The day started with a drivers meeting at 8:15. It was much like the drivers meetings for all the club days or open lapping days I’ve attended. Nothing particularly stands out in my mind about it, except that they indicate slow (i.e. non-race) vehicles on track with a red cross rather than the usual white flag. These would typically be presented alongside yellow flags. The tow trucks are there because somebody went off. These are experienced corner workers; like for my track day at Portland Int’l Raceway, these guys have flagged big-boy races.
The Race started at 9. Phil is first in the car. Cars are actually sent out a few minutes before 9 so they can do a lap or two to check that the transponders are working as they pass the start/finish line. There isn’t a green flag as such – the course is green when the yellow flags are put away. We get under way pretty much on time.
Dennis has ChumpCar’s timing and scoring app installed on his phone so we can see how things are going. It gives us the number of laps run, last lap time, and fastest lap time. Phil puts down some nice laps, is pretty quickly under 3:20 per lap. By the end of his stint, he has recorded a 3:12, which turns out to be the fastest lap for the team.
There are fifty cars on in the race in four classes. We’re in class A, which is the slowest class. Our opponents in this class are mostly Miatas. We have a Miata engine in a heavier car, so we’re at a bit of a performance disadvantage, plus we’re carrying our three lap penalty. There are only a handful of Class A cars competing and we’re confident we can finish on the podium, but three laps is a lot of ground to make up.
Phil’s hour and forty minutes is over pretty quickly for us and quicker for him, I’m sure. Lauren is in the car next. Like me, she’s never driven the car before and we only practiced getting in and out of the car once. Because we’re fueling the car, our stop will last a minimum of five minutes by rule. In theory, this means we shouldn’t feel hurried. Theories are wonderful things, but the reality is that we all feel pressure to do things quickly. If you’ve never practiced something and try to do it fast, you’re likely to make mistakes.
Our mistake for Lauren was failing to do a radio check before we release her. We try to talk to her but get no response. We don’t know if she can hear us or not, but we certainly can’t hear her. That leaves us no option but to call her in by showing her the pit board. When she comes back in, we find that not only was one of the connections undone but the radio was on the wrong channel. Dennis fixes these problems, a quick check tells us everything is working, and we send her back out. This mistake essentially costs us another lap.
Judging by her lap times, she didn’t take long to settle into the car and get a rhythm. Before long she’s turning laps consistently in the 3:25 range. I’m up next, and I’m starting to get a bit anxious. I’m due in the car about 12:30, and by 12:15 hadn’t even given lunch any thought. One of Dennis’s daughters has brought a big spread of food out for us and I manage to eat a brat before I have to get in the car.
There are more right turns than left turns, and the big right turn is the Carousel. Dennis and Phil decided that we should swap the tires from left to right as the left side will be showing much more wear. The tires are directional, so I’ll be running them the wrong way. Doing this is only a problem if it rains; with the tires going the wrong direction they’ll be very bad in the wet. The weather is sunny and dry so it’s not an issue; rain isn’t in the forecast until tomorrow afternoon.
Lauren and I do the driver change while Dennis and Phil swap the wheels. The driver change is a bit quicker in spite of me not being able to see the buckles with my helmet on. It feels like forever before I’m strapped in, but the car is still in the air when I’m ready. Then it’s time for fuel and I wait patiently and compose myself. Fuel in, they release me and I head down pit lane, stop to have the timer removed from the car, and enter the track.
Almost immediately I’m swamped by faster cars. What have I gotten myself into? On my club days, we can only pass in limited places, and with a point by. On open lapping days it’s open season and I thought I was prepared for this, but it’s a bit of a shock at first. To add to the discomfort, I don’t really know where the braking and turn in points are or even which gear to be in, so I’m trying to figure all that out at the same time.
By the second or third lap Dennis is on the radio telling me I just did a three thirty something. After those hectic first few laps I start to relax a bit. The guys in the pit can’t see where I am (unless I’m on the front straight), so sometimes they’re on the radio at inconvenient times. There are places on the track where I can’t hear them, just static. When I get a message when I’m being passed by two cars in the middle of a turn I understand why Kimi Raikkonen might say “Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing!”
Several laps later, I feel like I’m getting into a groove. Dennis tells me I’m turning laps in the 3:17 range and I feel I can continue to improve. I’m starting to feel comfortable; I’m thinking that it’s all about confidence and I’m getting more confident.
I’ve driven the track many times on the computer, but that pales in comparison to the real thing. Television and video games don’t do the terrain justice, but at least I know how the track is laid out. Some turns I figure out quite quickly; they become simply a matter of practice. On other turns, I have to change my approach as I get faster and I don’t get them figured out the first day. And then there’s the Carousel. No other track I’ve been on has anything like it. It seems to go on forever. Nobody passes me in the carousel, but I make a pass there, which induced a bit of a pucker factor.
Dennis radios me that I’ve been out an hour. On lapping days, I’m usually out for a half hour at a time. Last week at HPR I did over three hours in my car, but it was a half hour at a time. This hour seemed to fly by. My stint will be over all too quickly. It is over all too quickly.
When it’s my time, I exit the track and go up the hill in pit lane. I stop for the official who puts an egg timer on the hood of the car. Then I head for our pit. I stop the car and manage to get unbuckled. I climb out of the car, forgetting to take the steering wheel off. I feel like an idiot. Although it’s a bit on the chilly side, I’m fairly drenched in sweat. But I feel great – I feel I could go another hour.
Dennis is last in the car. He quickly gets up to speed, and regularly turns 3:15 laps. When we’re not in the car, we take turns on the radio. But mostly it’s just waiting around. Dennis’s daughter’s family brought some good food – I snacked on fruit salad and drank lots of water to stay hydrated.
At the end of the day we were fourth in our class, 26th overall. Most of the cars behind us had mechanical problems.