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...