A Long Way Down [with apologies to Nick Hornby]
I HAVE BEEN ABSENT from these pages for a while writing of how to spend a winter driving on a warm, dry and sunny track. But this year, I’m in Florida once again with two main goals; to keep my aging body out of the cold and to try to get back to where I was in terms of driving ability a couple of years ago.
Previously, I had Martini, my 2010 Cayman S, trucked to Florida and I drove myself there with my border collie, Ben. With the passing of Ben, a year ago, I thought it was time to see what it was like towing my rig and shipping my convertible, an Audi S5 Cabrio. In another article I will describe the sort of thing one needs to take into consideration for a long-distance tow as it is certainly an interesting experience.
I live in snow country, the south east corner of Georgian Bay, infamous for the serious attention that the dreaded “lake effect snow” gives us on an all too frequent basis. However, with my departure date set as November 19th, I felt reasonably certain I would get out before the white stuff appeared. Wrong. My driveway was plowed seven times before the end of that month and so it was, I loaded Martini and set off with around a foot of snow on the ground—and on the top of the trailer where my roof rake would not reach!
The first overnight stop was in Sarnia. I chose to go that way as the border crossing is usually very quiet and the view going over the Bluewater Bridge can be quite spectacular to the north as you look up Lake Huron. The name of that bridge is very apt. But not the morning I crossed it—there had been freezing rain during the night which was then covered with snow and the visibility was poor. Traction was very limited, and the local radio station was constantly warning of bad road conditions and literally hundreds of accidents. Once over the border and heading south toward Detroit there indeed they were—spin offs to the left, spin offs to the right and yet we sailed straight through with no problems.
It was unbelievably cold for the Atlanta area in November and some of the locals delighted in telling us that it had been 80 degrees Fahrenheit the previous weekend. But we had around 36 degrees F and it was raining a steady and soaking drizzle.
I continued south during the US Thanksgiving and arrived a couple of days later at Road Atlanta for a Chin Motorsports track event. On the Friday, Brandon, my PCA friend from Rochester, NY flew into town and joined me. On Saturday morning we were at the track by 7:15 am in order to unload Martini before attending the Drivers Meeting at 7:45. Brandon’s Cayman was already at the track courtesy of L2 Motorsports. It was unbelievably cold for the Atlanta area in November and some of the locals delighted in telling us that it had been 80 degrees Fahrenheit the previous weekend. But we had around 36 degrees F and it was raining a steady and soaking drizzle. I had never been on this track, Brandon professed an almost pathological dislike of it in the wet and so we made our first wise decision of the weekend. Sitting in the large hot tub at the Chateau Elan Resort and Spa, we actually bumped into other track refugees that had made that same decision!
By mid-afternoon the track had pretty much dried and the temperature was nudging 46 degrees F. So out we went with cold tires on a cold track and slithered about for a while. But never for very long at a time. I never did get the proper “flow” of the track.
Communication in motorsport is by way of those colourful flags you can sometimes see being waved by the marshals or corner workers. Each flag is a different colour and each has a very specific meaning. The flag a driver never wishes to see is the black flag. If it is pointed at you as you go by the flagger it indicates that you have been naughty and need to come in to the pits for words with an authority figure. If it’s waved, it’s the signal to all cars to return to pit because there is an emergency or some dangerous condition on the track. We saw more black flags that weekend than in total for the year to date. Road Atlanta is a very technical track that in cold and wet conditions can bite you very quickly and very severely. Hence all the flags bringing sessions to an early end with multiple delays.
Road Atlanta is a very technical track that in cold and wet conditions can bite you very quickly and very severely. Hence all the flags bringing sessions to an early end with multiple delays.
Sunday was severely foggy and so the track was very quiet. The flag stations need to be able to see as far as the next station for safety. That was not possible until the entire morning had been forfeited to Mother Nature. Once again, the weather cheered up a little for the afternoon and things began moving again.
I should say MOST things started moving again because Martini refused to start or even attempt to start. It was not a battery problem, but I was faced with a car that seemed stuck in gear so could not even be moved to be winched into the trailer. What to do? Head down to one of the many Porsche outfits in the paddock and ask if they could help, of course. Nick from Zotz Racing was most obliging, called the computer expert at Zotz on his phone and after a long conversation headed up to my car with a golf cart full of diagnostic equipment. After hitching it up to the very immobile Martini another long conversation ensued with their computer tech. Much sucking of teeth and shaking of heads did not bode well. The diagnostics were showing absolutely no faults! Nick did somehow manage to get Martini (fondly referred to as M) out of gear and his efforts were promptly repaid by it rolling gently onto his foot! At about that point, Brandon returned from running hot laps on track and asked, “Andrew, did you know I found my car key in your ignition switch”? Going into the trailer, I found M’s key, threw it to Nick, and then watched as Martini started with the first turn. What I wondered was, what were the chances that not only did Brandon’s key fit into Martini’s keyway but that it also turned? Being a smart key, it did not read correctly, hence M’s reluctance to play.
I employ a couple of long plywood ramps to help ease the transition up into the trailer because Martini is very low at the front end with an aftermarket splitter giving just a couple of inches ground clearance. Usually I use a spotter to watch over the careful approach onto the ramp and then to indicate when the car reaches the tape line on the trailer floor which means M is correctly loaded. Balance is a key point of safe towing, too much weight to the rear and the unit will sway and can even take complete control over the tow vehicle. Too much up forward can make the nose of the tow vehicle so light that the steering will be compromised.
Next to me in the paddock was a father and his small son. The son’s name was Tim and he was, I think, about 8 or 9. He had helped his dad set up a small tent and he camped out in there while dad was on track. At pack up time, dad was still on track and Tim, bless his cotton socks, was trying manfully to coax the collapsed tent into an improbably small bag. I went over and suggested a deal —I would help him with the tent if he would be my ‘spotter’. Deal. Well that tent almost confounded the two of us but eventually the genie was back in the bottle.
Given the presence of a wide eyed 8-year-old not one bad word escaped my mouth. I just collected the pieces, loaded them up and headed back to Zotz Racing.
Off to my trailer, I explained to Tim his role in the loading. Tim cheerfully waved me in and as I gunned M up the ramp, that low splitter caught a hinge flap. I had often heard that carbon fibre [CF] although immensely strong can be very brittle when subjected to impact. That was proven in dramatic fashion as the splitter exploded into many pieces. Once inside the trailer I climbed out of the driver window to inspect. Not pretty, a completely demolished splitter and one broken piece became trapped in the front wheel well and destroyed the liner to boot.
Given the presence of a wide eyed 8-year-old not one bad word escaped my mouth. I just collected the pieces, loaded them up and headed back to Zotz Racing. Ron Zitza confirmed that yes, he had someone who does repairs in CF and glass fibre and in fact he was a bit of a whiz. We established that probably the unit was likely repairable, and I agreed to drop M at his shop on the way to Sebring. Monday, I drove 370 miles to Gainesville, FL. Tuesday, I went to Orlando and dropped off M. With no room at Zotz for the trailer I towed it down to Sebring via Sarasota to visit friends and finally dropped it off at Sick Sideways. Quite the trip.
Coming up next in part 2 (April issue), will be coverage of the December Chin event at Sebring and the “monster month” of January which saw me on track for at least 13 days; the equivalent of an entire UCR DE season in a month! </>
Story and photos by Andrew Combes, PCA UCR Member