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Spring Fever

by J.N. Anderson
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

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SIDEBAR
"Would the driver of car #13 please turn the stereo down!"
I'm not sure what lap I'm on anymore but here I am, once again, hurtling an almost brand new 2006 BMW 330i (graciously lent to me for the days hedonistic activities by the track) straight for turn 1 on Autobahn Country Club's 2.06 mile south loop. I have yet to discover the correct line through this tight 135° right-hander that bends on to a short straight leading to another right-hander, this one a modest 72°. The speedo is threatening me with 85 mph at the end of the main straight. Time to get hard on the brakes. I learned laps ago that BMW’s ABS tutored discs will scrub off speed with shocking ease so I'm now trying to go faster and deeper each time around. The braking portion of this act of pure self-preservation complete, it’s light on the revs as I turn in. I know there's an apex hiding in there somewhere but it seems I'm not going to find it this time around either. Damn! Hard on the gas heading for turn 2, I let the six-speed Steptronic automatic figure out what gear is appropriate for the moment based on the position of my now flat to the floor right foot. Seldom today has the gearbox chosen poorly. As I clip the apex in turn 2 I have a moment to glance over to the main straight to see who’s coming next from behind. As I anticipated coming hard is the #4 330i driven by Autobahn club pro Kevin Krauss. I resign myself to the fact it’s only a matter of time now before he catches me.

I’m quick through turn 3 and accelerating hard down the 837 foot straight leading to turn four, a 90° uphill left. The track is wide here and a skilled driver will be rewarded with a quick exit speed. Over the rumble strips on the outside of turn 4 the pursuing BMW begins to fill my mirrors. I engage my left hand turn signal as a courtesy but Krauss knows this track better than the back of his hand and passes with alarming ease, and a wave. I quickly merge into his wake and follow close astern through turn 5, a 63° hidden apex left, in the misguided hope “Grasshopper” might learn something following “Sensei.” What I learn all too quickly is if I have any hope of running with the Big Dogs here today I may need to break one or more of the rules I set to help guide my first laps on a race track in over 20 years:
Rule #1
Go home to your family in one piece. Stitches are OK. No casts.
Rule #2
Return the car to Autobahn/BMW North America in the same pristine
condition in which it was lent to me. Allowing of course for one set of very perturbed front brake pads.
Rule #3
Win the race!

A strong exit from turn 5 will carry speed on to the 535 foot slightly downhill straight that leads to the turn 6 A/B complex, a 40° right followed by a short 130 foot chute to 6 B, a 56° right. Ace this section and you can really haul the mail down the 1,318 foot back straight with a 37° kink to the right thrown in almost in the middle to prevent the GT3 boys from napping. I manage to hang with Krauss through turn 5. But the bravado of thinking I could do so through turn 6 finds me drifting wide and long putting two (ALMOST all four!) wheels off onto the damp grassy mud just past the rumble strip. DAMN!

Agricultural racing not being my thing, I back out of the gas. Steer straight – no brakes – CONTROL the car - eaaaase back on to the track - keep the mud off the racing line. By the time I get back on the pavement Krauss is gone and probably laughing hard at how he suckered me into messing up in six. As it seems I do not presently possess the skills necessary to run with the pro, and now facing a stop-and-go penalty for putting two off, I settle back in to running the best laps I can in order to salvage the best qualifying time possible for this afternoon’s race. My qualifying effort will translate to a “Performance Parity Time” (PPT©), a time handicap that will, hopefully, level the playing field between me, in a 100% street stock BMW 330i, and semi-pro club racers in purpose designed racing cars. My PPT© time should give me a fair shot at actually winning the race. Welcome to road racing . . . SATCAR® style.

It has been my long held precept that every driver, at some point in his or her driving career, has wondered what it would be like to get out on a racetrack. I assert most drivers believe they have some level of skill and crave the opportunity to test and improve those skills. Competition is inbred in our species. We know the first motor race took place shortly after the second automobile was built. Racing is a “Walter Mitty” fantasy many drivers would like to realize. But how? Until the creation of SATCAR®, one’s racing options were limited and even the most basic forms could demand many thousands of usually unavailable dollars. By marrying “Run What You Own” with “Computer Technology” SATCAR® has created an environment, governed first and foremost by safety, where a driver can scratch his racing itch, without wiping out the life savings or the kid’s college fund.

Back in control after my off, and now through the turn 7 kink, turn 8 looms ahead. A 100° right followed by a 324 foot straight leading to turn 9, a 110° right. A measly 165 feet introduces turn 10, a 100° left. I found this complex the most challenging section of Autobahn’s south loop. There is only so much I can expect from the 330i in here but I can’t help but imagine how rewarding it must be to ace this section in a Lotus Elise or an open wheel formula car. The payoff for moving through here perfectly is carrying maximum exit speed on to the longest straight of the entire Autobahn complex. At 1,850 feet it is the “Mulsanne Straight” of the Autobahn facility. My Bavarian mount just touches 115 MPH before more aggressive braking (“The Ultimate Driving Machine!”) produces a quick but sane entry into the very interesting turn 11/12 complex (my favorite section and a great location for pictures/video!). Turn 11 is a 91° right followed by 164 foot chute to turn 12, a 51° left. The 330i can be pitched around in here with ease (great fun!) and the track offers plenty of room to safely explore the car’s considerable limits. Move through this section smoothly and you’ll carry excellent speed onto a 629 foot straight that leads to turn 13, a 53° right followed by a short 187 foot squirt to turn 14, a 47° right which the 330i has little trouble taking just about flat out. Turn 15 is a left hand kink of a mere 16° and is taken flat out as the 851 foot front straight begins and I get another shot at finding the fast line through turn 1.

I qualified slowest for the race, so I will start first off the grid. I managed to hold the lead until the very last lap. A Porsche driver passed me on the very last lap for the lead but was later penalized for passing in a yellow flag zone. The race win went to the driver who ran safe, consistent and smart. That winner just happened to be me! But as I was a “media guest” of SATCAR® the trophy rightfully went to Mark Basso, driving a race prepared Porsche 911. As in all racing, mere fractions of a second could have changed the outcome. It was an exceptional day of racing! After a 20 year hiatus from the track I was proud to help prove the SATCAR® concept both valid and tons of fun. I can’t wait to do it again! Sans the “media guest” moniker.

My thanks to Autobahn Country Club and BMW North America for the use of their exhilarating 330i sedan. Tom Bagley for the refresher course. Kevin Krauss for showing me the fast line through turn six (you scoundrel, kidding) and Kern Fischer for the invitation to drive and write about SATCAR®.
For more information point your browser to www.satcarracing.com

Ahhh, springtime. I love the springtime. For it is in spring a young man’s fancy turns to matters of . . . no, not the heart, the race track! It is in spring that the rituals of a new season of racing begin and with them come the expectations offered by a fresh, clean timing sheet that is only a few weeks, and a few degrees of the thermometer away. You may keep your Easter Bunny and his hidden eggs, thank you.

The question of the moment is where did my wife hide my driving suit and will it still fit?

A fair question for those who have already determined racing is both within their means and skill sets.

But what about all the would-be Paul Tracy’s and Mario Andretti’s driving performance street vehicles, and driving them well, who have wondered more than once while carving up their favorite section of country road, whether they have what it takes to cut it on a real race track surrounded by equally curious drivers?

How do would-be road racers “try before they buy"?

For the majority of the curious lacking Roger Penske’s tip money to invest in an SCCA or NASA program just to test their curiosities, there have been few options. If you’re content to do your racing in a straight line, one-quarter mile at a time, you can go bracket racing. Simply show up at your local drag strip with an approved helmet and pay your entry fee. Run a few quarters to establish your time handicap then run door-handle to door-handle against anyone who shows up.

Regardless of what you’re running against your time handicap will make it a close race, as long as you don’t break out (run too fast and DQ). In bracket drag racing a diesel VW can beat a Viper GTR.

If you prefer your racing include elementary vehicle dynamics such as steering, braking, acceleration and gear changing, there are few entry-level options. Kart racing offers a method for drivers to get started or further develop driving skills. However, karting at a competitive level is getting quite expensive. The SCCA offers gymkhanas and Solo I/II programs set up in parking lots but that’s not the kind of experience most curious road racers are seeking.


Author braking from 125 mph, setting up for Turn #11

Lapping sessions sponsored by the manufacturers of various luxury and high performance automobiles at regional road courses are available to some. But they tend to be by invitation only. A car club for your particular brand may offer a rung up on the ladder. But car clubs, for a variety of reasons, may not be your cup of Mobil 1.

Realistically, there has been no place the curious road racer could test their skill sets using an unmodified street car and a helmet until just recently. Now budding road racers have a new option: SATCAR®. SATCAR® represents the new “first step” to success on the road racing ladder.

SATCAR® is the acronym for "Sports and Touring Car Racing" and is the creation of Chicagoan Kern Fischer: auto industry engineer, distributor of enthusiast's accessories and high performance driving school instructor. SATCAR® is being planned as a road racing program that will be available at tracks across the country.

Event partners, located near each of the tracks, will be appointed to organize and present events at their local tracks. At the heart of the SATCAR® concept lays a patented format and timing system that effectively time handicaps each car competing in a given race. Time handicapping just two cars running one-quarter of a mile each is a piece of cake. Now try doing it for 20 cars at a time each running 52.5 miles and you quickly discover the complexities of moving the bracket racing concept from drag racing to road racing!


A Lotus Elise waiting patiently to pass a Subaru. SATCAR® rules prohibit passing in turns.

The SATCAR® Performance Parity Time© (PPT), calculated during practice and qualifying sessions, does just that. The PPT© produces a grid that starts each car at a predetermined interval to the rest of the field. The slowest car starts first, the fastest last. In a 100% perfect SATCAR® race every car would cross the finish line at the same moment. It is this timing system, plus a simple rules package focused 100% on safety, that combine to create a completely new form of grass roots motorsports competition.

SATCAR® offers road racers what drag racers have enjoyed for many years. The SATCAR® PPT© system equalizes road course competition between cars of differing performance capabilities and drivers of varying skills. It gives the driver of a VW Golf an even chance of winning a road race against a driver in a race prepared Porsche GT3.

One of the key elements of the SATCAR® concept is a tenacious commitment to safety. There are rules and they MUST be observed at all times for fear of disqualification or even expulsion from SATCAR®. Sorry, there will be no charges down the inside to get the guy under heavy braking to the apex. That’s right out! There is NEVER any passing in turns and overtaking is limited to designated passing zones located only on straightaways.


Above: Braking on the main straight, setting up for turn #1. Note the separation between the green Porsche and the cars ahead. This is a direct result of the SATCAR® PPT©.

Less a rule, but more a SATCAR® state of mind; unsportsperson like  conduct is not tolerated. Act like a jerk and you’re gone, and you will not be back. Otherwise (subject to the Rules Of Competition) have a good race and have fun!

All forms of motor sport have risks and SATCAR® is no exception. The SATCAR® management team have worked diligently to either remove risk or mitigate it to the greatest extent possible.

The remaining risks are up to the driver to intelligently manage. Relative to the out of pocket expenses a driver will incur for consumables and maintenance (and possibly repairs) for their vehicle, you will want to determine in advance just how hard you really want to drive the same vehicle you must also depend on as your daily driver in SATCAR® competition.

It’s a good idea to set such self-imposed limitations before you dive into that blind, downhill, off camber, 90 degree right! One of the benefits of the PPT© is it serves to negate the need to drive at ten-tenths at all times. Smooth, consistent laps are the key to winning in SATCAR®, not raw speed.

Lest you think you can simply waltz in off the street, plop down your AMEX Centurion™ and enjoy a full weekend racing your Ferrari Unobtainium, you will need to first demonstrate to SATCAR® you possess appropriate skills. Skills you have either obtained through prior training, which you can of course document, or skills you will acquire by attending a SATCAR® or other approved driving school. There is no such thing as a free lunch here and besides, won’t you feel that much more comfortable knowing the woman who just blew off your AMG E55 with her Audi RS6 has demonstrated all the skills and qualifications necessary to be out there cleaning your clock? With your SATCAR® Competition License in one hand, and your SNELL approved helmet in the other, you can now go racing!

For a typical race the cars are lined up on pit lane based on the driver’s PPT© and are released to the track one-by-one at a predetermined time. Again, in a perfect SATCAR® race, all the cars would cross the finish line after the specified number of laps of racing at the exact same time. Of course, the racing world is not a perfect world. A bad line, an attempt to pass in the wrong spot, wheels put off, all conspire to add penalty time to a drivers lap times as brain fade will be rewarded with stop-and-go penalties.

In addition, cars are fallible too. Parts can overheat, clutches start slipping or brakes overheat, causing pit stops for mechanical inspections, or putting out brake fires, as the case may be. A really big off might mean a DNF. Run too fast and you may break out, just like in drag racing, and find yourself with a time penalty that takes you completely out of contention. No sandbagging allowed. In SATCAR® a VW Scirocco has an equal chance of beating a Kenny Brown Mustang or a Porsche Carrera to the checked flag, and to the top spot on the podium. Later, when the racing day is done, you can drive your “race car” home, and to work on Monday, assuming you got that pesky brake fire under control in time.

In October, 2006 the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois invited SATCAR® to run an event as part of their season ending “Octoberfast” weekend. Unlike the event I drove in earlier that summer (see sidebar), where a few timing & scoring glitches were discovered (and since corrected) in the PPT© software, the “Octoberfast” event went off like clockwork. Twenty-five club members took the start for the SATCAR® race which saw a highly diverse field of cars entered. From a race prepared Austin-Healy “Bugeye” Sprite to IMSA prepared Porsche GT3s and a broad range of street stock sports cars and performance sedans, the PPT© concept would be tested to the maximum.

Through practice, qualification and finally the fifteen-lap race on Autobahn’s 3.5 mile combined North and South loops the racing was spirited and always interesting for those watching from atop Autobahn’s beautiful new south timing tower. The drivers thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the sense of real competition that traditional club lapping sessions (most motorsports clubs like Autobahn offer only lapping sessions, there is no organized “racing” permitted). At Autobahn’s “Octoberfast” dinner, Gary Traverso, driving an ex-Bondurant school Mustang was announced as the race winner. SATCAR® is looking forward to working with Autobahn to organize a multi-event drivers championship for the 2007 season.

Whether a purpose built racecar or a box stock street car, you can race it in SATCAR® and discover first hand if you possess the skills to take the next step up the ladder, or keep racing at a fraction of the cost in the SATCAR® series itself. More information, an application for a Competition License and the full Rules Of Competition can be found at http://www.satcarracing.com/Home.htm Additional information on the spectacular Autobahn Country Club may be found at www.drivefastbesafe.com

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