Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ode to the Celica

On September 30th, a Monday afternoon, I was asked to go to Publix. Instead of taking the Car of the Week, as is standard procedure, I grabbed the keys to my 2003 Toyota Celica GT.  Raider, as he was named, chirped twice happily when I pressed unlock. He was saying “Hi, friend.” His engine fired immediately, despite having not been driven for nearly a month. When we arrived at the end of the street, we faced a choice: left for the quick route, right to drive along the beach. I opened the sunroof, put down the windows, and flipped the turn signal up.
            This was to be our last drive together. The next day, October 1st, I received a phone call from my father while I was in the Atlanta airport. Someone was interested in buying Raider and for a decent number. Months before, I’d listed Raider for sale. It hadn’t dawned on me that he would actually sell, and especially when I wouldn’t get an opportunity to say goodbye.
So this is my farewell to a best friend, a loyal Celica, my first car.

            January 11th, 2007 was a pretty great day. No homework was assigned, which for junior year was a miracle. My soccer game had resulted in a 4-0 shutout, which as a keeper means I was a spectator for most of the match.  Upon arriving home, I found a lovely bouquet of flowers from my high school sweetheart. So when my Dad asked me to turn the light out in the garage, I didn’t even consider the strangeness of that request. Without complaining, I walked to the garage, and cracked open the door. To my immense surprise, the garage was not occupied by only one car as normal…there was a second.
            It sounds cliché to say that I burst into tears and fell to my knees. But it’s true. Good thing I was still wearing my shin guards too, because I collapsed on the threshold to the garage, about a ten-inch drop. What sat before me was more beautiful than the thousands I’d stared at longingly online.  This one possessed sleek lines, aggressive body paneling, and an inexplicable feeling of soul. This car had a personality, one that shone through its headlights. It seemed to smile at me, as if saying “Hi! You want to drive me!” I walked like a zombie over to my car. As my fingers hesitantly grazed the polished roof above the passenger door, the Celica chirped twice. What was merely my dad pressing unlock on the keys seemed like a proclamation of a bond which had been formed, a friendship for years to come.
            That night, I was only permitted to do one lap of the block, not even engaging second gear. Dad made it very clear that while this car was mine to drive, I would have to learn everything about it before getting miles under my belt. On the Saturday after, I woke up bright and early to begin my education. Before even turning it on, Dad had me take the brake off, roll it out of the garage, and wash my new car. Once the 2-hour fluff and buff was complete, I looked to Dad for permission. He shook his head. It was time to learn how to change a flat tire. So, for the next hour, I used the jack that came with the car, a pathetically small scissor jack that looked as if it couldn’t hold me up, to change all four tires. Two at a time came off at a frustratingly slow pace while a hydraulic jack stared at me from the garage. When that task had been completed, I was sore and greasy but ready to drive! Nope. Pop the hood and learn how to change the oil, add fluids, check fluids, disconnect and reconnect the battery, change spark plugs, and clean every nook and cranny (A note: one thing Dad didn’t show me that day was how to change a headlight bulb, a feat I had to learn how to do on my own a couple years later). After the engine work was complete, Dad had me use a leather treatment on the interior. He then informed me that we needed to let that dry and so driving the Celica would have to wait for another day.
Raider had the privilege of parking
beside some beautiful cars.
Raider carried me throughout high school…literally. Together, we ventured to senior field trip, 2 proms, countless soccer games and theater performances. Most importantly, Raider got me to graduation.  After high school, the next place Raider would take me was college. But he wasn’t allowed to stay.
            If you don’t know the carrying capacity of a Toyota Celica, prepare to be amazed! For one 500 mile trip, Raider held 2 suitcases full of clothes, 3 plastic containers, 1 lacrosse stick, 1 comforter, 2 sets of sheets, 1 laundry bin, 1 wake board and toe rope, and that’s just the big stuff. Oh, and did I mention the front seats weren’t mashed up against the dashboard? And I still got roughly 35mpg averaging 75mph? That’s when I learned the secret of the Celica: Ferrari F40 exterior with a Ford Excursion interior.
            I took a picture of Raider parked in the FSU lot nearest my dorm and vowed he’d live with me some day. Mom unpacked my room and helped me set up the TV, a generous donation by my uncle. We found SPEED, which was showing a Grand-Am race (at the Glen if memory serves). Quietly, she snuck out with my car keys and took my car away. Freshman year was miserable to say the least, and I know having my best friend there could have appeased it.
            The following year, Raider and I ventured out together on our first big road trip alone. Safely, he took me back to Tallahassee, to a new roommate, new classes, and with a new outlook on my new town. Tallahassee was a very different place when I had a car to explore it. We drove down to the coast a few times, to Daytona (not for spring break but rather a HSR race) and explored the Georgia border. All in all, we drove 4,000 miles that year…for fun!
One of our adventures that years was
to Daytona International Speedway.

            But the best times I ever had with my little Celica came in Canada. Twice, he and I drove up in caravan with my parents. The first time was when I was leaving Tallahassee for good, having served my time and been promised a sheet of paper with my name on it. The night before I left was the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After staying up the whole race, my body clock was a bit skewed. When I loaded my kitten in the car, our journey toward a new life began. Raider drove on one tank of gas all the way from Tallahassee to Jacksonville (where we met up with the parental units), and continued on to South Carolina. My parents were driving an M3, which was thirstier than a frat brother on St. Patrick’s Day.                      The BMW needed gas when I was only at half a tank. Part of that could have been my drafting strategy, but that’s another tale.
Raider helping to launch our old posing for pictures.
            Anyhow, once we finished the 1769-mile journey and arrived at the cottage, the true fun began. Anyone who says the best driving in the world isn’t Peninsula Road in Muskoka, Ontario is just wrong. That road in a Celica is a 40-mile loop of joy.  Ups and downs, sharp curves, apexes galore! The whole drive, Raider’s entire ownership, my realizing what pure bliss behind the wheel of a car, culminated in the first trip we took. A year later, when I didn’t really need my own car in Canada, Raider and I drove up just to tackle that road over and over again.
My niece learning about a age 2
            So now we come to the sad part of this tale. Since that last summer, Raider has sat for the most part. His odometer increased 200 miles in the span of 6 months. And I felt very guilty for this. Here, I owned the best car in the world. And all he was doing was sitting. Thus, Raider was listed for sale.
            I never expected that he’d sell while I was gone. Alas, on October 1st, Raider went to a new home. He lives somewhere down here still, to be used by the crew of some yacht while they’re at port in Fort Lauderdale.  I never imagined our drive on September 30th would culminate what has been such a meaningful and important relationship.  Raider was stability, put a smile on my face when there had only been tears. Raider made sure I kept traveling this road of life at a decent speed. He was the car that brought my kitten home for the first time, the car that I sat in and cried to when my heart was broken for the first time, the car that I wanted to have in my garage when I’m 90. If I’d had any inkling that our final drive would’ve been our last, I would still be driving. 

A few thank yous are in order: First, to my parents who bought Raider all those years ago. Dad, you looked for months to find the perfect car and you succeeded. To Jaime Galceran, who first suggested a Celica would be my car-soulmate, and who always offered to help fix any issue. To Rachel Somers, who tolerated a very long drive with me when Raider’s power steering pump failed and struggled with very weak arms to navigate the roads. To the Township of Muskoka Lakes for maintaining Peninsula Road. Please, please can we shut it down for a day so I can just one lap at speed? And finally, to Toyota, for building the perfect little sports car.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

500 Percent Approval

We’ve all seen the commercial before. A gorgeous woman, who hasn’t eaten dessert for a year and a half, is innocently sunbathing on a beach. Enter the black scorpion. Is he going to attack her? Will someone swoop in to save her from this poisonous demon? Nope. The scorpion simply uses a claw to snip off her bikini top. This isn’t an ad for Playboy or some reality show on Bravo. It’s for Fiat. More specifically, the Fiat Abarth.
Last week when I got the call that a Fiat would be delivered to my doorstep, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. To clarify, a year and a half ago, I drove a 2012 Fiat 500 Cabriolet from Orlando to Miami. To me, the car felt twitchy. It was seemingly swayed onto the shoulder by every truck, semi, or even minivan that drove past. And that was hardly the only shortcoming.  The iPod jack was in the glove box, making it nearly impossible to charge and talk on your phone at the same time. And, even if you could use your phone, the convertible roof contributed to a deafening amount of road noise. On the positive side, the power to weight ratio was good, and so was the car’s functionality. The 500 seemed better suited for a ride through the small towns of Europe, where super highways are substituted for winding country roads.  Thus, my opinion of the Fiat 500 was not the most flattering, until last Wednesday when I met Phoebe.
Phoebe is a 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth. She is white with white wheels and red mirrors, a black leather interior including bucket seats, a subtle yet stylish rear spoiler, and shockingly aggressive looking exhaust pipes. These allow for the deep, raspy voice that sounds like it should be coming from a Jaguar XKR-S or a Corvette C7. The first time I turned the key and all 4 cylinders fired, I looked around to see what gorgeous sports car had wondered down my street. Then it hit on me: I was already in it!
Shift it into gear and Phoebe the Fiat roars to life! The torque output is surprising, with serious whip lash for first timers. Seriously, those not ready and non-believers might feel a bit sore after feeling that acceleration. With only a 1.4L I4 turbo charged engine, some people might be turned off to the idea that this car is here to play. But those people need to be reminded that this is a Fiat, so it only weighs just over 2,500 lbs! To put that into relative, the Scion FR-S weighs 2,758 lbs, the Mini Cooper S Roadster 2,635lbs, and the Ford Focus ST is a whopping 3,223lbs! With performance to equal if not surpass these rivals, the Abarth can stand proud.
I will admit, my first time taking Pheobe on the road was not what I had hoped for. Her steering was too sensitive and twitchy and I had flashbacks to that Fiat of my past.  But, thankfully, a check of the tire pressures showed the culprit was a lack of air and not a deficiency of design.  With a quick stop at the gas station and a fast flick of the sport mode switch, Pheobe roared into action.  Sure, the powerful sound of her exhaust and the whistle of her turbo meant the radio had to be turned up to 10 to hear. But hey, that’s all part of the experience, and it did make me forget about the road noise!
My only complaint, after a week of driving, may seem a bit petty. I’m a traditionalist and having a gear leaver coming out of the dashboard, where the air conditioning controls usually are, seemed unnatural to me.  What’s more is that the leaver is actually on a slight angle toward the driver which looked more like a mini-van than a sports car.  Even so, by the end of the week, I had adapted.  And, given how many issues I usually find in cars through my much-suppressed inner pessimist, Fiat should consider this one small complaint a major victory.
When this Wednesday rolled around, I had to say goodbye to Pheobe and I was honestly sad to see her go.  That little car surprised me in so many ways. I was expecting something average, fuel efficient, and boring. But what I found was a car that reminded me why driving can be so much fun!  Off went the little Abarth rocket ship, and in drove a Lexus ES350. A vehicle, that after driving Phoebe, seems to be the size of the moon!  Ah, those preconceived expectations.  Here we go again!

Fun: Fourth grader after consuming a bag of M&Ms
Looks: B
Performance: A
Cost: Less than you'd think...starts under 23k
Seats: Look great but meh to sit in
Worth it: For the price, can't beat it!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Toronto Preview

With the IndyCar races in Toronto only days away, excitement is growing throughout the city.  The event that can make or break a season is finally upon us. And what’s better: we get not one but two days of great racing in Canada!
Did you know that in the 9 times out of the 26 races that have occurred on the streets of Toronto, the winner has gone on to claim the championship? Dario Frachitti’s done it twice, in 2009 and 2011, while Ryan Hunter-Reay, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser jr, Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi, Cristiano da Matta, Paul Tracy, and Sebastien Bourdais have each achieved this once.  What’s more, 3 of the aforementioned people are competing in these races, 2 of them are team owners now, and 1 will be commentating for his native audience! This race has proven in the past to be a pivotal point in deciding championships.
Yet it has a mind of its own. Take Canada’s favorite James Hinchcliffe for example. Hinch has never done well on this circuit. Last year he finished 22nd, and the year before 14th. Looking back to his Indy Lights days, he was 10th in 2010. He did have a podium in 2009, but his two races on the circuit in 2007 and 2006 resulted in a retirement and 6th respectively. Out of 6 times on the circuit, his best finish of 3rd came when he was 22 years old.
While some drivers may have had bad luck at this track, it’s been very rewarding to others. Dario Franchitti, a driver who most Canadians would dub to be an honorary Canuck, has found tremendous success on these streets.  Dario has 4 poles to his name on top of 3 race wins. Since 2009, he’s either won pole or finished on the podium. Coming off of a very strong performance at Pocono, these races could be the turning point in what has been a lackluster season so far. Given his history, Franchitti should do well this weekend.
Someone else hoping to do well in Toronto has far more pressure on his shoulders. Marco Andretti’s father, Michael, won on the streets of Toronto a record 7 times. 7! Marco’s best finish is 4th. Right now, he sits 3rd in points and is the only one of the top-7 without a win. 2 of his teammates have multiple wins. Marco must be feeling the pressure to perform well at a track where his family has traditionally thrived. It’s hard to imagine him staying up in the points battle without a win as the season winds to a close.
What I find most exciting about this weekend is the chameleon aspect. These drivers haven’t driven the road course set up on an IndyCar since Detroit. That means, by the time first practice begins on Friday, it will have been 38 days since their last adventures with different aero packages. Sure, the drivers have been busy every weekend in between, but they’ve been at Texas, Milwaukee, Iowa, and Pocano driving cars with little downforce, different brake cooling systems, and very different physical demands. How quickly the drivers can adapt back to these other cars will directly affect how much time they have towards getting the right set up for the race. If the driver has mental blocks or takes one session to re-acclimate, that’s a session lost.
It’s very physically demanding to drive a race. The pilots in the best shape should have a leg up for the Sunday race. It will be interesting to watch and see which drivers can recover more quickly from the stresses on Saturday and which ones have lingering fatigue when taking the green flag on Sunday.  Given the way this season has fallen into place, expect to see at least one new face on the podium for each of the races. So far, 16 drivers have been on the podium over 11 races, with Ryan Hunter-Reay standing on 6. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see someone else new for the season hoisting the 1st place trophy for at least one of the races, and am expecting to see one or two new faces make it up into the top-3.
Toronto has historically provided one championship changing race a year; in 2013, we get two. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Community Laments

5 drivers have died while racing in the last 3 weeks. What a terrible thing to have to write. Jason Leffler, Wolf Silvester, Allan Simonsen, Paul Mucahy, Andrea Meme. All died at very different race circuits.  Yet all lost their lives behind the wheel of a race car. Racing is the most dangerous sport, a game of chess at two hundred miles per hour, as Jim Roller says. When a defensive back in football misses a tackle and the other team scores a touchdown, there are consequences for that player. He might get yelled at by the coach and team mates, maybe even benched for the rest of the game. But he has a tomorrow. When a race car driver lets his car swing out two inches more than he intended, it could mean the end of his days. Every driver accepts this reality, and these five drivers the racing community lost in June knew every corner could be their last.
Death is as much a part of life as birth. But with birth, we are given roughly 9 months to prepare. Accepting a death that is so sudden, so unexpected, so chance is daunting to all. When Allan Simonsen’s car snapped left as the track went right on lap 4, Le Mans fell into a stupor.  Every driver, fan, mechanic, person at the track felt the cloud of reality sink down upon us. People may mock the British “Keep Calm and Carry On” saying but it really helped as a mantra at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. An event which had so much excitement and anticipation became about honoring a fellow brother. And to their credit, every person kept calm and did carry on, to ensure the other 167 drivers racing came home. But even before the race started, the race had a different feel about it.
This year I’d planned to be very different from last. Thanks to Carol Brink, I’d brought some tropical themed knickknacks to try and persuade the weather to be pleasant. It wasn’t. To say that it was cold and rainy seems insufficient, because it rained every day and there was only one tiny window where I didn’t need a sweater. In all fairness, I am a bit of a chicken when it comes to cold (anything below 70F) but even Paul Tarcy admitted to being chilly one evening session. Needless to say, Carol and my idea backfired but the Cabana Boy still enjoyed his pink flamingo sunglasses!
The week kicked off splendidly. Jim and I covered both days of scrutineering, which led to some great conversations with drivers I’d never met. It’s truly amazing how welcoming this community is and how open people are to sharing their experiences. The racing world is a family, and newcomers are just distant cousins we haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting. I am absolutely flabbergasted that some of my racing heroes, such as Allan McNish, Marino and Dario Franchitti, Ryan Dalziel, Anthony Davidson, Jan Magnussen, and so many more know my name and give me hugs when our paths cross! The fan inside of me faints every time this happens. On Tuesday, John Hindhaugh, aka the Voice of Le Mans, was recording a piece with Allan McNish. Allan walked up the stairs, saw me, and gave a kiss on both cheeks. He then said, “I came up here just to do that!” Inside, I screamed. Outside, I blushed. When I told him I had a logical theory as to who should win this year, he said he wanted to hear it. “Well,” I started, “the number 1 was the winner my first year here so the number 2 should win in my second! No pressure.” He laughed and then said, “Well, what happens next year then? I’ll be in the number 1 if I win.” I thought for a second and replied that he’d better find a way to drive in the 3. Allan, guess you’d better start begging for a seat in that car!
Pounding the pits and patrolling the paddock began on Wednesday, when the rest of the crew arrived and was ready for work. That’s when everything started. When the first practice was red flagged and ended early due to barrier repair, Joe Bradley and Bruce Jones joked that it was because I had just gone down for my first shift. Then, when the second was ended for the same reason, it became a thing. “Send Shea to the pits and the session will end prematurely!” Thankfully, no drivers were injured during those sessions. But they did get people talking about the barriers around Le Mans and how something should be done for the future. Every single session, practice or qualifying, for the 24 Hours of Le Mans ended in a red flag, due to an accident and ensuing barrier repair. For the record, I was not in the pits for all of these.
            When race day finally rolled around, we were all eager for the green flag to drop. On the grid walk, I saw 56 clean, slick cars, prepared for the last 364 days for this one day-long period.  They were all sparkly, and the teams stood around them defensively and proud while thousands of fans crowded around to take pictures with their favorites. The anticipation was so thick you could’ve cut it with a knife. After saying hi and wishing good luck upon a few teams, I headed back to the Radio Le Mans booth for the start of the race. Last year, I video recorded the start from my view and have since watched it at least once a day. Naturally, I wanted to do the same for this year. But, clever me, I hit the wrong button and only got photos of the safety car and the final medical car. I was still griping about the stupidity of this act when the cars came around for the end of the second lap (the whining did help).  When I finally got it together, my iPad was ready to video record the end of the 3rd lap. I panned with the leading car group, then went back to watch the AMAZING P2 battle. When the first of the GT cars came around, I’d missed the Porsches so I turned my device to follow the two Corvettes, with an Aston Martin ahead of them. When I put down the iPad and turned to look at the television, there was a car severely damaged that had come out of Tetre Rouge. I’d gotten the end of Simonsen’s last lap on video. This video will not mirror the one I took last year; I won’t watch it and think of the good times.
            However, he night shift was another high point in my life. There’s just something about sticking my head through the pit wall at 3:00am and seeing the headlights blazing passed on a journey that still has twelve hours to play out. I hope that sensation never fades. The exhaustion on the faces of crewmembers starts to really show about this time. It’s when you stop and think about these brave men, who have been sleeping in 30-minute stints if they’re lucky, who have been at the track since 4:00am the day before. They’ve been prepping the cars for a year, and have also been away from their families for roughly 3 weeks. These people savor the race but also, it’s visible on their faces how badly they need the race to end. Unlike the drivers, the pit crew can’t duck off for 3 hours for a nap. They have to be ready when the car comes back in for service, 45 minutes after it’s last visit. There is no down time, no respite. When the sun comes up, a magical time at Le Mans, it does not mean the end is near. There’s still roughly 9 hours to go. Making it through the night is a huge accomplishment, don’t get me wrong, but it just makes the lust for the checkered even greater.
            By the time my last shift in the pits had rolled around, it was clear that this was the number 2 Audi’s race to lose. My prediction was looking pretty solid. When I saw McNish in the pits, he gave me a nervous smile and a pat on the back. Those cars fighting for a podium spot held their collective breaths, knowing that time was quickly ticking down. Their battles might be half a lap or more apart but that is irrelevant. At Le Mans, you keep pushing until the end. And Aston Martin fought tooth and nail to try to get that podium to honor Allan. It was such a meaningful moment when the winning Audi had an Aston Martin in the glory picture, to always remember.
            Speaking of the winners, a Brit stood on the podium in every class. I was overwhelmed to see my prediction come true. For years, I’ve dreamt about seeing McNish and Kristensen stand on top of the podium in person. To be able to say I was there, to see two of my childhood heroes, win the race that means more to them than any other, broke the dam that was the emotion of the race. A major congratulations needs to go out to Brad Kettler, Audi genius, who has now won the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, and 24 Hours of Le Mans all in one year.  In the P2, after a hard fought battle, Martin Plowman, Berty Breadstick (Bertrand Baguette), and Ricardo Gonzalez came away with the sweet taste of victory. The Cookie Monster finished 2nd, clearly because he ate desert a month ago and it took a tenth off his time. GTE-Pro was another sweet victory. Porsche hoisted banners all around the Circuit de la Sarthe about how 2014 will be the return. But they came back strong this year, with a 1-2 finish. They snuck up on the rest of the field and procured a confidence boosting win. Finally, in GTE-AM, a beautiful Ferrari covered with a South African flag finished 3rd. Matt Griffin, Thrapston’s fastest Irishman, you’re having a fabulous year!
            The track seemed to sigh when the race was finally over. After such a difficult start, the whole racing family was eager to see this one end. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point during the night, a Danish flag was raised to half-staff over the podium. The tail of the flag grazed the trophy. A beautiful tribute. The whole race was.