Speed Secrets: Applying HPDE Lessons to Life
By Ross Bentley
May 23, 2016
There are people who make mistakes, won't admit to them, and don't learn from them. There are those who make mistakes, admit to them, and learn from them. Guess which one improves the most over time? This week's guest contributor, Randy Beikmann, is the latter, not the former. Having spent time with Randy, knowing his background as an engineer and author of the Physics for Gearheads book, it's not surprising that he's able to admit to making a mistake, or that he continues to learn. -Ross
This is, I hope, the most expensive article I will ever write.
After being trounced by my son Aric at Grattan last June, I installed a set of Bilstein PSS9’s on my Cayman S, which set me back a couple of thousand dollars (not the “most expensive” part). With that, and a more aggressive alignment, I went with him in July to GingerMan for two days with the Chicago Region PCA.
It was a weekend filled with learning.
My car was a lot more predictable with the new suspension pieces, and it did increase my confidence, consistency, and performance. GingerMan seems to suit me. My pesky son couldn’t keep up with me anymore, although he and his Solstice continued to perform better than expected with 177 HP.
But there were larger lessons than the value of a confidence-inspiring car. I’d always stressed to Aric that the first rule when you make a mistake is not to make a bigger one. If you can’t keep from putting a wheel off the pavement, go with it. Keep it straight, and when you can get back on track safely, go ahead. But when you’re in your early 20’s, it can be difficult to keep emotions in check.
In one of our sessions, I came out of Turn 2 and saw he was off in the grass, with no other apparent problems. I figured everything was OK and that I’d just check on him next lap. I did, and he had moved on. He had handled his off-track excursion calmly and got back on when it was safe. Very mature. I also found that I was keeping distractions out of my head. Once I saw Aric was OK, I never gave it a thought until we got to the paddock.
Later on Saturday, though, I saw Aric sitting on the infield as I turned a couple laps. I worried something major had broken and how was he going to pay for it and why did I get him into this when he’s still in college without much income and…. It was filling my head, so I pulled into the paddock after another lap. It turned out that Aric had run out of gas! Lessons: When you lose concentration, stop. And keep track of fuel level, even with a 2.4 liter engine!
Sunday started well, with both of us slowly improving. Having a fairly fast car, and reasonable talent, I realized I hadn’t been passed all weekend….
In our 3rd session, I was first to the grid to have a clear track as long as possible. I happened to notice a car pull on that I hadn’t seen before, and thought that was odd for midday on Sunday. About midway through the session, it was catching up, and something in me wanted to push and keep him behind. Soon I could tell I was overdriving it, “hanging on” in some curves instead of taking them under control. I over-worked the tires to the point that they felt greasy.
Reluctantly, I let him pass, but my attitude had changed. Soon I caught up with a car that was a close match for mine, but that I had passed before. This time they weren’t being too courteous about letting me by. After a lap or so of that, I got impatient.
I usually take the last straight in 4th-gear, and the turn onto the front straight is tight. When needing to make a run on a car on exit, I had taken to downshifting to 2nd there instead of 3rd. So I did, but I evidently made the downshift too soon. On the front straight, at top speed, I heard some nasty mechanical sounds, and then nothing but wind noise. I coasted to the outside of Turn 1 and waited for a tow.
I honestly didn’t know what had gone wrong. But postmortem, the ECU had stored a serious over-rev. The CPO warranty would have covered it, had it been anything else….
If you’re familiar with the price of an early Cayman S, and the price of replacing its engine, you’ll know that mine had become a parts car. I joked with my wife Tara that if I were going to total the car on the track, I couldn’t have picked a safer way. We’re not poor, but not wealthy enough to brush off an expense like that. Humor helps.
That was part of going through the stages of grief. First, I couldn’t believe that I had over-revved, but there it was. I was angry at myself for competing against something that wasn’t competing with me. I was in a funk while I came to grips with the situation.
Then I accepted that the deal was done, and I was going to have to do the most realistic thing to recover. The lesson I used from the track was to not to take a bad situation and make it worse. I couldn’t hurry and do something I’d regret. So I researched options (as engineers do) for about two months, while clearing my head, before making a decision:
1. Replace the 3.4 liter engine with a new one. This would run about $30k installed. It would have warranty, but what if I did the “money shift” sometime down the road? I didn’t want that expense affecting my concentration.
2. Buy a used engine. They run $9k (at 80,000 miles) to $15k (at 40,000 miles), with no warranty and an unknown condition. But I could install that myself.
3. Part the car out and start over.
4. Install a GM LS V8 engine. They’re a lot more powerful, very reliable, would be about $10k, and be relatively inexpensive to replace. Unfortunately, it’s long enough to require cutting out a lot of structure behind the seats.
5. Fit a used 4.2 liter Audi V8. It’s about the same length as the H6, it bolts up to the same transmission, and has 40 ft-lb more torque. With room under the V engine, I could add structure to stiffen the chassis. I could buy a used one for about $3k, do most of the job myself for about $8k, and if it pops I could replace it cheap.
In the end, the Audi V8 won out. The future financial risk is low, and with the added torque, most 2nd-gear corners will become a 3rd-gear corners, reducing the likelihood of an over-rev.
So now I have a major project that’s fun. Powertrain mounting, exhaust, and intake systems are something I engineer at work, and I enjoy the challenge. I’ve got a welder and cutting tools, and a lot of people to bug about electronics. And I’ll know this car like the back of my hand when it’s done. Before it was a black box - not natural for me.
I’ll miss this season of DE’s, but I should be ready for 2017. The engine is nearly mounted, the rest of the mechanical systems should be done by the end of summer, and the electronics I can do indoors during the (long) Michigan winter.
It’s no surprise to me that some lessons need to be relearned, even in your mid-50’s. I guess that’s a lesson in itself. I could beat myself up over it – and I have – but I have to move on, take the lesson more seriously, and set myself up for the future.
- Randy Beikmann