Thursday 5 December 2013

A Quick Driving Lesson

Class is in session.

Today I would like to talk about car stats, the ones you see when you’re shopping for a car. Specifically, I would like to talk about power, top speed and acceleration time. It doesn't matter if you are buying a Ferrari Enzo or a Fiat Uno, you will be faced with these figures. Does anybody know why? Raise your hand. None of you people know? Ok, well, many people think it is for bragging rights and, whilst this may be true of a Ferrari, no one at the golf club is going to be impressed with your Fiat's nought-to-sixty time.

The real reason you are given these figures is for safety. It is so you can take a reasonable guess at when and where you can safely overtake other cars.

 Any questions?

Yes you there, in the front row with the beard and the glasses. What is your name? Nice to meet you Mr Pedantic. What’s that you say? Why is it your Ford Mondeo has a top speed of 118 and the National Speed Limit is only seventy? Well, Mr Pedantic that is because the law bends when you need to overtake something.

Let us assume that you are driving your Mondeo on the Queen's highway and you come up behind a car that is doing 45mph. You are entitled to overtake this car and carry on your journey at 60mph just as they are entitled to carry on their journey at 45. However, the law does not require you to pass this car at a maximum of 60mph. The law requires you to pass this car safely and, as doing so requires you to drive in a lane for on-coming traffic, safely will mean executing the manoeuvre quickly. If this means you stray above the 60mph limit then so be it, providing you return to the limit after you have performed the manoeuvre.

Let’s take it from the top. You are closing on the car in front. You check your mirror. You check there is nothing in the right hand lane and that there is enough straight road and visibility to pass. You pull into the right hand lane. You accelerate past the car. You check your mirror and pull back to the left when it is safe to do so.

Any more questions?

Yes Mrs Lanehogger? No, Motorways and Dual Carriageways are not different. You should be in the LEFT HAND LANE and the manoeuvre is exactly the same. Mirror, indicate, accelerate, mirror, MOVE BACK TO THE LEFT! Overtake quickly and safely. Driving in the middle or outside lane while NOT overtaking is an offence. Holding up another driver who wishes to pass you is an offence.

No, Mr Pedantic, it doesn't matter how fast the other driver wants to go. If he wishes to break the speed limit then it is down to the Police to stop him, not you. Stopping a driver from overtaking you is an offence.

       Next on the agenda, as Christmas and its associated weather is fast approaching, let us deal with the Auxiliary Driving Lamp or, as most people like to call it, “the fog light”.

The fog light is a high intensity rear light that will shine through adverse weather conditions.

The fog light is not there for you to inform other drivers that it is foggy. They know it is foggy for the same reason you know it is foggy. They can see the fog.

If you can see the car behind you in your mirror, it is safe to assume that it’s driver can see you. If you think this is too much of a generalisation, then look at the car in front of you. Use how well you can see the car in front of you as a guide to how well the driver behind can see your car. When you think they are close enough to see your car, you can turn your fog light off. It is no longer serving its purpose, it is just irritating the driver behind you.   

The light should be turned on when there is NOTHING behind you. This way, if a driver is approaching you from behind at a greater speed than you are travelling, your fog light will inform the driver of your whereabouts long before they can see your vehicle. When you are sure they can see your vehicle, you can turn it off.

Now for your homework this week, I want you to try to apply common sense and the Highway Code to your driving.

Class dismissed. 

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

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.***

Tuesday 29 October 2013

ASCAR at Venray

Trying to stop racing drivers using their preferred “Racing Line” when they are competing on the ovals is difficult. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
 “It’s dead simple.” I say, “The banking is steeper the closer you get to the wall. The more banking you have, the more grip there is. The more grip there is, THE FASTER YOU CAN GO!”
But still, they turn in high, drive down to the apex and then drive out of the turn.

I am at Raceway Venray. I am trying to explain to one of my Roots V8 Racing protégés why his lap times are not improving at the rate he would expect. Fortunately however, I have been given the day off and, although I am keen for my driver to go faster, that is not the reason for me visiting the Dutch track.

I am here to drive an ASCAR. West-Tec Racing’s long retired two-seater car has been making a comeback in the V8 Late Model Cup. The car, originally for driver training and promotional work, is a modified version of the old ASCAR chassis that used to frequent Rockingham many moons ago.

The Rockingham idea was based on the old adage “If you build it, they will come!” ‘It’ being a big oval and ‘They’ being NASCAR.  Sadly, it transpired that what actually happens when you build ‘It’ is ‘they’ tell you to stick it up your pipe because shipping the Winston Cup to England is simply too damn expensive. A hasty re-shuffle later gave ‘It’ some shallower banking and turned ‘They’ into the IRL, who were only too happy to come to England as the dying American single-seater series had very little to lose at the time.
The lack of NASCAR moved Rockingham to introduce its own stock car series. ASCAR was born using a Howe designed chassis and a sealed 430BHP V8 engine. Money was poured into the series to help it build momentum but eventually the money dried up and the series collapsed.

The car I would be driving was one of 8 that belonged to West-Tec and were purchased by Raceway Venray to showcase its new oval. The car is roomier than one of the Roots V8 Racing Late Models and reminded me a bit of the ARCA car I used at Rockingham a while back. (That’s Rockingham, North Carolina; not Rockingham, Corby.)

Venray is a beautiful venue. The grandstands were pinched from Silverstone after the home of the British Grand Prix had its last refit. The oval is 1km in length with corner banking in the region of 21 to 25 degrees. There is a smaller oval in the infield (home of the BriSCA F1 World Cup!) and a kart track, which I am yet to see used.
I had the privilege of driving this track whilst it was being built. I was asked to come and test some rain tyres before the circuit owners had even finished laying the last bits of tarmac. (That is one of the things about racing American stock cars at Venray, you have to race come rain or shine.) So I have seen the venue grow from the very beginning. In my humble opinion, it is one of the best stock car ovals in Europe.

Today though, I was here as a racing punter. A rental driver in the only available ASCAR for the weekend. The #8 Chevrolet two-seater car. Raceway Venray sells drives in its many ASCARs for 500€ per race day. A bargain anyway you look at it. The price does not include new tyres (About 160€) or fuel (About 100€). What they do include in the price is your own mechanic. He is there to help you do stuff on your race car. He sets your tyre pressures and fills it with fuel. Though to be honest, when I wanted a wedge adjustment later in the day, I just grabbed a jack and did it myself.

As I work for Roots V8 Racing, A rival team that also rents cars for racing at Venray, I expect you would like me to offer an unbiased comparison of the two. Well then, I shall try…
The Roots V8 Racing cars are 1000€ per race day and yes, on the face of it that is double the price. However, it does include fuel and tyres. The Roots cars are newer and of a different spec to the ASCARs. In the big scheme of the Late Model V8 Supercup, the performance of the two cars is about the same. In my opinion, the Roots cars are easier to drive. With Roots V8 Racing, you also have a former Late Model champion to help you with the mechanicals and the set-up.  Pays your money, takes your choice as they say.

Because I haven’t done any Late Model racing this year, I was instructed to start at the back with the other Rookies. I didn’t mind this. I’m driving a car I only saw this morning on a track I haven’t been to in two years. It seemed to me like a reasonable request. I was handed a 16th place starting slot, kind of the front row of the last group. 

I was interested to note that the ASCAR was set up to run in third gear. ASCARs benefit from having what is called a Quick-change rear-end. This means it is a simple task to change the final drive to a ratio which allows you to use maximum rpm in fourth gear at any race track. This is both easier on the gearbox and liberates the little power that is used for turning stuff that doesn’t need to be turned.

Anyway, third gear it was. So when the green flag dropped I stuck it in third and got going. The first race was tentative to say the least. Getting used to a new car, reacquainting myself with the speedway, learning about the new drivers in the series and how they behave on track. I finished 8th in my first heat and after a 9th in the second, I felt comfortable enough to start playing with the setup. Nothing big, just a couple of turns of cross weight to try to unhook the back of the car as it passes through the center of the corner.

I line up 8th for the final race of the day and move up to fourth in the opening laps. The ASCAR feels good in the high groove but pretty uninterested in racing on any other part of the track. I try to go under the #99 car for third. The front unhooks and the car understeers towards the wall. The car finds some grip on the race track just in time to stunt the slide and avoid the impending impact. Fourth is good, I think to myself, I always liked fourth.

Fortunately the first and second place cars look like they will take each other out anyway. First place is the smooth and fast Colin White. The multi-Hotrod world champ and Ginetta racer is being harried erratically by a gentleman who is clearly going to kill the pair of them if something isn’t done soon. Over the radio I can hear race control telling the driver of the second place car to stop being a prat or words to that effect. Eventually he would earn himself a black flag. Meanwhile, I’m still following the #99 and now the very fast #5 car is coming up on the inside. Not much to do here, I have to let him go. At this point, I must have drifted down the track somewhat. The car behind thought this would be the ideal opportunity to try and fit between me and the wall. He is now at my blind spot and as I resume my high line into turn one, so we wreck.
The car turned violently right, wiping its nose on the wall. The back then joined it. The car scrapped along the wall at well over 100mph. I did what all amateur racers do at times like this; I started adding up the likely damage. Nose section, fender, quarter panel, one wheel maybe two, TCA, UCA, Panhard bar, The brake pedal is hard so the caliper must still be there…
It took all of turns one and two to scrub off the speed and get the thing down to the infield.
 I got out.
I was not happy.
My first thought is that the other driver got onto my bumper and turned me. After I had calmed down and looked at the pictures I decided that it was my fault. Then, I looked at the video and decided it wasn’t. There is a white line around the length of the turns at Venray. We were told in practice that we must be above this or below it. That would decide the high/ low line. I was clearly on the high side of it, so if the guy was faster, he would need to pass low.

Such is life. The race is done now and what happened happened. There are photos and videos on Youtube for you to observe and make you own conclusions.
The damage was too much to repair over night for the following day’s races. I went back to the Roots V8 camp to resume my words of instruction and encouragement to the driver of the #4; “High groove! Always! And see where you are braking? Don’t. Go in faster! Brake less! Power power power!”

Mr Walsh, driving the Roots V8 Racing #4 Ford Fusion actually had a much better weekend than me. He finished all his races and made some steady improvements.  I had a crash and didn’t race at all on Sunday.

Maybe I should be taking some instruction from him instead.

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

Sunday 6 January 2013

Racing at Q Leisure

It doesn't matter how many times David Cameron tells us that things are improving, the fact is they are not. The cost of living is higher than ever. A loaf of bread now costs £400. People are homeless and jobless and more importantly, motor racing is really expensive. I have written several stern letters to the PM asking him to address this critical issue, but still it remains elusive from the House of Common’s agenda. Fortunately, one company has seen fit to take matters into their own hands.

Just outside of Brighton and within spitting distance of the A23 is where Q Leisure are starting their revolution. Their outdoor karting facility has been providing cost-effective corporate entertainment for an age now, alongside paintball, archery and various other outdoor activities on the Q Leisure roster.

Recently Q Leisure began its Junior Karting Club. The aim was -and still is- to get kids into motorsport without mum or dad having to break the bank. The club was successful, evolving into a junior championship. The kids got older and needed to make way for the next generation of karters. A senior championship was created to compliment the juniors and accommodate the older drivers.

Now those original karters are older still, requiring Q Leisure to open a further championship. With Junior and Senior already catered for, the staff at Q Leisure are running out of words. “Senior Citizen Championship” and “Old Gits Championship” have been bandied about. “The Bus-pass Cup” has also been suggested.

Whatever name they decide on, Q Leisure bringing their organising expertise to the world of arrive-and-drive karting has been a good thing for the sport.

The family run business operates out of the village of Albourne, about six miles from the sunny seaside town of Brighton and Hove. The track is 800 meters long and has several characteristics that make it a unique driving experience.

The start-line points you towards a right-hand hairpin that goes by the intimidating name of Gurkha’s Revenge. The corner is tight but, surprisingly, provides very few first lap incidents from kamikaze last row starters. The exit lines you up for a left-hand hairpin, the slightly less intimidating Carl’s Bend. Who Carl is, or why he decided that the name Carl’s Bend is a suitable follow up to Gurkha’s Revenge remains a mystery. What we do know is that the two corners are so close together, they can be treated as an “S” bend using one line to link the two apexes.

You exit Carl’s Bend into a subtle left and right, downhill into Hell’s Drop. This very fast right hander turns you slightly over ninety degrees and straight into Rattle Snake a flat out left kink that sets you up for the dodgily titled William’s Pit Entrance. This is a long 180 degree turn that exits into a tunnel.

 After the tunnel, it is uphill into a hairpin that goes by the unimaginative handle of The Hairpin. It’s unfortunate that this corner drew a short straw in the name stakes.  It is a tricky little number and worthy of a more valiant alias. It has a slippery curb on the exit and a surprisingly hard wall to catch out the unwary. Hairpin of impending doom may have been a more suitable moniker.

Should you survive the hairpin, you are treated to a fast right-hander over a bridge. Keep the throttle nailed as the track curves left around the pits into Mansell-not the moustachioed British driver who complains about everything. Mansell is actually a very fast right-hander that is enormously satisfying to drive through. 
A short straight delivers you at Sand Pit a fast left that sets you up for the suitably named Overdrive hairpin. This corner joins the fastest part of the track to the longest straight on the track- the straight you started from- so it is important not to overdrive this corner. See what they did there?

I hate using the word picturesque, but when you arrive at Q Leisure, it is a bit like walking into one of those beautifully photoshopped holiday postcards. Through the big iron gates you are greeted by the main building, which is a quite stunning converted barn. The barn houses a function room, restaurant area and a licensed bar. The barn, with its oak beams and wood floors, gives the feel of an old English pub restaurant. This would actually be a nice place to come, even if you were not racing.

The barn sets a standard for all the facilities at Q Leisure. Outside there is a neat fishpond complete with a waterfall and a convincing rubber herring. There is computerised signing on, electronic timing, a briefing room, toilets and a viewing gantry all above the standard you would expect of an NKA affiliated track.

The karts used in the Q Leisure Championships are from their fleet of arrive-and-drive Biz Pro-Karts. Each is armed with one Honda GX200 engine and has adjustable pedals and seat inserts to fit drivers of all sizes.

So there you have it. One company singlehandedly changing both the face of British motor sport and the way our country is run. Ok, so they are not actually doing that, but they are offering the chance to race in a cheap, well organised, competitive championship in the beautiful Sussex countryside.
If you find yourself near Brighton, pop in and give them your support.

As Mr Cameron himself says, we are all in this together.

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