Monday, January 30, 2012

Arroyo Seco

In August, 2008, I bought a new Mazda MX-5 ("Miata").  Since that day, I've been trying to drive the car in an autocross event.  It's never worked out.  I signed up for several events in Houston, but each one was cancelled, or I had something else come up.  After moving to Midland, I tried several times to join the Porsche Club at their autocross events in Big Spring, TX.  Every time, either I missed the event or it was cancelled, and now the club has lost its autocross venue (an old airport).  Too bad, because the Miata is best at going around corners.  Or so I'd heard.  It can also go pretty fast in a straight line... at least 120 mph... but that's not really fun for long.  Then out of the blue, Don Pool, friend from Tucson days, sent me a text asking if I wanted to join the Tucson Car Club (?) at a track day near Deming, NM.  Only five hours from Midland?  Sure thing!

So last Friday after work, I tossed some clothes into a bag along with my motorcycle helmet, my "all-purpose" mountain biking gloves (turns out they are equally useful for mt biking, dirt biking, and now car racing).  I didn't have the spare wheels and tires Don recommended I get (!), but I figured the stock Bstone Potenzas could use some additional shaving.  We set off for the 4.5 hour drive to lovely Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we would spend the night.  Track Day was slated to begin at 8:30 am on Saturday.  Debi and Mary drove separately in Debi's Outlander.

Driving in Texas got way better on September 1st, 2011, when the archaic (but probably wise) nighttime speed limit law was revoked.  Much of I-10 and I-20 out here in the unpopulated "wastelands" of Texas used to be 80 mph during daylight and-ugh!-65 mph at night.  Ouch!  And when exactly does "night" begin?   Many Texas drivers kept their headlights switched off long after dusk, trying to eek out some extra minutes at 80.  If you don't have your lights on, it must not be nighttime.  All that craziness went away on September 1st, and now Texans (and passersthrough) can buzz along at 80 (or 82, but don't risk much more than that -- the State Troopers are not lenient), careening forward into darkness and toward the gathering herds of deer with pokey antlers just beyond the reach of your headlights designed for driving 60 mph.

No deer interrupted our travels on this night, and we came to rest in the hilly town of Las Cruces on the Rio Grande.

Saturday morning, about an hour out to the track east of Deming, NM, which I guess has a pretty rocking wine industry.  Or so the billboards would have you believe:  "You'll have a Grape time in Deming, NM!".  Arroyo Seco Raceway.  I pulled in, with Debi somewhere well behind me.  A bunch of trailers hooked to pickups -- most people trailered their precious cars in, and were in the process of jacking up their cars, tinkering with suspensions, and bolting on super-sticky track tires!  Uh-oh, what did I get myself into?

I pulled onto the gravel with my bone-stock, bone-colored 2008 MX-5, with original Bridgestone Pontenzas with about 16,000 miles on them--and not much life left.  I felt a little out of place.  About this time, despairing that I didn't have my own pit crew and a $75,000 diesel-and-trailer rig, I spotted a Fiat 500, which is almost as unlikely at a track event as a 1995 Ford Windstar minivan.  And just slightly more likely than a 1960 Winnebago.  Also there were several stock Mazdas, including a Mazda2.  I felt a little better until they jacked up the Mazda2 and put on a $2000 set of track wheels and tires make of super glue.

The Bone Stock MX-5

Prepping my car... by removing the front license plate.  Ooooo!

I found Don hanging out in his trailer, his shiny blue Honda S2000 sitting at the end of the ramp, oozing horsepower.  This was his second track event, but he'd already decided to drop big cash on an enclosed trailer and at least two new sets of wheels and tires -- brand-new track tires.

The Arroyo Seco track is about 1.5 miles long with one long straightaway and one shorter one.  The rest of the track is all turns -- some high speed, some tight slow-speed ones.  After a very brief driver meeting ("don't hit other cars"), the first group to go out was "C", the beginners.  Like me. As the Nissan 230Z's and the Porsche 944s lined up, revving their engines to 15,000 rpm and spouting 10-foot pillars of flame from their exhaust pipes as big as highway culverts, I felt pretty intimidated, and asked Don if I could ride shotgun in his S2000 for the first few laps.  Once out on the track, it turned out almost everyone was fairly polite -- with one notable exception (light blue Nissan).  Passing was allowed only on the straights, and only if the lead car driver "pointed", or stuck his left hand up, indicating he would slow down and allow passing.  I was amazed at the lateral grip of the S2000.  Don could just turn that thing in and the tires never squealed, and we never fishtailed.  Later he would tell me that he actually felt sliding -- like the tires were losing and regaining grip through the corner.  I felt the same thing later in the day in my MX-5.

After a dozen or so laps, Don pulled off and group "C" was done.  Next came B and A, each for 20 minutes.  In theory...  In reality, it kind of fell apart and I saw the 75 bhp Fiat 500 go out in B, A, or whenever he wanted.  Still, the faster and more aggressive 230Z drivers seemed to go out only in A.

Don's S2000

Some cars push Don around the track

A different white Miata

Don races a freight train

Group C came around again and it was my turn.  Shiny black helmet on, I joined the line-up to get onto the track.  Once it was my turn to merge in, it was no big deal. First gear, 5500 rpm, second gear, 5500 rpm, third gear... turn at speed, straight-away... There was a slow car coming on behind me so I felt no pressure to go overly fast.

My first lap was pretty slow because I didn't know where I could go to full speed and where I could brake.  I was braking too early and not speeding up enough in the straights.  Cautious.  In the corners, though, I was at full grip from lap one.  I felt what Don was talking about -- at maximum cornering grip, you can feel the tires sliding ever so slightly, I guess in response to small bumps in the track or small steering inputs.  But the MX-5 (and the S2000, I assume), is so well-balanced, 50-50, you don't lose control.  With 50% front and 50% rear weight, the car just slides sideways a bit and the driver relaxes the turn ever so slightly to regain tire grip.  In the corners, I focused on "being smooth", and in particular making smooth turning transitions from one steering input to another.  I had studied up on, and I found many of their tips to be very useful for a rank beginner like myself.

The grip of the MX-5 was disappointing.  It was remarkable how early I lost cornering ability.  Driving around town in Midland, I feel like it corners great.  But go into a 180-degree turn on the track, and you're only going maybe 20 or 25 mph, but just at the edge of adhesion.  Video from the car looks like you're going so slow!  One hairpin corner, the "Bus Stop" requires a downshift from 3rd to 2nd, and almost every time I had some power oversteer from releasing the clutch too quickly.  Drive power + cornering were just too much for my wimpy tires.  I had to stick to one traction demand at a time.

MX-5 and S2000

This Nissan passed me, then immediately lost it into the gravel. 


These guys played nice with the MX-5

Several times I lost control and "spun" off the track, although I didn't spin all the way around -- at least I don't think I did (tough to remember).  Unfortunately, I kicked a fair amount of gravel onto the track in some of these spins.  Also, I forgot to disconnect the Progressive Insurance "Snapshot" device than plugs into my car. Whoops.  How many "hard brakes"?  Surprisingly, it registered only TWO in the 30 or so laps I did before I unplugged it.  Does it turn off when it knows you're at a track... or did it simply not register because the braking was so hard?  The Snapshot speed graph very clearly shows each lap -- the speed profile looks nearly identical on each one.

Look at her lean!

As the day went on, I definitely learned to go faster. I tried to grab a driving coach to ride along with me, but they always seemed to be off somewhere else, riding in a different car.  So I taught myself as much as I could.  One key is late braking.  Keep on the throttle until the last possible moment, then brake almost as hard as you can (trying to avoid the antilocks coming on).  My weakness is in my lines -- choosing the right path through the corners.  But I did ok.  Watching some of the aftermath videos, I could see that I was almost hanging with much faster cars, and probably with drivers who had at least some track experience.  Toward the end of the afternoon, pulling off into the pit area, nearly all my dashboard lights came on, indicating I had overheated the brakes.  They quickly cooled off but I decided to call it quits.  My front tires were in rough shape, with the entire row of outside tread blocks detaching from the tire, and I still had a 350-mile drive back to Midland.

Sharing the track with a Lotus!

Debi and Mary spent much of the day hanging out in the car.  At least Mary did.  Debi rode along in Don's S2000 for a few laps and she also got some good pictures and videos.  There were some very cool cars to ogle.  Besides the old Nissans, there were two brand-new looking Lotuses, both kind of UT-orange.  Also there were several Porsche 944s, which I learned can be bought very cheap and gutted to make pretty decent little race cars.  Now of course I want to do that (but first, fix up my airplane, clean the garage, and finish building my Big Bend cabin...).

Mary dances at Arroyo Seco

Debi unpacking the chairs.

Trucks, trailers, a Lotus at rest

The shadows were getting long so we said goodbye and headed down the road to the nearby Rock Hound State Park, located in the rather substantial Florida Mountains, south of Deming, NM, and not far from Kilbourne Hole.  We went for a stroll there and then drove back to Las Cruces, where we had a wonderful Mexican meal at La Posta de Mesilla.  Six thumbs up.

Heading toward the Floridas

Walking in Spring Canyon, Florida Mts.

On Sunday, after a trip to Mesilla old town, we motored back toward El Paso, stopped at the outlet mall and hit the Gap.  I finally ponied up and got replacement shades for my 9+ year-old Maui Jims, which have served me so well.  Despite the delamination issue with my old pair, got another set... and I love 'em already.  The glass lenses seem so crystal-clear compared to plastic.  I'm going to send back my old ones with hopes that Maui Jim will replace the lenses.  It was nice to just walk around the outdoor mall, especially considering the views of the Franklin Mountains (to the east) and out over the Rio Grande valley to the west.  Track day had tired me out, and my shoulders and arms were a little stiff and sore.

Old Las Cruces de Mesilla

Crossing I-10 from the mall we drove over the Franklin Mts on the Transmountain Parkway, and down the east side of the Franklins to the Wyler Aerial Tramway.  We rode the little cable car to the top of Ranger Peak (~5600') and enjoyed the decent yet hazy views of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico.  To the north, we could clearly see the Saramento Mountains and the snow-capped Sierra Blanca near Ruidoso.

El Paso.  Mary shows off her new sunglasses.   As a condition of my buying them for her, she is required to sign a contract stating she will take care of them.

At the bottom

Aerial tramway machinery

Atop Ranger Peak, looking north

Debi & Mary

Old rocks.  Franklin Mts.

El Paso

Back down in the city we wound our way along Scenic Drive and then drove around a bit in downtown El Paso.  The town is pleasantly hilly in this area, with a number of interesting, crusty old buildings.  As we approached the Rio Grande in downtown El Paso, everything looked a lot more like Mexico.

Back on the highway, 80 mph legal again not far east out of El Paso, two hours then stay left onto I-20, two hours to Midland.  An action-packed weekend.

Am I going to drive the track again?  At the time, I wasn't sure I liked it.  But the next day I was still buzzing from the intensity of it.  Yes, I hope to be back on the track... but the Big Bend ranch, and my pilot's license come first.

Plus, I first need a Porsche 944 and strip it down to a track car.


Plants Amaze Me said...

You are crazy and very funny. :-)

Anonymous said...

I liked your post! I feel like I raced and now I don't have to! Our van would look odd anyway. There is a lot more to it than just driving, isn't there?
You go to such neat places. Mountains and a tramway!
Your Aunt M :)

stratovolcano said...

Aunt M: not really a lot more to it than driving. Keep hands on wheel, shift quickly, steer smoothly, try to choose the best "line" through turns