I’ve been doing more and more track days and autocross events over the past decade, and there has been one common thread to all of the times that I’ve put wheel to track:
I’ve started the day with a raging hangover.
Why would someone go to a racetrack and risk thousands of dollars in damage to a beloved car (and possible bodily injury) at anything less than 100% physical and mental capacity? Because I have good friends who live reasonably close to all the racetracks in the Mid-Atlantic region. So I stage my travel from a friend’s house, and inevitably there is catching up and drinking the night before.
This time I swore it would be different. No hard alcohol would cross my lips, and I would be at the Starting Line SCCA Autocross training event at Bader Field in Atlantic City fresh as a daisy and ready for action.
And so I did as I promised: no boozing on Friday night. I merely stayed up until 2:00 AM catching up with my old friend who I had not seen for at least… a month. Tech inspection was set for 7:30 AM, so I had to wake up at 5:30 in order to have time to shower, shave, eat breakfast, and travel the one hour down the Garden State Parkway to Atlantic City.
My alarm app went off at 5:30 sharp. Shower? Shave? nobody will see my face inside the helmet! snooze. It went off again at 5:40. Breakfast? Overrated! Snoooooze. At 5:50 I dragged myself out of bed, threw on my racing suit (shorts and a t-shirt… this is only Autocross, ferchrissakes) and hit the road. At least I had the sense to top off my gas tank the night before.
Bader Field is on the bay side of lovely
Newark-by-the-Sea Atlantic City NJ. It’s a disused airport that now has a minor league baseball park and acres of empty tarmac just begging to have cones sprinkled about for automotive fun. Which is exactly what the South Jersey chapter of the SCCA does, at least once a month during the racing season. This weekend was to see one of the regularly scheduled Autocross races on Sunday. But I was there on Saturday, for the all-day Starting Line Autocross class. For $325 I was promised a full day of training that would slash many seconds off of my pathetic dilletante’s lap time, plus add a year to my SCCA membership and give me free entry to one South Jersey SCCA autocross. Presumably they were expecting that the students would stick around for real event the next day, but I was on a time-limited kitchen pass because my elder child’s high school graduation party was on Sunday, and if I was not there grilling for the relatives I could pretty much kiss all my motorsports privileges goodbye forever.
So there I was, sleep-deprived and looking forward to a long day of hard driving followed by a 2-hour slog back home before a major life event party. Irresponsible, you say? I say “what kind of a father would I be if I did not demonstrate PASSION for automobiles to my children?”
I had enough time during tech inspection to break out my trusty 12V “Taurus SHO Spare Tire Alternative” and up-pressure my tires from the factory spec 29 PSI to an Autocross-hard 38 PSI. Note to self: remember to drop the pressure back down before going home on the GSP!
The driver’s meeting was the usual stuff. Blah blah blah safety blah blah blah have fun blah blah blah volunteer based sport so all of you will be doing cone duty when you’re not actually driving blah blah blah…
WHAT?!?! Cone duty? Fookin’ CONE DUTY? When you pay $300-odd dollars for a track day at a road course, THEY provide the corner workers and send someone to turn down your seatbelt and put a mini mint on your driver’s seat between sessions. I have done occasional Autocrosses before, and normally you do one session of cone duty to support the racing. Today we were going to be doing more or less constant cone duty. In the summer. Thank God it was about 73 degrees and overcast… for now. Also, this was a class made up mostly of Autocross n00bs (like me) who were undoubtedly going to be punting cones across the pavement right and left.
But I jest! Cone duty is part of the charm of Autocross. And you should always suffer for your passion.
And so the training began. The schedule was to do slalom, skidpad, and figure-8 drills in the morning, followed by a full-on Autocross (at least 14 runs each) in the afternoon. All sessions would start with the student at the wheel for 2 runs, then the instructor would take over for 2 runs, then back to the student driving for the rest of the time. This was an excellent approach, IMO. It gave the chance to first feel the exercise, then see how it’s really done, then spend the lions share of the time working towards matching what the instructor had done. For the morning exercises, there was an instructor in the car giving pointers the whole time.
I started on the slalom, and it looked like this at first:
Okay, so the camera takes 15 mph off the speed but even so I was slow. My instructor had me work on rythm, setting up for the next turn, and feeling the loading on the tires shift from left to right so that I was maximizing grip throughout the rapid waltz through the cones. After some pointers and seeing the instructor do it, it looked like this:
See how much faster that looks? No? Well, it was. My instructor was elated. She said that I “got it” and that I had mastered the slalom.
Next up: Skidpad & figure-8. The drill here was to feel the limits of traction, find out how throttle can control over/understeer, and for the bold, some controlled power sliding.
Watch closely. I am power sliding on the exit to many of those turns. I’m so proud. So was my instructor. I get another gold star for mastery. And one of the best parts of the skidpad? Hardly anybody launched a cone into the grass!
The figure-8 was the same idea, but with left & right transitions added, and a mix of sharper turn radius for complication. The GoPro ran out of battery, so no video for that.
NJ cuisine lunch was provided: submarine sandwiches… I mean “hoagies” (this is SOUTH Jersey, which aligns with Philadelphia vernacular). I set up my folding camp chair and table to prove that a Lotus Elise can travel in STYLE. I also applied more sunscreen, because our 73 degree overcast day had turned into an 80 degree cloudless day with a UV index of 11.
I must admit that I was feeling both eager and whipped for the upcoming full-on Autocross. The lack of sleep was catching up with me, and the slalom cone duty had involved some fair amount of sprinting to replace cones before the next student ran you over. The hoagie helped, as did about a gallon of water and Mountain Dew.
For the Autocross session the drill would change to 2 runs behind the wheel, 2 runs observing the instructor, 5 runs behind the wheel with the instructor shouting orders, and finally 5 runs solo, honing your skills and chasing the instructor’s lap time.
We were divided into two run groups. I drew short straw and ended up in group #2… cone duty first, race second. But first we walked the track…
Although walking the track was not behind-the-wheel practice, it was a very integral part of the training. We walked the track with a group of instructors who took us through the thought processes of reading the course. They pointed out that although there were over 200 cones on the track, there were only 12 cones that mattered. These were mostly cones at the apex of turns, but even the apex didn’t matter on some turns. The trick was learning how to identify the high value turns where you could make or break your run, and differentiate them from turns that merely kept you from short-circuiting the course. After we walked the track with the instructors, we walked it again alone. I would have walked it a third and fourth time if they let me. It was clear that memorizing the track was going to be a key to good lap times. There were also pointers about starting out with a fast run, and then building upon that. This because in a real Autocross you do not get 14 runs. You get maybe half that many, and so you need to start from as high a position as you can in order to maximize your lap-to-lap improvement.
And so I baked in the sun while the first 10 students did their laps. I noticed that this was about a 40-second course. Meaning the instructors were doing it in the 37-second range while the students started around 46 seconds. Uh oh. It was 2:30 by then, and I was beginning to feel we might not get our runs in.
Then disaster struck. From my cone worker position I was facing the intercoastal waterway and the casinos of Atlantic City. My fellow student on the other side of the track was facing the entrance to Bader Field, and he suddenly got agitated. I turned to look and saw five (5!) police cars slowly driving the taxi ways. They were certainly coming for us.
Things ground to a halt for an hour. We were in the dark, reluctant to come in (because, y’know, police) but feeling silly just standing around. Eventually someone realized that we had cell phones with the email from the Starting Line people in them, so we called their number. The cops had arrived because they did not see the paper permit for the use of Bader Field on file. This was a bureaucratic screw-up that they should have been more accommodating about fixing. They KNEW that the field was used for these events fairly frequently. Eventually they got to the right assistant deputy mayor and we were allowed to continue, but now hopelessly behind schedule.
Starting Line stepped up and made it work. They really kicked it into gear and started running 3 cars on the track at a time. A little nerve-wracking for us cone workers, but it got the first run group done in short order and it got me on the track.
While I was waiting for my instructor, the Starting Line people allowed us to take hot laps with the non-instructor volunteers, who were all very good Autocrossers. I rode several laps with Nicole, the wife of one of the Starting Line guys. This was an excellent thing to do since it gave me more time to memorize the track, and see how it should be done. Nicole drove a prepped Honda Civic, and she was hella aggressive!
Finally, it was my turn. My instructor, my LADY instructor was an SCCA pro running in the fastest, most competitive class at a national level. She had been giving me gold stars up until then.
Now… I brought shame upon her, upon my dojo, and upon the spirit of Emerson Fittipaldi. I was not fit to the laces of the pilotis of the lowliest experienced Autocrosser. “I saw you do the slalom PERFECTLY before! Why do you dishonor me by screwing it up so bad now?” I was running 45 second laps
I wanted to tell her that it was because I could only perfect ONE part of the course at a time right now. That I had just improved these skills but they had not yet become muscle memory. I wanted to, but I did not. I just begged forgiveness and tried again.
Eventually I went solo, and this is what I did:
There are two runs in that video. The second run was my fastest of the day: 39.04 seconds. Not too shabby, given the instructor had run 37 seconds. Here is my final run, with the instructor coming out with a clipboard to tell me the good news. Now sensei was HAPPY:
I was elated. I felt that I “got” it, and that with a little practice I could shave a second or more off my time. I knew where I hadn’t pushed it hard enough, where I was dogging it, and which turns had room for the most improvement and HOW to get that improvement.
The day ended with hats for everyone, another gallon of water, admonishments to come back and redeem your free racing coupon. Also a caution not to hoon it up when leaving the field, lest the cops be even less friendly in the future. I hustled out of there so I could do my familial duty.
Around 20 minutes up the Garden State Parkway I remembered that my tires had +9 PSI in them. I didn’t want to know what happens to Toyo R888 grabby-grab tires when run on the highway at that pressure, so I pulled in to air them down and get a Red Bull to keep me awake and alive on the way home. At the Parkway service area, I had “Lotus Moment;” While sitting on the ground with the tire pressure guage, a very pretty woman in a black tube dress asked if she could take a picture. “Sure,” I say “give me a second and I will remove the chubby troglodyte from the frame.” She laughed, and got what she wanted. A picture of a gorgeous car without it’s less-than=gorgeous driver.
Made it home before dark. Sore. Exhausted. Supremely satisfied.