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