I still remember how nervous I was before I took the test to get my provisional racing license. Hoping to get some encouraging words, I asked a friend for advice.
“Remember it’s not a race,” he said. “Just hold your line, stay out of trouble and remember you’re not being scouted by Al Unser’s team. Hold it back to 80 percent and everything will be fine.”
When we met our licensing instructor, he laid the test face down on the table where we were sitting. “Hello gentlemen,” he said. “My name is Barry Hartzel and I am going to be giving you the NASA provisional license test today. Before we get started, do any of you have any questions?” Ironically, another student voiced the words I heard earlier that morning.
“I intend to just go at 80 percent, so I don’t make any mistakes,” he admitted.
This was where I first saw the responsibility of earning a racing license in a new light. Without hesitation, the instructor stood up and said sternly, “If any one of you think you are going out on this track today with the intention of driving at 80 percent, pack your helmet and leave right now. If I even think for a second that you are not driving at 100 percent, I will send you home faster than you got here. Do I make myself clear?”
Hartzel, who is now a longtime friend, continued, “You need to see the whole picture of what is going on here today. When I sign my name on your provisional license, I am, in fact, telling every race organization, not to mention every other driver on any sanctioned track wherever you go that you are capable of driving door to door at speed on any given day in any situation. I do not owe you anything. However I do owe it to every other driver who races with you to trust that you have the necessary qualifications to be out there on track with them.
After we came off the track that day, I had no clue if I had earned my provisional. When it was my turn with the instructor, he looked me in the eyes and asked, “Well, how do you think you did?” Still a little nervous, I simply said, “Wow, now that was fun!” When I saw the smile in his eyes, I knew. “Did you know it was me who dive-bombed you in Turn 8?” he said. “I was impressed that you held your line.” Then he said those magic words. “Give me your provisional book so I can sign it. Congratulations rookie.”
That day I learned why it should not be easy to get a race license. Now when I race, I don’t have to wonder if the driver in the car next to me can drive door to door. I know what he or she did to get there. If getting a race license were easy, it would be a concern for me, my sons and all of my NASA friends. The only thing easy about NASA is getting started.