Saturday, January 29, 2022

[Focus] Road trip!! Palm Springs to SF, the other fun way

Before I left home for the weekend I plotted my route for the entire trip, including the return leg. I didn't know what kind of mood I would be in after two full days of high-concentration driving, and whether I'd still want to explore, or just make a beeline home. The nice thing about both of my maps is that they offered multiple options to break away from the twisties and jump on a highway for a more direct route if my mood changed.

So I set an ambitious course for Monday to give myself the option. Even as I loaded up my bags to leave Palm Springs I didn't know how much I'd stick to the itinerary. In the end, I did it all. Here's the route:

Google map link:

  1. I-10 out of Palm Springs to I-215 north out of San Bernardino
  2. West at the Cajon Junction to Long Pine Canyon Road into Wrightwood
  3. Big Pines Highway northwest through Valyermo, back roads to bypass Palmdale
  4. Elizabeth Lake Road northwest through Andrade Corner as it becomes Pine Canyon Road
  5. Left to stay on Pine Canyon Road, right on Old Ridge Route, into Gorman for fuel and food
  6. West on Frazier Mountain Park Road, continue as it becomes Hudson Ranch Road
  7. North on 33
  8. West on 58 to Atascadero, final fuel stop
  9. 101 north to the bay.
I didn't have any reason to go through Los Angeles on the return trip, so I decided to cut up between Big Bear and Mount Baldy, tracing through Wrightwood and the northeast side of Angeles National Forest. I always seem to do these road trips in the winter, and as a Californian I never think about weather. It's typically only as I get close to the grapevine that I remember... oh yeah, there is some elevation and cold here. Wrightwood hosts a couple of little ski hills, so I was not sure what conditions I would find. The weather for the surrounding days was in the 40s+ with no precipitation, so I told my Michelin PS4S it would be fine and hoped they'd believe me.

It was a slow start, with a considerable dump of rain on the opening highway leg of I-10 and I-215. Thankfully this cleared as I came up to the Cajon Junction, where I could lave the commute traffic behind. Almost immediately I was upon some great views and rock formations.

There was a "Chains Required" sign at the east end of Lone Pine Canyon Road, but with no white stuff in view I was dubious. I watched a dozen non-AWD sedans go by on what looked like normal tires, and decided to press on.

I saw my first patches of snow on Long Pine Canyon, little pockets up high in the hills on the side of the valley I was in, and then a little bit closer as I started gaining elevation. By the time I came into the back side of Wrightwood there was snow on the ground, but dirty enough to convince me that it had been cleared some time ago. One house on the left had a shiny C3 Corvette parked out front with the windows down, so I took this as a good omen.

By the time I reached the west side of Wrightwood, it was spitting rain and the Focus indicated 42F. There was a good amount of snow lining the road and a gravel mixture laid down some time ago by a road crew. I don't know if California uses salt... hope not. I had to stop for a photo in front of Mountain High ski hill.

I turned off of as CA-2 became the famous Angeles Crest Highway, picking up Big Pines Highway. I nearly lost my nerve at this point, as this road immediately had less traffic, more light rain, and substantial buildup of snow on the shoulders. After some tentative driving I started to go down hill and the snow lessened steadily.

It wasn't long at all before I was in a very different, very barren landscape. Unfortunately wild fire is an increasingly frequent occurrence all over the state, and this must have burned fairly recently, as there was almost no new growth at all.

Google street view shows that it looked quite different in 2017:

I pressed on, cutting west across the hillside and bypassing Palmdale to get to Elizabeth Lake Road. This was a relaxed drive in low hill country with some lakes and homes. At the Three Points junction I turned left to stay on what was now Pine Canyon Road. On this section of the road the center line disappeared and there was a heavy coating of gravel and sand. More than any other time on the trip, I was happy here that I was not in the Skyline, sandblasting the paint. The Focus has a clear bra and mud flaps that seem to have done a very respectable job dealing with the shrapnel. A good thing, because I certainly wasn't going to slow down for it.

Pine Canyon teed off into Ridge Route Road / Old Ridge Route, where I got these photos overlooking CA138 and Quail Lake. I used Gorman Point Road to continue avoiding I-5 and hit downtown Gorman for a fuel and lunch stop.

The cockpit. Yeah sure you could argue that EVs and autonomy are the biggest revolutions in the last decade of car tech... but you'd be wrong. It's Apple CarPlay, saving us all from terrible OEM infotainment systems. I've got Ford's CF shift knob, door 'spears,' gauge trim, and euro cup holder spicing up the interior. I must be getting old to say this, but the power lumbar support on the seats is excellent for these long road trips. It's not that one position is always more comfortable than the other, it's just that being able to vary the positions really helps with fatigue.

Dirt collecting in all pockets of turbulent air. I have to admit, with tire protection as my top priority, I was nervous pulling onto all of these dirt shoulders for photo ops.

After lunch and fuel in Gorman, I danced around I-5 and used Ralphs Ranch Road to get to Frazier Mountain Park Road, which I took westward. This road changes names a few times and routes through a few different cabin-y vacation towns: Frazier Park, Pinon Pines Estates, and Pine Mountain Club. I didn't see any particularly tall peaks, but it all had the feel of a ski town, just without snow. I'm not sure why you'd come to this area, which is not particularly convenient to... well... anything?

I was mixed in with local traffic for the first half of this stretch, and it was drizzling and wet. There were multiple warning signs along the way: chains required; some type of park pass required; bears. I ignored them all and hoped that I would not have to turn around and backtrack to I-5 (ew).

Once through Pine Mountain Club, I was suddenly on my own. The precipitation dried up, the road started curving, and it was pure driving enjoyment.

The best part came toward the end, once inside the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. I'm not sure if these cows are the main attraction of the refuge, but they were quite vocal, mooing belligerently as I snapped photos. 

It was all rolling hills and muted tones of yellow, green, and grey, in some areas nothing but seas of grass with distant mountains forming a backdrop. Serenely quiet too - aside from the cows.

Hudson Ranch Road dumped me back into CA33, which I drove on my trip down. This time I turned right to head north, back through Maricopa and Taft. This whole area is an oil field and for long stretches there is nothing to see but oil derricks. 

CA58 was so good the first time that I decided to take it back. This time there was no rain, and I had a cracking run at the technical climb on the east side. No traffic, just switchbacks. I also made an effort to take better photos, having done so poorly on the way down.

I think I said before that CA58 has a little bit of everything. The photo above shows the transition from the initial twisty bit to the flat, straight bit.

But the flatness is misleading, because the road goes up and over "whoops" that, with enough speed, float your bum out of your seat. You can sorta make them out above.

When you are through the flat straight bit, it flows and highway speeds are no problem. Lovely.

Eventually the ride had to end, and I connected onto 101 through the charming little town of Santa Margarita. One last fuel stop at Atascadero and it was cruise control and audiobook time.

I made it home without incident. The filthy focus, trunk full of tire repair sundries and spare oil, didn't need a bit of it. All in all: 1,121 miles and not a hiccup. Despite being in the driver's seat for 9+ hours I arrived home feeling refreshed, almost wanting to keep going to find the next new road. Almost. But all good things must come to an end, and it was back to work the next morning.

Thanks for reading, I know this was a long one. If you find yourself in a good car, needing to get from LA to SF or the other way around, I recommend any of the roads that I followed on this trip. And though I've said it before, I'll say it again... the RS is an incredible vehicle! A Swiss Army knife of capability. Daily, long-distance cruiser, fun on a backroad at reasonable speeds, fast around the track. 

Friday, January 28, 2022

[Event] BMW one day M-school at the Performance Center West (2022)

Woke up early Sunday morning to a breathtaking Palm Springs sunrise. I'm not sure if it's because I grew up in suburban Atlanta, but the American southwest always blows my mind. There is something special in the air.

Destination: BMW performance center west, about 40 minutes down the road in Thermal.

Does anything get the blood pumping like open pavement and three varieties of M car laid out in front of you, yours to flog for the day?

I grabbed as many shots as I could with the DSLR before packing it away to focus on the driving of the day. We started off with a 1-hour classroom session covering the usual topics - correct seating position, cornering theory, balancing inputs with traction available from the tires. Not new information for me, but well-presented and a good refresher after an extended period away from the track.

From here we split into three general groups, and then paired up with one other student with whom we'd share cars for all exercises across the day. I met a really nice guy named Andrew who owns an E39 M5 and lives in SF, and we paired up.

Agenda for the day:

  1. [G80 M3 Competition] Lead-follow on Thermal track north loop
  2. [F90 M5 Competition] Polished concrete skidpad
  3. [F87 M2 Competition] Handling course / autocros
  1. [G80 M3 Competition] Lead-follow on Thermal track north loop
  2. [F87 M2 Competition] Handling course / autocross (timed)
  3. [F90 M5 Competition] Rat race
  4. [M3, M5s] Instructor ride-alongs on Thermal track north loop

There wasn't much of an initiation period, so before we knew it we were ordered into G80 M3 Comps and told to follow the instructor over to the Thermal track north loop. Andrew and I had to laugh as neither of us had experience with newer BMW cars... my old E90 M3 sedan is nothing like the new generation of cars and we initially struggled to turn the thing on and put the 8-speed transmission in gear! Glad I made Andrew go first.

We picked the Sao Paolo yellow car because it's the fastest color. Fun fact - alongside plain white, this is the only other no-cost-option color. That's me with a big smile on my face, because I can't see the front grille from where I'm standing. Just kidding, I'm grinning like an idiot because this ugly yellow car is UNBELIEVABLE on track. Like... wow. Power, brakes, grip, composure, off the charts. It pulled hard from all gears, all speeds, the 8-speed snapping through gears up and down. The carbon ceramic brakes had a natural feel and huge stopping power without fade. We left the assists on and the experience was not compromised for it. In the lower speed corners I asked the car for too much intentionally - leaning into the throttle while I still had a fair amount of turn on - expecting the traction system to cut power. The joke was on me when it just hooked up and fired out of the corner. Grip like my AWD focus, power like my Skyline but all of the time. Both Andrew and I were flabbergasted on our return to the pits, nearly speechless. I was ready to hate this car based on how it looks, how much it weighs, the overload of tech, the automatic-only... but I've been on the M3 configurator the last few nights. Imagine if they had just made it good-looking!

Second exercise was the polished concrete skidpad in the M5, all assists and AWD turned off. At about 10:45am on Sunday, I sat in an M5 Competition for the first time. At about 10:46am on Sunday, I was pitching an M5 Comp sideways around a skidpad. I can't believe I'm saying this, but my only gripe for the whole experience might have been that it was almost TOO gung-ho. Throughout the day we were up to speed extremely quickly. Generally I liked this, I also have half a dozen track days and some other driving schools under my belt. If I was coming in new it would have been frankly terrifying as an introduction to performance driving. On the skidpad I was ok-but-not-great, and I would have liked a little bit of preparation and discussion with the instructor about inputs and methods to improve my technique.

Third exercise was the handling course in DCT-equipped M2 Comps. This car felt the most familiar to me, being the slowest (ha) and thanks to some time spent in a friend's 6-speed M2C. The DCT is a different experience - I'd go manual for this car - but the car was a perfect fit for the tight cone course. It's interesting how different autocross is to track driving - kind of the same thing, but also very different. I feel more comfortable on track, where there is a bit more time to collect thoughts even though the speeds are higher and the whole thing more dangerous for it. Autocross feels so frantic, and the penalty for one bad turn-in or throttle misapplication can throw you off your groove for almost the entire run.

Lunch was a surprisingly good Mexican spread. The Bavarians are famous for their tacos.

After lunch we were back out to the lead-follow, faster this time. I had some time sitting shotgun to appreciate the shared-car format. Sitting in the car with Andrew helped me learn the course and see where I had room for improvement. I might have had a different opinion about shared cars if Andrew had been a less skilled or more reckless driver, but thankfully I think we were really well-matched! Neither of us made the other barf or demand to be let out.

We were back in the M2s for the autocross. I didn't feel like I did my best driving, but I improved steadily through my timed runs and finished P2 out of the 32 in the class, not bad! 0.15s off the winner and I know exactly where I lost it, but man, what fun!

The final driving event for us was something called the Rat Race. I think the format is typically something like a wetted down circle or Nascar-style "oval" (straights with semi-circles at each end), with two students lining up opposite each other on the course and trying to catch each other in a set number of laps with all traction control turned off. The idea is to apply everything learned with an emphasis on being smooth and controlling throttle roll-on when leaving the corner to keep it straight and quick. From what I gathered, this is usually done with M4s or "lower-powered" cars in a small space. On Sunday the instructor in charge of the exercise decided to have us try it on a 100-yard cone course with the M5s on a dry course. 

I'm not sure if this man was trying to kill us. We were the last group of the day to cycle through this exercise, and we had a lot of time to watch the other students burn some very expensive rear tires and go spinning off at alarming speed. I have to admit that I never looked down at the speedometer during the exercise, but we had to be close to 80-90mph coming into the corners. I was nervous, but once we got underway, I LOVED this exercise. I went 2/2 on wins in our little group and had some fantastic-feeling power-on slides on the way out of the corners. The M5 broke away really cleanly and in a controllable way, and with just a bit of counter steer it was all back on its way. Felt like a hero, enough to say to Andrew on our last corner as were clearly ahead "hey check this out" and ham it up a bit, sending the rear out. So good.

Last on the agenda for the day was dessert, a big slice of humble pie served up by the instructors. I never turn down an opportunity to ride along with someone who knows what they're doing behind the wheel. I sat in the back seat of an M5 Comp as our instructor pummeled me off the door panel, the back of his seat, and the student sat next to me. When my neck could manage the strain, I looked out the back glass to see that we were the lead car in a big, smokey tandem drift with another instructor in his Tanzanite M3. I wish everyone who drives a car could experience a ride-along like that and gain an appreciation for (1) how many incredible things a car can do in the right hands, and (2) how much energy and force there is in a 2-ton vehicle moving at high speed.

School adjourned at about 5pm and I headed back to Palm Springs, exhausted, for a big meal and good night of sleep.

Some closing thoughts

  • G80 M3 is as fast as it is ugly

  • F90 M5 is also incredibly capable but I have no idea who it's for

  • Excellent instruction and experience at the BMW performance driving center - do it if you can

  • Cars are neat

Up next - the return trip.

[Focus] Road trip!! SF to Palm Springs, the fun way

I was thinking earlier this month about my automotive plans for the year, what events I am looking forward to, what I want to do with my cars. I got to reminiscing about experiences at driving schools and track events with professional instruction. I haven't written about it here as of now - hopefully I add it some time soon - but back in 2018 I did a two-day stint at Ford's driving school in Utah, which was a perk included by Ford in the purchase price of my RS. You can read about it here if you like:

Ford Adrenaline Academy

In 2020, when I was down in South Carolina with my folks for BMW's Foundation Fest, we visited the BMW Performance Center East and did some autocross in their cars. I wrote that up for the blog:

Event: BMW CCA Foundation Fest

If there's one thing more fun than driving your car around a track, it's driving someone else's car around a track, and letting that someone else worry about wear and tear, tires, brakes, maintenance, insurance. So with that in mind, I started looking at course offerings at BMW's Performance Center West, located just east of Palm Springs in Southern California. Proper driving schools are expensive, so I hemmed and hawed a bit and moved it to the back of my mind. A couple of weeks ago I found myself at there right place at the right time - namely Facebook, on a Tuesday night - when a spot opened up for the one-day M School on January 16th.

The Golden Gate chapter of the BMW CCA organized a special event at the school at a discounted rate, and sold out all 32 spots immediately in October. I was able to pick up one of those spots when a gentleman had to cancel on short notice. The price was not even half the normal price of the program - a total no-brainer. With the Monday a work holiday for MLK day, I had just enough scope to drive down Saturday, do the school Sunday, and then bomb home on Monday.

Immediately I began scheming... road trip! I love road trips. You may have noticed.

M3: road trip to Kirkwood

Focus: road trip to northeast California

GT350: road trip from Houston to SF

My wife had plans to camp with some friends for the weekend, so it was going to be a solo affair. Two big questions: what route and which car?

Route first. If you are an astute reader you may be saying to yourself, "hey, didn't this guy already do a road trip to Palm Springs in his Focus?" Well yes, I did exactly that in 2020 with my wife. Here's the write-up with details on the route we took. 

I did a good job capturing it in that post so I won't re-hash, but I have pledged never to take I-5 if I can avoid it. For LA-SF journeys I default to the 101, which is not as fast but offers more variety and quality-of-life things, such as turns. Without a passenger, and with the whole day to make the trip, I decided to look off the beaten path and forge ahead with some completely new roads. I had to meet a friend in LA for dinner, and I had to get to the hotel in Palm Springs at a decent hour to get some rest, otherwise no constraints. After consulting with some experienced CA-driving friends I built out the following route:

  1. Start off with an easy 3-hour first leg down 101 to Atascadero, grab fuel and food.
  2. Take 41 west just a bit, turn south onto 229.
  3. Follow 229 until it tees off into CA58. My map above is a bit wrong on this point.
  4. Follow CA58 east all the way to 33. 
  5. Follow 33 south and stop in Taft for fuel and food as needed.
  6. Stay on 33 south past Maricopa, turning left to stay on the Maricopa Highway south.
  7. Follow 33 all the way down through Ojai into Ventura, and jump back on 101.
  8. Turn off 101 to follow the Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu. 
  9. Pick your favorite canyon road and head into the Malibu hills. I took Encinal Canyon to reach the Mulholland Highway 'car spot' at the top of the snake.
  10. Head back down the hill to PCH and follow it in to West LA.
  11. Take I-10 and CA60 east to Palm Springs.
Some things I kept in mind while planning this route:
  • I had the whole day, but I had to generally keep making progress toward my destination. I didn't want to cut back or veer off course
  • I was by myself, and the Focus does not have a full-size spare, just a can of tire slime built into a compressor
  • The more remote the road, the higher the likelihood of tire-killing debris, the lower the chance of cell service, and the lower the chance of someone coming by to help you if stranded
With the route defined, it was time to choose a car. The M3 was out of commission due to a disagreement with the SMOG test equipment. Initially I had my heart set on taking the Skyline on this epic adventure, but when my brain got involved it started to make less sense, considering the reasons listed above. The GTR is extremely robust, and while I don't expect it to break down, there is a difference between needing repair on a 2017 Ford Focus and a JDM import when you're in the middle of nowhere, central CA. The Ford also has cruise control, Apple CarPlay, and a more compliant ride than the GTR. I was planning to visit a lot of twisties but there was also about 5 hours of highway grinding on the agenda and the Focus is superior on that front. Not to mention, the RS is no slouch on a canyon road. So the RS got the nod again.

Sebastiaan was nice enough to dump donate the portable compressor and tire repair kit that he'd purchased for our GT350 trip. I stuck that in the trunk, along with everything required to jack up a corner of the car and remove a wheel, including my big LED light if I was going to be in the dark. I have a AAA membership (the cheap one, I should really upgrade to the 100 mile tow radius) and I hoped that, barring a catastrophic sidewall incident, I could patch a tire on the side of the road enough to get to a proper repair shop. Of course this all follows the same rules as umbrella theory - if you bring it, you won't need it. But you know what would've happened if I'd left it at home in the garage. 

Anyway, on to the actual trip!

Fueling up near home. I hit the road at 9a after the mandatory Chick-fil-A chicken biscuit breakfast. As designed, the 
101 stretch was easy goings with very light traffic, an audiobook, and cruise control. The weather became overcast and cool as I left Atascadero and onto the first of the new roads. The 41-229 combination was a winner! 229 is a quiet road that gets small on its southern end, where the centerline disappears and it becomes a roller coaster with cambered cut-backs one after another.

Somehow I didn't take a single photo of CA58 on the way out - sorry. I took a ton on the return trip to make up for it. This road was amazing. 65 miles of smooth, fast, flowing pavement through hills, valleys, wide-open expanses, solar panel farms, all culminating with an incredible canyon sequence on the east end. Love at first drive! No one out there, easy to cruise at highway speeds through the rolling landscape. 

The DSLR didn't come out again until my Taco Bell stop in Taft. The only damper on the CA58 experience was rain that started to fall more aggressively in the middle of the closing canyon section. PS4S tires and RS drivetrain didn't mind but I had to dial it back a couple of notches to be safe. The Focus was already accumulating a nice layer of filth.

After lunch it was down 33 and into Los Padres National Forest. 

My favorite thing to see on the GPS. This road was not totally new to me - I drove it last year in the opposite (northbound) direction - so I knew it was going to deliver.

I pulled off for a photoshoot under the cloudy skies. I still love the look and aggressive stance of the RS, and no color is better-suited for it than Nitrous Blue. 

I found the drive through Ojai charming - my route took me through residential areas and it had a cool crunchy feel to it. The backside of Ventura was not so lovely but the downtown looked cool. I tried to cruise down Main Street but it's pedestrian traffic only due to Covid, fair enough.

The weather was still a bit gloomy as I rolled down PCH into Malibu, and the sun was on its way out the door. 

^ really pleased with that one.

I was trying to make my way up to the "snake" portion of Mulholland Highway, but found it closed. The rains over the winter appear to have washed out and impacted quite a few of these canyon roads. Poor Malibu hasn't caught a break recently, we found it burned when we drove my Skyline home after purchase. Oh, I guess I forgot another road trip. Here it is:

Skyline: Road trip LA to SF

I made my way back down the hill in the dark and rain, and on to West LA where I caught up with my buddy over dinner. His apartment's garage offered some shelter in a very tight space.

Fun driving was finished for the day, so I pointed the nose east and let the cruise control take me the rest of the way. An hour from Palm Springs, I fueled up one last time and cued up one of my favorite albums - Queens of the Stone Age's 2002 Songs for the Deaf. The record is a loose concept album, modeled after the drive from LA to Joshua Tree, jumping through fictional radio stations representing different cities along the way. It's one of the few records I'll listen to straight through from start to finish, but in many years I'd never had the chance to do it properly. Cool experience, all that Josh Homme stuff is born from the desert.

Queens of the Stone Age - Songs for the Deaf

Obviously it was dark when I arrived, so I'm cheating and showing you some photos from the next day. I stayed in Palm Springs at the Rendezvous, a small 50s-style hotel with about ten themed rooms centered around a pool area. 

When selecting rooms, one of my options was the "Pretty in Pink" suite, decked out and fully dedicated to Marilyn Monroe. I wouldn't really have gone for this, except that they claim that she actually stayed in this room. That's pretty cool, more interesting than a James Dean tribute room, so that's how I ended up here. Bizarre room layout with the shower/tub kind of elevated in the middle of everything, but comfortable enough. 

Early to bed for a second big day of driving!