My first professional Race weekend experience. One I will never forget!
I started by getting ready with a Professional Coach. I spent 3 days at Willow Springs Test and Tune Fridays with champion and professional driver Loren Beggs. We focused on hitting the correct lines, marks, revs for the sequential shifting, braking hard late and getting back on the gas as soon as possible while focusing down the field. We spent time on worn tires, adjusted camber, sway bars, as well as the wing at different intervals to experience how differently the car drives under different setups and conditions. It’s amazing what a little more or less wing can do to performance. Driving fast on new tires is awesome, but in reality, by the 6th lap, the tires heat and you begin to lose grip, which changes your lines, your braking and your acceleration points.
The first thing I needed to do was learn how to drive my new 991 Porsche Cup Car. It was a big jump up from the GT3RS in which I learned. It’s quicker, stickier and provides you a lot more tools to increase your performance. It’s a finely tuned machine that takes delicate input more seriously, yet allows you to drive harder in acceleration, braking and cornering. The point of adhesion slip is much later, yet the importance of staying on your line is exaggerated. While I had to think about 30 things a lap in the GT3RS, the 991 requires a more calm focus, while it seems you are thinking about 100 different things per lap. The digital display provides great information about lap times, G Force, acceleration, speed and braking.
Everything starts with Saturday morning practice. Focus on hitting your marks; Focus, Focus, Focus. Oh, and relax. My previously fastest lap was a 1:28 in my GT3RS. In this Porsche we threw down repeated 1:27s. But that’s not good enough to compete with the big boys who are in the 1:23-1:25 range.
Next up is the Saturday qualifying session. I jump in the car to head out with the Red group in the fast car qualifying session. Stall. Stall. Stall. After realizing my fuel pump had failed, we recharged the system and I was able to get out in the Orange slower qualifying group. When they say, “Qualifying is everything”, they’re not kidding. Running with the slower cars made qualifying very challenging. There was traffic everywhere on the 2.5mil track. As a result, we did not improve the 1:27 times I was running and qualified a disappointing 16th out of 35 cars. Breathe….
Race 1. My heart was pounding out of my chest… I have to remind myself to breathe and relax. Everyone has warned me not to be too aggressive off the start because of the very high potential to wreck in turn one. But that’s not my nature. All I can think about is moving up, left, right or center, depending on how the other 35 cars around me react to the dropping of the green flag. It drops and away we go! Seemed like everyone around me busted out left and right, leaving a great big hole up the middle, and I was able to move up two spots before turn one. Most cars are three wide, jockeying for position, headed to the crucial turn 2, where we are now running two wide with cars running inches from each other, trying to intimidate their opponents into backing off for the straightaway, heading down to turn 3. By the time we reach turn 3 we are becoming a single file line and position is more established. For the most part the group files into a single line for the tight turns of 3, 4 and 5. I’m now in 12th heading down to 6 and up and over turn 7… and here it comes, the reason Big Willow gets it “Fastest Track in the West” brand: the famous and deadly 180 degree, 150mph, decreasing radius turns 8 and 9. As I approach the turn, Oh Sh*^ , the guy in front of me is trying to gain position on the inside of turn and the guy he is trying to bonzai, does not see him. Yep, CRASH. The car trying to undercut gets clipped in the nose sending him off track, spinning. Suddenly (I’m about 100 yards away), his car goes back across the track RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! I Brake, Brake, Brake…. My new car was showered with 1″ rocks, breaking the windshield in 12 places. It was strong enough to punch holes in the bumper and knock out every protective screen for air intake. No time to think about the car because there is a huge cloud of dust and I can’t see anything in front of me. Grip and Go Dave (Ricky Bobby). God, I hope the car that hit him is not in the middle of the track on the other side of the cloud. I get through clean to discover the entire pack are now all the way around turn 9 and I’m suddenly leading the rest of the pack down the straightaway. Even better news is that not to many people went Ricky Bobby into the cloud and the rest of them are far behind. The wreck puts me in 11th but I have a long way to gain the pack. I stepped on the gas, hit my marks, hard late braking, and caught up to the pack! It took me three more laps to close in on the pack, and surprisingly, two more cars had wrecked out by that time which moved me into 9th. NICE! I was able to get one more pass done before the finish of the race and crossed the checkered flag in 8th position. Even more energizing was the fact that I actually finished 3rd in GT1 class because two of the three wrecked cars were same. Ahhhh… first one under the belt; my energy is high as I approach my mechanics station. All the drivers meet in the cold pits to get cars inspected and swap stories. They say I did a year worth of damage to my car in my first race ever and, I would say, I learned a year’s worth of lessons in my first race.
Race 2. Once again, I started in the 16th pole position because they used the start-of-the-day times. This race was just as energizing but far less eventful. No wrecks. I was able to finish in 11th position, moving up five spots… but the last move up in position is a lesson I will never forget. First was the Cowboy (name on side of his car) shooting up the right side at the drop of the green, which pushed me into 17th. I was able to regain that spot just three turns later. Talk about lighting a fire under my car that went all the way to my hands. Did I tell you that racers hate losing positions? The next great thing happened when I came up on the HRG Wheels car, #518, driven by Kevin Wilson and, man, did he battle me. He successfully stopped me from passing at least a dozen times, but I finally got him in turn 3 while heading up the hill. I was able to get my nose to his view by getting on the gas sooner and that allowed me to complete the pass in turn 4. Then, it was on! Did I tell you racers hate losing position, at all, ever? The interesting fact here is that drafting and following another person’s line, waiting for him to make a mistake, is a lot easier than being in front, leading. Kevin stayed on my tail for the next 6 laps. He tried everything to get his position back. The next interesting thing that I learned here is, while you need to be aware of where he is, you don’t want to actually worry about him unless he gets his nose to your door. You need to worry about hitting your marks, lines, braking points and acceleration. Only a mistake on my part would allow him to pass. Don’t spend too much time in the mirrors, look forward, go fast, be smooth and you will take care of your position. In reality, the focus shifts to catching the next car, but that didn’t happen. I was able to hold my position and finish 11th overall and 4th in GT1 Class. Once again, the cold pits were full of stories and lessons. You can learn a lot from other drivers and their experiences. Ask lots of questions. Who did you pass, where and how? Listen and learn.
A New Day, Sunday Practice and Qualifying. For Sunday morning practice, I was determined to beat the lousy 1:27 time from yesterday. I spent the entire practice focusing again on the proper lines, braking later, getting on the gas sooner and hitting my apexes. I ran with less than good tires but was still able to get down to 1:26. For qualifying, we put on new slicks and, “holy cow”, I hit a 1:24, putting me in 3rd Pole position. And then it hit me; I am getting close to the big boys speeds that are necessary to win. What also hit me is the big boys would be all around me. The pole position went to a 1000+hp GT1 twin turbo #271 car, driven by Dan Davis. Next to him is one of the POC repeat champions, Kevin Roush, in #186 car. But it does not end there, as the next six guys behind me all have phenomenal credentials, including driver Brad Keegan #28, Steve Parker #7, Duane Selby #241 and the list goes on…. Talk about intimidating. Breathe… Stay Calm
Race 3. Here we go. I get to mix it up with the big boys. The green flag drops and I am able to follow the pole position car into 2nd by the end of turn 1, only to be taken on the outside of turn 2 by two great drivers. Oh, so you can pass on the outside of turn 2. Mental library. Now in 4th and the single file organizes again by turn 5. It stays that way for two laps when I discover I have a lot more power than Kevin and pass him back by hitting the perfect apex in turn 9 and zooming past him in the straight. Truth be told, I followed Kevin’s line in 9 and learned to make the front straightaway longer, giving me more time to accelerate past. Back into 3rd for laps 4 and 5 but feeling good about my ability to hang with these guys. Then it happened; the guy in 2nd position drops for mechanical. OMG, I am in second, but 1st was a long way away. Over the next two laps, I was able to reel Dan Davis and his 1000hp monster GT1. He pulled away in the three long straights, but by hitting my marks and apexes, I gained on him in all nine turns. I finally caught him in turn 8 and 9, but suddenly got caught by surprise when he ditched the car into the pits. In the process, he brake checked me and I lost a ton of momentum going down the straight. This allowed 3rd thru 5th to catch up to me. But wait. What? Yes, I’m in first place! Woohoo, I was leading a cup race and I did so for a full lap. Then the more experience drivers schooled me. 1st, Steve Parker took me on the outside of turn 2. I did not hit my proper mark in turn 1 and paid the price. Next, Kevin Roush moved to the inside of turn 3 and he broke late enough to get up to my door. Ouch. To make matters worse, Brad Keegan got on his bumper, not allowing me to tuck in behind him. Yes, I went from 1st to 4th in 3 short turns. But what I learned in the process will stay with me my entire racing career. Stay on your lines, hit your marks, brake late, hard and get on the gas early. I was so worried about the lost momentum in turn 1 and so preoccupied with my mistake and takeover by Parker, that I let it affect my next 3 turns and lost all that time and position. There is no room for error when you’re in the front. You have to relax and drive smooth while hitting your mark. I finished in 4th overall and got a 2nd in GT1 class. Very proud and pumped by my accomplishments, I drove into the cold pits bubbling with enthusiasm. I went and shook each driver’s hand that passed by and thanked him or her for the lessons. Kevin actually thanked me for holding my line properly, but that was just his way of making me feel better about being passed. I don’t feel good about it at all. Did I tell you racers hate losing position, at all, ever? I can’t wait for my next event: California Festival of Speed, April 8-10th. Bring on the Competition!