Sunday, December 4, 2011

Racing

I can't honestly say that I have always known that I have racer's blood in the same way that I can quite forthrightly say that I've always known that I was destined to fly, but the memories of the symptoms are still available as I reflect back on what I can recall of my long ago pre-teen years. In the summer, it was home made carts based on scrap wood and retired roller skates. In the winter is was sleds and anything else that would slide on ice or snow. That was all good, clean fun, but I shudder when I reflect on my first years behind the steering wheel of a real car!

I even went through the karting stage when a track opened in Circleville, just a few miles south of Columbus. I learned a few things about racing over the three year period when I was racing karts:

- I'm a middle-of-the pack guy.
- It's a lot of work and very time consuming.
- It can be very frustrating.
- Money matters, and there is no shortage of people that either have more or are able to apportion a large percentage of their disposable to it. And those are not mutually exclusive, either. There were plenty with both.
- Patience is critical, and I hadn't developed it yet.
- If you don't go home tired and bruised, you aren't doing it right.

What finally got me out of kart racing was fear. There is no roll-over protection in a kart, nor are there any restraints to hold the driver into the seat. Frankly, when speaking of the risk elements, kart racing is closer to motorcycle racing than it is to car racing. Fear made me quit racing, but it didn't cure the itch. Every now and then, I'd go off on one of my research binges where I would dig into a particular marque, thinking that just maybe I could get into racing a real car. There are a number of (what appear to be) relatively low cost options:

- Spec Racer Ford
Spec Racer Ford is a class of racing car used in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and other series road racing events. The Spec Racer Ford, manufactured and marketed by SCCA Enterprises (a subsidiary of SCCA, Inc.), is a high performance, closed wheel, open cockpit, purpose-built race car intended for paved road courses, such as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Buttonwillow Raceway Park, Road America, Watkins Glen, and many other tracks throughout North America. With more than 871 cars manufactured, it is the most successful purpose built road racing car in the United States.
The Spec Racer Ford would be raced at a racetrack like Mid-Ohio, which is only a little more than an hour from home. Cost for a ready-to-race used car would be right around $20,000.

- Legends cars
Legends car racing is a style of race car, designed primarily to promote exciting racing and to keep costs down. The bodyshells are 5/8-scale replicas of American automobiles from the 1930s and 1940s, powered by a Yamaha motorcycle engine. The sanctioning body for Legends car racing is called INEX.
Legends Cars are a "spec" series, meaning all cars are mechanically identical, with the exception of 3 styles of car (Standard coupe, 34 Coupe, and Sedan) available with 10 types of body styles. (New cars are currently offered with only 7 body styles, however many used cars exist with the "older" styles)
Legends cars are raced at the Columbus Motor Speedway, right here in town, and at the Kil-Kare track in Xenia (where the Schmetterling Aviation sponsored NASCAR modified driven by my brother races) about 45 minutes away. A brand new Legends car would cost less than $15,000.


- Formula Vee
Formula Vee is a popular open wheel, single seater junior motor racing formula, with relatively low costs in comparison to Formula Ford or Formula BMW.

On the international stage, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and Keke Rosberg, all Formula 1 champions, raced Formula Vees in Europe or America at the beginning of their careers. In Australia, V8 Supercar drivers Larry Perkins, Colin Bond, John Blanchard, John Bowe, Jason Bargwanna and Paul Stokell were also graduates of Formula Vee.

The class is based on a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, utilizing a collection of the stock parts to form a competitive race car around a purpose-built tube frame and racing tires. The VW engine, transmission, front suspension, brakes and wheels are stock or modified stock parts. The chassis is a tube frame design and the body is fiberglass or carbon fiber. The intention of this class is for the average person to build and maintain the car.

Primarily a class in the Sports Car Club of America many other organizations have adopted the Formula Vee as a class. Over the years, the rules have evolved to improve performance, lower cost, or to allow replacement of discontinued parts.
The Formula Vee would be raced at the same tracks as the Spec Racer Ford. That would mean either racing exclusively at Mid-Ohio, or travelling hundreds of miles for each race. The cost for a Formula Vee car would depend on the vintage - they've been around for a long, long time. A reasonably competitive car would be between $10,000 - $15,000.


So, what's stopping me? Well, it's fear of injury, but not, as you might think, a fear of injuries resulting from racing accidents. No, it's the fear of what the CFO would do to me if I suggested the adoption of another expensive and time-consuming passion. When you factor in the truck and trailer needed to haul the car, storage for the hauler and race car, tools, maintenance costs, safety equipment, tires, and a nearly endless host of other things, the costs would end up exceeding what it costs for me to fly.

Interestingly, with regards to racing this puts me in the exact same position as the thousands of people that lust for flight but are unable to attain it. It is no secret to software developers such as Microsoft that these people will "settle" for a virtual equivalent in large (and profitable) numbers. With more than 10 million copies of Microsoft Flight Simulator sold, an entire industry has sprung up around what is essentially a computer game, albeit an extremely sophisticated one. There are even groups of hobbyists that act as a global air traffic control system, groups that have organized and manage virtual scheduled airlines, and as many physical accouterments to support the simulator as there are for that most gadget-hungry of breeds, golfers.

The (relatively microscopic) equivalent of the Microsoft flight simulator for the Walter Mitty auto racing crowd is iRacing.
iRacing.com is an online, subscription-based racing simulation service for Microsoft Windows created by iRacing.com Motorsport Simulations. In addition to accurately modeled vehicles and tracks, iRacing provides servers on which to race and practice and a sanctioning body to organize and oversee competition within the service.

From the start, iRacing has been marketed as both an entertainment service and a training tool for real life racers. They have established numerous partnerships with real-world racing organizations and series, including NASCAR, GRAND-AM, IndyCar, V8 supercars, the SCCA, the Skip Barber Racing School, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup, the Star Mazda Championship and Williams F1 among others.

The service was launched to the public on August 26, 2008. As of December 2010, 40,000 individual member accounts had been created.

The iRacing company aims to cater both to real-world racers and racing simulation enthusiasts by offering a realistic simulation of motorsport with accurate track, vehicle and physics modeling, and with all of the cars and tracks officially licensed. iRacing can only be driven online on servers run by iRacing.com, and participation requires a subscription to the service. The subscription package includes a basic set of 10 tracks and six cars with which to practice and race. Additional cars and tracks are subject to additional one-time charges. Vehicles in iRacing are divided into classes which correspond to the identically named driver license classes, except for the two different Rookie car classes which can both be driven with the same Rookie driver license. iRacing creates each track using proprietary Exactrac laser mapping technology to replicate the tracks with millimeter precision.
It is primarily the subscription model that elevates iRacing from 'game' to 'simulation.' There is no shortage of racing games that have an online component that allows for head-to-head racing mano a mano, but the low acquisition cost of those games and the lack of a sanctioning (managerial) body leads to nothing but anarchy on the tracks. Also, games need to sell in large volume to create a return on investment for the developer, and large numbers of people are not going to be attracted to a high-fidelity racing model because the learning curve is far too steep. There are developers that come close, such as Simbin, but none can afford to dedicate the resources to attaining nearly absolute reality in the way that a well-funded subscription-based organization can.

With iRacing, racers have money on the line even to get into a race. That alone tends to influence good behavior on the track, but iRacing goes a few steps further. Because they know who you are (you pay via Visa or other easily identifiable mechanism), they are able to track your behavior by attaching different categories of 'performance points' to your account. These points display to the world whether you are a dangerous jerk or a safety-minded and/or clean racer. A driver's overall safety rating is used as a measure of ability, and this measure determines which of the racing licenses a driver will hold. Everyone starts in the Rookie class, and (hopefully) progresses through the D, C, B licenses on their way to the coveted A license. The license a driver holds determines which racing series he can enter.

Misbehavior in races results in point penalties. Getting too many penalties can cause a driver to lose his license and be returned to the next lower license. It is very, very easy to get negative points, but much more difficult to get positive points. Negative points are assessed for something as simple as getting a couple of tires off track, and progressively more points can be taken for spinning out or having contact with another car. Note that in the latter case, iRacing makes no attempt to determine blame; it doesn't matter if you hit another car or get hit by another car; all cars in any contact incident get penalized equally. The net result of this kind of value rating is similar to the very polite crowd behavior one sees at a gun show: everyone behaves well because the penalties of not doing so are painful.

Positive points are awarded for finishing well in races, and by "well" I mean "better than someone with a lower handicap." Beating higher handicapped racers doesn't do the trick.  The license and points held by a racer are often used to ensure that the racer is entered in races against racers with similar rankings. This is smart in a number of ways. First, it encourages newer, less skilled racers to keep racing since they won't be continually demoralized by losing to vastly more experienced drivers. Conversely, it gets the less experienced drivers out of the way of the veterans who would soon become frustrated at tripping over rookies while in a heated race with peers.

Note that I said "often," though. It is not guaranteed. Races are typically started at top of each hour and, despite the international nature of the participants, there can be times when a starting field is too small to allow for a good balancing of participants. For example, consider a race that has only twenty entrants. I don't know the exact algorithm used, but in this hypothetical case, the iRacing system may throw all twenty cars into the same race which could put A license drivers in the same field as rookies, and every skill level in between. Conversely, if there were sixty or so entrants, iRacing could create six 10-driver fields with each group being more closely aligned in skill and ability.

Pricing starts at $12/month, although generous discounts are available for longer subscription terms. No matter the length of the subscription, all services are available. The subscription cost is just the beginning, though. While the entry-level racer has a garage of six cars and nine available tracks to race on, iRacing's financial goal is to sell access to more cars and tracks. This is accomplished by the formation of racing series that use faster, more advanced cars and race on multiple tracks for each scheduled series season.

The six cars included in the base price are:


Note that three of those should look familiar: the Legends car and the Spec Racer Ford (SRF) are in my bullet list of dream cars detailed above. More importantly, note the presence of the Miata. The Miata is a recent entry to the stable and that, combined with this year's Black Friday price reduction of 50% off of a one year subscription, was enough to entice me to sign up for a year. Also, two of the nine included tracks are Lime Rock Park in Connecticut and the world-renowned Laguna Seca track in California. These two tracks are in my list of top five tracks I would love to race at. The remaining three are Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, and Elkhart Lake. Those are available for purchase at $14.95 each, and someday I may consider buying them. For now I am still racing with a D license in the rookie series and the tracks required for those series are all included in the base set.

I started with the Spec Racer Ford at Lime Rock Park, partially because that was the car that was scheduled at Lime Rock first. The other reason was because, of the available tracks, Lime Rock is the one I know best, having driven hundreds upon hundreds of laps there in other racing games. The SRF is a purpose-designed race car so it has a multitude of adjustments that can be made to it, but I thought that given my rookie status it would be best to race with the default settings. It's a well-balanced car, which eventually will be a good thing, but it means that it will also be somewhat unforgiving for people used to the forgiving nature of street cars. In other words, it will spin easily.

In the following video, you will be able to see this propensity for rookies to spin the car. You should also note the following:

- Note that I start 4th, make a pass in the first turn to get to 3rd, then relinquish ten positions rather than lose the points that would have been taken for hitting the car that spun in front of me.
- Note that the guy behind my while going into the first turn in lap three was not as careful.
- See how the steering wheel responds to bumps in the track? I have a force feedback steering wheel that uses electric motors to mimic those forces in the physical world. in other words, I can feel every bump and sway in the track.
- Watch how the shadows shift as I go around the track. Also note the reflections in the glass of the tachometer. Cool!!



What the video can't show you is the affect these realistic elements have on me. For the first lap or two, my pulse is well into the hundreds, my hands are sweaty and shaky, and I'm as twitchy as a Chihuahua on an Espresso binge. By the third or fourth lap I start to settle into a slightly more relaxed posture, but that is not to be confused with "calm." The level of concentration required to just keep the car on the rack is intense; get into a bumper-to-bumper race with another car (or group of cars), and the pulse shoots right back up into the triple digits. The races are lengthy, typically running close to thirty minutes.

It feels like five.

Frankly, this online racing, which to the casual observer would look completely sedentary, is the best cardio workout that I get these days.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for my regular readers, having found the SRF to be too stressful I am now almost exclusively racing the Miata. As I was going through various wild scenarios of ways that I could keep my beloved (yet airbag-less) Miata, I briefly considered re-purposing as a race car because the first step in such a conversion is to remove the air bag. That idea didn't even last as long as the discovery of the leaking head gasket but even if it had, the head gasket problem would have spelled doom to that plan. Anyway, the Miata is much more forgiving than the SRF, but it is certainly still possible to spin it. I find it more common now that I've had a few weeks to practice to not spin out of races, but to just lose positions by not hitting the apexes of the turns correctly and thereby losing enough speed to give an advantage to the guy behind me. That, and slowing down to avoid the shenanigans on the rookies that have yet to learn that you need to slow down to go faster.

Another neat thing is that you can customize your paint job. 
This scheme has the red of my old Miata and the blue of my soon-to-be new Mustang.

The concept of slowing down to go faster seems odd, doesn't it? It took me awhile to figure it out. I would look at other driver's lap times at Lime Rock and figure that my average 1:02 would leave me distantly behind those guys doing a minute flat. Such has not turned out to be the case. It seems that they are attaining one fast lap for the record books at the cost of dozens of spins and crashes. It's a tortoise versus the hare kind of thing to a respectable degree. In my most recent race, I qualified sixth in a pack of ten. It was a prime time race, so the entry list was long enough to allow me to be paired with nine other drivers in the D and Rookie classes. Those gridded ahead of me had qualifying time in the 1.00.xxx range, while my mid-pack time was something like 1:02.xxx. I figured on starting and finishing mid-pack based on the qualifying times of those in front of me. As can be seen by this results graph, that was not the case.


I got a good start and was able to pass two or three cars going into the first turn as they failed to slow sufficiently to account for cold tires. I worked my way up to the lead, mostly through mistakes made by the impatient cars in front of me. I eventually made a mistake of my own by ignoring one of my personal rules, which is to not try to improve my racing line while in a race - that's what practice is for. I got a couple of tires in the dirt on the outside of turn one and that caused enough loss of traction to get me all the way off the track and into the dirt. While tenderly working my way back to the track (it takes a deft hand to avoid spinning in the grass), I lost four positions, putting me back to 5th. I worked my way back up to 3rd, but couldn't make up the four seconds that separated me from the car in 3rd. Having re-learned the lesson of patience, I was loath to throw away a pretty good finish by trying to drive beyond my normal pace.

I had resigned myself to a respectable third place finish, but as I came around the fastest turn on the track, I saw my opponent sliding through the grass and impacting a wall at a high enough speed to completely flip his car. I never saw what happened to the car that was in the lead, but he must have spun out too; with two laps to go I was back in the lead. This is when the nerves took over again and I had to really work to remain calm. I actually slowed down a little bit, but as the car behind me started getting bigger in my mirrors, I had to step back up to my previous pace. Despite the sweaty hands of a teenager on his first date, I managed to hold on for the win!!

My nerves can only stand one of those a day, so once sufficiently unwound I proceeded on to working on the canopy. Having marked the fiberglass for cutting, I thought it would only be a few minutes work. Unfortunately, I broke the Dremal cutting wheel (again!!) before I was even a tenth of the way done. I decided on a trip to Lowes for new cutting wheels and to see if I could figure out why I keep breaking them. It turns out that I have been using the wrong mandrel. Easily fixed for less than $4.00.

While we were out, Co-pilot Egg had me take her to the thrift store where she hoped to find a suitable garment for "Wear an Ugly Christmas Sweater Day" at school. As I was wandering around the store waiting for her, I came across a beautiful leather jacket in my size for an astoundingly low $30. I snapped that up in a hurry - I've always wanted to have a leather fighter jacket with a cool picture painted on the back, but I never wanted to risk ruining an expensive jacket. For $30, I can roll the dice. Now I just need to come up with a good RV-12 related design, and find someone to paint it for me.

I've done fiber glass work in my basement before, as can be seen by the beautiful kayak that I built as a "Yes I CAN Finish Things" prover project:


This is why I knew that even simple cuts were going to create a lot of dust


See?



Fortunately, I've also learned to never bring that dust upstairs!

1 comment:

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