Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Racing School Repeat

Last year I participated in the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience (RWRE) at a half-mile paved oval called Motordrome 70 speedway in Pennsylvania (just off I-70 not all that far above Morgantown, WV). I had a great time and wrote about it in my blog at http://inquisineer.blogspot.com/2013/10/racing-school.html.

At the start of this year, I was alerted to another discount deal for the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience, this time at Columbus Motor Speedway (CMS) in Ohio. I had so much fun last year that I decided to do it again on a different track. Columbus is only about two hours away—there are no other tracks as close to my home which host such racing schools.

CMS is roughly a third of a mile long, with only about 10 degrees of banking, and it has virtually no straightaways. It is more like a circle stretched on the sides than a traditional racing oval with a front and back straights. Despite its small size and odd configuration, there is a lot of history there—it has operated continuously since 1945. I’ve watched a couple of races there over the years, and (as I reported in my previous blog posting) I got to drive a small four-cylinder “Legends” race car on it once.

My appointment was set for 8:00 AM Saturday morning—the first session of the weekend. In hindsight, I probably won’t pick the first session if I do it again, because I think there is some advantage to watching others on the track before you get out there. I arrived early, parked in the designated area, and walked over to the registration trailer to sign-in.

I decided to purchase the optional $60 insurance policy, just in case something might happen (indeed, a guy had crashed not on the race track, but at the conclusion of his session when simply coming through the pit gate during their previous visit to CMS—plus I knew about a couple of accidents that had occurred at Motordrome last year). However, I passed on their offer for purchasing a “ride-along” (where you ride in a special two-seater race car beside one of their drivers before you drive yourself on the track), or buying extra laps, or choosing the in-car video option.

At 8:00, we met under a tent canopy for the drivers’ meeting. The instructor carefully went over all the details for our track session. The track had already been marked off with tape markers at various points to indicate the proper groove to take, and cones were set at the entrance to turns one and three to indicate where you should get off the gas pedal.

RWRE is nice because they put multiple students on the track at the same time (a maximum of four at CMS), and allow you to pass each other if necessary. All the students can hear the instructor over the radio, and if you are faster than another student, the slower student is told “left and lift”—meaning they should go to the left of the groove coming out of turns 2 or 4 and lift off the gas pedal, to allow the faster car to make an outside pass on the straight stretch.

Once everyone felt comfortable with all the instructions, we went to pick up our drivers suits and helmets. Then we went to where the cars were lined up, and the pit steward assigned us to a particular car. I believe they base their decision on which car they think will best fit your dimensions—it’s not like the race car seats are adjustable as they are in a passenger car.

At your assigned car is an assistant to help you get geared up and ready to go. This person is a bit like a squire to a medieval knight, assisting you with mounting your steed. First, the official RWRE photographer comes by to get a few shots of you beside your car and climbing into it. However, I’ve taken my phone with me both times I’ve done RWRE, and each time my “squire” was willing to take a few shots for me.

Climbing through the car window and into the seat is no easy chore. Before you get in, make sure the front wheels are pointed straight ahead—you don’t want to attach the steering wheel later in what you thought was a vertical position and then discover the wheels were not properly aligned. Also make sure the crotch belt (to prevent you from “submarining” below the lap belts in a sudden stop) is not lying in the seat before you sit down. Then ease your way into the custom built seat and get comfortable. Check the pedals, instrument panel, and gear shifters (this is not a standard H-pattern single gear shift, but two shift levers—only one of which needs to be used). This will be your office for at least ten laps so get acclimated to it.

The squire will explain everything to you and make sure you are comfortable. Then you get your helmet on, the HANS device (a yoke to prevent extreme neck movements) is attached, the five point safety harness is buckled and straps are cinched, the radio speakers are slid next to your ears inside your helmet, the steering wheel is locked onto the splined shaft, and the window net is raised. Note that the steering wheel is much closer to your body than it is in a regular car—there is no power steering in these race cars, and so having it closer gives you more arm strength with which to steer it.

The instructor’s voice will come over the radio, and you reach out the window to give a “thumbs up” that you heard him. Then you turn the fuel pump on, flip the ignition toggle switch up, and push the starter button. The unmufflered race engine roars to life, and then rumbles along at idle until you are directed to pull out of the pits and onto the race track. Give it enough gas so that you aren’t embarrassed by stalling it, especially since you are starting off in second gear. Once you are on the track, even though you are still under caution, you can go ahead and shift into high gear. No more shifting is needed—just wait for the instructor to get everyone on the track and properly spaced out before the green flag flies (you don’t line up close together like a normal start to a race, but instead they put everyone at an equal distance from each other before starting).

Upon getting the command to start, you must focus intently since you alone control several hundred horsepower. Follow the tape guidelines as you drive around the track. Dive into turns 1 and 3, aiming for the apex. Then roll into the throttle coming out of turns 2 and 4, while drifting towards the outside wall. Stay in the gas until you enter the next turn. One of the biggest keys to success is to be smooth—don’t stomp the gas pedal, but gradually weigh into it coming out of turns 2 and 4, before hopping off as you enter turns 1 and 3.

While I was heading into turn 3 in one of my early laps, cranking on the steering wheel (with my left elbow down towards my left hip and my right forearm coming across the top) as I aimed for the apex, I got a bit of a surprise. As many race engines are prone to do, my car had warmed up enough (plus I was in the gas hard enough) to result in a loud backfire when I lifted off the throttle and rolled into each corner. It continued to happen several times until my time was up. I like to imagine seeing it from the grandstand with a big ball of flame rolling out of the exhaust—wish I could have had a picture of that!

It turned out there were only three of us on the track for the first session. We had started as a group of four, but one guy had purchased the extra “ride along” option, so he was given that opportunity just before the three of us went onto the track. Both of my fellow drivers were considerably younger than I was—one was probably in his 20s and the other in his 30s. I’m guessing from their attitudes that they thought they would be fast and that I was an old guy who’d probably be in their way.

I quickly had caught the first car in front of me, who was given the “left and lift” command to allow me by. As soon as I got past him, I set my sights on the next car and quickly reeled him in as well. Having passed both of the other cars, I just worked on pushing harder. Before my ten laps were up, I had lapped the first car I had passed. I felt good about winning the race on behalf of old guys everywhere.

Of course, RWRE doesn’t put an emphasis on winning or losing. They don’t even bring a radar gun or timer to provide evidence of how fast you are going. It isn’t about finding the next big racing star—it is just about giving the average fan a taste of what it feels like to drive a real race car. It feels really good to me! In fact, I wished it hadn’t ended so fast—maybe I should have purchased those extra laps.

After bringing it to a stop in the pit area, your squire helps you get disconnected and climb back out of the car. Then you head over to return the helmet and driving suit. By that time, they have souvenir pictures of you made at the trailer that you can purchase; along with other mementos from the day you drove a race car.

As I left the track (in my Prius), I was still on “Cloud Nine.” It was a real adrenaline rush for me. My arms knew they had received a good workout that day, wrestling that race car through the turns. I wasn’t out there long enough to develop any blisters, but the next time I sign up for something like this, I think I will bring along my own pair of gloves, just to enhance the visual effect. After all, real racers don’t drive bare handed!

I had a blast and look forward to doing it again someday. I hope that I can maintain my health and continue to do adventures like this for many years to come. It is a way to keep my youth by revisiting my childhood dreams. If you have an interest in auto racing, I’d strongly encourage you to give this a try.

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