Racing the NSX in the BluBlocker Silverstate 100
For those of you that want the final results: 90 miles target speed 136mph time 36 minutes 148 mph average speed (1991 Acura NSX, stock)
history or reason for being
A bit of history is in order for those of you that did not read about the event last spring. The spring event was called the Nevada Open Road Challenge and was sponsored by Rain-X. The format for the BluBlocker was essentially the same and will give you an idea about what participation is like in this event.
There are two reasons to close the roads in Nevada. One if for safety and maintenance, the other is to promote tourism. This race relies on the latter.
Last May, I drove down to Las Vegas to qualify for the event. Qualification was necessary for drivers that did not have a current competition license or that had not driven in a previous event. Qualification consisted of a quick lecture, given by Terry Herman, and several track sessions on the Las Vegas International Speedway. This was really fun and amounted to some inexpensive track time. It was probably the favorite part of the event for me. Final qualification consisted of an instructor riding with you at speed, making sure you knew how to handle the car at speed. Open track sessions were Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.
Friday afternoon the racers form up in a caravan and drive north to Ely, Nevada. There are several stops along the way and the caravan is escorted by the highway patrol, allowing it to move along at greater than the posted speed limit. The caravan traverses the race course, highway 318, in the reverse direction.
The event was canceled when Terry left the road at high speed (200+) and was killed. The format was changed to allow the slower cars first access to the course, with the track being swept and the unlimiteds running last.
preparation and registration
Enough of history. I had decided to drive straight to Ely as it is closer to home, the San Francisco Bay Area. My navigator, Dan, flew into Reno from Seattle with his son and rented a car as a support vehicle. My wife and I drove the NSX to Reno, met Dan, and then we caravaned on to Ely. The drive was roughly 350 miles, across some of the most boring high desert scenery you can imagine.
Most of the trip was uneventful but a couple of interesting things happened. Upon leaving Reno, we got a bit lost. We had to take a cut off to get back on the right road. The organizers and the Highway Patrol have an agreement that discourages entrants from speeding. If you are caught speeding 30 days prior to the event, you will not be allowed to run. Leaving Reno, we were careful not to speed, figuring that the normal roads to Ely would be patrolled. In finding ourselves off the normal highway, and finding no traffic, I felt comfortable in trying out the handling. We completed a couple of spurts up to 120mph and then settled back to the normal routine of 60mph. The car was very stable, the wind noise increased only slightly, and the engine sounded fine. The altitude robbed the car of a lot of power, most passes being in the 6500 foot level. I figured speeding at 60 was only 5 mph over and that would be allowed.
Imagine having to cover 300+ miles at 60 mph with nothing else around! We did everything we could imagine to keep our minds occupied. We switched drivers in every combination possible. The highlight of the trip was when Dan's 18 year old son, Michael, got to drive the NSX! He found 60 mph very exciting. Scenery going by at 60 mph is not important but remember later in this story when I compare this speed to the high speed driving experience. The impression of traveling on flat country, with no other traffic, none, no land marks to gauge the speed, and no curves or undulations to require you to steer is tremendously boring.
The only other part of the trip that was of interest was the weather. There were thunderstorms scattering the desert and it was fun watching the cloud formations. The rain was a big concern as previous events have been done in the wet.
We registered into our motel, watched the sleepy town of Ely come alive with exotic machinery, ate and retired early.
car show and tech inspection
Saturday was the day of the car show and the technical inspection of your car. The format of the race classes cars according to their teched top speed. The various safety rules require increased safety equipment as the speed increases. I was prepared to be teched for 160 mph. I have made some disparaging comments about the tech last event. I now need to withdraw most of my previous comments.
There was a new chief tech inspector and things were very strict. Only one car qualified for the unlimited class, a Pantera. The big problem was tires. Tires were the most critical item in all classes. I encourage participation in the Touring class. This class is limited to a top speed of 110 mph and requires lap belts, full coverage cotton or natural material clothing, a helmet, accessible fire extinguisher, and tires in good condition.
I needed five point safety harness, a 2 1/2 lb fire extinguisher, Z rated tires, metal valve stem caps, two layer Nomex suit or equivalent, racing shoes and gloves, and a Snell 85 or newer helmet. A hood was required if the helmet was for motorcycles (M85). Tech was through but fair. Because I was running a stock car, I was able to tech one speed group up, hence the 160 mph max. A modified car would have required a roll bar.
I filled up with Trick unleaded racing fuel, parked my car in the show and wandered around to view the other fine cars.
Last event had some exotic cars like a Ferrari F40, a big tuned Mercedes 600 SEL, a Ferrari 308, and a Lamborghini Espada. There were a billion late model Corvettes and only a couple of Porsches. This time there were many Porsche 911s with a couple Rufs. There were two Astin Martins, one new and one DB6 (navigator was a cosmonaut) and a super modified Countach. There were the hotrods, American iron with large engines, Cameros, Mustangs, pickup trucks. There were two other NSXs besides mine, a Lotus Esprit SE, the Espada, a couple of Panteras, and two 300ZX twin turbos. There were new cars like Stealths (with a parachute on the back, with Hessessy driving), SHO, Lasers, and a ton of Corvettes again. There was even a Morris pickup in Touring, my favorite.
The weather was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. We looked, talked, and ate all day long.
There was a mandatory drivers meeting at 6:00 pm. They talk about driving and being safe. Some of the questions gave me pause to wonder about what I was getting into. One person asked what they were supposed to do if the red flag was waving! Another asked how they were going to get their luggage to the other end of the course. One person had brought those big radar displays that show you when you are speeding and was going to place them on the course. Someone stole the guns and we never did find out how fast we were going.
The most interesting exchange came towards the end. First I have to explain how the event is run and how the winners are determined. Within each speed bracket, entrants are supposed to pick a target speed, a speed they want to average over the length of the course. The entrant that actually comes closest to they target speed wins that speed division. I was in the 131-150 mph speed division and I had picked 136 mph as my desired average speed. If I had run the course closer to that average than anyone else, I would have won my group. The unlimited group runs for fastest speed. There is no overall winner of the event.
Now the problem. With only one unlimited entrant, everyone wanted to up their target speed in the hopes that theirs would be not only the winner in the get closest to estimated speed but their speed would be the fastest of the event and they would be an overall winner. The hope was that the unlimited would break! The egos were running rampant and the arguing intense. The boys finally got hooted down and we went off to eat.
Wake up was 4:00 am with a caravan out to the start line at 6:00.
I published my experiences at the last event in my autocross club newsletter. It provoked a couple of letters in response berating an event like this as unsafe and foolish. I had met and talked with Terry prior to the last event and was saddened and shocked when he was killed running this event. I had voiced reservations about entering again and was going over in my mind the safety issues one more time. My wife and I have two children already, one only a year old, and we just found out she is pregnant again. We had decided she would not be the navigator because we realize auto sports are dangerous and we did not want to both be killed in the same accident. This is a dangerous event and should not be taken lightly. I felt like I was prepared and my equipment was relatively safe at the speeds I was planning on going. But I did stop and consider one more time the ramifications of what I was going to do the next day. It was tough to get to sleep....
open road challenge
I woke up at 3 am and could not get back to sleep. I packed our bags and went out to check on the car. I checked fluid levels, air pressure, and retorqued the lug nuts for the fith time. The parking lot of our motel was packed with race cars, some of them running.
My wife grumbled about not being able to sleep to a reasonable hour because of all the boy racers out there reving their engines. Did they not know that the race was still hours away? Each driver went through the motions of preparation, leading to a funny ballet in the dark of early morning. I tried the belts, washed the windows, and packed all the extra stuff in the support car.
My wife and Michael would join the sweep vehicle driving down the course, leaving at 6:15 am. They would meet us at the finish line, engine and mechanicals willing. Dan and I lead the way to the truck stop just outside of Hiko. We were give starting position numbers and let go in small groups to the start line. Parking spots were numbered on the side of the road and we pulled into the 28th starting position. The wait started. We had gotten this far last time and waited five hours before we found out the race had been cancelled.
We wandered up and down this long row of cars, looking at who was immediately in front of us and behind us. Who did we have the potential of having to pass and who might pass us? Most of my immediate neighbors were in similar cars and only a couple gave me cause for concern.
Blublocker had a heliocopter making repeated passes up and down the line of waiting cars adding to the festival atmosphere. You should be able to see us on national television, or so they said. We all got sunglasses from the sponsor. They make the world look too yellow so I decided not to wear them. Small groups of us would talk but it was pretty calm. Just a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road in the middle of this desert high conuntry. It was a beautiful day for a high speed run.
The course is mostly straight, one straight was 13.5 miles long. Most of the turns are long sweepers, possible to take at 160 mph. The road surface varies along the way. Most of it is flat, a fairly wide road bed, and some is undulating. There is one narrow section, called the Narrows, and can be taken at 110 mph if you know what your are doing.
This event takes no finesse. All control, at least in my car, is located in the right foot. There is little chance to overtake or be overtaken. We would leave spaced at one minute intervals. We would pull to the start area in groups of ten, take our time card, get our harness checked, and start.
Our plan was to motor up to an easy 130, check gauges, temperature, and get the feel of the road. If all was ok, we would increase the speed at 10 mph intervals and check again. We wanted to get slightly ahead of our average because we expected to lose time through the narrows.
We had a check list and went over it. The passenger mirror was set so the navigator could watch for overtaking cars. The air conditioning was off, windows up, and belts tight. We decided to leave the traction control system on.
Several cars overheated or had other problems. It was sad to see three cars not even make the start.
Pulling up to the start line was uneventful. I had not gotten excited yet. There were a series of transporters blocking the view right up to the start. As I pulled into the start position, I was suddenly confronted with a hillside of spectators, cameras, and cars. I suddenly realized it was really going to happen this time.
We got flagged off and I went up through the gears. We quickly got to 130 mph and cruised as I watched the gauges settle. The world seemed to be going by quickly but it did not feel that fast. It was nice knowing that I was the only car on the road for quite a distance. I hung out a little right of the center line. The car was riding smoothly, and required no input to the steering to keep things going straight. The windows had not pulled away from the seals and so it was quiet inside. I slowed to 110 mph for the first turn but immediately went back up to 130 in the middle of the turn.
It all looked good so I progressed to 140 mph and held there. I noticed the oil pressure dropping. It went down 2 kg / square cm. I backed off and it bounced back up. The Honda has VTEC, variable valve timing and the second cam profile is actuated by oil pressure. This was happening just above 130. I decided to watch it and continue on.
Watching your gauges at 160 should be a real problem. I found that my helmet visor was cracked partly to allow me to talk to Dan. The bottom edge cut across the oil pressure gauge and so I slammed it shut. I could hear Dan but he had difficulty hearing him.
So we cruised at 160 for another ten minutes. Some of you racers as saying to yourselves that you do not cruise at 160 mph. That is a mile every 22 seconds! You may be driving but you should be concentrating and paying attention. This is not something to take lightly. But it felt like 60, honest. It was not exciting or challenging or thrilling. You have to pay attention and you have to be ready for the unexpected. But when everything is working, it is not impressive. I thought back to the boring trip to Ely. I did have to take first one hand then the other off the wheel from time to time to exercise the fingers. I had a death grip on the wheel. Maybe it was a little exciting. I kept telling myself to smell the roses along the way, but I was careful not to tell myself to slow down and smell the roses.
We passed a couple of cars but it was as if you were making a freeway pass. The speed differential was not significant and they were moving over as I got close. We saw a couple of competitors broken along the way standing next to their cars. There were many course workers, the entire course was within view of someone. Many of them waved. I wondered what it was like as I rushed by.
Very soon, I was two minutes ahead of schedule. This is right about where I wanted to be.
Now the excitement was about to begin. Dan warned me that the narrows were approaching. Time is passing differently in my mind than in reality. Dan warned me in plenty of time, about five miles ahead. But when you are concentrating time passes slowly. I was not prepared for actual entry into the narrows. I was winding through some approach turns at about 130 mph and came to a short straight. It was suddenly obvious that the next turn was part of the narrows. The give away was one of those triangular curve warning signs with a suggested speed of 45 mph! Yikes! I quickly slowed to 90 mph, entered the curve, realized that it was too easy and pushed back up to 110 mph before the end of the curve. I took a racing line for the rest of the narrows and exited still over two minutes fast.
My navigator had a quick conversation. I asked if he would mind if I tarnished his reputation. We could have slowed down and gotten back on average or we could drive the rest at speed. We continued on at 160 mph.
The second bit of excitement was still to come. The road changed and the undulations became more pronounced. I am used to the feel of the suspension transitioning from under to oversteer and back and I am used to attitude changes resulting from turning back and forth. I was not used to the feel of the car during extreme suspension travel, not caused by my steering input. It felt uncomfortable and unusual. Suddenly the traction control system got confused. The system pulsed the brake on one rear wheel and went into error mode. The TCS light came on and the car slowed to 150 mph maximum. This has happened before and the dealer was unable to find anything wrong. I understood what the problem was and was not concerned that the integrity of the car was compromised. I decided to try a moving reset, consisting of switching the car off and back on. I turned off the engine, noticed all gauges go to off position, including the speedometer (!) and switched back on again. I wondered what the course workers thought?
We cruised the rest of the way to the finish with no further events. There was some concern from some of the competitors about the timing of the event. They maintained that the clocks at the finish were 23 seconds slow. Maybe I averaged 150 mph...
Will I do it again? Probably not. I get more excited during an important autocross run. It was fun driving above the speed limit legally. It was fun seeing what my car will do. I would like to come back and with my wife driving. She said she would consider it in Touring, less than 110 mph. But that is another story.