June 3 - 5 brings our Mid Ohio Driver Education event, a stellar venue. I hope that you are attending and now enjoying one of the best road courses in the country. Registration for Thunderbolt (Sat/Sun; June 25/26) closes June 10, if you have not signed-up yet, please do so today! Similarly, registration for Pocono closes June 17; we will have Ladies Day and Upper Run Groups on Friday, with all groups Saturday and Sunday. Paul Miller Porsche is sponsoring the event; we will have a nice dinner Friday night and tee-shirts for all attendees. Instructors that attend Thunderbolt will be able to attend Pocono for free! Registration for Mosport is currently open and will close July 1. The very popular 3-day Watkins Glen event opens June 10.
Last fall you may recall I devoted much of my column to the trek that I made to Road America along with three other NNJR members (Ken Ernsting, Greg Mills, and Sal Strocchia). While we were suffering through all the snow and cold during the long winter off-season, Sal sent a proposal that we go to Road Atlanta at the end of March. There is the annual PCA Club Race, along with an advanced Driver Education group. I was the only one to race at Road America, but now Sal would be attending as a Club Race rookie candidate and the rest of the group would attend the DE portion. Ralph Calistri joined the pack and we made plans to make the trip to Georgia.
Sal was understandably excited about going to his first Club Race. We both get into our respective offices around 6:30 am every day. One morning I am greeted by an email: "Registration opened last night (12:01 am) for Road Atlanta. I don't see your name on the list yet, you better sign up before the event fills up!" We subsequently all get regular emails: "Only 21 days until we leave for RA!" "Now only 20 days to go!!" At one point my day does not seem complete if I fail to receive an event update. The end of March arrives before we know it. I had started prepping my car several weeks before the event and think I will be ready in plenty of time to allow for an un-rushed departure. However, it seemed that every day a new gremlin poked its head into my garage and mockingly shouted "nice try, racer boy!" The night prior to leaving I was still on my back bleeding a balky clutch, and this was after discovering that the new lightweight battery would not turn the engine over. Very late, I finally get the car loaded into the trailer.
RA is a 13-hour trip, so I split the driving into 2 days. After scrambling to get some last-minute work fires extinguished, I left New Jersey late Tuesday afternoon and spent the night in Virginia. Sal and I were going to participate in the Test and Tune on the Thursday prior to the race to learn the track before the race weekend began on Friday. Sal had planned to break the trip up into two days as well, but predictably, enthusiasm got the best of him and he drove straight through, arriving in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. When I arrived at the track late Wednesday afternoon, there were already several dozen rigs, tractor trailers, etc., waiting for the front gate to open at 5:00 pm. Of course, Sal was the very first in line, having arrived soon after the rooster crowed that morning. He had planned to spend most of the day observing the Skip Barber school that was in-progress, but unfortunately was denied access (and if you know Sal, can you really blame the track for keeping him out?). Finally the gate opened and we found our way to our assigned spots in the paddock.
The weather on Thursday for the Test and Tune was spectacular, a cloudless blue sky and very pleasant mid-60's temperatures. I had received several links to in-car video of the track and also had been sent a turn-by-turn CD from driving coach David Murry, but in the weeks leading up to this trip I had not had the opportunity to look at more than a few laps of video. The T&N would start out like jumping into a fast-moving river without a paddle and without much idea of where it would lead. The organizers had divided up the racers into three groups, and none of the groups had more than 20 cars, so at least I would not be holding many cars up as I learned the track. The downside of little traffic was there were many times where there wasn't a car in view, and there are several blind turn entries where it would have very helpful to follow someone. The first is Turn 2. After coming off the front straight and making the fast right that is Turn 1, you proceed uphill at full throttle and get set up to go left before you can see where you are going. Looking over the hill you can use the flag station as a reference point as you turn blindly to Turn 2. Hard braking and a quick right over the turtles are next before a long-ish left-hander that brings you to the entry of the Esses. As you continue downhill, the first instinct (besides fear and braking, but later you learn that braking isn't necessary, but the fear remains) is to turn right late, like the late entry to the climbing Esses at VIR. David Murry was in attendance at the event and explained at the virtual track walk later that day that the entry is earlier than you think. This turns the line through the Esses into more of a straight line, but easier said than done at first. Eventually I will have enough intestinal fortitude to be full-throttle through the entire Esses, but initially self preservation rules. When you reach the bottom of the Esses the track does indeed 'catch' you, but for the first day or so I was not a believer and the straightened line seemed like a very bad idea.
The next area of the track that induced some sphincter-clenching was the blind kink on the long back straight. The kink is the crest of an uphill portion which leads downhill to Turn X, so the approach is a bit un-nerving. In my car at speed I was just up-shifting to fifth gear, so you are hauling the mail at this point. Fortunately, like Turn 2 previously, there is a good visual on the horizon, in this case a lone pine tree. Aim for the tree, keep the gas mashed and your posterior clenched, and you are through safely. One turn that I never became 100% comfortable with was the penultimate turn before the front straight. Blind as you go up and over the hill, the entry reminded me of Turn 2 at Mosport, and the exit down the hill and on to the front straight was reminiscent of the downhill at Lime Rock, just twice as long (with a hundred feet of elevation change). There were two visual markers that help here: split the "PP" on the bridge overhead, and use the lane marking for the access road on the right to get you pointed in the correct attitude over the hill. Despite warnings to resist the urge to go left under the bridge which takes you to the road back into the pits, the first time through I must admit I made an unplanned detour through pit lane before going back out on track!
Friday was the first official day of the race weekend and also the start of the advanced/solo DE portion of the event. The weather was as perfect as it had been on Thursday. Ken, Ralph and Greg had all made it to the track the previous day and were ready to go out for their first session of the day. Although the remainder of the weekend would be run under a 'no passengers' format, the organizers did allow passengers for the first run on Friday. Ken, a fellow NNJR instructor, asked if I would drive his car for the first few laps and then we would switch. Hopefully I could pass on some of what I had learned during the T&T. This had an added bonus for me. As Ken put it, I would be the first person to drive his car "in anger"; this was the first time his new 2004 GT3 (with some massaging done by Ruff) would see track duty. I must say that his car was very well set up and that he should be enjoying it immensely in the years to come. For the racers, Friday was the routine three practice sessions with practice starts and a fun race at the end of the day. Despite reminders from the stewards and David Murry to be patient, the practice starts and the start of the fun race were the biggest free-for-alls I have ever experienced. I was hoping that the starts for actual races would be much less chaotic.
In contrast to Thursday and Friday, the weather forecast for Saturday was downright depressing. Heavy rain and possible thunderstorms with lighting were predicted. Lighting meant that the track could possibly be shut down, with the land lines for the flagger’s radios becoming a serious hazard. The race stewards decided to eliminate qualifying Saturday morning so that we might squeeze in one dry race for everyone before the weather moved in. This turned out to be a good decision. The first race was mostly dry which enabled all the racers to participate. Fortunately the start of the race was much less frenzied than the practice starts. The racing was clean and I felt good about my third place finish in class. The predicted front moved in, and the second Sprint race was very wet. I unfortunately lost track of time while I was consulting David Murry about a wet set-up, and despite getting help from Ralph and Greg, I missed the closing of grid by about two minutes. That would mean starting at the back of the field. The start was a bit scary, as all the spray made visibility extremely limited. I do like the rain, and with advice from David on set-up, I steadily moved up in the field and finished first in class and fifth overall. With additional time available and the prospect that the Sunday Enduro’s would be wet as well, the stewards added a third Sprint race on Saturday afternoon. This race was conducted in monsoon conditions and many racers decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and opted out. I had no other cars in class to compete against, but finished sixth overall.
Later that night the Peachstate region put on a very nice dinner at the U.S. headquarters for BBS Wheels. As opposed to some very dodgy barbeque Sal and I had eaten at a restaurant the previous day, the meal this night was a veritable southern feast: ribs, pulled pork, chicken, cole slaw and bread piled high. Topped off with some bread pudding or peach cobbler, along with good company, and this was a great end to a long day. Sal also needed some help getting to his truck as he was weighted down with hardware: he had garnered the coveted “Worker’s Choice” award as well as the “Rookie Racer” award!
Sunday morning arrived with more wet weather and cold temperatures. Everyone had several days of good driving, so we all decided to head north and take a pass on the Sunday activities. I had planned to go to work the next day, but after three days of driving on a very challenging track along with an 800+ mile trip home, when the alarm went off Monday morning, I felt like I had been run over by a bus and decided to sleep in. If you get the opportunity, I would highly recommend making the trek to Road Atlanta, especially with a great group of NNJR enthusiasts.