Friday, August 08, 2008


This week, I traveled to New Jersey Motorsports Park for my second NASA high-performance driver's education class. The park is quite new, having just opened about a month ago. It's also very fancy. There are road circuits, a karting track, garages, and a club house. Further, plans exist for an off-road track, a small tri-oval, trackside "villas," a hotel, and more. It's like a country club for motorsports.

Actually, the park opened with only a single circuit, called Lightning. The Thunderbolt circuit just opened on Monday. We were at Thunderbolt on Tuesday and Wednesday and recieved commemorative T-shirts to mark the opening of the track. So, as you can imagine, not everything was really finished. All the earth was exposed, with no ground-cover, so dust was everywhere. There were big, yellow construction vehicles driving all over, doing the landscaping. The main flag tower was unfinished, and all the small towers for corner workers had not even been started. We, the drivers, discovered a problem with both the first turn and the last, so NASA convinced the park officials, who were looking for feedback, to add some pavement to those corners after the last session on Tuesday.

Speaking of corners, everyone was still trying to figure out the best line around this circuit, and different drivers have treated the track as having anywhere between 14 and 17 turns---and that's without the optional chicanes in Turn 1 and Turn 2, which were not used. The long, sweeping right-hander that suddenly sharpens up was a particular challenge. I saw cars in front of me taking at least 3 distinct lines through that section of the track, often while driving in a single group. That decreasing-radius turn is my second-favorite element of Thunderbolt. My favorite is the sweeping left-hander that immediately follows. I'd enter that turn with my steering wheel fixed at one angle, then use the throttle to precisely oversteer the car so as to gradually tighten toward the inner edge of the tarmac and arrive at the late apex I wanted. It was great fun. The main straight is significantly shorter than the one at Summit Point's Main Circuit, but because the preceding turn is a little less sharp, I was able to get to about 105 MPH* at the end of the straight, just a bit slower than at Summit Main. Overall, I like this track more than Summit Main, because it is more technical, so I'm quite excited to get on Summit's Shenandoah Circuit, which looks to be even more challenging.

I noticed that the collection of vehicles I saw at this event was markedly different from what I've encountered at Summit and at autocross events held at FedEx Field. I attribute this difference to a higher average income in the area and the country-club nature of the park, which are certainly correlated. First off, every motorsports event I've eve been to has been filled with Miatas. I only saw about 5 at Thunderbolt each day. Instead, the most popular car was the Corvette. There were numerous C5s and C6s, most of which were either Z06 models or had been blown by a company called East Coast Supercharging. I think many of the Vettes may have belonged to a local club that decided to attend in force. (Similarly, it looks like my local Miata club is going to make the September SCCA event at Shenandoah into a Miata-heavy one.) There were also numerous Porsches, 2 Ford GTs, 2 Ariel Atoms, and 5 modified Ferraris. So yeah, I think there's a lot of money in that area.

Like my last HPDE experience, the classroom instruction was underwhelming, but the on-track sessions made up for that. I ended up fairly happy with my driving at the event. I was frustrated with myself following the first and second sessions, but after I grew comfortable with the layout of the track, I began to drive faster with each session. Well, my next-to-last session was probably the best; the car overheated a bit during the final session on Wednesday, because it was around 90 degrees ambient, and I was pushing poor Mia pretty hard. I certainly passed more than I was passed, which also makes me happy. Here's a list of cars that I passed that should be much faster than mine:
  • A stock C5 Corvette.
  • A very loud V8 fourth-generation Camaro with a rollbar, hoodpins, and who knows what engine and exhaust modifications.
  • A 350z with 2 aftermarket turbochargers, racing seats, and a rollbar.
  • A Mitsubishi Evo.
  • An older 911. It had the old-style whale tale, so I think it must have been the 930 Turbo or 964 Turbo.
  • 1 or 2 BMW 3-series cars.
  • A race-prepared and very loud Mini Cooper S, driven by the wife of its usual driver. (Later that day or the next, I saw the car fly up into my mirrors. I pointed it by, and it blew past me and zoomed off on the rear bumper of a modified Mustang GT. When I chatted with the driver later, she informed me that her instructor had been driving the car, to show her what it could do. Ah-hah.)
So, yay me, I guess.

All-in-all, it was a good trip.

*This is the speed indicated by my speedometer. I believe the speedo is about 2% to 3% "optimistic" with my current tires.

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