Some of you mentioned that you’d like to hear about more track stuff—so here’s more track stuff! Please welcome our newest Guest Writer, Steve Ulfelder!—Bark
Hot diggity, I thought as the alarm rattled me from Fangio dreams, the day is finally here! All the heel-toe practice, all the years watching racing on TV and wondering if I had what it took to push my car and myself to the limit, all the research about venues and sanctioning groups—the payoff was finally here in the form of My First Track Day!
<needle-scratching-record sound effect>
Nah. This is not that My First Track Day story (for which, I assume, you are grateful). I came at my own first track day the same way I approach most things in life: ass-backwards.
I spent a decade autocrossing, then 12 years in SCCA Club Racing. Though mediocre in both disciplines, I eventually became a solid racer. I was the guy at the front of the middle of the pack, unlikely to win but less likely to do anything stupid.
Mediocrity be damned: I was out there, doing it. All told, I must have run nearly 150 SCCA races.
How’d I manage to do this without ever trying a track day?
Unlike many (most, I suppose) racers, I never enjoyed driving around a track for its own sake. I was a terrible tester, and my only shot at a decent qualifying lap was to doggedly attach myself to a fast guy’s back bumper. Racing was my thing; I’d rather compete with three cars for tenth place, and finish tenth, than sail around by myself in the lead (which did happen a few times when the top dogs failed to show up).
As Exhibit A, I refer you to these in-car vids (Part 1 and Part 2) from my Honda S2000 at Lime Rock. Started on the pole, finished fourth behind three BMWs. That’s a drag—but it remains my favorite race ever for the sheer frenetic competition.
Anyway, all this ground to a halt (cue that record-scratch effect again) with my divorce in 2014. Automobile racing, even at the weekend warrior regional level, is shockingly, horrendously expensive.
So is divorce.
I never lost touch with racing. I have too many track friends for that to happen. Also, I’m co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, a company that builds, sells, and rents race cars (mostly in SCCA’s fiendishly competitive Spec Miata class). I couldn’t just fade out and take up skiing, tiddlywinks or German pornography like most ex-racers; I live this stuff every day.
So skim forward to June 2017. I’m married again, to the right woman this time. Which she proved by buying me track time for my birthday, how about that?
I was curious as hell, for several reasons. First, I would be driving my Mini Cooper Clubman S. It would be my first time on track in a front-drive car (I raced Miatas, RX-7s, and that glorious S2000); my first time on track in something other than a fully prepped-and-caged race car; and my first time at the newish Palmer Motorsports Park in Massachusetts.
Which Mark Baruth, who’s raced there, informed me was a “death trap.” A direct quote.
The big question, in both my mind and my wife’s, was: Would a track day in the Mini wet my whistle to race again?
Stay tuned, dear reader.
First, a few notes on the track and the day. I tip my cap to whomever studied this site and had the vision to carve an automobile racing facility into the side of an effing mountain. There’s not a lotof runoff room anywhere, and apparently Mark witnessed a pretty hairy wreck (yes, yes, I did, directly into THE SIDE OF A FUCKING MOUNTAIN—Bark), but to my eye Whiskey Hill Raceway (as it’s also called) is a solid Club-level track, with careful attention paid to pavement, curbs, flag stations, and flow.
Oh, and do you want elevation changes? They seem to be a holy grail to those who bitch about newer race tracks. Fear not, friends: Palmer has all the elevation changes you could ask for. It is, after all, carved into the side of an effing mountain (SEE ABOVE—Bark).
Folks at the track were friendly and helpful. We were broken into a Lapping group of 30-odd cars and a Student group. The Lappers included what I imagine to be a typical mix of Porsches, BMWs, Spec Miatas, and Lotuses. (There was one Formula Atlantic. I’m not a fan of mixing open-wheel cars and fenders on track, but everybody made it work.) We got all the track time you could want for $275.
I must be getting old, because I did jack shit to prep the Mini for the day. I screwed in the factory tow hook, as the track requests, and that was about it. Hell, I didn’t even pump up my rear tires to get the front-driver to rotate through the corners.
Maybe I should have. Palmer features no fewer than four long, slow turns, and one of my themes for the day was endless, joyless, when-will-this-corner-end understeer.
The other theme? Brakes. As in man, these street-car brakes sure grow soggy in a hurry.
Overall, when you’re accustomed to the Hawk Blue brake pads and Delrin bushings of a fully prepped SCCA Improved Touring car, it’s not easy transitioning to a FWD daily driver. Throw in the new-track factor and my determination to stay out of the way of the well-driven cars, and the truth is I never really got up to speed – I was in my mirrors all the time, or trying to remember which corner was coming up, or whistling the Jeopardy! theme song as I squalled through those endless 180s.
Overall take? I had a ball. I learned a track, ran all the laps I could eat, met nice folks. Once in a while I rev-matched a downshift just right, turned in as crisply as the street suspension would allow, clipped an apex, and got some soft understeer (the feel of comfort!) on my way to a proper track-out. And that felt nice.
Nice enough to re-up my SCCA Competition License and get out there again?
I realized this, with mixed emotions, during the drive home. I do believe my racing days are done.
Here’s what you may not realize about automobile racing at the amateur level: Nearly everything about it is a huge pain in the ass.
There’s the ghastly expense, of course. And that’s just for starters.
Race cars demand all your free time. They break constantly. They smell bad. (Or worse than bad; if there’s any odor worse than that of cooked differential fluid, I don’t want to experience it.) They’re cramped, noisy, hot, uncomfortable. Just putting them on and securing them to a trailer is harder than it ought to be, and actually hauling them anywhere on that trailer is slow, dull and dangerous. Race tracks are in the middle of nowhere. The weather there always seems awful in an unpredictable way. The food is terrible, and the hot water never works in the bug-infested showers.
In other words, everything about racing sucks.
That 30 minutes between the green and the checkers.
Which is the best 30 minutes of your life.
Every single time out.
You are utterly alive, locked in the moment, thinking tactically and strategically at the same time in a way that few people ever get to experience. In one of my novels, my narrator—a washed-up NASCAR stud—describes it as making 20 decisions every second and yet no decisions at all.
You really have to crave that feeling to put up with all of racing’s downside. I’m in my mid-50s, and I guess the craving has faded.
A thoughtful $275 birthday gift from my wife helped me come to see this.
Steve Ulfelder is the author of Purgatory Chasm and the award-winning Conway Sax mysteries. He’s also a founder and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, a Massachusetts company that supports roadracers. You can get in touch with Steve through his website or Flatout’s.
Do you feel being in the business, is what caused the interested to fade?
Yes and no. I’m not really super-active at Flatout Motorsports these days – we have a great crew, so I write up blog posts and otherwise try to stay out of the way. However, I did get spoiled by the high-zoot arrive-and-drive version of racing. I would swing into Watkins Glen (for example), eat a nice meal at the hotel, and waddle over to the track, where my car would be ready to go – right down to my helmet-and-HANS on the roof and a fresh application of Rain-X on the windshield. All that costs money. If I were to start from scratch, I’d be back to basics with an old pickup truck, an open trailer, and 20-heat-cycle tires. Fuck that.
Great post! I envy you, getting to race my three favorite Japanese cars!
Really enjoyed reading that, thanks for posting. I’m making my first faltering steps into track days from autocross (from motocross).
Always great to read anything you write, sir!
Given your early brake fade, what pad would you recommend if someone were to use their wife’s Mini Cooper S for their first ever track day, particularly if it was at Palmer?
First, do the brakes need (or nearly need) replacing anyway? Because if not, I recommend doing nothing – just living with the brakes as they are, especially for your first track day. You won’t go through that much brake at your first event because you won’t be going fast enough to. Like so many of today’s cars, Minis want new (not turned) rotors with every pad change. Pricey.
But if it’s just about time for brakes anyway, I would stick with OE pads UNLESS you plan to do track stuff frequently. Carbotech, Hawk, and Performance Friction all make great pads, but the compromises for street/track use (noise, dust, eating rotors, terrible performance when cold) can be a real PITA.
Thanks for the advice. I did new pads and rotors and a bleed before the winter, akebono ceramic pads and zimmerman rotors, they feel very nice on the street. I will inspect for wear a few weeks prior to the event. If all I need to do is clean out the car keep up on fluids and attach the tow hooks it could be a lot less of a hassle than I have been preparing for.
Stevie-enjoyed the read! Enjoyed being your teammate better! You were better than you admit! I miss those days being with you and all the guys but my race career is over also!
Good times – Between the RX-7s, the BMWs and the 944s, ITS was the class to run back then!