Corruption of an Autocrosser - Porscherama 2005

 

For the past two years, Iíve attended nearly every NNJR PCA autocross, becoming fairly skilled in the process.Practically from the first day I rolled my newly purchased Boxster into the driveway, friends started asking ďWhen are you going to the track?Ē, ďWhen will you get tired of staying in 2nd gearĒ and so on.Well, here it is, my first DE at Porscherama 2005 (if you donít know what Porscherama is: shame on you!).

 

What did I expect?I have a bad habit of psyching myself out so I tried hard not to create any expectations other than try to keep the shiny side up.From watching track videos, reading the online forums, and playing Forza and other driving video games, I knew basically what was going on, but I also knew there would be things I wasn't prepared for and many things I couldn't learn from those sources.My only hope was that I could manage the new experiences and situations in a safe and controlled fashion.

 

Alvaro, Rob, Shawn and Me on Saturday Morning

 

Waiting for my first Green run group on Saturday morning, I'm sure my heart was beating at least twice the usual rate.To make matters worse, I was first in line in staging.Although I've driven my car for a few years now, I still couldn't help but worry about stalling it!My instructor, Don Baker, attends a good number of autocrosses (which I attend religiously) and knew I was going to need to convert my autocross driving style to one better suited to the fast, sweeping turns of the track.He described how I would have to change things such as braking, rate of turn-in, application of throttle, and pretty much everything I know about driving.And shifting: Don asked if I could heel-toe.I started on a wishy-washy answer and then sucked it up and just said ďNoĒ.He assured me we could do the North Course in 3rd and work on shifting later.

 

Going out on the North Course of Pocono Raceway we enter the Bowl and I accelerate fairly gently because this is The first lap and also My first lap.A thought pops into my head: I've never floored it from 1st through 3rd or 4th before in my life.Hmm, how about that?So we're going around the bowl, brake, turn right, accelerate, and brake harder for tight right-hander.My autocross instincts cause me to turn in too early and too rapidly.Damn autocross!

 

As the run progressed, I was slowly able to convert my driving style to track.More appropriately, I should say Don was able to slowly and painfully pry me away from my autocross driving style.Brake, Turn, Throttle.It feels peculiar to be done braking before I even get near the turn and also to be on the throttle at the beginning of the turn.For some reason, I had a preconceived notion that throttle didnít come until after, or at least near, the apex.I stand corrected.But now I find new hurdles to conquer.Apex?What's that?Just kidding.There it is, over there.You know, 5 feet from my tire.Iím going to have to work on that.Track-out cone?Yeah, same thing: it's over there somewhere.Hmm, this is challenging!The only thing I have going for me at this point is that I have a good idea how my car handles and how to handle my car.Well, maybe not entirely.It all happened Friday night.

 

That night I found my adjustable rear sway bar dangling broken in two.What the heck?!?!I bled my brakes the previous evening (Thursday) and didn't see it dangling, and then took it for a ride and didn't feel it missing or hear it dragging.When did the sway bar break, and how?Oh well, I have my old M030 rear sway bar on for this event after a 9pm swap with the help of VW Jetta headlights for undercarriage illumination.Anyhow, back to the North Course!

Something doesnít look quite rightÖ

 

The first run group seemed to end too soon.Another point to work on: I missed seeing the checkered flag.This was an item I suspected I would have trouble with.After a breather, it was soon time for another Green run group.Through this run I slowly progressed to be able to place my car in appropriate locations at appropriate times on the course.Perfectly?Hardly.It was more like somewhere within sight of mediocre.Now that I am learning the line a little better, I can also start working on exiting turns faster.I found that a lot of cars had more horsepower than I do and pulled away from me easily once we entered the Bowl.One of those cars was a 997S.Holy smokes that car is fast!An additional detriment to me is that Iím still doing the whole course in 3rd gear so I donít have loads of torque exiting corners, especially entering the Bowl.Iíve tried heel-toe on the street with iffy results.I found that 4th to 3rd is easier for me than 3rd to 2nd, but itís still not good.Iíd end up staying in 3rd on the North Course for the remainder of the day.I believe this turned out to be a big advantage for me in the long run, though, because without shifting I could put all my concentration toward learning the line and executing turns as close to perfect as can be expected from a first-time DE-er.The result is that I was keeping up with most, if not all, cars in the infield, still without downshifting.It wasnít until the next day that I realized most cars were downshifting to 2nd in places.

 

In the afternoon run groups I finally got a handle on the appropriate place to turn-in.I know thereís a cone there, but it was hard for me to determine what exact instant I should be moving the wheel for the tires to make the car turn at the right spot relative to the cone.My final conclusion was that I should start turning the wheel the instant before the cone goes out of sight behind my fender in a right-hander.Iím not sure if this is actually correct, but it produced some good lines for me at the time.

 

The biggest shock of the day for me was realizing, and then trying to account for, overtake speeds in the Bowl.Iíd close on someone and it felt like I was going too fast to slow down in time to avoid passing them if they didnít give me a pass signal.There were not many instances on Saturday where I closed on anyone in the Bowl, but there were a few.Among these few throughout the day were some times where I was behind a few fast cars that received pass signals.By the time I got up to the passed car, a signal for me was not forthcoming and I had a very hard time preventing myself from passing without a signal.This was due to my misjudging the overtaking speed and my assumption that I, too, would get a signal.Note to self: Pay attention to this from now on!My instructor again made sure I knew how important it was to receive a pass signal.

 

Autocross Staging

 

Between two of the afternoon runs I managed to get myself over to the East Course to get a few runs in on the autocross course.Knowing I didnít have the time in the day to put into seriously competing for 1st place in S6 (Boxster and single Turbo 911 Class), my goal was to get one clean run on each day so that I would get a few points toward the season championship.Julie Starkweather, my nemesis, was 12 points behind me, so I didnít really even need to take any runs to win the championship but I preferred to make sure I took some each day for my own satisfaction.My first run was exploratory and I was 5 seconds off Julieís best.By this time she had taken all of her maximum of 6 runs, so I had a time to aim for.My second and third runs took me down in the 100.x second range.Iím still about 1.5 seconds off of her best time.My fourth run was going really well, but I hit a cone near the end of it and I let that be the last run for me on Saturday.I think Nigel Roden, with street tires, actually ended up beating me that day also.I guess Sunday will be the deciding day.

 

Sunday started off happily.We had to wait what seemed like forever for the cafeteria to open, although the sign on the access road said they already were!After a bagel and coffee (who makes that coffee anyway? Itís pretty thin) we all headed back to the pits for the Drivers and Students meetings.My brother Shawn had to, yet again, bleed his brakes.Heíd been experiencing a squishy brake pedal ever since he changed his front brake lines earlier in the week.This is at least the 4th time heís bled them with each time making them a bit better.Green goes out on the South Course and the first thing I notice is that the Bowl here seems a lot tighter than on the North Course.Iím not going nearly as fast (it seems), the banking is steeper, and it is scarier!The braking zone to enter the infield is also pretty scary because itís not as straight for as long as the North Course.Iím shifting to 4th before entering the Bowl and heel-toeing in the braking zone.I didnít get them all executed properly, but was working on it.3rd gear through the whole infield.Iím still not willing to worry about shifting to 2nd.

 

Sunday morning was a little chilly

 

The infield today was run with a section containing a sharp right-hand hairpin.Mmmm, I love the hairpin!Takes me right back to autocross.After a few laps I get going relatively fast through infield after I learn the line.Too often, though, slower drivers are holding me up and I coast around the infield.Also, slower drivers seemed very tentative in the steeper Bowl here so I was closing on a lot of cars again.I had the same problem as yesterday with overtaking.I was able to slow down easier for them this time though because I, myself, was pretty tentative in the Bowl.

 

Shawn and me on the South Course

 

At the end of the first run group Don says heís going to talk to the South Chief about letting me out in Yellow for the next run so we can get away from some traffic and return to learning more in the infield.This is really a relief because it was frustrating to coast through the infield and to deal with cars braking before any of the braking markers, when I wanted to go deeper before braking.At the same time, though, it was scary because Yellow drivers would have more experience and skill than me and the same feeling started creeping into my stomach that I had Saturday morning before my first DE run.

 

I head over to the pits to see how everyoneís doing and soon Don comes over and confirms weíre going out in Yellow in about half an hour to try it.Nice!Driving over there Iím staged and about 6th in line.The five in front of me pull out and fly off into the Bowl.Buh Bye!Out I go and take this Nascar section pretty fast.Iím in fourth gear and later today Iíll have the courage to take my eyes off the road for a split second to glance at my speedo.I just crested 100mph at that time.The number doesnít seem so impressive, does it?The number doesnít impress me either, but the experience did!I saw a hair more speed than that on the North Course yesterday (remember, I stayed in 3rd there and was banging off the rev limiter for a good portion of it) but this still seems faster.

 

I find myself now able to drive the proper line through the South Bowl at speed because the other 5 cars are still pretty far ahead of me.In Green in the morning there seemed to be a lot of slower cars that prevented taking the line at speed due to overtaking.At the time I entered the Bowl there hadnít been any cars coming out behind me.Now I see a white 996 a ways behind me.ďThis is going to be a bit differentĒ I think to myself.Yesterday I hadnít given many passing signals.Mike McDougall had flown past me in his 993TT and a few others.I figure today there will be a lot more of that.Driving now through the infield; still on the first lap, Iím happy to get through it without getting near to any of those five cars.Green Flag!Floor it and here we go.Fly around the bowl, track out to the braking zone, hard on the brakes, downshift and drop down into the infield.Still having some trouble with the first left-hander.Now the hairpin.Mmmmm hairpin!Track out, come back across a bit, and absolutely fly through the next left-hander less than a foot off the apex cone! Down into the slight right and brake, now GAS through the rest of the infield, within a foot of the apex cone again, and enter up into the Bowl.Oohhhh Baby!This is better!In a few laps I come across some additional cars that had come out and am happy to receive fairly well timed pass signals and keep turning laps.I declare: This is Good! Between run groups Don confirms Iím staying in Yellow for the day.Iím feeling great about the whole infield from the entrance to exit.

 

 

Iím still a big baby in the Bowl, only barely cresting 100mph, as I said earlier.Iím carrying a lot more speed through the whole course now so I make a few more mistakes than before and Don reminds me again that I have to start adjusting my braking points as my speeds increase and be more careful with the attitude of the car during braking.Taking his advice I work out better braking at better times coming off the Bowl.Iím also more experienced now with the 4-3 downshift and am pretty smooth most of the time.The infield now is probably the most fun Iíve had all weekend.Only occasionally do I catch cars in here, and Don teaches me how to hold back in the latter portion of the infield and then get a good run out of it and catch cars early in the Bowl for a pass signal.I donít recall giving any pass signals while in Yellow, although I may have a selective memory.But now Iím getting too fast for my own good.

 

The ugly beast called overtaking speed again raises its head.A few times in the 1st and 2nd run group Iíve had to check up for cars but everyoneís a bit faster now in Yellow and it doesnít happen too often.Until now, in a big way.I just had an exceptional car-free infield, a great trip around the Bowl and now fly up toward the braking zone and see an old(er) Carrera in front of me.They braked earlier than I expected and had been driving slower than I thought.Oh, Crap.I grossly misjudged the speed differential and had to finish my braking closer to the other car than I was comfortable with.I scared myself a bit there.From that point on I was astutely aware of the closing speeds of every car I came across and never again had a time that I needed to use the brakes significantly when coming up on a car in the Bowl.I also was always fully in control during braking and always far enough from other cars in the braking zone that I didnít get uncomfortably close to them.Don commented a few laps later on how much more aware and careful I was now about closing speeds and overtaking.Itís too bad I wasnít smart enough to figure it out earlier.

 

After the third run of the day, second in Yellow, I head over to autocross for run.I pretty much repeated my first performance from Saturday.We have to load Rob Fusiís 911 onto the trailer due to a transmission, or related area, problem.I opt not to take my fourth DE run of the day.Turns out Donís happy about this because he just took Chris out on the North Course of open lapping for the full-speed charity ride and then they went directly to the South Course for the Red run group.Chris had a great time.Don was a little tired after all that, so I helped load Twisted Pumpkin on the trailer and a bit later Don came over and offered to take me out on the North Course at the end of the day.Excellent!

 

Out we go.What a rush!Hard braking, rapid downshifts, high Gís.Yeah, he might know what heís doing ;-).During the ride heís calmly explaining various things heís doing right and not-so-right.On one lap he demonstrates downshifting twice, from 4th to 2nd before turning into the infield.I think he can downshift twice faster than I can upshift once!He decided that it wasnít faster and went back to single downshifts at each of the two turns there.The run group was incredible.At one point he signals a modified 911 to pass and says ďIím not even going to liftĒ and there it goes, streaking by under ungodly acceleration.The run group ends and its time to get things squared away, but first another run or two at autocross.Both Julie and Nigel beat me again, but thatís ok.Theyíre both happy and Iíve had a great weekend so I donít mind.

 

Packed up for the journey home

 

I have to admit, I was worried about what instructor I was going to get.Well, my matchmaker gave me, in my opinion, the perfect instructor for my personality.Don provided input where and when necessary, but didnít say more than required.He also didnít say too little.He let me concentrate on my driving and commented at appropriate times with feedback and advice.To me, it was perfect.Throughout the days he advanced his instruction at an equivalent pace to my level of driving.Thanks to Don for giving me the best experience I could have imagined for my first DE.

 

So, have I been converted from a Cone Dodger to a Track-o-phile?Not at all.If anything, I found myself foaming at the mouth in anticipation of my next autocross.I canít wait to see how track experience will translate back into my autocross driving style!Rather than steal my zest for autocross, DE has provided a second outlet for my enthusiasm toward driving.Maybe I need a second car to dedicate to track eventsÖ HmmÖ In any case, I look forward to doing another DE or two next season.I can daydream until then.