Thunderhill with PDC

July 28, 2006

PDC is a casual group of track junkies organized by Mark Dadgar, who is also the driving events coordinator for the Golden Gate Chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. He also runs <a href=''></a> and races a J-Prepared 325i with BMW Club Racing.

Mark has three rules about who is allowed to drive with his group:

<ol> <li>The person must have 10 days of on-track experience, with at least a few of them "signed off" driving solo. </li> <li>The person must not be an idiot. </li> <li>The person must be referred by a current PDC memeber. </li> </ol> Up until last week, I only (barely) met rule #2. With only 9 days on track, I was one short of the first. Arturo drives with PDC whenever he can, so rule #3 was a shoe-in.

In a simultaneous event, Arturo managed to convince Mark that he could relax rule #1 and I signed up for a day at Infineon Raceway with TrackMasters Racing. So I was set -- PDC here I come!

After having dinner with Arti's parents in Pleasanton, Arturo and I caravaned up to Willows on Thursday night. We stayed at the Amerihost, which is a step up from my usual fare at the Best Western. We arrived at about 10:30, and turned in shortly after to sleep. After a quick but huge breakfast at the Black Bear Diner, we were off to the track.

I had some doubts about how well the event would go, since there were 50 drivers of somewhat varying skill levels (mostly advanced mixed with a few "junior" members like me), and wildly varying cars -- from a beautiful handbuilt Porsche 910 replica, to Miatas, to Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars, to BMW race and street cars, to awesome Radical prototype cars. The track was open from 9AM to 5PM, with no set run groups. It was basically "drive whenever you want to". An all-you-can-eat buffet of sorts...

Once the driving started, all my doubts went away quickly. This was the best trackday yet -- there was not a time when I was behind someone for more than a turn or two before passing, and I never felt like I was making the (many, many) faster drivers frustrated. Everyone knew that there was as much track as they could consume, so everyone was very relaxed and polite.

My first session felt very sloppy -- it usually takes several laps for me to get the rhythm of a track that I'm familiar with, and this was no exception. The car felt great with the recent bushing replacement, but I was just a bit off. The second session was a bit better. Arturo came along, which helped quite a bit. His advice was right on, and helped me to recall some of the secrets of Thunderhill. We had a scary moment coming out of Turn 6 (3rd gear, probably 70 MPH) -- as I was accelerating past the apex of the turn, the car just went into an odd oversteering condition. Luckily I managed to keep the car on track, but this was to be a recurring theme for the day...

I went out with Arturo in his car and got to experience firsthand the joy of being in an early 70's era 911 at speed. The car is just so wonderfully communicative, and with Arturo's expertise behind the wheel it would just dance around the track. Driving that car seems to be much more involved than driving a modern car, but that's where the fun is at the track!

Subsequent sessions were starting to feel really good. I was getting the hang of the track a bit better, and experimenting with carrying more speed through Turn 8. I started out at around 85MPH and worked my way up to about 95MPH, but I know the car could do it at least five, maybe 10 MPH faster than I was willing to negotiate it. Turn 9 is suprisingly fast, but being that the exit point is not visible as you enter the turn, I usually don't take it anywhere near the car's limit. Maybe next time!

During one of my solo sessions, I had another little bobble coming out of Turn 6 -- just some very slight oversteer, but it was still very odd. The car would not get upset like that in any other turn.

In the afternoon, I had a long session with Joe Colicchi (Tony's younger brother) in the passenger seat. We were about to come in to the pits when Arturo in his 911 Carrera RS whizzed by in a pack of spec Miatas. I couldn't let this opportunity pass -- the car was feeling great, and I thought that maybe I could try to keep up. WRONG. Exiting Turn 15, Arturo just started pulling away. The speed that he carries through the turns is significantly higher than me, so by turn 5 he was completely out of my reach. Oh well, one day Arturo I'll get you!

After lamenting over my tires' lack of grip with Arturo after that session, he suggested that I get Tony Colicchio to take me around the track in my car. Tony is a master of all kinds of things motorsport -- from being the best roll cage designer and builder in the Bay Area (or more), to being an expert in suspension design and setup, to being a pro race driver, Tony does it all. Thankfully, he entertained my request for some laps in the car.

This was an awesome experience -- he was taking the car far deeper to its limits than I thought was possible, and with such skill and grace. His hands were always relaxed at the wheel, and I could really feel him shifting the car's weight around the make it do what he intended. After complimenting him on his "beautifully smooth" driving coming out of Turn 5, he proceeded to find the same snap oversteer that I had been experiencing all day. He was going fast enough, though, that recovery was not possible and we ended up going backwards off the track. The car got a little dusty, but was otherwise fine. He mentioned that the rear toe setting was probably not optimal, and that I should bring it by his shop for a quick adjustment this coming week. I will definitely do this.

Friday brought a couple of firsts for me:

First of all, it was my first time using a HANS device on track. Schroth recently came out with a set of clip-in belts that are HANS-compatible. The belts are designed for use in cars without a roll cage, and use patented Anti-Submarining (ASM) technology in a shoulder belt to keep the occupant from sliding under the lap belt in a frontal collision. The HANS device fits over the drivers shoulders, under the shoulder belts, and attaches to the helmet with nylon straps. Its purpose is to keep the driver's helmeted head from moving too far forward in a hard crash. The additional weight of the helmet, combined with harnesses that keep the driver's shoulders against the seatback can lead to unusual forces on the driver's neck in a hard impact. These forces can be enough to "disconnect" a person's brain stem from the brain. Death is quick, and guaranteed. The HANS has saved many lives, and its cost is easy to justify, given the cost of modifications to the car that make it go faster. I modified my own helmet to install the posts the HANS attaches to. It was easy with the instructions and hardware provided with the HANS.

Driving with the HANS took a bit of getting used to. First off, I could only rotate my head 45 degrees to either side, which made backing out of the pit stall difficult. On-track, this range of motion was just fine, even in tight turns. A few times I realized that one of the shoulder belts had slipped off the HANS, so I started wearing the shoulders a bit tighter. That fixed the problem.

The other first came about halfway through the day. I had gotten a little tired of feeling the traction control kicking in, and thought that maybe it would be OK to turn it off. When autocrossing the M3, I always turn it off, and I feel like I can control the rear end of the car pretty well now. So halfway through one of my solo sessions, I turned off DSC and backed down my speed by a couple notches. WOW! What a great difference! I felt more control over the car, and its movements just felt more natural and intentional. Quickly I was back on my earlier pace, and slowly worked up a little more speed. The M3's balance allows for nicely controlled slides (usually!) so switching DSC off, with requisite respect for what the gas pedal is capable of works out well.

I'm signed up to return to Thunderhill at the end of August with BMWCCA, and am very excited to get back out there. It's such a fun track that is deceptively fast. I'll also be watching for future PDC events -- there's nothing like a great group of people to make a trackday enjoyable.