Watkins Glen

Just returned from four (count ’em) days at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. The first two days, I instructed with the Connecticut Valley chapter of the Porsche club; days three and four, I ran time trials with the COM sports car club.
If you’ve never been there, Watkins Glen is one of the legendary road courses in the United States. For years, this was the location of the United States Grand Prix, the Formula 1 circus’s annual stop in this country. The track also has the distinction of being one of two places to take the cars of the NASCAR series out of their normal habitat of banked ovals, and forces them to turn right as well as left.
Few tracks feel as fundamentally correct as Watkins Glen. The track is a fast, flowing combination of high horsepower straights, blind downhill sweepers through the woods, and the famous fast uphill esses. In my car, the esses are taken flat out, accelerating from 90 to 115 mph, conserving as much precious momentum as possible. A track map:
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Both events were well-run and lots of fun, distinguished more by the sheer quantity of Fikse wheels than anything else. I don’t think I saw one car towed in with body damage all four days. Or in the case of COM… *new* body damage. COM members tend to bring lots of interesting and diverse machinery, and this event was no exception — everything from an original Corvette Challenge car, a late-eighties Dodge Daytona, a beautiful Ford GT40 replica, an Ultima GTR, in addition to the usual bevy of Miatas and Imprezas.
Neither event provided me with anyone to play with consistently. With COM, my car was classed with the lower horsepower cars, an obstacle course of Miatas, Sentras and Minis. So I spent my time working on the parts of the course that have frustrated me — mostly turn 11 and the entry into 1. They’re both critical corners for a fast lap time, as they lead onto the fastest parts of the track. After the time trial, I experimented with staying in fourth gear for turn 1, which seemed to result in a slightly higher exit speed. More to learn.
My M3 ran great. Temperatures were in the mid nineties with high humidity, but the car ran very cool thanks to a new radiator from VSR. Only puzzling thing was a humming/harmonic sound coming from the rear brakes when cold. Fred Ferguson thought it sounded like a whale. It always went away after a few laps, so I didn’t really worry about it. Maybe I should?
The brake ducts I installed at the beginning of the season are proving their worth. They didn’t change braking performance in a noticeable way, but did drastically lower the wear rate of the front brake pads. I started with well under half of my front pads left, and changed them only for the last three time trial laps on the afternoon of the fourth day — even then, only because a missing brake caliper clip caused one side to wear unevenly.
Side note about the ducts: I typically tape them over for the highway drive home to prevent rocks, bugs or debris from getting sucked in straight to the brake rotor. This time, I forgot to do it until just over halfway home, and was surprised that the car seemed to be a bit more stable and faster at highway speeds with the ducts taped. Placebo effect? Possibly. But the brake ducts do act as a parachute, and in cases where you don’t need to optimize for brake cooling over a 40-minute session, it might be worth taping them over to see if a higher top-speed is possible on some of the straights.
In the end, I ran a 2:22.4 in the time trial — a little bit off my hand-timed (i.e. error-prone) best of the morning, but good enough for second out of six in class (ST2). My time also would have won the next higher class, ST1. Still four seconds behind the class leader, another E30 M3 with a better driver, less weight, Hoosiers and a fresh motor. I think there’s probably a couple seconds to gain somewhere with my car the way it is. Next time.
Notes for future reference:
– Free wifi hotspots in Watkins Glen: The Seneca Clipper motel, outside at the Harbor Park, Seneca Lodge and at the entrance to the State Park.
– First time at the bar at the Seneca Lodge. GREAT place.
– Wal-mart mounted and balanced my RA-1s for $11/wheel. The guy who worked on my tires had flagged SCCA events. Nice people.

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