Monday, July 21, 2014

Our Time In Eden

Photo by the author.
So we've gone and done it, trading the concrete canyons and subways for gorges and rivers. We've left New York City and followed Wonderful One's academic/career ambitions two hundred and forty miles to the northwest to Ithaca, where we've been settling into the new reality of life in a small college town.

It's nice so far, if slightly slow and maybe not as culturally vibrant as I had hoped. The Commons is a construction zone. We've had lots of rain. I'm still recovering from the extraordinary stress of my first year of teaching (read: regular afternoon naps). Plus there's the usual sense of dislocation and need to set up some sense of security and comfort that comes with a new move, especially with moving in together for really the first time, especially given that neither of us are anything like 24-hour party people. But it's going mostly well. Lots of hiking, lots of walking around town, just getting a feel for this often deeply beautiful area.

I do miss some things about New York City. However, I have yet to miss the MTA. We have the Passat, which does its runabout duties with dignity and aplomb if slightly high fuel consumption. (Hills.) Wonderful One bought a bicycle, an inexpensive Raleigh which is perfect for the laid-back pace here. (Managing the 21 speeds and lack of coaster brake - she hasn't really been on a bike since a childhood on some simple Soviet-era creation - has required some practice.) I'll need something else soon as well. (Hills again. Just try getting a singlespeed up State Street.)

As far as the local vehicle scene goes, it basically fits your stereotypes of a typical Northeastern college town and then some: lots of Volvos, lots of Subarus, lots of hybrids, a spread of everything else. Not many sports cars, which is probably a reflection of both the harsh reality of winter here and some vestiges of an old Yankee modest-pragmatist mindset that still seems to exist locally. Despite having two of the most expensive colleges in America on its hills, this is in most ways a typical upstate New York town, maybe with a bit more hippie color.

It's also where I came into this world not quite forty-one years ago, which gives being here a certain charm for me.

But yeah, car culture is not a visible part of life here. Maybe a hobby thing tucked in a garage here and there, but rarely on display - something interesting or charmingly eccentric every two or three days, but this is neither a classic car mecca nor home to the kind of high rollers that ruled much of Manhattan. It's not that kind of place. Which is kind of a shame, because the roads are simply wonderful: classic two-lanes strewn through the hills like an unraveling dream. Even in the Passat they are an ongoing joy.

Watkins Glen is about twenty miles west of here. The SCCA regionals were run there the weekend after we arrived (really awful timing on my part), NASCAR weekend coming up, the vintage celebration is around Labor Day.

Have to see how the job situation works out as I pore over classifieds and assess the parking situation. Still hoping for something better suited for those back roads soon.

More to follow now that I have time for this all again, thankfully.


Other recent notes:

Sure, I go racing and I have an existential crisis. Raphael, Bard of Baja Bugs, goes racing and he wins in his class. Life just ain't fair, man. (Dude: High-five.)

See also Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg and Mercedes in general. Lewis has always been a bit of a drama queen, but really, how does Nico make it look so easy? Although having the season's crushingly dominant car definitely helps.

Peace be with James Garner, who went from a role in a flawed but still thrilling Hollywood epic to being a serious and involved gearhead and race-team leader in the twilight of the gentlemen-racer era. By all reports he lived well. We should all be so fortunate and civilized.
Via Autoweek.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rashomon is my co-driver

Lou with his future F1 star. Photo: Claudia Guerra

Note: Lou was originally going to add a comment to the original telling of our mutual tale of woe and frustrating handling detailing his perspective, but it grew until it deserved to be its own thing. As I'm settling into a new existence - details to follow - here's the take from the more competent side of the whole operation.

I've been a fan of all sorts of motorsports since I was quite young, probably not even in my teens. Being that I was born a poor boy from Brooklyn, the odds of actually doing it were slim to none. As I got older, the opportunity to drive go-karts for fun presented itself when a friend of mine from work told me that his boss owned a go kart track in Long Island and that he did an arrive and drive rental sort of thing. We had raced electric indoor go karts a couple of times before that. It was an invitation I could not refuse. Before then my racing experience had been limited to 30 or so laps in an SCCA Spec Racer Ford as part of a travelling racing type school - that and the Indycars at Action Park way back when.

The day we went to the track, there was some sort of event and they would only be able to let us on track for a few quick sessions in between heats and only in the concession karts. (Just how "concession" these karts were I would be made aware of later). I remember driving pretty much all day without much issue, being fairly competent and getting the measure of my friend who was a motorsports fan like me. Anyway, it was a blast and right before I left a gentleman came up to our group and asked if we might be interested in endurance karting.

Fast forward 15 years.....
I had been wanting to do an endurance karting event for so long after that day but, of course life got in the way. Well, life and laziness. My friend moved away and had kids and I didn't know of anyone else that might be interested. Until I got to know Patrick..

I texted my buddy in January and asked if he would be interested and thankfully he said yes. I was looking forward to the race but I really wasn't doing anything to prepare myself for the experience. I did a few laps in a single seater and a half day driving school in CTS-V at Monticello the year before so I figured I couldn't be that rusty. Mistake number one.

I went on a diet two weeks before the race. I figured the lighter I was the better. I haven't been able to work out since before my son was born so dieting was really the only way I could get down to a reasonable weight. I had gotten heaver and needed motivation. I figured the race would do the trick. This would turn out to be mistake number two.
Doing what research I could, I find a GoPro video that someone from Classic Car Club had posted to YouTube from the previous year's race. I watched it and the course layout seems pretty straight forward. Pretty easy actually. Believe it or not, this would be mistake number three. More on that in a bit.

OK, race day is here and I'm ready to go, I lost around what I wanted to weight wise and I was pumped. I dust off my gear, load up the family into the truck and meet Patrick at the track. 

Since the pit strategy was completely left up to us and there would be no refueling I figured I would let Patrick go first in practice since he has less experience than I had, then I would take over and qualify. I thought if my times were slower than his we could switch back out. I planned to take the race start.

They give us the pit stop procedure and we do a track walk which I listened to our guide's advise intently. Right as he's done, he mentions that it's possible to take the entire track flat out...Mistake number three. 

Practice is about to start, we agree on a pit sign and an acknowledge sign from whomever is driving. Patrick sets off and I patiently wait my turn. Since I wasn't driving, I watch but I don't really see what's happening on track. I could see that Patrick was having trouble in one of the corners but I don't really know what's going on at this point. I've completely lost track of time. Next thing I know, Patrick is in and it's time for me to get in....

First impression, holy cow this little thing is a rocket! It's seriously like a tiny muscle car. The little karts I had driven previously were nothing like this. I warm up a bit on the first out lap, second lap I'm pushing hard. Too hard as it would turn out. I try to take turn one flat out. Heavy understeer, the hell? Well that was unexpected. Maybe the tires are a bit cold. I take it easy through turn two, the mini corkscrew which leads to a tight little right hander at the bottom. Understeer there too. Three is a left hander that could be flat but my line was all screwed up because of the understeer I was fighting in the corner before. Flatfooted all the way around to the last corner before the front straight. Track is so bumpy that my left foot is actually coming off the brake when hitting on particular nasty bump. This happens to me pretty much every lap till race's end. That last corner I can take flat no problem. By the third or fourth lap, my arms are starting to tire out and I'm sucking wind big time. This is no good, I've only been out a few laps. The last corner in particular seems to be a neck stretcher. I manage to set a decent time but I'm seriously winded. Seems that going on a diet that tends to make you physically weaker right before a race, is a very bad idea.

I was so worn out from qualy that I can't take the race start. I tell Patrick he's starting the race.
I watch the start and try to figure out what I'm doing wrong and maybe share the info with Patrick. We also devise another pit signal. Driver raises his hand when he's coming in the next lap. These things are taking a lot out of me. More than I ever experienced before. 

A couple of things are bugging me:

The guy on the track walk said it's possible to take the whole track flat out, why the hell can't I seem to?? Anytime I try the kart doesn't hold it's line and wants to understeer on corner exit.

I realize the track video I saw was filmed with a camera that was doing a remarkable job of flattening everything out. Corners didn't seem as tight as they actually are and the corkscrew's elevation change didn't seem to exist. Watching the video messed me up because it made me think I knew what I had to do to go fast instead of building speed on my own. Basically, I punched myself out. I pushed too hard and ended up fighting the kart instead of conserving energy.Anyway no matter, I'll do better next stint. One of the staff asks me what it's like out there. I said I can't get my body to do what my brain is telling it to or something to that effect.

I start talking to one of the other drivers. I tell him I'm having a bit of trouble at the corkscrew. He tells me people do that corner all sorts of ways. What works for him is to lift and coast down then brake hard and pitch the kart into the corner at the bottom. Gotta try that.

Wait, did we just get the meatball flag? I go over with my helmet on just in case but my teammate heads back out and stays out for a while while I regain my composure.

I signal for Patrick to come in. It's my turn again. I'm tired but still enthusiastic. Driver change complete and I take off. I promptly lose control of the kart at pit exit which leads to the corkscrew. It was a slide that I half caught. Embarrassing but nevermind, I'm pointed straight. I'm still trying stubbornly to take turn one flat out. There is simply no way. I give up and stomp on the brakes hard before turning in. That did the trick, gotta try to tell Patrick when we switch out again.

 I'm getting a bit more comfortable, let's try something out at the corkscrew. If coasting down, braking at the bottom and pitching into the corner is working maybe I can stay flat at the start of the downhill corner, get to about halfway down the corkscrew then brake less hard and apex early into the corner at the bottom. So I try it the next lap. 

I get to my braking point stomped the brakes and whoooaaa!!!! It was like hitting the banana peel in Mario Kart. I honestly don't know how many times I spun but it was at least a 360. I'm pointed the right way more or less so I keep going. Probably didn't even lose much time, it all happened so fast. Won't be trying that shit again. As I circulate my body and my mind have totally disconnected and not in a good way. I'm getting so weary that I'm not able to think straight. I'm grunting going into corners and my hands are very sore to the point that I'm letting go of the wheel when I can. Time to come back in and hand over to Patrick. 

I get out and try to tell Patrick about braking into one. He doesn't hear me and I give up on trying to exchange information. A third driver might not have been a bad idea. Also, I blew the pit in stopping point. Heat of battle, I suppose. Truth is, I just plain forgot. Brain and body aren't on speaking terms right now. I check the times and walk over to our chair.

I try to rest up for the next stint. I had already given up on racing anyone. It was simply survival. In the words of Ayrton Senna "Once you are in it, you're in it". Well we were knee deep in it. I'm watching Patrick circulate and at some point I can see him slowing down. " Driving tired" I called it. Crap he's coming back in!

I get my helmet on as quick as I take over the kart. There's not much time left so I figure we'll stop as many times as we have to. I head out and stay out of everyone's way as best as I can. I'm my rush to get my helmet on, I didn't get it down low enough on my head so my view isn't ideal. Awesome.

The stint was uneventful actually but at time time it felt like I was playing in the Superbowl as the ball I was getting so beat up. I request a stop and come back in and switch after a handful of laps. Jeez I've had it. My fitness level is between a joke and just plain sad. Less than half an hour to go. I know I can't leave him in that long. I gather as much strength as I can muster. I need to get back into the gym badly. That and give up cigarettes completely. 

Last pit stop, I call my buddy in and take over for the last 10 minutes or so. At this point, I just relax, don't push as hard and try to drive on autopilot. I turn our fastest race lap in the process. Son of a ....

Race is over. Cool down lap, high fives to the corner workers. I'm sure they enjoyed the entertainment our shenanigans provided them. We stay to collect our medal for third in class and take our well deserved, good natured ridicule. Glad I'm out of the kart and not dead. I now completely understand this picture...
Not us, thankfully, even though it felt like that. (Nigel Mansell on a rough day in Dallas in 1984.)
It takes me a few days but I'm finally able to decipher was i was doing wrong and what areas I need to improve. I'm not even all that concerned with winning. I just want to improve. Truth be told, I'm pissed. I knew what to do but I didn't execute. I want another shot at it. Till next year...