Friday, June 19, 2009

Pedal to the Metal

A few days ago an acquaintance of mine in North Carolina dodged a bullet, figuratively speaking.  His 20-year old son was the passenger in a Mitsubishi Eclipse that was attempting to round a curve at 120 mph and wound up smashing into a tree.  He broke one of his vertebrae, his collarbone, and an arm, but escaped any permanent damage.

It’s hardly surprising that in North Carolina, the heart of NASCAR country, you’ve got large proportion of the population that have been bitten by the speed bug.  Racing is simply part of the culture.  Unfortunately, a by-product of the need for speed is speeding under unsafe conditions.  That’s what makes me so grateful that the Laguna Seca raceway in Monterey holds events like the ones they had yesterday.

Auto racing isn’t all about NASCAR and the Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.  Those are the high profile things that everyone knows.  There’s racing at a grass roots level that exists as well, and in some ways they’re even more fun to attend because the drivers are ordinary everyday people that don’t race for that fame or the glamour or the money.  They’re there for the love of the sport. 

This club event featured mostly Mazda Miatas but there was a sprinkling of Honda S2000s, some BMWs, and a few others makes, including an Acura NSX, a Panoz, a Lotus, and assorted others.  Bryan was there with his Miata to get in a few laps of his own.

If you’re unfamiliar with the track at the Laguna Seca raceway you should know that it’s world famous, one of the best race tracks in the US with one of the most famous turns in the world, a downhill left-right-left chicane simply known as “The Corkscrew”.  When I had a Playstation 2, I had a game called “Gran Turismo”, a racing simulation that features Laguna Seca one of the tracks.  It’s a pretty accurate recreation, and I must have run hundred of laps in the game.  But I tell you, I was a passenger during one of Bryan’s sessions, and no matter how accurately a video game simulates the track there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can simulate the true experience of actually being in a car, hitting 120 mph at the end of the start/finish straightaway, feeling the negative G-forces under heavy braking as you slow to enter the double-apex Andretti hairpin, feeling those same G’s pulling you sideways as you round the hairpin, and being pushed back in your set as you start heading toward turn 3 at full throttle.  And taking my first on-track trip through The Corkscrew was a rollercoaster thrill. 

The day almost ended disasterously after Bryan’s first session.  He said he felt his brakes start to go after only a lap or two forcing him to go slower than he wanted to until the end of the session.  Luckily, Bryan was able to find someone with an extra set of performance brake pads and the day was salvaged with Bryan only having to miss one session.Bryan turn 3

Bryan rounding turn 3

The one session I got to ride with Bryan was a lot of fun.  It was my first time in a car being driven under racing conditions.  I now have a greater appreciation of the physical pounding professional drivers take being pulled around by all those G-forces along with the heat under the helmet and the mental wear of having to have your wits about you at every moment.

I attended the drivers’ meeting beforehand and also now have a greater appreciation of the amount of work involved in keeping everyone safe.  In fact, at the end of my first lap with Bryan spun exiting the final turn.  He was signaled to go to pit road.  Bryan later said he was fully expecting to get yelled at but the pit worker just wanted to check if everything was okay.

An element of the racing environment provided were the presence of the flag men and corner workers.  I have to express how much I admire these guys.  Nearly all volunteers, these guys are like guardian angels watching every car as they enter the corners making sure is driving safely, watching for signs of erratic driver behavior or car malfunction all day long in the hot sun with no shade.  Many thanks to all these guys.

I was very impressed with the sense of community there.  Everyone we encountered were friendly.  We exchanged advice and ideas, looked over each others’ cars and gave setup opinions.  Overall, it was a positive experience worth doing again.

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