Martinis, Ballet Shoes, and Left Foot Braking


As the rear tires lose the necessary grip required to negotiate turn 8A at Sonoma Raceway without undue drama, and the car begins to slide closer to the edge of the track than I had planned, adrenaline, only a millisecond behind the loss of traction, flows through me. It reaches my knees. That’s a yardstick of sorts. When it gets to my knees my body is telling me I am in peril, or at least that I need to bring all resources to bear in order to survive, which I think would be peril. Thanks body, I really needed that extra alert. It’s not like I haven’t been paying attention for the last 30 minutes or so since I first belted into the car, but OK, I’ll step it up another notch–if that’s possible. A quickly applied bit of opposite lock and grip is regained, the corner negotiated. Speed about 100 mph.

And so it went, from time to time, while racing at Sonoma Raceway three weeks ago during my season’s second race weekend and race two of the Crossflow Cup Series. When I told this particular tale of drama to a fellow driver, his response was; “And then you stayed out there and did it again, didn’t you?”–his tone acknowledging that we are all nuts, plain and simple. His tone was pitch perfect.

Improved pace on a race track requires change. Change this most recent weekend was to move to left foot braking. Left foot braking as I did for hundreds of laps each weekend karting during my younger days. And I dare say that this return to left foot braking gave me the confidence needed to control the car much more on it’s edge than ever before, be it around turn 8A or any other.

The Lola has three pedals, four if you count the dead pedal–the pedal to the far left that is simply a foot rest, or brace. Throttle right, brake next, then clutch to the left. Given the nature of the the Hewland racing gearbox, the clutch pedal is only needed when setting off from a stop. Clutch in, select first gear, release clutch, add fuel. Underway.

Sadly, too few drivers know of this manual transmission stuff. Sad because when done well, shifting gears manually is very satisfying. And done really well, it can embody all the precision, expertise, and delicacy exempified by the perfectly batted ball, thrown football, or dunked basket. And it must be done well, masterfully in fact, if the car is to be smoothly controlled approaching and negotiating a corner and if a winning pace is to be attained. Too often racing doesn’t get credit for it’s difficulty and required athleticism when compared to America’s traditional stick and ball sports. Among the many difficult things in racing, downshifting and braking, at the same time and smoothly, is one of them.

Before “The Change,” my left foot was relegated to mere passenger status, placed firmly on the dead pedal, my right foot operating both brake and throttle simultaneously. To slow, burn speed using the ball of my right foot on the right edge of the brake pedal, roll my foot to the right to blip the throttle while continuing to brake with the left half of my foot. Select the lower gear, continue braking, turn in, add throttle, off throttle, select next gear up, back on throttle, accelerate, exit the corner–the subconscious mind, and right foot, hard at work. All the while, the left foot atrophies against the dead pedal.

Historically, because of pedal arrangement, it was called Heel and Toe. Your heal worked the throttle, bringing up the revs for a smooth downshift, while your toes of the same foot simultaneously applied the brake, slowing for the approaching corner. The more accurate term nowadays would be Left Side Of Foot, Right Side Of Foot, but that’s neither brief or catchy. Heel And Toe, it is, even though it’s not.

But, since the clutch pedal is not needed (much), why not bring the left foot back onto the field? Two pedals to work, two feet to work them–makes sense. The heck with this heel and toe stuff, clever as it may be. Now the left foot focuses exclusively on the brake pedal, and the right foot applies only throttle. Simple, precise, faster. To make that doable, a larger brake pedal was fitted and the clutch pedal was moved to the left, out of the way. Now, to slow for a corner, its left foot on the brake, burn off the speed, right foot on the throttle, blipping up the revs, moving from fourth gear to third, to second, to first, as needed. Much more precise.

And since new duties had been assigned the feet, new shoes seemed appropriate, too. Ballet shoes. Indeed, ballet shoes, at least so they seem. Virtually a non-shoe. Don’t walk around in these things–zero arch support and even less sole. Paper thin and very skinny. For good penmanship, you don’t wear gloves while writing. For good footwork you don’t want bulk. Thin soled, narrow, light, flexible shoes–that’s what you want. A new pair of Italian OMP shoes are now the small interface between flesh, subconscious mind, and pedal. Excellent feel for maximum braking. Fire resistant, too, of course.

Lap times were, give or take a bit, a full 1.5 seconds faster than ever before! In racing, that’s, well, a lot! Surely it was in no small part due to “The Change.”

In Saturday’s event I managed eighth place, Sunday 7th. Good races with pressure from behind, some of which I succumbed to, and challenges ahead, some of which I met. Each day a grid of 26 or so entries. As an independent, not supported by a professional shop (though I must acknowledge the wonderful help of the guys at John Anderson Racing, who, out of the goodness of their hearts, continually offer much needed advice and counsel lest I do serious damage to self, car, or others), not too shabby.

Martini now all but gone but has left in me the inspiration to make further improvements to car and self. New parts to be ordered and the simulator awaits, as preparation continues for our first race east of the Rockies; The Jefferson 500 at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia, May 18-21. We’ll race against, so far, 45 other cars and drivers, all but one of each strange to me. Great fun and continued adventure awaits.

Many regrets that we must abandon the West Coast Crossflow Cup Series for the remainder of the year, but new and exciting tracks await eastward and closer to my back yard.

Left foot ready, willing, and anxious.
Lemon Drop Martini: In shaker half full of ice: Juice of two small lemons,
4 parts vodka, 2 parts Cointreau, 3/4 part simple syrup. Shake, serve in chilled martini glass. Worth 3 tenths a lap……..kidding.

Weekend One, The Season Begins at Laguna Seca

Laguna Seca Raceway, Monterey, California was our first race of the season just a couple of weeks ago. What venue could be better?  I grew up on the Monterey Peninsula, actually worked for the Jim Russell Racing School at Laguna Seca, at age 22, in return for race time in their Van Dieman Formula Fords–cars very similar to the car I am racing now, almost 36 years later.  How far I have come!  I like to think of Laguna as my home track.  Not that I am necessarily at my best there, but time spent in the stands as well as in the garages has generated in me a fondness for the place I have for nowhere else.

Hosted by the Historic Motor Sports Association (HMSA) it was a two day event that transpired in what seemed like a matter of hours.  20 minutes of practice Saturday morning, then a race that afternoon.  Race results Saturday determined the grid for Sunday’s “Feature” race which followed a brief morning practice.  But this time, Saturday’s race was different, and was in fact the real “feature” race.

I’ll explain.

In most US vintage racing, there are bragging rights for victory or a fast lap, but generally that’s about it.  Some of the older and more historically significant cars can be pricey.  Fender banging, wheel rubbing, fist shaking, and generally risky moves are to remain the purview of professionals and therefore refrained from by we mere mortals. The powers that be tend to think trophies or a championship points race might just be the impetus for bad acting.  No trophies, no podium celebrations, no championship points to accrue in pursuit of glory at a year end awards banquet. And certainly no champagne spraying on a podium! Such is the nature of most vintage racing. Sigh!

This time, though, Saturday’s race was different.  It marked the beginning of The CrossFlow Cup; a five race series to be held at four different tracks with the blessings of three separate vintage racing organizations. Points to tally, trophies to win, medals to wear, and maybe a girl to kiss. And….Champagne to spray!  Wonderful. The powers that be have been won over, for now, and been convinced that we Formula Ford drivers could be trusted to behave with an acceptable level of civility and not kill each other before turn two, or destroy our cars forever and ever. And if we did wreck the cars, well, what the hell, they aren’t really that pricey. Well, not like a 1967 Ferrari Testa Rosa, anyway. So they said yes to the idea of scored competition and The Cross Flow Cup is born.  Game on!

Saturday morning I was able to qualify 16th out of 27 entries.  Nothing to brag about, but I’ll take it.  Now that a championship is afoot, some serious folks are getting more serious and some heretofore mild mannered racers are finding the fire in their belly once again.  I did manage a good start passing five cars before turn turn two. Nothing like that feeling.  Were it not for the concentration needed to manage turn two and not throw away all I had just earned, I’d have been screaming in my helmet as though I’d won the lottery.  No, I just passed 5 cars at the start of The CrossFlow Cup, this is better than the lottery!  I gave up a couple of spots during the race, one entering turn 10 that I particularly regret.  Should have blocked, ah, I mean defended, more, and made the aggressor really earn the position.  Lesson learned. 12th place finish.

Sunday’s race was not nearly as exciting for me, though I managed a 10th place finish.  No drama to report–neither having to defend nor ever in a position to attack.  No points on offer for the Sunday race, “just” a race, old school, vintage style.  A fun factor that is still off the scale, but not the same as the points race.  What could the difference be? Check out: for more details about The Crossflow Cup.

Next report; the recent weekend at Sonoma Raceway.  Martinis, ballet shoes, and left foot braking.  I’ll explain.

Full Disclosure

Ok, its a Pinto engine, alright? There, I’ve said it and its true. My single seat, open wheel, fun as hell Formula Ford race car is powered by a Ford Pinto engine. This may mean little to those born after cell phones were everywhere and vinyl records nowhere, but to those of us who have been around a bit longer, it does mean something and regrettably, in the minds of many, not a great something.

The Pinto was one of Ford’s very early attempts at producing a small, economical four passenger car. It’s power plant was a very reliable, cheap to build, and cheap to maintain 1600cc four cylinder engine that produced a whopping 95 brake horsepower, give or take a few. The car was not much to look at or drive. But, in it’s day, the engine was a good little work horse and therefore the power plant of choice for a new racing class that, because of the engine choice, became known as Formula Ford. Actually in use prior to the Pinto, in cars marketed in Europe, and known as a Kent engine, the iron block, push-rod motor, was installed in entry level race cars driven by budding professionals. A cheap way to race with other identically engined cars, show your skills, and become a professional race car driver–or not, depending upon the depth of the afore mentioned skills and other things like, money, maturity, and more money.

And one more thing we may as well get out in the open. The four speed non-synchronized gear box is from a VW beetle. Well, the case and only the case is. It’s guts are rock crushing, rock solid, straight cut, Hewland gears. Four speeds in all, selected with an H-pattern shifter. Manly stuff to be sure, and used in all manner of race cars for many many years.

So my car is a 1972 Lola T204 Formula Ford, powered by a Ford Pinto engine, and has a VW gearbox case. You may think that summary a bit dull, but such thoughts would be misguided. It weighs just 1125 pounds with me in it. And it’s engine is skillfully balanced and tuned to produce 115 brake horsepower, give or take a few. The car is fast. Not super-car fast, break your neck, go 100 mph in first gear fast, but fast nonetheless. Quick they’d say in Europe. Top speed is about 150 mph if you install gears tall enough and have a straightaway long enough. At most road racing tracks in the United States, and Europe, too, for that matter, top speeds rarely exceed 120 mph. But that’s enough to keep most people’s attention. Certainly mine.

The frame is simple, cheap, steel tubing, the body equally simple and cheap fiberglass. Neither the four wheel disc brakes or rack and pinion steering are powered by anything but human muscle. It even relies on points, condenser and a single coil for its spark. Not a single computer aboard. Couldn’t be much simpler.

Its old, but there are modern versions powerered by the same engine type running every weekend at club races around the world. It’s a good formula still, 50 years after the concept was conceived. For hobbyists like myself, who long ago gave up the idea of being a professional driver, old (the car that is) is good. It keeps things cheap. No need to buy the latest aerodynamic version. Or the one with lighter suspension pieces. Or the one with upgraded brakes. When raced at vintage racing gatherings, the car must be built no later than 1972. Everyone on equal ground. Nice.

What’s In a Name?

Martini Racing, that’s the name I should use, since so far most of the big decisions I’ve made about this year’s season of racing have been, uh, lets say inspired by, motivated by, blamed on, the consumption of at least one, or more, of the simple but to the point adult beverages (lemon flavored, please). So, it is with that excuse that I announce the name of our team for 2018: Wirrick Racing! Martini Racing was taken. Creative, eh? It was suggested that since it’s my car and my team, it should have my name. Kind of liked that. It was also suggested that naming it as I have is a bit egotistical, simple minded, and self-centered. (No, no, tell me what you really think) So be it. Racing is all of those things. Look at me, look at me! Go round and round faster than everyone else (if you can), and who’s driving this thing, anyway? Me! Right. Guilty on all counts.

I thought about some funny names, some descriptive names, and some meaningless names. Too often, though, such names, like so many personalized license plates, leave casual observers wondering what the hell the owner is trying to say. Don’t want that! In the end, it seemed simpler to just use my last name. Soon forest green Polo shirts will show up on my door step emblazoned with Wirrick Racing, upper left corner. Let’s hope the green matches the color of the car and that the team, proudly attired in matching wear, unites in one cohesive, kick-ass group of friends hell bent on making me, me, me, look good. Team shirts; a first for me that should add to the fun. Well, for me, anyway.

Next rambling will be about the car. Enough of this trivial stuff. Let’s talk race cars and racing!

Committed Now!

Gregory Peck, starring in a 1960’s war movie “The Guns of Navarone,” said to a reluctant fellow commando, “Well you’re in it now, buster, up to your neck!” It was a dramatic scene I’ve always remembered and that’s how I’m feeling now, like the reluctant commando, since I’ve just inked the papers on a brand new race car trailer. We’re committed now and there’s no going back! Well, in truth there certainly is going back, as this is simply a hobby, not war. And we’re not setting off for a New World, crossing the Rubicon, or dumping a family fortune into some new business venture. It’s all folly, and everything can be parked, sold, forgotten. But a grand season is planned and we’ll have none of that! We’re going racing!

The new trailer affirms our commitment to the plan and is a first step to the grand season. 11 race weekends, starting in Monterey, CA and stretching, if all goes well, as far east as Watkins Glenn, NY, as far north as Elkhart Lake, WI, and as far south as Austin, TX.

Three years ago I bought a 1972 Lola T204 Formula Ford in which to race against other equally mature cars and, for the most part, drivers. Turns out that vintage racing can be a pretty cheap way to race a car–CAN BE, being the two hugely significant words in that sentence. It can also be astronomically expensive, but costs, justifications, rationalizations, etc., will be sidelined for now and addressed in another blog—preferably one I’ll write after some numbing martinis, as even at the cheaper end of the spectrum, the costs, when honestly recognized, would be described by some as indicative of a serious mental malady, genetic disorder, or serious illness, not unlike that of a compulsive gambler or drug addict. But I digress.

I bought the Lola in California where I have raced it 4 or 5 times each year since taking ownership, leaving California only once for Portland, OR, for a fabulous weekend under, surprise surprise, cloudy skies and on a wet track—who’d have thought? We towed on an open flatbed trailer behind an Audi SUV, returning after each weekend to my friend’s airlplane hanger in Marin County where the car still rests. It all worked out well, but now it’s time to take advantage of living in the midwest and somewhat better access to famous venues relatively nearby. 11 weekends to famous places, pulling a new trailer with the car comfortably protected from the rougher elements-—be they atmospheric or human. That’s the plan.

Trailer buying is more complex than I thought it would be. How big must it be? Can it be? Should it be? All critical questions. We settled on an 18 foot long, 7 foot wide, 6 foot tall, all-aluminum Featherlite. Featherlites are lighter than steel trailers, and very well built. A pricey, all-aluminum box, on four wheels, painted silver on the outside and gleaming natural aluminum (is there any other kind?) on the inside. It is bigger than it must be, smaller than it could be, but I hope as big as it should be. Some prep work on the tow vehicle going on at the dealership as I write this, and I have only taken a brief acceptance look at it. My first impression is how big it seems on the outside and how small it seems inside. The opposite impression would have been better, but I remain optimistic and hopeful that I have chosen wisely.

Over the next few weeks the trailer will be made a place for everything where everything can be kept in its place. For an obsessive organizer like me, it will be a therapeutic process. The truck and trailer will then head to California mid-March to collect the car and attend our first race at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, CA. The countdown begins.

More blogs to follow. And pictures. Plenty to say about racing in general, the vintage races we’re going to, the Lola and other cars, our plan, and thoughts about why we do such things as race. Many things upon which to opine. I’ll try not to make it a brag site, but rather a place to hear the miscellaneous ramblings of an aging baby boomer doing something simply because, as racer/actor Paul Newman once said to Barbara Walters during an interview; “It’s a kick in the ass!”

Mike W.