Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Second Gear

So now I've soloed. I learned a lot. The first thing I learned is that you must remember to bring sunscreen (yes that's right I'm all good and lobstered). Autocross is 60% prep/helping 35% free time and 5% driving really hard around ridiculously tight turns. And with my car the 5% in the car provides no shade anyway since the top was down. Only the racing helmet blocked sun from my face (for the 30-40 minutes I wore it.).

The 5% driving however is an opportunity to do all those maneuvers you really wanted to try. The course lasts 60-90 seconds depending on how fast you and your car are. The kind of car you bring is probably less than half the speed too. Lotus Elise's are in the top racing category, and mine only has a few modifications for racing so it's still considered a stock car. I raced in "Super Stock" as a novice. Ironically the guy who won the novice category was driving a Mazda 3. There's quite a bit of skill to this sport and that's one of the reasons I know I'll be back. I love a challenge.

Another thing I learned was that the previous owner had put the front tires on backwards... and I hadn't noticed. (doh!) Luckily with the help of another driver who had extra tires for his Elise, I managed to correct that. Changing a tire is easy, but swaping two tires requires a lift or an extra tire.

Anyway the results of the competition are here, and pictures are here

Unfortunately, this event brings my season to a close. I injured my hand 2 days after the event, and while it is healing nicely, I probably won't be competition ready until next spring... The only thing bad about a Lotus, is having one that you can't drive!

Till next year....

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Going Solo

When I finally got serious about the prospect of buying a sports car, I started by searching the internet. I had been doing that before, but now I was taking names and numbers and calling dealers. Unfortunately, I had waited until June to do this. The proper time to be buying an Elise is somewhere between March and May.

There is a seasonality to cars like the Elise. An Elise is not a practical car. It's ridiculous to consider driving it in New England winters. It is a "fun car" that people own in addition to some other more sedate transport, much like motorcycles.

Folks who are trading up to a newer model, or a higher racing class or whatnot often sell in the fall, and buy the new vehicle for the spring. This of course avoids 3-6 months of payments (or earns 3-6 months of investment income) and frees up parking space etc. By way of contrast, by June, most people are sticking with their fun car for another summer or are now enjoying their newly purchased fun car.

So it wasn't entirely surprising that where I had previously seen a half dozen used cars at a single dealership in Connecticut there was now just 2 brand new ones there at full price. In all of New England (counting Schenectady NY) I found a total of 4 Used 2005/2006 in the mid $30k range available for sale. The only one that was really close was in Foxboro at the Boch Luxe dealership. It was silver and silver's a nice color so I left work early and headed down Rt 1.

Unknowingly, I had picked the day that the Brazilian Soccer Team was playing at Gillette Stadium. I left work at 3:30, it should have been less than an hour's drive. I got there at 6 pm after being treated to 2 hours of stand still traffic in which every one but me was dressed in green and yellow and spoke Portuguese. And of course I had to pee like a horse after the first hour...

I got there and the dealership was too close to the stadium. They had their cars (mostly Ferrari's and Maserati's) circled up near the back of the lot away from stray beer bottles. Furthermore, about the time I was leaving work, they had been taking a deposit on the car. They let me sit in it and turn it on, but that was it.

The next closest one was in Bourne, MA at Atlantic Subaru. I called them up and said "Can I come down Saturday and take it for a test drive?" After a moment on hold, the salesman told me that the car wasn't actually there... the owner (of the dealership) was driving it and probably about to buy it. A few days later I had driven part way down to the subaru dealership and then stopped to check if the car was available to drive. The salesman told me that the owner of the dealership did indeed buy it. The (very nice) salesman also offered to help me find one and ship it to Massachusetts, but given that I hadn't even driven one yet I wasn't willing to put down solid money on a car that I had neither seen nor driven.

So I decided that I had to cast my net a little wider than just the internet. I embarked upon the next most powerful tool for finding something of value... Networking. I began stopping at high end car dealerships to see if they had recently taken any in trade or knew anyone else who had. My mission was to find one that I could drive. I had a whole host of niggling little worries like how stiff was the suspension? Would I hate potholes too much? I'd never driven a 6 speed... what if my imagination was bigger than reality? I needed to get in one and be 100% sure that this was something I liked. I really didn't think there was much chance I wouldn't like it but would I like it enough to spend 30-40k on it?

Believe it or not, this strategy of just talking to people got me 2 leads. The first one was a $40k Exige in solar yellow. It allegedly had less than 5k miles on it and the owner was giving it up because of a ruptured disk in his back. It was obviously a **fabulous** bargain, but out of my intended price range. I felt that there was really no call for me to spend more money on an Exige. A 2005 Elise would be vastly more powerful and perform better than anything I had ever had. It also sounded just slightly too good to be true.

The second lead came from the Porsche dealership in Westwood. A nice salesman told me he hadn't seen any come through this year, but had had them in the past. But then he said "But there's this place I drive by every day. It's a repair shop and it always has several lotus's parked out front. It's on Rt 109 in Millis, by a big intersection." This was golden and I KNEW that if anything was going to yield a good lead this would be it. The owner had to be plugged into the Lotus community, a hub in the network.

I set off immediately down Rt 109 with my eyes peeled for a parking lot full of lotuses. The shop turned out to be Michael's Motorsports. I met Michael, and he was a friendly, helpful and clearly knowledgeable sort of guy. As it turned out his friend was buying a "Rolex Porsche" (which I take to mean one of the GT3 911 models that can compete in the Rolex racing series). That meant he was selling his 2005 Lotus. This was exactly the sort of connection I had hoped to make. He gave me his friend's phone number and one thing lead to another.

However in the process of talking to Michael and his friend, I became increasingly aware that the machine I was buying really was a machine that should be taken to the track to be appreciated. Michael had a picture of the car I bought and his car going around a turn on a track. His friend runs his own high end car track day program. The mechanic in the shop regaled me with tales of his racing exploits on oval tracks. Here was a door into the world of competitive auto sports, one of those doors that had previously been out there, somewhere far away and inaccessible.

So as I bought the car I also resolved to open that door. I had a good car now, and I ought to do something with it that I can't do with a Mazda 3 hatch back. So I bought the car, and along with it I got a set of track rims with track tires, and several track modifications. But I also had the impression that the track tires were necessary. Soon after I realized that I had no way to get the track tires to a track unless I rented a truck and trailered the car. You can't tow anything with an Elise, and you can' even fit one tire in the trunk. My ambition stalled out. I resolved to solve this problem next spring.

However, as fate would have it, I had issues with the battery, and after discovering that none of the auto parts chains had one I called upon Michael's services. In doing so, I got the opportunity to talk with him again. The racing juices got fired up, and I learned that really I shouldn't worry about the track tires until I learn to find the limit on the street tires. I did a little web browsing when I got home and came across the New England Region of the SCCA's web site. I was looking at the various types of competitions. Solo Autocross was looking most approachable, and least likely to result in bent fenders if I screwed up (which on an Elise means cracked body halves!... there are only 2 pieces to the body work. Front and back.)

Then I found the forums... At the very top of the forum were a couple of locked posts, of the sort that moderators and forum admins post and set to stay at the top for informational purposes. But the name on the post was distinctive. It's the sort of first name last name combination that simply doesn't get duplicated (much like mine). It was clear that one of my Alpha Phi Omega brothers from college was into solo racing, and heavily enough into it to be taking on an admin role on the forums.

That clinched it. I signed up, left a post and after reconnecting and chatting with my old friend (whom I've only seen passingly only twice since college). I am now registered for a race this weekend.

Next... racing in second gear.