Learning to drive like a race car star at RMDE
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"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.
We entered the pits and swapped places. He took the wheel and I sheepishly strapped in on the passenger's side.
"I'll explain what I'm doing as we go. You'll get this, it just takes time," he said. I was dubious, but he seemed pretty confident. At least one of us was.
Rick Shows Me the Ropes
Rick took me around the track twice, explaining his driving and maneuvers patiently and repeating them expertly through each go round. He showed me how to take the outside at the entrance to the curve, turn in towards the inside as you take it, run your tires over the very inside, then drift back to the outside as you exit. All of this minimizes the amount of actual turning you have to do in order to make the hard curve, which means you don't have to slow down as much.
He showed me how to throttle up to speed with gearing or in automatic (most of the time, automatic is actually better in a stock vehicle of today's technology) and how and when to slow down for the curves – the 370Z Roadster slows faster than larger cars, so you can wait until you're closer to the curve to give it brakes, but in a larger car, you'll need to start sooner rather than later – something I learned later on while flying around the track in the Jaguar XJL Supersport.
He explained how in the S-curves, you could use their shape to your advantage and take the first one wide so that you'd enter the second one shallow, making it as close to a straightaway as possible.
Lessons in hand, he pulled into the pits and we swapped again.
3 More Laps in the Z
This time out, I did a little better on the entrance and first curve, though I didn't cut it quite tight enough. I was still unsure of myself, so I didn't gun it past 90mph and waved a driver in the R8 Spyder around me on the straightaway. The nice thing about this type of "racing" is that you aren't racing other drivers, just yourself. Your goal is not to beat someone else in time, but to beat your own performance in each car you try.
On the first curve, at speed, I did well and continued to improve around each successive curve. On the second go-round, I did much better and got close to 100mph on the straight. By the third lap, Rick was watching the road and had stopped talking, an indication that he had either passed out or I'd improved enough that he didn't need to tell me anything more. On that straight run, I broke 100, but don't recall the actual speed – it wasn't my fastest for the day. I slammed through the corners with confidence, going out, coming in to the "bump", then going back out.
I pulled into the pits and looked at Rick. He seemed happy. When he removed his helmet, he shook my hand and told me I'd done well. I thanked him for his tutelage and went to ply my new skills with other cars.
Select Vehicles and How To Drive Them
Every car is different. It's part of what I love about this job. An electric Ford Focus is a very different car to drive than, say, a Honda CR-V or a Mazda3. On the track, I drove a wide variety of vehicles and learned that each requires slightly different skills on the track.
So knowing the basics, I plied my skills. The first loop would be getting to know the car, the second would be attempting to find its limits, and the third would be pushing it a little bit to get a little more out of it.
In the Regal GS, which I wrote about earlier, for instance, the car is a mid-sized sedan and handles well but not nearly as well as a small car like the Z.
The tiny Mini S, by contrast, requires more attention because while it's fun to drive, it was a manual transmission in 6-speed and for me, I already have a tough time not double-clutching a car, let alone handling it at breakneck speeds while doing so. Also, my height and helmet meant I could not sit up straight in the tiny Mini and thus did not enjoy the ride much. Others loved the car, but it's not for me.
In a big car like the Jaguar XJL, track driving is a whole different world. This is a big, cushy estate car meant to cruise in comfort and look really good doing it. Consequently, it does not corner well at speed. It's the only car in which I put a wheel into the dirt on a curve, but it's also the car I achieved my second-highest track speed in: 115mph on the straight. The size, weight and engine power of this car harken back to the days when land yachts had more equines under the hood than the average county in Wyoming has grazing.
Finally, in a real racer like the Audi R8 V10, I learned something critical: speed and maneuverability are addicting and can be dangerous if you aren't at least a little intimidated by the car. Cocky with triumphs, I entered the R8 thinking it would be the ride of the day. It was, but it nearly became the disaster of the day. On the straightaway, I got the white monster coupe up to 127 miles per hour and then hit the first curve expertly. Tires squealing and things sounding mean, I thought I was definitely the man. I made the next curve alright and then nearly flew off the track in the subsequent two into the S.
Two things to remember: a huge engine like this with all of its strength also has the capability of launching the car off the pavement if you give it too much power too quickly. Coming out of the curve, I punched the pedal to the floor like I had done in other cars up to this point. The rear end skipped and I was turning towards the edge of the track, not into the curve..
I recovered, but learned something valuable: Spiderman's uncle was right. With great power comes great responsibility. I was thoroughly intimidated and didn't break that 127 in either of the next two runs around the track.
Overall, the day was awesome. It capped off with me driving the Jaguar, whose MSRP is more than my mortgage, around the "victory lap" where we all slowly paraded around the track. Of course, I had my farmer tan hanging out the window, the stereo blasting heavy metal, and the sunroof open to allow me to occasionally put my hand out and let out a "yeehaw!" It was a beautifully orchestrated illustration of civilization's advance towards utopia, I think.
So you wanna be a race car driver, eh? Here's the lessons I learned on the track that day, marking my first ever GT track experience. Unlike the oval, which I have done, the GT track requires a lot more experience in handling curves and using your car's brakes and transmission.
Lesson 1: Position your seat to accommodate the helmet. Race helmets mean that you cannot have the seat straight upwards or you'll end up leaning forward at an odd angle. If the seat is too far back, though, you'll end up hanging on the steering wheel to drive instead of sitting back. The trick is to get into the car, set the seat to a laid back, gangster-style angle and then move the seat forward so you're closer to the wheel than you normally would be. You'll find a sweet spot where you're able to let your lower back stay on the seat for the ride while your upper body moves back and forth with the car's acceleration and deceleration. The helmet will keep your head upright despite your laying back as you accelerate.
Lesson 2: Take the curves outside-inside-outside. Stay to the outside of the track until you've nearly entered the curve. A few car lengths before you'd be required to turn because of the pavement, turn the wheel towards the center of the curve slowly, easing into it. At the apex of the curve, your wheels on the inside should just be at the edge of the pavement (or curve bump). At this point, let off the turn and let the car drift back to the outside edge as you leave the curve. Braking happens in the same rhythm: brake before entering the curve, your hardest braking being just before you begin to actually turn. Let off the brake, but don't accelerate, as you deepen the turn, then accelerate as you leave.
Lesson 3: Pay attention to the markers on the track. Flags should be present to show you where to begin braking after any straightaway. They're likely numbered, starting at 5, 6, or 7 depending on how severe the turn is. Your car will dictate when you have to begin braking, as its handling characteristics are what decide your speed in the curve.
Lesson 4: Don't "gun it" coming out of a curve. This can cause a fish tail. Ease into the accelerator as you leave the curve, don't punch it.
Lesson 5: Until you know the car and the track, use automatic if available. Save the shifting for later, once you've familiarized yourself with everything else.
Lesson 6: Whatever you think you know about driving a car on a race track is probably b.s. you got out of movies and television. In real life, those are trained stunt men, not Hollywood action stars, doing the driving. The last real race car driver in films died with Steve McQueen. Those 2 Fast, 2 Furious guys are just poseurs.
Lesson 7: Everything you know about driving a big rig is useless on the race track unless you're racing a big rig. Even then it's probably only next to useless.
Lesson 8: Don Bain is the nuttiest person I know who still has all of his fingers. Respect old man strength.