A view from the track …

8:18pm – Friday, August 27, 2010 – Tense. That is the way I feel tonight. I got here a little over an hour ago. They did a “tech check” of my 911 to make sure it is track worthy. Everything cleared and I got registered. Somebody else got my packet by accident and I have to wait till they track my number sticker down. Got my wristbands and event t-shirt though, so I feel like I am at least in the game.

There is a bunch of people at the hotel. Most of them appear to be old hands at this. I have talked to a few and they are nice and inviting into the community, but there is a whole subculture and lexicon I don’t understand yet. For example, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me Caymans are called “crocks”. They seem to be the vehicle of choice for some of the more advanced in the crew–mostly “has-kids-in-high-school/college” types who really like racing. There is a good mix of men and women. I am focused determined to drive well. The left side of my brain tells me to ease off the testosterone, as that kind of thinking gets people in trouble at 120 MPH.

At this point, it is probably a good idea to explain why I am here. I am here for a DE (drivers education) event. This is not your high-school drivers-ed or a racing school. The purpose is to teach the entrants to drive their cars at speed on a real racetrack. Cars don’t race against each other, and there is no strategy discussion about how to race. It is all about learning to drive closer to the limits of the cars, which is pretty insane given the classes of the cars we are talking about.

Me and my car.

There are a couple of GT3s and GT2, plus lots of Turbo 911s. My 40th anniversary 911 fares well amongst the banquet of autos. No so much that it draws stares, but enough that it stands out. This particular 911 was specially made in 2003 to mark the 40th anniversary of the first 911, and was one of 1963 made. They are numbered by the order in which they were manufactured. Mine is number 304, and carries with it a track package that gives it a startling 345 horsepower. For the uninitiated, the Porsche 911 probably the most famous and almost certainly longest continuously manufactured high performance auto in history.

The assembled lot at the hotel represents a lot of well cared for cars. I look forward to using the down time tomorrow to detail my car, which is carrying a lot of road dust and bugs from the 5 hour ride from State College.

Fall is braking and so the sun is setting at 8:30pm. Time to start getting my game on. Drinking some Mount Nittany beer I brought from home to calm the nerves. I hope I get some sleep tonight. I better get some chow and bed down before long.

I have wanted to do this all my life, and now it is time to get it on.

5:48am – Saturday, August 28, 2010 – Did not sleep very well, but it was not all nerves. Had too much pizza before bed and was restless. Coffee is helping, but need to get it together. Will shower and shave, pick up some supplies and head to the track. Too tired to be sleepy.

8:23am – Been here for a couple of hours now. There is a real sense of fellowship, and the greater sense of fun is pervasive. Everyone is just a little on edge and wanting to get going.

The rumbling is nonstop now, with cars being tuned, worked on, cleaned and checked for track readiness. This is the apparent soundtrack for the weekend, and it seems to underscore the tension. I have been cleaning the car, but am hesitant to tune the car. 911s are over-engineered and very complex, so I leave the more important maintenance to the pros until I learn more. Learning to care for these cars well takes years, and you want to be careful. Damn, I wish I had taken more mechanical engineering and less computer science.

WHOA!! I can see the track from here and the first group just went out and they went past so fast all I could make out is the color of the car. These guys are moving really, really fast. This is the “A” group, which are the top-level drivers. Mostly near professional drivers with years of track time. These speeds are lethal. My stomach just dropped about a foot.

This is probably a good point to explain how things work on these events. Drivers are graded from A to D in decreasing order of experience, with instructors being a class by themselves. As I read it, “A”s are basically pros/semi pros, “B”s are lifetime drivers, “C”s are enthusiasts, and “D”s have no idea what they are doing and are potentially dangerous. This is my first driving event of any kind, and therefore I am a D. Interestingly, cars are not graded at these events. Of course, there is a car rating scheme for racing events, but this is a driver education event. Each group gets a number of “runs” per day on the track with all cars from the same group running simultaneously. Each run is about 25 minutes long. I should get 4 runs in today.

I am waiting for my instructor. His name is Adam and he graduated from Ohio University’s college of engineering (as did I). He has driven Porsches for about a decade, and cars in general since long before it was legal for him to do so I am pretty sure. His dad is a well-known figure at the track that drives a circuit-ready Porsche GT3.

Basically, I don’t get to get out on the track all weekend without Adam in the passenger seat (there is a potential for “solo” time, but that is not worth thinking about right now). We have a microphone and earpiece at all times so we can talk back and forth. Our first run we will take his car and he will drive. That is going to happen at 9:05am. I am nervous and want to get this going. The waiting is killing me.

6:39pm – Exhausted. I had no idea driving could be this tiring. It was so busy all day I did not have time to write. There is so much, I guess I will just begin.

I got out at 9:05 this morning with my instructor. For logistical reasons, we had to take a track ready Mazda Miata, which is a small and not particularly powerful car (by comparison to the rest of the field). We went around the track for about 15/20 minutes. This was a great way to get a lay of the land and understand what the “line” is (more on this in a minute). We flew fast enough that I felt like a ragdoll, even in a 6 point harness (a six way seat-belt). The speed was fast but not frightening. I think everyone took it easy to let some of tension off. It was really helpful to get around the track about 7-8 times. We got passed alot, but I had my eyes on the track. I felt bad for one or two of the other drivers, whose instructors seemed to be running to impress rather than teach, and I think the students probably learned a little less for it.

We had a rather obvious class at 9:30 on safety and track procedure. I think it was important for people who did not do the reading before getting to the track (and there was a lot of it), so it was worth doing. I had trouble listening as the clock sped faster and faster towards 10:05.

10:05 came with me sitting in the Porsche, helmet on. Adam was the passenger seat. We both had headsets on and could talk to each other. Engines revving, we slowly pulled out into the pit-lane, where the cars were lined up. We sat and contemplated what was about to happen.

Then it started. The car in the front of the group was given the “green flag” means go. Off it went, then about 5 seconds later, the next one went, then another. And another. Slowly we streamed out onto the track. Next it was my turn. BLAM. Off I went probably more abruptly than Adam would advise or like, but he did not say anything. I was behind a BMW M3, which is a fast and nice car, but it is not a 911. I was up on him in no time.

Then Adam started talking in my ear, “brake … turn … throttle”. Very calmly (at least at that time), he just kept talking me through each and every point in the entire track. Intertwined with these commands was an incredibly detailed description of the turns and how to take them, when to speed up, slow down, how not to hit the car in front of you, etc. I am absolutely certain that he could drive this course blindfolded and drunk with perfect accuracy. Having him in my head telling me how to drive was an amazing experience that made it fun instead of scary. Each lap got progressively faster as I and the other drivers got more confidence.

About halfway through the “run”, things started to jam up. Some people were getting the hang of things quicker and started to run up on the slower drivers. Suddenly, there were 6-7-8 cars in a row. I was in the back with a line of cars in front of me. Normally, people would pass, but this group was so green that we really could not get it to work. In all groups, the person in front makes the decision to let somebody behind pass. They stick their hand out the window and point “left” to allow passing on the left, and “right” to pass on the right.

The problem with us new drivers is that a) we don’t always see people behind us, b) the passing drivers sometimes don’t have enough skill or car to pass in time for the next corner (there is no passing in the corners), or c) the whole thing is too scary to attempt.

They threw the checked flag to indicate our time was up. Everyone pitted, got out of his or her cars and relaxed. The adrenaline was amazing. I called my Dad and Megan (my wife) and basically yelled into the phone for about 20 minutes, “THAT WAS REALLY, REALLY FUN!” We had some down time from then until lunch, but I spent most of it in the observation tower watching other groups run.

I suppose this is a good time to acknowledge one of the great truths of racing a learned today. Cars don’t matter nearly as much as drivers. A really good driver could smoke my enhanced 911 in a street Volkswagen. The issue is that “road” race tracks (not the big oval ones) are made up of lots and lots of turns and hills. How you get into these and out of them make huge differences in how fast you get around the track. There are thirteen turns at varying elevations in the Mid Ohio track and you have to master them all. The Mid Ohio track is one of the most famous tracks in the United States. It is an hour plus from Columbus and is truly world class. They run everything from DE events to formula one. It is also one of the most technical tracks around I am told, which that there are many turns and that they are difficult to master.

From what I learned, there are three important factors in getting through a turn. First you need to know where the “line” is. The line is an imaginary stripe that goes all around the track. If you are driving correctly, this line should be right underneath your car at all times. If you are on it, you are “on line”, and “off line” otherwise. Staying on line is no mean feat at the speeds we were traveling. Steering is key to staying on line, but it was the one thing I seemed to feel the most comfortable with. Steering when pulling 3-Gs around a 270-degree “Carousel” turn was somewhat more difficult, to say the least. The second important factor is knowing when to brake and how hard. I discovered today that you must work the brakes _much_ harder than you would under normal (street) circumstances. You stomp those brakes getting into turns (something that first timers like myself have trouble with)–the reasoning is that you can transition to the third factor more quickly. Throttle. Once you slowed the car down enough and positioned it in a turn, you need to start giving it gas to blast out the other side. How much depends on the kind of turn and what is going to happen next. How fast you come out of a turn is proportional to how well you go into it.

The key to getting good at driving is putting these things together, turn after turn, for the entire track and doing it well. Smoothness is also important. You need to transition from brake to throttle and back again over and over very smoothly. Don’t pump your brakes or gas or the car is going to get jumpy and not drive well or fast. I struggled all day to prevent myself from backing on/off the gas. I got better, but never perfect.

I ate lunch and had my second run at 1:05. It was much smoother and Adam was really complimenting me on my technique. I felt very comfortable and was hitting the right points with some level of consistency. I felt great, and I was clearly driving better than some in my group. I passed almost the entire field by the end of the run. I felt great and just a little cocky.

I had some more caffeine and headed back to the observation deck. Watching the A and B groups is a ton of fun. They have some insanely nice cars being driven by some truly gifted drivers. There were a couple of Cameros with god-knows-what under the hood that could really fly. The guys driving them really knew what they were doing, but just could not corner with the Porsches and Lotuses (the latter being surprisingly fast and nimble). The problem with the Cameros was the sound. Wound all the way up, the cavitation from the noise a quarter mile was painful. I can’t imagine what it was like inside–I don’t care what kind of ear protection they had, it can’t be good for you.

I rested up there waiting for my next run at 3:05pm.

3:05 came and I headed out of the track. Something just did not feel right and I was not making the turns correctly, mostly because I was braking too lightly and often too late. Each time around the track is seemed to get worse and I could tell from the tone in Adam’s voice he was getting concerned. It was like I forgot everything. I was pressing and trying to make the car go fast, but then not paying attention to the important stuff.

Then it happened. I was coming into turn 8 (appropriately named “madness”), which is a sharp left uphill, and I just missed it. I went off the far and of the track and into the grass. No more than a couple of feet, but my heart was racing and I was shaking. We sat for a second and when Adam said it was OK, we pulled back onto the track and proceeded slowly.

There is a rule in racing. If you get all four tires off the track you have to go into the pits and talk to the track coordinator. This is called being “black flagged”, although I did not actually have somebody point a black flag at me (my memory is kinda hazy at this point, so aliens could have been landing in the infield and I would not have noticed). You tell the coordinator what happened, he looks and your car to make sure no damage was done, and he can make the call to pull you or let you back out on the track. The coordinator did not seem overly concerned, so he let us go. Adam told me to park for a minute, and he went through a detailed synopsis of everything we had learned earlier in the day. I did not hear a word he said, but it was calming to have him talking. I was still shaking.

“Time to get back on the horse” Adam said authoritatively. I pulled out back onto the track and very hesitantly drove the remaining laps. I did better and was improving each lap. I was hitting the turns, but way too timid. It was some solace, but I was still really rattled.

Adam suggested I go for a ride with him in the “C” group to help me understand how to drive the track. I waited again and he pulled his Turbo 944 out on to track with me in it. It was just a different experience than anything I have had in a car. Every turn was hit with precision. I was thrown around the car like before, but much more so. The thing that was amazing was how much that car would grip the turns. My old Ford Granada from high school would spin like a top if it got 1/10th the G-forces we were experiencing. I started to see where he wanted to put the car and why. This was the most educational part of the day.

We finished the ride about 10 minutes before my last run of the day. We hurried up to my car, jumped in and headed to the pits. I was nervous because of my previous visit to the Mid-Ohio lawn, but told myself to focus. If I am the slowest guy out there, so be it. We waited and chatted, then launched again.

It was amazing. I was driving well (or so it felt), hitting the curves (even turn 8!), accelerating at the right moment, braking, staying on line. Everything. Adam kept saying, “Day-and-Night difference” and “We are going to make a race-car driver out of you yet!”. The last 4 laps felt absolutely perfect, but I am sure they were not.

We got out my car and I was walking on air. Adam said, “Now THATS the way to finish the day.” Not sure if he was trying to lift my spirits or if I really had done well, but I forced myself to believe the latter. Now I am screwed. I am hooked. [Now if I can just get Porsche to sponsor me.]

Looking back at taking my car off track, I remember trying to get a grip on what happened when I launched off madness. I probed Adam, “Do you think I was trying to push the car too hard or was driving too aggressively?” “No.”, he answered, “The problem was you did not hit the brakes.” Sometimes the most obvious answers are the hardest to hear.

Take away lesson for today: don’t be stupid, hit the damn brakes.

6:33am, Sunday August 29th, 2010 – Just woke up. Fell asleep at 9:15pm and could not drag my butt out of bed at the 5:30 wakeup. It is amazing how tired you get. Got coffee, but I need to shake a leg–my first run is at 8am.

9:30pm – finished the day and made it back home to State College. The day was eventful.

I got to the track around 7:15am and made the 7:40 drivers meeting. We got the same detail we got yesterday. The good news is that Saturday went by without much in the way of problems or accidents. Good news for all. The new bit is that they took out the “Chicane” (pronounced “Shi-Kane”), or quick jog right and back left, in the track heading into the toughest turn of the track known as the “keyhole”. This is the “pro” track setup and you end up moving much faster.

I bailed out of the meeting quickly, put my helmet on and jumped in the car. Heading to the starting line just as the instructors meeting was just breaking up. Saw Adam and he waved. He jumped in and we talked for a few minutes. I think he would not have been surprised if I went home yesterday. In fact, there were a lot of stories floating around the event of people from past events who did not like it or got rattled and went home, or stayed for one weekend and never came back. There were people in my group who I thought not make it back for Sunday, but if anybody did not come back I did not notice it. I never thought seriously about not coming back, but I understand how this could just be too much for some.

We were the first group of the day at 8:00am and we launched onto the track. I was a little hesitant at first, but got into it after a few laps. I spent a good deal of the previous night staring at the ceiling drilling every braking zone and acceleration point into my head. It was now paying dividends. My sense of flow of the track was becoming something that I did not need to think about as much. I was starting to hit some of the turns well and was starting to look a little further down the track. By the end, it was feeling smoother.

I headed down to the registration booth. I found out what happened to my missing number and information packet. Apparently the guy who got mine by accident was putting on the wristband and wrecked his car. Don’t know what kind it was, but that has to be one of the worst things I have ever heard. I never saw him or knew who he was, but I feel for him.

The second run was a continuation of the first. I was really starting to feel the flow of things and I was running well. Adam was saying less and less each lap. When we finished he said the last 5 laps was really good.

Richard, Dan, and TomWe broke for lunch, and I headed over to hang with some of the other drivers. I met some really great people over the weekend. My next-door neighbors in the parking lot were a father (Richard), son (Daniel), and uncle (Tom) trio. The father was in the C group and the son and uncle were in D with me. The Richard and Dan shared a 1999 911 and the Tom had a really, really fast Honda S2000. They were great guys and we hung out together, ate lunch, and talked about the runs all weekend. I also met Jeff who used to race Corvettes and now had an incredible Cayman S, and Sharon and her husband Adam who worked in energy industry and shared a nice 911. We all were like old friends by the end of the weekend.

It was time for my last run. My confidence was rising, and I looked forward to getting on the track. Actually, I should have gotten one last one after this, but I needed to leave back to PA in time to put my kids in bed (three days away from a 6 and 7 year olds is a long time).

We blasted off and I was flying around the track. Each lap got better and better and I really felt the ebb and flow of the turns. I was more relaxed and more focused. I was aware of people in front and back and had to think much less about what to do and just let my internal auto-pilot do it. The turns came and I ate them up. I backed off the throttle on the straight-aways when people were in front to give me room to hit the turns hard.

At one point Adam screamed into the mike, “NOW YOU ARE CARRYING THE MAIL!!!” as I absolutely blew through Thunder Valley–a series of challenging turns–at speeds which would have been inconceivable at the beginning of the weekend. I can only guess what this means, but it seems positive. Seriously though, that 12 or so seconds of flawless turns and blinding speed was the highlight of my weekend.

At the risk of getting philosophical, the only thing I can compare this last run to is when I used to play basketball. There is a Zen-like feeling when you get into “The Zone”. The game slows down and the rim looks like a hula-hoop. You stop thinking and just flow from one play to another. On the track, 90 MPH feels slow and those turns feel less sharp. The noise falls away. You know where all the cars are around you and begin to anticipate what they are going to do. You do less thinking and just flow through the course. I am not sure Adam said anything for the last 5 minutes of the run.

It was over way too soon.

Adam and MeAfter the last run I hung around the track and said my goodbyes. I thanked Adam for his instruction and patience, packed up my car, and headed home. Heading home in interstate traffic felt like I was driving in reverse.

8:04pm, Tuesday August 31st – Back in my study at home having a scotch and reflecting on the weekend.

I can say that this was one of the most memorable weekends I have had in a long time. It was challenging, momentarily frightening, engaging, and enjoyable. The challenges I had on Saturday heightened my euphoria on Sunday.

Looking back, my problems were not caused by my reflexes, knowledge or car, but by a failure between my ears. I tried to do everything all at once and ended up not paying attention to fundamentals. I wanted to be the best guy on the track immediately and was not mastering the small stuff first. Once I accepted that I needed to progress at my own rate, I was OK.

I would also note that this is a generally safe activity. That does not mean that it is not without risk, but the organizers and drivers are almost universally committed to safety. I think I saw only about 3 incidents the whole weekend where somebody almost got hurt (and those were not really close to that). I also can say I only saw only car with visible damage over the whole weekend.

So, what would I tell somebody else coming out for the first time? The most obvious lesson that many took a while to come to (as did I) is that you need to listen. I was surrounded by at least 100 experienced drivers who were willing and ready to give advice. If somebody tells you something it comes from experience.

Other lessons I heard/learned over the weekend that might be of value to new drivers:

  • Driving is about technique and muscle memory. You need to unlearn street habits like pumping brakes, Smoothness is the only way to drive. The cardinal rule is that the smoother you drive the faster you go.
  • No matter how much you are using your brakes it is not enough. Learn to “stand the car on its front end” going into turns. Learn to decelerate fast. This is key to preserving speed (and not ending up in the grass or wall) is ironically braking.
  • Always brake straight. If you are braking as you are turning, bad things can happen. Just don’t do it.
  • Drive the first few laps of each session slowly, and then build up speed. Some drivers like to gun out of the gate. At least as a novice, every time you go out you have to re-orient and relearn a little bit. Take your time and it will come. Don’t press.
  • Trust your car. Chances are if you are driving a Porsche or other high performance vehicle, you are not even close to pushing it past its limits. Being hesitant is almost as dangerous as being reckless. Backing off and on the brake or gas because you are unsure of what your doing destabilizes the car. This causes all kinds of problems, not the least of which is that you never get into the flow.
  • If you don’t feel right, get off the track. Being distracted or uncomfortable of plain old feeling like it is not clicking is natural. Trying to push through it is a mistake, and it could be very, very costly. I got off light and I know it. As it turns out, you will get as much track time as you could possibly want over the weekend. Bailing out or skipping a run is not a big deal.
  • Find Adam. Seriously–get a good instructor. Talk people in the club before the event about who would be a good instructor. I had a one of the best, but I saw one or two who were clearly not very good. A good instructor makes all the difference.

It all comes down to this: You know you are advancing when you don’t have to think about where to brake/accelerate and how hard. Develop track awareness; always be looking a couple turns ahead. Get into the flow of the track and feel the car. The feeling you will get from it is simply indescribable.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget to hit the brakes.


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