Wet, Cold, Windy and Wonderful – the Last Track Day of the Year

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It was my last “track fix” of the year.  After the disappointment of missing out on CMP over a month earlier I was anxiously awaiting the Monday track event at VIR.

Of course I had to get my car prepared once again as well as myself.  On Saturday afternoon I put my car on the lift and swapped out the street rotors and brake pads for my track ones.  It didn’t take long, about an hour, and I saw no need to rush.  After getting the wheels tightened to their proper torque I took the car for a short spin in order to settle the suspension prior to putting it on the alignment rack.

Once there I set the rear camber and toe as well as the front.  I made sure that I had zero toe in the front and that I had the steering wheel centered to my liking.  I had a full tank of gasoline so with that amount of weight I set the rear camber to an additional half a degree over my negative two degree preference.

The tires were topped off with nitrogen which has proven to be far better on the track than compressed air.  I hadn’t run into any problems with fasteners this time and I was feeling good.

It is one thing to prepare the car for the track and it is another to prepare my self.  It is just as important, too.

Lately I have taken to reading one of Ross Bentley’s books on race car driving.  I find it helps to get me focused and my mind working at its best, which allows me to get the most out of the track day’s sessions.  Ross’s first two books concentrated on more of the mechanics and technical issues of performing well on the track.  His third delves into the mind and has many exercises that help you use both halves of your brain and maximize your potential.  Back in the summer I attended a two day session with Ross on track driving and the racer’s mind.  It exposed me to a facet of track driving that I had never been exposed to before.  Ross was able to provide several examples of what a person could do to keep their brain connected and their focus centered, no matter what distractions occurred on track.

Another part of my preparation for a track day is to set my goals.  These events are not competitive in the same sense that a race is, and there is no financial compensation that goes along with the time spent.  I spend my time and money so its important for me to pick out some areas that I hope to improve in.  This would be my forth time on VIR’s full course of 3.27 miles and I wanted to make certain that I would take advantage of that previous experience as well as discover a few things I had not necessarily noticed before.

The first time you go to a track event you can easily be overwhelmed by all the new things you are confronted with.  There are rules to follow, procedures to be cognizant of, and innumerable amounts of new sensory inputs to attempt to process.  With all this overload one of the first things that happens is that you quickly develop tunnel vision.  You soon begin to drive point-to-point which is counter to driving smoothly.  A good instructor will know this and help you bring your vision up and out allowing you to focus way ahead and become a smoother driver.  Another common trap is that you find you are following the car ahead.  While you certainly have to be aware of what the car immediately ahead of you is doing you cannot let it distract you from the proper line through the corners and around the track.  Again, a good instructor will help you overcome this natural tendency.

While I had already experienced and conquered these things I knew that I would be on track with others that would be driving VIR for the first time and, in some cases, this would be their first track event. 

Sunday I met up with four others that would be going to the track day and we made ourselves into a small convoy and headed North West toward the track.  It was raining and a bit cold so I turned up my car’s heater and set the wipers for a fast intermittent speed.  It got darker as we got closer to the track and at times there was even more rain.  That would mean that on Monday the track would be flushed of dirt and other track debris as well as be wet to start with.

We arrived at the track and waited for registration to start.  While we waited I found old track friends and new acquaintances to talk with.  We were glad when registration opened and we could get all our paperwork and car numbers.  Then five of us found a restaurant in Danville where we could eat and be merry at.

Falling asleep before a track day can be tricky sometimes as there are a lot of things you want to think about so that you can make the most out of the next day.  I usually go over the course in my mind.  I drive the course right from the false grid and go through all the corners thinking about my line, where and how I brake, and how I can accelerate through each turn.  I also review in my mind anything I might need to be sure to have with me as I’ve found that once the day starts it is full and moves quickly from one scheduled event to another.

Awaking early Monday morning I got cleaned up and dressed in my driving suit.  In the summer it is a chore to put on the full suit knowing how hot its going to get, but I knew that we would be lucky to see the temperatures rise over 46 degrees and I put on thermal underwear as well.  On the track you must drive with your windows open for safety reasons and 46 degrees feels a lot colder when you hit the straights at 130 miles per hour.

I pulled into the pit area and emptied my trunk of my luggage and other items and put them in the van that was our little group’s rendezvous point.  In addition to the stuff I bring to wear and clean up with I brought a small bag of hand tools, just in case.

My instructor met me at my car and we had a chance to talk, which was great.  I let him know that while I knew my car could accelerate like a scalded cat down the straights, I was more interested in perfecting my line and technique through the corners.  It is good to set the tone with the person who is going to coach you to meeting your goals.  My instructor had many hours and miles of experience at VIR and drove a Mustang that was a dedicated track car.  He would prove to be enthusiastic and insightful.

Soon after there was an “all hands” meeting where the day was outlined to all the participants and the various track flags were reviewed.

Much more than being quaint, flags are critical to a track event being safe and successful.  It is the primary communications media between the fast moving cars and the corner workers.  It allows the drivers to know if there are times they need to be particularly cautious or especially careful.  It lets them know that they need to be aware of faster traffic that they need to let past and can signal them that they have a mechanical or safety problem they need to pit for and resolve. 

Following that meeting my run group set off for the classroom and time to get educated on the finer points of high performance driving.  Our classroom instructor spent time reviewing many of the basics since this group included many first time participants.

After that I went to my car to get ready for my first track session.  True to his word, my instructor was there waiting in my car.  We talked a couple of minutes and then I put on my helmet and gloves and warmed up the car.  Down came my windows and I drove to the false grid.  It was definitely cold and I turned up the heat to max and set the fan on high to distribute the warmth.

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That first run of the day always seems to be predicated by at least a few butterflies in the stomach.  Today in particular because we were starting out on a damp track and my tires were going to be relatively cold.  This would not be a hot spring day where I could count on the coefficient of friction being at its maximum.  I let things warm up and re acquainted myself with the line through the full course and by the bottom of the last turn prior to the front straight the yellow flags were put down and the track was open for education.    I applied speed feeling for changes in grip as I took the first bend that was part of the front straight.  Coming up was turn one where I would have to be track left, brake to a point where I could smoothly engage third gear and smoothly accelerate through that turn and turn two.  For me turn one and two are taken as if it were just one turn and my “real” turn two is the braking point just prior to turning into the apex of turn three.  Then I let the car track out to the right and get ready for turn four which is a quick 90 degree left hander followed by turn five to the right.  The car drifts past five to the left side of the track as it is banked a bit to that side and then I get the car pointed toward the start of the lower “esses” which I take as straight as possible.  Then a short straight taken track right as I set myself up for the climbing “esses” which can be taken at surprisingly high speed.  At the top of the climb is a brushing of the brakes and a quick left turn into the blind turn number 10 getting the car pointed to drift to track right even though you cannot see it ahead of time.  I find many drivers don’t let the car track out to the right and lose a lot of speed at turn ten. 

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Then it is down the hill and track left to set up for 11 and 11a at the turn known as Oak Tree.  This is one of the tightest turns on the course and can end up being one of the most fun when you get it right.  After that is the long back straight, which climbs up hill for almost two thirds of its length.  You can build up a lot of speed here even going up hill.  Then there is a short down hill section where you quickly build up speed just before the start of corners known as “rollercoaster”.  Your entry to the start of this corner can make a real difference in how you end up for the last set of turns in the down hill series called “hog pen”.  Taking the apex early in a racer’s line is most effective and leads you to an immediate right turn where you get some quick rotation out of the rear of the car so that you are ready for the start of “hog pen”.  Exiting this last set of turns is one of the biggest challenges of the course.  Carefully picking your braking points and apex you can maintain an amazing amount of speed and transition past a part that falls off rapidly to your left.  If you have done this right you will be able to continue to add power as you exit “hog pen” and let the car drift out track left and into the front straight with plenty of momentum to lift you down the front straight at speeds that will challenge your timing and braking into turn one once again.

This might seem to be boring from this point on since you “simply” repeat the same corners, but the reality is that you will be making more speed and adjusting to a different rhythm than you might have had the time prior.  There will be traffic to deal with which will not be taking the same line as you nor will they be carrying the same speed.  It will be up to you to adjust your timing and stay focused on the line you should be following.  When you are given a chance to pass your speed goes up and once again you must adjust your rhythm and timing through the corners.

A couple of times I would come through turn three and drift wide enough track right that my right tires would cross over the gators into some mud and become slick for turn four.  Then it was a quick sleigh ride as the car tried to lose it until the mud was scrubbed off and I could enter turn five with the right attitude and speed to set me up.

I really love the climbing “esses” as they are a blast to take at over 100 mph, but they demand that your timing is impeccable or they will force you to lose some of that initial speed so that you don’t go off course.

The rest of the day was spent going from classroom to track time.  It was particularly nice to have thirty minutes of track time which was a good ten minutes more than most track day events allow you to have.  That extra ten minutes added up to more time to learn and lessen the number of mistakes you might make. 

When you “get” a corner right it is marvelous because it becomes such a smooth experience and it contrasts so greatly with that time that you just miss getting an apex timed just right.

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We had five track sessions scheduled that day, but I only completed three.  I could have gone solo in the forth session, but frankly it was tough going out in the cold and there were cross winds of 15 to 20 mph at times. 

Here I was tired after working my way around the track for a half hour while professional drivers spend hours at a time on track during races.  I’m glad for the learning experiences I’ve gotten on track, but I really have to respect the drivers that do this for a living.

I pulled my bags out of the van and packed them in the trunk of my car.  I said goodbye to the group I had driven up with and then stopped by to see my instructor and thank him for the coaching and enhancement to my day that he had provided.  The quality of your instructor can truly make or break a track day.  Then I was off to the public roads where I would spend the next hour and a half getting home.  This gave me a good amount of time to think about what I had been able to accomplish that day.  I was tired, but very happy with the day.  It was a fantastic way to end the track season and I am anticipating a February event next year.  Let’s hope the weather is a little more spring like.

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5 Responses to Wet, Cold, Windy and Wonderful – the Last Track Day of the Year

  1. Rick Holland says:

    Great writing Jim…Your lines and driving descriptions are spot on, not to mention your car and MIND tuning. In Oct. at VIR I stopped early also…day one was four thirty minute sessions and day two the same. I pulled into the pits halfway thru the day two third session. My mind had had enough…it does give one a tremendous respect for those who do race for long periods. I will be at VIR in Feb. and I hope we meet again. Happy holidays.
    Rick

  2. Jim's Sister says:

    Great description of the race course, Jim. I felt as though I were driving along with you. I can see why an old guy like you still does this kind of thing. What a thrill.

  3. Pam says:

    Good bloggin Jim. Your descriptions were pretty good making us feel like we were in the car or your head as you drove. I’ll be back…..

  4. Stephen says:

    Jim, excellent replay of the events. I too felt like I was there. Sorry that we haven’t been able to catch up more often, but it’s good to see that you’re still doing what makes you happy! Take care, and Happy Holidays!

  5. Bill L. says:

    Wow – I could feel the turns tighening my stomach, and understand why you would be tired after ‘working’ the track. Happy Holidays!

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