Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Starting My Race Career at ProFormance Racing

Well it was quite the day yesterday. There was a late-March winter storm warning in effect for the entire Seattle area, gutters and mountain passes were being overwhelmed with near record levels of rain and a heavy snow, people were busy rustling through the first day of the wet work week, newscasters were reveling in the storm's stories and I was out at a race track near Covington, Washington to thrash my 2007 BMW Z4 Roadster around a soggy race track for the first time--ever.

Yeah, I was pretty lucky. There are a lot worse things I could have found myself doing. I had been looking forward to yesterday for quite some time; some would say my entire life but I will say a confident and solid 10 years. At the end of the day I became certified to solo lap at Pacific Raceways, Seattle's biggest road-course track. This is the first step in the long road to amateur and professional auto racing and I am finally, officially on the road!

The basic steps to becoming an amateur (and maybe a pro) racer are as follows. One must first obtain the basic skills necessary to race safely around a track with other cars (rules, car control basics, etc). After you've received the absolute basics (generally from an accredited driving school) you spend a LOT of time practicing your skills with other drivers and their everyday cars on a track without engaging in any real "race."

Once you've practiced your skills aplenty, you are eligible to enroll in a race licensing program. Once you complete one of the many qualified programs you can start basic bumper-to-bumper racing in a pre-designated class. As you get better and better you can add to your licenses and move into different car classes and driving series. From there it is just a matter of having great natural talent, honing your skills and deciding in which car class or series you want to make your mark. In the end everything really comes down to how much time and money you have to spend. This is the road I will be following from now until, most likely, the day I die or heaven forbid have my license revoked. I'm itching for the next step now!

As for my experience yesterday, it was everything I expected it to be. I've done a couple of auto-cr
oss events before and been the passenger in a few more but it didn't come close to the experience of running my car, full-speed, as fast as I can go around a road course with a dozen other cars. While I had a race instructor with me the entire day, it didn't detract from my experience or ability to push the limits. The instructors at ProFormance Racing were extremely knowledgeable and forgiving. They had the right advice at the right time but knew when to let you experience failure for yourself. There is absolutely no better way to learn.

Our day had quite the structure but it all worked out quite w
ell with very little down-time. We began with an 8:00am class session to learn the basics of car control and track etiquette. From there we all (a dozen of us) jumped into our cars, most of them daily drivers, and headed out to the track. The school had set up a number of exercises that we had to repeat until success before we could move on. There was a high speed slalom course, high speed under-steer simulation, emergency braking familiarization and an obstacle avoidance challenge. All of the exercises were extremely rewarding but reasonably familiar to me from my years of being stupid behind the controls of fast things.

Once we successfully completed each exercise we met again in the classroom for a recap and introduction to track lapping. On the way back to the classroom one of the student drivers who had rented the school's Lotus Elise for the day slammed it into a safety wall at a 30mph and did over $6,000 in damage! I was in front of him and saw it all in my rear view mirror. While the accident wasn't dramatic it was definitely something you wouldn't expect to see. Thankfully that was the only accident of the day and that is saying a lot for how treacherous the conditions were.

After our recap we broke into two groups of six, were fitted with helmets and radios, partnered with instructors then shuffled back out to the track for our first lapping session. I was in group two and waited while group one completed their first 30 minute session. During that time we watched the other drivers and were given pointers by the lead instructor, pro racing driver Don Kitch Jr. I soaked everything up. Before we knew it it was our turn to drive.

I thought I was very familiar with the limits of my car (again testing the limits in ways and places I probably shouldn't be) but the experience on the track was like nothing I've known before! This is the essence of my experience at Pacific Raceways in my Z4...

Coming out of turn eight at speed (roughly 70 mph) I lined up to hit the apex of turn nine (the last one before the straightaway) which is right at the corner wall of Grandstand "A." As I
approached the apex of turn nine I put the "GO" pedal to the floor and ran through the gears tearing onto the straight and across the start/finish line. As the turn-in cone of turn one quickly approaches I am doing 125-130 mph in sixth gear, I turn slightly and ease back on the the throttle to blast past the apex of turn one towards the downhill entrance to turn two. It is a 125 mph downhill run as I go HARD on the brakes into the entrance to turn two downshifting to third gear while blipping the throttle to keep the engine speed in check. As I wrapped around the wide and steady second turn at 85 mph I realized my tires had a death grip on every bit of asphalt they could find to keep me from running off into the gravel. The core of my body is doing all it can to keep me relatively centered in the seat. As I approached the late apex of turn two I eased on the throttle and as soon as the cone was in my driver's side window I planted my foot into the floor and opened up the steering towards the exit of the turn. Speed comes on out of turn two like a growing tsunami but the force is seamless. As soon as I hit the exit I'm back up over 100 mph and flying over the ridge to turn 3a and 3b. I can smell my brakes baking. The same process is repeated through the rest of the two plus mile course with some turns being much more technical and some requiring just the right amount of four-wheel drift to keep things pointed in the right direction. It is an assault of the senses with a concentration level higher and more defined than ever before. I can't get enough. Each lap I got faster and more consistent in my lines--apparently I have a natural ability to race.

Each group had completed three track sessions by the end of the day plus the earlier car control exercises for a total of about two hours of track time. It was excellent. For our second two sessions a dozen or so experienced, solo lapping drivers came to join us so I was able to run with a ZR1, 430 Spyder and 911 C4S. W
hat was more amazing is I somehow held my own and was never overtaken! As for weather, the first session was drizzly and damp, the second dry and the third a complete soggy monsoon so I was fortunate to gain experience in all of the possible conditions. I also learned a lot about my tires, mainly that it is quite difficult to hold an 85 mph 180-degree turn with summer run-flat tires. I still have to work on that one.

As for my car, it too did fantastic. The brakes held up after nearly 60 miles of at-speed track time, I still have some tread on the tires and nothing has fallen
off or gone "clunk." BMW, you really are the ultimate driving machine. Even my instructor commented on how nice the stock tires and suspension setup felt on the track--I agreed.

From the whole da
y and experience this is what I've taken away. Everyone should take a course like this with their car. Even if you don't want to race, don't like racing or don't know what racing is, you have a much more profound understanding for your car, how it works and how you can drive IT rather than have it drive YOU. If you are interested in racing, this is the first step and a must do. Summer is approaching and the racing season is starting. Now is the perfect time to get started. I can't wait for the next lapping day where I can run solo and really melt my brake pads away!

This is going to be the addiction and disease I always knew it would be but I'm glad I finally got started. Now it is time to think about the next car, something faster and more track-worthy, a Z4 M Roadster maybe? How about an E36, E46 or E92 M3? Who knows. There is also the possibility of a dedicated track car in the near future, E30 325 or M3 anyone? Oh, the choices are endless and so must be my pocketbook. I still have to work on maintaining the latter before I can do anything else but now I have something defined to work for!

- Mitch G


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home