With intense determination I had decided to fulfill my dream of driving on a road racing track with a high performance car that I had developed myself. I had raced in autocrosses when I was much younger, back in the mid-seventies. An autocross is where a relatively short course is laid out in a parking lot with traffic cones and you are timed as to how quickly you can negotiate it. Since the course is fairly flat it takes an abrupt, aggressive driving style to be competitive. Road racing is very different. The distances you cover are much longer, at far higher speeds. Road courses can be very much like a road you could find yourself on if you were in the countryside, it’s just that everyone is going in the same direction and there are no police to ruin your day.
I had spent about eight years getting my car to the point that I felt it was worthy of a road racing track. The car was pretty impressive from the factory, being all wheel drive and turbocharged. I improved on it with substantial modifications to the suspension and the engine. By the time I was done I was ready and anxious to achieve the goal I had dreamed of for decades.
The track I chose to fulfill my dream was Virginia International Raceway. It is about an hour from my house, just over the state line from North Carolina. It is a beautiful rolling layout that is over three and a quarter miles long. It is both intimidating and exciting.
I invested a good deal of time in preparing mentally for the experience. I had friends who had been on the track themselves. I asked them many questions about what I would need to do to prepare the car and myself. They emphasized that I should make my brakes the best they could be, and that getting familiar with the course itself was the best preparation. They also had videos of laps on the track taken from cameras mounted in driver’s cars. I watched these as often as I could. I flushed and filled the brake fluid and made sure I had the best pads possible. My tires were nearly new and quite sticky for non-race tires.
That spring I went to four separate events. Each event consists of two days of track time where you get three to fours sessions of track time each day. These can last from ten to fifteen laps. You have an instructor that sits in the seat beside you to get you familiar with the track and coach you through the turns. I was extremely fortunate to have an excellent instructor for my first track event. His name was Alan Giles and he was a native of Winston Salem. Alan had a very down-to-earth, yet effective way of getting you past the initial shock of all the new information you found yourself confronted with. He had thousands of miles of experience at VIR and was the owner and driver of one of the fastest cars there.
Driving a car on the street, even when you think you are driving fast, has little to compare with driving on a race course in one way and yet a lot in other ways. At the speeds you find yourself driving on the track, your view of the world becomes very narrow your first time out. You are concentrating so hard on taking your turns correctly that you start to just focus on what is immediately in front of you. You are working harder at driving than you ever imagined you would have to. At the end of your first session you find that even though it is a cool day and the car widows have been open the whole time, you are drenched in sweat. It is exhilarating, but demanding in ways you never imagined. You struggle to pull all the pieces together and you have small successes that let you know that you really are learning. You learn new terminology of track left and track right, and rolling on the throttle, and what hand signals to give and get. You have to learn not to narrow your perspective and to look far ahead, even though you have yet to negotiate the corner right in front of you. You learn to maximize your acceleration, but that it must be done judiciously. You learn to coordinate your steering inputs with braking and accelerating. You learn that you can be aggressive but you must do it gently. You learn and you learn, but most of all you have the most fun you have ever had in your life.
My second event was on a smaller variation of the course, but it was just as exciting. So was my third event. On my forth event it was for the full course and I was excited to reprise the experience. By that time I was comfortable with the track, myself, and the people that attend the event. These people welcome you into the family with open arms. They understand how it feels to be new at the sport and make sure that you don’t forget the social side as well. There are always new folks at each event as well as some that you meet on previous occasions. It is especially nice to meet people that you have met at previous events.
It was between track sessions and I was checking out the mechanicals of my car in order to prepare for my next session when there was a flurry of activity. The active session was red flagged and the emergency equipment went out onto the track. Apparently someone had screwed up going in to turn one and ended up in a barrier fence. There was not a lot of details at the time, but we all hoped that no one was seriously hurt, if hurt at all.
The situation was rectified and cars went out on the track again. I had to prepare for my next run so I didn’t get a chance to find out any more about the shunt. It wasn’t until after my session that I found out what had sent the emergency trucks out on the track earlier in the day. I was walking over to the building where the classroom and restrooms were when I saw a guy loading up his stuff and preparing to trailer his car which now sported a mangled front end.
I guessed that this guy was close to being eighty and the word disappointment did not do justice to his state of mind. I asked him what happened and he said he was not sure, that he just didn’t make the first turn and slid off into the barrier fence. I suddenly realized that here was someone who loved his time on the track as much if not more than I did who had to confront the fact that it was likely that he would never be able to enjoy it again. The reality of age, and all it takes away, could no longer be put off and that his future track events would be run only in his memory. There was a dejected melancholy in his expression that reflected the emotion that must have been overwhelming to him.
In our time as children we are anxious to get older, to enjoy the things that we feel only the adults can enjoy. As we exit high school we are in our prime and feel that we will live like that forever. The feeling is a combination of invincibility and apathy. We just wish we could have all that we are ready to enjoy. A couple of decades more and we are still doing okay, but we start to notice that we don’t have the resiliency that we used to have and our eyes are starting to need some help for some of the close stuff. A decade more and we are frustrated at the age of the carcass we are trapped in. Our self is still at the place we were in our twenties but we must deal with the shock of the container we see in the mirror.
This has been described as a “mid life crisis” and perhaps that says it best. There is a lot we can do to eat right and live right, but the clock will continue to tic. As each minute passes we need to savor the time that has just passed and the opportunity it has provided.
It is a cruel reality to face that time has handed you a notice that you cannot ignore.