2008 Volkswagen R32, 2011 Audi Club NW 'Quattrofest' at Portland International Raceway

Most images from Jeffrey R. Dahl, photographer at Quattrofest 2011

Portland International Raceway is located to the north of downtown Portland, OR - it's pretty much right on the Columbia river. This and Pacific Raceways in Kent, WA are my two major 'backyard tracks', and I had yet to experience either of them prior to this. I had been driving down to California to hang out with the SoCal R32 crowd.

'Pyrobob' was a local fixture on the Pacific Northwest VW boards, and he tried to get me to join him at Portland with the Audi Club in 2009, but I had recently been down to Spring Mountain and pled 'poverty'. He reported having a great time, particularly in pushing a car at track speeds in the rain. But then he moved to Boston, so....

'JRutter' has the Audi version of my car, an A3 with the 3.2 VR6 motor and AWD. He poked his head into the VWVortex R32 boards and asked if anybody wanted to 'come out and play', since there were very few cars like his in the Audi group. I joined Audi Club NW so that I'd be on their mailing list, and then waited for the Quattrofest announcement.

Getting the hang of Audi Club NW was a little odd. They are a 501c3 with a charter to advance driver education. From the outside looking in, it looks like a bunch of track days and social gatherings, with a few scenic drives thrown in. What's not abundantly obvious is that they won't let you on the track until you pass through one of their basic driver education classes, about six hours worth. If I had a teenager who was new to driving and wanted to take it to the next level, this would be a great class. They put you through slaloms, max braking (feel that ABS pulse), skid pad, and emergency lane change maneuvers.

They only offer this education twice a year, so if you try to get hooked up with Audi Club NW at one of their track days that doesn't have this class, you're out of luck. The only exception that I heard is if you've been through the Mercedes-Benz or BMW school, they'll count that.

This left me in an odd place. I'm fifty-one, been pushing cars hard for about 40 years, I've had three track days prior to this one - Speed Ventures rates me as 'intermediate', but in Audi Club NW, you basically have to check all that 'ego' at the door and start at the beginning. Objectively, it's good to break the art of driving down into small chunks so that you can really concentrate on one thing at a time. Having said that, I reported to the track gate around 0700, and seven hours later, my trip odometer read eight miles, and that included the drive from the hotel! Be patient, and you'll get through it.

I had assumed that they let my VW R32 come out to play because VW and Audi are part of the same company. I was wrong - it seems that Audi Club NW is fairly agnostic on the brand thing, they're all about driver education. I'd guess roughly half of the vehicles at Quattrofest were not Audis. There were lots of BMWs and Porsches, a handful of VWs, and at least one each of Mitsubishi, Datsun, Lotus, Dodge, Ford and a Subie STI. There were pristine daily drivers, track rats, and everything in between.

First thing to do after getting into the track parking lot was to strip the car down to 'track naked'. As a rule, I tend to travel with way too much stuff, so this took a while. It's also the first time I've ever done this in the rain, and that complicates things. I was prepared with proper clothing and tarps, but it's just kind of a hassle to figure out the sequence of taking things out of the vehicle, keep track of which items can sit directly on wet pavement, throw the tarp over them, peel the tarp back and add something to the pile.... then try to remember where everything is so you can peel the tarp back and find your torque wrench, etc.

In hindsight, I need to start leaving a bunch of stuff home. Just simple stuff, like cleaning the interior (including glovebox) out while I'm still at home. Leave all the rugs home. Leave the hatchback 'package shelf' at home. Stuff like that. On a more detailed note, I'm working on leaving behind the 50 pound 'three-holer' tool bag that has everything - transitioning to a small 'track day' tool bag with the basics.

At the mandatory tech inspection, the team of instructors was quite thorough, unlike other inspections I'd gone through on previous track days. We had a discussion about my floor mats, which are actually snapped in pretty solid. I was told something to the effect that, yes, they're pretty solid, but ACNW really prefers you remove them. So I did.

After everybody cleared tech, the 'autocrossers' crossed the track into the infield, the advanced track guys went out to play, and the rest of us went to school. During 'school', we did not wear helmets, and a rotating cast of instructors would jump into our cars, introduce themselves, and walk us through the goals, the 'how to' of each class, and then tips for improvement on successive runs. All of my classes were run with ESP (VW version of stability control / traction control) engaged.

Slalom - irregular
My first 'class' was a slalom, but it was unlike any I had seen before. This one was curved, with the cones at irregular intervals. In a perfect world, we would have done the straight and regular slalom first, but with three run groups trying to get through five classes in minimal times, some of us ran these things in a less than optimal order.

As you might expect, the first pass is moderate speed, just to sort of learn the layout and the concept. Subsequent passes are faster, with the goal of getting a feel for the car as it loosens up along with learning 'where to look' so that you don't get either 'behind the curve' or caught in the trap of driving a point-to-point zig-zag.

My next 'class' was maximum braking. They layed out the brake lane in a slight curve. I guess this was because they were a tad short of space, and they wanted to align the exit with a large treeless expanse of grass, just in case somebody really failed to correctly execute the braking...

If you've never driven on a track or taken a performance driving school, your idea of a 'fast drive' might mean never touching the brakes, conserving your momentum. In reality, braking for performance driving is remarkably violent in order to be maximally effective. This class was an introduction to that max braking. At a minimum, they want to ensure that drivers with cars that are equipped with ABS get a chance to 'feel' the pulsing in the pedal that is characteristic of the system working properly. A lot of drivers flinch when they first feel that, because it feels a little like something is 'wrong' with the car - almost like a wheel out of balance.

You 'launch' into the brake class at full throttle for maybe 300 feet, then brake hard at a set of cones and stop inside of the 'cone box'. If your car brakes better than most, you're encouraged to brake later so that you get the max speed in the exercise (not sure, maybe 60mph?)

Once you're comfortable with braking hard and feeling the ABS take over, in subsequent runs you're encouraged to advance to 'threshold braking'. Threshold braking is defined (more or less) as braking just hard enough to avoid wheel lock-up, and no harder. On an ABS equipped car, threshold braking essentially means braking just hard enough to achieve maximum braking without the ABS engaging. For a skilled driver, this is supposed to be superior to ABS. I'm not certain I mastered threshold braking. In practice, my R32 has a lot of brake authority and a very good ABS (i.e., it works well without being upsetting to the balance of the vehicle or the driver) so whether or not I'm threshold braking or actually into the ABS region is just 'points on the continuum'.

A last word about braking and 'violence'. 'Grenading' the brakes (smashing your foot down onto the brake pedal sharply as hard as you can) will in general stop the car in a hell of a hurry. It will also upset the balance of the car, diminishing controlability. Good ABS helps with this, but the true advanced technique is to smoothly let off the throttle (don't 'snap' your foot off the throttle) and smoothly but rapidly squeeze the brake pedal to get to threshold braking. You can release brake pressure smoothly as you get to the end of your braking (this will help later with cornering). Oddly this is the opposite of what most of us do on the streets - we brake a little, and then clamp down harder and harder as we approach the desired stop line.

Skid pad
Next 'class' for me was the skid pad. I'm not certain if that's what it was called... It was two 180 degree turns of cones that formed a rough oval in the parking lot. One turn was decreasing radius. The point of the exercise was to feel the car break traction a bit and experience understeer, oversteer, and sliding. Jason was my instructor here, and he said something like, "Go ahead and get it really loose if you want. If they yell at you, tell them I said it was alright..." We had some fun, though in hindsight we could have really danced if I turned the ESP off.

After the skid pad, we transitioned to the regular slalom. It was probably fortunate that we did the max braking exercise first, as the slalom dead-ended with no real run-out. If you were developing decent speed in the slalom, you needed to brake with quite a bit of authority at the end to keep it in check.

I had fun in the slalom, as it was easy to develop a rhythm and keep stepping it up in subsequent passes. Unfortunately, I got black-flagged after four runs. Jay, the instructor running the slalom saw a little 'rainbow' around the start line on my third run, though he wasn't sure if it was me or the car behind me. The rainbow is an indication that some vital fluid with hydrocarbons is leaking somewhere. After my fourth run, he confirmed that it was me, from around the right rear, and sent me to the parking lot to check for leaks.

This was a bit of a dark moment for me. I'd driven 200 miles and dropped about $500 for a track day, and I still hadn't made it onto the track. I looked under the car with a strong flashlight and could 'see no evil'. I looked under the hood and found not a thing untoward. A former R32 owner commiserated with me, asking me if I had been running the AC. I told him I had in fact been running the AC and defogger since it was raining, and instructors were in and out of my car all the time. The R32 guy said it had to be condensate from the AC.

Jason the instructor stopped by after 20-30 minutes and asked me what I'd found. I told him I hadn't found anything at all, but that I thought it might possibly be AC condensate. He seemed dubious about that, and I said something like, "OK, so now what? How do I get re-admitted to the classes and track?" He advised me to put some clean cardboard under the car and go eat lunch. After lunch, the cardboard had clean miniscus puddles of water on it, and that's it. Jason cleared me to resume classes.

A week later, I finally guessed what was likely happening. My gas tank was full, just 6 miles driven. Oregon has no self-serve gas, the attendant has to do it. I figure they either slightly over-filled the tank or spilled a scant half-teaspoon of gas in the fuel filler recess area. When I romped on the throttle, that little bit of gas hits the drain hole and drips down near my rear tire. Making rainbows.

Lane Change
The lane change class was interesting. You've probably seen something like it before. At the end of the course there are three lanes, each with a 'box of cones' defining the stop zone, and an ordinary red-yellow-green traffic light at the end of each lane. You accelerate to 35-40mph aimed right at the center lane, with all three lights green. As you pass through a gate in front of the three lanes, the instructor triggers the traffic lights, and you have to respond to them. For example, the left and center lights might turn red, leaving the right lane green. You then have to execute an emergency lane change and then stop inside the box. It 'simulates' what might happen to you when you come across stopped traffic unexpectedly.

David, my first instructor for this class, emphasized that fixating on any one light usually did *not* work, you needed to be looking 'well down the road' and react to the lights when you see them turn. I watched several of my fellow students go before me with varying degrees of success. On the first pass, some just froze, some were successful, and some picked off one or two cones with their lane change maneuver.

I decided I wasn't going to learn anything from this if I tried to 'take it easy', so I went ahead and launched at full throttle. When I got the lane change signal, I cut the wheel hard: first to change lanes, and then again to straighen it out. Then hard onto the brakes to stay in the box. Except it all happened way faster than you can read it, something like "Bam-Bam-Bam!" David and I sat in the box laughing in that odd way that guys do when they've just cheated death or something.

"Holy shit!"

"Yeah! But am I clean?"

"Oh yeah, you're clean! But I need a cervical collar to ride with you!"

I got a lot of encouragement from the assembled instructors for that performance. On the next run, the instructor manning the lights gave me a 'Kobayashi Maru'; waiting a beat after I crossed the gate before triggering the lights. I think it was something like "Green Yellow Red" left to right, and I had to settle for the Yellow in the center. My ride-along instructor on that leg said, "Nobody could get that one, he's messing with ya."

I did a couple more runs, but none as satisfying as that first one.

On to the Track

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