By Hubert King
Good neighbors, my 996, DE essentials in waterproof bins and my folding chair I blame it all on Tom Swift. Early this year our track chair sent an enticing letter to the club members who had never participated in a DE event. There would be a Lunch and Learn seminar on January 31, where all our questions would be answered and we could talk with experienced club members one-on-one at our lunch tables. Although not exactly a free lunch, we could use the fee towards future DE expenses. So, really, what did I have to lose? However, doubt and procrastination kicked in, and I didn’t respond. This is where Tom comes into my story. Panicked that my one good opportunity to find out more about DE was going to pass me by for an entire year, I contacted Tom on the eve of the event. “Yes,” he assured me, “there is room. Come join us.” That phone call was the reason that I drove in DE this 2016 season.
Now, I am in a dark, predawn parking lot of the Fairfield Inn, trying clean my windows so I can drive to my third DE event of the year at NJMP Lightning. I’m not alone, as the lot is filled with other early risers doing the same. Did I mention that DE events universally start early in the morning? This leads to
Rule 1: find a hotel near to the track, one that serves breakfast early, because you do not want any delays in the a.m. and because in the p.m., after a day at the track, you are going to crash. On the road to the track, you’ll see other folks headed there, sometimes there
is a wave of acknowledgment. As you drive, check your fuel gauge.
Rule 2: never go to the track with anything other than a full tank. Getting closer, you might notice a little up-tick in heart rate. There are a lot of hot cars, converging all in one place. Also, you will realize that most track entrances are closed. A little panic, where to go in? Keep driving and follow a fellow participant. Up to this point it’s only you with your thoughts of Formula One dominance, but at the gate you’ll find cheerful track officials and the opportunity to sign numerous wavers that would make your attorney grimace. It’s a lot like going through airport security, but friendlier. Because you have a tech inspection and a driver meeting, all before 8 am, we need
Rule 3: arrive early, like the airport, this tech line can get rather long as you get closer to start time. But, before tech and driver meeting, you now need a parking spot. Sounds trivial? Read on.
Rule 4: Your parking spot requires a strategy. Having attended many corporate meetings, your location is important. You need a spot for your car with easy drive out access to the staging line (I hit a trash barrel backing up wearing a helmet!), space for your car stuff (I keep mine in closed plastic bins and cover them with a tarp in case of rain.) and a comfortable folding chair. Plus, you need good neighbors to share experiences, obtain driving tips and maybe borrow.
Getting ready for the next session in the staging line at Lightning some equipment you forgot to bring. With Lightning being my third event, I landed next to two excellent neighbors, and we shared many tips on how to drive the track. For example, when my neighbor said he drove through the set of interlinked curves 3, 4 and 5 without touching the brakes, I gave it a try. Two more things to do: Tech inspection is easy. Empty the car, show up early, and bring your tech inspection form. Then, drivers meeting, where you learn some key features of the track and are reminded about the meaning of the flags. To me, this discussion along with the emphasis on using hand signals for passing, going into pit, etc. illustrate that safety is the highest priority on track. Everyone there acknowledges that what we are about to undertake is inherently dangerous, and we are all engaged in making it as safe as possible. I shelve my Formula One risk-taking attitude.
We are fortunate to be gathered on a such beautiful fall weekend in southern New Jersey for this October 15-16 NJMP Lightning DE event. This is the 11th of 12 events for the 2016 DE season. It’s a 1.9-mile asphalt track with 8 turns. According to Wikipedia, it’s named after the P-38 Lightning, a WWII fighter aircraft. That reflects the history of NJMP, which was built in 2008 on 500 acres adjacent to Millville Municipal Airport. This airport played a key role in World War II military training, operating as a gunnery school for fighter pilots from 1941 to 1945. NJMP embraced this history, naming its other track for the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. Together these two tracks host club events, amateur racing such as SCCA, and professional races. This is the third NNJR event at NJMP for the 2016 DE season. Being nearby, this event is popular for club members. I counted over 90 registrants. However, not everyone is from NNJR. With our events posted on MotorsportReg.com, participants can register from anywhere. Folks come from far away, for example Boston, and drive a variety of cars. That red Ferrari which filled my rear view mirror a few times is one example
Only two more items before we drive the track. First, you’ll need a helmet, and fortunately the club has a few to loan in a pinch.
Rule 5: before the event, send an email to Tom requesting a loaner. From experience, you should not show up, grab one, and expect that to work out.
Second, it’s time to meet your instructor. He/she is assigned before the event and you will generally receive an introductory email before the event to say hi, establish contact and set up a meeting plan. This meeting is your opportunity, before driving adrenaline sets in, to calmly chat with him/her about experience, philosophy, etc. Really, you are going to spend some significant time together during the event. Good to establish a relationship. For Lightning, I was assigned Tom Trudel, a veteran of more than 20 years track driving. He’s a nice guy, very knowledgeable, and a good communicator. We chatted for a while about my driving experience. He told me a little of how he approaches instructing. Our next meeting would be in my car, ready to head onto the track.
With so many activities before for the main event, it might seem like a long time before you’ll drive onto the track. In reality, time passes quickly and you find yourself putting on the helmet, sliding into the car and driving over to the staging line to meet your instructor. First run, the instructor will drive your car with you in the passenger seat. A couple of laps will familiarize you with the track and the instructor will get a feeling for the car. A few things of this experience have stuck with me. The very first time I could not believe the speed. I consider myself comfortable driving fast, but my grip on that seat was like steel. My next thought was, “really that was two laps and now it’s my turn?” Now, at my third event, the speed part was ok. But, after those two quick laps, I am now at the wheel, heading up the pit lane and merging onto the track. On the track, we talk through an in-helmet communicator, and Tom is talking all the time, reminding me of what my goals are at particular spots, where to brake, where to place the car on the track- near that edge, close to that apex.
Rule 6: Cruising at part throttle in the middle of the track is not a part of DE. My very first instructor, Chuck, described it as squirting from curve to curve, always on the brake or throttle. As the session proceeds, Tom talks me around each lap, saying less as I begin to get a feel for the track– racer jargon for “driving the line”.
My first session, about 20 minutes, was frustrating. At the end of my last event, Pocono, I left the track
Trading stories after a day’s runs at Lightning feeling confident. Here, I am feeling like a newbie all over again. Tom has a few after session comments, but he seems satisfied. After getting my heart rate back to normal, I will be ready to go again.
The DE events are a largely a volunteer effort by club members. I mention that to give a shout-out to those folks for making these events some of the best-run ones that I have seen. They are safe, fun, and operate on time. In contrast, I have spent entire days waiting for equitation sessions that were rarely on time.
Our track chair will send all DE participants a track pack.
Rule 7: print that out and bring it. (Equally good, keep a PDF copy on your phone.) You will need to consult it at the track. It has many important pieces of information specific to the event: names of folks in charge, work assignments, track map, run group assignments, and most important, the daily schedule. Baring a major on-track event (e.g. snow in April at Lime Rock) those run times are gospel.
Through Sessions 2, 3 and 4, Tom and I improve my driving. Lightning is an interesting track. How do you “drive the line” when you can’t see the curve which is hidden over a hill? That’s a challenge at the end of the straight going into turn 1. I talked to my parking lot buddies and listened to Tom. At one point he slapped the side of the car, “ I want you to put this right at the edge of the track.” Attention getting. Any track that has a banked curve is a winner, and there is a lot of banking on turn 8. But, unlike the banked turns at Pocono, the banking here requires a strategy to benefit. Funny, at first you don’t see the banking and it feels like a curve that would cause you to fly into the weeds. Tom says, go deep into the curve before turning in, approach the inside track mark at the apex, then drift out to left. Then, entirely counter intuitively to me, pull in to the right again before drifting left for the straight. Comparing notes with my neighbors, we each tried to get more speed by braking less and refining our lines. Tom liked my approach as the sessions ticked off. Unfortunately our good relationship had to end prematurely after day 1 due to family commitments.
At the drivers meeting you will hear about the nofault rule for switching instructors. Something not working, tell one of the club’s track officials and they will work out a switch. I should have invoked that on day 2. Instructor X and I did not totally agree on an approach to DE driving. We agreed to disagree and made it through 3 sessions together.
Rule 8: Enjoy yourself on and off the track, it’s a truly unique experience. Look around at a DE event. What do you see? The parking lot is filled with brightly colored cars of all types, street to racecar. There are elaborate outdoor spaces: tables, carpets, awnings, and grills. People are sharing a passion about a unique experience and are milling around chatting about times past. It’s a festival, and even as a newbie you are welcome to join the family, strike up a conversation, and hear about what makes it special. Maybe we are like those traveling Deadheads (absent the hallucinogens), sharing a unique passion and enjoying the company of one another. Does that make Tom Swift our Gerry Garcia and us DE-heads? As you stroll around listening to conversations, you might detect a whiff of machismo. Let’s dispel any notion this is only a guys thing. Of course, NNJR runs a special Ladies Day DE each year. But at Lightning, women drivers were mixing it up with everyone else. Everyone knows Sue in her 914 (she is also an accomplished rally driver, see her story on page 28). Parked next to me, a father and daughter shared their 930. Murray and Akemi shared their Cayman S. I talked to a mom who was here in her Corvette. My wife, who hasn’t been bitten by the bug as yet, came to cheer me on and remarked on the sense of community this mixture of the sexes generated. After track time, it’s great to all share our stories and to decompress. The club-sponsored beer and wings extravaganza at the track was a big hit.
Leaves are falling, a cold wind blowing; the DE season is finished for 2016. I’m glad Tom had room for me at that meeting. I learned that my car is capable of more than I could have imagined. When you are coming down from 100+ mph into a hairpin turn, it’s good to have a capable car and an instructor to teach you how to do that safely. Thanks Nick! I expect to be back for more next year and am already studying “Going Faster!: Mastering the Art of Race Driving” by Carl Lopez and Danny Sullivan”.