We thought it would never happen, but the day finally came when it was time to take Operation Thunderchicken back to the Kenny Brown/TrackTime Driving School in Watkins Glen, NY. We've worked this past year to improve the weak points on our '93 Firebird Formula project car; among our chief concerns we had after last year's school were the lack of braking power and the lack of lateral grip from our street tires.
The brake issue was dealt with in detail in "Whoa, Back!" (see November 2000) when we installed a set of Baer Racing GT-P front brakes. This was continued in the following issue with "Road Race Ready!" where we upgraded our rubber to full-tilt racing shoes from Kumho, rims from Performance Wheel Outlet, and race brake pads from Performance Friction. Instrument testing confirmed the improvement in braking and lateral road holding and we finally felt ready to attack the track in mind-bending fury.
All dressed up, now we just needed a place to go. That place would be one of the toughest, fastest road race venues in the United States--the 3.38-mile circuit at Watkins Glen, NY. The 11-turn track is full of altitude changes and high-speed twisties. It ain't for the faint of heart, but it sure is fun. And who better to enjoy it with than the experts at Kenny Brown Performance and TrackTime Performance Driving School?
As you shall see, not everything went exactly according to plan, but hey, we can deal with it. We had a great time and would recommend this school to anyone wanting to truly stretch their legs. This year we documented our driving experience in diary form. We hope you enjoy it enough to join us next year...
Friday, October 6
I check the weather forecast before heading out to Watkins Glen. The Kumho Victoracer racing tires are on the car, but the Weather Channel is calling for rain today, and on Saturday and Sunday. Even worse, there's a possibility of snow on Sunday and it looks like it will rain for sure on Monday on the way home. At the last minute, I decide to pull the Kumhos off the car and put the Goodyear F1 Steels on. Boy, I hope I made the right call! If it isn't raining, I'm going to be pissed that I'm not going faster.
Saturday, October 7
Session One, 10:00 am
I was concerned that the track would be wet, so I took it easy the first session, plus I didn't want to screw up in front of everybody like I did earlier this year at Seattle. My instructor David Davin thought there were parts of my technique that were very good, namely my line, but there were problems. My steering inputs are too jerky and my braking is too tentative. I can tell that this is going to be my biggest problem this weekend. David told me as we exited the track, "You've got the apex and corner exit nailed, but you're not coming off the brake smooth enough on corner entry. The front of the car comes up and you compensate by turning in too early."
The car ran well. The engine was perfect, but I'm a little worried that having it in 4th at 5000-plus rpm down the back stretch for so long might hurt the engine by the end of the school. Toward the end of the session, I experiment with shifting into 5th at the beginning to the back stretch. I'm not going fast enough to need it now, but by Sunday I know I'll be wishing I had practiced the shift earlier. David told me to shift into 5th in the esses. There is just a split second when the car is straight when you can do this! If I'm late on the shift, the car will be upset and there's a real risk the car could swap ends. I'm going to have to work on this, but it's easy to forget when you're climbing up the hill so fast! On the way into the pit area, I get my tire temperatures and pressures measured by the Kenny Brown crew.
Paddock, 11:00 am
I talked with Kenny Brown about some looseness in the rear. I showed him my tire pressures and temperatures and he thought the pressures were pretty close based on the evenness of heat across the tire. He suggests I take the left rear down 1 psi and the right rear down .5 psi. Wow, I thought I would need to go down a lot more. I can't wait to see if it makes a difference. Later on in the classroom session (presided over by TrackTime's Mike Gerst) we learn a bunch about braking technique. The biggest thing I take away from this is how to breathe off the brake and onto the throttle as you transition into the corner. My movements have been harsh and jerky--totally wrong. I guess I've been riding shotgun too much with GM development engineers whose job it is to beat on cars. Mike says that if you do it right, your instructor will hardly know when your foot comes off the brake and onto the throttle. Smooth is the key!
Session Two, 2:00 pm
As I sit on pit road waiting for the TrackTime official to give us the go-ahead, I feel like I'm really under the gun. My instructor, David, is so incredibly good that I cringe when I think about my technique. My biggest problems with braking have come at the end of both high-speed straights. This session, I pay more attention to my braking points. I settle on midway between the 400 foot and 500 foot marker for the back straight and just after I pass the 400 foot marker on the front straight. I get it much better a little over half the time, but Dave says I can do better. He's a bit pissed that I can't heel and toe downshift at the end of the straights. I have to blip the throttle and downshift before braking and it drives him up the wall. We both agree, however ,that the track is no place to practice this if you've never done it before. As I downshift at the end of the backstrech David tells me over the intercom, "Shifting like that is strictly bush league. You'll never move up and get serious until you can heel and toe. Period."
At the end of the session, I get my tire temperatures and pressures checked again. The idea is that the temperature is measured in three places on each tire's surface: the inside, the middle, and the outside. The pressure is also recorded. This is like a map that tells you if there's too much air in the tire or not enough. It can also help with camber and toe adjustments, but Kenny tells us to only worry about pressure first. After coming in the pits this last time, the temps looked pretty good, but I could probably take another half pound out of the left rear. Not enough time though--they're calling group C (my group) to the classroom again. Inside, Mike lectures us about apexing. It's very instructive, and Mike is incredibly funny. With everybody feeling good, we head out to the paddock and get ready for our final session of the day.
Session 3, 3:30 pm
We got out of class a little late and several cars are already out on the track. I decide not to take any air out of the left rear. After David gets back in the car, we get the go and head out on the track. With the classroom session fresh in my mind, I concentrate more on my apexing. It's fun to combine the new knowledge on apexing with the braking practice Dave and I worked on in the last session. Things are really coming together and we're hauling more ass this time around for sure. As I climb up through the esses, I notice that my speed is way up over the last session. We start passing cars and my confidence goes up.
There's a knot of three cars ahead, one of them the '97 Cobra of MM&FF editor Jim Campisano. He's been busting my balls all week about running me down and now it looks like the shoe is on the other foot.
Before attacking the Cobra, I remind myself one more time that pride cometh before the fall. Then I concentrate like I've never done before. I know David is watching me to make sure I don't go off into the "red mist," so I'm careful. He's even egging me on a little. I overtake Campisano and pull away. Man, what a feeling! We're really having fun now. The biggest thing is to not blow it, which sometimes happens when your concentration ratchets down. We get our final-lap flag and pull into the pits. Dave signs off on me to go solo--and it's only the first day! Tomorrow will be different though. They're calling for colder temperatures and the possibility of rain. Plus I won't have an instructor's watchful eyes on me to keep me in line. (As it turned out, I was the only student in either group D or group C to be signed off by an instructor that day!)
I'm tired, yet elated. No time to chill out though. I've got to get back to the hotel and change for this evening's banquet back at the track. On the way to the hotel, I ride shotgun with Justin Murphy of Kenny Brown Performance. The brakes are grinding badly, like they're metal-to-metal. I'm guessing the pads are worn out.
The banquet is held at the Glen Club--a wonderful little restaurant in the Watkins Glen infield. There are TV screens all throughout the club, which overlooks the esses. As I stare mortified into a big screen showing a cockpit view of Derek Bell in a Rothman's Porsche careening around the Nurburgring, Campisano approaches, beer in hand. "You know, the reason you caught me is because I accidentally shifted into sixth instead of fourth going into the toe of the boot." (Note: Campy's Cobra is a T-56 conversion. The "toe of the boot" is a particularly tricky portion of the track comprising a hairpin turn and a severe elevation change.) To be polite, I don't say anything, but I want to ask him why the other eight GMs with six-speeds in our school didn't have the same problem?
October 8, 2000
I get to the track early to swap the brake pads with Justin Murphy. The sky is dreary and it is much colder than yesterday. As we pull up it starts snowing lightly. This isn't good. In the paddock, we get the car up on jackstands and check the brakes, which were grinding badly the night before. The pads have plenty of material on them and I'm stumped. We had done lots of heavy stopping during the brake test we did at Englishtown a few weeks ago and we didn't experience this grinding noise. My guess is that we leaned on the pads a whole lot harder on the track than we did in the 100-to-zero testing. We change the pads front and rear anyway. With fully three-quarters of the pad left front and rear, I save the old ones for another school. One thing's for sure: the Baer brakes and the Performance Friction pads worked like a charm.
Then I notice a dull pain in my back. Must be muscle pain from yesterday. The pain builds swiftly over three or four minutes. When it gets really bad, I know it's a kidney stone. (I've had two before.) I go over to Track Time's Billy Edwards to tell him the bad news. I need an ambulance and I need it now. Doubled up in pain and lying on the floor, a crowd gathers to gawk. "What's the matter with him?" It's the last thing I hear as they slide my gurney into the ambulance.
After passing the kidney stone at Schuyler Hospital, I ride back to the track with Cari Southworth of Kenny Brown Performance. She had followed the ambulance to the hospital to see if I was okay. What a saint this woman is. We pull into the front gate at Watkins Glen and notice two BMWs wadded up on the grass, one of them with its roof bashed in, the other one--damaged in a separate session--had been wrecked by an instructor no less. Suddenly I feel like the luckiest guy there. If I hadn't gone to the hospital, I could've been out in the snow shower and stacked up Thunderchicken. It also looks like I made the right call with the tires on Friday morning and that makes me feel better. Those Kumhos would've worked nice yesterday, but today is an entirely different story.
Many of the guys have gotten cold feet (literally) and packed up. Both Jim Campisano and Vinnie Kung from Muscle Mustangs & Fast Fords leave after I get back. In fact, about half the students and some of the instructors have gone too. Until the track dries out some, the officials have closed it. Fortunately, it was only a small weather event and the sun is now out. The track is now drying quickly. I walk over to my laptop and discover that Vinnie Kung and gr8ride.com's Shane Reichart have left me a little momento: a homemade screen saver with the words "Got Stones?" bouncing all around.
The snow has stopped and over the last two hours the sun has miraculously dried out the track! Since group C--my group--ran in the morning before the track closed (without me), my group is put last in the rotation. As other groups go out and report the excellent track conditions (the sun is magnificent), my demeanor improves. Then, ten minutes before my session starts, the snow comes down. It looks remarkably like fertilizer pellets are falling out of the sky--and the sun is still shining. This is the weirdest weather I've ever seen. Within two minutes the ground is covered with snow pellets. TrackTime director Billy Edwards calls off the rest of the day's activities and we go home, but not until all of us are given credit on unused track time for a future school. That's okay because I want to try the Kumho race tires. The raincheck is fine with me--it will give me something to look forward to over the long New Jersey winter!
Driving schools provide enthusiasts with a safe learning environment in which they can develop their skills at a comfortable pace. With groups of drivers at all skill levels, The Kenny Brown/TrackTime driving school at Watkins Glen is an excellent school for the first-time student or the advanced student. One thing the Kenny Brown/TrackTime driving school is "not" is a race. Individual driver development is emphasized through one-on-one instruction and competition between students is discouraged. In fact, timing equipment of any kind is forbidden.
If you've ever wanted to get involved in high-performance driving, the Kenny Brown/TrackTime driving school is the perfect way to do it--your car, your instructor, your own pace, and a wide-open world-class track. We enjoy being able to wring out every last ounce of ability out of our own car, but if you prefer to use someone else's, TrackTime can provide one of their school cars for an additional charge. We invite you to join us next year at Virginia International Raceway, so give Kenny Brown and TrackTime a call!