Automotive, Driving Enthusiast, Motor Racing, Track Driving, Video

HPDE Watkins Glen July 26-28 2013

Back in July I changed my front pads to an intermediate track pad to help deal with the heavy braking zones for my next track event. I finally decide to make the jump to drive the greatest track in the Northeast – Watkins Glen International Raceway with Max, a friend and fellow track driving enthusiast. The Glen is iconic for a number of reasons, but fast forward to today and it’s notable for the on track undulations, high speed and little to no run-off (think barrier). It challenges drivers to a whole other level.

This HPDE was run by Riesentöter Region PCA group; known as the fastest PCA run group in the NE (or so we have been told) and was very well organized.

This track weekend started with me managing to get off work early to pack the car and try to get a head-start on the 5 hour roadtrip. The car was packed with all the essentials leaving little room to see out the rear hatch or even for me to sit comfortably without something invading my space.

packed up

I even packed a little extra distilled water because I wasn’t sure if I was losing radiator fluid or it was getting burnt from the engine. To be on the safe side, I wanted to make sure my engine temps were understand control while running out on track.

packed and ready

The start of the weekend was great – leaving the driveway and moving east to get on the highway was epic. Then we had to make a slight detour. My fellow enthusiast had to resolve an alignment issue at a local Firestone, not far from his work. He was having some severe vibration running from the wheels into his steering wheel. We hung out at Firestone for an hour or so and grabbed an early dinner from the hotdog shop next door. Once Max’s tires were balanced and were confident that everything was looking good we jumped back on the highway; however this was around the time everyone were getting off from work. It wasn’t long thereafter that NJ traffic reared its ugly head. Hitting 287 resulted in a 45 minute slow, 2MPH crawl to I-80. Oh it was painful. Once we were able to make that transition it was smooth sailing.

getting aligned

5 hours later and one pit stop for fuel and food, it was dark out and the condensation was building on the cars as we were rolling into the Hampton Inn parking lot. Friday night was quick rest stop before we continue on north to the track. Morning came quickly as neither of us could sleep due the excitement and at 530am we ran out of the hotel to make sure we got to the track entrance by 6am. The drive from the hotel to Watkins Glen was beautiful; rolling hills and road side barns provided an excellent back drop for an early morning drive to a history track.

The eager beavers in us resulted in us getting to the track well before anyone else has arrived. We were greeted with a number of trailers and cars locked away in the track garages. A handful of people camped the night on track, but many benefited from their motor homes. This was a different experience when running with a more serious crowd and higher initial priced car. There’s a level of money that comes when dealing with Porsches.

garagesunpacking early

The following is a recap of how the events unfolded between runs for the next two days.

Day one. Run one. Man the first run was fast. Talking F A S T. Yes the instructor did a couple of laps to walk me through the course. Boy did he love the car. He said the setup feels good and it can carry lots of speed.

The track itself. It’s unlike anything I have done before. Turn one is crazy scary and it’s misleading. It looks like you can carry more speed through it but you’ll pay for it by riding the high curbs and crapping your pants. The downhill shoot is very steep and something you can’t appreciate while watching it on TV. The wind is nice and keeping everyone cool. There was a mustang that hit the wall yesterday. It’s a harsh reminder how crazy this course is and things can turn instantly. There are plenty of elevation changes to keep you wishing for flat ground. You have a lot to focus on while running at this narrow track. I’m still running on my nervous energy. The biggest issue is that there are guys with turbo Porsches that do not know how to handle them. It makes for a sketchy run group. There are two turbo guys that are fast and I will have to watch out for.

After the run we ran to get gas as I had only a third remaining. Started with a little over half a tank. Now just trying to focus on the next session and then we break for lunch.

Day one. Run two. Second session is over and so is lunch. Hands down my crappiest run. Struggled with getting the breaking points down. Pretty much had to point by everyone and their mom. But again it’s not a race but learning the track. I need to build more confidence at turn-in speed and holding the line. I feel the car load but at times I second guess myself and the grip of the tires. It’s okay though it’s only my second time out! The weather is really picking up. [Possibility] We could see rain on the last session of the day. I’m slowly getting tired as the adrenaline is winding down.

The car is running strong. On track the water temp is running 90-97 degrees with 11 pounds of boost. Overall it’s a pretty demanding track as I over hear people all the time mentioning they are forgetting the turns because it so damn long. One note when you go through the box at the end of the back straight just treat it like autocross. Hit the curbs and toss the car and gas it on out. Feels unsafe but the car will handle it just fine. I’m still slow here because I’m afraid I could spin. I’m working on that.

Otherwise the cars with loads of power are seeing 135 on the front straight. I’m hitting 125 and then I back off. I definitely think it’s worth doing again when we have the chance next year

Day one. Run Three. The run for me was a wash. My instructor was busy bitching out a driver in the white run group (meaning first level where you run solo). I lost time looking for another instructor and getting out on track which left me with only 3 laps. The return was that I could ride in the instructor’s car with a $10k JRZ suspension riding, 2003 grand-am Porsche. Basically it didn’t have much power but I finally felt great and I mean great suspension setup. This guy could dive in at the first turn in third gear and nail the throttle and the car would stick like gorilla glue. It was fantastic. The best part was it gave the driver so much confidence to pretty much take every turn at WOT (wide open throttle) and catch all those high horsepower turbo cars in the turns.

After that it was a quick refresh with water and sugar foods to keep the energy for the last run of the day.

Day one. Run 4. It was great but it helped me realize my issues. Big issues: braking early, running out of torque on the uphill and gearing issues, and finally the biggest – trusting my car when loading on high speed corners that have elevation changes. The good thing is that I have good feedback from the instructor and plenty of praise. Back to the run. It was great yet I had to give a point-by to a Honda RSX that was gutted and tuned. That guy carried so much speed in the turns that he blew me away in the straights. Then max caught me and I gave him the go ahead. He has more torque on the uphill exit (I was not taking the turns correctly that when I was at the exit I didn’t have the power. Then again my instructor didn’t want me shifting too much so I couldn’t get in fifth gear.

Day two. Sunday we woke to rainy weather. It was wet and the radar displayed more rain heading our way. Once at the track we waited it out to see how the weather would pan out. The drivers meeting said after lunch we would get a revised schedule as many drivers were heading home for the weekend.

drive to the track

Morning report live from the track. It’s wet. What more can you ask for. The good news is the track is still a go. The downside is that there are fewer instructors since some have left. The other groups will have the opportunity to clean the track before we go out but we’ll see. The drizzle just started and it doesn’t look like it will let up. The other thing is windows will be down while driving in the wet. So those with dove gray interiors might see some spots. Lol.

Our green session isn’t until 9:54AM. So we have some time to see how the weather develops.

The car is holding up perfectly. Coolant temps are staying in the safe. No oil consumption from the motor; everything stayed level.

I’ll check in as we get closer.

Day two. Run one. So first session is over. Things went smoothly. No rain while out on the track but picked up when we came in.

The rain is back on and even more instructors are going home. Many folks are getting soloed. I’m planning on running once more and then we break for lunch. Let’s see how things continue to progress.

A view from our paddock. John’s canopy is a saving grace. Otherwise we would have been in the wet – completely soaked.

rain break

After waiting it out with the drizzle turning to rain, and with only three cars running out on track from the previous run group we got our break [from the rain]. It was perfect for the Green run group. It would give us a chance to run out on a wet track without raindrops. Once out on track it was a mental challenge to break from the line we learned yesterday. Watkins Glen is a mixed road surface track. Some parts asphalt; other areas patches of concrete. In the wet concrete is not your friend. Taking the dirty side of the track or the wet line around we realized some areas were pretty dry, so the speeds and braking was adjusted. The major issue my car suffered (and maybe it’s in my head) was the feeling of the load. I had a hard time feeling the car twist in the turns because the suspension was stiff in the rear. I think I need that cue that the car has been set – carry on. I have lost the rear a couple of times while out on track – one clearly visible on video when the entire car shifts laterally in the corner just before the start/finish straight. I think I prefer a softer suspension setting at this track as a result. My springs are already stiff enough but when loaded in the wet I had a hard time feeling the point when the car would kick out. Anyways I carried on with my instructor and we has some good laps. The best part is my instructor was very calm and less chatty today.

Day two. Run 2. Again the weather gave us a break. The track was wet but no rain. That didn’t last long because once we were out the rain decided to fall intermittently. This was another great run with no incidents. I gave plenty of point-bys and drove my line. Egos in the wet are for others to have – I was here to learn. So I practice my left arm over the head stretch on a couple of laps.

Then we broke for lunch (forgot to mention at this track [and maybe with this run group] they provide food for a nice low fee of $10). After lunch we had a short drivers meeting and found out that we would be running a new order and up first was Green. Oh and before lunch my instructor signed me off to run solo. Overall he gave me high marks on car control but obviously I can always do things better; braking, car positioning, downshifting. He felt good about solo, saying that I have strong situational awareness and I should be fine. He also noted in my log book that I should be running in a higher run group – hehehehe.

Day two. Run three. First time out alone. Mixed feelings. Stomach in knots and I was trying to focus on the line. Over lunch the track had dried out and we would have a very dry line. The laps went nicely. Started okay, then got stronger but started to get exhausted as the runs were now 25-27 minutes sessions (the track was closing at 3:30PM and they wanted to give us our run time so they increased it by 8 minutes). Those extra minutes were noticeable to me. So I slowed my pace and finished out the session. The biggest change here were my tire pressures. I didn’t once adjust over the two day weekend until after this session. I enjoyed a cold start at 30-31 psi and running a hot around 36-38 depending on the corner. After the two slower wet sessions and the morning, going hot and fast I felt my tires were “mushy”. I added two lbs of pressure and ran that for the fourth session.

Day two. Run four. We staged but had to wait while the wreckers pulled two GT3s from the wall. Cocky drivers diving in on the backstraight caused each other to kiss the wall. Mainly side damage with long scratches and bruises but the cars looked repairable. Drivers were fine and have plenty of money to fix their toys. These cars see trailers so they could easily make it home. After sitting for 15 minutes we got the signal for a hot track, started our cars and went out. My go-pro took about 6 minutes of footage before dying. The track felt good but the bumps were more noticeable for me. Not sure if it was the increased tire pressure or me carrying more speed. There was much more vibration and feedback coming through the steering wheel when heading out onto the back straight. Oh I hit about 120-125 on the back straight. Slower than the front straight since I struggled to find a solid exit from turn 11 (consistency is key). It’s my first time here! Since we were back in the dry I loved the way the car was gripping with the load. I felt I was pulling some G loads and the car felt settled the entire time. The track has a great rhythm when you can carry speed. Since I didn’t want to get ahead of myself I never shifted into 5th. Just ran the 3.91 gears to 125 in fourth. On a side note, the gearing in my car was not correct for the track – again my opinion. I would be forced to shift when I needed the power and torque. I would run out of gear mid-turn and would just leave it at 6000-7000 rpm but if I only had more gear I could go just a bit faster. Should I shift in the turn; didn’t want to try especially when the load was on the rear of the car. We finished out the run with some drizzle starting to fall. The car ran hottest as I was more comfortable and pushing it. Overall great runs and a fantastic time. Oh and in that last run that’s where I experience my first two local yellows. A 350Z was given a point-by into a short straight before turn 8 (uphill right-hander), the driver went hard and fast – too fast for the turn and didn’t slow the car enough. Went for the turn and over steered the car right into the barrier. The car was slowed enough but ran over the 3-4 inch curbing and on the grass and into the wall. Front bumper was toast and a little of the front crash beam was bent. The drive was okay but a little sadden and shaken.

Then it was time to pack the cars, say our goodbyes and deal with the rain. The RX-7 ran great all weekend. I’ll have to check the oil again today but she wasn’t drinking any! Coolant will be assessed too to make sure there are no leaks and everything is dry under the car. Final step is review the rear pads – not sure how much I had left since I’m heavy on the brakes.

In all I would recommend this track. It has plenty of elevation changes and its steeper than you think. There are times when you’re braking and the road is falling away from you because of the downhill. This causes bumps and a strange brake pedal feeling. Loved it. Scared me and crapped my pants and really made me discover my braking limits. It’s probably the best track I have been to, it’s challenging and it will keep you in check – one mistake could be costly. Nothing like that run off room at NJMP.

Oh and with this track weekend dinner was included – fun time for all. So hope to see you guys for the next track session in September.

Video action:

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