What in the hell was I thinking?!?!That was the thought running through my mind as I turned my first hot laps at Conneticut's Lime Rock Park.
As most of you know, I've restored a 1974 Jensen Healey and am currently restoring a 1971 Triumph TR6. Well, my local Moss parts distributor, Kim Graff (518-842-8611), has a long history of sports car racing and building race cars. Over the course of the last year he offered me the use of one of his cars as a means for me to go racing. I lept at it. I was originally going to be driving a 1967 MG Midget in the "F Production" class. However, a key part was on what seemed to be permanent back order. So it was decided to take a 1968 "E Production" MGB that hadn't been used for a while and get it ready for racing. This meant a lot of late nights and weekends to get it ready in time. Kim and Skip Beck worked like mad to have the car ready to go in time. It was only through the efforts of Kim and Skip that I was able to not worry about the car and just concern myself with driving. They both took the time to head out to Lime Rock with me on Thursday and stay until the bitter end on Friday. At the end of each session I would jump out of the car and run to class while they went over the car checking and maintaining everything to be sure it was ready for my next track session. If you have any desire to rent a car to drive, I couldn't recommend anyone better!
We arrived at Lime Rock on Thrusday evening for Friday's driver's school. After getting registered we unloaded the car.
Next day we met at 8:30am and broke down into our classes. The first group consisted of what were referred to as the "small bore" cars. These were the spec Miatas and some of the slower "Improved Touring" classes. The second group was the open wheel cars and other small formula type cars. I was in group three, which was comprised of a broad cross section of classes. The slowest cars in our group would be reaching 110mph at the fastest point, while the quickest cars in our group would be going closer to 170mph at the same spot on the track. I was in one of the slower cars, meaning that not only would I have to learn to drive as quickly as possible, I would also have to be very aware of who might be closing up on me from behind and blowing past me.
One of the first things we did was to take a ride around the track in a van with an instructor pointing out things we should be doing at various points around the track. Then, after a bit more discussion and orientation, it was time to strap in the car and take to the track. Of course prior to heading out, I had to pose with the car to show how studly I would look for the Ferrari Formula 1 publicity department shots in preparation for my imminent signing.
The first on track session consisted of follow the leader. There was no passing allowed, and we were to all follow in the tire tracks of the car in front of us (unless they went off) so that the on-track instructors could show us the proper line to take around the track. Speeds increased with each successive lap until we were moving along at a pretty good clip.
After about 20 minutes of follow the leader we adjourned for class room instruction and debriefing. Fortunately I had brought extra briefs. The next session consisted of another 20 minutes on track, however, this one was simply to go out and run as fast as you can. Of course that meant that I had GT-1 cars blasting past me at various points on the track, scaring the living crap out of me. This was the point that had me questioning my sanity and desire to be on the track. I spent so much of this period worrying about being knocked off of the track, or causing an incident by pulling out to pass a slower car (yes, I was faster than a few of the other drivers) without being aware that a faster car was closing in to overtake me at the same point, that I did very little learning about how to drive the car on the track. When I crested the hill at the back stretch and saw a GT-1 Corvette off the track and in the tire wall I was kind of glad, that meant one less car that I would have to contend with nerfing me off into the boonies.
We went back in for another class session and talked about different flags and what we were to do when each one was displayed. We were told that we would go out and at different times we would be shown different flags and they would watch to make sure we responded correctly. Back out on to the track we went and drove as fast as we were able, probing personal limits and learning the limits of our cars on the track. I had gotten pretty comfortable with the flagging stations and had learned that (for the most part) if a faster car was coming up behind me, a flagger would show me the blue flag making me aware that I was probably going to be overtaken soon. They showed us a few local yellow flags. It was very hard to not slow down when I saw the yellow. I had to learn the a standing yellow simply meant that I had to be ready for something on or near the track, and the only thing that really changes on a standing yellow is that you can't pass anyone between the flag itself and the incident that the flag was for. Before the flag and after the incident, it was racing as usual. If you look at the track map above, you can see that the Start/Finish line is visible all the way from the bottom of the sharp downhill turn. I had aquired the bad habit of looking at that flag as soon as I could, then ignoring it while I paid attention to my braking and turn in point for turn one, "Big Bend". This lead me to my only black mark for the weekend. They threw the red flag, which means, "Stop as quickly and safely as possible, coming to a stop on the side of the track." Well.... I didn't see the red flag, thrown at the Start/Finish line . It wasn't out when I first came onto the main straight, and then since I was ignoring the flagger and looking for my braking point, I came around Big Bend and saw, what I thought was my first red flag, in the middle of turn one. I knew this meant stop, so I did. Of course everyone else had seen the flag one station earlier and had already stopped before I was really able to react. I had came very close to parking my MG in the hatchback of a Volkswagen Golf. We got the black flag, which means to proceed safely back to the pits. That was the end of that driving session and we went into our standard debriefing. I was promptly berated for being bad, then we moved on to other things. The lesson I took out of it was to make sure I checked each flag station as much as possible.
At lunch time we walked the whole track with an instructor. He pointed out the standard braking and turning points as well as the apex of each corner. He walked the proper line to take through each corner, showing us where our left or right wheels should be on the track. This proved to be very valuable, I was able to use this information for each session afterwards and apply it for better and better lap times.
The rest of the day was pretty much more of the same. We did a few practice starts, lining up in twos behind the pace car and getting in a nice clean grid then the starter would throw the green flag and we'd all floor it and look for a spot to pass while making sure we weren't running into someone that was passing us. I had it in 4th for the first try, thought I was in 2nd, then when I mashed the throttle I immediately got passed by 3 cars. We did half a lap and then lined up for another try, this time someone in a mustang had a problem about 2 cars in front of me and blocked a bunch of us from making a good start. Another half a lap of racing then another try at a start. Third time is the charm, I had everything timed right and passed 3 cars before turn one. From there on it was lap after lap of driving as hard as possible. I was trying different lines and different braking points. Testing the limits of the car, etc. And sure enough, I found the limit. I spun off the track on the outside of Big Bend. But no harm, I just did a little bit of agricultural work, digging up grass and dirt. After coming to a stop pointing more or less in the right direction the corner workers motioned me back out onto the track and it was back to work.
After each session we'd meet with our individual instructor for question/answer/suggestion/etc and take a very short break before lining up on the false grid to go out for another 20 minutes of track time. One time they lined us up behind the pace car with the fastest cars in the back and the slower cars in the front. I was on the outside of the front row, next to Ian in his F Production Volvo (the orange and red one with the flame job). I had passed him a couple of times in previous sessions and thought that I would be able to get into turn one before he did. He did a great job on the start and kept me outside of him all the way into Big Bend. Of course the guys with the serious horsepower had all caught up to us at the same time, so there we were going through the turn in a giant bunch. I was forced outside and through the whole of Big Bend with my two left wheels out in the dirt. I felt really good about more or less maintaining my position while semi-offroading. Into the Esses things were sorting themselves out when another driver spun across the track right in front of me and Ian. It was mayhem as we all darted left and right to avoid hitting her. I heard a loud thump as I came back on the track and was concerned that I had damaged the car. Consequently I didn't drive the session as agressively as I wanted to. As it turned out, the only damage was a broken piece on the bottom of the right front fiberglass fender. As the day wore on I grew more and more comfortable in the car, learning that you really can steer a car with the throttle as much as with the steering wheel. I had heard that, but had never experienced it. I'd find myself going into the esses, pushing toward the outside of the corner, feed in some more gas and feel the car rotate towards the inside of the corner. The more I did it, the more I found I could spend less time on the brakes. I was carrying more speed through the corners, which would put me onto each straight with more speed. Of course this meant that I was going faster at the end of the straight and had to relearn my braking points, but that is why I was in school. By the last session of the day I was quite a bit more comfortable in the car and turning much quicker laps. I had a really good battle with Ian in his Volvo. He had started ahead of me and using the superior cornering ability of the MGB I caught up to him. I couldn't pass him on the straights, his power and mine were too closely matched so it was up to me to find a way by in the twisty stuff. I finally got him by setting him up in the esses which forced him into a bad line for No Name Straight, I was able to put myself inside of him going up the steep uphill right hand turn before the back straight and got to West Bend ahead of him. A couple laps later I caught up to a driver in one of the corvettes, I guess he wasn't feeling very comfortable in the car because I was able to hound him all through the tight sections of the track and even pull up next to him before some of the corners. But each time we came to a straight he just used his engine that was three times the size of mine and would blast off into the distance. Of course halfway through the next corner I'd be right on his bumper again. We got separated by traffic and just as I was about to put my best move on a Porsche 944 Turbo (ok, fine, he was having turbo problems and couldn't go as fast as he wanted. But I was right on his ass all the way through the turns too!) the checkered flag came out, signaling the end of the day. What a hoot!
After the last session they fed us a fried chicken dinner and handed out the diplomas for those that passed (not everyone did). I got my log book signed by the Chief Steward and the Head Instructor along with a line about "..An excellent first school." One school under my belt, now I need a second one. Once I successfully complete two schools I will be eligible to run in my first rookie race. After two successful rookie races I will be licensed for regional racing. As it stands now, I will be attending my next school at the end of June and doing my first rookie race the next day (if I pass the second school).
Once again, many many thanks to Kim and Skip for their hard work, guidance and support. Also thanks to Dave Lucier for the loan of his driving equipment. You can take a look and Pond and Lucier's racing page
P.S. Here is the midget that didn't get done. The part that held it up is in and Kim & Skip can probably prep it for racing if you are interested!