Watkins Glen –June 19-20, 2010

Watkins Glen is about the same distance from Ottawa as Etobicoke, in the Toronto area, at 435 kms. But it takes about 6 hours to get there, instead of 4-1/2. This is mainly due to the border crossing, construction on the NY State Thruway and the lower speed limit on Highway 14, from the Thruway to the Glen. It’s a long drive, but not unpleasant. The entire western shore of Seneca Lake, along Highway 14, is dotted with vineyards and attractive properties, plus the pretty town of Geneva.

Last year I had intended to go there in August, but had to cancel when my engine blew up. This year I was determined to go, so I registered early for the PCA Zone 1 48 Hours at the Glen, which is traditionally held on the third weekend in June. It is a large event, drawing people from all over the northeast, as well as from other PCA Zones. I believe there were over 200 cars there this year.

I left home around 10:40 AM on Friday, hoping to get to the track in time to have a courtesy ride from another Ottawa guy (Ted), who would be there for the instructor day. However I didn’t make it in time, because of the longer driving time, as well as missing a couple of turns, in both Geneva and in Watkins Glen. When I stopped at US Customs at the border, the guard was one of those professional border guards, with the short sleeved shirt shrink-wrapped around bulging biceps. He asked some very peculiar questions, like: “How long had I owned the Porsche? Had I made any modifications to it?” In contrast, on the way home, the Canadian Customs woman asked me how I’d done in the “racing”!

There were eight Ottawa guys at the event, all sharing garage space for our lawn chairs, coolers, etc., plus several other Ottawa and Montreal guys from Rennsport and some Upper Canada Region people. Canadians were well represented. The garage space was most welcome, since it became very hot on both days and we had some rain Saturday afternoon as well. The garage at The Glen is huge, containing 30 double bays under a single roof – a very busy place and the location for all drivers’ meetings, classrooms, etc. The Porsche club has introduced a new feature this year, whereby noted professional driver David Murry is present and provides seminars, individual in-car videos with coaching afterwards and on-site corner observations and teaching.

Just like at Mont Tremblant last month, the Ottawa contingent didn’t escape without its share of mechanical problems. After our first stint on Saturday, Peter W. Discovered that he had a power steering fluid leak in his 2007 GT3. When we finally got the car partially on a trailer so he could work underneath, he discovered that a line had cracked just under the driver’s seat area. The lines are made of a hard plasticized material and there was no way to repair it, so his driving was over for the weekend. By the time he got it off the trailer and loaded up, it was too late to go home until Sunday. So he and his wife Chris stayed for supper Saturday night and went home Sunday morning. That’s an expensive 30 minutes of track time! The other incident occurred Saturday afternoon when Chris – my engine builder – blew up the engine in his 1967 911 race car in a big way, spilling lots of oil in Turn 10 and the pit-in lane. A couple of cars spun in the oil, but thankfully no one hit the Armco. A connecting rod had gone right through the engine case, so his driving was over as well. At least he has the know-how to build another one!

I had registered for the event in the Yellow run group, so I could learn the track with an instructor. Obviously, I wanted to be signed off to drive solo, but first I wanted to be sure to get as much input as necessary to be able to drive the track correctly. When I checked in on Saturday morning, I was told that my instructor had blown his transmission on Saturday and he had left for home. So I was assigned a new guy whose student had cancelled out. While I didn’t meet the first guy, I couldn’t have asked for a better substitute. His name is Jos and he’s in his early thirties. Apart from being a PCA instructor (with the NY Metro region), he also sky-dives. He was friendly, easy to talk to and gave clear instructions. I had a bit of trouble understanding him because he wears a close-faced helmet and the intercom tends to become a bit muffled, so I encouraged him to use hand signals to help me make adjustments as we drove. That worked really well and I had no trouble learning the line in my first stint Saturday morning. We made a few refinements in the second stint and Jos was prepared to sign me off to drive solo after that. Unfortunately, the organizers have a policy that no one could be signed off until the second day, so Jos had to accompany me for the remaining two stints Saturday afternoon. There was very little dialogue in those two stints and we had a great time.

The skies darkened after lunch on Saturday and the promised rain storm moved in for a short time, just before my third stint. It was raining lightly as we began, but stopped shortly into the stint. It was fun picking out the correct line while the track was wet and as it began to dry. With my street tires (and new ones on the front, at that), I had no trouble with grip. There are numerous concrete patches at The Glen – just like at Mosport – so it is a good idea to avoid them if possible under wet conditions. Oddly enough, most of the concrete does not hug the curbs in the apexes, showing that the powerful cars that are responsible for tearing up the asphalt are not clipping the apexes as well as they should. But to avoid a slide, it is a good idea to avoid putting the loaded outside tires on the concrete. So it’s necessary either to slow down and drive the normal line, or to swing wide to get the outside tires on asphalt. In Turn 10, this became really exaggerated, since the concrete patch is about 10 ft wide! But we had no trouble in the wet and the track dried out quite a bit before we finished.

On Sunday morning, it was nice and sunny again. After the drivers’ meeting, Jos and I sought out the registrar so I could be approved to drive solo in the White run group. When Jos told him what we wanted to do, his first question was whether I normally drove in White. I said, “No. I normally drive in Blue.” When he looked puzzled, I explained that in Rennsport, Blue is a more advanced group that White. Oddly enough, he was surprised to learn this, since in many eastern U.S. regions, Blue is a junior solo group. Without further hesitation, he awarded me a White wristband and I was ready to go. Jos was kind enough to put some complimentary comments in my log book, although he used a blank page in the French section, out of sequence with all of the previous comments in the English half.

They had removed all of the cones for Sunday’s driving, which is how I like it. Without the cones, you’re forced to drive the road, instead of relying on the cones to tell you where to go. This is more natural and more enjoyable to me, especially given my experience as a rally driver. There are no apex cones on country roads! I had no trouble remembering the line and I became smoother with each lap as I tried to add more speed. Of course, in the White group there were more fast drivers. But passing was accomplished efficiently and I didn’t have to lift very often to let the newer cars through. Based on the videos I shot, my lap times were all around 2:50, which works out to an average speed of about 115 km/h over the 5.45 km track. We were using the full Grand Prix track configuration, which includes the “Boot”. There are dramatic elevation changes, climbing significantly through Turns 2-4 (the “Esses”), dropping down equally through Turns 6 & 7 into the “Laces” and “Toe” of the Boot, then climbing again at the “Sole” and “Heel” of the Boot back up to the front straight elevation. My car struggled in the climb up from the Toe, since it’s quite steep and the Toe is quite slow. Perhaps I should have used second gear in the Toe, to help with that. Next time, I must give that a try. The first climb up the Esses is quite a thrill ride, as you corner hard and accelerate first right, then left, then right again onto the back straight. I was reach a top speed of about 170 km/h indicated just before braking for the Inner Loop and on the front straight before Turn 1. They had recently repaved the braking zone for Turn 1, on track left, so there were cones blocking off that area – to allow the asphalt to cure properly before an IRL race in a couple of weeks. Next time I go, I look forward to driving the correct line into Turn 1, which will be rather different from the tight corner I experienced this time.

In total, I drove about 240 km on track, which would be about 52 laps. I decided to skip the last stint on Sunday afternoon, to enable me to get home at a decent time. Otherwise, I would have been even more tired and wouldn’t have gotten home until at least 11 o’clock. I used about a tank of fuel and no oil to speak of. The engine temperatures got a little high, but didn’t exceed 120 C. Chris checked the engine case temperature with his infrared gauge and found that the actual temperature was a little lower than the gauge was indicating, which is reassuring.

I absolutely loved the track. It is so smooth and flowing that it’s a pleasure to drive. And I know there’s more speed to be had with further experience. I will definitely be back to The Glen!

Pictures are available at http://s229.photobucket.com/albums/ee234/kilrwail/Watkins%20Glen%20-%2019-20%20June%202010/

Video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3Wqgfe4qI4

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