Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shredding Tires at the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School

I have always said that the C7 Corvettes are “race cars with license tags”.  Realizing this fact, Chevrolet is now offering new Corvette buyers a discounted price to attend the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School in Pahrump, Nevada.  Ron Fellows, legendary Corvette Racing driver, secured the exclusive opportunity to train new owners to use all the capabilities of their new cars without endangering the car (or the human) body.

Soon after Don purchased his new C7 he decided to take advantage of the driving school offer and asked me and Bill to tag along.  Since Don had been to the Pahrump track twice before, they allowed him to participate in the Level 2 class.  Bill and I were assigned to Level 1.  Nancy and Shirley joined us for two full days of shredding tires, smoking clutch disks, and melting brake pads.

Level 1 covers the systems of the car,  hard braking and evasive maneuvers, skid pad technique, basic racing skills, and driving on the track as fast as you dare (given the $8,000 deductible incentive to not get too crazy) in a lead-follow configuration.  Level 2 is more advanced and includes unaccompanied racing, passing, and even more track time.  I think Level 3 teaches you how to crash into your opponent so your team can steal a first-place finish (and I’m sure the Porsche and Ferrari drivers have taken this course!).

In both Level 1 and 2 your spouse gets track time too, riding along with the (young, handsome) instructors.  Shirley and Nancy took full advantage of this benefit.

On Monday morning Don joined nine other experienced drivers in the Level 2 class.  Before long we could hear them roaring around the North/South track, one of three courses at Pahrump.  The small class size and full-out effort showed on Don’s exhausted (but grinning) face when we all met for lunch later in the day on Monday.

Over in the Level 1 class Bill and I were the only drivers who were not new C7 owners.  Each driver was assigned to a car as close to their car back home.  The options were the Z51 package (with “only” 460 HP) or the Z06 (with 650 HP) and either the 7 speed stick or the 8 speed paddle shifter.  Bill and I were each assigned Z51 stick cars.  We were happy.  There were more than 100 Corvettes at the track and all of them were ordered with the heavy-duty brakes, special handling upgrades and the “rev-matching” feature (more on this below).  The only modifications made to the cars were to put a radio communications system in them (so the instructors could “coach” [yell at] the drivers) and to fit them with Michelin racing tires.  We discovered that these completely stock Corvettes could take all the punishment we could dish out over the next two days.

Bill was clearly the best driver in Level 1.  He owns a 2009 Twin Turbo Porsche 997.1 and has owned the Audi R8 so he is familiar with really fast cars that can turn corners (unlike your drag-race author).  All the high-end manufacturers try to lure Bill with “driving experience” events and he has driven the best and fastest cars from Germany and Italy.  I am hoping he will get the “Corvette Bug”!  

On day one Bill and I were separated for the initial “familiarization” sessions, but when it came time to get on the track we were assigned to the same group, a trio of drivers (us and a stranger) to follow one of the instructors.  Actually being on the track, essentially turned loose with an experienced driver in the lead, was awesome.  The challenge was to hit the apex of each corner of the 10 turn course.  Each turn was different and required a modified approach, creating a balance between front and rear tires, and a smooth exit.  Turn 3 was my biggest issue, but most people had issues with turn 10.  We improved with each lap, taking turns being in position two behind the instructor who was giving Nan a “ride along”.  

One skill that has been taught for many years became unnecessary for our courses.  Driving schools try to teach the mastery of “heel-toe” footwork in which the driver uses the right foot to press the brakes while entering a turn but uses the same foot to rev the engine while down-shifting.  In the C7 Corvette this maneuver is unnecessary since the computer-controlled engine and transmission figure out that you are down-shifting and the engine is raced to make the gears in the transmission match the higher speed of the lower gear (“rev-matching”).  This capability is computer magic that only a chip-designer (like Bill) can understand!

Over in Level 2 Don was getting his money’s worth as Shirley watched from the passenger seat of her instructor’s car.  By the end of the day we were all ready for some good food and wine.  Off we ventured to the near-by Pahrump Valley Winery.  

 The owner entertained us at the complimentary wine tasting room, followed by a great meal.  Then it was home to bed to rest up for day two.  We didn’t know that the best was yet to come!

Day 2 was pretty much all track time for all of us.  In Level 1 the morning program included having an instructor drive while the student watched from the passenger seat.  My instructor drove like a man gone mad; for the first time the smell of brake linings filled the cockpit.  I learned that I was down-shifting too soon and not being aggressive enough on the brakes going into the corners.  With these new-found techniques, over the course of the day, I got better and better with fewer “suggestions” coming through the radio by the instructor (such as, “Cary, you missed the apex on turn 5 that time”, or “Let’s use the brakes to balance the car”).

Near the end of day two (they call it “Graduation” and apparently I passed the course) we enjoyed a surprise visit by Ron Fellows!  He first came to Level 1, answered a few questions, and signed autographs.  Then he visited with the level 2 group.  Don and Shirley had met Ron previously and have seen him at Corvette race events, so it was a nice time to reconnect with a racing legend. 

So . . . who had the most fun?

Shirley did!  Ron offered Shirley an exclusive experience – to ride along as he drove one of the Z06 Corvettes around the North/South track.  Shirley held on for dear life as Ron ripped around the course faster than any of the Level 2 folks, entering corners at speeds impossible to imagine.  Her happiness endured the entire trip back to San Diego and beyond!

So, what will our next adventure be?  Don, Shirley, Nan and I are going to France in June to watch the Corvettes race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  I figure that if any of the six Corvette drivers should come down with the flu, then Don (or Bill,if he catches a private jet to Paris)  can step in and drive for them!  Perfect timing!   

Monday, April 18, 2016

How to Steal a First-Place Finish

The third round of the 2016 IMSA Racing season was run Saturday on the streets of Long Beach.  You will recall that Corvette Racing finished 1 - 2 in the first race (Daytona 24 hours) and the #4 Corvette finished in first place again in the second race (Sebring 12 hours).  Before the third race Team Corvette was handicapped again with further BoP (balance of performance) limitations, the second dose in the early season.  The added restrictions resulted in the Corvettes only qualifying in 4th and 5th place.

Undeterred, by the middle of the Long Beach race the two Corvettes had fought their way to P1 and P2 and held those positions to the very end.  With just a few laps to go I was sure that Corvette would finish 1 - 2 again.  

With the #4 Corvette in the lead, followed closely by the #3 Corvette, the pursuit was hot by the #912  and #911 Porsches and the #62 Ferrari all three advantaged by the BoP adjustments.  Something (Don and I are not exactly sure what) went wrong with the #3 car causing it to spin and to retire from the race with 5 laps to go.  But the #4 Corvette was still in the lead clipping off good lap times.  Since it is almost impossible to pass at Long Beach (even the faster class cars have trouble passing the slower class cars) I was still confident in a Corvette victory.  But the clever boys over at Team Porsche figured out a way to pass the class-leading car -- crash into him!  And that's exactly what happened --the #912 car pushed Tommy Milner out of the way on the final turn, opening the door for the #911 car to finish first.  Tommy kept his wits about him, rejoined the race and finished second.  Everyone knows I'm biased, so  I have pasted below the Racer.COM report on the end of the race.

The #912 car was ordered to the pits -- essentially he was "black flagged" -- the most serious penalty for a driver in racing.  

We won't know until the end of the season how detrimental this incident will be to Corvette racing.  It would have been awesome for the #4 car to have had three consecutive victories to start the season.  We will just have to settle for two firsts and one second.  Of equal interest will be to see what the drivers of the #912 car did to themselves.   If, instead of taking out  Tommy Milner, Makowiecki had been satisfied with a second place finish,  he would have earned in the first three races 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd, and would have been in second place in the season point standings.  Now being dropped to the bottom of the pack in the third race, he has slipped in the standings.  And pouring points on the #911 car, which was in 10th place coming into Long Beach, won't help that much.

I have a strategy for preventing this problem in the future -- but you have to wait for my next blog post to learn what it is!

Article from

The No. 911 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR driven by Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet were handed the GTLM win after teammate Fred Makowiecki, driving the No. 912 entry, cheated Corvette Racing's Tommy Milner out of the win by hitting and spinning the No. 4 C7.R in the Turn 11 hairpin with two minutes remaining.

Whether Makowiecki's half-hearted move was phenomenally stupid or intentionally underhanded, the end result left the Corvette parked backward and blocked, and gave Tandy a clear lane to motor by and inherit the win. Once Milner was able to get moving, he took a distant second as the driver of the No. 912 was summoned to the pits by IMSA to pay for his sins. Risi Competizione's No. 62 Ferrari 488 with Giancarlo Fisichella and Toni Vilander at the controls was promoted to third after the No. 912's penalty.

Prior to Makowiecki's theft, Milner and co-driver Oliver Gavin were on target to earn their third consecutive win of the season after capturing Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

"I just got wrecked, basically," Milner said. "Two Porsches running nose to tail. It is pretty clear what happened there. It is pretty disappointing that is the kind of racing here where we are better than that for sure. At the end of the day, it could have been worse for us for sure. Second place is obviously great points. Disappointing but certainly could have been a lot worse.

"I don't mind finishing second if it is clean and it is the right way, but that wasn't the right way. It hurts a little bit to be second the way it happened, but again, end of the day second place is good points for us. We can hold our heads high that we raced as hard as we could today, the right way."

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Brakes are for Sissies!

Happy Birthday to Jeff Hughes, my 1959 Corvette buddy from my Beltsville days.  Here is the chapter about Jeff from my book, "Beltsville Shell: You Are What You Drive"

Chapter 20 Jeff

“Brakes are for sissies.”
Jeff Hughes, 1966

Working at the Shell station afforded me the opportunity of buying and selling cars and car parts, usually for a modest profit. I met Jeff Hughes through an advertisement I had placed in the Washington Post to sell some used car parts. He drove over from Wheaton to Beltsville for some shopping. Upon discovering that we both had 1959 Corvettes and were both working toward our college degrees we became instant friends.
It was Jeff Hughes who introduced me to the greatest invention since Jiffy Pop Popcorn – the 8-track tape player! Some scientist had invented a way the record companies could put music onto a magnetic tape that miraculously went back and forth inside a plastic case. Now you could buy your favorite songs and take them with you in your car! You no longer had to twist the dial of your radio back and forth searching for your favorite songs. A tape player was easy to install under your dash and it could even be connected to the same speakers as your radio. Now Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys could go everywhere with me!
Jeff had saved for many years to buy his first car. First paper route money was accumulated. Then when he was 16 Jeff got a summertime construction job paying $2.00 per hour at Truland Electric. Each week he would get paid $80, give a friend $5 for gas money, and save the balance. When Jeff had saved $1,800 he located a beautiful Nassau blue 1959 Corvette owned by Johnny Coleman. Jeff bought the car for $1,300.
I was about one year older than Jeff and had a bit more automobile repair experience, but he was a quick study and soon surpassed my knowledge of Corvette speed parts.
My favorite memory of Jeff was that no matter what happened, he could look on the bright side of every situation.
In the early years of our friendship, my car was a teeny bit faster than Jeff’s. Whenever he made a modification to his car that merited an empirical study of its relative performance increase, he would drive across the Beltway to Beltsville Shell and invite me to race against him. Always willing to help out a friend, I would follow Jeff to Sunnyside Avenue, the unofficial proving grounds for Beltsville Shell, for an impromptu race.
The routine went as follows: we would count down 3 – 2 – 1 and then blast off at the same time, the even start an important part of an impartial scientific measurement. We would crank through all four gears, then immediately jump on the brake pedal so as to stop before crossing into the on coming traffic on Rhode Island Avenue. Sometimes stopping in time was a bit hairy and using this location for racing was stupid as well as dangerous, for this was the exact spot where Buzzy Eslin was killed in his Corvair a few years earlier.
One Saturday night Jeff came by Beltsville Shell to try out his newest modification. The two of us went to the Sunnyside Avenue Drag-A-Way. Riding shot-gun in Jeff’s car was Don Inscoe. We make our first full speed pass and my Corvette was slightly ahead, both of us going about 100MPH. Jeff and I slammed on the brakes simultaneously, stopping in time. I thought the experiment was finished.
Jeff said, “Let me try it one more time, OK?” I agreed. So we drove back to the starting line for a second run.
Although our Corvettes looked identical except for color, there was a fundamental difference. My 1959 Corvette came from the factory with the special metallic brake linings. The metallic brakes were intended for racing, designed so that as they got hotter their stopping power increased. Standard automobile asbestos linings, like on Jeff’s car, were prone to “fading” so that as they got hotter they were less effective.
Our second run was very close with my car only a few feet ahead of Jeff’s during the acceleration. Once again we jumped on the brakes. My car stopped better than the last time because the brakes were warmed up. Jeff’s car was swerving and he barely managed to stop before crossing into the on coming traffic.
Not satisfied, Jeff said, “OK, Let’s try it just one more time.” Not wanting to disappoint a friend I agreed to repeat the process.
On the third run, our cars were fender-to-fender as we accelerated. Once again, I jumped on the brakes and stopped handily. By the third run Jeff’s brakes were useless, and although I could see his taillights glowing brightly, it was immediately obvious that there was no way Jeff could stop before the intersection ahead.
I thought, “Oh God, not Jeff. Please don’t let anything happen to him. If Jeff and Don get killed this will be all my fault.”
Unlike Nace’s 21st birthday party, this time God must have heard me because a miracle happened.
Ahead at the intersection I saw the little blue Corvette go through the stop sign. As it entered the intersection a car coming from the right, going at least 50 MPH, whizzed in front of Jeff’s car. Just as it cleared the Corvette’s path, a second car coming from the other direction swerved to go behind Jeff’s car spewing gravel everywhere.
Hollywood movie producers, with careful timing and trick photography have never staged a closer encounter and more thrilling “near miss” than Jeff Hughes and these two surprised (and pissed off) drivers accomplished at the intersection of Sunnyside and Rhode Island Avenues!
As the noise of screeching tires and honking horns subsided, we retreated to the Shell Station. Jeff was unfazed by the experience. I thanked God beneath my breath.
Undeterred by his near-death experience, Jeff won many races against GTO’s, Chevelles, and Olds 442s, all cars that had engines at least 100 cubic inches larger than his little Corvette.

The Aerodynamic Hood

Brakes never were very important to Jeff. A few years later he purchased a 1962 Corvette that had a straight front axle, tilt front end, an extremely rare aluminum-head 427 engine, and a parachute for stopping. He had planned to enter it in the “B-Gas” class, cars that could not be driven on the street. When I went to see the car in Wheaton, I noticed that it had beefy rear brakes but none in the front. On asking Jeff about the arrangement, I was informed, “Brakes are for sissies!”
I was very impressed with the B-Gas 62 Vette, despite its lack of stopping power. Jeff invited me to be part of his pit crew. A small entourage of Jeff’s friends went to the “75-80 Drag-A-Way” in Damascus, Maryland to see its maiden voyage. 

Jeff was full of anticipation. The engine was a monster, and the car was very light with nothing other than those things necessary to make a Corvette go fast. Jeff had removed the spare tire, passenger seat, carpet and upholstery, radio, heater, convertible top, and unnecessary instruments. The car was capable of reaching speeds of about 140 MPH at the end of the quarter mile drag strip.

We all watched as Jeff burned the tires in the staging area getting ready for his big moment. Suddenly he motioned for me to come to the car’s window. Rolling it down quickly, he handed me the cigarette lighter saying, “Every ounce counts!”
Finally, Jeff was staged in the lights and ready to go.
Yellow – yellow – yellow – GREEN. Down came the lights on the “Christmas tree” and the Corvette exploded from the starting line in a cloud of burning exhaust and tire smoke. Jeff had launched the car perfectly, and was shifting the gears like a pro. The car he was racing was left in the smoke and the Corvette was headed for its first victory. In the distance, right at the finish line, just as Jeff streaked under the lights, WHOOSH, the hood of the Corvette blew completely off the car, went straight up in the air, miraculously missed the following car and spectators, and smashed on the asphalt track in pieces.
When Jeff returned to the pits, rather than being upset, he was euphoric. “What a finish! Did the crowd love the show?”
Jeff didn’t live close enough to Beltsville to become a JTRAMFGS regular, but we bestowed adjunct status upon him.