Write Ups & Editorials
Fun per Dollar
It's been coming up in every car event I've been to. Would you travel across the country to do six drag races? Would you travel for two days for the three autocross runs at a Pro Solo? Would you buy a plane ticket and ship your car somewhere for an event? Would you spend ten grand on a paint job and show a car you won't drive on the street? People do this stuff all the time. What's the fun per dollar when you add it all up?
A friend of mine decided that trying to compete nationally in several events across the country is insane. I'm inclined to agree. Going forward, I will probably draw the line at traveling for a day to get to a Pro Solo. At least if it's somewhere nice, you can tack on a day at the beach or something. Also, it never occurred to me until recently how often it rains at our-of- AZ autocrosses. Driving for days to race in a giant puddle? At that point, fun isn't really part of the program anymore, but everyone has their own level of commitment.
What else can you do? A local autocross remains the most accessible way to have a good time and stay within a reasonable budget. Track days, known as High Performance Driving Events (HPDE) are right up there, especially at small private courses like Musselman Honda Circuit in Tucson and Arroyo Seco in New Mexico. For about $100, you can drive until you've had enough-at least an hour of solid track time. Some of the big organizations will let you onto a wider variety of tracks with accompanying emergency support, coaching, and double the entrance fees. Some of the courses aren't as hard on your tires as autocrossing on concrete either. Drifting is another auto sport, though some would argue that it isn't. It has its own challenges and tire expenses, which can be more or less than grip racing depending on your commitment. In terms of fun per dollar, it's hard to beat. Attending a driving school like Bondurant, or Dirt Fish, is an investment and a lot of fun. For a lot less money, there's Evolution for autocross.
Here's one thing I have learned from all of my experiences - they build on each other. Skills learned at autocross help you drive on a track. Driving on a track builds familiarity with the car that you need for drifting. Drifting sharpens you ability to feel a car's weight transfer and teaches you how to handle it when you've exceeded the limits. You meet great people and learn from them at all of these venues. I strongly recommend pushing your limits, not only at the events you are accustomed to, but also try new types of Motorsport. They all cost money, but they also help you evaluate the best way to maximize fun per dollar.
Going to SCCA Solo Nationals for the First Time
I decided to attend SCCA Solo Nationals upon meeting a few conditions in the past year. I needed a suitable race car, a tow rig, and PAX goals to achieve locally. This all started a long time ago with the purchase of the tow vehicle, and culminated with buying and registering a trailer the day before I had to leave for Lincoln. I bought three sets of tires in under a year and wore out two of those sets practicing twice a month. I did nothing to the car, to establish baseline and put the emphasis on the driver. I attended an Evolution school and also went to the Pro Solo at El Toro, where I placed 8 out of 8 in my class. Regardless, I exceeded my goal of averaging 975 PAX locally and 950 in Tucson. I registered, mapped a route, and made hotel reservations, and also bought an hour of practice time on the day before the race.
The event itself was a circus. In one ring, the East Course. In another ring, the West Course. In the third ring, the practice course. In the middle of it all was a giant paddock buzzing with activity. Cars, bikes, golf carts, and scooters jockeyed along the paths to get from one side of the air park to the other. There was a constant wail of engines from all directions. Some guy with a megaphone was making announcements that you couldn’t hear. The best you could do was notice that someone was announcing something, and go ask someone closer what he said. Classified ads for race cars and wheels were taped up in the port-a-pots. Hoosier and Bridgestone reps were frantically mounting tires. Keeping your head up and swiveling was not just a suggestion for on course- it was a survival skill for the paddock. The weather changed constantly from wind to rain to sun, and you had to be ready to race in whatever Mother Nature served up. Everything went by in a blur, and it was over. My final place was 30 out of 36 in A Street, dominated by Z06 Corvettes. My overall position was 787 out of 1,306, largely thanks to weather affecting the various run groups.
For some folks, Nationals is an annual tradition. For me, it was the top item on my bucket list. I invited my dad out to spend the week, and he showed up to cheer me on. Theresa helped with the towing chores and kept me from losing my mind. It’s helpful to have a team. I didn’t expect to win, or even do well, but I did my best. On both days, I was beaten by three seconds by guys who do this stuff all the time, have the right car, the right shocks, and so on. One thing you notice after autocrossing for a while is the dogged consistency of results. I always PAX in the same tight bracket. The fastest guys in the country always beat me by three seconds in my class. The National-level drivers in Tucson are always about 1.5 seconds faster than me. I am always near the front of the pack locally. Breaking out of this mold is the point of all the practice. Someday, it will happen. It doesn’t take magic- it takes work.
The whole experience was memorable, and I recommend it if only to see the incredible level of competition and talent out there enjoying our sport. My only regret is that I was so busy running around that I didn’t take time to film the experience enough to capture it for others. I am glad that my family came out to share the adventure, and I will try it again when I am a better driver.
“A Ha” Moments
The Evolution Driving School was in town this month. I know I haven’t been driving to the ragged edge lately, so I signed up for Phase I. I took Phase I back in 2005, but it isn’t the kind of course you take once and call it good. Going to a driving school helps you increase your rate of having “A ha” moments compared to figuring it out on your own. “A ha” moments are the things that move you from one plateau to the next. Learning isn’t so much a curve as it is a staircase. The secret to winning is to have enough “A ha” moments in your experience, and to put them together for one lap.
I recently made the mistake of getting comfortable with my speed and reaction time, which made me slower. I needed somebody to help me get my mojo back. The school brought me back to the basics- look ahead. I knew I wasn’t doing it, because I was much faster on courses that don’t require a lot of looking ahead (Bisbee-Douglas Airport) than courses that have do (Marana, Sierra Vista airports). The further you look ahead, the better your brain can process what needs to happen to get you from point A to point B.
The other thing I failed at was estimating the car’s limits. You know the part of “The Matrix” where Morpheus shows Neo that his constructs of reality (how fast he can punch, how far he can jump) are all mental? Same thing happened to me on March 6, the event on the day after I attended Evolution School. I took the whole trip out to the back of the course faster than I thought was possible. I did it in Randy’s 350Z, too. Driving a fast car fast is harder than driving a slow car fast, and I recently transitioned from a slow car to a fast car. The transition requires speeding up your mental processing and reaction time. How much you speed up those processes determines whether or not you remain competitive. Pushing the envelope is a lot harder in a fast car.
If you try to drive faster than you thought was possible, you might get “behind the course” and fail. You then have to turn in a little sooner, manage weight transfer better, and keep looking ahead until you nail it. Don’t stop trying because you failed the first time. It’s mentally exhausting. If you get done with a run and you aren’t mentally exhausted, you are probably leaving something on the table. All of this is easier said than done, but that’s why we keep competing.
I didn’t need to drive the Z at the school to learn these lessons- I drove a slow car. The lessons were 100% mental, and translate to any car, probably any sport, for that matter. So here’s to “A ha” moments, and may you make a few of your own.
Cold, Calculated Cone Killer
I was a terrible chemistry student, but not just because of stoichiometry equations. No matter how hard I tried, my lab reports came back covered in red ink, much to the annoyance of my lab partner. I finally approached my teacher and asked what I was doing wrong. She pointed out that there was a format for lab reports, and I was not following it. This omission was costing me dearly, but it was an easy fix.
That chemistry teacher gave me a life lesson that has stuck for all these years. If you are being judged, first find out the criteria. Case in point- I have entered the Cars in the Park “Tuner” class twice. I won twice. Why? Partly because I read the list of what was being judged, and prepared accordingly. An engine swap is a ton of work and a reward on the track, but will it add value for classic car judges? Mismatched tires will cost you. Tasteful modifications are welcome, but something ill-fitting or dirty will detract. The Tuner class is easier, because there are only a handful of cars in it. I entered my stock 370Z Nismo with a good cleaning and one modification- a high-dollar oil cap. I figured the judges didn’t know anything about my car, and would assume that I did all the work to make it pretty. In fact, Nissan did all the work, except for the oil cap. I won. Local judges didn’t know how to rate a tuner car on its merits. This probably wouldn’t have happened in SoCal. I read the instructions. My tires matched, there was nothing to deduct from the points since the car was perfect. It just rolled off the showroom floor a month earlier.
I got a wake-up call a few years ago at autocross when I didn’t trophy for the year because I hadn’t entered enough events in the same class. This year, I was sure to enter six events in one class. Boom, trophy! I wasn’t the fastest… I was the only one playing to win. I still had enough events in a different class to trophy for the fall season. In the words of Pee Wee Herman, “I meant to do that.” It may just be a tee shirt, all in fun, but it sucks to lose because you weren’t paying attention.
The Nissan 370Z Nismo is essentially an STU-modified car, and it’s classed in A Street. It is superior in every way to my old 350Z, which competed in Super Street Mod because of all the things I added to get to where the current Z rolls off the production line. This is the first car I ever bought specifically to autocross. A lot of consideration went into that decision. Think I want to compete against a bunch of C Street Miatas and FR-Ss at Nationals? I will square off against 500 horsepower Vettes on street tires instead. After all, they are really entertaining to watch.
One Step Back
This year I have been taking a break from the intensity of trying to win an autocross or track event. Sure, I still do my best out there, but not on the top tires. I haven’t done anything to improve the performance of my autocross cars. I haven’t stopped learning, mind you. Of course, the competition never sleeps, and I have fallen behind as a result. Instead of pressing onward, I detuned my 350Z and sold the parts to buy a truck for towing and touring. I spent my entire racing budget on restoring a hopeless but fun classic sports car. My attitude has changed for now.
Things could have gone differently if I had different goals, but my goal this year is to enjoy life and not be so stressed out. I set the goal of attending “Cars in the Park” with my old FIAT, and that has caused me to spend money on fixing things that are broken instead of buying race wheels and sway bars. This has been a helpful goal, and it has saved me from falling into the usual trap of focusing on speed. That’s not to say that the FIAT will never be fast, but it will be restored before the go-fast bits start showing up. Racing is no longer what I live for- it’s become one of my hobbies.
What’s your goal? Is it to win? To have a good time? To learn? What steps have you taken, and how do you know if you are making progress? Is your car built to do well in a specific class, or just to go as fast as you can on your budget? Did you buy it to autocross, or just because you liked it? Was it a grocery-getter or commuter that you started fixing up? It’s funny to watch what people bring to the autocross over a period of time. There are competitive cars and cool cars, old beaters and the latest/greatest, all driven by the same person. We go through phases in this sport, trying to beat the clock or just having a good time.
It may seem as though I’ve lost my focus, but that’s not the case. The focus just changed to something sorely needed… a break from the routine. The tightness in my chest is gone, I spend less time in the garage, and more time on the patio. Mission accomplished.
Winning isn’t Something, it’s Everything… or is it?
I read a quote from Colin Chapman recently regarding building a racecar. You probably know he was the creator of Lotus. To paraphrase, he said that the purpose of building a racecar is to win races, consistently, with as little help from the driver as possible. Any car that doesn’t do this is a failure, no matter how clever or sublime it may be. At the moment, this is a point of clarity for me, seeing how my cars are seldom ever at the top of their class, nevermind my driving ability. I looked at what it would take to put one of my cars at the top of its game, and some decisions became clear instantly. Er, wait. Actually it took a calculator and trying to wrap my head around a five digit number involving a dollar sign. Then I went to plan “B”, which is more realistic and still competitive.
This Chapman quote also brought into focus the point of autocross or racing in general. Is the point to win? Depends on who you ask I think. If you ask Randy Price, he will likely tell you the point is to enjoy your car, the adrenaline, and the camaraderie. For many of us, the point is to make the most of the moment. It’s the most fun you can have with your pants on, so why screw it up being frustrated that someone else brought more game to the track than you? I think all of us are out there to learn and challenge ourselves. Ask Gene, he will likely tell you the point is to do better than you did the last time. Mind you, he has his eye on that PAX score, too. Same goes for me. Having no illusions that I am going to outdrive guys who spend every weekend autocrossing and are committed to becoming national champions, I am out there to learn and have little rivalries with my friends. Then you have the benchmarks. If you look at Rob Rockefeller, Dave Rock, and Fred Zsust for example, they are out there to win. They put in the effort, do the research, maintain focus, build the right car to the edge of spec, and travel pretty far to compete.
Of course, there is no single reason we are out early on a Sunday morning swerving around cones. It depends on your finances, commitment, focus, and personality. Really, the only way to mess up an autocross is to not have a good time. Mind you, if you ask Ricky Bobby, he’ll tell you, “If you’re not first, you’re last”. Do you want to win? Ever ask yourself what it would take?
I scare myself on purpose
I've been driving legally for 26 years and during those many years, I guess I developed a list of "what is wrong and what is right ideas and practices" when driving. Now I'm finding out that while some of those ideas and practices when driving on the street keep me and those around me safe and alive, those same ideas will keep me slow in a controlled, and as safe as can be, environment like autocross.
When I first started autocrossing 6 years ago, it was a big step for me. At that time I was content with screwing around on the street and back roads. I did the occasional drag race at real drag strips, but not much more than that for organized "safe" motorsports. I do know I loved driving my trucks down dirt roads and sliding toward, during and away from corners, much like the drifters do today mixed with what I saw the rally drivers do. Sure, it was dangerous, but I didn't really know much better. If any good could come from it, I did learn a few things then about under-steer and weight transfer during those knucklehead times. I also had put myself into the interests of the local, county, and state with my Charleston and highway shenanigans. I needed a change, and fast.
One weekend, my buddy, Chris Lynn, asked me to go to an autocross event with him. I had heard about them, but didn't know much of them. I went to two more before I ended up at an event at Sierra Vista's municipal airport. It all looked like slow motion through a sea of cones. However, it was all about change, everything I believed in with motorsports was flipped upside down. Rob Love gave me the first ever autocross ride, and what a ride it was! It was a linear roller coaster, and I couldn't stop laughing. I remember being just floored with his reactions, and the way he could get his car to change directions at such an insane speed. I was sure we were going to rip the tires off of the wheels. Rob was cool and collected like it was just another day at the office, and I thought I was going to wet myself. The seed was planted.
A few months after the eye opening ride, I decided to get involved. I guess that was the spring of 2004. The biggest thing I can remember back then is that Don Hyland told me to scare myself just a little bit every time I'm out on course. I didn't realize exactly what he meant until a few years had past. I figured he meant go fast enough to scare myself a bit, but I didn't get it fully. I'd go to autocross events, and always thought I needed to drive as absolutely hard as I could. I was sure sloppy in those days. I used a very low horsepower AE86 Corolla in the first couple of years. Momentum is "key" with such a low horsepower car, so, I started applying my sliding/drifting techniques more and more. Sideways isn't front-ways, I've always been told, usually by Harry Berzes. I'd joke, and say it is the fun way. To me though, it always felt faster. Of course, I was wrong. Yes, sometimes a slip angle is best, sometimes an aggressive slip angle is better, but most times, I'm faster, if I deliberately try to not slide the car. This is usually the case when I borrow a car. Nobody wants to be the guy who rips up 1200 dollars worth of somebody else's tires.
As I mentioned a bit earlier, I learned to scare myself and drive out of my comfort zone a few years ago. I cannot remember which event it was, but I do remember missing what I thought was a last minute braking point. I still made the corner just fine, but it scared me. It scared me, because I was out of my comfort zone, even the comfort zone that had its scary setting adjusted for autocross. This made me think that maybe most of my driving was in fact, all within my own set comfort zone. Logical right? Now, I get it, Don!. I can vividly remember the last two events where I just knew I was way too fast, holding the throttle open for too long, but all was well. At Bisbee/ Douglas Airport (BDI), I was downright sure I was just plain going too fast through the right hand side. I'd suck in some breath and hold it until I mashed on that Miata's brake pedal and just like it was supposed to, it would wiggle it's little green self through the gates. Sure there was a spin eventually, but I was pushing my fear just a bit more and found that there was in fact a point where I was just too fast and braked too late. I found the limit of the car. Had I not pressed and pressed, I would not have done so well. Are you wondering if the spin was scary? It wasn't scary at all, and I knew I would be fine. I know that autocross events are laid out, and then scrutinized for safety.
What it all boils down to, is that it's necessary to scare yourself just a bit every time you autocross. It's not to say that you should imagine you and your car are invincible and some magical force will keep you on course, but that you should test yourself and your car, and inch your way to accelerating for a bit longer, or push a braking point another inch or seven before braking. Sure, you'll be uncomfortable, but how else will you learn and teach yourself to be faster. A car with $20,000 dollars worth of go-fast parts doesn't make you fast, you still need to drive the car to it's potential.
Learn to find the limit by getting out of your comfort zone and explore that blurry place that is your fear.
In Defense of Front Wheel Drive
I just got off my Xbox after a healthy time attack session at Tskuba and Road Atlanta. I set new lap records for myself in the "A" class with a Dodge SRT4. I tried like hell to beat the record with a Ferrari F430 tuned to the maximum level for the class, and was at least a second short on both tracks. I couldn't do it with a race-tuned Evo VIII either. Or a Guldstrand Corvette. I have similar experience in the "B" class, with the Chevy Cobalt SS reigning over the likes of a Mines R32 Skyline and other storied tuner cars. I think my "B" lap record at Tskuba is in an NSX, but it's a fluke. Some people don't see how these games relate to real-life driving, but there is a lot to be learned and the tires are free.
Everyone goes on about how great rear wheel drive cars are when it comes to racing. AWD's are also hot, and I can't deny that if you can figure out how to tune out the understeer, they really are the fastest cars out there on street legal rubber. So how is it that '89 Honda Civics are so darn popular at autocrosses and track events? Why am I racing a Dodge Neon when I have a 350Z in the garage? What's up with the popularity of the Mini Cooper? Why is it that my first choice for replacing my Neon would be a Honda CRX, and if I could have any new car under $26,000, my first test drive would be a direct-injection turbo Cobalt SS? Sure, a lot of people drive Miata's, but a lot of people spin them out, even with their measly 115 horsepower, give or take.
Drifting is fun, but not when you're trying to go fast and you can't put power down. At the moment, I can't drive the 350Z fast out of a turn without getting a little too sideways. Maybe I just don't have that kind of skill, but I'm pretty sure there's more to it than that. I have the same problem with video games, where unlimited testing and tuning are free and don't involve turning wrenches. When the two driving tires are trying to go straight and there is a turn, something has to give. What gives is traction. If the turning wheels are putting down the power, at least they are moving in the right direction. In effect, they are pulling the car out of the turn rather than pushing it. Sure, if the tires are trying to turn the car and accelerate at the same time, the available traction is trying to do two things at once; but I think if your front tires have enough grip to do both, then this issue becomes a dead one. FWD is better if your car has a limited slip differential and you don't have ridiculous horsepower. I think that's why a well-tuned AWD car is so darned fast. The front wheels deserve a lot of the credit. While the back wheels are busy trying to throw everything into a slide, the front wheels are there like a stern parent pulling the car into line so the whole chassis can get on with the straightaway. AWD is like a mullet; business up front, party in the back.
So what about rotating the car? Rotating a RWD under power is a little tricky, but a lot of fun once you figure it out. The hard part comes when you rotate through a tight corner and have to transition the tires from slip to grip. They don't always cooperate, and it takes a while to get the car settled. This is not an issue with FWD. You lift off the throttle, trail brake, and get back on the throttle hard as soon as you can. There's no negotiating with the car about when/if you are going to get traction. In a rear wheel drive, I spend more time keeping a lid on the rear end of the car than I spend focusing on getting through the course. Again, I can devote my full attention to these fun and games when I go to a drift event. With a front driver, I can focus on getting through the course and let the back half of the car come along for the ride. If I set it up right, I can still steer with throttle lift off.
To sum it up, going fast is about being at full throttle as much as possible, which involves maintaining balance, maintaining momentum, choosing good lines, turning as little as possible, and being smooth. All of that just seems easier when you aren't waiting for the rear wheels to hook up. Perhaps if I ever get my 350Z's suspension and differential set up I'll change my mind. Until then, realize that when you see it coming out of a turn with more angle than is appropriate at the venue, I'm not showing off.