Archive for June 25, 2014
I’ve been doing more and more track days and autocross events over the past decade, and there has been one common thread to all of the times that I’ve put wheel to track:
I’ve started the day with a raging hangover.
Why would someone go to a racetrack and risk thousands of dollars in damage to a beloved car (and possible bodily injury) at anything less than 100% physical and mental capacity? Because I have good friends who live reasonably close to all the racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic region. So I stage my travel from a friend’s house, and inevitably there is catching up and drinking the night before.
This time I swore it would be different. No hard alcohol would cross my lips, and I would be at the Starting Line SCCA Autocross training event at Bader Field in Atlantic City fresh as a daisy and ready for action.
And so I did as I promised: no boozing on Friday night. I merely stayed up until 2:00 AM catching up with my old friend who I had not seen for at least… a month. Tech inspection was set for 7:30 AM, so I had to wake up at 5:30 in order to have time to shower, shave, eat breakfast, and travel the one hour down the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic City.
My alarm app went off at 5:30 sharp. Shower? Shave? nobody will see my face inside the helmet! snooze. It went off again at 5:40. Breakfast? Overrated! Snoooooze. At 5:50 I dragged myself out of bed, threw on my racing suit (shorts and a t-shirt… this is only Autocross, ferchrissakes) and hit the road. At least I had the sense to top off my gas tank the night before.
Bader Field is on the bay side of lovely
Newark-by-the-Sea Atlantic City NJ. It’s a disused airport that now has a minor league baseball park and acres of empty tarmac just begging to have cones sprinkled about for automotive fun. Which is exactly what the South Jersey chapter of the SCCA does, at least once a month during the racing season. This weekend was to see one of the regularly scheduled Autocross races on Sunday. But I was there on Saturday, for the all-day Starting Line Autocross class. For $325 I was promised a full day of training that would slash many seconds off of my pathetic dilletante’s lap time, plus add a year to my SCCA membership and give me free entry to one South Jersey SCCA autocross. Presumably they were expecting that the students would stick around for real event the next day, but I was on a time-limited kitchen pass because my elder child’s high school graduation party was on Sunday, and if I was not there grilling for the relatives I could pretty much kiss all my motorsports privileges goodbye forever.
So there I was, sleep-deprived and looking forward to a long day of hard driving followed by a 2-hour slog back home before a major life event party. Irresponsible, you say? I say “what kind of a father would I be if I did not demonstrate PASSION for automobiles to my children?”
I had enough time during tech inspection to break out my trusty 12V “Taurus SHO Spare Tire Alternative” and up-pressure my tires from the factory spec 29 PSI to an Autocross-hard 38 PSI. Note to self: remember to drop the pressure back down before going home on the GSP!
The driver’s meeting was the usual stuff. Blah blah blah safety blah blah blah have fun blah blah blah volunteer based sport so all of you will be doing cone duty when you’re not actually driving blah blah blah…
WHAT?!?! Cone duty? Fookin’ CONE DUTY? When you pay $300-odd dollars for a track day at a road course, THEY provide the corner workers and send someone to turn down your seatbelt and put a mini mint on your driver’s seat between sessions. I have done occasional Autocrosses before, and normally you do one session of cone duty to support the racing. Today we were going to be doing more or less constant cone duty. In the summer. Thank God it was about 73 degrees and overcast… for now. Also, this was a class made up mostly of Autocross n00bs (like me) who were undoubtedly going to be punting cones across the pavement right and left.
But I jest! Cone duty is part of the charm of Autocross. And you should always suffer for your passion.
And so the training began. The schedule was to do slalom, skidpad, and figure-8 drills in the morning, followed by a full-on Autocross (at least 14 runs each) in the afternoon. All sessions would start with the student at the wheel for 2 runs, then the instructor would take over for 2 runs, then back to the student driving for the rest of the time. This was an excellent approach, IMO. It gave the chance to first feel the exercise, then see how it’s really done, then spend the lions share of the time working towards matching what the instructor had done. For the morning exercises, there was an instructor in the car giving pointers the whole time.
I started on the slalom, and it looked like this at first:
Okay, so the camera takes 15 mph off the speed but even so I was slow. My instructor had me work on rythm, setting up for the next turn, and feeling the loading on the tires shift from left to right so that I was maximizing grip throughout the rapid waltz through the cones. After some pointers and seeing the instructor do it, it looked like this:
See how much faster that looks? No? Well, it was. My instructor was elated. She said that I “got it” and that I had mastered the slalom.
Next up: Skidpad & figure-8. The drill here was to feel the limits of traction, find out how throttle can control over/understeer, and for the bold, some controlled power sliding.
Watch closely. I am power sliding on the exit to many of those turns. I’m so proud. So was my instructor. I get another gold star for mastery. And one of the best parts of the skidpad? Hardly anybody launched a cone into the grass!
The figure-8 was the same idea, but with left & right transitions added, and a mix of sharper turn radius for complication. The GoPro ran out of battery, so no video for that.
NJ cuisine lunch was provided: submarine sandwiches… I mean “hoagies” (this is SOUTH Jersey, which aligns with Philadelphia vernacular). I set up my folding camp chair and table to prove that a Lotus Elise can travel in STYLE. I also applied more sunscreen, because our 73 degree overcast day had turned into an 80 degree cloudless day with a UV index of 11.
I must admit that I was feeling both eager and whipped for the upcoming full-on Autocross. The lack of sleep was catching up with me, and the slalom cone duty had involved some fair amount of sprinting to replace cones before the next student ran you over. The hoagie helped, as did about a gallon of water and Mountain Dew.
For the Autocross session the drill would change to 2 runs behind the wheel, 2 runs observing the instructor, 5 runs behind the wheel with the instructor shouting orders, and finally 5 runs solo, honing your skills and chasing the instructor’s lap time.
We were divided into two run groups. I drew short straw and ended up in group #2… cone duty first, race second. But first we walked the track…
Although walking the track was not behind-the-wheel practice, it was a very integral part of the training. We walked the track with a group of instructors who took us through the thought processes of reading the course. They pointed out that although there were over 200 cones on the track, there were only 12 cones that mattered. These were mostly cones at the apex of turns, but even the apex didn’t matter on some turns. The trick was learning how to identify the high value turns where you could make or break your run, and differentiate them from turns that merely kept you from short-circuiting the course. After we walked the track with the instructors, we walked it again alone. I would have walked it a third and fourth time if they let me. It was clear that memorizing the track was going to be a key to good lap times. There were also pointers about starting out with a fast run, and then building upon that. This because in a real Autocross you do not get 14 runs. You get maybe half that many, and so you need to start from as high a position as you can in order to maximize your lap-to-lap improvement.
And so I baked in the sun while the first 10 students did their laps. I noticed that this was about a 40-second course. Meaning the instructors were doing it in the 37-second range while the students started around 46 seconds. Uh oh. It was 2:30 by then, and I was beginning to feel we might not get our runs in.
Then disaster struck. From my cone worker position I was facing the intercoastal waterway and the casinos of Atlantic City. My fellow student on the other side of the track was facing the entrance to Bader Field, and he suddenly got agitated. I turned to look and saw five (5!) police cars slowly driving the taxi ways. They were certainly coming for us.
Things ground to a halt for an hour. We were in the dark, reluctant to come in (because, y’know, police) but feeling silly just standing around. Eventually someone realized that we had cell phones with the email from the Starting Line people in them, so we called their number. The cops had arrived because they did not see the paper permit for the use of Bader Field on file. This was a bureaucratic screw-up that they should have been more accommodating about fixing. They KNEW that the field was used for these events fairly frequently. Eventually they got to the right assistant deputy mayor and we were allowed to continue, but now hopelessly behind schedule.
Starting Line stepped up and made it work. They really kicked it into gear and started running 3 cars on the track at a time. A little nerve-wracking for us cone workers, but it got the first run group done in short order and it got me on the track.
While I was waiting for my instructor, the Starting Line people allowed us to take hot laps with the non-instructor volunteers, who were all very good Autocrossers. I rode several laps with Nicole, the wife of one of the Starting Line guys. This was an excellent thing to do since it gave me more time to memorize the track, and see how it should be done. Nicole drove a prepped Honda Civic, and she was hella aggressive!
Finally, it was my turn. My instructor, my LADY instructor was an SCCA pro running in the fastest, most competitive class at a national level. She had been giving me gold stars up until then.
Now… I brought shame upon her, upon my dojo, and upon the spirit of Emerson Fittipaldi. I was not fit to the laces of the pilotis of the lowliest experienced Autocrosser. “I saw you do the slalom PERFECTLY before! Why do you dishonor me by screwing it up so bad now?” I was running 45 second laps 🙁
I wanted to tell her that it was because I could only perfect ONE part of the course at a time right now. That I had just improved these skills but they had not yet become muscle memory. I wanted to, but I did not. I just begged forgiveness and tried again.
Eventually I went solo, and this is what I did:
There are two runs in that video. The second run was my fastest of the day: 39.04 seconds. Not too shabby, given the instructor had run 37 seconds. Here is my final run, with the instructor coming out with a clipboard to tell me the good news. Now sensei was HAPPY:
I was elated. I felt that I “got” it, and that with a little practice I could shave a second or more off my time. I knew where I hadn’t pushed it hard enough, where I was dogging it, and which turns had room for the most improvement and HOW to get that improvement.
The day ended with hats for everyone, another gallon of water, admonishments to come back and redeem your free racing coupon. Also a caution not to hoon it up when leaving the field, lest the cops be even less friendly in the future. I hustled out of there so I could do my familial duty.
Around 20 minutes up the Garden State Parkway I remembered that my tires had +9 PSI in them. I didn’t want to know what happens to Toyo R888 grabby-grab tires when run on the highway at that pressure, so I pulled in to air them down and get a Red Bull to keep me awake and alive on the way home. At the Parkway service area, I had “Lotus Moment;” While sitting on the ground with the tire pressure guage, a very pretty woman in a black tube dress asked if she could take a picture. “Sure,” I say “give me a second and I will remove the chubby troglodyte from the frame.” She laughed, and got what she wanted. A picture of a gorgeous car without it’s less-than=gorgeous driver.
Made it home before dark. Sore. Exhausted. Supremely satisfied.
Stevadoo got back into the MC world earlier this month by buying a 2005 Yamaha FZ6 from a coworker. It only had 3,996 miles and cost $3,200.
Stevadoo’s wife was in Maine for her sister’s *surprise* second marriage, so he took the opportunity to go west. The plan was to head towards Fredericksburg and the Texas hill country. But first he had to negotiate the Katy Freeway, aka I-10. Recently expanded, I-10 is big – really freakin’ big. 26 lanes big. That is not a typo; in each direction there are 4 service lanes, 6 main lanes, and 3 HOV lanes. Getting to an exit from the HOV lane is an ordeal that looks like this:
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Signal, look, turn.
Turn right onto your cross street.
Luckily the I-10 was pretty empty at 7 AM on a Saturday, so Stevadoo had the HOV lane to himself (motorcycles count, yay!). But needless to say, riding on the superslab sucks. Even if you are going 75 MPH minimum (that’s the speed limit!) dodging the F-350 duelly super cabs is not fun.
The first destination was 135 miles away: Buc-ee’s in Bastrop, Texas. Buc-ee’s is a Texas institution and was voted the #3 best awesome roadside eats by Jalopnik.
They, like Texas, are big. The newest one has 60 (count ’em sixty) gas pumps. Inside it’s 68,000 square feet. Note that most large Wal-Marts are less than 99,000 square feet. It has all your normal c-store goodies and sodas, plus a slew of Texas memorabilia up to and including $1,000 smokers and BBQ grills.
Stevadoo just had a sammich.
Just past the Bastrop Buc-ee’s the plan was to get off the beaten path. This side of Austin is not really the Hill Country yet, but even highway 71 is basically an interstate highway. But at least you get to drive by La Grange. I do not mean Joseph-Louis Lagrange, the scientist who developed Euler–Lagrange equations for extrema of functionals. This was the city in Texas where there was a really good brothel, as heralded by the musical “the Best Little Whorehouse” in Texas and ZZ Top’s eponymous song. The Chicken House, doncha know.
Anyhoo, Stevadoo took route 21 which was a pretty good motorcycle road to the southwest. There was a little rain, but nothing more than a few big raindrops that soon stopped. Stevadoo was surprised to see signs for the Circuit of the Americas, where he will be going in October to watch the Formula 1 event. And hey, they were giving tours! So he ponied up his $25 for a 1 hour bus tour and got on with the show.
The first thing he noticed was that at turn 1, there is a huge elevation gain. He’s seen both F1 races that happened on this track, and this wasn’t really shown. But it’s a big hill!
Stevadoo’s seats will be in the turn 12 grandstand, just to the right of the tower. In the foreground is turn 1.
View from the tower. You can see above the red stripe that there used to be some Texas stars painted on the pavement. Well it turns out that Bernie Ecclestone didn’t like them, so he forced the track to paint them out. Jackass.
Next up Stevadoo continued south on 21 to San Marcos. Fortune smiled on him again has he ran across a Commemorative Air Force (formerly Confederate Air Force, but the
Northern Aggressors Yankees PC patrol didn’t like that name and they forced them to change it because hey, didn’t we win that fucking war?) hangar. They had a bunch of interesting planes, none more so than a flying B-25 Mitchell. You know, the kind that Gen. Dolittle bombed Tokyo with. There was also a pair of AF trainers that had been painted up to look like Japanese zeros for the film Tora! Tora! Tora! Some very nice guys there, too. If he had $425 to blow, he’d go for the B-25 ride on July 4th weekend…but he doesn’t.
Next up was a little stretch on I-25 South to Braunfels. This is one of the larger towns started by Germans who emigrated to Texas. As the story goes, they came here and saw tremendous fields of waist-high grass, so they moved with their cattle and pigs. Turns out that the soil was very fragile, and after only a couple years the animals had trampled it down to the limestone. Whoopsie.
Route 46 over to Boerne was nice, but route 16 up to Kerrvile was sublime. This was the real hill country with actual hills. Worth all the super slab riding. Route 16 up to Fredericksburg was fast and scenic, but at this point Stevadoo was over 300 miles for the day and he’s fragile, so he was getting pretty tired. The finest room at an EconoLodge was procured and he slept the sleep of a tired, happy motorcyclist.
Sunday AM he headed out to Johnsonville, the town near President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ranch. It was founded by his uncle, Mr. Johnson. It’s not very big so Stevadoo didn’t get to see a big Johnson, other than the one in his trousers.
But for historical edumacation, Stevadoo stopped in to see the Texas White House and took the tour.
LBJ had a Ford that he used for hunting on his ranch. Note that there is a wet bar in the back seat. His favorite drink was Cutty Sark and Fresca. Really!
He also had an Amphicar! As the story goes, he would drive it into the nearby river and frighten his unsuspecting guests.
He spent about 25% of his presidency here. This was facilitated by the runway on the ranch that could handle a Lockheed JetStar. Not a bad way to commute.
After visiting the LBJ Ranch, Stevadoo had to start making for home. He made some good travel road decisions (route 165 / 2235 from Blanco to Wimberly and route 159 from La Grange to Bellvile), some bad ones (Route 290 / 71 from Dripping Springs to Bastrop) and some terrible ones (route 529 / 290 from Cypress to home – seriously, route 290 is a big fucking road why should it be ‘closed for the weekend’?!?!)
Home, tired Sunday at 6 PM. 625 miles on the clock.
I tried. God knows I tried. Two separate calls for Catskillcade 2014; one in May concurrent with the running of the Kentucky Derby, destroyed by the Alpine Club work weekend. One in June concurrent with the Preakness, wiped out by bad scheduling and a general malaise amongst the Maggots. There was a day when I could rally the Maggots with one well-crafted email. Am I losing my skill?
As a consolation ride, I put out the call for a Saturday day-ride on June 14. Only 4 Maggots answered. Konrad Urban, Thynk3r, Safety Man, and Mr. Furious. Scratch that; make it THREE Maggots. Mr. Furious would not ride, but offered his house as a waypoint on the ride.
A more creative Logistical Officer would have planned a new route that hits strange and wonderful roads, sights unseen, and new adventures to be discoverd.
But I am not that Logistical Officer. This week I am Lazy Logistical Officer so I planned the trip to take the tried-and-true route upw 23 to 97, through Hawk’s Nest, across the Delaware at Narrowsburg, lunch at the Alpine Haus (not Alpine CLUB) in Honesdale PA, then down 6 and 739 to Dingman’s Ferry and Mr.Furious’ farm in Hampton/Newton NJ. Maggots have practically worn wheel-ruts on this route, but we haven’t done it in over a year so it’s fair to repeat it once more.
The meeting spot would be Kosco Harley-Davidson on Route 23. Not a single Harley on this ride, but Kosco has a policy not to stomp any foreign bike riders before Noon on weekends. Plus my Buell gives us partial immunity. I arrived at 8:45, slightly early so that I could walk to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee. Probably the most harrowing part of the whole day because shrubs force you to walk on the shoulder of busy Route 23. How ironic would the headline be? “Motorcyclist killed while walking for coffee?”
Everyone arrived on or close to schedule, and we were off on the ride. An immediate gas stop was called by Konrad because Maggots do not just lack creativity today, they also lack planning skills. At the gas stop we lost Safety Man. Ten minutes into the ride and 25% down! He had a server crash at work, and as a small business owner he had to respond. Buh-bye, Safety Man! See you next time.
Next stop: High Point NJ
Why stop here? Why not! Sure, it costs $5 per vehicle to get in, but I wanted pictures. This time we did the ascent without oxygen, all 2,000-ish feet of it. The obelisk is finally open again for visitors to climb, but aside from lacking creativity and planning skills, today the Maggots also lacked stamina and chose to just enjoy the view.
After High Point, we went through Port Jervis to the inevitable motorcycle spot for a nice Saturday: Hawk’s Nest on Route 97 in NY.
Somewhere in this picture is a tiny Konrad Urban hammering the Angeles Crest Highway of the NY Metro Area:
Surprisingly there were only three other bikes at Hawk’s Nest. On a day like today I would expect dozens.
Route 97 was perfect. Empty of traffic to allow lawbreaking speeds up it’s 20 miles of fast turns. We made it to Honesdale PA and the best German food in the Northern Delaware Valley by 1:00
Our dirndl-clad waitresses served us wurst platter and the best potato pancakes anywhere. A few steins of Spaten Pils were lifted, but only in keeping with moderate motorcycle safety.
Thynk3r got a bit carried away while ordering and asked for a side dish of “all the different kinds of pickles you have.” The waitress (shown above in Thynk3r’s warm embrace) just blinked, like Thynk3r was speaking Swabian to a Bavarian. “What do you mean?” She asked. “All your different varieties of pickles; bring us a plate with an assortment. If there are too many, you pick ones that go with our wursts” said Thynk3r. Or at least that’s how I heard it.
Rather than making a face or getting surly, our motherly waitress said: “we only have one type of pickle. The best kind. I’ll bring you those.” Konrad mumbled something about this being Honesdale PA, not some Artisinal Pickleria in Williamsburg Brooklyn.
The pickles were indeed the best.
Bloated on Bratwurst, Krainerwurst, Polish Kielbasa, and Goulash (with shared strudel to put a final plug in the esophagus), we head down Route 6 through Hawley PA and along Lake Wallempaupak (spelling?), peeling off onto Route 739 through Lords Valley (and passing right in front of the entrance to Casa de BOTA West), we stop for gas and biology just outside Dingman’s Ferry.
And a nicotine hit:
And to ogle cars returning from the Chatterbox.
Then it’s across the only family-owned bridge that I know of ($1 per bike, please):
Konrad Urban lead us along county roads (great!) to the a Horse farm of Mr. furious and his life-partner:
Furious-spawn and hand-made Koi pond designed to calm the Fury:
Whereupon we were served burgers and chips, given some beer, and allowed to burn tobacco:
Thynk3r demonstrates Maggot dessert technique. Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate and whipped cream. Call it “Maggot S’mores”
We spent over three hours hanging out. Partially to process the beers through our finely tuned liver-factories, but really because maggot camaraderie is just THAT good.
I don’t know which is better; the riding or the company. Like dark chocolate and Redi-Whip, each enhances the other beyond the simple combination of the two.
The ride home happened at sunset and beyond. Konrad led us on the better way back to Route 15, and we zipped up every vent we had for the shivery ride home (68 degrees at highway speed in summer gear).