Sunday, February 22, 2009

Racin': Skip Barber Day 3

Well, day 3 at Skip Barber was a week ago, so it's about time that I got back to writing it up. I brought my camera to the track all three days, but I took very few pictures. In fact the only ones I took were early Saturday morning on Day 2. You'll have to content yourself with my word pictures; threadbare as they are.

Days 1 & 2 were similar in their weather patterns. Each morning was cool and wet, then during the day the sun came out and the wind came up and dried the track off. By the time we were out there to do exercises of one sort or another, the track was dry. Here's what it looked like before class started. This is the view of the track from the front steps of the Skip Barber facility. The Yokohama bridge is on the straight between Turns 3 & 4, both 90 degree right handers.

Early morning at Laguna Seca

You can see that the sun was fighting through and the wind was starting to blow the overnight clouds away.

This is Bill, my co-driver on One Lap of America this year and a good friend for the past couple of years. We worked on the 21st Century School Initiative in Mississippi and Louisiana for Cisco from November 2005 through January 2007. Bill actually worked longer at both ends of the project, but that was the extent of my Cisco fellowship.

Bill outside the Skip Barber entrance

Finally, here's my early morning similing face outside of Turn 3. You can see the apex cone on the inside of the turn. The turn in cone is further back up track and the track out cone is just outside the frame to the left. You can see the track surface of the front straight flowing downhill to the left behind Turn 3. This was the scene of our deep-braking, trail-braking exercise on Saturday.

Jim at outside Turn 3 at Laguna Seca

Sunday's weather was totally different from Friday and Saturday's. It rained during the night, then rained all morning and all afternoon. Our curriculum was to practice race starts in the morning, followed by some unrestricted lapping of the track, lunch, and then more lapping in the afternoon. The track stayed quite wet all day; the rain would let up for a bit, but then come back, making sure that the track surface never dried at all. Driving open-topped, roll-caged Miatas with fabric covered racing buckets was a somewhat soggy affair.

We were scheduled to practice two double-file rolling starts and then a single-file restart, so that if we did want to go racing, the procedures would not be totally unfamiliar. Before we practiced the starts though, they had us do some lapping to get a feel for the track surface today. I had been in a silver MX-5 Miata for both Friday and Saturday. When it got a bit wet inside and the wet got to any of the electrical connections, it would show a 'battery' light on the instrument panel. Sunday was very wet; when I got in and started up, I had the battery light and several others illuminated as well. That should have been my first hint that trouble was coming. The car started ok and then I took it out onto the track accelerating gently as the motor, gearbox, tires etc (as well as the driver) were all cold. As it began to warm a bit, I pressed further, the Miata would not follow. It would not run past 3,000 rpm (and those cars make very little power below about 5,000). Pretty soon, I had an embarrassing procession of cars behind me running up the hill to the Corkscrew. I hate slowing other folks down. This one, though, was totally out of my control. After dropping down into the Corksrew and then negotiating Turns 9 & 10, I pulled into the pits. Lucky for me Skip Barber has lots of Miatas. They gave me a shiny red one and then all was right with the world.

We were scheduled to run our race starts on the front straight after making the sharp left of Turn 11. Because there were a couple of small rivers coming across the front straight, things were a bit dicey. The whole weekend we had been sharing the track with the SB Formula racing school, little 1,400 lb open wheel cars with 2 liter Dodge Neon motors and 5 speed transmissions in them. In the lapping session they were doing just before we went out to do our practice starts, one of the formula cars hit the water coming across the straight without being terribly straight himself, aquaplaned and spun. He hit the wall twice knocking both rear wheels and most of his body work off in the process. As a result of the conditions and the time it took to clean things up, we only got one side by side start and then a single file restart. It was kinda fun; once the whole field came off Turn 11, they gave us the green flag and then it was pedal to the metal time. I started in 5th (left side, third row) out of 8 cars and ended up third by the end of the front straight. Once we got over the hill, we slowed down and ran single file around the course until another pace car picked us up between Turns 4 & 5. We followed that around and then, coming off Turn 11 again, we did a single file restart. Because the cars are so remarkably similar in power and setup, the likelihood of making a pass on a restart all comes down to someone making a mistake. No-one in front of me did.

After that we had lots of lapping for the rest of the day. At every track I've ever been to school at, the first thing they teach you is 'the line'; the theoretically most efficient, fastest way around the race track. They did that for us on Friday and Saturday. The line at Laguna Seca was already pretty familiar to me from video games, but it was immensely gratifying to be able to run it in reality and have it been way more fun than any video game.

When it rains, the only thing you can be sure of is the 'the line' is likely to be the slowest, most slippery way around the track. That's because race cars tend to fill in the racing surface with bits of tire rubber, oil, coolant, etc all along the line. The surface off line is where all the grip is when it's wet out, though you do have to be savvy enough to watch for puddles etc. As our lead instructor, Rene, said, "Driving in the rain is a search for grip. Go wherever you find it." It is also a great exercise in car control.

In the process of 'finding the grip' you often find sections of less grip than you thought. This leads to a pretty wiggly car at speed; you have to be comfortable with a certain amount of understeer, oversteer and general dancing around on the razor's edge of traction. It was actually great fun. We only had one student put his car off (and make use of his insurance) during the entire day, so I'd say that was pretty successful.

During the last session of the day, I got waved onto the track a couple of cars behind Bill. I was able to make my way past those two cars and began to come up on Bill. I thought it would be great fun to pass him before the end of the session. Alas, Bill saw me coming and had other thoughts on the matter. In fact, he told me that that was the last thing in the world he wanted to happen at that moment. We probably ran 4 or 5 laps of Laguna Seca without me getting any closer than a couple of car lengths. I figured that if I kept behind him, he'd begin watching his mirrors and eventually make a mistake. He didn't oblige.

I have to say that that session was the most fun of the weekend. First, because we had a clear track for most of the time and could wiggle around there to our hearts' content. Second, and much more important for me, I had the chance to see that Bill has good car control and won't fold under pressure. That bodes well for our One Lap adventure.

Now I just have to get him some time in the Roadster before One Lap starts. Driving an unfamiliar track with one reconnaissance lap is hard enough; doing it in a car you've never driven before would be suicide. I've spent the last week looking for track events on the West coast were we can run. I'll post about it once I get something lined up.

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I'm currently 60 years old. I currently work as the learning management system specialist for American University of Madaba in Madaba, Jordan. I was originally certified as a high-school English teacher and taught school for 13 years (1 year of substituting, 1 year of 7th grade, 2 years of a combined 5th, 6th, 7th grade, 9 years of 8th grade). I've worked for hardware and software companies for the past 23 years doing training, training materials development, certification test development and other education related stuff. My wife and I have raised four children to adulthood; some of them live at home at the moment, but that won't last (they're too independent for that). We live at home with 2 Golden Retrievers, 2 black cats, a crazy cat, and, during the winter, 70,000 coho salmon.