Archive for May, 2008

13
May
08

Hot laps, Crossroads, Full circles.

I can’t help but think I’m back at the beginning of something again.

The beginning of October kicked off a fantastic string of experiences that have instilled many hard learned lessons in me, about who I am and what I can be capable of. If I have to say anything about the person who went onto Republic airport that October morning, is that he had a lack of focus and no idea what door had been opened to him. I say all this because I find myself once again stepping into a Bentley and driving off into an uncertain new start.

There was a good stretch of nothing going on at the office for a while. I’d been finalizing some details in my articles, the distribution of the magazine was underway, and I’d been waiting for some call backs. other than some minute tasks and side projects, I’d been pretty bored. I had nothing really to look forward to in the immediate future, so I was feeling a bit down about the languid workdays. Mercifully, Bentley of Long Island sent me an email saying that they’d had a track day set up at Pocono Raceway the following Wednesday.

Delighted, I grabbed a 2 hour nap and headed out to Pennsylvania in the truck, as forethought told me that coming back on a road trip from a track day in the Mustang was a recipe for a whopping great speeding ticket.

After a peaceful and quite enjoyable ride out, I arrived at the speedway and lingered about as I was a bit early. Two guys from Bentley named John and Anthony arrived early themselves and we hung out and ate breakfast as people began to trickle in.

The room, with buffet and such, filled up quickly with attendees and the instructors that would be taking them out. Among them, coincidentally, was Travis, the trainer who took me through my test of the GT speed. We talked about what we’d been up to since then ( he’s a Huntington native, to further the coincidence) and he gave me a heads-up of the days proceedings: A drag strip, slalom setup, shuffle steering instruction, breaking and accident avoidance course, and a 3 lap auto cross course on one of the infield tracks, all this followed with a lunch buffet and a couple hot laps of the south road course with Derek Bell.

Who’s Derek Bell? champion 5 time Le Mans winner is who he is. more on this later.

We were paired into groups of 3 for the activities, those who came with people were obviously together, and those who came by themselves were teamed with each other. This resulted in my spending the day with two gentlemen named Doug and Sean, both much keener on motorsport than I am, admittedly. we were taken out by our instructor, Nick, who loaded us into the back of a 4-door Flying Spur. Nice, but for track day? this would be interesting.

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We were treated to the Auto cross section first, which was one of the short infield courses set up with cones on the apex of the turns for reference points. Nick took us through a couple of times while explaining what we should be focusing on as drivers, what the car will be doing, and what it’s capable of. I absorbed as much as I could, because at this point I was reminded vividly that I don’t make a good back seat passenger. with 4 cups of coffee and a banana sloshing around as we were thrown about the track, I was gripped with the worst nausea I’ve felt in a very long time. when Nick was done, Sean leaped into the drivers seat and eagerly attacked the track with full force. I’d normally appreciate this kind of enthusiasm, but at the time, I was short of breath and praying for him to finish. When he did I decided to sit out and “take a few pictures,” although it was no secret to these men that I had changed several shades of green. At least I got to admire the Spur chew up the track for a bit.

Getting behind the wheel finally, I listened Nick’s instruction as he talked me through the corners and encouraged a lot more throttle than I was letting on. I was not without mistakes here or there, but with helpful correction, each lap was smoother and faster than the last.

Next up was the braking and accident avoidance exercise. a cone oval was set up with two small chicanes where we would first learn to steer into a breaking stop, and then do a rapid lane change at the next section. You don’t hear the words “go flat out and then brake when I tell you” a whole lot, but when you do, some hesitation is bound to effervesce. I stamped on the throttle, straight towards a wall of cones. the fraction of seconds past where I’d probably brake were long and spent urging Nick to say “brake” with my mind while staring at him in my periphery.

“brake!” screetch!!! dink. “ok, see what you did there?”

This was followed by the drag strip set up on the straightaway of the main track, the tri-oval used regularly in NASCAR and such. Finally letting loose the 12-cylinder beast under the hood, without the burden of corners, we had enough space and time to admire the ferocity of the car. at the end, we began the shuffle steering instruction. this was basically a very simple technique that showed the proper way to grasp and utilize the steering wheel. forget 10 and 2, you race at 3 and 9, and NEVER do hand over hand. you…shuffle up and down. It turns out I had more bad habits than I thought. this less than 5 mph exercise was the hardest test of the day. More cones suffered my wrath.

Speaking cones, the slalom was incredible fun and I didn’t do half bad, considering I was driving a 4 door luxury sedan. I felt like I was evacuating a car full of diplomats.

At this point, we headed back to the meeting room and had a little break while waiting for our hot laps with Mr. Bell. Sean was the first one to head out, and I chatted with Doug while I stuffed my self with bagels in hopes that this would ease my well churned stomach that had gotten worse as the day went on. I didn’t complain and I enjoyed my activities, but at this point, I was absolutely disgusted to the point where my body shook uncontrollably.

Derek Bell returned to the room. Doug, who I wanted to go first and buy me some more recovery time, conveniently recieved a phone call right before Mr. Bell entered. So Derek looks at him and then points to me saying “so, you ready?”

I wasn’t, but that’s not a moment you back out of. Mr. Bell and I climb into the cherry red GT speed he’s been using for the past week. He begins to laud the performance and capabilities of the car while we cruise to the south course. He checks tire pressure and suspension settings and as we reach the main track, we set off.

I want to be very careful describing what happened next. Taking to a NASCAR rated track in a 200mph capable luxury coupe sitting shotgun to a true-blue, old school, motorsport champion race car driver was a euphoric phenomenon that shattered my perceptions of speed, skill, and performance.

I thought I was a good driver. I thought I knew people who were better. I spent the day privy to the driving of a race instructor and two very good race enthusiasts. I was wrong. We are all equals beneath the talents of those who are professionals and heroes in their trade for a reason. Step into the ring with Holyfield or play a pick-up game with Jordan and you’ll realize instantly that these aren’t just people who are simply very talented at what they do, there’s a reason why they’re winners.

“this track is designed to handle turns at 150, but I’m keeping it at 100 because I don’t want to ruin the right tires” Bell says, as we fly to the outside of the corner towards the retaining wall. While he casually goes on about with his general sales pitch (lets not forget that he’s been sent there to sell Bentleys, basically, not to revert 27-year-old writers to excited schoolboys), we turn onto the infield track impeccably maintaining the same momentum he’s started with. the G-forces are constant and I feel like I’m sitting on the edge of a constantly banking roller coaster. we blaze into the second lap, and he switches off the ABS to show how it feels to go around without the sophisticated system on. He’s still talking, speaking animatedly at times with a free hand as if this is a casual sunday drive, where as I am in an accelerated survival mode, eyes darting everywhere, and breathing lamaz-style and tightening my stomach to keep my insides still.

We stop, and he askes me something to the effect of “so what do you think?” I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. I was literally speechless. Given a moment to collect myself, I told him that I was gobsmacked which had him roar in amusement.

“steel yourself now, Doug”, I said, as we traded places and he left for his hot laps. in the mean time, Sean and I convinced one of the instructors to take us back out to the autocross in the GT speed. when Doug returned, we went back out on the track. The instructor informs us that tagging along in the back seat wouldn’t be too comfortable this time around, as we’re in a 2 door coupe now, (the blue one I’ve been admiring all day )so D&S get out, and I take to the track first.

Getting to finish with what we started on was wonderful. I felt more than confidant in what I could do after a days worth of heavy instruction, application tests, and experiencing true racing first hand. In the lighter, nimbler GT speed, I shot off the line and into the first corner. this instructor’s…instruction was more aggressive than Nicks. He did less instruction and did more of a running guide. Either way, I wasn’t listening to him too much, as I lost myself in the freedom to put all my knowledge, old and new, to the test. hitting apexes, breaking later and later, I’m in heaven. second lap, a couple corners towards the end, I brake a bit too late and mess up a turn. I further apply what I’ve learned that day about the car and slam the breaks as I give the wheel a yank to the left, letting the ABS chug away, sticking the tail out a little, and exit the bend, smiling gleefully.

One more agressive lap, and my turn was up. Doug and Sean take their turns and they his the track harder than I did. Sean ended his run with breaks completely smoked and overheated.

We returned yet again to the meeting room, where lunch was being served and all three of us, strangers only a few hours ago, were in excited conversation about cars and the days events. chatting away like schoolboys, we’re interrupted by Mr. Bell. ” May I join you for lunch?” he says. the three of us exchange looks. At this point, it’s as if John Wayne just asked us to hang with him. We of course invite him to sit, where we engage in conversation for 2 whole hours. There was this table of 4 and nothing else for those moments. We listened to stories of motorsport and car development, and so on for so long, we took a bathroom break, got more food, and then did it again.

At some point, we all had to leave, though I think none of us really wanted to. Sean left first, and I decided to leave then too. Doug stuck around and had a look that maybe he wanted to hang out just a bit more, but I really had a drive ahead of me.

Hesitantly, I said goodbye to Pocono Raceway and headed back to NY, struggling to stay awake as my lack of sleep and the days excitement caught up with me. The next few days after, I kind of basked in the afterglow of the experience. I wanted nothing more than to climb into a car and push it and myself to the limit on a track once more. everything I knew before was now made slightly more crisper and detailed, and I longed to further pursue this course of study. I wanted..no want, very much to go to racing school where I can eagerly absorb knowledge of corners, apexes, camber angles, limited-slip differentials, grip, tire temperature, everything.

Perhaps I’m just fantasizing about being a race car driver, or perhaps I’m the same and the experience just made me love cars and driving more. I can’t explain it, I don’t even want to write about it, I just want to go and drive.

-Alex-