Friday, April 27, 2007

A Day (or two) at the Track with My Saab

Being the Service Manager at Charles river Saab, cello teacher at the Ipswich Public Schools, an instructor for Stevens Advanced Driver Training on weekends, a husband and father of three sons, you would be correct to assume that I don’t have much time for recreation. Nevertheless, I recently carved out some time to participate in “motorsport” endeavors, and I just returned from my first two forays.
Last year, my son Pascal participated in the Swedish Car Day Rally and had the distinction of finishing dead last. But from that experience, he got interested in trying off road rallies. When I asked friends who race with SCCA (Sport Car Club of America—New England Region, ) they suggested Rally Cross (or RallyX); think of auto-cross, only in the dirt. So I got Pascal an SCCA junior membership for Christmas, signed a parental waiver, and he signed himself up for his first event in March. When he came home after his first day of racing, he was wide eyed with glee and had a camera full of great pictures and movies of him blasting through dirt and mud as he powered his 1991 900S to second place in the stock front wheel drive category! It looked so fun, I thought I had to try.
So last Saturday, Pascal, his older brother AndrĂ© and I piled into the 900S and headed to the Rochester (NH) Fairgrounds, site of the most recent SCCA RallyX. We ran in the FWD stock division. The only modifications to this old car (with 175,000 miles) were the installation of Gislaved snow tires, and a single-muffler exhaust from a 900T. We had a great time. Of course the boys had more fun because they finished ahead of and earned bragging rights. The car did very well, and the only casualty was a cracked exhaust pipe. This is racing on the cheap ($55 entry), and it is great fun. I would recommend it to anyone. You need only have a car that is sound and a helmet (and they’ll lend you a helmet if you don’t have one), and snow tires or rally tires are suggested. I must confess that not only did my sons beat me, but I came in last place in our division! Alas, I was not the slowest car of the day, and did beat out some of the modified and all-wheel drive entries, though not many. I will try this again and hope for better results!
On Monday, I tried a much different venture. I am a rare bird in the advanced driver training world—I have no racing experience. I do, though, have a very good pedagogic sense and the ability to communicate with students, mostly honed from my years of cello teaching. Still, I thought enhancing my own driving skills was an important self-improvement I should undertake. Charles River Saab assisted me in this endeavor and sponsored my participation in SCDA (Sport Car Driving Association, ) at New Hampshire International Speedway, host to, among other events, NASCAR racing.
I am no racer, and am completely ignorant of all motor sports. But I do know cars and understand car control. I am not competitive by nature, but enjoy testing and pushing myself. This seemed like the perfect sort of event. I would get to drive my own car (OK, my wife’s) on a real race track with an instructor to show me how to best handle myself, my car and the track. I was not racing against anyone, or even a clock. I must say that SCDA puts on a wonderful event. It was well organized, and when we weren’t on the track, we were in the classroom, and otherwise barely had time to grab a bottle of water or make it to the lavatory.

I was in the Novice class, with about ten others. I realized what a serious affair this was when I first got to NHIS and saw all the spectacular cars there: Porsches, BMWs, a Ferrari, Corvettes, Lotuses and so on. I wasn’t expecting that so many fine cars would be driven by the Novice students. As I recall, the other students drove a Honda S2000, BMW M3, BMW M5 (old), Mini Cooper S, Porsche 911 (three of them), a Noble, a race SPEC Miata and a Lotus Elise. Yikes. I was in my wife’s thoroughly stock and original 1993 9000 Aero 5-speed on Pirelli Sport Veloce touring tires and 167,000 miles. After a terrific classroom session to get the lay of the land and an explanation of the ground-rules by instructor Luka Sedrar of the BMW Car Club of America, we took our cars to the track to meet our instructors.
My instructor for the day was Larry Barbieri, an instructor for the BMW CCA, and he drives a BMW M3. I wondered if instructors would see my car and run away, hoping to get into one of the more swish cars. But Larry was completely cordial and didn’t roll his eyes at the front-drive Saab. I was relieved! He started off by offering to drive the Saab a couple of laps while I observed from the passenger seat, no doubt to gauge its response on the course and to allow me to see the line he would try to teach me. We put on our helmets (thank you Toby Teller for donating your helmet to me) and communication devices and were on our way.
It took me about three seconds to realize that a). Larry was an excellent driver b). I was going to have a lot of fun that day. After those laps, I had a pretty good mental image of the track and where I wanted to be in each corner, where I wanted to brake and how much, and where to accelerate. At least I thought so until we switched places and I had to drive. It is tough work to drive hard and accurately. Timing is critical, as is planning and anticipation. It is as mentally stressful as it is physically demanding. Larry did a great job in “narrating” my laps around the track. He would position me, advise on when to brake, shift, accelerate, roll out the steering, where to apex on a turn and so on. And just like that, our first twenty minutes was up. I was reassured by that time that not only was Larry a good driver, he was also a very good instructor.
During the next session, I became aware of the cars that needed to overtake me (and there is a system of etiquette to allow safe passing by invitation of the leading car), but also found that my old Saab could run around the track with some of these cars, and even pass them. OK, I know this isn’t racing, and that not everyone was necessarily going as hard as they could. But even Mr. Non-Competitive Me got a little thrill the first time I exited the chicane on the heels of the M3 and got the signal to overtake, thus opening the throttle and pouring on all 258 lb/ft of torque to achieve the pass before the braking for the next turn. There was one turn, Turn 3 to Turn 4, which is very sharp and executed in second gear and immediately ascends a steep grade. I thought all that torque would rocket me up that hill. It might have, but the dreaded Traction Control rained on my parade. As I would try to accelerate up the hill while unwinding the steering, the inside front tire would lose grip, the TCS would engage, and all my lovely turbo boost and power would evaporate—boost is just so ephemeral—leaving me in the middle of the hill with no power. Ugh!
Late in the day, Larry gave me a ride in his BMW. As good as he was in my car, he was so smooth and fast in his car. I don’t know what modifications the BMW had, but it did have purposeful tires, massive looking brakes and 5-point harnesses. The suspension looked a bit lowered, and I wondered what engine modifications it may have been running. I admired the surefootedness of the car, and at no time did it ever feel as though it misbehaved. The expert interface of man/woman and machine, be it an automobile or a pipe-organ or a bicycle, is a sublime and wondrous thing to observe. In this case, it was also exhilarating to the point of exhausting. I couldn’t believe how tired I got just being Larry’s passenger!
At the end of the day, the old Saab did start to overheat a bit, for reasons I do not yet know, though she is running perfectly now. She averaged almost 11 mpg during the track sessions, and I did almost run out of gas even though I started the day there with 13 gallons in the tank. The tires were not nearly up to the task, having had the outer edge of the front tires torn off and will have to be upgraded before I do this again. Other than the tires, the car performed as well as I had hoped, and perhaps even better in some respects. Even the brakes, which seem rather smallish by today’s standards, worked well and never faded, though they turned a really neat shade of blue! Beyond the tires and the need for a TCS-off switch, how could I have asked for more from that car? She got me there and back. She was not pampered by being trailered to the track. I did no preparation other than changing filters, fluids and plugs and setting the tire pressures and lug torque. So the trusty 9000 Aero, capable of lugging massive purchases from IKEA and 17 foot Christmas trees (see stories below) shows us that she has so many capabilities. I wonder, though, how I would fare in, say, a 9-3 Aero…..I think Larry was right: the needle is now in my arm!

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