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The Perfect Second Track Day: A Sunday at Streets of Willow with Speed Ventures

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The Perfect Second Track Day: A Sunday at Streets of Willow with Speed Ventures

Peter Nelson

(Main image by CaliPhotography.com)

5:00 AM in Los Angeles feels like 2:00 AM. Apart from more birds chirping and fewer helicopters storming past (I swear it feels like there are more police helicopters than police cars in LA), I’m confused as to why I set my alarm this early. Did I intend on only napping early the day before and programmed my alarm in error? Did I want to get a super early run in? No, wait… TRACK DAY! I hop in the shower, get dressed, grab my blue bin full of basic tools and track necessities (Combos, water bottle, Gatorade) and am out the door in less than 20 minutes.

                5:25 AM in Los Angeles feels like 6:30 AM. The first tiny bit of light is genuinely brighter than most other cities’ sunrises due to the obnoxious (albeit wonderful) SoCal sun. A surprising amount of people were out. Since it was early morning on a Sunday, everyone decided to drive 10 miles an hour under the speed limit, and accelerate as slowly as possible from stoplights on Western Avenue between my apartment and the 101. Despite this annoyance I felt as if I’d been up for the past 4 hours, as I was quite excited for the day’s event: my return to Streets of Willow with a little more knowledge and a slightly-better-prepped Mazda 2.

                My excitement, right foot, and Mazda 2’s tiny wheelbase made short work of the idiocy that I encountered on Western Avenue, and upon my arrival at the 101 on-ramp it was mercifully clear. In fact, the entire jaunt up to the desert was a breeze; catching up on podcasts and rolling on an empty 101 and 14 made the 1 hour and 25-minute trip feel like 30 minutes. As I cruised down the road through Rosamond, 2 track-ready cars in front of me turned one-street-too-early from the main entrance; I’m glad there are fellow newbs in the ranks and that they made the same mistake I made on my first visit to the track.

                After rolling along the green wall I arrived at the spot I had rolled up to a little over a month prior. This time I was taking part in a Speed Ventures event and the big, majestic, world-famous Bampalamps (Austin Cabot’s mighty ambulance) was proudly parked outside the office/gathering spot. As I entered the little brick building there Austin was, upbeat and stoked as always. He signed me in, we chatted a minute, and I proceeded to get my transponder and tech sheet. Other people started showing up as I went to quickly do tech, examining my Speed Ventures schedule (with handy Streets driving line) en route back to my happy little hatchback.

                Even though it was the desert it was still pretty cold outside. I’m not talking namby-pamby, “oh my gawsh its 60 degrees out” SoCal cold, I'm talking low 50s and windy. Not bad, but enough to pierce right through even the thickest of blood. I quickly went over tech and was quite relieved to have full confidence in my braking system. The weekend prior I had Lucky 7 Racing in Duarte (mainly a rotary shop, but got to support your local Mazda tuner even if you’re rocking pistons) install Stoptech stainless-steel brake lines and flush/fill the system with Motul RBC600. I was quite excited to see how my more solid-feeling brake pedal and brakes’ sharper bite felt and held up on track.

 Motivation to climb the chain in track knowledge and at work: Goodwin Racing's ND Miata in my favorite color

Motivation to climb the chain in track knowledge and at work: Goodwin Racing's ND Miata in my favorite color

                I was even more excited than my first visit to Streets. Now that I had the track a little more figured-out and my brakes were in tip-top shape, I was ready to work on refining my skills on track (both in safety and craft) and dropping my times. My best lap time was around 1:44 back in April; if I can drop it into the high-1:30s I will consider the day a massive success. If I make it into the mid-1:30s I will be completely floored. I was also quite happy to hang out with Austin all day; catch up, talk about our excitement for Gridlife Midwest Festival, and maybe even trade a few puns. I was also glad that clearing out my car took far less time: this in itself was a sort of earned skill as I knew what I needed/didn’t need and not only saved my back hauling the day’s supplies out to my car earlier, but also saved more time to head over to the driver’s meeting.

 I know, no tow hook - I have to clean out the threads as they're a bit oxidized and my hook wouldn't screw in

I know, no tow hook - I have to clean out the threads as they're a bit oxidized and my hook wouldn't screw in

                The driver’s meeting went well. The beginners got a good, solid understanding of how Speed Ventures runs their events, as well as what the various flags mean and how to react to them. We also learned how to approach the day: the first session would be no passing/lower speed, the 2nd session would include passing drills, and the 3rd and 4th sessions would be passing allowed on Streets’ 2 straights. It was certainly very informative and was great track intuition to build upon my event with the SCCA the month prior. Though, I couldn’t help but peer out the window and see the more advanced groups on track warming up. Seeing everything from an Ariel Atom to several Supermiata racers come through turn 13 and tear up the front straight was quite cool to witness, and beautiful music to my ears.

 Racing goals.

Racing goals.

                We got to our cars and lined up behind our instructors. I opted to not have an instructor (not out of ego, but rather to save a little coin) so I got placed right behind the car that would lead the entire group, an E92 M3 with a beautiful-sounding aftermarket exhaust system. This was similar to my first track day, as I was 2nd in line for my first session of parade laps then too. We rolled out of the pit and onto the track. I was shaking with excitement, and was also legitimately cold due to having my front windows down in the cold morning breeze. As we made our way up through turns 1 and 2 we continued at a modest pace, moving left to sharp-right to smoothly-back left, then back right, and coming in close to the curbing a little over half-way through turn 3. The M3 was probably a little unsure of how much to open it up, as he and I started to lose the group behind us (an instructor was immediately behind me); I know it can be really tricky determining a good pace to keep. We opened up a little bit of a gap and keeping up with the M3 in the corners at more modest speeds required little-to-no braking on my end; a nice foreshadowing to how the day would unfold.

 Photo by CaliPhotography.com

Photo by CaliPhotography.com

                After the session, we pulled into the paddock and went back to the office for our download session. Speed Ventures puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of the download session as no matter the skill level, participants can learn from one-another, ask questions, discuss etiquette, or even air grievances about another participant’s un-safe driving. Since we were the beginner group, our download session was mainly comprised of review, thoughts/feelings about the track, discussing our lines, and going more in-depth about safety. We also received thorough instruction regarding on-track communication and passing procedure. I should note we went over all of this thoroughly the month prior at the SCCA Track Night in America event as well, it was just a larger group this time with a more stretched-out schedule.

                Session 2 began yet-again very similarly to my first time rolling out onto Streets. I was right behind the instructor, but this time was in a group of 4 or 5 cars, and we would each take turns passing on the front straight. The rest of each lap was spent upping the ante speed-wise, carrying increasingly higher speed through the corners and going from 5/10ths to 6/10ths. I could tell the group was getting more and more comfortable with the track and we started to maintain decent lines through the course. My car was holding up great; I still had plenty of gas in the tank, the tires felt good and sticky, and the brakes felt absolutely excellent. I still hadn’t experienced any fade, and pedal travel was that of casually commuting on warmed-up brakes. I couldn’t wait to the push the car harder and see how much deeper I could dive into my favorite corners: turn 2, turn 8 (the bowl), and turn 11.

 Photo by CaliPhotography.com

Photo by CaliPhotography.com

                After a slightly-longer break filled with time for lunch, the ability to watch a few other run groups, and a quick driver’s meeting, we headed out for our 3rd session. The sun was high and mercifully I could now drive without a hoodie on: the desert’s temperature was warm and quite comfortable. I was mid-pack this time and was a little nervous about passing on the straights in a bigger group than my previous track day. Everyone took it easy the first 3 laps to let their engines, tires and brakes warm up. After that, the group did well and my nervousness faded away; we were all very conscious of our surroundings and communication was clear. Our group instructor, Chuck, who joined us in his badass 964 911, noted after the session that we were a little too close together at times. A few participants got the blue-with-yellow-stripe flag too, though it was nothing to get frustrated over. I got point-bys from a few of the participants, some of whom I was then able to maintain a bit of a gap from. Sometimes though we would go back and forth: this I blame on my tiny hunk of slow-car-fast. I was able to hold a lot of speed in the corners and brake really late, swallowing up real estate between myself and much faster cars, but didn’t have enough steam to stay ahead of them on the straights. At first, I was a little perturbed over the fact that I couldn’t brake as late as I’d wanted to, as I always came up on people’s bumpers through the end of the chicane, as well as on the outer edge of turn 2. Though, after a couple of laps I warmed up to this scenario; I was forced to slow down a little more and analyze my apexes a tad closer. If I had more room in my final session, I would be at least a smidge more tactful in the lines I cut with this practice.

 Photo by CaliPhotography.com

Photo by CaliPhotography.com

 Photo by CaliPhotography.com

Photo by CaliPhotography.com

                Before the 4th session began, I chatted with a nice guy from my run group who had a nicely-prepped E36 M3. We talked about the canyons, being track newbs, our cars, and how the day was going. We also commiserated over our experiences with Los Angeles rent prices and how he had just started living one of my dreams: he moved to the nearby Valley and was paying a little more than I was paying in rent, except he was renting an entire house with a garage. Man do I miss having a garage. We then got the heads-up from Austin over the loudspeaker that our run group would be up soon and that we should get ready. We all lined up though this time 4-5 cars were missing; I presume since it was Mother’s Day they had to head back home and hang out with family. With no kids and my family being 3,000 miles away I was off the hook.

 Photo by CaliPhotography.com

Photo by CaliPhotography.com

                We pulled out on track with a very pleasant early sunset painted across the sky, providing nice, warm hues on the hillside that the track is built onto. We took it easy the first 2 laps to warm up, and since we were a little more stretched out having a smaller group, we had plenty of room between ourselves. During our first driver’s meeting of the day our instructor, Chuck, talked about how the 3rd session would be a good time to open up and head closer to 10/10ths, and the 4th session should be a tad more chill. Since there was a lot more traffic in the 3rd session I was inclined to instead push a little harder in the 4th. I was feeling energetic (I was perpetually stoked all day) and still hadn’t dropped into the high-1:30s. Once my brakes warmed up and tires started holding better in turns 6, 7, and 8 (my litmus test for tire stickiness) I went for it. I slowly kept decreasing my braking zones, got on the throttle sooner, and maintained every bit of concentration on looking ahead, not missing shifts, and working on the line I had studied all day. I stayed ahead of my friend in the E36, but eventually he was on my tail so I let him by on the back straight… but then after we snaked through the rest of the track he spun out at the start of the skidpad! Thanks to the solid instruction from Speed Ventures earlier, I had remembered to maintain enough of a gap to where there was no real danger. Luckily he spun on the skidpad too, where there was plenty of run-off area and could get sorted without dropping a wheel in the dirt or potentially damaging his car.

 Photo by CaliPhotography.com

Photo by CaliPhotography.com

 I headed up the hill on the front straight ready to dive into turn 2 once again, but this time I was going to brake later. The braking zone and my comfort zone were a sort of Venn Diagram: there was an middle area, but there were a few feet beyond it that were attainable if I was just courageous enough to shift the braking zone circle closer to my comfort circle. I had barely experienced any fade all day and the brakes were still grabbing hard, so I went for it. I braked really late... and it worked! No ABS, no screeching, and no gripes from the chassis! The turn-in under braking that the Mazda 2 possesses is no joke as I was able to cleanly come through the turn, get on the throttle earlier than before, and experience no understeer whatsoever. My car got through turns 3 and 4 with a nice dab of braking before turn-in, I didn’t really have to brake much between turns 5 and 7 (slow car… problems?) and I later kept my Revised Venn Diagram of Braking™ coming into the bowl. Again, no fade! By the time I got to the back straight a Fiat Abarth gave me a point-by and I cut through the entire chicane with my foot to the floor. As I got over the slight hill past the chicane and made the leap-of-faith braking hard into turn 11, I shifted from 4th to 2nd and powered through turns 12 and 13 with a tiny bit of understeer. I managed to cut probably my best line of the day on the skidpad, and noticed a little more speed on the front straight than prior laps. I did around 2-3 more laps in a similar fashion before the checkered flag was waved, and on the final lap I slowed the hell down to not only let the car cool, but to also take a big sigh of relief as I was finally, officially exhausted.

 Photo by CaliPhotography.com

Photo by CaliPhotography.com

As we made our way onto the small exit road, having my fist up and out the window (indicating I was exiting the track) felt like a badge of honor. It was like the end of every cheesy 80’s action movie montage; if only a camera was nearby for me to look into and scream “YEAH!” and then freeze frame. Hilarious, synthy rock n' roll riffs and all. I was ready to high-five every-single-individual walking the grounds of Willow Springs International Raceway I was so stoked. I was tired, but damn did I have an immense feeling of accomplishment. After stopping in paddock and popping the hood I walked down to the office. PETER NELSON - 1:39.840 was on the screen by registration; I broke into the 1:30s!! To think my best lap was 5 seconds faster than my best just one month ago, and it was my 2nd trackday ever! I was ecstatic. I rushed over to the really nice gentleman working the CaliPhotography.com booth and bought a disc of all the shots of me on track - a great value and another solid reason why Speed Ventures is a great group to run with (other companies utilize their services as well). I exclaimed my joy to Austin who congratulated me on achieving my goal. He was stoked to see me progress and has been super supportive of my track inclinations (and now addiction) since day one, including letting me share my excitement here on tracktuned.com.

 My name and number don't match up, but I think the time attached to my name is more realistic than the one attached to my number

My name and number don't match up, but I think the time attached to my name is more realistic than the one attached to my number

I could not have asked for a better 2nd time on track. I had a little more track knowledge, was a little more comfortable with the car, met some nice people, maintained good track etiquette/safety, dropped my best time pretty significantly, and the folks at Speed Ventures really ran a great event. Huge thanks to Austin as well for all of his support. I really look forward to my next day out on track, whether it be yet again at Streets (I don’t think it’ll ever get old in my little lump of slow-car-fast) or another track in SoCal. The Mazda 2 performed flawlessly and proved yet again to be a ton of fun and amazing value. Even though the little blue egg has only 100 (flywheel) horsepower on tap, it’s a real grip machine with some suspension and brake mods, and wider/stickier tires. Since the event I’ve installed much more aggressive, 9k/7k Fortune Auto 500 coilovers and intend on getting a proper, track-minded alignment done. I can’t wait to see how the car performs on track with these modifications, and how low my time will go at my next visit to Streets. Buttonwillow is certainly on my radar as well; I’m really excited to see if I can get anywhere near 2 minutes. The addiction is strong, let me tell you.

Thanks very much for reading! Check out more about Speed Ventures here, and check out a vid from my 3rd session here.

 I treated myself to a pleasant, chill drive through Angeles National Forest on the way home

I treated myself to a pleasant, chill drive through Angeles National Forest on the way home