Monday, July 2, 2012

My Race Car Ride Along

About a week ago I got some email from Lash, Big Mike's ex-roommate (since Mike bought his own home), inviting me to join him at the sports car races.
We will be racing at Mid Ohio Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I run four sessions each day; it's no problem to get you out for a ride on one of those sessions if you are interested.
Red hot damn on a Saturday night!  Yes, I'm interested.  I'm way out in front of 'interested' --  I'm right there at the head of the line.

Lash owns a Mustang GT which he often races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and the Mustang comes complete with a passenger seat.  Now, if I can just fit into the passenger seat and if Lash has a seat belt extender, I'll be all set.

First, however, a word from our sponsor...

Practically all the race cars at the track have some advertisement or another displayed on them.  This man advertised an organization that I support and that does a lot of good work for the community.

Animal Aid Foundation
The Animal Aid Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization established for the purpose of animal rescue. Specializing in but not limited to Canine’s and Feline’s, our organization has assisted in placing thousands of lost or unwanted animals in forever homes, giving them the second chance they deserve.
To open No-Kill animal shelter’s that will further reduce the pet overpopulation problem and provide a measurable solution to the overfilled high-kill shelters.
Mobile spay and neuter program with a vehicle that can be used in both TNR and low income community spay and neuter programs.

I spoke with the driver for a few minutes and learned that the foundation rescues abandoned pets from high kill rate animal shelters and finds homes for them.  They also help with medical bills in the case of poverty stricken pet owners.  I regret that I failed to get the driver's name, but I was impressed with his sincerity.  So, if you like dogs, cats and other critters please follow the link to Animal Aid Foundation and take a look around.

I now return you to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Here is Lash's Mustang GT.  I gather that race cars are grouped together by class, and each car is assigned to a class by way of a point system that is based on modifications to the car.  Lash is in class A, which is very slightly modified from stock; that is, the way the car comes off the dealer's lot.

Mustang GT

Number 112
The number of each car is assigned by the owner.  Lash told me that his car was originally number 12, but regulations require a three digit number, and since it was easiest to paint another '1' on the car Lash's Mustang is now number 112.  I note that Lash makes his living as a programmer/analyst, so optimization comes naturally to him.

Mustang Interior
Safety equipment includes a roll cage which is guaranteed to protect the occupants from being crushed to death should the car roll over.  It also has special racing seats and a five point harness, which bears as much resemblance to a modern seat belt system as a .44 magnum bears to a BB gun.  The seat is especially shaped to keep your fat ass the passenger's posterior inside the ambit of the seat.  Rather than restricting your movement, the five point safety harness prevents your moving around at all.  Everyone is required to wear a helmet.

Racing Tires
Lash's Mustang has slicks and special racing brakes.  The tires wear out pretty quickly, as do the brakes and the bank account.  As I remember it, brakes and tires last from three to five races and then must be changed out.  Lash does this work himself, as do the vast majority of race car owners.

Lash Headed Into Turn One
Lash is a member of, and has his racing license through the National Auto Sport Association (NASA), which is required to drive on the track in "wheel to wheel" competition.  In plain English, all this means is that the driver (Lash) has experience, knows the rules of the track and has been proven to work and play well with others.  He shares the sandbox.  This keeps everyone safe during a competitive sport.

My race car ride along begins with Lash spending 45 minutes trying to get the safety harness to stretch beyond manufacturer's specifications while still remaining technically within the track regulations.  This is quite a feat, and I understand that the Ford racing division called him early this morning about a consultant's position in their engineering department.  Lash finally finishes and invites me to hop in.

Hop in?  Hop?  I consider the narrow space, my considerable bulk and my innate lack of what is politely termed 'flexibility'.  I begin by inserting my size ten and continue to carefully shoehorn the rest of me into the passenger compartment until I'm residing in the seat.  Lash mutters a quick "Hail Mary" that he thinks I don't hear and hands me the quick connect for the safety harness.  I begin with the short length between my legs and, with some more adjustment, get myself strapped in.  Then we wait in line.

It's about ninety degrees outside, and with my helmet on it's roughly 120 inside the car.  Lash turns on the AC.  Air conditioning?

"Yeah, it's standard.  I turn it off while we're racing."  Lash explains.  "But waiting in line can make things a little warm in here.  Now if you should feel nauseous, which does happen, just tell me and we'll get off the track."

"Don't worry about that.  Driving has never bothered me, and I'm not susceptible to motion sickness.  But if I do get sick, just give me a shop rag to stuff in my yap.  I'm staying."

I have the opportunity of a lifetime here, and Lash is talking about getting off the track.  Clearly, Lash doesn't know me.  The unspoken part of this mini-lecture is that Lash does not want to contend with a major clean up job should my stomach suddenly issue my lunch a return to sender.  Have I mentioned that the temperature outside the car is hovering just over 90 and that there isn't a cloud in the sky?

Cars are lined up in the staging area by speed, which means that we're unlikely to pass anyone and we are equally unlikely to be passed.  Fewer passing events equates to fewer accidents, which is nice for everyone.  I do a quick count and decide that we're sharing the track with about 25 other cars, maybe less.  Some are Mustangs, but there are a surprising number of Mazda Miatas on the track.  It turns out that the Miata is one of the most inexpensive cars to race, which translates into more bang for the buck.

An official waves us onto the track and Lash impatiently tailgates a Corvette ahead of us.  Hot damn!  We're going to race!

"Okay, now we've got to warm up the tires a little."  Lash comments.

Imagine you're doing 60 on a residential street.  You see your driveway coming up, so without slowing you make a hard right.  Unless you've actually driven like that (and I haven't, being both sane and alive) there is nothing in this world or the next that will prepare you for 'warming up the tires a little'.

Lash cuts a series of ninety degree zigzags from one edge of the track to the other.  When the taillights on the Corvette ahead of us flash, Lash taps the brake pedal and we go from 60 to 5 mph in one second.  The two hot dogs I had for lunch are getting into a wrestling match, the ice cream concoction I had for desert is refereeing and the Coca-cola is cheering them on.

Lash looks over at me and grins, then he repeats the zigzag maneuver and finishes by slamming on the brakes again.  I stare through the windshield in amazement.  We're still on the track and I'm still in one piece, although my harness needs tightening.  I snug the harness down, nailing myself to the seat.  Just as I brace myself for more tire warming exercises, the line of race cars abruptly slows from highway speed to a crawl.

"Did some fool using his cell phone get creamed?"  I wonder aloud.

"No, it's not likely."  Lash fumes a little.  "Somebody up front fucked up.  We should be doing around a hundred right now."

"So what happened?"

"Don't know.  We'll just have to wait."

The line starts moving again and Lash puts his foot down.  We get back up to 60, then we get into the final turn and hit the straight.  There's the green flag!

What you have to understand, and what I failed to comprehend until I'd actually ridden with Lash, is that racing tires actually glue the car to the pavement.  This means that we can take ninety degree turns at over 60 miles an hour.  The racing brakes take Lash's Mustang from 120 to 40 in 100 feet or less.  Since we're racing, Lash doesn't just tap the brakes a little, nor does he just accelerate a little.  Lash stands on the brakes when he is forced to slow down, and he floors the accelerator when he wants to speed up - which is anytime he isn't standing on the brakes.  I get thrown from one side of the safety harness to the other all through the corners.  When we slow down I'm thrown forward against the harness hard enough to leave welts.  This is the best ride I've had in thirty years.

We get up over 120 on the straights, and I'm pretty impressed with this until we are passed by another Mustang.  A white Mustang in the unlimited class passes us on a straight stretch.  We're doing a little over 120 and the white car passes us and runs away from us.  He must be doing over 150.

The race is too short, and that's all there is to it.  We see the checkered flag and take one extra lap at highway speed.  Lash waves to the official safety workers stationed at each corner.

"Be sure to wave to the corner guys."  Lash advises soberly.  "The saying is, 'No wave, no save.'  These are the guys that save your ragged ass if you really fuck up somehow, and you don't want them thinking about what a dick you are while they are deciding just what part of the burning car is safest to approach and how long your fire suit will protect you."

I smile and wave.  The guys wave back.  I wonder if the woman drivers ever flash the guys, just to ensure safe pickup.  I'll be it happens.

After the race my hands are shaking from the adrenalin.  I note that I'm not the only one who is full of adrenalin today.

It turns out that Lash has to get his car weighed.  He estimates that he's about 200 pounds overweight, which isn't as good as it could be.

"What you really want is to have your car one or two pounds over the minimum weight when the fuel tank is absolutely empty." Lash explains.  "Some guys have to add weight to bring their car up to the minimum weight."

I slowly ease myself out of the car with all the grace of a brontosaurus extracting itself from a La Brea tar pit.  Just when I got the safety harness comfortably snugged down I have to quit.  Life just ain't fair.  Lash gets his car weighed, then has to powder off to a meeting somewhere.  I go over to the stands above the garage and watch the races.

Certainly it's true that into each life a little rain must fall, and that goes double for racing.  Some days a little rain drizzles on your parade, and other times you get flash flood warnings followed by a flash flood.  So it was here.

Double Yellow Flag with Cross
The yellow flag means someone is having a bad day and you're not allowed to pass.  A waving yellow flag means slow down because someone is having a bad day and there is debris on the track.  A  double yellow flag means that misery loves company and there might be a full house out there.  The cross means that emergency vehicles are on the track, so slow down.

Pace Car
Shortly after the yellow flags went up, the pace car entered at the head of the line.  About 30 Miatas were strung out behind the pace car along with an assortment of Corvettes, Porches and Others.  Lash informed me that everyone in line was having a bad day, seeing as how they were here to race, they just got on the track and were now relegated to doing 35 behind a pace car.  The pace car is in radio communication with someone in the tower who is telling them how fast to go and what to do next.
Problem One
The first problem was towed off the track by a pickup with a tow rope.  There seemed to be a little damage to the front end, but we really couldn't see much.  I saw the car later on and the left front corner was severely damaged. Well, it looked repairable. 

Then this guy showed up.

Problem Two
"Okay... someone's having a really bad day."  Lash remarked.  "When they can't tow the cars off they send the rollback hauler out."

We watched the line of race cars following the pace car.

"All those people are having a bad day.  I think they only got one lap out of this race, which means that you're looking at a line of pissed off drivers."

"I would think that if those drivers think they're having a bad day, they should talk to the poor guy whose car is on that flat bed truck."

Here's the car that got hauled off the track.  I spoke briefly with the driver and here's what he told me.

Damage to the Rear
"There I was, minding my own business and just headed into the second turn.  Without any warning at all, someone hit my read bumper."

Front End Work Needed
"Being hit in the rear caused the rear end to start swerving back and forth, threatening to switch places with the front end.  Before I could regain control, someone else hit me in the front end."

PJP Racing
"Then there was a big blooie and I ended up in the ditch."

Totaled?  Maybe, Maybe Not
My heartfelt sympathies to K. Burkhardt of Pajama Pants Racing.

Lash put this in perspective.

"Look around here and you're going to see a lot of toys.  Expensive toys, but toys.  These are our toys, and from time to time they break.  When that happens you can't play with your toy anymore, so you have to go and get it fixed.  That's all."

Lash is quite right.  If you race you'll have to maintain your car, which means tires, brakes and the occasional engine repair.  Lash missed a shift once and was afraid he'd blown the engine up.  He hadn't, which is nice for everyone, but if he had blown the engine Lash likely would have cursed a time or two and started making plans for salvaging the rest of the car.  Lash, you see, has already dealt with the fact that his Mustang will, eventually, break and have to be fixed or replaced.  Most racers have this attitude, but not all.

Ford Cobra

I saw four Ford Cobras parked along the rear guard rail and took this picture as they were leaving for the track.  The original Ford Cobra was able to turn a 10 second quarter mile and had a top speed of about 160 mph.  Clearly these were the cars to watch.  I hurried over to the garage area.

Man, what a let down.  I saw one Cobra on the track and the driver babied it around the entire course.  Clearly, he didn't want to risk damaging his mechanical marvel.

Oh well.

Besides having a great time, I now know what I want to be when I grow up.  Sadly the fire department will have to get along without me, as will the police (apologies to Sollecks and Partner).  I'm going to be a race car driver!

1 comment:

danno said...

Nice write up... Wish I were there!

A friend owns a race car rental business. Started out with Datsun five & dimes, now mostly Miatas. He explained to me "unless you are willing to take that race car, roll it up into a ball and throw it away, you can't be competitive". I think that explains the Cobra driver's drive.

Anyway, Wish I were there!