BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim UltimaDork
9/11/16 7:23 p.m.

I haven't really had a proper vacation - you know, one where you go somewhere for the fun of it rather than running around to either see or chauffeur family members - for at least five years. This year was supposed to be The One as SWMBO and I were planning to go to Yellowstone. Only it didn't work out as I couldn't find accommodation I liked for a price I was willing to pay, plus the wildfires up there looked like they'd get in the way.

That was the point when I got an email from the Bondurant Racing School touting their "Buy one, get the same or a lesser course 50% off" discount. I'd been toying with the idea of getting a block of instruction in at some point rather than a day here or there, plus I do want to get my SCCA license. SWMBO was game, despite her not having any performance driving experience at all other than being in the passenger seat at Laguna Seca. So that'd be the four day "Grand Prix" course booked for me and the two day HPDE one for her.

After checking flight prices we decided that we didn't really want to buy the plane, so we decided to take the 996 down to Phoenix instead. All our gear wouldn't have fit into the ND MX-5, plus my wife doesn't drive a manual, which rules out the ND and the RX8 anyway.

After a stop in Vegas with the usual "let's see how hard we can fee you" hotel experience, we made it to the Wild Horse Pass Hotel & Casino, the closest hotel to the school. We're talking (almost) walking distance here. Loved the hotel, would stay there again. In fact, we're planning to - not having any interest in gambling obviously helps, but it's just a nice place with very pleasant and helpful staff.

Our group turned out to be six people in total, three of us including myself doing the four day course and the other three doing the two-day HPDE course. Mixed group, a couple of people with no to very little experience (including my wife), one guy who was a drag racer and builds racing engines, plus Mr Slow here.

I spent the first three days in this thing:

To be honest I was a little apprehensive about it - the most powerful car I've driven was my mildly tuned FD so I was worried that something as torque-y and powerful as a Viper would be too much for me to handle. Fortunately that turned out to be a bunch of groundless worries, after a some braking and handling exercises plus a lot of heel & toe practise (yay, finally getting that right) it felt more like a big Miata with a mild case of bad attitude than something that was just waiting to bite you in the posterior.

Getting it out on the track in the wet was interesting, though, but fortunately the skidpad training we had on days 2&3 proved to be rather useful when I got it sideways thanks to getting on the throttle a tad too early. Oopsie. Either way, I was getting more comfortable with the car and with a lot of good feedback and encouragement from the instructors, things started to look a bit better pretty soon:

A common thread going through all days was working on vision and practising all the skills we were slowly learning like trail braking, managing weight transfer better, getting better at braking consistently. Turns out I'm actually not that great at consistent braking, but now I know how to practise it! Lots of track time on the second and third day, combined with rides with the instructor all helped me improve as a driver.

When we had the combined exercises with the HPDE group I could also see how much of a confidence booster it was for my wife's driving - accelerating hard enough in a Hemi Challenger to leave some rubber marks and controlling it in the wet as it kept wiggling its butt under hard acceleration was pretty impressive to see. Plus after the instructor taught her how to use the paddle shifters properly, she ended up within a couple of seconds of the other, more experienced performance drivers in her group on the Auto-X. Now keep in mind those two guys were driving Hellcats and she was driving a bog standard 392 Hemi Challenger.

At that point we got to say goodbye to "our" Vipers that we got to drive like they were rental cars. It had grown on me (enough to start thinking "hmm, I could see myself in an older one"), but allegedly better things were to come on day four.

Namely, this:

Yay, Formula Mazda. The day started with familarisation exercises with the car, especially with the gear change, followed by some on-track exercises on the oval part of their track to get a better feel for the car. Took a while for me to dare accelerate it to the point where I'd attempt a 1-2-1 gear change and initial thoughts where mostly along the lines of "Dear God what am I doing here?". Didn't help that gear changes were mostly along the lines of 1-muttermutterswearcrunch-2-brake-swearswearswear-blipthedarnthrottle-1. Until I messed up, missed the brake/shift point and had a choice of either trying to make the corner or stick it in the dirt.

So I threw it in the corner and it starts wiggling its butt. Yowza. Remembering our instructor's advice that these cars need more weight on the back I decide I have nothing left to lose but my dignity and get on the gas hard. All of a sudden the car grips hard and flings me around the first corner, I have to brake harder for the second corner and suddenly the downshift works. Turns out I just was driving it too slowly .

After a few more laps I find a grin starting to spread across my face, slowly, when our instructor collects us and we start doing a lead-follow session on the bigger part of the track, followed by an open track session. The grin kept spreading, but then the session was over and it was time to pit.

I barely manage to fold myself out of the car, my legs and arms seemed to be mostly made of Jello and I noticed that my fire suit was soaking wet. Time to stagger into the classroom and down a bottle of water.

Brief classroom session going over shift and brake points, then out for another lead-follow session. I was the last one in line although it didn't feel like I was that slow. Anyway, instructor ups the pace a bit this session, things are feeling good. First car (our slowest driver) rotates out from the lead follow, pace picks up a bit more, things are still feeling pretty good. Second car rotates out, it's just me following the instructor. Takes me about half a lap to notice that something feels different. Not really sure what it is, certainly not bad and I'm enjoying myself. I keep following the instructor and all of a sudden I'm going "hmm, I don't recall his car leaning this hard into the corners". Then he pulls in, I have an open track in front of me and I just keep going until we're waved in for a short refuelling break (water for the drivers, the good stuff for the cars). Instructor comes over after I just about managed to get out of the car (again, the Jello legs and arms), asks if I'm OK and has that slight mischievous look on his face. And it finally dawns on me:

"Did you pick up the pace on me during the lead follow?"

"Yep. That car really suits you, doesn't it?"

Good start for a lunch break, I'd say.

After lunch, we run a few more sessions that culminated in this, even though I never quite got the car up to the speed/gears it was supposed to be in on the fast sections of the track:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/Oqvqku4wCO4

Unfortunately the day was over too soon, well, almost given that I barely managed to climb out of the car unaided and still had to drive back to Vegas!

So, takeaways:

  • I should have done this much sooner
  • I learned an awful lot about car control. Having the four days back to back with enough recovery time really helps immerse oneself into the whole thing compared to a day here or there
  • My wife was concerned that having no experience would be an issue or being looked down upon, but everybody made her feel super welcome and she learned a massive amount during her course. In fact she was already talking about having them teach her how to drive a car with manual if/when we go back. They did offer to do that this time but she felt it would be a little too much all at once unless she would have had another day
  • I feel it was great preparation for someone like me with a reasonable amount of track experience to "graduate" to club racing. Yes, I did pass the course, now all that stands between me and the license is the physical. That'll be amusing given that our family doctor appears to have closed down his practise recently, but that's just a minor issue.

And of course the big one:

  • I realised I now want a Formula car or a sports racer in the worst possible way . Difference is that I now know I am able to handle one, probably still at the back of the field but it's not out of reach for my skill level.

I was very impressed with the quality of the instruction and the overall athmosphere. I felt the instructors found the right balance between allowing us enough space to breathe and reflect, while still pushing us to learn new skills at a pretty impressive pace. When I manage to acquire a "real" race car I'll definitely be back for a refresher and it sounds like my wife will come with me as well to improve her driving skills. Plus I wouldn't be surprised if she'd take part in an Auto-X or two next year.

Finally, thanks to John @ clutchphotos.com for the awesome photos (in case you didn't notice, they're the good ones above).

Woody
Woody MegaDork
9/11/16 7:50 p.m.

Very cool. Oddly enough, I've spent the past month thinking that maybe instead of building a track car for next year, I might just take some of that money, go to school and get my license once and for all. You're making that seem like a better idea.

NOT A TA
NOT A TA Dork
9/11/16 10:12 p.m.

Sounds like a GREAT vacation! Thanks for sharing and taking the time to write about it.

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim UltimaDork
9/12/16 9:23 a.m.
Woody wrote: Very cool. Oddly enough, I've spent the past month thinking that maybe instead of building a track car for next year, I might just take some of that money, go to school and get my license once and for all. You're making that seem like a better idea.

I'm pretty convinced that I got more out of spending the money on this class in the long run than if I'd spent the money on improving the car. That alone was worth it, and of course it was fun...

That said, the one thing I haven't thought through fully is - now that all that stands between me and the regional license is the physical, what do I actually want to do with the license? My local SCCA region only does Auto-X and Time Trials, so I'd have to race with another region (San Francisco). Fortunately those guys do offer plenty of races so I could maintain the requirements to keep the license. Of course at this point I'm looking at upgrading my gear (fire suit is out of date, need a Hans device), upgrade my truck and buy a real race car and trailer...

nderwater
nderwater UltimaDork
9/12/16 10:04 a.m.

Start small and look for someone who will rent you a seat?

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim UltimaDork
9/13/16 9:40 a.m.

In reply to nderwater:

Wouldn't that be too sensible?

There are a few companies renting out cars like SRFs for San Francisco region races, definitely looking into that as well. However I've been thinking about getting a "real" (ie, purpose built) racecar for a couple of years now so I'll keep looking for one of those, too. I'm hoping that here are a few end-of-season deals - in fact, I've seen a couple of them, including a Formula Mazda with a trailer that would be within my alloted budget.

Huckleberry
Huckleberry MegaDork
9/13/16 9:55 a.m.

Awesome.

When you get home and start shopping Take a good look at those SRF cars - much cheaper to run than Formula Mazda and they get big fields with very, very competitive driving in SCCA. Plus they have bodywork so the w2w fear of touching tires or getting inside the guy next to you and ending up in outer space is gone.

Oh, and they let them run at most open track days so you can practice. That's a huge consideration for open wheel stuff.

BoxheadTim
BoxheadTim UltimaDork
9/17/16 3:49 p.m.

Yeah, I'm pretty aware that pretty much any Formula car would cost considerably more to run than what I've been used to in the past. SRF is pretty popular in the San Franciso region and I'll probably rent one at least once.

What makes the Formula cars appealing to me is the added visibility, but I'm aware that I'd have to keep another vehicle for regular track days. What's probably going to happen is that I end up rejigging the fleet here and keep one car that I can use for the occasional track day. If I sell both the ND and the RX8 I might be able to get into a 911 SC or similar.

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