Race Diary

8-23-02

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


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