Can you believe that it is March already? Where has the time gone this winter? When you are reading this, our opening day at Lime Rock will be scarcely 40 days away! If you have not uncovered your car, unplugged the Battery Tender, and started getting things ready, well, now would be the time. For many of us, the preparations for the track season can be a daunting task, both in effort and expense. Making matters worse, the economy is obviously not great, and not getting better anytime soon. Let’s face it, with the battle going on between the dynamic Mitt Romney and the enigmatic Newt Gingrich, the only things Barack has to worry about is picking a new Secretary of State, and deciding if the curtains in the Oval Office need to be updated. So with that, I decided to put together a compendium of sorts spanning the obvious to the overlooked. Here are some tips that I have accumulated over the years that may be of some help to you as you prepare for the season.
Buy early, buy often, buy wisely. There is no question that this hobby is expensive from a parts and maintenance standpoint. You can lessen the blow however, by picking things up well before you may need them and getting some deals along the way. Take brake pads, for example. For whatever reason, I always find myself in a time crunch, usually right before a track event, searching for the right pads for the car. I end up buying them at full retail, and then add insult and injury by needing expedited shipping. If you keep your eyes and ears open, though, there are often savings throughout the year. Shops will run sales, often in the winter months. You can also get great private sale deals. Many times a club member will change Porsches, and sell the extra parts from the former car in our Porscheforus Mart or the “for sale” section of our club website. Swap meets like our own NNJR “white elephant” sale every January, or the famous annual Saturdday Hershey show on April 21 are also great sources. Case in point, I watched a fellow club member this past weekend at the white elephant pick up two sets of new Pagid front pads for “Big Red” brakes, plus a set of rears, for $100! Full retail on those Pagids is easily more than $800. Another example is motor oil. Many Porsches use tried and true Mobil 1 synthetic oil and if you have a 911, you are buying eleven quarts of it for each oil change. Buying it when it is on sale, or in bulk five-quart containers, can literally cut the price in half, from around $9 a quart to $4.50. You can apply this logic to almost anything, of course, the common theme is to avoid waiting to the last minute to buy things you need. Stock up on those expendables that you know you will need throughout the season. Do not forget about bottled water and sun block, either.
Bring yourself into alignment. Suspensions in Porsches have traditionally been great right out of the box, and the newer cars are certainly no exception. These suspensions in stock form are probably better than most of us are as drivers. What is important, though, is a good alignment. The street alignment (appropriately) is geared towards tire wear, conservative handling and straightaway stability on US highways. If you drive a car that has been set up for track, the first thing you usually notice about the handling is how well it “turns in.” This is because the alignment (usually the front toe setting) has been set more aggressively to promote crisp response when you turn the steering wheel. The camber settings are also usually reset to a much more negative stance, which helps more of the tire’s surface to stay in contact with the pavement during hard cornering. More rubber on the road equals more grip and better tire wear under track conditions. Though the exact setting you should have will depend greatly on many factors including your ratio of street-to-track use, an experienced Porsche shop should be able to get your suspension dialed in to your goals. Those Porsches with height-adjustment capabilities should also have the car “corner balanced” while it is being aligned. A performance alignment is one of the best bang-for-the-buck changes you can make to your car.
Make every day a DE. You may not be able to practice your golf swing every day. Or your skiing technique. Or your tennis stroke. You can, however, have your own private DE event on your way to work. Or driving to the mall. Or driving in a snowstorm. No, I don’t mean blasting down 287 like it was the back straight at Pocono (although you may encounter snow and stray deer there, too). Many of the elements that we focus on in driver education, like ocular driving, smooth inputs on the controls and heel-and-toe technique, can be used in you daily commute. So when you are taking that sweeping on ramp to the highway, train your eyes through the turn instead of directly ahead of your car. Practice turning the car smoothly on back roads to feel the weight transfer. At stop signals, squeeze the brakes and then try to release them smoothly enough to come to a stop without any rollback. Heel-toe your downshifts into 90 degree turns. Before you know it, the braking zone just before Big Bend will seem just like your driveway.
Two’s Company; one is just expensive. I have heard people joke that NNJR DE events are 95% social, and 5% driving. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but I have to admit that when I am making my Lime Rock plans, one of my first thoughts is a dinner with friends at The Boathouse (surprisingly good sushi for the Berkshires, but I digress…). So why not also have a room mate for the weekend? You will have company to watch McQueen’s LeMans for the 100th time in the hotel and you can carpool to/from the track. Cutting your overall track hotel bills in half, over the course of an entire season, has a huge impact on your annual budget. Plus you get to spend more time with friends that you might not get to see that often. (Ear plugs help with snoring.)
Weight is the enemy. Cue jokes here. Okay, I can stand to lose a few pounds, and that is exactly what I plan to do before track season starts. I am counting points and stepping on scales weekly. Seriously, though, this is a performance modification disguised as a diet. I have spent extra money to have a lightweight battery in my car, which saves in the neighborhood of 25 pounds. I also have changed various parts in my engine bay to carbon fiber, some for hundreds of dollars, to save 10-15 pounds. I first saw the irony in all of this when I was explaining these modifications to the friend over lunch at Thunderbolt, while chowing down on a cheeseburger and fries. Instead of buying carbon fiber, I should have been eating dietary fiber. The motivation is that shaving 40 pounds off the car will cost a whole lot more than a winter season of Weight Watchers. Beyond weight, though, stamina is really critical while doing DE. You probably do not realize how hard your cardiovascular system is working while you are concentrating on your driving on the race track. This is no secret anymore to the NASCAR guys. If you look at films from 30 years ago, they were a bunch of overweight guys, smoking cigarettes and drinking Busch beer in the pits (maybe in the car, too…who knows). Now NASCAR is defined by guys like Carl Edwards, who literally does a back flip off the top of his race car with every win, or Kyle Busch, who scales catch fences like Spiderman. Those guys train like Olympic athletes these days. They realize that better stamina gives you a greater ability to focus and stay focused, which in turn makes you faster and safer out there. How many points is that donut again? Oh, darn.
The Devil is in the details. People that have been doing track for a while do certain things that, at first, I thought were kind of silly. They arrive at the track early and prepare their cars early. Me, I like to sleep late and relax. Rushing around the pits trying to change tires, get the car to the tech line, and make the drivers meeting by 7:45. All while trying to work in a McMuffin and coffee (not as many points as you might think, by the way) is not what you would call relaxing. Being late preparing your car can lead to rushing and making mistakes, which of course is never a good thing when you are going to be on a race track. At the very least, you may be late for a work assignment, or for your own scheduled run group. So, set the alarm clock early, get to the track when it opens, and you will have a better day.
Part of that goal lies in the other end of the day…the sleeping part. A good night’s sleep is also something that I thought was overrated. My buddies, Rick Uhler, Radomin Delgado and I once kidnapped the big stuffed bear that sits in the bar of The Lighthouse in Lime Rock at probably 1:30AM. The next day, Radomin had it strapped into the passenger seat (and harnesses) of his car as he flew down the main straight. I was working tower, as luck would have it, and heard the call from the flagger at the top of West Bend: “Car #69 has a passenger without a helmet.” The track chair, quickly quipped back, “It’s OK…the passenger’s head is already a little soft.” “Come back?” the flagged inquired. “Stuffed bear in car #69.” was the final call. OK, so it was amusing, and it makes for a good story every now and again, but we were really dragging that AM. I may have even deliberately given up one of my runs. Sleep is definitely a performance advantage.
The Boy Scouts get it right. Being prepared, as simple as that sounds, is probably one of the most important aspects of this sport. This, admittedly, covers a lot of ground. I will start with the car. The night before an event is not the best time to be changing brake pads, bleeding brake fluid, installing camera and data systems, changing oil, having trailer hitches mounted to your truck, installing steering wheels, having new track tires mounted, or alignments performed. (Ask me how I know.) Nobody wants to be under the gun…not you, your parts suppliers, your tire shop, your mechanic, or the UPS man. Get it done early. Also, make sure that you take care of any potential problems before they become problems. Will DiGiovanni from Precision Motorsports Racing likes to say that, the difference between a regular mechanic and a motorsports mechanic is that a regular mechanic may advise to fix or replace things as they actually break or wear out, to stretch your value. A motorsports mechanic, however, understands that time off from work and family, traveling costs, track fees, hotel fees, and general frustration over being at a far away place with a car that does not work is not really value. If you are taking the time to do a driving event, you want to be able to drive and you want to feel comfortable in your ride. So, change the brake pads if they are 3/4 worn and you are headed for a three-day at The Glen, change the oil if you already have 3,000 miles on it and you are about to head to Mosport and repair any other items well in advance so that you do not become side lined at the event.
Have a check list of stuff you need to pack for the track, and use it. Bring extra keys to your car (and tow vehicle, if you tow). Always make sure you have a set of spare brake pads. If you have a car with a known issue (such as DME relays on 3.2 Carreras), have a spare relay in your tool kit. Keep extra fuses and light bulbs, too. Always have towels and Windex (my fiancée, who is Greek, insists that the Windex is the only inaccurate part of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, by the way). Electrical tape, duct tape, a good set of wrenches, Allen keys, and screw drivers, are also good things to always have with you.
Driver, driver, driver. The more you do DE (or Club racing, or autocross), the more you come to a conclusion about the synergy between man and machine on a track: it’s really all about the driver. Yes, if I cloned the same great driver and put one of him in a 944 and the other in a 4.0 GT3, I think we all know who will be lapping the track faster. But every time I am cooking along in my 964, feeling pretty good about myself, a guy like Keith Peare comes along in my rearview, driving a fairly stock Boxster S, only to pass me and pull away. I would venture to guess that my 964 is pretty close in performance to that Boxster, and there is no doubt that Keith would easily smoke me in my own car, too. And that is just it. The car can only take you so far. The rest is entirely driver. So with that, this sport becomes like all others – practice makes perfect. NBA players spent their entire childhoods staying late in the gym practicing free throws. Pro golfers paid their dues on the practice greens, sinking putt after putt into the darkness. And, great drivers worked on getting as much seat time as possible. At our DE events, there is the advantage of always having a good amount of instructors and chief instructors generally around and available for coaching, even in the advanced groups. I regularly ask colleagues for coaching, and I am an instructor. You never stop learning, and you never should try to.
So with that, I would like to remind everyone that Lime Rock registration is already open on Motorsportreg (it opened on February 15). On March 5, the registration will also be open for the advanced run group days at Lightning and Thunderbolt (April 30-May 1), and MidOhio (all run groups) will open on March 23. On the subject of MidOhio, I hope that some new people will decide to join us on at this track this year. I have never been to MidOhio myself, and I look forward to my first trip there. I have yet to come across one person that has not loved this track. I will be posting my departure time in the NNJR web forum (DE section) for when I leave for this event, in case anyone wants to caravan out there!