Retiring from HPDE

“One thing Lewis Hamilton has in common with every other racer is that his career will end. Mine pretty much has,” wrote Ross Bentley, author of “Speed Secrets” in a column published in the September 2019 issue of Road and Track. “Some drivers are content when they are no longer racing. Others are not. I fit into the latter category. I wish I could say you get used to it, but you don’t.”

My time with NASA has been solely focused on moving up the ranks of the HPDE program. After nearly a decade, I became quite content circulating in HPDE3 and so, racing was never a part of my vocabulary. And yet, like many of you, I can fully understand the sentiment expressed by Bentley as I too contemplate retirement from HPDE.

On my last outing with NASA Rocky Mountain, I did participate in one HPDE3 session where the group instructor had us form small groups as we approached Start/Finish with the inside car dictating speed as we lined up in pairs. The green flag was waved as we passed Start/Finish and we all had to sort it out among ourselves as we navigated our way around the first turn of High Plains Raceway. It sure felt like a taste of racing, and I have to believe that racers live for this kind of adrenalin kick. But now, HPDE3 was fine for me.

As for the ending, well, yes, following an outing with NASA last year, I am retiring. My wife Margo and I have been traveling a lot lately, so that’s our focus now. I’m walking away from HPDE, but I feel I am all the better for having been a part of the group. Working our way around Southern California tracks with NASA SoCal and then Sonoma with NASA NorCal, and then tracks in the Rocky Mountain Region, my wife Margo and I saw a lot of track time even as we saw a lot of you! And we learned so much. HPDE, after all, is a learning process, and very early on we became fully aware that it’s serious business being on track if you want to get better with every outing.

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What did we learn and what really influences our every outing in any car we take onto the highway today? When we thought about it initially, it came down to being aware that to go fast, you need to be slow! By this I mean when you first begin with NASA at HPDE1, the slower the car you have the faster you will learn and improve. So, what car did we take to these outings in the first two years?

A C6 Corvette coupe that we had supercharged! Brilliant! The problem is that wrestling with the car hid so many of our faults that ultimately it took us a lot longer to progress. In the meantime, that elderly gentleman in the Miata had progressed to where he was circulating with the TT group. Like almost every other life lesson, start small and take baby steps.

The second biggest lesson we learned had to do with that all too familiar object we found directly in front of us: the steering wheel. As absurd as it may sound, it’s not until you really start to learn tracks as you progress from HPDE1 to HPDE2 that you realize that a steering wheel is not a support object. It’s not something you hang onto through turns. It’s what allows you to nail apexes. Turn and improve. Be timid and you will take all year. It’s there. Learn to use the bloody thing!

Situational awareness is another skill we developed in HPDE. In the months we have been away from NASA, there hasn’t been a day where one of us isn’t pointing out drivers who just aren’t paying attention. Situational awareness is all about safety and being able to manage situations by knowing how to manage your vehicle. This is what NASA HPDE instructors bend over backwards to instill in each of us, and it’s something that never leaves us.

It was Steve McQueen’s character in the film “Le Mans” who famously said, “Racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.”

Well, Margo and I were never racers, and now, stepping away from the monthly outings is proving hard for me to adjust to, especially now that we have a 2018 BMW M4 with a double-clutch gearbox.

It’s a fun a yet a sensible car, but again, the paradox is leaving the track to head out on the highways, and finally we have selected probably the best tool with which to approach the task of driving safely. I wonder if Margo would notice if I were away from the house for a couple of hours, and would she really notice the M4 was missing? Oh, yeah, she would. Unfortunately, she has an app for it on her iPhone!

Ultimately, NASA HPDE is all about the people, and it’s hard to ignore that the camaraderie extended to us could not have been any more enjoyable. We had our moments, and there was acrimony at times, but that too is all part of the intensity of track weekends. If you don’t bring passion, then why come at all? Enthusiasm masks many faults, but ultimately it is the enthusiasm for track time that ensures we progress.

It seems appropriate then that I finish with a quote from my favorite book, which has now been made into a film: “We had a good run, and now it’s over; what’s wrong with that?” Garth Stein, “The Art of Racing in the Rain”.

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