Driving a Supercar

Earlier today I cashed in one of the presents I got for Christmas: a Living Social deal for a 3-lap driving experience from the folks at Motorsport Lab. While it’s not travel, I figured I’d throw out a quick review on it. Note that my review is for the Charlotte event, I can’t speak for any other location.

When you register on Motorsport Lab’s web site, you get to choose the type of car you want to drive. For this event, there were 3 options when I registered in late December:

  • Lamborghini Gallardo
  • Ferrari 360 Modena
  • Ferrari F430 (upcharge for this one)

Being a life-long Lambo fan, I chose the Gallardo. After you register, you’re sent a link to the participation form you need to fill out and bring with you to the event. As I saw called out in the many Yelp reviews of this company, this is a rather long form (16 pages), filled with all kinds of scary language warning about possible charges for things like damage and exceeding various RPM levels among other things. They offer insurance for each possible problem at the charge of $20/$30/$50 per waiver, depending on the item. That, and the form calls out suggested tip levels very clearly, which I admit is something I find a bit tacky. I’m fine letting people know the instructors work off of tips, but suggesting amounts like that can be a bit of a turnoff. After reading a few of the Yelp reviews, I see I’m not alone in that. I also saw a number of people mention that the added insurance wasn’t needed for most locations, so when I filled it out, I declined all of them. I’m glad I did.

Several of the reviews I read were negative, with some people even saying they skipped the experience entirely after being scared off by the language in the form. This is completely unnecessary in my opinion. Even if you don’t believe me, go early and watch a few people run the course before you sign in so you can get an idea of exactly what is going on, you might be surprised. With all the negative reviews, I figured it was only fair to throw in a positive review since we enjoyed the event.

First, did I spend any money beyond the cost of the Living Social deal? Yes. Totally by my own choice and it was worth it. I asked about getting a ride along for Bayley, who is home for spring break, and took him up on the offer to get her laps with the instructor for $50. That fee and the tip were the only added costs for us. They weren’t being pushy with anything, and were up front in saying that people should tip what they were comfortable with. When I checked in, the guy at the table looked over my forms, saw I’d declined all optional insurance, and moved on without trying to change my mind. I even heard him tell the guy in front of me that most of it wasn’t needed for a course like this. Don’t be scared or turned off by all the language in there around damage, I assume most of it is to ensure that people thinking they’re going to treat these things like rental cars are talked down off that ledge. There were a few other complaints in other reviews that could have been addressed by people doing a little research beforehand, so I’ll call a couple of them out here:

(Note: If you want to read those reviews, just search for the company. I’m not a big fan of Yelp so I’m not linking to them)

  • This experience is on an autocross course. It has the words ‘autocross’ and ‘agility’ in the experience name, so arriving to find a course of cones shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s not going to be on an oval or on city streets, even if the event is held at a track, like it is in Boston. You’re not getting the cars up to 100MPH. Even the straight on our course was too short to get up over 50MPH-ish (had it been dry) unless you’re really experienced on these types of courses. If you want something faster, maybe try the IndyCar or NASCAR experience. I’ve done the IndyCar one, and you definitely go a lot faster with that, but you’re on an oval.
  • The Lambo wasn’t put in to automatic transmission mode as some reviews mentioned, but we never got out of 2nd. You do get to shift, but basically only from neutral to 1st to get going, and to 2nd pretty quick after that. Once in 2nd, you stay there the rest of the way. You’re not getting close to the 6500RPM limit in 2nd on this course unless you’re planning on exiting over some cones and paying the price.
  • Scheduling can be a pain. I don’t disagree. Once you buy the deal, register as fast as possible to ensure you have options. I’ve learned this the hard way with other LS/Groupon deals in the past (namely my IndyCar one), so I registered shortly after opening this present. Even with that, the list of available dates was limited, but I got something that worked for me.
  • Some people said your time in the car isn’t that long, and that’s true. The deal is for 3 laps, and being an autocross course in a parking lot, that means a relatively small track. They do offer more laps as an add-on, or if that’s not enough, you might want to check out one of the companies that use real road courses or take you out on streets.

Back to the review: After checking in, we hung out under the canopies they’d put up (due to rain) and waited for the event to start. There weren’t a huge number of people for our 9am session, I’d say 7-8 for each of the two cars at most. Those driving the Ferrari got a nice upgrade at no cost, as the 360 was in the shop, so all they had was the F430 (both the F430 and Gallardo are 2006 models, BTW). They take you out based on the time you checked in, which they’d written on your wristband, so I was 3rd for the Lambo. With the ground being so wet none of us in that first three pushed all that hard, but I really did enjoy it. I’ve driven some fast stuff, but never something so well balanced in the corners. The instructor (or ‘sherpa’, as they call it) who was with me was really good, too. Very nice and talked you through the whole thing, and was far more helpful than the spotter I had with the IndyCar experience. He gave me pointers on corner entry/exit, and when to give it power exiting a turn. It ended faster than i’d have liked, which wasn’t a big surprise. Three laps is a bit short in my opinion, but I knew what I was getting in to, and I’m sure if I’d asked I could have upgraded to six for a little more. It was enough to give me a taste of what a well balanced supercar felt like, so it was worth it to me.

After I went, my daughter was up for her ride-along. When I bought it, the guy said that the cost is $50/lap, but they normally go ahead and do two laps for that. She actually got three, and he seemed to really be enjoying himself behind the wheel out there (who wouldn’t?), intentionally kicking out the rear in a few corners. Just for fun I gave him a heads-up that he had her past experiences to live up to, as she’s done an IndyCar 2-seater ride as well as the Audi ride-along at Daytona. He definitely pushed it, and she loved every second of it. I’ve got video of her laps up on YouTube if anyone wants to see it.

When it was all over, we both agreed that we had a blast. All of the employees were very friendly, and the car was a blast to drive, even in the rain. For the Living Social price it was definitely a fun morning, but I wouldn’t have done it for the listed price of $549. Not really sure if anyone actually paid that this morning, though. I do think Jen made a bit of a tactical error in buying this for me, as now I want to move up to one of the events on real tracks, like this one. There are a couple of cars on their list I’d absolutely love to get behind the wheel of, like the McLaren, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for deals with them, too :)

 

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Hotel Review – Staybridge Suites St. Petersburg

We spent last weekend in St Petersburg attending family weekend at Eckerd College. In an uncharacteristic move for us, we waited until the last minute to get a hotel, not actually booking anything until a couple of days before the trip. Being so close to the trip, not a lot was available near the school, and nothing along the beach (gulf-side) that fit in to our budget looked all that appealing. After a bit of hunting, we finally found something in downtown St Pete that looked promising, and more importantly was in our budget, Staybridge Suites. Oh, and it had one other requirement we needed since we were taking our dog, it was pet friendly.

Upon arrival late Thursday night, my wife got us checked in and we headed to the room. One of the first things I noticed was the use of NFC-based room keys, and not the usual problematic swipe cards that most hotels use. I loved this. Just tap the card on the pad, and the door unlocks. It was easy and reliable the entire time, regardless of where I kept my key in my wallet. I actually didn’t take it out of my wallet until we checked out, I just tapped my wallet against the reader. Hopefully more hotels (and cruise lines) embrace technology like this to get rid of the frustration of key cards failing during a guest’s stay.

The room itself was nice, good sized for the most part, and clean. We’d asked for a room with a sleeper sofa when we booked just in case Bayley wanted to come hang out for a night, but the room we ended up with didn’t have one. No matter, when we asked the next day, the staff gave us a rollaway at no extra charge. Problem solved!

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In a couple of the pics above, you’ll see something I take with me wherever I go, our Belkin mini power strips. We first bought these for cruising, since many rooms only have two outlets and cruise lines aren’t fans of corded power strips, but hotels oftentimes don’t have a lot of open outlets either, so bringing these allows us to be able to charge as many devices as we need to.

Back to the hotel: As mentioned, the room was nice. The beds are pretty stiff, so be aware of that if you prefer a softer mattress. We sleep on a fairly firm memory foam mattress at home, so this felt good to me. What I wasn’t a fan of were the pillows. They were really soft, which I like, but they were at least partially down, which I’m allergic to. As long as I take some OTC allergy medication I’m generally fine, but I’d totally forgotten it on this trip, so we hit up a drug store the next day to rectify that. I’m sure I probably could have asked the desk for replacements, but they were soft to my liking, so I was fine dealing with it. My only other issue is that the walls seemed a bit thin. On one side of us we had someone who we could hear pretty clearly whenever he talked, and on the other side we had someone who had a nasty coughing condition that kicked in every morning around 8 or so. It wasn’t a huge issue though, and pretty much matches my experiences at other hotels in class. As far as the bathroom, it was pretty small, and having a door that opened in to it was a bit of a pain (see the pictures above). Also, for those that prefer a bath to a shower, our room did not have a tub. No complaints about that here, neither of us would have used a tub, and I was happy to see that I wasn’t going to have to step in an out of one to take a shower.

The hotel’s location was pretty good for us, although I’d have preferred to be closer to the water. The hotel is off of 175 right when you enter downtown. It was an easy 5min drive to and from Eckerd. There was plenty of food around there, too, as the downtown restaurants are generally only 5-10min away by car. There’s also a little park next door (between the hotel and school) that provided a great place to walk the dog. The hotel did have a pet waste disposal stand or two on property, but the one we checked never had baggies in it. No matter, we had our own.

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For those looking for accessibility, Staybridge seems to have you well covered here. There didn’t appear to be any stairs/steps to deal with anywhere in the lobby or breakfast areas, and the pool had a lift, too, as shown in the first picture here:

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Frankly, the outside area seemed kinda cool as shown above in the second picture, with a fire pit and seating to hang out there day or night.

Food-wise, the only time we ate there outside of me grabbing complimentary cookies, was breakfast. It was included with the room, and they had a decent selection of warm food. On the first morning, I had an omlette, bacon, and a waffle. They had three waffle makers, more than I’m used to seeing at a hotel, and we never saw a wait to make them while we were there. The quality of the pre-made stuff (omelettes, bacon, eggs, etc) was good, and pretty much on-par with other properties I’ve stayed at that offer complimentary hot breakfasts.

The staff was great the entire time we were there, very friendly and helpful. Considering the quality of the service, cleanliness of the hotel, and proximity to Eckerd, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again.

 

 

24 Hours of Speed – Part 2

Picking up where I left off in part 1, after grabbing a golf cart from the suite back to the infield, we immediately headed for the Ferris wheel. One of the best views of the race at night is from that thing, and at that point in the night, it wasn’t busy all, so we got an extra-long ride. To get an idea of the view you get of the infield, here are a few night shots I took, and be sure to check out the video I posted of a full rotation while looking over the infield.

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With our midnight Ferris wheel ride over, we decided to rest in the Audi Boardwalk Club for a few minutes before walking the paddock and pits. When we walked in and sat down, there was only one other table of people in there. It took all of 2 minutes for Bayley and I to realize who two of them were; Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe. Hinch was at the 24 as a co-driver on the #70 SpeedSource Mazda, and as mentioned in the previous post, their race had ended a little earlier with an oil pump failure. We’re both big fans of the Mayor of Hinchtown, so it was cool to walk in to that. I’m not one to bother someone (regardless of who it is) while they’re hanging out and relaxing, so we just sat and rested for a few. At one point, Hinch got up and walked past us, so I went ahead and asked if we could get a pic with him and Bayley, and as usual (he’s one of the most fan-friendly IndyCar drivers), he was happy to oblige:

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Shortly after that, somewhere around 1am, the three of us decided to head to the paddock to see if any cars were in for work. Sure enough, there were a few teams hard at work repairing cars, and a couple cars covered due to terminal issues. Walking pit lane, there was plenty of action there too with teams filling up fueling rigs, getting misc parts together, and preparing for pit stops. These shots are another example of how much of a team sport this really is. There’s also one in here taken just before the Paul Miller Racing guys did a driver change, with Christopher Haase standing on the pit wall in full gear waiting for their Audi R8 to make its way to the pits.

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After walking around down there for a bit, the kids decided they wanted to rest for a while, so they headed back to the boardwalk club, while I continued walking around. I’d hardly done any shooting with the Nikon D750 I rented for the trip, so I decided to head over to the infield grandstands to get some shooting in. I forgot to bring my step stool, a very handy tool for getting shots over the fence line at the track, so I used the grandstands in the turns 3, 4 and 7 areas to do some night shooting. While I didn’t shoot nearly as many pictures as a did last time, I did get a few that I like:

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Between walks of those grandstands, I stopped in the Boardwalk Club to check on the kids. They were both pretty tired, but on my stop in there, her friend and I downed some Red Bull to stay awake. They did use the floor in there as a bed for about 10 minutes each, but that was about the extent of the sleeping. I’m pretty sure we were the only ones with the Audi ME tickets who stayed the entire night, as we were the only non-employees in the Boardwalk Club between 2am and 6am.

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Around 6am, the catering staff began to arrive, and we cleaned up our area a bit so we weren’t in the way. As more people began to show up, the sun started rising over the backstretch. I absolutely love watching the sun come up at the track, and the patio area of the Boardwalk Club was a great place to do so.

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After breakfast, we had to head back to the room for a few minutes to check on Bayley’s cat, so we grabbed a golf cart back to the car corral, piled in my daughter’s Jeep, and were on our way. I admit, it was nice to clean up a little at the hotel after being up for more than 24 hours. We only stayed for about 20 minutes, then headed back to the track, where we decided to spend some time relaxing in the suite. If I recall, we were the only ones in there at that point, so the kids hung out inside while I sat in the seats outside for a bit, taking in more of the race.

At about 10:45am, after just over an hour and a half hanging out in the suite, we decided to head to the Boardwalk Club for lunch. One of the things we hadn’t taken advantage of yet were the race updates. Audi did these a couple of times Saturday and once or twice Sunday, and it was basically a short update on the status of the Audi teams from one or more of the drivers. For the 11am update today, Dion von Moltke from Paul Miller Racing was there between stints to update us on their race. They’d had a pretty good race up to the 17 hour mark, fighting for the win, but a couple of issues late in the race had them fighting to get back up front. While Dion was in there talking, we could see on the monitors above him that another issue struck the car, as it was spending an extended period of time in the pits. In the shot below where you can see the monitors above him, the one on the left is the live shot out the rear of his car as it was sitting on pit lane.

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The update was cool, something I wish we’d taken advantage of on Saturday, but live and learn. After Dion finished up, we enjoyed one last meal in the Boardwalk club (off that awesome menu above), and headed back to the suite to end the race. We expected it to be full late in the race, so we wanted to get there as quick as possible to get decent seats, which we managed to do. There were only a few people there at that point, so the kids grabbed some seats along the window inside, and I grabbed a spot outside to enjoy the final couple of hours. It did get pretty busy, as expected, but it was a great place to watch the end of the race. We were all worn out, and walking around really wasn’t an option. Those last 15 minutes made for a good race, as Jordan Taylor, was putting on a show trying to get back up to Scott Dixon, only to have all of that work undone by a miscalculation by the team on his time in the car. When the caution came out for a wreck near the bus stop and Jordan brought the #10 in to the pits, the assumption was they’d miscalculated on fuel, but jaws dropped around me when they did a driver change. The guys over at Jalopnik have a pretty good story on what happened, it’s well worth the read.

With the race over, we headed down to grab a cart from the suite back to the car corral one last time. We hopped in our cars, headed to the hotel to rest, clean up, eat dinner and get a full night’s sleep. Bayley’s friend had never been to a race like this before and seemed to really enjoy himself all weekend, so hopefully we helped bring a new fan in to the sport. Regardless, the entire weekend was a blast. I was really happy with the decision to buy the Audi Motorsport Experience tickets, and can’t say enough good things about the staff, they were great all weekend. We’ve now done this race in two completely different ways, so next time maybe we just need to rent an RV and camp out in the infield all 4 days. One of these years, hopefully :). That last shot below of us on our balcony was taken after the race, just before we cleaned up for dinner. After roughly 36 hours of being awake we were wiped out, but loved every minute of it. Huge thank you to Audi Sport, Paul Miller Racing, and Flying Lizard Motorsports for an awesome weekend!

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24 Hours of Speed – Part 1

As I said in my recap of the last Rolex 24 we went to, being at a race is definitely my happy place. There’s something about the sound of a race engine roaring to life, or a race car flying by me that I absolutely love. Last weekend Bayley and I, along with her best friend, made the trek to this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. There are plenty of places where you can read coverage of the race itself, including my one of favorite sites, Racer.com, so I’ll stick to covering our experience. The race itself was great, with a lot of action on track, and a crazy last few laps. Being a fan of Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, I was happy to see them cross the stripe first for the overall victory, but I’d have loved to see my favorite GTD team, Flying Lizard, finish higher up the order. No matter, they fought hard the entire time to get back up to 10th in class after some early clutch issues, and were still pushing hard when the clock hit zero on Sunday afternoon.

This race weekend was a much different experience than any past IndyCar or sports car race we’ve been to. Normally I just get the standard 3-4 day weekend package with grandstand seats for whatever race we’re going to, but this time I splurged a little and went with the Audi Motorsport Experience tickets. We’ve never done a race on any sort of hospitality tickets, and looking back, I couldn’t be happier with the choice, Audi took great care of us all weekend. The tickets themselves included access to a number of things we’d never had access to at a race before that will all be covered here, and we loved every minute of it.

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When we got to Daytona on Friday evening we went straight to the track. Even though the Continental Tire Series race had just ended, I had business to attend to in the garage area before the teams called it a night, and we wanted to hit Tijuana Flats for dinner after that, which is right across the street from the track. Walking the garage at a track off-hours definitely reminds you that this is a team sport. While the drivers may be off doing appearances or resting up for the race, the crews are usually hard at work getting the car ready.

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Come Saturday morning, our normal race weekend plan kicked in. Bayley knows that I like to get to the track as early as possible, so that meant getting to the Audi Boardwalk Club, the heart of their hospitality setup located in the middle of the infield, as soon as we could. We left the hotel around 7:20am and got to the Audi car corral about 20 minutes later. They’d included two parking passes with our tickets, so my daughter parked her Jeep over with the other non-Audi cars, while I parked my little TT roadster in line next to a beautiful R8.

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Once we had all of our stuff, we hopped on the Audi golf cart shuttles, which took us pretty much wherever we needed to go over the course of the weekend, and headed to the Boardwalk Club to get signed in. These tickets included a few behind the scenes things that we wanted to be sure and get spots for:

  • Hot lap
  • Audi paddock (garage) tour
  • Hot pit tour during the race

When we initially signed up, we were on the 11am hot lap list, which was pretty long. Right after we went and sat down in the Boardwalk Club to enjoy some breakfast, one of the girls from the front desk came over and asked if we wanted to switch to the 8:30 hot lap, as they had a couple of openings. We enthusiastically agreed, and hopped on one of the carts to head to the IMSA (series) hauler to sign our lives away.

The hot lap is exactly what it sounds like. A lap around the track at speed. Since we were with Audi, that obviously meant doing the lap in an Audi, specifically a new S3 (the blue one below). It was pretty wet out, and even started raining a bit harder as we were standing on pit road waiting for our turn. We expected them to shut it down, considering all the high speed infield turns, as well as the steep speedway turns. Nope. The line of hot lap cars came in, and we hopped right in and took off. It was an absolute blast, with our driver telling us that they weren’t even holding back in the wet, the cars were gripping just fine. Coming off of turn 7 (speedway turn 2) on to the back straight, we were doing almost 120mph in a street car. So. Much. Fun. In addition to the pics below, I’ve got video of the hot lap up on YouTube.

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Once the hot lap was over, we walked around the garage a bit before heading back to the Boardwalk Club. Our first two activities were almost back to back, with the paddock tours scheduled for 9:30am. On arrival, we once again boarded a golf cart shuttle and headed back to the garage area. This time around, we were getting a behind the scenes tour of the garages for both Audi teams, Flying Lizard and Paul Miller Racing, along with a tour of the Audi Customer Racing parts hauler. We all had a blast. In addition to getting to see the crew of my favorite car at work (the #45), our guide Mark did a great job of explaining things along the way and answering questions as they came up. The guys in the Audi hauler were really cool, too. The hauler is equipped with two spare R8 chassis and enough parts to build a couple more cars. They just sit there and wait for one of the teams to come over needing a part. A good race for the Audi teams means the guys in the parts hauler have no work :).

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Once our paddock tours ended, we were left to do whatever we wanted until later that evening, as our last scheduled event was the hot pit tour at 9pm. We walked around for a bit, checking out the final activity in the garages, and headed back over to the Boardwalk Club for lunch. One of the nice things about these tickets is that they included all meals, as well as snacks overnight. All of the meals were outstanding. Our lunch menu on Saturday included some delicious weiner schnitzel and German potato salad, among other items. During lunch, the drivers for both of the Audi teams arrived for the pre-race driver meet and greet for Audi hospitality guests. Each of the teams were on stage for a few minutes talking about how their car was running, what they expected out of the race, and doing a short Q&A. Definitely a nice touch.

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Once we were done with lunch, we headed over to the autograph session. We’d gotten some Audi flags at the Boardwalk Club, and decided to get them signed by all 8 Audi drivers. The autograph tables are divided into stations, with something like 6 tables per station. Fortunately both of the Audi teams were at the same station, so we only had to stand in one line, but on the flip side, Patrick Dempsey’s team was also in the same station, which meant it’d have a very long line. We got there a little early and waited in line near the front, but it was a really long line by the time the session started. I feel bad for the Dempsey fans in line, too. About 10 minutes before the session started, someone with his team walked by to let anyone waiting for him know that Dempsey would be a no-show for autographs (no reason was given), and would be replaced by Hurley Haywood. While it was cool to see a legend like that sit in last minute, I’d bet less than half of those waiting for Dempsey even know who Haywood is. Regardless, we got what we came for. In addition to the smaller flag, I also got a flag I bought at the 2012 race signed by the entire 2015 Rolex 24 Flying Lizard team this weekend. Drivers, crew, everyone. Of the few pieces of autographed memorabilia I have, this is easily a favorite. The picture of me holding that flag was shot very early Sunday morning, so ignore how rough I look :)

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Our autographed flags in hand, we hopped a golf cart to the car corral to switch out some stuff before the race started. Our plan was to watch the start from the Audi suite on the front stretch. None of us had watched a race from a suite before, and while I normally like to be closer to the track during a race, this was actually a great spot. We had an excellent view of the pits and front stretch from the seats in front of the suite, and Audi staff were on hand inside the suite offering up drinks and snacks, all included with our tickets.

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I’m not good at sitting in one place for any length of time, so after a couple of hours enjoying the action from the suite, we hopped a cart and headed back to the infield to watch the race from the Ferris wheel. This is one of the coolest places to see the race from, especially at night. We did both a day and a night ride, fun stuff.

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After the ride and a walk through the carnival games area, we headed back to the Boardwalk Club for what was easily the best meal of the weekend. Inside, Audi’s chef had a long table with things like roasted potatoes, penne Gorgonzola, and beef tenderloin. Outside they had a table with a large amount of smoked sausage and corn on the cob, along with a table of oysters. Did I mention Audi took really good care of us all weekend? To top it all off, they had a delicious wall of dessert inside.

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Not long after dinner we did break my main rule of the Rolex 24: once you’re in the track, you’re in until it’s over. With the kids heading back to college after the race, my daughter had her cat Luna with us (who lives with her in her dorm at Eckerd), and he was back in the hotel room alone, so we left for a little while to go check on him. We couldn’t stay long, however, as our last scheduled event was on tap at 9:15pm, the hot pit tour. We left the track a little after 7:30pm and got back about 8:45pm. Upon arriving, we took a cart straight back to the Boardwalk Club to check in for our pit tour.

When we got to the pits, they gave us IMSA visitor hard-cards and some headsets so we could talk to Mark. Because of how busy the Paul Miller Racing guys were (fighting for the lead in GTD at the time), we only got to tour the Flying Lizard pits, but it was a blast. We hung out in there for a little over 10 minutes and got to see one of their pits stops, along with the final pit stop of the #70 SpeedSource Mazda prototype before it retired with a fatal oil pump issue. It was all very cool to watch, those crews really bust their butts. The last pic below is the Mazda in for its stop.

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After the pit tour, we decided to hang out in the Boardwalk Club for a while and watch the 10pm fireworks. This is always a highlight of the evening, one that everyone attending should make a point to watch. Race cars and fireworks. What could be better? I’ve got videos of the fireworks as seen from the patio at the Boardwalk Club here, and here. Looking at the last one, the smoke from the finale must have been blinding for the drivers as they came down the backstretch. Shortly after the fireworks, the staff put out some sliders for everyone who was still there. Not that we needed more food, but hey, might as well get our money’s worth, right?

Our last move of Saturday night was grabbing a cart and heading back to the front stretch suite to watch the race from there for a while. The suite closed at midnight, so by the time we got over there, I think we only stayed for about 45 minutes before heading back to the infield as Saturday ended. It was well worth the cart ride, the suite provided an outstanding view of the track at night.

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I think that about covers our Saturday at the track. We really enjoyed all of the special events Audi put together, and were enjoying the race as well. Next up in part 2: Sunday at the Rolex 24!

Renting Camera Gear

I know in my last post that I said I was done until after my trip this weekend, but after a package came today, I figured I had one more in me :)

I love to take pictures when on vacation, as most people do. I started shooting with DSLRs about 9 years ago when my daughter started in competitive cheer, but would say that even today, I’m an amateur photographer at best. While I used to lug my gear around any time we went on trips, I only really enjoy shooting with it under the right circumstances these days. Over the past few years, my interest in using the DSLR gear on vacations has waned, and while I do still take it with me, it serves as a backup camera to my point and shoot, which also happens to be my phone, currently a Nokia Lumia 1020 with the camera grip. While each has advantages and disadvantages, being able to carry such little weight when using a decent point and shoot is enough for me to leave the DSLR in the bag. Most of the time.

The main exception to my rule would be auto races, the one place I really enjoy shooting. Over the past few years, I’ve rented gear to haul to the following:

  • 2008 Grand Prix of Long Beach: Rented a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR to mount on my D80
  • 2010 Grand Prix of Long Beach: Rented a Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR to mount on my D80
  • 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Rented a Nikon D7000 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona: Rented a Nikon D750 + Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • Oh, and I also rented a Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S VR to use with my D80 on a work trip to Yosemite in 2010.

The D750 and 70-200 arrived today, just in time for our departure tomorrow. I’ve used a couple of different services for this over the years, LensRentals.com and RentGlass.com, and have had nothing but good experiences with both of them. The majority of those listed above, however, have been with LensRentals. My main reason behind this is because they allow me to schedule well in advance what I want and when I need it, vs just waiting until a few days before the trip and hoping what I want is in stock. For this trip, I reserved the gear on the 7th for arrival today. I’ll keep it 4 days, and send it back in the packaging it arrived in on Monday on my way home, only needing to have some packing tape on hand since the return shipping label is included.

Both of the services do an outstanding job packaging their gear, which I would completely expect considering how much this equipment would cost to replace. Today’s box was no different:

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The main reason I’m willing to rent and lug heavy gear around with me is that it’s next to impossible to get a decent shot of a race car at speed using a P&S. Shooting a moving vehicle is a mix of stable panning, fast glass, perfect shot settings, and good location. The professionals generate some awesome images. Me, I’m just happy to get pictures to use as desktop backgrounds, to be honest. The other challenge will be the number of pictures I take. I leave it in burst mode the whole weekend, and usually max out the camera buffer when I’m shooting a passing car from the fence line, and am guessing I’ll easily come home with somewhere between 2500-3000 pictures to sort through this trip. Most of that will likely be throw away, too, but the ones that turn out good will occupy my computer screens for quite a while.

Back to the rental services. Honestly, I find this to be a great way not only to try new gear, but to avoid paying the price of buying something you may only use a couple of times. I’ve always received solid, perfectly working gear, and the few times I did have to contact either company’s support for something, they were always very friendly and helpful. For anyone who’s never used a camera rental service but isn’t interested in renting DSLR gear, most of them aren’t limited to that, some have point and shoot cameras and GoPro gear, too.

One last recommendation for anyone renting high-end gear: Get the insurance for anything you’re not willing to pay replacement cost on. On our 2010 trip to Long Beach, I dropped my camera while it had the 18-200 rental lens on it. As soon as it left my hands, my heart sank. I didn’t even want to pick it up. When I did, I could tell that the lens was a bit jacked up, as the focus ring was loose, and the lens itself wasn’t 100% secure on the mount. We were at the car getting ready to head to the hotel on day 2 (of 3) when it happened, so I wrapped it up and waited to asses it further until we got to the hotel. When we got back to the room, I went ahead and emailed RentGlass to let them know what happened and ask for next steps. Long story short, after we got home, I sent the lens back as scheduled and waited to find out how much the repair was going to cost. Fortunately, none of the glass was damaged, and Nikon’s price to repair was only $125. That was the one time I skipped insurance, and I was sure I was going to have to pay for a new lens, so I was pretty happy with that outcome. It was a lesson for sure, and is still the only time I’ve ever dropped a camera.

Well, I’m off to finish packing since we’re off to Daytona in the morning! For now, here are a handful of my favorite shots taken with rental gear over the years:

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Our Favorite Port: Bermuda

Here we are at the end of my five part series, and we’re ending it with the trip that I started this blog with, Bermuda. We all agree this is our favorite to date, and it was a pretty easy choice. Since I’ve already talked about this port in-depth in my Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 posts back in June, I’ll do my best to bring new material to this entry.

When we were initially looking for a graduation cruise to take our daughter on, we were looking at Alaska. Jen and Bayley had never been there, and everyone who’s been on an Alaskan cruise seems to love them. After a bit of deceptive questioning to avoid letting Bayley in on the surprise, we came to realize that she’d prefer something tropical. My wife and I started the search over, quickly coming to the realization that we wanted to do something different from the normal Caribbean itineraries we’d been doing. We did consider cruises out of San Juan, since those go further south to ports we haven’t been, but most of those were out of our budget when adding airfare. That was when my wife brought up Bermuda. We’d talked about this in the past, but weren’t sure how we’d like a cruise where you basically park in one spot for three days. In researching it, she found it to be a favorite of a large percentage of those who posted reviews on Cruise Critic. Many people talked about how they’d been to Bermuda multiple times on cruises, which is something we really hadn’t seen with any other U.S. based itinerary. We were sold.

This itinerary started with two days at sea. On the morning of day 3, I got up early to watch the sunrise as we arrived in port. If you cruise to Bermuda, I highly recommend being up early and getting out on deck or a balcony to watch the sun come up as you pass around the island. The arrival provided some of the best views of the trip in my opinion, and as you can see, the Norwegian Breakaway beat us in to port:

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Getting back to the point of this post, this island is our favorite port of all time for a few reasons:

  1. The people were all incredibly warm and friendly, and you never felt unsafe. Wherever we went, people were always smiling, and willing to help you out with information or directions.
  2. The transportation system is second to none among ports we’ve stopped at. I talked about this in my previous posts, but when you first get off, there are transportation stands just off the ship where you can buy bus/ferry passes. If they can’t get you where you want to go, you probably don’t need to go there. We made use of the bus and ferry every day we were there. These are the same buses the rest of the island uses to get around, and the same ones kids take to and from school.
  3. A friend of mine at work is from Bermuda, and always talks fondly about the island (except maybe the cost of living :-) ). I’d heard about a few of the different landmarks on the island, like Somerset Bridge, so we made time to stop and see a couple of things most visitors aren’t aware of on his recommendation.
  4. There’s a ton of stuff to do. Even with 3 days in port, we still didn’t see everything we’d planned to. We definitely want to visit again and work on that list some more.

Number 2 above is a huge deal in my opinion. Going in, we had zero guided excursions planned, private or cruise sponsored, due to all we’d read about how good the transportation system was. When it was all said and done, we only took one guided tour, a last minute choice to take a jetski tour on our final morning there. As I mentioned in the Day 3 post in July, that tour was excellent and worth the extra money that was spent on it. Outside of that, everything else we did was on our own, utilizing the transportation system and our feet to get us where we wanted to go. It was nice to not be on a set schedule, not having to hurry to meet tour operators. We basically got off the ship whenever we want and headed out, and returned whenever we wanted.

This cruise also represented the first time we’d been parked in the same port for more than a few hours, which we all found pretty cool. On the first and second day in port, there was no stress about getting back to the ship before it left, since it wasn’t going anywhere. It was an awesome way to see Bermuda.

I think that about covers it. I highly recommend reading my three posts about our days on the island (linked in the first paragraph in this post) to get an idea of what we did. It’s been fun going over these five ports and reliving our time on these islands. My next posts will come some time next week and cover our upcoming trip to Daytona for the Rolex 24, a 24-hour sports car endurance race. In the meantime, here are a few more shots from Bermuda!

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Our 2nd Favorite Port: Costa Rica

Costa Rica was the second stop on our 2011 Thanksgiving cruise on the Carnival Freedom. To date this is one of the best itineraries we’ve sailed due to what we felt was the perfect mix of port days and sea days, allowing us to relax and reflect between stops:

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  • Sea day
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  • Sea day
  • Puerto Limon, Costa Rica
  • Colon, Panama
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  • Sea day
  • Arrive Ft Lauderdale

Puerto Limon, where the ship docked in Costa Rica, is very industrial and not much to look at. When you get off the ship, you’re directed into a small shopping area where the “approved” tours also meet. My wife had set up up with a private tour through Your Lucky Tour, a vendor who we had to meet just outside of the market. We’d seen a few people on a certain cruise board say that this area wasn’t that safe, and to keep an eye on your family as you walked through the market, but none of us ever felt it was unsafe as we walked through the shops and exited on to the street. We quickly found our guide Pablo, who was holding up a sign with our name on it, and headed for his cab.

Our tour was a bit up a mash-up of the ones they offer on their site, and would have us in the car driving around the area quite a bit. It was cloudy and somewhat misty most of the day, but even with that, we found Costa Rica to be a beautiful country. Pablo was an awesome guide, and gave us quite an education on the country, and each of the places we stopped. We did have one heart pounding moment, as we stopped at a checkpoint and had to hand our passports to a couple of men with M16s, but outside of that never felt uncomfortable or unsafe. In addition to a quick stop at a local stand to try some plantains, our tour took us to some pretty cool places:

Jaguar Rescue Center: Despite the name, they rescue far more than just jaguars, including various monkeys, sloths, baby possums, and a few more I’m sure I’m forgetting. While we got to see a couple of younger sloths, they understandably do not allow visitors to touch them, as they’re very fragile animals. The monkeys, however, love to interact with the visitors, and once you’re in there, at least one will find a home on you. When we were in the monkey house, one of them immediately hopped on to my shoulder and couldn’t’ stop playing with my head. Jen and Bayley had similar experiences, but their monkeys immediately curled up in their arms and fell asleep. In addition to the monkey enclosure, we had a guide who gave us a very thorough tour of the facility, showing us various animals along the way.

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Puerto Viejo: After the rescue center, we drove a short ways to Puerto Viejo to walk around and do some shopping. This is an awesome little town right on the water that’s home to some very warm and friendly people. We walked around for about 45min or so, and picked up some things in a few local shops. In the pic of the red car below, the guy standing next to it on his phone is our guide, Pablo.

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Parque Nacional Cahuita: The highlight of this stop was the hike to the beach. I don’t remember the exact length, but we were out there a while, and it was one of the coolest hikes I’ve ever done. The trail was pretty lush, and along the way our guide stopped to point out several different animals: crabs, sloths, a raccoon, and some rather large iguanas (one circled in red in a pic below). Since the trail is near the beach, it’s all sand, and was well worth the walk. It would have been awesome to spend some time at the beach, but we’ll save that for another trip down there. Again, it was an absolutely stunning hike.

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Those stops pretty much covered the day. As mentioned, we also stopped at a small stand to try some local plantains, which I actually enjoyed. Surprising since I despise bananas. Anyway, after arriving back in the port area, we decided to walk around town and do some shopping. Despite the warnings on a specific cruise forums site, we never felt unsafe walking around, and everyone we encountered was friendly. Yet another stop we’d like to go back and spend more time at!

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