Friday, November 13, 2009

How I Broke an SLK 55 AMG

Sigh. And it was all going so well. But let me back up.

Last weekend I did the AMG Stage II course at Laguna Seca. An element of the course was to run in an autocross challenge competition. This is essentially a single timed lap around a coned-out course, set up on the concrete paddock area at Laguna. So far, so good. We got to run both a practice and qualifying session, and were sorted into 4 groups of 10 drivers with the top 8 (2 from each group) progressing to the final. Glad to say I came out top of the group I was in and so made it into the final, but in the process I broke one of their cars.

Turns out the oil cooler on the SLK 55 is hung low and to the right of the engine bay, at what turned out to be a very convenient height to get hit by wayward cones. Now by "wayward", when applied to cones, I of course mean that it stood still and I ran over it. Well, in fact it and one of its siblings to be precise. And in order to effect at least a measure of revenge one of the two - and I never did figure out exactly which of them were the guilty party - smacked a hole in the oil cooler, resulting in a long streak of nicely warmed oil being deposited over the track. Oh, and a big pool of the stuff in the staging area off to the side. And they had to retire the car.

Tsk, and there was me thinking that AMGs were made of stronger stuff. One teeny weeny cone and the thing's off the road? Pah.

(Nope, I didn't win the final. Was way too conservative on the timed single lap, a failing I am still beating myself up about days later. I hate losing. But on the plus side, I got awarded a Meguire's car care kit for services rendered to said mortally wounded car!)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

AMG Stage II Course

Decided to take a bit of a break, so over the last weekend spent two days at Laguna Seca doing the AMG Stage II course. I'll post some more on that later but it turned out that coincident with this, the first running of the course at Laguna Seca, AMG was launching the Mercedes SLS.

Although none of us were allowed to drive it, we were at least allowed to paw all over it and generally take a look at what Mercedes hope will follow directly in the footsteps - tyre tracks? - of the original and now iconic 300 SL Gullwing.

I can't really say it's a beautiful car. The cabin sits a bit too far back in the chassis for my tastes, leaving the whole thing looking a bit unbalanced, at least from the side. Still, it's certainly, err, purposeful, and clearly a descendant of the joint venture McLaren SLR. It's hard though to put oot of one's mind the "penile" effect created by the extended bonnet line (or more aptly, perhaps, the "hood", for those reading this in the US), especially bearing in mind the average age of likely buyers.

Price? Reputed to be around the $300k, which makes the decision not to buy one a bit easier at least. For that money you do however get a unique car, and one that embodies some pretty interesting technology. As an example, the prop shaft, a component that's called upon to transmit the 570 bhp produced by the monster engine without complaint or, frankly, flying into a thousand small and very expensive pieces, is made of carbon fibre and weighs just 4 kg, or about 8.8 pounds. An example was hanging in the small static display area they had set up for the launch and really it's an exquisite piece of work.

Mercedes should be proud of this car regardless of of the petty whinings you see above. It's only jealously at work after all, and I'd promise to utterly change my tune for the promise of a short, weekend-long test drive!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #12

Time to head home, but in order to have a stop along the way we had a single night booked at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite. However, there was yet an obstacle to overcome, namely that the Tioga Pass was closed. The snow we encountered earlier in the week had shut the pass a couple of days before. It didn't appear to us that this very early fall would close the pass for the winter, but that didn't mean it would open by the time we needed to use it either! There was another way to reach the valley, but only by following a 4+ hour detour, something we'd much rather not have to do.

The Ahwahnee is not a cheap place to stay - hence he decision to be there just one night - and we wanted to eat in the main hotel dining room, the only available slot being a table at 5:30 pm. Leaving Bodie at 1 pm would allow us to make this comfortably if the pass was open, but with the detour then there'd be no way to make this work.

Thankfully, the travel gods smiled upon us and the pass opened. There was still a few patches of ice around Tuolumne Meadow, something a bunch of Harley riders found out to their cost, with one bike ending up sitting in the middle of a field below the road, but apart that tat it was plain sailing ... err, driving. The only slow down was waiting for a work detail clearing trees from the side of the road around an area that had burned in a fire over the summer.

At the Ahwahnee we stayed in one of the cabins following a recommendation from a friend instead of opting for the main house. Cabin was fine, no real complaints, but hard to really conclude it's value for money if you just view it as a hotel. However, that's not the point. The point in staying here is the location, smack in the middle of Yosemite Valley and hence a unique opportunity to spend a night right under the granite cliffs and open skies of the Sierras. (Oh, and the food at dinner was fine but the scrambled eggs I ordered the next day for breakfast were inedible lumps of rubber. Go figure!)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #11

After Mono Lake we had one more major place to go on the trip: Bodie. I already touched on this location here but thought I'd anyway post another picture now just to show another side of the place.

In addition to the abandoned houses, sheds and varied bits of machinery, a few of the original buildings still have the (presumably) original contents laid out inside. Until fairly recently, Bodie was less well managed than it is now, with the park being open at all hours and with little in the way of restrictions or park management. It was possible to get into places like the hotel and mortuary to photograph and explore, seemingly without much in the way of restrictions. Alas, a situation that holds no more. In order to do the best they can to preserve the essence of the place, access is now much more controlled meaning that you can only peer through the dusty windows in order to see what's inside. (Actually, I think that's a good thing. This place really does deserve to be preserved "as is" without visitors constantly disturbing the interiors of lay buildings, or worse taking things away as souveniers.)

Of the places shown with contents in place, the mortuary to me was the most interesting, conveying best the harshness of the place and most especially the endless mini-tragedies that must have accompanied a mining community high up in the Sierras at the end of the 19th century. It's worth remembering that Bodie is over 8,000 feet above sea level; it's barren, dry and a most unforgiving location at all times of the year. How bad can it get? According to this source, in January, 1880, temperatures fell to -26 degrees F and mules froze to death trying to get additional supplies of wood for heating into the settlement. And trust me, the houses I saw were absolutely no protection at all from those extremes, firewood supplies or not, so it's hard today to imagine just how hard life must have been for the early pioneers and gold miners.

Shown here is a child's coffin leaning against a wall, seemingly ready for an occupant who never ultimately arrived. We don't know why it's there - indeed, we have no real idea if it was ever part of the layout of that room in the first place - but it does make a powerful statement I think.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Eastern Sierras Trip #10

Home stretch here, at least as far as the photo workshop is concerned. After Bristlecone Pine State Park we headed onto Lee Vining to photograph Mono Lake.

We hit the lake shore for both a sunset and sunrise session, with the sunrise one working better I thought. Mono Lake is famed for the tufa formations dotted along its shoreline. These oddly-shaped towers of soft carbonate deposits give an other-worldly appearance to the lake, especially first thing with a slight mist rising from water, which is what we saw on getting there some 15 minutes before dawn.

Well worth a visit but getting there early pays dividends as it got quite crowded, quite fast, to the point where it was challenging to find the view you wanted without it now having some bloke with a tripod smack in the middle of it.