Saturday 30 November 2013

Ol' ruins and ARCA cars

I'm not good with names So we'll call him John. John is part of the production team on the stock car racing part of Budweiser BIG TIME television program. I am here to "audition" for the show and prove I can drive a stock car. He and I are in, what the American's call a "Minivan". We are driving through the North Carolina countryside accompanied by several of America's hottest Late Model stock car drivers.

Anyone who believes that Americans don't understand irony have clearly never seen a Minivan. I believe there is about 12 of us in this vehicle but there could well be more. It is hard to tell because my view to the front of the "Minivan" is being obscured by the curvature of the earth.

John is asking me about England. I'm the only foreigner in the car and it causes much interest from our other passengers. (Do you sit on the other side of your stock car? Do you  guys run clockwise instead of anti-clockwise? Do you have to run in the rain? Did you get invited to the Royal wedding?)

John is a fan of England. He has only a passing interest in stock cars. Eventually he confesses over dinner, that he knew nothing about stock car racing before he was given his current assignment.

Back on planet Minivan, however, John tells me that his usual job is producing pop videos. His love for England comes from the fact that the architecture is steeped in history. This makes the United Kingdom ideal for finding locations to shoot interesting pop videos.

He goes on to explain that America lacks this side of history, making the procurement of suitable locations an arduous task.

As he explains this, an ancient ruin reminiscent of medieval Europe, made a brief appearance in the vast side windows of the Minivan.

"What was that then?" I asked.
"No idea, but it looked like an awesome location!" said John, "We'll ask when we get to the track."

After several minutes we arrived at Rockingham Motor Speedway. Non of the race drivers, including myself, know what we will actually be doing. When we left the hotel, we were not even told where we were going. Our first clue comes in the shape of a race car hauler and a selection of ARCA ReMAX cars.

We drive around the race tracks perimeter to "Little Rock", A half mile oval built to represent Martinsville Speedway due to the lack of testing available to NASCAR teams at the real Martinsville. A gentleman by the name of Andrew introduces himself to us and us to the selection of ARCA ReMAX cars present for our test day. One of the drivers on hand to examine our skills is Chad McCumbee. If you don't recognise the name, then you might know him as the guy that plays Dale Junior in the film "3"

We are given a briefing. "Y'all here 'cause you're good at racin' Late Models. Some o' you race dirt and some o' you race asphalt, but ain't none o' you bin drivin' a stock car like this. ARCA cars are fast and heavy so go careful. We don' wanna know how fast you are, we jus' wanna know you can drive!"

Well, that's ok then. I'm sure there isn't a driver among us that is going to rag the nuts off one of these things now. They take our names, our racing experience and a couple of mug shots for prosperity, then we each go and pick a car. They send us out one at a time so there is plenty of time to see what the others are doing on the track.Sure enough, staying on the island does appear to be proving difficult for some, despite the morning lecture. Maybe I should treat this car with more reserve than I intended.

One young lady, who's only previous experience was on dirt, was having real problems. Eventually she gave up. I think it was nerves more than anything. I have seen people at the Roots V8 Racing school drive our Late Models slower than they would drive their road car. It can be a scary thing if your doing it for the first time. Probably more so in front of a TV crew with representatives from a NASCAR team and Budweiser present.

I get in the car and strap up. There is much more going on in here than in a Late Model. A row of ignition packs and a lot more roll bars. I have a Hans Device for the occasion. It's the first time I have used one and it is either uncomfortable as hell or I'm doing it wrong. I also find that my headphones I use in my Late Model wont fit the jack in the ARCA car. In Late Models we use RaceCeivers. It is a one-way radio so that race control can tell you of problems on the track, issue penalties during a race and get you to your correct grid position on re-starts. In ARCA they use two-way communication with the crew chief the same as NASCAR. It requires different headphones. They find me a set that fits the jack, but I still wont be able to respond to the crew chief. I can't help but think of how much I would like to respond to race control sometimes when driving the Late Model...

Instructions crackle into my ear "Ok Kelvin, fire it up and pull out on to the raceway when you are ready." I fire it up. Big loud noisy stock cars. That's why I am here. I will never get bored of this.

Moving big loud noisy stock cars around slowly can be quite tricky because it is not something they are designed to do, but once you pull out onto the track, the things just come alive. "Warm up the tyres, build up speed as you feel more comfortable" the man in my ear says. I give the throttle a quick stab to asses how much torque we have here. Wheel spin tells me we have lots. And quite low down too. Build up some speed and stab the brake. Nothing much happening there. Probably needs a lot more heat in them.

The turns at Little Rock are like banked hairpins. The straights are long but 600+BHP shortens them pretty quickly. The car is fast but very user friendly. I dab the brakes a little on the straight to get some heat there and then give them a big hoof into turn three. Nope still not much there. I wont worry too much about how hard I hit them then, as it seems I will struggle to lock the wheels up. Quite liberal with the throttle coming out of turn four too, the car squirms a bit, straightens up again so I floor it down the main straight. Nothing to worry about here, this car is a pussy cat. Hard on the brake back into turn one. Off the gas the car rolls neatly into the turn. Feels like an open diff or really spot on stagger. Maybe it has a Detroit Locker in it. I bring the gas back at the center of the turn. The response is too nice to be a locker, it is a Spool diff. Ease it open coming off of turn two. Still no sign of it biting me. I push harder. "Looking comfortable there, Man!" my ear says.

Not having a perimeter wall around the oval is quite disconcerting. Although it gives you plenty of run-off, it makes it difficult to gauge your entry speed or pick out points to brake and turn in. I go in to turn three faster and deeper.The car still rolls to the center nice. Pick up the gas a little earlier and, ahh, that's what we're looking for, a hint of a push coming off turn four. Two options now. Balance the throttle until there is enough room to exit the turn or prod the throttle more to promote some oversteer. I choose the former. Better to save the latter technique for race days in my own cars. I wonder if this is why I have seen so many of the other drivers wreck today.

When I have enough room to exit the turn I nail it again. Let's see how much speed we can carry into turn one. I brake later and less (which is still a monstrous stamp on the largely ineffective brake pedal) as I turn the car begins to push. And so ends our search for the cars natural state. I plan my new line through turn two taking the understeer into account. I bring the brake back on to get the nose of the car in for my new, later, apex. As the front starts to grip, I play with the brake and the throttle to get the back of the car moving around. Once the car is loose I can power all the way through turn two. Feels good. Probably faster too, but I am supposed to be demonstrating a long green flag run and driving like this would kill the tyres. I go in to turn three with just the slightest push, diamond the turn and drive off. This seems to be the cars most comfortable groove. I pick marks so I can do the same thing at the other end of the track, then just start knocking off laps.

About ten tours later the radio says "You're looking good, hows the water temp?" The water temp is fine, of course I can't tell him that because I don't have a two-way.

I stop counting laps, this is fun! It is a real disappointment when I hear "Five to go"

When the session is up I come in and talk to Chad. "What do ya think?" He says. "Cars cool." I said, "Real easy to drive, I like it.Sorry I couldn't give you guys the water temp. No radio."
"If this was a pitstop now, what would you change?"
"I would loosen the thing up.there is time to be gained if I could turn it through the center."
"You drive short track?"
"Yes sir."
"They are never loose enough, huh?" He said laughing, "I'm the same!"

I packed up my race kit and sat in the grandstand for a bit. There were a couple of real quick drivers, but there were several who were really struggling.

John found me. "Want some food? We put on a bit of a buffet."
We wandered over to the table, "I talked to one of the mechanics, there is an old guy here called Buck. We should ask him about that ruins we saw. Apparently, he knows everything about this area."
"Cool!" I replied.

Buck looked like the oldest person there. Not old old, but definitely the face of experience. He had a huge hat to keep the Carolina sun off of his face. A piece of straw hung from his lips. When he talked, it would make the journey from one side of his mouth to the other. He looked up from under the broad rim of his hat, "So you wanna know 'bout the ol' mill?"
"Is that what it was?" Asked John.
"A flour mill?" I asked.
"No dummy! A paper mill! That there mill burnt down in 1877."
John and I looked at each other. John was smiling. "I have found a location with some historic value here!" He said, "Ruins from the 1800s!"
"No no no," interjected Buck, "They cleared it and built themselves a new mill. What you saw burnt down in '97."
"No, 1997."

I watched John's childlike expression of joy turn to dejection and disappointment. If he also had a piece of straw in the corner of his mouth, it would now be touching the ground.

I stood and put a hand on the big mans shoulder. "Look me up when you come to England, won't you." I said.

***All the crap you see written here is Kelvin's opinion and not that of his associates, race team or marketing partners.***

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