(Originally published on June 10, 2010 — jb)
I do not know precisely when I became an itinerant. For a long time, I traveled the Midwest racing bicycles. When I was too crippled to race a bike I changed to cars. Some years I am gone from home more than half the weekends of the year, racing cars and teaching at various trackday events. I am on the road four days a week at a minimum in my day job anyway.
Constant motion distorts time, preventing one from seeing the growth of flowers or children. It distorts perspective, focusing attention on the next event and blurring what comes after or came before. It distorts relationships. Friends exist on the phone and the Web. We never touch or meet, comets locked on disparate orbits. A contrail of romantic episodes crystallizes to angry ice in the sky behind me. “I should have known,” an e-mail in my inbox reads, “that nothing you ever told me was real, or true.”
This is what is real and true: the next racetrack and the road to get there.
This weekend I am on that road, to New Jersey Motorsports Park and its “Thunderbolt” course. I like the track; it requires a rare combination of power and delicacy. My Boxster S can take the fight to Corvettes here, and I can in turn find Spec Miatas nipping away at my trailer hitch.
You cannot stay on the road if you waste money. I drive an extra thirty miles to avoid the $26.20 toll my little tire trailer and Porsche would incur on Route 76. I forget to program the second part of my trip correctly and Route 95 relieves me of twenty-seven dollars. 572 miles from the front door at Switzer Performance in Oberlin to the gate at NJMP. The trailer makes my Boxster a langheck, increasing fuel economy for some odd aerodynamic reason.
Another way I save money is to buy used Hoosier tires. My front tires are decent RS304s, purchased for $25 each. My rears are R6es, found with no tread lines left for $100 a pair. One of the rears leaks. It doesn’t matter. They don’t last long anyway.
I arrive at the instructors’ meeting and then swap my R-comps on. I meet my students. They are good, solid drivers. I do not expect either one to injure or kill me. This is not always the case. I am tired from the overnight drive. I swallow the first “5 Hour Energy” bottle of the day. In my experience, you can take four in a row, four hours apart, before the panic attacks start.
I take my students around for some recon laps. There are a few topics which are controversial among the community of trackday instructors. One of them is driving student cars. I rarely do that. Other instructors, particularly in the Porsche clubs, do it all the time. Another controversy regards “hot-lapping” with students in the car. Some people use it as a showoff opportunity, punishing a captive audience. Others use it to build credibility with students. I do it because I want them to see the track without having to drive it, and to communicate my enthusiasm to them.
My rear Hoosiers are shot. I’ve stretched them one weekend too far. Through the “Octopus”, I’m struggling for grip and am going nearly “full sideways” at seventy to eighty miles per hour. The student likes it but I know it’s slow and sloppy. Another instructor in a C6 sees me coming, tankslapping wildly in his rearview mirror at the exit of the Octopus, and ducks into the pit lane out of sheer self-preservation instinct.
It keeps getting hotter outside. My students are doing everything right, avoiding dangerous situations. Both are driving cars with electronic stability programs. I recommend they leave the programs on. Why take the chance of totaling an eighty-thousand-dollar car on one’s first track weekend?
After my third dorifto session, I decide that I will preserve the rear tires at all costs and try to salvage something from the weekend. I head out for a final drive. I’m feather-light on the throttle in the midcorner, exiting without a touch of sideways slip. The rears are greasy but they stay relatively cool. Often, you can hear tireslip in the revs before you feel it in the motion of the car. I’m listening carefully for that 200-rpm jump that signifies the onset of cooked Hoosiers.
Now I’m making decent time. The Corvettes and BMW Spec E36 cars start to roll backwards into my windshield. It’s exhausting to be so careful with the throttle, but I’m four or five mph better at every exit. That kind of thing adds up. Finally I put together a string of acceptable laps.
I say good-bye to my students. I’ll see one of them tomorrow; the other one can only afford a single day on-track. He thinks his wife will let him come back. Maybe next year. I tell him he can request me as his instructor next time.
“But how do I know you’ll still be around?” he asks. I respond, for once, with something that is both real and true.
“I am,” I reply, “not going anywhere.”