Race Diary

August 9, 2002

Sunday, 7:00 pm:

Racing is a great petri dish for the study of Murphy's Law. Which is to say that whatever can go wrong almost inevitably does go wrong. Sunday morning was a case in point.

I was desperate to get some clear laps during morning practice to confirm that I could, in fact, go much faster than I had on Saturday. Considering that our run-group had more than 40 cars, including a Spec Miata contingent that seemed to be multiplying like bunnies, I thought it would be prudent to arrive at pre-grid early. Very early. And as it turned out, I was the second guy in line. Better still, I was directly behind one of the second-gen RX-7s that were my principal competition in the ITS class, so I figured I could go to school on him and figure out where I was losing time.

Five minutes before the session is scheduled to begin, one of the volunteers working pre-grid displays a board called the, yes, five-minute board. This is when I start my routine: First, I climb in my car. Then I close the door. (This is an important step, because once I'm belted in, I can't reach the door sill — a situation that's led to some embarrassing pleas for help in sessions past.) I secure the window net and buckle my belts — lap, submarine and then each of the shoulder straps. Next, I put on my balaclava and helmet, then the neck collar and finally my gloves. When the three-minute board is shown, I start the engine and turn on my hot-lap timer. When the one-minute board comes around, I put on my game face and visualize all the spectacular feats I'm going to perform on the track. (Not!)

Okay, so the one-minute board had just been displayed, and I'd just put on my game face, when my friend Allen Ward appeared at my window and yelled: "Pull over! You're leaking fuel!"

This was not good news. I had a quick nightmare vision of me pulling off the track between corner stations and watching my car burn to the ground while I was reduced to doing my best Ricky Ricardo imitation: Wh-wh-wha happened?

So I pulled out of line. But before I could get out of the car, Allen popped back to report that I wasn't leaking fuel after all; the fluid pooling underneath my car was just condensation dripping from my exhaust. That was the good news. The bad news was that, instead of being second in line for the session, I was now dead last, and when I got out onto the track, I was confronted with dozens of Spec Miatas who appeared to be doing one of those scissors, close-order routines that were a staple of the Chitwood thrill shows. Not only didn't I get a clear lap, I hardly got a clear CORNER. And I ended up going even slower than I had yesterday. Then, when I got back to the pits, I discovered that the power steering leak had gotten worse, which meant that I had to wrap the hose with shop rags — I'd stupidly neglected to liberate a few terrycloth towels from my motel room — and secure them with wire ties. (Who, by the way, invented the wire tie, and why isn't this anonymous genius richer than Bill Gates?)

I was pretty depressed after I got everything put away. God, racing is a frustrating endeavor. To take my mind off my own tribulations, I decided to mosey over to the start-finish line to watch a friend's qualifying session (in another run-group). I started to get antsy about halfway through, though. And as I walked back to my spot in the paddock, I saw that cars from my run-group had already started lining up on the pre-PRE-grid even though there was another entire session to run before we'd be let loose for qualifying. Cursing my own stupidity for not moving my car into line before watching my friend, I ran back, changed into my firesuit and hightailed across the paddock. There were about a dozen cars ahead of me, but most of them were the fast guys, and I thought — hoped? — I'd be able to dispatch the Spec Miatas on the warm-up lap. Which is just what happened.

Most of the guys spend most of the first lap scrubbing tires. I'm not really sure why they bother. At pace-lap speed, it's impossible to get any heat into the tires no matter how fiercely you swerve across the track (and some guys swerve so fiercely that there have been no shortage of pace-lap coming-togethers). Actually, the point, I guess, is to scrub as much shit as possible off the tires, though, again, I'm not sure how effectively this can be done at 35 mph. Of course, in light of my power-steering woes, I didn't intend to make any more sharp steering inputs than necessary. So I started passing guys as soon as I was sure they weren't going to clip me with a wayward swerve as I sailed by.

There were still several slower cars in front of me as we headed onto the back straight with a full head of steam. This stretch of track led to the most interesting corner on the circuit. It didn't look like much on the track map, just your standard 90-degree left-hander. But I was honking along in fifth gear, doing at least a buck twenty. And you can't see the corner itself until you come down a small but surprisingly sharp hill right in the middle of the braking zone. The protocol was to brake lightly and downshift to fourth, then get off the brakes going over the hill. (Otherwise, the brakes would lock up when the car got light.) And as soon as the car started squatting back down on its haunches, you'd threshold brake, grab third and just have enough time to toss the car into the left-hander and dirt-track around the corner. It made me feel like a hero every time I did it. Especially when I went bombing past a bevy of Spec Miatas and barreled down the inside of the corner to pass two more. By the time I started my first timed lap, I was free of traffic.

Suddenly, everything seemed to be working better — the tires, the brakes, me. Me, especially. I found that I could flatfoot it deeper into the Esses and brake more lightly before the high-speed fourth-gear left-hander known alternatively as Talladega and Riverside. (The track designers dubbed it Riverside, but, unfortunately, all the racers had already decided to call it Talladega.) I did a 2:04, a 2:03 and then a 2:02, which is where I thought I should have been yesterday. I was convinced a 2:01 was within reach; hell, a really good driver probably could have done two minutes flat. But as I was trying to make up time lost lapping some slower cars, I carried too much speed into the hairpin and lost the rear end, and while I didn't spin, I put all four wheels off. Still, I was pleased with the 2:02. That's the thing about racing: Just enough good stuff happens — the absolute bare minimum — to keep you going.

I was ready to rumble. But first, unfortunately, came another qualifying session, lunch and three 30-minute races. This gave me an opportunity to stow all my gear so that, when my race was over, I'd be able to drive straight onto my trailer and hightail it home. Even so, I still had plenty of time to kill. That's one of the real drags of club-racing — hours of waiting around with nothing to do. Okay, technically, I could have been tweaking my car. But considering my mechanical aptitude and driving ability, or lack thereof, I don't think it would have made much of a difference.

Anyway, when I finally rolled onto pre-grid, I was pleased to find that I was gridded 5th behind a pair of second-gen RX-7s, an old Z and a CRX, with another CRX next to me. The pace lap seemed to last forever since, due to the hole in my power-steering hose, I didn't indulge in the weave-wildly-from-side-to-side thing. As we trundled onto the front straight, I jogged slightly out of line to get a decent look at the starter's stand. We usually take the starts near the top of 2nd gear, and I often get pulled in third gear by smaller cars, so I was intent on getting as good a jump as possible.

Green flag! I hammered the throttle and almost immediately had to grab third gear. The CRX in front of me didn't seem to be accelerating properly; probably missed a shift. I pulled out and around him and accelerated down to Turn 1. There, I protected the inside line and came out in 4th place. During the next few laps, I pulled clear of the 5th-place battle but fell back from the cars in front of me. Still, I thought I was driving fairly well, and I was still close enough to make up some ground if traffic broke right. It didn't work out that way.

There's an art to passing slower cars, but I'm afraid I haven't mastered it. I'm just not decisive enough under braking, and twice in consecutive laps, I got held up in the slow sections but puttering Miatas. I lost four seconds in a single lap, then another second in each of the next two. Suddenly, the CRX that I'd passed at the start was looming large in my mirror. But I appeared to have a nice open section of track. So in an effort to eke out some breathing room, I sucked up my gonads and really stuck the car deep into Turn 1. This is a 90-degree right-hander taken in 3rd gear. The corner is slightly off-camber, which makes it difficult to get down to the apex, which, in turn, means that you don't have as much room on exit as you expect. I manhandled the car down to the apex and got back on the gas as soon as I dared. I felt the rear end trying to come around on me. But I didn't want to back out of the throttle because that would kill my momentum down the next straightaway.

I slapped on some opposite lock to catch the drift. The rear end continued to slide. I applied more opposite lock. More sliding. More opposite lock. Tire squeal segued into tire squall, but still I refused to back out of the throttle. I was thinking, I got it, I got it, I got it, I got it. And then, suddenly, I didn't got it. Before I could react, the car swapped ends. Actually, it didn't do a complete 180, more like a 135, and then I was sliding backward across the track at an oblique angle with my tires shrieking like Desdemona on a bad-hair day.

Through my windshield, I had a perfect view of the 5th- and 6th-place cars zipping by me. Dammit! Oh, well, I thought to myself, I'll have a bunch of places to make up. Because at this point, I wasn't too worried. There's virtually nothing to hit at Buttonwillow. Except for the pit and paddocks, there are no structures to speak of at the track, so I could safely, if ignominiously, slide off into the dirt and gravel. Then, when the car came to a stop, I'd turn around and be on my merry way.

That's about the time I noticed the corner-worker station out of the corner of my eye. And as soon as I noticed it, I realized that I appeared to be headed directly for it. At first, I thought my car would stop before getting there. But when I slid off the pavement and hit the dirt, the car seemed to accelerate, and I crunched into the tire barrier at a speed of no more than 5 or 10 mph.

The car shuddered, and dirt showered my windshield. I sat disbelievingly in the idling car. (At least I'd had the presence of mind to depress the clutch pedal, so the engine didn't stall.) One goddamned thing to hit on the whole fucking track, and I managed to find it. I briefly considered shoving the car into gear and returning to the track. But this wave of stupidity quickly passed. I'd definitely hit something, which meant the car probably sustained some damage. And since I was literally attached to the corner worker station, I figured I might as well wait until the corner workers told me what to do.

So I waited. And waited. And waited. Nobody showed up. Nobody yelled any instructions. Nothing. I tried to look around. But with my seat belts on and the window net up, I couldn't see shit. Finally, feeling disgusted, I killed the engine, undid my belts and unlatched the window net. I tried to open the door, but it wouldn't budge; turns out, it was wedged up hard against the tire barrier. So I wriggled out the window like a Winston Cup driver and stepped into a water cooler that had been left out in front of the tire barrier and then been demolished by my spinning car.

Still, nobody came over to talk to me. This was getting spooky. I walked around to the back of the corner worker station. Nobody home. I was starting to feel like a character in an episode of "The Twilight Zone." Then I had a chilling thought: Maybe I'd hit the corner workers. Hell, maybe I ran them over. I frantically scampered back around and searched under the car. All clear, fortunately (though I was seriously bummed to spot some fluid — an apparent sign of mechanical damage). Completely bamboozled, I got back up and looked over to the fence, where a couple of spectators were watching, but all of them were looking at me like, "You got yourself into this mess. You figure it out."

As it turned out, there were no corner workers manning the station. And the fluid pooling underneath my car came not from a busted radiator or something even worse but water bottles smashed when I demo-ed the cooler. In fact, the car didn't sustain any mechanical damage at all, though the door was caved in and the front and rear fenders sustained substantial dents. Oh, and the rocker molding was ripped off. And the left-front wheel well impinged on the tire. And I lost the driver's side mirror. And some other cosmetic stuff. All things considered, it could have been worse — a lot worse. But I'm already hearing a new sound:

Ka-ching. Lots of ka-chings. Oh, yeah, this is gonna hurt.

Racers have an all-purpose cliche that's applied to every racetrack disaster from a harmless spin to losing the Indianapolis 500 because a $2 bushing broke to getting killed in a fiery wreck in a Saturday night race so inconsequential that it isn't even covered by local newspapers: That's racing.

So as I forlornly wheeled my dirty, badly dinged car back onto the trailer, I told myself, That's racing. And I love it.

Most of the time.
—Preston Lerner


Saturday, 2:00 pm:

The best thing about racing is that hope springs eternal. The worst thing about racing as that — at least for me — hope rarely translates into palatable results. This morning's debacle was a case in point.

Emily and I spent the night in beautiful downtown Buttonwillow, which isn't the greatest way to kick off a weekend. On the other hand, I wasn't too eager about the prospect of leaving my house at 5:30 in the morning and then obsessing the entire trip about being late. We got a decent night's sleep, got to the track no problem, went through registration and tech with nary a hitch. Morning car prep consisted of rechecking the fluids, retorquing the lug nuts, resetting the trip odometer, turning on my transponder and, voila, ready for takeoff, sir!

When I arrived at pre-grid, I found that a dozen cars had already beaten me to the punch. Virtually all of them were Spec Miatas. In fact, my run group turned out to be something of a Spec Miata convention. Now, I love Spec Miatas. I briefly tested one while reporting a story on them for Automobile Magazine. A really well driven Spec Miata is almost as fast as a poorly driven ITS car (read: my car). But most Spec Miatas just get in the way. A few months ago, in fact, one of them got in my door. All things considered, I had a sinking feeling as we headed out on the track.

The first problem I noticed was a horrible shimmy in the steering, which, by the way, was well off-center. The sensation got even worse under braking. It felt like a flat spot. But I knew that the tires were fine. The second problem was that I was unfamiliar with the track configuration. The first time around, in fact, I found myself approaching the start-finish line before I even realized that I'd completed a lap. Making the track even more difficult were slight elevation changes that obscured the apex of several corners under long after you'd gotten on the brakes. Oh, and I was bedding brakes, so I only ran two serious laps, both of which were still so slow that I barely got any heat into the tires. All in all, a disastrous session.

But wait, there's more! As I pulled my car back into the paddock, tech inspector Allen Coy asked me if I was leaking any fuel. Apparently, somebody saw me spraying something. I immediately pop the hood and check my braided fuel lines, two of which have shredded for no apparent reason this year. The fuel lines and the associated fittings were fine. That was the good news. The bad news was that I saw a bunch of fluid collected near the left-front wheel well. I knew right away that it had to be power steering fluid — the leak Sly and I hadn't been able to find. I threw the car up on jackstands and pulled the tires just to make sure they were OK. (They were.) Then I had Emily start the car and turn the steering wheel. It turned out to be a sneaky leak — a fine spray from the high-pressure line running off the power steering pump. The reason I didn't see it was that it was covered by a foam rubber sleeve. But once I moved the sleeve, I could see fluid spritzing out from a pinhole every time the steered was turned near full lock.

The good news? I'd identified the problem, something of a miracle considering who was playing detective. The bad news? There was no way that I was going to find, much less change, a proper high-pressure line before qualifying. To be honest, the leak wasn't too bad, and I wasn't afraid of losing the power steering, in which case the car still would have been drivable. But since Tech had already seen some fluid coming from the car, I figured I was running a real chance of being black-flagged if the hose continued to leak.

I quickly solicited opinions from people who knew more about the subject than I did, which described virtually everybody in the paddock. There were two basic schools of thought: Glass-half-full types suggested that I do nothing and hope for the best. Their glass-half-empty counterparts, however, said I should cover the hole with racer's tape and secure the "fix" with a hose clamp. Considering that we were dealing with a high-pressure line, this solution seemed marginal at best. But I figured it was better than nothing — literally. If worse came to worse, I could always wrap the whole shebang in a terrycloth towel to absorb and leak as it sprayed out. So I bought a pair of hose clamps from the 7s Only shop run by Tom and Bette Dragoun and did the deed. Five minutes later I was on pre-grid for qualifying.

Unfortunately, I was one of the last of 43 cars to arrive, and most of the 20 Spec Miatas were in front of me. I was still having trouble with the track, and I was driving like shit — braking too early, not carrying enough speed into corners and generally behaving like a wuss. But the biggest problem facing me was traffic. I was mired in traffic for all six of my flying laps. As a result, I not only qualified four seconds slower than usual ITS and ITA suspects, but I was also going to start behind several slower cars that were bound to hold me up. I figured I'd get past them on the long straight, but not before the ITS and ITA guys had disappeared. Not that I could have stayed with them anyway...

On the other hand, the weather was beautiful — something you can rarely say about Buttonwillow. My car was in (relatively) good shape. I was driving a race car as fast as it — or at least I — was able to go. Is this a great country or what?

Saturday, 8:00 pm
Well, I finished. I didn't run out of power steering fluid. I didn't get black flagged. I didn't hit anybody. I also failed to finish anywhere near the podium. But, hey, nobody's perfect, right?

Actually, a lot of people in this run group weren't perfect. The race was filled with mayhem. Two cars hit the wall on the front straight — the only wall on the track. There was contact between several other cars. Somebody seemed to go off the track on every lap, which, at Buttonwillow, means that portions of the circuit are enveloped in dust clouds. One of them was so thick that I braked nearly to a complete stop. (A couple of races ago, a guy in a Bimmer went full-speed through a dust cloud and T-boned a Camaro at 75 mph.)

The mishaps started, fittingly, at the start. I got a good launch at the green flag and could have picked up a few positions going into Turn 1. Unfortunately, the cars in front of me blanketed the track by going four wide. Obviously, something had to give. Somebody must have nailed the brakes earlier than usual, and the guys behind — especially me — inadvertently got brake-checked. Not only did I flat-spot a tire, but I lost a spot to a hulking V-8-powered Camaro that was bog-slow in the corners but kick-ass down the straights. I followed him as closely as I could, not so much in hopes of getting by but with the idea of pressuring him into making a mistake. Frankly, this ploy rarely works. But lo and behold, on the last corner of the first lap, he looped it. I squeaked by with inches to spare. Better still, he served as a mobile chicane for the cars behind us, meaning that I didn't have to work about being pressured myself.

I gradually picked up speed, eventually trimming my lap times by two seconds from qualifying (though I was still two seconds slower than the fast guys). It's easy to tell yourself to go faster, brake deeper, carry more throttle, but it's fucking difficult to do. I had several moments on the slow-speed stuff, which always makes you feel like a hero. But in the fast corners, I was plainly wimp material. During the last few laps, I started catching a 3-series Bimmer, which was classified as an ITS car but which was so close to stock that I should have blown it away. I was significantly faster than he was, but when I got a good run at him, I couldn't get the pass done under braking. He got away from me in traffic and I spent several laps catching back up. On lap 14, I made up a lot of ground on the last few corners and got an excellent run off the last turn. At the start-finish line, we were virtually even, meaning that I would easily outbrake him into Turn 1. But as we continued down the straight, I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, several workers giving us the thumbs-up. Well, I knew the pass wasn't THAT good. That's when I realized that the race must be over. As it turned out, I finished two-tenths of a second behind the Bimmer.

Later, after looking over my lap times, talking things over with several competitors and thinking analytically about the track, I decided that I should be able to shave at least a second, and maybe two of them, off my lap times. But then, as I said, hope springs eternal in racing.
—Preston Lerner



This weekend, I'm running the 240SX in a double regional at Buttonwillow. It's Cal Club's last points-counting event of the season, so a strong turnout is expected. Another reason that people are expecting the event to be well-subscribed (as they say) is that we're running the track backward for the first time in awhile. Most of the guys who are familiar with the configuration say it pretty much sucks, but everybody's so tired of running Buttonwillow in the normal clockwise direction that we're all eager to try something different.

Michael Jordan and I have a sweetheart deal with Nissan Motorsports. All the folks there are great to us. (Take a bow, Laurel, Colleen, Steve and Ryan.) Motorsports supremo Ron Stukenberg kindly allows us to park our car and trailer in his lot. Best of all, patron saint Sly Alviar does the mechanical laying on of hands in between visits for major surgery at the Watanabe Brothers shop. The only downside of the arrangement is that the only time we can work on the car is during normal business hours. So I decided to devote Friday not only to picking the car up but prepping it for the races — a task I wasn't looking forward to, since the car had been ridden hard and put up wet after the enduro two months ago.

One great thing about working in the Nissan Motorsports shop is the hydraulic lift, which sure beats putting the car on jackstands and creeping around underneath it. First off, we threw the car on the lift and checked the seamy underside. We didn't find any leaks, which was a bit of a mixed blessing, since the car managed to puke out all the power steering fluid during the enduro and we weren't sure how or why. (I picked up a few containers of power steering fluid just to be safe.) The exhaust had developed several small holes, but it didn't require immediate attention. We pulled on suspension members and nut-and-bolted the big kahunas. The only oddity we came across were the loose locknuts for the tie-rods (though when we checked the toe-in, it was perfect).

The front brakes looked marginal, so I replaced them with the set of Hawk blues that supposedly had been bedded during the practice session before the enduro. (To be honest, they looked brand new to me, so I planned to bed them again.) The rear pads looked fine, and they hardly do any work anyway, so I let them be. Then we bled the brakes and topped off the brake fluid and the oil — nothing but Mobil 1 for us — as well as the power steering fluid. Actually, I didn't top off the power steering fluid; I filled it from scratch. (It was bone-dry.) I would have preferred figuring out where the fluid had gone. But time was a'wasting, and as Sly pointed out, unless a hose broke, it would be hard to lose all the fluid in a single 30-minute session.

Last but not least, I cleaned the car, which was filthy beyond belief, with the remains of several hundred bugs embedded on the pockmarked nose. For the really tough stuff, I resorted to brake cleaner. I don't know what's in it, but that's some really nasty shit. Otherwise, I followed Sly's recommendation and went for a spiffy Meguiar's product, which worked just as well as advertised. After a half hour, the car again looked relatively presentable. During the off-season, though, it's going to require a thorough steam cleaning. Some spiffy graphics would be nice, too.

For this occasion, I'd lined up a supercharged Nissan Frontier crew cab pickup truck as a tow vehicle, thanks to my pal Sergio Delgadillo. The truck turned out to be screaming yellow, which encouraged me to watch my speed. One of several forecasts I saw said there was a slight chance of showers. I briefly considered grabbing our set of rain tires, which are mounted on stock (read: heavy-ass) rims. But they weren't immediately accessible, and part of me thought that if I brought the rain tires, it was bound to rain. Conversely, if I DIDN'T bring the rains, I figured it would stay dry. Of course, this theory had been proven conclusively wrong earlier this year, when I was forced to race in the rain on slicks, which was about as much fun as being whacked on the fingers with a wooden ruler. But I digress.

I loaded the car on the trailer, drove up to Burbank, did some work, made a bunch of calls, closed up shop for the weekend, scarfed down dinner, loaded up my gear and set out for Buttonwillow. Traffic was pretty bad, then it rained going over the Grapevine. Still, I made it to the track by 9:30. It took exactly 16 minutes to dump the trailer, unload the car, and lay out my gear. In fact, everything went so smoothly that I'm convinced that I must've forgotten something. I'll find out tomorrow, probably when I sitting on pre-grid, belted into my car. Yeah, that's probably when the thunderstorms will hit.
—Preston Lerner


Foiled again (and again, and again):

No recent race diary entries for me. First of all, I haven't been doing any racing. Second, I'm embarrassed to report on my escapades in light of M. Gillies' magnificent victory at the Monterey Historics in friend Rodney's ERA. If Mark doesn't watch out, Monterey supremo Steve Earle is going to ban him from the races "for the good of the sport." Would that the FIA would do the same to Michael Schumacher...

Anyway, I recently ran a YAOL race at Road America that shed light on the differences between the online and on-track varieties of racing. Nearly halfway through the YAOL season, it's become agonizingly clear that I'm a slow driver in a slow car—a combination that's going to relegate me to the back of the pack for the foreseeable future. That said, I've reached the point where I can consistently run the car near the limit for long stretches. I've also found GPL to be useful in practicing several racing techniques, most notably using the brakes to rotate the car on turn-in and looking where you want the car to go—i.e. the apex—rather than where it's going.

But GPL remains the source of immense—no, make that virtually unbearable—frustration in one area: It's all but impossible to take dramatic evasive action when accidents or other unexpected events unfold in front of you. This, I've realized, is why the start of the races seem to unfold in slow motion—because everybody understands what can go wrong with full tanks and cold tires, and nobody wants to get caught up in anybody else's mess. At Road Atlanta, for example, the field bent into the first right-hander so slowly that, for a few moments, I thought something was wrong with my computer. Miraculously, all 14 cars made it through the Esses without incident. But when I came around the next right-hander, I found a Honda straddling the road. Although I couldn't have been going much faster than 50 mph, jerking on the wheel or stabbing at the brake would have caused a spin. So I tried to EASE on by. Thought I made it, too. But my left rear wheel clipped the Honda, and I spun.

I did a quick 180 to get back on the track and quickly passed the Honda that had been the cause of my spin. I spent the next one-third of the race driving pretty well (for me, anyway), catching the car—an Eagle, it turned out—in front of me. There are few things in life as rewarding as seeing the gap between you and the next guy shrink incrementally. (Conversely, there are few things more depressing that watching another car loom incrementally larger in your mirrors.) While driving well within my limits, I nearly got close enough to get a tow along the winding back straight. One more lap, I thought, and he's mine. Then, disaster.

Coming around the last corner, already flat-out in fourth, I saw a slow car, apparently recovering from an off, pull onto the track directly into the path of the Eagle in front of me. They touched and spun, blocking the track. I had nowhere to go. I had just enough time to realize that the third car was a teammate of mine—another Cooper—before I clouted it, flew into the air, did a few endos and ended up scraping along the front straight on my rollbar. I shift-R'ed to restart. But this compelled me to make a stop-and-go in the pits the next lap, which effectively ended my race. Oh, I kept running—no small thing since a real wreck of this sort would undoubtedly have killed me—but I had nobody to race with, and I lost concentration.

Here's where I found some other fundamental differences between real racing and its online doppelganger. First, when you lose interest on the track, you slow down—brake a little earlier, pick up the throttle a little later. Why? Because going fast requires intense focus. This is equally true in virtual racing. Yet I found myself continuing to drive flat-out even though my attention was wandering: Was the grocery store still going to be open when I got finished? What was on tap for this weekend? Admittedly, my performance sufference from my lack of focus, and I spun several times. But the fact that I continued to push the car under the circumstances spotlighted the major difference between real and simulated racing—lack of consequences.

Fear is an integral part of racing. This isn't to say that most drivers are scared when they're in a race car. But when you're flirting with the limit, there's naturally going to be some tension between your innate sense of self-preservation and forcing yourself to go deeper into a corner. On the track, where you're risking real damage and real injury, it can be really, really difficult not to lift in an ultra-high-speed corner. Even Stirling Moss tells a story about having to mash down on his right foot with his left to avoid a confidence lift. This isn't to say that races are necessarily won by the bravest drivers. But whenever I hear somebody say they've never been afraid in a race car, I figure he's A) lying to me, B) lying to himself, or C) to be avoided at all costs. In computer racing, fear isn't an issue. Oh, I may have reservations about going 10 feet deeper into a braking zone, but my discomfort is purely on the intellectual level. If I think I might be able to make it through Eau Rouge flat out, I go right ahead and try it. After crashing on ten straight laps, I revise my opinion accordingly. But in real life, of course, drivers get only one bite at the apple before being expelled from the Garden of Eden.

Okay, so online racing isn't real racing. But when the race was over—I was 11th, ahead of only one car on the track—we all repaired to a chat room, where the virtual camaraderie was exactly what you'd get at Impound after a club regional. Drivers were congratulating each other, telling war stories, apologizing for miscues and so on. Just like in real racing. I felt the same gnawing sense of disappointment that I get after a poor performance on a real track. I was sweaty, too. And my knee hurt, not from banging anything but from the awkward position of my throttle.

Bottom line? GPL ain't the cure for a serious racing jones. But it sure beats reruns of "Law and Order."
—Preston Lerner



One of the great benefits of unrelieved mediocrity is that you don't have to feel guilty for patting yourself on the back on those rare occasions when you manage to exceed your usual limitations. And so, without further ado, I hereby announce that the Automobile Magazine team of John Norris, Jeremy Barnes and moi (ably assisted by lone mechanic Franz Heinrich and pit poppies Emily Young and Deborah Sandford) won Cal Club's inaugural SeeYa Six-Hour Enduro at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. Not won our class, mind you. Won it outright. Yeah, baby, we're talking first overall here. (Cue blaring electric guitar.) We are the champions! We are the champions! Of the world!

Okay, so it wasn't Le Mans. It wasn't even Nelson Ledges. There were only 30 entries, and only 24 cars took the green flag. We were lapped early in the race by a trio of extremely fast wings-and-slicks single-seaters that broke later on. The Honda CRX that looked to be our principal competition started having mechanical trouble on the first lap, if you can believe it. Two other cars were a bit quicker than us, depending on the driver, but the drivers were uneven, and they had to pit far more often than we did. We ended up beating a Spec Miata by five or six laps. Like I said, it wasn't the Cobra-Ferrari wars. But winning a race—any race—feels pretty damn good. And we got the same trophy a more deserving team would have received. (Two of them, actually, because we also won our class.)

One of the best treats about winning the race was that it was so unexpected. To be honest, after my session Friday night, I had been dreading the enduro. Around 11 p.m., I'd happened to see Marc Jones, Mark Kalemkiarian and Frank Honsowetz pull into the truck stop across the street from the lovely Super 8 where I prefer to stay when I'm racing at Buttonwillow. (Second floor, interior courtyard—that's the hot setup.) It wasn't too hard to spot the van Frank was renting for the occasion: It was the one riding on its rear axle thanks to 900 pounds of fuel and God only knows how many more pounds of assorted race gear. (Frank goes to races loaded for bear. The only reason he wasn't traveling with his motorhome and enclosed trailer was because they were up north with his Nasport GT-3 car, which he was racing at Portland next weekend.)

Anyway, while they gassed up, I told them my tale of woe. "So," Frank asked me, "are you going to do a night stint in the race?"

"Well," I said, "I wanted to find out what it was like to drive at night. But the way I figure it, I just found out. So as far as I'm concerned, somebody else can have the honors tomorrow."

When I broached the subject with John and Jeremy Saturday morning—they both rolled in shortly before 10 a.m.—they had no problem with my position. John had done a lot of endurance racing and was perfectly comfortable driving at night. Jeremy had tested a car at night but never raced after dark, and he was eager for the opportunity. So the initial thinking was that I would do the first stint, from 5 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. (We figured that an hour and forty-five mintues was as far as we could safely go on a tank full of gas.) Jeremy would do the second stint, which would take him from dusk into dark. John would do the third stint. Unfortunately, depending on how much time we spent in the pits, that would leave us, say, another 30 minutes to go, and John wouldn't be permitted to do a double-stint because the rules limited drivers to a maxmimum shift of two hours. That would mean Jeremy would have to jump into the car at the 11th hour, as it were. But that didn't seem to make much sense, considering his lack of experience. So we decided to let John start, have me run second—hopefully finishing before it got too dark—then put Jeremy in the car and let John bring it on home.

First, though, we had to get the car—and the drivers—up to speed. We didn't expect this to take long. John had raced a 240 for several years, which was convenient, and Jeremy had tested—though he'd never raced—our car a few years ago, and he figured it was a lot easier to drive than his RX-7. Still, we wanted to bed two sets of front pads for the race, the idea being that we'd start with new brakes all the way around and replace the fronts halfway through. John did the honors for the first pair of pads. The protocol is simple: Two easy laps to gently bring the brakes up to temperature. Two hard laps to get all the nasty stuff to bleed out of the pads. Then one lap without touching the brakes to let them cool down thoroughly. Back in the paddock, Fritz took the opportunity to practice changing pads. With John's hotrod aluminum jack and battery-powered Snap-On impact wrench, it took about two minutes. Then Jeremy went out and bed the second set of pads.

After lunch, we laid out our gear in the pits next to Team Kalmo, whose 300ZX figured to be a little bit slower than our car. This was more than a matter of socializing. We were also sharing Frank's fuel rig—a bladder suspended from spindly legs. This entailed pumping gas from the 30-gallon drums Frank had hauled up from L.A. into the bladder. Fuel could then be dispensed from a standard gas pump. This promised to be a lot quicker and safer than dumping in fuel from the standard five-gallon gas cans.

I decided to take the car for the first half of the 30-minute qualifying session, then turn it over to John, who was going to start the race. Getting my first laps in daylight, I felt completely hamfisted, and I turned three piss-poor laps in the 2:11 range before the window net mysteriously came loose—the first time I can ever remember that happening. I pulled into the pits to get it fixed, and decided to let John get into the car. His second flying lap was a high 2:08, which he figured was good enough for government work, so he pulled off the track rather than needlessly use up the car.

John started sixth and—after holding off Kalmo, who made a great start—moved up to fifth when the CRX fell back. A few laps later, he passed a tube-frame RX-7 to move into fourth behind the three Sports Racers. From the slick timing-and-scoring information that was being pulled from transponders and displayed real-time on a TV monitor inside Buttonwillow's central building, we could see that he was turning 10s and 11s like clockwork. Everything was going far better than we could have imagined. But even so, I kept wishing I were in the car instead of pacing around in the pits, counting the minutes before my stint began.

Endurance racing is an oxymoron, if you think about it. The standard approach to an enduro—running steadily rather than quickly, with the emphasis on not making mistakes—is antithetical to the whole point of racing. And there's something vaguely offputting about watching somebody else drive your car, sort of like seeing an ex-girlfriend going out with somebody else. John was doing a great job, but I was getting antsy. I was also a little bit amped up, which discouraged me from eating—a big mistake, as it turned out.

Kalmo came in after 90 minutes, and his team botched their pit stop by spilling some fuel, which carried a stop-and-go penalty. Confusion reigned, and Frank ended up doing TWO stop-and-gos. Of course, that was the least of their problems. Kalmo was sick to his stomach, probably from dehydration. (It was in the neighborhood of 100 degrees.) The gearbox was screwed up. And there was a brake problem. By the time Marc Jones got in the car, all he had was fourth gear, and when he drove down the front straight, he couldn't see Kalmo or Frank over the pit wall. He said later: "So, I've got no gears. I've got no brakes. I've got no crew. And I'm thinking, what the hell am I doing out here?"

John was 2nd when he finally pitted. I strapped in after Franz finished fueling and took off. I hit traffic my first few laps, and I didn't want to take any chances passing people before I was completely up to speed. But once I found some free track, I pushed a little harder—a 2:11, a 2:10 and finally a low 2:09, before throttling back slightly. At this pace, the car felt as stable as an ocean liner. I'd been running with junky tires all year, forcing me to try so hard that I often had several moments each lap. Today, with fresh, well-cared-for rubber, I had only one moment my entire stint—when the power steering suddenly cut out, catching me by surprise, when I was dialing in some opposite lock, which caused me to run up on a curb. Otherwise, the stint was a milk run. That's not to say there weren't some small dramas. The power steering started failing after about an hour. This wasn't really a problem, just a bit disconcerting, especially when the steering would suddenly lock in position when the suspension was loaded up. Also, the brake pedal started to droop on those points on the track that came at the end of a long stretches of full throttle. To make it easier to heel and toe, I started pumping up the pedal with my left foot. Last but not least, the race had started about 20 minutes late, which meant that my stint was scheduled to last until close to 9 p.m., by which time it would be almost completely dark. I flipped up my lights after about an hour or so, not to illuminuate the road but so slower traffic would see me coming. (By this time, I'd passed the last remaining Sports Racer, which was dawdling along on two-and-a-half cylinders.) But as it got dark, I realized that I had a serious problem: I didn't know what time it was, which meant I didn't know when I was supposed to come in.

We didn't have any radios, and the idea of ringing up each other on our cell phones seemed a little bit too wacky. Fortunately, our car had a working digital clock, and we planned to use it. But as the light faded, so did the digital read-out, and my night vision was such that I wasn't too confident about my ability to read any pit boards shown as I went past on the front straight.

I seemed to recall that the odometer read something like 140 miles when I got in the car, which meant I should go until I reached at least 280. But what if I were wrong? I certainly didn't want to run out of fuel, especially when we were leading the race. (At this point, my mantra was DON'T SCREW UP!) Our car was equipped with a hot lap timer that flashed the lap number and lap time each time I passed the start-finish line. I tried to calculate how many 2:10 laps would equal one hour and forty-five minutes. But by now, my brain wasn't working too well, and when I devoted too much concentration to multiplication and division, I started missing apexes and braking points. Also, the light was fading fast, forcing me to start making confidence lifts in the Esses. My lap times slowed to 2:12. When I hit 40 laps, I figured I ought to start thinking about stopping. I flashed my lights coming past the pits, and two laps later, I came in.

As I trundled down pit lane, I was confused by all the people who were waving their arms. (I belatedly realized they were Cal Club workers alerting everybody that a car was coming.) I stopped before reaching my pit, sat there in a daze for a few second, before realizing that I hadn't gone far enough. Finally, I saw John waving me in. I undid my belts as I pulled in, lowered the window net and stumbled out of the car as soon as I stopped the car. (Franz couldn't begin refueling until I'd emerged from the cockpit.) The moment my legs touched the ground, my calf muscles spasmed and I almost fell. I was supposed to go around to the back of the car to man the fire extinguisher while Franz filled the tank, but it was all I could do to climb over the pit wall, where I slumped, hyperventilating, like a boxer who'd just gone twelve grueling rounds. In the car, I'd felt fine. But now, with the adrenaline no longer pumping, I realized that I was dangerously dehydrated. In fact, I've never felt so physically shattered in my life. To be perfectly honest, it took me 24 hours to recover.

I barely had enough energy to tell John that the power steering was fucked. We didn't want to waste time doing any systems checks, so John topped off the fluid. He also changed left-side tires, but decided that the brakes looked like they could go the distance. So Jeremy took off and got his baptism of fire at night. Later, he confided that the first few laps were terrifying. But after that, he said, he had a blast, and before too long, he was also turning 10s and 11s. (It was funny how, without even discussing it, we'd all settled on almost exactly the same race pace.) By this point, nobody was even close to us, and people kept coming over to offer premature congratulations. (Jeremy's girlfriend Debbie, who does Jaguar P.R. at North American F1 races, started referring to me as the "team principal." I kind of liked the ring of that.)

There were two final glitches, neither of them major. Jeremy had to make an extra stop for fuel because we didn't get enough gas in the tank the first time around. Then we had to make sure that he didn't stay out for more than two hours, which could have gotten us disqualified. We called him in with about forty-five minutes to go, and John did the final stint. By the time he finally got the checkered flag, I think we were all more exhausted than elated.

No, come to think of it, elation exceeded exhaustion.


On Monday, I returned the light bar to Technosquare. When I told Richey that we'd won overall, he looked delighted—after looking completely stunned. (I knew just how he felt.) I told him he should come with us on our next night enduro.

"Tell me when you do Daytona," he said, laughing.

Don't call us, I thought; we'll call you.

From Bad to Worse

Getting ready for enduros is a little bit like planning a military invasion. Of course, the Roger Penskes and Chip Ganassis of the world have team managers and dedicated administrative staffs to take care of logistics. My team had ... me.

Okay, that's not entirely true. Even though Michael Jordan wasn't racing this weekend, he'd done yeoman work securing material and formulating our order of battle. John Norris, who was going to be one of our three drivers, had procured the tires. Frank Honsowetz, ex-chief of Nissan Motorsports, now general manager of Ed Pink Racing Engines, agreed to bring up the fuel that we were going to use in our car and the 300ZX he was driving with Marc Jones and Z owner Mark Kalemkiarian. Oh, and Marc bought the fuel. (Thanks, Mark. The check's in the mail, bud. Honest!)

But Friday morning, I was left to my own devices. I braved rush-hour traffic through downtown L.A. to Nissan Motorsports, where I'd parked our trailer. This was my first mistake of the day—the first of many. When I was positioned to hook up the trailer to the superlatively comfortable Suburban I'd borrowed for the occasion from the friendly folks at GM, I realized that I'd left all of my hitches in the race car. I drove crosstown to Technosquare, where the car had been race-prepped, grabbed the hitches, drove back to Nissan, hooked up the trailer and towed it back crosstown for the third time—and counting.

Howard and Richey Watanabe, the owners of Technosquare, had rigged up the hood of our car with a trick-looking rally-style light bar fitted with two spotlights in the middle and two excellent PIAA driving lights on the corners. They'd also equipped the cockpit with what appeared to be enough toggle-switch controls to bring a Mercury capsule back from low-Earth orbit. From the impeccable workmanship, it was clear that Howard and Richey knew what they were doing. Rallying, in fact, is their first love. Years ago, they ran their own rally car. Now, they help out Rhys Millen in his Mitsubishi Pro Rally effort. Unfortunately, they were in Maine helping Millen at this very moment, which means they weren't there to explain the intricacies of the lighting system or the work they'd done on the passenger seat. This was mistake Number Two. Hey, I was on a roll!

I loaded the car on the trailer, tied it down and started to take off. But instead, I stopped to double-check on directions up to John Norris' shop in West L.A. This was my third mistake, and by far the biggest of the day. While I was getting directions, a postal delivery truck pulled into the driveway in front of me. When I climbed back in the Suburban, there was ample room to squeeze past. Unfortunately, the postal delivery guy must have jumped out of his truck without setting the parking brake, and to my horror, the truck started rolling down a gentle decline toward me. I had time to honk the horn and curse at the absent postal delivery worker. That was about it for effective counter-measures. Maneuvering a Suburban hauling a trailer, you see, is more than a little bit like trying to pull a U-turn in the Titanic. While I cringed, the truck slid at an oblique angle against the rear quarter-panel of the Suburban, making expensive scraping sounds before thudding against the front of the trailer.

The Suburban was drivable, thank God, but I wasted more than an hour at the scene, demolishing my lovingly constructed timetable. I wanted to make it up to Buttonwillow Raceway Park by 7:30 p.m. to participate in a free one-hour practice session to test the light gear. The drive from my house takes about two hours in light traffic, so avoiding rush-hour was a must. Unfortunately, I still had to get the car over to John's shop to mount the tires. This took me through the area of automotive hell known as the South Bay curve of the 405, which set me back another hour. Once I made it GT International, I unloaded the car and removed the tires. John dismounted seven old tires, then mounted and balanced new Toyos—and didn't they look sweet! (I LOVE Toyos. Would somebody please give me a set of Toyos for my birthday—hint, hint.) But it took time. And he had a lunch engagement along the way. Afterward, in an effort to hurry things along, I loaded the freshly shod car on the trailer while he mounted our three spares. Nevertheless, I still I hit serious traffic back into the Valley. It was close to 4 p.m. by the time I made it home. I returned some phone calls, threw my race gear together, grabbed my significant other, Emily Young, and pretty well raced out the door.

The time was 4:58 p.m. Just in time for rush-hour.

Naturally, I hit traffic. Lots of traffic. Enough traffic to cause major muttering under the breath. I hadn't managed to do a stick of paying work all day. I was hot. I was sweaty. I was dirty. I was tired. John wasn't coming up tonight; he'd promised his wife they'd see a movie. Meanwhile, Jeremy Barnes, our third driver, had called to say that he couldn't make it as well. Like John, he was going to show up at 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning. What are we running here, I thought, an arrive-and-drive program? Anyway, what was the point of having ME test the lights? I'd never driven at night before. What the hell was I supposed to know about it?

Amazingly, I made it to Buttonwillow by 7:30 p.m. When I signed in at the gate, I was told that the session would start at 7:45 p.m. As soon as I found a spot for the trailer—which wasn't hard because the paddock was virtually empty—I started working like the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It was conceivable that I could have the car ready when the session began. But in the back of my mind, I was remembering the last time I'd thrashed to get a car on the track—when I started hot-lapping around Willow Springs with four five-gallon jugs filled with fuel flopping around in the trunk. Major oops. Fortunately, before I could find out what havoc I might wreak tonight, Cal Club worker extraordinaire Mark Smith came by to inform me that the session wouldn't begin until the sun was well and truly down—8:15 at the earliest.

This gave me plenty of time to unload and organize my gear. Then, I attached the light bar to the hood. (The hood wouldn't have fit under the tire rack on the trailer with the light bar mounted.) This proved to be a piece of cake; kudos to Howard and Richey for the slick latching arrangement. Unfortunately, figuring out how to work the lights turned out to be something of a challenge. Each pair of lights was controlled by not one but two sets of toggle switches, one with two positions and the other with three. Furthermore, the switches appeared to serve different functions depending on whether the stock lights were in the low-beam or high-beam position. After much experimentation, I figured out how to set the high beams on all six lights, and I decided that this would be the way to go. Not only would it provide maximum illumination, but it would also create maximum irritation for the competition. Actually, I wasn't really thinking about the aggravation factor so much as self-preservation.

Dusk was shading into night when a voice on the P.A. system announced that the track was open. For a few moments, nothing happened: It was as if nobody wanted to be the first one to speed off into the night—and go straight off the track. I wasn't any braver than the other guys; far from it, in fact. But I figured it might be safer to make my first-ever run in the dark with the track to myself. So I climbed into my firesuit, belted into my car and loped onto the track at a canter.

I know Buttonwillow very, very well—the product of a few hundred laps on the track in various cars over the past six years. But everybody had warned me that things look entirely different in the dark. On several occasions, I'd been told a cautionary tale about another journalist doing a night race at Willow Springs, where he'd also had a few hundred laps in his logbook. On his first lap—literally, lap number one—he went off at Turn 9 and blew all four tires. Yikes! Not that I really needed to hear any horror stories. I was already pretty well spooked all by myself.

It was fairly dark by the time I started my first lap, but not entirely black. Track officials had helpfully mounted reflective stickers at most of the apexes and in most of the braking zones, and my lights—set to maximum blind-the-opposition position—picked them up no problem. I figured that if I was able to correlate the stickers with my usual daylight reference points—pavement changes, dark spots in the road, etc.—I might actually live through the race. I picked up speed as I came down the front straight to start my second lap and got on the brakes much more aggressively than I had on my out lap. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a big whiff of brake burn. It got worse as the lap continued, so I trundled into the pits. When I stopped, Mark Smith told me that several corner workers had reported that my rear brakes were glowing red. Not a good sign.

I stopped back at the paddock and took stock. My first thought was that a piston might be stuck. But there wasn't enough time to jack up the car, pull the wheel and remove the pads—assuming, that is, that there was some way for me to get the pads off and then put them back on without burning my hands. (All I had were batting gloves.) But maybe, I thought, it was just a case of the pads being marginally too thick, for some reason, so that they weren't clearing the rotor. That was as good a theory as the first, with the added benefit that it meant I didn't have to do anything to the car. Hope springing eternal, I hurried back out for a second session.

This time, it was noticeably darker, and I have to say, I didn't like the looks—or, more to the point, the NON-look of things—out on the track. But I gritted my teeth and told myself I ought to at least push the car hard enough to tell if the handling had been improved by the changes we'd made to the toe-out at the front and rear. But the first time I committed myself to a left-hander, I heard a nasty thumping noise to my right. I did a couple of more corners, no problem. Then a very fast left-hander and, boom-ba-da-bum. Oh, Christ, I thought. Maybe it's the right-rear shock. For some reason, the adjuster had locked in place during my last race, and there hadn't been any time to get it rebuilt. Maybe, the problem was worse than I'd thought.

I pulled back into the pits for a look. Of course, there were no lights, and my flashlight was back on my trailer. So I opened the passenger door and started crawling around on my knees. Nothing. Completely bamboozled, I leaned up against the passenger seat we'd installed many years ago to give thrill rides—and nearly fell over. The goddamned seat wasn't bolted to the floorpan! Suddenly, I remembered having seen the passenger seat sitting in Howard and Richey's shop a few weeks ago. They'd removed it to get access to a dented body panel. Belatedly, I realized that they must have stuck it back in the car for safekeeping, assuming that I would realize that it wasn't attached to anything. Alas, they didn't understand who they were dealing with. When it comes to my powers of observation, assume nothing.

Back to the paddock to stash the seat. (It was a waste of precious time, but I was too embarrassed to take it out in the pits.) Back to the track for my third stint. By now, it was pitch-black. We're talking about inky darkness. The void of deep space. Zero visibility. My previous thought about being able to correlate my daylight reference points with the reflective stickers on the pavement? Woefully misguided. The lights I was packing were surprisingly powerful, and they lit up the road in front of me like a giant laser. Unfortunately, the most important things to see when you're racing aren't in front of you. They're to the side of you—apexes, without which it's virtually impossible to decide where and when to turn. For example: On the back side of the circuit is a kink that's taken flat-out in fourth gear. You're really honking along—100 mph at least, maybe more. Even at that speed, it's not a difficult turn—as long as you can see the apex. Miss the apex by 10 feet, and you're going to have a hard time keeping the car on the road at the exit. Miss it by 15 and you're in deep shit. My first time past, I missed the apex by so much I couldn't even SEE it. The only reason I didn't go off was because I wasn't full-throttle. My heart rate was pretty well maxxed out, though.

The second trouble area was the Esses. Like the kink, this series of corners is taken flat-out in fourth, no problem. The good news was that all the apexes were marked with reflective markers. The bad news was that the darkness flattened my field of vision so that instead of seeing a lane traced by the markers, all I saw was a confusing sea of lights, sort of like stars on the ground. Making matters even worse, the apexes are guarded by high curbs, and our car doesn't like curbs. As a matter of fact, it actively dislikes curbs. But on one of my half-speed passes through the Esses, I clouted a curb hard enough with the right-front tire to throw off the steering wheel off dead-center. This while lapping a good 15 seconds off my daylight pace. Idiot!

If there was one word to describe how I felt, it would be TERRIFIED. If I had two words, they would be FUCKING TERRIFIED.

I pulled off the track before the session was flagged to a close. Later, when told Emily about my experience, she said, "Well, now you must have a better appreciation for the drivers at Le Mans and Daytona." No, I thought, I have an appreciation for Miles Davis, for Paul Cezanne, for Saul Bellow. As for the guys who win big-time 24-hour races, I'm now convinced they're racers from another planet.

That night, as I drifted off to sleep, I fixated on one happy thought: Somebody had to drive the 240 in the enduro tomorrow night. But it damn sure didn't have to be me.

Change Partners

Uh-oh. No Michael Jordan. Turns out, various commitments will prevent him from driving in the enduro. I wonder if his decision is related to the fact that the National Weather Service is forecasting temperatures of 103 degrees on Saturday. Oh, and did I mention that we start practice at 9 a.m. and don't get the checkered flag — knock on wood — until 11 p.m.?

Anyway, we've already enlisted Jeremy Barnes, the crack product P.R. whiz for Lincoln out here in Southern California, as one of our drivers. Jeremy owns a very quick first-gen Mazda RX-7 that runs in the RS class. (He's the only person in all of Southern California who knows what RS is, which enables him to thoroughly dominate his class.) Many years ago, when the car used to race in the Spec 7 class, Michael and I did an enduro with him at Buttonwillow. So turnabout is only fair play.

But with Michael stepping down, we have to find another driver. This isn't much of a challenge. A lot of guys aren't too eager to run their own cars for six hours, especially if they're chasing a regional championship, but they're perfectly willing to trash somebody else's car, especially a rear-wheel-drive 240 with decent power. We eventually decide on John Norris, who did some pro racing in the old Speedvision Cup series. In fact, he raced a 240SX that was a sister car to ours. (Actually, to be precise, we built our car as a twin to his.) Better still, he's able to get Toyos — and we love Toyos, don't we? — at dealer cost, which will save us some money. But best of all, John runs an independent BMW shop called — shameless plug alert! — GT International in West L.A., and he does the service work on my well-used M3.

Hey, John, does this get me a discount or what?
—Preston Lerner


Enduro Madness

As a young fan, I used to think endurance racing was a snore. A trip to Le Mans cured me of that misimpression. (For sheer entertainment value, nothing beats this 24-hour extravaganza.) And as a driver, I've found that enduros have a lot to offer: Plenty of seat time. Great camaraderie. Minimal pressure. There's just one problem: If racing is expensive — and it is — then endurance racing is really expensive.

Michael Jordan and I have done one enduro a year since 1994. This year, we were determined to do two. The carrot was a new six-hour enduro at Buttonwillow being inaugurated by the California Sports Car Club, which is the Southern California region of the SCCA. The race was scheduled to run from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. That means racing in the dark. With visions of brake rotors glowing cherry red in the pitch-black night, we decided to enter the race. Okay, so we're stupid. So sue us.

Only after we reached this decision did we start thinking about what running the enduro would actually entail. Like extra lights, for starters. And someplace to mount them. Lots of fuel — at least 80 gallons including practice and qualifying. Two sets of new brake pads. (I remain optimistic that we can get by with one.) A set-and-a-half of new tires. And there was plenty of prep work required to get the car ready after my disastrous outing at Willow Springs last month. After consultation with Richey and Howard Watanabe of Technosquare, we decided that a faulty master cylinder was the cause of the low brake pedal, while Sly Alviar of Nissan Motorsports concluded that a bad fuel pump was causing our low fuel pressure.
—Preston Lerner

Are we having fun yet?


Bloodied but Unbowed

Did my first race last night. Whew! It wasn't a complete disaster — but it came close. Okay, I'll spare you the suspense: I finished 10th out of 15 cars. But believe me, the result is even less impressive than it sounds.

Practice/qualifying was scheduled to begin at 8:30 p.m. Unwilling to show up for practice before I'd actually, well, practiced, I cranked up GPL at 7:45 p.m. for some private lapping. We were racing at Rouen, the fast, flowing French circuit best known for the daunting series of downhill sweepers just past the pits. I have a black-and-white print attached to a filing cabinet of the celebrated photo of Fangio opposite locking his way through the right-hander in a 250F with a dent in the nose. Poor Jo Schlesser was killed here in 1968 when he left the track in an air-cooled Honda in his first Formula 1 race. The French Grand Prix was never again held at Rouen.

In an FD car, the sweepers are fast but fun. (Since there's no physical risk in GPL, you can't honestly call any particular corner daunting.) The trouble spot is after the last sweeper, which leads to the achingly slow first-gear hairpin at Nouveau Monde. In the real world, you would brake while turning on the approach to the corner. But this is virtually impossible to do in GPL without upsetting the car, which meant that I had to brake super-hard in a straight line before the real brake zone, bend the car through the final corner, and, when I was going straight again, hammer the brakes a second time. Not a very satisfactory means of negotiating the hairpin. I figured I was losing close to a second right there.

From watching replays of the hot shoes, I'd come to the conclusion — subsequently confirmed — that most of them braked with their left foot and kept the throttle cracked to balance the car. I decided to check out this method during my private practice session, but I couldn't get the hang of it. I was also convinced that I could improve my times — I was at least three seconds off the pace — by adjusting my differential setting. But I was worried about going online with an unfamiliar setup. Better the devil I know. Or so I thought.

About 8:15 p.m., YAOL drivers entered a chatroom on VROC as we waited for our server to become available. Everybody was very friendly. It was sort of like standing on the pre-grid, bullshitting, waiting for the order to climb into your car. Qualifying began shortly after 8:30. As I left the pits — typing PO, for pit out — to start my first lap, I was surprisingly nervous, and this sensation intensified when I started seeing cars on the track. Somehow, the knowledge that they were being controlled by other human beings rather than an AI program transformed the experience from a mere game into an actual race. There was no denying the fact that I felt the same nervous anticipation I get from real racing on a real racetrack. The sensation wasn't nearly as intense, but it was definitely there.

It took me about 10 minutes to get acclimated to this new environment. After that, I started to get the hang of it, and my lap times dropped, from 2:08 to 2:07 and finally dipping into the 2:06s. In fact, my final lap was a personal best, and I ended up qualifying solidly mid-pack. In retrospect, this was a curse, since it inspired me to believe that I might be able to run with the big dogs in the race. Dream on, Cooper Boy.

The start of the race was agonizingly, even weirdly, slow a startling contrast to real racing, where everybody goes like a bat out of hell and makes kamikaze moves in Turn 1. Everybody's principal goal seemed to be not to make up places but to avoid accidents. This is no easy thing to do with 15 virtual cars in such close proximity, and Nouveau Monde with a giant pack of cars seemed to be a disaster waiting to happen. As it happens, we had the option of keying in Shift-R if we crashed. This would place a magically repaired car (with cold tires and a full tank) back on the road after everybody had passed. But YAOL! rules required racers who used the Shift-R save to check into the pits for a mandatory stop-and-go. So everybody was on his best behavior.

Nevertheless somebody crashed going into the hairpin. But, amazingly, everybody else — including me, which was the biggest miracle of all — made it through safely. Down the long back-straight, another Cooper drafted past and I let him by under braking. (Not that I had much choice.) All I wanted to do at this point was to settle into a rhythm. But rushing down to Nouveau Monde on Lap 2, we found yet another car had spun, and I spun while avoiding him. Dammit! I didn't have to Shift-R, but I lost about 12 seconds and several places. I spun again a few laps later, and twice more later in the 18-lap race. The further back I fell, the harder I tried, which led inevitably to a vicious cycle.

Still, 10th place was more than I'd hoped for. And at least I didn't cause any accidents. With any luck, I'll soon be as mediocre in GPL as I am on the real racetrack.

By the way, if you have GPL on your hard drive, you can watch the race for yourself by downloading the replay into your GPL Replay folder. Go to http://yaol.bischeracci.com/ navigate through the Results page.
—Preston Lerner


Virtually racing

For reasons that I can't explain (or understand), Grand Prix Legends appears to be especially well suited to multiplayer racing over the Internet. Not long after the game appeared, a group of four enthusiasts Allison Hine, her brother Nate, Larry Holbert and John O'Keefe — created the Virtual Racers' Online Connection. VROC provides a central forum — and computer servers for online racing. At any given time, you can find dozens of people on the site looking for pickup races. But because the quality of these affairs is so varied, most of the more experienced drivers have banded together in leagues that run their own private races through VROC.

I was looking for a league. A league that featured all FD all the time. I found it in YAOL!, for Yet Another Online Racing League. (http://yaol.bischeracci.com/) I liked the fact that the organizer, Lapo Nustrini, apparently had a sense of humor. I also liked the fact that races were run at 8:30 p.m. West Coast time, which worked for me. But mostly, I liked the fact that they were willing to accept me. Hey, beggars can't be choosy.

There were a couple of problems, though. First and foremost, after doing a little research, I discovered that I was outclassed. That is to say, I was way off the pace of the fast guys. Even worse, I had no online racing experience. And to turn me into a triple threat, all of the good chassis — Ferrari, Lotus and Eagle being the most highly praised, with Brabham so good that it's flatly outlawed — were already taken. As a result, I was stuck with the Cooper (called Coventry in GPL because of licensing issues. By the same token, Honda is called Murasama.) As in real life, the Cooper was woefully underpow-ered. But in GPL, at least, it at least was blessed with ex-tremely forgiving handling. So in the best of all possible worlds, I would be slow but safe.

Ah, the best laid plans ....
—Preston Lerner


Back to the Future

I tested a 1967 Cooper Formula 1 car at Rouen last night. No, not really. Virtually. Thanks to the computer game Grand Prix Legends.

Developed by Papyrus and published by Sierra in 1998, GPL is a remarkably faithful simulation of the 1967 Formula 1 sea-son. It's not the most popular racing sim of all time. (NASCAR titles are much bigger sellers here in the States.) It's not necessarily the most accurate one on the market. (This is the source of much controversy. (See http://groups.google.com/groups?hl=en&lr=&safe=off&group=rec.autos.simulators for more information about race sims.) But GPL has been the most effective at creating an environment, or a community, of like-minded racers. In fact, no sim has a more devoted read: obsessed cadre of fans. And it's these fans who've transformed GPL from a game into a world unto itself.

By hacking into the code of GPL, fans have been able to upgrade the sim to astonishing levels of verisimilitude. If you want, you can download better-looking cars, more expansive scenery, different engine sounds. You can tweak the performance of not only your car but also the Artificial Intelligence. At the same time, enterprising developers have created more than 100 new racetracks to supplement the nine that shipped with the original game. So, as a result, you can now race at classic-but-defunct venues such as Reims, Solitude, Aintree and Riverside, not to mention a slew of so-called fantasy tracks. Other programmers have also figured out ways to convert racetracks from Papyrus' NASCAR and Indycar titles to GPL. This means you can now race a Lotus 49 at Indianapolis, say, or even on the half-mile oval at Bristol. Why you'd want to, of course, is an-other question. But, hey, who's arguing?

When GPL was released, it was hailed by most simheads for a physics model that was widely considered to be the most accurate produced up until that time. Personally, I thought it was flawed then, and I still have problems with it to this day. Although there's much to be praised about the GPL driving experience, the software is plagued with idiosyncratic and frustrating anomalies. The cars have a tendency to develop terminal oversteer without warning. It's also very difficult to brake while turning unless you left-foot brake and keep the throttle cracked to balance the car. Generally speaking, going fast in GPL requires you to practice several techniques that bear no relationship to the real world. Also, thanks to a tremendous power-to-weight ratio, the Formula 1 cars are very, very difficult to control — too difficult for my taste. The game also comes with so-called Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars with less grunt. But since grip is also reduced in these chassis, the cars are still excessively unforgiving, at least in my opinion.

I recently decided to give GPL another try. Part of the reason was the arrival of a brand-new controller from ACT Labs featuring an excellent force-feedback steering wheel and a nice set of pedals. But what really motivated me was the fact that two clever guys by the name of Paul Thurston and Gary Tall had written a very slick program that allows you to swap a Formula 2 engine into a Formula 1 car (or any other combination you can think of). The so-called Formula D, or FD, car is dramatically less diabolical than the standard F1 car yet a lot more fun than the F2s. I downloaded the program (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/vroc-f2/files/Utilities/FD_patching_instructions.txt), made the swap with my trusty Ferrari 312 and, lo and behold, the car was more or less drivable. After a few days of getting acclimated, I de-cided I was ready to take the next step:

Online racing.
—Preston Lerner