailed every sector, I could have achieved a 2:05 that weekend.

So my next goal is to continue driving at this pace and to commit that to muscle memory so as to build a foundation for my next improvement.

One change that I notice in my driving is that fear and self-doubt that kept holding me back are now entirely gone, and I can enjoy my passion for driving more than ever before. If this trend continues, I should be able to resume racing not too far from now.

2011-10-18

When I can't contain myself, there's a seat for that

October has been a sucky month for some of my racing friends. Crashes, injuries, or plain old cancer, it appears like universe is feasting on pain.

Determined not to add to the feast, I am now researching better seats for my race car.

You see, the secret to limiting damage from any impact is to dissipate the impulse over as large an area of your body as possible, i.e. not just your hip and shoulder, or hip and ribs, but every square inch of your body that is available on that side. That is where the containment seat comes in. Here's what I am looking at.

This here is a custom-built seat, manufactured by Joie of Seating in sunny North Carolina, which should fit into my little car just fine.

The idea is to tow the car to the local dealer so both I and Wasabi can be measured and we can make sure there is enough room for the new seat. While my roll cage in not ideal, because it does not go into the driver side door, and thus constrains the space available for the seat, it helps that I can fit in a smaller size seat, so there is hope that I can fit this bad boy in.

This here is a RaceTech seat, built in New Zealand, and comes highly recommended by Kiwi, who's been in more crashes than I probably have driven total races on track. It costs slightly less, but is also not custom-made. However, the local dealer will be able to fit me, so that I get the seat to best support and protect me. It is made of carbon fiber, which is kinda cool, and also helps with weight. On the other hand, I will be bolting in weights in the car once the passenger seat is out, if I want to be sure not to get under weight, so that's not really a concern.

What is unclear is whether it'll fit inside my car. So that means that Wasabi will have to come with me to the other dealer too, most likely.

There are of course more seats out there, and I have just begun my research. Do any of my readers have good or bad experiences to share, or recommendations for me to check out?

2011-10-07

Would you like some sexy with your conference?

This week I had the questionable pleasure of staying at the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas. In and of itself a modern hotel with all sorts of neat amenities, it left greatly to be desired in the good taste department, even by Vegas standards.

The main impression I got from the hotel was of an expensive bordello. There were pictures of female bodies everywhere, frequently headless or revealingly "dressed" in suggestive poses and lighting, catering to the straight male gaze and making it clear to me that I was not the intended audience.

Statues in the conference hang out area had female forms arching their backs and thrusting their breasts forward. A large picture on the wall of the hallway leading to my room for example had more or less disembodied legs of a woman wearing patent leather red high-heel pumps, with another 2-3 pairs scattered around. "Fertility symbols" of the big-breast/wide hips type displayed in the showcase along the conference center hallway. And the list goes on.

The whole hotel was made in the style of what Jersey Shore cast would think as high-class chic. Marble and shiny metal everywhere you look, coupled with bold geometric patterns and objects'd'art looking like they came straight from a Pier 1 sale table. Who cares that sharp edges hurt? We'll even make our spring loaded door handles rectangular so that you can really feel them cut into your hand each time you want to go take a piss.

Speaking of which, even the bathroom wallpaper had reclining ladies for a pattern. Because you can never have enough naked female bodies for decoration. It's like anal sex and lube. Just when you think you used too much, it's about right.

For a subtle variation on the bad taste theme, please enjoy the clashing patterns of the bedroom wallpaper and the cabinets.

The french restaurant that hosted an evening reception on the second day of the conference, had "chalk" paintings on the wall, as if on a blackboard. That was really neat, they had wine, food, and portions of the swine pictured. Aaaaand... you guessed it! -- more neckid ladies. To be consumed (by straight men) with the rest of the food and beverages. Nothing like a bit of objectification to go with your food.

If you know me at all, you know that I am actually not at all against raunchy sexy things. I love them as much as the next man or woman, but it has to be in context. If I come to a professional conference, I really don't hope to be bombarded by sexually suggestive imagery from all angles, all the time.

I may write to the organizers of the conference, but I am having a distinct feeling that they won't care.

2011-09-26

About expensive cars on track

Note: the comments are closed, as I am not seeking to add fuel to the controversy.

The other day I unfortunately witnessed the results of a car-to-car contact on track. One of the cars involved was comparably cheap, and the other relatively expensive. I will not go into details or link to gawker albums of pictures of the wrecked cars. Much rather I would like to use this post to talk about something I see happen a lot.

When an owner of an expensive car gets in trouble, it is frequently the first instinct of the public to pile on and badmouth the "rich guy" without even knowing the details.

First, a disclaimer. This is me speaking for myself, and myself only. I am not representing any club or have knowledge of the ultimate truth of what happened. I have not seen the incident happen, but driven past it under yellow. Everything I am about to share is based on what I heard from other drivers, and my personal experience with one of the people involved in the contact.

So from what I hear, the expensive car spun on top of a blind turn, and the mass-produced car was not able to avoid the spun vehicle and drove into it. It is not unusual for people to lose control and spin out at that turn, and I have spun there in the rain myself. I have to tell you, I will not soon forget how I watched a gaggle of fast-moving cars part to avoid me on both sides, while I was staring straight in their faces. It was not all out of the realm of possibility for them to hit me, and I was fortunate that nobody did.

I was giving a student a ride in my car that session when I saw a waving yellow. I slowed down a touch, and when I crested the hill, there were the two cars sitting about 10 meters apart, their front-ends about a foot shorter. As soon as I saw them, I made an effort to look for the opening to get around them instead, because the last thing these two cars needed was my Miata as a hood ornament. Next flag station held out a red flag, and shortly after we were directed to clear the track.

Back in the pits, I found out with relief that both drivers were okay. I listened to one of the eye-witnesses as he was recounting what he saw, and that was the end of that. I did not get to talk to either driver after the incident, and I did not go to the graveyard to look at the cars after they were towed in. I learned early that it's in bad taste to ogle someone else's misfortune.

Today I found out that there were online discussions in which people were blaming the driver of the the expensive car for driving aggressively and generally getting what he deserved.

Gentlemen, I call bullshit.

I actually know the driver of that car, and I shared the track with him a number of times over the years, and he has always been very polite on the track, and a clean passer. He drives a fast car, and he drives it well. Sure, he closes on you fast, but always passes clean, and if you keep your eyes up, he'll never scare you. I know this because I am fairly slow, and he never ever bullied me, or anyone that I saw.

He made a mistake and spun in a spot where many people spin, and another driver's mistake cost them both dearly. End of story.

Were it two spec E30s or two Miatas, nobody would even start a discussion, but just shrug it off as an unfortunate, but not specifically noteworthy event.

I am sure both drivers are feeling awful now, but this was a track incident. They happen. Get over it people.

2011-09-19

Netflix in a tailspin? Maybe not.

So I read the blog post by Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix the other night, and this morning, I also received it in my email, as their customer. I did not comment on the blog, but seeing that they took the special care to copy and paste the message into a CRM and push the "send" button, I responded to the email.

Here is what I wrote:

While I appreciate the open communication, and haven't used physical disk rentals in over a year, I fail to see how disintegrating your service is going to help in this situation.

The video game rental addition is definitely a step in the right direction.

Physical media rentals are probably going the way of the dinosaurs in the long term, so I personally don't feel strongly about this issue at all, however, it is puzzling to see your move to separate the two services entirely. What about upsell opportunities when a title is not available for streaming? Instead of disintegrating, you may use the integrated services to offer one-off rentals.

"The item you requested is not available to play on your computer right now. Rent it on DVD for $2."

Anyways, I figure nobody reads the mail at this account anyway.
Cheers,
a.

2011-08-20

Racing-Numbers.com -- my new venture

Racing-numbers.com sponsors my race car Wasabi
Many of you know, but some probably haven't heard about it yet. Last weekend, at a NASA race day, I have launched my new online business called Racing-Numbers.com.

While looking to refresh the looks of my car, I discovered that vinyl can be very expensive, but also very cheap, depending on who you go to. I was lucky to find a supplier who could help me get the numbers, letters, and stripes at a price I could not believe.

So I told him: "Dude, you should sell these to racers, that's so cheap!"
And he said: "Dude, YOU should sell these to racers."

I thought about it for 30 seconds and said Yes.

It took me about a month and a half to figure out the best online storefront provider and to set up the first minimal inventory of products, with examples of each number and letter in all the different colors.

I had to abandon a half-done storefront I was building on an Amazon cloud platform, because there was no way to add comments to the product before or after checkout. That was important so my customers could tell me what exact numbers and class letters they want, such as "23" or "STU" and such.

My next move was to build a store with Volusion, and that was really awesome. Should have gone there from get-go. Everything was easy, and I quickly caught up, and was ready for the launch at Thunderhill.

The reception from my fellow drivers at the track was awesome! People were very supportive and also quite pleased with my prices. Yay!

Racing-numbers.com sponsors my race car Wasabi
I had a box of 500 business cards--fresh off the press--with me and gave away at least 100. Also, I added a spiff new window shade and a decal to the windshield, and another decal on the rear bumper. It was really cool to see physical manifestations of my online business in real-life.

So last night, an order came in from a friend, and this morning, I woke up to an order from someone I don't ever remember meeting. From Massachusetts. Yay again!

I ran a few searches, and it turns out that I make the top 5 results for "racing class letters," and I haven't even done much SEO yet, beyond setting up of the products with clear and consistent descriptions.

All in all, I am super-excited, and am very motivated to add more products as well as get my toes wet with paid online searches to drive some more sales.

Wish me luck!

2011-08-16

About coaching

I love coaching. That's one of the reasons I went to instruct beginning track drivers with NASA. That moment when you see the lightbulb go on, and they get that look on their faces saying "Oh, now I get it!" -- that's what makes it all worthwhile to me.

It is also cool to see my former students at later events, graduating to advanced groups, getting faster and more comfortable on track. Knowledge that I have contributed to a lasting passion is really cool. They may be cursing me later for getting them addicted to the very expensive crack pipe of going fast, but they will be grinning ear to ear while burning through that cash!

I am usually generous with my knowledge and see no reason to not share if someone asks for help.

Sometimes however I think that the advice the person is asking for is not the advice they actually need. Let me tell you a story.

A friend of a friend who I haven't met yet is about to launch a community site for their startup, and asked me to help with some advice and pointers how to make an online community succeed. The community I run has been around for a long time, and I can't claim all of its success, but it sure works, and I have learned a few things about why it is as popular as it is with our users. As is my custom, I emailed back saying that yes, I would be glad to help.

The person asking me for advice proceeded to say, they were available for a conversation in San Francisco, SoMa district. Seriously? Call me old-fashioned, but this is not the way to ask someone for a favour. When I ask someone to help me out and they agree, I usually ask the other person when and where they will be available, and go meet them there instead of offering them options to meet me on my schedule.

Finally, we agree on a time for a phone call, but when the calendar invite arrives, it's for an entirely different date!

I am afraid the person is not going to like my advice.

2011-08-15

Back to school

After much thought, I have decided to step back from racing for a while, and to go back to perfecting my driving. I will be back when I can comfortably turn a 2:15 at Thunderhill on a bad day. That way, I will have people to race with when I come back, instead of turning expensive TT laps all day long.

Being the woman of action, I immediately asked for advice and coaching from some of the great drivers at my club and was able to improve my results by full seven seconds over the course of one day.

I rode with two great Miata drivers, Barry H. and Darsie E., with Barry driving my own car, and I also received in-car instruction from another awesome driver Mario L. who yelled "Gas! Gas! Gas!" and held my right knee down so I would not lift too soon for turns. As a result, I picked up 12 or so mph of exit speed in T1 and T8, cleaned up my line in T9 somewhat, and got to the point where I am almost topping out of 3rd gear in T2.

What made the difference was a combination of several factors:

  • Watching Darsie and Barry get the car around the track fast and noticing the calm in the cockpit.
    The unhurried, relaxed way these two get the cars around corners faster than I ever have, making small corrections here and there, but basically just doing their thing without any drama... I would think of that, and immediately, serenity would descend, and I'd be in the groove.
  • Seeing (and feeling) my own car do great in fast turns and stick at speeds I have never thought possible.
    Knowing that I have a tool comparable to what the good guys work with makes a huge difference. Now at the slightest stir of uncertainty going into a fast turn, I can say "I know she'll stick. She'll do it." It is remarkable how much faster I can go now, just knowing that.
  • Mario's comment that I had good car control.
    I have never heard anyone say that to me before, and I doubted my ability to control the car. Feeling out of control was preventing me from pushing the car to the point where I may need to correct, effectively keeping my performance down out of fear of screwing up.
  • Finally, observing Barry's driving style and realizing that there is nothing wrong with not sawing at the wheel.
    You'll laugh, but let me tell you something. I have many friends who are fast drivers, and all of the ones I observed in-car happen to have this "pitch-and-catch" driving style. I however am more of the smooth and precise kind of driver, the "set it and forget it" type, if you know the jargon. It was really making me uncomfortable, thinking that I had to become the master of the chaos to go fast. Now I see that there is a way to go fast that doesn't go against my nature, and it's really empowering.

So now suddenly driving is much less stressful, and I have made more progress in two days than I have in a year. Somehow, driving even became more fun, even though I thought I was already maxed out.

2011-08-02

Exciting features from Berkeley


The City That Hates Cars has issued me a parking violation for daring to park my car legally, and paying for it, yet only running one license plate on it. The car came with only one plate from the dealer, so I am not even sure it is a violation of the VC 5200(a) as stated in the ticket. But my time is worth it to me, so I will rather pay the fee than contesting the citation, which can only be done in writing (snail-mail) or in person.

So I go to their payment page and there in addition to the $28 that the ticket is for, they are also assessing me a $2 "convenience fee." Like, really? Convenience?

I call BS.

2011-07-31

My first SCCA race at Thundehill


Had my frist SCCA race last weekend. That was quite a bit different from what I am used to from NASA, and I sure learned a ton, and also had a blast racing.
You see, SCCA has a much larger field in the Spec Miata class, to the tune of 40-60 cars, and that weekend we had 44. With NASA we usually have half that or fewer, and because there are so few of us, we have a mixed run group, with Spec E30 cars, for example. Anyways, fewer people to play with, which means that the field usually drives away from me and I basically just turn some laps and pit.
Now this time was different. On Saturday I had a competitor at my own level and got to race and pass that car, and get re-passed, and chase some more. I had so much fun doing that, that I think I couldn't have any more fun racing for the first place.
The day started less than optimal. In the warm-up session I discovered that my car has somehow lost all its power. I could not get the car to accelerate at all, and was even slowing down going uphill into Turn Nine while flat on the gas. Back in the pit, there seemed to be nothing obviously wrong with the car, but I remembered that the guy at the shop that had some cage work done on my car had opened my air flow meter housing. I don't know why either. But he has, so I thought, well, I can't race this way, so might as well take that car to the local dyno shop and have them try to adjust that bit, because it could be the culprit.
Luckily for me, it was. An hour later, I had regained 20 horsepower and was ready to qualify.

I start out and the difference is like night and day, my car is making all the power that I am used to from her, and we're doing pretty well. Then I get a meatball flag. That's the black flag with the red circle in it, and it means that you have a mechanical issue. I pull to the black flag station, and turns out that my transponder doesn't work. No qualifying times for me.
I go to pit, and with our mechanic Bradley's help, we find that the ground wire was pulled from the transponder at some point. It is a quick fix, but the qualifying session is long over when we're done.
Oh well, it's not like I was going for the pole, more like, I wanted to know my times.

I got to grid all the way at the back and did not have a very good start, but soon I realized that I could catch the car in front of me. Over the next several laps, I worked my way to catch that car and finally pass it in Turn Nine. I got re-passed on the front straight, and was working on catching up again when lapping traffic caught us and I got distracted and slid through Turn One, flatspotting three of my fairly new tires.
I resumed the race, but a few laps later, I got hit in the left rear wheel by a passing car in Turn Six. Both the other car and I went off into the dirt, and when I got back on track, I did not know how much damage there was (nothing visible), and I was fairly discombobulated from the impact and the bumpy slide in the dirt, so I went to pit.
Still, I think I had more fun that day than any other. I am looking forward to my next SCCA race, which will likely be at Laguna in October.











Broke 2000 monthly pageviews

This is only significant because it's a round number. I guess the more I write, the more people come to read, and I have been more active here on the blog lately, so no shock at the pageviews rising. But it is a round number, and I've been inching toward it for a couple months now, so here the graph. Whee.

2011-07-17

Now you can buy a shirt with my design

A friend gave me the idea to begin offering shirts with my drawings on them, and this weekend, I created a few designs and put them up on Cafepress.

I can make most of the pictures published in my portfolio available as shirts, so if you have a favourite that's not yet in the store, just drop me a note and I'll create a shirt for you.

While I was at it, I also refreshed the home page of amaier.net to include the new offering, and also to highlight the art book that I published on Lulu.com a while ago, but somehow never got around promoting, and as a result only sold three or four copies. Lulu page is very slow for me, so be patient. :)

2011-07-14

Just how exciting would you like your government to be?

Me? I like mine boring. Efficient, and boring to the bone.

Take the German Finanzamt, or the Zulassungstelle. The places are boring, their buildings are boring, the work they do is fairly boring, and their websites are just as boring. But they do their job, day in, and day out. They collect taxes, register vehicles, provide unemployment benefits, and whatever else public authorities do. In an efficient, and utterly non-exciting way.

Now today, I got a letter from the California DMV, sent to remind me that my vehicle registration was up for renewal in a few weeks.

So I decide, before I forget, let me take care of this. I go to dmv.ca.gov as the letter suggests, and am greeted with this:

Exciting new features are being added to this website on Thursday, July 14, 2011. Online services will be unavailable between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. We apologize for any inconvenience as we work to improve your DMV online experience!

Leaving me to scratch my head in bewilderment.

I am in the business of running web pages for a living, and I know that sometimes you have to take the site down for some major work, but it beats the hell out of me to figure out what exciting new features they are talking about.

I hope they won't convert the page to fucking Flash.

2011-07-07

Do six-year-olds really need a sexy Smurfette?

And another Facebook ad. This time, I just have to scratch my head and to wonder what the fuck they are thinking.

The movie is obviously targeted at children. There may be a few jokes in there for the benefit of the adults who'd be taking the kids to see it, but that does not change the fact that it's primarily targeted at young children.

Now why would we need a sexually evocative picture of the Smurfette looking over her bare shoulder with this "come hither" look in her eyes? The six-year-olds are hopefully not even on Facebook, so I know that this ad is not meant for them (never mind the post title). The adults should be mostly interested in going to see this film because of their children, and hopefully not for some smurf soft-porn. It's utterly confusing to me.

Now, to be fair, this is not quite reaching the creepiness level of push-up bikinis for young girls, or child beauty pageants, but still, can we maybe keep the objectification of women at least out of the children's movies? No? Thought so.

2011-07-06

Knowing your audience is everything

Just saw this ad in my Facebook right-hand bar, and at first thought: "Dang, that's so obscure, nobody will figure that out."

Then I thought, wait, they are located in SF, and are clearly aiming at the art-savvy audience, who would immediately make the connection between this ad and the Obey Giant.

If you don't happen to belong to this dogsitter's target audience, let me clarify. Here is the "Obey Giant" iconic image, created by Shepard Fairey (of the Obama "HOPE" poster fame). This image has adorned (or disrupted, if you are so inclined) many a cityscape as it became an international collaborative campaign between numerous street artists.

Anyways, now that you know what it's about, the dog ad makes more sense, dunnit?

Now the question is, why target the art-savvy group? Is it likely that those type of folks will have the disposable income to spend on a dogsitter? Presumably they did their research and this really is the niche that's going to pay off.

Have to admit though, it's very clever. Hopefully not too clever for its own good.

Striped Wasabi

As promised, I just spent three hours this weekend striping my race car, Wasabi, to make sure her looks match her name. In that time, I only finished the hood and the nose, roof and trunk still remain. Also, new numbers. I will keep the number 40, just apply a new set of vinyl numbers to spiff up the look.

I hope to finish the car this weekend, so that it will be ready for my first SCCA race later this month. By looks of it, the white contingency Mazdaspeed decal will work just fine on the striping. Whew. I really did not want to start adding neutral-color boxes for stickers to sit on to the new livery.

2011-07-03

Driving that line

With seven races behind me, looking back I can say that I have learned quite a bit in these past three months.

While it may look the same from the outside, some major changes happened in my mind that I now plan to translate into on-track performance.

Being a NASA NorCal instructor has more benefits than free HPDE/TT on the days you work. The real perk that few people take advantage of is unlimited access to coaching from some of the best drivers in the country, such as Barry Hartzel, with whom I had several impactful conversations that led to a few insights about my driving strategy.

The video below from a Spec Miata race at Infineon last month is not really remarkable as racing videos go, but it is a good tool to discuss driving technique with your coach and single out habits that I need to change to improve my performance.

2011-06-11 Infineon NASA Spec Miata Race from Alex Maier.

So why are all these people passing me all the time?

If you are an experienced track driver, the answer is obvious: for one, I tend to brake too slowly (i.e. not as quickly as the car allows) and then coast for almost a full second before getting back on the gas coming out of the corners. With eleven corners, this can easily mean a ten to fifteen second loss of time.

Also--and that is less a matter of technique, and more that of an attitude--when faster drivers catch up to me, I tend to back off the throttle and meekly let them by in most cases. While this is certainly a nice thing to do in Time Trials or HPDE, it is not a useful strategy while racing, and something I will focus on in the next race.

"Get mean," as Barry said.

2011-06-30

Striping Wasabi

Now that I finally broke down and named my race car Wasabi, I thought I should do something about that dark burgundy stripe, which I never was too fond of. In photos, as well as from any distance, the stripe appears black, but in certain lighting it gets an almost purple look.

Long story short, I have procured some 6" wasabi-green vinyl stripes and some 1" black stripes for edging, and will be applying them to the car soon. My hope is the weekend of July 10th, when I'll be also hanging around the garage for some general maintenance on the car, such as a water pump and timing belt replacement.

Not sure what to do about the contingency stickers, hopefully white will be visible enough on the green-black striping. Bought both black and white from Mazdaspeed just to be sure.

In the meantime, here's a very rough, out-of-scale, mock-up of what the stripes will look like once we're done. I think it's going to look mean and super-fast!

I like this trend :)


I will not claim I know why my page views are climbing, but I like this trend.

Just to put it in perspective, the online community I run for VMware gets more page views in one hour than I have counted since the statistics have been enabled. But then again, it's not like I am trying to make money off of this.

I have been showing some Google AdSense ads on the pages and in the RSS feeds (sorry if they annoy you) and have earned all of $8.88 in the two years I had that running. I think I will take down the RSS ads, and possibly the others as well.

Turns out, AdSense does not pay out your earnings until you trip $100, and that means that at the same rate, I have another five years until I see any money out of this, and potentially annoy both of you, my loyal readers.

Which also makes me think, that there must be untold millions sitting on the AdSense books that Google can't even recognize as revenue, and which all of us small-fry bloggers will never be able to get our hands on. Not like the eight bucks will break the bank here, but this just appears like a sub-optimal arrangement.

Art.com, on whose daughter site ArtistRising.com I have set up an account to sell prints also has a minimum amount to trigger a payment, but at the end of fiscal year they still cut you a check. So at least they balance the books once a year.

My princely revenue from that undertaking was all of $3.00 but I see no reason why they should have kept it. Neither should Google AdSense.

2011-06-19

2009 The County Fair Wingman

This 90% Shiraz - 10% Viognier blend from Sebastopol has a few things going for it beyond its affordability. It made for a very decent accompaniment to a dinner, and got finished over a movie. Otherwise utterly unremarkable and forgettable, which explains why I am having a hard time remembering what this wine was like.

2009 Cocobon Red table wine

These days, when I come to Trader Joe's, I tell the folks in the wine aisle straight out about my quest to find the ultimate wine for less than 10 dollars.

Cocobon came highly recommended by the dude I spoke to that day.

I was immediately taken by the tastefully designed label. And though the suggested chocolate cake pairing did nothing for me, I could imagine a thing or two to go well with this wine.

Back at home, the wine did not disappoint. Just as promised, the rich chocolaty flavor dominated the nose and palate. What this wine lacks in complexity, it makes up in boldness.

Despite being a dry red, Cocobon drinks almost like a port wine, without the typical side effects.

2011-06-09

My imaginary Car Talk episode

I have a dirty secret: I am a dedicated Car Talk listener, and have been, since I bought my first car in 2006.

Every once in a while I like to imagine what it would be like to be on Car Talk as a caller.

Due to the fact that car noises do not puzzle me anymore, I don't really have a good excuse to call Click and Clack. Well then, I'd have to make something up!

I figure the call would go something like this.

Ray: "Hello, you're on Car Talk!"

Yours truly: "Ohai, this is Alex from San Jose. I have a 1990 white Mazda Miata, and sometimes it makes this loud BAM! noise from underneath the car."

Ray: "Is it a metallic noise?"

Me: "No, it's kind of like if someone whacks the underside of my car with a rubber mallet."

Tom: "Can you make that noise again?"

Me (happy to oblige): "BAM!"

Ray: "And it comes from underneath the car?"

Me: "Yes, kinda like from the wheel wells."

Ray: "All four at once?"

Me: "No, one, then another... but I think all four corners do that."

Tom: "When does the noise usually happen? Right away, or after you've been driving for a while?"

Me: "It usually is after I have been driving for a while. Like five to ten miles. Sooner when the weather is hot."

Ray: "Do you need to be going fast for the car to make the noise?"

Me: "Yes. Definitely over 70 miles an hour."

The hosts would hem and haw, and try to gain some time by asking more questions.

Tom: "So you said your car was red?"

Ray: "No, she said it was white!"

Tom: "You haven't got a clue, have you?"

Ray (to his brother): "Do you? (Then to me) Do you park your car in the street?"

Me: "No, I always park it in the garage."

Tom: "How many miles do you think you drive the car every month?"

Me: "No more than 200. Mostly on weekends."

Ray: "So when would you say are you most likely to hear the noise?"

Me (finally spilling the beans): "I'd say, at the end of a straightaway, like when I'm approaching Turn One at Thunderhill. Could it be the tire worms?" [1]

I don't see how this could possibly go wrong.

[1] Tire worms are worm-like pieces of melted rubber that accumulate around the circumference of the tire as the car slips a bit in corners. When you get to a straight and gather speed, the centrifugal force of the rotating tire will make some of them fly off and hit the underside of the car with that typical Bam! sound. The longest worm I saw stuck to my car was about 7 inches long and a good 1/4 of an inch thick.

2011-06-01

A license to race 2

Long story short, I have a full racing license now. Another three races, and I will be taking those orange letters "R" off my car.

This post is not going to be an epic tale of great deeds and derps. I want to use this time to look back at how I got to this milestone.

A little over a year ago, I walked into my first drivers' meeting at Thunderhill. I remember Barry Hartzel asking who of us in the beginner group wanted to become a racer, and me raising my hand with a few others in the room.

Had Barry asked me that day when I thought my first race would be, even in my wildest dreams I wouldn't have guessed that the correct answer was eleven months. Exactly twelve months after my first track weekend, I was holding my full competition license in my hands.

A year later, I must admit that the physical aspect of driving was the easier thing to learn and master: inputs at the wheel and the pedals, threshold-, trail-, and left-foot braking, general car control. The mental part is what I find to be truly challenging: overcoming the fear of going outside the comfort zone, learning to focus on the right things at the right time, and plotting out your line a few turns ahead.

I have run five races now, and in each race, I was turning the slowest laps of the entire field. However, in almost every race I managed to finish ahead of at least one car. Though I intend to improve my lap times, the lesson I learned from this is that consistency and patience will get me further than pure speed, if I am not yet ready to operate on that level.

Racing has more in common with yoga and martial arts than you'd think, as all three demand full concentration and inner calm, paired with the ability to quiet your ego so it doesn't get in your way of performing at your best level.

I am certain that even as I improve and learn new tricks, racing will continue reminding me to remain humble on my journey up through the ranks.

2011-05-28

Damn cat

So now that the cat learned not to nest on the roof of the car, it decided to practice ballroom dancing on the hood. I guess it's time for heavy artillery.

2011-04-24

2009 Coorong Reserve Shiraz

This wine here is not even a Trade Joe's wine. I got it from Vinesse and my friend and I could not finish the bottle. I had to pour the rest out. Sadly, I have a second bottle.

Interestingly, online reviews are positive, so maybe it's just that one bottle... Either way, I will have to open it to find out, or to pour it out as well.

Edit 24-APR-2011, 23:15:
I had a chance to try the Coorong again tonight, and it was fine after about an hour's aeration, paired with strong moldy cheeses and hummus. Still nothing to write home about, but it was drinkable.

2001 Château de la Riviere

This Bordeau is five bucks out of the ten-dollar "cheap Trade Joe's wine" class, but it is still fairly affordable, and also quite drinkable. Bordeaux are usually a table wine in my household, and this wine, while fairly unspectacular, is a solid red to go with a dinner.

2007 Nerelo del Bastardo

The 2007 Nerello del Bastardo is modestly labeled as vino da tavola, a table wine, but the back label is making some rather interesting claims.

Nerelo Del Bastardo was invented purely by chance. When winemakers in Italy wish to make certain "big" wines, that we are not permitted to mention here under Italian law, the laws governing these wines only allow certain amounts of wine after aging (minimum 3 years) to have a limited number of government-issued neck labels. When these run out, the excess may only be sold as table wine, even though the juice is the same.

All this circumlocutious copy is really trying to imply is that what is inside is a Barolo or a Barbaresco.

Indeed, it is a big and bold wine, but as I am slowly finding out, I am generally not a fan of Italian wines. So while it certainly was all the things that I would have expected from an Italian wine, it was a touch too tannic and even after prolonged aeration I did not feel like it ever developed a truly balanced bouquet.

I just found a raving review of this wine (2002 vintage) on the intarwebs, so if you happen to like Italian wines, you may enjoy this one quite a bit. I will probably not buy this wine soon again. Although, a different vintage may turn out better.

2009 Overlake Sauvignon Blanc

Even as adventures in cheap wines continue, I have been somewhat remiss in posting about them. So here's the first of a few wines I had a pleasure to consume lately.

I don't actually know for sure whether I bought it, but nevertheless it is a Trader Joe's cheap wine. It has been sitting in my fridge for a couple months now, could well have been from my last party.

In any event, it was a fairly decent wine, very much in line with what I like in my Sauvignon Blancs: grapefruity and mineral-rich. It was a nice wine to go with some pan-seared halibut and steamed veggies. Nothing super-complex, nothing super-interesting, but surely much better than the five-dollar price tag would suggest.

2011-04-22

Cat, you wouldn't have it any other way...

Promptly upon my return from Thunderhill I was hit by a ton of bricks in the form of a head cold. In fact, I was so tired the night I got home, I did not put the cover on the car. I proceeded to stay sick in bed for the majority of the following four days, and when I came out in the morning to drive to work today, my car's convertible top was again covered in cat hair.

Grrrr.

Okay cat, I wanted this to be resolved in a friendly fashion, but you wouldn't have it any other way. Chemical warfare it is.

On the way from work today I stopped at a pet store and bought a large bottle of "Keep off!" dog and cat repellent.

I took a picture of my purchase on the roof of my car, with about half of the hair that was there in the morning. The other half blew off on the way.

Dang, I hope this stuff works, or I will have to start coming up with "home remedies," and I am not sure how far this should be escalated.

2011-04-18

A license to race

It's been a weekend to remember: got my provisional competition license and completed my first race. In three more successful races, I get to have a full racing license, and can go play not just with my own club, but with the SCCA folks as well.

The two weeks before, I have been busy arranging for a license test. I have originally committed to instruct that weekend, and instructor coordinators want to make sure that your other activities aren't going to get in the way of your helping the novice. After a few emails back and forth, I had the coveted approval to have the competition license evaluation done that weekend.

The evaluation session was scheduled for Saturday, and I found Donny first thing in the morning to make sure he had me on the schedule. We agreed on the second HPDE4 session, and Donny said he will find me on grid and ride with me.

I went out with my student once, and also had an opportunity to go out and practice in one session before my eval, and got to grid early. I waited and waited, but Donny did not get into my car, and I did not see his red and yellow BMW race car on grid either. The grid marshals began waving us onto track, and I thought, "Hell, I'm already strapped in and gridded up, might as well run."

Funny how this works: I was fairly nervous about the comp eval the entire time waiting, but as soon as we were rolling, I was in my usual place of Zen, driving around the track, not thinking much about anything, almost like in a meditation.

I got stuck behind a fairly confused and unaware driver once for almost a full lap, waited till I had a good opening and went around on the inside of turn Two. I passed a couple cars, and a couple cars passed me. No trace of the red and yellow Bimmer. Then the checker fell and I went in to pit. Just as I was passing by the grid area on the way back, a dark silver Evo honked at me. I looked up, and saw Donny at the wheel. Not sure what to expect, I saw him get out of the car, and walk over to me.

"Good driving out there," he said and handed me a folded piece of paper. "Here's the written test, I'll catch up with you later."

Donny drove off, and I got back into the car and drove to where I was pitting with Barry and Dave. I spent the following hour answering the questions on the test. Some were quite commonsense, and some were about rules that were specific to racing, and we did not use in HPDE and Time Trials. I got my answers, and went to instruct my student in another session. Then I looked for Donny up and down the paddock. When I found him, he looked over my answers, said I did good, and we walked over to his pit so he could give me my rookie license.

With that treasure in my hands, I now had to figure out a way to race the next day. Instructing and racing on the same day aren't allowed, but I was assigned the same student for both days and he was making good progress, so I felt confident I could sign him off to run solo the next day.

Everyone was encouraging me to run, and seeing my enthusiasm and sheer silly happiness over having passed the test, Darsie, who assigns students, said that if there was no shortage of instructors, I could run. "You'll be assigned a student last."

I was so wired when I ran back to our pit to share the news. Barry asked me if I had Nomex socks.

"Yes, I do. I got Nomex socks, long-sleeve shirt, longjohns, and..." I stopped mid-sentence. I did have all these things, but they were at home, back in Mountain View. "I'm an idiot," I replied to Barry's quizzical glance. "I left my racing suit at home. I can't run tomorrow."

"Just borrow a suit," said Barry.

I never thought of that. "Will anyone let me use theirs?"

"Sure they will. People have spares, too." Then, as I stood frozen, he added: "Grab the bike and go ask around the paddock before they all leave for the night."

I rode up to the club house where folks were having some barbecue and beers. I was so embarrassed to admit my silly mistake, but faced with the choice to run or not run a race, I swallowed my pride. Every person I knew sort of well, who was my size or bigger (hey, air gap did not hurt no one!) I asked if there was a chance I could use their suit. I stated with ladies, but ran out real soon. Dangit, there aren't enough women racing!

Just as I was about to give up, in a last-ditch effort I asked Alex, who frequently volunteers on grid, if he knew anyone who I could bum a suit off of. To my surprise he offered his own. Turns out he was running in the Spec Miata race the next day. This meant that I could not run that race, but my car also qualifies for the PTE class, which ran later that day, so I would run a race after all.

Provided that I did not get a new student.

The next morning I sat on pins and needles all through the HPDE1+2 meeting where everyone who needs an instructor gets one assigned. Even though I am sure the meeting took the usual time, it felt like twice the normal duration. My warmup, and qualifying sessions were over before I even knew if I get to run at all.

That's alright, I'd start from the back. A race is a race is a race. As a rookie, I need four clean ones to get full license, and finishing position doesn't matter. You just have to start and finish.

All students were spoken for, and with two instructors still available before me came the obligatory question: Is anyone here who does not have an instructor but wants one? Three hands went up. Three. I was toast.

Two instructors got assigned, but the third hand went down in the meantime and never came up again. Going once, going twice. I was free!

I flew out of the room and rushed to drop off the change slip from Time Trials to race in PTE with Timing and Scoring and then to my car and to grid. I wanted at least one session out in HPDE4 before my race.

The track felt faster, but I had no idea whether I actually did any better than the day before, because they don't time laps in HPDE. I got off track, went to look for Alex and the suit, and did not find either. Then my student from the other day asked me for a lead-follow, and we went out in his HPDE session.

Looking for Alex again, but also switching to finding a backup suit. I went to watch Barry and Dave start their enduro, and hoping to see Alex and his car. Finally, after the enduro was over, and with 40 minutes left before I had to grid for the race, I bumped into Alex. Whew.

I grabbed the suit, changed, got my car, and drove up to the grid area, where I asked Don to let me grid at the back. He said he had a few spots reserved for the rookies, and I walked off.

Time flew, and soon the grid began to fill with race cars. There was some confusion about where I had to grid, but we got it resolved soon enough. I almost forgot to put up my window net, with less than 30 seconds before we rolled on track, and a kind crew member of another racer helped me out. I totally forgot to turn on my video camera.

We went around the track slowly on our formation lap and lined up in two rows just before turn Fourteen. In formation, we rolled towards the start-finish. I could not see the flag from where I was, and I did not want to jump the start, so I waited to get on the gas until I was absolutely sure we had green. The field spread out fairly soon, and I was not too far behind a few cars who were closest to me on grid. They steadily pulled away from me though, and I tried my best not to let myself chase them.

"Drive the line. Drive the line," went my mantra as I got engulfed by Formula Mazda cars who were passing me on both sides as I tried my best to maintain predictability.

You see, when you are a rookie, you aren't allowed to be involved in any incidents: spins, offs, and god forbid contact. You get in trouble, and even if it's not your fault, you get to start from scratch. So you'll understand that I was in no hurry to lose the license I just got less than 24 hours ago.

Then going into turn Eight, double-yellow came up, meaning full-course caution and no passing. Four cars, or maybe more, one Formula and two Miatas, and another PT car got into some sort of a melee in turn Eight, with Formula and the PT cars ending up in the dirt on the outside, a Miata was just limping back on track, and I caught up with another one cresting over Nine. He had his arm out the window, meaning he was going to pit, and so we could all go around him. Just at the end of the front straight, the pace car pulled out onto the track in front of me, then waved me by a couple corners later, so that I could catch up to the field from the back. Even though we weren't allowed to pass, everyone still went at a pretty good clip, but we soon began bunching up in trains. After a number of laps under double-yellow, we got another green with four or so laps left in the race. Just as I was approaching the start-finish line, a blue and white Miata blew past me. I thought this was lapping traffic. Dang, I was hoping the yellow will spare me from being lapped. I guess no such luck.

After dropping the car off at our pit, I went to pick up my rookie book from race control. Before every race, they collect if from you, and you get it back with a signature for every clean race you complete. By the time I got it and walked down, the results were posted.

Imagine my surprise to see that I have finished 11th out of 14. From starting dead last.

I assumed that the cars that went off did not resume the race, and that would make me last, but I guess they must have stopped by the pits and gotten back on the track to complete the race, two or three laps behind. Also, I discovered that I did not get lapped by the front-runners.

I was happy as a clam all the way back home, and even hours later. This was a result I did not expect at all, but there I was, having started my first race all the way from the back and finishing it in an improved position.

One down, three more to go.

2011-04-04

Cat 1, Alex 2. Your move, kitty.

Many a convertible owner will know how their car's ragtops attract neighbourhood felines. Mine is not an exception. For quite a while, every morning, I have been noticing cat paw prints going from the trunk lid of my car, up the rear window, to the roof, and finally descending down the windshield and the hood.

Though I was not overjoyed at that, I did not mind the paw prints much, particularly considering that I haven't washed the car during the rainy months, i.e. since December. No harm, no foul.

Recently, however, the cat decided that in addition to the nightly walkthrough, it wanted to spend more time on the roof of my car, and over the course of last week it has left a nest of hair about 50 cm in diameter smack in the middle of the canvas top.

That I could no longer tolerate. The hair would spread over the canvas, and when you dropped the top, the hair would also get into the places where it had no business going.

I washed the car, spent some time and effort cleaning off the cat hair, and once the car has dripped and dried enough, I covered it with a full-car cover.

That alone would be sufficient to keep the hair off the car. But I wanted to go one step further, and teach the cat to stay off the car altogether. How should I go about that?

Not having ready access to motion-triggered alarms, trip wires, or bear traps, I chose chemical warfare and sprayed the car cover with cucumber-scented bio-degradable all-purpose cleaner.

Take that you hairy trespasser! And know this: Should this not deter you enough, I am ready to escalate to Febreze Extra Strength.

2011-03-29

How to become a Stunt Commando

As most of you have already seen on Facebook, last week I attended Rick Seaman's stunt driving school. Just as expected, it was a blast!
First things first, this was by leaps and bounds the best-organized driving school I ever attended, and I've been to a few. Logistics, organization, and professionalism were at the highest level. Every single student had a car (front- and rear-wheel drive). If your car misbehaved, there were multiple spares on site, delivered to you within a minute or so to ensure you did not miss out any practice time.
There were only five students, and each of us got issued a radio, as did all the instructors and crew, so that you always knew what was going on, could hear suggestions instructors were sharing with you and others, and could ask for help if you had a blowout, what with all the sliding and burnouts. There were more school staff than students, but remarkably, they all mostly stayed out of our cars.
Before every practice session, we'd meet at the table where Rick or one of the other instructors would explain the physics of each maneuver we learned, and how to make it all work. Then we'd get into our cars and go at it. Only if you couldn't master the trick after a certain number of attempts and suggestions from the instructors, would one of them jump into your car and watch you drive, then explain what you should do different. I needed a few of such interventions, and was amazed at how effective the knowledge transfer was.
Our cars were mostly old Chevy Caprices in various colours, and mine was Orange. During practice sessions, Rick would announce on the radio "Action Orange" and I knew it was time to shine.
We practiced precision skid stops, 45, 90, 180, 270, and 360 spins, 90-degree skid turns and 360-turns with a drive-off at the end. Moonshine turns were fun too. That's basically a 180-degree skid turn using your emergency brake.[1] The J-turn, where you floor it in reverse, then yank the car around in a violent 180-spin and slam it in forward gear to speed out gave me most trouble. I did it right once, and could not replicate it no matter how hard I tried. My "Ms. Smooth-Hands" driving style was definitely not helping here at all.

Here you can see me successfully perform a 360 turn. If you are interested in more videos (courtesy Jason, who was very kind to take video of my driving):
  • 90 degree skid-turn
  • 90-degree spin with a stop
  • 45-degree slide
  • After practicing each maneuver a number of times, we had to pass a test, where we had to deliver a "money shot"--i.e. a perfect execution of the stunt, so you get your money--for each direction, left, and right. On the third day, Rick said that the 180-spin test will be a game called "Stunt Commando," and that whoever got to do two "money shots," got to become a "card-carrying, walking the walk, talking the talk, etc. etc. STUNT COMMANDO!" All the instructors chimed in for that last bit, and we all had a great time. Even if the test is just a game, it's still a bit stressful, so this little bit of lightness did us all good.
    One of the most interesting things about the weekend was my first up and personal encounter with movie people. Beside Jason and myself, the other three students and all instructors were actual stunt people, with experience on a movie set. They had quite a different approach to what the desired outcome of a given trick should be. While competitive motorsports drivers tend to concentrate on speed and moderate precision (i.e. don't hit any cones and corner workers), in movie business, drivers have to perform on crowded sets, often surrounded by expensive equipment, and precision is taken to a whole new level.
    If a director tells you to spin the car and put the rear license plate within the focus depth of a camera, you could be expected to work within a 20-centimeter margin. Even more impressive are stunts involving hitting people with your car. I sure don't think I have the guts to do that.
    And yet, stunties talked about falls, full-body hits on walls or pavement, fire burns (that's when the person is lit on fire), and crashes like it's nothing out of ordinary. And I guess for them it's the everyday routine, while I sat there with big eyes and listened to the stories.
    Dante, a stuntie from Atlanta, showed this video to me, and that totally blew my mind at how dangerous and involved some of the motion picture stunts can be.

    Amusingly, talking to the fellow students, it seemed that they were just as impressed by Jason's and my track and autocrossing adventures, as we were by their stunts. To each their own I guess.
    1. I would like to note that "emergency brake" is quite a misnomer, "parking brake" is probably a more accurate term, which would cover both foot- and hand-operated secondary brakes. But having used the term "e-brake" for three days in the context of the school, I will stick to it.