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Team3S Member Track Report:

Bob Forrest :  NASA - HPDE, July 17-18-19, 2003

Reno-Fernley Raceway, Fernley, NV

(Additional comments from NASA - HPDE August 9-10,
and some "Test'n'Tune" days from Oct., Nov., Dec., included.)

Article, Videos and Photos by Bob Forrest

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Track Overview

There's a new track on the Northern California scene, and it's pretty terrific.  And it's not even in California.  July 17, 18, 19 was the first weekend that Reno-Fernley Raceway was officially open for business, and even though it really wasn't ready yet, we had a ball.  The track is currently 1.2 miles long, and it will grow to 2.4 miles on April 1, 2004...  It's slated to be be a full 3.8 miles (!) for its grand opening, late in 2004.  There's almost no overall elevation change at present, (maybe 30'?), but it will have challenging hills and hidden turns when it's completed.  In its current (short) form, it's like a long oval, with hairpins at both ends, a series of 4 "esses" on one side and 4 off-camber turns on the other side, 2 of which are blind and pretty scary at high speed.  The only wall is after the second hairpin, Turn 10, right at pit road.  But the roadway is nice and wide, fitting 3-cars-across where passing is likely.  This track is really sweet, and without wanting to sound too peotic, I have to say that there is an "undulating rhythm" about it that reminds me of Watkins Glen, and even more so of the back half of Bridgehampton (R.I.P.).  These guys know what they're doing.  This is going to be a great track!  I'm kind of glad to have discovered it before they made it into a full-sized track, and before a crush of racers start running there.

Reno-Fernley Short Road Course

The short track is ready to run on now, although it will test your "pucker factor"...  There are few safe runoffs, so you have to stay on the track.  When we ran there on July 17-19, what surrounds most of the perfectly-paved track was (maybe) 20 feet of sand.  And then small boulders, rocks, gravel...  [Editor's note: All of the dangerous areas have since been filled in, the track widened and full, safe runoffs provided.]  We got instructions from Al Butterfield (head of NASA Group 4) as follows: "If you are going to 'lose it', don't let two wheels drop off, since you will roll over.  Instead, play 'Dukes of Hazzard', point to the edge and drive off!"  He was referring to the fact that off the pavement is a drop varying from several inches to a damn gully down below (blind) Turn 6. When we went back there in mid October, some of the worst runoff 'drops' were filled in; by early December, they were all filled in and the track had been widened.  But Al's warning still applies to many areas, since (depending on your car) you can be moving at a pretty good clip-- if you lose your brakes, you can easily travel past the adequate runoffs into dangerous areas that don't have tire walls yet.  On both sides of the track, just before the hairpins, very high speeds are possible: Carrera Cup Porsches and Lotus Elites--150mph; Spec Miatas-- 105mph, and 12.5psi FMII piggybacks-- 120mph; my 16psi twin-turbo VR-4-- 140mph...  Substantial new work is being done between all event weekends, since they are on a "prioritized improvement" construction  schedule.  I walked a mile-long section of roughed-in roadway that's almost ready for asphalt, so I believe them.  I wouldn't be surprised if they widened track by the end of 2003.  [Editor's note: They have widened the track since this review was first written.]

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A Successful Opening...

The few of us who went to the July event really didn't expect much - we mostly went to check out the new track, and to tune and set up our cars.  But what a pleasant surprise!  NorCal NASA director Jerry Kunzman and his team did an amazing job of putting this thing together with spit and chewing gum, and the results were just great.  Even though Jerry's GF Theresa was the PA system, walking or riding a golf cart up and down the paddock with a bullhorn, all the events went off on time, and without a hitch.  And it was especially neat that since it was only half-full, we had 5 HPDE sessions per day, with extra laps and time to spare.  The HPDE and race officials made sure to warn everyone up front about how dangerous the track was..., because it's still under construction.  Having only 4 corner workers on the track appeared questionable at first, too, but the track is so flat right now, they could see any problems right from Timing and Scoring. You really didn't need more workers.

Both the Reno-Fernley track people and NASA deserve high praise for actually pulling this off.  In the middle of nowhere..., 110+ heat..., track not even half built..., no buildings..., one water spigot..., and none of us even noticed anything but a great day at the track.  Kudos to all of them!  And I guess we should give ourselves a pat on the back too, for being smart enough to exercise a bit of extra care on the new track.  Except for a Pro-7 that flipped upside down on top of the pit wall by coming out of Turn 10 too hot, (and he hit it the next day, too), another Group 4 racer plowing off in Turn 5 backwards, and a fast Vette playing "lawn girl" and getting a dust bath in the Turn 6 gully, all other incidents that I saw were were minor.

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Getting There...

Depending on where you live in the Bay Area, it will take you between 3 and 4 hours to get to the Reno-Fernley Raceway.  But if you're trailering a car from San Francisco to Reno-Fernley, it won't take you "4 hours" that NASA claims.  I drove behind Nissa and Geoff's big Jeep SUV (towing Eileen Thomas' Spec Miata) this past summer, and most of the way, she didn't get over 65.  It took 5 hours to get there (not counting a couple of pit stops).  I drove the VR-4 behind them, and I never got out of 3rd gear for the entire trip.  I tried going into 4th a couple of times, but our turbo cars don't particularly like lugging around at 2000-2500 rpm up hills.  The amazing thing is that even in 3rd gear..., with the intense heat and thin air at that altitude, I got 24 miles per gallon!?!  On the way back we traveled during the day and Nis got up to 70 mph, so the trip was just under 5 hrs.  (It was a pretty gruelling run to take with my barely-working A/C in 100+ temps...)  The 240 mile trip will normally take between 4 and 4.5 hrs in a car from the Bay Bridge at "don't get arrested in Nevada" speeds.  I know that there are roads in NV that have no limits, but the posted limit on Rte 80 is 70 mph.  I haven't see any cops on most trips, but I haven't see many people speeding, either.  If the locals don't drive fast on that road, then I won't either.  That said..., in light traffic I have made the drive from Fernley to San Francisco in about 3 hours, 15 minutes a couple of times.  (Don't ask...!)

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Track Plans and Facilities

When I came back from one of my runs (back in July), I was just taking off my helmet when a "cherry" 1994 yellow Stealth TT drove by, and I yelled out, "Hey, Stealth", thinking it was a Team3S member who decided to stop by.  It turns out it was the guy who's building the track, Bob ???.  He gave me even more of the details about the construction schedule and it IS rigorous.  That first weekend, there was only enough paved area to park the cars that were going to be on the track - everyone else-- visitors' cars, trailers, etc., had to be parked on the adjacent gravel areas.  Many of those areas had been upgraded by the time we got back in October.  On our first visit, there were no facilities, other than a few porto-sans and a single cold water standpipe with no hose.  They got high marks for improvisation, though, since using a 50-year-old red Coca-Cola shack for Timing and Scoring was really cool.  We were assured that running water, more paving in the paddock and at least a few buildings were on their high-priority "to-do" list.  And indeed, for our fall visit, we felt like we were "back home" in Northern California, since Reno-Fernley's Rich Cable bought up some of those great trailers that Thunderhill Raceway no longer needed after their big renovation.  It's amazing how much more comfortable the track is with a few more facilities!

Reno-Fernley Course Plans

They're putting a ton of money behind this track.  ET and I spent some time getting to know the track owner, Rich Cable, (and his assistant, Jackie), and he's thrilled about the association with NASA, and (of course) with the participation of some of us Team3S folks.  He told us of some of his plans for the complex. Eventually, he'll have a 14 mile track like Nurburgring there (with dreams of 22 miles)!  Right now there's a 3/8 mile clay oval, dirt drags, drag strip, autocross, paintball, go-carts, pistol range and the open track facility.  There will be 500 condos, hotels, etc., and (of course) another casino (just what Nevada needs).  It sounds like the ultimate suburban dream.  Except for one thing - this is the Wild West, folks.  The ads read, "Bring your cars, your family, your guns..."  Right next to the clay track they hold a big party towards evening, complete with bonfire and rock bands and long-neck beer as far as the eye can see.  Groups wander away from the festivities and go to the shooting range or to play paintball games.  Where I come from, we're taught that "alcohol and gunpowder don't mix".  Out there, I think it's a requisite that first you get drunk, then drive around their clay track until you hit something, then you go shooting.  I want to move there.  ;-)

Reno-Fernley Complex

There's just something about the place that's a bit surreal - like being on a hot planet somewhere in another universe.  Around 5 pm that first Saturday in July, at the NASA BBQ, we heard one of the locals say, "Uh-oh..., here comes the tornado!"  And out of nowhere, a damn cyclonic wind blew in that took down tents and blew half of our BBQ off the table.  10 minutes later, it was calm again.  It turns out that this demon wind happens every afternoon as the sun starts going down.  And in case you think I'm exaggerating about the "Wild West" thing, they had to interrupt the driving event schedule during the day-- a bunch of wild mustangs ran down from the mountains and decided to come see what all the noise was about, and started dancing around the infield of the track!  I'm surprised that they let Nevada become a state - there are NO rules there.  Even the horses know it.  I love that place!

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Driving The Track

This is a really fast track, but as technical as it is, it's still easy to learn. But it's a little tough to master unless you've got really good brakes and race tires.  And you've got to stay off the berms, since they are the corrugated kind that just rip up your tires.  A bad choice, IMO... At least an half-dozen cars shredded their tires on these things.  Those Porsche guys just couldn't learn...  ;-)

[Please note that the following personal guide is not for street-prepped cars, nor for newer drivers!  If you don't have competition springs, big brakes, and race rubber - be extra careful on this track!  Develop your own line - one that's safe for your car setup and your abilities.  The following is a "first look" guide for experienced drivers.]

There's about a 1/4 mile main straight past the hot pits.  Stay right next to the wall and follow that line until you shift - you'll know you did it right when it looks like the flagman is ready to jump!  Shift into 3rd about 200 meters before the esses, and point at the turn-in "sweet spot"..., that being just a few feet off the Turn 1 berm.  Each ess is smaller than the previous one, so hitting Turn 1 just right is most important - if you don't, it will throw you off for the next 3 esses, and leave you out of position for the hairpin at Turn 5.  You reach the left ess of Turn 1, which dips down toward the berm and unsettles the car as you come out of it.  The dip throws throws you a bit wide left for Turn 2, an ess in the other direction that's almost flat, so at speed, you'll need some throttle steer to get you over there.  Turns 3 and 4 are almost a replay of 1 and 2, but on a smaller (and faster) scale.  Turn 3 is a left ess over a slight rise that tries to spin you counter-clockwise, since you take it at well over 100mph.  You've got to back off the gas just a bit and wait for the suspension float to settle (or preferably, trail brake slightly), then gun it over the right sweep of Turn 4 and the short, very slightly downhill straight that approaches the Turn 5 hairpin.

For the hairpin, you've got to point your car at the left middle of the track as you get past Turn 4, (it's flat and there are no landmarks there yet), and brake hard in a straight line until you reach the turn and go into 2nd gear.  You blow off the first part of the hairpin, 5a, and run wide (about 2/3 of the way out), then accelerate and turn hard to throw the car into a slight drift as you approach 5b, as if you were about to do an early apex.  Floor it through the rest of the turn as you unwind the steering.  You'll drift out toward the edge at 5b, since you're already carrying pretty good speed going into the turn from that fast straight.  But the AWD will grip just in time, before you go off the edge opposite the berm at 5b, and you'll find youself pointing right at the berm that's maybe 100 meters ahead, which is maybe 50 meters before Turn 6.  Shift into 3rd and pass an inch off the berm at ~80% throttle.

Turn 6 is way off-camber to the right, and the only way to approach it without braking is to take it 2/3 of the way wide left, right near the gully.  (From 5b until I started my turn at 6 was a straight line - as I passed the early berm, I said aloud, "Wait-Click-Wait...", and then I accelerated through my turn.)  You're accelerating hard over the crest just as the suspension unloads and it makes you loose, but you've only got one choice - pucker up and stay with it.  If you back off at 90 mph on that off-camber turn, you will go in the gully.  I'm not good enough at trail braking to do it next to a damned gully, so I just stayed on it and let the AWD do its magic.  There was a lotta tire squeal there, but I stayed on the track and I only got close to that left edge twice all weekend.  Major pucker..., but "ya gotta believe"...  [Editor's note: The gully is no more, having been filled in during the late fall.  But it's still an easy place to slide off the track.  The warnings still apply, but at least you won't hurt your car there...]

Once you get past Turn 6, if you haven't carried too far left, you'll kind of feel like you're "home free", since you can see the berm at (off-camber left) Turn 7.  But the elevation change is misleading to the eye.  You'll have to power the car a bit right and resist the temptation to mid-apex that Turn 7 berm.  Don't do it.  Take it late, or you won't be in position for Turn 8.  Since you can see Turn 9 easily from 7, you should be already planning how you will approach it.  You should be at WOT up to this point, and the suspension will unload as you go over Turn 7 if you don't back off a bit just before the crest.  It's also a perfect place to trail brake to shave of a little speed, then shift into 4th and start counting as you get on it again going through Turn 8.  I found that a four-second count ("one-one-thousand, two...") was the right duration before shifting back up into 3rd.

Turn 8 seems like an easy right - stay off the berm and point right to 9.  But a good driver learns that there is a better way...  By staying to the right after 8 and taking Turn 9 about a car width off the berm, your car will be positioned at a better angle - both for straight line braking, and for not pointing into the hill at 140 mph.  I almost lost it right after Turn 9 simply because I don't have big brakes, and I barely slowed enough to avoid going off track, almost on to the egress road, behind the cones.  Stocker brakes just won't stop you in time, so you have to back off.  I couldn't go over the crest of Turn 9 safely at anything over 125 or so.  By going far to the right at ~120, however, I was able to brake smoothly and still set up for the Turn 10 hairpin.  When I got down to about 80, I shifted to second and switched to left-foot braking as I accelerated through the first part of the 10a hairpin.  By staying right at the cones and trail braking, you can keep the turbos spooled and start accelerating hard as soon as you are perpendicular to the wall.  The car is nicely settled by then, so you can turn hard and go right past the berm in a late apex as you let out the steering until you're right next to the wall on the main straight again, right where you started.

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Three Video Clips of the Track

I don't have any footage of my VR-4, but I shot a couple of clips of Eileen Thomas in her Spec Miata.  They're short Quick-Time (.MOV) movie clips from my still camera.  It's not footage of our 3000GT & Stealth cars, but at least you can get a feel for the track, "in its infancy"...

The first vid starts as she comes around the end of Turn 10b, and down the pit straight down through the 1-4 esses and around the hairpin at Turn 5.  Lighter cars tend to enter Turn 1 a bit wider than our heavy 3S cars, but after that it's a similar line through 2-4 and the Turn 5 hairpin.  But her top speed entering 5a is only around 100, whereas mine was well over 130.  You can just barely hear her drifting past 5a and hitting the gas through 5b; the clip (11.1MB) ends just before Turn 6: CLIP 1

Next is a 23-second clip of Turns 9 and 10 on the back half of the track--  Eileen takes turn 9 flat out, drifts over the rise at the berm towards the outside.  The off-camber tries to throw you off the track there, since you're doing over 120mph.  (She's doing about 95 in this clip).  The cones mark the egress from the track.  She downshifts into 3rd (our 3S cars use 2nd gear there, but deeper into the turn) and she just rides it wide through the first half of the hairpin, then turns hard and guns it to come out just past the 10b berm as she lets out the steering and starts down the main straight...  (8.8MB) CLIP 2

Eileen was able to dive deep into Turn 10, and at one point, she was passing this race-prepped Factory-5 Cobra through the turn on the outside...  But he wasn't going to be shown up by a "lowly" Spec Miata, so coming out of the turn turned into a bit of a drag race down the main straight...  Vid clip (2.6MB) here: CLIP 3

Eileen practiced on the track all day Friday (I didn't, since I was still trying to datalog my engine for maximum safe power in the thinner air), so she was really sailing around the track in that little Spec Miata on Saturday.  She had a best lap time for the 1.2 mile track of 1:02. Pro driver Al B. managed to break a minute driving her car - his fastest lap at 0:59.885.  By the time the weekend was over, "ET" was scooting around the track consistently in the low 58's.  Pretty quick for a "putt-putt" Spec Miata! (Oh, sorry..., a "zoom-zoom"). LOL!

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My "Track Car" Gets "Dialed In"

There have been many problems in tuning my VR-4, not the least of which is the fact that I haven't had a period of time when one component or another hasn't failed.  But it appears that most of that is behind me.  I haven't even bothered to check out my TurboXS Dual Stage Boost Controller, which has gone into permanent high-boost mode without even throwing the switch...  It wants me to be permanently at .9 Bar, so it's gotta be Karma.  So be it.  Rick Pierce has been with me all the way on tuning the car, and he and Lori came to Reno-Fernley just to help me work on datalogging and setting the SAFC-II to safe levels for the thinner air and higher altitude.  On Friday, while the folks with tuned cars were practicing, I went out on the interstate and datalogged the car, and tweaked settings according to Rick's emailed instructions from earlier in the week.  It was 104 in shade, and according to the log readout, air temp was 135 on the track.  I was disappointed with how the car felt at that point, since in between shifts, the revs would drop like a rock, and there was substantial knock.  Here's my Friday, 7/18 Log

When Rick came on Saturday, he looked at it for 5 minutes, and changed a few A/F settings.  He and Lori took the car out for another log run while I tried to cool down my body temp.  (I was too whipped from the 1 1/2 days of record-breaking heat.  Air temp went up to 112 on Saturday, track temp on the logger was 145!)  Here's the Rick-Lori Log

I ran another Group 4 session with the new settings, and the car felt great!  While I was out there, Rick studied the log and when I came back, he told me we were 'almost there', and that I only had to change 3 settings at 5200, 5800, and 6400 rpm.  Rick and Lori left, and I tweaked the SAFC-II settings as per his suggestions and I tried another datalog.  I took Theresa with me out on the interstate to hold the laptop for a run, and took the VR-4 up to 130 in 3rd gear (7094rpm).  She refused to do it a second time.  ;-)  Here's the Bob-Theresa Log

The car felt great, and the log said "NO knock".  My next Group 4 session was the fastest I had for the weekend.  The temp gauge started going up to that funny icon on the gauge (not the top line), but I had never seen it at anything but the middle line, so I came in off the track.  I had the proper track line "down cold", and I could have gone just a bit faster if I had done a few more laps...  In the fourth session, I felt light-headed from the heat, and I had lost focus on the track, so I came in around the 17th lap.  I felt like I was crawling, but I still did a pretty respectable lap time.  I blew off the 5th session - in fact, I went back to the motel to take a shower and cool down.  At 145 degrees (on-track temp), your meat thermometer says that your steak is medium-rare.  I was quite well done, thank you...

I did two more Group 4 Sessions on Sunday, but I really couldn't take the heat, and the track was slippery from two off-track excursions that left gravel on the track.  There was also lots of rubber from the Saturday night 6-hour Enduro.  I went back to the motel by noon...

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Evaluation of My Results

Since I was only able to set -.6 degrees camber because of my JICs and wider tires, and because I'm still running stock brakes with R4-S street pads, I had to take it easy for the whole weekend.  I saw 135-140 mph through Turn 4 on my fastest run, but that was as far as I could go safely when entering 5 on stock brakes.  I couldn't quite keep up with one really fast Vette, driven by a (Reno local) woman who regularly comes to our Sears Point and Thunderhill DE's - she and hubby have his-and-hers late model Vettes.  They are championship racers who gave up SCCA for NASA.  His car is faster, but he only passed me once all weekend, and I returned the favor.  But she is one of the most unbelievable drivers I've ever seen, and she walked everyone all weekend.  But she was also the one who played "lawn girl" on the back half of the track and did a dive into the Turn 6 gully - even the very best drivers can be fooled there!  One time she easily passed me on the inside coming out of turn 10 (those 12" wide tires of hers really stick!) and I pulled in behind her and opened it up down the straight - I stayed with her right up to 140, but then had to back off through the twisties, or I would have lost it.  This is not a track for street tires, stock suspensions or stock brakes.  The JICs and Toyo Proxes kept me on the track - I wouldn't have trusted anything less than Ground Control coilovers on a track that's this fast.  But even though I know how to 'baby' my brakes, they are still stock, and just not up to the task.  ("A man's gotta know his limitations..." --'Dirty Harry' Callahan)

The subtle undulations of the track surface are brilliantly designed for really fast cars with tight suspensions.  I had one of the 5 fastest on the track in my group, even with stock brakes - a credit to that unbelievable JIC suspension...  I ran in HPDE Group 4, but I'm in the NASA TT (time trials) program (with an in-car transponder) so I got the printed lap readouts from Timing and Scoring.  In my first session ever on the Reno-Fernley track, my best lap time was 1:02 (1:01.998); in my second session, it was 1:00 (1:00.243).  But in my third session I broke 0:59 (0:58.825)!!!  Yay!  For those of you who don't want to do the math, that's an average LAP speed of just under 73mph!  As a point of reference, the fastest pros in the Porsche race group were running ~0:55; the fastest Pro-7's, race-prepped Spec Miatas, Hondas, and RX-7's in the Enduro ran best laps ~0:56.  On stock brakes with race pads, running practically no negative camber, in a 4100lb car..., I'm VERY happy about getting into the 58's! 

One final blurb about the "five fastest" in Group 4.  I've already told you about the husband/wife team in their matching Vettes - pro drivers in fast cars, with lap times around 55 seconds...  But the other 3 were: a WRX (also AWD), me in my VR-4, and a spanking new $200k Porsche Targa with decals all over it.  The guy just bought the Porsche for about 150 large, put in over $20k for custom paint and detailing and another $30k in wheels, tires, mods...  He wasn't upset about the Vette girl or her hubby passing him- both cars are set up perfectly and driven by licensed pros.  And I don't think that he was even upset that I walked him pretty easily down the straight - he's an older guy (my age) and he and I had talked about the mods in my VR-4.  My car is faster and corners almost as well as his...  He could live with that.  But what really pissed him off was when I passed him and then the WRX passed him too!  We were like two ugly old rockets coming by him like he was parked.  No..., the WRX was not one of those spanking new ones in that 'day-glo' blue...  It was an instructor in a dirty old silver WRX SUV with a ski rack on top and a bike rack on the back!  LOL!  After that, the Porsche guy pulled off the track and went to his pit area and was kicking the sh*t out of his rear tire, like "to break his ankle".  I had tears in my eyes I was laughing so hard! 

Another fun weekend..., at a great track...  DAMN!, I love my VR-4!

--- Bob Forrest, '91 3000GT VR-4
--- Photos and Mods HERE

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Article 2003-2004 Bob Forrest, All Rights Reserved.
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