I gave the brakes a light squeeze as I hit the bottom of the hill, and then pinned it as I aimed for the apex of turn three. As I progressed throughout the day my pace quickened, but this time it was a little too fast, when suddenly the back end of the car was passing the front and I was spinning in a $120,000 cloud of dirt. Boy, did I have a lot left to learn.
(Full Disclosure: Simraceway wanted me to take their school so bad, they said yes when I asked if I could come and let me borrow a racing suit, shoes, and helmet. They also didn’t yell at me for, or make me clean, their car that I spun into the dirt.)
Ok, so this was actually my final run of the day, and it was a mistake that I made because I’d actually progressed so much that day that I was accessing higher levels of driving. But we’ll get to that.
I have no idea how I end up in the driver’s seat of some things. Lately, I find that a lot of things sound like fun or good ideas, but I don’t really give it much thought until they hand me the keys or until some dude is strapping down my six point harness, telling me the more it hurts the better off I am.
That’s how I felt last Tuesday morning when, after I’d been told to put on a racing suit lacking far too much leather, I was being strapped into a car I was told would pull three G’s. I found myself here because someone at Pirelli thought it would be a good idea to let me drive a Formula One car soon, and I needed to learn me some things.
The only person I knew with much race car experience was my buddy CJ Wilson, and he told me there was only one place that could get me ready for something as maddening as F1 - the Simraceway Performance Driving Center.
I was in the Formula 3 Racing school, stage one, which was held at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California. There were eight or so students sitting beside me that morning, and three instructors as well as a handful of mechanics and track staff.
Like any good race school, the class started with some assumption that you have basic skills to operate a car with moderate skill. No one here was going to need lessons on what a manual transmission was or the concept of race lines. The first session of the day began in the class, where they went over the controls of the car (ignition, fire, the sequential gearbox and getting into neutral, etc) as well as some of the basics on the car.
Then, we were out to the track, getting strapped in for an acceleration/deceleration drill on the drag strip. This was when it sort of hit me that they were about to let me drive this thing, and I had no idea whether I was going to be able to get the thing around the track at all, let alone with some speed. As we pulled away for the first time, I began to formulate excuses in my head for why I hadn’t been able to get around the track to drag strip with the rest of the group.
Down at the drag strip, we were to wait until the car in front of us had gotten out of harm’s way, accelerate to fifth gear until we hit the brake markers, and then stop as quickly as we could without locking up the tires. We were also told we needed to do so using the heel/toe method to blip the throttle for the downshift. Yes, that does seem like a lot and yes, I was pretty sure I’d be found out as a fraud. Fortunately, everyone else was managing the race gearbox (read: very abruptly engaging) like I was, but by the end of the drill I was getting the hang of it even if it require slamming my knee into the side of the tub to get my blips right. As long as I could ignore the aroma of smoking tires, I felt almost decent.
To my surprise, no one questioned whether I should be allowed to stay. The rest of the day followed along with a similar pace, with different techniques taught in the classroom, and then drills or lead/follow time on the track. The school shares a building with an Audi driving school, and the instructors drove a variety of Audis (with a Mustang and a Camaro mixed in here or there) for the lead follow drills. Keeping up with them, as they slipped the rear ever so slightly over perfectly executed apexes had my confidence in the toilet by lunch time.
To make matters worse, we spent the second part of the day on the skid pad, practicing a method of braking that slid the rear around just enough to help with sharper turning. I’d share my GoPro footage, but all you’d really see was me doing not too shitty half the time, and spinning out the rest. I’ve always used the gas to initiate a slide in cars, but with cars this light and susceptible to having their balance changed via brake and gas inputs, I started to get it just a little by the end.
After some more class time and another lead/follow session, we were done for the day. That night, as I hung out in my borrowed Airstream trailer lodged near a power outlet by turn one, I practiced the movements for blipping the throttle as I pictured turns from the racetrack while sipping tequila to numb my sore hip and tailbones. It was clear that my motorcycling background gave me an advantage in some areas, but I was not nearly as coordinated with my feet as I needed to be. Fortunately, I’m a big fan of sucking at stuff - because learning to suck less is what life is all about.
The next morning, the first autumn winds shook the trailer, waking me up sometime just after dawn. I made my morning butter coffee and went out to walk the track - still mesmerized by what the cars were capable of should I be able to get my body and mind to comply. By the time class was beginning, I was chomping at the bit to get back out there - at least once my Asprin began to throbbing of my bruised tailbone.
They told us we’d get our chances to drive the track on our own today, which was exciting since the instructor car’s pace had begun to feel too slow rather than too fast by the end of the previous day.
But first, we were to head back to the skid pad and drag strip, to re-work on the initial drills. As we blipped and skidded our way to a stop down the drag strip they were far more critical of our downshifts, but for the most part it was business as usual.
The skid pad, on the other hand, had been given a twist with a new set of cones we had to to negotiate on the course. The previous day’s course was simply two circles at either end, like a long oval track we had to initiate a slide while turning around. This new gate was set in between the two and to the inside, so our new course was shaped like a kidney bean (you can see it in the upper right of the picture above). This meant more precision, a later apex, and better throttle blips with the extra turns. To make matters worse, it began to sprinkle.
My first session, before it got really wet, actually went moderately well and I was finally starting to feel and control the slide as it began to happen. The second session had me spinning in all sorts of circles, although the instructor was pleased that they were finally from brake initiated slides instead of ones coming from too much throttle on the exit.
Finally, with my confidence once again down around middle school Sean levels, it was time to see what we’d learned. No instructors. No pace cars. No rules.
Okay, that’s a lie. There were still rules. But, it was time for all the students to go out together in half hour sessions of track time and there was little chance anyone would see me passing under braking. At the point we’d been in small groups ranging from two to five people for various drills and sessions, and it dawned on me that I hadn’t driven around some of these guys, many of which owned track cars, and they might just drive circles around me.
They sent us out in waves of three with a pace car and to reinforce the lines (because it’s really easy to follow the lines when you just have to follow the car in front of you and don’t have to think about it yourself) and then turned us loose.
I was given the go ahead to pass the instructors Audi RS4 mid lap, and felt humiliated as I completely blew my entrance into my first solo corner of the day, completely overshooting the entry to corner 9A. “Easy does it man, you’ve come this far, don’t blow it now,” I told myself as I ran through the gears until I was mid fifth gear and passing brake markers into the hairpin of turn eleven.
Several turns later, a saw a rear spoiler miss a line around a turn and I punched the gas. I needed to pass at least one person to feel okay about my performance. I couldn’t come here and let all these guys beat me.
This may be one of those areas where my moto background helped me out, but driving a Formula Three car fast requires being okay with chaos and feeling very exposed at very high speeds. I attribute the next 25 minutes, and the constant lapping of my peers, to nothing other than my moto background and my youth.
But I was moving and I was moving fast.
Mercifully, the checkered flag finally came up and my heart finally resumed activity as normal as I pulled into pit lane. I popped out of the car, with sweat dripping down my beard muttering nothing but “holy shit,” as I glanced around the faces around me. As my gaze turned to each one, I noticed we all had a similar expression that said “I can’t believe I just did that, I can’t believe I was just allowed to do that, I can’t believe I wasn’t atrocious at it, I can’t believe it was so tiring and so painful, I can’t believe I have to wait before I get to do it again.”
With some confidence under my belt, and I was more than ready when it came time for the second and final round of free driving. I made sure the tech helping me strapped me in extra tight, and I made sure to take note of the other guy who seemed to be lapping quickly, with the hopes I’d see him on the track.
“Worry about your own car,” came the wise words of an instructor when I asked who else was doing well. I nodded, half realizing he was right and acknowledging why I’d come here and half blowing him off with the hopes of being the fastest. I’ve been called a little too competitive once or a dozen times.
For our second time out, the track really began to make sense and the rhythm started to flow. Each lap got a little bit faster as I worked on the corners I’d been struggling with, and everything seemed to slow down in the way things do when you transition from surviving something to trying to excel at it. We’d gotten part way through the session and I was beginning to get confident as I tackled the various sections- but that’s when it happened. I had been working towards driving flat out through turn one and into turn two, and I’d gotten it just about right before making my way into turn three.
And then, all of the sudden, I was backwards in a cloud of dust praying that I wouldn’t knock any of the fancy carbon fiber bits off this beautiful machine. My heart dropped into my stomach and I hung my head, feeling the specks of dirt come to rest on my neck. Corner control let me know when I was clear to get back on the track and I head to the pits so they could make sure the car was fine. They cleared me to go back out, but by that time the checkered was being waved and the day was over.
Turns out, the issue had actually come from my driving well. I was reaching speeds where loading the car was incredibly important and, as I peaked the hill slightly faster than my sphincter was comfortable with, my letting off the gas unloaded the rear while I was still coming around a bend and the rear spun out from behind me. It was actually basically the same technique we learned during drills we’d done at the skid pad, although this time I definitely failed to control it and it was at the wrong time. Despite the normal desire to slow down a tad when we get a little scared, giving the car more gas would have had sorted me out perfectly.
After the rest of the class had their turn teasing me for my over enthusiastic performance, we head to the classroom where the instructor compared every piece of data from the cars imaginable to his data from the track. Compared to his data, I was a pussy on the throttle, was not stabbing at the brakes and then letting off as I slowed, and was missing my down shifts. More accurately, compared to his data, I was downright terrible.
But. BUT. I’d managed a lap of 1:42 compared to his 1:34, and was still getting around 20 seconds or so faster than the guys in the Audi R8. And, to make matters a little better, they told me I was one of the students ready for slicks and for the Stage 2 school.
I still sucked, but holy crap did I suck a whole lot less. And that’s just alright by me.