Finding Adventure...

Want to run more this year?

So you've made your new year's resolutions and one of them is to run more (or at all!).  But as soon as you do that, the weather turns frigid. It's just not fair, right?!?  But you made the resolution, so you begrudgingly dig out what you think is "just enough" clothing to get the job done.  You know, that fine line between freezing your patootie* off until you warm up and then hopefully not so much that you boil in your own sweat.  It's a tough one.

(* Patootie is a highly technical term, sometimes referred to as your "tuckus", "tushie", or the Englishman's "bum.")

A common method that helps with this is to wear a jacket or sweatshirt that you can remove once warm and then tie around your waist.  This is often referred to as "dressing in layers."  This has its own set of problems (from fashion nightmare all the way to the potential for it falling off and tripping you and causing death-by-faceplant).  Nope, not a good idea.

One possible scenario here is that you push through it with as little as you can stand in the clothing department and avoid becoming a patootie-popsicle.  But you get warmed up, run for a little bit, and then start to get too warm.  You fight through that for a while, maybe do the dangerous sweatshirt-turned-skirt trick, and ultimately change your running route so you can quit early.  Yeah, that's right, you went to DEFCON-SCREW-IT.  So much for that resolution since it's going to be even colder tomorrow.

But there are alternatives.  I've recently started doing what I call "dressing in segments."  Now, I'm fairly lucky in that I seem to have no problem getting the lower half of my body covered in such a way that I don't need to change it during a run.  Thin Smartwool socks are the norm for me no matter the temperature (because let's face it, I don't have to exercise in sub-20F weather in NC very often, if at all).  Anything below 48F or so and I wear CW-X running tights (light insulation), but above that and it's just running shorts.

But it's the upper half of the body that's the troublesome part.  Above 48F and I generally just wear a dri-fit shirt and headband and suffer a little until warmed up.  For 35F to 48F is where the segments begin.  At this point I usually wear a Smartwool short sleeve shirt, insulated running gloves, and Smartwool arm warmers.  On the upper end, I may still wear just a dri-fit headband, but on the lower end I switch to a dry-fit type (or Smartwool) full head cap.  I've recently considered putting a headband in my pocket to switch to if the full cap gets to be too much (which means it's soaked in sweat).  On the upper end, that's all I need.  On the lower end of this range, I wear a fleece vest on top of all that. 

With that setup, I can generally be pretty comfortable at the beginning of a run.  As I get warmed up, generally I notice my hands are starting to sweat and at that point I remove the gloves and put them in my pocket.  Depending on the temperature, at some point my arms begin to get warm.  If it's far into the run, I might choose to push up the warmers a little, but generally it happens early and I remove the arm warmers while running and put those in my pocket.  I usually find a point where I also start to unzip the fleece vest, and even move to unzipping it almost all the way.

But what about below 35F?  At this point I think it's good to have a thicker cap on the head, but carry a thin one to switch to.  I would also probably just go with a long sleeve Smartwool and a thin or thicker sweatshirt depending on just how cold it is.  And the fleece vest over that.  I'll still use the gloves, but often I still need to remove those, even pretty far below 35F.  But at this point the arms are usually fine.

So none of this is rocket science, but the big revelation for some may be the arm warmer trick.  That's something that mostly only cyclists use, but I think they're great for running, too.  And notice that everything I've mentioned should be things you can easily stuff in pockets rather than having to tie things around your waist.  I'm just not a fan of that, but if it works for you, great!

Hopefully this helps you keep that resolution and stay out there running this winter!
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I'm a Warrior!

Today my buddy, Matt, and I did the Warrior Dash in Mountain City, Georgia. This was supposed to be pretty similar to the Rugged Maniac that I did a few weeks ago...all are basically obstacle course races that are about three miles in length and feature a fairly festive atmosphere. Events can vary pretty wildly from location to location due to the nature of what they have to work with, but I have to say, this particular event has a very interesting course. I don't think it was but a little over two miles in actual length, but the obstacles made up for that!

The course started out, somewhat ironically, with an annoying pavement and gravel road run. I think that allowed me to go out even harder than I planned and may have cost me a little. The first obstacle was simply having to jump into a lake and wade around fifty yards or so. And I should mention that it was nearly neck deep for my 6-2 frame in places, so some folks really had to swim! Oh, and it's Mountain City, Georgia, in May, which means the water was still pretty darned cold, especially at 8:30am!

It's hard to explain, but I took a slightly longer path through the water which got me closer to shore and through much more shallow water for much of it, which let me pass three people. Then we hit the tire area with the cars to climb over, which was really treacherous. They had it totally covered in mud. It was coming out of here that I noticed my legs seemed sort of non-existent. It wasn't a burn, it was more of a strange "you can ask for more, or even demand more, but there simply isn't more" kind of feeling. Can't recall having that. I don't know if it was the energy spent wading through the water or if it was being in water that cold for that long or a combination of the two, but it was odd, I know that.

Then I realized I had a shoe untied! I have no idea how the heck that happened, but I double-knot my running shoes and have for a while now, and am especially diligent about my shoe laces at races like this. But hey, these things happen, I suppose.

There were some run-of-the-mill obstacles like small walls to go over alternating with walls you had to crouch under. Then we hit the BIG wall. It had huge ropes hanging from it and some rungs that stuck out on the front, so while it was probably 12' high, I went over it quickly and easily (and passed folks here, too). Then we headed up onto the "mountain" trail, which was also very wet and muddy and had a good deal of slick climbing. There was a very annoying crawling feature in darkness (a tiny headlamp would be smart on these races, I think, but it would need to be small, waterproof, and cheap for the likely event you break it) and a huge cargo net feature that was thankfully more of a balance beam feature.

After leaving the mountain trail, you headed into the finish section. This started with a HUGE slide down a hill on plastic with running water on it. I was a little annoyed because as I approached there was nobody on it and four chutes and I was directed to the FURTHEST one away, with each runner behind me getting a closer path. SAY WHAT? I should have ignored the direction (I do not believe they would have DQ'ed anyone in this race for nearly anything) and taken the first one, but I did what I was told and ended up passed by one guy and maybe another just because they literally each had to run maybe 12 fewer steps than me! Ugh.

The proctors also yelled "no head first" as you approached. Hah! This thing was so long, fast, slick, and bumpy that it didn't matter. Go how you want, you're going to end up how IT wants you. I almost spun backward, but somehow found enough control to get my feet back forward. That was good, because the "end" simply slid you into a big area of straw that workers were constantly "fixing" with new straw as it got pushed down. So it was evident I could just put my feet down and pop up into a full stride, which is what I did. Matt said he actually did a complete 360 degree spin and did basically the same thing.

You ran through the straw and then into another water feature. It was just over knee deep with floating logs and chains of barrels to cross. That went fine until the last section of barrels. As I was crossing them, I put my hand on top of them to push over. My middle finger on my left hand slipped between two of the barrels right as they smashed together. Wow, serious pain. I jerked the finger out and it gushed blood from under the nail. And it's been seeping all day. Bye-bye, fingernail.

But I soldiered on, jumping over the row of fire and through the finish in 23:54. That was good enough for third quickest so far in the two heats of the day in my age group, but I'm sure will drop some as more waves completed. My target was to be top 5% of my age group for the entire event, and I think I probably did that. But I did not feel like I had anywhere near my best day, and I'm not entirely sure right now why. I haven't looked at the data close (I have GPS and HR data), but I will and I think I just need a day or two to let it all soak in. I definitely didn't make the same mistake as the Rugged Maniac...I paid no attention to my watch during the race!

I can say I had a lot of fun, and I hope they do that event again at that site next year. Compared with Rugged Maniac, they seem to have tougher obstacles and more of them (and way tougher than the Muddy Buddy, but that's really a different kind of race). The festival is also a little more impressive, though the medal and shirt weren't quite as good. I dunno, both were well done and I recommend both, but I'm looking forward to the Warrior Dash in Charlotte a little more now.

Muddy Buddy Race Report

So today Alan and I competed in the Muddy Buddy race in Richmond, VA. The Muddy Buddy is a two man team race where you use one mountain bike and play "leapfrog" with it. Both start at the same time with one running and the other biking. The biker goes ahead and gets to the first transition point and drops the bike, does an obstacle, and starts running. The runner arrives at transition, does the obstacle, and grabs the bike and starts riding. Then you rinse and repeat a few times until the end, where you have to pair back up near the finish for a few more obstacles (including the mud pit), and through the finish line. It was a great event, but I'll start with our race planning...

My coach is wonderful about making sure I train like I'm going to race, or at least attempt to approximate it as much as we can without knowing EXACTLY how an event will go, and for that I'm very lucky. That said, sometimes you can't quite get it exactly right until you've done a particular event before, so there were unknowns. Like the fact that this is called the "muddy buddy" even though the percentage of actual mud on the course is less than 1%. If you'll recall my recent post on the Rugged Maniac, you'll know that one was mostly mud, so we expected a bit more.

After some better research, which was mostly going through picture albums from previous years on the drive up (Alan did that while I drove!), we decided that this wasn't as "muddy" a race as we thought it was going to be (especially with no rain in the forecast), so we decided to change from one of my bikes that I had prepped for this to his 29" mountain bike. It's a great bike, but it's on slightly less knobby tires than what I had prepped. Which was great for this course, but wouldn't have been as good if it had been really muddy.

So, on the way up we decided to go hit the XTERRA course Alan had raced on in the past. It's in downtown Richmond and would give us a chance to get some light work in on the day before the race, which contrary to popular belief really is the best thing to do. (I actually take the day before that off.) We did that, including some bike swapping so we both got some time on his bike with our trick new pedals. They are basically some HUGE platform BMX pedals that I borrowed from Reid with Power Grips added to them. I have big feet, and with both of us needing to wear trail running shoes, we needed something with a MUCH wider footbed than a typical bike platform pedal, and this was JUST the ticket. It's not quite as good as being clipped in completely, but definitely a world better than just riding on platforms. Still allows a good amount of "pull" when you need it, which you can't do on platforms alone. Also keeps you more stable on uneven surfaces, where platforms are easy to bounce off of. Note, too, that our bike of choice was a "hardtail", which means no rear suspension. To make matters "worse", we locked out the front shock so we had almost no front suspension. This course was pretty smooth, so we went with the setup that provided the most pedaling efficiency. We were averaging around 15MPH on our bike legs, so it was fast for a "mountain bike."

After getting our light work in, which was longer than my coach prescribed already, we headed over to the race site to see if there was anywhere we would be able to park my RV overnight. They have an awesome campground at that site, but we decided too late in the game to do this race at all to get a reservation and it was fully booked. But we hoped that wherever they were planning to park everyone who was driving in would be available to just park overnight as we didn't need any particular facilities anyway. They were unwilling to open that parking area, but the lady at the office said someone had showed up who had reserved two spaces but only needed one. She sent us to see him, and he promptly sold us his extra space with water and electric hookups! SWEET. Had we not arrived almost exactly when we did, that would have never happened. It would have been a Walmart parking lot about 4 miles away instead.

So we got in the campsite and got setup and decided to jump on our bikes and go find the course. Of course once we found it we found that we were allowed to check it out, so we started riding it. And rode all 6.9 miles of it! We took it very easy, and this turned out to be a GREAT idea. We planned where we'd leave the bike at each transition point, and got to see the obstacles enough to know they were going to be very easy, technically. We also learned there was no "mountain biking", just fast off road gravel racing and running. The only "technical" element would have been the creek crossing, except for the fact that it wasn't able to be ridden at all. The only way to KNOW that, however, was to see it the day before. Except you can't see what you need to see as the water was a bit too murky. So I took off my shoes and socks and waded in. I'm very glad I did that.

So we went back to the RV and had supper and planned things out for the race. There were five legs (with four transition points), which meant one of us had to do three runs and two bikes, the other two runs and three bikes. We decided it made the most sense for Alan to do the three runs, which turned out to be a great strategy. We also made sure we communicated as the biker passed the runner during the run leg, so the runner would know the bike would be in transition, as there was a chance the bike may be later arriving at middle transition points. This didn't end up happening, but was close on one occasion.

We got up race morning and got our nutrition in and headed over to the start. We did a good job of staying at the front of our wave with the bike, but we did learn one potential problem...they were starting the runners a full two minutes behind the bikers in each wave. We also realized there were a lot of casual competitors in all the waves, and our wave was next to last. That meant a LOT of passing would be happening, which is less than ideal, but the same for everyone in our age group, anyway.

At the start, I was lined up in the second line of bikes. I took off hard, but not quite true sprint speeds. I quickly found that trying to ride Alan's riding position and bike wasn't ideal and should have been trained for better. Next time. Well, and next time we'll probably do more of a "compromise" position instead of me fully adopting his position, especially since I was doing more of the biking than he was anyway. I noticed most of the guys ahead of me off the line seemed to be sprinting and only a few were pulling away any at all. So I kept my pace and before half the leg was over I was in the lead of our wave. I kept on it pretty hard and got into transition and over the first obstacle (a small climbing wall) and headed out on the run. It's worth noting they had water stations at every transition, but I rarely get much water out of a cup into my mouth if I'm trying to run hard, and with my total run being a one mile leg and a 1.35 mile leg, I wasn't willing to "take it easy" so I could drink. I knew we'd be under an hour in this race, so hydration just wasn't necessary (the winners last year were a mid 47 minute time in our age group).

So I started at a pretty good clip and ended up running that first leg at around a 7:50 pace. I thought I could pull a little better than that, and I may have and just can't pull it out of the data exactly. It wasn't better than a 7:30, though, which was about where I thought I'd be. I thought if I ran that hard after a really fast bike leg that I'd have to wait just a little for Alan at this transition, but he ran so fast to start that he ended up passing me back right before transition, which was basically ideal. So we both did the "frog maze" at the same time and headed out again (a "frog maze" is a small maze you have to crawl through that's got solid walls and is covered, so it's fairly dark...but it was so easy there was no getting lost).

I started to feel the legs pretty good in this stint, but dug hard and got to transition. I chucked the bike where Alan could find it and took off through an inflatable "obstacle course". That would have been easy, but there were people "stuck" in there that made it a little dangerous and definitely slowed me down by 20-30 seconds just waiting. There's just nothing else you can do if you hit the obstacle at the wrong time like that. And it's not like I could have just beaten those people by being faster...they were slower people from previous waves.

Took off on this run, but was really struggling. I think this was more of a 9:30 pace stint. Couple hills got to me a little, and my legs just felt a little heavy. I think I just need more experience feeling like this, though, to know I can power through. I also need a little more work doing short distance running for speed, too, but for other reasons I've needed to get the base miles in to get my distance capability up, so that kind of thing will come. Alan passed me a lot earlier than I would have liked here, so I knew I was holding up the team just a little. He got the bike to the final transition and I got in there and got through it and took more time finding the bike than we hoped, but got it and got through. The problem there was simply the time gap meant a lot more bikes came in after he left, so it was "buried" a little deeper than I was expecting.

At this point, we were in the final leg. What I needed to do was catch him, but didn't really need to pass him since we had to finish the last obstacles together anyway. The creek crossing went very well for him thanks to my recon work, but it didn't help me as much because again, I got there with traffic in the way. It was a narrow area we were allowed to cross, and I was behind a clump of people. You can't really just squeeze between people when you have to carry a bike, which we did thanks to the rock ledge as you went into the water. But I got through, got past the clump, and took off. From here a lot of it was uphill to the finish, and I really felt burn in strange places in my muscles thanks to the odd riding position that I wasn't used to.

I actually never did catch Alan, but it turns out he only had to wait maybe 30 seconds for me, so I didn't hurt our time too much in those final two legs. I dumped the bike and we hit the rope wall and then plowed through the mud pit and to the finish. We were fairly certain we had done very well, but decided to head back to the RV to clean up. As we talked more about who we saw where (each wave had a color coded wristband, so it was easy to know if you were passing or getting passed by people in your wave, which likely meant they were in your age group), we realized we really did probably do very well, so we hurried back over and checked the results. Turns out we won our age group by over a minute! And qualified for the Muddy Buddy World Championships in December! YES! Our time was also nearly two minutes faster than the winning time from last year. Supposedly the only changes to the course were to add two hurdles to the running legs, so it wasn't any easier than last year. So, needless to say we're really proud of our finish!

Car racing heart rate data

So, I wore my Garmin 405 GPS and heart rate data logger during a session at the race track today. What's interesting is we did a "mock" race start during this session and I don't see any extra spike thanks to it. But my heart rate is in the 140's on average for the driving portion (had to start the data pretty early before even getting in the car and getting belted up).

That's actually a little higher than I thought it would be. Given the temperatures we see inside the car, it's easy to see why race car driving should be considered a sport. I can't sustain that kind of heart rate while paddling a kayak! Anyway, check out the data. I'm curious what others think. The dip at the end in speed to zero was a pit stop to change the rear wing angle on the car and then we went back out to see what effect it had.

(And in case you care, the 158 and the 223MPH speeds are data errors. Earlier in the day we were seeing 132 or so, but that's near the max that car can do at VIR.)
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The "big one."

When NASCAR races at Talledega, they always talk about when "the big one" is going to happen. "The big one" is the inevitable large crash that takes out much of the field thanks to the tight racing caused by the restrictor plate. Well, I didn't involve anyone else, but today I had my "big one."

We were in our qualifying session for the first of the two races at the SCCA Double National at VIR. I was drafting with Glenn Stephens (of Traqmate fame and a heck of a nice guy...thanks for the data help this weekend!) trying to get a good time in when I overcooked the entry to Oak Tree just a little and ended up looping it part of the way around. Glenn and I hadn't gotten a clean lap up to that point, but were still motoring pretty good. But Glenn got away, and I checked the track for traffic and took off. Never even killed the car, and I really only did half a spin to a stop with the rear wheels off the pavement.

I made one mistake, and that was not checking my brakes. Something about that off caused my front left brake line to get cut. I went full bore up the back straight and was passed near the end of it by another Spec Miata. But I still hit fifth gear and was right on his tail going into roller coaster. He hit the brakes and I did as well, only my pedal went to the floor. I dove to the inside of him so as not to hit him (that would have been ugly for both of us!). As I was navigating his car and trying to make sure he didn't turn into me (nobody in their right mind would try a pass like that, so I knew there was a good chance he wouldn't see me or at least wouldn't be expecting me to be doing that), I kept pumping the brake pedal. I'm pretty sure I got five and likely six pumps before I left the pavement, but none did anything. As I cleared his car I tried to turn the car back to the right. As I did I knew it wasn't going to stay on the pavement, but I got it turned just enough to go sideways in the dirt, which helped scrub a LITTLE speed off. I hit a peak of 115MPH and the data showed I was only down to 100MPH when I hit the wall with the right rear corner.
It would appear my Miata will live another day, too! Thanks to the awesome engineering by Mazda it would appear this thing still has straight frame rails and everything is "merely superficial." Not so superficial that it will buff out (as Tom at OPM said, "we didn't bring that much wax!"), but not so bad, ultimately. Especially for a triple digit hit. I can't complain too much, but I can take this moment to thank all the fine folks that helped me out this weekend, inlcuding Reid Allred, Glenn Austin from Traqmate Data Systems, OPM Autosports, and Rossini Race Engines.

For whatever it's worth, it looks like I would have been 11th on the grid (and maybe higher, a few people were found illegal in impound after qualifying) on my time now, and could have probably improved to around sixth or seventh if I had some clean track and working brakes. Oh well, we live to race another day.

It's 106 miles to Chicago...

...we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses.

Hit it.

The Tar Heel Sports Car Club used to have a night series about once a month at the RBC Center in Raleigh.  It was a low key series limited in participation and never thoroughly scored.  There were no trophies.  But it was a heck of a lot of fun.  This run isn't terribly great, but I submit that this is some of the most fun you can have at a max of 45MPH on a weeknight (well, and with your clothes on...I think mine were on, anyway!).

This was circa 2004 in a Toyota Spyder, fairly stock (though it somewhat obviously has a straight pipe and Supertrapp on it) and on street tires.
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Snow Driving!

Okay, I'm finally getting around to what I did last weekend. Yeah, took me a week. Sorry about that.

Anyway, as some of you know, I'm a member of the Palmetto Motorsports Club. This is the resident club at Carolina Motorsports Park, a race track less than an hour south of Charlotte, NC. The track is managed by a team made up of Brian Smith and Jochen Tartak. Brian is a long time professional race car driver in series like World Challenge, Grand Am, and Mustang Challenge. Both are highly experienced driving instructors, too. As a service for the club members, they decided to see if there was interest in a car control school in the snow. Brian used to work for Michelin doing tire testing and in doing so did a lot of winter testing at the Keweenaw Research Center in Houghton, MI. That's the upper peninsula of Michigan where this time of year it's cold and incredibly snowy!

Here's a bad video of some of what we did.

The weekend started by first flying into Houghton. They do have a public airport there with one gate, one ticket counter, and one rental car counter. There are two flights per day in and out via Minneapolis, and Northwest does fly direct to Minneapolis from RDU, which is nice. So while it's a pretty remote area, I could still fly there on one stop. I couldn't get home quickly in one stop (though it was possible), so I came via Minneapolis and Atlanta to get home in a reasonable time. The first flight out of Hougton on Monday and the last flight in on Friday are in a small jet. Everything else (including my flight in) is a small turboprop. And while they do obviously plow the runway, you're still landing on ice and snow! It's quite the different world than what I'm used to!

Brian then took me on a tour of the town and the test facility where we'd be driving. The town looks to be the home of Michigan Tech and not much else. It is a nice sized small town with some very good restaurants and very friendly people. We started the school early Saturday morning with some quick classroom stuff and then went out on to the big "snowpack" area, which is really just a nicely groomed large field of packed snow. We did some acceleration and braking exercises to just get used to getting cars moving and then bringing them back to a stop with almost zero grip. Then we added in some minor maneuvering. After lunch we then went to the really hard stuff, drifting. I now have a much larger respect for the sport of drifting. While most racers are fairly good at catching a "loose" car (oversteer, where the rear of the car steps out) and that sometimes involves sliding it on around, there' s a big difference between that and doing it on purpose and maintaining those large slip angles while keeping the car under control.

We practiced this using an "hourglass" configuration. You drift around one end of the hourglass and then you pendulum back in the middle and then drift around the other end. Rinse, repeat. Sounds easy, but it's really hard to get the hang of. You're really steering the entire thing using the throttle and not the steering wheel. I got kind of frustrated at the first stab at it, but I was getting pretty tired, too. We did it again the next morning and it went a LOT better for me, even though there was less grip. After that we hit the road course for some fun. We didn't use timers, but we did work a lot on both driving it tidy and fast as well as drifting around everywhere. The car on the snowbank is a picture of what can happen if you try to do things a little too fast.

That was something that happened to just about everyone, though. It didn't take much of a slip-up to do that, unfortunately. Brian said normally the snow is much softer and just sucks you in flat, but we were ramping up on it since it was a little firmer. But don't think it was "hard" in any way...we never did any significant damage to anything on the cars.

So what did we learn? Basically we just fine tuned our abilities to anticipate ill handling conditions and correct them quicker and more efficiently. That should lead to better rain racing as well as even better racing in the dry in some conditions. And it was a heck of a lot of fun. The amount of actual seat time was very high, and when you weren't driving you were riding with someone else who was, so you got to learn by observation, too. Great stuff. Many thanks to Brian and Jochen for all their hard work.

As an aside, on Saturday night we also went snowmobiling. I had never done that before, and it was a blast. We went 42 miles before supper on some really great trails through the woods, along roads, and over frozen lakes. Then we had a few drinks and a big meal and had to return the snowmobiles to the rental place. So on the way we went drag racing on the frozen canal by our hotel. Hmm, couple drinks and 85-90MPH speeds on a vehicle I had never experienced before that day. Not sure that was terribly smart, but it seemed to work out okay. On Sunday night we had a great meal in downtown Houghton while watching the Superbowl. Great times.

Weather? Ah, it was balmy. It was in the teens most of the time, snowing, and windy as heck! But it was all worth it, and I hope to do it again next year! In fact, I think Superbowl weekend might have been the perfect time.

The Pinewood Derby!

So, the Pinewood Derby is one of those "rites of passage" things for most little boys. I think it's different than your typical wait-till-the-last minute school project. Little boys are usually into racing things, and their dads usually are, too. It's no different with my boys and me, so we got started plenty early on Kevin's car. Now, I don't blog about my kids, really, but I did think it would be fun to show off old versus new. See, I still have my original car from when I was a Cub Scout around seven or eight that my Dad and I built. It's pictured here.

One thing to note is that these labels are prototypes for Kevin's car. The 45 on top nor the "Carefree Racing" on the side was there back in the day. You can see two circles on the top where the original number stickers used to be. I have no idea what number I used, but it was the stickers that came with the kit (and the new kits still come with the same basic thing!). But I like them so I'm leaving them. Maybe one day I'll do a full restoration of the old girl, but for now she can sport some new graphics.

Back when my Dad and I built this one, we had the full shop facilities of Brady Distributing in Charlotte at our disposal. Unfortunately they were more of an electronics company than a woodworking company, but they did have a band saw, which was what we used to cut the body. We sort of weighed everything and found we were way under the five ounce limit. But I don't think we had a very accurate small scale, so we were pretty conservative in how much weight we added. Dad got a wood drill bit about the size of a nickel and we put a hole in the bottom. Then we put a stack of nickels in there and used a few flat head wood screws to hold them in. Then for good measure we puttied them smooth. Outside of that we simply sanded some by hand and hit it with some blue spray paint. Then we shoved the axles in, made sure there was some play in them, and put graphite in there to lubricate things.

Off to the races! I remember showing up and feeling a bit dejected when I saw the other cars. Many kids had put a LOT of effort into hand carving and painting their cars. I felt bad I hadn't done the same, but didn't know any better beforehand. Then came the weigh-in. Everyone else was weighing in at things like 4.8, 4.9, 5.0 ounces. I was REALLY worried I'd be over. Then we got our turn at the scale. Three-point-eight! Oh no! I was the lightest car in the bunch. For those that don't know, this is bad for the Pinewood Derby. You see, the cars are powered by gravity. They just coast down a hill. First to the bottom wins! Being at max weight is where you want to be and we weren't even close. Oh well, time to take my beating. We put some more graphite on the axles and put her on the course.

First time down, blam, winner by several lenghts. What? How can this be? I was stunned and amazed. And I remained that way, as my little girl rocketed down the course in first place in every race, eventually winning the entire thing. I'm sure I got a medal or something that's now long gone, but I will never forget the day I won. Apparently our sleak body design and special lubricant and leaving some play in those axles was a great recipe, even if we were under-weight a little.

Fast forward nearly thirty years and I'm helping my son build his car. I've tried to make him do as much of the work as he SAFELY can. That doesn't include running the band saw just yet, but he got a clear understanding of the importance of getting the table on the saw square to the blade. He decided he wanted a basic copy of my winning car since it apparently had pretty good aerodynamics. We also did some work to the axles and wheels on his car to polish them MUCH smoother than they come out of the box for less friction. He got a clear lesson in friction, believe me. As for the body design, we also talked a lot about aerodymanics. I'm not sure much of that stuck, but hopefully some of it did. I let him help use my mini milling machine to drill the axle holes. The slots that come cut in your chunk of "pinewood" aren't square to the wood, really (they're close, but off by a little), and that means your car is going to try to turn ever so slightly on the track, which will result in extra friction and thus lower speeds. So we used the mill to try to get ours perfectly straight. We talked about leaving play between the head of the axle (which is really just a fancy nail!) and wheel and the body of the car, again to help reduce friction. I even helped him wax the side of the car where the wheel will no doubt rub the side a little.

We also did some work with the Dremel tool to "true" the wheels as well as polish their inside edge where they'll rub the track a little. Again, lower friction. We had the advantage of a wood shop with big sanding machines, so we used that to help get the wood smooth. Then Kevin did some hand sanding to get the corners nice and smooth. Oh, and we also used the milling machine to cut the slots for the ballast in the bottom of the car. I bought some lead rod to put in there to get to maximum weight. All the way through we kept weighing our pile of parts on the cooking scale we stole from Mom (and dutifully returned with only minor wear and tear!).

We primed her and then sanded a little more. Then we painted her red, which was Kevin's choice (seems he likes his Dad's red race car better than the blue one...which is fine, red is a better "car color" anyway). We called in a favor from the graphics department at our race shop to cut some silver vinyl to make a racing stripe with. I suggested to Kevin that vinyl would be a lot easier to manage than a two tone paint job and he agreed. Seems I'm not expert painter and neither is he, so we decided not to push our limits in this arena. Besides, we were only a couple days away at this point and a botched paint job might end up having to stay if we messed up. Oh, our graphics department went above and beyond by also providing us with a chrome piece of vinyl for the stripe along with the silver. I thought Kevin would love it, but instead he said he liked the silver better. I suppose he thought it was too much bling. sigh That's my boy, conservative to the last.

Last thing was to get the ballast tweaked to the right amounts and assemble. I did the grinding on the lead since it's kind of toxic and grinders are also a bit dangerous for small fingers, but Kevin helped with the screws to hold it in place. We put the wheels on and used a metal spacer to make sure that not only did we have enough play in the wheels and axle, but we had exactly the same amount all the way around. Then we hit the wheels with the magic graphite, and things got really good from there. She rolls instantly on even the slightest of inclines. Seems even our kitchen bar has a minor tilt to it that isn't supposed to be there and isn't noticeable to the naked eye! But the Pinewood Derby car tells all.

Last trick was the lettering. I had discovered how cool it could be to customize Playmobil toys at Christmas using my Brother P-Touch label printer, so we stole that same idea for his car. We used some white on clear label tape for the "Carefree Racing" on the side and some black on clear for the 45 on top and his name on the back (and Kevin did the typing!). Stands out pretty well, and doesn't weigh much. Anyway, without further ado, here's Kevin's masterpiece. May she race well this weekend.

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Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.

In this one, I was the windshield. I got really lucky in the Laguna race that this tire still held air fine after the wheel damage.

That happened with about 15 minutes to go in the race. It wasn't due to contact with any other cars, it was simply due to running over the new "turtles" that they've installed at Laguna inside of the normal rumble strips to keep people from short-cutting the turns in the gravel (which can be faster). The particular turtle I hit was in turn six, one of the fastest and most dangerous corners on the course. It actually sent the car up on the other two wheels a little and was quite an interesting ride. I was sure that I had done some damage and that it would result in a flat tire, but I felt it out for a little over a lap and it was fine, so I just kept motoring. You can't see in the picture, but the sidewall of the tire is actually bulged out a little where the rim edge is missing, too. Lucky, indeed.
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Laguna racing wrap-up

About a week ago I put an end to my professional racing for 2008 with the Mazda MX-5 Cup season finale at Laguna Seca, which is near Monterey, CA. I raced there for the first time back in 2007 in the same series, and really enjoyed the track. I enjoyed it enough that I'd really like to race there every year, so hopefully I can find another arrive-and-drive scenario for 2009.

For this trip I was able to talk Ashley into going with me. That wasn't hard since she had never been to California at all, and northern California has so much interesting stuff to offer. We got a really nice room on the ocean at the Spindrift Inn right on Cannery Row in Monterey for the first couple nights. That was perfect as it let us walk around that entire area in the evening and in between my practice sessions. The Inn has awesome valet parking service, and was generally beautiful and awesome all the way around. The only negative was a lack of air conditioning, and it was hard to keep the room even 72F, and I generally like it cooler than that to sleep. I finally asked for a fan, though, and that got it really good at night. We were about 15 feet from the ocean at high tide and it was awesome sleeping with the waves breaking right outside.

We ate at several random places in Monterey that were all pretty good, but the best food in that area was definitely our Friday night dinner at the Chart House. Very good place and highly recommended if you're in the area. We checked out of there on Saturday after qualifying and headed to Santa Cruz. That afternoon we did a really fun train ride up into one of the virgin redwood forests still left. The cars were all open top gondolas and it was a real steam engine. Another highly recommended stop!

After that we met Jane and Colleen at their friend Judi's house on the beach in Santa Cruz. Judi was gracious enough to let us stay in their house there that night, so we went out and had another great meal at Aqua Bleu in downtown Santa Cruz. I got up Sunday and headed back to the track for the race. Ashley and Colleen and Jane came in time to see the entire race, and Hilary and Scott met us all there to see it, too. It was way cool having real fans in the stands for a big race! I even got to wave to them from the race car as we gridded up on the front straight before the pace lap. Afterwards they got to come to the pits and get some pictures with me and the car.

After that Ashley and I drove on up to San Francisco to check into The Argonaut, our hotel right on Fisherman's Wharf (thanks to Scott for that recommendation!). We got in late enough and were tired, so we had room service. This is one very cool hotel that even had good room service! Another highly recommended spot! Their valet parking is a little slower (probably just have further to go to get the cars!), so plan accordingly. On Monday we got up and headed to Muir Woods, which was way cool. It's another big virgin redwood forest with a very nice set of trails through it. We met Jane, Colleen, and Colleen's daugher Hannah there and headed up to Mt. Tamalpais. This is the tallest peak with a view of San Francisco and the bay, and it's awesome! Highly recommended.

After that we all headed down into Tiburon (a small town on the bay) and ate lunch at Sam's Cafe. Good food and good times sitting out by the marina. Tiburon is a very cool little town to visit, and I was awed by the houses on the cliffs over the bay. Wow. Then Ashley and I headed to Headlands Park, which is probably the best place to view the Golden Gate bridge. It's got the added charm of the WWII facilities that were built and then never actually used as they weren't completed until it was apparent that no enemy ships would ever make it to the west coast. From there we headed back into San Francisco and met Hilary at her and Scott's new apartment and then on to dinner. This time it was Betelnut restaurant, and this was definitely the best food we had on the entire trip. Amazing asian fare and highly recommended when in SF.

We flew home the next day after I was able to finally get my In-N-Out burger on the way to the airport (the most important food stop in any west coast trip!). Okay, my first hot In-N-Out burger. Some people might be here for a race report, but the trip was so much more than just racing I decided to just skip that. Okay, I won't skip it. I'll summarize. I was mid pack for most of practice and qualifying. Had a good race from 19th in qualifying (out of 29) to finish 12th on track. But a flurry of post race protests bubbled me up to tenth before I was caught in one myself (which most sadly cost me my FIRST hot In-N-Out as my wife and friends headed there and I got stuck being interviewed and all that for the protests) and penalized back to 13th. The short version is I'd do it all the same again, and if I had been the guy that protested me I would have chalked it up to "one of them racing deals" and not thought about it again. Same thing has happened to me several times, in fact. But such is life, and I had a great time on my trip. Ashley and I found some really great stuff to do when we take the kids to visit Hilary and Scott next year, too!
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