Whatever happened to the winters of my childhood?

I can remember like it was yesterday getting dressed to go out and play in the snow as a kid. There was usually a turtleneck shirt involved, thermals, snow pants, snow jacket, gloves, boots, a hat (sometimes with a mask included), and a scarf. There would be so much snow on the ground, piled up by the plows from multiple storms, that we would have all of the materials we would need for a season of snow forts, snowmen, snow cones (don’t eat the yellow ones), snowball fights, and whatever else begins with “snow.” This was all winter long, too. There were snow days, early closing days, and those magical moments on snowy mornings when we would sit huddled on my parents bed, listening to school closings on AM radio. As soon as I heard the “Men-” of “Mendham,” I would react like I had won the lottery…and my mom would grimace as if she lost a bet.

I thought about all of this the other day as the kids and I washed the remaining bits of 2011 from my track car. I had followed the old adage last fall of “running it hard and putting it away dirty.” The paint still has black marks from all of those sticky Hoosiers and slicks in front of me (as I passed them, of course). A dog-eared Watkins Glen II tech sticker still adorns the center of my windshield, and a couple of water bottles roll around the floor of the passenger side. On this fine sixty-degree day in February, with the sun way up high in the sky and the water drops drying almost faster than I can take a towel to it, those old winter memories seem a world away. There has not been a snow day since October, and the kids’ boots still have tags on them. Pity for my kids, but not bad at all for me as I start to prepare my car for the long track season. Indeed, as distant as winter seemed, Lime Rock is dead ahead in my sights.

As you read this, we will be about a week from our season opener, at beautiful Lime Rock Park. I am already having those panic dreams like you get before a prom (I forgot to rent my tux!) or my graduation (I needed three more credits??), only this time I am waking up in my dream at 10am and missing a DE that I am supposed to be running. Maybe I’ll assign someone a wake up call function just to be safe.

I do have an exciting change planned for our Lime Rock DE. To give some background, Lime Rock has been under increasing pressure from their neighbors to gentrify events and make them less noisy. Last year, we saw a Lime Rock employee stalking the main straight, taking sound readings of our Porsches while they were singing at full song at the end of the main straight. My relatively stock 964 even received a sound warning! So what’s a track chair to do? Well, calling upon my past experience as the club’s autocross chair, I have decided to do the only reasonable thing – I am making the entire main straight a big autocross. Here is how it will lay out: Right after tracking out at the bottom of the downhill, we will put a Chicago-box course element, then a few double cone offsets, followed by a twenty-five cone variable pace slalom! This will keep the engine sounds relatively low, and will help everyone reinforce their car control skills. Anyone can go fast in a straight line…how well can you turn, though? An added side benefit is that the low-powered, good handling cars will have the tables reversed, and can finally pick on those high HP Cups and GT3s. What do you think? (Okay, so I couldn’t write an April article without some kind of an April Fool’s joke…now back to our regular programming)

More than just any other track day on the schedule, Lime Rock is the one where most of us are really getting our winter rust off. Yeah, sure, a few showoffs that managed to head down to Daytona or Sebring this past winter will have their mojo going early. For the rest of us, though, the best course is to take it all back in slowly…allowing the reflexes, muscle memory and driving ability to return as we turn our first laps of 2012.

Many of us will actually be brand new to the track…not just 2012 or Lime Rock, but all tracks. This year’s Mid-Winter Track event, a showcase for new members interested in Driver Education and Autocross held annually every January, was extremely well attended. My advice at that event was to sign into Motorsportreg on the very night that our DE’s open (12:01am on February 15, in this case) was apparently well received. I checked in late in the day on the 15, and the event was darned near full in the green group, with a waiting list! To all of those folks, I say a hearty “congratulations!” More than likely, your life after this event will be divided into “Pre-DE” and “Post DE” memories.

My first DE was at Lime Rock Park. It was 2003, and I was driving my BMW M3 with BMWCCA. They are a great club as well, and run a pretty similar event to ours, albeit with scads of twenty-something year old E21 320i’s and 2002s in race trim instead of 911s, 944s and 914s. That first event it rained like cats and dogs all morning and early afternoon. Even though the car had DSC+T (PSM, as spoken in Bavarian dialect) and fresh street tires, I still panicked a little thinking about being on a racetrack in my new car in the pouring rain. The chief instructor gave a great pep talk, though. Invoking a personal near miss on a highway sometime in his not-too-distant pass where his DE skills effectively saved him, he made everyone feel pretty good and confident about the learning process. He also pointed out, quite correctly, that rain slows the groups down, and makes learning in many respects much easier than on a dry track. It may have just been freshly-squeezed lemonade made from the sour fruit of the day, but it worked, and I had an awesome time with my M3. We even had the great fortune of a dry track for our last run group, just to have something extra to smile about on the way home.

Going back to the Mid-Winter Track Event, there were a lot of great questions asked, both during and after the seminar. I thought I would take a moment to answer a couple of them in this article. The names will be changed to protect the innocent, the not-so-innocent, and the easily-embarrassed.

“Josh” from Sioux City, Iowa writes, “Do I need to do anything special to my car before my first DE?” Well, I guess the answer to the question depends a lot on the current condition and maintenance history of your car. If you have a newer car that has been maintained regularly, with good tires and brakes, then you should not have any issues at all with running your car as-is on the track. You may want to change your oil if it has not been changed in the past year, and you also should have your brake fluid flushed. We hold a free tech inspection before every DE event where a NNJR tech team will do a thorough look over of your car on a lift. These tech times, dates and places are listed on the DE schedule for each event. In actuality, these regular inspections before each DE sometimes help our members discover routine problems, such as a nail in a tire or a low set of brake pads, before a major issue develops on the road or the track. If your car is older or not regularly maintained, it is a good idea to  have your car serviced and checked over by your dealer or one of the independent Porsche shops in our region. Make sure that you mention to them that you plan to drive the car on the racetrack. Common areas that sometimes need to be addressed before an older car is “track worthy” are brakes, fluids, and tires (four matching tires with good tread and no dry rot or other damage), though your mechanic will most likely thoroughly check all of your car’s systems to make sure everything is as it should be.

A similar question was asked by “Chuck” from Salina, Kansas. Chuck asks, “The guys on the Rennspeedsportwithsixspeeds.com/net message boards all say that I should add new coil overs, stiff sway bars, and race compound tires to my car for my first DE, because my new Porsche apparently handles so badly with the factory parts.  What do you think?” I think that almost anyone in the paddock – the instructors, the chief instructors, the upper run group students, and even the initiated newer drivers- would agree that a stock car with regular street tires is by far the best learning platform for a new driver. Porsches, right out of the box as God makes them, are perfectly at home on the racetrack. They are also set up to be relatively neutral and safe-handling in stock form. Don’t get me wrong…modifying a car to tailor it to your individual wants and driving styles is very gratifying (and expensive) when you get all dialed in correctly. As a new DE driver, though, it is challenging enough to take everything in as a driver, let alone worrying about how a car should be set up. Modifying a car should always be done with a specific goal in mind. Beware of boiler plate internet message board advice from “experts” – there is no one-size-fits-all in this sport. Also, keep in mind that a set-up for an advanced driver’s car might actually feel twitchy and unpredictable to a new driver, making it more difficult and dangerous for them to drive. The goal for a lower run group car, in my mind, is to effectively be as neutral and “invisible” to the driver as possible. It should be like a good tennis shoe, supporting what you are doing but not dominating it. You should be able to take your car to the track, check the fluids, set the tire pressures, and then focus on your driving.

One more comes from Penelope from Brodheadsville, PA. “Of all of the Porsches, which are the best suited for the track?” Honestly, as driver education cars, all of the Porsches are pretty terrific. I am always amazed when I am out with my students on the track at just how well these cars, whether it be a 944 Turbo, a stock 2.5 liter Boxster, or even a Cayenne, handle the rigors of performance driving. In fact, I cannot think of another car company where every one of their products is up to this task, and that can perform it reliably. It is a regular sight at any one of our events to see forty or fifty cars that are twenty to thirty years old. Most are driven a hundred miles or more to the track, driven on the track for two or three days, and then repacked and driven home. Don’t get me wrong, no one is going to confuse the on track abilities of a 924 with a GT3. The driver of the 924, however, is going to be smiling just as broadly as the GT3 pilot after their first days of drivers education – guaranteed!  And that is not an April Fool’s joke!)

I have a few reminders – as you read this article, the popular Thunderbolt/Lightning Upper Run Group DE will still be open (closes on April 16), as well as Mid-Ohio (closes May 4). The Thunderbolt DE (June 15-16) opens in a couple of weeks, on April 20. So what tracks are on your schedule for the season? Are you adding anything new? For myself, I plan on three new ones for this season, starting with Mid-Ohio. It is only about eight hours away, and is raved about by all that have experienced the track. I will be posting my departure time on the NNJR website under the DE forum, in case anyone is interested in “caravanning” out there. Be well, everyone, and I will see you at Lime Rock!