Riding the 8-ball: A first timer's take on autocross
Editors note: I was really pleased that my brother in law was able to pop out to NH to enjoy the weekend and spend some time at an NCR event. Jeff is a professional newspaper man so I am especially thankful that he was able to write a quick story.
When my brother-in-law, Bill Kallgren, invited me to drive his 1985 911 Carrera in an autocross, I eagerly accepted. I’ve always liked the car. It looks just like a remote-control version I’ve had since I was younger. Up until the autocross on June 11, I’d only been able to drive the 911 on back roads during my infrequent visits from Ohio. Unfortunately, my country jaunts were mostly spent behind school buses and dump trucks. Not the best way to go for a spin.
I looked forward to being able to push the car, and myself, a little more.
The morning of the autocross, Bill let me drive to the former Moore Army Airfield, at Fort Devens in Ayer, MA. As we got onto the highway Bill uttered what would be a common refrain throughout the day. It would be said in varying ways by several people, but the essence was captured in Bill’s initial utterance of, “Give it some gas, this car runs better at higher RPM’s.” I proceeded to warm up the car and myself on the way to the course. (Note: All traffic laws were duly noted during this drive. Noted, but not always adhered to in the strictest legal sense.)
While registering, I pulled out my Ohio driver’s license. The woman taking the information said, “You didn’t come all the way out here just for this, did you?” I mumbled something about coming out to visit my in-laws, but, truth-be-told, I was just looking for a little “me” time.
Bill and I did a walk through of the course. It looked like an impossible maze of cones placed at incredibly tight angles. I didn’t think I’d get a
chance to do much more than ride the brakes. We did a second walk through at a brisker pace and I began to see the lines a little clearer and see how I could set up my position to make more straight lines out of the curves.
We spent the first part of the morning shagging cones for the other half of the drivers. Two things stood out that morning: heat and pollen. The sun was baking from early in the morning and only an occasional cloud passed by as we stood out on the track, far from any shade. The
pollen had left a yellow coating on everything. As the first car made its run, a hazy yellow cloud formed behind it. A dark path was soon worn along the main lines of the course. It was easy to tell when someone went off course: There was a tell-tale yellow cloud.
I studied the other cars for ideas on how to handle the course and occasionally was interrupted by a cone in need of replacement. It seemed like the cars took forever to get to our section and then flew by. But I was surprised how fast the cars got to our section when I was trying to replace a cone.
Finally it was our turn to drive. Bill went first, taking his four runs, then it was my turn. I was buckled into the five-point harness so that I couldn’t move an inch. My head, in its borrowed helmet, was pressed to the roof. Even so, I felt comfortable in the car and I found I had enough movement to see the important stuff, namely the cones ahead of me.
For my first run I had Fred deNapoli as my instructor. He was gentle with me for my first time. He did use that oft-repeated phrase, “a little more power, ” a few times, but mostly offered good advice on how to approach, brake and accelerate. I pushed through the starting chicane into the sweeping right turn along the first stretch. Pushing the car past my comfort level but staying in control. I felt fast. This was easy. I kept a smooth line and the car rode very solidly. It was fun and I knew I was fast.
Times that morning had ranged from the mid-70 second mark to numbers approaching 120 seconds. As I passed the finish timer and approached the clock display I saw a 7. I figured my run was pretty good and I must have had a 77-second run. As I got closer I had to adjust my eyes. They’re not as good as they used to be. As I squinted the 77 turned into a 117. I squinted harder. I blinked twice to clear my
eyes, but it still looked like 117-point-something.
I thought I was going to show all these experts how it was done. Logically, I had told myself my goal was the same as when I play softball: to not embarrass myself. But I have been a racing fan all my life. I know all the right lines to all the good curves on my way to and from work. I’ve played Gran Turismo on the big-screen TV with steering wheel and pedal controllers for hours on end… and that run felt
better than 117 seconds. I had expected to be faster than that.
Fred moved on to another car, leaving me alone for my second run. I figured I had done well enough, control-wise my first time out and would be OK by myself. As I waited in the staging line, I realized that I hadn’t adjusted the seat when I got in. I slid the seat back, readjusted the straps and realized my head was no longer pressed to the roof.
Now running solo, I punched the car around the first cone, shifted to second and stepped on it. I made the first leg with ease and came a little fast into the first hard corner and had to slow more than I wanted. As I worked the back straight with the series of slaloms, I felt good, I was pushing harder but had good rhythm around the cones. Then, somewhere over the squealing tires, I heard my father yelling, “A car
is not a toy.”
My father grew up in a big family in the depression and started a big family as soon as he was married. The concept of a car for fun was foreign to him, especially with three sons who had heavy feet when driving. I tuned out his voice in the back of my head but couldn’t help but wonder what damage I was doing to the tires as I slid and drifted through turns.
I told Bill about my concerns later. He said something to the effect of, “A squealing tire is a happy tire.”
During that second run, I pushed the accelerator beyond my comfort level and found that it wasn’t too bad and, in
fact, began to feel better as I pushed a little harder. I also found that the path through the cones wasn’t as tight as I had
thought while walking the course. I was finding good lines and falling into a bit of a rhythm.
I was also getting over my fear of hitting cones. I found that if my aim was true with the front of the car, the back would follow just fine. When I realized that I hadn’t hit any cones in spots where I was sure I would, I figured I was best not worrying about it.
I finished the second run with a time of just over 97 seconds, ten seconds faster than my first run. Again I hit no cones.
For my third run, Fred joined me again. He urged me to go faster than my comfort zone, while offering very good advice on where to be looking and where to place the car when setting up for a maneuver. Instead of my dad’s voice, all I could hear was Fred telling me to go a little faster. I made that run in about 93 seconds, no cones.
I told Fred I wanted to go solo again for my fourth run. Taking the advice he had given me and trying to focus on pushing a little faster than was comfortable, I made the run in 91.7 seconds, no cones.
Back on the cones in the afternoon, I watched the cars go through my section and looked for ways to improve my time through that area. It was actually more fun to watch the other guys now that I had done it a few times and better understood what they were doing.
Back on the track in the afternoon, I tried a different instructor, Robert Meeker.
I started the run with Robert giving me tons of advice on RPMs, shifting points and terminology for speeding up, braking and maintaining speed. I was in information overload. So far I hadn’t really looked at any gauges or considered what gear I was in. I was just shifting to second, holding it in that gear and working the gas. I hadn’t had much time to look at anything but the cones ahead of me. We headed out the first stretch and after a slower than I would have liked start, I thought I was pushing on pretty well.
Robert thought otherwise.
Apparently, I needed to go faster, judging by his comments.
I was beginning to see a theme.
As we reached the hard turn at the end of the first stretch I braked, turned left and hit the gas. I heard a click and got no response from the motor.
“Step on the pedal,” Robert said.
“I am,” I replied. “Nothing’s happening.”
I looked around and saw a good spot on an unused section of runway to pull off onto. As I was idling off the track, a spotter came up and asked what was wrong. I told him the accelerator was busted. He got on the radio and said, “Number 8’s
got a problem but he’s well off the course, go ahead and send the next car.”
It may sound funny, but that may have been the coolest part of the day. I felt like Jackie Stewart or Nigel Mansell rolling off the course with a blown engine. There’s something undeniably cool about a bunch of guys, a busted sports car, two-way radios and a race course of any kind.
The coolness kind of faded when I got out of the car and the spotters and Robert began asking what was wrong and how it could be fixed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s not my car.”
We restarted the car and I idled it back down the front stretch, the wrong way, back to the staging area. Again, it was pretty cool to run slowly down the track, like an injured football player walking off the field. I couldn’t hear it, but I’m sure there was some applause.
When I got back to the staging area, Robert approached. He had two criticisms. He told
me I should have waited for him to get back in the car before driving off. Then, commenting on the broken accelerator linkage, he said, “You wouldn’t have broke it if you hadn’t let off the gas.”
After some consulting and tinkering, we (Bill) had the car working again. I went out for my sixth run, Robert at my side. I was actually able to incorporate some of his comments into my driving. Things were starting to mesh in my sun-addled brain. I pushed harder in spots I had been slow in earlier, but ended up a hair slower than my best time with a run of just over 92 seconds, no cones.
We returned to the staging area, Robert got out and I lined up to go again.Something wasn’t right. There were no other cars in line and no one was looking at me. Finally the stager came up and asked me what I was doing. I told him I had two more runs. He told me we were done for the day, that the last car had already run the course.
I repeated that I had two more runs coming, and waited for his advice. I would be happy with whatever they decided, I was a guest, after all. But I really wanted to drive some more. I was just getting the hang of it. After some conferring under the tent, he came back and told me I’d get one more run.
“We’d already told the spotters the last car had run, so you’d better make some noise out there."
OK, so I was a novice, an out-of-town visitor, and I was making the guys put some cones back, stay out in the heat and watch me go once more around the track because I had broken the car earlier. I was the center of attention and I was being a pain in the butt. No pressure.
I figured I had nothing to lose and one last chance to really have some fun. As the stager gave me the go sign, I punched it.
As I made the first turns I really felt good. The car was sliding a bit but responding well. I just kept pushing hard on the accelerator and looking as far ahead as I could.I felt closer to the edge than I had all day, but I felt like I was in control. I felt good. On the second-to-last straight, I went through the four boxes of cones without really letting up. I felt like I was going to kiss the steering wheel as I braked hard
at the edge of the asphalt and turned a hard left, punching the gas. I came down the last stretch keeping a fast pace through the tight turns. I lined up the final three turns so I could stay on the gas through to the finish with just a slight jog left at the end.
I let it all hang out and ended up with a time of 86.579, more than 30 seconds faster than my first time and about a half-second faster than Bill’s best.
There were no trophies for me this day, just the satisfaction of learning how to go a little bit faster and enjoying a sunny day driving a fast car.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself and hope to do it again sometime, but the odds are against it. As Bill pointed out in the post-mortem at the bar in Ayer, my choice of journalism as a profession has left me “underprivileged” in the sports car department. And after beating Bill’s time by a hair and breaking his car, the odds of being invited back are long.
If this turns out to be my only foray into sports car driving at this level, I’m glad I was able to do it with such a good group of people. They even made a Mazda owner from the sticks of Ohio feel comfortable in a Porsche in New England.