Monday, August 8, 2011

Add a Dash of Salt

Before you read about the ride home, did you read about the ride out, the hike and the competition?

I'd already decided as I left Packwood that I didn't want to go home the same way I'd driven out, and the real question on Monday morning was simply how I was going to go about getting to I-80.

Was I going to take I-84 through Boise and meet up with I-80 north of Salt Lake City? Or was I going to take a three-hour detour through Twin Falls, ID and Wells, NV?

I had plenty of time to think about it, as I got on the road and into Idaho. I knew how US 93 was likely to be -- two-lanes, lots of nothing in between Twin Falls and Wells -- and I knew that I-84 was a "safer" bet. But if I didn't make that side trip, it wasn't like I could just decide later on to go back. In the end, I took the detour, even though construction on US-93 made it closer to four hours out of the way. And I don't regret it at all.

The view from the end of Salt Flats Drive.

The salt, close up. It was stickier than usual this year, due to lingering moisture.

I drove out about a half mile, at about 15mph, and put the magnetics on.

It was a beautiful, sunny day.

Nearly four thousand miles since home, and the bug spatter on the front is pretty impressive at this point.

Pointed poignantly towards the west, towards home, looking out at a horizon full of possibilities. I can not describe this picture to you. It is my favorite of all the ones I took.

After spending probably 30-45 minutes out on the salt, I slowly drove back in, parked the car momentarily to clear out some of the salt, then decided it was time for a late lunch.

Just a small amount of the salt packed into the rear fender wells.

My $6 lunch at the Salt Flats Cafe.

I dawdled at the Salt Flats Cafe for a while. I considered heading back into town to throw some money at a blackjack table, but in the end, I opted to get back on the road.

Eight more hours on the road, and I was pulling into Cheyenne, Wyoming, with lightning dancing in the sky. Lots of ball lightning rolling through the clouds, very spectacular with the lack of light pollution from the surrounding areas.

The next morning, I got an early start as Frontier Days were going on, and I didn't want to get caught in any traffic. Western Nebraska was as desolate as I remember, and at one point, I saw a Western Box Turtle on the side of the road. I stopped to either pick it up or move it off the shoulder, and when I got there, I saw that it had a shattered shell and had obviously died a slow death as it dragged itself to the shoulder. It made me quite sad to see.

As I trudged back to the car (it's hard to slow down rapidly from 80mph when you've got an unsecured load of tires in the car!), I saw a small cactus growing by itself in the sandy soil. I carefully pulled it out, and moistened the root with some water on a shop towel, and wrapped it up.
Nebraska cactus, at home in its new pot.

I don't know why I brought it home with me. Maybe to remind me of the turtle I couldn't save.

A few more hours down the road, I see the exit for Gothenburg, along with the notice for the Original Pony Express Station. I've seen this so many times, and wanted to stop every time, so I decide, yes, I'm doing it.

The original station, though not in its original location.

Original lantern outside the entrance

Obligatory pose with car

Back on the road, I make mental notes about the construction zones and such approaching Lincoln, so I can let others know what to expect come late August as they convene for the ProSolo Finale and the Solo Nationals. I see the Missouri River, swollen so much it looks to be a lake, and know that the danger for Omaha and much of Iowa is still very present. Signs tell me that I-680 is closed at the river crossing into Iowa and I-29 in Iowa is closed due to flooding. I make a quick stop just across the river into Iowa, grab another beer for the souvenir collection, and keep pressing on, wanting to make Illinois before sleepy time.
This was quite tasty.

I made it to Morris, IL, before calling it a night, and having hit some nasty construction zones, was wondering about the condition of my suspension the rest of the trip.

The remainder of the journey was uneventful. It was almost a relief on Wednesday to be rolling into Maryland, peaks under 1000ft and all, parking the Subaru in the driveway long enough to throw my hockey equipment into the black Camaro and bolting for hockey class at Kettler. In the space of eight days, I drove through 18 states (MD, PA, OH, IN, IL, WI, MN, SD, MT, ID, WA, OR, NV, UT, WY, NE, IA, VA) and the District of Columbia. Needless to say, I was bushed.

And I was supposed to be in Geneva, NY, in less than 48 hours for the Northeast Divisionals. But that story will have to wait.
Souvenirs : Air Force Bear from Cheyenne, American West recipe book (behind the bear) from Gothenburg, and the beers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

High Anxiety

You might want to make sure you've read part I and part II of the road trip first.

Looking across the site from Grid B. Yes, that's Annie Bauer's car at the lights.

I was pretty anxious to get to the site Saturday morning, which is odd, because I haven't been this excited to autocross in a long time. But this felt different. It was a completely different group of people than I usually run with, and so ridiculous drama wasn't a dark cloud over every aspect of the event. I had a simple work assignment -- starter -- so I wasn't stressing out over making sure things were being done correctly.

Well, to some extent. I hadn't worked start in five years, and for the first time in recent memory, the shot clock was functional. I needed to get into a rhythm for sending cars, but it only took a few pairings to do so.
When was the last time you saw this counting down?

There were only three run groups, so after shift A was done, there was about a 10-15 break so that shift A drivers could get out of impound and go to their work assignments. In the meantime, I found I had downtime... something I haven't had in a long time at any autocross, whether a local or a National event. I wandered around a bit, talked to some of the guys who'd just driven (like Andy Hollis) to get some pointers. Then I leisurely made sure the WRX had air in the tires, and put it in my grid spot.

I didn't have a crew person with me, so I decided to just start my pressures low and let them come up, rather than worry about checking them on my own between runs. It was cool -- mid 70s -- and so I went with 39psi up front and 35psi in the rear, figuring they'd come up to something close to what I wanted.
Getting ready for Saturday morning runs

Bump class 2 was the motley group of me (ESP), Ryan Otis (SS), Steve Barnes and James Shepherd (SS), Tom Kotzian and Allan Zacharda (SMF), Dustin Burns (F125) and John Burns (F125). I wasn't sure how the ESP index stacked up against SMF, SS or F125, but I was more just concerned with driving. To start, I was paired up with John Burns in his F125, so I knew I just needed to concentrate on my driving and not on the fact that the kart should be beating me all over the place out there.

I started off on the left, and a lazy 3500rpm launch saw a mid .8s reaction time and a 1.9s 60ft. But as I came in, Ron Bauer was announcing me as off course. I wasn't sure where I'd screwed up, and when Ann Hollis came over and asked if I needed anything, she couldn't say where the DNF was either. So, I chalked it up to just being too lackadaisical, and decided to try to figure it out on my next left run.

On the right, after another "safe" launch, I made a point of telling myself to trust the car through the right hander into the crossover straight. A bit of a lift, and I was flying into a three cone slalom, then the turnaround back to the crossover. The car was feeling good as I zipped into the finish slalom, and I posted a respectable time of 26.9.
Heading back around to the crossover on the right hand side. Photo by Andrew Howe.

Gearing up for my next left side run, Ron Bauer is really hyping up my trip from Maryland while being complimentary of my driving. I wasn't very impressed with my driving right then, and on the next launch, was pretty tentative while looking to see where my off may have been.

I see it right away. Where the three cone "slalom" was after the crossover straight, I'd straight-lined it instead of wiggling. I made it through there, around the backside, and then came flying into the slalom a little too quickly. The backend stepped out, I gathered it back up without hitting anything, and posted a time, which is all I wanted. It was only good for fifth in class when all was said and done.

The lunch break was pretty relaxing, and I talked with a variety of people I rarely see except for Nationals. Fast Mike Lillejord gave me a hard time for missing out on margaritas on Friday night, while others asked me what made me drive a street prepared car all the way out to Washington State. Some quality quotes came out of this :
  • "Wait, what? This isn't the Washington DC ProSolo? Crap."
  • "I'm putting the 'street' back in 'street prepared'!"
  • "I wanted first place ESP points to, you know, scare Strano."
  • [someone else, as I stand next to my WRX, checking pressures] : "Did you fly out?" [me, looking confused] "Uh, yeah. And the WRX was checked baggage."
To be honest, the ride out was smoother and more comfortable than when I drove the car out to Wendover in 2008. The Sparco Evo seat is much more supportive and forgiving than the stock seats. My only complaint with the Sparco is that it doesn't recline. Even with all of the Kartboy, TurnInConcepts and Whiteline drivetrain bushings, the noise, vibration and harshness of the ride is more than tolerable, unless I let it lug around 1500-1700rpm (rare). The softer Swift springs on the zzyzx/Koni coilovers, and the brand new Koni 8611 inserts were probably a better choice for a cross-country road trip than what I had been using too. My only real concern was the transmission, as even on my morning "reconnaissance" runs, the car was definitely making more power in the cool mountain air than it does normally in Maryland humidity.
Heading into the finish slalom on the left side course. Mount Rainier is hidden behind some clouds.

So, around 12:45PM, we started up the second set of runs, and I'm back in the starter's chair, plugging along. There is certainly something sweet about being in that chair during particular pairings, such as Laurie Hyman (ASP GT-R) and Teresa Neidel-McKee (SSM RX7) or Stacey Molleker (BS GT500) and whichever S2000 he was paired up with at that point. Andy Hollis is a total machine at the lights, both in competition and in the challenge. Listening to guys give each other crap as they were staging (such as some of the STS guys) is pretty funny too.

Again, during shift B, I found myself very relaxed, and with plenty of time to take a quick jaunt through Packwood to put a couple of gallons of gas in the car. While there, some locals asked if I was doing "the rally" and everyone was very nice and supportive of what the SCCA is doing. In some ways, it reminded me of going to Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, and how it was a huge production for the SCCA to come to town and stage an event. The locals thought it was awesome I'd driven all the way from Maryland.

For the afternoon runs, I was paired up the the yellow Corvette of Steve Barnes. The karts had both had issues in the morning (Dustin's kart just wouldn't even run due to air in the fuel lines), and so were at the back, and Ryan Otis was paired with Tom Kotzian. Zacharda and James were in the second driver grid waiting for their turns. Like the morning, I was less concerned with who I was paired up with and more worried about what I needed to do. I knew I had a lot of time on the left side, and at least a few tenths on the right. So, starting on the right, I coned away a 0.6 improvement.
Stupid cone. Photo by Andrew Howe

I shrugged it off. The left side was where I really needed to improve. And as I pulled up to the stage lanes, I realized something.

My ProSolo nervous habits were back.

Pull up. Reverse. Ease up into the lights. Set the e-brake. Turn off the radio. A/C off. First gear. A/C off? First gear? Bring the revs up. Launch.

It was all back.

I tried not to let the realization throw me as I took off on my run. Thread the needle, get on it, ease up through the tighter-than-the-right-side section, hard on it into the slalom... whoa, whoa, get it slowed down, then back on it through the slalom into the finish.... now, breathe, and listen....

1.3 second improvement. Bauer was incredulous. I was smiling. The car felt awesome.

Radio on, back to the right side...

Overall, I would drop 2.5 seconds (0.8 on the right and 1.7 on the left) to move myself into second position heading into Sunday's runs. I was ecstatic, and I was loving how the WRX was feeling. Finally, after two years of ESP frustration, the car wasn't all pushy and irritating. I just needed to start trusting what it would do now. I had forgotten to tell myself to "trust the car" on my last right side run and actually tapped the brake before the right hander, so I knew I had time there. I also was leaving a lot of time at the lights. 0.6s on the tree and 1.9s for 60 ft times... I didn't want to push too much harder there, as that was a "I must drive this car home" kind of issue, but I knew the car had more in it.
I was the cutoff after Saturday.

Andy and I chatted with some people before heading out to dinner at Peter's Inn, and then I just found myself tired and not really wanting to push too hard on Saturday night, not with another 40 hour drive ahead of me starting the next evening. So, I laid down and eventually :facekindled: with my e-book while he went back over to Peter's Inn for Saturday night karaoke and Blue Spruce for some mingling with the rest of the autocross crowd.

Sunday saw people dropping time in the morning, a few tenths on each side. Classes were tightening up, and I knew if I was going to stay eligible for the Challenge, I needed to improve too.
Paired up with Ryan Otis for the Sunday morning runs

Unfortunately, I didn't improve at all on Sunday morning, while Tom Kotzian got half a second on the right side, and moved by me for second. I stayed in the trophies though, though a Hoosier tire for second would have been a nice souvenir for myself.

Brought this one back from Oregon for Pat

So, I helped out by working as starter during the Challenge rounds, and seeing how masters like Andy Hollis bowl their way from start to final round, then said my goodbyes, and headed off towards Yakima to come to rest near the Oregon/Idaho border (Ontario, Oregon) for the night.

In the end, I was pretty happy with how I did. Could I have gotten by Kotzian for second? Sure, if I had been anywhere close to home, I wouldn't have been as tentative at the lights, and just another 0.1s per side in the 60ft could have moved me up. Could I have caught Ryan? That's a tougher question. The WRX felt good, but I haven't competed with it since the NJ Pro, and it felt awful to me there. I know I wasn't driving it as well as I could have because I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall. I had a great time, and it was nice to know that autocross can still be fun, when I'm not on the periphery of drama queens and under the pressure of being a chief. It made the decision to go to the Northeast Divisionals when I got back a bit easier.

The next day, I had a decision to make. To Wendover or not to Wendover?

A new friend for Andrew Pallotta tagged along on the ride home.

To Be Concluded!

And I Shall Call It... Mini-Cone

Did you read part I yet?

Forty-two hours of driving after leaving the house on Tuesday, I arrived at the Johnston Ridge Observatory just minutes ahead of the 10AM time that my autocrossing friend Andy Howe had given me. It was a little chilly in the mountains, and I was nervous that I hadn't exactly brought appropriate clothing for the hike, much less the weekend.

The temperature as I was driving through White's Pass; compare that to the heat index of almost 120F on the East Coast at the time
A blasted "spider" sensor that did not survive the 2005 eruption

We stopped up at the visitor center to get our wristbands for the day and then prepared for the journey around the Boundary Trail by making sure we had water and snacks (I'd hit up Bass Pro Shops on my way out of Harmans for a new Camelbak and hiking shoes), and then Andy asks me an interesting question.

"You're not afraid of heights, are you?"

I considered the question for a moment, thinking of the CN Tower's "glass floor" and the drop on Cedar Point's Top Thrill Dragster. "Nope, not at all," I told him.

And off we went.

Looking down at the entrance road from the Boundary Trail.

Many of the clouds have dissipated only 30-40 minutes into the hike. The mini-cone is clearly visible.
Andy told me this was an "Indian Paintbrush" and very common on the mountains.
Another small flowering plant taking root amidst the ashes.

Maybe a third of the way into the hike, we came to a sort of stopping point around a bit of a crevice. There was a sign posted, warning that the next section was not appropriate for inexperienced hikers, and when I looked, I see a path maybe two feet wide, with a pretty steep drop on the righthand side. Andy says, "Oh, it's only 800 or so feet to the bottom." I'm a little apprehensive, but everyone else seems unfazed by this section, so I'm not going to wimp out. The first part isn't so bad, but then about halfway through it, I start thinking about how I'm not used to being at altitude, and what if I pass out, and then I freak myself out and have to stop for a moment. The rest of the way through this part, my heart is hammering in my chest, and I am just focusing on putting one foot ahead of the other, carefully, and trying not to think about the fact that I have to come back through on the return.
Looking at down (~800ft) at the valley filled with ashes. The trail continues to the left.
Looking back at the scariest part of the hike.
Sort of the halfway point, where the trail branches. We went up Harry's Ridge.

These little star-shaped flowers were all over the lower part of the trail. It looked and felt like spring.
As we got closer to Harry's Ridge, we started to see more and more snow.
All that remains of trees that were shattered in the blast from 31 years ago.

Mt. Adams stands watch over Spirit Lake. The remnants of the blasted trees make an eerie log jam against the eastern coast line of the lake due to the winds that were blowing in from the west that day.
Remains of cornices.
The end of the trail.
Looking back down the path we'd just taken.
Looking to our left, over Spirit Lake and a ridge of snow.

After chilling -- literally, it was maybe 30F with the wind chill -- at the end of the trail for 15-20 minutes, we started heading back. One of the other guys in our group also had problems on the narrow ledge portion of the trail, and told me that his "blinders" had worked wonders. He'd taken painters' tape and basically blocked off his peripheral vision. It made sense; and once we'd returned to the dreaded area, I just used my hand to block off my left side vision whenever it became overwhelming, which was pretty much just the center section, where the trail was the narrowest, and there were no shrubs or flowers to block the view down into the crevice.
Andy forges ahead, while I use "taking a picture" as an excuse to steel my nerves.

During the return through here, some impatient "hikers" behind us almost caused a disaster when I paused at an area to let some people coming the other way come through. They decided to rush past our group, and one of them ran headlong into one of those coming the other way. For a long moment, it seemed that someone might lose their balance, but fortunately, everyone was fine.
The view was incredible on our way back.

We made it back to the parking lot just around 2:30PM, and chilled for a little bit before Andy and I headed off to Packwood and the rest back home to Oregon. It would take just about two hours to get to the Hampton Mills lot and I was in for quite a surprise when we got there.

Indoor paddock. Covered impound. And a nice sized asphalt lot nestled behind in between those buildings, with a gorgeous view of the mountains, including Mt. Rainier.
There were motor homes in here too!

Very laid back atmosphere, easy registration and tech, saying "hi" to my west coast friends... at some point, I walked each course once, then we decided it was time to check into the hotel and hang out at Friday night karaoke at the Blue Spruce Saloon. Kyra Jenkins and George Hudetz were the karaoke stars until Ron Bauer and Karl Coleman showed up, but by that time, I was ready to sleep. My legs were killing me after the hike, and I was antsy for Saturday morning and competition, even if I was the only ESP car there and so in bump class 2 against the likes of Tom Kotzian and Ryan Otis.

To Be Continued!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Road Trip!

In all the years I've been autocrossing (since 1993, for those keeping count), a car that is fully prepped to the SCCA "street" prepared rules has been anything but streetable. Stiff springs, unforgiving shock settings, harsh bushings, no A/C, no radio, race seats....

So, it made perfect sense to drive a nearly fully set-up ESP WRX three thousand miles, from Baltimore, Maryland to Packwood, Washington.

Let me preface this story by saying that Packwood wasn't my first choice for a summer road trip. I was supposed to go to Colorado Springs instead. But due to some problems that popped up after the Delaware Tour, and some bad timing on everyone's part, I ended up asking to transfer that entry to the last ProSolo of the year. Shortly thereafter, I was asked if I wanted to join a friend and some of his buddies on a hike at Mount St. Helens before the autocross. I was in.

I left Tuesday, July 19. My last regular season hockey game was on Monday night (and I scored a goal!), so I slept in, and took my time getting packed, so I hit the road around 2PM. I only got as far as Elkhart, Indiana, when I finally decided to find a hotel. SCCA has a member discount through Choice Hotels, and I have a gold membership with their Choice Privileges, so I was making reservations on the road the whole time, starting with this one. Their staff was awesome in helping me find hotels along my route and picking something that would work for me.

The biggest problem with staying in Elkhart was that my timing to get through the Chicago area was going to be terrible. I left the hotel just after 6AM, and it was bad, nearly Baltimore/DC area bad. Once I got through that, it was clear sailing into Wisconsin, where after a poor experience trying to find a Subway for lunch, I decided to do what Brian Ciarlei did on his trip to California -- no chain restaurants. I couldn't go all out and do the "no interstates" thing too, as I wanted to make sure I got to Mount St. Helens by 10AM on Friday, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of no chains.

And then I got the idea of getting microbrews from various areas as souvenirs for Pat. So, the first one I picked up was a Two Women by New Glarus Brewing out of Wisconsin.

From Wisconsin, I continued across I-90 through Minnesota and South Dakota, coming into Rapid City around 10:30PM. I'd stopped earlier in Murdo for a buffalo burger at "The Diner" that was part of the "Pioneer Auto Show" (an indoor museum/gift shop), so once I'd checked in, I was ready to sleep, though I was thinking about how to get over to Mt. Rushmore and/or the Badlands in the morning. In the end, I figured I couldn't sneak it in, and just got on the road.

Sunset at a scenic overlook near Northwest Jackson, SD

Thursday was Montana day. That was pretty much the jist of it... Montana. It's damned huge. I jumped back on I-90, squirted onto US212 for a bit to cut out a section of the interstate that went to Gillette, WY, then came back to I-90 in Montana. A stop in Livingston (Yellowstone Valley) for lunch netted another microbrew to bring back to Pat.

Traveling through Crow Country in Montana was a bit depressing. I've never really been around Native Americans, and seeing what Heather Everett aptly described as, "urban problems in a rural setting," was sobering. Here I am, a single woman, traveling across the country on what amounts to a whim, in one of my three vehicles, while Crow natives walk miles along the interstate to and from their destinations. It's a good reminder that a lot of us take a lot of things for granted in our lives, whether it's a roof over our heads and food on our tables, or extravagances like being able to go to amusement parks at the drop of a hat.

I spent hours hoping to see this train of 737s again to get a better pic!

Just across the state line into Idaho, I made another stop, mainly to clean the bugs off the windshield. I should have replaced the wiper blades and put some Rain-X on the windshield before I left, but hindsight is... yeah. This was the "skinny" part of Idaho, and with a 75mph speed limit, I would be through it in under an hour.

My goal for Thursday night was Yakima, Washington. I figured Yakima would give me enough time to get to Johnston Ridge Observatory on Friday morning. Spokane saw some crappy road construction that slowed me down, but Yakima was an easy reach, and I had time to grab some dinner at Mel's Diner just down the street from my place of rest.

Just over three hours of driving on Friday morning, though Packwood and Toledo, and I pulled up to the group of Subarus and one Mazdaspeed 3 at 9:58AM, a full two minutes early. Andy Howe greeted me, we went to the Observatory to check in and get our wristbands, and we were ready to start the nearly nine mile hike of the Boundary Trail.

I will continue the trek tomorrow, but until then, here is the view from the trail at the beginning of our journey.

To Be Continued!