May 26, 2010
March 26, 2011
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“Racing” (June 2010)

Ok so it was time to take a short vacation from X-Plane 10 development, and Randy’s wife (Randy of all your tech support queries to us about X-Plane) decided that we should take a bit of a break from the grind and take a trip somewhere to learn how to drive.

She chose the Skip Barber racing school as the perfect place. Skip Barber has a small handful of locations across the country, and with me in south Carolina, Randy in Kansas, a big full-cockpit flight sim we are building In Utah nearing completion and ready to be checked out by us for integration with X-Plane, my wife never having seen las Vegas, and the Laguna Seca raceway in California being the stuff of legend with it’s crazy dropping corkscrew turn, N842x needing a bit more flying since I had just been doing nothing but coding and a honeymoon for the last few months, we decided to merge all of this into one big trip to knock down about six birds with one very nice stone (N428x).

So here was the plan: Me and my wife Lanie would top off 428x and run Columbia SC to Kansas city to grab Randy. I have often said that 428x was the best 2-seater in the world, since with full tanks and some baggage, it is at gross weight with two full-size people on board. Since three of us would be travelling, I was afraid that we would run into problems with being overweight. How wrong I was! With me, Randy, Lanie, baggage, and 1300 miles from Kansas to Cali, something was going to have to be offloaded to make this trip. The answer was obvious: fuel. Lucky for us, Lanie watches her figure and is very light, and i make just enough enough effort to keep off the pounds to keep me down at 185 pounds even with well over six feet of height. Randy has also been watching his diet for the last few months and was down under 220. 428x was generously equipped with air conditioning (nearly critical in the desert temperatures of 100 degrees that we would see) and de-ice (possibly a life-saver over the rocky mountains, which were, indeed, snow-capped). The bottom line: With all three of us, and baggage, we could carry 71 gallons of gas… Enough to make our 450-mile legs from Kansas to Cali, with over 1-hour reserves at touch-down, no problem. Another nice trick of these 450-mile legs is that they gave nice 2.5-hour legs, which were perfect for coffee-food-bathroom breaks as we would meander across the great west.

The trip planned, there was nothing left to do but fly it! With full tanks and just me and Lanie on board, we hopped from Cola to Kansas nonstop, enjoying the air conditioning, techno on the XM radio, and total weather awareness from the XM weather on the G1000. After an un-eventful nonstop flight from the East Coast to the Midwest, we picked up Randy and now it was time to keep us down to 71 gallons to keep us at legal fighting-weight for the remainder of the flights to California via a bunch of cool places. Refueling was always done the same way: I would check the exact fuel on board before fueling, and have the line guy put in whatever it would take to get us to exactly 71 gallons on board. This meant that every takeoff would be at gross weight, and every flight would be limited to 3 hours to have our 1-hour reserve at a cruise of 16 gallons per hour (a bit more in climb).

I was initially really worried about ‘not having enough fuel’ by flying with less than full tanks, but 71 gallons is good for over 4 hours, for goodness sake! Really, an amazingly comfortable plane with 3 people, baggage, and over 4 hours of fuel is no problem at all for travel… it is fun to stop after 3 hours to see new airports and scenery!

Having fueled to 71 gallons at KOJC, and a gross-weight takeoff In our immediate future, I researched the short-field takeoff procedure: 65-knot rotation, 80-knot climb. I wanted to know this, because I would be operating out of small airports, at maximum-allowable weight, in extremely high temperatures, at high altitudes as we crossed through the mountains of the great west. Any pilot should know that a gross-weight takeoff on a hot day at high altitude at a small airport has all the makings of an imminent accident. My research into the operating handbook revealed some interesting data, though: 428x would not be so intimidated by the thin air of the hot days at high altitude, where other planes would struggle to put out any power in the thin air! You see, 428x has two turbochargers! These turbos do not bother to do anything at all when the air is thick, but when the air is thin, they automatically spin up to insane rpm to cram air into the engine, so the engine will put out full-rated power at any airport on earth under 14,000 feet! With the power of the turbos ready to pull us up through any air, no matter how thin, 428x would get us airborne in 1,500 feet, every time. The runway lengths we would encounter would always be over 4,500 ft, so we would always have three times the runway we needed! I practiced a short-field takeoff coming out of Kansas anyway to be safe, and WOW! With the air-conditioning on, plenty of baggage in the back, three of us snuggled on board, and a nice cool cabin despite the 90-degree temperatures outside, 428x rocketed out of Kansas in a steep climb at 80 knots, the farmland and airport falling away behind(not below us, but behind us, the climb was so steep at 80 knots!) at a very rapid rate. Within one minute we were at 1,000 feet and nose lowered to 120 knot cruise climb and then oxygen and XM- radio techno on. For the rest of the trip we would marvel at the cornfields transitioning to desert fields with plenty of irrigation, then dry brown plains, then dry brown mountains, then snow-capped Rockies, then great wide dry desert for hundreds of miles In Every direction, where one could most certainly die of thirst without proper planning, then the green vegetation-covered mountains of California.

But I am getting ahead of myself: following our stunning, air-conditioned, surprisingly steep launch out of Kansas, we put down at Pueblo, Colorado, for fuel and food and bathroom. Pueblo has a field-full of fascinating old jet-age jet fighters rusting away in a little field that they laughingly call a “museum”. As absurd as it is to leave fantastic and rare airplanes outside like that to rust and decay, the view of the rusting old warbirds really is something, as you creep around them with the snakes and rabbits… Kind of the ultimate junkyard. They have an airplane with 2 radial propeller engines and 2 jets! On the same plane! Weird! A P-80! That is a really fun-looking airplane. Google it. Imagine how fun it would be to fly! Having crept around the cool little junkyard-labelled-museum at Pueblo, it was back into 428x with three of us, air conditioning on, another cool, comfortable, very- steep 80-knot climb to 500 ft, best-rate climb to 1000 feet, and then cruise climb, lean-of-peak, to 16,500, listening to techno and watching the hot, dry, lethal desert scroll by ten thousand feet below us as we contemplated what would happen if we lost our lone engine, pulling our cool cockpit with small bottles of water in it across the sky.

Next stop was telluride… KTEX. Go fly it in X-Plane… It is pretty fun in x-plane, and downright scary in reality! The wind was strong and gusting across the runway, the elevation over 9,000 feet (the highest commercial airport in the USA!), the sun setting in my eyes, nearly blinding me, the runway built on a peak with cliffs at both ends, and high terrain in all quadrants. This approach really involved a high fear-factor for the reasons just mentioned, and I was actually considering aborting the landing and pressing on to another airport (fuel?!), but managed to bring the plane in with decent control, though only just barely with all the turbulent wind blowing across the mountains.

Taxiing in to the ramp at Telluride, my eyes just about popped out of my head… There sat 842x!!!! Right there on the ramp in front of me!!! By pure coincidence, I had travelled two thirds of a country away from my home base to see my old friend and first Columbia-400, 842x, parked right there on the ramp as I taxied up to it in 428x. What are the chances?!?! I had been so sad to see 842x go, thinking i would never see it again when i sold it a year ago, and to see it right there on the ramp ready to fly again was really something special.

After a refuel to (you guessed it!) 71 gallons, it was time for another short-field takeoff, and another rocket up at 80 knots indicated, just like it was sea-level on a cool day!!!

Our next stop along the way was St George, Utah, where we are building a sim to show off at Oshkosh and then give freely to a local high school in Columbia, SC… A nice gift for the kids to fly and a nice tax-deduction for Laminar Research. We checked out the cool sim we are making for a tax-deductible gift to our local high school in St George and then it was off to Las Vegas for one night of pure r-and-r. Taking a southerly route to Vegas took us over this Huge canyon! It was gigantic! The canyon was actually a network of gorges in the stone and rock, eroded over hundreds of thousands of years, resulting in desert plains maybe five thousand feet above sea level, with gorges carved gown into the rock maybe a thousand feet or more! Amongst the desert plains and rocky cliffs, when you flew over at just the right angle, you could see tiny, narrow little rivulets of water waaaay down at the bottom, with just a little bit of greenery around them that has managed to spring up from that little bit of water down at the bottom of the rock. It was really quite stunning how huge and deep the expanses of rock and desert, and how tiny the little bits of river that have worn it down gradually over the millennia. And amazing how the little bits of trees and shrub could find that water in the midst of the desolation and spring to life in such a deep, narrow corridor. Seeing it was really quite grand.

Our next stop was Las Vegas… You probably already know about the city, but you have to check out the Aria hotel the next time you go. Just google ‘aria hotel vegas’ now to see this place… It is absolutely stunning. The complex is all glass and steel, and almost no straight lines are allowed in the construction! All of the lines are gently curved and angular. Several years ago when I was going through Vegas on the way to St George and the Aria was under construction, I initially thought that I was looking at a demolition (!!!!!!!) because all of the steel girders I saw were curved and twisted around!!! I thought that a hotel had been knocked down and the twisted, curving girders were all that remained! Upon closer inspection I saw that the curves were far too clean and deliberate, and the condition too perfect, to possibly be a demolition, and that was my first sight of the Aria hotel. Coming back these two years later, the complex was complete, and absolutely stunning. Curved steel and tinted glass form the structure, with incredible mixes of hardwood, stone, tile, and fascinating lighting filling the structure throughout. Every room has some amazing color and material motif with incredible variations across the room… Every bit of the building interior is a layered, complex, architectural marvel. The suites are also stunning, amazing in their natural simplicity of stone and hardwood, and spacious cool modernity. If you are ever traveling within 100 miles of Vegas, you really need to stay there to see it. Aria hotel. Vegas on the strip. Amazing.

Ok so with 71 gallons of gas on board it was out of Vegas direct to Monterey! We dropped down from 16,500 ft after hours over the desert to see the clouds and fog from the ocean rolling up into the mountains, obscuring the coast itself, with nothing but the soft cottony clouds pushing up into the little green mountains overlooking the ocean… Nothing but white clouds and green hills under a blue sky. Every now and then we would catch a glimpse of the little houses on the hills and the sparkling blue ocean through gaps in the fog.

Touching down in Monterey we grabbed a rental car and it was off to the Skip Barber school to learn how to drive! And that is the next adventure!

Ok so the mission was to learn to drive a little formula car around the racetrack at Laguna Seca, seeing how fast we could go round and round. We showed up on day-one at 8 am sharp to begin our briefing. They had fun bright red fireproof racing suits for all of us to wear, and even special driving shoes with very small soles so our feet would not trip over the pedals as we desperately fumbled for gas, brake, and clutch. The first words from our instructors were heartfelt words of thanks for us coming to the school and paying our modest tuition, which allowed them to stay out of the real world and remain immersed in the world of driving for just a little while longer! There is simply no way to explain how great the instructors are. They live to drive, and quickly pull us into their world of seeking out that perfect turn, every day. They started off by teaching us a bit about how we would adjust the formula-car seats and seatbelts and use the clutch and gas and brakes and gear-shifts. The gear-shifting promised to be especially fun because it was a little handle that we slammed back to shift up, and forward to shift down… Totally different from any streetcar, and a fun new challenge. All dressed in our bright red racing suits, some clutching driving-instruction books, helmets, and the ever present cups of free coffee, the class of maybe 15 wandered out to the gaggle of formula cars for our first exercise: a run around a bunch of cones marking a little trail through the huge parking lot at Laguna Seca. The f-cars that awaited us were fun little formula-trainers. They looked just like formula-one cars to the untrained eye, complete with streamlined fiberglass bodies that you basically lay down in, with only your helmet poking out the top, big black tires with visible suspension poking way out to the side fore and aft, and cool little aluminum wings on the fore and aft to provide downforce. These things weighed 1,100 pounds and packed about 140 horsepower from their little hi-revving inline 4-cylinder Mazda engines. The thrust to weight is about the same as a strong corvette, but with much more precise handling from the tight steering setup. There was no power-assist of any sort: No power steering. No power brakes. No antilock brakes. Nothing. The car is a fiberglass shell, a screaming engine bolted right to the transmission, the transmission basically forming the aft frame of the car. There was just zero padding, zero fluff, zero power-assist. We would feel every power-stroke of the engine in the seat, every bit of gravel on the track, every tooth of every gear in the transmission, use our own strength to turn the steering wheels, and our own strength to compress the four-wheel disc brakes. Our own skill would have to be the antilock braking system.

One man.
One engine.
One car.
It was perfection.

All suited up with the steering wheels removed so we could get in(!!), we belted up our five-point seat belts, re-installed the steering wheels, put on and tightened our helmets (all with help from the excellent ground-support staff), turned on our master switches, and fired up. After a few moments of warm-up, we were individually waved onto the cone-track, with maybe 30-second spacing to keep us spread out just a little. So onto the track we lurched and surged, little engines howling at our sloppy mis-management of the clutch and gas… But oh, the fun! My little speeder was quickly lurching and sliding and screeching through the cones at maybe close to 40 miles per hour, which is pretty fast when you are just 18 inches above the ground, with your front tires rolling and bouncing around right in front of you in plain sight, pulling over 1 g around the turns! I must, unfortunately, however, report that there was something wrong with my car. I was clearly skidding the tires in every turn, locking up the brakes on every stop, lurching aggressively and around every turn with the tire skidding, grandly showing off my amazing guts and superior skill in a cloud of blue smoke and over-revving engine… Yet the driver in front of me was doing NONE of those things, and was still going around the track faster than me! Clearly, there was something wrong with my car, if I could not keep up with this smooth driver, despite my grand theatrics and skidding rubber! More skidding must equal more skill, right? After a few laps, I mentioned this outrage of my under-performing car to my instructor, and he told me that the only equipment problem with the car was with the equipment between the steering wheel and the seat. That shows how much he knows! There is no equipment between the steering wheel and the seat! That is where I sit! Now I was distrustful of my car for being slower than another students, and distrustful of my instructor for thinking there was some sort of equipment malfunction where no equipment was even installed! After a few laps of screeching about, I pulled Into the pits after a lap-session, pulled up to one of the pit-techs, and lowered my voice an octave or two, and said in my best Lee Majors impersonation: ‘I think the brake bias on this car needs some work. I keep getting lockups on the front tires, while the back tires are not giving full deceleration. I think you guys need to shift the brake bias aft on this car a bit so the front tires don’t keep locking up on me when I slam on the brakes’. That our excellent instructors had recently taught us in class, in our very first lesson, that we should go to 80% braking, wait a fraction of a second for the weight of the car to shift forwards onto the front tires, and then go to 100% braking once the weight was settled onto the front tires, was somehow lost on me. I was just frantically stomping the brakes, locking up the front tires, and then complaining about the brake bias! The pit tech smartly replied: “Um, we will keep an eye on it!”… This way, by my next track session, the lesson from the instructor had sunk in, and I was rewarded with an eye-popping stop when I hit the brakes kindofhard, waited a fraction of a second for the weight to shift forwards, and then finessed the pedal down a bit more to full-effort stopping, once the weight was well-placed on the front tires to keep them from locking up.

After a few frantic and fun lap-sessions around the cones in the parking lot, it was back to the classroom to get feedback from the instructors on our driving (or, in my case, “driving”), and grab a catered lunch and more coffee, while proudly explaining our exploits of racing around the cones to the other students.

That done, it was time to go big-time: The Laguna Seca racetrack at speed. No more cones in parking lots, this was a chance to run well over a hundred miles per hour in a high-revving 140-horsepower machine the size of your bathtub with tires springing out of the corners and wings on it for downforce. All sarcasm aside, this was freaking incredible. How can I get across what it is like? Imagine drinking eight espressos, where each espresso is a double, filling four kitchen blenders with rocks, strapping them to your head, cranking them up to max speed, getting into a centrifuge, while hiding under your riding lawn-mower (which is also in the centrifuge) with the blade engaged at full-speed, while cranking ac/dc on a huge stereo, while watching avatar on HD-DVD In fast motion. Now make it even more frenetically-fun, then double it again, and that is half as fun as it is to race around Laguna Seca in a formula car. It is just awesome… You want to do it over and over and over again… Partially because it is so viscerally fun, and partially because once the instructors tell you how to actually drive a racing car, you always see that each lap you drive was simply not as it COULD be… But if you could try just ONE MORE lap, then you might get your driving technique perfect!

As with chess, golf, flying, and sailing, that perfect game never happens… Each lap is just pure fun, with the promise of doing even a little better on the next lap. And you DO drive better on the next lap… BUT that next lap is still not quite as good as it COULD be… so you have to try another lap to reach that elusive perfection. Soon the whole day becomes nothing a place-holder for that precious time on the track: That time where nobody can talk to you. Nobody can whine at you. Nobody can bug you. Nobody can slow you down. Nobody can complain. It is simply you, a howling engine, four frantically rolling and bouncing wheels, and an un-ending ribbon of twisting, climbing, descending, turning pavement, complete with ticking little rumble-strips on the inside of each turn, bouncy little rumble strips on the outside, and twisting curving black streaks of burned rubber spiraling off the track into the gravel-pits or tire-walls, marking the mistakes of the drivers already come and gone… Nothing to you but a hilarious marker of someone else’s terrifying mistake as you race over their skid marks at 100 mph, ready to challenge your own limits at the next turn… Oooo!!! Now MY tires are skidding!!! Can I correct before I spin out myself?! Aaeeii!!!! (Editors note: Almost all the turns at Laguna Seca simply over-run into big sand-traps, so if you spin out you have no worse consequences than a moment of panic and then a very small amount of embarrassment while you wait for the tow truck to come and pull you out so they can brush the gravel off the car, ask you if you feel ok, tell you what you did wrong to spin out, and then send you back onto the track to try it again!

Ok let’s go through one lap of lap of Laguna Seca in a Skip Barber racing school formula car.

The instructor has just briefed the class on the speed and gear-selection and rpm-goals for the upcoming lap session, given some helpful pointers on how to drive as much like a pro as possible, and the class is meandering with you from the classroom across the parking lot to pit row. As you walk to your car for the weekend, one of the instructors may find you personally and tell you how to change your technique in one turn or another to do even better this time. “Remember how you came into turn 6 last time? It looked ok, but you could hold off on braking for another 100 feet.. And select fourth gear before you get to the turn, not in the turn! That way, you keep your speed up for as long as possible, and have the gear selection made before you hit the turn. That will let you add power throughout the turn, since your gear selection is already done, and keep some weight nice and steady on the back wheels all the way through!” With instructors at every turn watching you and taking notes, you can easily get feedback like this before every lap-session. Coupling this accurate advice with your gut-feeling practice will result in you driving better ever single lap. And the better you drive, the more fun you have… because you are getting ever-closer to that elusive perfect lap. The lap that nobody could ever exceed. Every brake application applied at the last microsecond before the turn. Every turn-in point, apex, and track-out curve mathematically optimized for maximum turn-radius and therefore speed. Every trailing-brake application through the turn holding the tires at exactly 100% of their grip. Every power-application through the turn being as high as possible without spinning the rear tires and thus the car. Every turn exit positioning your location, heading, gear-selection, and speed to be optimum for your entrance into the NEXT wily turn! As these thoughts go through your mind, you approach your  colorful little formula car parked In the pits with a small fleet of brightly-colored cars just like it. The car has been fueled for you, the seat belts thoughtfully turned out by the pit crew to make your ingress easier. You remove the steering wheel, gingerly slide into the fiberglass cocoon, until your feet can feel the pedals up in the nose of the car, and only your head pokes out the top. You attach and tighten the five-point harness, pulling everything tight until you can barely move. Re-attach the steering wheel now that you are in, and put on your helmet. You tighten the helmet strap and can now move only to operate the vehicle controls and see only a 45-degree view in front of you: the nose of the car, the big black front tires out on their spindly suspension, and the pit row in front of you with a dozen other cars just like yours. Other students are doing the same, and the instructors have told you that you are five minutes until engine-start.

One of the instructors, who now knows us all by name, waves his hand in the air and yells “start-em-up!”. The little trainers begin to bark to life around you as the the students hit their starters. You turn the master switch to go-mode, push the shifter forward into neutral, and hit the starter button. The engine barks angrily and roars to life. The whole car is now shaking as each power pulse of the engine goes right to the frame and then your body. This is unlike any car you have ever been in… Unlike any streetcar ever. The car is shaking steadily under the restless engine hopping around behind you. You are belted in so tight, and the cockpit is so tight, that you absolutely cannot move at all. You are completely motionless, but full of energy about to explode with the tiniest motions of your toes and hands. Soon the pit-crew master is waving cars onto the track, one at a time, with maybe a 30 second separation between them to keep them a little spread out on the track. No matter. You will catch the guy in front of you and tailgate and intimidate him until he spins off the track in fear, or pass him smoothly, showing all who watch that you are faster. (or, perhaps, the exact opposite will occur, with the guy behind you catching you and sending you into a teeth-gritting race to avoid being passed?) Either of these possible outcomes is really secondary, though, to the guarantee: That in a moment you will be you attached to a screaming engine and the road, with no sound except your engine. No sight except the track. No thought except how you can go faster. Just a little bit faster. It won’t have anything to do with the car. It won’t have anything to do with luck. It won’t have anything to do with what someone else does. It will come down to one fiendishly simple concept governed by fiendishly complex rules: How perfectly can you figure out the ideal racing line around the course, follow it, and carry as much speed as possible along it, holding off on braking until the last possible moment before the turn, and squeezing the throttle hard enough through the turn that you emerge from it at the highest possible speed, careening madly into the next one?

An interminable, annoying, everlasting 30 seconds after the driver in front of you is waved off, the pit-master waves you out and away you go! You hammer the gas and ease out on the clutch, first over-revving and then sagging the engine. So much for your perfect lap. That didn’t take long to ruin. Oh well, maybe next time! This lap can just be a warm-up for the perfect lap, which will be the one after this one for sure! You speed down the road out of the pits, visions of the racer 30 seconds in front of you dancing in your head… he is out of sight now, but he won’t escape you forever! You ease from the pit road along the blend line onto the track. It is now officially ON. The instructors told you to keep it down to 5500 rpm this session, but who could ever hear the difference between 5500 rpm training and 6500 redline as you screech by them at 100 mph? The instructors are all far too friendly and speed-loving to complain with anything stronger than a cocked eyebrow if you rev to the max anyway! You squeeze the throttle as you accelerate around a long, long, long turn of ever-changing radius. By the end of it, you are doing maybe 50 or so, head pinned against the side of the chassis from well over a g of turn acceleration. The tires are starting to squeal as you near the end of the turn… Oh no! The tightest turn you can make without spinning out is one foot wider than the track you have! On the completion of the turn, the outer tires are hopping and bumping along the outer rumble-strips, and you come off of them aligned with the track and fast. Whew! That was turn 2. Still trying to catch your breath from your invigorating near spinout, turn 3 is right up in your face like a toothless homeless guy charging at you full speed while shaking his change-cup. Aeeii! What to do!?!? You make a quick decision to downshift, and hammer the gas, brakes, and clutch all at once as you slam the gear shifter back! Aeii!! Wrong way!! You just shifted up by mistake! The car squirts forwards under the higher gear as the turn approaches, you now entering panic-phase. You hammer the gas, brake, and clutch all at once as you slam the shifter FORWARDS this time. You push hard on the brake pedal to stop, the gas to rev the engine for the downshift, and the clutch to make the shift all at once. With a smooth, satisfying, “yyeeeeeerrooooorrrrwwww!!!!!!” the engine downshifts into third and you lurch waaaay out wide around the turn, totally overshooting the ideal driving line that hugs part of the inside of the turn, because of your botched gear-shift that sped you 100 feet too far into the turn before you could think long enough to turn the wheel! Your perfect lap is so far gone it is ridiculous. That was turn 3. Did I mention we have 11 turns on this track? Well, we do, most of them much harder than these two, what with the higher speeds and dropping corkscrew coming up. You now race into the next turn, with enough straightaway to collect your wits and position yourself for it properly. You hit the gas, brakes, and clutch, all at once, while slamming the shifter forwards, twice! Roowr!!! Roowr!! The car downshifts to third and howls into the turn near redline! Yeeeeeeeee-hawwwwww! With your aggressive braking, you barrel through the turn on a decent driving line that just kisses the rumble-strips on the inside of the turn while at only 4500 rpm! You know what that means! 2,000 rpm left to use before we redline! You squeeze on the gas as you accelerate into the turn, the engine howling up to redline as you do. But wait! The back of the car is starting to slide to the outside of the turn! You are starting to spin! Aeii! You ease off the gas a tiny bit to quit torquing the back wheels so hard, and relax your grip on the wheel so it turns into the skid all by itself.. There is no power steering here to mess that up! With just a tiny bit of oversteer from the back sliding out a tiny bit, you squirt out of the turn, your outside tires doing a hi-speed fun little river-dance on the outer rumble strips, put there on the outside of the turn to make it clear that you are out there as far as you are encouraged to go. The slide cost you time, so goes against a perfect lap, but it was still fun! That was turn 4. Now you have a nice long straightaway… Nothing to do but hold the gas to the floor except for your almost-lightning-fast upshifts, the car pulsing forward pleasingly at each shift. As the engine howls through 6000 rpm, the car surges through 100 miles per hour, the tires spinning madly right in front of you, the car bouncing and rolling and pushing as it careens across the undulating pavement, you enter a zen-like state: There is only you and the car and the road. A thousand people built the car, the track, and the school for you, but none of them can talk to you now: It is only you and the howling engine propelling you madly across the undulating paved surface, every vibration of the engine, transmission, wheels, tires, and track pulsing right into your body. There is nothing else close to being like it. No flying, and no streetcar driving, I have ever seen, comes close. There is only formula. Amongst the howling, the next turn is approaching. You move to the right side of the track and slam all the pedals and slam the shifter forwards twice. Rowr! Rowr! You sweep through the left turn, kissing the rumble strips at the apex with your left tires and squeezing the throttle coming out to the track-out, following a perfect line to the outside of the track. Not bad. Who could have carved that turn better? Suddenly you realize that you never heard a tire squeal, and never felt anything more than 1 g of cornering g. That means you could have gone faster. A pro would have. Every turn so far you have made a mistake. That was turn 5. You now race up the hill to the next turn, very similar to the last except curving very very steeply uphill midway through the turn! This sudden upswing of the pavement puts a lot of extra weight on the wheels, allowing you to go a lot faster and turn a lot tighter! You cannot overcome your fear of going that fast, though, and go through at the same speed as the last turn, much slower than a pro. Too slow. That was turn 6. You now wind up the climbing track, the mountains of California scrolling by your left and right as you climb along the peak of the hill at close to 100, engine howling gloriously. You are about to crest the hill and frantically brake and downshift. You know what is coming next: the dreaded corkscrew. Known around the world for it’s treachery, the corkscrew manages to turn sharply to the left, drop down in a seemingly near-vertical descent, and spit you into another turn in the opposite direction, all in a few heartbeats, or maybe a fraction of a single breath. Laguna Seca has two hundred feet of elevation change, and you just got to enjoy the ride up it. Now you have to be terrorized by the ride back down. You try to position yourself outside the turn so that when you turn into it, you will already be going in the right direction at the midpoint. This is called a late-apex by the instructors, and is critical here. If you are not pointing in the right direction when that pavement drops out from under you, you ain’t gonna GET pointed in the right direction, since there is no weight on the wheels to steer with!! You will hit the wall. So you intentionally go PAST the fastest turn-in point and then turn into the turn, so you have ALL of your heading-change done BEFORE you get well into the turn. The drop off is so steep that you cannot possibly see over it, or if someone has spun out over the crest of the hill, but the flag-lady at that turn is not frantically waving a red flag, so the way should be clear! You fly over the crest of the hill, the track drops out from underneath you, the car falls away with the track, you fall maybe 50 feet, the road half-levels off and your weight is pushed smoothly back into your seat as you pull the car to the right-hander that immediately follows. It all happens in less time than you can take a breath and you are through it. You have no idea if it was an optimum line or not, because of the complexities of the two turns and rapid drop off and recovery, like stalling an airplane, but you know you did not crash, so while it might not have been an optimal line, you are still here to try again! There was no way you were at maximum speed… the tires never screeched at all. That was turn 7 and 8. Within a moment you are falling downhill into the next turn, positioning yourself to the right side of the track to sweep through the downhill left-hander. You hit the brakes in a panic because you are falling downhill, then realize there was no need… The car can handle this speed. So you have messed this turn up as well. You no longer hear the engine or anything else, you only glance at the tach to see that you have some rpm left to redline, and pull through the next turn in a grand accelerating sweep, trying not to run too far to the outside of the turn or you will not be positioned for the NEXT turn! That was turn 9. Suddenly you realize that you are not on the left side of the track like you need to be for the upcoming right-hander, and you clumsily swerve to the left to be ready for it. You downshift once and throw the wheel to the right, skidding around the turn in a clumsy arc that was not the right shape for the turn because you came out of the previous one all disjointed and behind the situation. You emerge clumsily from the turn and head down the next straight. That was turn 10. You now have your almost-last straightaway and pit entrance, which you blow right past. You build up some good screaming speed on the straight and then break hard for the next turn, a very sharp, lo-speed left-hander of more than 90 degrees. Now that you are de-sensitized to the speed from the last 2 turns, you think you are going slower than you really are, and wait too late to brake. You skid past the turn-in point, front tires locked and smoking, jump off the brakes to unlock the tires, and throw the wheel to the left, barely managing to stay on the track. A gross, gross, gross error compared to what a pro could do. That was turn 11. Now you have a nice long straight, with a bridge over it with someone waving a checkered flag and then pits to the left and grandstands to the right. You push that gas pedal for all it is worth, slapping the shifter each time the engine redlines, enjoying the surge as the engine inertia is converted to speed. Soon then bridge flies overhead, and you are entering your zen moment of extreme speed. You head over the crest of a gentle hill, your heart racing at the prospect of coming over a hill you cannot see over at over 100 mph with the engine shrieking while you are encased in something the size of your bathtub. That damnable track drops out from underneath you a bit and turns left, forcing you to turn when there is little weight on the wheels, at top speed!!! That is scaring the crap out of you! Despite your fear, you stay on the throttle, ALL THE WAY! as you race to the turn-in point of the final turn in your screaming x-wing, the promise of your instructor that you can do it safely echoing in the back of your mind… “Luke, use the force!” The instructors promised that you could hold the throttle down until the sign with the 3 on it in front of the last turn, so you grit your teeth and hold that throttle coming down that curving hill, swearing that the car will fly to pieces from the noise and vibration, the 3 sign flashes by and you push the brakes in a near-panic to slow down for the next turn. That curving hill was turn 1, and you are flying into turn 2, where this whole sleigh-ride began 3 minutes ago!

Your lap had 11 turns, and 11 very egregious, obvious, goof-ups.. BUT THE NEXT LAP JUST MIGHT BE PERFECT! Are we allowed to run the cool-down lap after the checkered flag at full speed?


Time to go to California! (via Colorado!)


Who is taking pictures of me? No pictures! No pictures!

The great west:

The great west:

Southern California:

Time to go racing! Those were the only shoes they had that fit me!

These cars will be fun!

That was fun!