What I like most about driving cars is the purity of focus it gives me. Whether that’s nailing a heel-toe downshift, coaxing a car into that finicky second gear, or being within inches of every cone on an autocross run; I haven’t been able to find that kind of focus anywhere else in my life. A couple of years ago I got a concentrated dose of that focus, courtesy of a 24 Hours of LeMons race.
I was going to wait a little while to talk about my crap-can racing experience, but there were several comments on my last two posts about LeMons and ChumpCar so I figured “why not?” We can save all the dialogue about whether it’s really racing or if it’s really as cheap as the $500 labels would have you think for another day. The point here is that I was about to have my first experience on a racetrack under real racing conditions.
Let’s be clear here. I had been on track several times before during track day events. I feel as though I’m competent behind the wheel, I’ve even won races and a championship before. Definitely not a novice then, but I hadn’t been door-to-door, on-track, with sixty other people at the same time. Dammit if I couldn’t shake being nervous the morning of the event.
I had some friends who dabbled in the LeMons world and finally decided to go all in, taking the form of a pair of Mazda MX3s. The first car ran for a season before the inaugural event for the second car and I was on the second car’s team. LeMons puts just as much emphasis on having fun as it does racing, so every team is encouraged to have a theme. Our theme was “Smokey and the Bandit”. I was in the Smokey car, sporting a gaudy krylon paintjob with stars on the hood and doors.
I was due to run in the 3rd stint of the day. First stint of the morning went fine. Second stint went fine right up until it didn’t. Since we didn’t have radios the rest of the team didn’t know anything until the car came back on the wrecker. There wasn’t an accident, but something had gone horribly wrong in the engine. Without hesitation wrenches started flying. I remember feeling intimidated for about a minute. “A Mazda MX3? I don’t know anything about their motors!” That quickly became irrelevant as we needed the head off NOW to see what damage was done.
Long story short, we worked on that car for a solid five hours. Some of us were driving to the next state to get a replacement junkyard motor and the rest of us were pulling the busted engine prepping for the new one. In the final hours of the race we finally got everything back together and running. Since my stint was next I was told to suit up. Fire suit. Nomex socks. Shoes. Hans. Helmet. Gloves. Harness. Killswitch to “on”. Hit the ignition. It works! Get to pit out!
And there he was, by the grace of some racing god somewhere, the Bandit. I merged onto the racing line just a car length behind my friend in the other team car. Before we hit the next corner he signaled to me in his mirror. His meaning was plain, even though the signals were not. “Let’s go.”
For ten laps we burned those poor MX3s to the ground. I never got more than six or seven feet away from his rear bumper and we were turning times within a few tenths of the best overall times, dicing through the traffic. Gentle understeer with provoked oversteer under braking, I knew exactly where to place the car to stay on pace. The long throws of the still stock transmission somehow matched the pace of the car, giving me time to think on corner entry and get the back end moving just the right amount. Through all of the flaws it was perfect. I was hardwired into the driver’s seat.
After those ten laps I got waved by. The pits had radioed in to the other team car. They were leading (!!!) and didn’t need the stress of a stupid mistake while hotlapping. I went on my way, still happy but slightly less excited.
The focus of driving, the necessity of clarity in those moments, is what keeps pulling me back to racing. It’s a hard habit for me to sustain, but I can’t find the same sensation anywhere else. That we had such a difficult build up to my laps made them all the more sweet. For just a little while, I felt like a hero behind the wheel.
I’d like this column to be a space for you as well as me. So, please, if you have a story of your heroics behind the wheel, I would love to hear them. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. Email me at [email protected] or I will be in attendance at Amelia Island next weekend. Track me down and I’d love to talk to you.