“Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty” –Peter Egan
It was my birthday on Friday – a celebration of the 42 trips I’ve made around the sun. I don’t really do the New Year’s resolution thing, though I appreciate the idea that I’m turning to the first blank page of a fresh ledger book anticipating all of the as-of-yet unwritten potential there. Roundabout this time of year though, I do throw some of my energy toward reflection, and hope (I can’t deny the optimist that I am) for things that will be. I love imagining what a new year might hold. Remember when absolutely anything seemed possible? Like back in my early twenties when I was finishing college and trying to decide which direction to take. The possibilities weren’t quite endless, but they sure felt like they were. For the most part, I still feel that way.
Anyhow, the hubster and I went down to Savannah mid-January for a weekend away that included no children, driving cars at Roebling Road, the company of some great guys (because again this year I was the lone female driver), and good food and wine at the Olde Pink House, but mostly, it was about driving as fast as we dared on track.
I confess, I LOVE fast cars. Some of my favorite high-school car memories include driving my friend Gumby’s ’65 Mustang on a busy suburban road and getting a trial-by-fire feel for its chunky manual transmission and its unassisted brakes that required me to practically stand on them with my full body weight to keep from rear-ending the family sedan in front of me. I also credit Joe Cowart for his fine instruction in the art of the burnout. We had a fun time doing those in his Mazda RX-7 one cold, snowy Atlanta night.
Few things thrill like driving a performance car as it was designed to be driven – at speed on the track. It demands total focus and being completely present in the moment. Is it better than sex? I don’t know about that, but it’s entirely possible to finish a driving session and feel like you just had a cargasm. I can thank my sweet husband for introducing me to my first hit of track crack. I’m pretty sure he really just wanted a partner in crime so he would catch less grief for the numerous track weekends that he envisioned on his future calendar, but I am a willing accomplice.
A little backstory here. When I was heavily pregnant with our second daughter, Steve decided he needed to buy himself one of these:
|2001 Boxster S|
because becoming a family of four definitely required owning a car that would only seat two. He couched this purchase as his “midlife crisis” car, and since he could afford it and he wasn’t into drugs, booze, or screwing around with women who weren’t his wife, who was I to put up a fight? Unbeknownst to me, because he’d managed to hide his car lust so well during our early, broke years of marriage, Steve had been itching to become a Porsche owner ever since he’d stolen his friend’s father’s 911 in high school and taken it for a joy ride.
So he came home with his Boxster and in no time flat signed up with the Peachstate chapter of the Porsche Club of America doing quarterly track days at Road Atlanta.
He quickly began to worry that wadding up the Boxster on the track might be expensive. So arguing with the zeal of a back-cover-of-the-phone-book trial lawyer who’s just stumbled upon the class action lawsuit that’s going to pay for that McMansion he’s had his eye on, Steve began to lobby for getting his racing license so he could race Mazda Miatas. He methodically made the case that driving a race car with a full roll cage, fire suppression, and other safety features was a smart, calculated risk, and that it would be cheaper to fix/replace if he wrecked it. (Bwaa ha ha ha! Side note: No matter what anyone says, even the cheap end of the racing spectrum isn’t really inexpensive.) But his argument was sound, so I agreed, and faster than a drug mule unloading his stash after a long international flight, Stevie-D was at the Panoz racing school learning how to drive like a racer. Good thing he’s comfortable with his manhood because the number of “skirt wearing”, “secretary-car driving” jokes that Spec Miata drivers hear is substantial.
Steve’s addiction to cars and speed soon became crystal clear as that first purchase begat three more race cars and a “midlife crisis” car version 2.0, complete with license plate as disclaimer.
|Steve’s 1st Miata|
|Steve’s 2nd Miata|
|And just for grins, a new class: Steve’s BMW Spec E30|
|“Midlife Crisis” car #2: ’03 Turbo – at least it seats four.|
|Might as well be honest about it.|
So, when our younger daughter was eight months old, Steve got me out onto the track (Little Talladega in Alabama) in the Boxster, and that was all she wrote. I was hooked and already jonesing for my next fix. My instructor showed me just how hard that car could be driven and then he encouraged me to work my way up to finding out where the car’s limits were for myself. I had no idea how late one could wait to brake hard before entering a turn or just how fast I could go through a curve without losing control. And while going fast in a straight line is fun (I’ve only hit about 135 mph myself on a straight, but that felt plenty fast while I was doing it), the real fun is seeing how fast you can go through the corners and still manage to stay on track! After accruing some seat time, gaining confidence in my driving skills, and learning to trust the equipment (my kingdom for a fresh set of sticky tires during a mid-afternoon session on a clear, dry day!), I couldn’t get over what an incredibly satisfying, exciting, couldn’t-wipe-this-grin-off-my-face-if-I-tried kind of thing driving a fast car on a track is.
Five years later, I’ve driven the aforementioned tracks plus a couple of others in the Southeast – Road Atlanta (my favorite by far with its elevation changes, the Esses, a long backstraight that ends at a 90-degree left-hander followed immediately by a right-handed one, and turn 12 – a blind, hill cresting entry into a “grow-a-pair-and-keep-your-foot-on-the-gas” fast downhill, right curve onto the front straight!) and Barber outside of Birmingham. And as long as I can continue to find the money to get onto a track and drive, I intend to keep doing it. I think more women should give it a try because it’s a confidence booster in a lot of ways.
Here are a few things I’ve learned while driving on the track, some of which transfer neatly over to life, metaphorically speaking:
- The fastest way around a track is via the most efficient driving line; find that and speed will naturally follow.
- Understanding the physics of driving improves skills tremendously because those rules always apply (for example, the most efficient way through most curves is in a controlled, 4-wheel drift – but letting the back end slide out too far only slows you down).
- If steering, shifting, braking, and accelerating inputs aren’t smooth, you will unsettle the car. The faster you go, the more important this is because all those inputs happen in close succession and the tires are already at their limit.
- Figuring out the limits of the car is best done by methodically ramping up your speed with each successive lap. You don’t really want to be the jerk who spins out under a yellow flag in the first couple of laps of a session. Not cool at all.
- The car’s limits are a moving target affected by weather conditions, track temperature, tire temperatures, etc. You should be aware of that and adjust your driving accordingly.
- “Slow in and Fast out” is the best way to take a curve so you hit the apex (the point at which the car reaches the inside of the track in the corner) just right and carry as much speed as possible on the way out, otherwise you’ll either scrub off too much speed on exit, or if you turn too soon or “early apex” a curve, you are going to end up running off the track, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
As Steve says, if you aren’t scaring yourself at least once during each lap, you aren’t pushing hard enough. My overarching hope for the year, both on and off the track, is to push the limits and experience the thrill of living just this side of the edge while maintaining overall control. Or, if I do go spinning off the track, I hope I at least stop short of hitting a wall!