A NNJ WEEKEND AT WATKINS GLEN
by Ray Calvo
In case you don't know, several PCA regions
in the east put on driver's schools at Watkins Glen. Having driven
there only once but wanting to go back, I started looking last spring at
who would be putting on schools there. One caught my eye - a three
day school put on by Northern New Jersey (NNJ) for only $95! I decided
to give it a try. Discussions with some more experienced driver's
school instructors initially put a damper on my enthusiasm. NNJ apparently
has a reputation for being a bunch of "hotshoes" - a very aggressive collection
of drivers. Also, they throw a gigantic number of cars out on the
track at a time. Even so, the cost was still attractive. For car
preparation, NNJ requires that the car be inspected by an independent shop
prior to coming to the track. The items requiring checking are similar
to our checklist, although they REQUIRE a securely mounted fire extinguisher
in the driver's compartment and a helmet meeting the newer 1985 SNELL standard.
The registration packet included only
about three pages - the car tech form, medical form, and some info on hotels
and schedule. NOTHING about conduct of the school, rules, helpful
hints, etc. that we include in our driver's registration packet.
Upon arriving at the track, I was extremely
shocked to find that the total number of drivers equalled almost THREE
of our driver's schools - a total of almost 225 drivers divided up into
six different classes, about 35 cars per class!!
The tech line was three wide, and included
checking the same items we check at our schools. One interesting
item was that the tech was repeated every day, with brake lining thickness
being checked on the third day.
The driver's meeting was conducted almost
in a lacksadaisical fashion, in my feeling. The attitude almost seemed
"OK, you folks all know this already, but it has to be done." One
interesting thing was their passing rules- theirs is that the car being
passed stays on a normal line while the passing car gets off-line to complete
the pass. This largely has the passing car set up at the inside of
a corner at the entrance if he makes a late pass, which is more dangerous
than our rules where the passing car (i.e. one going faster) generally
keeps the normal line. Next surprise came when my driving session
came up. When the session started, ALL the cars in my group were
waived onto the course AT THE SAME TIME in one tight continuous line.
The first lap is under yellow, so no passing is allowed. After that,
LOOK OUT - you are constantly in traffic. Coming up the long back
straight, all I could see were cars darting left and right as passes were
done (all legitimately, however). I had to drive essentially with
one eye looking forward and one staring into my rear view mirror.
Just as the traffic was spread out and you could start concentrating on
driving - bang, out came the checkered flag (the sessions were only 16
These short sessions resulted in my next
surprise. Unlike our schools, there is no full cooldown lap.
While Watkins Glen is a long enough track in my opinion to need only the
cooldown portion from the end of the back straight to the pits, I actually
got the checker one time far later at a track section called the "heel
of the boot" - this is probably only 1/2 mile from the pits. So,
coming back to the paddoock with still red-hot brakes and waiting until
the next group cleared out so I could park, I warped a brake rotor by holding
the car stationary with the brakes. Another item is that no classroom
sessions are given for the beginning drivers. To me, if truly a "driver's
education" event is being put on, these should be conducted. I know
that I was able to still get useful information from one recently put on
for the ADVANCED driving groups at one of the Ohio region's schools.
In summary, would I do it again?
Not if there was another region that put on a school at the Glen that more
closely matched our procedures (fewer cars, longer sessions, classroom
education). I would be willing to pay the probable $150 - 200 for
a more relaxed school.
Would I recommend the NNJ school to anyone
else? If cost is uppermost in your mind and you have significant
driver's school experience, then go for it. It's largely a matter
of getting what you pay for. If you are a novice, however, I would
have misgivings about their schools. I tend to feel that you would
have to concentrate too much on traffic to learn anything and the
lack of classroom sessions won't teach
you the basics. Save your money up and go to a school with fewer
|SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
by Ray Calvo
I'm sure by now you've noticed that I have
tried to pass on my "nuggets of wisdom" (i.e., here's how I screwed up
- DON'T DO IT YOUSELF) at opportune times. Well, the following little
lessons in car ownership, driving, and repair gained over about 30 years
and almost 1 million miles (see note) of driving might be of assistance
to you. If not, you should be able to at least get a few chuckles
out of them.
1) Early in my teenager years, I was helping
my father do some body & fender work on our '62 Buick Skylark (nice
little car - all aluminum V-8, 11:1 compression, 4-speed manual).
It had been sideswiped by an 18-wheeler, and we were replacing the left
front fender. Being a little "frugal" and enterprising, my father
decided that we could repaint the fender (nice simple black) with those
touch-up Dupli-color cans. Well, it never worked out - no matter
what we did, kept getting runs, orange peel, pebbly/sandy finish, etc.
I forget how many times we sanded and rubbed out that fender; I think we
went through about 6-8 cans of that touch-up paint. Finally, brought
the fender in to a body shop, where they sprayed it with a nice glossy
black for about $20.
LESSON: Leave body repair and painting
to the experts.
2) My first car was an Austin America (for
you folks born after Woodstock, imagine a king-size BMC Mini, with all
of the joys of the unique British definition of car reliability).
One day, I noticed that the gas gauge just started reading "Empty".
No problem, I thought; I can make it up the road 2 miles where gas is 2
cents cheaper (this is in the days when a gallon was 29 cents). Yeah,
right - about 100 yards from the station, the car sputtered, popped, and
LESSON: Like any pilot who has taken
instrument flight rule training knows, trust your gauges! And, according
to the English, "E" means "EMPTY-fill up NOW"!
3) With my old '76, I could lock the doors
without using a key. Handy feature at times, but it DID get me in
trouble once. I would normally leave the car in the garage with the
key in the ignition. Once, when I had completed doing some work on
the car, in a lapse of reasoning, I slammed the door and locked it. "No
problem", you say, "get the spare key and open the door?" The only
problem with this rationale - the spare key was sitting on the passenger
car seat (don't ask)!
LESSON: 1) Before locking the car
(or the house), check your pockets for the keys. 2) Yes, you CAN break
into these older models with a coat hanger.
4) Again on the old '76, as I remember
I was changing spark plugs. Now, in order to see what I was doing,
I used one of these trouble lights with a 100W bulb and a metal reflector
(also called a "drop light", since you will invariably drop it, destroying
the bulb and plunging you into eternal darkness). Also, as you "Shadetree
Mechanics" know, you can get first or second degree burns when that reflector
hits unprotected skin. Also, it has a propensity for melting plastic
- such as the fuel injection lines in the CIS fuel injection on a certain
'76 911S!. I drove the car up to an IRAC autocross at Nemacolin,
and when I drove up to registration, the weakened line broke right then!
Now, with gas spraying out above a nice hot exhaust, you can imagine the
results - a small flame, to put it mildly! Fortunately, a fire extinguisher
was readily available, and the flame was extinguished before any damage
LESSON: Watch when using a drop
light; check anything it could have come in contact with. Also, if
you have ANY damage to a commodity with gasoline in it, get it fixed IMMEDIATELY!)
Note: I have always been in deep
thankfulness for Bob Nikel's help in getting me patched up so that I could
make it home safely).
5) This was on the '84 Turbo-Look.
Decided to do one of my normal 6000 mile oil changes. When I installed
the oil filter, I read the instructions on the filter - "screw on hand-tight
then an additional 1/2 turn". OK, got it hand-tight, then got out
the filter wrench and tightened it another 1/2 turn. Well, at the
next oil change, that sucker wouldn't budge! Try as I might, I couldn't
get the filter loose. Finally I cut the body and filter element out,
leaving only the flange wedged tight against the threaded pipe connection
on the oil tank. Well, I STILL couldn't get the filter flange off!
Finally had to remove the oil tank, and cut off the flange with a Dremel
tool, all the time worried that one slip of the tool would destroy the
oil tank lip or the brass threaded pipe.
LESSON: Oil filters should ONLY
be tightened by hand. Have not had one leak yet.
6) Again, on the Turbo-Look. Was
driving back home from a driver's education event out at Mid-Ohio.
Dusk was approaching, so I turned on the headlights. Well, soon noticed
as it got darker, so did the lights on the car! Just as it dawned
on me that the alternator was dead, the = car died due to insufficient
voltage for the fuel injection. This was about 5 miles west of Wexford
on the Green Stamp. Eventually, thru the good graces of Ed Boozel
and Ted Diehl, I got the car down to Sewickley and myself home.
LESSON: 1) Alternators can fail
in modes that won't register in an alternator light coming on. Best
recommendation is when first turn on key, check the alternator light.
If it comes on then and goes out after the car starts, alternator is OK.
2) Install a voltmeter in the car as an accessory instrument (are easy
to install and can get nice digital ones that are fairly unobtrusive).
If it reads less than about 14V under normal driving and less than about
12.5V anytime the engine is on, you've got charging problems.
7) This was in the 993. Was an instructor
at a Northern Ohio driver's education event at Nelson's. Now, they
didn't mandate a tech of instructor's cars, so didn't have to be at track
until about 9:00. So, figured I could leave early Saturday AM from
home and still make it. However, since I'm still normally catching
ZZZZZ's at 6:00AM, I needed a coffee pick-me-up for the drive. Stopped
into local Burger King for a large, and proceeded on my way. When
I finally maneuvered the two-lanes past the lights and got on the PA Turnpike,
reached down for the coffee. Murphy's law strikes - it had tipped
over and dumped the entire contents into the passenger seat and on the
LESSON: MADD is right; drinking
and driving DON'T mix!
8) Again, in the 993. I had returned
from a race track driver's education event, and decided to swap the car
back into "street" form. This involves changing brake pads, bleeding/flushing
the brakes, and changing tires form the track R1's to street Comp T/A's.
Well, did all that, then decided to go for a drive the next weekend.
Well, I got about 1 mile when the car felt extremely loose and was clunking
over bumps! Pulling over into the nearest parking area (conveniently,
a cemetery!), I shook the front wheel, and momentarily panicked when it
moved about a half inch. As you might have guessed, I had forgotten
to retorque the wheels!
LESSON: Always double-check your
work (I also have lost many misc. tools, a fuel filler cap and a college
ring due to similar stupidity. The filler cap you can imagine that;
the ring had been removed when I was trying to get at an impossible nut,
and was left on the engine compartment lip after I was done! Similar with
tools; leave 'em scattered around the engine compartment and fail to check
before closing the hood.).
9) This was early in my driving experience
- the first snowstorm in the Austin! Well, with front-wheel drive
(rare in 1970), I figured I had it made. Went out gallivanting, pushing
it a little harder and harder through each snow-covered corner. Then,
at one corner, I turned the wheel - and nothing happened! I cranked
the wheel over a little more, and let up on the gas - still nothing.
Next, completely off the gas and crank the wheel nearly to full lock.
Well, scrubbed off enough speed where the tires finally bit, and then the
car snapped around quickly. Naturally, I start steering frantically
the other way, nearly to full opposite lock. About 3-5 seconds later,
the car starts swapping directions again. I kept up this pirouette
for about 3 cycles, until the car stopped completely sideways. Fortunately,
I hadn't hit anything, and no damage was done except to my ego. I
then turned the car around, and drove meekly back to the house and parked
it in the driveway for the rest of that day.
LESSON: No matter how good a driver
you think you are, you can still get yourself in trouble. Slowly
build up experience and don't exceed your limits.
Well, those are some of my more memorable
tidbits. Anybody have any they want to pass on (well, we all know
A million miles of driving? Let's
see, roughly in chronological order:
'70 Austin America: 120,000
'70 Renault 10:
'75 Renault Le Car:
'80 Fiat Strada:
'85 VW GTI:
6,000 miles (AKA "the Firebird")
'86 Honda Accord:
'87 Honda Accord:
'84 Porsche Carrera: 100,000
'90 Audi Coupe:
'98 Audi Avant:
10,000 miles (parent's, friend's, rentals, etc.)
813,000 miles! (if I added right)