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.
One of my favorite events, shot by Julian Mahiels, one of my favorite motorsports photographers. Just imagine...
This past weekend I checked off a definite bucket-list item: driving the Nordschleife!
This was a dream that I never really thought I'd fulfill. I've long hoped to be able to do some international travel with my family, presuming I magically become wealthy at some point, but who knows where Germany would fall on our list of places to visit, so I didn't see the opportunity coming any time soon. Lucky for me a business trip popped up for a week in Wilhelmshaven, a port town on the north end of the country. It's a long way from Nurburg, but the good news was I'd be flying in on Sunday and have a day to myself. I've known about the possibility of the trip for some time, but until the contract was in place I didn't want to talk about it and jinx myself. Finally the contract came in a scant 3 weeks ago, and I frantically made my plans. I flew into Frankfurt, arriving at 5:30am on an overnight flight. I rented a car and drove for two hours to the 'ring, did my laps, drove back to Frankfurt to catch a 2:15pm train, and rode the train for almost 6 hours to get to Wilhelmshaven. It was a long day, I only dozed for about 1/2 hour on the plane... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Before even getting to the 'Ring came my first drive on the autobahn. Those stories you hear are true- the law says keep to the right except to pass, but it's more than just a law, it's also a survival imperative. You will be passed by German sedans doing 140+ mph in the left lane, so you will learn quickly to move over lest you become a hood ornament on one of those fliers! The autobahn has long stretches of unlimited speed, but it also has limited areas. I was good at recognizing the speed limit signs, but it took me a couple of times to recognize the "limit removed" signs- my first clue would be the sudden rush of high-speed traffic flying by me again, and I would follow back up to speed. I was comfortable doing around 150-160km/hr in my rented Jetta wagon, seemed like its natural cruising pace.
Nurburg is nestled in a beautiful region of hills, pine forests, and manicured fields. I drove past a number of villages tucked tightly into little valleys so only their red clay roofs showed from the road. The last thing you would expect to come upon out here is an F1 facility, but there it is. The GP portion of the track is now infamously overbuilt, and I got a good look at the now-inactive roller coaster. For those who don't know about it, this ambitious development plan is now in a lot of financial trouble, and the entire facility is for sale. To a driving nut like myself, this is akin to hearing that Jerusalem is for sale, and in danger of being leveled to create a golf course. Now that I've tasted a bit of the experience, I think management got themselves in this position through a fundamental misunderstanding of their audience. The development appears to have targeted a large and affluent F1 fan crowd, which probably works fine, except that only one F1 race is hosted every two years. The people who come there the rest of the year are drivers immersed in the culture of the car, and they are extraordinarily happy to sit in the parking lot, look at each others' cars, and swap stories about their 'Ring laps. The best development they could have made at that track to serve 95% of the calendar year would have been to quadruple the size of the parking lot at the Nordschleife tourist entrance, because it fills early with an enthusiastic crowd that has another kind of roller coaster in mind. So on to that...
The Nordschleife is the remains of a long F1 track first created from public roads in the 1920's. There were a lot of tracks like that in the early days, but *very* few survive today. Not only has the Nordschleife survived thus far, it has been updated to modern standards including guard rails, curbs, and safety catch fences around its entire 17km length. Formula 1 stopped using it in 1976 after one too many fiery crashes, but it is still used yearly for popular events such as the VLN 24-hour endurance race. The layout includes a staggering 73 turns, all of them unique when coupled with the unending elevation changes. Astonishingly (to a liability-minded American like myself), the track is opened to the public frequently for "Tourist Days". Drive up, pay your 23 euro or so, and you can drive one of racing's most legendary tracks.
This track is rightly considered the biggest challenge in the racing world, and with the challenge comes a very real danger of getting it wrong. It is fairly narrow in most places, with very little runoff on either side before the 3-4 feet of guard rail that line the entire track. Spinning out here at high speed typically means pinballing back and forth between the guard rails, and in the short time I was there I saw the results of that happening to a nice Z06 Corvette, as can be seen in one of my in-car videos.
With such a reputation, rental car companies *really* don't like to find out you've taken their rental car on the 'Ring. Rumor has it they periodically send spotters to the track during tourist drives just to make sure, and I've heard of people being banned from Avis forever for their trouble. Fortunately that has given rise to a small number of companies who prep cars as 'Ring rentals. I settled on Rent4Ring Gmbh on the recommendation of BridgeToGantry, a popular Tourist Days web community.
Rent4Ring offers several different cars to choose from, starting with their popular Suzuki Swifts. That may sound funny, but they do a nice job preparing the little cars, whose short wheelbase makes them quite nimble when tuned properly. They are surprisingly quick on a roadcourse like the Ring where top speed is not paramount, and in the right hands they can surprise some much more powerful cars. You'll see several of them in my videos, some that I passed and some that passed me!
As for me, I was really looking for a rear-drive car to maximize my experience, especially since I expect I may only get the chance to do this once. I settled on a Subaru BRZ. This is a new sports car model jointly developed with Toyota, rear wheel drive with just a little over 200 horsepower as tuned by Rent4Ring. I also went for a paddle-shifting automatic. I normally drive a stick, but I figured that operating one less pedal this time would leave more concentration for staying on the road :) The paddle-shifting worked out fine; the car shifted positively and held whatever gear I selected. With 200hp the BRZ is peppy but not over-powered, and comes with a full suite of electronic traction and spin controls, so I was confident I should be able to push this car without getting myself in a lot of trouble. Rent4Ring strips the interior of all their cars, and installs a full roll cage, racing seats, and 4-point racing harnesses. Suspensions and exhausts are modified for road-course use, and nice sticky tires installed. The whole package felt very well put together.
The entire staff was very friendly, and fostered a jovial atmosphere with everyone there for a car. We received a good briefing about what to expect and how to behave on track, and a bit of warning about common mistakes and their serious repurcussions. Then we were fitted individually into our cars and sent on our merry way to the track entrance.
How to describe that first lap? I'd had the jitters for days in anticipation; in fact it was probably a blessing that I couldn't plan until so shortly before the trip happened- if I had months to think about it I wouldn't have slept for a week. But there I was helmeted and strapped in, so tightly in fact that I couldn't reach the pass machine to swipe open the gate at the entrance to the Nordschleife :) I worked the badge holder over my helmet and managed to get the gate open, and I was off at last.
I've been driving this track in computer simulations for years, so I was familiar with the track layout before I got there. In a track this size, it's extremely difficult to memorize each corner as you would do with an ordinary track. The strategy therefore is to memorize the most dangerous ones so that you can recognize where to be prepared to slow before it's too late. The simulated track is remarkably accurate, and I fully recognized the more iconic corners, and had very little trouble adapting. To my relief, I didn't set a tire wrong the entire time I was there, or even experience one moment of panic- testament to my own mental preparedness and my immediate confidence in the car.
I treated my first lap as a reconnaissance lap, soaking in the sights and sounds and marveling at the elevation changes, which are difficult to get a sense of in a simulation. More than gross elevation change, the track sharply undulates in a few places, and the car bounces and moves around quite a bit if you're going fast enough. I was very cautious with traffic, backing off and letting faster cars by with no hesitation. I was passed by the afore-mentioned Corvette around halfway through the lap- he blew by me in the faster 2nd sector, and came unnecessarily close to me in the process. At the time I wondered about the driver's precision; the proof is on the tape, I guess, as I later passed that Vette on a flat-bed, missing some fiberglass from both ends.
At the end of the lap I made my sole rookie mistake- I nearly entered the one-way parking lot from the wrong end. A sharp yell from the safety people patrolling the lot stopped me quickly, and I sheepishly backed up and got a tolerant smile for the foolish newbie :) I parked and got my dash-cam installed and took a quick walk around the lot to take a few pictures, then it was back to the track.
Gaining in confidence for the second lap, though still holding back at a couple of corners where I wasn't 100% sure what was on the other side. It was still early and I saw very little traffic; I could hardly imagine my good fortune at having the entire Nordschleife practically to myself. There were a few photographers out, and a couple of people were starting to show up at the spectator area at Echsbach. I got the stability control to kick in a couple of times, but under the circumstances I wasn't even tempted to turn it off- I'd much rather work around it than risk it all going wrong. It was loud- you can hear it in the video, sort of a sharp groan as it pulses the ABS. By the end of the day I had the traction light flashing like mad as the rear suspension struggled to keep both tires on the pavement at every lump and crest.
Lap 3 I didn't even leave the track but used the on-track lane to rejoin the entrance. This would turn out to be my fastest lap of the day- traffic was still very light, and I was confident and comfortable enough to start pushing pretty hard. I was still conservative for a couple of passes, but when I had the track to myself I was flying right along, lifting much less than before. It was cold out that day, overcast and in the low 50's, but by the end of this lap I was sweating up a storm! When I was done I had to pull off to remove my jacket and cool off a bit.
I was fully committed by lap 4, and got into the stability control a lot. That's fun, but making the car slow itself is a clue that you're making mistakes. This is when I came upon the yellow flags at Fuchsrohre and saw the wrecked Corvette on the side of the track. The track was beginning to get busy at this point; I was very conscious of faster traffic coming up behind me. They're rarely hesitant to pass, so if you're smart about staying to the right and lifting briefly you can both get on your way with very little disruption. My only mistake on a couple of occasions was misjudging the rate other cars were closing on me and slowing well before I needed to, but most of the time letting faster traffic through had no effect on my enjoyment of what I was doing.
After lap 4 I parked again for a few minutes to cool down and give enough time to clear the Corvette. The workers were quick but I still managed to catch up to the Vette on the flatbead- I was extra cautious there, certainly didn't want to be the moron that crashed into the wrecker! I was much smoother on laps 5-6 and didn't kick in the stability near as often as I did on lap 4.
And with that, it was done! I had the option to spring for more laps if I wanted to, but the parking lot was already full and more cars were streaming in; the track was well on its way to getting very busy. Plus I had a tight timetable to get back to Frankfurt and catch my train. So I headed back to Rent4Ring.
The guys at Rent4Ring checked my car back in, and had a nice little joke with me about finding damage- there wasn't any, but the look on my face was no doubt priceless :) I told them what a great time I'd had, how much I liked the car, and how my lap timer said I'd turned a 9:31, which is respectably quick for a first-timer, and even elicited a "Bloody hell!" from the fellow who gave us our briefing. I'm certain I could have shaved another 10 seconds or so off of that time if not for the increased traffic and persisting yellow flag in my last two laps.
The track and the experience were everything I could have hoped for, and I confess to taking a great amount of pride in having faced the legendary Nordschleife. I'm a long way from being its master, but I survived its challenge competently and came away with a respectable lap time.
My lasting impression will be of what a singularly unique place this is. It takes a very special culture to preserve a piece of road like the Nordschleife, to make it publicly available for tourist days, and to tolerate the fact that it daily claims a regular sacrifice of sheet metal. Surely if such an environment still existed in the US it would be headline news until it was shut down. I feel that I've experienced an anachronism of driving history and count myself immeasurably lucky to have had the opportunity.
More videos to follow once I get to a better internet connection!
Bonus pics from the car park:
How to decorate your Porsche RS
There's that Vette again in the background... soon to be missing a lot of that rear valence...
Looks just like Mike Miller's car, seen here in its natural habitat
Starting to fill up now
EDIT: Finally got to a reasonably stable internet connection, here's two more vids!
Lap 3: My fastest of the day. Still a little tentative, but this would turn out to be my last uninterrupted lap.
Lap 4: This one has a large yellow-flag area for that ripped up Corvette!
The Pan American Sim Racing League is proud to crown the champions of this season's Vintage Euro Sport series, featuring the Power & Glory mod for GTR2.
Congratulations to individual points champion Samuel Krueger! Sam captures the title after showing amazing pace in his faithful Alfa Romeo 1600 GTA- all the more remarkable since the Alfa was from the slowest car group in this series. Despite the horsepower handicap, Sam was consistently fighting for poles and podiums, and also scored a win in the mid-season unlimited event at Imola. Congratulations also to runners up Mike Kolar and Jon Uyan, who were locked in a fierce battle for points all season.
Congratulations to team points champion TMS Raceworks! TMS eased into the lead early in the season and never looked back, on the strength of great performances by Rodrigo Pires, Brette Brooks, and Jon Uyan.
Congratulations to our winners, and thanks to all who participated for making this one of PASRL's most memorable competitions!
This season featured a nicely balanced set of small displacement touring cars that yielded some remarkable competition. Reminisce with us now as we remember this season in pictures:
"Sam and I spent the first 15 laps nose to tail averaging less than .5 gap. From lap 15 to his pit, he held a solid and comfortable 1 second lead. We had a similar pace in sector 1. I was a tad quicker in sector 2 in my Escort and he was a bit quicker in sector 3 in his Alfa GTA. I think the gearing of that 5 speed helped there. I had to work very hard to pass in sector 2. I got it done twice, but gave it up in turn 1 each time." -Mike Miller
"We went nose-to-tail through T1 a number of times, I was white-knuckling it for sure as the cars squished around on worn tires. I got along side a couple of times, then finally got inside and made it stick on lap 41 or so. I pitted on lap 43; pit went smooth but Mike's went just a little smoother- I saw him exiting as I came into T1 and missed my brake point, going way wide into that (thankfully paved) enormous runoff area, but the damage was done." -Mike Kolar
"Had a surprising PB in qualifying, and was able to run top 5 most of the race. A ton of fun with Sam, Brette and MK right on my tail. Also another good battle with Daniel - alot of fun (and sweat)." -Stan Cole
"Having said that, I also know how deep the talent pool is here as Mike and Brett reminded me the whole race. After I opened up a little gap I began to make little mistakes watching my mirrors...because I couldn't get away! As it was, I was satisfied that I finished where I qualified and didn't blow it with some stupid mistakes. My pitstop went better but I still have to practice those. All in all a very satisfying race, cheers all, on to the next!" -Neil Larson
"Had a really long 1st gear and start was a bit clumsy but got it going pretty ok , then a 3-wide approach to T1 but decided to back off early on for safety reasons. Had some good close racing there at the early laps with several guys and sometimes with some help , managed to overtake few cars , combined that with some mishaps i was suddenly in a striking distance of the leaders." -Sam Krueger
"In the last few laps the leaders were coming from behind again. I saw two Excorts a little behind me as I was going into turn one. I thought I will get around turn one and the first left right combow up the hill and they should be to me and I can let them by on the short straight. I came out of the right hander onto the short straight look in the mirror and the two Escorts are side by side coming at me. I thought I was going to get to the right and let them pass but then I saw one move to my right and the other left. I did my best to stay in the middle as they went on each side of me. Can't wait to see the replay." -Michael Finn
"I had a shot at a decent finish for once, only to run out of fuel due to my mis-judgement in my set up. A great race none the less, and ran some good lap's with several. It is a pleasure to run with this group." -Todd Adair
"Well, in a "not my best season" this was my best race, but I could not match the Nabil and Rodrigo´s pace, nice laps racing with Brette, my car had more power but his car better grip." -Hernan Zamora
Valencia Street Circuit
"Hadn't decided to even run as much as an hour before the race. Minimal practice but started 5th because of the random grid. Had some early dicing with Mike K - lots of fun and something we have done many times over the years. rather than scrap I decided to pit early and came out by myself. Hugo gradually caught and passed me but that was many laps of good driving." -Ray Nelson
Sad to record the passing of another great racing legend: John Fitch has passed away at age 95.
Read all about the storied career of one of racing's great gentlemen at AutoWeek
I do love me some vintage racing posters! Here's a great collection, straight from MB itself!
In case you missed it: Day 1
Patrick, my instructor, asked me to come back on the morning of day 2 with a new set of goals. By the end of day 1 I felt that I had a solid understanding of the fundamentals I needed to practice until I was consistent, but there was one area where I still needed some improvement. Ideally when you exit a corner, you're hard on the gas, unwinding the steering wheel, and the car naturally "tracks out" at its grip limit all the way to the far side of the next straight. I was truly tracking out only about half of the time; in the rest of the corners the car settled naturally closer to the center of the track and I would steer out the rest of the way. Patrick reinforced that this meant I was either slowing too much for the corner, or getting back on the gas too late, or both. We agreed my eyes had a lot to do with it- the more I was able to look ahead to find the corner exit, the earlier I would get on the gas, and the better I would track out. I also wanted to improve my line through the bus-stop chicane, and improve my consistency braking for Turn 6, the fallaway downhill left. Patrick also wanted me to learn to throttle steer the car into the apex of turn 5.
We went out together for the first session of the day. In turn 5, Patrick had me press and release the throttle to feel the car's balance change, and to show me how I could tuck the nose of the car into the apex with a gentle lift of the throttle, shifting the balance of the car forward. This technique let me accelerate longer out of the chicane, where before I had been holding a steady throttle through the entrance to the turn.
Getting through Turn 5 faster and faster meant that I was going into Turn 6 faster, needing to brake harder. I was now charging downhill at over 100mph, and my braking was getting a bit frantic at times, which did nothing for my goal of consistency. In fact I was dealing with the need to shift my braking points all over the track. Patrick observed that I got on the brake at the same points lap after lap, which would be a good thing as long as my entry speeds were the same each time, but unfortunately they weren't. He quipped that "No good turn goes unpunished; as your exit speeds get better you will have to adjust your braking points on the following corners".
Immediately after that first group 2 session, there was a solo session. Patrick and I talked for a couple of minutes about what I would work on the rest of the day and he got out. I fired up the car and got back in line for the solo session. Traffic was extremely light, plus my pace was getting closer to everyone else's, so I didn't see many other cars that session, and was able to attack the track at will. In my enthusiasm I lapsed badly on where my eyes were focused. At one point I barreled into Turn 9 looking just beyond the nose of the car, instead of looking far to the left for the blind apex. True to the axiom, I went straight ahead, right where my eyes were looking. It was a real pucker-factor moment; I did get the car slowed and stayed on track, and was jolted back into looking ahead as I should. About 20 minutes into the 30 minute session, I noticed the car was starting to feel squirmy under braking. The pedal was still firm, but the car was beginning to move around a little when I braked hard. That was enough for me- I came in early to let things cool. When I told Patrick, he suggested I check the tire pressures, especially in the rear. A double-stint at the pace I was now running was enough to dramatically elevate the rear tire pressures and put the car out of balance. Sure enough, he was right- I checked my pressures immediately after my next session and found the rears to be at 44psi, 5psi higher than the fronts.
A little time to reflect on my lapses in the 2nd session was very good for me. Session 3 I went out and everything came together- my downshifts were getting better and better, I was braking harder, I was keeping my eyes up where they belonged, and therefore getting on the throttle better and tracking out as I should. I was giving a lot fewer point-bys, and getting some myself from cars that I hadn't been able to keep up with on day 1. I even found room in my concentration for one more crucial skill that I had been neglecting: paying attention to the flag stations. It's easy to get lost in what you're doing and not notice when a flag is waving; in fact, the day before I had missed a "black flag all", which means that something is on the track and all cars are required to exit to the pits. Fortunately Patrick was with me at the time to point it out for me, but it stuck with me that I needed to do a better job seeing flags.
All this hard charging was very satisfying. It was also raising my fuel consumption; I had planned on refueling at lunch to make sure I didn't have another fuel starvation problem, but this time I got below a half tank in only my 3rd session, and my continued improvements in Turn 5 were enough to actually make the car stumble a couple of times. Also, though I didn't know it yet, the heavier braking was taking its toll on my brake pads, which apparently weren't up to handling the heat I was generating. They made a little noise at the beginning of session 4, but quieted down after a lap or so.
I was still moving along well in session 4. Near the end of the session I took a point-by that I regretted: I was following an M3 that was following a 330 sedan. The middle car pointed me by late on the back straight; I made the pass, but did not dare tuck in between the two cars, and did not get a point-by from the lead car before it was time to turn in for the chicane. I braked appropriately early and found room between the two cars, but in the meantime I completely missed the checkered flag flying from the flag station signifying the end of the session. Patrick later assured me I didn't violate any rules by making that pass, but we both agreed it might have been better to wave that one off.
Session 5 was an open session for instructors, group 1, and group 2 solo cars. Patrick came with me, anticipating the traffic would be heavy and the pace quick. I was still in good form for the most part, with only the occasional missed apex or slightly off-speed entry to worry about. I continued to deal with the effects of my cornering improvements; this session I repeatedly got into turn 7 carrying too much speed. In retrospect I recognized that I was shifting into 4th gear shortly before my braking point and getting briefly on the gas, which left me braking too late. Patrick confirmed that I should stay in 3rd; in fact he stayed in 3rd from the chicane all the way through turn 9.
My proudest moment of the second day came during this session. On the main straight I gave a point-by to a red Z06 Corvette, who blasted by in a cloud of V8 noise, and pulled away a little on the short straight into turn 2. I was getting good in the esses, though, and at the top of the hill I had to lift to keep from running that Vette over as we hit the main straight. Patrick was always ready with positive reinforcement when I did something right, but genuine compliments were hard-won, and I got one on the bumper of that Vette :)
My brakes were beginning to grumble steadily at this point, though the pedal was still firm and I didn't seem to be losing noticeable performance. I was worried about the rotors, which were on the car when I got it 60k miles ago, but Patrick suspected the pads were baked and beginning to crumble. I would later find out we were both right- at the end of the session the pads were visibly crumbling around the edges, and on the ride home the rotors would continue to worsen into a pulsing vibration symptomatic of warping. At this point there was only one more session for group 2, and I liked the idea of getting an early start for the long ride home, so I decided to call it a day.
Timing isn't allowed at HPDE events, but Pete did some unoffical stopwatching for me on day 1. In the morning I appeared to be turning consistent 2:42s. By afternoon I had dropped to comfortable 2:35s. From my in-car video my personal best was a 2:33 on day one; by day 2 I was doing 2:32s with a personal best 2:30.9.
1. The track is fantastic, every bit as epic as I expected it to be, and twice as challenging.
2. I love the esses best of all. Pitching the car into Turn 2 with the throttle on the floor and trusting it to grip up the hill, transitioning to 3, exiting 4 at 110mph was a thrill I won't soon forget.
3. Real instruction is absolutely invaluable. I had loads of fun at my first two (non-BMWCCA) events, but in retrospect I was wasting my time in comparison. I learned and was able to apply more in two days than I had learned in years of reading and driving on my own or with local clubs. I will definitely book events with BMWCCA from now on.
This week I attended my third career trackday event, this time at Watkins Glen International.
My first two events at Pocono and Lime Rock were challenges, but I knew Watkins Glen was going to be taking it to another level. Pocono and Lime Rock are both about 1.5 miles. Pocono has loads of runoff everywhere, and very little elevation change (it is actually a great place for a first-timer). Lime Rock has a couple of tight spots and two potentially tricky elevation changes. The Glen is about 3.5 miles, with very little runoff, and almost constant elevation changes of up to 140 feet. This is one of the world's great racetracks, with a rich history of hosting 20 years of classic Formula 1 events. Driving through the paddock and onto pit lane means following in the tire tracks of legendary race drivers. All of them respected this place for its challenges, and I would too.
I made arrangements to stay at the nearby home of long-time sim buddy Pete Schlough. We've been driving together and hanging out virtually since 2006, when Pete joined NASRL shortly before the league made the transition to Race2Play. He generously made the offer to put me up as soon as he heard I was coming out, and I invited him to join me at the track for however long as he was available. Pete was able to take Wednesday off and spend all day with me. That prospect was all the more valuable for Pete's experience as a flagman at The Glen- he's extremely familiar with all aspects of this track, and has driven it before as well.
In preparation, I put in a bunch of laps online at the wheel of my simulator, driving the track on iRacing, which features a laser-scanned version of the track that is the most accurate available. Before I even left my house I was pre-loaded with a good familiarity of the layout, which did turn out to be helpful. Pete gave me an excellent preview of recent modifications at the track, which included a couple of new paved runoff areas and the addition of a NASCAR SAFER barrier at the exit of the final turn. I was pleased to hear that a couple of the gravel traps were gone- at street car speeds, paved runoff would be preferable to being towed out of the gravel if I were to leave the track.
The trip out there was uneventful, except for the torrential rain I had to drive through. I made it in about 5 1/2 hours and was at Pete's place early. The Finger Lakes region of New York is pretty country; lots of farmland and little villages in between, with low mountains and a series of long lakes that give the area its name. Pete and I shared a pizza and some beer and talked racing easily until it was time to suppress my excitement long enough for fitful sleep :)
Montour Falls, at the bottom of the mountain
Morning came and we got caffeinated and gassed up, arriving at the track just a little later than planned. I was jittery about getting registered and getting the car through tech inspection in time; Pete chuckled and let me go about emptying my stuff out of the car into the middle of the paddock to get ready. I sailed through and we moved everything to a better spot at a more leisurely pace to set up my pop-up and get things more organized.
Unlike my first two trackdays, this event would be with the BMW Car Club of America (BMWCCA), Boston Chapter. Calling it a trackday is really doing it a bit of a disservice- it's officially called a "High Performance Driver Education" (HPDE) event. Plus it was for two days, not one! Preparation was much the same on my end, but I soon learned that the level of instruction I was to receive was to be much more extensive than that of my local car club at my first two events. A mandatory driver's meeting laid out the event rules and introduced the schedule. As a group 2 novice, I would have an instructor with me on track full time, and get an additional hour and a half of classroom time on both days. I would need official signoff from my instructor to be allowed to drive solo, which would get me access to a few extra on-track sessions.
My instructor, Patrick, came by to introduce himself, and ask a few questions about my experience, and what I hoped to learn. That last piece would be a recurring theme through both days- I was encouraged to set goals for myself for each session, to identify where I wanted to improve so that Patrick could help me get there. My overall goals for the event were to improve my braking and downshifting skills, and to generally work on smoothness in my driving. I told him I was familiar with the layout from iRacing, to which he nodded and replied that the elevation change was still going to be unfamiliar, because the simulator does not convey the vertical slope of the track (he was right, of course). We arranged to meet up at 9:30 for my first drive, and I was off to the classroom.
Class time was unstructured, looking back on it, which was fine. The instructor spent the first session going over flags, and the passing rules. Passing was allowed by point-by only, meaning you were not allowed to pass until the car you were passing had pointed to indicate he was ready for you to pass. As a non-competition event, all drivers were expected to give point-bys to faster cars at the first safe opportunity so no one would be held up for long. For the rest of both days, the classroom was a place to ask any questions and talk about what were seeing on track, and for the chief instructor to comment on anything that he'd seen happening out there.
Patrick on track in his Dinan 325
Finally it was time to helmet up and hit the track. It was sunny but windy and cool on top of the mountain, but I'd by lying if I said my knees were shaky all because of the cold; I was quite amped up by now. Patrick brought a headset setup that slipped into my helmet so we could hear each other on track.
Windows are kept rolled down to make it easier to extract someone from a car if necessary, so it gets quite loud in the car at speed, and even with the headset I sometimes needed Patrick to repeat the last thing he said. Patrick drove my car first, and narrated extensively about the things he was doing and especially where his eyes were looking as we lapped the track twice. The eyes are key in race driving- the fundamental axiom is that "Where the eyes go, the car follows"; in other words, you will naturally tend to drive the car where you are looking. I knew the axiom, had heard and read it for years, but had not had it driven into me as a necessity the way I was about to for the next two days. Patrick had an almost supernatural ability to know where I was looking at all times and was a steady reminder in my ear when I wasn't focused where I should be. My two first laps at The Glen were a stream of key points to focus on: turn-in points, corner apexes, corner exits, flag stations, through all eleven corners.
We pulled into the pits and switched seats, and spent a little time on my seating position. Unfortunately my seat doesn't adjust low enough to accomodate the thickness of a helmet added to my 6ft of height, but with a little work we were able to get me situated a little better than I originally had myself set up, and we were off.
The online preparation did work- mentally I was prepared for every corner as it came, despite the additional gobs of visceral input that was flooding in: g-forces, wind buffeting, noise from engines and tires, the smell of hot brakes. Which is not to say I wasn't still intimidated by some corners- the uphill esses (turns 2,3,4) feel a lot faster in real life than in the sim, with sustained left, right, left g forces pulling on you; turn 6 is a sharp downhill left approached in 4th gear that looks very scary at speed. Patrick was still narrating as I drove: "Turn in now; find the apex; patience; power on... heavy brake... turn-in". I was comfortable until we got to turn 9. Patrick was still narrating, but when he instructed me "medium brake", I was looking up at the blind corner coming up and my brain was screaming "HARD brake!". I got through it safe but a bit slow and sloppy, and would continue to work on that corner the rest of the day.
First session debrief mapped out the rest of my day:
1. At the forefront, I needed to learn how to heel and toe downshift (for my non-motorsports readers, that is the practice of rolling the right foot to blip the throttle for a downshift while pressing hard on the brake at the same time). I've long known the concepts and have experimented with it before, but I'd never gotten proficient and didn't even try to do it on track. For Patrick this was clearly non-negotiable, something I absolutely needed to learn, which was all the impetus I needed to commit to it the rest of the day (and the next).
2. My eyes were everywhere but where they belonged. I was typically focused a short distance in front of the car; was staying focused on the apex until I was just about to pass it; mostly missed the corner workers altogether. Lots of work to do.
3. I was still a mess in turn 9. I needed to learn visual references to find the blind apex so I would know when to turn in properly, and needed to learn the racing line better when I did turn in.
Next session I rode along with Patrick in his car. He drives a well worn 325 with 318,000 miles on it, which makes my 330Ci seem like a babe in the woods at 156,000! Patrick was extremely relaxed on track, setting the wheel once for each corner and maintaining a smooth arc without the constant adjustments I kept making. At this point I was able to notice where his lines were different from mine- he was in earlier and tighter in a couple of corners, which I would come to understand later.
Session 2 was about putting heel-and-toe into practice. Patrick had me driving a little slower and shifting more than necessary just for the experience. Predictably I was clumsy at first- I frequently placed my foot on the brake too far away from the gas pedal to give it a blip, and just as often would partially release the brake when blipping the throttle. Patrick gave me guidance to brake at the first brake marker, then downshift halfway to the turn-in. We also worked on figuring out turn 9; learning that my inability to locate the apex was what scared me most; Patrick identified a tree just off track that was in line with the apex and gave me something to focus on.
By session 3 I was beginning to gain the muscle memory I needed for the downshifts. We continued to focus more on where I was looking, which really paid off for me first in turn 5, a long sweeping right-hander. Patrick had me looking over the infield and through the flag station to find the apex as soon as possible, then immediately further up track to find the corner exit, relying on peripheral vision to watch the approaching apex and maintain my line. As soon as the exit was visible, I was able to get back on the gas far earlier, and gained exit speed dramatically. Looking ahead was obviously a safety benefit, but this was the first instance where I clearly understood the speed benefit. The more I was able to reliably apply the practice, the faster I became at every corner. Session 4 was more of the same, continuing to improve downshifting and consistency. I was improving with my eyes, sighting down track, but continuing to bounce back and forth between looking down track and back to the apex rather than staying focused.
By the end of session 4 I was getting perilously low on fuel. My car has an unbaffled gas tank, and under sustained hard right cornering it will begin to starve for fuel with anything less than half a tank. As I got faster in turn 5, the throttle became less responsive exiting the corner, and I wished I had filled up the tank during lunch. After session 4 it was crucial I go get fuel, but I had to attend the mandatory classroom session. So I went to class and refueled after, missing session 5. Patrick signed off on my ability to go solo for the final session of the day. And I mean literally "signed off": the instructors were required to sign a form certifying that the student is qualified to safely drive solo. My green #1 solo sticker was a point of pride for me, signifying significant improvement in a short time, and justifying my faith in my own skill and potential.
My first solo session showed I was still somewhat green. I was running with some group 1 drivers and instructors, and the track was fairly busy. I was a little intimidated when cars approached from behind; no one wants to be the guy that holds up a long train of cars, and one or two of my point-bys were clumsy. But I got through it and built more confidence, while trying my best not to revert to old bad habits (or start any new ones!).
At the end of the day we were treated to a track-walk by Peter Argetsinger. Peter is a pro driver coach who has been training world-class drivers for 30+ years, and is the son of the track's designer. We stopped at most corners and Peter talked about lines and approach, it was very interesting. I mentioned elevation change earlier; at speed in the car you still don't realize just how steep the hills are, and how banked the track is. But standing on the slopes and banking it is dramatically apparent- this is one undulating track!
So ends Day 1. Pete & I took in some good Italian food in the town of Watkins Glen. I had planned on being a party animal Wednesday night, failing to take into account how mentally drained I would be by that time. I was lucky not to fall asleep in my plate of canneloni!
Next installment: Day 2, No Good Turn Goes Unpunished!