December 04, 2011

Off to the Races, Part One

I'm not a follower of NASCAR or Formula races, but I've been wanting to drive a race car for years now. Maybe I'm just an adrenaline junkie. Maybe I just love driving.

I'd booked a trip out to the Chuckwalla Raceway out by Joshua Tree, and was supposed to do my first-ever racing excursion Halloween weekend, but then I got sick and had to cancel.

In truth, I was kind of relieved.

To be honest, I was really nervous.

But instead of canceling altogether, the traveling racing school let me reschedule for Willow Springs, another nearby clinic, this time up north by Edwards AFB, still in the High Desert but closer to LA, near California City.

As the day approached, I kept thinking something would happen again to make me cancel. High winds ravaged LA County last week, tearing down trees and power lines and keeping hundreds of thousands of residents in the dark for days. But in my nice little Beverly Hills nook, I was unaffected, as was the raceway.

And so, on Friday, I was off to the races.

I drove a couple of hours north and arrived for my 1 p.m. "class," which, much like with skydiving, doesn't really teach you anything. I raised my hand with a question, or rather, a warning: "Um, I'm not so good with manual transmission..."

When I initially booked at Chuckwalla, it seemed like if you don't drive stick shift, they say they stick you in an automatic race car of some sort - a Porsche, something like that - but when I arrived at Willow Springs, it pretty much seemed like a Formula 1 car was my only option. And I was worried.

"You're doing the ride-along, right?" our instructor asked, and I nodded. "OK, you'll see how it works when I shift. You'll probably be fine."

I gulped.

He then took me in his BMW street racer to show me the track and how a real racecar driver handles it. It wasn't an oval track in a stadium, the kind of thing I expected to see, but rather a winding track, undulating through the windy desert with hairpin turns, s-curves, and basically only one straightaway.

As I placed the helmet over my head, I heard one of the mechanics tell my instructor, "She says you can't scare her..."

"I don't fear death," I clarified. "I only fear being maimed. Please don't burn my face off."

And with that, we were off.

At first, it was an educational ride: I could feel the way he shifted into 2nd gear for a curve, then into 3rd, then 4th, then down into 3rd and back into 2nd for another curve. He took the curves FAST (80 mph?) and jolted us from side to side, veering to the left side of the track when turning right, and to the right side of the track when turning left.

Here's what it looked like from the passenger side:

In the end of the video, you can see us spinning around a bit - my instructor decided to give me a "special" ride, intentionally spinning out just as I'd turned my video camera off. I managed to get it out and back on just as his street acrobatics had begun to calm down. You can imagine what they were like when the camera was off.

Adrenaline rushing, I stumbled out of the BMW, struggling to get my helmet off, feeling again like I did after skydiving - a bit delirious, confused, exhilarated, and exhausted.

And I hadn't even driven yet.

I watched the prior classes take their laps, at intervals ten minutes in length each, and started to get nervous again. Could I bail now? It really was not safe for me to drive one of those Formula racers, with basically no manual transmission experience (save for moving Nicki's mom's SUV at the airport once).

"I'm just warning you, I don't really drive manual..." I reiterated, this time to the mechanics and engineers and photographers and receptionist and my fellow classmates, to whomever would listen.

And then one of them said, "Oh we've had a bunch of people today who don't do manual, right?"

And then another said, "How do you like charcoal as a color?" assigning me racer #25.

When my turn came, I climbed into my racer, reaching my legs straight out in front of me, settling in low to the ground. My feet didn't reach the pedals, and the dashboard looked less like a car and more like a cockpit. I looked around, confused. How do you turn the damn thing on?

The flagger then came over and asked me to press the clutch to the floor. I could barely reach it with my toe. After scooting down as far as I could go, with several cushions placed behind me, I finally reached it, and the flagger had me try shifting gears.

"OK, you're in first gear, move into second."

I shifted.

"Now into third..."

I shifted like a pro.

"Now into fourth..."

I shifted with purpose.

"See? You got it..."

"I played a lot of Pole Position as a child," I explained.

He laughed. "That's probably actually going to really help you here."

And with the turn of a key, a press of a clutch, a push of a button and a pump of the gas pedal I was off...

But not for long.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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