The agony and ecstasy of grassroots racing

We’re re-running this story today because our American colleagues are busy celebrating the Original Brexit, and we thought it would make for interesting reading.

BRAINERD, Minnesota—With 15 minutes to go, I put on my helmet and retreated inside it, focusing on what to do next. My heart rate had been steadily climbing all morning in anticipation of racing in anger for the first time in 2014. One of my team mates, Scott, has been out on the soaking wet track for the last two hours, but he’ll soon be visiting the pit lane for a fuel stop and to hand the car over to the next driver; the next driver being me. Way back in 2011, I wrote a piece asking (and answering) the question of whether it was possible to learn how to race cars just by playing video games. It was my first real foray on a track after nearly 20 years of wanting to get into motorsport, and I’ve not looked back since. No games this time. Rather, as someone who simply races for a hobby, I’d been curious about quantifying the physical workload involved.

Even though I’ve accumulated a respectable amount of racing hours in the intervening years, I still spend the hours between waking up on race day and getting in the car questioning why I’m actually doing all this. “So what if one time I drove here and came back to the pits on three wheels?

Didn’t we fix that and come in fourth the following day?” I’ve felt much better about my pre-race stage fright after hearing Felix Baumgartner discuss his own problem during the Red Bull Stratos jump, and I gave myself a similar pep talk. “The car will be good. You’ve done this before, you know what you need to do. Build up to speed. Concentrate.

Focus on your driving, ignore the lap times.” As Scott brings the car into the pit lane, I wait atop the pit wall, seat insert in hand (I’m short and need a booster seat). Only four people are allowed over the wall if the car’s gas cap is open; the fueler, someone wielding a fire extinguisher, the driver, and one other person who can help, strapping in—or pulling out—the driver.

Getting situated in the car happened smoothly. I tightened the straps as a helping hand plugged in my radio jack and the dry-break connector that joins my cool shirt to its chilled reservoir. The cool shirt is a wonderful thing. Worn underneath that heavy nomex, it’s a t-shirt crisscrossed with surgical tubing. Cold water is pumped from an insulated tank through the tubes and across your torso, at a rate determined by a knob on the dash. On hot summer days it comes into its own, removing ‘it’s hot’ from the (very long) list of things drivers want to complain about over the radio.

Data acquisition

A small screen sat in front of the GTI’s dashboard, blocking the original dials. Part of our TraqMate data acquisition system, it takes over the job of relaying important information to the driver. A finger poked at it, switching from Scott’s driver profile to mine. Data acquisition systems like TraqMate or Race Capture Pro pull data from built-in accelerometers, the car’s on-board sensors, and GPS, allowing a remarkably detailed look at what the monkey behind the wheel is doing on track. Not that long ago they were the preserve of well-funded professional teams, but electronics keep getting ever smaller and cheaper, even rugged. The same trend is responsible for the rise of the fitness tracker, and it now makes that sort of data acquisition possible for the monkey as well as the car.

There’s an assumption about motorsport, that racing drivers aren’t athletes. Driving doesn’t involve running to and fro, therefore we are to infer it’s physically undemanding. And since no one really breaks a sweat on their commute to work in the morning, racing a car must be easy. This ignores the reality. Professional racers, for whom this is not just a passion but also a career, work as much on fitness as any starting line up in the NBA or MLB. As someone who simply races for a hobby, I’d been curious about quantifying my physical workload in the car.

That explained the Basis band strapped to my wrist, now under layers of nomex. We’ve reviewed the fitness track previously. Briefly, it measures steps, physical exertion, and sleep as well as your heart rate, skin temperature, and skin conductivity. It wasn’t entirely clear how interesting the data of a middle-aged, not-especially fit writer would be on its own, but I haven’t been the only racer capturing biometric data with a Basis. Enter NASCAR star Kurt Busch. Normally found racing big, heavy, 900 hp stock cars in the Sprint Cup, this year he planned to push his own limits, competing in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600, a pair of long-distance oval races that both take place on Memorial Day.

Busch is no stranger to Charlotte, having won there in the past. Indy, however, was a different kettle of fish. The cars are much lighter, much less powerful, but capable of even higher speeds when trimmed out for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where they can catch out seasoned regulars, never mind someone with little open-wheel experience. The tracks are almost a thousand miles apart, and the timing of practice and qualifying sessions requires plenty of shuttling back and forth between North Carolina and Indiana. Doing the double, as it’s known, therefore doesn’t happen very often—the last time was Tony Stewart in 2001, who had the advantage of having spent several years racing open wheel cars before moving to NASCAR.

I spoke with Busch the day after his races, asking how he’d altered his training regimen in preparation for doing both races in a single day. “[By] working harder on everything, drawing more energy from my core strength, such as lower back, mid section, obliques, abs, because my body would be going through more g-forces all day long. Upper body strength is important, flexibility is important for hydration, so I just ramped it up in all areas” he said. “I’d run to the gym, run back from the gym, keeping my heart rate elevated above 140, staying engaged in the workout to stress my body to levels that would be comparable to a day of 1,100 miles.”

Busch has done several long endurance races before, competing at the 24 Hours of Daytona more than once. I asked whether running the double was comparable? “All of my senses were on high, sight, sound, smell. My mouth was dry from being in the open cockpit, maybe because I was smiling the whole time” he said. “Running Daytona is a unique feeling when someone knocks on your door at 3am and tells you you’ve got an hour to get ready and get back in the car. Those are those moments where it’s fun, it’s exciting. You strap your helmet on and you run at a pace that you’re comfortable with, but you don’t put it at that 100 percent level like I had to the last hour at the end of the Indy car race.”

I was curious how the Basis band was helping his preparation. NASCAR, unlike most other professional forms of motorsport, bans in-car telemetry during races, so Busch was actually more wired up than his normal office during the Charlotte race. “The band is a very interactive way to feel your workouts and to challenge yourself to do better. It’s your own drill sergeant and scheduler. It’s a good lap tracker, in a sense. It’s unique to see the differences it sees in the race car. At Bristol [a very rough track], it vibrates your hands through the steering wheel, and it thought I was on a bike, pedaling. It’s really unique. Everyone wants numbers, graphs, spreadsheets. it’s very accurate, and it’s been fun to have it along for the ride.”

Unlike Busch, my career hasn’t required me to be in peak physical condition, and it’s fair to say that I could stand to be in much better shape. I hadn’t seen the inside of a gym since moving to DC five years ago, although I do walk up to five miles a day (so I’m not completely sedentary). Pre-race training in the past had involved lots of Forza with weights attached to my wrists, but this year even that wasn’t really possible—preparing for the Cars Technica launch left little time for gaming (or much else) in the weeks leading up to the race. In the immortal words of Detective Jake Peralta, “Eyes closed, head first, can’t lose!”

Fueling done, the team gave me the signal. I pulled away, trying and finding the muscle memory that recorded the bite point of the clutch. The first few laps reacquainted me with the track, and our race car, a 1991 Golf GTI. The original 1.8L engine has been swapped with the 2L motor from the Mk 3 GTI. A shorter-ratio VW gearbox and limited-slip differential, uprated front struts, and cryogenically treated brake discs complete the picture. Stripped of its interior, insulation, and sound deadening, the car’s cabin is dominated by a rally-spec roll cage, significantly stiffening the 23-year old bodyshell. Flat-out speed isn’t the Golf’s strongest asset, topping out near 120 mph on the longest straights, but it has great balance and can carry a lot of speed through corners, particularly now with the limited slip differential.

Brainerd is not my all-time favorite track to drive; it’s very flat, which means no elevation change or tricky camber, both ingredients common to almost every great race track (or driving road). What’s more, the last time I raced here I experienced a suspension failure going into turn two that saw the driver’s side rear wheel part company with the car. That said, I like the CanAm history, and I do like the sequence of corners from the Clover Leaf (turn eight) all the way to the braking zone for turn 12.

These laps were my first with the new gearbox, since it hadn’t been fitted the last time I drove the GTI in 2012. The shorter gear ratios were just sufficient to leave the car in third for most of the lap, from turn 3 until accelerating out of the Clover Leaf. With good feel and feedback through the unassisted steering, it was a fun car to drive quickly. Maintaining momentum is crucial in a car without much power, so the limited slip differential was a welcome addition, allowing me to get on the power earlier in the corner, using the throttle as well as the steering to adjust my line.

The track conditions were extremely wet. This was bad news for the drag racers, who were also racing at Brainerd that weekend, but not so for us. I like driving in the wet. The reduced grip available to the tires on a wet track surface means the car’s handling limit is much more accessible and occurs at lower speeds. What’s more, nose-heavy, FWD cars like the Golf have a natural advantage in such conditions—more weight over the nose means more weight pushing the driven wheels down onto the road. Oversteer, if it happens, usually happens under braking as the weight transfer shifts too far forward, but a healthy application of throttle straightens that out.

If the Golf had a bad habit in the past, that would have been a tendency to oversteer under heavy braking—as the weight transferred forward, the rear brakes would lock up, and the car would try to swap ends. Changing the type of brake pads at the rear solved this issue. The low-grip environment I currently found myself in wasn’t particularly conducive to heavy braking anyway; too sharp a stab on the pedals easily locked the front wheels, and I almost went off into the gravel trap in turn 12 discovering this for the first time.

Traffic was light with fewer than 30 cars on track. Two or even three laps could pass before I encountered another car, but I had several enjoyable battles on track. Overtaking another car requires a lot more planning than video games may have you expect. You don’t want to make contact, and the best overtaking spot might be off limits because of a yellow flag (yellow flags are shown when there’s an incident on that part of the track, and drivers have to reduce their speed, and overtaking is forbidden). That temptation to dive bomb at the very first opportunity must be avoided, particularly in an endurance race. When it’s very wet, often a corner through which there’s normally only a single line now has more than one solution. The rubber that builds up on the racing line in the dry can compromise grip in the wet, and conversely the dust, tire marbles, and other stuff that accumulates off-line becomes the place to find traction when it’s raining.

The volume on the radio hadn’t been turned high enough, and communications from the pit were garbled beyond the point of comprehension. I was OK with that; better to be left alone to concentrate on the task at hand than be pestered about lap times or whatever. The rain came and went in squalls, and the ever-changing track conditions made worrying about absolute pace seem meaningless. That said, I did start to notice my lap times coming down, thanks to the info being displayed by the TraqMate. It continually compares your current lap with a reference lap—for example, the fastest time it records during a session—and displays that as a time delta (i.e. +X.X seconds or -X.X seconds depending on whether the current lap is going to be slower or faster). It’s very familiar if you’ve ever played a racing game, and it’s immensely helpful to the monkey behind the wheel, particularly the bar graphs either side of the delta: a red bar growing to the left for a slow lap, a green bar that grows to the right for a quicker one.

 

   
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