A colleague of my wife, Margo, and mine, Hal Massey, a regular in American Iron racing in NorCal back in the mid ‘90s, stopped by for lunch one day awhile back and, walking through our garage, locked eyes on our two Corvettes – a C5 Z06 and a C6 Coupe.
“Do you take these to the track?” A big gulp followed by an exchange of quizzical looks between Margo and myself. “Can we take these Vettes on a track? How much does that cost?”
Three months later, following social outings to Sonoma, Big Willow and Buttonwillow as Hal’s guest, we were hooked!
Seated in my Corvette, staring through the windscreen and checking out the cars ahead, I’m oblivious to who sits next to me. It’s a big, white full-face helmet of someone I have only briefly met. And yet, here I am, a true novice, surrounded by others not much better than me. Welcome to day one in NASA HPDE at Willow Springs International Raceway, or Big Willow, as it’s called. What am I doing here? What was I thinking? And then the cars roll out of the pits and onto a hot track, fortunately, under full-course yellow as protocol dictates.
The guy in the white helmet was my instructor, Tom, and I was in HPDE1. It was summer 2008, and after Tom slipped a pair of headphones under my helmet, we began conversing, and in no time at all he determined that it was a first for me, and I had no idea what to do. Yes, I was a competent driver and yes, I drove the nearby hilly roads pretty quickly, but that was not going to help me today. Barely driving above idling, we completed the first lap of what was only going to be six or seven laps for the first 20-minute session. From day one, the takeaways were that track designers really mess with your head and that yes, we were truly novices. And, oh yes, stay hydrated!
For the most part, I was driving a far-from-optimal line around the track simply because I was focused on the tip of the Vette’s hood. Fear? Disorientation? Walking into the mandatory download that follows every HPDE session, I was asked “How many flag marshals did I see?” How many what? What flag marshals? On a large track map hung on a wall, what was depicted on the map was almost unrecognizable from behind the steering wheel. But that is the point of HPDE1 sessions and why HPDE participants begin with the fundamentals.
As our group director, John, had said at the outset, “Be safe and yes, go fast!” and as much as he smiled at us, he knew we were all babes. The uninitiated. A gung-ho group of wannabes! The only question he didn’t ask was how fast had we gone because from his perch in the timing booth, he knew it, and it wasn’t pretty.
It is so much fun, no question about it, and NASA spares no expense to ensure our safety. The quality of instruction each of us receives that first time out is a fun mix of encouragement and chastisement, but through it all, a sense of wanting much more develops. So much so that the next NASA event seems so far away! On the trip home along the freeways into L.A., we exercised our newly developed skills. Perhaps the best instruction we received all weekend was situational awareness. And the biggest lesson learned that first weekend on track! Along with a newfound and sudden need to find a PC, that is, and to register for the very next HPDE event!