Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

On track with Kai - Volume 1: Kai has her first track days - Driving the Lime Rock circuit with the Alfa Romeo Club

Published by Kai

We were wondering the other day how many of us have had any track experiences where we were driving, ourselves, in a vehicle of some sort. And by any experiences, we mean any. We'd love to hear about what you have done, even if you didn't think it was such a big deal. In fact, that’s why I am writing this right now. I did not consider a few track events in my own car to be anything of any particular interest to anyone besides me. Turns out others feel differently. So I’ll go first, and I can't wait to read about the track driving you've done and what you got out of it.

Lime Rock Circuit Map
Lime Rock Circuit MapCredit: Lime Rock Park

The Alfa Romeo Club

I sat in the driver’s meeting in the cozy tower above the start/finish line on that October day and listened intently to our instructor as he talked about the driving line, apexes, and how I have to keep my foot in it on the downhill or my car - my daily driver, my little Dodge Neon, the onliest car I owned - and I could easily lose what little downforce we had and end up a tangled mess in the tire barrier. *gulp* "Foot in it. Got it." I thought. And just then I glanced over his shoulder to see said downhill corner as one of the instructors on the track went through a massive puddle that had accumulated at the apex. The water must have gone 10 feet into the air. Oh, I haven’t mentioned that it was pouring down rain, have I? Mmm. Hmm. *gulp*

It was my very first track event, ever, and I had joined the Alfa Romeo Club for around $125 for one day at the 1.53 mile Lime Rock Park in Lime Rock, Connecticut. That was a very steep price for me, so I had my friends help me during the evening after work to put new brake pads on, change the brake fluid, check the tread on my tires, and all the other basics. The final step was to make sure my helmet met the Snell rating required. This helmet, by the way, was given to me by one of my bosses at the time who found it on the side of the road after it fell off the back of a motorcycle. I could never have afforded one on my own, so I took this as a cosmic sign to go racing!

As we finished up the driver’s meeting and classroom instruction of the day we were told, in no uncertain terms, that we were not there to ‘race’ that day, and we were not there to find the limit of our cars. We were there to listen to the instructors in our passenger seat. That’s it. If we were in a position to pass on the Main Straight - the only place we were allowed to - we had to receive a point-by from the car ahead, meaning that the driver ahead sees us and is ready for us to pass. Otherwise we stay put. Then it’s up to me to make a clean pass, avoiding the puddles and aquaplaning. *gulp* “Do NOT go in that huge puddle there” the instructor said, pointing down to the small lake just after the start/finish on the Main Straight. I wonder what the looks on our faces were as we nodded silently to him. Our eyes must have been huge. We shifted in our seats, and some nervously laughed it off.

The green group

When I first pulled my car into the hot pits and lined up on the grid behind all of other others in the green group - as in really green newbies - I was nervous and excited, but really focused, keeping in mind all I had been taught. Above all I really just didn’t want to embarrass myself or hurt my car. (Thank goodness this was about 10 years ago and I wasn’t on YouTube to see all of the horrible and expensive things that could happen to me) I just hoped I could remember everything, and I really didn’t know how I would do. My instructor, Paul, got in, and put on his seat belt. He made sure I was sitting in the correct position, the right distance from the steering wheel, and we were ready to go. He was a good friend of my boss at the time, so I knew him, and he could tell how excited I was. I saw the first car pull out and Paul said we would take it easy the first few times around in this 20 minute session, to get a feel for it.

I pulled out onto the Main Straight and into the first corner, Big Bend. It’s a double apex corner that leads into the left hander that starts the Esses. I needed to watch the cars in front of me, drive the line I knew (or suspected) to be right, but all the while listen and do exactly what Paul told me to. We were running the rain line, of course, because the race line was slick as ice. *gulp*

I learned not to follow the car in front if he/she did something different. Our eyes determine where our hands go, so through the left hander that starts The Esses I had to try to look out my driver’s side window instead of the windshield to see where I wanted to go, not at what was right in front of me. That makes sense, and sounds easy, but that takes practice.

Carefully squeezing the throttle up The Uphill, keeping the steering wheel straight

Then it’s onto No Name Straight, which is slightly curved (?), carefully squeezing the throttle up The Uphill, keeping the steering wheel straight as I go up and over the top of the hill in case I lose traction, and onto the Back Straight. A right hander is next, called West Bend, and then down under the bridge, as my stomach does a flip, and I realize it is completely counterintuitive to keep my foot down on the accelerator going down into the Diving Turn, as something inside of me is yelling “NOOO! Lift! Lift!”. Finally, we are back onto the Main Straight, avoiding puddles. Because I am the last car in the group I don’t have to worry about anyone wanting to pass, so no point-by’s for me this round.

In fact, I must have been doing something right, because as the laps went on, Paul was able to guide me through point-by’s from the cars in front of me, pull out in-between puddles, and pull back in safely, and then get on the brakes for the big right turn into Big Bend. I did this about 8 times, I guess, because I finished first! I hadn’t thought of that after all of that talk in the classroom about ‘no racing’, but the first thing Paul said at the end of the session is “Way to go! From last to first!”.

Here is a video of a lap around Lime Rock. It will give you some idea what it’s like to be with an instructor. Picture me going along at about 1/2 the speed of his BMW, and without nearly as many gears or horsepower.

The carrot and the stick

My instructors could be described as The Carrot and The Stick. Paul (The Carrot) was very encouraging, positive, and supportive. He told me to “ease into the throttle” and kept chanting the mantra “Eyes up, look ahead. Good. Maintain your line.” The main goal was to learn where to look, to be smooth and to flow with the momentum of the track, and speed would come later. Bob, the guy who found my helmet, was The Stick (not to be confused with The Stig), for sure. He didn’t mess around. He is an assertive person and was an aggressive amateur race driver at the time. He pushed me to go to the next level in each skill. They took turns instructing me throughout the day, and it was perfect. Paul gave me the confidence, and Bob made me put it to use if I could. They both have good hearts, and that was what I knew I could rely on. I needed to totally trust these people.

During my first session with Bob a few weeks later on a dry day with another club, about halfway through, he said “Alright, you’re ready. I want you to do something from now on. You are going to be either on the brakes as hard as you can, or on the throttle all the way to the floor, ok?”. “Uh, yeah, okay.” *gulp* I hope he couldn’t see just how wide my eyes were inside my helmet. But having total trust in your instructor in this situation is key. I put our safety into his hands. And I did it. And it was difficult, and a little scary. And it was glorious. But he drove a Porsche 944, proper race car, so when I came out of The Downhill and onto the Main Straight (in the little 4-cylinder that could) he said “Okay, floor it!”. I replied “I already did.” And we had a quick giggle in the car.

I had this feeling come over me that I have never felt before. I was in the groove

The most important moment for me during these incredible track club days was when I was coming down the Main Straight into Big Bend. I had this feeling come over me that I have never felt before. I was in the groove. My brain wasn’t chattering, my hands were relaxed on the wheel, my feet knew what to do and when, I kept my eyes looking where they needed to look, and everything was perfect. Every worry or care I had in the world was gone. There was nothing that existed except me, that car, and the track, and it felt as if the art and physics of running this track were just flowing through me. I wasn’t thinking about it, I was just doing it. It’s in writing about that feeling right now that I want to go book another track day. It’s the closest glimpse I have ever gotten to being totally and completely present. I was concentrating with every fiber of my being, but it became effortless concentration and flow. For me it was immersing myself, even for a single day at a time, in a sport that I am passionate about and I have been involved with for my whole life. The camaraderie, the jokes, having lunch and telling stories with friends, the healthy respect for the laws of physics, the beautiful track in the hills with the autumn leaves changing color, and the happy exhaustion at the end of these days are as vivid to me at this moment as they were then.

And the best part, besides being able to drive my car home after each of these days? You can do it, too, if you want to.

The next step for me was to book a one-day driving school with Skip Barber to learn more about car control, and to drive something other than a Dodge Neon.

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