I have done it. I’ve been passionate about cars and racing my entire life, I autocrossed for the first time in 2008, and now, after 27 years, I am a licensed race car driver... and a race winner.
(This is gonna be a long one. Skip to the bottom for fun video)
After my last HPDE weekend on December 5-6, I was signed off to be eligible for NASA Competition School. This winter I worked on fixing the alternator that broke at the track, removing weight where allowed, acquiring the proper tires for the class, and prep work for my first race season. That prep work took a little bit of paperwork to accomplish including a pretty thorough physical, an application to the national office, and coordinating with the regional director.
I had signed up for the event. I had fresh fluids. I packed the spare parts I owned. I had bought extra spares for things I hope I never need at the track. I read every forum I could find for what to take and how to tweak the car at the track. A friend was nice enough to lend an enclosed trailer for the weekend. The hotel was booked. My every idle moment for the last few weeks had been brainstorming what I was going to need for this weekend.
Friday afternoon I showed up to the track at around 3:00. I had to get the car through tech and get my first logbook. The car had a previous SCCA logbook, but NASA issues their own. (To anyone going through this with a race car they purchased, KNOW YOUR CAR, they’re going to ask you a lot of questions about it.)
After Tech and Registration came Competition School. I’m sure ever region is different, but ours consisted of a casual classroom setting with a long discussion of racing philosophy, then a review of on track etiquette, flags, and post race tech items. There was a discussion of how to start, how to finish, how to pass, and how not to pass. More discussion on philosophy followed, and then a quick test to wrap it all up.
Saturday morning began with a drivers meeting early and a 8:55 Mock Starts session. Each of the four of us in Comp. School were to take turns on Pole for a practice start with the rest of the field made up of racers that want an extra practice session. One rookie had mechanical issues so I got the distinct privilege of starting P1 twice. What that really means is I started P1 with 3000 ft of straightaway ahead of me in a 117hp car in a field of 150-250hp cars. I was eaten alive by a gaggle of Porsche 944’s and a M3 into Turn 1, and then it happened again, and again, and again. It was a good experience, 3 wide into a 90mph turn on cold tires 4 times in a row is enough to make you question your breakfast choices.
At this point you’re all but turned loose for the weekend. I ran well in my warmup session, and then again in qualifying. There was only one other Spec Miata at the track this weekend, and I qualified a quarter of a second ahead of him. Grid was based on class speed, so we were gridded in the back for the first race.
I was not prepared for my first green flag.
Everyone got the jump on me. I spent my first couple laps just trying to catch the field. I quickly learned I had better cornering speed than any of the Spec 944’s and E30’s. I could not catch the other Spec Miata; he was the same distance down the straightaway every time I came through the last turn. Around lap 6 or 7 a Red Corvette passed me on the straight at what I’d have to estimate as Mach 0.9. I could tell its huge wing was putting in work because the little Miata felt like it had an extra grunt for the few tenths of a second I could get behind it. A few more laps pass. As I make my way through the “M”, I see the red Miata off in the mud around turn 6. Two more laps... Checkered Flag... I just won my first race!!!
I took a break, cooled off, and made sure to take cool pictures like this. That’s what you can do when you’re a race car driver.
The second race grid was set based on the first race’s finishing order, by class. The two Spec Miatas started at the back as before, but this time I timed the start right and got off to a great start. The other SM, not being a rookie, took some risks with passes early and got a few cars ahead of me. After a few laps I started catching him, picking off 944’s, and feeling the tires come in. I caught up to him about 10 laps into the race and attempted a pass to the inside of a L/R set of 90’s . We exited the left hand 90 and I left him a ton of room for the right hander. This was a bad decision. No one had taken that line all day and it was full of what I think the racers refer to as “marbles”.
Luckily this is the one place on track you can run wide. I went out through some cones into what would be parking area when the track has drag races. When I gathered up the car and reentered the track, I had lost a couple seconds to the other Miata. I knew there could only be a few laps left, so I pushed incredibly hard for the next two laps and caught him. Thoughts of the “NEMESIS” video ran through my head.
I would love to prove this to you. Sadly, my GoPro decided not to cooperate with my storage and I have no footage of my feats. I just have 20 seconds of putting on gloves and staring at the trailer. Luckily I cut the resolution down Sunday and got some footage.
Sunday we woke up to rain. It wasn’t a surprise but it wasn’t welcomed either. Memphis International Raceway uses a dragstrip and runoff for its main straight. The traction compound used to make 8000hp dragsters hook up when dry turns into snot polished black ice with a few drops of moisture. When it rains, NASA uses the “hot pit” lane next to the dragstrip to skip this section of the track. It makes T8 tighter, and puts a chicane into the middle of the main straight. They also restrict passing in this area.
I qualified about ten seconds slower than the previous day, mainly because I was terrified of the hot pit exit. Another interesting note is the format of the race on Sunday. It’s what is referred to as an Aussie Pursuit. Essentially, instead of all the cars starting in one big group and finishing spread out, they use your times from the weekend to figure out how long it would take each car to run 25 laps, and then release the cars at different times in hopes they will all finish in one big group. It allows someone like me, running 1:23’s, to compete with someone in an American Iron car running 1:15’s.
The forecast call for rain to start at 1:30 and get heavy around 2:00. The race was to start and 1:25 and run for 35 minutes. I chose to leave the rain tires on the car. It never more than sprinkled, but since nearly everyone chose the rain tires like I did, the situation was pretty fair. The first half of the race was boring, just making laps, hitting my points, churning away. The last 7 laps are seen below, when it got interesting.
So that’s it. We loaded up and drove home. I won my class of 2 in all three races, I successfully fulfilled the requirements of acquiring a racing license, and I won $150 in Hawk brake pads. I’m thrilled.
Now... when can I go racing again?