Monday, May 18, 2015

Track Time!

Looking through the corner, I'm entering turn 8 at 60mph and accelerating with the gas pedal to the metal...and I know I should have been going faster!
Finally, after months of work and preparation, it was time to go out and drive the 99 Miata on the track.  Thursday evening was spent getting the new track-capable brake pads, fresh rotors, and high-temperature brake fluid in the car. Going fast is only fun if you can also STOP.  With all the maintenance out of the way it was time to join up with the NASA (National Auto Sport Association) folks out at Carolina Motorsports Park just down the road for some fun!

Carbotech XP10 brake pads purchased from Panic Motorsports.  This is the brake pad set up the pro Spec Miata drivers use on their cars so I know I've got the best brakes for the car.  They're redish colored so you know they stop FAST.
Friday the car was loaded up with camping gear, extra fluids, tools and food. Similar to an autocross, you have to check in with the folks at registration and then head over to the tech station to get the final OK that the car is ready to go on track.  As a novice on track, I'd be participating in the first level of 4 HPDE (High Performance Driving Education) groups, so I got the green HPDE 1 sticker slapped on the windshield.  The goal of the HPDE groups is to learn how to drive on a track and push your car to the limit in a safe way under controlled conditions.  The key is that these sessions are not RACING, but still driving as fast as you can.  Avoiding contact with other cars and keeping everyone safe is a top priority...hey, some of us need to drive our cars home at the end of the weekend!

Helmet and car, ready to go!

The NASA group runs mostly two day events, and generally each HPDE class gets four twenty minute sessions on track each day between races, qualifying sessions, and time trials groups.  With so much going on, each day kicks off just about as soon as the sun comes up with crews and drivers preparing their cars for the day.  Because there's so much going on, many people choose to camp out at the track.  This weekend I was hanging out and camping with good friend of NMS, Kyle, who has been instrumental in getting the car ready as well as a few other Miata drivers.

Blue car, check.  Red car, check.  Blue car with red stripe, double check.
 My Saturday started with classroom training, then meeting with the required in-car instructor, then going out for the first time on track.  Everyone started pretty slow to learn the best line to take through all the corners and worked on getting faster all weekend.  Things went pretty smooth for me all day, other than one low speed, on-track spin in the morning.  I now know not to down shift if the engine has dropped too many revs. Nothing worse than a spin at an autocross since the traffic behind me wasn't going very fast and was able to drive around.
View into turn 8 at CMP.  Coming in at over 80mph these 100 feet markers go by quick!
 Walking the track again Saturday night, I got to take a close look at everything at a slow speed now that I had a few sessions driving it.  Above is my favorite corner, turn 8.  This is at the end of a medium length straight at the far side of the track.  To the left you can see the "2" marker.  There are markers like these generally starting at 400 feet from each corner so you can have a visual reference to how many feet you are from a turn.  This lets the driver have consistent markers to judge when to brake and turn-in.  This particular turn is fun because it's coming up a little bit of a hill and there is a slight amount of banking or camber as you go through the corner, so it really holds the car on the track and lets you carry more speed.
They got hot, but didn't give up an inch all weekend.  Those guys at Panic know what they're talking about.
 There's those brakes again.  With powerful braking comes a lot of heat!  Those rotors are getting multi-colored due to all the heat that builds up during the sessions.  In fact, everything heats up when pushing the car hard on the track.  Below you can see the tires looking a bit melted on the surface and lots of other tire rubber and debris (or clag for you F1 fans out there) sticking to the tire.
The sticky autocross tires held up pretty well throughout the weekend.
 By Sunday I was braking harder, accelerating harder, and turning sharper to really push the car hard.  I ended up having an over-heating issue and had to miss the final session of the weekend.  I caught the spiking temperature gauge and brought the car back to the paddock during the second session to let the other Miata gurus in camp take a look.  We tried a few easy fixes, took it out for the third session and even though I managed the over heating with early shifting and a little coasting, the problem wasn't solved, so we opted to play it safe and get the car home instead of risking anything on the final session.  We've got a few ideas to try out, but everything ran completely smoothly on the drive home so it really is only an issue when the car is pushed to it's limit for a long time.
The car was in the sun, but I was in the shade most of the weekend, so luckily we don't match!
All in all it was still an awesome experience.  Everything I've learned autocrossing for the last few years really paid off and I was reeling in and passing cars that had much more power than my little car!  There certainly are dangers in driving on the track, but thanks to groups like NASA and SCCA, there are very safe ways to get out there and learn how to handle your car properly at speed.  I can't wait to get out there again and continue to improve.  I would strongly encourage everyone to check out NASA and the HPDE program no matter what you drive.  It is a great way to learn how to handle your car and be a better, safer driver and have a TON of fun.

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