First Race

Two old saws about racing:
“If you don’t absolutely have to go racing…. don’t.”
“The way to make a small fortune in auto racing? Start first with a large one.”
More pragmatic souls would be deterred by the above, but after several years driving and instructing at high-performance driving schools in the northeast, I was ready to jump back on a steeper learning curve. So last weekend, I trucked my M3 out to upstate New York for my first wheel to wheel race last week with NASA Northeast at Watkins Glen.
With a small field of 24 cars, and run on a track I know well, I had hoped that this event would be a good, lower-intensity way to ease into wheel-to-wheel racing. There was a very broad mix of cars and laptimes — everything from Ron Savenor’s Porsche 911 cup car to older Hondas and Neons more than 20 seconds/lap slower. Fortunately, I had a good variety of similar cars to play with, including a doppelganger in an identically-prepped E30 M3, and a smattering of Porsche 944s in various states of tune.
I had come out to the Glen with relatively low expectations. As far as I was concerned, the event would be a success if 1) I didn’t crash, and 2) I didn’t cause anyone else to crash.
On Monday’s race I qualified 7th, first in my class (GTS2). I held my place on the start, and stuck right to the rear bumper of the 944S2 that had qualified just ahead of me, with the other E30 M3 just behind. After hounding the 944 driver for a 2-3 laps, looking for an opening, I finally passed him going into the heel of the boot.
I pretty quickly put a couple hundred yards between us before I noticed my coolant temperatures were abnormally high. Despite turning the heater on and slowing a bit, the problem persisted, so I pitted after about 6 laps. As soon as I shut the car off, the radiator burst, dumping all the car’s coolant onto the tarmac.
After a quick evening trip up to Rochester in search of a new used radiator (big thanks to Eksten Automotive), I was ready for the next day’s race. I again qualified seventh, this time behind the other M3 driver, who had improved his laptimes by two seconds over the previous day, and opposite the driver of the 944S2 I had passed in the previous race.
This start didn’t go as well; the 944 beside me at the start out-accelerated me into Turn 1, and I lost a couple more places in short order during the first lap. I wound up in a fun dice with a Porsche 924S with less power, significantly less weight and stickier tires (245-series Hoosiers, compared to my 225-series Toyos). I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a duel where I was clearly so much slower in the corners than another car, but lap after lap I’d make it all up through the esses and the back straight. After a couple laps where it was clear I was holding him up in certain parts of the track, I lifted to let him by — after all, I had come to get the experience, not to win. That turned out to be exactly the right decision; once we both became comfortable that one of us wasn’t going to run the other off the track, we wound up having a pretty good battle, going side by side through the outer loop, and up through the toe.
Unfortunately, our battle ended prematurely on the second to last lap when the Porsche driver hung the tail out while trying a risky pass in the outer loop. I watched in my rearview mirror as he caught the initial slide, but failed to catch the rebound the other way, swung around and hit the wall pretty hard facing backwards.
So now the real learning begins. I have some work to do on my driving; I think in the heat of the moment I was more aggressive with my lines than I should have been, making my overall laptimes a fair bit slower than I’d like. That will come with practice. The first real test will come next month at the club race at Lime Rock, where I’ll be competing with at least 10 other ostensibly identical cars for first place in J-stock. Stay tuned.