Sunday, April 11, 2010

Corolla involve in HDPE Program (Part 1)

The whole point of starting Project Corolla was to get a lot of track time. You might think we get enough of that, but someone has to run all the fancy technology when we perform our shootouts. The geek with his head buried in a computer or standing behind the radar gun giving the thumbs up always turns out to be me. So I've been squeezing in precious seat time at weekend track events run by the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) with my not so precious beater.

In addition to its grassroots race series, NASA gives equal emphasis to getting average guys with their own cars, modified or not, out onto the circuit using its High Performance Driving Event (HPDE) program. It's not fender-to-fender racing, so there are no licenses or physical examinations. It's incredibly easy to sign up and get set for your first track session.

Just click your way to NASA membership online (at for $40, then register on the same site for the track event in your region that you want to run in. All you have to pay on top of that is the cost of the event you choose to attend. And buy a helmet if you don't already have one. Events range from $125 to $200 a day, depending on the track, or $200 to $350 a weekend. And the events typically run on Saturday through Sunday, once a month.

While other local organizations offer similar events, the appeal of NASA's HPDE program is that it's geared for drivers and cars of all types. We've seen anything from newbies in rental Auroras to rich guys in Ford GTs and Radicals, so there's little restriction on your car or how it's built, as long as it's safe. Drivers are placed according to experience in one of four groups, each with a different track pace and passing rules. That way, there's no one blocking you or charging up your ass even if you are in an Evo.

After each of the four 20-minute sessions, the groups gather for a download meeting, led by the NASA group instructor who has watched the entire session and constructively discusses what happened, then presents you with another set of exercises to practice. All this is to bring drivers to a level of competence to eventually race in Time Trials or one of many spec race series. NASA also provides one of the most friendly and professional atmospheres around compared to other smaller organizations. Because HPDE instructors are also experienced NASA racers, they are far more patient and have, for the most part, advanced through the same HPDE experience, so they know where you're coming from.

For those going to the track for the first time, the procedure is simple; show up, dump your gear, get registered (if you haven't already done so online), look up your assigned number, then get your car and helmet teched. Tech inspection is mandatory. On street cars, officials check brakes, wheel bearings, brake lights, seats, belts, ensure both battery posts are covered, and that your helmet is Snell 2000 or better. You should also have your car number taped to both sides of your car when you roll into tech inspection.

For cars running four-point race harnesses, NASA requires a DOT-approved model and strongly suggests at least five points. I suggest you bring an unmodified car, since it's easier to tech and much less likely to blow up. The inspection form is available online and should be printed out the night before to hand to the inspector.

Once you're teched, be ready for the all-important morning drivers' meeting, usually at 7:45am. From there, each group splits off for their first briefing and roll call. If you're not there when they call your name in the morning, you don't get to run for the rest of the day-no exceptions. At the first drivers' meeting, you're handed a wristband acknowledging your attendance, and a sticker or card that gets you on track for the following run session. After the meeting, all you have to do is wait for your group's session time and pre-grid at the pit entrance 10 minutes before. There will be a line-up of instructors for you to pick a ride with. After you come off track, take a minute to check tire pressures while they're still hot, then head to your group's download session for your ticket to go back on track.

To get the whole HPDE experience and shake down Project Corolla, I started off with a day at beginner level. Group 1 is geared for those on track for the first time and there's always an instructor (usually one of the race group drivers) riding with you to show the line, what to watch for, basic track etiquette, and keep you from making an idiot of yourself. Morning starts with an introduction on how to interact on track, flags and point-bys. Although passing is allowed, it's restricted to the straights. And since Project Corolla will probably never outrun most of the newer cars, my hand is always out the window down the straights, waving others by. But most in this group are still too busy keeping their knuckles white and not looking in the mirrors to even think about passing. Even those who think they are fast are encouraged to start in Group 1. If you really are as experienced as you think, the group leader will kick you up to the next group.

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