Get off the road! Motorsport Tourism: Part 1

And onto the track.

In previous blogs, I spoke about how to enjoy your auto enthusiasm in the long run.  For me that meant experimenting with a bunch of different aspects of the culture.  I’ve landed on art, photography, owning a couple examples I like and what I like to call Motorsport tourism. This is simply sampling different disciplines and genres. Before I go any further, I must put out a disclaimer.  Motorsports ARE dangerous.  Please research and understand the dangers, be safe and partake in Motorsport at your own risk.

I say get off of the road and onto the track because the modern performance cars we drive are so much more dynamic and capable than anything you can even remotely experience on the streets... even in stock trim.  I’m going to attempt to give you my most open and honest opinion on some of the most varied driving experiences one can have that are relatively easy to enter. 1) High speed road course driving aka HPDE.  2) Cone crunching aka Autocross. 3) High velocity, loose surface driving aka Rallycross.   4) Sim racing (yes, I know it’s not real, but I’d like to tell you how I think it stacks up). I left drag racing off of the list because I wanted to talk about overall car dynamics which include lateral Gs. Love you, NHRA... Sorry!

 

So as not to leave you high and dry and end the article here, I’ll talk about the first of the activities in today’s blog post.

HPDE (High Performance Driver Education), is one of the closest things a non racing licensed driver can experience to a full on road race.  There are very key differences between racing and HPDE and the intent of these differences is to keep participants safe.  Remember, this activity isn’t about being first to the finish line.  It’s about making it to the finish line and home in one piece and learning about becoming a better drive at speed.  Here are a couple of these rules.  You must have permission from the driver in front of you before you can pass. This is obviously so that knee jerk competitive maneuvers aren’t initiated like in a free for all passing event. There are also designated passing areas designed not to interfere with the racing line.  This helps to make sure cars are in balance before any driver decides to floor it. This aids in keeping the car as stable as possible prior to the load of hard acceleration. Lastly, no matter how much it may feel similar to racing, one never calls it racing. This is a personal mental exercise meant to instill the correct mindset at all times from the moment you get onto the track to the minute you leave. Much like Fight Club, many drivers will continue to adhere to thIs distinction even in casual conversation, miles away from the track And weeks and months from their last event. It kind of makes sense.   It’s a sport that you must respect, because it absolutely can total you car, injure  or kill you.

Now that the happy stuff is out of the way, I can say that the feeling of mashing your foot to the floor and getting your car to about 135mph on a straight, easing back into a long right hand turn, touching the brake to catch a long sweeping left handed turn kissing the apex and then flooring your way to 115mph dissent is absolute bliss. It feels like piloting your own rollercoaster. Get another car in front of you and it feels like a low flying dog fight. We typically only feel the force of straight line acceleration when we drive on the streets. Even on a curvy backroad, we rarely ever feel intense lateral Gs or the vertical Gs of ascent and descent for sustained, tire melting amounts of time. On the track, this happens lap after lap, for as long as driver and car can sustain it. There’s nothing else like it short of racing.

I was in the military, did all of the training in helicopters Borne assaults, small arms, call for fire, hand to hand, you name it.  The feeling one gets from screaming down the tarmac is a similar sort of adrenaline rush (at least for me) as the high speed stuff I did in the service.  I would argue, however that it is more beautiful.  Racetracks by their very nature are well, manicured, flowing pieces of landscape and each corner unwinds mostly gracefully into the next and the next.  Once you’ve learned a particular track quite well, you begin to tap into that flow.  If you’re lucky enough to be driving a manual transmission car, the intimacy with which you and machine interact becomes that much more enhanced.  With your brain and the machine firing on all cylinders, the rush of sensory stimulus begins to flood everything except the essential, raw information out. The wail of the engine when it’s time to shift, the voice of the instructor urging you to brake later and later with each lap and the ambient slip you feel in your seat and steering wheel should you begin to exhaust your supply of mechanical grip are all there to keep you centered. One of my favorite memories believe it or not was getting passed.  I know... I shall explain.  I was accelerating hard, coming out of a left hand turn and my 3.2 liter inline 6 was pushing my little Z4M for all it was worth. My instructor calls, to let a driver pass.  I glimpse at my mirror, and a sky blue M4 was poised to overtake. Stock, this machine had around 125 horsepower let alone whatever mods he had. And he was running slicks the size of wine barrels. I lifted off my accelerator just a touch as I pointed out of my window, a single that he was clear to pass.  I then listened to this beast of a BMW belch and growl And then howl its way by.  It levitated up toward the horizon at the top of the hill and descended into the next chicane like an alligator pulling its prey down to the depths.  There were, however cars I kept up with that I had no idea I’d be able to.  And cars that kept up with me that I had know idea would stay behind me for so long.  One was a track built Miata that I’d lose on the straights only for it to reel me back in to shouting distance in the twists.  


Beyond just the rush of speed, there are a couple of things I find incredibly irreplaceable about track days.

Thing one. It is truly impossible to appreciate the impressive nature of a performance car and what they can do outside of a fast and flowing, closed circuit.  I’ve driven faster than I care to admit on highways in my younger years and still... it’s nothing.  I separate my entire existence as a sports car enthusiast into two eras.  Before and after track days

Thing two.  Tracks days are a purification process.  You learn what your car needs. And ...you learn which car you need.The owner of the Miata that hunted me down like some sort of hell bent terrier had done enough track days in his contemporary 911 that he found he actually desired a less capable vehicle over all. Instead of being able to trounce most other cars on the track with relative confidence, he wanted a car that was going to be unforgivably slow, yet balanced.  Finding ways of carrying speed and perfecting brake points and turn ins was far more rewarding to him.  

Another guy I met, traded in his 600hp corvette for a 400hp model because “breaking the ass end loose in a straight line just for shifting gears, at 100mph was too danged scary” for him.

Another guy I met sold his late model sports car and bought a pick up truck and a track built Honda Civic from the 1990s because he wanted something he could drive hard, crash and not worry about.

 I personally learned that speed isn’t free. No matter what you’re driving on the street, perishable parts parish quite fast on a track.  There’s no way around that.  I ate through an entire set of brake pads in one day my first time around. Granted, they were OEM and I was braking too early, things simply don’t last that long at speed. Learned more that one could easily ask me over a cider. But...The final thing I learned, is that I was getting better and better at the track and that means speed and more of it. The evening after my last track day, the gravity of the speed really settled in.  Not matter how good you get, there can be oil on the track, or a mechanical system can fail.  Furthermore, I’m not a take it easy kind of guy. I like to push and push and push to get better.  At speed, that can’t last very long. It was at that point, I knew I wanted a cage, harness, seats and a HANS device. Admittedly, I’m still deciding between building a track car and getting my racing license so I can rent race cars, but that’s an entire different story.  For now, I will simply end with anyone who can comfortably assume the risk and keep yourself safe, track days are a realization of what performance cars can do and will only increase you admiration of them and the insane engineers that put them together.  I’ll be back soon to talk autocross, rallycross and sim racing. Until then, enjoy cars, coffee and CAFFEINE GT.

 


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