At the 2014 Chumpcar VIR 24 Hour Classic, I attended my first ever motor race, but not as a spectator. I skipped that step and hopped straight into the driver’s seat, because sometimes I like to make rash decisions and get in over my head.
(Please welcome Reese to the site. To say this man is brave and daring is a bit of an understatement… how’d you like to visit the track for you first time… as a competitor? — JB)
To temper expectations, this is not an informative recap of the event. You can find that elsewhere and everything was picked out of a dense blur anyway. This is a story about getting one’s feet wet by pencil diving into the deep end of the pool from a high board, and discovering that you never want to leave the water. (This is also the first time I’ve written down a story, but Jack asked if I wanted to and, well, see paragraph one. It’s long and wide-eyed and I talk about myself too much. You’ve been warned.)
Quick background: Raised far, far away from fast cars and motorsport, but I’ve cared about it longer than anything else. My first subscription to Road & Track came when I was two years old. There was much begging and pleading for parts to build a janky homemade go-kart, or a little minibike, or anything with an engine. But as the only son of a single car-apathetic parent, living in or near cities without much money, the reasons against were myriad and pretty sound. No space, no money, no speed. I got into bicycles instead.
Now allegedly an “adult,” I drive boring cars, one at a time. Living in the city, storage and money are evergreen concerns, and it’s hard to find anyone who’s serious about driving cars and with whom I could commune. Learned a lesson about exercising enthusiasm on public roads, from sticky situations involving state troopers who were much kinder than they could have been. I think I’m a good driver because I care enough to try to be. That’s stupid, but it’s all I’ve got.
The short version of my competitive history at the track was that I’d done one autocross before; this is true, sort of. The long version includes nothing official through a motorsports sanctioning body, only a marketing event put on for a mild performance car. A simple course using only second gear, it was timed and “competitive,” but not meant to be very challenging.
Enter crap can racing into my life: On a popular automotive website appears a public invitation: “Come Racing With Us,” it says. No previous experience, no problem. First hit’s not free, exactly, but it looks that way next to other wheel-to-wheel alternatives. Acting on impulse, I send most of my money to a man I’d never met via PayPal, ignoring the voice of reason in my head.
Two months later, the Friday before the race weekend is test day. I’m strapped into the passenger seat of an old BMW, the #747 E34 “Big Red” which is one of four cars our team is fielding, and it feels wholly unfamiliar. Having never experienced a five-point harness before, the act of attachment to a racecar is the first revelation. The morning of information gathering felt surreal, but things came into focus the moment the straps were cinched. If you can breathe, they’re not tight enough, I’m told. “Oh fuck,” I think, “There’s a reason for that.”
Driving only low-end street cars, one becomes accustomed to a certain range of braking and cornering performance and the way that it’s delivered. At turn one, my brave instructor for the day, Nick C., throttles past the point where I expect to feel the car slow. Then, still wide open, past every other reference I had thought to use for braking. After what felt like several seconds of full tingle, THWACK and I’m thrown to my left and already goodness gracious it gets up and goes and that corner is done. OK. THWACK, head flies forward again and right and back and I’m placed into a mental state I haven’t been in since I was three feet tall, mouth agape and head bobbling. THWACK, forward, left, and back into the cushion again.
If there was something to hold on to I couldn’t find it, which may have amplified the effect but in the moment I am convinced that the brakes and tires are not of this world. The sensation is at first unrecognizable as deceleration from speed, and feels to me more like being tackled in a chair by someone heavy and fast. And these are the cheap race cars? The state of shock begins to fade through Snake, as the Climbing Esses approach and I realize that I’m not in this car to be astounded, but because I will be required to perform the same act.
Of the two opportunities presented in the invitation, the decision to race with him and his team at VIR was made when Property Devaluation Racing smartly requested experienced drivers for the higher speeds of Texas World Speedway, and their assumedly less forgiving Fox-body Fords. That Texas is much further away and VIR looked like a heck of a vacation spot on TV was tasty icing.
Arriving at the track for the first time, everyone is extremely friendly. Contrary to the stone-faced, wary reception expected from people allowing a stranger to drive the race car they’ve worked hard to build, everyone seems at ease with the situation and doubly surprising, no one is put off when I admit my utter lack of experience. The crew is larger than I thought and entire families are here prepping race cars and keeping everyone well-fed and comfortable. Just as you’ll hear about professional teams, it seems that everyone has a job, and no one is asking what needs to be done. Daniel Sycks may well be Ross Brawn’s equal as far as I can tell, so skilled is he at team management and keeping a number of quickly moving pieces under watch and control. Having the luxury of needing to do nothing but stay out of the way, I wander around and take in the overwhelming sights, sounds and smells of this strange new world.
My eye-opening ride in the BMW is cut short after only a couple of laps by a wheel bearing which cries uncle under a massive load. After this and a brief novice class where I feel internally panicked that I won’t retain some item of great importance, it’s suddenly my turn to drive a race car for the first time. After changing into my rented fire suit, I fall into the #147 Nissan NX2000 “UFO” and begin fumbling blindly with the harness. Nick’s reticence watching this feels palpable.
The process feels even more ceremonial sitting on this side. That must go away after a while, but the first time, in someone else’s race car, that you flip on the master kill switch, then the ignition, then, deep breath, press that big rubber button…
Ohhh. It’s quite a feeling.
And I’ve only turned on an SR20DE! Hands on a tiny, thick steering wheel, which is attached directly to steel, to rubber, then to the ground. Last time I had manual steering was on a lawnmower, feeling textural details of pavement through this interface is new. The clutch, which is assumed to be stock, is even easier to manage than in my own car, with little weight to move (1900lbs I’m told,) and modest power. Tap the brakes at a walking pace and, yes, there they are, race car brakes. Nick’s head jerks forward as we stutter gracelessly to a halt. He directs me around the paddock. My senses are already full idling in first gear. Then, waved onto the track, he tells me to go for it.
I spent two months thinking iRacing would help me get started, having sprung for a whole kit and caboodle with a silly chair and everything a while back, figuring real racing would be out of my league for a long time. It’s an embarrassing thing to be walked-in on while using, but it folds up so it can be hidden in mixed company. As far as being able to control a virtual race car around a racetrack on a TV though, it’s as good as it gets, and I thought using it to learn the track might help me save a little face.
It didn’t: The four or five instructed laps are a mess. I’m timid while I don’t understand the limits of the brakes and tires, and the car requires a little bravery to drive correctly. Though my passenger is obviously talented, I don’t receive instruction well, and end up floundering between my instincts and his prompts, unable to trust the former and having trouble keeping up with the latter. He gently guides the wheel more than once over a particular blind crest until he’s sure I understand that I will fly off the track if I don’t do so on my own. Yes sir, understood. I miss fourth gear at least twice, finding second instead. Luckily he’s having me short-shift. He doesn’t seem to like the butt-wiggle (tiny, I swear) under braking into Oak Tree.
Turns out, the difference between sitting in the racing game chair and sitting in a racing car is indeed similar to the gulf between watching a fight on television and being coldcocked. But the expectations are understood. I know what warm track tires and grabby brakes without ABS feel like now, and just have to execute. I’m comfortable with that.
Done for the day, I spend more time wandering the paddock and watching everything come together. After having been humbled several times today, still the most powerful sight is seeing the amount of work that just our team has put into being here. That there are nearly a hundred other groups who’ve put in equivalent work is staggering. Few other hobbies have communities which are willing to put this much effort into their fun.
Saturday is the day of the green flag. As expected, there’s rain. The weather was actually expected on Friday, but makes up for lost time. This isn’t necessarily such a bad thing for our team, as three of the four cars are front wheel drive and come into their own in poor conditions. It still looks sketchy to me. On Friday, I was happy to see the rain hold; in hindsight I should have hoped for the worst.
I don’t know when Daniel slept, because I received the e-mail from him that confirmed my stint times at around 2:00 AM, and still found him at the track at dawn. That’s black magic to me. The rest of the crew also worked long into the night to mend and prepare the cars, but everyone seems fresh. I have the second slot in the Nissan, from noon to 2:00 PM, after one of the CrapCanRacing core members who helped to build the car, Jon S., starts the race. Assuming all goes well, it’s back into the same car for a late-night shift, 10:00 PM to midnight.
It’s raining hard for the beginning of the race. Most people who aren’t busy putting a car on track are huddled for cover on the balcony overlooking the front straight and pit lane. I glance left to the exit of Hog Pen and then back right to the end of the straight. In between, the yellow light has stopped flashing. Guess that’s green.
A very large puddle has developed across the entire track, just after the pit wall begins, right in front of us. Every time a front wheel drive car comes by, you hear the engine rev as if declutched as they hydroplane twenty feet or more. Some cars are banging off the limiter.
I turn to whoever is closest and ask if I should expect to see that cause an accident. Yes is the answer, the situation is indeed as it appears. Not ten minutes later an E30 hits the water at speed and is immediately pitched into a slide, and very hard into the pit wall Armco it goes, looks bad. It’s Team Constitutionalists Racing, an experienced and highly-regarded team for whom this will be their first failure to finish a race. Thankfully the driver is OK, his HANS device having done its part. I feel a wave of regret for having rented a foam donut.
Hog Pen can be a difficult corner, and we’re able to see several cars leave the track before the straight. None are able to traverse the wet grass to return to the track under their own power. The rain doesn’t slow, and it’s obvious that things won’t get any easier for my stint.
An ecstatic feeling builds in me, standing suited waiting for the NX2000 to pull into the pits. It comes in, Jon jumps out, I plop in, and he buckles me in quickly and efficiently. This alone would have taken me twenty minutes with the helmet and donut. The communications equipment isn’t happy that we’re using it nearly underwater, so this takes a minute to get sorted as well, and for a moment, I blank on how to turn on the car.
Eventually I’m waved off. I’m driving down pit lane at VIR, and I’m the only one in the car.
Hand in the pit timer, get another wave. Holy shit, I’m getting onto the front straightaway at VIR. This is a big deal for me. No one behind, I move left and prepare for the first corner. Since dry performance feels so far from normal, I’m not sure what difference the wet track will make. I ease into the brakes to see what I have to work with: Still plenty there. Throw the car in, gas on, go, go, go.
I immediately start screaming with joy.
To be continued tomorrow!