Venturing out onto a road course in a street car that very first time is a lonely experience. All that brave talk just a short time ago fades quickly with the realization that you are now on your own, and you have to be on your best behavior. There are no bystanders to impress, just lessons to be learned and mistakes to be eliminated. On the other hand, this should be a piece of cake, because my wife Margo and I have been car aficionados for decades and have always liked to drive fast. Then again, the math worked against us — everyone around us was of an age that they easily could have passed as our grandchildren.
We decided from the outset that this would be a joint endeavor. We would each drive one day per weekend, with me taking the car out Saturday, and Margo taking it out Sunday. Sounded fair, but as the drama unfolded each weekend, there was more than one instance where I finished Saturday with a car that wasn’t track ready anymore, leaving Margo with nothing to do Sunday. It wasn’t long before we switched days, but even then, the outcome was obvious. We were taking twice as long as our fellow car aficionados to progress through HPDE because our seat time was halved. However, the really good news is that even as we worked at our craft and took it all in, we were developing friendships with those around us.
There is a reason you see NASA racers clustered around similar cars each weekend. There will be the group of racers who have come to compete in Mazda Miatas, all talking about one Miata characteristic or another. Elsewhere there will be a row of Camaros competing in the Camaro-Mustang Challenge. The atmosphere is a lot different from the F1, Indy and ALMs races I’ve been to, with every participant only too happy to help out one another. On track and racing for those tiny trophies on offer each weekend, it’s often a different story, but around the paddock, it’s all smiles.
In the time before we venture out onto the track for what might be our first time, we have probably talked already to some of our fellow participants. More than likely, we have strolled by those participants who have turned up in vehicles similar to our own. Regardless of whether they’re owners of momentum or torque cars, bonding among participants happens pretty quickly, such that by the end of our first year, Margo and I already counted as friends more than a handful of regular participants who readily opened up about the car they had brought to the track and the amount of experience they had accumulated. We begin telling tall stories about how fast we were on this track or the other and how we must change our brake pads to this or that product or perhaps, throw away an outdated OEM suspension in favor of adjustable coilovers! All good fun.
But here’s the thing. Something will go wrong, and the more skilled you become and the more you press your street car, things will most definitely go wrong. When was the last time you checked your power steering fluid? And yes, you can boil this forgotten fluid with R-spec tires pretty easily, as we found out! Simple things like tire punctures and overheated engines are all par for the course, but then again, if you run out of gas on track, you deserve to lose at least one session for the day! Making friends and engaging in conversation is perhaps the best way to become more knowledgeable about the capabilities of your own car. And when something goes horribly wrong on the track, it becomes a lot easier communicating with those around you when you are at ease with their capabilities and knowledge.
Most important of all? Try to make friends with those driving a similar car. Ask them about their experience. Where are they having difficulties and where are they doing just fine? There will always be questions about how fast you went, but the real questions concern the basics — braking, turn-in, exit, track out — so, if your peers are talking about late apexes for safety, then maybe they are worth talking to. If they cautiously introduce the topic of trail braking, perhaps there has been something you have missed.
On the other hand, if all they want to know is whether they can run in HPDE2 before lunch and then move up to HPDE4 by the end of the day, then give them a knowing smile. Unless they are a hot-shot karting champion, the odds are that they may not have the kind of advice you are looking for. Yes, going fast safely means communication, so get to know and then assess all those in your group. It will come in handy during that afternoon’s third session. You know, that session after you snacked on carbs for a couple of hours and became lax with your hydration routine. Then again, if you are slacking off, with friends around you, there will be plenty of input to process when it comes time to pull on your helmet, and it may have little to do with your car.