Saturday, March 23, 2013

Night Noises

A poem I wrote when sleep was hard to procure. 

Night Noises

Awoke from sleep
By some bleak seabird
Gray against black water
Afloat upon the distant ocean
Waning moon, 
Forlorn Froth
Something dredged from the depths
Where the water meets the shore
Closer, nearer
Atop sanded crests of dunes
A lupine specter 
Howling, barking, whining
Closer yet. 
Unknown feet lift and fall
Once on four, now on two
Yet still padded like a paw
Crunching leaves
Fences scraped then jumped
The Moon obscured by tree and house
Cats on prowl, raccoons too
Both protest with hiss and growl
Then the silence takes its form
Ghosts and ghouls
Werewolves, vampires
Stalkers, killers
All heaped up at the door
Dog ears perked, lifted heads
The slightest click
Then the dread 
Something on the stairs
A creak
A crack
And nothing more

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Day on the Track

Once upon a time I wanted to be a race car driver. Saturday was likely the closest I'll ever get to that once upon a time dream.

Let me start over. Once upon a time I thought I could really be a race car driver. I still want to be one.

For Christmas I had scheduled, for my brother and me, a day on the track at Laguna Seca near Monterey, CA. The track was accidentally double-booked and so our event was cancelled. Frank looked around the Internet and found that NASA (which probably doesn't stand for what you think it stands for) hosts track days as well in our area. We quickly signed up  for a day at The Sonoma Raceway, aka Sears Point (for about half the price of the prior one we had hoped to do). To be honest, while the price decrease was nice I was a little disappointed to not get to drive Laguna Seca. However, I'm now convinced, 100%, that this was the best possible outcome. The Sonoma Raceway is an incredibly fun track to drive and I'm under the impression that NASA is a much better organization to be involved with than the other business I had singed up for.

But let me not get ahead of myself. Everything really started prior to the actual day of the event (we only signed up two weeks before the events so we had a compressed scheduled to get ready). First I had to get a helmet. On the pretty good chance that I would love every minute and second of the day and want to do more events I bought a new one instead of renting one. Frank went all the way out by Pleasanton to get a pair for him and me and I drove down that night to get it from his house. Then the next day I had to take my car and helmet to a service shop to have the car teched and the helmet verified. The tech was free, which was surprising but nice! They go over the car, make sure your brakes and tires look like they can handle a day of hard driving, check your fluids, look for leaks, check lights, etc. I passed and was officially all set for the day.

Friday, the day before the track event, Frank drove up and stayed the night. We should have gone to bed a little early but instead we spent about an hour playing Grand Turismo 4 learning the layout of the track (video games have never been so useful). Then we rolled out of bed at 5:30am (this is how you know I love driving, I don't roll out of bed at 5:30am for anything). We prepped our cars and headed north! We stopped for gas on our way up and as we filled up a guy came by to inform us that it would be epic to see us line up at a light on Gerry and race.

For a little clarity, Frank took his 2012 Grand Sport red Corvette to the event and I brought my 2009 black BMW M6. They're flashy cars and guys have a hard time not noticing them.

It was a nice clear drive up north. Little to no traffic. We saw a few other cars on trailers clearly being towed to the event. After getting on highway 37 toward Sonoma we came upon a thick layer of fog. The road gained a fair amount of elevation and we found ourselves overlooking a cow pasture covered in a layer of thick fog (the fact that it was a cow pasture wouldn't be revealed until our drive home when the fog had burned off and we drove through the same pasture beautifully lit by the setting sun). It was one of the prettiest mornings I've ever seen. It felt like we were on the peak of some mountain with a ring of clouds around us. Tall power station towers peaked out just above the fog and the sun was on the verge of rising so there was just the lightest color to everything. It boded well for a great day. Then we sank into the fog and quickly arrived at the track.

Arrival was probably the worst part of the day. We arrived about an hour before the first mandatory meeting and we needed all of it to figure out what we were suppose to be doing. We ended up parking where our map said NO PARKING, but all the other spots had been filled or were reserved for racing class cars. But after that it was smooth sailing the rest of the day and no one harassed us about parking where we did.

We had an all drivers meeting at 8am. There we learned the rules (no passing in our group except in three straight aways), a set of hand signals, and the meaning of the flags. In addition we met our instructors for the day. Since this was both of our first times out on a track we were in group 1. This is the noob group. The great thing about the noob group is an instructor rides with you the whole time. They give you valuable tips on where to drive, how fast you can take a corner, when to break and generally remind you of anything you might forget while driving on a track for the first time trying to take in so much new stuff (there is a lot to forget). My instructor was Sean. He was driving in group 4, which was the highest non-racing group. He was an immense help that day and I think perfect for me and how I learn.

I spent a little time talking to him and then he offered to let me ride in his car when he went out in his group (which was happening before I went out in my group). First I ran back over to my car and taped a big number 35 on the side of my car, grabbed my helmet and then came back to the staging area where Sean was lined-up in his fairly new Subaru BRZ. It was the first time he had taken the car out on a track and he clearly had a lot of fun driving it. It was very helpful to be in the car as he took the correct line and to feel the types of speeds that were appropriate for the track, it might have been the single most helpful thing he did for me that day.

I should explain how the event works a little more. There were a bunch of different groups and each group was on the track multiple times, either for 20 or 30 minute sessions. After each of group 1 sessions the drivers in the group would do a "download" where the group leader would talk about what people did wrong and what people did right. Then we had between 30 minutes and 2 hours between our next run. There was a fair amount of downtime, but with lunch and watching other people drive the track it never felt like we were just waiting around.

Before each run you line up at the pre-grid. Sean met me there for my first run and we talked a little more about the line. I didn't line up anywhere near Frank, just randomly worked out that way, so we didn't go out on the track close to each other. The first two laps of the first session are under double yellow flags. So no passing and no driving super fast. This lets you get familiar with the track and find all the flag people on the track. After the double yellow they give you the green and you're free to drive at whatever speed you're comfortable with but still only allowed to pass on the designated straights. Everyone's newness made this first session pretty slow. We stayed bunched up and everyone seemed hesitant to make their first pass.

Directly in front of me was a newer Porsche GT2. In front of him was a similarly yeared 911. I was keeping up with them well and thought I could handle some more speed and Sean was feeling it too so after about the fourth lap he suggested I pass them. Hot dog!

The pass was a little difficult because the GT2 decided right around the same time to pass the 911 too. But it was fine. We both leaped frogged the 911 and then I expected the GT2 to disappear into the distance. But I kept up with him and still felt like my car and I had more in us. So at the next straight we passed him too.

Later in the day I passed the 911 again (and my brother in his Corvette). I mention these now because they, I felt, were the only markers I had for the day that really let me know how I was doing relative to the other drivers out there. Because there are so few limits on the cars you can bring to group 1 it made it very hard to compare drivers. I passed many Subaru WRXs and STIs, a Ford Focus, a Toyota Yaris, some Nissan's, Minis, Mazda Miatas, older 933 Porsches, etc; but I felt like the newer Porsches and the Corvette were the only cars near me that were of the same caliber as (or better than) my car. So those passes gave me some confidence that I was doing alright (also, no one passed me all day, I'm so boss).

A couple other things I learned during that first run. In a straight line my car is faster than I thought. When you go from 3rd to 4th and 4th to 5th gear you are literally slammed back into the seat. Later, when I was driving closer to Frank it was even clear that the M6 accelerated in a straight line pretty close to the same speed as his Corvette. I also learned the car can corner better than I expected for such a heavy car. I didn't need to slow down nearly as much as I thought I would. And finally, cars these days can stop soooo fast.

During that first session a young kid (I suspect he was 18, the youngest you can be to drive the event) spun his car 180 degrees in the final turn of the track. Luckily that is where you're going a mere 15-20 miles per hour so he didn't hurt anything. But it felt a little crazy to drive by him and see him sitting there facing the wrong direction. It got "real" right about then. So much happens on the track that when we were done with that session I talked with Frank and we both realized we had no idea how fast we were going anywhere on the track. Looking at the actual speed was like item 40 on a list of a 50 things you need to keep track of as a beginner. So much of the course, even after that first run, was run by feel as opposed to a continual tracking of real time speed. I'm certain as you want to go faster and do better the actual speed becomes more important, but for us beginners it was only something I glanced at on the straights (where I could hit about 95MPH) and some of the broader turns (where I averaged about 60MPH).

After I got out of the car and was walking over to the download session I texted Robyn, "OMG! OMG! OMG!" Seriously, the whole day felt like that.

At the first download session the instructor started calling people out, "Car number 15, what happened?" The person was then made to explain what went wrong. They called out events as small as running off the track for half a second (which kicks dirt onto the track), to missing the checkered flag and staying out on the track for one too many laps, to the spin out, to running your car into one of the walls (oh you just wait). This was a little shocking, and I imagine humbling for those who were called out in front of the rest of the group so unexpectedly. However, it added so much value to the experience for everyone. First it made the person who had messed up really analyze what they did wrong (I noted that no one was called out more than once, so I assume it also made them more cautious, aka less dangerous to other drivers) and it reminded those who hadn't messed up how you could mess up. The kid who spun out in particular was useful for me because it was a good reminder that at the speeds we were going it's a terrible idea to brake and turn at the same time. I thought of that multiple times while on the track that day and it likely saved me from making the same mistake.

Session two was twice as fun as session one. Unfortunately it was only half as long. The spacing of the cars stretched out quite a bit as people became more comfortable passing and everyone was driving at higher speeds now that they had some familiarity with the course. I passed my 911 friend again and a bunch of other slower moving vehicles. I finally had a bunch of open road in front of me and I could push the car as much as I wanted. This was something entirely different than following slower cars. Here I got to see how fast my car could slow from 95 to about 20mph. It was a much more of an exploratory driving and I felt like I was learning a lot about mine and the car's limits. And we were just starting to work on mastering turns 3 and 3a when a yellow flag came out. On the back side of the track a car had spun off the track and hit the tire barrier. We went around the track one more time and then they called us off the track, cutting our run in about half. We again went to the download and had a discussion about what went wrong for people including this gentleman's incident with the tire walls. His car wasn't completely totaled, it still drove, but would need some serious body work, and most importantly he seemed unharmed. I'm not sure of the exact model of his car but it looked to be a Honda or Toyota sedan of some sort. I'm certain he crashed going much slower than Frank and I were, which just went to show how much of a difference huge tires can make. :)

The wreck created a substantial adrenaline rush in me. And I started to double think bringing my car to the track ever again. My instructor told me that most days there are no accidents. He was surprised by already having one and the spin out earlier. I hadn't felt out of control on the track myself but had I been near either of these two cars it isn't out of the realm of possibilities that they could have taken me with them on their detours.

Session three I lined up in pre-grid just in front of my brother so we could finally get out on the track near each other and see how we were doing. We passed a few cars together and raced down a straight together. We also discovered together, that even though our cars accelerate much faster than a Yaris, it's still pretty hard to pass them if they're taking a better line out of a corner and getting on their gas too. I was surprised how that little car was handling the course in front of us.

I again had a lot of open space in front of me and worked at mastering the 3 and 3a combo. By the end of that round I felt like I was doing them pretty good and had really perfected not getting sucked into following other people's lines. It's hard to stick to your line, even if you know it's right, when the guy in front of you is taking a bad line. You naturally sort of just want to follow him.

After that session my instructor signed my little passport booklet and said I could go to group two if I wanted. He confirmed that I was doing great. Unfortunately I wasn't going to be at the event the next day so group two would have to wait. However, he said I could drive on my own if I wanted for the last session. Group two actually runs with group one, the only difference is they don't have instructors, but they have to follow the same passing rules. I felt good about this little promotion and drove the last session on my own. We also talked about how to handle turn 1. You go into that turn at close 100MPH and I was braking pretty hard before entering it and he showed me that I didn't need to brake at all if I changed my line a little.

Between session 3 and 4 an older Chinese couple came over to look at our cars and started pointing at Frank's and talking in Chinese. He broke out his Chinese and had a nice 20-30 minute long talk with them about cars. The wife at first refused to admit that Frank spoke Chinese, her husband kind of had to convince her. But then she was thrilled. It was pretty funny.

For session 4 I continued to focus on 3 and 3a but also worked at turn 1. I was really having fun there in that session. I felt at ease in the car. I felt in control of the car. I felt fast. I felt confident in the advice I had been given and I was now flying through turn 1. Unfortunately another car, this time a Subaru WRX, went off the track and broadsided the wall (lots of damage, but the guy again seemed okay) and our session ended a couple minutes early. But it was fine. Both Frank and I had a blast and were happy to have made it through the day without damaging our vehicles, which not everyone was so lucky.

It was seriously the funnest time ever. But I don't think I'll bring my M6 back. Too much carnage, and even though I didn't feel I was putting myself at risk with my driving, I clearly can't depend on other people's driving. There was one other wreck during the day and that was in group 4. None of the racing groups had an accident.

We stayed for a little group BBQ and then drove home. Highway 37 is seriously gorgeous, apparently at all hours of the day. You should go drive it some day, even if you're not going to the track.

The next day my calves hurt. Yeah, I worked them that hard. And this morning (two days later) my back and arms hurt. It's a nice little workout to go with the fun. Yesterday I think I was a little depressed. Thinking about my boring day job. Thinking about how I felt like I did so good. Maybe I could have succeeded as a race car driver.

But then I went to the park with Robyn and Berkeley. Slept in the sun. Pushed a little angel in a swing, kissed my beautiful wife, and knew I was blessed beyond belief.

Still, I'm gonna find my way back on a track somehow, some day.