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Track Day Insight

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  • Track Day Insight

    On the eve of the second weekend of NASA Norcal's NASA Se7ens Challenge, I'd like to share with you the impressions of a Se7en first timer from last month's event at Infineon. Other than making me look a lot better than I really am, it really gives the flavor of what we're trying to do here and give a sense of what you're missing if you never get your Se7en out on a track. Those on the fence with regard to Buttonwillow - take note!


    Hello gents.

    Yesterday I experienced my first track day courtesy of NASA HPDE. It was
    a fantastic experience that I'd like to relate as an encouragement to
    those of you who have not taken their Stalker to a track. Sorry if I'm
    a bit wordy.

    The experience started a few days ago in a shaky manner. A friend
    e-mails me, asking if I was ready for the event. I respond "sure, the
    car's running strong, I've got my approved helmet and am ready". He asks
    if I've had my inspection done. Inspection? I ask. Yeah, you don't
    expect them to let you on the track in an unsafe car do you?

    Well the long and short of it is that I had to install rear roll-bar
    braces, add crankcase ventilation, roll-bar padding, rebuild my hatch
    cover, Install the complete 5-point harness and a couple other things. I
    finished at 2:30 AM Saturday morning - just inches from throwing in the
    towel. Would the experience be worth it? Level 1's just a yawning
    follow-the-leader, right?

    After about an hour of sleep, I staggered out of bed, prepared and took
    off for the track. The 43 degree air effectively erased any cobwebs I
    might have had from the night before, and I arrived at Infineon (Sears
    Point) at 6:30. The car easily passed tech and I jumped in for the
    driver's meeting. Holly crap, it was a middle-aged white guy convention.
    - a big one! There was a smattering of young guys and a couple women,
    but I realized that I was smack dab in the middle of the demographic. I
    chuckled, wondering how many of these guys would admit to having
    "midlife crises".

    The lead instructor was a great guy, with something like 40 years of
    racing experience under his belt. He spent about an hour with us -
    mainly talking rules and etiquette, but also going over lines, passing,
    slick spots, flags, et cetera. We then broke into four subgroups, were
    introduced to our personal instructors and turned loose. My personal
    instructor was Woody Harris who runs Birkinsport and has raced
    intermittently for thirty years, including some pro racing in Europe. He
    turned out to be nothing short of fantastic. Knowledgeable, encouraging,
    occasionally scolding. I took to calling him Yoda.

    My first 20-minute session was fun. Sears Point is a great track with
    multitude of turns and elevation changes, including a couple of blind
    crests followed by turns. It was good fun. Not especially fast. I was
    allowed one pass, but mainly focussed on learning the track - proper
    lines, braking points, camber changes and what have you. Exhilarating
    to be sure. A bit more fun than I'd expected. The seven contingent
    (Mainly Birkin, with a Caterham thrown in for good measure) was very
    fraternal and welcoming. There are 2:15 between each of the four
    sessions, which gave me a chance to watch other students and race
    classes with a newfound appreciation of what they were doing.

    The second session started about the same, but after a few minutes I
    realized that Woody was encouraging me to push it, pass where legal and
    really come hard out of the turns. I did so and entered a new world. I
    gotta say. Autocross is great, but there's something different about
    coming out of a long descending sweeper with a broad runout at the
    bottom, where you just lay into into the gas, redlining in third, and
    reaching well into fourth with the rear end drifting slightly as you
    feel the ragged edge of traction and your testicles kinda suck in; that
    little guy on your shoulder reaches asks what you're made of? Are you
    man enough to hang on long enough to pick off that M3, or are you gonna
    back out? The end of the short straight arrives as you slam it down into
    third, start your turn while ignoring the false apex at the start, then
    clip the berm on the true apex while preparing for the chicane ahead.
    This is strong, heady stuff. Somewhere Hemmingway is saying that there
    are only three true sports - race car driving, rock climbing and
    bullfighting. The rest are merely games.

    At session's end I am babbling like a fool knowing that I am now well
    and truly hooked on the go-fast crack pipe. Woody is saying nice things,
    while simultaneously giving me things to work on and tips to take in.
    It was clear that apart from one young hotshoe in a Misubishi Evo (280
    HP, 4wd) I was the fastest guy out there. At the pre-run debrief, the
    Evo driver is given a mild admonishment for over-agressiveness, but
    otherwise the lead instructor is encouraging as well. Ironically the
    slowest guy in the group was a fellow with a brand new Cobra replica
    who was pretty overwhelmed by it all.

    The third session is much like the second. Some friends show up and say
    nice things. My instructor tells me to run the final session solo.

    The final session is my sloppiest. the car is slightly faster without
    the 200 lbs. of the instructor, but a little looser too. I forget some
    of his lessons, and without his guiding hand signals find myself
    making mistakes, almost spinning the car after one of those blind
    crests, and repeatedly overcooking the turn where my friends were
    located - no doubt earning myself some ribbing in weeks to come. It's
    still great fun, but also a reminder of how much more I need to learn
    before I can call myself a "racer". As Woody approaches in the pits my
    first words are " sorry coach, I let you down". His response is a saying
    jokingly that his friends were calling him a liar for having talked me
    up. After a final briefing we retire to the post event b-b-q and a
    couple cold ones. An hour later, having made new friends and being
    inducted to a radically new experience, I wearily climb into the car and
    head home.

    The car was phenomenal. Woody seemed impressed that a car could perform
    so well with almost no tuning and custom setup. It truly is a thinly
    disguised race car that's also street legal. I'm amazed that something
    that I built could work so well, and smoke cars costing four times as
    much. Dennis has proven once again the quality of his design and
    execution. My hat's off to him.

    You guys have to try this at least once. To not do so is to not truly
    know the car. - To have a thoroughbred that never exceeds a trot. The
    cost is very reasonable - something like $180 for 80 minutes of track
    time - most of it with a personal instructor, plus the classes, b-b-q
    and access to a great facility. - Not to mention a very nice and
    supportive group of compatriots. Please pardon the hyperbole, but that
    was truly one of the top experiences of my life. Thanks for listening to
    my ramblings.

  • #2
    First Timer's Tales of outright giddiness!

    Hi Woody,

    I'm looking forward to meeting you and Pierre at Buttonwillow. Despite having raced (okay, somewhat sporadically) for over 30 years, this will be my first time at Buttonwillow, and I'll say the butterflies are the same as when I attended my first ever SCCA driver's school at Riverside in the early 70's. Back then, Danny McKeever was my instructor. His mantra then, as now is committment with smoothness.

    Most may not recognize who Danny is, but they certainly have heard of his students. His Fast Track school at Willow Springs instructs all the drivers for the annual Toyota celebrity races at Long Beach!

    So in a couple of weeks, like your first timer, I'll drive my Seven to the track as I've done countless times in the past. I'll set up a pit space, unload my car and apply my racing numbers. I'll listen carefully during the driver's meeting for any special conditions or circumstances, and then it'll be time to go do some driving. It's going to take some time to get acquainted with Buttonwillow's intricacies. Hell, it's going to take time just to get used to the general layout! 3.5 miles and over 30 turns? You're damn right it's going to take time! But from the challenge there's a huge personal reward when the pieces finally start to come together and you get into the flow.

    From the first timer's description, you sound like a good instructor. I'm personally looking forward to meeting you to talk about Seven related series and events, and hoping your experience will help me learn this track! And then in the afternoon afterglow, we'll eat some barbeque, drink some brew and bask in the satisfaction from our teriffic times at the track! See you soon.

    Best wishes,