Day 6 – Thursday, May 30
Autobahn Country Club is a country club that, instead of being focused on golf or tennis, is all about performance driving. Members there have access to a race track that can be run in three configurations (North, South, Full Course), a skid pad, and a go-kart track. They can build a garage on-site for all their toys. Most such facilities are open only to members and their guests, but Autobahn sometimes hosts club track days. When I started planning this trip, I thought it would be worth a shot to ask if I could lap there on a guest pass of some sort. After a few emails and phone calls, it was all arranged.
And so, here I am, ready to see how the other half lives.
It was a leisurely morning as I didn’t need to be at the track until 9am. On Thursdays they run a later schedule that varies through the summer, based more or less on when the sun sets. So my first session wouldn’t start until 10:20am. Before that, I needed to visit their instructor. It wasn’t to get any instruction, per se, but to cover all the stuff we usually cover in the drivers meeting.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The clock radio in my room went off at 6:10 this morning, tuned to a Spanish language station. Much of this trip I’ve been getting up at 6:10, but today I wanted to sleep in a little longer. Didn’t happen.
Went downstairs for breakfast. Same fare as the hotel in Toledo, likely because it’s the same chain. The TV was on the news as it usually is in these places. I’m never particularly interested, but the weather report did catch my attention. They said that this May is now officially the wettest May recorded in Chicago history: a bit more than 8 inches of rain. We get about 14.5 inches of precipitation all year in Denver.
At the track, after getting registered at the front gate, I went to the clubhouse to introduce myself to Ron, the fellow who arranged for me to be here. He told me a bit about the place – when they opened, how many members they have, what improvements they’re working on, and so forth. Then he took me down to meet Tony Kester, one of their instructors. I guess you could call him their resident Stig. He raced professionally for some time, participating in the American Le Mans Series as well as at least one 24 Hours of Le Mans. (A golf club has golf pros, a tennis club has tennis pros, ergo a track club has race pros.)
We covered the usual drivers meeting material – flags, passing rules, passing zones, their LED lights, entering and exiting the track – and sent me on my way. I unloaded the car in an out of the way place. (“Over there by the bleachers is probably best. Members aren’t used to people laying out a bunch of stuff” as those who don’t have garages on-site probably trailer their cars.) Then I headed on to the track.
By now I had two wristbands. One said that I’d paid, the other that I’d had my meeting with Tony. (Presumably members get different color wristbands that indicate they only need the one.) The drill is to go to the end of pit lane and stop. Race control will have you sign in (actually, he just asked me my name) and when they’re ready they’ll release you onto the track.
The first session was horrible. Although it wasn’t raining, it rained overnight and there were rivers running across the track. Not just one or two, but nearly everywhere. At the time, I think there were only three turns that were dry. I crawled around the track. Even so, I was going sideways quite a bit. Not “sideways, this is fun!” but “sideways I’m not in control!” I put four wheels off once and was sliding around quite a bit. It was not fun.
As well, I managed to pick the wrong configuration for the lap timer so I wasn’t getting any data (I had selected the North course instead of the South course). In this case, good riddance. There wasn’t any worthwhile data from this session.
Back in the clubhouse I talked to Ron again. “Have Tony show you the wet line.” Great idea. We tracked Tony down. Rewind a bit here. When Tony and I had our little drivers meeting, somebody showed up and asked him if he gave rides to a couple of guys yesterday. “Yes, both at the same time. It was really wet. I don’t think they puked, but they sure looked sick.” So Tony gets a car (an Audi RS5 Quattro, I believe) and takes me for a ride.
The first time around he’s more or less on the line you’d take in the dry. Periodically, he’s doing massive steering inputs or abrupt throttle or brakes to see how much grip there is. It’s a little unsettling. The next two times around he’s following the “wet” line, which is taking the outside of the turn rather than hitting the apex. He was giving a running commentary: “It’s good here. Still pretty slick through here. You have to avoid this puddle” and so on. The wet line works most places, but not all. Anyway, I think I get the idea and he drops me off and puts the car away. His parting shot was, “It’s easier with all-wheel drive!”
While Tony was schooling me on the wet line, a Corvette was out on the track. Well, he was out part of the time. He put it well off the track in the same location I did, but while I was able to regain the track, he needed a tow. He gave up after that, having completed two laps. His times were in the three minute range, probably about what mine were.
After my lesson from Tony, Ron came and found me. He tells me he’s signed me up to drive their BMW M2 Competition Coupe for their touring lap session. In this session we’ll be driving around behind the pace car, not above 50mph or so. No helmet required. They have a Jag I’d like to drive, but Ron tells me it’s always reserved. So the M2 works for me. During the course of the day, several people tell me that’s their favorite car of the bunch. (They have a dozen or so cars for this purpose – Audi, Lexus, BMW, the Jag.)
By now I see that I’m the only one dumb enough to waste his time at the track today. It’s just too wet. And the consensus is that the track won’t dry out, and we may actually get more rain. I’m not exactly pleased. I’ve decided that this whole thing may be a waste of my time and money. If it’s not going to get any better, I may as well leave and do something else. I was pretty down.
But I go out for another session. It’s still wet almost everywhere. I can’t follow the line I’d like to learn: the fast way around a dry track. I can’t turn in where I want, or apex where I want, or brake where I want, or even shift where I want. I’m always looking for the water. It’s drying out a little. I think. Maybe. But I manage to keep it on the track. For a long time. Technically, each run group is given a twenty minute session. But because I’m the only idiot out there, they’ll let me run until I give up. So after 35 minutes I give up. The good news is, I manage to steadily improve.
At lunch time I discover that I’ve somehow lost my credit card. It’s not my only one, so it’s just a pain in the ass and not a total disaster. No idea how I’ve lost it. I didn’t leave it at registration, and haven’t had to use it since. Where could it have gone? Anyway, after lunch is the touring lap session. Just as I’m finishing my sandwich, a gentleman comes by to give me the keys to the BMW. Well, a key fob anyway. There’s no such thing as a car key any more. Then he says, “Not to be demeaning or anything, but do you know how to put this car in park?”
Move the gear selector to “P”? This is not the correct answer. “When you pull into the parking space, leave it in drive and turn it off.” We head off to the cars for the laps. It takes me a few seconds to figure out how to get it into drive. Old dog, new tricks, I guess. It has paddle shifters but I don’t even try to figure this out.
Heading on to the track it’s the pace car, another BMW, me, and the Jag. We’re following the dry line even though there’s still quite a few wet spots and puddles. After a few laps it’s pretty obvious to me that we’re doing pretty good lap times. We’re not going very fast down the straights, but we’re not really slowing for the turns. I manage to dig my phone out of my pocket and get the timer running. I didn’t try to turn off any driver aids, but perhaps not all the nannies were enabled. I managed to get it somewhat sideways through the puddles a few times, as did the other BMW driver.
By the time we exit the track my soul has been a little bit crushed. Our parade laps were faster than what I managed the previous session. When I got out of the car, the other BMW driver was talking to Kyle, who was driving the pace car. “Thanks for those last two laps!” Kyle winked and said, “We never went over 50, did we?” Then I showed him my lap timer and my times from my previous session. He laughed (not in a malicious way). It is somewhat funny.
I got to talking with Kyle. He noticed my HPR hat and asked how I liked the place. He says he’s been wanting to run there but hasn’t been able to make it work yet. I told him about the facilities, that it’s a bit crude (no running water, for example) but that the track itself is great. He said he’d worked at a place like that: in the middle of nowhere and porta-potties instead of toilets. I asked him where that was. “Oregon Raceway Park”. Hey, I’ve been there!
By the time of my next session, the sun had been shining for a while, and we had a little breeze. The track was very nearly dry. I started really trying to get on it, on the dry line. There were still a few places where I couldn’t do it, where I had to adjust to avoid some water, or tiptoe through a turn to avoid spinning, but I was easily faster than before. All my laps were under two minutes, and my best was 1:53.27. Not a particularly fast lap, but maybe better than I’d have done in my first session had it been dry all day.
I had two more sessions after that. I improved my time to 1:48.05. In the clubhouse, they have a screen that is constantly updated with members times. All (or maybe just most) members run with transponders. Their times are displayed on a large monitor. I don’t have a transponder, of course, so my times weren’t included. But by now there were two members out running their spec Miatas. They were lapping in the 1:43’s. Tony asked me which Miatas they were. I described them and he said they were both very good drivers. He thought my time was pretty good given the conditions, my tires, and my lack of experience on this track.
In my penultimate session, I managed to kill another bird (my second on this trip). For a short while I was concerned it was stuck to my car somehow, mashed into the grill or something. Next time around the dead bird was in the middle of the track. At least is wasn’t in a place where I was going to run over it again.
In the last session I failed to improve my time. I got close, but couldn’t best it. (I’d have liked to run a few more laps, but I timed it perfectly. At the gas station down the street I pumped 9.8 gallons of gas into my 10 gallon tank.)
I finished the day with a beer in the clubhouse, packed up all my stuff, made a final search for my missing credit card, and hit the road. My first stop was the gas station a couple miles down the road. I’m glad it wasn’t any farther: I poured 9.8 gallons of gas into my 10 gallon tank.
My last session started at 6:05, so I didn’t leave the facility until about 7. On the way back to the hotel, at a stoplight a guy in the next lane told me my right headlight is out. So now I’m missing the right front turn signal and right headlight. There’s no damage from the bird strike, so I guess I’m just lucky all my lights are going dim at the same time. (Luck is when bad things happen; everything else is skill.)
Addendum: I found my credit card a couple days later, and now all the turn signals are working again. So it’s just the headlight.
Today’s miles: 72 road, 126 track Total miles: 1,729 road, 407 track
This is a very nice facility. This is the third track I’ve been to that is “members only”. The first was ORP, mentioned above. When I was there, it was more primitive than HPR. The other is Woody Creek, also very primitive. Nothing primitive about Autobahn.
The track is more or less what I expected. We’re in Illinois, so I was expecting it to be as flat as a tabletop. It did have some subtle elevation change, just enough to catch the eye but not enough to challenge the driver. Drainage was a bit of a problem, but as alluded to earlier, this was the rainiest May recorded for the area. In addition to the rivers that ran across the track there were several places where the water percolated up through the asphalt. They really have worked hard on drainage, but what can you do in extreme conditions?
For most of the day, I had the place to myself. The aforementioned Corvette made two laps, and a couple of Miatas ran maybe a dozen laps each. When they left the track, they headed to their garages. So I never met another driver all day. I met quite a few Autobahn employees in the clubhouse, and perhaps one or two members who were there but not driving. The lack of other drivers to talk to was largely due to the track conditions.
Having the place to myself was a bit odd. It was great not having to deal with any traffic at all. Every lap was unimpeded. That’s never happened to me before and probably never will again. On the other hand, track days are very much social events. I like wandering around the paddock talking to the other drivers. Mine was the only car in the paddock. But I’m sure if the conditions had been more normal I’d have had somebody to talk to.
I’m not a man of the means required to be a member. My guest pass was a one-time thing, as a courtesy to an enthusiast passing through. If I lived in the area, I’d go back for a club day (North Woods Shelby Club runs there). I think it’s great that they open the facility up to non-members occasionally.
In spite of the rocky start, I had a great time. Everybody was friendly and made me feel at home. So I give a tip of the hat and a hearty “thank you” to Ron and the rest for hosting me.