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Journey to the Nationals in the Vancouver Special: Part 1


  • Journey to the Nationals in the Vancouver Special: Part 1

    This is the first installment in a series of write-ups documenting my journey to the US Nationals in Joe Cheng and Gary Milligan's latest A-Modified creation, the Vancouver Special.


    I've seen the VS run a few times at Pitt Meadows during its development phase. Aside from the obvious realization that this thing is wicked fast, it also looks like it would be a handful for anyone to keep pointed in the right direction let alone put together a clean run. "Oh don't worry, it's really intuitive and easy to drive. It does exactly what you tell it to do" Joe tells me. I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop--the qualifying words to this statement. Something along the lines of: as long as you have decades of competition driving experience in the world's fastest autocross machines and several national trophies under your belt. But that was it. He tells me the VS is designed to be very user-friendly, to work with the driver and not exhibit any bad habits that could derail a fast run. Despite his reassurances, I'm still very nervous about driving the VS. What if I crash it? What if I blow up the engine? What if I just plain suck?

    I'll be driving with Gary today. Joe's not too keen on the cold and wet conditions. It rained overnight but there was nothing coming down at the moment. I'm working the course when Gary takes his first run. The spray from the rear tires hovers in the wake of the VS like a cape, tracing the airflow over the wings. The pavement is very slick making it difficult to put any power down, but Gary's still moving at a good clip through the opening slalom. There's a flock of seagulls roosting at the end of the slalom but Gary charges on through. The gulls take off, but one poor bird doesn't get high enough and bounces off the rear wing. At this point, everyone's wondering if the wing held together. Unaware of the collision, Gary finishes the run and pulls back into the pit building but doesn't reappear for his next run. After a while, Joe heads into the pits to see if everything's okay. Moments later Joe comes running out on course: "Get your helmet!"

    Sheldon and Mike can attest to the fact that every time I touch a formula car, it's bound to rain. Aside from the obvious traction issues, there's the added unpleasantness of getting soaked in a nasty slurry of rain, shredded tires, and deer poop. The starter gives me the signal and I gently bring up the revs, feathering the throttle as I tweak the VS through the 90-degree start. Once clear of the timing light, I squeeze the throttle just a bit more to pick up some speed before the next 90-degree right... *SPINORAMA* Oh god! Less than 1 second into my run and I've already spun the car. A new personal worst!

    I get myself turned around and line up for the first slalom. I'm barely on the throttle and the VS takes off like a rocket. The rate of acceleration is *obscene* even under partial throttle. I nearly loop it again several more times. In these slick conditions I had a hard time keeping the car straight when I applied any sort of throttle:

    Conditions are even worse on my second run. The skies open up and large pools begin to form. The course designers did a good job of avoiding the ponds, but it doesn't help when you go off course:

    After the bath, it was time to call a timeout and wait for drier conditions. The rain finally let up and after the first afternoon heat, the water was evacuating nicely. I manage to squeeze in another four runs, swapping ends during three of them, but the important thing was finally being able to open the throttle all the way for just a few brief moments. It's mind boggling the rate at which the cones start to fly at you. I'm forced to look way further ahead than I normally do just to prevent sensory overload.

    Gary takes another run at the end of the day to verify some suspicions he has about the tune. He easily beats my best raw time by several seconds. While I didn't crash or blow up the VS, I do have this suck issue to deal with...


    We start the day again on cold, wet pavement, but the rain is staying away and the pavement is drying out quickly. I'm co-driving with Joe in the same heat this morning, so it's a chance practice driver changes and between-run adjustments. Gary tells me the VS was significantly down on power yesterday and that today I'll finally see some real power. At first I think he's kidding, but apparently Gary doesn't joke about these things.

    Joe's the first to run, and the crowd gathers to watch what the VS can do with some traction. They're not disappointed. Joe's able to floor it all the way through the opening slalom, showing off the amazing acceleration and transitional response of the VS. After each run, Gary and Joe are busy analyzing and tweaking. Despite what looks like phenomenal performance to everyone watching, they're still not entirely happy with the way the car is running.

    My goal today (aside from not spinning) is to keep the throttle pinned to the floor for as long as possible. It took a couple of runs before I was able to trust the car and just keep my foot planted all the way through the opening slalom. The VS is on the verge of being able to read my mind. Just by envisioning the line I want to take, my hands subconsciously initiate the input, and the VS starts to turn before my conscious mind thinks about turning. There are no wasted brain cycles or inputs to overcome flaws. It simply does what you tell it to do.

    I finally put together a clean run on my 4th and final run of the day--only 8/10ths off Joe's best scratch!

    I'm way more comfortable with the VS now and am starting to have a lot of fun with it. I'm addicted to its power and responsiveness. Joe speaks the truth. The VS is incredibly easy and intuitive to drive. Gary and Joe have put together an incredible machine.

    * * *

    Lest I wind up like the seagull, all the videos were downsampled to hide some details. But, if you start seeing A-Mod cars wearing pink speed tassels and afterburners, you'll know where they got the idea. I'll take some better in-car videos in Marina and show the HD versions at a members' meeting if there's any interest.

    Thanks to NWAA for the hospitality. It was so nice to take my first runs in the VS at such a fun and relaxed event.

    Thanks to the VCMC crew for the support, co-drives, and golden potties that make these road trips so much fun. And of course, thanks to Joe and Gary for sharing seat time in the coolest toy in the universe.

    Now onto Marina, CA!

    • Carson
      Carson commented
      Editing a comment
      Nice Write up Carol, looking forward to hear about CA with warmer weather and concrete surface.

    • Michael Denham
      Michael Denham commented
      Editing a comment
      Awesome write-up, you have a way with words I can't believe the conditions in that second video! Oversteer, aquaplaning, and near drowning all within 5 seconds.

    • The ToeFu Master
      The ToeFu Master commented
      Editing a comment
      Re: Journey to the Nationals in the Vancouver Special: Part 1

      Run 2. Awesome. =) Looks like you could barely turn. I think if any one can survive that in an open wheel car and decides to come back, they might have a career in it.

      Yeah, Joe said the same thing about the Phantom Special. It will read you mind. But it was a slower car. No worries about the suck though. When I pulled in with a 33 second run, everyone thought that's not too bad, but Gary's time that NT weekend was 30s. I was 10% slower. At that speed I might as well be driving a Formula Ford. (Actually it's probably a lot faster than a Formula Ford -- but you know what I mean.) The weirdest sensation these winged beasts have is that "suction" effect in large corners. The faster you go, the more "stick" you have. It's so weird. It's also so weird to have to drive wider turns (to get the bigger radius, faster speed and more stick).

      The slaloms are insane though. You pretty much close your eyes, count out the slaloms in your head and crank. =) And hope you've got the timing down because you sure as hell aren't going to be reacting to them. Then again, Gary's used to driving at those speeds. He has time to read the dials mid-corner. Me, I'm trying to remember to left foot brake...

      Anyhow, glad you're having a lot of fun. This type of chance doesn't come every decade.
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