Dateline: March 28, 2015

An Unsolicited Manuscript: The Italian Yardstick

Seven days have now passed, and I am lying in bed unable to sleep.  Again.  There is a constant dialog going on between my right and left frontal lobes, each one trying to reconcile to the other just what exactly happened last week and what – if anything – I should do about it.  Frenetic, emotional scatter fire followed by exacting, analytical dissection.  Over and over again.  It’s only 11:45 PM, but this is going to be another long night.

My first experience behind the wheel on a race track occurred somewhere circa 1992 at Watkins Glen International.  Normally I could tell you the exact date and time for an event of this significance, but my Franklin Planner calendar archive only goes back to 1994.  I know this because now it’s 12:30 AM and I just checked it in my office out of curiosity.  So let’s call it June or July of that year.  I showed up to a PCA Driver’s Education event in my Saturn SL2 (if you just laughed out loud, you’re forgiven), and within 30 minutes I managed to rip off my passenger-side rear-view mirror while backing out of the tech shed.  It was an inauspicious start to an inauspicious personal motorsports quest that would result in me not being able to sleep tonight.

It’s a trite cliché to say that the first time isn’t supposed to be the greatest (Exhibit 1: my recently-liberated mirror), but looking back I fondly recall driving that little Saturn around more Porsches than I had probably ever seen in my life to that point.  While conveniently forgetting the fact that I was in the ultra-novice run group, it planted a seed that maybe, just maybe, I could do this thing pretty well.  Maybe I was even what some would consider a “natural” or I possessed an element of “raw talent” displayed by the icons of the sport.  I further humored myself by conjuring up sepia-toned images of racing legends backing out of their own garages, rear-view mirrors knocked clean off of their doors, too.  Hey, I know how to feed my own ego.

Distilling the next 23 years of my motorsports endeavors into a single paragraph would still be one paragraph too many for the job, but for the sake of my mom who might still be reading, it goes something like this.  Four years of killing cones in SCCA autocross competition followed by seven years of SCCA road racing in the Showroom Stock and Improved Touring categories.  All in Saturns, of course (if you are still laughing, it would be polite to consider stopping soon).  Kids then came along, and with them so did a renewed focus on track days and driving instruction.  Race cars were liquidated and the remaining resources were turned into a revolving garage door’s worth of heterogeneous, modestly high-performance hardware: Corvette Z06, Subaru WRX, Mustang Cobra, Porsche GT3 RS, BMW M3.  Racing became limited to infrequently playing with somebody else’s toys, comically bookended by a pair of $500 Saturn endurance racers and a vintage 1968 McLaren M6B CanAm car worth literally one thousand times that much (and, for the record, the only car I have ever driven that truly scared the shit out of me).

Back to the present, I am reminded daily of my seven race wins (yes, a small enough number that I can actually remember) by the incredibly cheesy trophies hung with great precision, care, and yes, love, on my office walls.  I am not a big fan of cherishing material things, but ask me the story behind each of them and be prepared to hang around for a while as I recant in painful detail how each award came to be.  Then ask me my three kids’ birthdates and, having moved on from my Franklin Planner days, I have to consult my iPhone calendar.  Three separate times.

Softly playing in the background over those 23 years was a internal combustion soundtrack building in a gradual crescendo, subliminally leading me on to believe that maybe, just maybe, I had what it takes to succeed behind the wheel at the highest levels of the sport.  I still don’t have any idea of what that actually means, but it sure sounds romantic, doesn’t it?  For years and years, those seven hard-earned trophies inadvertently served to fan the flames of my own self-admiration and blatant expectation that if the day ever came for me to measure up against my perceived level of greatness I would qualify on the pole.  Or at least on the front row of the grid.

One could also argue that I intentionally put those trophies up to achieve the same effect, but in any case, without dipping my talent in a suitable litmus solution for those 23 years, I never had to worry about it.  Then last Saturday came along.  And now I can’t sleep.

There I was at the Circuit of the Americas staring down a Ferrari 458 Challenge race car.  I remember it wore placard number 62.  And it was silver.  The remaining details really don’t matter at this point, but it was all mine for the day.  Only six cars in my run group.  Temperature in the mid-70’s, and not a lick of rain in sight.  Brand-new Pirelli slicks and a full tank of gas.  And wings.  Wings!  Everything so incredibly perfect it was completely surreal.  Or more appropriately, ethereal.  At one point I literally felt my eyes watering up strapping into the driver’s seat.

Wearing a path in the garage floor as I paced around the car’s perimeter, I concluded that what I was about to do would either validate years of semi-muffled pride or would deliver a body blow to my ego so great that I would be resigned to park the car in Turn 15 and walk home from there to avoid the disgrace of the post-session debriefing.  It wasn’t so much a race car in from of me, but rather a finely-crafted Italian yardstick (and yes, I know that being Italian it would actually be described as a meterstick, but stay with me here).

So there I was, preemptively concluding that one of these two storylines would certainly play out in front of me; however, behind Door Number 3 was a scenario that so completely disrupted my calculus that I was unprepared to process it in real time.  In fact, I know I am still processing it now, and am only really writing this piece in a thinly-veiled, cathartic sort of way in hopes that I can eventually figure it out.  In short, I thought that at the end of the day I might finally – finally! – know where I rate, but here in this moment I still have no idea.  And that’s what is driving me absolutely insane.

I’ll divert here for a moment to the car itself.  Those that knew about the test day in advance have asked me the typical and expected questions in order to vicariously experience a 458 Challenge car through my short time plugged into the form-fitting command and control center.  I fear that I have failed them miserably, and understand if the group consensus is to vote me off of Car Guy Island as a result.  After the fact, all I can recall is that the car made sounds consistent with a race car.  Sure, it was loud.  It gave feedback consistent with a race car.  It turned and stopped like a race car should.  Isn’t that nice.

Unlike approaching the day from the perspective of a journalist or chronicler, all of my intellectual and perceptive capabilities were spent deciphering the machine, not trying to find a unique and creative way to describe the timbre and pitch of the 4.5-liter V8 as it spewed deafening noises out of the mandrel-bend exhaust headers as it approached its 9,000 RPM rev limiter.  There are better people for that, and to them I gladly leave that task.  I was there to plug in, focus, and drive.  The car was simply a tool, a means to an end.  The sounds, smells, and tactile interface may have been glorious beyond measure on a different day, but all of the sensory elements were completely and utterly lost on me, tragic as that may be.

Six sessions passed in rapid succession.  The final checkered flag was thrown.  The car idled down pit lane.  The ignition was switched off with an unceremonial flick of an index finger.  Done.

In that temporary silence which exists just before the brake rotors and exhaust manifolds start sporadically ticking to their own discreet rhythms, I sat there motionless, my Nomex soaked in sweat.  Rising warm air from the engine distorted my vision as I stared through the rear-view mirror.  In those brief seconds, I swiftly iterated to the conclusion that while I wasn’t quite as fast as I hoped I would have been, I was faster than I thought I had any right to be after one day in the car.  I now know that was just a defense mechanism, a well-crafted lie to placate my ego.

After 23 years I managed to make the field with a damn respectable showing, but wasn’t sitting on the pole.  As a consolation prize, at least I didn’t rip off the passenger-side rear-view mirror.

So now I am casually shopping for a race car (please don’t tell my wife Dana this until I get a chance to update my passport and leave the country first).  I know I can do better, and don’t want to wait another 23 years to find out.  I got too close, saw too much, and learned that I can’t yet answer that question that has been burning inside me all these years.  I might still have the potential to be as fast as I think I can be, but I just don’t know yet.  I need the heat of battle, the thrill of the chase, the draw of the checkered flag to push me beyond last Saturday’s science project.

The only thing I am certain about is that racing – my racing, anyhow – really has so very little at all to do with the cars.  In some small way I am comforted by the fact that even if it turns out later I don’t have the level of talent I presupposed, I certainly do have the desire.  Is it selfish, conceited, and narcissistic?  Probably.  I guess by definition it has to be.  And while that part of this sport may be a price of entry, I hope it’s not a personal turning point where my enjoyment tapers in response.  I do recall spontaneously giggling out loud at least once behind the wheel as I came through the carousel turn in anger (wings and slicks are AWESOME, by the way), so perhaps not all innocence was lost that day…just some of it.

And with that realization, I am now going to try to get some sleep.  And sponsorship.