Monday, July 24, 2006


Interesting weekend. Interesting indeed.

Saturday afternoon, about 5pm, we packed the Miata (and I mean packed: there was NO extra trunk space), climbed in, and took a very noisy and bumpy drive to Alton, VA, on the NC border, just between South Boston and Danville.

We learned something about Google maps on the way: they've become useless. The visual portion of the map no longer prints, and you're left with text directions, portions of which were redundant, and portions of which were just plain wrong. We got lost shortly outside South Boston, where the roads on our Google map simply didn't exist. We got lucky and saw a car up ahead that looked fast, so we followed it. It turned out to be a Ferrari 575M, so we knew we were headed in the right direction.

We then had a devil of a time finding our room. We were told it was on the North Paddock, but the only buildings on the North Paddock are the press building, the Pagoda Restaurant, and the garages. We saw a hotel overlooking turns 6 & 7, so we drove over there, only to discover the room numbers did not correspond at all to what we had. So we drove back up to the paddock, whereupon we were told that our rooms were over the garages, directly overlooking the north straight. The only way you'd know the rooms were there is if somebody told you.

The room itself was nice: 2 queen-size murphy beds, a nice bathroom, a bar with a fridge and microwave, and a flat-screen wall-mounted TV. Nice, and quiet, too, so long as nobody was on the track.

We went to the party, hung out with the Kimmelshues, got soaked by the enormous deluge that came out of nowhere, and were informed that the weekend was a rather somber one: evidently one of the members passed away on Friday afternoon. He wasn't driving, he was getting ready for dinner when he had a massive heart attack. He was a long-standing member who came to almost every event, and his Challenge Ferrari was still parked in the paddock on Saturday. Creepy. Then we heard that a Dodge Viper SRT10 lost his brakes and went airborne before smacking a wall of dirt, requiring 2 tow trucks and an hour of red-flag conditions. Evidently a Porsche also blew a radiator hose at some point, spraying coolant onto the track.

So everybody was hoping that Sunday would be different. It wasn't.

I got up early and did some minor brake tweaking, which made a world of difference, and then got a ride in Chris's M3. Wow, that thing is fast (and nowhere near the top of its game, given the wetness of the track). After that, it was back to the room to finish packing, and then off to my first run.

Only I spent too much time packing, and missed the beginning of my run. I got out there about 5 minutes into the session. I was excited because I got right behind a group of 3 Porsches, but my excitement didn't last, because they were really being gentle on those cars (one of them was a GT3 Cup car; no reason to treat it gently). We were taking the climbing S'es at about 60, and the turn into Oak Tree was a bottle-neck of about 12 cars going less than 20mph. On the 2nd lap, there were caution flags for a blue convertible M3 that had left the track in the same place as the Viper, and then a Spec Miata went into the infield off the back straight. A couple laps later, a stock car's hood flipped over and smashed its windshield in the braking zone before turn 1, and we got black flagged.

The session was over, and I got about 4 slow laps out of it.

On my 2nd session, I had a passenger: Amanda rode with me. Nobody was being passive on this one; I had a Porsche occupying all 3 mirrors, and we were taking the climbing S'es at closer to 80 (still a bit slow, but much more entertaining than 60), and I really got to see what the pro-line does for Roller Coaster.

But I had a problem in my 2nd session. I bought driving shoes a couple of weeks ago, and I forgot to put them on for the first session. I scrambled to get them on in time for the second run, and almost immediately discovered that they weren't wide enough to heel-toe in the Miata. The Miata isn't really big enough to do a proper heel-toe, and I've only learned the technique where you use the side of the foot, not the heel. So I was having to brake, then blip, shift, and back on the brakes. It was bad, but not uncontrollable. I couldn't get away from the Porsche, but I wasn't exactly a slouch, either.

But my nerves were getting worse, and sections of the track that are difficult for me were compounded by the problem. One of those is Hog Pen. After taking the pro line through Roller Coaster, I come to the first pointer cone (left) at the very top of 2nd gear (about 59mph), shift, and roar up to about 80 before backing off, turning in to the left, braking hard, downshifting, and powering out onto the front straight. When done properly, I spend only about 2 seconds in 2nd gear entering Hog Pen, but I either missed the brake pedal or thought I would, so I came in hot, downshifted, and the back end stepped out. I tried to countersteer, but when we were looking straight at the wall (about 15 feet away), I put both feet in. Forward motion stopped about 5 or 6 feet from the wall, and we slid sideways to a stop on the clay.

I think I entered the turn at about 65, which is backed up by the video (it shows the shift-light and max-G lights on my G-Tech blinking like crazy), and the tires, though sticky, were starting to show signs of greasiness. We pitted, explained the situation, got a quick once-over, and went back out.

And there was no traffic to be seen anywhere. I flogged the crap out of that car for about 4 or 5 laps before the session was over, and it was intense. Without a car in front of you, it's tough to judge your speed and capabilities, but I think I was really getting a handle on the car during those last laps.

Unfortunately, the tires were packing it in, and in the 3rd session, right behind the pace car, I lost the line after a little wobble in the car told me we wouldn't complete Roller Coaster, and using a huge misjudgement as an opportunity for a straight-line braking zone, we came into the top of Hog Pen completely unstable, and the car stepped out again. I caught it this time, and Amanda expressed her displeasure. A couple of laps later, with only fumes in the gas tank, the tires finally failed, and we locked up the entire rear of the car and slid through the braking zone at turn 1, barely keeping the car on the track.

That was it; our day was over. I pitted, put a couple of gallons of gas in the car, packed up, and we came home.

So I had a great time, but I learned the limits of my car in its current configuration. While my tires are Max Performance Summer tires, they're not race tires, and they bit us. Watching the tape, I saw that I was way off the line several times in that 3rd session, and every time it was because the car was feeling unstable, like the tires just had no grip left. At one point I almost slid off the top of Roller Coaster, which is unconscionable. Amanda said I seemed tired, and I think she was right. But was I tired from fighting the car, or just tired from driving? Hmmmm...

It might be time to look for some "gently used" Toyo Proxes RA-1's.

I can't wait to go back.

No comments: