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Journey to the Nationals in the Vancouver Special: Part 2


  • Journey to the Nationals in the Vancouver Special: Part 2

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


    As cool and exciting as it is to spend a season driving the ultra-fast Vancouver Special, a valuable part of the experience is co-driving and hanging out with the A-Mod boys. John Haftner, Gary, Joe, and I made the trek to Marina, CA to do some hot weather testing at the July 3-4 Larry Park Memorial event organized by the American Auto-X Series. I fly into CA while the boys make the exhausting 20-hour tow, so it's no surprise that I'm immediately appointed the team chauffeur when they roll into town. Joe suggests heading into Monterey (home of the Laguna Seca race track) for dinner.

    I've known Joe for several years, but I only briefly met Gary and John once prior to this season. Now here I am, sitting down to dinner with three legendary autocrossers at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Monterey, CA. Can my tiny brain absorb a century of car building and racing knowledge in one sitting? Not likely! Aside from hearing a rich collection of racing stories, I learn a few quirky facts about my new racing buddies. For example, John and Gary know enough about the movie Forrest Gump to do a scene-by-scene reenactment. Who knew A-Mod guys had time to watch movies when they're not building cars? I also learn that Gary is a certified wine snob (you should've seen his look of horror when the Bubba Gump people serve him wine in a whiskey tumbler), and that John is incredibly mellow and sane for someone crazy enough to rocket up the side of Knox Mountain at 200+ kph (for those not in the know, John holds the record for the Knox hillclimb).

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    Since the last event in Packwood, Joe and Gary made some changes to the car: a revised clutch setup and a shortened rear roll-couple. Little do we know at the start of the weekend that this resulted in a drastic change to the car's handling which will eventually take us a full weekend of adjustments to dial out. Forrest Gump provided not only the theme for dinner, but also the theme for this weekend's experience with the VS: "Life is like an A-Mod car in the final stages of tuning prior to US never know what you're going to get."

    It's Day 1 of the event. The guys finish their run-work heats in the morning, so they're available to support me during my runs in the afternoon. Joe cautions me that the increased rear roll stiffness makes the VS a bit tail-happy. I'm thinking, the car handled great and had tonnes of grip at the last event on cold asphalt. Today, we're on warm concrete. How bad could it be?

    I'm strapped in, waiting at the line, reminding myself to keep my inputs smooth. The VS wings are still in an odd configuration from this morning's runs. The wings were creating too much drag, limiting top speed, so Joe and Gary removed an element from each wing.

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    Finally, the starter gives me the go signal. I gently roll onto the throttle and maneuver through the small kink at the start. The back end kicks a bit as I feed in more throttle, but easing up a little keeps the tail in check. The first section of the course is a long stretch with a few minor kinks which can be taken flat out.

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    I'm mindful to press down hard with the right foot, keeping it planted until I have to slow down for the 90-degree left. I didn't mention last time how incredibly powerful the brakes are on the VS. It takes some time getting used to being able to stop instantly with zero front-end dive, so I wind up braking way too early for the first turn. Next comes the first sweeper: apply the brake, turn in, and there it is...another spin...on dry concrete! Where did all the grip go? I spin it twice again on the same run, but on corner exit rather than entry. The VS is far more twitchy than I remember it.

    I pull back into grid and the guys are waiting in my grid spot, holding the missing wing elements. Man, these guys are quicker than a Grand Prix team. Those elements were still back in the trailer when I started my run! "We're going to give you your wings back!" They immediately get to work, reassembling the wings, checking tire pressures, spraying the rads, adjusting the suspension, and checking the data logger. We just need to work in refuelling and a tire change and we've got a full-fledged pit stop!

    The extra downforce from the full wing configuration really helps on my next few runs, but I'm still hanging the tail out on corner exit. Gary takes a bit more rear bar out for me. The softer bar combined with greater patience with the throttle helps me keep the rear wheels in line. However, I need to increase the richness of the fuel trim to suit my timidness with the throttle. Partial throttle causes the engine to run lean and temperatures to skyrocket. Joe's belief is "Race car drivers should only be paid for every second that they spend at wide open throttle." If that's the case, I was clearly in no position to quit my day job. I've never driven a car that threatens to melt down if you don't drive it hard enough.

    The wind has been gusting all day and by my final run it's worked up to a steady 20 mph. Things get interesting when you're driving an aero car in strong wind (note the direction in which the chequered flag at the finish is blowing).

    When I pull back into grid I get a quick lesson from Gary on driving in windy conditions. "When you're entering a turn driving into a 20 mph wind, you've got all the stick in the world. But driving away from the wind, you lose that 20 mph, the amount of downforce drops exponentially, and you're not left with much downforce at all." not only do I need to pay attention to the colour of the flags being waved at me, but also the direction in which those flags are flying!


    A few days before the trip to Marina, I managed to crack a rib on my right side while mountain biking. I had some concerns about whether I'd be able to steer the VS since it was excrutiatingly painful to move the right side of my body. Owen joked at lunch the day of my bike crash: "Joe's going to think something's seriously wrong with the car when he looks at the data logger and sees that you can pull 2Gs turning left but only half a G turning right!"

    Fortunately the ribs aren't a factor while driving. When sitting in the tub on grid, they're only mildly sore, and out on course, my brain is so occupied I don't feel a thing. It's the perfect anesthetic. Where it really hurts is when I pull myself out of the tub at the end of the Saturday heat (I stayed in the car between runs) and during the Sunday driver changeovers. It felt like someone had beaten me with a baseball bat. Clearly, the ribs get squished pretty good when you're pulling two lateral Gs.

    We're now onto Day 2. It's warmer today and there's virtually no wind. Welcome news for me since the tires should stick better and I won't have to worry about which way the wind is blowing. The VS underwent some significant changes last night. The rear wing is positioned all the way back to bias more downforce to the rear of the car in an attempt to reduce oversteer, and the clutch was changed to reduce bogging when exiting corners.

    During the course walks, there's much discussion about the final section of the course. There's a long straight leading up to a 90-degree right-hand turn followed by another long straight before the finish. The turn is wide enough that it's conceivable that it could be done flat out as long as you use every last inch of the track and make a perfectly smooth, early turn into the corner. With an entry speed of 70-80 mph, there's going to be a whole whack of downforce at work too. Joe boldly declares that he's going to try taking the turn flat out.

    Joe and I are co-driving in the first heat which inadvertently ends up being a drift contest between us (Joe won). Joe's the first car out this morning. With cold tires and a tonne of debris out on course, Joe goes completely sideways in the first set of offsets. I take my run and manage to make it midway through the course before I also swap ends exiting a tighter-than-90-degree corner. For the next set of runs, Joe loosens the rear sway bar a notch, but the car is still noticeably loose. It's far too easy to hang the back end out in the showcase turn. Joe continues to loosen the rear sway bar and finally disconnects it for our final runs. Given this is the last run of the weekend and the rear of the car is as soft as it's going to get with the available adjustments, he's determined to take the final corner flat out this time. However, the showcase turn again proves to be a problem. Joe loops it entering the showcase and lays down a huge trail of rubber as he pulls a doughnut to turn the car around. It really doesn't take much to spell your name in the pavement when you've got gummy tires and gobs of power!

    He's finally approaching the final 90-degree right-hander, and given the looseness of the car, this is definitely going to be interesting. He approaches the turn on the far left edge of the straightaway. As he initiates turn-in, the tail gets wobbly, taking out a whole pile of cones along the edge. He stays on the throttle into the turn, but by this point the tail is too far gone. It steps right out, sending another spray of cones up in the air. I really think he could have made it if the tail weren't so loose.

    "What the f**k is wrong with you people? You can't even keep it pointed in the right direction for 30 seconds!" Gary jokingly voices his disgust over our little drift show. Or maybe he's genuinely pissed about picking up all those cones that Joe killed in the last corner. Anyway, after today's runs, the consensus is that the car has far too much oversteer to be driven consistently at the limit. But there's still some debate as to whether the looseness can be entirely attributed to the roll-centre adjustment, or whether the aging Hoosiers (60+ runs) are partly to blame.

    Despite the challenges with the car's handling over the weekend, there is still much to be happy about. The car survived a 3-driver, 30-run weekend in warm weather with no breakages. A huge milestone on the VS's development timeline!


    It still wasn't entirely clear to me the point of changing the car's setup after the Packwood event. The car was so neutral and gripped so well even on cold asphalt. Why would you mess with that? It all becomes clear at the VCMC club meeting the following Tuesday. Joe is scheduled to give a suspension talk at the tech session where he shares his tuning philosophy with those in attendance. There's ultimately only two runs that matter over the course of the season. One run on Day 1 and one run on Day 2 at the US Nationals (or National Tour, or KSC, or whatever your big event may be). Everything else is just practice. There's no point running the same setup event after event *thinking* you've got a fast setup. You'll never learn anything that way. You need to know exactly how the car responds to every adjustment before you get to the big event. Case in point, over this past weekend, we drove a different wing and sway bar setup with nearly every run and tested the entire range of rear-end adjustments.

    * * *

    Many thanks to the great folks with the American Auto-x Series for their hospitality and for such a fun, fast course. California is home to some incredibly well-prepared cars and massive concrete playgrounds. I hope to visit again soon.

    Thanks to John, Joe, and Gary for all their advice and support over the weekend. Extra thanks to Joe for all the help during the driver changeovers on Sunday when my ribs started to bother me.

    Now it's onto the NWR SCCA regional next weekend in Packwood. If the current heat wave continues, we may finally get some hot weather testing done.
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