A (not so new) Summer Pastime

Coming back to Washington with no boat left me wondering what I would do with myself this summer. As mentioned previously, I was fortunate to land a job as a Training Captain with Freedom Boat Club, which has seen a tremendous jump in membership during this “stay local” summer.

Being landlocked, I’ve rekindled my on and off love of cars and fast driving. It all started with my buddy John buying a Mercedes AMG sport utility (yes, there is such a thing) and signing up for the AMG driving school, which wound up being cancelled due to the pandemic. Talking with him reminded me of doing track days in Wisconsin with my 2005 BMW M3 with the local chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. They offered High Performance Driving Experience (HPDE) days during which you would receive driving instruction and drive your own car on a race track with an instructor (until you were “qualified” to drive solo). It was not racing, in that passing was strictly by consent, but it was a whole lot of fun! I did several events with them, eventually graduating to “solo intermediate” and drove at Blackhawk Farms in Illinois, and Road America in Wisconsin, reputedly one of the fastest tracks in the world.

Not my M3… I couldn’t find a single photo of mine, so borrowed an image of the identical car from the “Mad Russian”, a well-known M3 enthusiast. In retrospect, I REALLY wish I had kept the car.

I figured that we could find a local, non-brand specific driving school, and sure enough, we discovered Proformance Racing School at Pacific Raceways, a bit south of Seattle. They offer a range of programs from one day high performance driving school to lapping programs to a full two day racing school.

Next, I needed to find a car to use. We have a 2014 BMW 328i wagon, and believe it or not, these turn out to be pretty good on a track. Gwen was having NONE of it, however, as it is our only car. So the search for a cheap, trackable car was on. John realized that it might not be a great idea to turn his fancy, very pricey AMG into a track car, so agreed to partner with me on one. I remembered that my other buddy Ryan was a car guy with a shop and a bunch of cars. We pulled him into the search as an advisor and eventually wound up buying a 1998 Nissan 200SX SE-R from him for dirt cheap. The SE-R is no M3, but it is a lightweight, manual transmission coupe with a reliable, but low-powered engine. In other words, a car that is not likely to get you into trouble on the track.

The track car, a 1998 Nissan 200SX SE-R. Pretty much guaranteed to the slowest car on the track on any given day.

Having secured the car and drawing up partnership papers, we went to work on preparing it for track days. This included the following parts and service:

  • New/upgraded tires
  • New/upgraded brake pads, rotors, lines
  • New windshield, as the old one was cracked, new wipers
  • New rear hubs (bearings were shot)
  • New CV axles
  • New coolant system hoses
  • New fluids – oil, transmission, coolant and brakes
  • New sparkplugs and wires
  • New headlights and turn signals
  • New air intake

As you can see, money can be spent on a car nearly as quickly as it can on a boat. Fortunately, it seems to flow in slightly smaller increments, and we were able to use Ryan’s very well-equipped shop to do the work. It was actually fun to work on the car in a shop with a lift and all the right tools. Like working on a boat, except that everything is easy to get to. Soon, we had the car ready for our driving school day.

John, Ryan and I all did the Proformance Driving school together. John opted to drive his AMG, and Ryan drove his C5 corvette, leaving the SE-R in my capable(?) hands. The morning included a bit of classroom talk and a number of exercises such as braking, a slalom course, lane changes and deliberate skids to learn how the car reacts. I did quite well with the skid exercise… the car’s antilock brakes are not functional, so I had to brake the old-fashioned way.

The afternoon consisted of lapping the track with a coach in the passenger seat showing us the track and providing real-time instruction and feedback. We all had a great time, and agreed that we would come back for a lapping day, during which we would receive another hour of in-car instruction, and then be issued a “sport” license and a logbook to record our progress. This would allow us to drive solo on subsequent track days.

I realized during the driving school that the old suspension was shot, so we ordered a set of coilovers (which are an adjustable set of shocks and springs). While we were waiting for the coilovers to ship, John and Ryan both got out and earned their sport licenses, and I was signed up to earn mine the week after the parts were to be delivered. Ryan and I installed the coilovers, lowering the car 1.5″ in the front and 1″ in the back, and I then took the car in for a full alignment, which is necessary after replacing suspension components.

Finally, I was ready for my track day and the chance to earn my sport license. I had a good day, and the instructor was impressed with how our little car handled. His main suggestion was to replace the stock seat with a proper sport or racing seat and harnesses. Thus, another item was added to the upgrade list (that is turning into a bit of a long story best saved for another day). All was going well during my first solo session when I noticed that the car suddenly got a little noisier. I came back into the pits and had a look, but didn’t see anything amiss. I went back out onto the track for a few more laps, and it got louder again. Clearly there was a problem. It turns out that I had cracked the exhaust manifold (in several places, actually). We had been thinking about adding headers and a sport exhaust system anyway, so this was a handy excuse to pull the trigger on yet another upgrade. The problem is that all of us had signed up for another track day just a week later. A few frantic calls, a whopping shipping bill, and a hard-core overnighter by Ryan got the new headers in place in time for our track day this week.

John wasn’t able to make it, so it was me in the Nissan and Ryan in his Corvette for a sunny afternoon down at Pacific Raceways. The start of the session was delayed a bit due to the crash of a Mercedes AMG GTR coupe on the front straight in the morning session. We heard that it was caused by a rear tire blowout, which caused the car to go off the track and into the retaining wall. Fortunately, the driver was not injured, and equally fortunately, had track-day insurance to cover the damage sustained by the nearly $200,000 car.

We finally got out on the track and were having a great time. The car was handling well, and I was running a bit faster than my last time out as I started to get a feel for the track. I got a very cool timing device called Harry’s Lap Timer that uses the iPhone to capture data and video. Here is a clip showing my best lap in the Nissan:

SE-R lap, August 12

If you look closely at the video, you will see that there are cones along both sides of the track. The orange cones indicate braking zones, the yellow cones indicate turn-in points, the green cones indicate the apex of the turn and the white cones indicate the track out points. Basically, you should come as close as possible to the green cones and the white cones coming through and out of the turn and you’d better be off the brakes by the time you are at the yellow cone.

After about 15 laps or so I heard the exhaust get louder… again! I pulled into the pits, opened the hood, and could see the gasket sticking out of the joint between the header and the exhaust pipe! Looking closer I could see that two out of the three bolts holding the pipes together were gone. Very disappointing! I was done for the day after less than an hour.

Or was I? Proformance has a fleet of Toyota FRS sport coupes that they use for the driving school. They will also rent them out during track days, I discovered, for the princely sum of $200 per half hour of track time.

The trusty car #11 that I beat on (oops, I mean drove) for a half hour.

I decided that I had spent too much time, money and effort getting here to sit around for the rest of the afternoon watching other people have fun, so I ponied up the $200 for a session. The FRS is a very nice car, featuring a 200 HP engine (compared to the 140 HP in the Nissan), a six speed manual transmission, rear wheel drive, a comfortable seating position, and all the expected modern goodies like anti-lock brakes (yay) and traction control (boo). It was definitely faster than the Nissan, and I liked the steering feel of the rear wheel drive. I managed to turn in a lap time 4 seconds faster than my best in the Nissan.

Proformance FRS lap, August 12

While I really enjoyed driving the FRS, it really made me appreciate how good the Nissan is. The FRS definitely had a softer suspension with more body roll, and I don’t think the tires were as good as the ones on the Nissan. The braking was similar, and I realized only after the session that the traction control on FRS was kicking in around some of the tighter corners (the funny chirping sound you might hear in the video as I go around Turn 3b). The power and top speed was certainly nice, and it is definitely a more refined car. However, at a purchase price (used) at about 10x what we paid for the Nissan, I think we have put together a little car with pretty good bang for the buck. I did love driving for several laps in front of a hot Mustang that blew past me when I was driving the Nissan, and could not get around me in the FRS… even with me giving “point bys” in the passing zones. Ryan said the Mustang driver was commenting in the pits that he couldn’t get around me because I was too good a driver.

To top the day off, I think Ryan felt a bit sorry for me, so he let me take a couple of laps in his Corvette. That is a much more serious car, powered by a 350 HP v8 with a 6 speed manual transmission that will get you going to “oh sh!%” speeds in a hurry. It was a blast to drive, definitely way faster and stronger than the other two cars, and noticeably heavier. But it was really very easy to drive smoothly around the track. Thinking about the difference between the cars, I was driving both the Nissan and the FRS pretty hard, but going easier yet faster in the Corvette. I felt like I could push both the Nissan and the FRS hard without getting into trouble, but not so with the Corvette – much like my old M3, it was a much better car than I was a driver.

Wringing out the SE-R down the front straight. Image from local track photographer Karl Noakes

All in all, a great day, and I realized that I really do like doing this. Next step is to get the Nissan repaired – in this regard it seems much like a boat – and get back out on the track for more fun.

2 thoughts on “A (not so new) Summer Pastime”

  1. Wow, what fun! Sounds like you remade the Nissan. Glad you rented the other. Higher speeds, well handled. BTW: still love my little BMW. It has 46k miles (5 years old) and handles beautifully. Decided not to trade it. At the rate I drive now, it may last my lifetime! 💕🤗

    Sent from my iPad

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