What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

All moments of life are colored by our emotions. No one of us, in sensing – in seeing – is a neutral slate upon which experience is writ. We bring to every event a pre-setting, a state of ourselves; and what we feel in the offing is the product of that state and the palpable sensations of the event. This is what makes the anticipated kiss sweeter, the apprehended danger the more frightening, the overdue respite more satisfying.

The Flying Pickle, Bonneville Speed Week 2018

Since Pickle first started trying to run 200 miles an hour, five years have passed. Most recently, in 2017, with a fresh motor and a ‘hot’ tune, we spent a day and a half driving to the Bonneville Salt Flats, only to find that the car’s tuning was not suited for the conditions, and it made no more than 142 miles per hour.

This year we had a detailed plan. The tuning issue had been addressed with a session on the chassis dynometer. We organized a series of work days, one a month, from March through July. We added sensors, produced logistical aids like towbars and a detachable muffler, and tried to validate that the car’s mechanical components were ready for 200 miles an hour. It’s almost impossible to ‘test’ a land speed car… one needs many miles of road, with wide-open throttle, to reveal the real issues.

By the final work day, we were running short on things to do. We began talking about “What extra body parts do we need to be able to run in a second competition class after we break the record in the class we’re targeting?” Oh, we were confident.

Since we were ahead of schedule, we accelerated our departure date by one day, planning to reach the salt Sunday, the second day of SpeedWeek. We would not be able to run Sunday, but we expected to do so on Monday. My imagination had us qualifying for the 200 mph record Monday afternoon, making the record run early the following morning, and thus being able to attend the RedHat (200mph Club) banquet scheduled for Wednesday night. My suitcase was full of dress shirts, because I thought we’d have time to kill between what promised to be one fantastic run after another.

Monday
No problems on the 11 hour drive from Battleground yesterday. We setup our pit and went over to register. Quite a few folks down there know the Pickle, and the registrar arranged to give us a cheaper pre-paid entry from a team that didn’t make it. A team of safety inspectors checked the car over, and gave it thumbs up. We headed to the starting line.

Unlike 2017, when we queued at least four hours for each run, this time we waited perhaps half an hour. We barely had time to warm the motor up. We pushed Pickle off the line, and around 50 miles an hour the car pulled away, not running completely cleanly, but obviously better then 2017. But as we in the push truck raced down course on the Return Road, the radio told us that the Pickle was already pulled over, barely past Mile Two.

We reached the car quickly. Tom the driver told us there’d been a terrible noise from under the hood, and then the motor revved freely, with no drive to the wheels. He thought the car had thrown its chain. This felt distressingly familiar.

The chain drive system on the car is its Achilles’ heel; but then what do you expect when you’re putting three times the normal power through it? We had an item to ‘check the the chain drive system’ as a part of one of our early workdays, but at that time, all looked well, and we saw no need for touching it. There were also no obvious improvements to make in the design of the system. The chain drive was one of the few systems that we didn’t second guess; now that neglect came home to roost.

In the pits, we raised and supported the car, and removed the belly pan. Bits of broken chain were lying on the topside of the pan. Worse than that, we quickly saw that the main sprocket, the one attached to the axle, was badly damaged. We set about removing the axle and sprocket for closer inspection. It is a tricky and onerous job to perform, even in the shop, with a full toolbox and the car overhead on the lift. Now we were forced to do it lying on the salt, flat on our backs, with limited maneuverability for tools and limited space for mechanics.

By 4 o’clock, we had the axle out. Then we saw the full extent of damage.

We surmise that the axle had moved forward on one side in response to the pull of the motor. The chain then walked up the side of the sprocket, and as there’s very little slack in the system, the chain got real tight. The master link sheared both pins off in the end plate. With that crucial integrity lost, the master link itself failed, and then it was mostly a metal blender down there. Several teeth on the main sprocket were missing, or fractured. The chain was torn to pieces. The steel chain guard was mangled. Luckily, the engine sprocket was only lightly marred, and miraculously the engine cases showed no damage at all. (dang, that’s lucky. -ed)

It was clear that there was no chance of continuing with that sprocket. And – we brought no spare, as working on the axle system was deemed ‘too difficult’ for the salt: why provision for actions that you cannot imagine taking? But now we had no choice but to work on it. If we could not repair the sprocket system–and find a way to ensure that the axle would not again shift position when yanked by the motor –we might as well go home.

On the side of the sprocket was a manufacturer’s mark, not a part number, just a brand. An Internet search revealed that the manufacturer’s facility was in Utah, somewhat south of Salt Lake City. (dang, that’s lucky. -ed) We found their phone number and called. Explaining our situation, we asked did they have a record of the sprocket, but they did not. The owner suggested that we measure our sprocket, pass those measurements to him, and they would do whatever it took to build a sprocket, and get it to us by mail by Wednesday.

But we were suddenly very conscious of time. Kicked off the salt at 8 PM, we returned to our casino/hotel and worked on a more expedient plan.

Tuesday
We dispatched two members of our team, at 4 AM, to drive to Richfield, Utah, and be at the sprocket-makers‘ shop when they opened. The rest of the team headed out to start repairs and work on a more secure mounting system for the axle, in order that it could resist the 400 hp of the motor.

By Tuesday midday the remote team had returned, with a replacement sprocket. The rest of the day, we worked painstakingly to install the axle shaft, chain, and our one spare crush-fit master link for the chain. Conditions were ‘normal’ on the Salt in August, which is to say abnormal for most other place on Earth. Blinding sun, a dearth of humidity, an occasional breeze bringing only parched air.

Under the car, we rotated shifts of workers. It went on all day. We left the salt Tuesday evening, not yet ready to run.

Wednesday
At daybreak, we headed back out. We’d try to implement our best idea for positively locating the axle. Part of this involved mechanical interference, part of it involved travel–limiting shims, and part of it involved assembling the main supporting members with prodigious torque on their fasteners. Space is very limited in the drivetrain area, and our tools selection afforded us no perfect choice for leverage. We resorted to two mechanics on the wrench simultaneously, one fore and one aft. Fingertips straining, proceeding in phases, we tightened the fasteners to the limit of our paired power.

While Pickle was still on jackstands, we test-ran the motor, then re-checked the drivetrain. The chain had loosened very slightly, so we took pains to readjust it. Then the belly pan went on, and we towed back to the start line.

Again our wait was short, and we pushed off within 30 minutes. This time she made a longer run, pulling well ahead and out of sight.

Over the radio, the timer read off the speed: 195mph in Mile Three! That’s 20mph faster than Pickle’s ever done before! The fourth mile was slower, though, and the driver pulled off before Five. This suggested another failure.

There was; or rather, there were two failures. Our driver said the motor’d ‘gone soft’ around the Mile Four mark, and then shortly after, the car developed a strong pull to the right. He cut the run early. We towed back to the pits, and Pickle went back up on jackstands. Before long the cause of the pulling was obvious: the outer CV joint on the left halfshaft was completely destroyed. Blackened, scarred parts were falling out of the CV cup. With that CV joint in pieces, the power axle had no connection to the left front wheel; and without both wheels taking the power through the axle, the car was undriveable.

One positive note was that the sprocket system was intact, and looked to be operating as intended.

But again the day was winding down, and again the parts situation was dire. Sprockets are, in some sense, generic or simple, such that a generalized factory can produce a wide range of them. Simplicity was what enabled our sprocket supplier to produce replacements while we waited. But the destroyed outer CV joint was a part built in 1964, in Sweden, from drawings and by machines long since retired. The relative obscurity of the SAAB 96 meant, also, that normal auto parts suppliers would not stock remanufactured units. We scoured the Internet again, and found one possible shop in Utah that might -might- have the vintage bit, but they weren’t answering the phone. It was getting late. The ‘lazy days of SpeedWeek’ had yet to materialize.

Without a CV joint, we were dead in the water.

Our brows knit, then someone hit on the solution: in Portland is a shop that (I daresay) specializes in SAAB 96s, and we had the owner’s personal cell phone number. While driving off the salt, we called him, and he immediately was on board. Yes, he had spare CV joints ready-to-go; yes, he had a special tool needed to install them; yes, he could create a video demonstrating the use of the tool for the tricky bits; and yes, he would dispatch his assistant to FedEx to overnight the parts and tool to us. The assistant called from the shipper, and we selected the best combination of delivery time and distance for us to drive. (dang, that’s lucky. -ed)

It was the best plan we had, and could perhaps work; but I deny 100% that any of us were ‘hopeful’ at that point.

And what about the motor softness? Had we started to cook some internal engine part, like an exhaust valve, or perhaps the turbocharger itself? That night in the hotel, we reviewed data on the engine softness, and tentatively diagnosed the problem as a displaced boost sensor hose (best case) or a failed sensor, or a split manifold, if we were less lucky.

Thursday
It felt like a repeat of Tuesday… two members drove toward the rising sun, east to Salt Lake CIty, aiming to reach FedEx at 9am and retrieve the package. The rest of the team hit the salt early to disassemble the broken joint from the wheel, and get ready to install the replacement. By noon, the parts were in the pits, and assembly commenced.

The relative fragility of the drive system under the increased power load demanded meticulous technique; things would barely hold together if everything was done perfectly – if anything wasn’t, it’s scrap time. But our time at SpeedWeek was leaking away; Thursday’s qualifying runs must be backed up Friday morning; and any qualifying runs accomplished Friday must be backed up that same day. Our cushion, our window for qualifying, was draining away. So we had to rush, but we could not rush.

There was a grim intensity in the work area.

A displaced boost sensor hose was found, and fixed. (dang, that’s lucky. -ed) The CV joint was on. No time now to test the system, we settled for listening for bad noises while towing the car to the starting line. There were none, just a smooth whirrr on the way. Again we waited but a short time for our run. The driver babied the car off the start, and the pushbar was hard against Pickle ’til 80mph. Then Pickle was away, accelerating strongly, and before we lost sight of her, a clear salt roostertail could be seen – the sign of good speed.

She went 205mph through Mile Five, 3mph better than the existing record.

We’d qualified for a run on the record the next morning; ’til then, we’d be confined to Impound. We towed in, finally, first time of the week, and spent a few hours charging batteries, refilling fluids, and adjusting the chain. When our allowed work-time was up, we drove off the salt in a mix of excitement and terror. This had been the first run of the week without a serious drivetrain failure. Would our ‘improved’ axle mounts hold up for another 200+ mph pass tomorrow?

Doubt is like the sea; it’s always there, and when it rises it may overwhelm thee.

Friday
We were at the edge of the salt in full darkness, part of a line of competitors who were likewise facing Record Runs. Around 6am the officials led us all out to Impound, and we warmed her engine, then hooked up to tow Pickle to the start.

We wanted to just face whatever would happen, and other folks were delaying, so we jumped ahead in line at their urging, and we were next.

Our fourth run of the week. The starting line checklist is more familiar now, check and double-check the harness and hood locks, get 100lbs of ice into the intercooler, pull the safety pins out of the parachute and halon fire extinguishers, and … ready to push.

Pickle’s motor, running rough and raspy below 8500rpm, cracks and snaps as the big Chevy push truck leans into the work. By 45mph Pickle’s ready, spinning both fronts as it pulls away from us. We dive off the track for the Return Road, chasing her on a parallel track toward Mile Five, and Pickle’s flying, roostertail up, receding from our vision, out of sight in moments.

The timer reads the splits of the measured miles:
Mile Two 173 … Mile Three 195 … Mile Four 208 …Mile Five 209 mph
cheering in the push truck


Throw the chute in the trunk, pin the fire bottles, let’s go to Technical Inspection and get this thing certified.

Knowing that one element required is an engine measurement, we swing by our pits to get a spark plug socket to enable that measurement. We approach Tech Inspection, then, from the pit side, not from the Return Road. Triumphantly, we pull up to the station; and then in two sentences our joy is shattered. We’ve violated a basic rule by leaving the Return Road. Our detour to the pits is disqualifying. An appeal is made, other evidence of our innocence offered, but to no avail: our record attempt is null and void.

We’re not the first to make this mistake, we’re told. The information packet handed out at registration makes the proper procedure clear; but none of our six people read it. At least two of us should simply know this, from experience; but in the excitement it did not come to mind.

The air seemed hollow. Our energy drained away, and self-consoling rationales began forming in our minds. I doubt any of the team believed that we had the necessary time to re-qualify by 11am, nor did any of us believe that the patched-up drivetrain could handle two more passes at record-breaking speed.

But bystanders — plus the Tech Inspectors themselves — believed otherwise. They encouraged us. One spoke of another team, normally requiring four hours of maintenance between runs, who this morning had no choice but to attempt a two-hour turnaround. We had never prepared our car in less than three hours, but … what choice did we have? Go home now?

We are wrung out, like a toothpaste tube that’s empty… or is there one more ribbon in there? Perhaps we should try.

In the pits, we renewed fluids and fuel, partly charged the batteries, ignored the state of the chain, packed the chute, and made it to the starting line. We’d have to qualify at at least 203mph to be granted a record attempt. The motor was still warm, which shortened our preparation. The starting official was gracious and positive. We ran the checklist by the book, pins and belts and PUSH OFF!

Still raspy, Pickle rode the Chevy’s pushbar ’til 50mph, then surged away. The announcer didn’t understand why we were so quickly running again, and dithered on the radio… Meanwhile, Pickle’s got a roostertail, go baby go go go.

Through Mile Five, pulling strong, 206mph … a qualifying speed.

Now down at the end of the course, driver’s already stowed the ‘chute in the trunk, we have little time to waste. Driver says the car ran straight and strong and true. Up the Return Road and into the Impound Area, directly, with no deviations. Now we must again turn this car, get it ready for another pass in a couple hours.

The generator roars, powering the battery charger. We jack her up and pull the belly pan. Chain’s just slightly loose, one 32nd of a turn on the adjustment bolt. Fill the tank with A8-D, a $30/gallon racing gasoline that smells like … I dunno, but it smells powerful. Our turbo boost line is still secure. The datalogs say all systems are go.

The sun is positively blazing, throwing sharp edged dark shadows. Any shade or shielding is a godsend. Re-pack the chute, leads and lines stretched out on the white crust of impound. Can we look at…? No, we are out of time, and must run in the state we’re in.

A handful of qualified cars line up for the tow to the start. The course will close in an hour, the end of Speed Week.

At the line, the remaining spectators gaggle up, pulling for our chances, smiling at the gamble. Perhaps they don’t know it’s a gamble, they don’t know what we know, now, about pillow block bearings and CV joints and the special swaging it takes for a 530XWV2 chain’s master link; they don’t know about 2017’s humiliating 142mph runs. They don’t know about 2013’s burned valve, 2014’s rain-out of the whole meet, the poor salt of 2015, the chagrin of our disqualification five hours ago. We feel these things, and the effort has engaged us totally.

Push truck’s behind and touching, electrical umbilical’s hooked up. Pickle starts and is warming up. Checklist says pull the fire bottle pins out, parachute pin out, intercooler ice poured in, get the cameras running. Driver’s inch-thick fireproof suit is fastened, seven-point harness rigged, window net up; pull out the auxiliary muffler. rummm rummm rummm goes to RUMP RUMP RUMP. Ready to start.

The official gives us the course.

The Chevy push truck has a 496 cubic inch V8, and we pull off the line smoothly then I bury the throttle. Pickle’s so high geared it won’t pull its own weight ’til at least 45mph, so it’s riding the pushbar, pointed at the horizon, starting now to sound more alive, drone turning to a howl as it rips away from the truck and is on its own.

The crew is silent as we hurtle down the Return Road chasing Pickle. The announcer’s been clued in to our plight, though he avoids mention of our rule violation, and he’s keenly tracking the timing numbers. There’s a delay, possibly while he calculates the average velocity, then he delivers the result: a new land speed record in H-engine-size Blown Fuel Altered.

In the push truck, we snap from silent to loudly giddy, amazed that we recovered from our disqualification, amazed that our field repairs held, amazed, really, that the serious breakages we had Monday and Wednesday were even repairable on the Salt. So many things that could have failed … did not.

At the end of the course, there stands the driver. He has no speedometer, but he does have a big tachometer, and he knew if it made 9800rpm through a mile that’d be enough. He knows.

We towed … where? Directly to Tech Inspection. Directly.

The motor size was verified and the record, certified. We were the last car to make a run at Speed Week 2018.

The Festival Of Motorcycling

I went to the Isle Of Man to watch some motorcycle races. 

These were not the (in)famous ‘Tourist Trophy’ (TT) races; those were held earlier this year, as they’ve been ‘most every year since 1907. The IOM TT races are contested by the best young & fearless talent, on the latest & fastest two-wheeled machinery. The IOM TT is billed variously as ‘The World’s Ultimate Road Race’ (by the promoters) and as ‘one of the most dangerous racing events in the world’ (by knowledgable observers). A few moments spent on youTube can demonstrate the IOM TT’s essential character: ludicrous speed on narrow roads lined with trees and stone walls. Full-course average speeds are around 135mph.

The TT is iconic, but for me as a spectator, kind of one-dimensional. The motorcycles all look and sound and perform alike. You’ve got to check the number as it goes by to know one from another. I don’t have a favorite rider to cheer for, and I lack the long term association with the race that would make me keen to follow the tiny differences.

The other races held on the island, the ones I attended, were the Manx Grand Prix and the Classic TT. The first of these is essentially a qualifier for riders hoping to graduate to the TT; bikes are somewhat smaller and somewhat slower, and the competition is a bit — just a bit — looser. That makes for a funner pit – riders and mechanics may occasionally smile and joke, which I doubt you see at the TT. And the second of the races is a distinct animal altogether.

The ‘Classic TT’ is populated with older bikes. The motorcycles were manufactured as old as the 1950s and as new as the 1980s. There’s a tremendous variety of sounds, sights, styles — a veritable cornucopia of mechanical expression. The set as a whole describes the evolution of racing motorcycles, with the path of improvement laid out in physical examples rather than pictures or text. And not ‘as seen in museums’, though many examples are collection-quality; these are here to race.

They’re sometimes piloted by modern stars, but more often by vintage riders who won various TT classes back in the day. From my experience, neither the older technology nor the sometimes older riders lead to a lessening of commitment. The fastest of the Classic TT are circling the course at around 120mph average.

The ‘TT course’ is a linking of four main roads on the island. The A2, southbound through downtown Douglas; west on the A1 to Ballacraine Corner; the A3 to Kirkmichael and north to Ramsey; and then the A18 up across Snaefell Mountain back to Douglas. It’s 37.75 miles in length. During practice, or the races, officials close all of it to other traffic. Practices are 2-to-3 laps; races are 2-to-4 laps. That makes the Classic TT Final about eighty minutes long. It’s hard for me to imagine the level of focus and concentration that’d take.

I went to IOM with two long-time motorcycling partners: Scary Don Siewert, and my younger brother Anton. I’ve ridden with both of these guys for decades. They’re not stodgy, but they’re not psycho. Well, Don used to be psycho, but he’s mellowed. I trust ’em. On Friday, Saturday, and Monday mornings, before breakfast, the three of us made a lap of the TT course. Each time we climbed the summit of the mountain portion, treacherous gusty winds pushed us around on the road. There were painted stripes (slippery!) and iron drain grates (disturbing!) throughout. The off-camber shaded twisties near Glen Helen always seemed moist. So many blind corners… we all knew IOM’s reputation, and these circuits did nothing but cement that reputation in our minds. We were running at, or somewhat above, the speed limit, as the roads weren’t closed, and it took us 58 minutes to make the round. The Classic TT racers were doing it in ~22 minutes.

The course was fascinating, the whole island scenic, and the practices and races entertaining; but the high points for us came from the stupefying range of motorcycles there. Some that none of us had ever seen, and some in great profusion in the amusing presence of so.many.clubs dedicated to such-and-such odd model. There were twelve riders from Sweden who’d come over on their BSA A65s (none newer than 1966). There were the similarly Scandinavian fans of Kawasaki W650s and W800s, motorcycles rare in the U.S.A. but quite a cult classic elsewhere, judging from the hordes of ’em swarming the paddock – each bike customized to suit the owner’s individual preferences. The Ducatis travelled in packs, we saw clutches of older grey-haired couples running about on tiny minibikes like cheerful Hells Angels, the Triumph Bonnevilles were strewn about four to each corner. PLUS the Benellis and Guzzis and holy shit a Harris-framed GS1000, there’s a knot of Greeves, every kind of motor wedged into Norton frames, with tank badges hinting at the type of hybrid: Harton for a sportster engine; VInton for a BlackShadow mill; a big Yamaha V-Twin with the engine case ident polished off in another.

There were sidecars and race bikes and a chopper, I think. There were roving bands of dual-sport riders ‘scrambling’; there were all the latest fastest hyperbikes with their intense owners. There were older two-strokes so heavily customized and updated that only the core of the original remained. And this whole soup of two-wheelers was in constant motion about the island, heading to the museums, working up the back roads to reach a viewing spot on the course, filling the restaurants and inns, every parking lot an impromptu motorcycle show, most every conversation one about the elegant mode of motion which depends on balance and grace, and the crafted mechanisms that enable it.

There are precious few ‘appliance’ motorcycles. The notion of vehicles-of-anonymous-utility does not mesh well with the gentle art of cycling; what would be the point? 

Motorcycles move you in both the physical world and in the inner sanctum. We were moved. And then we came home.

I must say that, sadly, not all of the racers did come home. Even at the Manx GP and Classic TT, the stakes are high, and the penalty for failure is severe.

The TT Course

Or “The Mountain Course”, is a 37.75 mile clockwise loop through four towns, six or ten villages, half-a-dozen roundabouts (taken straight), and a windy wild climb up – and down – a soaring road over the spine of the island.

For the racers, every straight of any length is a chance to gain a slice of a second. If you’re not, the others will. Speeds around the whole are running near 120mph average.

We ran it this morning, before breakfast for a clearer route, and I’d forgotten the first mile by Union Mills.

Have you got it yet?

There’s an apocryphal story about Syd Barrett pranking his band mates by ‘teaching’ them a new song. Every time through the melody he’d change it just a little bit. They thought they were just a little out of practice, or something, they wouldn’t have blamed Syd. After twenty or so slightly – slightly– different repetitions, they wised up. The story says that was the last straw for that incarnation of the band, ’cause no one trusted Syd anymore.

A couple years ago, I wanted a way to close (or open) my garage door via an SMS message. I got the hardware side of things hooked up, using an Internet service that turns SMS messages into webservice calls, and it worked as simple as you please. Text ‘Open door’ to the Internet service, and poof! Up she goes. It even works if you’re two states away.

But I thought it’d be nice to put a simpler face on it, so I built a basic ‘app’ for my Android smartphone. In the background, all the app did was send text messages, but in the foreground:

That’s a picture of the front of the house. Well, actually, it’s three separate pictures: the upper portion (above the doors) is a single image, and then each of the doors down below is its own image. The door images are wired (through the app) so that when you touch one of the doors, it sends the appropriate SMS messsage, and the door on that side should open … or close, depending on where it was when you started. Neat!

I took some severe shortcuts building the app. Normally coders need to account for all kinds of different size screens on phones, so the images they display need to be ‘scalable’ and ‘responsive’ to different screens. Lucky me: Renee’s phone had the same size screen as mine, so a single set of images worked on both fones. The app kept working after we each replaced our phones, because the screens were still the same size!

But around July of this year, the app on Renee’s phone began looking different.

There’s a white margin at the top of the screen, and a white box around the lower images, and it was a lot harder to hit the correct ‘button’ when you wanted a door to move. I thought maybe the app had been corrupted on her phone, so I reloaded it. No difference. Gotta dig deeper. I started up the ‘interactive development environment’ used for building Android smartphone apps, and I had to wade through two dozen “Update available!” messages. At first I tried to ignore the messages, as the previous version of the IDE operated just fine – but a little later I caught the IDE ‘updating’ code anyway. And it wasn’t just updating itself – it was updating the code that I’d written.

The version of the app built with the updated IDE behaved the same on Renee’s phone. More digging, thank Alphabet there’s google. What’s this? Samsung pushed a new version of the Android software to its (well, her) phone in July, and that new version changed the resolution on the screen from ‘quadHD’ to ‘fullHD’. Without asking, even: the manufacturer knows best. So I found the setting and restored the resolution to ‘quadHD’.

Now the app crashes on her phone. The debug messages complain about failing to allocate a huge chunk of memory. Back to the google. What’s this? The Android coding standards say that if you are using images at a fixed resolution, they can’t be stored in the coding project where they used to be. The images must instead be stored over in this other directory.

So I moved ’em, and rebuilt the app. The app works now! (just as it used to).

The pattern for the Android core software and the IDE seems to be: Make slight changes, subtle changes, every single day. For folks who aren’t building apps every single day, there’s no way to keep up. You’re always chasing problems that come out of nowhere. This is the same pattern that Microsoft displayed with successive versions of .NET and the rest of the Windows development stack: change, tweak, change, tweak, change…

When Syd did it, we thought he was malicious.

10,000 miles in a month

Targa Newfoundland 2016
This rally* started, for us, eighteen months ago. That’s when the illustrious Frank McKinnon roped us into his scheme to run Targa “while it’s still around”.

Now Frank’s done a lot of rallies – from AlCan to the modern Carrera Panamerica – and even more racing. He’s also helped organize big motorsports events, having run tech for the Silver State Classic in recent years. Frank’s the most “in the loop” racing guy I know. So when Frank said, “This is the year to go to Newfoundland – John and I are entered, so we can help each other out there”, we heard the knock of opportunity and answered the door.

We’re not Targa racers, though – we’re time-speed-distance ralliers. Our cars don’t have roll cages; instead, they have high-precision odometers and lots of clocks. Good thing, then, that Targa Newfoundland includes a time-speed-distance division, called ‘Grand Touring’ (or just GT). We signed up for the 2015 event, and started working on the logistics of getting to, and competing on, Newfoundland.

That visit was a roller-coaster of dashed hopes, tiny satisfactions, thwarted efforts, wild hopes, and ultimately a narrowly-won victory for us. Part of the problem was that we brought the wrong car, a station wagon, and part of the problem was that we brought the wrong habits.

It was an all-wheel-drive wagon, with powerful brakes and stable handling – but it just didn’t have the giddiup we needed. Time-speed-distance events in the Pacific Northwest run on open roads, which keeps the speeds down. Targa runs on closed roads, and the speeds are brisk. Hell, they’re more than brisk, even for the GT class. In 2015, I spent more time with the gas pedal pressed flat to the floor than not.

Our habits, also tuned to PNW-style events, emphasize being ‘on time, all the time’. You daren’t run too far ahead of perfect time lest some unseen control charge you points for your early arrival. But Targa’s different; the sections have very few intermediate controls, and their finish lines are frequently set after a series of twisty, often blind, often wet, curves. If you are on-time at the start of that series, then you’ll be late into the finish. Targa Newfoundland must be run like a Monte Carlo style rally, and we didn’t figure that out ‘til mid-week last year.

The overall Targa experience so stunned us – especially the final result – that we put ourselves on the entry list for 2016. We were seeking clarity, and closure, and a kind of proof that we earned the 2015 win, and didn’t just stumble into it when others faltered. So we were in St. John’s this year as a direct result of Frank’s call to action last Spring.

And this time, we brought a Porsche.

* a ‘rally’, generally, is a motoring competition carried out on roads (either closed or open) versus occuring on a track or course. The essence of rally is variation and surprise, versus perfecting a lap around a racetrack.

Getting There – And Back Again
Targa’s a full week of competition, but first you’ve got to reach the province. Since our car lives in Portland, Oregon, getting the car to the ferry dock in Nova Scotia takes another six days, minimum. And the ferry ride is 14 hours more… The trip home’s a hard seven days.

Our time-off-work allotments were already strained, and we couldna’ afford to make two cross-country road trips in a single month. It was easy, though, to find a couple willing to drive the Carrera 4, expenses paid, across the United States. We also found a volunteer to drive it back – all the way from Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America – in the first person we asked.

Aside from car preparation, which occupied every free weekend in June and July, our part in this play started when we flew to Boston, and met the couple who’d driven east. They were perfectly on time, the handoff was seamless, and we ran the 996 up to Portland, Maine, the same evening. Then things took an unexpected turn. First, ZZ Top was playing on the pier, and Portland was packed with people. The pubs’d run out of cod, so no Fish-n-Chips to be found. More disturbing, the ferry we’d booked from Maine to Nova Scotia for the next day was cancelled – for high swells – and we’d have to drive ‘round through New Brunswick instead.

The cancellation was inconvenient, but not a real threat to our schedule. In the maritimes you’re always at the mercy of the weather, and we’d built in extra time. Still, as we cruised up the Bay Of Fundy on Labor Day, we heard rumblings about the ‘tail of the hurracaine’ that’d raised the swell, and began to worry. What if our second ferry, two days hence, from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, would likewise trapped at the dock by heavy seas?

So we ran like chickens for the ferry dock, hoping to catch an earlier run while the waves allowed the passage. That we did, though we had to take the shorter cruise to Newfoundland, which leaves you on the sou’west edge of The Rock. Next day, we faced a 900km drive to St. John’s.

By the way – when you’re on the Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) from Port-aux-Basque, and you see a sign that says the town ahead is 220km away, you’ll think, “Okay, I’m going 110kph, so it’s two hours away”. Not when there are 6km long ‘construction zones’, posted at 50kph, every 30km. I don’t begrudge the Newfies doing road improvements during the short summer, but I think the construction zones might have started and stopped a bit closer to the bridges.

How’s It Going?
Soon after we left Boston, I noticed that the Porsche’s steering wheel was vibrating on the highway. The car has a lot of road feel – it’s one of its strengths – but this I was something else. The vibes lessened at lower speed and on smoother roads, but it felt wrong. I tried to reason out the cause while driving headlong to the east. The wheels were unmarked, and the tires near new. I was afraid it was a failing wheel bearing; I even started thinking about how to change it on the island… since there’s no Porsche dealer, the parts’d have to come from elsewhere, …call Porsche dealer in the US, get ‘em ordered, have our service guy pick them up before he flew out to meet us, AND figure out how to do the work on the only possible day, a Saturday, without a shop…. Brrrr, still makes me shudder.

I did not mention my fears to the co-driver ’cause she’d worry.

As it turned out, the vibration was just wheels out of balance. The fronts were each off by more than an ounce. Onward!

Saturday – Tech
Targa’s organizers arranged for a beautiful facility this year. The building had copious parking and 4 spacious work bays. The inspection process was tremendously more orderly than 2015, and all the cars were cleared by 4 p.m. We were done in the morning, even, and had time to install the special Lucas oil.

Well, the oil itself was just good 0w-40 synthetic. What made it special was that Lucas gave us a dozen liters since we’d entered the Lucas Oil Challenge (more on that later). Our support guy, Larry, and I took the oil, a filter, a copper washer, and a filter wrench to a local service station to get it in the engine. The service station wouldn’t let me use the lift; the best concession I got was to stand nearby while the ‘Technician’ did the work.

It was going reasonably well, even when the tech used a Torx bit on the drain plug (which calls for an Allen bit). But then there was the problem with the counting. The M96 motor holds 8.75 liters with a filter change, and the tech dutifully poured bottle after bottle in, stopping short on the last one. He returned two full bottles and the partial one, and was getting ready to take the car off the lift. But the math wasn’t working out…

Yes, he’d overfilled the engine by a quart: it wanted 8.75l, he put in 9.75l. l pointed out that only 2-point-something quarts were left from the twelve, and he reached the same conclusion after a minute. Then … he ‘removed’ the excess oil by pulling the drain plug, spilling the fresh oil into the catch-pan, ‘til he guessed that a liter’d come out. This quicker than we could stop him.

Support guy Larry was incredulous; I was just looking for the quickest way to escape with the car. I double-checked the drainplug torque, paid the bill, and we skedaddled. So, yeech. But the oil was in the engine.

In a questionable move, the Targa organizers didn’t release the GT Class Target Times & Speeds books before the event. Those books were only handed out at registration. The result was that the GT class navigators had no free evenings for the majority of the event; they spend each night doing time calculations for the upcoming days.

Sunday – Prologue
The delayed delivery of the Target Times and Speeds book kept my co-driver up late Saturday night doing the math. At registration, we’d also been handed a page of routebook corrections, including changes both within stages and to the order of stages. Such corrections need to be entered in the routebook, but some novice crews didn’t realize their importance. “Just one more piece of paper…”, I suspect.

On Prologue Day, the GT class runs in car-number order. That sorted us behind two other cars with lower numbers, both of which at least had previous Targa Newfoundland experience. Having those trailblazers eased our nervousness. Getting into the Targa rhythm takes a while – and not only for us; the stage & timing crews are working out the kinks, too.

Pretty quickly we realized that, like last year, the clock synchronization was spotty. For Targa cars, it’s no big deal if successive stages’ clocks aren’t on the same beat. In the Targa classes, each stage’s time stands alone: there are no ‘road points’ between stages, nor scheduled service check-in times, nor ATCs. So each stage only requires that its Start and Finish clocks agree.

In GT class, however, each stage might have extra timing controls, mid-stage. GT cars take penalty points if they’re off-time at those mid-course controls. So for us, all the clocks – start, finish, and the intermediate controls’ clocks – need to be synchronized. There there’s some evidence that they’re not all syncronized, and it’s the intermediate controls that most worried us, because there’s no way for us, passing at speed, to know what time is on that clock.

But time, you know, is not first priority in TSD. Good performance in time-speed-distance rally comes from following three rules:
#1 Stay on the road.
If you slide into a ditch or nose into a tree, you may not even finish.
#2 Stay on the route.
A missed turn will force you to back-track, and you lose time both ways. With competition tight, a single deviation can keep you off the podium.
#3 Stay on time.

Once you’ve taken care of #1 and #2, the real work begins. You have to match the official mileage, AND you have to calculate as the rallymaster did. Getting mileage right requires precise measuring devices and keen attention to their fidelity. Your rally odometer must be adjustable, both for initial calibration as well as for on-stage corrections. If the route was measured on a wet day at 30kph, and you’re running on a dry day at 90kph, you’ll notice.

Our odometer calibration wasn’t bad, but we weren’t the most precise team on prologue day. By the end of the day, we were barely in the top half of the field.  A couple of other cars were briefly off course on Sunday, not having made the corrections to the routebook.

Monday – Leg 1

Our pitiful precision in the prologue had us 5th car on the road.

We were directly behind a fully-original 1981 MGB. Do you know what motivates an ‘81 MGB?  About 80 horsepower when it was new. We thought we’d catch the MG during a stage, and we did – but not until the last, long section of the day. In the short sections, the doctor (a G.P.) who was driving kept the little roadster well out of sight.

Leg 1 started on the same stage as last year, two runs through a short, narrow, country lane-and-a-half, dropping down to run along a harbor wall, rising around a church, and finishing with a chicane assembled from a triangle of bridges. Short, tight, concrete bridges. Last year, a wicked pothole in the chicane took out one of the favored Targa cars on the first run-through. Bam! Broken ball joint in the first hour of a week-long competition.  No such bad luck this year, everyone made it through cleanly.

Renee and I were taking advantage of the 12-second timing window on Monday morning, trying to run a bunch ahead. Keenly watching for Intermediate Timing Controls, we were hashing out our in-car communications. How should the corners be called, When, What ack should be given, How do we handle emergencies, the lot. Targa generates different in-car messages than any other rally we do.

Next two stages were an in-and-out pair; the out, Turk’s Gut,  was also the scene of first-day retirements last year. In this context, ‘retirement’ means “crashed so hard the cars didn’t come back ‘til Thursday”. I feared someone might crash this year, because the same dreadful off-camber jog over crest was in the stage, and excitement was building in all the cars as we got a taste of the rally.  Happily, all cars came through to lunch at Brigus Town Hall.

In the early p.m., more short-ish stages. Speeds were pretty high, considering we were driving through neighborhoods, but it being Monday, not as high as they’d be later in the week. The rally was running a bit behind as we got to the final pair of stages in Leg 1. This was another mirror set, where all the cars run “in” to a turnaround point – often at the water’s edge – and then regroup for a reverse run “out”. Last year, these were the stages that showed us the pace required for Targa. In 2015, in a driving rain, we ran late into the finish of both.

This year, we brought more power, more brakes, more handling, and (I hope) more skill.

When the road’s yours alone, from shoulder to shoulder, and the next curve’s still some tenths away, the pipes wail tremalo and the digits roll up on the speedo. You know the pads and rotors and fluid are fresh, the middle pedal’s got your back, there when you need it. Brake early because you should, slow in and fast out, open asphalt again and nail it…

Huh; caught up already. Okay, run just a little up – and that’s how we finished the ‘in’ run.

At the turnaround, waiting, we were baffled by the appearance of the Fast Tour Lamborghini before all the GT cars are in. If anybody’d gone off, we’d have heard about it, and we hadn’t. But… then how could the following class already be finishing?

Well, Lamborghini. And Fast Tour has no ‘early penalty’ – they do have a $$ penalty for exceeding the class’s MaxSpeed, but that might not dissuade some folks. If you’re in a Lambo and your Support Car is a Ferrari, $$ probably seems like ₵₵. The pilot passed everyone in front of him in Fast Tour, and then started passing the GT cars.

The MGB’s navigator is another doctor, a gastroenteroligist. His eyes are a bit wide, reflecting the torrid pace required to make the end-time. Then he released a confessional stream of self-diagnosis regarding sphincter control and et., reducing Renee to tears of laughter.

On the outbound leg, the sun’s setting, and a couple of crests are facing a blazing Sol. We caught the MGB on this run, and had to go around ‘em. My first passing attempt corresponded with them cresting a rise into that blinding sunset, and – unaware of our presence – the driver carved toward the left of a coming corner and I had to dive to the edge of the road, on the brakes. The next attempt, once he knew we were there, was clean. And the Porsche again made running on time possible.

Tuesday – Leg 2:  The Lambo Passes Everybody

First I have to fix something.  Above, I said:

Monday – Leg 1
Our pitiful precision in the prologue had us 5th car on the road.

But the Keeper Of The Records has corrected me. Here’s what actually happened:  On the first Prologue run, through the ‘Flatrock’ stage, there was a scoring error for the finish control.

The first car on the road – first car through the finish control – didn’t get a time for the stage (it was blank).  The second car on the road got a time that looked a lot like the time the first car should have had; and we, the third car on the road, got a time that looked a lot like what the second car should have had. Then, behind us on the scoring sheet was an extra-large window of time with no car…
and then the fourth car on the road had a sensible time, and so did the rest of the cars.

One plausible explanation is that the control crew saw the number of the first car on the road (1002), and figured that meant Car 2 on the scoresheet,so skipped the first line. They’d have been confused when the number on the next car was 1007, but they wrote it down on the next line, then they realized it was all wonky, and took a breath to catch up. By the time the fourth car approached, they had a grip and finished the set.

I describe that as ‘plausible’ because I’ve had similar feelings while working controls. 🙂 There’s a lot of pressure, man!

We didn’t see the scores for Prologue ’til the starting order was already set for Monday, so we didn’t have a chance to ‘inquire’ about it.  And it being Prologue, not scored, it was an essentially harmless error — except that it sorted us further down the field for Monday, but as you’ve already read, that turned out okay.

We now rejoin our Tuesday tale:
Around 6:45 a.m., we reached the arena and checked the notice board. Results showed us with 37 seconds of error, assigned by an ITC on the fourth stage of the previous day. The ITC scored the first four cars close to their perfect times, then scored each of the following cars at roughly 30 seconds late. Amazing coordination, I thought, all those cars deciding to run half-a-minute off, just past the intermediate control, but catching back up by the end. 🙂 It seemed like a clear pattern, so we prepared an inquiry – only to be told that inquiries had to be in by 7pm of the preceding day.

That was plainly impossible in this case, because the scores hadn’t even been posted ’til 2am. We’d have had to see the future to protest a score that wasn’t even available yet – but the organizers wanted to have rules and stick to them. Our competitor relations officer took the inquiry anyway, after acknowledging the nuttiness of the rule.

That big score (25 after accounting for the 12-second window) kept us sorted down the starting order for this day. In the morning, we passed the MGB on an inbound stage, easy and clean, then convinced ’em to let us precede them on the way out. A trio of new-to-Targa stages in the afternoon had some silly-slow CASTs for GT, boring for us and boring for the spectators; but behind us the Fast Tour and Targa cars put on a better show.

And then longest stage of the week: 26km, Grand Le Pierre Out.

Our CAST for most of it was 105, easy to make on the gently curving road. Our GT guru, Craig, had warned us about a deceptive acute turn coming down into Terranceville, and we were thinking about that when I saw the Lambo coming up. He’d started at least four minutes behind us, but we were stuck at CAST and he … wasn’t. We moved over and away he went, no bother at all. The pilot was polite and careful whenever I saw him, by the way.

But his Fast Tour compatriots had caught on to his methods, and were likewise trying to fly. A new bimmer went by, on a straight outside town, and then we were approaching the deceptive acute.

Almost a hairpin, really, left and uphill with the main road continuing straight but taped off. There were hundreds of spectators there, and a good place to watch: car after car locked the brakes, or slid through the turn, or overshot and had to reverse — that that corner was full of crazed drama.

Our CAST had dropped, and prepared by Craig’s warning we were set up well for the hairpin, taking a wide line, trying to stay close to on-time throughout – when a Dodge Magnum wagon launched off the hill behind us, carrying too much speed, squirmed and lurched its way toward the inner ditch, and bulled its way inside us at the point of the hairpin. Our setup and wide line let us give way, and they managed to get it together and make the corner. Coulda been bad – plenty of skilled drivers flat missed that turn, and the Magnum could have easily taken us out.

This was a Fast Tour car, mind: they were running ‘for fun’. But we were competing: we needed to hold the CAST. Either they didn’t know or they didn’t care about their disruption. Renee was sharpening her hatchet, because thoughtlessness like that is a serious offense with her.

About .8 km later we reached the Flying Finish and zeroed it. And about 10 seconds after I parked the car the Magnum boys were at her window apologizing for the event. So there was no harm done, in the end, and no blood spilled.

As I said, lots of chaos in that corner. Here the Mini’s trailing red tape from having overshot something.  We wondered about the wisdom of placing Fast Tour behind GT this year. T’was the reverse last year.  Maybe it fits with another Targa practice: they line the Targa cars up slow-to-fast (whoever’s got the fewest penalties starts last). This means, if you’re a Targa car, there’s a good chance that a slower car (one which can’t make the target times) is in front of you.  So you may catch them on-course.

Wednesday – Leg 3

At the arena in the morning, our penalty from Monday’s been erased, so we’re sitting at zero penalty for the week, tied with a couple teams. Our car number’s lower than the folks we’re tied with, which would normally see us first on the road. But the starting order still has us mid-pack. There’d been several revisions to the standings on the previous evening as scores came in and inquires were accepted, and the registrar didn’t update the start order after the second revision. I guess he’s got to sleep sometime.

We were ahead of the MGB, at least – and we don’t mind running quiet and deep like a barracuda versus first car on the road.

The previous evening, we’d looked up the actual rule on Submissibility of Inquiries, and turns out there are two types of Inquries. A ‘posted scores’ inquiry is allowed on the following day, so our submission was legit. The officials were reading the wrong paragraph on Tuesday when they said it was late.  Are you getting the sense that part of the navigator’s job at Targa is double-double checking the scores and fixing any issues? Yesss…

Yeech: big off in the morning. We went through the Leffbridge stage before the Targa folks, naturally, and we noticed a surprising crest/left/right that wasn’t in the routebook. Good Guys Max & Wayne, in a fast Evo, flew off the crest, off the road, and into the perpendicular rocky gulch and culvert.

They were pretty much okay – the navigator came back later in the week in another car – but the incident cancelled the second running of the stage, and a second  routebook error (missing instructions) sent us the wrong way on the succeeding transit. We recovered in time for the next series, one of the best in Targa week.

Trouty takes you back and forth over a finger of land, wrapping up around a little bay, and flows right into downtown’s tiny streets and alleys. Service crews are already in town; this is one of the few places they actually get to spectate. The final 20 corners are good for lots of giggles. But you’ve got to hustle – so many tight 90s that making the CAST means WFO throttle anywhere you can. The flat six roars through the houses, tires howl, locked up brakes throw stones on the final straight after the Flying Finish.  And when your heart slows down, the weather’s grand, it’s sunny and pleasant in Trinity town.

After lunch, the route’s reversed, and the speed’s raised. How different things are from the other direction! What looked wide and wonderful is a rough track, the tiny crest is a monster downhill. Somehow it’s rained here, but not in town? Why so wet? Welcome To Newfoundland

We’re feeling more at ease today. We’ve done the next four stages before, last year, and don’t expect trouble. Early afternoon has Champeys/English Harbour, just clock sync issues to fight. At the turnaround, though, the leading GT team sounds supremely confident. worry worry starts againAnd we made two runs through Port Rexom  (Wrecks ‘Em). The roads are horribly rough, looks to have no maintenance in a year – and they were bad in 2015. We bottom out, lightly, twice; but everyone bottoms out. There’ll be some plastic surgery for other cars tonight.

They’re talking about snow tomorrow. Really?

Thursday – Leg 4
Up early for breakfast with Service Crew Larry, still full dark as we hit the Tim Horton’s. Though it’s cold, there’s no snow. But the wind’s puffing, and one in three puffs brings bits of water with. Is it a bluff, or a hint? Have to wait and see… Newfoundland sits in the North Atlantic, right in it. If the weather turns bad, there’s lots of energy in the sea to power a fit.

At the arena, we’re still starting third on the road. Odd – we’re tied with two other cars at zero points, and our car number’s lowest so we should be first on the road. Looks like the final sort of the spreadsheet (to set position) was omitted before printing. But – again – we smile, and swim quietly in the back.

On the way to the first stage, the weather shows its hand. Gonna be cold rain and wind, we’re in single digit Celsius temperatures. At a gas stop, the locals are talking snow again. The clouds overhead are clamping down, fighting for the chance to be lowest.

Thursday a.m. has the highest degree of road repetition we’ve seen. Stage 4-1 goes out from the highway to a fishing village; 4-2 comes back; 4-3 goes back in to the village; and 4-4 comes back again. The first 800 meters is paved, straight, with only a hump halfway along. Somehow that’s enough to throw a Targa-class Miata off the road. The tree stumps in the clearings along the asphalt rearrange the Mazda’s suspension and it’s done.

Targa’s central theme – that the times get tougher to make as the week goes on – is easy to grasp, intellectually, in theory, in the warm quiet kitchens around North America where the Targa drivers and co-drivers imagine how they’ll respond. It’s different in real life. Even though you’ve run 30 stages on Monday-Wednesday, and even when the co-driver reminds you of cold tires, and even if you’re leading your class (as I believe the Miata was)… the lines between controlling the car, and influencing the car, and losing it are hard to see.

Then on to Keels, stages burned into memory from last year for their wicked tightening in the last km., both on the inbound run and on the outbound run. We’re in Grand Touring, remember – we can’t be way, way ahead as we approach the finish, because an Intermediate Timing Control can be anywhere. We almost took points coming into the finish, because I ignored my own recce instruction to have ‘four in hand’ at the outskirts of town. I didn’t have four, the road got tight, and only 300+ horsepower and AWD got us to the end within the window.

A little vignette… waiting at the cove for the last of the Targa cars to come in, everything stopped; a resident had just gone into labor, and the Sweep truck escorted an ambulance into town & back out. Thumbs up from the patient on the stretcher, and we heard later that mother and child were healthy.

Preparing to come out of Keels, the rain’s solid and slanting, drenching the workers and the timing equipment. The start clock displayed Klingon. The christmas tree countdown was mixing random colors including green, and at the two second mark by our clock the worker wanted me to roll down the window so they could tell me about gravel on the road at 2.9km.

We left late, but zeroed the end control. A frustrating morning. On to lunch.. an hour behind schedule at least.

The soup-and-sandwich feast in the historic building contrasted so greatly with the cold misery outside that we tarried – all of us – and a bit of lateness became a lot.  Realize, you, that all these stages are on closed public roads, and the afternoon’s sessions were laid out through coastal towns. The local marshals would have been at work for hours taping off intersections and managing traffic, in a wet windy hell of an afternoon.

The afternoon was a bust. There were five stages planned:

  • Melrose – cancelled for time reasons, all cars transited through to the disappointment of the handful of locals watching.
  • Trinity Bay North 1 – skipped for time
  • Trinity Bay North 2 – was run, was fun, even with the local that pulled out right in front of another GT car
  • Little Catalina In & Out – cancelled. The roads were not taped (or tape had been blown down). More disappointed spectators and competitors.

It’s too bad we didn’t run Trinity Bay twice, as it turned out – but the condition of Little Catalina wasn’t known ’til we’d spent the time lining up and sending the Road Closed Car in. So we ran just one stage after lunch, then a longish transit back to the arena.

Scores already up! We were docked a 7 early at the end of Trinity Bay North 2, and that weren’t right.

I saw the score, but I was already working on another inquiry at a side table. Then Renee saw it, and she sent me seven text messages in nine minutes. Together, we investigated, and quick diagnosis by my navvie revealed the Perfect Time they scored to was wrong. The routebook’s perfect elapsed time, 3:23, had been transposed to 3:32. That’s a nine second shift. With that corrected, our time was within the grace window for a zero, so this inquiry was a simple one.

Our chief competitors, experienced and talented ralliers, were running in first position today. They had a few points from ITCs. They also had a massive hit on the section where the civilian pulled out, ’cause the civilian pulled out right in front of them. That penalty would go away, but we thought the two and four points they hade at ITCs were probably earned.

They commented on something: if one looked only at the raw scores at ITCs, we were consistently running closer to zero than they were.

It’s the A-box rally computer letting us do that. The Timewise 798A gives the driver on-time feedback multiple times a second. We’d done some late braking for ITCs when we were early, but the GPS-driven average speed display they’re using has too much lag to let them finesse those mid-stage points. They’re probably better at zeroing the end points than us, but so far our finish line errors are within the allowed window.

We went to bed expecting to be at zero points for the week.

Friday – Leg 5

We’ll get to Friday’s action, but first, one correction for Thursday’s report. I said, about our chief competitors,

   “… we think the two and four points they have at ITCs are probably earned. “

but I’ve realized that – just like us – they were probably victims of timing or scoring inaccuracies. The driver said they had in-car video of their runs, and that that evidence supported their claims of zeroing the ITCs. That same sage also said,

  “We’ll wait and see if it makes a difference tomorrow before we contest those scores.”

That’s wisdom, there; if we took a load of honest points on Friday, their erroneous penalties on Thursday might be small by comparison. And vice-versa – if they took a load of honest points on Friday (and we didn’t), there again the questionable penalties of Thursday just wouldn’t matter.

If you’ve followed the earlier installments of this tale, you know that the organizers claimed to not accept score questions after a set time. So if they and we ran about equal on Friday, and the disputed points of Thurday did matter, some might seek to use that rule to bar their challenge. But my navvie don’t play that; if points came to our competitors through mistake, she’d stand up and demand they be removed, cost be damned.

So then we had one more thing to worry about for Friday: we needed to not just run better than our competitors, but run at least Thursday’s points better to be sure of victory.  Just a little more pressure, on top of the standard Targa formula of fast, faster, faster^2, fastest as the week goes on.

Friday – Leg 5

One more stop at Tim Horton’s, then to the arena. Nothing’s changed overnight, we’re leading GT at zero points. Second place, tough fighters, are at six points.

Our lead starts shrinking promptly.

We’re at the head of the pack, first car in GT. GT class is the first on the route, so (aside from workers), we’re first car on the road. Counting down to our launch on the first section, I’m taken aback by the sight of a full-size pickup – driven by a civilian – coming out of the stage toward us. This is after the Course Closed car has gone in, sirens blasting and lights flashing. Ten minutes later and the pickup would have met us on the way in.

This is a long, freakishly fast section, that had us slightly above the maximum speed limit trying to reach ‘on-time’ from the dead-stop start. The opening is all turns, hills, bridges, Ys, and finally a straight stretch. And there’s a radar station on that straight.  I saw 157kph against the 150kph limit, so now more to worry about. “Did we get caught? Is that limit iron, or do we have a little grace?” There’s both a monetary and points cost to breaking the limit, and we can ill afford either.

To restore our perspective, life supplies an object lesson. The Sport Quattro (replica, a good one) flings off the road and into the trees at one of the Ys. No one hurt seriously, but we’re all reminded that today’s speeds are the fastest of the week. We’re approaching the limits of humans and machines.

On the next leg, coming back from the peninsula, it takes all my driving skill to reach the ITC on time. Then it’s a charge to the end through those same Ys, bridges, hills, and turns. We’re running late near the finish – and there’s just a two second window today – only to find that the control signs have blown down. Without the external reference, we’re not sure how late we were at the line. At midday we heard that scoring says we were three seconds late, so the window makes it one point. The other car – with our main competitors – is at zero. So the lead’s down to five ahead.

Messy clocks, again, on the next two stages.

Brrr, shivers: a clock that’s right is reassuring, a metronome of law and order, sanity, the reasssuring steady beat of the cosmos. Makes me think, “We humans can effect things, accomplish things. Cause and effect is real.  Recite the words of the ritual, make the signs, pull the lever, and you will be rewarded.” A clock that’s not right seems – now – like evil darkness, full of malevolence and careless menace.

Messy road, too; on the inbound stage, one of the fastest Targa-class cars blew a seal in the rear diff half-a-kilometer from the finish. That left a stripe of gear oil on the pavement, from the outbound start point, through a crest-left-downhill-right combo. Sweep poured oil absorbent (kitty litter-like stuff) on the stripe of oil, then they sent us – first car on the road – out.

I straddled the strip and the kitty litter, and had no traction issues. Three cars behind us, though, a Mini accelerating hard hit the scattered clay pellets and the front end pushed. The road’s tight, it just serves a small community on an inlet. There’s no “extra” room. The Mini kissed the guardrail; the people were fine, but the car’ll need some bodywork.

We took two points on the outbound run, but the other team ran zero.  Down to three ahead.

It’s time for Cupids and Brigus, two sections named for the towns through which they run. Each is run twice, tight together, in a big four-stage loop as the finale.  Last year’s run through Brigus (in the wagon) had us jumping the bridge, and pushing the front on tight 90s. We got air in the two-ton wagon last year – and I think we still took points.  This year, the GT average speeds for both stages were raised; Brigus is up by 20%. ((say what?))

We’re two late at the end of Cupids 1 – barely – which zeros with the window.  The other car’s a natural zero.

We’re three late at Brigus 1, so take a single point. The other car … takes a wrong turn in town.

It’s easy to do, we almost did it. There are three-dozen instructions in a four-minute stage. It’s a typical Newfoundland fishing village, with the roads running akimbo, following the ancient paths, not even approximating a grid. Uphills, sidehills, fences, sheds, red tape everywhere, some arrows, and a CAST 10kph higher than last year.

A wrong turn’s not something you can erase, time-wise, in a tight town section. They are 16 seconds late into the finish, so 14 with the window. The driver said they were 25 late after they got back on route, so he was smokin’ to cut those 9 seconds off.  I don’t think I could have cut 9 out.

Cupids 2 we zero.  So do they. The competition’s still on.

On Brigus 2, we are early at the ITC, and late at the finish, those combine for 1 point. Ditto for the other car.

And finally the week was done.

We ended with five points, all taken on Friday, and they ended with 21; six from Thursday’s ITCs, and 15 from the wrong turn. Coulda been us, easy; the sage’s comments from Thursday made a helluva lot of sense at the finish Brigus.

 

Heading for the awards area, the Steward was waiting. He had a list of car numbers. I asked, and we were not on it, which I thought must be a good thing. I was right – the list was of cars caught speeding.  We heard that 168kph cost a GT team five penalty points and a $250 CDN fine. Apparently we hadn’t been caught, or hadn’t exceeded the tolerated speed.

Our points leakage stopped at 5 for the day, helped by some very focused driving and co-driving in the last four sections. Our Porsche let us do it – the wagon wouldn’t have been able to hold the CASTs, at least not with me driving.

There was a fine post-event party, and then an exceptional awards banquet on Saturday night. By virtue of our very low score (VLS), we won Grand Touring, and Targa Masters, and the Lucas Oil Challenge (providing a coupon for a free entry to a future Targa Newfoundland).

Next morning, we flew out of St. Johns, and Larry set out from the eastern end of this continent, driving the car home to Portland. When he brought it over to our house after the drive (polished! that dude is awesome), it’d covered 10,231 miles since it left home.

Now – I have to tell you – I’m thinking about a Targa class (caged) car. Maybe for 2018?