Suddenly WTF and fence

Update: My friend Ray summarized this incident in an email way better than I had. So I changed the title of this post to reflect it.
Some things just seem better expressed in German. Both my parents speak some German, and I grew up hearing a smattering of German phrases around the house. “Greif zu” when meals started, and “gute nacht” while being tucked into bed.
Anyway, a variety of unsavory German words seem most apt to describe my first trip down to VIR for the BMWCCA club race. Work had kept me pretty busy the week before the race; in my rush to depart, I left behind one of the large plastic bins that is usually a standard part of my track gear. Unfortunately, that bin contained some of the most basic tools and equipment I needed: my torque wrench, the deep-drive socket I need to torque my wheels and change my tires, extra motor oil, and the metal rod that holds my window net up to the cage. Chalk that one up to my own disorganization.
Fortunately, most of the things I forgot could be bought/borrowed locally; and thanks to a quick phone call back to the benevolent souls at VSR, a window net rod was dispatched overnight to the track.
Friday morning, Fred Ferguson kindly let me follow him around the track for the first few sessions to help me learn the line. What a track. VIR is a fantastic combination of fast sweepers, long straights, elevation changes and some tricky combinations that help distinguish the good drivers from the mediocre. My lap times dropped steadily during the day, and by the first race I started to post some semi-respectable times: 2:20 range, good for a 3rd place out of 5 in class (JS) and about 2.5 seconds off the fastest cars. I had a fun, clean battle with Charles Benoit in a slightly torquier 2.5l E30 M3, running in IS.
Saturday presented us with a wet, rainy track during the morning, and a fun time learning the track in the rain. In the 1pm race, I had my best start ever at a club race. I took the openings that presented themselves, and by the straight between the lower and upper esses, I had passed 5-6 cars.
Unfortunately, that straight is also where my weekend ended. I got a bit of a run on the car in front of me (Mike Gilbert in his beautiful new Spec E36), and gradually moved over to the left to take a look to the inside. I wasn’t able to pass — Mike’s car has a much better power-to-weight ratio than mine — but a little more than halfway down the straight, after had come all the way across the track, another driver hit me in the left rear about 8 inches in front of the rear bumper.
The impact had roughly the same effect as those pit maneuvers you see police do on the crazy car chase shows, and instantly sent me left, head first into the wall. I caromed backwards across the track, finally coming to a rest on the right side of the track (Video of the incident). I watched the rest of the race from the other side of the fence.

Given that I crashed, I consider myself extremely lucky for two reasons: the impact with the other car happened close enough to the edge of the track that my momentum was still mostly going forward when I hit the wall. Also, the next group of cars was about 200 yards behind me, giving them more than adequate time to react without collecting me as I came back across the track. No one was hurt at all, and I didn’t have so much as a sore neck.
After a brief attempt to get my car ready for the enduro, I packed to leave, and headed home early the next morning. Big thank yous to Mike Gilbert and Fred Ferguson for the tools and words of wisdom; Phil Sanssossio and Dan Fitzgerald for trying to help get my car ready for the enduro; and to David Hill for providing me the video of my incident.

Sebring 12 hour – 2007

Sebring 12 hour – 2007, originally uploaded by g93dotnet.

I went to Sebring last weekend for the 12 hour with a group of friends. I thought the people watching the race were just as fascinating as the race itself. More photos on my flickr page.


My 30 minute ride to the Seattle-Tacoma airport yesterday afternoon was relaxing and entirely uneventful. I checked my email on my phone (thanks, Google!) and took a 10-minute phone call from the marketing director at a non-profit I’ve been helping out.
At the end of the ride, as the driver handed me my luggage, I asked him: “Did you ever race cars?”
Stunned, he said in his heavily accented English, “many times. How did you know?” He had reason to be surprised; he hadn’t exceeded 65 mph the whole trip, and had taken every offramp at a leisurely pace appropriate for the Lincoln Town Car he was driving.
But his smooth inputs, acute awareness of the traffic around him, and the way he barely touched the inside tire to the painted line at the apex of every offramp, squeezed on the accelerator and unwound the steering wheel all gave him away. If only every Boston cabbie would do the same. He got a good tip.

Citroen DS Robot

citroen robot
My friend Dan is in Paris, posting some amazing photos of the construction and final assembly of the Totemobile, an anamorphic robot based on a 1969 Citroen DS and just unveiled at this year’s Paris Auto Show.
citroen robot
It takes its idea from the series of animated Citroen commercials featuring robots based on the present-day Citroen C4 (see here and here), but uses Citroen’s iconic DS as its base. The design and engineering is by the Anamorphic Robot Works studio in New York.

Race Report: NASA Northeast at Lime Rock, 8/4-5

After the frustration of my first BMWCCA club race at Lime Rock, I returned to northwest Connecticut a month later for a two-day race there with NASA Northeast. When I arrived at the track, the huge trucks and enclosed trailers made it immediately apparent that this was no ordinary NASA event; we were sharing the weekend with the VSCCA, a well-known vintage racing series — see the end of this post for some photos of my favorites.
After the first practice session on Friday morning, race officials waved me over and informed me that my car had been measured at 95db, six decibels above Lime Rock’s sound limit for amateur events. I had a hard time believing it; my car has an original equipment muffler, but with no extra sound baffling equipment and with only a twenty minute break until qualifying, I had few options. I decided not to change anything, but to go out at half throttle, put down a time so I could race that afternoon. The result: a 1:08, a full six seconds off my best, and good for about 25th out of 30 on the starting grid.
Though I was slightly disappointed, it was the best thing that could have happened. During the race, I worked my way through a field of 944s, AC Cobra replicas, Sentras and Miatas from my starting position of 25th to 12th, and had a ton of fun in the process. About two thirds of the way through the race, I outbraked my main competition in GTS2 going into Big Bend, leading my class until I went off three laps later in the same corner trying to outbrake a Mustang Cobra. Ultimately, I finished 3rd in class and 16th overall.
I have this race on video, but to conserve bandwidth, I’m not going to link to it directly here. Email me if you’d like a copy.
Compared to the previous day, Saturday’s race was uneventful. With the worries about sound limits behind me, I qualified first in class, only to see my main competitor, an experienced driver with an ITS-prepped E30 325i passed me on the start. I couldn’t get by him, but he spun several laps before the finish, handing me the class win just as I had done for him the day before.
After packing up, I walked around to check out some of the vintage cars:
Two Allards:
A very pretty Lotus 7:
Astons are known to be rather heavy and poor-handling, but it’s hard to argue against this DB4 in the flesh:
A nice Porsche 356:
This Lotus 11 was so lithe, low and shimmery it was almost hard to believe it was actually there:
I’m a sucker for a pretty Lotus:

Happy Shops

My old radiator
When my radiator expired during my first race at Watkins Glen last month, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fix it in time for the next day’s race. I was six hours from home, without a spare radiator, and had no idea how to even replace one. Just before 5pm, I called the one garage in the area I knew — Eksten Autoworks in Rochester, about 80 miles from the track. They happened to have a used radiator in stock, so I strapped the M3 on the trailer and headed north.
I arrived just before dusk and found the mechanics having pizza in the front office. In the garage, an early Porsche 911 was waiting for a new motor, sharing the garage with an M3 like mine, a Toyota MR2 racecar and another nice old 3-series BMW that had obviously seen the track. A good sign.
Fortunately, all the mechanics were already staying late to prep cars for a track event that weekend at Watkins Glen. They didn’t have time to work on my car, but were more than happy to show me where to begin, and gave me the use of the parking lot outside their shop to do most of the work.
Eksten Automotive, 9:30pm
Inevitably, I took a fair amount of their time with my stupid questions, and before starting the car up, they helped figure out an issue with the fan shroud and checked my work over to make sure everything was in the right place. By 9:30pm, my car sported a new used radiator, ready for the next day’s race.
I had made Eksten’s late night even later; but the entire time I was there, everyone there was a real pleasure to be around. It’s easy to find people who want to make money off cars; it’s much more difficult to find people who love doing the work. From everything I saw, Eksten is one of those places.

First Race

Two old saws about racing:
“If you don’t absolutely have to go racing…. don’t.”
“The way to make a small fortune in auto racing? Start first with a large one.”
More pragmatic souls would be deterred by the above, but after several years driving and instructing at high-performance driving schools in the northeast, I was ready to jump back on a steeper learning curve. So last weekend, I trucked my M3 out to upstate New York for my first wheel to wheel race last week with NASA Northeast at Watkins Glen.
With a small field of 24 cars, and run on a track I know well, I had hoped that this event would be a good, lower-intensity way to ease into wheel-to-wheel racing. There was a very broad mix of cars and laptimes — everything from Ron Savenor’s Porsche 911 cup car to older Hondas and Neons more than 20 seconds/lap slower. Fortunately, I had a good variety of similar cars to play with, including a doppelganger in an identically-prepped E30 M3, and a smattering of Porsche 944s in various states of tune.
I had come out to the Glen with relatively low expectations. As far as I was concerned, the event would be a success if 1) I didn’t crash, and 2) I didn’t cause anyone else to crash.
On Monday’s race I qualified 7th, first in my class (GTS2). I held my place on the start, and stuck right to the rear bumper of the 944S2 that had qualified just ahead of me, with the other E30 M3 just behind. After hounding the 944 driver for a 2-3 laps, looking for an opening, I finally passed him going into the heel of the boot.
I pretty quickly put a couple hundred yards between us before I noticed my coolant temperatures were abnormally high. Despite turning the heater on and slowing a bit, the problem persisted, so I pitted after about 6 laps. As soon as I shut the car off, the radiator burst, dumping all the car’s coolant onto the tarmac.
After a quick evening trip up to Rochester in search of a new used radiator (big thanks to Eksten Automotive), I was ready for the next day’s race. I again qualified seventh, this time behind the other M3 driver, who had improved his laptimes by two seconds over the previous day, and opposite the driver of the 944S2 I had passed in the previous race.
This start didn’t go as well; the 944 beside me at the start out-accelerated me into Turn 1, and I lost a couple more places in short order during the first lap. I wound up in a fun dice with a Porsche 924S with less power, significantly less weight and stickier tires (245-series Hoosiers, compared to my 225-series Toyos). I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a duel where I was clearly so much slower in the corners than another car, but lap after lap I’d make it all up through the esses and the back straight. After a couple laps where it was clear I was holding him up in certain parts of the track, I lifted to let him by — after all, I had come to get the experience, not to win. That turned out to be exactly the right decision; once we both became comfortable that one of us wasn’t going to run the other off the track, we wound up having a pretty good battle, going side by side through the outer loop, and up through the toe.
Unfortunately, our battle ended prematurely on the second to last lap when the Porsche driver hung the tail out while trying a risky pass in the outer loop. I watched in my rearview mirror as he caught the initial slide, but failed to catch the rebound the other way, swung around and hit the wall pretty hard facing backwards.
So now the real learning begins. I have some work to do on my driving; I think in the heat of the moment I was more aggressive with my lines than I should have been, making my overall laptimes a fair bit slower than I’d like. That will come with practice. The first real test will come next month at the club race at Lime Rock, where I’ll be competing with at least 10 other ostensibly identical cars for first place in J-stock. Stay tuned.

I’ve joined the dark side

For years, I promised myself I would never become one of those truck people. Yet for a variety of reasons, I now find myself in possession of a gargantuan Ford Expedition. It’s fitted out with a 5.4 liter V8 — an engine capacity greater than both my BMWs and my motorcycle combined. I can lie down flat on my back behind the front seats without bending my legs. It’s so tall that as you climb in, you quickly realize that if you don’t step on the running boards, you’re not going to make it into the driver’s seat. All of this just to tow a little BMW around every now and then. Sigh. Nothing exceeds, they say, like excess.
Why tow my car to the track? Well — part of it has to do with safety. Earlier this year, I bought a new (used) M3, tricked out with race seats and a full rollcage. Though this setup is considerably safer on a racetrack, it does require that the driver wear a helmet at all times while driving it. Rollcages have the counterintuitive effect of rendering a car more dangerous for a helmetless driver; there’s enough exposed metal near the head to help even a minor collision turn lethal. The idea of driving 400 miles strapped into competition harnesses and wearing a helmet didn’t hold great appeal.
Reliability is another. There’s only so many times one can drive finicky 18 year-old car for 400 miles, flog it for two days on a racetrack, and expect it to make the trip home without some significant breakdown. I did this for three years with my old M3, but I figured my luck would run out at some point. Finally, there’s always the risk of the unmentionable, as my friend Will found out last summer.
Hence, a trailer and tow vehicle. I don’t plan on using the Expedition for anything other than towing; it’s too big, inefficient and unwieldy to be much use around Cambridge… so for the forseeable future, the 325is will still be in the picture.
The further you slide down the slippery slope, the steeper it seems to get.

Rite of Spring

Though it certainly lacks the artistry and profundity of a Stravinsky ballet, one of the very joyous signs marking the true arrival of spring for car geeks is the day you decide to exchange the squirmy, mushy winter tires in favor of a set of proper summer wheels.

It’s subtle, of course. But it really does transform the stance of the car. Car designers didn’t really discover the way wheels and tires could be used as design elements until the late sixties and early seventies. Some of this change was functional, of course; big advances in tire technology made much wider tires possible on production cars, and manufacturers modified their cars to suit. Just compare the spindly stance of this 1965 Porsche 911 with the more menacing, planted look of the 1973 911 Carrera RS, made just 8 years later: