MSR Houston with The Driver’s Edge

David and I spent this weekend driving MSR Houston with The Driver’s Edge. It had been many years since TDE had run at MSR Houston, so relatively few of the participants were familiar with the track. As I had recently run the 24 Hours of Lemons Gator-O-Rama, I was familiar with MSR Houston. While I had 3+ hours of seat time at the track, that was with 100+ cars on track and with open passing, so I was rarely able to choose a technically correct line. This weekend provided me a fantastic opportunity to refine my line and understand the track in my car.

I had one real concern for the weekend. My only time on that track had been laps with open passing. I had never had to wait for a passing signal on that particular track – rather, I passed whenever I felt I could pull it off. My concern coming into this weekend was that I’d fall back into that habit and end up passing someone without a signal. Thankfully, the racecar (even the Triumph) and full gear feels significantly different from my still-street-car MX-5 in just a helmet.  As a result, I was behaving as I would at any other HPDE, waiting for passes.  I didn’t always wait patiently for these passes,  but I waited…

The Driver’s Edge was relatively new to this track at the time. I was one of the few who knew the line. As a result, I had many passengers on my sessions, and rode with other students in blue and yellow, helping them learn the line.  I love teaching and I love instructing, so this really increased my enjoyment of the weekend. I was able to share some tricks with some of the blue drivers, but saved a few tricks for my friends in red. MSR Houston can be demanding, technically, and some of these tricks are more appropriate for those with better car control and more seat time.

I did have some particular frustrations at that track. Texas World Speedway is a bit of a power track – there are enough long straights for power cars to leave me behind, even if they don’t carry as much speed through the corners. If I give a pass to a power car in red run group at TWS, I’ll never seen them again. Harris Hill Road is the opposite, a momentum track – the straights are so few and so short that the power cars with poor handling end up giving me a pass. MSR Houston is a great balance. It has some good, long straights, but also has a lot of fun, tricky twists. While this makes the track a lot of fun, it means it can be frustrating for a great handling car with very little power. The power cars don’t want to be caught behind me on the straights, so they don’t want to give me a pass. But then I end up stuck behind them through the corners.  If  I slow on the straights to build up some space, I’m caught by another car. It can be difficult to find space for myself, space to enjoy those fantastic, technical twists.

I really enjoy MSR-Houston. Hopefully I’ll find more events there to run this fall.

By equiraptor on 23 April 2010 | MX-5, Track Time
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From HPDEs to Wheel-to-Wheel

This past weekend, I ran with Harris Hill Road LMP(OS) in 24 Hours of Lemons Gator-O-Rama. We ran a 1978 Triumph TR7. This was my first wheel-to-wheel race – I had done plenty of HPDEs, autocross, even some gymkhana, but had never competed, wheel-to-wheel, with open passing.

If you’ve run a low power car at an HPDE, you know the frustration of being caught behind a car with more power and less handling. The frustration of them refusing to give you a passing signal, convinced that their car is better and they should be ahead. That dynamic is both remarkably similar and remarkably different with open passing in a competition. The high power cars (at least the ones who watch their mirrors) will try to block in the corners, then use that power in the straight. It takes courage, planning, and skill to get around them. Sometimes, I’d find myself able to out-brake them coming into a corner. I’d aim myself just to their inside and wait, wait, wait to brake. How late could I wait? How late dared I wait? And then hard on the brakes, yanking the car down, slowing. If I couldn’t get my mirror next to theirs by a bit past corner turn-in, I’d just stand on the brakes and wait, as they’d almost always take the apex and I shouldn’t hit them. If I had managed to get my mirror next to theirs (or even in front), I’d take that apex, still braking, and stay on an inside line through the corner. Thanks to the handling of that Triumph, if I was next to them just after turn-in, I’d be in front by the end of the corner. Some of the power guys would try to pass me on that next straight, but many were wise enough to stay behind. I earned the pass in a late braking competition – they didn’t want to risk me out-braking myself into them.

Other power cars had either better drivers or better braking. I couldn’t outbrake these drivers, at least not without risking outbraking myself. When battling one of these drivers, I had to learn patience. If I could just convince myself to wait for one of the sweepers, I could get them there. Few cars could take the carousel as fast as that “flying” wedge. If they took the inside, I’d take the out. If they took the outside, I’d take the in. And I’d inch past, inch past, gaining and gaining. It was a thrill to earn the pass, inch by inch.

Things were wet come Sunday. The day started with enough fog and dew to have a damp track, and light rain kept it wet for a substantial part of the day. I took the third shift this day. The rain was coming to a close as I got in the car. On my out lap, I drove timidly, just getting used to being in the car again. My next lap, I pushed a bit harder. I’d never driven the Triumph in the wet, so I wanted to find the feel of the car as I pushed it in the wet. I let the car slide a bit too much that lap, but I avoided any real problems and gained a much better understanding of the car. At that point, I did my best to settle in. I’m an aggressive driver with a strong competitive streak, so keeping myself contained and behaving in the rain was not easy. Our radio had broken, so I didn’t even have team members reminding me to take it easy. Still, I took deep breaths and kept my head on straight.

At one point, in the wet, a BMW decided they were going to pass me in the carousel on the inside. I had watched them in my mirrors through a few corners, and I could tell they decided they were coming around then. They were not going to make it through the carousel at that speed without sliding, the only question was, where would they slide? I backed off just a bit, choosing to let them have the pass rather than risk contact. When my front bumper is about halfway through their car, the back of the BMW kicks out. I see the car coming for me and just gently unwind, completely avoiding contact and giving them a chance to recover. I had a little laugh in my head as the driver waved to me, thankful I chose to let him have the pass instead of fighting him for it and letting us hit.

The Triumph handled the wet wonderfully. When the car slipped, the slip was minor. If I started with heavy braking and then turned in, I could encounter some understeer. Gently rolling off the brakes would cure it. More often, I’d get some slip from the rear of the car. This, too, was easy to handle. The back might slip slightly on turn in, but I’d let it lose a bit of speed with that slip and then gently roll on the throttle, stabilizing. Only once was the slip more than “slight,” and even then, it was easy to countersteer through the slide and pull the car out. The car would lose traction on acceleration coming out of the corners, as well, but yet again, the slide was slight and easy to control. I could not have asked for a better balanced car.

I’m an aggressive driver in multiple ways. One of these is that I’m always testing the car, the limits. As a result, when conditions started to dry, my braking zones reduced faster than the braking zones of many other drivers. I found myself flying past cars on the inside, outbraking them into corners. As the track dried, I found myself having more and more fun. I was really getting into the drive when I looked down at the watch. It was 4:45… I needed to hurry up and give the team the signal I’d come in so that Steve could have his turn! So as I went down the front straight I beat on the roof of the car. This was the signal… Three more times I’d drive down that front straight, and then I’d be in. My next time down the straight, my hand was out with three fingers up. The next time, two, and that last time, one finger held up high. And then in I was. That was it. My driving portion of the race was over. I’d had a ton of fun on my drive, and as I came away from the car, it was clear the team was very happy with my drive, as well.

Steve did a fantastic final stint it the car, covering lots of ground and keeping us penalty free. We finished 31 out of 122, 286 laps completed, 686 miles covered by that Triumph. It was a great race and a lot of fun.

By equiraptor on 26 February 2010 | Track Time
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Last weekend was TDE at H2R. My favorite track with more people than I could imagine. It’s a bit of culture shock to see that many cars parked around the pavement, on the grass, everywhere the cars can be put. And to see that many people in the clubhouse, on the grounds.

Thankfully, the TDE participants have a lot of respect for boundaries. They only came into the garage if they needed to. As a result, I used the garage almost as a sanctuary. I could go there and be away from the hustle and bustle, to have a familiar place that wasn’t busy. It was windy up on the porch, too, so few people came up there. I’d sit up there with Bo and Amber and whichever other H2R staff member was helping with the lights at the time and watch the cars go ’round the track. That was a fantastic way to experience the “busy” while managing to be somewhat isolated from it.

This was my first time to run in the red group with TDE, and I had an unfair advantage. Most of the TDE regulars have only occasionally been at H2R as TDE rarely runs there. They don’t know the track. I’ve been there so many times with my car in so many configurations and driving so many other cars. I’m very familiar with the track. I noticed many cars position themselves a bit behind me and just follow for a few laps. I figure they were learning the line from me, and I enjoyed that. I hope I was sufficiently consistent and accurate to be helpful.

I did manage to wear out my brakes in my first session on Saturday, but I knew that would happen. Bo and I swapped out the pads – he did the rears and I did the fronts – and all was well. In other mechanical issues that weekend, an S2000 had an oil seal problem and needed a tow back up to the garage so it could be fixed. I went with Bo (in the Audi) to go fetch the S2000 and learned a bit about towing and Bo’s expectations from the trip. A friend of mine also had a problem with his BMW that necessitated the car being towed home and repaired at a shop. Said friend has an SMG transmission in his BMW and isn’t very familiar with manuals. Still, I loaned him my Miata as, well, he needed a car. He seems to have figured out lightweight flywheel + racing clutch and is able to get around without stalling the car most of the time. He did say, though, that he refers to the process of entering the car as “folding.”

Overall I had an enjoyable weekend and I’m looking forward to going back to H2R next weekend.

By admin on 27 January 2010 | Track Time
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Mother at the Track

Last Saturday my mother came out to the track.

Getting my mother to drive on track was something I’ve wanted for some time. She’s been daily driving my old ’94 Miata for some time. On one TejasMiata drive, I caught her sliding through a corner. Later, she complained at me that the back was sliding too much as she accelerated through a turn. Note, that wasn’t “sliding,” that was “sliding too much.” I figured Mom needed a closed course to play on. She refused to autocross because she was worried about slowing down everyone else. But when we became members at Harris Hill Road, I discovered something. This was the perfect place! On a slow day, she could have the track all to herself. There’d be no one else on track for her to worry about.

So on a particularly cold, particularly slow Saturday, I invited her out. She arrived, and we went out on track. I made the mistake of forgetting to give her a proper introduction-to-the-track speech – somehow, I thought she’d just know it! So once she was behind the wheel, explaining the line, looking ahead, etc. was challenging for both of us. Additionally, I had lost my confidence in my mother and left my car’s traction control on (she was in my car, rather than hers, as hers lacks a roll bar).  My mother had a hard time understanding that we wanted the cornering and inputs to be smooth. She enjoys the forces and instability of throwing the car around a corner. While I agree that’s fun, I want her to get the basics of proper track driving, to understand why “the line” is what the line is, so that she’ll be able to make informed decisions about how and when to toss the car.

Eventually I came to my senses and turned off traction control. While that seems risky, the entire reason I wanted my mother on the track was because of her great car control skills! As soon as the car started responding to her as a car should (rather than as traction control would), her driving improved.  By this point in time, she was understanding why turn in, apex, and track out points are where they are. She tracked out beautifully coming out of corner 4… Except that left her in exactly the wrong place for corner 5! So while she came to understand “the line” as it applies to a single corner, she wasn’t yet able to string corners together. She complained that she couldn’t see corner 5 while in corner 4, and she kept forgetting it was there!

Mom said she had a great time, and she asked me to give her a track map with the braking points and turn-in, apex, and track-out points. We’ll see if she makes it out again!

By equiraptor on 15 January 2010 | MX-5, Track Time
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Wet Weekend at Texas World Speedway

David and I were out at Texas Word Speedway this past weekend, running counter clockwise. While Saturday started out dry, rain rolled in about mid-day. While I have run in the rain, both on tracks and autocrossing, this was my first time to stick around though this much rain with conditions changing the way they were.

On Saturday, rain only came through once. Our third session of the day was quite wet. By our fourth session, the track was drying, with about half of it still wet and about half dry. My car is currently on some rather poor tires – the treadwear rating is 400! It takes only a few minutes of track time on a warm, dry day for the tires to get a greasy feel. As a result, for the first two sessions, I had fun with grip for about 5 minutes, then had fun re-learning limits as I continued to drive. The poor tires plus the rapid overheating meant I gave a lot of passing signals, but that’s ok. I also gained a lot of experience learning to control my aggression on track. I tend to brake late and try to carry speed through corners, so I over-drive easily. These tires have forced me to pull back a bit, go back to the basics of “slow in.”

In our third session on Saturday, the first rain session, we were all re-learning our limits. My car was being extremely oversteery, so I went to hot pit to make some setup changes. I softened things up, but the car still slid easily. By our fourth run session, the last of the day, the track was drying. In its part dry, part wet state, my tires did very well. The wet areas were just enough to keep the tires cool, and the dry bits were fast and fun. This was my favorite run session of the day.

On Sunday, the rain came and went, as the day went by. The track stayed damp for most of the day. One of the artifacts of Texas World Speedway being an older track is the surface has been repaired and patched over time. These different surfaces have some, but minimal, effect on a dry day. But in the wit, the traction difference was startling at times. Entering corner 6, I just let the car slide. I felt like I didn’t have a hope of actually having grip unless I went extremely slow, so I just let the car slip. Then, as the car approached the apex, it hit a patch. Suddenly, the front tires had a lot of grip. The back would shoot sideways, until the back hit the patch, and suddenly it flipped back behind the front. At first, I didn’t quite understand what was going on and it concerned me. Once I realized what was happening, I had fun with it. I’d let the car drift heavily through the turn in, and the car slipped hard then snick back in behind itself quite suddenly. As this happened, I’d smile at the corner workers, who’d smile and wave back at me.  They knew just what I was doing.

All-in-all, it was a challenging weekend, but a fun one.

Street Tires vs. “Slicks”

As autocrossers, we have a number of choices to make. While the novice autocrosser generally starts with the car they have, an early consideration is tires. Tires are a relatively easy part to change, so upgrading to “slicks” may appeal as a way to improve your car and gain time early on. Yes, I say “slicks” – the tires I’m referring to are R-compound (racing) tires that have almost no tread. These tires are DOT approved, and because of that they have two thin lines that are the “tread” of the tires. They’re not true slicks because of those two lines, but they’re near-slicks. Two popular choices are the Hoosier A6 and Kumho V710. While these tires are DOT approved, they are not necessarily street legal. State laws may render the tires not road legal in your area.

R- compound tires provide significantly more grip than street tires, so they seem like an easy way to pick up some extra time. However, they have significant disadvantages for the novice. The most obvious disadvantage is cost. R-compounds wear quickly and frequently cost more than street legal tires for the same car. Still, for the beginning autocrosser, the more significant disadvantages relate to learning opportunities. Street tires provide a more forgiving basis for pushing the traction limits. When pushed, street tires make noise. A street tire being pushed will give a screeching sound, and when that tire is pushed beyond its limit, the sound will change. A grippier tire will make less noise than one with less grip, and the super-grippy near slick R-compounds will almost never make any noise at all. This auditory feedback can be a great tool for helping a driver learn to feel when a tire is losing grip.

Street tires are also more forgiving near their limits than R-compound tires. They’ll start to provide feedback about traction limits (both auditory and otherwise) while further from their limits. Additionally, when they lose grip, the change is less harsh so it’s easier to recover.

Sticking to street tires for a while will allow the new autocrosser a chance to learn great car control skills while keeping costs lower. The times may be slower than they would be on slicks, but learning on street tires will mean the autocrosser will be able to make better use of the more expensive tires if they later chose to switch.

By equiraptor on 8 October 2009 | Autocrossing
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Another Day at the Track

Sunday David and I drove out to Harris Hill Road yet again. I had two main goals for this trip. I wanted to practice my 2/3 line and work on my car setup with my ridiculous 400 treadwear rating street tires. It didn’t take many laps for me to grow accustomed to the tighter entry into 2/3, which was probably a good thing, as it didn’t take many laps for those crappy tires to overheat. I softened the back shocks a few more clicks, just to further reduce the car’s sensitivity with the greasy feel of the too-hot tires. However, I learned that these tires have two stages of “too hot.” In the first stage, things get greasy and grip drops significantly. This is… tolerable. It’s annoying to have the lowered grip, but certainly easy to adjust to. But it’s clear the tires are not designed for this kind of treatment. Just a few laps into the greasy feel, things worsen. The tires become unpredictable. In one corner, I’ll have some grip. In another corner, I’ll have no front grip at all. Yet another time, the back of the car will just do its own thing, and it takes everything I can do to make sure the car stays pointed basically the right direction.

I had two offs on Sunday. One was two wheels off. The car just couldn’t hold the line and drifted out just a bit too far. The front tires just did not have grip. With just two tires off, I easily brought the car back on in an appropriate spot, no damage done. The other time, I was going through a rather fast kink and yet again, the front tires just didn’t want to do a thing. I had no control over the direction I was going, so I just braked hard, scrubbing as much speed as I could before I hit dirt. The car hit the dirt fairly slowly and pointed forward, I was alone on track so I came back on, and I checked out the car. Yet again, no damage done.

I also learned that a few slow laps is not enough to get these tires to cool down. After two gentle laps, they were just as unpredictable as they were immediately after four hot laps. These tires did decently enough on a wet surface, but give them a dry track and they just overheat. I need to get some good track tires on my 16″ wheels.

David had brought out the GT3 RS. We went out together, with me behind the wheel, to show him some of the new lines I was trying. I got in a few fun laps and then gave the reins back to David. Later in the afternoon, after giving up on my tires, I asked for another chance. David let me out there on my own.

I was completely alone. It was GT3 RS, 1.8 miles of track, and me.

I could have stayed out there until the tank was dry (and almost did). Having David in the car calms me down a bit. I’m less aggressive. When I was alone out there, without even another car for distraction, I could really play. I played with a few different lines and a few different shift points. I played with the car’s rotation. I played with the brakes. And I learned a few things. I learned that the car wants to be downshifted in the hairpin, not because it needs the torque to pull it out of the corner, but because it needs the engine drag to rotate it at the beginning. With some good engine drag from high revs in second gear, the car rotates easily and at a relatively high speed. Rolling on the throttle gently straightens the car back out and plants the back tires. I can reach full throttle early and hold it. The shift to third is made with some lateral load on the car, but even so, it was easy to make it smooth. With the power of the GT3’s engine, it surged through 3rd gear quickly, and I was back up to 8,000 rpm before braking down for corner 1.

The GT3 RS is an amazingly capable car. I’m eager for more track time in it, and I’m eager to see David build his confidence and use more and more of that car’s abilities. We have another track weekend coming up soon, at TWS, and I’m eager to hear the speeds David can reach on the big straight.

By equiraptor on 22 September 2009 | Track Time
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2006 Miata

My primary vehicle is a 2006 Mazda MX-5 GT with premium package 1. It’s “Nordic Green” with a tan cloth top. As the power retracting hard top was not available that year, it was, in stock form, one of the heavier cars that year. I bought the car used, already modified. It has JIC FLT-A2 coilovers, spring rates of 6kg front, 5kg rear. The car had the AEM / Mazdaspeed CAI on it when I bought it, but I switched that to the K&N Apollo to remain legal for CSP. The car also has a lightweight flywheel, aftermarket clutch (nothing extreme), and a custom exhaust with resonators from Silverline. I have three sets of wheels for the car: the OEM 17x7s, 16×8 wheels from an FD RX-7, and 18×9.5 Enkei RP-F1s. I use the OEM wheels on the street, the Enkeis for autocross, and the FD wheels are waiting for some track rubber.

I enjoy a twitchy car, so I tend to go with more extreme toe settings than most would have. I prefer a bit of toe out on the front (just over .05º, but under .1º) and straight toe on the rear. I go with about .5º more camber on the rear than the front, with the exact amount depending on my emphasis this time around. If I’m autocrossing extensively, it’ll get more camber. If it’s mostly street and track, it’ll get less.

The car is an absolute joy to drive. The lightweight flywheel causes the throttle response to be quick and predictable. The clutch is similar to stock in feel and grab, and rev matching downshifts with this combination is easy. Unfortunately, people unfamiliar with the car tend to stall it at first, as the revs drop sharply as you clutch out at a stop. Once you know what to expect, it’s easy enough to drive. The transmission shifts from gear to gear easily, but the shifter has a notchy feel. Some complain about it, but I love it. The notchiness provides great feedback about gear selection, so I’m confident of every shift. The alignment combined with the somewhat firm suspension means the steering is quick and responsive, and the wheel communicative about the road surface. Of course, this communication is dependent on the tires, as well. Some tires provide a better quality ride and mute the feedback, just a bit, while others provide details about every little bump and scratch on the road surface. I prefer the latter – my spine can take the jarring, I want to know exactly what’s under me!

It’s that responsiveness, that twitchiness, that on-edge behavior that makes the car so much fun. Even when you’re well under the handling limits, the car provides huge amounts of information about what’s going on, and a quick flick here or there causes a lively, invigorating response.

By equiraptor on 21 September 2009 | MX-5

Meeting a GT3 RS

For the past few years, my boyfriend owned a 2007 Porsche 911 Carrera S Cabriolet – a 997 C2S Cab, in Porsche-speak. The car was a fantastic introduction to 911s for us, but as it spent more and more time on the track, it was clear to us this wasn’t the most appropriate car for him. He’d been tossing around the idea of getting a 997 mark 2 coupe, a 997 mark 2 GT3, or a 997 mark 1 GT3 RS.

We were discussing road trips and ways to move through the U.S. without spending the drive on the interstates. I mentioned the Natchez Trace Parkway, a road I’d seen as a kid, vacationing with my parents. This prompted David to search for a GT3 RS in Nashville, just to see if there was something there. He found something… An ’07 black and orange GT3 RS listed as a GT3. He called the dealership that Monday morning, and things were in motion. Two weeks, later, we flew to Nashville.

The car was sitting there, right in front, black and gleaming. Was it beautiful or was it hideous? I wasn’t sure, but I was sure I was smiling. David had completed all the paperwork before we left Houston, so we just got the keys and drove away.

So what can I say about the GT3 RS? It’s an interesting machine. There are some significant differences between the GT3 RS and the C2S Cab. The suspension is firm with stiff springs and dampers that control them well. Unlike with the C2S Cab, every bump in the road is transmitted to the driver. This allows the driver to know exactly what’s beneath him, inspiring confidence in the car’s grip. The shifter in the GT3 RS is notchy and firm, leaving the C2S Cab’s shifter “mushy” by comparison. The lightweight flywheel means the engine soars to its 8400 rpm redline, and combining this with the informative clutch makes rev matching a joy. But there’s no doubt the car is a 911, just as the C2S Cab was. Both share those rear engined handling characteristics – understeer punctuated by oversteer on a throttle lift. The GT3 RS provides a surprising amount of rear grip allowing the car to use its 415 horsepower well.

As we drove the car home from Nashville we truly tested its abilities as a road car. We spent hours in the car on a variety of roads, from interstates to a one-lane barely-paved road just off the Natchez Trace. The car made its way through small towns and heavy traffic with ease, with only the occasional exceptionally harsh driveway causing a scrape. The nose of the car has a plastic part that’s essentially disposable, so minor scrapes are insignificant. The strain on us, driving for hours on end, was no worse than in a sedan. The one shortcoming on the street that we encountered on our drive home was idling. That car does not want to idle. The idle is rough and the lightweight flywheel clatters.

We had a fantastic drive home. People everywhere smiled and waved as we drove by, and the grins from kids still make me smile.

By equiraptor on 17 September 2009 | First Drives