UNDERSTAND, FIRST, that I have never liked speed. Long before “Speed kills” took on its double meaning, I was convinced that the way to go through this world was slowly. As a teen-aged driver, I secretly hated those wild nights out with the guys, rocketing down Garland Road to the enchanted land of Dallas. “Come on, man, floor it!’ my friends would urge, and gritting my teeth I would, heart pounding and left foot an eighth-inch off the brake pedal. Sooner or later, I knew, somebody would zig when I zagged, and we would be headlines.
Perhaps my good sense-or is it cowardice?-is a legacy from my father, who in his youth had been an ambulance driver. At his knee, I heard gory tales of four-car pileups and howling victims trapped in burning wreckage. He probably exaggerated some of the horrors of death in the fast lane, especially as I neared driving age, but his warnings stayed with me. He had not only scraped up what was left of hot-rodding tools, but he had narrowly missed death a dozen times as he sped to the scene of an accident or rushed the living to the hospital. When he was around 30, they phased him out of the driving, not just because his reflexes had slowed, but because by then he had children, and it was well known in the ambulance business that family men took fewer risks. The company wanted men who would drive hellbent through crowded intersections, trusting the siren to get the other cars out of the way. When a man had someone to come home to, fear crept in. He slowed down, tapped the brake more and lost vital seconds.
After his ambulance days were over, my father became the world’s slowest, most boring driver. He thought nothing of creeping along at 10 miles under the speed limit while hotheads blew their horns behind him or passed him spraying gravel and shouting curses. He had seen too much.
That background puts me right behind Liberace as a potential race-car driver, but last March I found myself at the Jim Russell British School of Motor Racing at the Laguna Seca Raceway in California. The founders of the Dallas Grand Prix invited some press minions to get an idea of the racer’s life, so I went. In this business you do weird things. Then you run out of ideas and do more weird things.
First, I needed gloves. Helmets and jumpsuits would be provided at Laguna Seca, but we had to bring our own racing gloves. I scoured several Dallas sporting goods stores and came away gloveless; everyone kept saying I needed “special” gloves. At first I thought “special” meant shock-absorbent, since you must bounce around a lot in those little cars. But the wish was father to the thought. “Special,” I finally learned, meant Nomex, and fireproof-but not really fireproof, see, because none of the glove makers would absolutely guarantee that the gloves would never burn. I was getting nervous.
I finally found my special gloves at Smiley’s Racing in Oak Cliff, a big, barnlike structure filled with boxes of unimaginable whatevers. I stood around while three men in racing T-shirts exchanged car jargon, certain that my request would bring an embarrassing barrage of counter-questions (“Need rackfitters with those, buddy? You runnin’ overcams or just poppin’ Finleys?”). Luckily, Smiley’s had only one make of gloves: bright orange Simpson models that came well up over the wrist. They were a bit snug going on; I tugged and tugged, but they just didn’t feel right. Then the man turned to me and said, “Palm goes on the bottom, friend.”
“Oh,” I shot back, and made for the door. Some guy was revving his engine as I walked out, so I didn’t have to hear the snickers. Carrying my new gloves to my dull sedan, I felt incredibly bogus, like a Yuppie swaggering into Billy Bob’s with a stiff new pair of jeans and a “Let’s Rodeo” belt buckle. In this world I was a chechakofor sure, the greenest of greenhorns.
I AM NOT superstitious, but on my first morning in California, the first printed words I see are Herb Caen’s in the San Francisco Chronicle,and Caen is writing about death. One line in particular grabs me by the throat: “Yeah, people are dying who never died before.” (Gallows humor, before breakfast.) “It’s amazing that our life span increases,” Caen goes on. “There are so many ways to die.”
I am still counting the ways when we arrive at the Laguna Seca race track, which snakes through the gorgeous California hills just outside Monterey. The Russell School adjoins the former site of Newman Racing, where Paul and Joanne amused themselves between movies, but they are not there to greet us this morning, having moved their operation to Chicago. Our instructor is mad that we’re late, so we suit up quickly and are given our helmets, which some insensitive joker just has to call “brain buckets.”
Having read the school’s training manual, I do not expect a long introductory lecture. The Russellites are long on practice and short on theory, according to the book: “Driving a car requires a lot of time behind the wheel and a minimum of complicated formulae about adhesion and coefficients of friction.” That sounds good to me, but the first chalk talk is disturbingly brief. We sign a complicated insurance waiver, which I read only far enough to catch the gist: Don’t blame us. Suffice to say that the waiver makes the typical apartment lease seem downright chummy.
Then, a few observations from the instructor, a thin, sandy-haired man of perhaps 40 with bulging eyes and a voice that alternately threatens and cajoles. He says nothing that seems to unlock the mysteries of big-league driving. “It’s largely an art of common sense,” he tells us. “Driving is a very solitary endeavor.” “Don’t drink too much at night,” he adds, flashing a manic grin. “A big head just makes it that much harder.”
Thus armed, we go to the track to be “fitted” to our cars. The word is apt; the cars are Van Dieman Formula Four models, with 1600 cc. Ford engines capable of 125 mph. And they are tiny, around eight feet long and weighing 900 pounds. To suit one gangling driver, the mechanics literally must take the car apart to readjust the brake, gas pedal and clutch. You do not sit in these cars; you insert yourself into them and drive with your legs almost straight out in front of you, knees roughly level with your waist. In Yellow No. 15, I am a modem centaur, half-man and half-car.
“Start your engines!” our instructor shouts, and the resulting roar makes me smile against my will. We have been told to run at a maximum of 2600 rpms (our instructor refuses to talk miles per hour, perhaps hoping to discourage hot-dogging) and to make sure we do, he sets a special dial on our speedometer. A red needle now points to 2600 rpms; if we exceed that speed, the telltale needle rises to our top speed and stays there. The dial can only be reset from outside the car.
The first practice session is fairly uneventful. Our objective is to take the car down through the first gentle curve to where another instructor waits in a pace car, turn around and come back to the pits, practicing a downshift as we return our car to the line. I discover that missing a gear while pressing the accelerator causes the rpms to soar wildly. When the instructor checks my red needle, I am showing 3300 rpms. I start to stammer out an explanation, but his stony expression tells me that he’s heard it all before. If I’m telling the truth, I’m a klutz; if I’m lying, I’m a reckless thrill-seeker. Either way, my rpms are too high.
After a break for lunch, we study cornering. Our instructor’s name is Rob, and he takes his pedagogy as seriously as any college professor, sprinkling his talk with terms like “variables” and “learning curve.” I am thinking about some other curves, the kind made of sun-baked asphalt yearning toward my face. “What happens if you lose control of the car?” one woman asks in a wide-eyed voice. “’You just go off in the dirt,” Rob says. The woman looks comforted; I am not. Remembering some of the 15-foot hills that slope down to the track, I imagine Yellow 15 careening up the hillside in an argument with gravity, losing, then tumbling backwards onto the track to begin an Indy-style pileup. A racetrack is no place for a pessimist.
My distress deepens when Rob gets down to the essentials of good cornering, which, to my horror, involve mathematics. “The place where you come closest to the right-hand side of the road is called the geometric apex. It is found by extending the inside edges of the track to form a triangle and then bisecting the triangle.” So this is it, I think, and I can almost hear the ghostly chuckles of my eighth-grade math teacher, Mr. Fite. He was right. I should have listened. I can imagine the headlines: “Writer killed in fiery crackup; ignorance of geometry blamed.”
How I am to handle a protractor and compass while driving is beyond me, but I say nothing, not wanting to betray my matho-phobia. I learn that in addition to the geometric apex of the curve there is the turning point, which is where I start to turn, and the clipping point, which is the point of closest approach to the left side of the track as the car accelerates out of the turn. As Rob diagrams the correct execution of a cornering maneuver, the whole thing is as clear as mud.
Cornering practice starts as a nightmare and gets worse. We swoop through Turn 8 (see box), figuring apexes as we go, then shoot down the brief straightaway into Turn 9, one of the sharpest hairpin curves on the track. At Turn 9 our instructor waits, and he wants to hear every single gear change done right, with minimum gnashing of metal teeth and all the blips in the right places. I disappoint him. Again. Again. And again. After my fourth debacle, his eyes are straining at their sockets and new veins appear in his neck.
’What are you doing?” he asks.
“I must confess I don’t know.”
“Do you think there’s something wrong with the car?”
“I have to confess that, automotives not falling under the ample umbrella of my expertise, I am hardly the person to consult on such matters, and furthermore, you lout…”
Of course, I say none of the above-I only shake my head as he berates me-but you know how satisfying those internal dialogues can be. Finally, I get my bleeping blipping under control, not good enough to win any compliments, but at least the plaguings cease.
And somehow, mathematical schlemiel or not, I eventually get it right. You know the feeling. If you’re a bowler, you know that on certain releases, things just feel right. That ball has to be a strike. The same with archery or shooting baskets. After dozens of botched-up corners, I found that sweet spot in time, a moment that brought a sudden realignment of forces. Suddenly, as I go into Turn 8, it’s no longer me vs. the car and road; when I “flattened the curve” by drawing the straightest possible line through the turn, the car and road become my allies. For the first time, I find myself intimate with a machine other than a typewriter. The G-forces are still there, eager to pull me into the gravel, but we beat them by “using all the road,” just as Rob had taught us. It’s that moment too rare in most of education, that unfolding moment when a dry fact on a page becomes a part of one’s gut knowledge.
As I come blasting out of that curve, I am flooded with a palpable sense of pride. A sound like eeeealllright!, some primal yawp of triumph, comes bubbling out of me. Behind the tinted Plexiglass of my helmet, I am grinning like an Oscar winner who really didn’t expect it.
A real world-beater now, I am ready to take on the entire track, but Rob has other ideas. First, we walk the track-all 1.9 miles of it-as he points out tiny landmarks that are hard to spot even when walking. How we’ll see them at speed (love that expression) is a mystery to me, but Rob has his reasons. For now, bright orange traffic cones have been set up to show us the apex and prime clipping points for each turn, but on the third and last day they will be removed; we must get to know the track before we’re thrown out there on our own.
As we walk, we come upon crimson fragments of fur-the remains of foolhardy squirrels who tried to cross the track ahead of determined racers. “If they get in your way, don’t swerve,” Rob tells us. “You might lose the car while saving the squirrel.” A standing joke around the track says that any squirrel on the road is presumed to have suicidal tendencies. Drivers are encouraged to accommodate them.
Later, we circle the whole course with Rob in a Mazda pace car. At 70 mph, he delivers a calm, methodical lecture on the topography of the track, pointing out a white smudge here, an oddly shaped bush there-all vital keys to getting around the track at top speed. Without seeming to concentrate on his own driving, he is giving a perfect illustration of his message.
The most dangerous part of the track, I decide, is the corkscrew. The road bends gently at Turn 5. We hug the left until we see the tip of an orange cone peeking over the hill that sets up the corkscrew. Then we shoot up the hill and plunge down and around, hard left at Turn 6, hard right at Turn 6A. The same care must be given to turning point, apex and clipping point on this mind-boggier, all the while fighting the G-forces and the instincts shouting, STOP this unnatural act! At this point, Rob has done what he can for us. Tomorrow, we drive the full track.
WE ARRIVE THE next morning for an unexpected treat. Rick Mears, who would go on to win the Indianapolis 500 this year, has arrived for some practice laps in his Pen-ske PC-12. His performance is awesome. Having never even watched a complete race on television, I’m not prepared for the incredible power generated by his car. Like some avenging metal beast from a sci-fi apocalypse, Mears disappears into the hills on the back side of the track. His car consumes the course in 56 seconds-and that includes the dangerous corkscrew, which must reduce his speed. We are waiting near the pits on the long straightaway as Mears fishtails through Turn 9, using all of the road and a good bit of the retaining wall that protects the spectators. And the sound as he passes, his wake rearranging our hair: Imagine the small drill in the dentist’s office raised a thousandfold in power, and mix in the sound of an idling 747, only louder, and somehow intoxicating. One of Mears’ pit workers tells us that he is hitting 185-190 mph on the twisting track, and he’s just warming up.
When Mears is finished, it’s time for what Rob calls “lapping.” Call it what he will, I say it’s racing, and I say it’s about time. We have some restrictions: Rob designates three passing zones, between Turns 2 and 3,7 and 8, and 9 and 1. Pass there and only there, he warns, not on the curves.
The first three or four times around the track, I chicken out on the corkscrew, slowing down far too much and creeping through it like a grandmother. Even taking it slow, there’s that eerie moment when my stomach drops out, like the first dip of the roller coaster.
I know that on the third day we will be officially timed as we lap the course. My times will be ruined if I can’t get over my fear of the corkscrew, so I work on it. Each time I approach the hill, I wind out third gear a little higher and put off braking a little longer. My rpms are now at 3200, but I’ve already blown it by missing a gear (really), so I figure what the hell and push my speed closer to the red line, which is now stuck at 3800 rpms.
Working on the corkscrew, I appreciate the clarity of my situation. How often in life are we presented with a clear-cut test of the will in which the responsibility for the outcome rests solely on our shoulders? Usually we can delegate, share the blame, hide somewhere-but not here. Either I will overcome my fear of the blind dive into the corkscrew and force the car to its ultimate, or I will yield to my fear (which I will probably call my good sense) and settle for inferior times.
What I do, after some 20 laps, is learn the contours of the turn well enough to trust myself. Rob’s maxim about racing being a solitary sport comes back to me now. Very seldom do we communal people have to trust ourselves, since both the reward and the punishment for our actions is usually so long deferred. Here, the payoff for a mistake will be immediate.
My speed picks up, but I can’t get one thing out of my mind: What if the car just ahead of me hurtles over the hill, then spins out of control in the corkscrew, blocking the track through the narrow pipeline? If I come over the rise and see a helpless driver, his engine stalled, will I have time to stop?
Still, I push it further. Occasionally I am passed on the straightaways, and a competitive streak I thought buried years ago stirs within me. I fight being passed, making them earn it. Each time we stop for critiques, Rob increases our rpms. I notice he scolds us less for exceeding the limits, and I wonder if he’s beginning to trust us.
Racing shares an unusual characteristic with skiing, surfing, and a few other sports: You can’t get better without risk. And since you are working with metal and unforgiving asphalt, not snow or water, the risks are all the greater. To improve, you must try curves at speeds you have never reached before, and you cannot know what will happen when you take a curve at a new, higher speed. You know there must be a limit, but where is it?
My growing confidence, combined with my inexperience, almost brings me disaster. Coming out of the corkscrew, I find myself bunched behind two slower cars running abreast of one another. I’m hugging them closely, five inches off their back tires, when the car to my left stupidly takes a very wide turn. I see daylight and floor it, slipping between the cars just before they swing back into formation. Again, I am shouting behind my visor, laughing uncontrollably, until I see Rob in the Mazda a hundred yards ahead, like a Southern sheriff running a Yankee trap.
All the way around the track I curse myself-not for passing on a curve, which I see as a brilliant stroke, but for getting caught. I hope he’ll forget, but I get the checkered flag the next time I pass the pits. I nod to show that I will bring the car in on the next lap, and brace myself for trouble.
Trouble is just what I get. I am pulling my helmet over my ears the first time Rob asks who’s driving Yellow 15, so I don’t hear him. When I get the helmet off, everyone is looking at me. “Really stupid move, yellow car. Somebody could have been killed. Who was it? I don’t blame you for hiding.”
That stings. I color and reply that I wasn’t trying to hide, I just couldn’t hear him. He cuts me off in mid-whine with a chopping gesture, and I remember a junior high RE. teacher who used the same motion. I wonder if California has the death penalty.
Among the many things I do not have in common with Richard Gere in An Officer and A Gentleman is this: The Marine he plays in that movie had to endure the grueling routine and the decimation of his ego. “I got nowhere else to go!” Gere screamed at Lou Gossett, Jr. who played the nail-tough D.I.
I had other places to go. Back to the hotel, for instance, where I would wash the grit off my face and go to the bar for one or five cold ones. Then I’d get a plane back to Dallas. I’d say there was no story, say the instructor was insane, say anything. I didn’t have to take this.
But remembering the thrill and the surge of confidence on the corkscrew, I took it. In his way, Rob was right. Passing on that curve was stupid and dangerous. It was also exhilarating, and it worked, but that was beside the point. Had the two cars converged a second earlier, somebody could have been hurt. I was a rash amateur playing a hunch against Rob’s experience and judgment.
ON THE LAST DAY of the session we are timed, and I quickly realize that I will not have the fastest time on the track. (The track record for a Formula Four car is 1:12) Out of our group of eight, I can’t catch three of the cars. We go perhaps 50 laps, and no tinkering with strategy and no amount of cheating on my rpms (now up to 4,000) will make up the difference. Perhaps they have better engines, quicker reflexes, more guts. I whittle my time down from a 2:00 lap to a 1:47 and then a 1:35, an average speed of around 120 mph, but my best time leaves me four seconds behind the leader and split seconds behind two others.
But somehow this doesn’t hurt too much, which no doubt shows that I don’t have thekiller instinct needed for this kind ofbusiness. I’ve had my moment. For the firsttime, I think I know why Hemingway valueddanger and sought it out. To be tested, evenbriefly, and emerge whole has taught mesomething about cars and speed-and aboutmyself. I know I’ll watch the Dallas GrandPrix from the sidelines, where I belong, butI’ll watch knowing that beyond the chaos ofengines and the stench of fuel, there iscourage and art. As I walk off the track forthe last time, my bright orange gloves don’tseem quite so absurd. I think I’ll keep them,just for the memories.