The Christmas Gift

The Christmas Gift
by John Tenney Early in December of 2006 I was thumbing through the usual junk mail when my eye was caught by a large manila folder from Fast Track High Performance Driving School. “Fast Track? Hmmm. I don’t recall ordering anything from them” I thought. We had done business with them as a minor sponsor in the ARCA and Nextel Cup series, sending potential drivers there for training.

It wasn’t until after I opened it that I saw it was addressed to my wife and not to me. Oops. Well I had ruined the surprise. It was a gift certificate for a “Classic Oval” course, the top of the line course available from Fast Track. We had sent a driver through it before. I had watched him barreling around Lowes Motor Speedway in Stock Cars at speeds in excess of 150 mph with not a little jealous lust. And now I held the ticket to a dream ride of a lifetime in my hands.

At first I was excited, then upset (it’s expensive), then scared, then excited again, and finally just plain terrified. I am not a small person. How was I going to fit in those tiny little cars? Would I get claustrophobic? What if I wad it up and get hurt, or even die? Would life insurance cover this? How would my wife and kids go on? Hey wait a minute. My wife bought this for me. Does she have some insurance policy on me I don’t know about? (Author’s Note: she later confessed that she thought about it.) Even though the surprise was ruined I acted very pleased at Christmas. We scheduled it for March 9th and 10th which put it comfortably off in the distant future.

Well Time Passed as it Inexorably Does. Here it was March 8th. The motorhome was loaded with wife, kids, cameras and enough luggage and food for the 8th Armored Division. It was time to go. There was no use kidding myself anymore. I was going to have to do this. It was paid for. We hit the road and headed north to Charlotte (from home town Orlando.) As we got ever closer the fear grew. “Yes I am scared. I admit it” I told my wife. “How am I going to get in that window?” When they close that window net am I going to freak out?” What I didn’t tell her were my two real fears: 1 – Would I be “the slow guy” who never had the courage to get it up to speed? 2 – What if I like it? (the REAL fear!) Am I going to become another “racing junky” looking for seat time to get my fix? (Author’s note – at the risk of spoiling the conclusion, the answer is definitely number two)

Day One We were due at the track at 7:30 am to begin the course. Horribly early, if you ask me. 7:30 is a good time to be sitting around the house, sipping coffee, not waiting around the Lowes Media Center in the cold with a bunch of strangers. Combine this with the presence of a TV show crew (more like an army) that was preparing to film the Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Challenge the next week, and things were a little confusing. Finally a “person of authority” entered and gathered us up to “sign in” which is really signing the release forms. Yes you can’t expect to do anything this dangerous without signing release forms.

After some friendly negotiations with the TV crew, who had filled every room, we then moved in to a small auditorium where class began. Sheldon, the lead instructor, had us all stand up and introduce ourselves, along with our racing experience. Even though I’ve had some I felt it better not to mention it, since I had zero time in any stock car. Sheldon then laid out the course structure and the ground rules. Here are some excerpts from my notes:

  • First off, this is not a race, there are no trophies. We are here to learn to drive in a race, not race with each other.
  • Steering wheel install/remove
  • Gages – Oil Pressure, Low Pressure warning light, Oil and Water Temp
  • Transmissions. No Downshifting is done during the entire course. White light means you are in first gear.
  • Shifting. Use 3000 rpm as a shift point, no burnouts please.
  • Pit Road Safety. Speed limit is 45, which is 3000 in 2nd gear.
  • HANS Device introduction
  • Personal health – stay hydrated and EMT’s are available if you feel ill. Provided by school.

Following this, the class took the track. On foot. Yes, we walked the entire track, stopping at key points where Sheldon pointed out our “marks” to use for turn entry, apex and turn exit. He also covered pit entry and exit procedures, as well as passing procedures. Hand signals were discussed. Next we took to the track in personal vehicles. I wanted to take the motorhome out there but Sheldon gave me the keys to a Fast Track van instead. Instructor Mike Holt, who later acted as Upper Deck Spotter the entire class, rode in the passenger seat and showed me the preferred line, with proper exits and entries. This is the same line the Nextel drivers use for qualifying.

Getting in to the car was probably the worst part of the whole course, especially the first time. I am too big to fit in the window without scrunching way over and my breath was coming in huge gasps. Once in the seat, I thought it would be better, but the HANS device didn’t allow me to put my head back. To top it off, the instructors literally haul down on the shoulder straps to make sure they are tight, tight, tight! The first time they did it I could not breathe. I know this is safer but it takes some getting used to. By the end of the course I was much more comfortable in the car but by far the worst part of the course is when I was strapped in, waiting for the start engine signal from Sheldon. Once the engine was started the uncomfortable feeling magically disappeared.

Finally I was sitting somewhat uncomfortably in the car, with instructor Bill Gentry in the right seat. We were asked not to scare the instructors and to remember that the right seat goes 25 mph faster than the left seat. As a former Flight Instructor I can sympathize with that. After 4 laps at 3500 rpm, Bill gave me the “head for pits” signal and we coasted in. Here we had the first of many critique sessions, where Bill was completely aware of what I did wrong and how to correct it. At first I was a little shocked at how direct the critique was, and very impressed at how closely we were being watched. Bill was direct and to the point with comments like “On your third lap you were half a lane low on the exit of 4, and got close to the grass on the dogleg. Move it up. Don’t let the car wander.” The prospect of the after session criticism increased my concentration factor for the rest of the course, without a doubt! In fact, if I made a mistake later (such as hitting the apron with the left side tires – yes did that twice) I said to myself, “Oh no, Bill is going to see that one.” Looking back though it was necessary to be that critical. We were being taught how to control a car at race speeds, so being a couple feet off matters. Half a lane may seem to be nitpicking but when we were driving in formation later I fully understood the reason.

After a lunch break Sheldon briefed us on the various flags and what they meant, as they were the only method of communication once we were alone in the car. Fast Track does not use in car radios, not because they can’t, but experience has shown that the chatter and the distraction of using the radio is not worth the potential gain. They want the driver to be alone in the car. Next we were sent out to “solo” for three 8-lap sessions and told to go as fast as we wanted. There were some guidelines but basically we were allowed to go as fast as we felt comfortable. This was a cause for excited conversation among all of us new guys, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. I got up to a steady 6800 rpm around the track in my third session, and punched it up to 7200 rpm (173 mph) to pass a car on the back straight. Yes, this felt really fast and made the track really small. I can’t even begin to imagine how small it looks to the Cup drivers at 9000 rpm. Looking back, it is interesting to note how uncomfortable I was at 3500 rpm for the first few laps, and how I got “settled in” to the car and 6800 rpm felt just fine. It’s all about seat time.

Drafting Under the Lights After dinner we paired up in to drafting teams. I didn’t know anyone so I let the instructors pick my partner, although you have the option of selecting your own before hand.

I was paired with Bill Glowacki, a helicopter pilot and mechanical engineer from “Up dere hey” in Minnesota. We started out running the track at 5000 rpm, attempting to stay 4 car lengths apart. This is not easy. 4 car lengths feels like bumper to bumper. On the third time out we were told to stay one car length (yes that’s one) apart all the way around. It requires careful study of your partner’s line and liftpoints. You know you are close enough when the hood is bouncing up and down in front of you from the disturbed air flow. Disconcerting to say the least. Finally, we closed out a long day at 10 pm. There were some jokes about going somewhere to have a beer but that’s all they were – jokes.

Day Two: Running in Traffic We got to “sleep in” the next morning with an 8:15 am report time. After one more session of close drafting it was time to practice passing. We sat in the grandstands while two instructors demonstrated this, including a failed pass and how to fall back in line after. This exercise was done with our draft partners, since it is necessary to follow very close to properly complete the pass. Our first attempt was horrible. We couldn’t get the speed control down and were constantly getting the “close it up” signal from the flag man. To top it off I slid on to the apron exiting turn 4 once, and of course, the instructor was waiting for me to make sure I knew it. The second attempt was much better but it was still not up to my newly raised expectations.

The Grand Finale: 4 Car Pack

Close formation on the front stretch of Lowes. I am in the outside pole car (the “easy” spot)
After lunch we were going to do the hardest exercise of all, the 4 Car Pack. In this exercise the pole car is driven by an instructor, running a low line followed by one student, with two other students running the high line above them. Up to this point I had not noticed I was tired. I now realized I was waiting for the course to be over because frankly, this was a lot of work, and also, I was nervous. I am not ashamed to admit that I was scared. Heck I was terrified. I knew I was fatigued, had some cold symptoms and did not relish maintaining the required 100% concentration for 16 laps in close proximity to 3 other cars. I almost backed out. Even as I got in to my car I told the instructor and my draft partner to watch for my hand wave if I started feeling bad and wanted out. They told me not to worry, everything would be fine. And of course, they were once again right. Much to my surprise it was the most exciting and thrilling exercise of the course. It took me about 3 laps to figure out Bill Gentry’s line, which was the perfect line by the way, and where I had still been missing it. I concentrated on keeping our front fenders only a few feet apart. Each lap got slightly easier and more exciting, even though we picked up speed as we went along. I found out I had not been making the correct entry in to turn 1 thru this exercise and this corrected it. This was not only fun but a great learning experience. I was disappointed when the checkered flag flew at 16 laps. I could have easily gone another 16, I was enjoying it so much. As I climbed out of the car I started to understand why people get hooked on this. As the expression says, I was completely “pumped up.” The exhilaration was tremendous. You could have sold me a return trip to the school in a heartbeat at that moment.

Graduation Once everyone was done with the 4 Car Pack, we assembled in the room where it all began and the instructors handed out graduation certificate packages. And as Sheldon so aptly mentioned in his closing speech, the most important piece of paper in the pack, after the certificate of course, is the application for the next driving course. Mine is filled out, just haven’t decided which track to go to next! On the drive back to Orlando in the motorhome my wife Kathleen looked over at me and asked, “Well? Was it worth it?” My four word answer? “Best – Christmas – Present – EVER.”