The Hard Way Formula For Learning Wheel-to-Wheel Racing

While I don't usually seek out the easy way to do things, I also normally don't seek out the hardest way either. When it came time to learn real, wheel-to-wheel formula car racing (which is already pretty hard)...I think I found the hardest way possible...

Most of you already saw that Fred, Alex, and I went down to Pocono's North course back in March to go to Bertil Roos racing school. Alex and I could only stay for the 3-day program. But Fred stayed on for the final two days after that. It wasn't crystal clear back then, but if you want to get your full SCCA or NASA racing license, you need to do the final two days. The first three days are learning to drive the formula car and very limited passing. The final two days are all about passing - controlled passing, then open passing. And then you qualify and run two real wheel-to-wheel races. The two-day final bit is where the stuff gets very real. To get a real license, you need to do some real racing.

Fred did an amazing job down at Pocono, coming in second in both of his races. Amazing stuff. Fred is straight up awesome. It killed me to have to leave and not get to do it with him. After getting back home, I checked the schedule and saw that Bertil Roos was holding another school at New Jersey Motorsports Park's Lightening track May 12-13. I begged. I groveled. It wasn't pretty. But finally my amazing wife, despite all the good judgement she naturally possesses, let me sign up for it. I'd have to go it alone. Fred has done it already and Alex was tied up with work.

I'm glad I don't think so much about these things in advance. I'd just signed up to drive six hours each way to a track I'd never even seen before to race against a bunch of folks who had already been there driving on the track for the prior three days. And I haven't been in the formula cars for a month. No pressure or anything. On top of it, Lightening isn't too old, but it's a pretty popular track and lots of people have pretty good experience on it already. I was definitely fighting from way behind.

Luckily, I wasn't the only moron to sign up this way. Brad from Virginia came on up. He was easy to meet because he's a big Porsche guy. A somewhat quiet guy, Michael, was there for the the 2-day too, but I think he had been to the track before. Brad and I were starting from nothing.

I was assigned to Vince as my instructor. I like Vince. He's a man of few words but he sees everything. All you have to do is ask and you'll get the info. I can work with that. Vince's other student who I'd be spending some time with was Dan. Dan is all of six foot nine and a mechanical engineer in a chemistry R&D lab. Really nice guy. Dan was camping at the track in a pop up - takes guts - and was there for the full 5 days. 

First order of business was getting to know the line. We rode around in the Malibu's. And we hopped into the slide cars (still love 'em! although they are a tad less fun when you're generally terrified about what you're doing!) to see what it might feel like at speed. That went by real quick and we got into the Formula cars for some practice lapping. I wasn't too slow out of the gates and managed a best of 1:22.5 once Vince cut me loose. The toughest bit was that there was a mini river running through Turn 3. Water was coming up from under the track through a crack in the surface and then running down the inside camber. It was on such an angle that going through it straight on was almost impossible. So the car would give you a big wiggle both at the river and again in the next turn, Turn 4, each time you went through since your tires were now wet. To say it was nerve wracking is a bit of an understatement. Quite a few folks were getting very loose in there. And the #10 car was starting to look like it should be prepped for ralllycross based on how much mud was getting caked on it's surfaces from off-track agricultural excursions.

I was pretty lucky to have a car all to myself so I didn't have to worry about my car getting lobbed into the mud by the person sharing the car with me. Dan wasn't so lucky. He had rocks rolling around in the footwell of his car during one session. But he was a great sport about it all. His wife had given him race school as a gift and he was having fun.

Until he wasn't. Near the end of the first day, Dan spun coming out of Turn 4 - probably wet tires from going through the river - and ended up coming to rest facing oncoming traffic. We were doing an instructor-led passing drill at the time (instructor passes you then a few corners later you pass the instructor - to get comfy with the idea of full speed passing in an open wheel car). Vince got around Dan without much difficulty. But another car behind must not have been looking far enough ahead. By the time that car got on the brakes, it was too late and went into a spin and contact was made. No one got hurt, thankfully. But the poor machines were very much worse for wear. We'd already had a car throw a rod earlier (it was #6 - one of the cars Alex and I shared at Pocono) so cars were getting a bit scarce. And six foot nine guys don't fit in just any car either. So it was a huge bummer. I only bring it up because it shows this was absolutely real racing. And it was difficult to see the faces of the two guys involved without getting hit right in the feels. I bring it up because caution and control became my new buzzwords for the rest of the time. 

After the incident, the first day ended without us being able to get everything done we needed to do. That would pack day two with a boatload of extra stuff.

I did my own track walk that evening and then got some chow with a couple of the instructors, Earl and Taylor, and Tom, the videography provider. Such nice guys. Always fun to talk cars and racing and life with folks with the same interests. I got back to my room in the Villas at the track at 9:15pm to find that the previously unoccupied top floor of the two-story condo I was in was now occupied. And occupied by folks who liked to play their TV really, really loud. I couldn't escape it. The Villas are, apparently, echo chambers with no insulation between the floors. After banging on the door to try to get them to turn it down with no luck (it was so loud they couldn't hear me!), I called the customer relations folks and asked them to help me out. By 10pm, it was clear that no one was going to do anything. I poked my head out my door and found that their door was open. Had to take matters into my own hands if I wanted to get some sleep. It was either that or check out and into some other place at 10pm, which I considered. 

I carefully went up the stairs to find a man and two teenagers prostrate on some couches listening to their infernally loud TV. I tried to calmly explain that I was racing in the morning and asked them to turn it down to human levels. They were probably shocked enough that someone would come barging in that they basically complied. I crawled into bed and got some sleep. At 2am, they apparently really, really needed to walk all over their place above me and bang drawers open and shut and make enough noise to wake me from deep slumber. After that, it was pretty much a lost night of sleep. Just what you need when you are about to do something rather terrifying the next day...

Now, you're probably thinking, "what is so terrifying about this car racing thing, especially when he says he likes it so much?" Let's lay it out: I was still new to the track and not feeling perfectly comfy with it yet. I was getting used to the cars again having only spent three days in them prior - and these cars with non-sychronized gearboxes are rather tricky to drive. You're basically laying down so the driving position takes some getting used to. The steering wheel is this tiny d-shaped thing. Everything is manual - steering, brakes, etc. You bang your hand on each gearshift and your shins hit the steering linkage when under braking which barks your shins each turn. Oh, and the wheels are open. So if you get wheels caught up with someone else, you're going airborne. Everyone else had, for the most part, already been there for a while and gotten a bit comfy. And the worst bit - the second day was going to see some rain. Like, real rain. That little river in Turn 3 was going to get way bigger. In an open-wheeled car with minimal body work...drivers get very wet. Visibility goes to zero. The track becomes more like an ice skating rink with the occasional huge hydroplane-y puddle patches. Oh, and you go quite fast usually. Oh, and it was also Friday the 13th!

So what's there to be afraid of? I was....uh...very scared and nervous. And I'd just seen the consequences of making wrong decisions out there, first hand. So maybe terrified would be more correct?

There's something about going into battle knowing that you're probably not going to come out unscathed that seems to lead to some "gallows humor." When there were no coffee cups in the briefing room on Friday morning...that humor came out full blast. I had no sleep and was now going to be doing some final practices, then setting a best time in qualifying, and then running two real races. I really needed that coffee!

The morning was misty but not too wet. We got our practices in without much incident. We did the instructor-led passing drill and I did ok with it. Then it was time for qualifying. I went out with a favorable starting spot (first) for the qualy session and I quickly put a 1:23.8 on the timer. I mentally knew that I'd be happy with anything under 1:24 so I ran a few more laps, didn't improve, and came in because it was starting to rain a bit. Figured I'd quit before anything went wrong. The second group did qualifying and the fasted times were 1:19s. I knew I was off the pace, but I was way too out of it to really get worked up. I was busy trying to make sure the day got done in one piece. Dan was seriously mentally damaged goods at that point. So was the guy who banged into him. And it was really hard not to be pretty affected by it.

I got switched to Group 2 from Group 1 to even out the numbers so I got to watch my prior track mates get after their first race efforts. It was starting to drizzle a bit at that point. After the green flag waved for them, the two lead cars immediately went off right in the first turn! The field went on through and the fastest guys fought their way back the whole race. Lesson here: the track was really slick. Like glass. Or ice made from glass or something very slippery.

When it was time for our race, the rain started really coming down. I had a sinking feeling I was about to get very wet. I was very right. As we did our practice starts, it was just bucketing down. There were sheets of rain coming down on one end of the track and it was much lighter on the other end of the track. Dennis, head honcho at Bertil Roos, would later say that these were the absolute worst conditions possible because of this variability. I don't argue with Dennis. By the time we got lined up for the real race, I could feel the cold, wetness seeping through my race suit and into my clothes under the harnesses. Every lap became rather torturous with cold water, zero visibility from either rain or spray from the tires of other cars, and the track was a nightmare of oversteer. Out of any turn, just touch the throttle and the back end was coming around on you. At what felt like 20mph, I was getting serious opposite a formula was insane. Every time I passed start/finish, I was praying the checkered flag would be out. That happened for at least the last three laps. I was so relieved when it was over. "And you do this for fun?" you ask? Yes. Yes, I do.

I was ridiculously timid out there that first race. Because I was terrified. I started fourth and came in fifth. And fifth was last. My best lap was something like a 2:07. If I cared, I might have been embarrassed. I didn't care. I survived it. I didn't spin. I didn't crash. I did what I set out to do. Call me simple, but I was happy it was done. I had a moment where I thought twice about doing race two. But I came this far. I wasn't going to quit now. Just one more.

Group 1 went out for their second race. It was still crazy slippery, but they kept it mostly in check. One poor car just kept looping in Turn 7. After the first black flag for him, his race was pretty much over. But everyone soldiered through to the end.

Our group got set up for our second race. I was already soaked through at this point, so the rain didn't matter. But I didn't want to be last again. I had to start in last place this time, though, based on the prior results so I'd need some luck. Through all the rain sheets, luck smiled on me a little and the fourth place car spun (in Turn 4, of course) right in front of me. I had a mix of "oh, sh*t" in my head and "oh, boy!" as I tried to figure out how to not hit him and whether I could gain a place from it. I got around safely due to some decent work on both of our parts and gained a much needed position. After that, I put on my big boy pants and got my foot in it on the straight. I carried so much speed into Turn 1 on one lap that I very nearly lost it under braking. I seriously thought I was going to lose it completely. Luckily, the back end of my car couldn't decide which way it wanted to come around on me before I could finally gather it up and turn in. That was a code brown moment, for sure. I pushed hard into Turn 7 too that go 'round. I got all four tires locked up under braking once going in. Luckily it was early enough that I had time to back off and still make it out before taking a tour of the local weeds and shrubbery. I think the leader and eventually winner, #3, lapped me, but the guy who spun never came back around me so I knew I had at least not come in last this time. And I'd take that as one of my bigger victories when this many cards were stacked against me. 

At the final debrief, Dennis let us know he was very proud of the fact that there wasn't any car-to-car contact or hitting-of-guardrails on the last day in the worst conditions imaginable. We had indeed survived. I got my paperwork that will allow me a full SCCA or NASA license. Not even a provisional status. I am now officially a real formula car racer. One of the things I've wanted since I was about five years old has come true. Not in the way I would have ever imagined. But the box is checked. And I feel like I had to really earn it.

I also learned that wheel to wheel racing has very defined rules of engagement. You need to respect and work with your fellow racers to make sure everyone comes out ok in the end. There will be very racey and aggressive folks. And there will be more laid-back folks like me. Everyone has to work as a team out there even though we are all competing for positions for it to be as safe as possible. That is, perhaps, one of the biggest revelations I got from this exercise. It really is a group effort despite being considered an "individual" sport.

Once again, a huge thanks to the Bertil Roos staff and crew. The mechanics really saved the day, constantly changing tires, changing body work bits when they get caked with dirt and mud, literally changing motors on one car, and repairing a fair bit of damage from even the little things like going off into the dirt. The instructors were very patient with us, goading us on to better things wherever possible. Vince very kindly and consistently pushed me to be a bit more brave in the wet, something I desperately needed. And the humor and camaraderie of the staff was obvious every time you got to be in a sedan with them listening to the banter over the radios. You laugh and learn. And it gets you through the fear and trepidation. 

And thanks again to my family for the opportunity to accomplish a huge life goal. I hope I'm setting a good example for them. They certainly are for me.

I don't yet know where things go from here. I'm going to bask in this one for a little while and think things over. What an experience!

3 responses
What an experience! I admire the way you managed this 2 tricky days. In comparison, the 2 days in Pocono were a walk in the park. For Fun, I had the same experience the night before the race day. Some young ones decided to turn the room next to mine into a night club at 1 am... The episode lasted for a couple hours, including banging on the door, dispatching the security guy from the hotel twice, before they I could finally sleep!
Thank goodness for adrenaline or we may not have made it through. I'm impressed you had enough adrenaline left after 5 days to pull it off! Maybe Bertil Roos is testing our stamina by putting the party-oriented instructors next door to us late at night...
Amazing, my respects Sterling!