BLINK!! Eyes wide open. The room is dark. Soft breathing sounds from my husband. The bed cradles my achy body. My tongue runs over the sore spot where I bit my lip. Was I dreaming?
“More throttle. Gently let the car climb. Don’t lift! Shift to 4th! Now lift. Apex. Power. More throttle. Full power. BRAKE HARD! Not yet, not yet. NOW! Shift to 3rd. Don’t fight the car. Let it the car curve out and smoothly back in. More power!! Shift to 4th!” went the rapid staccato voice in my ear. Just as rapidly I tried to translate each instruction knowing I only had seconds.
Was that a dream that had shaken me awake? It was the dream replay version of the happenings of the day before.
All by myself in my brand new little red FIAT 500 Sport I had driven 2 and half hours to the BIR (Brainerd International Raceway) to take a performance driving course or PDX. What was I thinking?? I stayed in a hotel so I could arrive early at the track the next morning. The sun wasn’t yet up as I signed my driver’s waiver at the gate about 7 am. Thankfully I’d been at the track in the summer so I could find my way back to the classroom in the dark. Butterflies flipping in my empty stomach I signed in, filled out paper work for emergency contacts, and got my novice wristband secured to my left wrist.
Everyone seemed to be with someone but I bravely walked into the classroom pretending I knew what to do. I found a place at the table and marked the spot with my helmet. People were looking at the donuts and rolls which were covered in frosting and sprinkles. Breakfast of champions? Passing on that I sat back in my seat and started to look at the schedule. About that time a bunch of instructors walked and announced that the track tours were about to begin. “The first lap will be slow so you can see the track and to start get your bearings. The next lap will be at speed.” We walked out to the cars made up of several police style cars and an SUV. One instructor asked if I was with a group. “No.” He pointed and said, “ Front seat of the SUV.” I climbed in and got my seat belt on. Several more people filed into the back seat. It was Gary who was driving. This was his course and he was the head of the driving school with a long history of racing and winning. And off shot the SUV. With a fast left turn and hurtling under a bridge the tour began. This wasn’t slow as I looked for anything to hang on to so I wouldn’t go flying around. And there before me was a wonderful handle on the dash board. I grabbed on and started to make mental notes. Wait. We’re going too fast. What where we supposed to do at that orange cone? And how do I find the spot we’re supposed to lift at if we are going so fast? Gary rattled off all kinds of tips and suggestions of how to make the corners and hold the best lines. How was I going to remember this as we suddenly started the second lap even faster. And into the pits, our tour was over.
I sat back down at my spot at the table and let my heart rate settle. I started to figure out how I could escape from this class. And would they refund my money? More and more people started to find places to sit. It was announced that we needed to keep on a tight time schedule because there were 90 students from novice to experienced. The majority of the group would be using their own cars but many had brought their own cars set up to race, team cars, and there was a fleet of spec Ford racers that some people had rented.
The class room session started. Driving is all about physics. It’s very interesting, confusing, and downright contrary to how I think driving happens. Our class was only an hour long and my brain was stuffed with new thoughts. Pull don’t push steer. Hands at 9 and 3 on the steering wheel with your thumbs locked over the wheel so you don’t lose control. Brake on straight. Smooth. Everything needs to be smooth. Tire pressure, contact patch. If you’re in trouble, braking probably isn’t the answer. Power into the curves. I could just learn and forget the driving part. Why on earth did I sign up and yet I knew I really wanted to try my hand at the driving. And then came the sobering part. There had been a rash of serious accidents. Driver errors but most of them being a little too aggressive on their solo runs. The errors were laid out in detail and how to avoid making them. And if you are feeling tired and wobbly, quit!
I already knew my instructor Aaron. He had been my instructor at an earlier PDX course I took on a smaller local track. That helped me relax in that I already knew the drill with him. We went out to the car and emptied the trunk of all my gear. I had learned to bring a tub to corral the contents of my glove box, my luggage, tire pressure gauge, extra oil, etc. Even the floor mats come out if they aren’t attached to the floor. Loose items become deadly weapons in a fast moving car. And another pointer was to look under the seats for those long lost items that will show up in a critical braking point, under the brake pedal. We talked about the tire pressures and checked the car for any last minute adjustments.
The time had come. I climbed in and got my seat belt adjusted. The seat needed to be adjusted so that I had bends in all my limb joints in case of a crash. A stiff leg could send the leg bones into the hip. I put my helmet on and tugged the chin strap snuggly. I had to thread in my sunglasses between padding and my ears. The next part was critical so that I could hear my instructor. He had a chatterbox system. We both had ear pieces pushed up under the helmets on to our ears. Attached to the ear piece was a microphone. This made it so we could talk to each other. I started the car and proceeded to line up to enter the pits.
There is a flagman at the end of the pits to let you on the track. He is your rear view mirror and eyes for your entrance. He first needed to see our wristbands to be sure a novice didn’t end up on an experienced track session. He’d either stop us, wave us on the track, or count us down with his fingers so we could safely enter in between cars already on the track. The entrance was on a hard left turn, zip under a bridge, and swoop a big right turn. And we were off with Aaron rapidly announcing what moves I needed to be making. Oh, this is too fast. Can’t we take a Sunday drive first? The traffic was heavy as everyone got fairly bunched together. Who told me the track was longer and we’d have much more space to move around? I think it was Aaron?!! The spec racers all came out in a line like matching bright orange Hot Wheel racers. And they weren’t fast yet. It was their first time on the track and they drive solo. Oh my, one just stalled his car….
Aaron patiently guided me with rapid instructions on how to hold my line. He’d take care of the mirrors and cars behind me. At one point I realized I wasn’t holding the line that Aaron had taught me but I had gotten caught in the pack mentality of following the leader. Not good. More focus as the staccato of commands continued. With welcome relief the checkered flag came out for our cool down lap and a break.
What a rush! And so many mistakes. Was I going to be able to learn all of this? The excited chatter among the students filled the air recalling their session. Check the tire pressure. Personal pit stops. Water. And then Aaron suggested that he take me for a spin in the car so he could show me the lines he was trying to teach me. Since he was driving we went out on an advanced session. He deftly wound the car through the traffic showing how to hit the apexes and different lines. When to brake. When to power through. And back into the pits. A few minutes later it was my turn again.
My second session was more physically demanding because I needed to learn new tricks and refine what I had already learned. I was also moving faster too. On one corner there were markers with numbers counting down from 5 to 1. These were for braking. My first goal was to brake at 4 and as the day progressed I noticed that my braking started at lower numbers. I think I started to get how to brake harder so could do it a bit later. I had a really fast shift between 1 and 0 but while I was shifting and turning a really hard right, pulling my steering wheel not pushing it, I had to find a late apex cone and not fight my steering wheel while I made a gentle swoop to the right side of the track all while increasing my power. Each lap I gained experience. Sometimes I realized that I was making the calls myself but Aaron was there if correction was needed. I didn’t do a lot of talking as I was too focused but Aaron was listening to me. He heard when I wasn’t breathing and he also heard the little “Eeks” come out me when I felt out of control. So to ‘comfort’ me in those ‘Eek’ moments (often called OS moments by the experienced drivers. O standing for “Oh” and S stands for “s#*t.”) he’d tell me to give my car more power. What????? “OS!!!!!!!!!” And the power helped me gain control. Go figure!!
The day turned out perfect weather wise. 72 degrees and pure sunshine. I sat on a picnic table picking at a few things I’d brought for lunch. It still seemed prudent to keep my stomach towards the empty side. People began to move their cars to the second pit area as the track was about to be opened to a bigger, faster track. Just what I needed as I was starting to get the first track. But I was happy to see the carrousel go. It was a very tight nearly round corner. That corner would now be a tight right hand corner that led to an early apex and another bridge to go under. Once under the bridge came the build up of speed. Another corner and then a long straightaway.
My first trip around the new layout started almost on the original track so I knew what to expect there. We ‘slowed’ down a bit to start to explore and learn the new section. And then the speed got added in! The traffic had eased a bit because people were starting to be done. It’s a very demanding job of learning to go fast. The first few times through the bridge I was ducking! It was low!! Another woman was ahead of me and we were often very close to each other in speed but I never quite passed her. I’d have the better line but once we got on the straight away she’d pull away. As the straightaway blended into the original track I’d close up on her. Aaron tried to convince me to draft behind her. Too many years of learning not to tail gate made this a really scary proposition. Finally after a really good lap and the checkered flag for last lap I made the call that my day was over. There was another session but it was like skiing. I didn’t want to make that last run when I knew I was tired. I was excited and felt good that I’d actually done the course. And I was in one piece. My car was in one piece. And I’d driven over 100 mph!! As I climbed out of my car the burned smell of hot brake fluid and melted tire rubber offended my nose. I did that to my car? And there were little black streaks of melted tire stuck to the sides of my car. Little badges of honor that I had driven hard and fast. At least according to my world. After all I’m celebrating my 60th year!
After I treated Aaron to dinner for being the best, most patient instructor. I started the trip home. As promised it was very difficult to keep my speed down. Thank goodness for cruise control. I smoothly traveled the curves as I drove home to my waiting husband who wanted to hear all about it. It will be days before I come out of the euphoria of driving fast. Driving around here is taking care of that real fast as I got behind a guy doing 30 on the freeway, in a convertible, shaving!! Really??
What’s next? Next I plan on taking a Streetsmart driving class. It will be teaching how to handle situations in my everyday driving such as dropping off the edge of pavement and a skid pad to learn to drive in slippery conditions. And then maybe another performance class…..oh YES!!! And for some of my questioning friends, I’m still in love with learning and playing my cello too!!