Monday, November 04, 2013

Playing at Racing Cars

I had a few beers yesterday, to celebrate completing my first organised 5K run!

Alan and I went to the Circuit of the Americas for the 'Formula Run' event, which involves running a lap of the track, ahead of the F1 race in two weeks' time. I really wanted to run this lap.

Wind the clock back to this time last year, and it's no exaggeration to say that I could barely walk, never mind run. I was struck with some bad sciatica which took several months, many chiropractor visits and time in the gym to heal. Alan made me join the gym classes at his work and it's probably one of the best things he has ever done for me. We do a mixture of cardio, weight training and core work in these classes. Some days we run as part of the warmup, and one day something clicked, and I figured I could maybe run a little bit around the neighbourhood. One thing led to another and soon I put a Couch-to-5K app on my phone; it told me when to run and when to walk, increasing the run time and distance over eight weeks. I finished that training about 10 days ago, running my first 5K. Two more of those and it was time for the lap of the track!

Here's the view from the starting line. Yes, that's a steep hill up into Turn 1. Notorious, whichever method of transportation you're using to get around it. The drop down to Turn 2 is almost as hard; trying not to run out of control down the other side of that steep hill.

Running around the track was cool; no photos since I was busy running, but it was interesting getting to see the track from a competitor's point of view. I may or may not have uttered the odd 'zoom' or 'screech' around certain corners ;-) The drag up to turns 7 and 8 is a long slow hill. Alan said it's harder on a bicycle (he rode around here a few months ago) but I was happy to find it wasn't as bad as I'd feared, running up it. Drop down again into the hairpin, then some gentle undulation along the straight before running into the turns in front of the main grandstands. There's a gentle hill, then back down, then up again as you come around the base of the Tower, before continuing around to the pit lane entrance; run past there into the left hander that takes you back to the start/finish straight. The 5K mark is at this corner; it's actually 5.4K for a complete lap, so run a bit more to the finish line. Yay!

Here's me after the finish

I made Alan stand still for a pic of both of us :-)

This is my Garmin GPS watch; it tells me I ran 3.36 miles (the track is 3.4 miles along the middle, but we took the racing lines) in 34 minutes and 9 seconds. My official time was 34.12 I think; but they time it from when the gun goes off, so if you're not right at the very front then you'll have a few extra seconds here.

They gave us these fabulous finisher medals as we crossed the line :-)

When I got home, I uploaded the data from my watch to the Garmin website, you can see the red trace of where I ran :-)

They just posted the results; I was 24th in my age group out of 82. Clicky; Alan was 59th out of 108 in his group. I think Alan did better since judging by the times, more guys were actually running than the girls were! I'm pretty happy with my time though. Next up: Back to COTA in December for another 5K! Let's see if I can beat my time...

Monday, October 07, 2013


There have been many posts here about flying machines but not so many about Beer. We brewed this morning, and I figured it was high time to document some of this process.

Here we go; this is how we brew! Today, we are making Race Pace Pale Ale, a new recipe by Alan, destined to be consumed by thirsty Air Racers in a month or so's time.

First up, bring some water up to 170F in a big pot. That's a 75000ish BTU burner underneath the pot, so it doesn't take too long. The metal plate sticking out is to protect the thermometer on the front from direct heat.

Measure out your grain. We are using mainly organic 2-row with some Cara pils and Crystal malt. Ignore the numbers on the scale, this was an action shot. 24 pounds of grain went into this beer.

The grain goes into the mash tun, which is a converted cooler. Alan installed these mesh pipes inside, which filter out the wort from the grain when we pour it off, from the tap in the front.

The grain goes in through a milling machine, powered by a drill to turn the rollers.

Now it is all pulverized and ready for hot water addition.
Yeah, I know there's a twig in there, it will get filtered out ;-)

The water (hot liquor) is ready to go, at 170F. See the tap at the bottom here? We connect a hose to that and pump the liquor into the mash tun.

Alan adds some Burton salt and phosphoric acid to treat the water. It needs to be around pH 5.4-5.6 for proper brewing. We have quite calcified water around here which is alkaline, hence the acidification. The Burton salt gives the water characteristics of that found in the British town of Burton, which is said to have the best water in all of the UK for brewing.

Here, Alan is stirring the mash. He gives it a good mixing and then it sits for an hour, to extract all the sugary goodness from the grain.

We place a sheet of tin foil with holes in, on top of the mash, which is to vorlauf the mash. This means basically pouring some off into a jug, which you pour over the tin foil, to recirculate the wort and encourage the grain bed to do the filtering. You can see the wort in the jug here is pretty cloudy and opaque; it becomes clearer after several pourings. It means you get less crud in your beer.

We pour the wort from the mash tun into the boil pot.
The little silver cylinder half-visible at the bottom there is a HopBlocker, which is a filter that surrounds the tap, again to prevent crud from finding its way through the brew process. In this case, hops - they do not dissolve, they give their flavor and then need to be stopped from clogging up the system.

This instrument is a refractometer. It tells you sugar content, from which you can work out the specific gravity of a liquid. You deposit a drop of the liquid by pipette, between the Perspex cover and the body of the instrument, then look through it like an eyeglass.

This was taken at first run off, I.e. the first bit of wort to be run into the boil pot. It says we are at 15 Brix.

We repeat the addition of water to the grain once more. It stays in the mash tun for only 10-15 minutes this time, not a whole hour. Meanwhile, we get the first half heated towards a boil, then add the rest once it is ready. Eventually the whole lot reaches boiling point.
Here you can see the boil pot contains 14 gallons of wort in the gauge on the left.

We get it to a nice rolling boil. This is where big pots come in handy. We used to do this in a smaller pot and it would always be in danger of boiling over.

Here are some hops. They come as compressed pellets of hoppy goodness. You can buy loose hop leaves as well, but the pellets are easier to work with and more frequently stocked in shops.
They remind me of the pony nuts we used to feed our horse, only green instead of brown :-)

The boil officially starts with the first hop addition. We add more at 45 and 55 minutes into the boil, and finish at one hour. Different hops give different characteristics to the beer. We are using Chinook and Cascade here.

15 minutes before the end of the boil, we add some Irish moss. This is a clarification agent. 

This magnificent piece of equipment is the Conical Fermenter, seen here without its lid. This will contain the beer during the fermentation process.
We are about to take the wort from the boil pot and put it in here.

This is a pre-chiller, i.e. a heat exchanger coil sitting in a pot. It is about to get covered in ice water. It will cool the water used to help cool the wort in a moment, when we remove it from the boil pot.

Look at this nice shiny interior of the conical fermenter! You can see the bottom tap in the middle, and the side tap takeoff. At this point, everything is sterilized.

We start the transfer of the wort into the fermentation vessel.
Alan is using an infrared thermometer to check the wort as it comes in. It has to come down from boiling (212F) to 79F or thereabouts. It cannot be too hot or the yeast will be killed when we add it.

Here you can see some of the pipe work going on.
The wort leaves the boil pot and is pulled into a pump, which pushes it on to....

... another heat exchanger. The cream colored pipes contain proto-beer. The black pipes contain water. The water comes in from the pre-chiller heat exchanger you saw earlier, so it is already chilled, and then it goes through the brass plate chiller you can see in the bottom of the picture. It is super efficient voodoo magic and drops the temperature of the wort like a stone. We collect the outgoing water in a large bucket and it is very warm when it comes out.

Once the fermentation vessel is full, the last thing to do is to add the yeast. Yeast is magical stuff that makes beer and wine possible. It eats all the sugar and turns it to alcohol. This is why you measure sugar concentration; the more sugars you have, the more alcohol you will end up with.
Yeast is awesome!
Here it gets added, it is white before it gets stirred in.

Then we button up the fermentation vessel with its lid and pressure relief valves. OK, so I cannot take a photo straight, but here it is in the fridge. Alan dead lifts the thing into here, I don't know how he does it, it is frigging heavy. Anyway, it will stay at a series of controlled temperatures for the fermentation to take place. We will know in a week or so whether or not the brew shows promise, but first, the yeast has some eating to do...

Next week, we will use the side tap to draw off a sample. It will be sweet and cloudy at first, and over the next two weeks it will become less sweet and more clear as the yeast does its work, and the various proteins drop out of the beer. They collect at the bottom of the cone, leaving the side tap available to take clear beer from. Three or four weeks after brewing, it should be ready to drink. At that point, we will transfer it into kegs and add some CO2 to carbonate it. 

Then; bottoms up!
Yay for beer :-)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Reno Air Races 2013

One of the questions often asked in the aviation world, right after 'Have you been to Oshkosh?', is 'Have you been to Reno?'. I am delighted to say that both Alan and I can now say 'Yes!' to the latter!

Welcome to Reno!

We decided to go partly for a summer holiday for Alan, and also it was the 50th anniversary of the races, so it ought to be good. And there was a bonus in that several pilots from the Sport Air Racing League (SARL) would be racing in the Sport class.

Voodoo engine test

Reno National Championship Air Races (as they are officially known) are held at Reno Stead airport and divided into six classes: Biplane, Formula One, Sport, T6, Jet and Unlimited Warbird. Each of these is subdivided into Bronze, Silver and Gold with the fastest aeroplanes competing in Gold.

Rare Bear, a Gold-class Bearcat

Pilots arrive on the Saturday before the races for check-in and spend the first part of the week qualifying. Some of the classes are oversubscribed so a few planes get knocked out. They can only fly nine planes at a time so spots are limited. The final races are flown on the Sunday, eight days after check-in.

The races start early in the morning with the Biplane heats, followed by Formula One. They seemed to use rolling starts from the runway, unlike the other classes. 

Biplanes rounding the corner; you can just see the tip of the white pylon cylinder at the bottom

A Formula One aircraft. See how tiny it is! These all use the same O-200 engine as found in a Cessna 150. They go somewhat faster, though.

Each heat and race is surprisingly short, only six or eight laps (I didn't count exactly; it might vary between classes too). They have a lot of races to get through each day and I guess fuel isn't cheap. Each class races on a slightly different length course, too, marked by pylons. Short courses for the smaller planes, long courses for the fast ones. I was told that the pylons are raised and lowered according to which class is flying at the time, although I didn't notice any going up and down, but then I wasn't looking...

Jet class racing

From Sport class upwards, the planes are led away from the airfield by a non-racing lead aircraft, and they form up in line abreast alongside this plane before coming down the Chute, which from our point of view brought them over the grandstands into the right hand side of the airfield, heading away from the crowd onto the racecourse. The guy on the left of the formation in the Chute is effectively on pole position as everyone else has to gather in to the course for the most effective flight line. If you are near a loudspeaker you can hear the starter say, "Gentlemen, you have a race!"

Here they come!

They say "Fly low, fly fast, turn left!" around here and that is basically what you do. The racecourse is a left hand circuit around the Valley of Speed, with the start/finish straight being parallel to the grandstands, several hundred feet in front. The addition of the third dimension makes for interesting racing, although I am not sure of the exact rules for passing others. If it is anything like SARL rules then you have to pass with the other aircraft visible at all times, which puts you on the outside of the turn. One of the pilots said you need a 5mph advantage to pass but it wasn't clear if that was determined by rules or physics.

One of the T-6 racers.

It is also different from motor racing in that you can see the racers all the way around the circuit! No trees or hills or buildings get in between you and the aircraft (they don't fly _that_ low ;-) So you can follow the action all the way around which gets pretty intense.

Unlimited Gold aircraft on the back of the circuit

We spent a lot of time in the pit area. You have to buy a pit pass in addition to the main entry but it is so worth it, as that is where most of the action is. The pits are very accessible, even the big warbirds are right there in front of you with their big tents and trucks and T-shirt sales etc. Some of them have control centers and viewing areas on top of the trucks which is cool. There are rope barriers to stop folks just wandering in, but you can watch everything they are doing, all the engine works and Things Going On.

The smaller planes are housed in some large hangars at the far end of the field. Biplanes and Formula One share a hangar, since they are so tiny, while the Sport class racers are split between two other hangars.

We ended up spending a good amount of time in the Sport hangars, with some of the SARL racers. Alan Crawford flies his Lancair Legacy as Race 21 in the Sport Silver class, along with Ernie Sutter flying another Lancair as Race 66. Jason Rovey flies Race 391, a Vans RV-8, in the Sport Bronze class, with Bob Mills flying his Rocket Six, Race 49.

Jason Rovey, Race 391

Bob Mills, Race 49

Alan Crawford, Race 21

Ernie Sutter, Race 66

Jason didn't fly on Friday as the Sport class had too many planes, so the slowest four planes took turns in sitting out so that everyone got a turn to fly. However on Saturday he had a very close race with a Glasair and only lost by a nose, in fact from our angle we couldn't tell if he had been beaten or not.

Jason and his nemesis, Race 7, just before the finish

So Jason made some modifications to his spinner, to prevent this happening again ;-)

Can't catch me now!

The crews were hard at work in all the pits before Sunday's races. Jason had Seth Baker on his crew doing sterling (and secretive!) work for him.

Alan had Dave Adams and Bobby Bennett working on his plane. Bobby is an engine master and Dave is a dab hand with fiberglass, so when Alan needed some fairings made for his flap hinges, Dave was on the case. It is hard to tell from one day to the next how much difference a mod makes in speed, with different weather conditions playing a part, but it was generally felt they might be good for an extra mile or two per hour.

Race 21 Pit Crew

A cool interlude was when I was asked to come and photograph a gathering of Southwest employees, of which there seemed to be a large number in attendance! They were gathering along with their ex-CEO, Herb Kelleher, who founded the airline way back when.

Southwest folks. Herb is in the red ball cap.

After a good heat on Saturday, Alan had a very close race on Sunday with a Lancair that he just couldn't squeak past, no matter how hard he tried. And he tried pretty hard!


Of course, many people come to Reno to watch the Unlimited aircraft. These are mostly ex-WW2 fighter aircraft, converted for more speed, with clipped wings, bigger engines, sleeker canopies and any other modifications the engineers can come up with. These bad boys will do 450-500mph and sound Awesome.

Precious Metal; Griffon-powered and with a double propeller

One of the baddest boys out there is Strega, a P-51 Mustang. On the Tuesday of Reno week, the canopy imploded during a qualifying heat and she had to make an emergency landing (the pilot was fine, although I imagine he may have needed a new flight suit). This meant she had to start from the back of the pack after being fixed. Cue Friday's Unlimited Silver race, the first one we saw after arriving. Strega tore through the field like the others had lead bricks in their wings, I have never seen such a trouncing. We didn't discover why until after the race, when we found out the story. Of course, Strega is meant to fly in the Gold class.

Strega taking off with Merlin power

However, Strega's luck wasn't quite all there - she apparently clipped a pylon in that Friday session, so had to do it all over again on the Saturday! Which she did with the same ease. And then came the Sunday race. Once again, starting from the back of the line, she tore through everyone in Gold as well, apart from the leader - Voodoo, another P-51 - which handily won the race.

Voodoo finishing the race

On Sunday night after the races, they hold a huge banquet as the awards dinner. Alan kindly gave us tickets for it so we were able to join them, which was splendid. After the main awards were done, all the SARL guys and girls that could be found, were rounded up for a group photo on stage.

SARL Pilots

There was, of course, general silliness and more photo taking; if you're curious to see more then head over to my SARL gallery on the site.

A Sea Fury at the pylon

We would certainly love to go back to Reno. Let's hope next year's event is as cool!