2008 Volkswagen R32, 2012 Audi Club NW 'Strassenlage' at The Ridge, Shelton, WA

August 25th, 2012 was the debut for Audi Club NW at The Ridge, a new track in Shelton, WA. The Ridge opened late last year or earlier this year, and it's on everybody's list of tracks to see and figure out in the greater Puget Sound area.

Audi Club used this unique opportunity to re-evaluate their training methods. The number of people in the club who had previously run the track probably could be counted on one hand. This really strained the usual training model, where there's a large number of rated instructors with experience on that track to draw on. In this instance, every run group, from intermediate to advanced, did a "lead - follow" exercise for their first session, and then did group debriefs after every session. In the debrief, there were sprited discussions on what line worked in what corner, failures to give way to faster traffic (very few), things like that.

There was also renewed emphasis on ride-along instruction, with instructors approaching in the pits, asking if they could join you. Audi Club's stated rationale is that they feel they've done a good job of entry level instruction, but that once a person is qualified to drive solo, they have a tendency to drop off the club's radar, and not have a solid path to improvement. I guess I fit that demographic - I have been getting better, but I've been doing so at sort of a personal level, getting ride-alongs here and there, but not really engaged with the clubs formal teaching apparatus.

Part of my learning curve on a 'new to me' track is that 'the line' doesn't speak to me until I can feel the car want to drift out to the edge of the track. I have a sort of blind spot, where as the line is shown to me, it just feels way 'off' until I'm actually pulling some lateral G's. Once I can pull G's, things start to fall into place - gator placement makes sense, late apexing makes sense, I start to visualize where I might depart the track at high speed, stuff like that.

In my second run session (I think it was the second), Paul joined me as a ride-along instructor. He was a wealth of information, but it took us a few laps to find a sort of commonality of communication. In general, I am long on driving enthusiasm - I'm fine with leaving a little rubber on the road in braking zones and in the corners - and I'm trying to find my 'smooth' within that context. As an instructor new to me and my car, I'm sure it's a little freaky to drop into that situation, maybe question your sanity about putting your safety into a stranger's hands, and then "instruct" from there...

Paul helped me sort out Turn 11. The basic coneage and published club line has a driver making a late turn in from the outside edge of the track, and a late apex on this hairpin turn. Paul suggested I move both entrance and apex up a little, using the last 'braking cone' as my turn in instead. This felt much better as I adapted it as my own on the subsequent laps, although it did lead to a few 'Blue Angels' style formation turns as I was woefully out of sync with those ahead and behind me in the turn! No paint was exchanged, it just got a little interesting as I lost sight of the person behind me while concentrating on not inadvertently overtaking the person in front of me.

One of the trickiest things about being the receiver of instruction on the track is the whole 'synchronicity' of it. The instructor is often telling you about what you did wrong or could do better from the previous turn complex, and at the same time, you're trying to negotiate the *current* turn complex, concentrating with all of your might on the task at hand. Instructors know that "you're busy", and some of them save their detailed commentary for the front straight, where for the most part, the driver has less input to think about, it's just pedal to the metal, shift at redline, etc. Unfortunately, it's also loud on the front straight. With helmets on and windows down, only the most excited utterances make it through the audio clutter.

Some of the lessons that Paul taught me (as well as the things discussed in the debriefs) only began to jell in later sessions, where I could cogitate on them further, sneak up on them while driving alone, stuff like that. One I recall was being a little lost in the Turn 10 area of the track. Turn 10 is sort of a "non-turn", but it's also high speed with a lack of visual references. Getting a consensus from the run group that "stay left, throttle pegged" was the way to approach it was a big help.

The exit to Turn 9 was one of those difficult to sort areas of the track for me. As I started adding speed in 9, I got to a place where I was dancing on the edge of control trying to keep it on the track. When coupled with others in my run group still sorting out "how much speed they can carry" in the following turns, (a recurring theme for me), this made things a little interesting. When you're on the edge of control, having to lift for somebody running 20 mph slower is disconcerting, to say the least. We all figured it out together, with my part being later apexing on turn 9 giving me more margin going up the hill.

After lunch, Jason joined me as a ride-along instructor. Jason had been one of my 'basic skills' instructor in the previous year, but I had yet to have him as a track instructor. I had heard good things from others about his innate abilities and his ability to communicate track dynamics. His approach was refreshing; after asking me if I wanted instruction or just a 'passenger', he said he would observe quietly for a lap or two before providing input.

On that first lap, he asked me a few short questions, like what sort of tires I'm running (I run Direzza Star Specs, which are a "near-racing" but still street legal tire) and giving me general encouragement on the sections of track that I was doing OK on.

After observing for a lap, Jason started to give me some very specific instruction. A notable contribution was how I was transiting the "Lemur Complex", turns 2-3-4 at The Ridge. While I had been making some progress there on my own, Jason gave me a key tip, which was to turn in on 4 before I really "saw" it. This was a key nugget. When looking at a track map without having driven the course, turn 4 seems a little inconsequential, but it's relatively high speed (done right), and it's the key to maxing out turn 5 and the following straight.

Unfortunately for me, in the middle of my learning experience with Jason, I blew up my motor. I know, I know, I buried the lead. My old editor, Mikki Silly-Ass is cursing me.....

Jason and I were blasting along, sharing knowledge, when suddenly my power dropped off by half or more. I had a flashing Check Engine Light (CEL), but my temps were 'track normal'. I thought I could maybe limp it back to the pits, but after a couple more turns, the engine sounded worse, and we started to see smoke coming from the engine compartment.

At Jason's urging, I pulled it off the edge of the track, where ensued a discussion about the wisdom of staying "belted and helmeted" per club guidelines vs. getting the hell away from a car on fire. As it happened, the car was *not* on fire, but I learned something about when the rules should be broken...

The tow truck guys were not pleased that I did not have my tow hook installed (nor in the car), and I learned something about merging all of the 'track rules' from various clubs in my head - just because a club doesn't require a tow hook, it's still a good idea.

Since my breakdown was at the 'higher elevation' part of the track, it was relatively simple to push my car the few hundred feet to the "downhill turn" (#13) and let gravity do the work to get me back to the pits.

Fortunately for me, my mechanic, Jacob from Motoring Unlimited was one of the main sponsors of the event. During the initial damage assessment, we shared a nervous laugh that the motor did *not* appear to be leaking oil from the cam area, where he had installed some Schrick 272/264 cams just about a month prior. Jacob had brought an empty race trailer with him with an array of tools so he could do tech support. He offered to haul my car back to his shop in the trailer, so that was a neat dovetailing of logistics.

I also had paddocked next to Tony and Brian F., who lived near me in Woodinville. Tony had been my primary instructor last year in Portland, and they were gracious enough to offer me a ride home.

Fortunately for me, I had purchased a spare motor, a new in box 3.2 liter VR6 about three months prior. My dead motor had about 90,000 miles on it. I had assumed it would take me to maybe 150,000 miles before it needed replacing, but I got a good deal on the new one, so I had set it aside as "insurance". At this writing, Jacob is in the process of installing the new motor.

What went wrong? I really have no idea. I do know that the #6 piston has a hole in the face of it. The spark plug has significant impact damage, and there are bits of "valve" in the debris field. There's a 2x2" ragged hole in the block at the #6 connecting rod, which is where the oil was escaping. Once I get it back on the road, I may spend a little time tearing the old motor down for "souvenirs" and any salvageable parts.

Contributing factors in no particular order:

Blank Ridge comment sheet

Comment sheet with notes from August 25th, 2012

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