What a surreal weekend with the Porsche Club at Palmer Motorsports Park in Palmer/Ware, Massachusetts this weekend! I still can't quite believe it actually happened. We had Thompson Speedway's road course come online last year in this region and had the joy of working to figure out that new track. And now this! And this one is unbelievably complex. How you ask? Try adding about 150 feet of elevation change per lap!! Let's take a minute to explore why that changes everything.
What if Palmer were flat?
If you look at the track map, you see a track with lots of turns. In fact, not even one really straight long straight. The longest straight has a big banana bend in it. As all the racing books will teach you, the most important corners are the ones right before the longest straights. So I tried to diligently sit down with the map to predict the "right" line. Turn 14 is the one right before the big banana straight and would be the most important by default. But it is part of a complex of four other turns - 10,11,12,13 - before you can even think about 14. So we need a good exit from 14 for sure. But how? And turn 5 exits to a decent straight up into 6, so that's important right? Turn 7 exits into another banana straight through 8 into 9. So that one deserves attention. 9 even has a bit of running room after it before going into the crazy complex before the banana straight. So if the track were on flat ground - and the surface was flat or at least with consistent camber, either on- or off-, you could start to map out a line that would theoretically be optimal using the skills of the guru books. You can debate it, but here is my rendition of the "ideal line", below.
But it's not flat - so what does that do?
Here's where it gets tough. There was some warning in comments online and Facebook posts that the elevation is a game changer. But its even more than just the elevation. But let's start there. At the end of the banana straight is a pretty significant uphill climb into turn 1. This really helps to reduce how hard you need to brake (a big lesson is that Palmer is way easier on brakes than even Thompson!!)...but it also means that when you come to the top of the hill and are trying to turn into the apex of 1, your car is getting light on it's feet. You better have braked enough or you are going way wide and potentially off track! No one binned it there, to my knowledge, all weekend but I did see some cars go very deep in a defensive manner to get back on the racing line.
Coming from turn 3, its a big climb up into turn 4, into 5 and then up onto the straight before 6. And I mean big climb. The left turn into 5 is like heading up a ski slope. If you don't have good traction and lots of torque, you are going to feel very slow exiting turn 5. Even with both of those things, it takes work to be quick out of 5. And, significantly, it may make you want to rethink your line into 5. And 4. The climb into four again means you don't brake super hard (although I did come very close to locking up many times as you can really crank through 2 and 3) - and you can choose to take the classic approach and come in wide to flatten the arc...or not. Lots of folks, me included, started coming in very tight in 4 and staying tight. It just seemed very slow to go way out into four since you had to cover so much more distance while going uphill. Same with 5. Even though getting a good exit seemed really critical in 5, you almost had to go downhill to try to flatten the arc into 5. And it just wasn't worth it to go downhill and then try to climb back up again. We started to all get a sense that this was a track that you had to drive a certain way based on your specific car, in addition to all the other normal variables. A track like this doesn't seem like it's going to have a "perfect line" for everyone anytime soon.
Turn 6 is a quick one where, again, some folks went way outside to flatten the arc but I once again preferred the inside entry - here because there appears to be camber changes right in the middle of the track! The outside entry is significantly off-camber and was tough to take fast. But the more acute entry had a much more friendly camber and felt way faster. Lots of folks were taking the long outside line around turn 7 too. If 7 were flat, a nice parabolic wide entry and late apex would be perfect. But it dives from 6 down into a bowl that bottoms out right around the late apex of 7. You get amazing compression and traction down at the bottom and your car will do things you didn't quite think were possible to get through the turn. But quickly it flattens out on the way back uphill into turn 8 and if you carry lots of speed, getting around 8 without sliding into the wall can be tricky.
Turn 9 is another crazy camber-affected turn. The outer half of the track is fairly camber neutral and flat. But the inner half is very on-camber and banked like the Nürburgring karussell (carousel) which really helps you scoot around faster. So do you take the classic parabolic line and not use the carousel advantage, or do you take a tighter line and use the banking to get you through? I was on the fence on this one quite a bit. Early on, I tried the parabolic line and it felt slow in the turn but quick enough on exit. The tighter line gave up some pace on exit but seemed significantly faster mid-turn and overall since the turn is very wide and the outside felt like a much longer path. The straight into 10 wasn't quite long enough to justify optimizing the exit of 9 that much for my style and car, at least. But opinions will, no doubt, proliferate.
And that brings us to 10, 11,12,13,14. As we know, 14 is the most important turn on the track. Or is it? Honestly, I felt like 13 was the most important turn - and a tricky one. I quickly came to feel that 11 was best taken as more of a straight with a tight line into the apex from 10 and braking into 12 only as deeply as needed to make the turn. The exit of 12 is fairly slow too because I had to mentally set up for a false apex on 13. I literally imagined an apex about a car length before and two car widths left of the natural apex of 13 so I could really be turning into 14 just after the natural apex of 13. I could get on the power as early as possible and get moving down the straight pretty well. When I got it right, even cars with a serious power advantage didn't get too far ahead of me. And then it was back into turn 1 where you could catch all but the fastest drivers.
Turn 1 is the one that I decided was a James Hunt "big balls" turn. You can go in very hot, for sure, and make it...but you have to be very committed. Turn 2 was a mix of commitment and patience. For me, it was the closest to a true wide-entry, flatten-out-the-arc style of turn on the track. And there was one secret there - a patch of super-grippy pavement right at the apex of 2. You can hear where this patch is in the video above. You could go into this turn with a bit more gusto than you'd think prudent and then hit that patch. It can either save your bacon or, if you don't need to be saved, you can nail the throttle there and get a heck of a kick out into the short straight before turn 3. It was fun to get that down. But we did see one poor 944 on the second day lose it in there and end up on the other side of the track facing backwards in the wall, so beware. The slope in 2 is somewhat off-camber so you need that grippy spot to keep you on track if you're really on the limit of adhesion. Miss the apex and that grippy spot and you may pay a big price.
What's most important? Everything.
The layout of the track is important. The elevation changes are dramatically important. The surface topography (camber) of the track in every single turn is important - and changes for each one! And is often different depending on which line you take! The specific pavement and resulting grip - especially in turn 2 - is important. And the capabilities of what you are driving is also critical. Are you in a momentum car with good grip but no power? Do you have too much power for your tires? Do you have neither and really have to wheel your way around? Each challenge may have a different solution when you add in the third dimension. How did we get so lucky to have this track?
So much to learn
It really was fascinating to attempt to learn this new track and observe, firsthand, the effect that major elevation changes have on the "right" lines. It puts Spa and Bathurst and all hilly courses in new light for me. The Nürburgring has 984 feet of elevation change compared to 150 feet at Palmer. This track may not be quite that dramatic, but the added complexity really makes me appreciate the skill and art of perfecting a line so much more than I ever would have imagined before. Even the instructors were changing their recommended "right line" throughout the two days as we all learned more. I had the unique experience of not having an instructor at all for my first three runs on the first day, not really by design. I would have been happy if an instructor jumped into my car before my first run, as I had heard they would. But since it didn't happen naturally, I accepted, and somewhat relished, the rare opportunity to force myself to try to learn a new (to everybody) track on my own. At least no one could instantly say I was completely wrong!! And it was an amazing test of the ability to apply what I have learned through reading and observation and driving to a new and very challenging situation - one with real consequences - like the health of me and my car and my fellow drivers. It was about as close a feeling to real racing/qualifying that I've ever had to date. I had done my homework and quickly realized that it was completely wrong! And I've got to say it was awesome!!
Update: Ron Savenor has provided his expert knowledge of driving and driving Palmer, specifically. I highly recommend it!
I eventually did ask one of my prior instructors, Mike, to jump in with me for a run. He had quite a few suggestions, only some of which I was able to hear, unfortunately. But he did wonder why I was taking so many inside lines. And his memorable quote was, "well, you really don't fear anything do you?" I'm not sure he meant that in a fully positive light!
Thank you, Palmer MA!
A huge thanks to the Northeast Region of the PCA for getting us to this amazing place early in it's lifecycle, for providing as much creature comfort and organization and safety as is possible in a situation that is still very much evolving, and for letting us all go on such an amazing learning adventure. Stan, Adrianne, Dick, all the instructors, all the workers - everyone does an amazing job to pull off an event like this.
And a huge thanks to the neighbors of the track and the area around Palmer and Ware. We all sympathize that having a race track in your back yard can be annoying. There is noise. There are cars and trucks towing cars driving through all weekend. It really is a beautiful, bucolic area and I'm sure you all loved it just the way it was before. I hope eventually all the enthusiasts like me come through, fall in love with your track, and create a tide that raises all boats. At least enough for this to be a somewhat good thing for the region and its kind residents. Please accept our gratitude for the intrusion into your neck of the woods. From our perspective, you have something amazing right in your back yard. Thank you!!