Stuck Between the Road and a Tire Wall
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
As car people, most of us like to drive ours cars to the limit on the public roads, but it is risky there. An empty B road early in the morning may seem like a safe bet, but the world is full of variables. A deer could leap out in front, a person may be going for a run, and depending on how fast you are going, a police officer may be waiting down the road to write you a big-fat ticket.
Public roads are simply not satisfactory enough to fill the void that really is within us. We are all just kids imagining we are the race car drivers we admire, but we have access to more legitimate toys now. We are closer to being them, but we aren't them, and nor will we likely ever be. However, for those brief moments that we are accelerating past cars on the highway, or heel-toe downshifting before a tight bend, we are transported to the driver's seat of Colin McRae or Jeff Gordon (two of my childhood racing icons).
At some point, we have to pull the trigger on a track experience. There are many options to get your racing kicks, whether it be a driving school like Skip Barber, or a hot-lap with an instructor. However, be warned - it is a rabbit hole deep enough for Bugs Bunny and all his Looney Toon friends.
For those fortunate enough, one can join the driver's club of a performance car manufacturer such as BMW and Porsche, that allows you to push your car to the limits in an organized fashion on a closed race track. They are great ways to build a connection with your streetcar and truly learn the dynamics of the car. That's the problem though. After a few sessions you will realize that your car, despite how engineered it is for performance, will be too soft for the track. Two things either happen next. You accept it's limits and enjoy it for what it is (usually not the choice), or start modifying your car to be more "track-focused".
If you do not completely catch the bug and dive into the deep end of this hobby, you likely are driving your car to and from the track, and often still enjoy taking it for a rip to get some ice cream at your local creamery. This leaves this lingering fear of pushing the car past its, or more likely your capabilities on track. You do not want to crash your car, but you know you could go faster! It is a tough place to be. You have come so far to be closer to a professional racecar driver, but no matter how far you get into it, you still are not. It is a race car driver's job to drive a car to its limit, and if they crash, it is just part of the effort to win a race. You on the other hand are not. You likely have a job during the week that helps fund this obsession. There is no winning, and no reward for being the best. If you crash the car, you pay for it (unless you get track insurance every time), and you presumably do not have another one as a back-up. Additionally, if you get hurt, you are impacting your livelihood.
I have learned that it is important to be conscious of these things, but that lesson came the hard way. About two years ago I crashed my father’s 996 C2 Porsche on Lime Rock during a driver’s education (DE) day. It was my first DE in a long while, and my first since racing in 24 Hours of LeMons. While DE is not a race, the confidence of having been “racing”, and having the opportunity to be in a better car on a track with 80% less cars got the better of me. Thankfully the car was not too badly bruised. I was fortunate to walk away with only cosmetic damage from the driver-side ricocheting off the wall on the inside between Big Bend and the Lefthander after a cliche Porsche 911 pendulum pirouette (yes, most people go off to left at this point in the track, I found a way to do the opposite). Up until recently I had actually blamed the car for this mishap. I felt completely under control at the time and was stunned when I found the car the wrong way-round. In my mind, this was the first time I had driven the 996 on track with the new set of coil-overs on the car. I believed that the transition from the rumble strips with the new stiffer suspension had upset the car more than I anticipated. Therefore, it was clearly not my fault.
I have learned now that I should not have been pushing the car to that limit in the first place for many factors, such as, it was not my car, it was not a race, I had not driven the track in a long time, I had not driven the car with that setup, and most importantly it was not my car. It is worse enough to do it to your own car, but one should never want to come close to stuffing someone else’s car. Again, in that moment the possibility of it occurring had never crossed my mind. I have since confessed to my father (who was there watching at the time) that it was my fault and apologized again, not because it had happened, but that I did it.
Look, the thrill is 100% worth it, but it is entirely worth it to sacrifice 25% of that thrill for 25% more safety and caution. I was in a race car driver’s mindset. However, I was and still am not a race car driver. I highly recommend that any car enthusiast attempt to get some track experience to better understand car dynamics and handling, but be forewarned - you either need to be conscious that this is a hobby and have a healthy sense of restraint before each session, or accept that you are going into the deep-end and are prepared for accidents to occur. To some that is just part of “racing”, but take time to meditate on that fact and determine if you are one of those people.