This past weekend I logged my 9th and 10th track days at the brand new Palmer Motorsports Park in Ware, Massachussets. This two-day event would be my third with the Boston chapter of the BMW Car Club of America (BMWCCA). This is a great organization, which continues to impress me with its professionalism and level of care and instruction provided. For those unfamiliar, the event itself is known as High Performance Driver Education, or HPDE. This is track time without lap timing or scoring- it isn't a racing competition, it's all about instruction to improve your driving under controlled track conditions.
When I say this track is brand new, I mean brand new. The official opening was this spring. The track continues to make steady improvements, but to put it in perspective: folks were excited that they had painted white lines on edges of the track, and that there was a little grass growing in the runoff areas. This track is brand new. The course is paved, and the entry road is paved all the way to pit lane, but the parking lots are unpaved, and large piles of gravel await spreading to make them something other than a mosh pit when it rains- but more about that later. There are no facilities other than a temporary portable building for an office/classroom, a large portapotty trailer (which was pretty nice actually), and a few standard portapotties and garbage bins sprinkled around the paddock areas.
The facility is new enough that it's still facing some resistance from the town. Driving to the track I passed several signs posted on front lawns complaining about noise and property values. Local hotels and restaurants aren't complaining- they're getting loads of business from an extra 100+ people looking for beds and food on amateur event weekends like ours, and looking for more from more serious events. But local homeowners I think are a bit sour about noise and traffic. The track was getting some very welcome support from "Maw's Kitchen", a local business who ran a food tent serving breakfast and lunch to hungry drivers. Coffee, fruit cups, breakfast sandwiches, and lunch boxes were perfect to keep car nuts alive for a couple of days :)
I hope the town learns to live peacefully with its new resident, because the track itself is just spectacular. The 2.3 mile layout cycles through 15 turns and 190 feet of elevation change. This is a real roller coaster of a track. It's narrow, too, with maybe 3-5 ft of runoff on either side, before you run into either a granite wall carved out of the mountain, or a jersey barrier. In practice it is very much like a mini Nordschleife - with stone or concrete instead of armco. The good news is, you won't have to pay to replace any armco if you wreck- the bad news is, the energy some armco might have absorbed will go into your car instead. More about that later, too.
My two days started off early, at 4:30am on Saturday. Transit to the track would take only a couple of hours, but I needed to be there for tech inspection by 7am. I had the car packed and ready to go the night before, and was out on the road reasonably on time. I was over an hour into my ride on Rte 84 in CT when I caught up to a cherry '92 BMW 325is with a Lime Rock sticker in the window. Odds were pretty good this was somebody with whom I shared a common destination. We pulled along side each other and traded the hairy eyeball before deciding we had a common goal, and followed each other (and our GPS's) the rest of the way to the track. We subsequently parked together and ended up pal'ing around the whole weekend.
My car sailed through tech inspection and I was ready to go. I had fresh brake fluid, a couple of new brake wear sensors, and some aggressive brake pads which I swap in for track use. I had also given my coil-overs a close inspection to make sure everything was up to snuff, a habit I've acquired after my abrupt disassembly experience at Pocono. Another minor mod had been to install an aluminum gas pedal over the stock pedal- I've had some difficulty heel-and-toeing in narrow driving shoes, so I installed the pedal just slightly offset, which made a nice difference. No more missed foot placement on the brake- between a lot of practice and the slightly increased margin for error, I was able to reach the gas pedal with a roll of the ankle reliably all weekend.
Next up was the driver's meeting, where the club does some introductions and hands out a generous dose of cautionary advice. The Boston chapter has a (only partially) humorous tradition that involves raising your right hand and promising not to do anything stupid that would prevent driving home in the car we came in. Everybody gets a smile out of that, but also a little reminder that there are consequences to getting too comfortable out there.
I like to think I have a bit of experience on track, but of course it's nothing to compared to some. I haven't done any door-to-door competition, and there are guys at every event with hundreds of trackdays under their belts. I get one or two days a year, and so I'm content to be placed in the novice run group, in particular when I've never driven the track before. We had around 20+ drivers in my run group, most with between 3-5 days experience, but several for whom this would be their first event. Our first stop on both days would be an hour of classroom time, to talk about the specifics of the track and the basic skills we would need to survive. Our chief instructor was a very engaging speaker, so this was not at all an onerous requirement. After that it was off to find our instructors and get ready for some seat time.
My instructor was a very personable and enthusiastic guy named Steve. We hit it off right away and were chatting up a storm as we belted in and headed to the pits. Ironically, we both promptly forgot a key item from the morning driver's meeting- there is no blend line painted at pit exit just yet, and we were expected to keep left on pit exit all the way to the apex of turn two. I blew that one completely by blending way early, and since we were both new to the track, Steve missed it too. So a black flag ensued in my very first session, an embarrassing way to get started! We had no idea why we were flagged, but a friendly reminder at the end of a drive-thru made it clear and we were on our way again.
With all my sim racing experience, I consider myself a fairly quick study when it comes to learning a new track, but this one took longer than I expected. To start with there are a lot of turns, and with such short sight lines many of them look the same. The apexes on many of the turns are much later than they look. Session one was all about getting familiar with the track, but by the end I just wasn't there yet.
Session two I really started to put it together, and by the end of the session I was finally where I belonged on every corner entry, and beginning to pick up speed.
After lunch and a bit more classroom time, I really started to figure the track out, and began frequently overtaking cars in my group. Session three was also the unfortunate occasion for a reminder about the risks of track driving - I passed a nice M3 stuffed into the jersey barrier, with the whole right front pushed in and some airbags deployed. The driver experienced some snap oversteer after matting the throttle going up the hill into turn 5, and couldn't save it. My car (with almost 200hp less than that M3) had already been kicking in the traction control in that same spot; this unpleasant incident helped me resolve to just leave the traction on. Despite everything the Boston chapter does to save its drivers from themselves, all 3 events I've been to have included some bent sheet metal, though this is the first time it was a novice who paid the price- the other times it was experienced drivers getting a little too far over the edge.
By session four I am ready to go. Generally I've got the track down, though I'm still hunting for the ideal line through turns 7 and 12, and I have plenty of work to do to stay consistent everywhere else. But I'm braking aggressively and confidently and I really feel like I'm flying. This is what it's all about- I'm in the zone and fully into the never-ending pursuit of perfection. Nope, I'm never quite attaining it, but to me one of the attractions of track driving is that I get a fresh chance to be at my best every lap- every couple of minutes I get another opportunity to be better than I've ever been. I may or may not come close, but odds are that each lap I've done something really well that makes me think the next lap will be *the one*. It's a self-perpetuating cycle that is intoxicating.
So, a great end to day one. Feedback from my instructor is very encouraging- he comments on how comfortable I am with my car, and that he's sure I'm ready to be promoted to run group 2. The club has some leftover beer from a social event, and once the track is cold it's free beer and fish stories from all the drivers. What a blast!
The weather outlook, however- not so much. When I signed up for the event I signed up to camp at the track. Hey, it's out in the mountains and woods, I figured me and a few other guys could have some fun sitting around a campfire shooting the breeze about track driving, what could be better than that? Well, mother nature had other ideas. A big storm rolled in at the end of the day and pelted the track with wind and rain all night. Sleeping outside in a tent was kind of a non-starter, so I put the seats down in the back of the car and spread out my sleeping blankets inside. A comical outcome for a dude my age, but what are ya gonna do? In the end it wasn't so bad, I've definitely had worse nights sleep in my life.
The storm rolled in as promised, and by morning that unpaved parking lot had turned into primordial soup. More than once the next morning I stepped into mud inches deep thinking I was stepping on some reasonably solid ground. Fortunately I had more than one pair of shoes, but I was definitely wishing I had boots.
The track was a similar story. For session one it was still raining steadily, and there were multiple rivers and areas of standing water to worry about. The standing water zones were obscuring the lines in some places on the track, but that was easy enough to cope with. For me, the most disturbing section was the main straight.
The main straight isn't really a straight at all, it's a very long slow right hander, followed by a kink to the righ and a short uphill braking zone into a left-hander. In the dry, it takes some will power to keep the pedal to the floor and approach the barrier in order to take a straight shot through that kink and brake for the left. I had that down by the end of Day 1 and was moving through that kink pretty well. On the morning of day 2, the left had a river flowing onto the track, which then progressed down the short uphill, then back across the track before the kink. There was standing water all down the left side of the straight, so no opportunity to move left to set up for the kink. I was unnerved by the whole thing and was lifting halfway down the straight to prepare. I was equally conservative in a few other places on the track, all adding up to around 30 seconds extra per lap. I've done a full day in the rain at Lime Rock, but even that small track feels spacious compared to the narrow runoffs at Palmer.
By session two, however, a dry line is beginning to appear, and my confidence is coming back. Still not braking like I was the day before, but lifting much less and only 10 seconds behind my lap times from day 1.
Session 3, much to my relief, is dry! The track is completely clear, and I'm back to where I was the day before. I spend most of this session following a Mazda RX-8 and having a great time of it. I'm much faster in a couple of key corners and on the straight, and he's faster everywhere else. I had so much fun that session that I decided it was the perfect time to call it a weekend- as we park from session 3 a light rain comes back in, and I decided I'd rather not face the wet again.
With the current limits of my yearly track time agenda, I have a few more tracks to check off before I start doing repeats, but I have to say, this is a jewel of a track. I'll gladly come back to Palmer again in the future, and I'll gladly do it with BMWCCA.
Some of my Facebook friends will have already seen this video from this summer. Here at last is a proper write-up of my adventure.
Early in 2014, my wife and I started planning a family trip to Europe. My oldest daughter would be headed off to college in the fall, and we saw this as probably our last chance to all travel together. Our other impetus for this trip was my youngest daughter's destination of Bilbao, in northern Spain, where she would be spending 3 weeks as an exchange student. With that as an anchor destination, we finally settled on flying into Italy, making our way across France, and finally into Spain, over the span of almost two weeks.
Italy, France, and Spain? As a Motorsport nut, it would have easily been possible to turn this into a completely gearhead-focused trip. As a family man, of course, that was unrealistic. Fortunately my family accepts that this is part of who I am, and they are always willing to give me some room to follow my passion, as long as I keep it within reason. So as we narrowed down the stops along our route, I was constantly evaluating nearby locations of interest.
Beyond the concerns of cost and convenience, I had to get lucky on schedule to find a venue with a coinciding public driving event, and also find a place to rent a car for the track. I investigated Monza (too expensive), Vallelunga (too far out of the way), Paul Ricard (a little of both), before finding the GT Experience at Circuit de Catalunya. The price was right, and we were already planning to stay in Barcelona, so it would be easy to squeeze in a morning on the track with minimal disruption. It wouldn't be a lot of track time, but it would be a Ferrari on a Legendary European F1 circuit- check two boxes on that ultimate Motorsport dream list!
As a bonus adventure, I slipped Monaco into our route. We spent a gorgeous afternoon there, including walking a portion of the F1 course up the hill to Casino Square, and had a great dinner on the famous harbor. An afternoon here was not quite long enough- I would love to go back, maybe even for the vintage Grand Prix weekend.
So finally, on to the topic at hand. We stayed at a Holiday Inn Express just outside the circuit grounds. I was out the door early, leaving my family to an unusually late sleep-in and relaxed breakfast. The GT Experience crew met me and a few other early-birds at the gates, and we followed them down to the paddock for check-in and orientation.
The organization sets up shop across four garage spaces in the paddock. I hardly know any Spanish, so I was a little worried about language barrier, but by this time I had been out of my language comfort zone for a week already, so from that perspective it was just another day! I had to ask for English a couple of times during check-in, but they were very accommodating overall. Through the garages and into the pits, there was a nice long line of Ferraris waiting for us. I had booked an F430, but they also had a couple of 458s, and I was surprised to also find a Radical in the garage (I think that wasn't for public use).
After a little bit of waiting as people checked in, the next order of business was a recon lap, given to a few drivers at a time in a Hummer H2. This was the only time language was a problem- the other drivers were native Spanish speakers, so I was reluctant to bring up the fact I had no idea what anybody was saying :) I have enough track experience to know mostly what I was looking for as we went around the track, so I did my best to pay attention to the brake and apex cones and flag stations on my own. However, it did push me to make absolutely sure my co-pilot was going to be an English speaker! In the end, I needn't have worried, the staff was on the ball and reserved the right combination for me. In the video, that's what you'll hear me talking about at first, but once my guide caught on he quickly put me at ease that he was going to tell me everything I needed to know as we went.
As for the car: What a beauty! Classic Ferrari red, beautiful yet purposeful lines. Inside, an interesting mix of purpose and luxury; everything was covered in lovely stitched alcantara. The seats were low, but cushy. The overall effect was sporting, but surprisingly comfortable; in retrospect I think my expectations were jaded more by Ferrari's Motorsport history than by its obvious luxury qualifications, so I was pleasantly impressed with how comfortable the whole experience was- there is much less compromise required in comfort than I anticipated, and I guess that is why the price of ownership comes so high.
I would only continue to be more impressed as we got rolling. Around 450 prancing horses started wailing behind me, and their crescendo is something you want to hear over and over again. The paddle shift was extremely quick, and packed a healthy wallop on every shift. The view ahead is excellent; turn-in immediate and precise and intuitive. The braking points marked on the track were far too generous- I didn't do anything to push the issue, but I'm confident the car was capable of braking at around 25% of the marked distance; it felt like I was practically idling down to the apex. All that on the lowest of sport settings; what could this thing do when truly unleashed? The car was so confidence inspiring that I felt acclimated in about a quarter of a lap- which was good, because I'd only paid for three! Yes, after all that, I was only booked for three laps. At €250 I still think it was worth it. I had the option to buy one more lap, but I figured 4 laps versus 3 wasn't going to make a difference, and still stand by that.
As you can see from the video, I did have a brief sector in my first lap stuck behind other cars, but in general my guide was more than happy to have me pass slower cars... which seemed to be all of them. I was ready to go for broke hunting apexes, and had a great time of it. The interior of the track is tighter than I expected, and feels like a large stadium- it must be a great place to watch an F1 event. We were on the National layout, which used most of the track but meant the main straight was noticeably abbreviated. Still, 205 km/h was pretty impressive in that distance.
And just like that... It was done! Even with the limited seat-time, I am still very satisfied with the experience. The car was better than I imagined, and amazingly friendly despite its high limits. If you ever get the chance, get behind the wheel, you won't be sorry.
Happy Holidays All!
Wishing safe travel to all and happy times with friends and family! Here's to many more sim racing and real life adventures in 2015!
A couple of nice production videos from teams that drove the 2013 Nurburgring 24 Hrs.
From the Falken Tire team (sorry, can't embed this one):
And from BMW:
Apparently the friendly cartoon Michelin Man wasn't always so appealing! Say hello to (the kinda creepy) Mr. Bibendum, as he was known before a much needed image makeover.
Read more at TheOldMotor
Tonight as I was prepping for PASRL's next event of the season at Zhuhai, I decided to go check my history at the track. This season PASRL is visiting tracks of the Pacific Rim, a region that is relatively new and comparatively unheralded in motor racing history. As such I haven't driven many tracks from that part of the world- even though Zhuhai was an original track shipped with GTR2, I had only driven it once in an online event... or so I thought. A quick check of my driver history showed me I'd been there twice, way back when GTR2 was practically new in 2007, in Race2Play's (or NASASimRacing's) season 4. More specifically, I drove in the S4 Extreme GT series, where I placed 5th overall, and the (apparently very popular) GT4 Cup, where I placed a meager 11th.
This minor revelation highlights for me two of my favorite features at Race2Play: my driver history, and the pre- and post-race forums. They go hand-in-hand; as you race here you are building a history, and it's available for you to wander through and relive the races you've run over the years. It's been a little while since I've done this, in fact I now realize I'm probably overdue, but I periodically browse through my driver history and re-read the post-race reports from myself and my racing buddies. One, I enjoy reliving the times I've had with my racing friends, and two, it gives me perspective on how I've grown as a driver. The thing that jumps out at me from my 2007 exploits at Zhuhai is that I spent a bit of both post-race reports apologizing to other drivers for racing incidents- the kind that I'm pretty sure 6 years and a couple hundred races later I would have avoided. It also drives home how long I've raced with some of my friends here at Race2Play- in 2007 I had already found a home with CT Racing and was racing under that banner with folks I still like to drive with today.
The last piece of that puzzle, which I fear is in decline for some people today, is the post-race report itself. My memory of these two events at Zhuhai would be lost forever if I hadn't recorded them in Race2Play's post-race forum. More than that- racing, and the car culture in general, is for me a social event. There would be much less enjoyment in a race if I couldn't talk about it with friends. That goes for online races and for real life events, both participatory and spectator. If you're showing up for races, finishing the race and exiting and never looking back, you are missing out on a shared experience component of the event. Take the opportunity to contribute to the history we are building at every race, both for Race2Play and for ourselves- take a few minutes to record your thoughts about the event. You'll be contributing to the culture of sim racing, and who knows, 6 years from now, you just might find it valuable to your next race at a track you'd forgotten.
Had a great day at the Grand Am finale at Lime Rock last weekend. Couldn't have asked for a more beautiful fall day at one of America's more scenic road courses!
LOL, those crazy young men and their driving machines!
Read more about this (wisely) long-extinct sport at TheChicane
Another of my favorite events, shot by another of my favorite motorsports photographers. Great stuff by Camden Thrasher at a place now near and dear to my heart, the Nurburgring.
See more at Camden Thrasher Images.