Sunday, July 12, 2009

Battle Scars

Ok so I'm late in reporting this, but hey... Do I get paid for this? ;) (and also as far as I can tell, nobody reads this either)

So how did the 7/12/09 event go? Oddly but in the end it turns out I still managed to post an improvement. This event came on the heals of a fabulous run with the Renegade Miata Club. The RMC club event was the first time I felt like I was running *in* the pack, and some people with decent cars and more than a couple events of experience were envying my times. I was within 10% of the FTD...

This time featured a couple of new experiences. Wiley Co-Drove with me because his original co-driver's car ate it's own clutch early in the day. Co-driving theoretically gives a better chance at good times because the tires are warmer. It also demands that one pay closer attention to the grid. There is less time between runs, and for my part I kinda felt a bit rushed in comparison to solo driving.

Also in this event, I suffered the first incident of damage to the car directly related to the sport. The front clam is now slightly cracked and the plastic grating on the front left was destroyed by cones. It's not clear which driver inflicted the damage. Wiley claimed he had mowed down a cone directly when he came back from his second run. This caused me to recall what Russ had said about cracking his front clam and that caused me to look. But the run before I had blown straight through a wall of cones when I completely over-drove the Chicago box. I was too vexed to remember to check for damage after my run. Either incident could have been the source of the damage (estimated at $750 to fix).

Finally the day was plagued with timing problems, and we only got 5 runs. Of my five runs I had 2 DNF's due to spinning, and 2 runs that had 3 and 4 cones. Only one clean run. I wound up feeling like I had left a LOT of time out there and ended the day feeling quite down.

But as I mentioned, the numbers turned out good. My one good run actually represented a minor improvement over my "faboulous" RMC day. So while the day was rough on an emotional/ego basis as it happened, only one good run is needed to save the day. I can look back now on the problems and view them as battle scars, part of the cost of learning.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Running with Renegades

Thus far I've been primarily doing SCCA Autocross events. Their season is slowing down. There are only 3 more events in their season, and only one per month. One of my concerns had been that with that long of a break, perhaps I would get rusty. So I started looking around for other autocross events. The BMW club had one today, but they fill up instantaneously... and registration was closed. However Renegade Miata Club had one for Saturday (yesterday). After an email confirmed that there were some open spots, I packed up my trailer and headed off to Devens.

Their events run somewhat differenlty. They seem to take an additional hour to hour and a half to get going. The course they set up is longer and takes longer to set up. We only got 1 course walk as opposed to the 3 or 4 possible at an SCCA event. However with fewer participants we managed to get in 6 runs a piece on a course twice as long. The net effect was that the event was more track time but less of an organized framework to facilitate competition. My oppinion is that these events are good fun, practice and training, but won't really satisfy those who need a competitive fix unless they happen to own a Miata.

The course was a lot of fun. My first time through, I realized that I really wasn't used to driving an autocross that long. The adrenaline quivers were getting to me a bit at the end of the run... but in subsequent runs my stamina improved so it wasn't really a problem... The course was very fun, and included some interesting elements I hadn't seen before at SCCA events.

There was the chicago-box on a corner which drove some folks nuts (but I figured it out on the course walk due to my Evolotion school training! Woot!). There was also an element that was a series of gates that created a what can only be called as a squiggle in the line you had to drive.... and the visual effect was a veritable sea of cones. There was also a series of 3 tubes that were paralell to the runway, but in fact were just a visual distraction. if you got set up ahead of time and pointed your car right, you actually could drive a straight line through them. This in itself was also a trick because the speed put on in that straight had to be carefully controlled to make the turn at the end and get into the subsequent slalom properly.

On my first run, I was a bit tentative due to the single course walk, and I caught a cone somewhere along the way. On my second run, I started much faster, but true to my recent form, this quickly led me to overdrive a subsequent element, and I had to work real hard, almost stopping to make sure I ran over a cone rather than go off course on the entry to the first slalom. Amazingly, I recovered and got back into the slalom well after that and the rest of the run was reasonable, but that mistake cost me a couple seconds and a cone at least. My third run was awesome... it was clearly going to be a freak run where I completely out did myself... except I spun on the very last offset... Even with the spin, I beat my time from the first run... crap crap crap! My best run of the morning was the second one at 130.941 +1 cone. I was near the middle of th 32 drivers in the first heat.

The first afternoon run was relatively sane, except I once again screwed up the entrance to the first slalom, and didn't drive the chicago box particularly well. I also took the turn comming off the cross way too slow and I got way behind on the offsets at the end of the course. The sea of cones and several elements went well, but the time was a disappointing 133.185, and yet again... +1 cone.

The second afternoon run was better. The only things I screwed up were the offsetts, but I managed to be at least a little bit late on every single one of them. When I drove by the scoring tent, they called my time as 130.669... clean. I was psyched. But when I looked at the board a few minutes later... +1 cone... *sigh* a late cone call... Other drivers had been improving their times I was now in danger of falling into the bottom third of the heat.

One more run. I knew that every run had had at least one major mistake in it, and a cone. Eliminating either one would be a huge improvement. Both would be ideal. I ran over the course in my head. I reminded my self over and over again... "clean, controled, but don't let up" I remembered the NER novice/intermediate school and how I spun at the end of a very good run, after pshching myself up at the beginning. I remembered the May 30 event where I backed off too much because I spun at the end of morning runs. I reminded myself of my repeated problems entering the first slalom, I reminded myself to aim at the outside of the offset and cut in. I reminded myself that the second to last offset is tighter than the one before it, I reminded myself to gun it out of the back slalom into the decreasing radius sweeper, but not to over-do it so I could set up for the offset that followed. I reminded myself to relax and drive the course... At the starting line I just worked on staying calm, and remembering to shift.

For the first time since the EVO school where we got 20 runs at the same course, I managed a run with no major errors. I got into the slalom well, I remembered *not* to congratulate myself (which often leads to a scre up on the next element). I exited the slalom under control and did the offsets correctly and dove into the sea of cones, giving it up just at the end to prepare for the chicago box. I got wide left did the best pass through chicago box I had all day, and dove right into the offset slalom with just a tiny mental note that that went well. I exited the offset slalom and mashed the accelerator into the turn off the crossway, but just a tap of the brakes to stay in control before I turned into the sweeper and then light to no throttle through the next turn and into the offsets... perhaps I could have gone faster, but I wasn't really slow either, and I drove the offsets correctly, which allowed me to get on the acellerator into the big sweeper in the back... That got me into the optional slalom at speeds somewhat higher than I intended and I had to back off, but I managed to get off the accellerator slowly and not send myself into a spin. At the exit I managed to tap the brakes just briefly and get the car inside the cone of the next gate... I took the next sweeper too wide, probably driving too much distance, but I let the speed come off a bit and got set up properly for the 3 tube straightaway on the home stretch, where I got full on the acellerator again, but let off in time to get set up properly for the first offset. I cut in nicely and remembered that the next one was sharp, and that I really didn't want to repeat the previous spin. I probably laid off a little too much but I kept it under control and got set up for the last offset correctly. I dove through the final offset and gunned it to the finish. I couldn't recal any cones, and my mistakes were all minor.... It had to be a good run if only I really was clean. That was the crux... I waited as I passed the anouncer and he called out

"129.092.... .... .... CLEAN!"

That was my best time, it was clean and I had shaved over 3.5 seconds off my best time. I was giddy the entire rest of the event. I was in such a good mood that I didn't care if anyone beat my time, or about competition with anyone... I had beat myself. I had conquered the mess I was making of the course and put in a respectable run. My best event so far without question.

One of the difficulties of running with a new club is that all my statistics to measure how well I did are relative to how the SCCA runs events. The class designations and the number and types of competitors is completely different. At SCCA events there are generally 10 formula cars or so... (2 A mod, 2-3 B mod 2-3 Fmod, and randomly something else modified...) There were none at this event. The top machines at this event were probably ASP or Super-Stock level cars. Probably the top vehicle was the Porsche Gt3 RS ... But the best yardstick I could find was Mikhael El-Bayeh who won SSM last week with a time of 62.206 and a pax ranking of 35/93.
Other competitors present at both events included Ben Wagstaff and Mark Monnar, and Oleg Rekutin.

Mikhael's time in this event was 125.471, so we can figure that if he drove at a similar level (who knows... either day might have been a bad or good day, but it's all I've got), the course was 2.02 times longer than the last SCCA event based on his times. The same calculation for the other three drivers leads to 1.99 and 1.88 and 1.96 for an average of 1.96. So this course was almost twice as long as the last one. Based on that, I can imagine that my time divided by 1.96 is a reasonable interpretation of how my times compare to my previous SCCA event, and so I plugged the result into the previous event to examine how well I did.

The result is I finally made it into the middle of the pack! My raw time was equivalent to the 47th percentile and the SS pax, which probably best represents my relative skill best of any stat was 53rd percentile... My first above average result. Obviously there's still room for improvement, and I've discovered Recently that Russ's Hoosiers put about 3 inches more in total tire rubber on the track (tire width), so when I switch to Hoosiers I expect to get traction boost from that if nothing else... Shaving the next few seconds off will be much harder. But my time was equivalent to a 3rd place SSM finish in the previous event, and off the second place mark by 3 tenths of a second yet again. If I can improve my consistency and keep putting in solid runs, there is a good chance that I might clean up enough of the little mistakes and pick up some hardware before the end of the year... ...if.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Somewhere in the Middle

The event previous to this one was a good day. I blew up my statistics doubling everything and just generally showing a tremendous improvement over the all my preceding events. I knew it would be hard to match that one... not that I was all that fast in the grand scheme of things last event, but the road of life is never that smooth.

Enter the next bump. It rained. The last rainy event on 5/17 was pretty discouraging for me. I had just gone to 3 full days of driving school in the previous 8 days. Recent seat time was coming out my ears, and I *really* was itching to prove that the not inconsiderable effort and cost had been worth it. I didn't think I was going to win anything by far, but I had dreams of moving from the lands south of the bottom 10% PAX to somewhere north of the bottom 25% PAX it seemed like a reasonable goal for my 3rd event ever (2 events and 3 days of school!).

Unfortunately, all my seat time up until 5/17 had been in dry weather, and it rained cats and dogs in the morning before runs, then dried up over the course of the day. I spent the entire day just trying to figure out if my car still had wheels or sleigh runners... or wheels again. I knew rain was part of the sport, I knew it was something important to learn, but I really didn't want to learn it just then.

This Sunday I was coming off an excellent success. On my 5th event (June 7) I blew the previous goal out of the water, laying down a time that would have been 35% if my car were in a class similar to it's actual preparation, and 39% in raw times. I even hit 25% in my official SSM PAX (for which I consider 80% to be the max that is practically achievable without serious modifications). This time I was ready to learn something new.

From a learning perspective, I was actually glad it rained. From the perspective of Father's day I wasn't so happy about it, but luckily my parents are troopers, and they came and had a good time dispite the rain. I knew I was going to have trouble with the rain. I had only 2 runs on actual wet pavement, and those were more than a month distant. My hope was to learn as fast as I could and land my statistics (which are all relative to other folks times) somewhere in between my previous awesome event, and all the others that preceeded it in less glorious fashion.

My SSM factor stat simply got trashed. Mikhael El-Bayeh drove his CRX (777 ssm) into the top 25% of raw times... Something not seen in SSM yet this year. Additionally the Kuehl brothers have left novice and joined the main ranks. I knew it would happen sooner or later given the times they were putting up, so not only did I wind up at the bottom, I wound up at the bottom of 6 cars. Oh well. I knew the field was weak last time anyway.

My Russ Factor didn't do so well and probably should have been trashed even worse, but Russ also had a bit of an off day (judging from the sound he made when he saw his pax standings). But he has a *lot* more experience than I, so I was not at all surprised to loose lots of ground to him.

However relative to the overall field I did (barely) meet my goal if I exclude the dirty run from 2 events ago... I may take that line off the stats chart now anyway it's not really 100% real. The one silver lining is that I'm pretty sure I could have put up a much better time if the rain had just held another 10 minutes and left the final run as damp rather than soaked. The second to last run I ran 4 seconds slower than my best time... AFTER spinning out on the first turn. I know I had definately figured out the second half of the course. Except for one cone my final run would have been my best, but that cone probably did help my time since I ran it over going a little wider on a turn than I should have, and that did give me a better run at the straight. That run is encouraging beacause it was wetter than my best run.... I think I might have learned a little bit about rain.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Finally Some Success

The test and tune was awesome. I felt like I really had learned some things about my car, and the next day was Points Event #4. The previous event had been somewhat of a disappointment, because despite the good weather, and all my days of driver school, my times were almost as bad as the first day I ever drove an event. I did feel like I had gone faster, but my faster run was dirty. This event was my 5th ever, and it would be hard to remain up beat if I had another day like the last one.

This day started off MUCH better than the previous event. I got there on time. I got my wheels on and numbers taped before the course opened. I got in 4 course walks instead of just one. I felt a lot better about my knowledge of the course and my mood was much more relaxed after the drivers meeting. I didn't have to scramble to get to my work assignment either.

My work assignment was a mixed blessing. I did the Audit Sheets and ran the control radio. The plus side is you don't have to walk all the way out to some far corner of the course to get there, and you don't have to spend 90+ minutes baking in the sun, shaging cones and trying to stay hydrated. The down side is you don't get to watch people on course. The other down side is it can be a bit stressful.... The first heat however went relatively smoothly. More about that stress thing later.

My first run was a 65.843. It was a time that seemed to be about as good as my best time at the last event, or maybe only a slight improvement. Not something to cheer about, but a nice safety net... The next run was dirty and slower. I had a brain fart and forgot to accelerate at one point. The third run... I did hit the accelerator, but then messed up the breaking point on the next turn and spun... I was still sitting in my safety net time. But hopefully there would be 3 or 4 more runs in the afternoon to give it a better shot.

Then came the second heat, again running the audit sheets in the truck. Unfortunately, we had computer problems and for a while we thought we were going to loose all the data from the first 3 runs, and half of the 4th run. That would have been a disaster. As it was there was a huge delay while we found a way to make a back up through the anouncer's client, and wrote down the times thus far for the current run (these were still visible on the anouncer client). After that, we had to reboot everything and when we loaded the data... it was corrupted. Luckily, the backup made from the Anouncer client was clean however, and so eventually we got things running. The bad news was the event wasn't going to have time left for 6 runs, let alone the 7 we had been hoping for... only 2 afternoon runs.

So what turned out to be a good event at the start wound up having a reduced number of runs. This event also featured a large number of drivers who were gearing up for two larger events, one at Finger Lakes, and one in DC. The level of competition for this one I suspect was higher than any other so far. Russ for example switched over to his new hoosiers for the afternoon...

But the good news is I laid down a good clean run on my first afternoon run. A 63.944 was good enough to ensure 3rd place and put me within 0.2 seconds of 2nd place. The final run felt like it was going even faster until I over did it slightly and had to save a spin in the back super wide tripple cone offset slalom thingy... But even so I still beat my morning times, with a 64.763, but I retained 3rd place (finishing 0.4 out of 2nd). I also finished MUCH higher in both the raw and pax time standings than any other race so far. I was faster that 39% of drivers in raw time and faster than 25% of drivers after PAX adjustment. Thats a huge improvement over 12% and 8% the previous week. Makes for a much prettier picture....

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Testing 1 2 3

This Saturday was yet another first time experience. This time the event wasn't a school, and wasn't a timed competition. There was no organized runs with score sheets, and there were no instructors. It was a free form autocross... a veritable playground of cones. This was the Test 'n tune!

First I spent some time in the mini-course on the theory that seat time is always useful, and I wanted to practice pushing myself to higher speeds. I got some decent times, and had some spins, and noticed something odd in the 180 degree turns... sometimes I would get into a massive under steer condition. Frequently this was with the brakes ON. Everything I've read indicates that breaking while turning should cause over-steer. Even more odd, I noticed that the car tended to stick better when I let off the break... at first I thought I must be imagining things, but then at the end of the day I was talking to Russ about his Elise, and his track-bar/adjustable shocks. He made a comment about the car being "camber challenged" And suddenly other stuff I'd read about Elise's and about sway-bars all made sense.

Test 'n tune lesson 1: The Lotus Elise is different in turning. What happens is the camber (vertical tilt) of the wheel changes as you break, and the weight is transferred to the front. This is true on most cars, but in the case of the Elise, the tires are fat enough and the stock camber setting is such that the effect is enough to lessen the pressure on the outside of the tire. This means that less tire surface is actually working for you in the front outside tire (which is already smaller than the back) and so the front slides before the back does creating under steer. This means that to get a good turn out of the Elise, one needs to *not* break hard. This also leads me to suspect that trail breaking would therefore have to be done after the turn stabilized and the front-back loading was more equalized than it is when you are turning in.

I finished up at the mini-course around the time things shut down for lunch. After Lunch I borrowed Russ's pyrometer and headed over to the skid-pad. I had started off at 22.1 lbs in the front and 24.5 lbs in the back in the morning, just to see how a lower pressure felt. All in all it had felt pretty good but now I, and set about warming up my Kumho v710 tires with the idea that I would figure out what the best pressure... I took the readings, and it came out fairly linear outside to in. I went around the circle again the other way... same result.

I didn't want to go around the circle too many times in a row because long periods of sustained sideways G's can do funny things to oil flow in cars, so to get an even better warm up on the tires, I went around one way, then did a quick 180 and went the other-way around the same number of times.... Same result but not as drastic of a fade across the tire...

Test 'n Tune Lesson #2: Kumho v710's on a stock lotus Elise like to be a lot lower than the stock pressures. Stock pressures are 26 and 28 lbs front and back, but 22 and 24.5 seem to be fairly close to the right setting.

In all this I eased the speed up until I started having trouble holding to the line around the circle, and one thing I noticed was that I was holding a LOT more sideways force than I normally did in the sweepers on course.

Test 'n tune Lesson #3: I've been dogging it on sweepers. I need to break less and hang on more. If my guts aren't trying to climb out the window I'm not doing it right. This car TURNS.

So after that I went over to check out the offsets... I didn't like the setup. It seemed like the offsets were too easy. The entrances were to far apart and it was really easy to get a good late apex. Every offset/clam shell on courses I've been on has taken a lot of work to get yourself into the right position, including the one in the NER Novice/Intermediate school. I felt like I was practicing bad habits, and getting away with way too much. I left after two runs there.

The slalom was the next place I went and I had a lot of fun there. I really worked on getting the speed up on the slalom and began to regain some of the feel for correct slalom speed. Somehow I think I had lost the "feel" for it that I got on the first day of EVO school, and then in the NER school, the slalom session was a bit too short, and didn't provide me enough time for introspection about my own performance to quite find the groove. I knew the words they were telling me already, but what I needed was to develop the feel. I did the slalom about 10 times, and spent a good 30 min shagging cones for people too, but in the end I felt like I had begun to get a good feel for the difference between a 26 pace slalom (FAST) and a 22 pace slalom (slower, but with more aggressive early turn ins... )

After that I decided to finish out the day on the mini-course. I did 4 runs, and got the distinct impression that coming out of the 180 degree turns I was craving more power. Now that I had the line down and the feel of the car had been seeping into me all day, I found myself with the pedal to the floor and waiting impatiently for the car to get it's revs up, especially coming out of the first 180 degree turn. After a brief confirmation from Russ (I'm probably becoming a pest, but he knows sooooo much more about racing a lotus than I). I decided to try downshifting to first in the turn. Obviously heel-toeing it would be ideal, but I decided one thing at a time... we will work the heel toe some time later.

The result was that the first time I did it I got up so much speed coming out of the turn that I spun the car on the next turn :-). so control obviously was key. There followed several runs where I had difficulty getting it into gear smoothly (first one was a charm apparently) and then the last couple it seemed to work and I did get some improvement out of it. The conclusion however is that that will be something to try *after* have at least one decent (clean!) run laid in at an event.

So much fun, so much learned, and the next day... Dodging Orange, Points event #4!

Monday, June 1, 2009

CWND by speed

So Points event #3 came and went. The weather was beautiful. A full six runs were had by all. So what did I learn this time.... Well to start with timeliness is next to godliness. Being late to an event is a bit like being late in a slalom. You get there late, you rush through your tires, get over to tech. They tell you that you forgot to put Numbers on your car. You sell your soul, your first born and 3 limbs to convince them that you will indeed put numbers on it before you run. YOu scurry over to get in a single course walk before the drivers meeting. Just one walk, and you realize that you can't remember a third of the course, but it's too late to walk again... you rush back to your car, tape up one side of your car, and rush over to the drivers meeting. You check in for work, rush to the port-o-potty and then back to your car to grab half your lunch as a breakfast to eat while walking out to your station. As you walk out you realize that now you can only remember half the course since you haven't had time to sit and visualize it, and only one walk. After the first run group, you come in, hop in your car and start to visualize, but the only thing that's clear anymore is the part of the course you were working... The first run is really a course walk in itself...  

NOT the way to do it :) Be on time, it makes everything easier.

Thing two... it's easy to let the fact that you spun take over your thinking. The two afternoon runs, I probably spent too much effort ensuring that I didn't spin.

Thing three all that stuff I've been learning. It gets harder when the course gets faster. This course was way faster than the last one. Unfortunately I had some difficulty adapting. In the first 4 runs, I got a slow clean time, a fast dirty time, a really dirty time where I let up at the end because I'd lost count of cones, and finally, a spin-out. The last 2 runs, I wound up backing off too much and only improving on my first run by a little bit.

The weather was beautiful, and I do feel like I under-represented myself... this time I calculated stats for my fastest legal run, and my fastest dirty run. The dirty run was mostly dirty on incidental cones. I doubt I picked up much time from either cone and I'm rather certain the second cone was due to a lack of control, not cutting down the line :)

I also am beginning to suspect that either my tire pressures were sub-optimal, or the tires are getting old... I'll investigate that closely in the Test'n Tune coming up this Saturday...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Easy would be Booring

So Now I've learned about slaloms carousels, sweepers, offsets, chicago boxes, increasing radius turns, decreasing radius turns, more offsets, long slaloms, looking ahead, visualization and verbalization... Enough school! Time to see if it helped!

Or so I thought... Mother nature had other ideas...

Points event #2 was not what I envisioned. Everything had been going just grand so far this season. Every one of the 4 days of autocross so far had had good or excellent weather. Dry conditions all day, nothing too cold for the clothes I brought, some days were even sunny and warm. I even managed to use sunscreen every time. Golden.

Not so for Points event #2. My dreams had imagined a day with glorious weather dry and 75 with sun and occasional clouds. My dreams had imagined a day where everything went smoothly and we all got 7 or 8 runs on a 60 second course. A day with conditions comparable to my previous two competitions so I could see my times drop dramatically due to all the recent practice and training. Here's the blow by blow of what really happened...
  • 6:30 am - Leave the Hotel, pavement wet and dry in spots, no rain... looks hopeful!
  • 7:00 am - Arrive at Devens... it's sprinkling the pavement is definitely wet.
  • 7:15 am - The rain is steady and puddles are forming, scratch the slicks, keep the AO48's
  • 7:30 am - I'm using my poncho as a tent by shutting one end of it in the door while taping numbers on my car.
  • 7:45 am - Windy wet, cold I bite the bullet and take off my poncho and windbreaker long enough to put on my sweat shirt.
  • 8:00 am - Course walks open. No chalk... they have to use crayon.
  • 8:45 am - Starting my 3rd walk of the course... not changing tires and stuff has at least one benefit. I'm wondering what happens to the car when it hits a puddle in a slalom...
  • 9:30 am - first run, the rain has dissipated to occasional sprinkles, but wind-shield wipers still on. I have to wipe my feet dry with a towel so that they don't slip on the pedals (much). I have no idea where the limits of traction are. I'm so distracted by figuring that out that I get 102 seconds + DNF for cutting off a cone. The top times at this point are in the low 80 and high 70 second range.
  • Second Run - The rain has stopped, there is still a moderate wind, conditions are drying rapidly. The pavement is still wet, but no where near as wet as the first run. How does that help... I have no clue, I push it further, and shave 7 seconds off my time, but so do the leaders. Top times are now in the low-mid 70's. I get a 95.101
  • Third Run - The pavement is mottled dry and wet, more dry than wet. I probably could have put my slicks on. But hesitated and didn't have time. So this one is mostly dry, but still on Ao48's... I shave another 6 seconds off. down to 87.451 + 1 cone (effectively an 89.451)
  • I console myself with the fact that the morning runs are worthless anyway given that the conditions are going to be so much better for the afternoon runs.
  • Then comes the second heat... complete chaos... Timing troubles cause half a dozen re-runs. A car breaks down and has to be pushed off course. We get a red flag for no good reason... and then 3 more cars are red flagged because one corner hasn't got the message that all is clear... this heat takes twice as long as it should. Meanwhile Russ runs times in the low 70's proving that I am still really really slow today. A Modified is running in the mid-60's...
  • Lunch is 20 minutes... I have peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches... I forgot the bread. So it's peanut butter on cliff bars with Gatorade and a tiny swig of what's left of yesterday's coffee for lunch... gourmet at it's best. The announcement comes down. only 2 runs in the afternoon because the second heat took so much time.
  • Run 4 - I have the Kumho V710's on now. The pavement is dry, time for some real autocrossing.
  • Out of the gate, I forget to shift into second. I remember part way through the first slalom. I do shift but it distracts me and I get late on the last cone, which puts me late on the next element. I have to slow down to get back on line and I'm so releaved when I do that I don't look ahead and enter the next element at completely the wrong angle. Again slow down, get back on line, By the second half of the course I am settled down a bit. I brake a little to late at one point, but not catastrophically so. The back half of my run is almost ok. I shave another 6 seconds off my time... 83.560 with no cones. Finally I am (by my quick estimate) at a time that is better than the very first time I ever autocrossed.
  • Waiting for the second heat I practice my visualization over and over again, analyzing the mistakes I made, and walking myself through the course repeatedly in my head. I know I can do a lot better than the last run. I remember the NER school where I spun on my last run, and caution myself not to over do it either....
  • Final run... I shift early and pay attention in the first slalom. I stay on line and gather noticeably more speed before the first big turn. I remember that I need to brake earlier because I am going faster. I make it down the far stretch beautifully and take a good line into the second big turn... Since I'm on line I can gun it and I get my car up on the cams in the following sections (probably as much as 50-60 mph full throttle), but I remember to brake earlier than last time and get a good line through the next element. I've just corrected ALL of my major mistakes from the first run! Awesome!!!
  • O wait... I haven't' finished the course!!!... I should be heading for the other side of that cone!!!! $#!^!!!! I almost DNF by going around the wrong side of the cone. I nearly have to stop to correct and stay on course.... right before the big sweeper. Now I'm slow on that long element, and going into the offset slalom, very risky to put on speed in that slalom, so I just try to run it clean and then finish fast. I do finish fast, but my time is 83.9 half a second slower... despite almost stopping... CRAP. I know I could have been under 80 seconds... or at least close. Oh well... time to go shag cones for the second heat and curse my early celibration repeatedly...
  • At the end it turns out I came in # 5 out of 6 in SSM. The person who I beat was co-driving the car that broke down on course... They did fix it and run it and it broke down in heat 2 again, but there's a good chance that it wasn't performing well even when it wasn't breaking down.

So did the school help? If you just look at some relative measures on the hard numbers below I got worse after 3 days of school. But what the numbers don't show is the difficulties I overcame... and they also don't show the potential that my final run had until I started celebrating too early... I am sure I lost 2-4 seconds because of my near DNF... which means on the first half to 2/3 of the course I was running 1.5-3.5 seconds faster... I am pretty sure I could have run an 80. That would have put me at a sharp increase in all the % based statistics and nearly level in the factors...

I figure that if I had encountered these obstacles before all my schooling, I would have run my worst times ever. I know that I was able to make improvements... except for the last run, my times improved by leaps and bounds...

We'll see what the next one throws at me on the 30th...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Back to School

One of the fears I had about doing the NER Novice school right after the Evo-school was that it would be redundant. Luckily the morning talk was the only redundant part. The first part of the day was working on a course full of offsets. This was really good because the Evo-school courses only contained one offset.

The second course was the "kidney bean." What that is is a pair of increasing and decreasing radius turns that face each other. This way you drive from one into the next repeatedly... we went around a couple of times each and this was another element that the Evo-school didn't use.

The third course of the day was a pair of long slaloms with a cross-over and big turn at one end. This was in the Evo-school, but the slalom was longer.... longer is harder, mistakes accumulate... something I didn't appreciate, until now.

All in all it was another good learning experience... and complimented the Evo-school nicely. Just wish I hadn't spun on the last run of the day :)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Phasing in Some Speed

This past weekend I finally got some serious seat time, and some serious instruction. I went to the Evolution Performance Driving School. Actually to be more accurate the school came to our area, which it does once a year, hosted by the Boston chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. It was a complete blast! I learned so much that I think it melted my brain :). I attended both days, and have now completed Phase I and Phase II of their course. Phase III and the Challenge school will have to wait for next year, but that's good because I need some time to practice what I learned.

The first day was Phase I and it featured a short 30 second course where we got many many runs and had the opportunity to really refine our technique on the elements. In regular events this is difficult to do since only 3-6 runs are available, sometimes as much as 8 but that's kinda rare. The course included a Slalom, a carousel (circle) a large, sweeper some offsets and a Chicago Box.

Things I learned in Phase I:
  • My car can Slalom! FAST! I had been dogging it and didn't realize it...
  • Sometimes Slow is fast. Staying in control, and cutting a tight/smooth line around the carousel and sweeper was a lot faster than sliding around, traveling more distance with only slightly more speed and then being forced to wait for the car to settle down before applying throttle.
  • Long, ill defined sweepers seem to have this feel to them that I think I started to get by the end of the day...
  • Looking ahead helps a lot. I learned to do this a little bit on the first day...
  • There was this neat tap the breaks and go technique that I managed to do a couple of times going through the offsets... I'm hoping I learned that (at least somewhat). It felt really good when I did it right.
  • Chicago boxes are annoying. Mostly because they are slow and tight, and it's real real easy to run over the final cone.
So how much did that stuff help? Well at the beginning of the day we got 3 runs to show the teachers what we were already capable of. I ran a 39, a 38 and a 34.6. I was one of the faster times, and I was feeling pretty good about it. I figured, I had shaved 5 seconds off and that further progress was going to be difficult. Little did I know how much I sucked :). By the end of the day my fastest clean run was 30.7 and my fastest time was 29.6 +1 cone (the last cone in the Chicago box, which I apparently just barely clipped) That's right, I shaved another 5 seconds off of my time (holy crap!).

The next day was Phase II, and in Phase II they screw with your head... The course design is much more challenging, and they emphasize looking ahead. The Phase 1 course was a series of relatively clearly defined elements, only one element in Phase I (the sweeper) had any lack of definition for the (approximate) line you should take. In Phase II the course was much more open. The speeds were faster, and the sweeper was ridiculously undefined. Furthermore they keep changing the course, and the direction you run the course... No dialing in exactly what to do over 20 runs like the first day. Things keep changing, so it's key for you to be looking ahead... not driving by memory, which is the point!

Things I learned (at least partly) in Phase II
  • Looking Ahead - I only thought I had learned to do this the first day :).
  • Visualizing - one segment of the day focused on trying to get you to build a mental picture of the course.
  • Verbalizing - It turns out that talking yourself through the course reinforces the looking ahead, particularly coming up with names for the cones that you need to be looking at. If you say the name as you do your run, you can't help but look for the cone!
  • Verbalizing - saying what's next helps you re-focus after a mistake too. One huge problem in Autocross is that if you make a mistake, then your attention gets drawn back in, and you stop looking ahead. Instead, you think about the mistake, and all the funny things the car is now doing because you screwed it up... then suddenly you are at the next element and you screw that up too... and this can repeat over and over. Saying what's next get's your brain out of the cycle, and back into looking ahead and getting the car through the next element.
  • On poorly defined, elements I got two pieces of advice which are different shades of the same thing... Imagine an extra cone that would make the correct line more obvious, or simply imagine the line directly.
Phase II was harder, and I didn't do as well, partly due to some bad "street driving" habits that seem to crop up under stress. Particularly, I tend to take my right hand off the wheel to shift and then leave it on the shifter, Racing one handed is not a very good idea. Secondly, I tend to forget and depress the clutch as if I'm comming up to a stop-light or turn on the street before some elements. This screws everything up because mostly you just want to stay in second gear, and not downshift. Once the clutch is out, then you have to manage to put it back in without upsetting the car... and by the way, all those offsets or other elements that were hard without fiddling with the clutch... they keep coming just as fast, while you're all distracted messing with the clutch! :) One useful trick for fighting the clutch problem is to press down on the "dead" pedal (the place to rest your left foot to the left of the clutch pedal) while you drive.

For the future I need to work on handling speed coming into slow elements. This manifested itself in several near spins on day two and in my tendency to come into the Chicago box, and the carousel to hot on day 1.

And I need to remember all that stuff I just wrote while negotiating turns and slaloms every few seconds... EEK!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Novice Class Conundrum

So in a previous post, I mentioned that I had a busy set of weeks coming up. I am now 3/5 of the way through and at this point when I close my eyes, an army of Orange Cones starts flying by inside my head. Last Sunday I did my second ever Autocross event. This was points event #1 for the NER SCCA autocross series which they ran in the parking-lot of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The event itself was a blast and my times seemed to improve drastically relative to my first event.

This time I managed to class my car correctly... not that this really matters at my experience level, but one of the side-lights of having no way to do anything but think about my Lotus over the winter is I went through it and the Solo rulebook, and discovered that the previous owner has made at least 3 modifications that simply are not allowed in the Stock category. So I must run in SSM (Super Street Modified). I may detail the mods and exactly why they change my racing class in a later post, but the only thing to know is that the modifications I have are a pittance relative to the chages that would take place in a properly prepared SSM car.

In the end I've decided that this is actually likely to be a good thing. In the novice section of SCCA Solo II, the drivers drive all different kinds of cars, and the times are handicapped by a multiplier based on what class the car qualifies for (this is called "PAX time"). A driver that had a Stock Elise that was close to what you get from the show-room would be in the super-stock category and would get to multiply their time by 0.856. However because I am in Super Street Modified I only get to multiply my time by 0.876. In practical terms means if the super stock car runs the course in 60.000 seconds he gets a PAX time of 51.360, but my PAX time for the same 60'seconds would be 52.560. To put it another way, if I wanted to beat a super stock car that ran the course in exactly 60 seconds, I would need to run a the course in 58.629 seconds.

1.371 seconds is an eternity in Autocross. People are reasonably serious about this sport spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours trying to shave a quarter to a third of a second off of their time. In the two events I've been to the top novice was getting a PAX time between the 60th and 50th percential across *all* drivers. Thats in the realm where a half second is a lot of time. To overcome my SSM PAX in my (almost) Stock Elise and win novice in the last event would have required a skill level that would allow me to drive about .7 seconds faster than the person who won given identical cars. That ability level would put me in the top 1/3 of all drivers at the event... I'm not even close to that.

So the novice/PAX competition style puts me at a pretty stiff disadvantage, but in some ways this may be good for me. My focus is now on having fun and improving relative to the folks running in Super Stock. It's my own private little contest. The really good thing about this is there's no points and no season to this personal contest, and if I need to take a break from it to try something new as a learning exercise then there's no penalty for it. So I'm going to intentionally take myself out of all hope of competition, and simply run in standard SSM (no novice PAX timing). So the up side is I can focus on educating myself. Until I've learned a whole lot more, the competition thing is basically out the window...

At some point I'll want to either get a new stock elise/exige and trade this one in... thus becoming eligible for stock category, or... dump a whole bunch of money into modifying this car to the point where it can live up to it's official racing class. But for now have fun and hope for a day when the real SSM cars don't come out to play :).

What's the lesson? Well if you intend to do any sort of racing with a car you are buying used and you *do* want to try to be competitive, research the rules you expect to race under and inspect the car for mods. But you can always just do it to have fun, and then you are free to crush some cones in a learning exercise add a variety of tastey mods to your ride as suites your taste and budget.

Next, Basic evolution...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Keep on Trucking?

The modifications for the comming autocross year have extended beyond tires and brakes (more on what I chose for tires in the next post... they are in the mail). This spring, with the help of the fabulous folks at BOE Fabrication I've gone went and turned an internet spoof into a reality (almost). No I didn't implement the IP internet protocol on carrier pigeon. (This is a car blog folks, and it's been done anyway!). What I did do was install a towing package on my lotus elise. 

There have been a number of entertaining spoofs of this floating around the internet...

And people doing crazy things...
Now in contrast I've gone and done something totally sane *cough*...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Spring into action

Well, spring is here! My car has now been liberated for several weeks. New brake rotors have been applied, Wheels have been balanced, and I'm tire shopping... for 8 tires! My Street tires are on the wear bars and at about 3/32 tread depth. This is none too fun in puddles and heavy rain. I've also resolved to make a serious attempt to learn how to autocross this year. I'm currently planning to attend:
  • SCCA Points Event #1 @ New Hampshre Motor Speedway (5/3)
  • BMW CCA Evolotion Driving School @ Devins/Moore Airfield (5/9 & 5/10)
  • SCCA Novice/Intermediate Driving School @ Devins/Moore Airfield (5/16)
  • SCCA Points Event #2 @ Devins/Moore Airfield
That means I'm going to be putting a LOT of track time into the comeptition tires too... perhaps enough to wear them out (since I'm not too sure how much they have left...) So that's two sets of tires I need to get in the next few weeks... YIKE$

But this should give me LOTS of Seat time and instruction in a short period, which I believe is a good way to really get started. The first event will be working the kinks out hauling my tires on my new trailer, and getting an idea what driving an R Compound tire is like... but of course that means I need to lay in a second set of R Comp tires so that I don't get sidelined by slow shipping or tires being out of stock... plus I should get an oil change in there somewhere... Ouchies on the wallet, but I'm really looking forward to it!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Deep Freeze

It's winter. Winter is boring for sports cars here in New England. I've managed to tuck the car away in my landlord's garage (she is the *best* landlord ever!). So it's safe from the snow, salt and ice, but this also means I can't drive it. Driving it in the winter would either be dangerous (if I try to take any fast corners in the sand/salt/ice/etc) or safe but boring anyway. Furthermore the car can't be taken to a car wash so it would quickly look like crap with no good way to wash it until spring. Driving slow in a car that looks dirty as hell only to have layers upon layers of brake dust to clean in the spring doesn't seem worth it.

So what do I do? Well I go out and visit it every couple of weeks to roll it a few feet back or forward so that the tires don't get flat spots, and then I spend a bunch of time wishing I could drive it. I also spend a bunch of time thinking about the driving I did last year...

Now that things are all snowbound, and the car is behind a 2ft plow drift, I should probably tell you about the final driving event of last year. On the recommendation of my mechanic I went to the final event of the year for COM. That's right I got to drive it around New Hampshire International Speedway. It was an absolute blast! There is nothing like heading into a steeply banked hairpin turn at 80+ mph and then breaking hard, turning and gunning it up the hill on the other side (yes that would be turn 6). Also, its the only place to (legally) open it up and blast your way up to 115mph in relative safety (the car can go faster, but one does have to turn eventually). I've never been a big NASCAR fan, but now that I've been on a real track, the whole thing does make a lot more sense... Now when I watch, I remember... I still can't account for the millions of fans who have never driven on a race track, but at least some of it now seems sane, and I can really see why it is folks would want to be a race car driver.

I also got to ride along with my instructor in his Honda S2000, and that was awesome too. He is very skilled and takes the turns much more skillfully than I. I'm sure his lap times are better than mine, but it was quite heartening to see that my car *is* faster than his. Even with my lesser skill I was 15 mph faster on the big straight. I also clearly could catch most of the miatas out there on the straight. Once I improve my performance driving skills I'll definitely have one of the faster cars. I won't ever be faster than the former NASCAR stock car, or the Arial Atom that was out there. Also there were some gutted VW rabbits that blew by my instructor's S2000 like it was standing still. I took a peek at one and it was literally a seat, an engine, a gas tank and a fire extinguisher on wheels. They take turns on 3 wheels (the inside rear lifts about 4 inches!) and so I'm not sure I can beat those either, but they aren't street legal. Among street legal vehicles I mostly only need to worry Z06 corvettes and then about cars that have an MSRP 2-5 times as much as mine. (and of course other Elises and Exiges). The z06 vette is only 1.5x the MSRP of my lotus, and probably the next best deal in high performance automobiles ZR1 vettes are twice as expensive.

There were two other lotus cars there. One was driven by my mechanic... his hypersport Esprit which is an incredibly fast but not street legal car, and a gray 2006 Exige. The Exige has 30 more hp than me with only a little more weight, but , it never passed me except when I spun out.

Anyway, full pictures are here, and the first two are of my Mechanic's car... which he fixed that night and came back the next day to take 2nd 3rd and 4th place (time trials, 3 people drove it..., only one car beat any of em!). I am not yet certified to drive solo, so I couldn't drive on Sunday. I'm fine with that because I am aware that I do still have lots to learn, and the last thing I want to do is to hurt myself, hurt my car, or screw up the event for others because of a newbie mistake. I'll leave you with a quote from my instructor... "When I got back in my car [a Honda S2000] it felt like a family car."

Yeah, Lotus makes a pretty cool car :-)