High Speed Performance Driving: A Beginner’s Guide
by Terry Thorspecken
The day starts with the alarm going off at the ridiculously unreasonable hour of 7 a.m. I drive my 2013 silver Boxster S to the Sebring International Speedway. It’s just over the bridge from the hotel so you have time for a quick breakfast sandwich. It’s always better to have something in your stomach if you have to throw up later.
I am assigned my own little pit: #8, which is my lucky number. So far, so good. Mandatory drivers’ meeting at 8 am. The crowd of about 100 people is split into the green group, drivers who are basically afraid of their cars, blue who have survived long enough to graduate into the advanced beginners, yellow who are intermediate and usually have old cars so if they crash them they don’t feel so bad, and then the solo red group who trailer their cars to the track and have no fear of death.
At the meeting they explain to you all the driving rules, which is comforting. My impression from my first time at a track in Roebling, GA, where I didn’t understand the lingo, was that there weren’t any rules. At the meeting here in Sebring they emphasize that you should drive at a speed you are comfortable with, no pressure. You are then introduced to your instructor— who you have never met before— your sole guide and guardian for not crashing into a wall on the track.
Your car is already lined up on the grid. “Grid” is just jargon for lining up your car. Your windows have to be open so you can get out of your car in the unfortunate event it crashes into something. The line inches forward and you get to the track marshal, who checks your armband that shows you are registered and have had your tech inspection both at your car shop and at the track. In my case the tech inspection at the shop set me back over $1,000 for two new front tires and alignment (damn the curbs in my parking lot at work) and a brake flush because apparently brakes and the fluid that keeps them working are important at the track—who knew? Fortunately my $300 helmet is comfortable, although I think I need more flexible glasses to fit in the helmet because it would be nice to actually be able to see the track. I plan to get those once I get a little caught up on the payments on my car. After all, it would be nice to have it paid off before I total it.
A thumbs-up, and you are on the track for your orientation laps. There are 17 turns at Sebring and they are sometimes long and curvy, sometimes tight hairpin turns, and every one of them is different. You have to know the entry point to the turn, the apex of the turn (Google it if you never had geometry) and the exit to the turn. I am told that each of the 17 turns have 9 variables. That does not make the complexity 9 times 17. It is 17 raised to the 9th power. I have no idea what that means.
Some of the major landmarks to work with to set your turns are things such as a cone stuck in the fence to show the apex. The cone is impossible to see until you are actually (if you are lucky) in the apex of the turn. I am going to take this slow, as they said, to get a feel for the track. Noticing the freight train of cars behind me, my instructor asks me to go faster. Huh? On the orientation lap?
Fortunately there are two long straightaways, which as it sounds, are long, straight stretches where you can rev up the car to see how fast she can go. In my case, I spend the time on the straightaway giving the signal for the cars behind me to pass me on the left or right, before getting up to 80-90 mph and realizing that it is much easier to go 100 on the Florida Turnpike than it is on the track. To get started, I slam on the brakes at the first cone instead of the third cone for the first turn. It is a little cowardly but it allows me to guide my car somewhere near the apex and then the exit of the turn. Phew, only 16 more turns to go.
Those of you who have known me for a while know that my nickname is Wrong Way Thorspecken; I have no gene to understand which direction I am going in. Never at any point in time do I have any knowledge of where I am on the track or which way to turn until I am almost on top of it. I am completely reassured as my instructor points out landmarks like the blue dot on the bridge and the white line— which hasn’t been painted recently and is almost completely concealed by black skid marks. Orientation over!
Off the track and into the classroom, where a new instructor goes through our training booklets using jargon I don’t understand and anecdotal stories of his times on the track for the past thirty years. The room is air-conditioned which is a welcome break from the asphalt track in the 90-degree Florida heat.
My pit is in the shade and quite cozy with all the things I need for a day on the track, except for the chair I forgot to bring. Its important to stay hydrated, so I have a lot of water. Now I’m ready for the first real run. But where is my instructor? There is some mix up and we don’t find each other, so good old Bert steps in and takes his life in his hands by going on the track with me. The best thing is the instructor has a headset and you get an earpiece so you can easily hear all his instructions. It was fun being on the track, and you have a half hour run which goes by really fast. You don’t look at the driver in front of you and you don’t look in your mirrors to see what’s behind you. The instructor keeps an eye out for this to keep you out of trouble and let you know when to signal for people to pass you. I never got into a rhythm with any of the turns but it is a tough track, so no problem. Everything in life starts with a single step or a step on the gas pedal.
It’s now lunchtime at the famed Snack Shack, which has overpriced salads and burgers and other adequate track food. It’s a rush to eat because at noon they have a tour where you can take your friends or family on the track. This is for entertainment, not speed, which is good because an instructor gets in the car with me and guides the wheel so I get a good idea of the entry, apex and exit of the turns. Of course I’ll have no idea where they are later, but it fills me with newfound confidence. I’m going to lick this track.
My green group doesn’t go out until 1:00 pm, so Bert offers to take me on a ride in his car with blue group, the advanced beginners, to get a better feel for the track. That should be fine, I figure, because after all, they are just a little more advanced than my green group. Bert, however, has been driving on the track for twenty years. I know Bert is co-chair of this DE but he is not a young hot shot, so I had no idea he would be such a monster on the track. Lesson number one: never assume anything about another driver until you see him drive. His skill is amazing and he glides through the turns and hits every apex just right. Oh wow, this is fun. I whoop with glee. This is AWESOME. In retrospect I should have tamped down my enthusiasm, as Bert is now encouraged and wants to really show me how I will eventually be driving.
I have heard that BMWs are made for comfort and Porsches for speed. This is true, and as Bert accelerates I wonder again why I didn’t just buy the Audi sports car. He flies down the straightaway and slams on his brakes at the third cone at the entry to the turn. He accelerates out of the apex and does this for sixteen more turns. This is getting scary. I have never gone so fast in a car. You really feel the road in a sports car and as I am jounced back and forth, my stomach gets queasy and my heart starts to race.
We start the second lap. Bert asks me if I am OK, and breathless now and not wanting be girly, I say I’m fine. Bert goes faster. (He tells me later he was only driving at eight tenths! I have no idea what that means either.) I am now fearing for my life, and as Bert slams on his breaks for turn 7 I beg for mercy and ask him to take me in, suffering through the other ten turns it takes to get there. I am dizzy, probably from hyperventilating, as he pulls into the pit and drives me to my car. I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up but I am panting like a bulldog on a greyhound track, and I am unable to move. Bert and a Good Samaritan practically carry me to my car and turn on the air conditioning. I feel like someone who has been lost at sea and then finally sees land. But I can’t control my breathing, and I sit like a statue, wondering when I will be able stop shaking and see straight. Bert keeps apologizing, but I don’t want him to be sorry and I fight back the tears. Later in the day when Bert is my instructor on the final green run, I will feel that he is no longer an acquaintance, but a new friend, and we will experience eight-tenths of something special together.
As I pant in my car, Nurse Nancy, a wife of one of the drivers, comes to my rescue. She gets in my car, feels my skin to see if its clammy, takes my pulse and, assured that I am not going to die of a heart attack, says soothing things while the tears drip down my face, which she tells me is completely white. As the color slowly returns to my face, tears fall onto the Porsche shirt that was given to me when I bought my car. Good things the shirt is the moisture wicking kind. I am not sure why I am crying. It’s either because I am disappointed I became scared or I am truly grateful I am still alive.
Once I’m stabilized and think I can walk, Nancy takes me up to the air-conditioned viewing lounge and like an angel of mercy gives me Gatorade and a power bar. I need to lie down and I’m feeling pretty disappointed as the green group is now on the track without me. I sip my Gatorade and moan softly to myself. I simply can’t get comfortable. I really need to lie down, but where?
Despite the 90-degree heat I go down to my pit and try to rest in my car, but this is worse because it is hot and there is no way to put your seat back in a Boxster. I finally lie down on my blanket in my pit and use the clothes from my overnight bag as a pillow. This is remarkably comfortable, as the cement below is cool under the blanket. I don’t fall asleep but I feel my strength and moxie coming back. I am slightly encouraged by another instructor who told me his student went on a ride with him and then threw up on himself in his own car during the green run. This may sound disgusting but until you get to the pits there is no way to safely get off the track to throw up. So its not just me who gets rattled by the hairpin turns.
There are only about ten women on the track, and I need to show some courage. I am no girly girl. There is no failure, there is only the journey to the next step. I rally and lean up against the wall. I sip the nectar of life, Gatorade, and eat my power bar. Rejuvenated, I put on my helmet, jam in my sunglasses, and go fetch Bert at his pit for the last green run.
I’m getting to know some of the turns and feel confident. I even feel the rush of hitting an apex just right and then the centrifugal force of the car float it to center of the track to set up for the next turn. I am a speed goddess!
Soon enough we get the checkered flag for the last lap, which is the wind down lap. Feeling great even as the cars continue to race past me on the straightaway, I make the last gesture that all drivers make before they enter the pit: I put my arm out the window and raise my fist. I am empowered. I came back, let go of my fear, and proved that even as a woman over 50, today is the first day of the rest of my life.