Watkins Glen–Season Ender

The left front wheel only barely brushed the edge of the track exiting turn 2, but at 120 mph, and exiting a corner that demands everything the tires have to offer, it doesn’t take much to upset the apple cart–or Lola T204 Formula Ford in this case–and where goes the front wheel, the rear is soon to follow. In a heart beat the car pulled sharply to the left, fully departed the racing surface, and after heartbeat two struck the very close Armco barrier, nose first–the front end instantly crushing like a cigarette butt being snuffed out. It then spun round, a convenient 180 degrees, and after several more heartbeats, the rear end of the car was crushed, too, as it impacted another section of Armco barrier.  Oops.

Just before the first impact, I took my hands off the wheel. I’d seen that on TV.  Professionals know when to give up, it seems. They know a time comes at which there is nothing more they can do to save the day, so self-preservation becomes the next priority; save hands and wrists from the powerful, un-commanded rotation of the steering wheel when the front wheels hit a wall.   Having a fondness for functioning appendages, I followed their lead, gave up, and took my hands off the wheel as the mayhem ensued.  Finally, after destroying the car at both ends, silence.  No more tire screech, smoke, metal bending, and fiberglass exploding.  Just silence.  The car was severely damaged.  Me?  Not a scratch.  Frustrated, but not flustered.

Re-set, request a new car, reposition to the hot pit lane and start a new session.   Such is the greatness of a simulator.  My real race car sat unscathed, peacefully and intact, in my garage, and oblivious to the carnage it’s sister sim-car had just experienced.

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IRacing.com has become my software of choice.  All the best tracks to choose from, and the detail fantastic.

It was sim practice for the Vintage Racing Group’s race at Watkins Glen International in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York–valuable training before the real thing soon to come.   I had debated about making the two-day drive to get there, but after three or four laps around the track in the simulator, crashes and all, it was clear I had to go.  Over four miles of fast, sweeping corners, beautiful scenery, and a storied history of Formula One, Trans Am, Can Am, even NASCAR races.  This was a must see, must drive, must race on, track.  I had even been there before, some 40 years ago, as a 19-year-old kid thinking that crewing on a professional Trans Am team would be helpful to a career I thought would be that of a professional race car driver.  It would be good to return, this time on the right side of the pit wall.

Simulators are not new to me, they being an integral part of my job as a professional pilot–the professional race car driver plan of some 40 years ago not quite working out.  Aircraft simulators can be amazingly realistic, leading us to often say while flying the real thing; “Hey, this is just like the simulator!”  Racing simulators are rapidly approaching a similar level of realism and effectiveness, I quickly learned, after spending time with Tom Pabst of Pro Racing Simulators (prsdd.com) at Sonoma Raceway in California.   Three or four hours of time behind the wheel of his simulator, and with his professional instruction, before setting off for Portland International Raceway a year ago, had me well prepared for flesh and blood racing at the new to me track. After just half of the first session of the first day, my pace in the real thing and on the real track was competitive.  Great to know which way the track goes before getting there.

Tom keeps his sim room warm, sim volume up, has you belt in, and wear your own helmet, driving shoes, and driving gloves. Anything you can do to simulate the real thing is a good thing. Believe you are there, and don’t take crashing lightly, he’d say, or you’ll crash too readily in the real thing.  Serious effort was expected in his sim, and I worked hard to be a good student.

Given the costs of racing the real thing, and the precious little track time afforded one during a race weekend, preparation in as many ways possible is key.  Simulator practice is one of the best ways to prepare, so I bought a gaming computer of my own.   Control wheel, pedals, etc., and able-bodied crew member Fred Hecker built a great lay down chassis from wood and PVC pipe that has me prone, steering wheel just below head level, and legs outstretched, almost straight–the driving position I assume in my steel and fiberglass Lola T204 Formula Ford.  And learning from Master Tom, I even dawn helmet, gloves, and racing shoes for my own sim time.  Serious effort is put forth even without him watching over my shoulder.

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Had to paint it green to match “the real thing.”

After not taking crashing too lightly over the course of surely 500 simulated laps around the Watkins Glen International Raceway, I finished the laborious but wonderfully anticipatory process of loading actual car, gear, and supplies, for the long trip to Watkins Glen, New York–a two-day drive from St. Louis. The first day of travel, uneventful–a Comfort Inn that actually lived up to it’s name was the highlight of the day, and prophetically, perhaps, located close to another famous track at which I hope someday to race; Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, in, as one might deduce, the middle of Ohio.

Day two of the trip I entered upstate New York. Beautiful. Vast rolling forests in fall livery.  Bright yellows, greens, reds.  Spectacular.  And where forests end, farm fields and pastures begin, sparsely populating the landscape.  Upon initial departure, as I often do, I questioned the sanity, the wisdom, of going on such a long journey for such folly–to drive a car round and round in circles trying to go just a bit faster than everyone else.  But the forests and the fall colors alone almost made the trip worth it. And racing was still to come.

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Surprisingly uninspired facade for such an inspiring place.

And come it did.  Friday morning was wet.  Some decided to not take car to track.  It was tempting to follow suit, but there to race, out I went, into rain, reduced visibility, and slippery conditions.   I had not practiced wet conditions in the simulator, but none the less, the sim had not let me down.  Time in “the box” paid off and my pace was descent.

Saturday’s main event was run under clear skies and on a dry track.  Tough to be fast right out of the shoot, with no real experience on a dry track, but I still managed a very satisfying 7th out of 29 overall (modern formula fords were included in the fray) and 2nd out of 12 among the Historic Fords only.  Very satisfying indeed.  Thanks, Tom, Fred, and technology.  The sim time spent had once again proven to be time well spent.

The Watkins Glen circuit is a bit scary.  I’ve learned over some decades of racing one thing or another that just about every track has one corner that is simply evil.  It’s the pucker factor corner.  It’s usually fast, usually has minimal run-off room, and always demands every thing of you, your car, motorcycle, or go-kart.  Gather your grit, keep the throttle open, and hope you get it right.   At Watkins Glen, just about every corner is a pucker factor corner.  Armco (a brand name) guard rail lines most of the track.  What exactly is guard rail guarding anyway?  Certainly not me–more like trees and gullies as far as I could tell.  I guess it’s better to hit guard rail than trees, but jeepers, couldn’t they have set the barriers a bit farther from the racing surface?  Evil corners conceived of and built by evil doers!

Of particular concern was turns two and three.  120 mph plus and on the limit of tire grip.  I had gotten it all wrong in turn two in the sim and it cost me nothing.   A mistake made around the real thing, chasing that extra half second or so off a lap time, and the car will hit the Armco barrier in an instant.  No re-set button, no new car request, and definitely flustering.  And likely painful to both body and bank account.  I developed a mantra: There is no Armco, there is no Armco, there is no Armco.

Above video, Saturday’s race start.  After lap one, a bit lonely–unable to catch the fast guys but no challengers from behind.

Sunday’s morning race and it was back to wet conditions.  There is no Armco, there is no Armco…..   2nd out of 10 in class and 7th out of 29 overall. Another satisfying result.

Sunday afternoon, the last race of the weekend.  While adding fuel, I noticed a missing motor mount bolt.  And then a broken motor mount bolt.  Should have seen that before!  So it goes.  With no time to fix things, I watched the race from the pit lane and wished that I was out there, pucker factor corners and all.  After the race is over, load the car and head west, home to St. Louis.  Disappointing to not race in the afternoon race in dry conditions, but the weekend was epic, as they have all been.  The grand tour of 2017 was over.  Virginia International Raceway will be the first race of 2018.  I better download that track and start logging some sim time, its only a few months away.

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