Monday, October 19, 2009

What I learned out on the road...

Just spent the last few weeks on the road --- first Road Atlanta for Petit Le Mans (and the biggest storm in that area since Sherman), then a brilliant ride out to the Bay Area for my inaugural trip to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Anyone who's read the Petit article, thanks - it was probably one of my better ones. I had fun with it. And anyone who read the most recent one from MRLS, well, I'll just say I had to throw it together, and try to get it sent out in between power outages in Sausalito last week. Not my best journo work, though my photos are getting better by leaps.

When my babe and I first landed at SFO, we were signed up to get a "Wild Car" through Thrifty. Worked well last year, so I hoped for a similar experience. "I can get you Kia Optima, Kia Forte, PT Cruiser..." Hmm, I wouldn't mind a PT, I thought... "or for a couple more dollars, I have Mustang."

Oh, really? And you say you've got my choice of drop-top or hardtop? Let's talk further!

I ended up with a 2009 Mustang, dark red metallic, convertible.

The 4.0L V6 had over 55k on the clock, the body had several scratches and light dents (each and every one documented with the agency), and it had Hawaii license plates. I searched the trunk, however, and found no evidence of Barak Obama's birth certificate.

The only downside to this car, as I saw it, was the lack of a manual gearbox. I asked the rental agent "do you have anything with a stick-shift?" He replied no, they don't have any. "Is everyone in the area handicapped?" I don't think he got the joke, exactly.

The '09 Mustang, for a year-old hire with heavy use (the tires were brand-new BF Goodrich, thankfully), seemed as if it was at least somewhat well-maintained. Oil and other fluids looked OK, brakes felt good, and everything worked as it should. No blown fuses, no burned-out bulbs. Pre-flight cross-check, clear.

Mustang-buddies of mine will be amused that it took me over an hour in the car, before I figured out where the OD kill switch was - and who at Ford ever decided to put it there?

Our ride, which I dubbed "Mustang Sally" got us around downtown San Francisco for the first few days in a manner that would make Steve McQueen proud. Well, it at least would've been cool to Chad McQueen :) In an area with steep hills, you NEED good torque off the line, and you NEED it going to the wheels with the most traction. Aimed uphill, that's gonna' be your rears. Mustang beats all hell in that setting. I didn't make it a point to light up the tires coming off any stoplights, but it was nice knowing I could have.

On the drive to Muir Woods, we encountered some fantastic twisties that exposed the topless car's handling limits - any time you lop the roof off a car designed as a hardtop, it suffers. The 'Stang showed some chassis flex and a little cowl shake, but I was going too fast and eating the curves too quick for it to bother me. Muir Woods was a fantastic walk, and the redwoods there are astonishing.

Part 2 of the fly/drive holiday took us down Highway 1 to Monterey. Now, I've written before that "the 1" is easily the most scenic drive West of the Mississippi, but it seems like an all-new experience every time I run it. Monterey was almost as quiet and laid-back as Sebring -- a very good place to spend some time (and dollars) checking out Cannery Row and sleeping in a nice hotel... but I was really there for the race.

I had already run Laguna Seca hundreds of times on various video games. Gran Turismo has always been about which car you can get to rip through the corkscrew the fastest, so I at least had a decent concept of the track before I got there.

I was not disappointed at all.

From the top of the hill, one can see a clear shot of the corkscrew leading down to turn 9 -- and a few steps back from there, you've got a great view of turns 10, 11, and on through the front to 1 through 3. It helps if you've either got a track cart, or a buddy to give you a lift.

Speaking of - and this is a sign of the times if there ever was one - I gave Greg Creamer a ride from the paddock up to the parking area. I might not have had much good to say about the guy once upon a time, but then I got to know him. True stand-up guy, lotsa' heart, and quite a talent as an announcer.

The races themselves? A blast. Got to see Jim Hall's Chaparrals, and Jim Hall himself. When the spectacular end of the ALMS race went down, I was in the Flying Lizards' pit, talking with one of my friends on their crew. The Speed/SCCA World Challenge races the next day were fun, but by then we were pretty worn out. And my pick in the race, Boris Said, had a rough go of it.

We finished off the deal with a ride back to Sausalito, and checked in at the Inn Above Tide. The place was so nice, we hardly left for the 3 days we were in town. Of course, the fact that the Bay area was having some of the worst storms in decades, helped in that decision. But when you've got a comfy room with a fireplace, right above the San Francisco Bay, you're already where you want to be...

The flight home was, if I can complain, too short. Virgin America still stands as the best airline operating in this promised land, and if I had my way I wouldn't fly any other. I got through a couple of movies, as well as dinner and drinks on the ride home - and only spent four hours in the air from SFO to IAD. Landing at home was the downer, if there was one, but it's still pretty good to be back.

I'll have a ton more pics coming soon.

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