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GressTale Feb08, Racing at last.

A weekend full of adventure. On Friday 8Feb I had to go to "Competition (Comp) School" to get my "Rookie" racing license, I had to get the carís annual inspection done and I had to get the car ready for itís big 3PM debut, a 3hr race. It was an insane day.

The intent of Comp School is to transition drivers whoíve had a fair amount of track time, to competition. Itís a relatively brief affair, so you have to go in with reasonable skills. This Comp School seemed to emphasize putting you in situations where you might get anxious and screw up. Out on the track the instructors were a little on the aggressive side. They wanted to see if you were easily rattled. Like youíd be flying into a turn at a speed where you were going to need the entire track width of that turn to make it. And then all the sudden thereíd be an instructorís car alongside 12" away.

Making it thru a turn at high speed is all about juggling the variables of the carís speed, direction of travel, balance, tire slip angle, car yaw angle, and then all of the driver inputs. When you figured that you needed 30í of track width to make it thru a turn, and suddenly a car comes alongside of you, you need to come up with a new plan really really fast.

And itís worse if you have no brakes.

I started doing this stuff in a Porsche 911. I noted pretty early that although the OEM brake pads stopped me ok, they didnít last very long. I had some OEM brake pads for the BMW that I thought Iíd go ahead and put on for the Comp School and the 3hr race. Judging from my Porsche experience I figured that theyíd stop me ok, and if I had to replace them with race brake pads after the 3hr race, that was ok by me.

The idea would soon become less ok.

I was out on the track in the Comp School and the instructors were screwing with us pretty hard. One of the graduation requirements wasÖif you went off the track, you flunked. Going off the track is a pretty common consequence of experimenting with the edge of the envelope, but Comp School isnít the place to experiment.

An instructor pulled up behind me as we were roaring along at ~100mph. Then the crazed instructor, in his roaring, wing-laden very modified late 70ís Corvette pulled up along side of me nice and close. It was so damn loud I couldnít think straight. And somehow heavily modified wing-festooned 'Vette seemed big as a semi. He snugged up beside me just as we were hitting "the kink" a tricky little turn that is usually done >100mph. The kink is dicey when you are the only car on the track. At 100mph entering the kink side-by-side, the situation had my full attention.

He was trying to see if I was easily rattled. I was determined to not be rattled.

"I will not show fear. I will die before I show fear".

"I will not show fear. I will die before I show fear".

"I will not show fear. I will die before I show fear".

I was determined to not be rattled.

So then off he goes to screw with someone else.

And I started noticing that my brakes were getting less effective. This was only our second lap on the track. I tried to understand what was going on. I went into a couple turns hot and hit the brakes particularly hard. It did not seem like this was just in my imagination. It really felt like I had less brakes then I should. And it seemed to be getting a little worse after each turn.

Midway thru lap 3 I was on the cusp of going in so I could try to figure out what the hell the problem was. This was going to be a big day. I needed to get thru Comp School, annual inspection and the 3hr race. I had a co-driver for that race that was depending on me showing up with a car that worked. And I was supposed to be in races Sat and Sun. There was not going to be an opportunity to take the car to the shop. Hell, Iíd been so busy Iíd not eaten in 24hrs. My car needed to damn work.

On lap 3 I hit the brakes harder then necessary for turn 8 and I got so little braking out of it that I almost went flying off of the track at turn exit. "Shit. This is a nogo. Iíve got to get off of the track. What the hell could be causing this???" I headed for the kink, keeping the speed below insanity level.

Just then the crazed corvette pulls up alongside me to screw with me again. "Uh oh", I thought "he doesnít know I have no brakes." I read his mind and decided that he was going to "dive bomb" me at the corner and pull in front. Which would require that I stand on my brakes to avoid him.

Which only works if you have brakes.

So I reviewed my options. I go off the track and I flunk. Crashing out an instructor wasnít specifically addressed, but that would probably flunk me too. I figured that what I had to do was to prevent him from getting in front of me. That was the only way I would ensure that my loss of brakes wouldnít result in smashing into him. But that meant that I would have to go into the turn hot. And there was no way I had enough brakes to make that turn if I went in hot.

It was a worrisome moment.

So I kept the gas floored as I entered the braking zone. I also snuck over to the right a little to push him aside and kinda put him on the defensive. I passed brake marker 4, then 3 (where Iíd normally start braking) and then at about 2.5 I stood on the brakes. And boy I didnít get much. I was heading off of the track. I was going to flunk Comp School, thereíd be no 3hr race this afternoon, I was going to seriously be letting my codriver down, and thereíd be no racing Sat and Sun.

I was desperate to stay on the track.

Instead of trying to turn in and make the turn, I just tried to get the car sideways. I figured that might help me slow down. And I seemed to get that to work. Fully sideways, I slowed down rapidly. Maybe I went 2 wheels off, maybe I didnít. I didnít see nuthín.

The crazed instructor didnít know that Iíd just saved his car. I was concerned that he was thinking that Iíd completely lost control. But just then I had to get off of the track and figure out what was going on. I figure that I had 10min before the next classroom session.

I figured that I needed to look at or swap out my OEM front brake pads. Maybe Iíd put them in wrong or maybe they were appallingly bad pads.  But for darn sure checking out my brake pads was the only thing I was going to be able to do. I certainly wasnít prepared to replace a master cylinder and brake lines just at that moment. So if all I could do was swap out pads, then thatís what I should do, I figured.. And then I would just hope for the best.

The first time I swapped out pads on the Beemer it took me 2hrs. The second time it took me 1 hr. This day it would take me 20min and one 2nd degree burn.  And in the next session I had brakes.

Which was good because in the next session a 350Z spun in front of me. He seemed to be sliding off to the left, so it didnít look like I had to adjust much to get around him to the right. So it looked like no big deal.

Which is when I almost smacked right into him. His car that had been sliding off to the left suddenly started moving right.  As in right in front of me. It was a near thing. I donít know quite how I missed him.

Running around the track area like a madman, I got to my Comp School classes (late), Comp School track sessions (late) and I got the car to itís "race car" inspection (late).

An inspection which it flunked. Because my battery wasnít tied down. Which was a puzzle because it had passed the í07 inspection fine with the previous owner. "Shit", I thought, "I have no time for this. How the hell am I going to rig a battery tiedown right now?" And I remembered that Iíd seen a guy with some 3í long zip ties. I ran across the track area, found him, begged a couple off of him and ran back to my car. Then I disconnected the battery leads, pulled out the battery, laced the zip ties under the battery tray and fastened it down type. Worked great.

I pulled out of the Comp School Graduation race at the halfway mark so I could continue working like a madman. Because now I had to get ready for the 3hr (enduro) race.

A couple months ago Iíd hatched plan to share driving duties with a fellow Rookie driver, Clemson University Shrink Fred Switzer. The plan was to drive in 30min sessions and keep trading off. And it worked fine. Frankly, I was so hungry and exhausted, and the Saturday and Sunday that followed were interesting enough, that I canít hardly even remember the 3hr Friday enduro. Somehow we ended up 4th out of 8 in class. Which is a little hard to understand. Maybe 4 of the cars in our class broke or something.

When I say that itís hard to understand how we could be 4th, itís important to understand just how good the other guys are. Iím as coordinated as the next guy, but it can take me a thousand repetitions of a specific corner before my execution improves from miserable to average at that corner.  Even when you have figured out a good technique for a particular corner, itís tremendously difficult to consistently execute your hard won technique.

What you donít see in the videos is just how much sliding the car is doing. We are at the limit.  The car is essentially ballistic.  The choices you make early in the turn, well, they need to be good choices because you're pretty much going to just have to live with those choices.  You pretty much can't just change your mind because you're flying thru the corner so fast that your tires are just hanging on by their fingernails.

Over and over again I see guys leaving a corner with 5mph more speed then I. And Iím constantly trying to come in from slight different turn-in points, chose slightly different apexes (the inside point of the turn or geometric halfway point <a simplification>), chose slightly different speeds, vary brake and acceleration timing and intensityÖeverything I can think of. All the time trying to figure out what works and what doesnít. All I know for sure is that Iím almost sliding right off of the track, yet they are coming out of the turn 5mph faster.

Saturdayís race had the biggest crash Iíve ever seen on the track.  In the photo at right the arrow points to me.  The video, referenced later, has a great photo sequence that shows the hellacious serious of crashes that occurred right in front of me.

I was safely in the rear because Iíd qualified dead last. Which was irksome. I knew that I wasnít much good at the Carolina Motorsports Park (CMP) track, but I didnít expect to be last. So that was a bit of an unpleasant surprise.

The following day, Sunday, I was bound and determined to not qualify last. And I didnít, I beat two guys and qualed 13th of 15. But there was a goatscrew 20sec into the race, the guy right in front of me blew a shift, and I had no where to go. #ís 14 and 15 blew by me and once again I was last. But for 20seconds, I wasnít last.

I created a compilation video of a little bit of the weekend races here.

Go to the Video folder and look for a file named something similar to "CMPRaceCompilation9-10Feb08".  Copy to your desktop before playing.

I suck a lot less at my home track, where Iíve done thousands of laps. Thereís only a couple guys that are faster there, in our class car. But at CMP, Iím, well, last. Sigh.

The final story. DUI while driving home.

Later that night I was heading south on I-95 in South Carolina, about an hour out from home. Of course I was pulling 5000lb of car and trailer behind me. At mile marker 25 I came up on some SUV wandering all over the road. Scary wandering. From the left lane to the right shoulder dirt. He almost went off several times. So I figured, "someone's gonna get killed, I should see if I can't get the highway patrol". So I called 911 on my cell, something I've never done before. I wasn't sure who in the heck was going to answer, given that I was out of my home area code. I asked the operator for SC highway patrol and some guy joins the call. I explained what was up and where I was. He wanted a license place number and I said I'd "try". He said that a patrol car was en route, and suddenly another voice comes on the line. We now have a phone con with 4 participants.

Since I was pulling 5000lb, the thought of getting up close to the lunatic to read his plate was unappealing. It made it harder that the guy's speed was varying between 70 and 90. I was concerned that he was gonna be a fiery crash any minute and I wouldn't be able to stop in time. I think I told the highway patrol "ok, I'm gonna get that damn license plate, but he's speeded up and this is going to be dicey". Uselessly, in retrospect, I added "I ain't doing this twice guys".

It was dark as sin. I thought to myself, "be sure to memorize it the first damn time." Gritting my teeth, I hustled truck and trailer up close to see the plate. He was all over the road and shoulder in front of me. Anything could fudging happen at this moment, all bad. I read that damn plate and hastily opened up the interval again. "Whew, that was spooky".. I reported the plate number to the various voices on the phone.

"Mile marker 15" I reported. 15mi and we're out of SC. We've been on the phone together now for 10 minutes. One guy is telling the trooper "catch up to them, catch up to them". The trooper reports, "Jesus, I'm going 120mph, I can't go faster". I could hear the racing engine in the background.

The chasing trooper reported each mile marker as he caught up. We also got to hear him yelling at the odd vehicle to "get out of my way, damnit".

It was like being on tv with "America's greatest police chases".

The SUV had a video playing in the back. Kids watching it?.

But rather then be entertained by the phone chatter of encouragements to the trooper to drive faster, I had to watch the swerving SUV really closely. I needed to stay close enough to discourage other cars from getting in between us, but at the same time, I needed enough separation to be able to stop if the guy went off. And I needed to watch him closely enough such that I'd be able to hit my brakes before he crashed, not when he crashed.

"Mile marker 13. WHOAA". I tightened down on the emotional content in my voice and added matter-of-factly "we almost lost him there". The guy swung back off of the shoulder, after almost going off the embankment into the woods below. "We're going to be out of SC pretty soon now guys, can we coordinate with GA highway patrol?", I said. "No way, we're going to get him" a determined voice replied.

"Mile marker 10", I reported. "Can you turn on your flashers on my command", the dispatch said. "Sure", I responded, carefully keeping my voice bored.

Each time a car would approach to pass the SUV, he'd abruptly swoop over into their lane. There were probably 20 near collisions in as many minutes.

"Mile marker 8", I reported.

"I'm almost there, I'm almost there. I think I see you. Hit your flashers, hit your flashers", was heard over the racing engine.

I gave my flashers button a poke.

"I see them I see them", heard among engine roars.

And the highway patrol zooms by me and jumps in between us.

"Hey way to go guys, good job on being able to react so fast. Good luck to y'all", and the concerned citizen drove the last 30min to home.

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