Friday At The Track
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© 1999 Brian F. Schreurs
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A man walks into a bar. Ouch.

Summit Point Raceway, Summit Point, W.Va.

Road Race: Friday, September 10, 1999

The V-V-F Road Race-A-Thon was such a hit that several of us decided we needed another taste of road racing. So we signed up for a return trip to Summit Point Raceway, this time as participants in their Friday At The Track program.

Here's a look at the course.
What is FATT? Basically, if your car can pass tech and you can afford 150 bones, you get personal high-performance driving instruction on a real racetrack. Pretty cool huh?

In more detail, it goes like this. You sign in and get the car through a rigorous tech inspection, which basically ensures that your car is not about to fall apart in front of someone else. Then, if you're a beginner like us, you go to Miriam's classroom session which gives you the basics of apex, tire load, flags, track etiquette, accident avoidance, and the track's line. Then you go out there and put this book-learnin' to the test on a racetrack with an instructor.

Last time we were here it was an invitation-only club event, so our classmates were all Firebirds, Camaros, Corvettes, and Vipers. Not this time. This was an open event, and while there was a strong F-body contingent by prearrangement, most of the cars were, ahhh, "other stuff."

What kind of stuff? BMWs. Lots of BMWs. Apparently BMW owners love this stuff. But there were other cars, including Corvettes, Mustangs, BMWs, Porsches, a couple of Alfa Romeos, several Miatas, some BMWs, three Cobras, a Mini Cooper S, some more BMWs, a posse of RX7s, a DeTomaso Pantera, and a Lotus Esprit S4S.

This FATT had another purpose for us as well. Last time we were on this track, we spent a lot of time driving off it. This was in no small part because of our stock brakes wigging out after a few laps, so two days before this track session I enlisted the aid of the Mid-Atlantic F-Body Organization to swap in some Carbotech Panther brake pads. Thanks to Dave Hunt, the deed got done. Here is how to do it.

So would the new brakes keep me on the racetrack? Time would tell, and soon. I was a little nervous. I escaped damage last time, but the track is designed to stay on it. Straying off the pavement is asking for trouble. As before, our day was split into four 20-minute sessions.

* * * * *

I meet Seth. Seth is a cool guy. Wants to know whether I'd been there before, and whether I'd like him to drive for a couple of laps. Hahahaha. I drive.

Seth gives me a few pointers on my line as we discuss my brakes. How they faded so bad last time, how I have new Carbotech Panthers on this time. How I don't know what they will do. He does not seem reassured by this conversation.

I pull out onto the front straight and build up some speed.
I take it easy during the first session, in part to get my bearings and in part out of fear of my brakes. The latter turns out to be totally unfounded -- I have no problems with the brakes. My line needs work, especially in turn 10 and through the Carousel. Last time I was here I hit the Carousel in stride (when the brakes worked anyway) but this time for some reason I can't click.

The tires are squealing like mad too. Seth wants to know what pressure they're at; I tell him street pressure. He tells me to boost them.

When we come into the pits at the end of the session, he hops out to look at the tires. "Yep," he says, "they're rolling over. You need more pressure." I check with fellow racer Ken Rahaim and inflate my front tires to 40 cold front, street rear.

* * * * *

It was raining the night before so most of the runout areas were mud puddles. I really wanted to stay out of them because a mud-covered car would be hard to conceal. It'd be a rolling ad for bad driving. As it turns out I didn't need to worry. We pull through turn 1 and find turn 2 completely covered in mud -- someone had been off-track and decided the apex of 2 was a good place to get back on. Thaaaanks. This screws up everybody's line through there for the rest of the session.

The new tire pressure helps out a lot. From now on I plan to run this pressure combination.

Through the weeds in Turn 3. I never touched the gravel trap.
With the tires quieter and confidence gained in the stopping power of the Panthers, I get more aggressive. Deep into corners. Thanks to pointers aired on the MAFB mailing list I am able to shift far more smoothly from fourth to third at the end of the front straight. With this skill in place Seth encourages me to always hit fourth and keep the pedal down longer.

While racing I try not to look at the speedometer -- the tach is a lot more informative -- but just as I get ready to mash the whoa pedal on the straight I do take a quick peek to see what kind of mph I'm hitting. Last time out it was about 110. This time, how about 120! Yeah baby!

But what's this? The Mini Cooper S is on the track with us! Argh! I get stuck behind him as he buzzes along, full throttle, 60 mph. Pah. "I guess I'll just practice my line," I mutter. Seth and I talk a little about casual things. Turns out he races a Miata, so this Firebird is the slightest bit alien to him. For example I have twice the weight, but three times the horsepower. Then the Cooper runs straight off turn 5. What the heck?! We never learn.

The brakes are still working great, even when I go into a corner too hot. Next time around I enter turn 5 carrying too much speed so I stay on the brakes till the last second. The tail wags but we whip around the apex like a shot. "Sorry," I say to my no-doubt petrified instructor.

"No, no, that was trail braking. That was good," he replies.

* * * * *

"What the heck? Where did the cones go?"

"They took them away. The cones are just temporary. You need to learn the track, not the cones." Well, okay Master Obi-Wan, thanks for the wisdom. Actually it's not that hard -- a little initial awkwardness through 3 and that's about it.

I'm flying now. Two whole sessions without putting so much as a tire off the track has given me all-new confidence. Good brakes really do make your car faster! Seth observes that I seem to be driving a lot faster now as well. He seems to think it's an improvement, though we're still working on some parts of the track.

Turn 10, my major bogey from last time, is all but defeated. In fact Seth encourages me to hit it faster. I still go into turn 1 too fast sometimes. And somehow the car feels looser. I dismiss it as a false signal. Then--

Those darn Porsche 911s kept getting in my way.
Black Flag! What? What'd I do?? Seth reassures me it's not my fault, they're flagging the whole field. As we pass through turn 2 we get a look at a Toyota Supra that was sitting pretty far from the track. It didn't appear damaged but the driver and instructor were up near the tree line. We cruise around the track and enter the pits.

"Man this is bad for your brakes," Seth mutters. No kidding. I try to creep forward to keep the heat from building in one spot too long. Fortunately the black flag doesn't last long and we're back underway. The Supra was pushed farther from the track, out of the way of any off-course cars. So that must have caused the flag.

Flying again. Getting through 3 well is critical to holding speed right up to the Carousel so each time around I try to squeeze a little more power through it. The car is drifting right out to the curb exiting 3, just as it should. Then, one time, whoah! The Firebird leans heavily like a torpedoed ship and we list to starboard straight for the gravel trap. I pull the car out of it but it definitely gets both our attention. "What the hell was that? Too much speed?" I ask.

"Too much speed and you apexed too soon. That's a sure way to spin. Don't do that again," Seth deadpans.

* * * * *

Last time out. At this point Seth is mainly concerned about making sure I hit the turns right and smoothing out my transitions. I'm getting better. Turn 10 doesn't even make me nervous anymore, but I still go into 1 too hot from time to time.

As I go through turn 3, the car goes limp for half a second but quickly fires back up. I wonder whether I've broken something.

Is it any wonder my tires wear funny? This is Turn 5, but during this visit I never contribute to the mudhole.
Next time around brings the same odd hiccup. "I wonder what that is," I mutter under my breath. Not low enough apparently.

"I was going to ask you the same thing," Seth replies.

I resolve to keep an eagle eye on the gauges the third time around. Sure enough, exact same effect, exact same spot. And what's this -- the fuel gauge plummets to the peg just as the engine chokes! We're running out of gas!

Mindful of the dire warnings to not allow the fuel pump to overheat, I tell Seth we have to go in early. Miata-boy is mystified by a self-destructive fuel pump, and frankly I'm not very appreciative either. Under moderate driving the gauge shows a quarter-tank, but in turn 3, it must all slosh away from the bottom of the tank because the engine definitely starves briefly.

Seth suggests we refuel and head back out, but I know the session will be over by the time we'd be done in the pits. I hang it up early.

* * * * *

Apparently we're using more gas now that we're driving harder. We confirm this with Ken Rahaim, who says he refuels midway. Not only will this prevent the fuel starving we experienced today, it will also put weight back over the rear wheels where it is most definitely needed. Next time out: fuel during lunch.

The Carbotech Panther brake pads are excellent street/race pads (although Carbotech doesn't recommend them for the street due to the amount of dust they generate). We love these pads. They stop the 3600-lb Firebird with authority on and off the track. They never fade. Never. They eliminated the axle hop we experienced last time out, caused by too much brake bias from GM. Yeah the dust turns wheels black in a day or so, and sometimes the pads squeal. We don't care about these things. We care about performance, and the Panthers deliver in a big way.

We still hate the Eagle RSAs. Fortunately they're finally starting to wear out. We won't be at Summit Point again until next spring so by then we should be rolling on improved rubber. Hopefully with cool 17" wheels too.

The power steering reservoir boiled over every session. This situation must be corrected before we hit the track again. After doing some research on power steering coolers, we found the GM factory unit has issues of its own. We're going to skip that route and build a custom setup. Watch for it in Stories From the Garage.

And of course we need to work on smoothing our transitions. Seth also suggested learning to heel-and-toe to smooth out the 4/3 shift at the end of the front straight.

Just when we were starting to learn something, the rules change -- Summit Point was repaved a week after this FATT session. That will totally change the way the car feels on the circuit. Next spring it could be an all-new ballgame.