Finally I could make it to an event at my favorite track, Virginia International Raceway (VIR). It would be a chance for me to see what it was like to track a great handling, but low-powered car and brush out all the cobwebs that had accumulated in my high performance driving skills.
I had spent a good deal of time doing my best to sort out the Miata in preparation. The brake fluid was fresh and there was plenty of pad material. The car had been aligned and corner balanced a couple of times (thanks Performance Chassis!!) and I had decided to remove the rear anti-roll bar entirely. The tires were filled to the desired pressure with nitrogen and had been scrubbed in on the street.
My reservations were all set a hotel about 20 minutes from the track and I had all my clothes packed. I brought along a set of tools, a tire gauge, and a torque wrench to make certain the wheel lugs were on properly for every session on track. I also brought along four bright orange traffic cones to mark out my space in the pits. Finally I had a large box to leave in the pits to store everything and keep it dry, in case there was rain.
I set out for VIR Friday afternoon with a lot of thoughts going through my head. I’ve been going to this track since 1999 and feel that I know it pretty well. When you know a track you often will drive it in your mind quite a bit and from time to time on the way up I would do just that, thinking about specific corners such as NASCAR, Hog Pen, and the Climbing Esses.
I arrived at six, just as the gates opened and followed a long line of fellow HPDE enthusiasts in to the pit area where we parked and unloaded. For me it was not a lengthy procedure since I simply drove my track car to the place. I had to empty out my trunk and get such things as the spare tire, the jack, etc. All such things must be out of the vehicle prior to going on track. Loose objects such as floor mats also must be removed.
I packed the box that I had brought and put out my orange cones that defined the four corners of the area I would call my pit. In the very early days of automobile racing there were actual pits in the gulleys beside the roads that they raced on, where tools and spare parts would be stored by the teams.
VIR has some excellent facilities and the pit areas where vehicles are parked is basically sand so if you should be so unlucky to be leaking some vital fluids it won’t get on the road surface and cause everyone else a problem.
Many of the participants drove in with their rides on trailers and some trailers are open and some enclosed. People also put up large awnings so they had shady areas to work on their cars or just get out of the hot sun.
Registration began and so I signed the liability release form and received my wrist band, and a neck strap with a card with my name on it, a map of the course and a copy of the schedule for the two days. Tar Heel Sports Car Club (THSCC) sponsored the event and provided participants with plenty of information on how the event will take place.
With that out of the way I drove the Miata to the hotel I would stay at in Danville, VA. After a bite to eat I tried to settle down and get some sleep. Again I would spend a lot of time “driving the track” as I lay in bed.
Up at six and out the door in time to drive to VIR and be there by seven. A drivers meeting would be held thirty minutes later. I spent some time packing things in the big box in case it would rain. Then I used the torque wrench that I had brought with me to make sure the lug nuts were still as tight as they should be. THSCC provides a check list of items that should be gone over and it is a handy reminder of all the things that should be done. It was just about seven thirty and time to get to the drivers meeting. The THSCC staff went over the schedule of the day, some safety reminders, and answered any questions of the drivers. Then it was time to meet with my instructor. The instructors and student gathered around while one of the event staff called out names to match students with instructors. I located my instructor and we ambled off to my Miata.
This is a very important time where the two of us get to know each other prior to the first session on track. Remember that the instructor, up to this point, has little information on me. Am I going to be a new guy who thinks he knows everything? Do I have goals way beyond what is achievable?
I let him know that I had been to this track many times since I first started doing HPDE’s and that I purposely put myself in an intermediate run group because I had not been to one in about three years and was running a car that had never been on track before. He asked about what had been done to the car and what my goals were. Simply, I let him know that I was there to get used to the Miata as a track car and see how much I had to re-learn as a driver.
We parted and would meet up again after the morning classroom session. Yes, classroom education is part of what you pay for when you do an HPDE. Sure I was in a run group below what I had last been in and the classes would probably cover material that I was already familiar with, but it certainly was not a waste of time.
When class let out I went over to the Miata and put on my helmet. HPDE events require a certified helmet. It must be either SA2005 or SA2010 rated. This means no motorcycle helmets. Since I wear glasses I need plenty of time to make sure that they are settled in to the helmet padding and stay in place properly.
By the time my helmet was on the instructor had arrived and I squeezed myself into the driver’s seat and started clicking the safety belts in place. The Miata has a six-point system. Meanwhile the instructor got himself belted in and fed me a combination head phone and microphone to tuck under my helmet so that we could easily converse with each other.
The announcement for my run group came over the loudspeaker so I fired up the Miata and headed to the false grid. The false grid is where the cars line up and are checked before they are released on track. You sit there with your car warming up and it gives you and your instructor a bit more time to talk and get to know each other.
Finally the line was moving as the cars were released on track. We entered at the end of the front straight and turn 1 was ahead. Normally taken track left, we had to stay track right as if we had to merge with traffic already on the course. Immediately inside turn 1 is a flag station and the yellow flag was being displayed, which signified that we should treat this as a warm-up lap and not pass. On we went to turn 2, 3, and the tight left hand turn 4. Turns 5, 5A, and 6 allow for some nice side loads as you negotiate your way along toward the bridge straight. Then staying track right you enter the climbing esses getting used to the G-loads shifting side to side as you drive your way to the top. Finishing them is a sharp and blind turn to the left where you only have you memory to guide you. Clipping the apex on the left and allowing the car to move to track right as you plummet down hill to a hard right that leads you immediately to Oak Tree, the tightest turn of the track. Oak Tree is a sharp right hander that leads to the back straight where the road takes its time gaining altitude. The high powered cars love the straights and when we are not on a yellow lap they long for the opportunity to pass the low powered cars, such as the Miata, and scream down the straight.
You come to a rise and then the road goes down for just a bit and then rises again just before “Roller Coaster” – a set of turns banking to the right and then left with a short straight and on to “Hog Pen” were you turn left as the road drops underneath you – and just as quickly you must turn right and into a sweeper that leads to the front straight. The front straight actually has a bend to the right by the timing tower and then leads you straight back to turn 1. This time you are track left and getting hard on the brakes ready for the right turn of turn 1 that melds with turn 2, and off you go to the rest of the track.
While there was certainly some rust for me to burnish off in the first couple of laps I could tell that things were coming back to me. I still had to learn more of how to get the most out of this “momentum” car. I didn’t have a turbo to haul me through a corner with the Miata so I had to learn to carry as much speed as I could right from the end of braking and into the beginning of each corner in order to carry the car through.
Certainly in the first session I was making mistakes and my instructor did a great job of coaching me through. I progressed through the next three track sessions gaining rapidly and becoming more and more familiar with this momentum car. Both my instructor and I were very happy with how I was doing.
My last session on Saturday completed a few minutes before the rains came. I was fortunate as there was another run group after mine that was cut short as it got too slick for them. There was also a Time Trial session scheduled that was cancelled.
I made it to my hotel and some friends and I hooked up for dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Danville. It is great to be entertained by the chef while you get to enjoy some great food with friends.
I slept well that night although I continued to “drive the track” while was nodding off. In the morning I packed up and checked out of the hotel as Sunday was the last day at VIR.
The first session on track that day was a good one and my instructor felt comfortable signing me off to solo drive the rest of the sessions. It was great to get that approval and it is also nice to have the weight out of the car.
When I would drive my Mitsubishi Evolution around VIR I found that my gas mileage dropped to about 8 miles per gallon and I had to fill up after every couple of sessions. With the Miata a tank would easily keep me going for four sessions with enough to get me to my hotel. I also found that the brake upgrade on the Miata not only gave me an advantage on the corners, but they had so much capacity that pad wear was minimal.
I had a great time at VIR. I think I always do. It was nice to renew friendships with track buddies and enjoy some beautiful weather. By the end of the day I had really worn myself out, but in a nice way. Driving at speed really demands a lot from you physically. Much more than you would imagine. It also demands a lot from you mentally and you strive to improve every corner and every section of track.
Driving back home the realities of “normal” drivers on public roads really came home . Here I had spend two days dealing with high speeds in traffic with some very high powered cars, yet everyone managed to accommodate each other and knew that there were other drivers on the road. Back on public roads I immediately had to deal with people who drove as if there were no other cars on the road. Stopping abruptly, changing their minds about where they were going, eating food and talking on cell phones. Ugh.