Race Diary

7-23-02

Change Partners

Uh-oh. No Michael Jordan. Turns out, various commitments will prevent him from driving in the enduro. I wonder if his decision is related to the fact that the National Weather Service is forecasting temperatures of 103 degrees on Saturday. Oh, and did I mention that we start practice at 9 a.m. and don't get the checkered flag — knock on wood — until 11 p.m.?

Anyway, we've already enlisted Jeremy Barnes, the crack product P.R. whiz for Lincoln out here in Southern California, as one of our drivers. Jeremy owns a very quick first-gen Mazda RX-7 that runs in the RS class. (He's the only person in all of Southern California who knows what RS is, which enables him to thoroughly dominate his class.) Many years ago, when the car used to race in the Spec 7 class, Michael and I did an enduro with him at Buttonwillow. So turnabout is only fair play.

But with Michael stepping down, we have to find another driver. This isn't much of a challenge. A lot of guys aren't too eager to run their own cars for six hours, especially if they're chasing a regional championship, but they're perfectly willing to trash somebody else's car, especially a rear-wheel-drive 240 with decent power. We eventually decide on John Norris, who did some pro racing in the old Speedvision Cup series. In fact, he raced a 240SX that was a sister car to ours. (Actually, to be precise, we built our car as a twin to his.) Better still, he's able to get Toyos — and we love Toyos, don't we? — at dealer cost, which will save us some money. But best of all, John runs an independent BMW shop called — shameless plug alert! — GT International in West L.A., and he does the service work on my well-used M3.

Hey, John, does this get me a discount or what?

—Preston Lerner


7-22-02

Enduro Madness

As a young fan, I used to think endurance racing was a snore. A trip to Le Mans cured me of that misimpression. (For sheer entertainment value, nothing beats this 24-hour extravaganza.) And as a driver, I've found that enduros have a lot to offer: Plenty of seat time. Great camaraderie. Minimal pressure. There's just one problem: If racing is expensive — and it is — then endurance racing is really expensive.

Michael Jordan and I have done one enduro a year since 1994. This year, we were determined to do two. The carrot was a new six-hour enduro at Buttonwillow being inaugurated by the California Sports Car Club, which is the Southern California region of the SCCA. The race was scheduled to run from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. That means racing in the dark. With visions of brake rotors glowing cherry red in the pitch-black night, we decided to enter the race. Okay, so we're stupid. So sue us.

Only after we reached this decision did we start thinking about what running the enduro would actually entail. Like extra lights, for starters. And someplace to mount them. Lots of fuel — at least 80 gallons including practice and qualifying. Two sets of new brake pads. (I remain optimistic that we can get by with one.) A set-and-a-half of new tires. And there was plenty of prep work required to get the car ready after my disastrous outing at Willow Springs last month. After consultation with Richey and Howard Watanabe of Technosquare, we decided that a faulty master cylinder was the cause of the low brake pedal, while Sly Alviar of Nissan Motorsports concluded that a bad fuel pump was causing our low fuel pressure.
—Preston Lerner


Are we having fun yet?

7-19-02

Bloodied but Unbowed

Did my first race last night. Whew! It wasn't a complete disaster — but it came close. Okay, I'll spare you the suspense: I finished 10th out of 15 cars. But believe me, the result is even less impressive than it sounds.

Practice/qualifying was scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. Unwilling to show up for practice before I'd actually, well, practiced, I cranked up GPL at 7:45 p.m. for some private lapping. We were racing at Rouen, the fast, flowing French circuit best known for the daunting series of downhill sweepers just past the pits. I have a black-and-white print attached to a filing cabinet of the celebrated photo of Fangio opposite locking his way through the right-hander in a 250F with a dent in the nose. Poor Jo Schlesser was killed here in 1968 when he left the track in an air-cooled Honda in his first Formula 1 race. The French Grand Prix was never again held at Rouen.

In an FD car, the sweepers are fast but fun. (Since there's no physical risk in GPL, you can't honestly call any particular corner daunting.) The trouble spot is after the last sweeper, which leads to the achingly slow first-gear hairpin at Nouveau Monde. In the real world, you would brake while turning on the approach to the corner. But this is virtually impossible to do in GPL without upsetting the car, which meant that I had to brake super-hard in a straight line before the real brake zone, bend the car through the final corner, and, when I was going straight again, hammer the brakes a second time. Not a very satisfactory means of negotiating the hairpin. I figured I was losing close to a second right there.

From watching replays of the hot shoes, I'd come to the conclusion — subsequently confirmed — that most of them braked with their left foot and kept the throttle cracked to balance the car. I decided to check out this method during my private practice session, but I couldn't get the hang of it. I was also convinced that I could improve my times — I was at least three seconds off the pace — by adjusting my differential setting. But I was worried about going online with an unfamiliar setup. Better the devil I know. Or so I thought.

About 8:15 p.m., YAOL drivers entered a chatroom on VROC as we waited for our server to become available. Everybody was very friendly. It was sort of like standing on the pre-grid, bullshitting, waiting for the order to climb into your car. Qualifying began shortly after 8:30. As I left the pits — typing PO, for pit out — to start my first lap, I was surprisingly nervous, and this sensation intensified when I started seeing cars on the track. Somehow, the knowledge that they were being controlled by other human beings rather than an AI program transformed the experience from a mere game into an actual race. There was no denying the fact that I felt the same nervous anticipation I get from real racing on a real racetrack. The sensation wasn't nearly as intense, but it was definitely there.

It took me about 10 minutes to get acclimated to this new environment. After that, I started to get the hang of it, and my lap times dropped, from 2:08 to 2:07 and finally dipping into the 2:06s. In fact, my final lap was a personal best, and I ended up qualifying solidly mid-pack. In retrospect, this was a curse, since it inspired me to believe that I might be able to run with the big dogs in the race. Dream on, Cooper Boy.

The start of the race was agonizingly, even weirdly, slow a startling contrast to real racing, where everybody goes like a bat out of hell and makes kamikaze moves in Turn 1. Everybody's principal goal seemed to be not to make up places but to avoid accidents. This is no easy thing to do with 15 virtual cars in such close proximity, and Nouveau Monde with a giant pack of cars seemed to be a disaster waiting to happen. As it happens, we had the option of keying in Shift-R if we crashed. This would place a magically repaired car (with cold tires and a full tank) back on the road after everybody had passed. But YAOL! rules required racers who used the Shift-R save to check into the pits for a mandatory stop-and-go. So everybody was on his best behavior.

Nevertheless somebody crashed going into the hairpin. But, amazingly, everybody else — including me, which was the biggest miracle of all — made it through safely. Down the long back-straight, another Cooper drafted past and I let him by under braking. (Not that I had much choice.) All I wanted to do at this point was to settle into a rhythm. But rushing down to Nouveau Monde on Lap 2, we found yet another car had spun, and I spun while avoiding him. Dammit! I didn't have to Shift-R, but I lost about 12 seconds and several places. I spun again a few laps later, and twice more later in the 18-lap race. The further back I fell, the harder I tried, which led inevitably to a vicious cycle.

Still, 10th place was more than I'd hoped for. And at least I didn't cause any accidents. With any luck, I'll soon be as mediocre in GPL as I am on the real racetrack.

By the way, if you have GPL on your hard drive, you can watch the race for yourself by downloading the replay into your GPL Replay folder. Go to http://yaol.bischeracci.com/ navigate through the Results page.
—Preston Lerner


7-18-02

Virtually racing

For reasons that I can't explain (or understand), Grand Prix Legends appears to be especially well suited to multiplayer racing over the Internet. Not long after the game appeared, a group of four enthusiasts Allison Hine, her brother Nate, Larry Holbert and John O'Keefe — created the Virtual Racers' Online Connection. VROC provides a central forum — and computer servers for online racing. At any given time, you can find dozens of people on the site looking for pickup races. But because the quality of these affairs is so varied, most of the more experienced drivers have banded together in leagues that run their own private races through VROC.

I was looking for a league. A league that featured all FD all the time. I found it in YAOL!, for Yet Another Online Racing League. (http://yaol.bischeracci.com/) I liked the fact that the organizer, Lapo Nustrini, apparently had a sense of humor. I also liked the fact that races were run at 8:30 p.m. West Coast time, which worked for me. But mostly, I liked the fact that they were willing to accept me. Hey, beggars can't be choosy.

There were a couple of problems, though. First and foremost, after doing a little research, I discovered that I was outclassed. That is to say, I was way off the pace of the fast guys. Even worse, I had no online racing experience. And to turn me into a triple threat, all of the good chassis — Ferrari, Lotus and Eagle being the most highly praised, with Brabham so good that it's flatly outlawed — were already taken. As a result, I was stuck with the Cooper (called Coventry in GPL because of licensing issues. By the same token, Honda is called Murasama.) As in real life, the Cooper was woefully underpow-ered. But in GPL, at least, it at least was blessed with ex-tremely forgiving handling. So in the best of all possible worlds, I would be slow but safe.

Ah, the best laid plans ....
—Preston Lerner


7-17-02

Back to the Future

I tested a 1967 Cooper Formula 1 car at Rouen last night. No, not really. Virtually. Thanks to the computer game Grand Prix Legends.

Developed by Papyrus and published by Sierra in 1998, GPL is a remarkably faithful simulation of the 1967 Formula 1 sea-son. It's not the most popular racing sim of all time. (NASCAR titles are much bigger sellers here in the States.) It's not necessarily the most accurate one on the market. (This is the source of much controversy. (See http://groups.google.com/groups?hl=en&lr=&safe=off&group=rec.autos.simulators for more information about race sims.) But GPL has been the most effective at creating an environment, or a community, of like-minded racers. In fact, no sim has a more devoted read: obsessed cadre of fans. And it's these fans who've transformed GPL from a game into a world unto itself.

By hacking into the code of GPL, fans have been able to upgrade the sim to astonishing levels of verisimilitude. If you want, you can download better-looking cars, more expansive scenery, different engine sounds. You can tweak the performance of not only your car but also the Artificial Intelligence. At the same time, enterprising developers have created more than 100 new racetracks to supplement the nine that shipped with the original game. So, as a result, you can now race at classic-but-defunct venues such as Reims, Solitude, Aintree and Riverside, not to mention a slew of so-called fantasy tracks. Other programmers have also figured out ways to convert racetracks from Papyrus' NASCAR and Indycar titles to GPL. This means you can now race a Lotus 49 at Indianapolis, say, or even on the half-mile oval at Bristol. Why you'd want to, of course, is an-other question. But, hey, who's arguing?

When GPL was released, it was hailed by most simheads for a physics model that was widely considered to be the most accurate produced up until that time. Personally, I thought it was flawed then, and I still have problems with it to this day. Although there's much to be praised about the GPL driving experience, the software is plagued with idiosyncratic and frustrating anomalies. The cars have a tendency to develop terminal oversteer without warning. It's also very difficult to brake while turning unless you left-foot brake and keep the throttle cracked to balance the car. Generally speaking, going fast in GPL requires you to practice several techniques that bear no relationship to the real world. Also, thanks to a tremendous power-to-weight ratio, the Formula 1 cars are very, very difficult to control — too difficult for my taste. The game also comes with so-called Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars with less grunt. But since grip is also reduced in these chassis, the cars are still excessively unforgiving, at least in my opinion.

I recently decided to give GPL another try. Part of the reason was the arrival of a brand-new controller from ACT Labs featuring an excellent force-feedback steering wheel and a nice set of pedals. But what really motivated me was the fact that two clever guys by the name of Paul Thurston and Gary Tall had written a very slick program that allows you to swap a Formula 2 engine into a Formula 1 car (or any other combination you can think of). The so-called Formula D, or FD, car is dramatically less diabolical than the standard F1 car yet a lot more fun than the F2s. I downloaded the program (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/vroc-f2/files/Utilities/FD_patching_instructions.txt), made the swap with my trusty Ferrari 312 and, lo and behold, the car was more or less drivable. After a few days of getting acclimated, I de-cided I was ready to take the next step:

Online racing.
—Preston Lerner


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