25 October, 2016

First, you make your bed… (Timber! part 2)

Part one of this series showed how Matt (the professional arborist in the picture) moved himself and his tools around the tree. Once he had the tools where they needed to be, it was time to put them to work: the next step was to trim the remaining branches, and to arrange them on the ground so as to create a reasonably soft drop zone for the logs that would eventually follow.

The process of trimming the branches (and dragging them into position) was straightforward, but included some unexpected nuances. Our standing orders were to never approach the tree until Matt gave the all-clear.

First things first, he would cut off a branch. Easy enough…

30 September, 2016

Timber! How to navigate a tree

Imagine you want to cut down a single, very tall tree. How does it work? How do you do it safely, without damaging surrounding trees, and in a way that allows the lumber to be put to use when all is said and done?

When the opportunity to witness just such an adventure came across my radar, I jumped on it. I've always enjoyed watching people work, and this was a great chance to see someone work in a way that was completely different from what I'm used to.

Mark (bottom, in the photo) owns land somewhere in the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. As part of a road rerouting project, he brought in his friend Matthew (top; a professional arborist) to cut down what we would later discover to be a 200-foot-tall Redwood tree. Mark mentioned that he plans to use his small sawmill to mill the logs from the tree into lumber, and to use the lumber to build a deck for a house overlooking the site.
As with a lot of work projects, the most important aspects of a job like this are tools and infrastructure. You have to be able to move around, you have to be able to move your tools around, and you have to be able to put those tools to use.

In the photo, Matthew continues climbing after setting a rope 75 feet above the ground. The rope gave him a handy re-belay (aka rope transfer) point, in case his fixed top rope ended up too short to reach all the way to the ground.
On previous days, Matthew had cleared out some of the lower-hanging limbs on the tree. This particular day, he would essentially climb the full tree twice. On his first pass up, he finished off the limb removal, followed by a lunch and rest break back at ground level. He rigged a 2-to-1 rope system for the top half of the descent/ascent — he would climb twice as much rope to travel a given distance, but he'd only need to use half as much force.

In the photo, he grabs his fixed top rope to keep track of it (and, presumably, to keep it from twisting around the tree) on his way down for lunchtime.
And what's lunchtime without some goofing off? Matthew told us that this was the tallest tree he had ever climbed, and the effect of being the weight at the bottom of a 150+-foot pendulum was that he could practically fly by pushing gently off of the trunk.
And as he sat down for some food and rest, some of the kids took turns on the rope as well.
After lunch, Matthew gave us a short course on chainsaw safety: how to hold it, how to start it, how the safety mechanisms worked, and what to wear to keep safe while using it. Then he cut down a short tree to demonstrate, at ground level, the hinge cutting technique that he'd be using to cut down sections of the actual trunk.

Once that tree was cleared out of the way, he grabbed his gear and started his second climb, this time using a variety of rope ascent devices that made the job more efficient than the first climb.
Finally, once he was situated near the top of the tree again, he dropped a rope and had us attach his saw. Time to move the tools into position and get to work…

31 August, 2016

Eager (Stories from the 25, part 6)

There's a saying (commonly misattributed to Winston Churchill) that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. I was reminded of that saying when I spoke with A.J. Singh (far right, in picture) about eagerness in motorsports, 8 hours after his team's car was retired due to a major fire in the engine compartment. Here's what he had to say:

"The eagerness occurs every time we get ready for a race. That typically is about a month before we start getting ready; there's an excitement that you can see just start to infuse itself amongst our team members."

I asked what they're eager for — a win? The experience? Just to be out on track?

"Our first perspective is to finish, and to improve. Our thought process is to always be better than the last race. If we can do that, we've come away a success. Perfect case in point, we've got a car that just got burned up and we're going home, but we felt, quite honestly, that we performed better than we did last year…"

The 25 Hours of Thunderhill is a race that is nothing if not difficult. But Singh's response reminded me that it's the combination of eagerness and opportunity that brings teams to the race in the first place. The teams that only see the difficulty don't show up, and the teams that focus on the opportunity come back year after year, even when things don't go as planned.
The V/M Racing Lotus Exige is one of the most easily-recognizable vehicles in the race. The mirror finish glistens at the start of every race that I've seen it contest. It's easy to imagine that the team's eagerness to improve also motivates a certain level of pride in their vehicle.
Unfortunately, the team's race came to an untimely end at Thunderhill's corner 1, after an engine failure spilled hot oil onto an even hotter exhaust manifold, causing an immediate, intense fire. The driver (pictured) drove straight off the track and jumped out; it was the only time I've heard the Thunderhill safety crew use an audible siren while responding to a situation. Back at the team's paddock space, other teammates noticed that the back of the driver's Nomex racing suit had been singed from the heat.
This was the first year for the Ryno Racing team's Ginetta LMP3, and it was set to be a good one, with the car starting on the front row. Once the flag dropped, the car demonstrated the speed to stay near the head of the field.
But as day turned to dusk, a slight misjudgment on the corner leading into the front straight sent the car spinning straight into the hot pit wall, causing damage on all four sides. During the team's wrap-up meeting, the summary was pretty matter-of-fact: it was a racing incident; these things happen. We'll be back next year.
Fresh off their 2014 victory, the Davidson Racing team was gunning for another great result. Around the team's paddock area, you could sense a bit of tension as they started their engines and warmed up their two cars. Once on the track, though, both cars were turning incredibly fast laps — fastest overall for the #17 car (pictured), and within the top 5 for the #16.
That good form didn't last, though. The cars experienced electrical and mechanical issues, which ended the team's hopes for another podium. The #16 (on the lift, in the photo) was retired first, and the #17 (under the canopy) would follow.
The #00 Porsche GT3 Cup car, fielded by Award Motorsports / Ehret Family Winery, was also looking for a repeat. I saw the car take the outright at my first 25 Hours of Thunderhill, back in 2012. It had always been a car that combined speed with reliability.
Sometimes speed and reliability aren't enough, though. The team was forced to retire, by race rules, after three incidences of significant vehicle-to-vehicle contact.

In the end, though, racing is like a roller-coaster ride. No matter how many ups and downs you've seen, there's always a chance that a new upward turn is right around the corner. And maybe that's something to be eager about as well…
The full Stories from the 25 series:

31 July, 2016

Concerned (Stories from the 25, part 5)

AIM Tires is the permanent tire-mounting shop at Thunderhill Raceway. Alan (right) runs the shop, and his brother Nick (left) helps out during the big races. Just watching how they work together, you can tell they've been at this for ages. During the race, I asked Alan about a time when he's felt concerned, and the two stories he shared reinforced the notion (which I've shared before) that fuel and tires are the two currencies of motorsports.

"I was working on our tire machine and just putting the tire on the rim. And the bars just happened to snap right down and kinda break on me while I'm in there. And I had a line of tires to go through… I had to stop everything, fix that machine, get it going before I could continue, you know? And I was the only one in the shop working on it."

The common theme of the stories seemed to be that "tires always come first, but sometimes, they have to come second for a little bit." He continued,

"And last year, during the 25-hour event, our shop actually flooded… [we had to] block off this entrance right here, so water couldn't get in any more. It just kept comin' and comin' and comin'. Kind of had to slow things down a little bit, kinda scoop the water out too…"

The other thing I noticed was that the concerns he shared centered on situations that were out of his control. When it came to challenges that he could impact directly, they didn't seem to merit concern so much as, just, awareness. When he mentioned them, he simply told me "you gotta watch out."
The echoes of Alan's two stories appeared throughout the race, but particularly Sunday morning, when rain and mechanical breakages combined to make the going that much more difficult for the teams who were still putting in laps. And the factors compounded — the tough conditions induced mental fatigue, and mental fatigue leads to mistakes. And then the rain makes it more difficult to recover from those mistakes, leading to more work and more fatigue.
The race had started off simply enough, though: tall stacks of rubber, and teams eager to put that rubber to use.
When a car would slide into the pits for a tire change, the teams leapt into action. Off with the old rubber, and on with the new. Out with the old driver and in with the next. Add some fuel to the mix and get back out on track.
And when the rain finally arrived, it was a similar story. The still-hot slicks steamed as the rainwater evaporated into the cool night air. The wet-weather tires went on — less rubber to grab the track surface, but the gaps would let the rainwater get out of the way as the teams struggled to keep pace in the worsening conditions.

But the strategy was still simple: do your best to deal with the uncontrollable issues as they arise. And as for the challenges that you can impact directly…
You gotta watch out.
The full Stories from the 25 series: