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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
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.
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.]
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.
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...!)
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!
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. ;-)
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!
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... ;-)
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"...
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
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)
Article © 2003-2004 Bob Forrest, All Rights Reserved.
Track Images © 2003-2004 Reno-Fernley Raceway, All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
Other Images ©1995-2004 Bob Forrest, All Rights Reserved.