I’m strapped in tightly, grasping the wheel harder than I know I should, flying through the Dog Leg at Buttonwillow Raceway on a scorching Sunday afternoon. I can see the tail end of the car in front of me disappearing quickly toward the horizon, and I absolutely do not want to let them escape. While my logical brain is calculating that if they can go that fast, then I can go that fast, my overactive sense of self-preservation is waging an internal campaign. I find a moment to mentally repeat the mantra, “Never lift.”
I first saw this expression on the dashboard of a racecar, in all caps, affixed front and center, printed in black on white label-maker tape. At the time, I didn’t recognize the significance of a seemingly trivial, and somewhat comical prompt.
Race starts in competition school were aggressive, with everyone vying for their piece of track in what is undoubtedly the most thrilling exercise, but the bullet train that is a real flying race start had taken off so much faster than the practice starts in comp school. I had been lingering toward the rear of the field in my first official race start, and I was behind before the flag even dropped. Regardless, I am driving as hard as I dare, still uncertain of where third gear actually is, much less the true limits of this car, and as the pack enters Riverside, I hesitate slightly in stomping right foot to floor.
In my failure to go flat out, and in my second of hesitation, as the others gained easily two, three, four more car lengths, I suddenly understood what that “Never Lift” sticker on the dashboard really meant.
Initially, I thought it was absurd, and so it may be better expressed as “Never Coast.” Upon acquiring the skills required to race, and in racing it becomes a simple truth, and one must grasp, hold, wrestle, and dance with this mantra to race.
Ascending the ranks of HPDE requires development of car-control skills, a feel for the limit, speed, smoothness, breadth of perception, visual acuity, and swift application of good judgment on track. The transition to racing requires all these elements, but amplifies the need because any delayed response results in being left behind.
Racing the No. 77 Spec E30 car of Shawn Meze, running in ST6 at the back of the pack, the flood of thoughts in maintaining focus and the extreme level of consciousness required was striking. Yet I still had the capacity for an overwhelming sense of gratitude lingering in my mind like the Buttonwillow dirt that once stirred will not settle — and that gratitude remains with me, still.
It did not matter that I was slow, or that I knew I would finish last, because I was finally racing, and because so many people did so much to help me reach this moment.
If it were not for Shawn Meze, I would not have had a car to race, and if not for his encouragement to push, and ensure everything was in place, I certainly would not have raced. If it were not for Steve Stepanian so graciously “loaning” me fresh Toyo tires, I might not have had tires to race on. If it were not for Ryan Keeley and Peter Oneppo, I would never have been able to borrow a HANS from John Artz, who loaned me his, and I might not have obtained the correct HANS post anchors, affixed them to my helmet, or had fuel in the car, or managed to get myself in the car and situated to take on my first race.
Seeing the white flag, I reflected on the minutes before the race, as I sat sweltering on grid, waiting for the start and feeling somewhat tense, I spotted Phil Usher. I first met Phil at Buttonwillow in 2017, and throughout HPDE he always sought to teach me, give honest and critical feedback when necessary, but he always made the experience fun. As he strolled up to my window, he offered a smile, asked if I was OK, and reminded me to have fun. Throughout that final lap, though still focused, I reminded myself to enjoy the moment, to embrace this amazing opportunity, to relax and have fun.
Suddenly I was passing the final flag station before Sunset, a quick downshift, turn-in, apex, track out, upshift, and then the Start/Finish, checkered flag waving wildly. I had completed my first race. When something so long anticipated finally occurs it often takes time to process it, and in retrospect I realize I had been waiting for this moment for more than 20 years.
There were so many people who helped me that day, and throughout my time in NASA, and while I regret that I cannot thank everyone here, I hope they all know who they are and what their knowledge, support, and guidance in navigating this sport means to me.
In the days following my first race, I recounted the moments a hundred times, and during the subsequent weeks I scrutinized my lap times mercilessly. I can forgive myself being slow for a time, but have every intention of moving forward and finding the edge of adhesion in an actual racecar. Admittedly the Spec E30 felt miles beyond the capabilities of my partially completed, but still mostly street car, Spec E46 build in progress. Though I have experienced what a much better driver has done with my car, and look forward to the challenges ahead, I still aim to savor the journey.
My first race was only possible because of all the people, some of who seemed to materialize at the moment most needed, to form an impromptu team, and from the goodness of their hearts and a mutual love for the sport, they provided me with access to the means and support to race. This amazing and wonderful team is the best part of NASA. They are the force, the humanity and spirit, always moving forward, defying limits, pushing themselves and each other to be their best, but also to enjoy this rare time we have in racing. The extraordinary lap times laid down by these warriors will continue to remind me, “Never Lift.”