The agony and ecstasy of racing cars

There are literally thousands of ways to spend your time that are less dangerous, less costly, and less frustrating, and yet all across America amateur racers converge on tracks on a weekly basis, ready to risk it all in search of the perfect lap.   Why? 

They say baseball is a game of losing because even the best hitters in history failed almost 60% of the time.  I would suggest that racing automobiles is an even worse proposition:  Even if you do absolutely everything right, everything can still go horribly wrong.  On any given race weekend at any given track anywhere in the world, there will be at least a handful of cars that do not make it into the actual race for whatever reason.  As I am typing these words, there is a team in a garage somewhere scrambling to figure out what is wrong with their car and whether or not they can fix it on the spot.  The car might be on a lift, or someone might be crawling under it.  The engine or other parts might be removed, like some half completed surgery in a hospital bed.  There could even be tubes or wires running to parts of the car, siphoning off gas or other fluids, or collecting data for a laptop to display the same as an EKG.  Likely, someone is wondering whether they can simply rip an offending piece off – who needs a bumper for example – or hold a loose part together with a zip tie, so long as they can actually get out on the track.  A driver is probably looking on pensively, suited up and ready to go, helmet in hand, hoping it will happen soon, but knowing that it might not, at least not this weekend.  It would be like making baseball more interesting by breaking all the bats or putting a hole in all the gloves before the team even takes the field.  The battle does not end simply by getting the car on the track, either.   Once it’s out there, things can go horribly wrong through absolutely no fault of your own.  Almost everyone over the age of 40 has had the experience of their car breaking down or overheating at the worst possible time, leaving them stranded on the side of the road.  Racing speeds and the resulting forces come close to ensuring that will happen at least once over the course of a weekend and the result can be far more catastrophic when parts fail at well above 100 or even 150 miles per hour.  This is doubly true when the cars do not take the field by themselves.  There are likely 40, 50, even 100 other vehicles out there, traveling at vastly different speeds based on the class and contact with any of them can result in a total loss.  There’s an old adage that if you haven’t yet crashed a car, you haven’t been racing long enough.  At the risk of overusing the baseball analogy, it would be akin to having multiple batters in the box at the same time, all swinging away with near wild abandon.  They’re not supposed to hit each other, but they surely will.  It’s only a matter of time.

Time, unfortunately, is not on your side either.  Racing is a game of hundredths of seconds, once spent you can never get them back.  It’s astounding the percentage of races that come down to barely a second after eight hours of competition and hundreds of laps.  Time off track, is time others are on track, increasing their lead.   In endurance or sprint racing, the race starts and runs for a specified time, making every second absolutely precious.  You will never catch up if your opponents are lucky and skilled enough to keep their car going. I do not write any of this claiming to be an expert or authority on the subject by any means.  In the grand scheme of racing skills and experience, I’m like a T-ball player compared to the Major Leagues.  There are many drivers in my amateur series, American Endurance Racing, far faster and more talented than I am.  It is a privilege to be out there with them, and one I do not take lightly.  At the same time, I have run in American Endurance Racing for over 6 years.  I did races in two lower series, LeMons and ChampCar before that.  I’m also a regular instructor at Raceway Park’s Open Track in Englishtown NJ.  You can say I am not entirely without experience, both good and bad, and like life in general, the bad is an unavoidable part of the sport.  In fact, I experienced some of the bad in my very first race at New Jersey Motorsports Park.  I was driving a 1986 BMW E30 3-Series.  I’d like to think I was going fast, but the car itself wasn’t exactly lightning on wheels and I was simply doing my best to survive if I’m being honest.  It’s difficult to describe those first few laps, strapped into a 6-point harness, wearing a fireproof suit, gloves, shoes, a helmet and the neck restraint.  Driving a race car is nothing like driving a car on the road, even an aggressively tuned sports car.  You do not have anywhere near the range of motion.  Essentially, you are swallowed by the seat, which has wings that wrap around the sides of your head.  Your torso and hips are locked into the car by the harness and cannot move.  You have your arms, and legs, and a few degrees of side to side vision.  That’s it.  You rely on the mirrors for everything else.  I was racing in LeMons this first time out, which is notorious for having a ton of cars on the track, over 100 that day, and I was on a track I’d never driven, even forgetting my lack of experience with a proper, if old and not very powerful race car.  To say I had no idea what I was doing was an understatement, but you don’t really have much choice except to do something as the other cars start whipping around you, left, right, and center, some so fast they seem to come out of nowhere in your rear view and then disappear ahead just as quickly, leaving behind only a fading engine roar.  It’s human instinct to dodge them and under normal circumstances if you saw someone coming up behind you in the left lane at double your speed, that’s what you would do, but that’s not the way racing works:  You need to hold your line, and hope they hold theirs, which is not an easy thing to assume when you’re three abreast, likely separated by less than two feet, going into a turn at triple digit speeds, when the tires start to squeal and it seems the car is hanging on for dear life.

I’m not going to say I did well.  Honestly, I have no idea how I did.  I don’t remember the lap times, how many cars passed me, whether or not I passed anyone, or any of the other metrics that would determine success in racing.  All I know is I was out there, doing something, and hadn’t yet crashed the car, either into a wall or another vehicle, before disaster struck.  From inside the car, I couldn’t say what happened at first, except there was a loud clanking noise, a shudder throughout the body as though I’d hit a massive speed bump, and then it felt like the driver’s front wheel suddenly went flat.  I heard the scrape of the body panels on the track surface as the car itself ground to a halt.  The car sat lopsided, tilted toward the front left a bit.  Clearly, I wasn’t going anywhere, but fortunately I was able to limp to the right side of the track.  Of course, getting out of the car and checking it out while in the middle of the race is a bad idea, but fortunately track safety personnel are fast and efficient, doing this sort of thing several times per day if not more.  A tow truck arrived in just a few minutes.  The driver asked if I knew what happened, and I said I had no idea, something with the front wheel.  He informed me that my wheel, as in the entire thing, rim and all, was on the other side of the track and would not be recovered that day before pulling me back to the pits.  I never saw the wheel again, and so my first stint ever ended with a three-wheeled car that the team scrambled to repair.  My wife (fiancée at the time) was on her way to the track, completely unaware of this little disaster on my inaugural outing.  She was from a family that believed driving was the most dangerous thing the average person did and should be avoided unless essential.   Here I was losing wheels on my first attempt at a real race.  I was reminded of something the person who got me into racing, a former NASCAR truck series driver who runs the Open Track at Raceway Park, said:  Any girl he ever dated seriously, he promptly took her to the race track and said this is who I am.  My start in racing came much later, however, after I was already seriously dating the woman who would become my wife.  She had to learn to live with it, if not love it.  I remember when I had the opportunity to join the team at LeMons for my first race.  She asked me, are you really going to do this?  It’s expensive.  It might be dangerous.  I said, I know all that, but how could I not?  What red blooded American man can turn down the chance to join a racing team?  Perhaps needless to say,  I was back in the car later that same day to finish the race.  My wife and my mother now join me and my brother at every race as our “pit crew,” which means they spend the day at local museums or attractions, making us something of a curiosity in the league.  We don’t have a full team and can’t actually run a full race.  We do it simply for fun.

Racing, however, is not always fun.  I write this having gone two full years unable to keep our car going for more than a few laps.  Last weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Mansfield, OH was the first time since October 2020 that we were able to complete all three days between Friday’s practice and qualifying, and the eight hour races on Saturday and Sunday.  This was not due to lack of trying.  In April 2021, we traveled out to Pittsburg, some three hundred miles from home, in hopes of a great racing weekend, but it was not to be when problems with the engine prompted us to retire before the end of day Saturday.  Back in the shop, it was obvious what the problem was:  There were pieces of metal in the oil pan.  Some of the internal components were completely shredded beyond any and all hope of repair.  The engine had died, not with the bang of blowing it, but with a whimper of wear and tear.  By the time a new engine could be built and installed, we missed all of the races that season except for Ohio.  We lugged the car and all the gear, this time almost 500 miles, not an easy task by any means, only to discover that there were electrical problems that prevented the car from running at full power for more than a handful of laps.  You would be going, going, going, but then something like a mechanical fart would issue from the rear (our car is properly mid-engine) and things would suddenly start getting rough and slow, as though you’d lost half the cylinders somewhere behind you on the track.  We tried and tried and tried to fix it on Friday and Saturday to no avail.  We ended up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Sunday rather than the race track, turning a disappointment into at least a passable afternoon’s entertainment.  We didn’t know it then, but it took another full year to figure out what was wrong and get the car back in working order.

All of this prompts the obvious question:  Why does anyone do it?  The risks are real.  In addition to losing a tire, I’ve had the brakes fail on me not once, but twice.  The first time I careened over the top of the straight, almost straight into the woods in Millville, NJ, taking a car with barely any suspension travel and turning it into an off-road vehicle.  The second time was perhaps even more frightening, heading into the dreaded Bus Stop at Watkins Glen International.  If you are not familiar, the Bus Stop is a hard right turn at the end of a moderate size straight.  The straight itself starts at the top of the famous Esses, and you hit it at over 100 miles per hour.  You are going even faster when it ends, and you need to brake hard then turn, that is assuming you have any brakes.  When you don’t, the best you can do is try to slow the car down and not do anything stupid like hook it into a wall.  Otherwise, I’ve been in collisions at over 90 miles per hour, lost control of the car in the wet at the same speed, and various other spins and close calls including having the car shut down entirely in the middle of the track.  Rare is the weekend when at least one car isn’t totaled, though fortunately I have been able to avoid that fate so far.  The expenses should you total a car are astronomical, forget the costs of actually racing and the consumable parts, tires, brakes, etc. every weekend.  It also goes without saying that racing is not easy to master by any means; it’s a combination of natural skill honed with a lot of muscle memory and experience that is hard to earn when you only have the opportunity to race a few times per year.  There are ten or more turns on most tracks, and a great lap requires you to get hundreds if not thousands of precise motions all right at once.  Blow one turn, miss one braking point, exit too wide for any reason, and it’s all over.  The lap times do not lie.  We have a predictive timer in our car.  When you fuck something up, you can literally see the seconds slipping away, never to return again.  Nor does a single lap make for a race.  You need to get these turns right dozens and dozens of times to see any success.  In other words, there are literally thousands of ways to spend your time that are less dangerous, less costly, and less frustrating, and yet all across America amateur racers converge on tracks on a weekly basis.  There are a wide variety of amateur leagues, from spec series associated with a specific manufacturer to endurance series like American Endurance Racing.  Why?  I can’t speak for anyone else of course.  Even for me it’s not easy to say.  Normally, I am not an adrenaline junky by any means.  Other than skiing when I was younger, I am not into any other extreme sports.  My favorite pastime is, in fact, writing, a far cry from racing.  Otherwise, I prefer drinking.  In fact, I told my wife once that she should be happy that I finally found a hobby where I’m not drinking beer before noon while on vacation, such are my predilections for most things I consider fun. To this day, my first moments out on the track are not very different than that first stint, wondering what precisely I am doing there and why.

At the same time, I’ve always been what you would call a car nut, dreaming about these machines since I was a kid and spending over five years in the car business after selling my first car, a used Nissan Altima, at 15 years old.  To me, there’s something about experiencing a sports car the way it was designed to be experienced that is unlike anything on this earth, a combination of control and the certain lack of it found in a few other sports, an inherent irony if you will.  There is a thrill simply to being in the garages and the paddock, where all these machines are lined up, basking in the attention of their and other teams.  The constant sound of wrenches, jacks, hammers, combined with engines coming to life with the blurt of a monstrous exhaust.  When it comes to actually driving them, the old Mazda Miata marketing used to include the phrase “horse and rider are one,” meaning that a talented equestrian seems like an extension of the horse itself.  The two are so closely cooperating together, that it becomes impossible to tell one from the other.  A well-tuned car storming into a high speed corner can produce the same feeling, when the engine seems like it’s an extension of your right foot, and the steering wheel is telling you its own unique story.  A modern race car has digital gauges displaying your RPM, temperatures, lap times predicted by GPS, and more, but none of it matters when you are in the zone.  The car speaks for itself through the roar of the engine and the chirp of the tires, the feeling of the tail end swinging out at its limit as you cross the apex of a turn and give it some throttle.  The certain knowledge that you’ve got the line and the timing right, knowing the engine will respond properly with a thrust of power as the wheels bite and the car takes off toward the next turn.  There are moments when it all comes together, and the adrenaline coursing through your body as you focus, focus, focus on that next turn, makes these moments seem to last forever, as though each millisecond lasted an hour, frozen in your mind.  Returning to the baseball analogy, great batters have sworn they could see the seams on a fastball from 90 feet away.  They are so dialed in each and every detail matters for the bare second it takes a pitch to reach the plate.  Racing at its best is ninety minutes of that given a good stint.  An hour or more of time that doesn’t pass in the normal manner, both slower and faster, each moment both standing out on its own and blending into the fluidity of the next, as you blend with the car, and the car blends with the track, all in search of that perfect lap.  Most will never find it, but it’s not the kill, it’s the thrill of the chase made real.

3 thoughts on “The agony and ecstasy of racing cars”

  1. I really enjoyed this. Though not a “car nut” myself, nor a fan of racing – I’ve always been curious of the attraction. You explained it well. Reading this, it seems to me that the attraction is a common one of three universal motivations: achievement, affiliation, and power (or agency, mastery, and friendship with some danger and risk). Good stuff.
    I get the same satisfaction from hiking and camping in the wilderness. Or used to. Now, yeah … thinking, drinking, and writing do it for me. cheers.

    Like

  2. Hahaha! Yes, I definitely agree with that. There is a great comradery at the track, everyone there has been through it themselves. I was big into camping myself in my early 20’s, and still hike a bit with my wife, but not as much as I would like. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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