Long summer evenings

The long summer evenings in the Northwest afford some fun and unusual driving opportunities for car geeks, such as theĀ Northwest Alfa Club‘s evening sessions at Pacific Raceways.

The track goes live at around 6pm, and continues through the fading light until the scarcely-visible checkered flag just past 9:30.

The Alfa club also tends to attract some fun and unusual machinery that doesn’t have a good home elsewhere. Some highlights:
Alfa GT Junior (and then some)

R-Gruppe goodness

Original Escort

Oregon Raceway Park

New road courses are few and far between, so it’s always pretty exciting when land, capital and bulldozers come together to make a new one. Sometimes, they’re expensive, professional efforts involving famous names like Alan Wilson, resulting in a nicely flowing layout polished free of surface imperfections, with ample runoff room. Other times, they’re idiosyncratic creations of gearheads with pavers — nonprofessionals just paving a circuit along the existing contours of the land,
Oregon Raceway Park, in Grass Valley, Oregon belongs to the latter category. It’s in good company; both Lime Rock and the Shenandoah circuit at Summit Point were the product of track-crazy guys on a mission. And typical of the category, it’s a fun, busy track rife with built-in imperfections and great corners created by accident. What follows is some video, and my thoughts, turn by turn. Let me know what you think!
Track Map

My Video

(Unfortunately, I took video on only one session, and didn’t position the camera very well; see YouTube for more videos)
Corner By Corner
The pit straight ends at Turn 1, a fast, banked corner slightly greater than 90 degrees. The track drops abruptly as you approach the corner, reducing the available grip under braking and hiding the turn in point until you’ve already begun slowing the car.

Braking for Turn 1

Turn 1
Fortunately, the corner’s camber makes heavy braking unnecessary in many cars, and serves mainly to slow you down slightly before the uphill braking zone for the the acute Turn 2.

Braking for Turn 2

Turn 2, with Mount Rainier in the distance
A classic, late-apex approach pays dividends, as Turn 2 exits onto the second longest straight of the track. As with many parts of ORP, drivers have to wait until they’ve covered two thirds of the straight before gaining sight of the next corner, a downhill 90 degree left hander with a large, broken down barn to driver’s right on exit.

West Straightaway

Approaching Turn 3
A modest amount of acceleration is possible before entering Turn 4, or from the official ORP literature, “The Pucker Factor.” If there’s puckering to be done, it’s more out of frustration than fear. An off-camber, decreasing radius corner, Turn 4 will resist the best intentions of carrying speed until drivers learn to be patient, wait to see the exit and apply the throttle. It never feels dangerous, merely wrong and awkward.

Turn 4

Exiting Turn 4
Once getting on the throttle out of turn 4, though, maintenance of speed is critical, as it leads through a fast Turn 5 onto a very long uphill straight. After apexing turn 5, the track dives away toward track out, only to start climbing slightly before cars reach the edge of the track itself. As drivers become comfortable with the elevation changes, a very fast, early and aggressive line is possible here. Timing is critical; after the car crests the small hill, the car becomes unweighted and slides laterally toward track out, only to be caught ever so slightly by the beginning of the climb uphill at track out.

Contours of Turn 5
At the crest of the hill, the track heads to the right. Drivers should take a wide approach, treating the crest of the hill as an apex, then line the car up on the right for the approach to the North Bowl.

Heading up the hill

Approach to the North Bowl
Taken at speed, the approach to the north bowl is one of the more technical combinations at ORP. Beginning with a fast left-hand sweeper, the track dives down and then back up to the right for a tight, blind, late-apex right-hander into the Half Pipe. It’s possible to carry a deceptive amount of speed through the left-hander and down the hill, then using the uphill section to get hard on the brakes and get the car buttoned up for the right-hander that follows. The contours of the track mean that this uphill braking zone is also slightly curved.

After the fast left-hander, heading downhill into the North Bowl

Right-hander leading into the Half-Pipe
After the North Bowl, a very short straight leads to the steeply-banked Half Pipe. Though this sequence photographs very well and was probably intended to be a signature of the track, most drivers will shoot straight through here, scarcely using the extravagant banking. A quick tap of the brakes helps set the nose for turn-in, after which point most cars can add throttle throughout the turn. I found success taking an earlier apex than the cone in these photos suggests. Curbing will ultimately be required here, as drivers will be tempted to make this as much of a straight as possible.

Half Pipe, part I

Half Pipe, part II

Half Pipe banking
Exiting the Half Pipe, the banking (and available grip) ends fairly abruptly, making off-track excursions to the left a real possibility.

Exiting the Half Pipe
A very short straight then leads to Turn 11, an uphill right-hander. The track out point is invisible from turn in. A slight hump at the apex slightly unsettles stiffly-sprung cars. After a short uphill straight, then a downhill braking zone for the acute, late-apex entry to Big Dipper.

Heading Toward Big Dipper

Big Dipper Braking Zone

Big Dipper
After the Big Dipper, Turn 13 is a blind, increasing radius uphill corner. Once familiar with the track exit, this is a deceptively fast and important corner, as it leads onto the uphill climb back toward the paddock and the main straight.

Turn 13
After climbing and curving around to the right, Continental Corner curls around the pit wall and onto the main straight. Once again, track out is hidden from view by both the hill and the pit wall itself.

Leaving the track

Race Report: BMWCCA Club Race At Lime Rock

Where I live, there are very few fans of auto racing. I am surrounded by writers, doctors, architects and scientists and an horde of earth-toned Subarus with scuffed bumpers. Most of my friends don’t own cars, and the few that do tend to consider them necessary evils. Understandably, a number of them have a hard time understanding why I disappear every now and then with my old BMW in tow, only to return several days later, exhausted, with several hundred dollars of gas station charges on my credit card and having done nothing more, as my girlfriend puts it, than “drive in circles.”
So I attempt to explain. Aside from a lifelong fascination with cars that even I don’t fully understand, my best answer is usually the sheer, all-encompassing intensity of the experience. Racing is an activity that demands your complete attention.
Truth be told, there really aren’t any very good logical explanations because on a purely logical basis, racing is an exceptionally dumb sport. It’s expensive, dangerous and bad for the environment. But it is fun like few other things, and doing it well requires tremendous skill, experience and mental toughness to absorb the intensity and use it to your advantage.
In the grand hierarchy of races, though, few will be more intense than a competitive race at Lime Rock Park. Some call it a “dizzying little fishbowl;” only a mile and a half per lap, with average speeds, depending on the car, of around 85mph. There’s really only one place on the track where one has to slow significantly; in every other corner, you’re trying to keep the momentum up at all costs. In a competitive race, it’s hard to find places to pass other cars.
Monday morning’s practice didn’t go very well; some last minute brake work caused one of the calipers to grab early under hard braking, which made the whole car jump about 2 yards to the left on the entry to Big Bend. I came in early and spent much of the morning readjusting the brake pedal and taking apart the left front caliper in an effort to root out the problem. By qualifying, my efforts made enough of a difference to help me to my best-ever time at Lime Rock — a 1:02.7, good for 5th out of 11 in my class and 8th overall out of about 25.
I started the race on the outside, in 7th place. On the start, I stayed right on the tail of the car in front of me, but lost a few places places as a car in front of me slowed and swerved to avoid an especially late braker coming across from the inside, leaving a big gap for other cars to pass on the inside. After the first lap chaos sorted itself out, I found myself behind Scott Casagrande, who was in his first race with his new M3. I hassled him for a few laps — at one point, he put two wheels solidly off in the downhill — but wasn’t able to get by. My tires started to get greasy, and he pulled away a bit, only to be pushed off the track late in the race while passing a backmarker. Thanks to Scott’s minor incident and another racer who lots his motor late in the race, I finished 7th overall, and 4th in my class.
Tuesday’s race was frustrating. I started again on the outside, and lost several places on the start to people coming up the inside. After the opening lap melee, I wound up behind a driver in a more powerful car in J-prepared, but couldn’t get by despite numerous attempts over 15 laps. More than once, other drivers in my class were able to use our battle to get by both of us at once. I finally got by him two laps before the finish. Lesson two: I have a lot to learn about racecraft.
In the end, a successful event: I didn’t crash, I didn’t hit anyone, my lap times were in the hunt, and I didn’t embarrass myself. Had a little fun, too. I have much to learn.

New Car – E30 M3 J-Stock

Last fall, I posted about two issues I was having with my current track car: the lack of headroom, and the fact that it didn’t have the safety gear required to go racing with either the BMWCCA or with NASA. So over the winter, I went shopping for a full-on race car.
Ask anyone who has ever built a racecar on anything less than an unlimited budget, and they’ll always tell you not to do it — to buy one that’s already done instead. I looked at a number of cars over the winter. One car I looked at was beautiful, but of questionable legality; another had a fairly fresh motor, but looked like it had been flogged at the Targa Newfoundland for three years running (in fact, it had); and another was very nicely prepped, but had an older, 100k motor. Just when I was contemplating actually building my car, another car popped up that could be best described as half-done; fresh motor and the suspension I wanted, but a crappy bolt-in rollcage and stock seats left a fair amount to be completed.
So I went for it. At the end of the day, that turned out to be a good thing, giving me the chance to have the cage designed with my abnormally long torso in mind, and to buy a nice new set of seats and harnesses for a proper fit.
So new Cobra Suzuka S seats and Schroth harnesses came from HMS Motorsport, and Mario Langsten at Vintage Sports and Racing set about building a new cage. I helped out with some of the grunt work where I could, including a fun day sanding and prepping the cage for painting:

Everything finally came together last Friday, when a new windshield went in and the maintenance work was completed. Friday night, after promising Mario to keep the newish motor under 6800rpm it was off to Lime Rock to try it out at what must be the first day of the year there — a Porsche club driving school.
I’m happy to say it was absolutely worth the trouble. First, driving without constantly cramming my head against the roof was a revelation, and my shoulder muscles will be enternally grateful. But beyond that, the new car is a significantly more precise tool than the old, thanks to the stiffness of the suspension and the welded cage.

At Lime Rock, the difference showed up mostly in faster corners like west bend; the faster reaction makes it much easier to get the turn in point exactly right, and the neutrality of of the suspension set up makes it much easier to get into the apex. In the downhill, it’s definitely a less comfy ride; the car wrenches the steering wheel around a bit in your hands through the bumps just off the apex, but it’s manageable.
No lap times yet; I didn’t want to give myself any unnecessary temptation on the my first day with the car, with a constrained rev limit at that. Overall, though, it’s a fantastic change, and I’m really excited to see what this year will hold.

Thanks to Adam Reitano for the photos, and Mario and Byron at Vintage Sports & Racing for the excellent work on the car.

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:
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.

Lime Rock

One of the fun things about the New Jersey BMWCCA June event at Lime Rock is the club race that runs concurrently with the drivers school.
This year, some pretty evil weather hit right as one of the races was due to begin. The race was postponed until the next day, but the clouds provided a nice backdrop for some beautiful race cars.

My car at the track:

Simon Hunter posted video of the Group B race. It’s a big download, but there’s some great racing, and it’s a good way to get a sense of the track.