Highway friendship

June 19th, 2024 Comments off

Sean and I were an hour east of Avoca, Iowa near Des Moines when it became apparent that we would not make it to Cedar Rapids on our extant tank of fuel. I was driving; it was Sean’s truck, and our F1000  race car was in our 24ft trailer behind us.

We were towing to Road America, a trip we’ve done many times, and we really wanted to make our next stop at a particular Kwik Star truck stop on US-151. (They had genuinely good food.) The distance to that Kwik Star: 102 miles. The estimated range per the truck’s computer: 100 miles.

We needed a draft to make it.

The key to a good draft is that you initially need to go just a little faster than your target speed so that you can come up upon a draftee that’s meeting that target on the nose. I considered a few prospect semis, but they were all going too slow. A few more miles ticked by. Then we came upon a blue tractor with an unassuming off-white trailer. Haz-mat, per his placards, “1906” and “1760” – cleaning solutions.

I hopped into his dirty air at a respectful yet efficient distance and instantly saw our mileage rise. He maintained speed with what seemed like cruise control; I modulated to hold station with my right foot.

As with many budding relationships, things soon got a little rocky. Truckers generally don’t like being drafted, especially by non-semis. When the two of our vehicles came up behind a slow-moving truck a few minutes in, my draftee merged into the left lane not far ahead of a passenger car, preventing me from following. He then slowed way down, giving me plenty of room to go in front of him and onward. I chose to stay behind the truck in the right lane, betting that my target wouldn’t like going so slowly for very long. Indeed, he sped back up to his previous pace, and I maneuvered back to my place behind him.

Things might have stayed somewhat strained, but for two truths: first, we came upon more traffic a few miles later, and second, my draftee was courteously aggressive about staying in the right lane except for passing. Of course, the problem with being courteously aggressive about staying in the right lane is that it’s easy to be screwed by traffic in the left lane when someone ahead is driving slowly in the right.

An opportunity presented itself when my draftee changed to the left lane for a pass, I followed, and he returned to the right after completing the pass. I, however, stayed in the left lane, as I could see he would very soon come up behind slow-moving traffic in the right lane. I could also see several cars behind me waiting to pounce. So, to the minor detriment of the cars behind me, I matched his speed but in the left lane, staying slightly back from his rear door. “I’m going to play some 2D chess,” I told Sean. I’d meant “3D chess”.

Sure enough, a minute or two later, he came up on the traffic in the right lane, and I slowed slightly more so as to make a big, obvious gap for him to come back left. Not wanting to be too pushy, I deliberately chose not to flash my lights in signal. He hesitated a moment, then politely merged back left in front of me, and promptly gave me the “hazard light blink”.

“Oh good, we’re friends again!” I told Sean.

And so it went. I’d draft him, then when we came up on traffic, I’d go left and block for him so he could move over without slowing down. He’d go over, give me a couple hazard blinks, and then we’d make the pass together.

This continued along I-80 for over an hour, then onto I-380 towards Cedar Rapids.

I almost dropped the ball on I-380 with a nearly missed block. When I realized the window was closing, I might have been slightly aggressive about moving over to, let’s be honest, cut off a car that was steaming up the outside. “Sorry!” I thought to the car now behind me — hey, I had to protect my friend.

When we got within a few miles of the US-151 turnoff from I-380, I slowed well-down, stayed right, and my semi friend went ahead in the left lane. He gave one more set of hazard blinks in goodbye, and traffic soon blocked my view of him.

I thought that was then end of it, but no! Like the awkwardness of discovering you’ve parked in the same direction as an acquaintance after already completing your goodbyes, it turned out that he too was following US-151, and we came up behind him again on the ramp. I wasn’t sure what to do; I didn’t want to be weird about it.

When we both made yet another turn to continue along US-151, I figured, “Eh, why not?” and we fell back into old patterns.

Thanks to the draft, our mileage in Sean’s truck had improved from 6.2 mpg to 7.5 mpg, and our target Kwik Star came into view with an estimated 35 miles of range left.

Sean and I had shared the previous four turns with our big-rig friend, but not our fifth: at the light for the Kwik Star, he stopped in the rightmost straight-through lane, and we slid into the right-turn-only lane.

As we came up alongside his rig, I slowed more than was needed and looked to my left at his cab with a smile and a wave. Inside, I could see his head turned back at me, a wave on his hand as well. He gave a couple quick toots of his horn in salute, and as his light turned green as we turned right.

Our highway friend lumbered off into the distance; we will never see him again.

Total solar eclipse, number two

April 9th, 2024 Comments off

For the second time in my life, I have been privileged to view a total solar eclipse.

With the weather forecasts favoring roughly Illinois in the week or so prior to the eclipse, but with considerable uncertainty still in the cards, Sean and I chose to drive to St. Louis from Denver so that we’d be well-staged for a last-minute location decision. The bartender at our hotel on the west side of town enthusiastically promoted southeastern Missouri as an option; the morning of eclipse day, the final model runs favored that approach. Thus, we headed to just northwest of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, exactly on the line of maximum totality duration.

We set up shop about three hours before the show at a prime location just off the road, flanked on both sides by an increasing number of fellow eager eclipse watchers. Our telescope, which saw its last meaningful use seven years earlier at the previous total eclipse, once again was assembled, aligned, and outfitted with a solar filter cap.

The temperature was very pleasant. Wispy cirrus clouds caused some concern early but blew out after a couple hours. The weather, which had been the source of so much worry and uncertainty, was absolutely perfect.

We talked with our neighbors — young kids, old retirees, middle-agers aplenty — and shared views through our telescope. All were excited about what they were about to see. Many had seen the 2017 total eclipse, which had also passed nearby, and that experience had left them yearning for another hit. I have yet to meet anyone, anywhere, ever, who has actually seen a total eclipse and had anything other than the most superlative praise for the sight.

In due time, the partial eclipse began. We watched the progression through the telescope. One by one, the several sunspots on our star fell out of view as the disc of our moon traveled along. A digital light meter that we brought told the same story in numerical terms, with 130,000 lux falling steadily to 65,000, 30,000, and lower. The world became noticeably dim. The wind, which had been light and warm, shifted around and became cool.

At about 95% obscuration, birds and inspects began singing, instinctually convinced it must be nearly nightfall. I had obviously heard stories about such things, and surely the same must have happened in Wyoming in 2017, but it seems I had forgotten the first-hand experience of it.

The sliver of the sun shrank more and more, then suddenly: totality! All around the horizon was sunset.

Flanked by Jupiter and Venus, the brilliant white silken fingers of the corona surrounded the impossibly black perfect circle of the moon. People cheered, clapped, and wept. I know I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed and choked up; it was just so profoundly beautiful and moving.

The darkness of the black spot of the moon is at once both the most anticipated and least expected feature of the experience. The rest of the sky is a very deep navy blue, but that spot; well, it’s just impossibly black. Even knowing the math and physics of it, I found myself connecting across time to the unknowing ancients who must have puzzled over the sight. The sun was there, then suddenly it wasn’t there. The brightest thing in our existence became the darkest thing imaginable, all in a moment.

Through the telescope, the solar filter now removed, the texture of the corona became almost palpable, and the several prominences which were just barely visible to the naked eye became astonishing twists of red ribbon.

As with the previous eclipse, I deliberately chose not to photograph it. Totality is fleetingly short, there will be plenty of photos from other people, and in any case even the very best photos and videos don’t come anywhere even remotely near to doing the experience justice.

Four minutes and eleven seconds after it disappeared, the sun began its return. Like an LED projector headlight in the distance, a bright pinpoint of light emerged and cast shadows like a full moon. Rapidly, color and warmth returned to the world. Sean remarked that it was like somebody was bringing up the house lights in a theater.

A moment passed; several people clapped and cheered. All of us gathered were in smiles, the unanimous agreement being that the natural show had been top-notch. Whatever expenses had been incurred in time or money had been worth it.

With that gravitas out of the way, we quickly chucked the telescope in the truck and sped off to beat the traffic. If everyone else hadn’t had the same idea, it might have worked, but fortunately, with the aid of old-school map reading and four-wheel drive, we were able to route around the worst of it and make it back to Denver about 15 hours later.

Laguna Seca

June 1st, 2021 Comments off

This is going to be expensive.” That was the first thought that went through my mind after I came to a stop.

I had just crashed a formula car in the iconic Corkscrew turn at Laguna Seca, and the car I was driving wasn’t mine.

Me driving down the Corkscrew

Me driving down the Corkscrew, before the incident

Sean and I had been at that iconic Northern California track for the previous couple of days doing one of the racing schools there. It was an arrive-and-drive program: we simply showed up with our driving gear, and they furnished the cars.

Our machines were Formula Renault 1600s made by Tatuus, with 1.6 L inline-4 engines, sequential manual gearboxes, and carbon fiber tubs. Wings (sort of) and slicks, too. They were faster than my Formula Vee that Sean had borrowed for his first track experience a few weeks earlier, but slower than my F1000.

Despite the unusually hot and humid October weather, we took advantage of every millisecond behind the wheel that the school program offered. So enthusiastic was Sean that he was the first driver of the weekend to run afoul of Laguna’s infamously strict noise limits.

We got to know the cars better, and we became increasingly comfortable pushing them through the turns.

Like the Corkscrew.

Sean (silver car in foreground) is ahead of me (red car in background) at Turn 6. Or, from my perspective, I was waiting to pass him. (That is a completely accurate description of the situation, right Sean?)

The Corkscrew is unquestionably the most famous corner at Laguna and easily in contention for being the most famous among all corners at all race circuits in the world. It’s a sharp blind left-hander that transitions into a moderately fast right-hand turn at its exit. That would be pretty ordinary, but what sets it apart is the elevation change from entry to exit: a loss of 60 vertical feet at an incredible grade of about -15%. Purists might scoff that turns 2, 9, and 11 are tougher to execute optimally, but that takes nothing away from the Corkscrew itself.

Sean driving his F150 down the Corkscrew

Sean driving his F150 down the Corkscrew during the track tour

Near the end of the last track session of the last day of the school, I decided to get a bit more aggressive in the Corkscrew. Unfortunately, I lined up on the wrong visual reference tree for the turn-in.

The ground fell away, like normal, causing the car to get light — also like normal — but the slightly sub-optimal line led to a harder “landing” than usual. Nothing would have come of it but for a bolt in the front suspension that had been invisibly edging towards fatigue failure. The hard landing exceeded the strength of the remaining cross-sectional area in that bolt, the bolt sheared, and the front-left suspension collapsed. The now-unrestrained front-left pushrod punched upward and sent the shock cover flying.

Surprised but running on instinct, I kept it pointed straight and brought the car to a controlled stop just off the track surface. That gave me some time to sit there worrying about what I’d done to the car.

Fortunately, once the car got back to the paddock, the hallmarks of fatigue failure (beachmarks, light corrosion in a thread root, and a large fast-fracture zone) were clearly visible on the portion of the bolt that had stayed with the car. Would it have given way without my slight excursion beyond track limits? Hard to say. On the other hand, the race school owner was apologetic about the bolt being degraded in the first place.

Without either of us losing too much face, and with no real damage to the car other than perhaps the fiberglass shock cover, we came to an amicable agreement that everything was fine and engaged in a pleasant chat about racing.

Formula 1000: How fast it does go

May 23rd, 2021 Comments off

There is a deep-seated human drive to go fast. And when one experiences fast, invariably the target shifts towards going even faster.

“How fast does it go?” is the question I get from laypeople when they see my second race car, an F1000. Wings, a sleek body, an aggressive seating position — how could it be anything other than very fast? But the units they imply in their question — top speed in miles per hour — aren’t really the best way to judge such a machine.

My second race car, a 2013 Phoenix F1K.12, during an SCCA race at High Plains Raceway in July 2020 (Photo: Rocky Mountain Pixels)

I quickly came to realize that I could give almost any answer, and that answer would be lost on them. The fact that they would even ask that question, phrased in that way, exposed their lack of knowledge about racing.

Racers don’t ask that question of one another. They will ask about lap times instead.

Yes, speeds enter the conversation occasionally, such as, “What was your minimum speed through turn 10?” However, to answer such a question, one must have a datalogger for post-session analysis. Even the rare few who have a speedometer visible on the track won’t be looking at it much. Braking, turning, and competitors dominate concentration already spread thin.

Moreover, the top speed is often misleading. Lots of high-horsepower cars can hit high top speeds on straights only to give the time back in the corners. If a car can hit 160 mph on the straight but needs to slow to 70 mph to make a turn, it will be worse off than a car that hits only 130 mph on the straight but can carry 105 mph through the same complex.

I prefer cars that can corner.

The Phoenix on its first night in my possession, in September 2019, sitting next to my Formula Vee (Photo: Sean)

When I started looking seriously for race cars in 2018, I quickly became enamored with a specific class: F1000. Wings! Big slicks! Paddle shifters! A 13500 RPM red line! Just 1000 lbs including the driver, and 190 hp from a bike engine!

The view with the engine cowling removed showing the 999cc 4-cylinder Suzuki K7 engine from a 2007 GSX-R1000 serving as its prime mover.

Friends told me I’d be in way over my head if I jumped directly to that from my beloved Boxster S. I’d be overwhelmed or perhaps even hurt myself, they said.

In hindsight, they were right, and I’m very glad I bought my Formula Vee in early 2019 as my first race car. I’m also very glad that I bought my second race car, a 2013 Phoenix F1000, eight months after that.

On the false grid before an SCCA race (Photo: Sean)

I bought it sight unseen, over the internet, based largely on the stellar reputation of the seller (who also built it). Still, I knew from even my limited experience that I was taking a bit of a risk, and not just in the obvious ways: there was a chance the car wouldn’t fit.

When people test a formula car for fit, they say that they are “trying the car on”. When you have the fit right, and you’re fully belted in, you feel as one with the machine. If it doesn’t fit, you’re somewhere between disadvantaged and completely screwed.

Luckily, the Phoenix fit me well to begin with, and once I got my fully custom seat poured, it became so comfortable that I could fall asleep in it. The key is that the seat was molded to my body using an esoteric SFI-rated two-part expanding foam, then covered with flame-retardant CarbonX fabric.

When it’s time to drive, I simply slide in and do up the six-point harness as tight as possible. The tighter the belts are, the more the car can communicate with me, and the easier the car is to drive. I like them so tight that I involuntarily exhale a bit as they’re being tightened.

In the cockpit back in the paddock after a race. Looks tight, but it’s actually super roomy by formula-car standards, and it’s extremely comfortable. (Photo: Sean)

In my seating position, my back is inclined about 45 degrees, and my feet and legs are above my butt. My butt, in turn, is about 1/4″ above 21 lbs of lead ballast (to reach the minimum weight), and is only about 1.75″ total above the ground when the car is at rest. That decreases to about 1.25″ when the car is at high speeds and the downforce is extreme.

Red outline shows my approximate position in the car

When you get the F1000 on the track, the acceleration, brakes, and glorious engine note are what you notice first, but what’s really mind-bending is the grip in the corners. You can turn in at what seem like impossible speeds, and yet the car holds. Better than that, it feels completely planted.

Some of that is due to the incredible Hoosier tires, which are as sticky as freshly chewed bubble gum when they’re at the proper temperature. A lot of it is also due to the incredibly stiff suspension, the fancy 4-way adjustable dampers at each corner, the low center of gravity, and the finely tuned setup of everything. All of that works in concert to produce staggering levels of mechanical grip.

But the part that really gets the heart pounding, and the part that takes a leap of faith mentally, is the aero package. The wings! The diffuser! And not to mention all of the critical but unsung trays, gurney flaps, and so on, that are critical to making everything actually work.

With the aero and mechanical grip combined, I see 2.5 G of sustained lateral acceleration in fast corners, with momentary higher peaks. By comparison, the very best production cars with aggressive street tires top out around 1.1 G (i.e., 1.1 times the acceleration due to Earth’s gravity).

The closest I’ve come to that sensation elsewhere is on very fast roller coasters, but there’s a difference: the cornering on the coaster makes sense, as it has steel rails. Trusting that the car would hold as if on rails was an enormous mental challenge. It took time and practice to reach that point.

On the false grid at High Plains Raceway (Photo: Sean)

So, is it fast? Oh yes. Almost incomprehensibly.

As mentioned earlier, the uninitiated ask about speeds, but drivers talk about lap times. Around my favorite local track, High Plains Raceway, the Phoenix is about 30 seconds per lap faster than my Vee, and my Vee is about 5 seconds per lap faster than my Boxster was. In a world where tenths of a second are considered significant, 30 seconds is an eternity.

That’s a testament to the design and execution of the Phoenix more than it is any particular level of skill on my part. The data suggests that the car easily has another few seconds in it.

Pole for a race, ahead of another F1000 and several FMs, waiting on the false grid (Photo: Sean)

Unfortunately, life is full of tradeoffs, and that speed comes at a cost.

The expensive part is operating it. If nothing breaks, the operating cost per lap is about ten times higher than what it is for the Vee.

And if the expensive part is operating it, the really expensive part is fixing it when it breaks, as it’s made from all sorts of exotic materials and bespoke mechanical pieces. “Carbon fiber” and “custom-machined” are its watchwords.

A bit of a mechanical problem meant the car got a ride back on on the hook after a race in August 2020 (Photo: Sean)

But when it’s working, the technology is a complete joy. Paddle shifters! Data loggers! Fuel injection! Limited-slip diff!

So, how fast is it? It’s fast enough to continue to challenge me in a pleasurable way, whether on the track, in the paddock, or at the shop. It’s fast enough to provide a thrill coming down the track wheel to wheel with another winged formula car, the two of us competing for position. It’s fast enough to spark conversations and relationships with interesting and, almost universally, wonderful people (much like in the Vee world).

Yes, as with the Vee, racing the F1000 is about the people and experiences. That’s the true core of the pursuit. The speed is fun, no doubt, and the machines are amazing, but at the end of the day they are means to an end. Machines do no good sitting in a garage, and the memories of a race weekend would be nothing without the people.

With Sean on the false grid before the July 2020 SCCA race (Photo: Sean)

24 Hours of Lemons

December 24th, 2020 Comments off

We’d just strapped Andrew into the race truck in the hot pits and were walking back to our paddock when we heard a loud BANG and saw a cloud of dirt. Somebody had hit the wall, seemingly hard. Our curiosity turned to shock and confusion when we looked and found it was Andrew who was facing the wrong way, off the racing surface, the truck minus one wheel.

Fortunately, the impact sounded worse than it was, and Andrew was fine. We were in hour 5 of a true 24-hour race at High Plains Raceway in Colorado, so our attention quickly turned to a new challenge: could we get our 1974 Chevy Luv back on the track, and how long would it take?

Me driving the Luv at sunrise. Spoiler: we got it fixed! (Photo: Sean)

The four of us driving, plus the three of us crewing, rapidly set to disassembling the broken corner and tracking down spare parts. Although it initially looked as though the wheel had left the hub, in fact the entire front-right hub had left the truck. A loose nut led to a ball-joint failure, and once that let go the hub and wheel went together off into the prairie.

The Luv coming in on the hook after the incident. Notice the lack of a right front wheel. (Photo: Sean)

I had been driving the truck for the hour-long stint before Andrew, and I must admit I was quite relieved the mechanical failure hadn’t happened with me behind the wheel. Not out of any safety concern — my fire suit, helmet, gloves and so on worked well with the belts, roll cage, and other safety gear in the truck to mitigate that risk. Rather, I was glad I wasn’t the one to crash the truck because, frankly, it wasn’t my vehicle. It was, however, Andrew’s Luv, co-owned with his brother Aaron (who was also driving) and their father Mark (who was crewing).

A pit stop for a driver change and fuel.

I’d gotten connected with the Nebraska-based Pullman family team via a post on the 24 Hours of Lemons forums. I was looking for a drive; they were looking to fill a seat. We got along swimmingly, and two months after the initial overture we were all at the track together. Along the way, we’d also picked up my friend Will as the fourth driver, plus Sean and my friend Mike to crew.

All of us were focused on fixing the truck. That was difficult, because although the drivetrain had been replaced with a V6 and 5-speed manual from a late-90s Chevy S10, the front suspension was more or less pure Luv.

The spare tie rod and ball joint that the Pullmans thought they brought were in fact not with them in Colorado. But wait! Didn’t somebody in western Nebraska on the Luv Facebook group mention they had the requisite spares? It was “only” a 400 mile round trip from the track. Unable to raise the man on the internet, Andrew and Aaron set out towards Nebraska regardless, confident in their ability to work things out before it would be time to rendezvous.

The truck in the paddock.

Meanwhile, back at the track, the other five of us on the team passed the time by getting the truck ready to accept the parts and watching the lights on the still-running cars come on as night fell.

High Plains is far enough from Denver that the Milky Way shines bright when there is no moon, and there are few lights illuminating the track-proper outside of the pit area. When the race cars circulate the track in the dark with their headlights lit, they look like they are zipping around the amongst the stars.

Sacrifice to the racing gods of the broken parts from the Luv.

Cars in the field of about 60 entrants broke down constantly. Few were suspension failures; most were engines. The premise behind then series was to race $500 cars, so the minor miracles relied upon to get them on the track in the first place had a knack for disappearing like Cinderella’s charmed accoutrements. Still, it’s a resourceful bunch who engage in such an endeavor, and clever mechanical and electrical hacks often managed to breathe new life into erstwhile expired powertrains.

Sunset was spectacular the day before the race. Here’s the Luv in the turn 13-14-15 complex at High Plains.

The clock ticked towards midnight, then beyond. We waited for Andrew and Aaron’s return huddled by a space heater in the paddock.

Suddenly, out of the night, they appeared — and with the spares!

Ratchets clicked, hammers banged, and the Luv returned to the circuit at 1:00 a.m. We were down severely on laps, but 11 hours of the race remained. The truck ran better than ever — in part due to an ignition problem that we’d fixed during our downtime — and the team began crawling back up the standings.

Night grew lighter, and I took my next driving stint just as dawn broke. My first stint had been an anxious one, as I’d never driven the truck before my time in the race, not even for practice. The second stint was more relaxing. Yes, the tires were going, and a bad vibration on high-speed right turns led me to back off to try to preserve the machine, but overall my time behind the wheel flew by.

Me piloting the Luv into Turn 7 at High Plains.

We swapped drivers several more times, and the Luv made it to the end of the race. Exhausted by the repair and wired due to the lack of sleep, we went home happy with dreams for next season.

Sean and I with the Luv after the race.