Sandpanther (sandpanther) wrote,
Sandpanther
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Adventures In Autocross - Slush Series 1



Today was the first round of the slush series. Basically, once the official season ends, there's a second series that runs called "slush". It's shorter, and the chances are greater that the weather is bad when we run. (Unlike NASCRAP, Solo 2 is not scared of water.) There are also usually fewer people running in the slush rounds. *shrug* Don't ask me why, me personally I figure a drive is a drive. But then I'm not in this for the competition (yet).

Today was also the day I was scheduled to run in one of Turbo's cars. Today she brought a stock Mitsubishi Starion (which, thanks to Nicky Grist, I keep wanting to call a Mitsubushi. Thank you, Nicky. I will make sure to mangle Welsh while I'm in your home stomping ground.) Turbo's Starion is a rear wheel drive, turbo, automatic. I usually drive a front wheel drive NA, manual. I joked that I don't think you can get two cars more different from each other without changing the number of wheels.

Today was also the day that Turbo was getting one of the people at her work, Diane, to start autocrossing. We must have made a great pair -- me quaking in my boots over driving someone else's car (and one that is so different from mine), and she quaking in her boots for doing her first autocross run.

We were running in the afternoon run group, so I didn't have to get out of bed early. This time was at Golden Gate Fields, which we usually call Gravel Gate Fields due to the awful surface. This is one of the rare events where you want to run earlier rather than later, since while the earlier folks may be sweeping some gravel off the driving line for the later folks, they are also chewing chunks out of the surface and creating even more gravel for the folks coming along behind. I'm actually getting kind of fond of the surface -- mainly because the grip is so poor and erratic that it's a good place to practice regaining control after traction goes. The only real good point about Gravel Gate Fields is that we have to start an hour later than usual since the noise from the cars disturbs the horses. (The parking lot belongs to a horse racing track.)

I show up and try to eat a little lunch. I quickly realize that I'm not terribly hungry, and that I'm really too nervous to try and force myself to eat anyway. I give up before too long, and go to sign the release waiver. They had moved the gate from where I am used to, so I ended up parking outside the normal autocross area. There was a woman working the front sign-in. She and I chatted for a bit, since she said it was really cool to meet some of the other women involved with the autocross. There aren't a lot of women running, though there are a few. I've seen her run before, though now I can't for the life of me remember which car she runs.

As I stood there, Turbo pulled up. How convenient -- I won't have to go looking for her! As I'm standing there talking to her, my roomie drives up on his way out. He was running our normal group, and had run in the morning. He described the course and mentioned a few of the main characteristics. Turbo drove on in, and my roomie finished describing how his morning had gone and headed out. I caught up with Turbo, hung out of a bit, then grabbed Diane and went on the novice course walk.

(Yeah, I've been doing this long enough that I probably won't pick up that much new from the novice course walk. I still like picking the brains of someone who knows more about this than me. Besides, they point out that I don't look far enough ahead still.)

We finished up the novice course walk (which was cool, since it was just Diane and I on the walk!), then grabbed Turbo to give us another course walk. She pointed a lot of stuff out that worked specifically for her car. One of the things she talked about was manually shifting the car. It is an automatic, but you can manually control the transmission a little. It got a little insane trying to keep track of where to shift when and what the car would do. I tried to remember it all, but realistically expected that I probably wouldn't even remember a part of it. Though really, it didn't matter too much, since I figured I wasn't going to do stunningly well anyway, all things considered.

We hung out and waited while the run group ahead of ours ran. It took FOREVER. It was a huge group that just kept going and going and... It did, howeverv, have the RX-8 (which not only is Pikachu yellow, it also has a Pikachu painted on the front), a stealth Evo, (the stealth Evo managed to get in a run without me noticing it), and a really cool looking black Lotus. Automotive eye-candy aside, it still took forever. This did give Turbo enough time to come up with the idea of mounting a cone onto an RC car chasis and then using it as an apex cone. We happily debated the many creative uses of a mobile cone in an autocross. Art (an amazingly cool, really darn old guy who still beats the pants of off just about everyone) said that he would love to see a pylon make faster time than one of the karts. I suspect that Art is not terribly amused at the guy driving the kart who always sets top time of day. Not that I blame him.

One amusing exchange that happend:
Turbo was using red tape to tape numbers onto the car that Diane and I were going to use. She told me that we would have to decide who was 113 and who would be 131. I cheerfully volunteered that I have my magnetic 9 (since I usually run with the number 999). Turbo looked at me like I was, well, blonde, and informed me that my numbers are white. I looked at the white car. Riiight. Turbo pointed out that I don't have to worry about losing my Blonde Licence this week.

Finally that group ended. Our run group consisted of about eight cars and three go-karts. Of course, six of the eight cars were two-driver cars, so there were a lot more people running than it looked at first glance. Because there were so many two-driver cars, we decided that I would do my first run first, with Diane riding along (supposedly to learn how it was done -- I joked that she was learning how not to do it!) Then Diane would take all three of her runs back to back, and I would finish up my last two runs back to back. Turbo was co-driving a friend of hers' car (a Mitsubishi Conquest), and ran right ahead of us.

Since the group was so small, it didn't take long before we were up. I was pretty nervous. The car was completely unfamiliar and generally just felt weird. The flag dropped, and off I went.

The course this time was very similar to the last course at Gravel Gate Fields. It started off with a large cross-over loop that went into a long straight. If you lined everything up correctly, the end of the straight went through a gate, then into a slalom. The first cone on the slalom could be ignored safely as well, as long as everything was lined up correctly. The second cone in the slalom wasn't any great pain (I say that now...), but everyone had to slow down for the third cone. The slalom exited through another gate into a turn that started fairly wide, then tighted. Immediately after the exit of that corner there was a second corner that was almost a jag more than anything else, then another wide corner that tightened. This led into a long chicane, then into yet another diminishing-radius turn. (Yes, these are quite popular.) This went into another chicane, then around a 90 degree right and across the timing beam. (Remember all this, we will come back to it.)

On our course walk, Turbo had recommended leaving the car in first through the crossover loop, then shifting the car up one gear to second starting into the straightaway. She also recommended using a lot of left-foot braking. Now, I've been practicing using my left foot on the brake for a while now, and figured that since the car's an automatic and I was expecting to set sucky times anyway, maybe this would be a perfect opportunity to give it a try. Even so, I didn't try it too much on the first run. Why not? Because something so profoundly weird happened when I tried to shift the car up that I completely lost concentration, and decided that for the rest of the run I would work on just getting focused again and not mess around with anything fancy.

Now what happened was when I tried to shift up, I must have gone too far. I don't drive an automatic, and I was having trouble feeling when it went one notch and when it went more. So when I tried shifting up, the back end kick -- quite literally just like an upset horse! -- and the transmission made a really awful noise. Looking back on it now, I think I might have tried to kick it into reverse. At the time all I knew was that I had gone too far, and whacked the gear shift back down -- where, I did not know.

I finished out the run and was awarded a cone-free 63.061. Considering that my roomie's first time of the day was a 59-something, and I was seeing the mod cars running in the low 50's to high 40's, this wasn't the most stunning time. Still, all things considered, it wasn't too bad.

Driving back onto grid I take a look at what gear I'm in. I ran the entire run in first. No wonder the time was icky.

Diane took her runs, besting each time by four or more seconds each run. By the end, she had improved 10 seconds on her time, which is very good for a first outing. Turbo, meanwhile, beat Eric's time, then was in turn beaten by Eric as the tires warmed up. I didn't get to see the final outcome of that battle, since Diane had finished her runs, and I was back up.

Remembering the shifting mess, I decided to just stick the transmission into second and take the time hit for not dealing with shifting. The time hit surely couldn't be worse than the one I took for running the entire course in first.

With no one in the car and no gears to shift, I decided to get a little more experimental. Turbo had reminded me that the car was a turbo, which is why I wasn't getting the power coming out of the turns that I was expecting. So this time I tried messing around with using my left foot to keep the turbo spooled up and the revs high enough that the transmission wouldn't drop a gear. I was surprised at how well it worked around the crossover loop.

I got through the straightaway and the slalom with no problems... And then came the first decreasing-radius turn. I brake in a straight line, then get back on the gas when I think I should to start spooling up the turbo. The course goes right. The back of the car goes left. The nose of the car starts going right. I want it to go straight. I start to correct, over-correct, then straighten it out just before -- ACK! -- there is the cone for the little jag left before going into the next serious right. I manage to miss the cone, and get the car settled down in time to make the right. *phew* I knew I was going to have problems with the back end stepping out, since I'm not used to RWD cars any more. (I used to drive only RWD -- but I haven't driven one in almost five years now. I remember the pain of changing over from RWD to FWD, and figured that there would still be some learning curve in switching back.) I was rather pleased that I managed to pull out of the whole tail-wagging incident -- though I must have looked a lot like Iketani while doing it!

The rest of that run passed without incident, and I was rewarded with a time that showed that I had actually managed to get out of first gear: 59.578. Still not really good, but progress, and progress was all I was really looking for today.

The third run came up quickly, since I was going straight through and not switching drivers. This time through I felt a lot more confident using my left foot on the brake. I did not, however, feel confident braking in the middle of the slalom, and creamed one of the cones as a result. Course workers must see me coming and cringe.

I hit the first decreasing-radius turn and did a repeat of my butt-wagging sliding performance. Oh well. The next decreasing-radius turn was no problem, but the back end and I got into another fight on the next tight right-hander which again, I saved out of, but not without losing a bunch of time AND hitting a cone. This was the first time I've ever hit a cone because I could not control the car to prevent it. All the other times have been because of carelessness, or not setting up properly in a slalom. It's a bit of an achievement, though perhaps one I won't be too unhappy if I don't repeat too often in the future.

I had more slideways problems in the last turn before the timing beam as well. The road surface at this point was pretty chewed up, so I think that contributed. I was pushing a lot harder this time, largely in an attempt to try and figure out the timing on when to start mashing the accelerator coming out of turns, but also partially to get a better feel for when the back end starts stepping out so that I can get a better grasp on how to control it.

The time for that run was worse, in part because I had more back-end fights, but most noticably because of the cone. So I finished the day with a 59.962 plus one, totallying 61.962. Pretty sucky, but I felt pretty good about it. I didn't manage to spin, but I did get into a couple of instances where that was a very real threat, and managed to pull it out without unsettling the car too badly (or, really, wiping out any cones in the process.)

I chatted about the whole thing with Turbo afterward. It was a really cool experience, and I want to try again a few more times with that car to see if I can get the hang of it. She has a very clear plan for progress in the future. The next time I get to run the car (in November, since I will miss the next two rounds while I'm in Japan) will be in November. By that time, she expects to lower this car a bit. After that, she's looking to over time move me so increasingly less and less stock cars until we get to her highly modified former race car, which will weigh half as much as the car I drove today, but have about twice the horsepower. That should be a spin-tastic delight! Hopefully by then I'll have a lot better a grasp on controlling RWD cars.

This run group featured not one, not two, but three STis. One was white, one was black, and one was an appopriate Subaru blue, complete with the gold wheels. They also all seemed to be two-driver cars. More eye candy for me!

This group was small, so it wasn't lng before I had to head out for my work group. When I had signed up, I had decided that I didn't want to work the cross-over postion again since it starts making me dizzy. (Most of the time I am working one of the largest run groups, so I can be turning in circles every twenty seconds for about an hour!) Instead, I ended up picking the station as far away from the trailer as possible. Ah, a long, hot hike out to the back fourty, just what I needed!

I got there, and one of the people in the last work group recognized me from one of the previous events. I thought that was rather cool (even though I barely remembered him. *wince* My memory is not so good sometimes.) Before too long that work group took off, and another person joined me for our group. We were working the last group of the day, and there weren't a lot of people left.

There wasn't too much action at our post (which, by the way, was the group that took care of my favorite decreasing-radius turn), but we did get to see some entertaining sliding action, and a couple of people executing manuveurs that looked an awful lot like mine. There was, however, one really exciting (read: scary) moment.

Where we run the autocrosses, it's usually in an enclosed parking area. Access in and out of the lot is controlled. For the particular site, however, car access is controlled, but pedestrians and bikes can enter freely. At one point in time I was watching a car enter into the area covered by my station when all of a sudden over the radio we hear "Wha -- Hold the start! Hold the start and RED FLAG THEM ALL!" (You red-flag a car when there is a dangerous situation up ahead, to signal the driver to stop and let the situation clear up.) The car had just passed us and the station next to us had just picked up the car. They frantically flagged him down, and I turned to see what the problem was: Two bicyclists had blythly pedaled into our area, and had just crossed the course into (fortunately!) a dead area. We all started in disbelief as they calmly continued cycling across the rest of the course and off out of our area. Stupid, stupid bicyclists.

This group was a fairly average sized group, though it felt very small since I usually work the larger run groups. Before too long it was all over. It was so early I wondered if I hadn't worked the wrong group and if there wasn't still a group left to run. But no, by 4:20, we were all done. Which means FUN RUNS!! Yipee!! I had been hoping to get another chance to run the course.

I ran back to the front of the course. They announced that we had five or ten minutes to get our cars on grid, then we would all get four fun runs each. Four!? I don't even get four normal runs. Schweeeeet!

I catch up with Turbo just as she's taking off. *sniff* No fun runs in the butt-car. I ask if I can run my Integra, even though I hadn't gotten it tech'd. Turbo said sure, so off I run to grab my car. I frantically threw all the junk out (being very thankful that I usually keep the car clean, so there wasn't much to throw), slid the car onto grid, then ran back out onto the course to work.

The way that fun runs work is that they lined all the cars up into two rows. One row runs while the drivers for the other row work the course (to ensure safety and put the cones back up -- though no one writes down the times or the number of cones hit.) I decided since I was the last person to grid that I would work the first set of runs, then run the second. And since I was so late getting onto grid, all the close-by positions had been filled. I tracked back out to the back fourty to one of the stations that only had one person at it.

I can't remember the name of the guy I worked with, but he was fun to talk to. He was co-driving(*) one of the STi's -- the car's owner let him drive it in exchange for this guy teaching him how to drive it. I told him that I was screamingly jealous of him.

(* Rally fans should not confuse co-driving a car in autocross with co-driving a rally car. In autocross it just means that two drivers switch off driving the same car. So, for example, I was co-driving with Diane today.)

Despite there being four runs, the first group finished fairly quickly. Trotting back to the front of the course (again!) I commented that I never knew that I would get so much exercise from racing cars! I probably walked at least three miles today, between working and the two course walks. The guy I had been working with for the fun run commented that at least losing weight meant faster times. He joked that he had pulled the spare tire ouf of the back, so he figured the only way to make faster times was to lose the spare tire around the middle!

Panting, I got back to my car, fired her up (since she had been sitting most of the day), and pulled on my helmet. My goal for the first run was to best any of my time for the day -- and prove that I could do better in a car that I'm used to!

Before long I was up, and then driving into the crossover loop. I had been steadily gaining confidence in braking with my left foot, so this time I was pretty agressive with it. The way the car rotates on some of those corners is pretty darn suh-weeeeeet! Right around exactly the way I wanted it -- not too fast, not too slow -- and then all I have to do is pull the foot off the brake and I'm back on full throttle again. Veeeeeery nice.

I think it was the first run through that I nailed the cone. I look up, and suddenly there it is before me. A *crunch* and there it is flying behind me. I feel sorry for the course worker I just made run.

My "favorite" corner went by without any incident -- in fact, I was rather pleased with the way I handled that whole complex. The decreasing-radius turn at the end was no problem to get around with the left foot on the brake and the right on the throttle. I started getting cocky. I finished out the rest of the run without any major problems, and looked over for my time: 56.212! *buffs fingernails on shirt* See? I can too do better in a car I know!

Pulling into the grid I realized something: my tires were inflated to normal street PSI. Since I hadn't been planning on autocrossing my car, I hadn't bothered putting extra air in them. On top of that, I knew that I hadn't had time to yank the spare tire out of the back, so I was hauling extra weight. I wondered what kinds of times I would be putting down if I had the car properly set up for an autocross...

Fun runs are awesome. It's like catching rides at the amusement park in the last fifteen minutes before closing. No waits, just up to the front and you're off.

The second run I was even more agressive about the left-foot braking, and about accelerating. On the straight before the slalom I hit a point where normally I would have leveled off or started coming off the throttle. This time (since it was a fun run), I kept right on it, trusting the left-foot braking to slow and turn me in time. It worked like a charm. Through the slalom and around my stupid turn (with a little back-end sliding, but nothing that I couldn't handle with no problem!), and into the next series of turns, everything worked great. Coming up to the last turn before the timer I had a little spot where the traction started going, but nothing major. I checked the time: 55.190! Weee-heee!!!

The third run was my best. I was totally on it for the entire cross-over loop. I don't know what was going on at the end of the turn into the straightaway, but it must have looked cool. I could hear the course workers shouting the way they do when people go through turns sideways, or start to spin out. I didn't spin, but I know the back end was doing something that it normally doesn't do. It was pretty cool. I didn't get to think too much on it, since I was busy trying to floor the throttle and finish unwinding the steering out of the turn. I charged that first slalom cone like one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse bent on destruction. I swear, I think I maxed out my power in second, which I have never done. I had to have been going about 65, 70 MPH. I wobbled a little around the cone, but didn't hit anything. I didn't manage my "favorite" turn as well as I did on the first run, but at least I didn't get into any screaming fights with the back end either. Going into the turn after the last of the decreasing-radius turns I started losing the back on the nasty surface, but pulled it out without too much time loss (though I know I had to have had some.) I had a nice little arguement-bobble right at the end, but still didn't hit anything. I checked the time. I don't know why, but for some reason I had thought my previous time was a 51.something. So I was a little disappointed by the 53.743. And then I remembered that the 51's were being scored by some of the veteran folks in better cars than mine. A 53.mutter was actually a competative time! Wow!

I headed back for my last run in a boisterous mood. I didn't pull the crossover complex in as impressive a manner (or at least didn't hear any comments), didn't have any problems with anything for the first half of the course. The last half, though... I got into a major argument with the back end going around the last decreasing-radius turn. Then entering the chicane before the final turn across the timing beam things went, well, pear-shaped. I went into it too hot (and should have known better), and swung wide and started losing control as a result. Before I could get things settled back down, I slid into the gravel. The traction went *poof* and I knew all hope of salvaging anything out was lost and I better just back off and let the car settle before it got even more upset and spun. This did, unfortunately, mean that I hit the final turn dead sideways. I must have swept out at least three cones and a pointer on my way through. I was laughing like a maniac. I think that is the most out of control I have ever been on my car -- and quite possibly on any car I have ever driven. The final time for that was a 54.079, plus the slayage of uncounted cones.

So, I had a blast. Thanks to losing control a bunch, I feel a lot more confident about pushing harder. I really want to play around some more with Turbo's car, maybe even try to figure out how to shift it without making it kick like a feral horse. I noticed that I'm starting to naturally look farther down the course and have to think about it less. There are some part where I still need to really work on it, but it's starting to come together. All in all, it was a totally satisfying day.
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