Tracking Out February 2013

Winter had taken a short break last weekend it seemed with temperatures in the high forties for a change. Okay, so it wasn’t the balmy 50 to 60 degree weather that we saw most of last winter, but it was warm enough to wash off the car without it immediately becoming a big blue-green popsicle. The suds washed off remnants of Watkins Glen and New Jersey Motorsports Park, squashed bugs and small black streaks of Hoosiers from days gone by. When the car was finally dry, I carefully covered the 964 and secured it for the rest of the winter.

I had a pretty robust driving season in 2012, at least by my standards. I visited NJMP three times, Watkins Glen twice, Pocono and Lime Rock once each, and even took the long journey into Canada for my first track days at Mosport. In between all of that, I jumped back into my 911SC and competed at nearly every NNJR autocross event (old habits die hard, I guess). There were four sets of tires, two sets of brake pads, two alignments and several hundred gallons of gas. Every event was memorable in its own way, but the total schedule had a way of wearing me out.

Too much of a good thing, maybe? I remember a professor using a pizza analogy to explain the law of diminishing returns: The first slice tastes great. The second is pretty good, too, but once past your third, the marginal level of enjoyment plateaus. It does not mean that you don’t like pizza anymore – it just means that you are full.

Time for the off-season. Ahh, the off-season. I know many people spend the off-season dreaming of the next season. Some do not end their seasons at all, and instead take off for the warmth of the southern climates. PBOC’s Winterfest event at Sebring is a popular spot in January for many of our drivers. For me, though, I look forward to the off-season. I like the break from traveling, from changing tires, and yes, even from my Porsches. Come early October, I sort of slide into my winter hobby, which is all about enjoying music. Recorded music, that is, specifically on vinyl records, and played back on a decent two-channel sound system. Pretty exciting, right?

The iPod generation may not understand the whole concept of “sitting down” to listen to recorded music, especially in this Bluetooth and wireless speaker world that we live in. Why sit down when you select one of 10,000 songs on your wireless device and stream them wherever you like? Walking among all those ear-budded souls, though, are people like me that still appreciate the quality of recorded sound and that are willing to go just a little bit father to achieve audio nirvana.

First things first: I have to bias my tubes. Yes, my tubes. On my power amplifier. It is actually a pretty simple operation. There is a meter, and you bias each power tube to a reading of 35 milliamperes…piece of cake, really. Then you just install the protective cage (to keep inquisitive little hands away from those glowing power tubes) and you are all set for a couple of months. If you perform this process regularly, you can expect those large power tubes to last at least a couple of years before they need replacing.

You may think that this equipment came from some garage sale, or maybe it was an old family system rescued from my mother’s (or grandmother’s) attic. Would you believe that these components were actually manufactured during the Obama era? They are made by a company called Rogue Audio, which has its office and manufacturing facility located in sleepy Brodheadsville PA – just about fifteen minutes from Pocono Raceway, in fact. The owner of Rogue, Mark O’Brien, is very proud of his company and was nice enough to give me the grand tour of the plant last spring. Every product they sell is screwed together right there in Pennsylvania, by Pennsylvanians. (Mark also happens to be a car guy, too, as evidenced by the C6 Corvette in the driveway.) The tubes that are an integral part of this gear are also still made in this world of 2013.

Old tube manufacturing equipment was bought by modern companies, mostly from Russia and China, and they make scores of new tubes, many in the image of older, classic brands such as Mullard. There are also inventories of actual vintage tubes readily available and usually at a considerable premium. Electronics companies that blew out their tube inventories thirty years ago probably cry when looking at listings on eBay. A good middle-of-the-road vintage Sylvania tube might set you back $50, while a vintage Telefunken could run you $400 or much more and that is for each tube.

Which tube works? Well, it all depends on what you are looking to achieve, or correct, in your system’s sound. Some provide that classic “tube” sound of a round, smooth midrange, while other convey more bass, cleaner highs, or darker backgrounds. You can change the sound of your equipment through these tubes, a sub-hobby called “tube rolling.” I have not gone too far down that dark path yet.

So why tubes over good ol’ reliable, no-moving-parts, no-adjustments-necessary solid state amplification? There is just something special about listening to music through vacuum tubes. There is a sweetness to vocals, especially female voices. On any given night, I have Norah Jones, Janis Ian, Aimee Mann and Rickie Lee Jones right there in the room with me, or so it seems from the liquid-like music, smooth as their natural voices. The instruments have space around them. The soundstage has an actual depth that you can visualize. Cymbals sustain their rings until the drummer silences it with his hand. It is hard to imagine being able to get much closer to the music.

Apart from the physical equipment, the much more active side of my winter hobby is the hunt for more music. Sure, you can visit the iTunes store from your couch, or bed, or wherever, and find just about any song instantly. There is no need to buy an entire album, let alone listen to one. Record stores are a whole different kettle of fish. Once nearly extinct, they are staking their claim as a viable purveyors of an antiquated recording medium. While bearing a slight resemblance to the stores you might remember from twenty-plus years ago with bins of LPs, record stores today have a much different vibe. The emphasis of most stores is towards used records. Some are sorted nicely, but the real treasures are usually found in the unsorted, new arrivals bins. Here is where you find that missing Talking Heads album that you had as a kid, or that clean copy of The Song Remains the Same.

Not everything is used, though. Like tubes, the resurgence of vinyl records has led to new record pressing plants opening all over the world. Some of the best stuff comes from a company called Quality Record Pressings in Salina, Kansas. Remember the old days where you would drop a needle into the record groove and hear a lot of ticks and static? Not anymore. Today’s vinyl, played with a premium stylus, yields near-digital black backgrounds, albeit with the lifelike timbre and tonality that only an analog medium can deliver. There is also the fact that records are still a physical medium. In a modern world where music is typically exchanged in byte-sized quantities, it is kind of nice to actually own music on a medium that you can hold in your hand.

When you sit down to listen to the album, you can take in the cover and other artwork, the lyrics, and the liner notes – basically all of the stuff that the artist at one time created and wanted you to enjoy. Some artists used to be known almost as much by their album art as they were by their music. We stopped noticing the artwork when it was made small and folded into a CD box. With digital files, these features are all but lost. It is hard to imagine The Wall without the elaborate gate-folded cover, the disturbing depictions of the actors in the famous rock opera, and the maniacally-scribbled lyrics on each of the sleeves.

One night not all that long ago, enjoying a Sierra Nevada while listening to Alan Parson’s I Robot spinning on the turntable, I got to thinking: The interest…the motivation…the passion behind my two polarized hobbies – they kind of come from the same place inside. (And no, I don’t mean a spliff someone left inside a used copy of Terrapin Station.) Most people spend their lives thinking of cars as transportation. Some are more enthusiastic than others and will buy a car that is based more upon what they happen to like (styling, opulence, speed, etc.). It usually ends there, though – with a car in the driveway that embodies those traits that their owner perceives that it has.

The relatively small subset of people like us, though – the enthusiasts, the hobbyists – follow their automotive interests right down the rabbit hole. The world kind of changed for me once I bought that first Porsche, my 911SC, in 2003. Sure, I started out the way I always did (and the way my dad had always done), thinking that being an enthusiast meant having a clean wash bucket, a fresh sponge and new toweling. Soon after buying it, though, I realized that it was a relatively simple, but fascinating car mechanically. With 911 expert mechanic Gene Kirschner’s encouragement, I started working on my own car a lot. Changing bulbs led to changing switches, which led to changing brakes. All of these jobs required tools, and so my home tool collection grew from a couple of screwdrivers and a hammer to sets of Craftsmen tools, stored in their own rolling chest.

As time passed, I realized that the intervals between washes grew. The car had become less of a shiny object, and more of a machine. At the same time, being both an active autocrosser and drivers education student was changing my definition of “performance driving.” I could not believe what I was learning, but maybe even more, I could not believe how much I had left to learn. All of those crazy seventeen year old blasts down back roads in my old GTI, exposed to me now as irresponsible, not skillful. Each autocross and each DE brought with it new lessons, though. In my air-cooled cars, I remember first feeling the effect of that rear engine, lifting abruptly off the gas pedal in the middle of a turn in autocross, and the resulting violent spin. With ample seat time, that right pedal was no longer a light switch; metering the throttle, instead of jumping on and off, allowed me to now steer the car through the rear tires.

It is thrilling when you can effectively make a seemingly impossible turn in an autocross and reassuring when you adjust your line through a high speed turn in drivers education. The lessons learned have been many, some small, but all valuable. Honestly, though, it does not stop on racetracks and parking lots. It does not stop with Porsches. Heck, it doesn’t even stop with cars. I see signs of my hobby when I drive to work, and when I turn a wrench on my lawnmower. So maybe the question is what separates those with an interest from those that follow their interests enthusiastically. Is it having 10,000 songs on your iPhone that makes you happy, or is it the joy of hearing one of your favorite songs, played with shocking impact and realism, bringing Syd Barrett back to life for a fleeting moment? Is it a quick mash of the gas on 287 before your exit, or is it perfectly timing your line and speed through the exit, while trying not to adjust your steering angle. Maybe it is all of the above.

So how far are you willing to chase the rabbit down the hole? Your first opportunity this year is on April 10 and 11 at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. Registration opens on February 13h on Motorsportreg. If you are new to the game, please sign up early, as the spots always go fast! We are also hosting our annual instructor meeting and High Performance Driving Seminar on February 24 at the Villa. The instructors will meet in the morning, while the High Performance Seminar starts after lunch. Lunch is optional for all. Our guest speaker this year is none other than Brumos Porsche team driver Andrew Davis. Andrew is not only a racer, but he also is a long time Porsche instructor, PCA member, and Porsche owner. I cannot wait. For those off weekends in the meantime, though, maybe I will see you around the new arrivals bins at Princeton Record Exchange.