Everybody say hello to Nick — HI, NICK! — and check out his post below. He wrote this a while back but I lost his email and didn’t run it. It’s now been updated for 2017 and it contains a lot of good advice for a novice racer — JB
Going from a teen automotive “enthusiast” and voracious content consumer to a SOLO veteran and 2-time Lemons participant wasn’t a short trip, spanning the mid 90’s to the present. Stops along the way included a stint as a volunteer EMT during college (possibly because I could stretch the definition of driving “reasonably and prudently” with lights and sirens and abuse Grover air horns), serving FoMoCo as a financial analyst (my office was in the same building as Henry’s, close to the proving grounds), graduate school, marriage, 2 kids, not racing in parking lots, a ‘scene missing’ night observing Lemons, to finally suiting up and driving a caged car on a track in traffic.
It is so trite, but the first step is the hardest.
I never fully appreciated how easy it is to get started with SCCA SOLO until I did it. Literally, show up with any car, even a rental, pay $30, borrow a helmet, and have fun ripping from cone to cone. The lack of experience, no competitive tires, worries about ‘hurting’ my car, and a dozen other excuses kept me from just showing up.
After realizing excuses were bullshit, I showed up on a Saturday morning for an event and drove 6 runs. I kicked myself for waiting so long.
If your interest in cars is greater than zero, or even if you are just looking for a new way to kill a day, find your local SCCA club and show up. My local region featured helpful veterans who gladly shared their experience by letting me ride along with them and riding with me, as well as an enjoyable group of people to talk shop.
After going to 6-7 local events in a 4-banger manual Accord on OEM tires (with 2 car seats in the back), however, the not-driving-to-driving ratio of a typical SOLO event started to grate. That, and a reclass of my car from having some shot at not finishing DFL to guaranteeing DFL every single time, necessitated a change.
At the end of the day, a SOLO event runs 5-7 hours, and you might get 6 minutes of driving time. My return on spending a full work day ambling around hot parking lots wasn’t very good.
Choosing a Series – Lemons?
The SOLO boredom needed a cure. It served its purpose as a gateway drug, and I wanted more.
For reasons I can’t explain, the pre-ridiculous crash LeMons series always captured my interest. I’m far from handy, no one in my family has any mechanical ability, I never “worked on” a car in any meaningful sense, and my day job involves paper cuts and arguing about trivialities.
But I always loved Murilee Martin’s posts on Jalopnik, TTAC, C&D, and other sites about the low-buck series and the challenge in trying to solve problems on a shoestring.
No one else in my family or circle of friends has ever even done anything more than squeal a tire (side note – a Ford engineer once told me their simulator data showed more than 65% of people would crash rather than listen to tires squeal).
As a result, Lemons seemed like a fun and friendly place to start.
Find a Good Team
Like most weekend thrills, my hookup with a Lemons team began on Craigslist.
The ad was for a perfectly equipped 1994 Volvo 940 Wagon with the iron-wearing cloth interior. He didn’t need it at the time, I wanted one, he knew them inside and out, I didn’t know how to loosen a bolt. From that casual encounter, I soon found myself in a small unheated garage three hours from home working on a race car with a bunch of strangers.
It turned out I got very, very lucky by joining a veteran team with genuinely good people who knew how to fully prepare a car, pass tech inspection, bring plenty of spare parts to races and the tools/know-how to use said spares, handle in-race mechanical issues, keep the car on the track, and have a good time, all while tolerating less-than-useless mechanical ability.
In short, the following expression represents the team I’m a part of:
My Lemons Team = (1/TTAC’s arrive and drive Lemons experience)
Relying on luck to find a good team is as stupid as relying solely on Social Security to cover your retirement. Do due diligence before sinking time and treasure into any team.
Climbing Behind the Wheel
Prior to my first race, I got a copy of – and read – Speed Secrets, watched Randy Pobst’s Youtube videos, and generally tried to soak up as much knowledge as I could.
The hour I spent driving on the track during a test & tune left me still woefully underprepared for driving in an actual race on a road course. But, you don’t need any actual experience in Lemons to hop behind the wheel. The ease for me to get on the track typified Lemons’ single best and worst attribute.
When I donned head-to-toe Nomex and clipped on a HANS device to my crash helmet before entering traffic in a live race, I wondered exactly what the hell I was thinking. All the gear and roll cages are there because something REALLY BAD is (comparatively) REALLY LIKELY. SOLO this was not.
As my teammates tightened the 5-point harness over my body, I thought of my 2 boys, my wife, and how much I love them.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a stupid, selfish decision. Was I a bastard for needlessly increasing the odds my wife would be widowed and my boys would be fatherless at best, or caring for a drooling vegetable at worst? But, I did take out quite a lot of life insurance that had no motorsports exclusion, so at least finding a newer, handsomer, daddy wouldn’t be too difficult for my wife.
When the flagger waved me forward to pull out onto the track, I had the mother of adrenaline dumps. SOLO was a Nicotrol “Step 3” patch compared to racing’s mainline heroin.
Prior to setting off, I thought I would be able to look ahead, behind, monitor gauges, check RPMs, keep an eye on lap times, and talk to the pits while driving.
I was about thirty feet down the blend line when it became clear these were all mutually exclusive activities. The brainpower required as a first-time driver to keep from hitting a dead car – let alone drive the damn thing – exceeded my production possibility frontier.
About 15 minutes into my first stint ever, I spent a millisecond just thinking about radioing in to report on a noise the prior driver mentioned. In that millisecond, my brain stopped devoting every neuron to processing what I was seeing and hearing, a pack of cars appeared in front of me and I almost bumped one of them. Fortunately, my inexperience didn’t result in actual contact.
Once I unclenched, I started an internal monologue of what I saw, how I would respond, and where I was, what was next, and where I needed to be, sort of like how British police train. This helped to calm me down and forced me to think a few steps ahead, attempt (and mostly fail) to predict what others were doing, and stay as far away from a car driven by some auto writers. I went on to complete my first 2.5 hour stint with no contact or black flags.
When I got out of the car, I was euphorically exhausted. I felt like I compressed the birth of a child with the God-awful completely sleepless second night in one 150 minute stretch. The impulsive modern world provides no other way be so totally, completely engaged.
I thought back to my family after changing out of my gear. Racing is dangerous and unnecessary. But God, I loved it. I now accept that racing is selfish in a way that would make Ayn Rand happy, which in turn makes me a better husband and father.
I raced another 2 hour stint that day until the brakes suffered what Chernobyl’s operators called a ‘thermal excursion,’ and signed up for another Lemons race later that summer. I’m now in my second season racing LeMons.
The hat trick of potentially fatal accidents at three recent Lemons races, however, is far from a positive development and worth reading up on. Maybe Lemons could incentivize teams to take a passenger during test and tunes to learn the track, then require some minimum of informal ride-alongs prior to a first time driver being allowed to race. Or, drivers could just look up and steer around accidents (far easier said than done). I am the farthest thing from an experienced road course racing driver, but I at least made some effort to abstractly prepare for the race. Others don’t.
I do have to thank Mr. Baruth for his excellent articles on vision and other racing advice that I dutifully read before hopping behind the wheel. Reading articles on racing is like plinking with an air rifle compared to the Operation Market Garden of wheel-to-wheel racing. But still, some knowledge – however limited – is better than no knowledge.
Now that I’ve at least seen the tip of the elephant’s tusk, with some track hours under my belt, my next steps are to get some formal training and try and find some arrive-and-drive opportunities in other reasonably priced series.
Much like choosing when to have a kid, there will never be an ‘ideal’ time to start racing. You will always find excuses or reasons to delay. Unlike procreation, however, there will be no happy accident of waking up one day and finding out you’ve paid your entry fees and are racing in 9 months. If you want to start racing, get moving now. Find a SOLO event, show up at a nearby Lemons/Chump Car/AER event, and start to see what is out there. You will gain valuable experience, learn about yourself, and have a great time.
I’m glad I did because I look forward to making racing a large part of my life and my kids lives going forward.
I’ve now got 9 enduros under my belt between Midwest Lemons and another series, once finishing 2nd once out of a 102 car field. I’ve driven three cars, including a properly fast WRL GP2/GP3 – classed vehicle and been to some of the finest tracks in the country, including Barber, Road America, and NCM Motorsports Park.
Along the way, I learned a lot about how to fix things and made a number of great friends.
Lemons’ racers have a trenchant mentality. Each region is very different, so your mileage may vary, but I’ve have come to love build days, trading stories at night in the paddock, and generally becoming dirtier, poorer, and far more connected with reality.
Do I want to go faster? Yes and no. The one WRL race I’ve done was great with clean drivers. I would do it again. The fundamental problem is not just finding connections and seats, but ensuring the person who built the car knows what the hell they are doing with cage fabrication, safety equipment, and car prep. It is hard to build a reputation as a clean driver who returns cars in one piece (even if it means leaving a second or two on the track), willing to help around the paddock, and won’t unduly mope or grouse if mechanical problems sideline you.
If you’re driving for the first time in any series, setting expectations in advance with the car owner and remembering that unforeseen stuff happens goes a long way in starting off on the right foot. In addition, don’t be a millennial (says this X-ennial) when it comes time to, you know, do shit – like clean up, rotate tires, help load or unload, or otherwise perform manual labor.
The author is still waiting on his Texas Edition badge.
Nick – that was fun to read! Thanks for sharing your story. I’m following a similar path, but several steps behind. I also caught the bug from reading Jack and Bark’s adventures here and elsewhere, but my dadmobile wasn’t suitable for solo or track use. In 2014 I bought myself an “experience” in a fully caged M3 at MSR Houston. On the first lap where the instructor drove, I went from “I’ve made a terrible mistake, my boys will grow up fatherless, how can I get out of this?” to being completely hooked by the end of my last lap driving it myself. Last year I bought a Civic Si and started doing SOLO (poorly). Its a lot of fun and a great learning experience as you say, but its a lot of waiting around to get maybe 5 minutes of seat time. I finally got some more road course time at Track Night in America in September, and man what a rush. I think i may start working towards time trials next.
I hope we hear more stories from you in the future.
Thanks Robert! You may want to visit any local track hosting a Chump, AER, WRL, or Lemons event to get a feel for what it’s like.
I started in the slowest Lemons class. This worked well as I learned how to really drive on a track, manage traffic by being passed, and approach ‘the limit.’
Also FWIW, by the time I got done costing out the upgrades and tires necessary to take my Charger R/T R&T to a track (and the Hagerty track day fixed value insurance set a level that would put me in a mid 90s Kia), going racing was more cost effective. Only once, however.
“going racing was more cost effective. Only once, however.”
Ain’t that the truth! I completely smoked my front brakes at TNIA. I’m trying to decide on an upgraded brake kit, and if I want to go bigger.
I may go check out Lemons at MSR Houston in November.
Readers in the Pacific Northwest or California have another option too: the Lucky Dog Racing League. Founded and run by Cathy Fuss, former western region director for Chumpcar, it eliminates Chumpcar’s Byzantine car prep rules and instead allows a team to simply build their car according to fairly standard safety regs. Car and team are classed according to performance in a qualifying session each race weekend. After years running with Chumpcar, my team just ran its first event with Lucky Dog at Laguna Seca last weekend. We had a good time, but were a bit disappointed that we were not as competitive as we had been in Chumpcar. Next time, we’ll run our slowest driver in qualifying…like some of our competitors clearly did.
I’ve heard of Lucky Dog and would sell a kidney or two to drive in the Streets of Ensenada or at Laguna Seca. Simple car classing makes a lot of sense to me – I think the chicanery really starts when there are 30 possible classes and you end up with 2 cars in each class. I followed the Chump race at Road America last weekend and couldn’t keep straight all the various classes and what they meant.
We realized too late at WRL that we should have included the cool suit cooler full of water (even though highs were in the 40s) and added our most well fed driver for the weigh-in.
The folks at AER have a better handle on that, I think. They will reclass on the fly for sandbagging.
I don’t know if it’s an official policy, but WRL did that for us as we lost 3rd gear and were moved from GP3 to GP2.
Still ran a 2:57 and change with only 4th.
Edit: Yes, WRL has a reclassing during race rule (the “Darwin rule” for class sandbagging).
Also, my Belgian colleague’s VoPo just came back back from the shop and he sent me a photo. Jack may recognize the original color.