VIR 2012 in the Shadow of Hurricane Sandy

My trip to VIR started out with a bad feeling. As we all know on Monday, October 29, an unprecedented storm hit New Jersey. Hurricane Sandy left me with no power at home, no power at my office and wondering if the family house at the Jersey Shore was still in existence. I had to leave my wife Robin home alone with only a generator, gas and some operating instructions (of which I tried to make as easy to understand as possible). She knew my son Nick and I had planned to go to Virginia for quite some time and she did not want us to miss the trip. I put our ’86 Martini-themed 911 on the trailer, packed up some tools, clothes and a couple of beers and got on the road to pick up Nick at college in Maryland. I had to maneuver countless detours to get to the highway due to fallen trees in my home town.

On my way I noticed a mile long line waiting for gas. I thought for a second that I should turn around and call the trip off. I felt guilty that I was taking off for a fun weekend with my son in Virginia while my wife, friends and coworkers suffered in the cold with no power, heat or news. Seeing my little white Porsche smiling at me in my rearview mirror somehow made that thought drift away and I continued down the road to Maryland. I arrived at Nick’s school at around 1:30pm. I forgot that the night before was Halloween and it seemed that my son was moving a little… slow. I guess the storm did not impact the daily antics of a college student much.

The ride down to Virginia from Baltimore was very long and the final miles seemed to drag on. The VIR signs were very confusing and it seemed like we drove in and out of North Carolina around 100 times. In the coming days I would drive in and out of North Carolina repeatedly, but it would be much more enjoyable, since the VIR course actually crosses the VA/NC state line. We finally arrived at the VIR gate and were greeted by one of the jolliest gentleman I have ever met. The warm welcome was just what I needed after a long ride. He gave us directions and some advice. He suggested that if we were planning on eating at the restaurant on the grounds, we should eat first and drop off the car second since the restaurant closed at 9. It was about 8:45 and I felt that we had plenty of time to drop the car off and make dinner.

Well I was wrong; we dropped off the car, arriving at the restaurant at 9:05, the kitchen was closed. Back in Jersey, most places do not get started till 10, so I turned on the ol’ Jersey boy charm in an attempt to talk myself into a meal, to no avail. Back to gate we went to be greeted by the nice friendly guy who gave us a polite “I told you so.” He then tried to tell us that they have the “best pizza in the world” locally in Milton, NC. Feeling like Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, I said to Nick: “Well I have to see dis!” We all know New Jersey has the best pizza in the world. Unfortunately we were never able to conduct our little test because the pizza joint also closed at 9.

We settled for Subway and checked into the hotel. All I wanted to do was watch the news and check up on what was going on back home considering I had not seen the news since we lost power Monday night. What I saw on the television was worse than I could have imagined, and I began to wonder if making the trip was a bad idea or exactly what I needed to get away from it all.

Day one: It was cold, damp and dark. We were up early to check in, tech the car and attend the drivers meeting. It seemed that a lot of people did not show up due to the storm. I was paired up with Jim Burnett who is affiliated with the Ohio region. Thankfully, Jim would be a great instructor and would make this event very special for me. Driving for me on day one was slow. At first I found VIR to be somewhat overwhelming. The course is long and somewhat difficult, so I chose to ease into the track and attack it section by section. I often found it a challenge to determine which side of the track the line was on while going through the straights. The line prior to the “climbing esses” is on the opposite side of the line through the “back straight” and I was often confused.

Many times on day one I found myself giving passes on the wrong side, which I am sure upset some of the more experienced drivers. Worrying about passing became very distracting to me, which in turn made it harder to learn the rest of the course. I was also having a difficult time shifting, I was not smooth at all and I think it was starting to get on my instructor’s nerves. Fortunately, by the end of the day and with some excellent instruction from Jim, I had most of the track down and was starting enjoy myself. Unfortunately, my son Nick was not so lucky. I could see him struggling from the beginning and I could tell he was uncomfortable. It seemed that he did not “click” with his instructor as I did with mine.

Throughout the day I had spoken with him about it and consulted my instructor. Jim was adamant that if communication between the instructor and Nick was not working, he needed to request a new one. By the end of day, Nick’s instructor was ready to sign off on him to drive alone. Nick and I both felt that he was not ready to drive alone and that his instructor was anxious to move on with his weekend sans Nick. After speaking with Jim and with some good advice from Mike Daino, Nick decided to see if he could switch. Nick went and talked to Craig Mahon and was set up with a new instructor for day two. We figured it was time to get smart and made a dinner reservation at the on site restaurant for the evening. It was good and we even tried the alligator bits, a first for both my son and I. They were very good and of course tasted like chicken!

Day two: It was cold again, with lots of frost on the car. I felt confident about my driving and was looking forward to getting behind the wheel. After some thought the prior evening, I sorted out my confusion about the line through the straights and was ready to drive. Nick was also eager to hit the track and was looking forward to meeting his new instructor who would offer some quality guidance. At this point I am driving much better and I start to think that I might be impressing my instructor. He offered to take me for a ride during one of his sessions and after watching him drive the course the cockiness I was beginning to feel washed away. I feel that it is very helpful to get in the car with a more experienced driver. The difference between his driving and mine was truly amazing, and though my confidence remained, I was humbled by his skill.

Jim offered to sign me off on my last session on day two and I was very excited to get out on the track and try my hand at some solo driving. I enjoyed driving alone immensely and I was comfortable doing so thanks to such good instruction. Nick was also feeling good, learning VIR, enjoying his new instructor and smiling a lot! Just the way it is meant to be. That night it was off to the PCA dinner at the track. Again, Nick and are I eating well, enjoying cold beer and meeting lots of nice people.

Day three: Like day one and two, we got to the track and it was cold and wet, except on day three we found that our car would not start. We began to toy around and speculate about what could be wrong. Of course, a small crowd began to gather and after many theories from some other amateur “mechanics” like us, we decided to bring in a professional. Someone mentioned that Mike Carr from Powertech was still around, but that he was out getting gas to bring home. The shortage in the Northeast prompted many of the PCA members attending the event to stock up on gas before returning home.

Once Mike returned to the track, he came and took a very quick look at the car. Without a word he jumped on his bike and returned to his truck. A few minutes later he came back with a DME relay, slapped her in the car fired right up and Nick and I were back in the race. Unfortunately we had missed the morning session and when I went to talk to my instructor about the afternoon I found him lying on his back on his trailer immobilized. He was having back spasms and informed me that I would have to drive alone for the day. Though I felt bad for Jim because he was in pain, I was excited to have the opportunity to drive alone again. I drove the rest of the day solo and had a blast.

Nick was also driving well and having the time of his life, but after a wasted day on Friday, and missing the morning session, he became a little overzealous. Through the climbing esses he got too close to the car ahead of him and had to lift. Unfortunately, the lift caused him to spin off the track to the right. There was no damage to the car other than a little grass stuck in the under carriage and a scuff on the front bumper. It was a good learning experience for him and we were both happy neither the car or its occupants got hurt.

Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head home. For Nick, it was back to Loyola for more intellectual stimulation and for me it was back to no power, internet and the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. The ride home was long. We planned to leave after the morning session but because of our morning mishap, we decided to stay and enjoy the afternoon. Though well worth it, the change meant getting into Baltimore to drop Nick off around 10:30pm and another 3 hour hike home for me! I was tired and stiff from sitting in the car for so long, but looking back on the weekend I would not have had it any other way.

The weekend was full of good clean fun and some quality time with my son! We are both looking forward to returning to Lime Rock for our third weekend at the track and plan to make time for more than two events in the 2013 season. We plan to upgrade the suspension this winter and install a Wevo shifter to make our 915 transmission a little friendlier. Besides the valuable lessons we learned on the track, Nick and I both learned a valuable lesson off the track. The coordinators of these events always encourage drivers to speak up if they feel there is a disconnect with their instructor and it seems that few do.

NNJR is blessed with many excellent instructors, but there is an exception to every rule, and based on our experience, my son and I encourage those who are not comfortable with their instructors to request a different one. This ensures a positive experience and safety on the track for all.