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"Nothing is going to fully compare to flying an advanced attack aircraft, but you can’t exactly go take one for a spin whenever you want.  But really pushing a car 10/10th’s on the track makes for a close second."

 

Eat, Sleep, Tinker

by Ziva Allen

with Chad Morehead

 

 

estcopterChad Morehead, author of the blog Eat, Sleep, Tinker, was a helicopter maintenance pilot in the U.S. Army so he knows a thing or two about operating a high performance machine and wrenching on it as well.  Chad has discovered track days (more accessible than piloting an Apache Longbow) and has a wealth of information on car preparation and maintenance, tracks, and track day driver, and makes sensible car modifications.  We conducted a Q and A with Chad for our monthly Track Driver feature.  Here it is:

Tell us about piloting a helicopter. What type of helicopter did you pilot? What is the job of a Maintenance Test Pilot?

I started flying when I was 15, small single engine Pipers and Cessnas.  I always had a love for flying, really a love of anything mechanical.  My father was also a test pilot in the Army, flying Hueys and Blackhawks.  When it was time to look at colleges, I knew I wanted to serve in the military, with an ultimate goal of becoming a helicopter pilot.  I went the ROTC route, and was lucky enough to be assessed into Army Aviation starting out of small Bell 206s and OH-58s, then moving to the “Big Rig” AH-64D Apache Longbow. 

I flew those as a young lieutenant and captain, then requested the maintenance test pilot course after my first deployment.  Again, I was lucky enough to get a slot.  As a test pilot, and maintenance officer, I was destined to command an aviation maintenance company, which is responsible for maintaining the unit’s fleet of aircraft.  While my main role was the manager of the unit’s operations, I had a secondary responsibility of conducting test flights and various other maintenance checks.  Essentially anytime an aircraft has maintenance performed on it, it must be checked out by a test pilot before being released to “peter pilot” and normal everyday missions.  Which means I spent a large chunk of time troubleshooting the aircraft on the ground, rather than actually flying it. 

I have spoken to several pilots who became involved in motor sports. They tend to find driving a car on a track less compelling than piloting an aircraft.  They speak of too many constrictions when comparing driving a car on a track to flying.  How do you compare track day driving to piloting an aircraft?

Nothing is going to fully compare to flying an advanced attack aircraft, but you can’t exactly go take one for a spin whenever you want.  But really pushing a car 10/10th’s on the track makes for a close second.  You certainly get some of the same pucker factors on occasions where you are courage limited rather than traction limited (or sometimes when both occur.)  I find myself having to dial back my aggressiveness, as I’ve built up a threshold for hairy situations in my day job, and I don’t quite have the driving talent or car to go along with that aggression. 

What makes them comparable is that speed is all relative.  250mph at 500 ft doesn’t feel any faster than 120mph on the ground surrounded by things to hit.  You end up getting the same kind of rush.

How did you become involved in track days?

I was always into cars, starting off mainly with 4x4s and trucks.  But I also had a love for sports cars, especially the BMW M Coupe.  I had coveted one since the first time I saw one on a pedestal in the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport’s baggage claim as a young college student.  Of course I couldn’t afford one for a long time, but I never forgot about it.  Then in 2011 I ran across an advertisement for a low mileage example in Houston, TX.  I decided to check it out and ended up buying it. 

I now had a sports car and it was a BMW, so I joined the BMW Car Club of America (CCA.) shortly after that I deployed for a year to Afghanistan.  My car sat idle, while I spent my free time researching upgrades for the car.  When I returned, I went to work on the car, making several improvements.  Of course, what’s the point of all this performance potential if you are only ever going to drive it on the street?  Around March 2013 I was browsing the CCA’s website when I noticed they had an upcoming track day event at Motorsport Ranch, in Cresson, TX.  This was my opportunity to really see what the car could do, so I signed up and from there, like many others, was immediately hooked.

Tell us about your track cars. What do you drive? How do they compare?

Prior to purchasing the M Coupe, I had picked up a 2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder, another low production sports car.  This was my first project car.  There’s very little original to estmcoupeontrackthat car, it’s been through several revisions.  I swapped in a 2ZZ-GE and six speed, which then led to a Rotrex supercharged 2ZZ, then an LSD was added, then full bracing, then a roll bar, then a fully built 2ZZ, so on and so forth.  The car eventually put down 311rwhp, all from 1800cc’s! 

Unfortunately, with all this constant work, the car wasn’t available for most of my track days, so I continued to drive the M Coupe.  The M Coupe has coilovers, upgraded bushings, lower gearing, headers and a tune, making it a very potent car.

I eventually got the MR2 out to the track; essentially just enough to shake it down and see what needed adjusting.  I ran a square tire setup rather than the factory stagger.  My first outing, running the 3.1 mile configuration at Motorsport Ranch, revealed just how much more nimble the car was than the M Coupe.  The MR2 would rotate faster than you could think, making for some pretty epic spins and tail-out driving.  Despite the handling, the car was quick.  I was easily besting my times in the M Coupe, of course the NT01 rubber helped. 

Unfortunately another track day later, this time running the 1.7 mile at Cresson, didn’t end so well.  I had an engine failure, which after pulling the plugs, appeared to be the result of dropping a valve in the #1 cylinder.  Later, following a tear down, it was discovered that the tip of an exhaust valve stem had broken completely off.  So now the MR2 sits torn apart once again, awaiting an upgraded valve train.

Back came the old reliable M Coupe.  Since I never intended to transform the car into a track weapon, it still rides on stock wheels and staggered street tires.  Some additional negative camber up front helped cure a lot of the understeer, but it still plows, requiring a healthy dose of trail-braking on turn-in.  The car is outfitted with a very old design rear suspension, utilizing the same semi-trailing arm suspension that can trace its roots back to the BMW 2002.  It’s a bit quirky, you never ever want to lift in a corner, as it’s very prone to trailing throttle oversteer.  The advantage is that it can really put down the power coming out of a corner.  Even on street tires, I could run with E46 M3s running NT01s and similar DOT-R tires.

Do you aspire to racing? If not, why not?

I haven’t been at the track driving game for very long, just over a year in fact.  With all the tracks available in Texas, I’ve been on an accelerated regimen, trying to make my way through the ranks as fast as possible.  During the last BMW CCA Fall DE we were notified of an upcoming Club Racing School to be held at Texas World Speedway.  It was open to the Advance+ (open passing) students, but I was very interested in attending.  So I asked the chief instructor if I could get a waiver.  He sent me out for a session with an instructor to see how I did, and luckily I passed the scrutiny. 

The club race school was a blast, completely different to what I had been accustomed to with DEs.  Rather than passing with point by’s, we were going into corners two and three wide, passing wherever you could fit the car.  We did several drills, then practice starts, and then finished the weekend with a simulated race.  We had no instructors in the car; instead they were alongside us in their actual race cars.

It was just a taste of what a race is like, but like my first time at a DE, I was hooked.  Rather than trying to find the perfect line and avoid all traffic, you are having to find the line that is available and denying that line to your competitor.  So now I’ve got a caged E36 325i chassis sitting at my house, awaiting its eventual build up to a true race car.  I realize that I have a long way to go as a driver, but my goal is to eventually participate in as much racing as possible.

What has helped your development as a driver?

Just getting out there.  I, like most gearheads, spend a great deal of time reading the various online forums.  This has helped some, but I really just needed more time behind the wheel.  I’ve also picked up several books on the subject of performance driving.  I take these with me on track weekends, reading them at the hotel after a day at the track.  I found that it helps me to visualize what I need to do and also put into words what I’m feeling through the car.  But perhaps the best aid is having a good instructor.  I haven’t had a bad instructor yet, but there are some I just “click” with better.  Find those guys (or gals) and pick their brains.  A good instructor will be willing to teach you just as much out of the car as in it.  Even if you are a solo student, ask for an instructor for at least a couple sessions over the weekend.  A second set of eyes can do wonders, especially if it’s a new track.

What suggestions would you offer to someone who is new to track day driving?

estmr23qviewTake it slow, drive within your talent and comfort zone.  The car is only going to go as fast as you make it, so don’t feel obligated to stay with faster cars.  I’ve spun too many times trying to stick with another car (an M Coupe will not stay with a McLaren).  I’m not learning anything from that.  I would also suggest holding off on upgrades to your car until you really know what it needs and where you want to go with the sport.  I’ve wasted a lot of money on parts I thought would make the car better, only to find out that it’s been tried before.  There’s not much new under the sun, and I guarantee someone at the track has been down the path you’re heading.

What suggestions would you make to someone who has plateaued in his or her development as a driver and wants to get back on the track with their progress?

I’m still very new at performance driving, so I tend to learn or improve every time I go out.  Even so, there are things you can do to ensure you continue to improve.  Taking a ride in the right seat is one.  From the passenger seat you are no longer task saturated with nailing the perfect heel-toe downshift, you can sit back and see the driving line.  There’s a saying I hear often from instructors; “speed comes naturally” and it’s absolutely true.  If you are forcing it, trying to drop times, more than likely you are tensing up, making mistakes, and overdriving the car.  Dial it back, concentrate on the techniques, and you’ll see times falling without even thinking about it.  I’ve found myself putting down my best times when I was just relaxed about it, still focused but relaxed.

Do you use data logging and video as part of a self-coaching regimen? How do these help driver development?

I use simple apps on my Android phone, in conjunction with a 10hz GPS, and of course video from a GoPro.  The phone app provides immediate feedback in the form of sector times.  A brief glance of the display tells me if that different line is actually helping or hurting.

The video is helpful in seeing things that you would normally miss from the driver’s seat.  I’ve sworn up and down that I did things a certain way in the car, only to find out later from the video that I hadn’t.  It provides a good way of seeing where you are making mistakes and where time can be had.

Tell us about some of your mechanical projects on your track cars.

How much time do you have?  I’m always tinkering on something, whether it’s the track car, race car, daily driver, or tow rig.  I am a stickler for preventive maintenance, which I suppose comes from my aviation background.  I can’t stand leaks, cracking rubber, or rusty bolts, so I’m always replacing something. 

Then there’s the never ending goal of just making a car perform better, tweaking that last tenth out of suspension setup.  I also am very much OCD when it comes to cars, I can’t stand loose wires or shoddy work, so I spend a great deal of time making everything just right.

You have an excellent blog on your track driving and tinkering career. How did you come to develop that?

Thanks!  It’s still very much a work in progress, and I find myself neglecting it for time spent in the garage or behind the wheel.  Once upon a time I did web design on the side, mainly just to supplement my beer fund as a poor college student.  So that’s where I learned a few things about making websites, in fact I had tried (and failed) a few other websites before.

Like most automotive enthusiasts, I had compiled a healthy number of forum accounts.  I was active on the boards for every site related to the cars I had.  I even helped startestmcouperearview up and run one for the Nissan Titan.  But it became more and more of a chore to organize my projects or “build threads” across so many sites.  I wanted something centralized, that I would have control of.  That gave me the idea of just starting a blog that would contain everything I was into, allowing me to easily dial up a past project.  I figured it would also benefit others who may be interested in taking on a similar project, modification, or maintenance. 

On the blog, there are some informative articles on track car preparation. What advice would you offer on preparing a car for a track day?

Preventative maintenance is paramount.  Your car should be in tip top condition.  You should start with fresh fluids throughout.  BMW has a notorious “lifetime” lubricant in their transmissions and differentials.  If your car is older, chances are it’s in need of a transfusion.  Things like suspension bushings, bolt torques, and fluid lines should be checked.  Find out, via online searches, what the weak point and common points of failure for your car are.  If your car is prone to subframe mount failures (like most BMWs) then check the welds.

That’s what I would do for my first ever track day.  If you are still on all season tires, you likely won’t overextend your brakes.  Once you see how you like track driving, and you will, you can begin with upgrades.  If you move to better tires, you’ll also need better brakes (or if you have better brakes, you’ll likely out brake your tires.) 

My first event exposed the OEM brake pads and fluid on my M Coupe.  It surely didn’t help that I was a novice and probably over-braking, but I ended up with a lot of fade.  You don’t need a big brake kit, or even floating rotors, but a set of performance pads and fluid will go a long way.

Another item you should look at is the alignment.  A quality performance alignment can make a huge difference on just how easy your car is to drive hard.  Stock alignments traditionally lead to understeer, and are made to help a car track straight down the road with little steering input.  A good shop that knows what they are doing, can dial out a lot of understeer and help the car turn better.  But for your first time out, I would just recommend you have a stock setup, predictable understeer is better than an unpredictable bad alignment.

I have installed brake ducts and a fan on my transmission cooler.  Can you suggest a few high impact tinkering projects for people to try on their track cars?

There are so many variables between different cars, different tracks, and different drivers that this makes for a very difficult question.  I prize reliability above all else (besides safety).  Do whatever you can to ensure you get your car through an entire weekend of track driving.  This goes back to preventive maintenance and having pads and tires matched to their intended use.

But if I had to pick something beyond brakes and tires, I would say a seat and harness.  My M Coupe still has stock seats and belts, whereas the MR2 has 6-point harnesses and Lotus shells.  If you are just getting started, you will be amazed by just how sore and tired you are after one day at the track.  With stock seats and belts, you have to flex your muscles the entire time around a corner and during braking to keep yourself in the seat.  So rather than allowing your body to relax and receive tactile feedback, it is tense and prevents making smooth inputs.

Tell us about the tracks you have driven on?  Which is your favorite and why?

Texas has a very healthy selection of tracks, as well as numerous organizers for track days.  I’ve been very fortunate to have experienced so many track days, at so many tracks, in so little time.  I’ve driven the Motorsport Ranch 1.7 mile in both clockwise and counterclockwise configurations.  I’ve also done the 3.1 mile track there on a couple of occasions.  This facility offers a lot of variety, with almost all the turns allowing for good passing or setting up of passes.  The surface is different depending on what section you are on, but very slick under damp conditions.  There’s also a lot of off camber corners, which take a bit of courage to really carry speed through.  Running the 3.1 mile provides for impressive elevation changes as well, with only one slow 2nd gear corner.

estmcoupetowTexas World Speedway is another great track, having started life as a stock-car super speedway oval.  The banked oval still forms the front straight, but now a 2.9 mile road course is the main attraction.  The surface is a bit rough in spots, with some bumps that may catch you off guard.  The track is fast, especially when run in the clockwise configuration, which has you following a long sweeper onto the front straight.  I’ve spent more days here than anywhere else, as it’s less than two hours from my house.  It’s also served by numerous organizations.  BMWCCA, NASA, PCA, Performance Driving School, Drivers Edge, and Chin Motorsports all run this track pretty regularly.  They also have occasional “open track days” where there are no sessions, and you can just go on and off the track as you please. 

Also not too far away is Harris Hill Raceway, in San Marcos.  It’s a smaller facility, which mainly caters to paying members.  Its small paddock prevents the larger organizers from having events there, but occasionally they open it up to track days.  I’ve run it twice, both times in the M Coupe.  The track surface presents some problems, as the ground has settled unevenly in several areas, producing a very bumpy ride.  I barely fit in my M Coupe with a helmet on, so I’m constantly banging my head off the ceiling around the track.  Despite this, the configuration makes for some very fun driving.  It has a very cool elevating corner, which dives down into another corner. 

Last month I traveled out to New Orleans for a weekend at NOLA Motorsports Park with Chin Motorsports.  This is an absolutely beautiful facility.  The pavement is new, the curbing is where you’d expect it, and plenty of spots to pass.  There is zero elevation change, it is Louisiana after all, but the configuration keeps it interesting.  I really liked this track, I feel it would be great for racing as well. 

My most recent track day was at the Circuit of the Americas, or COTA to most enthusiasts.  This F1 purpose built track is on many folks’ bucket list, and I wanted to drive it from the moment they broke ground.  Unfortunately, the management knows this as well, and the prices reflect it.  A few organizations have run the track recently, but only the CCA has done so at a price I was willing to cough up.  Like NOLA, the track surface is in mint condition.  Grip is consistent throughout, even when cold and slightly damp.  The layout of the track has sections I really love, but others that are very frustrating.  It’s quite difficult to setup passes, as the straights begin and end with very slow corners.  The straights are also very long, giving the feel of just hauling down a highway, followed by slamming on the brakes for a tight corner.

Just for its variety, I would say Motorsport Ranch in Cresson is my favorite.  That said, they all bring something different, and that’s what makes going to a new track so enjoyable.  I’m really hoping to try out a few new tracks this year, such as Eagles Canyon, Hallett, and MSR Houston. 

Here is a video of Chad in his M Coupe at COTA:

 

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