Thursday, November 21, 2013

Need For Speed

I read something recently that really pissed me off. 

Something that echoed a sentiment I’ve heard most of my adult life.

It was an article (in a non-auto-related online mag) about NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Danica Patrick, who had successfully qualified her car for the Pole Position at the 2013 Daytona 500, the first time a female driver had achieved this lofty perch. The article talked about how important she was in the pantheon of modern sports heroes, how she has become a role model to millions of young girls and women, how her singular efforts were making a huge difference to the sport of motor racing in general, and to NASCAR in particular. During that race she led several laps, ran in the Top 10 the whole time until getting shuffled back on the final lap, placed a very respectable 8th at the finish and generally kicked some country-fried ass. It was an auspicious start to what has turned into a very sub-par season for her. Racing is HARD.

But it wasn’t the article itself that pissed me off, oh no... it was the comments posted by people who obviously have no knowledge or understanding of motor racing.

They belittled and insulted Danica, and all other race drivers (including 7-time F1 World Champion Michael Schumacher!!), as not being real athletes simply because motor racing is not considered as a ‘true’ sport, and therefore no one who straps on a brain bucket and grabs the steering wheel is qualified to be classified as an ‘athlete’.  "How..." they screeched, " Danica, or any other NASCAR driver, sitting in a car and turning left for a few hours, even comparable to the effort it takes to play football or baseball or basketball or hockey or any other traditional stick-and-ball sport?"

And that REALLY pissed me off.

Tiny little Danica, all 100 pounds of her, muscled her 3300-pound car at average lap speeds in excess of 195mph at Daytona FOR OVER 3 HOURS.  The corners are banked at 31 degrees… even the front straight is banked at 18 degrees, and she competed with 42 other racers, each one confounding physics to keep their cars on the asphalt and away from the concrete walls and out of the grassy infield that sucks cars in and spits them out.  Each driver is strapped to their seat by a six-point harness, surrounded by a roll cage, with the engine howling at over 9000 rpm, liquefied tire contact patches barely gripping the track surface, the cars always wanting to shear off and smack the outside wall.  The physical, emotional and mental strength it takes to compete in this type of environment… well, you either understand it or you don’t.

And that’s just oval track racing. Road racing is another animal entirely.
Some personal context: 

I’ve been a motor racing fanatic as long as I can remember.  I attended my first drag race at Irwindale Raceway as a Cub Scout in 1965. Dad took my brother and I to Riverside Raceway during the heyday of the Can-Am Series, and we watched the green hankie fly to start the first California 500 at the now-long-gone Ontario Motor Speedway.  As an adult, I’ve been fortunate to attend and/or work races at Long Beach, Perris, Charlotte, Laguna Seca, Sears Point, Talladega, Fontana, Phoenix, Denver, Cleveland, Homestead, Indianapolis, Houston, Buttonwillow, Road Atlanta, Road America, Pomona, Daytona, Las Vegas, Willow Springs, Fort Worth… and those are just the ones where the cars had four tires and wheels. Add in jet skis, snowmobiles, drag boats, motorcycles… well, you get the idea.

I’ve also had the extreme good fortune and pleasure to spend time on-track in a variety of race cars, from mild to wild. Open-wheel formula cars at Sears Point and Willow Springs. Baja Class buggies from Ensenada to San Felipe and back again. Slammed euro-sedans slicing through the turns at Road Atlanta. Innumerable blacktop autocrosses from sea-to-shining sea. Hardcore sprint and shifter karting, both indoor and outdoor, with the track surface whipping by mere inches from my skinny ass.

While I am in no way equating my on-track escapades with the likes of Ms. Patrick or Herr Schumacher, I can tell you with certainty that being an athlete (while extremely important) is only a part of what it takes to drive a race car with any level of skill or competitiveness. I can tell you about how my arm muscles burned and my hips were sore and my legs ached and my knees were bashed and my breathing was labored and my heart pounded out of my chest and my fire suit was drenched with sweat after running a dozen laps around the track at Sears Point in an open-wheel Formula Mitsubishi… and that was only a race driving SCHOOL.

And no matter how difficult or physically demanding any of my driving escapades were, I WAS NOT RACING.  I was just driving, learning, doing, and still got the crap beat outta me, still climbed from the cars with legs of rubber, barely able to catch my breath.  I may be in pretty good shape, but a full day of autocrossing on smooth asphalt would result in my resembling a large bowl of ugly jelly by day’s end.

I know what I’m talking about here.

And so I offer a hearty 'KISS MY SKINNY ASS' to anyone who thinks that driving a race car is not an athletic sport.

For professional racers, multiply my efforts by a factor of 10, plus add in the speed I could never achieve, because I ain’t that fast.

The ability to run flat-out, regardless of the size and/or shape of the track or the speed of the vehicle, gives my brain and body a rush of endorphins that is second only to having sex.  It gives me insight as to why professional racing drivers have the itch, the need, the competitive drive it takes to risk life and limb on track, at speed, helmet on, eyes wide open.
While I’ve had many opportunities to strap a bucket on my pointy head and do some serious track time, my current running is limited to indoor go-karting at the K1 Speed facility in Irvine (CA). These are not putt-putt karts like at your local miniature golf facility, oh no.  These are high-tech, 20hp DC-electric 45mph sleds with torque up the wazoo and plenty fast enough to get you in lots of trouble, if that be what yer lookin’ fer. Professional and amateur racers run at this place when they're in town for fun and to keep their chops sharp.  Karting is seminal and brutal, even in K1's sterilized 'retail racing' environment.

Most folks will head to this place to thrash around the course with their friends, bumping each other and sliding around and whooping and all that, not really doing serious laps, just goofing.  Not me. I head there right after work when the place is still empty and the track is clear of what I like to call ‘rolling chicanes’, i.e. typical drivers. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be the only kart on track, and that’s when I can really have at it. I can achieve maximum speed on the relatively short course, finding the fastest line and ripping off one fast lap after another, clipping apexes and sliding along the outside turn siding and hauling ass.  Without other karts to contend with, I get into a zone of lap lap lap lap, hopefully each one faster than the last, until the short minutes have expired and I’m drawn back into the staging lanes.

When I drag my butt out of the kart, I am sweaty and breathing hard and my arms are shaky… and I’m totally ready for another session.  Wait for the next session, chug a bottle of cold water and then jump back into the kart for another round of lap lap lap lap faster faster faster, apex accelerate straight hard turn apex turn apex accelerate lap lap lap.  It becomes a blur, my head is totally clear except for the vision of the upcoming turn and where I need to have the kart on track to hit that next apex just right lap lap lap lap lap lap IN.

The last time I was at K1, my fastest lap was less than ½-second off the standing track record, which accorded me no small amount of satisfaction, being an old fart and all.  During that visit, I did three sessions, one after the other, the second and third being the only kart running.  When I was done, I could barely stand, out of breath, my legs were rubber and my arms were burning and… I WAS IN A STATE OF NIRVANA… and this was only an electric go-kart!!!! I could have run another three sessions if I'd had the dough.

I reckon the point I'm trying to make is this: those who denigrate motor racing as not being a real sport with real athletes should STFU and try it sometime before making ignorant noises with their pie holes.  As I've written before, the science involved in motorsports takes the idea of competition to a whole other level, bridging the gap between the physical and mechanical worlds and offering a unique perspective on how the human mind operates at-speed.

This past October, The Artist and I attended the IndyCar race at Fontana's California Speedway (I refuse to call it Auto Club Speedway) to watch the season-ending event for the series, and it was a barn-burner. We were there for every race between 1997 and 2004, then went back when the series returned to the track last year after a 7-year hiatus. We watched in horror as Greg Moore crashed heavily on the back straight during the 1999 race, watched his crew strip the pit once the race resumed (that NEVER happens), watched the Medivac helicopter liftoff to the local hospital, watched as the flags were all lowered to half-staff while the cars still screamed around the oval. When the race finally ended, the PA announcer told us Greg had died of his injuries, and the grandstands grew quiet while we all silently mourned a fallen champion, a racer, a kindred spirit.

But we were back at Long Beach and Fontana the following year, supporting a sport that we love and cherish, supporting the amazing athletes who choose to compete in such a dangerous thing, plugging in to the highly-electric and eclectic activity that punches our buttons and gives us a visceral joy that nothing else can... except for the aforementioned sexing.

For me, no other professional sport can measure up to motor racing, because unlike football or baseball or basketball or hockey or any of the rest, the race driver commits life and limb to pursue his or her need for speed.  They know the risks, and we fans do too. They know every race holds the chance for the ultimate success or the ultimate loss, and yet... they keep on driving, and we keep on supporting their efforts.

That's why ripping off hot laps at K1 Speed is so intoxicating for me now. I get a whiff of the red mist that racing at 10/10ths pours into the driver's mind and heart and soul... but a whiff is all it takes to make me fight even harder to stitch a good lap together... and then do it again.

Lead image, gracias de; Deep Purple 'Highway Star' video, muchismas gracias de

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