My very first memory as a child is of my Dad’s race car, when I was two. That was forty five years ago and many of my memories since have revolved around some sort of motorsport or another, but it wasn’t until this time seven days ago that I actually sat behind the wheel of a race car.
It all came about as Alan Balinsky was hard at work putting together the Toronto Motorsports Park/Champion Racing Oil GT Super Series, a true grass roots effort to bring new blood to auto racing and bring the focus back to having fun at the track. I volunteered to drive whatever wheels Balinksy could arrange, to fill out the field and hopefully bring a bit more attention to the sport. Long time racer, Eric Nummelin graciously offered up his Mazda RX-7, which I would share with either himself or Evan Groenke. It looked like I was going racing at last.
I had absolutely no expectations of being fast, nor of winning. I did however, expect to be a bit faster than I actually was. My first road race was more than a little bit of an eye opener.
We had one practice session in the morning, when I took about a half a dozen laps in an attempt to familiarize myself with the rotary powered machine. I found that it felt light, nimble and very loose, more so than any car I have driven on a track. I had a hell of a time engaging third gear and there seemed to be a hesitation around 5,000 rpm, so I came in to discuss and make sure I hadn’t broken something.
Nummelin explained that the plugs foul when the revs are too low (!!) and that I should always be over six grand and then I wouldn’t have any hesitation. Right! My whole concern is to be gentle and not break Eric’s car, not to wind the snot out of it. He reminded me that he had set the rev limiter to 8,000 for me, a full 1,000 below what he uses, so there was no way I could blow it up. Oh, and third gear is fine, “it is you”. OK, I’ll buy that one.
Just a few moments later and I was on track, near the back of a pack of 26 other cars, one pace lap before the green, when suddenly the camera that was mounted above me fell into my lap. I tried to grab it, but it ended up at my feet. Fearing that it would get lodged under the pedals, I pulled into the pits as the field took the green. Track owner, Uli Bieri, took note of my frantic waving and removed the offending device before sending me back out on track.
Now here I was, flustered and trying to catch up. I learned that the RX-7 was very loose under braking and that when I got into the throttle a bit too soon, it would go around really easily. I experienced the thrill of sliding across wet grass several times. I was slow. I was lapped by most of the field, several times. After twenty minutes of racing, I was exhausted and the checkered flag was a welcome sight.
In the morning session, my quickest lap was something like a 1:43, which I whittled down to a 1:31 near the end of the race. To put it into perspective, some of the Time Attack guys came into the event knowing that they could turn 1:16s. I had work to do. A post race debrief with Nummelin included some instructions: open up my lines a bit more to carry more momentum. Keep the revs up. Keep doing what you are doing in traffic. Eric and race engineer Dave Salt opted to soften the rear springs and drop the tire pressures to make the car a bit less tail happy.
Race two began more smoothly and I settled into some sort of rhythm. The handling changes were immediately noticeable and the car was much more drive-able for this rookie. I felt myself getting a bit quicker. I was definitely smoother and more comfortable with the car. I found third gear properly most of the time. In the second half of the race, I found myself reeling in Ford Wood in his Nissan 240SX. I began planning an attack and then was caught by faster cars and fell back a bit as I tried to be a good back-marker. Once the really quick guys were past, I again caught up with Wood and tried to figure out how to get past him without doing something stupid. In the end, I didn’t need to plan that attack, as I carried far too much speed into a tight left and understeered off. Unfortunately, the rumble strips at that section were a bit nasty and I could feel the front spoiler get ripped off. I was pissed and it turned out to be the last lap anyway.
In this race, my times were consistent to within a few tenths of a second for the second half of the race, mostly in the mid 31s. In the final race of the day, Evan Groenke, who has raced the car a few times before, was turning very similar times, although with less consistency. I was happy with that aspect of the day.
Ride along with me for race one.
So what did I learn?
First off, I learned that I am even more out of shape than I thought and that racing is physically and mentally tougher than I expected. I recently did a charity lapping day at CTMP, where I lapped a 500 horsepower Jaguar for eight hours straight. That was nothing compared to the effort a 20 minute race takes.
That lack of fitness affected my attention span and my ability to apply steering, brake and throttle inputs smoothly.
Jumping in a new car and going lapping is not the same as driving a race car. I spend a fair amount of time on race tracks around the world, usually driving modern, high horsepower cars with seriously high tech driver aids. I rarely turn them off, as a half a dozen laps in a strange car, on a strange circuit, are not the ideal place to stroke one’s ego. Bring the car back in one piece and don’t be that guy that prangs a press car. This philosophy works well for new model launches, but means that the skills can be a bit rusty when presented with an old school race car.
Having an experienced driver as a team owner also means having a driving coach. I make an effort to learn something new every single time I am on a track and Nummelin’s efforts as a coach stood out as a high point of the weekend. Every racer or lapping day participant should take advantage of any coaching they can get.
A BIG thanks goes out to Alan Balinsky, Eric Nummelin and Uli Bieri for making this happen and allowing me to be part of it. The opportunity to help grow our sport in this country is so important to me. Additional thanks to the folks at Toyo Tires Canada for providing a set of tires. I don’t think I even got them up to temperature. Thanks to Phil Bigioni for lending me a driver’s suit that fits my girth and to Ian Rae for providing video coverage with a series of Replay XD cameras.
Photo Credit: Duncan Grant, Riley Grant