The Aces Page returns!

Long ago, I had this really long page that drew parallels between World War II fighter planes and 24 Hours of Lemons cars. Lots of the links to images became broken over time, so I removed the page. But I’ve now replaced all the images with local files instead of links, so this won’t happen in the future. I’ve also updated the plane:car pairings and added some new text. Here’s the Aces link, which you can also find in the site menu.

Post-race analysis: drivers

Let’s take a look at some of the telemetry traces of the Triple Apex Racing drivers from the last race.

Danny vs. Danny

The first thing I want to discuss is Danny. I’m usually a couple seconds faster than Danny. I was on Saturday. Then we switched tires on Sunday and everyone went faster. But was it really the tires? In the speed trace below, Saturday is black and Sunday is red. I’ve displayed the top 3 laps each day. Saturday he was doing 3:39-3:40 while Sunday it was 3:36s. What I see here is that he’s driving differently. On Sunday (red) he started backing up the corners. He gets his braking done earlier and gets on gas earlier. Most of the time, his minimum corner speed is higher despite the change. The fresh tires may have contributed a little to his higher speed, but I think it’s mostly because he’s getting better at driving a low powered FWD car with an open diff. His usual car is 911 GT3, so yeah, it’s a little different!

 

Danny vs. Ian

Due to yellow flags, I didn’t get many fast laps. I did a 3:38 and 3:37 back to back. You can see these starting at the 10:00 mark in my video from the last post. In my 3:38 lap, I lose 1 second passing an E36 in T2 when it changes line mid-corner. Then I pass the yellow Miata in T5, messing up my T6 entry, causing another loss of a second on the run up to 9C. The 3:38 could easily have been a 3:36. On the 3:37 lap, I lose a little time making a pass in T2 and then 1 whole second in T3W while I wait for a fast E36 to get around me. So that too could have been a 3:36. Had I gotten a bunch of clean laps, I’m pretty sure I would have been doing a bunch of 3:36s. Could I have broken into the 3:35s? I don’t know. For the most part, Danny and I drive pretty similarly. Below, the red lines are Danny’s fast laps (as above). The black is my 3:37 and the blue is 3:38. This is a speed trace from 7W to the SF line. We have a slightly different way of doing 1W, but the rest is similar enough that you might think it was the same driver.

Randy vs. Danny

So I’m sure everyone wants to know how fast Randy was (green lines below). Faster than Danny (red lines). Where is he faster? You might expect it’s the fast corners, but it’s the slow ones. He gains nearly 1.5 seconds in T9C alone! And he was only 1.8 seconds faster than Danny. T9C is on the far left of the graph. But he’s also faster in T7W and T11. How? Mostly by running over curbs. As the car owner/builder, I don’t really approve of that.

Learning a new track: episode 1: Pacific Raceways

One of my favorite things to do in sim racing is preparing for a track I’ve never seen before. Not only is it fun to experience new challenges, but it also increases your corner vocabulary, which helps you get better at every track. Here’s how the process generally works.

  • Pick a track, usually one where I imagine I might drive one day
  • Drive the track blind, without any preparation
  • Do some online research: read track guides, watch videos
  • Drive more, working on specific goals inspired by the online research
  • Do some mental imagery, focusing on reference points
  • Drive more, trying to lap as fast as possible

I don’t always record telemetry in these sessions, but I thought it would be fun to do a post where I show how much I improve by learning the track over the course of a couple sessions on a lazy weekend.

When learning a new track, I usually drive a Miata or Formula trainer (e.g. FF, FV, Skip Barber). I’ve actually never driven a Formula car of any kind, but I think Formula trainers are great for exploring a track because they have unrivaled visibility, enough power to get into trouble, no nannies, and no downforce. It’s the purest form of driving. Maybe I should get one in real life. I do look longingly at Thunder Roadsters…

Session 1: Jumping in Blind

OK, time to choose a track: Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington. Why? It’s on my Pacific North bucket list along with ORP and The Ridge. Lucky Dog has been hosting races there, so there’s a good chance I could race it in the upcoming year. I don’t know the track at all, except that I’ve seen some video clips of really awful wrecks there. I heard that they changed it a little to make it more safe, but I doubt the version I have in Assetto Corsa is that up-to-date.

The car: Russell Alexis Mk.14 Formula Ford. Like many cars in Assetto Corsa, you can download this free from Race Department. There’s also a link to send the author (Nicholas Murdoch) money via PayPal. I sent him $10. It’s as good a model as you’re likely to find in any game, and I really appreciate the author’s efforts. Certainly I will get at least $10 of enjoyment out of it, and $10 is tiny compared to real car stuff.

Driving without any preparation is somewhat suicidal. But in a good way. You very quickly figure out which corners will catch you unawares. Here’s a rundown of my lap times: 2:24, 1:57, 1:47, 1:51, 1:45, CRASH, 1:47, 1:43, 1:43, 1:42, 1:42, 1:40. There isn’t much point in reporting tenths at this point. I ran off track a few times early on, which accounts for some absurdly long lap times, and I had to restart once due to a horrific crash. In a blind session like this, I may do 10-15 laps.

There are some very tricky parts to this course! There aren’t any brake markers, so you have to look hard to find reference points. There are also places where the asphalt widens for other configurations (drag strip), making it difficult to figure out exactly where the track is going. This makes it difficult to plan the optimum line. There are also a few connected corners where compromises are necessary. Or are they? I need more time to experiment, but before that, I should hear what others have to say about the track.

Session 2: Track Guide

Why didn’t I start with track guides and videos? I find that until you drive a course, it’s hard to picture the specifics of each corner in your mind. While I would have gotten a little more out of Session 1 had I read some track guides first, I’ll get a lot more out of Session 2 having a mental movie of each corner in my mind. This isn’t a strategy I necessarily advocate when going to a real track for the first time! Do all the research you can before getting there and then review again after your track day.

I found the following videos helpful. The quality is pretty terrible, but the instruction is good. There aren’t any of the cone markers in the sim though, so those reference points aren’t there.

  • The main thing I took away from the videos was how simple T1 can be even without brake markers. If you’re on the left side of the track and gently turn in towards the end of the concrete wall, the track opens up for you.
  • Turn 2 is a huge decreasing radius corner, which is a hard corner to optimize. If you overslow the entry, you can’t make up for it by adding gas later as the radius pinches in. So you have to gradually bleed speed for a long time. That leads to a desire to hold as much speed as long as possible, but there’s a risk of going in too hot and washing out.
  • Turn 3a is really about finding a good braking marker. If you brake too late, and end up going off track, you could end up crossing the traffic on the other side. Not sure if there’s something to prevent this in real life. If you brake too early you end up in a weird situation where adding throttle seems like the right thing to do, but it isn’t.
  • Turn 3b is all about positioning yourself for a good exit. It’s a really long corner though, so the late apex is a long way around.
  • Turn 5a requires some early braking to scrub speed and then back on the throttle to stabilize the suspension. It’s possibly my favorite corner because it is so unusual.
  • Turn 5b is tighter and slower than it looks with a nasty curb at the apex. The best entry angle requires sacrificing the exit of 5a, and the next corner entry requires sacrificing the exit of 5b.
  • Turn 6 isn’t very exciting if you set up for it properly.
  • Turn 7 is tricky because the elevation robs you of vision and there aren’t good reference points. The track opens up absurdly wide due to the drag strip. What’s the line through here?
  • Turn 8 is puzzling to me. It feels like a decreasing radius corner but it doesn’t really look that way from the map. Like T7, there’s a heck of a lot of room and many potential lines. Not sure what is best.
  • Turn 9 isn’t very exciting in a low powered car, but I can imagine in a high powered car, you might have to sacrifice the exit of T8.
  • Turn 10 is just a mild bend. If you drive point-to-point, there’s a nice setup to T1.

Session 3: Corner Work

With a better idea of each corner in mind, I drove about 20 laps. The times were 1:48, 1:48, CRASH, 1:42, 1:39, 1:39, 1:39, 1:39, 1:38, 1:39, 1:38, 1:38, 1:43, 1:38, 1:38, 1:39, 1:38.6, 1:38.4, 1:38.3, 1:38.0, 1:38.0, 1:37.9. Let’s take a look at the specific areas of improvement between the two sessions and see how  picked up over 2 seconds.

  • On the 1:40 lap (red) I steer a lot and let off throttle in T1 at 2500′ feet. In my mind, this was one area I was doing really poorly, but it turned out to be only 0.25 sec.
  • I gain another 0.25 sec by managing my speed better in the decreasing radius T2.
  • Surprisingly, figuring out how to brake for 3b nets me 0.5 sec. (5000-5500′). That’s a lot of time in one braking zone. It is a weird braking zone though, because it’s downhill and turning.
  • The biggest gain is in the esses (7700-8400′), which isn’t what I was expecting. I didn’t focus on this in my offtrack studying, but the gain is nearly 1.5 seconds. Hustling the car before, during, and after 5a was the key. This one complex of corners amounted to the same gain as everything prior.
  • The fact that I didn’t see much improvement in T6-T9 suggests I might be able to find more time there.

Session 4: Mental Imagery

I fell asleep going through each corner in my head. I didn’t even make it 2 laps before I was asleep.

Session 5: Setting Flyers

The black trace is the same as the 1:37.9 above. The green represents the best in this session: 1:36.8. I was able to improve another second in two areas.

  • Better trail braking through T2 gained 0.4 sec.
  • A new understanding of how to connect T5 through T7 (7800-10000′). In this stretch, I was able to knock off 0.75 sec. by focusing on the compromises.

If I drove another 20 laps, I could iron out some of those losses and get into the low 1:36s. But for me to get into the 1:35s will require something new.

Details

If you want to compare your times to mine, drive with all nannies off, default weather, and default setup. Just in case they change the defaults at some point, here are the particulars:

  • Weather: 8:00, Mid-Clear, 26C, Optimum track surface
  • Traction Control: Factory (none)
  • Stability Control: Off
  • Mechanical Damage: 100%
  • Tyre Blankets: Off
  • ABS: Factory (none)
  • Fuel Consumption: On
  • Tyre Wear: 1x
  • Slipstream Effect: 1x
  • Gears: 13:38, 15:30, 16:23, 24:26, 10:31 (final)
  • Tyres: Formula Ford East, 16 psi all around
  • Fuel: 13 liters
  • Camber: -0.1 F, -0.2 R
  • Toe: 4 F, 12 R
  • Bump: 1200 F, 1950 R
  • Brake Bias: 52%
  • ARB: 15 F, 7 R
  • Height: 10 F, 20 R
  • Wheel Rate: 11 F, 22 R

As you can see, Formula Fords have a huge range of setup choices. Setting the car up for the clockwise direction and a gearbox that maximizes gear usage will certainly drop lap times. Tuning is something I do when I’m searching for tenths, and as you can see, over the course of a few sessions, lap times were improving by whole seconds. The low lying fruit is almost never setup.

Conclusions

Pacific Raceways is a really interesting track that appeals to me because of its mix of difficult braking zones and compromises. It’s not just a bunch of 90s that require precision. This is a thinking person’s track.

Beyond Thompson

At the last Lemons race at Thompson, I only got in 6 laps of practice. However, the AiM Solo was running then and during the race, so I got to do a little comparative analysis afterwards. In the graph below, the red line is my fastest practice lap while the blue line is the fastest race lap on Sunday. Click on the image to open it up in a larger window and then write down at least 3 things you notice that’s different about the two traces.

  1. OK, so the most obvious thing is that the drive down the main straight was very different. I had an extra 200+ lbs of passenger and gear in the car and was driving in 4th gear. There may also have been traffic.
  2. The second thing you probably noticed was the very low speed in T2. I was experimenting with the brakes seeing how good they were, so my braking point was very late and this caused me to botch the corner. No big deal, this is what practice laps are for. I had never driven the car before and I needed to experiment. I tried different lines and gears nearly every lap.
  3. The thing I want you to notice next is that all the red lines are shifted left relative to the blue lines. The braking points are earlier and the acceleration points are earlier.
  4. Because my acceleration is earlier, I tend to have higher speeds on the way to the next corner.
  5. The most important area of the track is the 9-10 combination that sets up the main straight (6000-7000 ft). I take this as a single descending radius corner rather than two corners.
  6. While the 7-8 carousel (5000-5500 ft) isn’t nearly as important, I have a very different line compared to everyone else on the team (who all take a line similar to the blue one).

We could go through each corner talking about the trade-offs of taking different lines. But the differences in the red and blue lines aren’t really about Thompson. We can summarize all the specific differences with two general strategies, which I’ll describe below.

Backing up the corner

In point #3 above, I noted that my driving style involves braking earlier and accelerating earlier. This is called “backing up the corner”. The earlier you can get the car pointed to the exit, the earlier you can get to full throttle. Getting the car rotated early is usually accomplished by trail-braking deep into the corner so that the steering and braking inputs overlap quite a bit. This has the effect of swinging the rear of the car around, and you may have to make a steering correction to prevent the car from oversteering into a spin. There are risks involved when driving with this style. That said, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the car to rotate. It was set up with a lot of understeer. While I could get on throttle early, the car was leaned over quite a bit, and the open diff caused the inside front tire to search for traction. But even without getting the rotation I wanted, you can see from the telemetry graphs that there are gains to backing up the corner.

Connecting combinations

There’s only one combination corner at Thompson: 9-10. The blue driver “sees” this as 2 corners with a small straight between them. You can see this as the hump in the speed graph. The red driver (me) sees this as one long corner. Why? It’s the most important corner of the track and my goal is to optimize the position, angle, and speed of the nadir (slowest part of the corner). So I focus all my attention on getting to the nadir with the best combination of grip and speed that I can, which means throwing away the first corner. By slowing down early and keeping the suspension quiet, I optimize grip. If I speed up too much, or turn too much, I’ll upset the car and lose grip. This costs me some time at the start of the corner, which you can see at 6100 ft. But the investment pays off as from then on I’m gaining time.

Summarizing

Next time you’re on track, try making a conscious effort to get your shit (braking, turning) done earlier. Stop optimizing the straight you’re on and start optimizing the straight coming up. Also try to get your connected corners more connected. Think about how the first corner affects the second. Try some different lines to see what works and what doesn’t. Make sure to bring a data acquisition device. Not only will it help you sort things out later, it also makes the downtime between track sessions a lot more interesting.

Track Report: Palmer Motorsports Park

My wife is a PhD student in history. Yeah, that’s right, I’m 52 and my wife is a graduate student. We’re in the Boston area for two weeks, and while she’s studying in the Harvard archives, I’m off playing with cars.

Wait, don’t get the wrong idea. She isn’t a trophy wife. I’m not that old, and she’s not that young. She’s actually 6 months older than me and started her PhD at 50. I think that’s pretty cool, but this is a blog about racing, so let’s go there.

I’m racing in a Lemons event at Thompson this weekend, and it turns out there’s a Track Night in America event at nearby Palmer the previous day. So being the “gotta have the track sticker” kind of people we are, my brother and I decided to hit Palmer the day before Thompson.

The drive from Boston to Palmer is mostly boring, but once you leave the I90, you pass through lots of quaint little villages with historic buildings and bridges with bubbling brooks beneath. I wanted to stop and have some tea and biscuits more than once.

The event was well organized with minimal fluff or hassle. Mario arrived in his RV with Miata in tow at 4:00, just in time for the Advanced/Intermediate drivers meeting. Amazingly, we went to the meeting, unloaded the car, and got me on track by 4:20. While I had never driven Palmer before, I had done some laps in rFactor2 a while ago. Not all maps are created equal and my memory of the virtual track wasn’t all that clear, so it’s hard to make an accurate assessment. So instead I’ll make an inaccurate one.

  • There’s a lot more elevation in real life. This is pretty much true of every virtual track. It’s much harder to sense elevation in 2D.
  • The real-life camber seemed greater in both the on-camber and off-camber turns.
  • Geometrically, it is not a difficult track to learn because most of the corners are pretty tight and very long.
  • Because of the changes in elevation and camber, every corner has a different level of grip.
  • The track is more of a roller coaster than just about any track I’ve ever driven.

I put in two back-to-back 2:03s. Here’s the faster one.

 

In just about every session, someone drove their car into a tire wall. Or maybe it just seemed that way. Palmer isn’t very forgiving of people who don’t know their limits, and the short distance from track to tire wall to boulders means that small missteps become big missteps.

So how do I rate Palmer? I’ll put on my Professor garb and give grades.

  • Location: B – It’s a little out of the way and there are some narrow, low-speed roads. But at least the scenery is pleasant.
  • Facility: C – It’s functional but minimal from the sheet metal buildings to the mostly gravel parking lots.
  • Track: B – I love all the elevation and camber, and there are a few interesting compromises. But the corners are all pretty tight and very long.
  • Safety: B – The course has very little runoff anywhere. The tow trucks were efficient.

New car!

For a while, I’ve been looking for a car to replace my Ford Ranger. The Ranger isn’t a great daily driver and while it’s sort of entertaining on track, it’s more funny than fun. Car choice is a very personal decision, so here are my criteria for choosing a car.

Criteria

  • Rear wheel drive – I like both FWD and RWD but I already have a FWD (Yaris), so the next car has to be RWD.
  • Hatchback – I love the practicality of hatchbacks, wagons, and pickups. However, I rarely need the extra size of a wagon or pickup, so I prefer hatchback.
  • Sporty – Most cars can be driven in a spirited manner, so this is a pretty low bar. However, I’m not interested in SUVs or minivans.
  • Manual – I enjoy the interaction with shifter and clutch.
  • 4 seats – Every once in a while I need to take 3 or 4 people. 2 seat cars just aren’t that practical for daily drivers. While I have squeezed 3 into the Ranger, it’s uncomfortable for everyone.
  • Hard top – I like convertibles, but not enough to have one as a daily driver.
  • 2 doors – The difference between 2 and 4 doors is pretty negligible to me. I like the convenience of 4 doors, but I rarely take passengers. 2 doors means less window and door lock maintenance.
  • <2800 lbs – This is sort of an arbitrary figure, but I don’t like spending money on consumables. Lighter cars use less tires, brakes, and fuel.
  • Good gas mileage. My daily commute is so short that it hardly matters, but I’d like to get at least 30 mpg on the highway for longer trips.
  • 4×100 – I have a lot of 4×100 wheels. Sadly, not many cars have this bolt pattern.
  • CAN bus – I like all the sensors you get on modern cars. It’s free telemetry.
  • Classic – I like classic cars more than modern ones. This is often at odds with CAN bus.

I have at various times considered a BRZ/FRS/86. I’ve driven them on the street and track, and they are really great cars. The rear seats are a complete joke though. But the real killer for me is that I don’t like the way they look. That doesn’t matter to me so much on track, but as a daily driver I don’t want something that screams boy racer. 350Z/370Z are even louder in this regard.

I really liked driving my old E30, and could easily imagine owning another one. Maybe a 325i or 318is rather than a 325e though. E30s are getting more expensive and some parts (transmissions) are getting hard to find. An E36 M3 would be awesome, but they are on the heavy and non-economical side. E46s have CAN bus and have some extra appeal because of that. Ultimately, I think I could be happy with most 3-series.

I’ve mostly written off convertibles, but what about a Z3 coupe? Shooting brakes definitely have some appeal as they have the storage of a hatchback just without the 4 seats. They have a habit of tearing out their differential mounts apparently. But anyway, a cool car that I would be happy owning.

I seriously considered a 190E. The 16 valve Cosworths are collectible, and too expensive, but the 2.6 sportline would be acceptable if it came with a manual transmission. Surely there must be a way to swap it, but it’s a somewhat rare car in the States and that makes repairs inconvenient. One doesn’t see many Mercedes at the track, and maybe there’s a reason for that. If I was getting a car that was auto-only, I might be better served by an IS300.

What did I buy?

So what car did I get? A 1995 BMW 318ti. You might find this odd, but it’s pretty close to my ideal car. I think most BMW enthusiasts don’t like them because they look weird and are under-powered. I actually like the way it looks and the power:weight ratio is better than any car I’ve previously owned (seriously). Purchase price was $1350 for a 225,000 mile car with perfect paint and nearly perfect interior. There was only 1 prior owner, and the car was garaged and regularly maintained. But there’s always a catch…

Problems

Despite the “dealer” telling me it passed smog, it had not been smogged in 2 years. It’s illegal to sell a non-smogged car in California, and if I sent the law after this guy, he could lose his dealer’s license. I still haven’t decided what to do about that. Right now I’m focused on how good the car is. All used cars have issues, and here’s the list for this car.

  • Dead battery
  • Idle jumps around when warmed up
  • Hatch struts no longer hold up hatch
  • ABS light on
  • Driver seat is worn through on the side
  • Windscreen was replaced recently, but the job was ugly

The major problem was the jumpy idle, because it’s not passing smog like that. So after replacing the battery, I took the car over to Evil Genius Racing (aka John Pagel’s house). He has an OBD1 reader with the plugs for all the different manufacturers (not standardized until 1996 in the US). He pulled the codes and it turned out the car had a faulty knock sensor and right front ABS sensor.

DISA

There are 2 knock sensors on the engine, pressed against the engine block, buried deep beneath the intake manifold. The 318ti has an unusual manifold. I mean really unusual. Engines tend to run in 2 modes, commuter and performance. There are a number of ways to solve this problem from hybrids to VTEC. One of the earlier methods was to have two different ways to let air into the engine. On our first racecar, an MR2, the 4AGE redtop had 8 intake runners in a system called T-VIS. At low RPMs, 4 were used, but at high RPM all 8 were open. On the M42B18 engine in the 318ti, there is DISA. These are two completely separate intakes with a butterfly valve switching between the two. Getting to the knock sensors meant disassembling both intakes, the fuel rail, ~9 sensors, and a bunch of other stuff.

I don’t know how useful it is to have 2 intakes, but it got me thinking that it would make for some great Lemons engineering. Two completely separate intakes with a manually operated valve to switch between them. Why? Well if I have to explain, you’re not the intended audience.

Tracking

Since I’m interested in tracking the car from time to time, I want to make a few upgrades. This is what I’ve acquired so far.

  • BMW Style 104 16×7 wheels
  • Federal Evoluzion ST-1 225/50/16 tires
  • StopTech 309 brake pads

In addition, I’m considering a performance chip. The specs I’ve seen show improvements of 11 hp and 15 ft-lbs. That’s enough to make a difference. While doing some research on 318ti tracking, I came across the BMW Compact Cup, a racing series in the UK for 1996+ 318ti. It’s a budget series with tight regulations and very minimal modifications (suspension, tires, ECU, safety). I watched a video and recorded the following qualifying times at Brands Hatch Indy. The cars change, but the distribution is the same as every other race. You know, 10% don’t belong in the race, 10% are in the battle, and 80% are just getting in an out of each others’ way. The 80% is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. Stay tuned for that.

 

Race Report: Lemons Thunderhill

I’ll be updating this post each day.

Thursday – arrival

In the picture below you can see how simple my race operation is. I flat tow my Yaris behind a 3.0L Ranger. It’s a very flat route so the 145 hp Ranger has no problems towing the car and gear. I arrived at the track at 4:30 the day before the test and tech day to try to get a good pit spot. I wanted something under the awning so I could shelter the pit from sun/rain. Mission accomplished.

Friday – test and tech

Tech was a breeze. The car has raced in several other series and all the safety issues are well sorted. We got into the B class with zero penalty laps. That was what we expected.

We had decided that the full test day was too expensive. $349 for 1 driver and $149 for each additional. We considered doing the half day at $249 + $100 but then decided to play a joke instead. People walked by and  puzzled: “why is the wing on the front”. We dead-panned “it’s front-wheel drive”. The look of disbelief on Daniel and Mario’s faces was worth the effort.

The weather forecast changes hourly. The latest news is that Saturday should be dry all day with a high of 78. Sunday may be wet in the morning. I told the team I get to drive the wettest stint. That may screw up driver order, but as team owner, I’m putting my foot down on that. There’s no way I can keep up with the fastest cars on a dry track, but give me puddles and let’s see who comes out on top.

Saturday – race day

The race day didn’t start the way we wanted. Our first driver got 2 black flags. One of them was for going off track to avoid a collision. I’ll take a black flag over dents any day. But 2 black flags pretty much put us out of contention. Also, there was some blisteringly fast B cars we could never catch. Our second driver didn’t like the way the car was driving. Actually, neither did the first driver. When I asked if the rear had no traction, he said neither end had traction. Puzzling. So we decided to turn the rest of the race day into a tuning day.

Mario went out and came back in after a few laps complaining that the car was oversteering badly. We were running Federal 595 RS-RR 225/45/15 15×9 on the front and Falken RT615K+ 205/50/15 15×7 rear. So we decided to switch the rears out for a stickier compound: Brigestone RE-71R 205/50/15 15×7. This time he stayed out a while and had a great race with a pickup. When he came back in, he said the car was much more neutral now and that I should get in to see what I thought.

The first thing I thought was the brakes are still mushy. The pedal starts hard but just mushes out and goes to the floor. That’s really disconcerting because it gives you very little brake feel. And without a firm pedal, it’s pretty hard to heel-toe shift. Oh well, I just did more straight-line braking and eased in the clutch. Not ideal, but I’m okay working around problems. It’s likely an aging master cylinder.

The next thing I thought was that the 225 RS-RRs 15×9 aren’t that much different from the 205 15×7 I had run in earlier races. The tires don’t actually feel very fast. Part of that is because they are miserable under braking. They slide way too easily. They aren’t a particularly loud tire, like say the NT-05, and in 225 they are definitely on the quiet side. I started to understand why driver 2 thought the car had no grip on either end. The RS-RR doesn’t feel like it stops very well, so it appears to have no front grip. But once you get into a corner, it’s side grip is really good and overwhelms the thinner and harder rear tire, leading to oversteer. Mario said it was a lot of work just keeping it on track. I didn’t get to try the 615K+ rear setup, but the RE-71R rears felt pretty well planted.

While the car felt like it had better acceleration at low speeds, surely due to the weight loss, the drag was noticeably higher. This may be because the cut down doors don’t have mirrors or the wind deflectors I added. So the inside of the car turned into a parachute. It meant that top speed on the main straight was just 90-91 mph, or about 5 mph lower than usual. That didn’t stop me from having fun though. I managed a 3:43 in my few laps on track. You can see the entire stint in the video below (quality is not good because Windows 10 Movie Maker sucks. I may re-encode this on my Mac later in the week).

Sunday – race day

The forecast was wrong. We arrived at the track to find it drying. I was expecting a lot of rain early so I could one-up some fast cars but it just wasn’t very wet. Discouraged, I decided not to drive first. Danny drove first and while he was out we got our pit crew member, Tiernan, a driving wristband. He got in the car next and despite all the warnings about the blind turn 9C that connects the East and West tracks, he did what a lot of people do, and drove straight though. When he got to the penalty box, they decided to throw the book at him. My book. I had dropped off about 15 copies of the book to be sold for the Alex’s Lemonade Stand charity. Tiernan’s penalty was to read a passage from the book while being filmed. If it doesn’t make the Lemons wrap-up video, I’ll post it here.

The rain started picking up and it seemed there was enough rain to have a bit of fun. And fun was had. I got my wish and was able to dice with the fastest cars on track… and beat them.

Mario drove next and also had a blast splashing around (in the muck and the mire). But then the track started drying and he decided it just wasn’t as much fun. We wanted to get Daniel and Tiernan back in the car one more time, so they split the time on a mostly dry track. In the end, we were 56th out of 110 entries, or something like that. After we realized we weren’t in contention, we relaxed and had a lot of fun. This weekend reminds me how much fun Lemons is. That said, Lemons is changing, and not necessarily for the better. I’ll comment on that later.

SCCA TNIA OK

Last week I went to my first SCCA Track Night in America event. This was held at Thunderhill West. They were running a promotion with a “Buddy Pass” so I was able to go for free thanks to buddy Tiernan. One of the best things about TNIA is that it’s nice heading to the track at 2:00 pm rather than 6:00 am. The downside is having only 3 20-minute runs. But on a short, twisty track like Thunderhill West, that still makes a good practice day. Luckily, Thunderhill is about an hour away. If I had to drive 2.5 hours each way, I’m not sure I’d make the trip.

The event was very well organized. There were lots of people telling you where to go and what to do. For the experienced drivers there was minimal hassle and the novices got a nice packet. They also offered free T-shirts, stickers, magazines, and pamphlets. They didn’t provide bottled water, however, which I found a little odd as most HPDE organizations do that.

One of the unusual features of TNIA is that they don’t allow passengers except during one session where there’s a pace car going 50 mph or less. Drivers and passengers don’t have to wear helmets at this time. I can’t imagine it’s much fun for spectators, but it’s definitely a good time for coaches to talk with students. Speaking of coaching, I dropped in on one of the novice classroom sessions and the instructor was very good.

I think TNIA in NorCal is in a pretty good place. The price is low, the track is great, and the event is well organized. If you’ve never been on track before, TNIA is a very good place to start. I’m sure the quality varies from region to regions, so YMMV.

Run groups

I really like the simplicity of their run group definitions. It’s all about safety and not lap times.

 

Cars and drivers

I expected the usual mix of Miatas, 3 series, and 86s, but this TNIA day was a little different. In the Advanced group, there were three Mustangs, three turbo hatches (Fiesta ST, Focus ST, Focus RS), two 911s, one M2, one Corvette, one Taurus (new, and huge), and me in my Yaris. No Miatas, no 3-series, no 86s! I was lapping in the 1:34-1:35 range, and I passed others much more than they passed me. It’s a little surprising to me that advanced drivers in actual sports cars can’t lap faster than 1:34. The rules in the advanced group is point-by anywhere, but I followed the Fiesta ST for 4 laps while corner workers threw passing flags at him and he wouldn’t point me by anywhere except the straights. At which point he would accelerate away from me. That’s not advanced driving. I don’t think he realized he was holding me up 2 seconds per lap. It’s straight out of You Suck at Point-bys. Finally, I put my car on his door in the middle of a corner and demanded him to point me by, which he did.

The other groups seemed to run smoothly. Very few off-track excursions. In the other groups (novice and intermediate) there were a good mix of cars including the usual suspects (Miatas, 3-series, 86s, VTEC Hondas) but also two NSXs, two 1960s muscle cars, and the only car more curious than mine: an old WRX with a cheap eBay wing. It would be fun dominating the faster hardware in that POS.

At most HPDE events around here, the demographic of drivers is about 85% male and 75% white. This event was 100% male and mostly white. This is just a single event, but I wonder if SCCA is marketing their product widely enough.

Yaris power solved

I hadn’t had the Yaris on track in ages and the last time it was running poorly. In the Thunderhill ChampCar race last May my lap times were around 2 seconds off pace. The car also threw a check engine light a few times. So last Summer I replaced the intake air sensor and the CEL turned off, but I didn’t know if that solved the power problems. Mario did some tire tests in September that resulted in a 1:36.x fast lap, but I wasn’t sure if that meant the power was solved or not. Due to my back injury, I wasn’t able to test it properly until now. So I ended up waiting some 10 months before knowing. Good news: the car is back at the 1:34 pace, which means I probably have most of the 100 horses pulling for me.

Telemetry

Here’s a comparison of my lap times and Mario’s. We pulled a little weight out of the car between the events, so I should be a little faster. We were running the exact same tires. If you look at the speed on the straight before T1, you can see I’m carrying an extra 4 mph. But I also exit T10 2 mph faster. The difference in speed isn’t just the exit speed as you can see from the slope. Lighter is better.

The biggest difference in our driving styles is on the high speed corners. Thunderhill West is my home track, and I have the confidence to enter the fast corners faster. I also exit T10 better, probably because I have more experience flattening out the drive wheels on a loosely sprung FWD vehicle.

The data comes from an APEX Pro downloaded into TrackAttack. The APEX Pro is a good data logger and TrackAttack is a good data analysis tool and cloud storage service. Even though I had the APEX mounted on my dashboard, I never even looked at it. The lights are pretty, but I find the device mostly useless in its intended role.

Track Review: Pineview Run

2020 Update: Check out the Pineview Run website. In the 2 years since this article was written, there have been a lot of changes at Pineview Run. While memberships are still a great deal, they have all sorts of programs for non-members, like half-price Fridays, Ladies Night, and Drifting.


Have you ever been to an executive or par 3 golf course? With typical distances 100-200 yards, there’s more swinging and less walking per minute. To me, that also means both more fun and more practice per minute. The strange thing is, there aren’t that many short courses. For some reason, people like full size courses. It can’t be because they like walking, as most people use golf carts. It can’t be because they like hitting their long clubs, because nobody says their favorite club is their #1 wood. It can’t be because they’re working on their game, because if they wanted to do that, they’d be on the driving range or putting green. I guess it’s because real golfers play on real golf courses. However, if you want to get better at golf, you’re better off working on your short game. And this is true in the car world too.

Pineview Run is the executive/par 3 of road courses. It’s short, twisty, and low speed. Perfect for working on your short game, if you will. You spend most of the time in 2nd gear, a little in 3rd, and none in 4th. It’s ridiculously fun to throw you car around this twisty ribbon of asphalt. Some people might describe it as a hilly autocross. Others might say it’s a kart track. There’s some truth to both these statements. It’s really tight and not that wide. But that doesn’t diminish its appeal to me or it’s utility as a training tool. Ultimately, it’s a driver’s track. It’s where you go to hone your muscle memory. The low speed makes it safer and less intimidating for the novice, and its technical nature makes it an ideal practice ground for more experienced drivers.

In order to get access to the track, you have to become a member, which means plunking down a sizable chunk of change (minimally $2500) for several years (minimally 5). After that, the track time is quite reasonable and works out to something like $100 per track day. I think that’s a smashing deal considering how much one could improve their driving there. I worry a little that the clientele Pineview is courting isn’t going to sign up. The kinds of people with the money for a country club membership drive Porsche 911s, not Miatas and 86s. The 911 crowd wants to let their dog hunt, and that just doesn’t happen on a 2nd gear track. People with cars capable of 150 mph don’t want to drive a track where their top speed is less than the highway they arrived on. I see this attitude all the time at my favorite track: Thunderhill West. People complain that it’s too twisty, too blind, too off camber… too much work. Most track organizations host events on the East (3 mile) track instead. I want to ask them, “do you even like driving?” Then I remind myself that apparently drag racing is a thing.

The problem is that Pineview is even slower and more twisty than Thunderhill West. Who wants to drive their sports car on a kart track? Well, besides me. Autocrossers, that’s who. Pineview is the middle ground between a parking lot with cones and Watkins Glen (a famous high speed track located about an hour away). However, the autocrossers spend even less money on track time than the HPDE crowd and are unlikely to purchase memberships.

So Pineview finds themselves in the difficult situation of having a business model that doesn’t fit with their track. How will this work out? Well, hopefully, people wake the hell up and realize that twisty driving is fun driving. I don’t see that happening. Hopefully Pineview opens up some public days and partners with some local autocross clubs.

Here’s what the track looks like from inside my brother’s Miata. Sorry about the sound. Even on low setting the wind noise sounds like someone ripping on a bong (not my phraseology). First 3 laps are me. Second 3 laps are Mario.

P.S. The APEX Pro is kind of fun to watch don’t you think?

Track Review: New York Safety Track

The original plan for the weekend was to race my brother Mario’s Miata at Calabogie in the AER series but the car wasn’t ready so we made alternate plans and took his street Miata on an HPDE safari. While racing is always a great rush, the first few laps at a new track are such a special experience that I didn’t mind the change in plans. The first track we hit was New York Safety Track (NYST). NYST is a relatively unknown track that caters more to motorcycles than cars. It’s a family run business that’s been open for only a few years. It looks great on paper/video so I was eager to check it out.

My normal preparation for driving a new track is to run a bunch of laps on a simulator. Laser scanned tracks are accurate to the centimeter, so you have a pretty good idea of how to drive the track when you get there. But real life is always a little different than virtual. You perceive elevation changes much more in person, for example. But there are other, more subtle differences that add up to a unique ‘feel’ in the real world that can’t be duplicated in simulation.

Unfortunately, NYST doesn’t exist in the simulator world, so I couldn’t prepare that way. So I did my homework by watching youtube videos, marking up track maps, and imagining myself driving the track. There’s a saying that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. It’s sort of like that with track preparation. What may seem like an ideal line on paper can be suboptimal in real life. So whenever I go to a new track, my main goal is to explore the space a little. As a result, I overdrive the car a little rather than trying to optimize lap times.

Here’s what I wrote ahead of time about NYST. In red are comments I made afterward. Video follows text.

T1-T2: The T1-T2 combo is taken as an increasing radius turn with a lot of slowing early and then full throttle as soon as possible. The main straight climbs gradually into the braking zone. The apex is right at the peak of the hill, at which point the track turns down and opens. It’s important to get on the throttle early and use the whole track while unwinding the steering.

The braking point is ludicrously deep. You can brake at the 100 marker and then flick it over the hill.

T3: Double-apex carousel that is half descending and half ascending. Set up wide at the entrance, brake through the first apex, maintain throttle through middle, and gas it out to the exit, but be careful because there is no exit apron (here or anywhere).

As expected, the exit pinches in, so you want to let the car drift left a bit before hitting the second apex.

T4-T5: Flat out. T4 and T5 are slight bends right and then left, but the racing line is straight through. The apex of T5 is slightly blind.

T6: Another descending-ascending double-apex carousel. Unlike T3, the apexes are really far apart and the track-out is held tight to set up for T7.

I liked this as a double apex rather than holding a tight line. I feel like the exit speed is better. Too bad I didn’t have my RumbleStrip with me to test.

T7: Flat out. T7 is a blind right-handed bend that should require no turning if the exit of T6 is held correctly.

This turn feels a little like Buttonwillow Phil Hill. Turn it in before the hill and just go straight over.

T8: This is the highest speed corner of the track. Set up track right on entrance and stay mid-track at the exit to get ready for the esses ahead.

T9-T11: Rolling esses. As soon as you pass the apex of T8, get the car straight and unloaded. The braking zone to T9 is short. Brake just a touch into the hill. T9 is a blind right-hander that is quickly followed by T10 (left) and T11 (right). Like any esses, sacrifice the exits, except for the last one. Track all the way out of T11.

There are two ways to handle this complex. You can shift down to 3rd before or after 9. My guess is staying in the high gear is better because downshifts often end up with too much braking. But downshifting before gives you a great run up to 11.

T12: Descending decreasing radius 120. The track will start to descend before the braking zone to T12. It’s tighter and longer than it looks and continues downward. Get rid of speed early since it’s dangerous to do so mid-corner. Stay tight the whole way around.

The corner is so damn long that it’s possible to brake through some of the corner. It is off-camber, so you don’t want to run too wide. This was a surprisingly fun corner.

T13-T14: Long left. One might think of this pair as a single decreasing radius turn, but the exit of 14 is kinked, so there’s no point in holding out for a fast exit. Just go around on the inside and manage traction. It’s possible a double apex line is best.

The geometry of the turn invites oversteer, which you can see in the video.

T15: Sharp 90. This sets up the climbing section, so the exit is important, especially in a momentum car. The entrance is kinked. Should one try to get all the way track right, which requires additional braking, or does one enter mid-track at higher speed? In either case, running out of room at the exit will hurt because there is no apron.

It’s a slow rotation corner, so optimize the angle by getting as far right as possible before the turn.

T16: Flat out. T15 is so slow that the slight right bend at T16 is not much of a turn. Run over the berm here and the next turn.

T17: Uphill. This is the steepest part of the track. Maintain as much speed as possible with an early apex and fight to keep all the momentum and traction as you continue up. Use as much track as you can.

T18: Cresting left. The braking zone is before the crest of the hill, as is the apex. It doesn’t start to flatten out until the exit. Exit speed is crucial since the main straight follows. So the apex must be late enough that you don’t have to cut throttle if you start heading into the grass on the exit. The apex berm and blind nature of the corner conspire to make you want to take an early apex, but wait on it.

Indeed, the corner invites an early apex, but be disciplined and wait for it.

NYST is a fantastic track. I’m ranking it as my 3rd favorite track behind Thunderhill West and Sonoma. Despite the ‘Safety’ in it’s name, I don’t think NYST is especially safe. Some of the trees are a little to close to the track. Also, the motorcycles drive way too fast in the paddock.

OMG, I tilt my head so much when driving. I’ve got some homework to do there.