Learning to drive like a race car star at RMDE
"Jerry was a race car driver. He drove so go#&@*%d fast. Never did win no checkered flag, but he never did come in last."
The song from Primus kept me awake the night before our big day on the High Plains Raceway during the Rocky Mountain Driving Experience in Denver, Colorado. I tossed, turned, and generally got little sleep or relaxation that night despite the comfort of my Holiday Inn bed with its choice of soft or hard pillows. I'm still not sure if it was the extra beers I'd drank with Don Bain just before bed or the excitement of what was to come on that Thursday morning. Either way, the phrase "..wrapped himself around a telephone pole.." wouldn't go away.
When my alarm threatened to go off, I shut off my phone and got out of bed. Memories of the pale ale I'd downed the night before - called Dale's, which I'd chosen because that's a solid Celtic name - still lingered as I climbed into the shower. I briefly lamented not bringing a wrench, since that shower head would've looked awful good in my house, and got myself together for the day.
Downstairs, I checked out of my room, put my bags in the car, and went to the orientation breakfast. There I met someone who would greatly influence my day to come, a likeable middle aged Nissan representative from Dallas, Texas named Rick Kulach. We joked across the table as we ate our breakfast and drank the sweetest cappuccino I've had in any of my past lives. Afterward, it was to the parking lot to choose our drive from the lineup of cars going to the race track. Knowing that people with Marine Corps attitudes about territory had already staked their claims on the Audi R8s and probably the big Jaguar cruiser (Don loves Jags), I decided to follow Rick and got into the little Nissan 370Z. I joked with him that since most of my race track experience involved big rigs, I wanted to find the smallest car on the lot to make up for it. Another decision that would greatly impact my day had just been made.
The leisurely drive to the track was about 40 miles or so, mostly freeway, and I had a nice chat with Rick about the car, his past with Nissan, my own past and its woefully inadequate race experience, and some of the cool cars we've owned or wished we'd owned. Then we entered the track. At this point, I think Rick had realized that I was going to need some work. A 370Z does not require button hook turns - a habit from pulling big trailers I've never really shed.
At the track, we went through safety orientation while the cars were lined up in the pits. I checked my camera, turned my hat around, and got ready to be fit for a helmet. I was really glad I'd used the facilities at the hotel before arriving. Things were getting nervous down there. I hear the term "butterflies" a lot, but that never seems adequate. Yellow jackets maybe. Possibly killer bees. Definitely not butterflies, though.
We walked to the pits, ready for action, drivers already lining up to grab the wheel of their chosen first ride of the day. I looked around and found extreme relief in the fact that there were no telephone poles in sight around the visible portion of the track. One problem solved.
I saw the 370Z and standing next to it, helmet in hand, was Rick. I shrugged off the yellow killer bee butterflies and stepped up to the car. "You don't have to go if you don't want to," I offered as I sat down.
"Let's see what you can do and I'll give you some pointers. Just take it easy on the curves until you get the feel of the car," he replied.
I started the car, checked my seat belt, looked up at the sky to preemptively ask for forgiveness for the mayhem I was surely about to commit, and the signal came for us to leave the pit and enter the lane.
Right off the bat, I knew I wasn't going to be good at this. The short, but winding entry ramp to the raceway puts you out at the outside of a curve where you have a short straight and then a hard right turn going into the longest straightaway on the run. I tentatively entered the track, then slammed the pedal to the floor and stupidly stayed right at the outside instead of moving into the inner lane to take the first curve.
Luckily, I wasn't able to gain much speed as, despite the 370Z's 332 horsepower, there just wasn't enough road length for me to get to a dangerous speed before that first curve – a fact which surely saved us.
Into the straightaway, I kept my foot on the floor and the 3.7-liter DOHC V6 opened all 24 valves and let me have it. In a car that tiny, even with two sizable guys in it, 270 foot pounds of torque lets itself be known in a big way. Struggling to hang onto the wheel as I was pushed into the seat, I learned the first big lesson of the day: seat positioning is crucial.
I got it up to 95 and was afraid to go any faster since I knew a curve was coming and could see the flags indicating it. I let off the accelerator and did a passable job going around that curve, though I probably melted something in the brakes to do it. I heard a quiet, authoritative voice in the passenger's seat say "Next time, stay outside, then turn into the curve, let the wheels find the inside as you turn, then drift back out. It minimizes the actual turn and saves your brakes."
This advice was out the other ear immediately on the next curve, this time a left-hand, as I repeated my earlier mistake. By now, I was going slow (by race track standards) and pressed the throttle in again to pick up speed. Several curves later, I was not getting it. Rick signaled to turn into the pits.