A week-end at Laguna Seca  (May 2-3, 1998)

Okay, now that I have more than 1 minute to write a message, I can tell you about my week-end at Laguna Seca, a very picturesque race track located in Monterey (California), one of the first stops of the Indy car CART series.

Short summary


Longer summary

After several back-orders and other problems to get my new valve springs (the old ones were braking at a rate of about 1 per week), I *finally* got the head fully equipped with that new stuff, delivered to my home in San Francisco on last Thursday morning. Good thing, because I was getting particularly grouchy (as I was told) since I had already signed up for the event and paid the $300 for it, plus I already missed a great week-end at Thunderhill Park because of the unavailability of these damn springs.

I came back from work at about 8pm, and spent the rest of the evening putting the whole thing back together (up to around 1:30am).

On Friday, went to tech inspection (mandatory prior each track event) at a mechanics in SF. No problem to pass, but a long chat with the guy. Rest of the day spent at home to do some real work for my company and wait for Tom Rust to come and validate my assembly, then spent the evening preparing last minute things (you know, when you think you're ready that's when actually you've done 50% of the job).

Saturday morning, woke up at 5. While checking a last time tire pressure, I notice that the rear left wheel has lost 1 pound during the night. Mmmh. Not good, that. I promptly change the wheel with the spare one (which sits in a corner in my garage). I leave at 6 for Laguna Seca, under p*ssing rain (after all, maybe that wasn't so stupid to have taken the weather option), and with 3 tons of various items on the passenger seat (helmet, tools & gauges, jerrycan with gasoline, etc.)  During the pleasant drive down there, I congratulate myself for the ear plugs, which make a real difference when the top is on.  Arrived there, I was urged by registration to promptly join the mandatory meeting that had already begun. That was quite a long meeting. At 9:06, we were still in the theory room, when group 4 left the grid. Being in group 3, the following group, I was supposed to be on the grid soon (9:15). Exit from the meeting at 9:10, removal of all the extra heavy sh*t, adjustment of tire pressure, control oil & water, quick carbs adjustment (I'll change the jets later on...), etc., and at 9:18 I was on the grid. Green flag at 9:20. Ouf. First relaxing moment for the last 2 days or so: I have nothing else than drive...  "Relaxing" is a big word though, as I am totally new to Laguna Seca. I quickly find that it is a beautiful and very technical course. The corkscrew (turns 8 and 8A) is a S in a very steep downhill and is probably one of the most picturesque sequences of any race course in the world. While it is not important in itself (it has been said that it is actually the least important part of the track), its exit is crucial for the entrance of turn 9. At the exit of 8A, I found it was more efficient to go only about halfway to the left, then back to the right for the entrance of turn 9. The rightmost 5 feet of turn 9 are off-camber, so it is necessary to, again, keep off the edge. All that is pretty surprising at first.

The Corkscrew (without the Seven, sigh)

Lots of wreckage in the first session, spins and other minor incidents. A significant part of the session is under yellow flag (can't they just take it easy at first, dammit ?)


After this first session, car check. The engine bay is full of oil, and some of it is finding its way inside the foot well. Mmmh, not good, that. I get a little paranoid, since the head gasket I just put on had some significant bumps here and there (the flat-liner who made the packet at Tom Rust's threw together head and head gasket in a big cardboard box and of course the exhaust screws made some indents in the gasket and some holes in the cardboard, arggrrr).

Anyway, I check the oil level: more than enough. Ah, so that was it. Too much oil. No problem, it will "go away" by itself... I clean up the mess (and then I realize I probably didn't take enough shop towels and rugs for the whole day), change the jets and synchronize the carbs. By the way, is the fuel station going to open or what ? I need some 110 octane full of lead to be nice to my engine. Nobody knows, and anyway "you are supposed to take your own fuel with you". I have some with me, but it is unleaded 92 and I'll have to put tons of lead substitute in it.

Second session at 11am. It is getting quick now on the track. Tons of guys are crashing, the landscape is being decorated with Porsches and other expensive cars. Yellow flag at almost every lap. A guy blows his engine out just before the corkscrew, putting tons of coolant (more slippery than oil) just on the braking zone which is already just after a crest (ie: completely blind, and with the wheels very light on the ground...)  Needless to say, a crowd of cars ends up in the sand and in the tire wall. I go through that more or less okay (which goes to show I was still discovering the track and going super slow), except a little surge of adrenaline, as I have to improvise a whole new trajectory between a spinning Camaro and a Porsche trying to avoid another car which is fighting hard to keep the four black things on the big black thing.

After session check: again, lots of oil everywhere in the engine bay. Shoot. From that point, I start to have completely inconsistent readings of the dipstick: sometimes it says "way too much oil" and sometimes it gets out completely dry !  I was hesitating between two explanations:

  1. maybe an oil return arrives just above the dipstick and some oil drips on it, which is why sometimes I see oil, but actually the oil pan is pretty empty
  2. sometimes the dipstick bends on some plane somewhere before reaching the actual oil level, which is actually okay and even slightly over full.
Of course, each explanation would have rather different consequences.

Sometime in the afternoon, I decide I have too much oil and I remove about half a quart. After several measurements, it seems to be okay now. The next session shows it was correct (oil pressure okay, as far as I can tell with that damn gauge, and I don't get oil on the feet anymore).

After that, I promptly pack my stuff and runs back to SF (2 hours in traffic), from where girlfriend+I leave for a jazz concert in the evening (Jon Faddis, absolutely wonderful by the way).

Back at 11pm in SF. I am super sleepy but still insist on getting the car ready for Sunday. Fill-up of tank plus jerrycans, then oil check again. Sh*t! it is dry again !!! (at that point, I was pretty sure the dipstick was bending somewhere).

While I try to repeat the measuring process again and again, in the hope to reach the oil level, I brake the dipstick in the oil pan.


Yes, my dipstick is really broken and the end of it is somewhere in my sump.

On that memorable occasion, my girlfriend realized I had even more French vocabulary than I got her accustomed to.

Finally I go to bed because I can see I am only going to make more mistakes at that stage if I persist to stay awake.

Sunday morning, 4:25. Common, let's go for the sump removal. After some effort to remove starter, clutch piston, clutch plate, etc. (have you noticed how the simplest operation seems overly difficult when you are really tired ?), and after removal of the zillions of screws holding it, I fight to remove the sump. No way. They glued it to the block quite hard. Finally, after much sweating, I unstick it but then: impossible to remove it all the way. The oil pickup has been modified and as a result, it seems necessary to take the engine out to remove the sump. After at least half an hour of swearing and attempts to slide my hand in the sump, playing with a little mirror and a flashlight, I see the infamous little bit of yellow plastic for a fraction of second. But it promptly hides, and I don't see it anymore for at least 15 minutes, during which I have been so vocal that my girlfriend eventually came down to tell me to calm down, or else I would certainly wake up the whole neighborhood. And then, miracle: from the top of the engine, she says: "Mmh, I see it". To my complete astonishment, she promptly proceeds to insert her small hand in the sump and extract the hated bit of plastic.

On rare occasions I have loved her more than at that very minute. I might want to engage her sometime.

Anyway, after putting the whole thing back together plus 3 quarts of fresh oil and a spare dipstick (for any reason I received two dipsticks from Caterham), I rushed to get on the road and down to Laguna Seca, where I arrived at 10:15. The first session has been missed, as well as all the administrative stuff, but it is still early enough to get ready for the second session.

From that point, everything seems to go better, even the fuel station opens and I can concentrate more on my driving than on the car. The track was less crowded too, and since I could arrive early on the grid, I managed to get a couple of clear laps, and then to pass nearly everything that was coming to sight (including an instructor who didn't quite understand how in the world I would dare to pass him --it is very rewarding to drive a Seven in the US...)

I was lapping in 1:57 to 1:59, with one hot lap in 1:56.37, which is better than the only other Seven that was there, which in spite of its V8 Buick 250bhp and shaved tires made its best lap in 2:04...  This goes to show that weight is really a bad thing for a Seven (my engine is dynoed at 130bhp, and I have Michelin Pilot SX tires).

However, I know just enough now to realize I have everything to learn... Okay times are around 1:40 (a guy told me that this was his lap time during his Skip Barber school on Formula Ford). I feel there is a lot of potential left in the car, and I just have to work a lot to be less chicken, and to progressively push my braking points farther, get on the gas sooner, and get smoother at the exit of turns to scrub less speed off.

At the end of the afternoon, it started to rain again, and I was really starting to feel my tiredness. I didn't feel like finishing the day outside of a slippery exit, in company of 2 or 3 other guys surprised by the rain, so I just packed my stuff, put the top on and drove back home (3 hours in bloody traffic jams).

There, one of my best friends had just arrived from Europe and we spent the evening chatting quite late.

Amazingly enough, on Monday morning, I was feeling rather tired...

What a week-end though !  I can't wait until the next one.

Lessons (for myself):

  1. have the car ready two days before (fully ready, with all the tools and other stuff already packed)
  2. have enough shop towels
  3. have a complete set of wrenches
  4. sleep a lot before the week-end
  5. don't try to go home on Saturday evening; sleep close to the track (this time I couldn't avoid it, because of that concert in Berkeley)
  6. go very early on the grid, to have clear laps
  7. get enough "good" gasoline (maybe avgas 100LL ? Oh-hum) ahead of time
  8. use sun blocant more often
  9. drink more water
  10. continue to enjoy

Last modified: July 1998. Return to Pierre's homepage