Shortly after returning home from my track days at VIR a sister of mine called to find out how it had gone. I related some of my experiences and she then asked if there were any women at the event. I replied that there were not many and none in my run group. She asked if I thought it was because it demanded a certain amount of bravery. I thought it was a very interesting question and I gave it a bit of thought before I answered.
No I don’t think it is a matter of bravery or courage, but I understand why that is what people outside of the sport focus on. I know when I am standing near the front straight and watch the cars scream past me traveling 120 to 140 miles per hour or even faster that the thought that runs through my head is that they must be f*cking crazy or incredibly foolhardy. But when I am in my car doing the same down that straight, being afraid is very far from my mind and I certainly don’t consider myself particularly brave.
What I do feel is confident. The kind of confidence that comes from experience and learning what my car is capable of, what I am capable of, and what the track will ask of the both of us.
I had been to VIR four times previous so I was familiar with the corners and the environment. I had enough experience with HPDE (high performance driving education) to know that what I really needed to concentrate on was learning the best line through each corner, perfecting my execution through those corners so that I was smooth and flowing all the corners together until I had achieved a rhythm that made the most of the track and allowed my car to perform at its peak.
I was not mesmerized with the accomplishment of seeing how fast my car could go down the straights. It has about 400 horse power to the wheels so I knew that it could propel me down the straights with great alacrity. It is not a challenge to just put my foot down and rocket down a straight. For me it is the corners and the straights are just the time in between the fun parts.
Corners ask a lot of you and take no pity on the brash or abrupt. It is a continual balance of three major actions – turning, braking, and accelerating. Your tires are your only contact with the track surface and while you can do one hundred percent of each of the three actions at any one time, you must split the percentage available to you if you need to use more than one at a time. You can use 100% braking after rocketing down the straight and getting ready to enter a turn, but you must reduce that 100% demand on braking if you also wish to turn into that corner. You need to gently bleed off the braking as you turn in to the apex of the corner and roll on to the accelerator to pull yourself around while you share that 100% with your need to turn the car to face the next corner.
In order to achieve the most speed through the course you do your best to perform these transitions as quickly and smoothly as you can. You also must deal with traffic on the track as well.
The first time you try your hand at an HPDE event you will be struggling to absorb everything that you must learn. You will struggle to remember every one of the many corners and the unique qualities of each one. You will focus on the apex of every corner that you are trying to learn and as you do so your vision will narrow and you will not even realize it. You will drive from point to point and see little else but the tarmac of the track. If you have a good instructor they will help you recover from your tunnel vision and get you to look out and ahead. You cannot go fast unless you teach your mind and body to make the most of its senses and vision. Awareness is such a big part of going fast.
Once you open up your vision and begin to learn your corners and the line through them you will be hit with the variable of traffic. Yes there will be cars coming up behind you and they will be expecting to get a signal from you allowing them to pass as soon as you reach a passing zone. There will also be cars ahead of you traveling slower and taking a different path through the corners. You must not be mesmerized by the traffic in front or you will find that you are following their line through the corners and not your own. This is not formation flying – you must determine the best line through each corner and stick to it no matter what the other car is doing. That does not mean that you blindly crash in to the guy ahead of you. It just means that your job is to execute your line and not the other guy’s.
In my first day’s session I wanted to get familiar with the track again. I could picture each turn in my mind and had “driven” around the track in my head several times, but there is nothing like doing it from the driver’s seat. There are always changes in the surface, especially after four years. I also had to learn the best line around the track. I was fortunate to have an excellent instructor to help me through this. I knew that to do this it would mean that I would be having several cars passing me as I concentrated on the corners. I had to leave my ego in the pits and let them by knowing that my goal was a longer term success.
With my instructor’s help I was able to improve by leaps and bounds until there were only two corners that I needed to perfect. That’s not to say that I didn’t have to keep working on all the other corners, I did. Negotiating a track at speed is a matter of trying to achieve perfection. You are constantly making “mistakes” – on not being absolutely “perfect”. You must realize what your mistakes are and how you could do “it” better, but not lose you focus on the next corners coming up.
The track’s coefficient of friction is constantly changing, your tires are changing, the weight of the car is changing as you use up fuel, the weather is changing, and it goes on and on as the variables add up. You adapt on the fly as the way you transitioned out of a particular turn doesn’t work quite the same way as it did prior. You cannot lose your concentration nor get bogged down in a past mistake.
Driving fast successfully is demanding mentally, physically, and emotionally. You must keep yourself hydrated and as fit as you can.
At the end of the first day of sessions on the track I spent some time on the skid pad. This is a large area of asphalt that has a white circle painted on it and is sprayed down with water from sprinkler heads. The idea is that you build up speed going around the white circle until either the tail end of the car come out or you start to plow forward instead of continuing to turn. While I waited in line for my turn I watched rear wheel drive cars slowly accelerate until their car turned tail happy and the front wheel drive cars start to understeer to the point that they would plow straight. Each driver would use this event to learn how to recover from the unwanted transition.
Finally it was my turn on the pad. An instructor got in on the passenger side and asked if I knew what needed to be done. He had me get on the white circle and accelerate the car. Around and around I went, building up more and more speed. The car would lean and just keep going around the circle. Finally the instructor would have me make harsh inputs into the steering or the accelerator to induce over- and under-steer. When the car twitched off line I would quickly correct it and return to driving the car around the circle. We ran in both directions until my time was up and then I drove back toward the entrance and to where the crowd had been standing a watching the spectacle. Their eyes were wide and some mouths were open and I wasn’t quite sure what the reaction was from. Later they told me that as I went around the circle faster and faster the inside rear wheel lifted off the ground and just stayed suspended in the air. I never felt a thing but plenty of traction.
The second day at the track was wonderful weather. The rain from the previous day was gone and the sun was out. The track would be getting nice and sticky. My instructor and I went out for my first session and made sure that I remembered things I had learned the day before. The next session I again focused on perfecting a couple of troublesome corners and my instructor was very happy with my lines and the smoothness I was able to achieve. At mid-day there was a parade lap where helmets would not be required because speeds would never exceed 65 mph. My instructor encouraged me to go out on the parade laps and practice my lines at a lower speed. It was excellent advice. With high speeds come additional demands and variables in timing and I really wanted to focus on “the line” so the slower speeds allowed me to do just that. I noticed as I followed traffic on the parade laps that most of the drivers took a lazy line that was not a racing line. I ignored their line and stuck to mine perfecting my muscle memory of every turn.
For the third session I went out and did a couple of laps when my instructor asked me to return to the pits. We pulled up onto the false grid and he said that I was good enough to solo and left me to drive the course on my own. That was a great feeling of combined freedom and some added responsibility as I was completely responsible for my car now. Out I went, making sure that I retained the discipline of sticking to the proper line and managing traffic around me. I was able to do a lot more passing and had developed a satisfying rhythm around the track. When the session ended it was back to the pits and I was feeling ever so satisfied with my self.
That afternoon was the forth and final session and it was one where I could also drive solo. I had about a third of a tank of fuel left and had the course mapped in my mind and body. I lined up on the false grid and waited my turn to be waved on to the track. Off I went toward the first turn and all the others to follow. My rhythm felt smooth and my overall speed was increasing. Soon I passed the fastest car in the run group, a new Corvette Z06. I continued to pass others in the group and while I felt very pleased with my self I knew that I could not let myself be foolish enough to be distracted either. I stayed focused and continued to progress. I cleared some additional cars and headed down the front straight to turn one again. I then hit my line through turns two, three, four, and five accelerating through the short esses. Then I ran out of gas. Not quite mortified, I was certainly frustrated. I also knew that it meant that I had been going considerably faster than at any other time. A third of a tank would have been sufficient in an earlier session, but when you go fast your mileage drops off dramatically. Where I would get 17-18 miles to the gallon around town, on the track it was more like 7-9. At that rate a gallon of gas wouldn’t get me much more than two laps around the track.
I pulled the car off to the inside on to the grass and sat as traffic sped past. I think I was more concerned that I might have impacted their fun on the track by forcing a yellow flag to be shown in the section of the track that I was stopped on. In a moment the session was over and a couple of trucks came out and, after they made certain that I was OK, they towed my car through an access point toward the pit area. With my car at an angle I was able to get enough fuel to the pickup and the pump so that my car would start again. I crept to the track’s fuel pumps and filled up. Others in my run group asked if I had serious mechanical troubles and were happy to find out that it was just an empty gas tank. The driver of the Z06 came over and paid me a fantastic complement when he told me that he felt I had a very fast car, that I was a very fast driver, and that it was a pleasure to share the track with me. Wow – I didn’t know what to say but I did thank him.
It was great to be able to play hooky and be hosted by the Tar Heel Sports Car Club at what is probably one of the best road racing courses in the nation. It allowed me to confirm that all the modifications I had performed on my Evolution had actually improved the car’s capabilities; that, in four years, I had not lost my capabilities; and that VIR was everything I had remembered it being – and more.