racing

You Can’t Go Home Again

That’s what Thomas Wolfe once said.  And Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  And I am sure I could find a hundred other quotes about how we are constantly changing and everything is different from second to second.  But it was Andrew Lloyd Webber (via Glenn Close) that said this:

P.S. Listen to the song – it’s great.  And she’s great in it.

And every time I go back to racing, despite whatever cerebral fears I have about being unwelcome, or having lost my speed, and no matter how long it’s been since I have walked a course or sat in a race seat, it’s as if I never said goodbye.

This past weekend, I helped out at a rookie school, and I was late to the party, so there were more than enough instructors.  I ended up doing registration and working the grid for one of the elements (aka, telling people when it was their turn).  I didn’t get to ride along, I barely got to walk the course, and the most information I got was in the form of two ride-alongs, both of which I was trying to figure out why a certain element was so freaking confusing. I’ll spare you the details, but it was not a great visual.

Someone I’d never met (but somehow knew me) came over and offered me a ride in his car at the end of the day, when volunteers are allowed to take fun runs.  He’s a relative newcomer (one season under his belt), but he’s hooked and wanted an “experienced driver’s opinion” on the new setup.

IMG_20160321_135006.jpgI was afraid I’d be super slow, but I ended up reverting back to my old habits, and beat the other person (who is generally much faster, and a guy) driving the car.  I was afraid my driving style wouldn’t suit this car, but it was actually a lot better than I’d thought.  We’d each had two tries, and I matched his time and then beat him.  It felt good, and I felt at home.  I was one with the car, and while it was a new meeting, we were talking and dancing together.

At dinner, we had a lot of fun reminiscing, telling stories, and getting back in the swing of things.  I realized that the best thing about racing is that if you truly love it, it becomes part of you, and will always be your home.

No matter how much time I spend away from it, or how much I tell myself I don’t need it, racing brings me back to center.  It helps me focus, and makes me happy.  My friends are there, my heart is in the driving, and despite taking a good 1.5 seasons off, it’s as if I never said goodbye.

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Life is a Highway, Part 19: The Road More Traveled

I love to drive.

I love feeling the road beneath me, I love upshifting and downshifting through the gears and feeling the acceleration or deceleration, I love being on a twisting road and steering the car, feeling the G-forces in my belly.  I even love fixing the car when it breaks…

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And so you might guess that my 2015 road trip was really something awesome for me.  Hundreds and hundreds of miles, driving on everything from mountain switchbacks to vast expanses of nothing.  As you already know, George was a great companion, and despite being an automatic, his tiny turbo made driving a joy.

There’s something about driving into the mountains, even on completely flat ground, that makes you wish you could live out there.  It’s a spectacular view, and we honestly don’t have anything like this back East.  I think it’s something I’d never get tired of seeing – and that you can watch them in your rearview when you drive away is also just as amazing.

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Of course, not every single road gets to be heading into something amazing, and fun to drive on.  Some are terrible *coughthestreetiliveoncough*, pockmarked with holes the size of soccer balls, or “repairs” that act more like launch pads.  And no, not all of them have twisties and elevation changes.  But out there, even the flattest roads can leave you speechless.

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This left me speechless for another reason – a blizzard, in mid-May. It was at 10,000 feet, had white-out conditions, and George might as well have been wearing Sperrys. It added several hours to the travel time, so having to pee was not ideal…

My favorite roads were through the mountains in Wyoming and through the winding canyons in Utah.  They’re no touge in Japan, but they certainly hold their own.  While I wasn’t able to drive the long way through Yellowstone, as it was closed due to snow, I was able to head out of the Grand Tetons and do a little bit of hanging back and accelerating through the curves.  And oh, the roads through the canyons – I feel lucky to have been able to drive on them in something with a bit more pep than your average rental car.

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Philosophically, driving down a road is a lot like living your life.  Sometimes it’s flat and boring, but you know you’re eventually going to get there.  Sometimes you can see what’s up ahead, and it makes it a lot easier to keep your eye on the prize.  And other times, it’s winding and twisting; you never know what’s around the next curve, and that can be exhilarating.  Sometimes it’s a really freeing feeling, to just drive forward, without any plan or agenda.

Of course, it can also be scary – conditions are poor, you feel unprepared, or it feels like you’re going too fast and will hurtle out of control.  That’s how I felt at the beginning of my racing career.  Too fast!  Too much to think about!  Oh my God I’m going to hit something!  But in the end, the worst I did was spin and stall the car and come to a stop.  Maybe hit a cone or two as well, but nothing as much to throw me so far I couldn’t find my way back.  Spinning, stalling, and stopping gave me a chance to regroup, hit the reset button, and continue on.

Eventually, I learned how to feel a spin coming on, and learned to control it.  As I’m getting older, I’m learning how to feel for and pre-emptively control the spins in my life.  That’s not to say they don’t happen, but every time I come to a stop, it really helps me reflect on my surroundings and take note of exactly where I am.  We all need to spin the car at some point, and if we’re lucky, most of us do (maybe even more than once per run!).  It’s scary at first, but deep down, you know that you can stop, take a look around, and then continue through the course, or down your road – and that the very lucky ones get to drive off into the sunset.

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Back in the Saddle

…or the race seat, as it were.

Back in April, I had these dreams of grandeur that staying away from racing would make getting back on my feet easier.  There’s a reason they are called dreams (or nightmares, rather), because every time I saw race results on Facebook, or in SCCA press releases, I was instantly depressed.  While I’d found some other crafty things to do, and traveled to some truly amazing places, the racing bug had been eating away at me since the spring.

A visit from a DC region friend, a “F the world, I am a panda” attitude, and a very generous offer from a good friend led me to get back into the race seat in mid-October.  I wasn’t as fast as I’m used to, but I still didn’t suck 🙂

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Despite a setback with some unexpected challenges showing up, it was a good day.  I had a lot of fun and I needed the reminder of why I do things like this:  The challenge, the competition, the camaraderie, the adrenaline…I’d been away for far too long.  So two weeks later, when the last event of the season rolled around, I once again ended up in the S2000’s driver’s seat.

Feeling more confident and feeling welcomed back into the community the second time around made the day a lot better, even though it was cold and raining for the first half.  I ran the car in an empty class (if I’m going to attend an event, I want a guaranteed trophy for my $30 entry fee!), and I was truly competing with only myself.  Even though I wasn’t actually racing against anyone, the technical aspects, figuring out the nuances of the car, relearning the idea that the rule of percentages is actually a theory I learned from driving…it was all there.  Even discussing car setup, to the point where I stopped myself and asked, “Where did that come from?  Who am I?”  In the beginning, I used to just repeat what I heard, but after a decade, I guess the actual physics and theories sunk in and I can now speak intelligently about them.  Go fig.

And all of it paid off, because I ended up skirting the owner, bu 0.25 seconds, and nearly grabbing the fastest time of day. I know there were factors in my favor, but it was a sweet, sweet victory, and exactly how I needed to end the race season.

_20151025_204746rawThen, I began to wonder.  What kept me away for so long?  Didn’t I love racing?  Didn’t I miss it?  Why hadn’t I just relied on my friends, and trusted that they’d still be around?  Of course I love racing, and of course I missed it.  And with my travels this year, financing a full season would have been tough, let alone finding a consistent ride, and consistent friends, that wouldn’t cause drama based on what became a nasty split last year.  And I certainly didn’t want to have to choose, or force others to choose as well.  What it came down to was that I was afraid.  Yes, that is exactly as pathetic as it sounds.  I let other people dictate how I could spent my money, my leisure time, and let them make me think I wasn’t welcomed, or missed, or that it was even noticed I wasn’t there. I was afraid of what people might think, or what they did think, or what I thought they thought…even typing this makes me a little angry with myself.

Perhaps I did need a break from that life, and perhaps I did need a little time away so that the dust could settle.  I think the dust has settled, and next year will bring a new season, new cars, and hopefully a new region.  After the last two events, I think I could go back to racing, and while it would be a little awkward at first, in the end, I’d be doing something I loved, and I’d finally be doing it on my own and for myself.  No pressure, no expectations, just challenging and enjoying myself, for the sake of me.  I can’t ask for much more than that.
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What’s In A Name?

Just as people name their pets, children, and boats, people also name their cars.

You love them, you work on them, they become part of you, and they deserve some sort of name.  There have been several Pandas (there were several versions, but it was always a super awesome, custom-built race car that was white with a black hood), there was Baby Panda (Baby, for short – she is the older model under Panda, and she was smaller, slower, and far less temperamental), and Tots (the Nissan Titan – the towing vehicle).  I drove a 2010 Miata named Newt, a 2003 z06 Corvette named Chicken, and a 1991 CRX named Smurf.

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I’m sure you can figure out why this car earned the name “Smurf.”

But the car whose name takes the cake is the 1999 FRC Corvette I drove in 2013.  My friend James had purchased it, and in an effort to get it race-ready as soon as possible, offered the seat to basically anyone who wanted to drive it, so they could give feedback. Somehow, at some point, due to a very hilarious conversation in which one of the season drivers was dubbed, “Assman,” the car took on the name Gangbang.

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Photo by Chang Ho Kim.

Because we would discuss the car often, I decided I needed to add it to my phone dictionary, for easy use with Swype.  The autocorrect would put in all manner of things, so I figured, “Why not?”  I mean, it’s a very specific pattern in which to get this word, and it would save a lot of trouble trying to type it all out.

Post-2013, I was no longer the Ladies driver for Gangbang, and the car has since been sold.  It was a sad day to see it go, but the memories of it were great.  What I’d forgotten was that it was still in my dictionary…

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Sigh.  RIP Gangbang.  And thank you, autocorrect.

On Love, Life, and Racing

The Fast and the Furious.  2001.   This is one of my favorite movies of all time.  But…I hate to say it…Vin, you’re a bit off.  Winning is great – and everything is WAY more fun when you win.  But sometimes, it’s not the winning part that makes it worthwhile.

You see, I race cars.  I’m good at it – really good.  It’s taken me years to become so.  I win a lot – sometimes by an inch, and sometimes by a mile (figuratively).  My racing is far less fast and furious – it’s technical and controlled, and more like downhill skiing than anything else.  It’s not a wheel-to-wheel race; it’s timed, and the fastest time wins.  If you hit a cone, they add 2 seconds to your final time.  I struggled with developing my skills for many years, but in mid-2012, something clicked and I haven’t looked back. I’m not a National Champion, but I’m at a level where they’ve made me an instructor, so I can teach the new kids all my bad habits 😉

I drive around cones arranged in a predetermined course layout in a parking lot or airfield.  Sometimes we have a drag-racing start, and sometimes we don’t.  It sounds simple, but there’s so much more to it.  There are sweepers, and slaloms, and blind corners, and giant turns with both increasing and/or decreasing radii.  There’s looking ahead to where you want to go (which is sometimes behind you), there’s planning your line (do you make arcs? Is it point-and-shoot?), and there’s knowing when you’ve got to grow some balls, get out of your comfort zone, and take that risk, because the reward will be great.

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The 2013 Solo National Championships East Course Map. You get to walk the course before driving, so you have an idea of where it goes, but you really don’t know what happens until you’re behind the wheel – much like life.  You might think you know how you’d handle things, or what they’re going to be like, but you never really know till you’re in that situation.

When I am instructing, the first thing I try to teach my students is to separate your inputs.  Make sure that when you are braking, accelerating, or turning, you’re doing one at a time (and do your accelerating and braking in a straight line).  After they’ve mastered that, I teach them to think about blending inputs – but to be cognizant of the fact that you can only ask the car to do 100% – in any combination.  You can do 44% turning and 56% acceleration, or 28% braking and 72% turning, but you can’t ask for more.  If you do, you’ll spin (see the end of my YouTube video), get off line, hit cones, scrub speed, break something…in any case, it most likely will not be your fastest run.

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Not my fastest (overturning and braking at the same time, with no ABS), but I suppose it made for a cool photo!

The more I’ve raced, the more I’ve realized that principle of blending inputs is more applicable to life than one would initially think.  Any given person has career, family, friends, hobbies, a relationship…that’s a lot of directions in which to be pulled.  And you can’t dedicate more than 100% of your time, effort, attention – your life, basically – to any combination of them.  There are some people that have to dedicate 100% to work sometimes.  Or 100% to family.  I was nearly 100% hobby for a while.  And that’s okay.  The remaining components of one’s life just have to wait.

I have always believed relationships are 100/100, not 50/50.  Each person gives 100% – of what they are able.  Love is a series of percentages of input.  Sometimes it’s 100%, sometimes it’s 50%, sometimes it’s 2%.  If someone is at 90% work and 8% family and 2% relationship, that 2% is 100% of what he can dedicate to the relationship at the moment, and that is all that anyone could ever ask for.

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Of course, 2% forever might not be ideal, but that’s the other beauty of racing and life.  If you’re turning at 100%, and there’s nothing left for anything else, it’s difficult, and frustrating, and very much not what you want to be doing at that moment.  Believe me.  To have your hands and arms crossed up, fighting the car to make sure you’re still turning while losing speed….it’s no fun.  I also tend to hold my breath and forget to blink when I’m at nearly 100% of an input, so that’s also not great.

One of my favorite instructors taught me that while entering a corner, I need to find my exit – the moment when I’ll be able to reduce steering and increase acceleration.  Even if I can’t see it upon entry, or even halfway through the corner, I need to trust and have faith that the exit is there.  And then when I find it, I need to recognize it, unwind the wheel, take a breath, and get back on the gas.

Of course, this is easier said than done…”ask any racer, any real racer.”  We all just want to hit the gas and go!  Go fast!  Faster!  We want to win!  We want to do it all, have it all!  But the truly skilled drivers know that sometimes they can’t, and the go-fast-pedal has to wait.  These drivers are also the ones with the most faith – in the car, in the course, and in themselves – especially when they can’t see the end of the turn.  It might take a lot of seat time, but they inherently know that eventually they’ll see the exit.  And when they do, they can unwind the wheel, roll on the accelerator, and they will be able to breathe and keep going.

Vin Diesel, I very much disagree with your statement.  It might be great, and make it more fun, but it’s not all about winning.  It’s about how you get there, how you win, and how you balance your inputs.  Sure, life is a series of connecting, never-ending sweepers, and it can be hard work to traverse them sometimes.  But it’s that constant adjustment and the faith that there’s an exit that helps us keep going forward.  When things get tough, when you get crossed up and start losing speed, when you’re at 100% with one thing, it’s so important to remember that you’ll always eventually unwind the wheel, and when you do, you’ll be able to breathe again and hit the gas.

 

Driver of Eminence, Part 2

A friend of mine that has since retired from racing sent me this screenshot of our conversation from May:

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I laughed, because I had totally forgotten about our conversation.  I had wanted to establish a new award for women, but I wanted to talk to someone in the know about nominating women for a typically male-dominated award.  I ran it by him, and started discussing women in the sport.

When he sent me the conversation, I just seen this email:Untitled

 

March of the Cornhuskers


We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you breaking news from the East Coast.

I am sitting here, at my computer.  I am not sitting here, at my computer, in the Midwest.

In past years, in fact since 2009, I’ve spent two consecutive days falling between 25-30 August in some sort of vehicle, traveling 1,600 miles to Lincoln, Nebraska. The trip took anywhere between 23 and 30 hours, and I’ve been left at rest stops, left on the side of the road, or had one or any combination of the following, including but not limited to: flat tire, blown tire, no gas, fluid leak, nearly flipping over, suspension failure, GI distress, wrong directions, forgot to pack XYZ – you name it, it’s happened.

One year, I drove out in 1992 Nissan 240sx with a massive exhaust leak and no AC, and we were following a giant trailer that couldn’t go more than 55 mph.  And it was 280356203586 degrees.  We got stuck in several hours of traffic in South Bend, Indiana, when a tractor trailer flipped sideways and blocked four lanes of traffic, going both directions.  I had never driven on a median before then.

The next year, it was a slightly better ride, a 2004 Infiniti G35, but my travel companion (aka sister-in-law) had lots of knitting to do (and she hated driving anyway), so I drove most of the way.  I’m not complaining – that car is a blast and a great one for really long drives – leather seats, AC, cruise control – but I am just sliiiiiiiiiightly too short for the seat belt, so I ended up with a kink in my neck.

Last year, she and I drove out in her car – a 2008 John Cooper Works Mini Cooper S named Gilligan. It was comfy it was fine, but it was small.  And being girls, the guys in the truck ahead sooooooooort of stopped listening to us, so they “forgot” to stop in Indiana for 93 octane gas, despite us pleading over and over, and saying we weren’t going to make it the 600 miles across Iowa.  They don’t sell 93 in Iowa, and Iowa is a really,  fucking long state.  This is important, because the engine is tuned a certain way, and using a lower quality and lower grade fuel can damage it.

We finally nearly ran out of gas and stopped at a Kum & Go (aka the best gas stations in the Midwest), put in 91 octane. The guys had left us, and our phones were dead.  When we finally got back in range, we decided to play a joke.  They asked us what octane we used, and we told them that the gas station attendant said 89 octane with a chemical booster should be fine.  We weren’t able to keep the joke up for long – both of us know better, and we both started laughing hysterically when the guys started freaking out.

Last year, I also nearly won the National Championships in the old Nissan 240sx. This was a car with 8 years and $80,000 (or so) in development. It was not the prettiest, but it had the most heart and soul.  And I worked my butt off to be able to drive it well, and it only took my entire racing career.  Massive suspension failure on Day 2 meant I came in second place for the two consecutive days of racing, despite a healthy lead on Day 1.

That car is now gutted and junked, but has been replaced with one with no weaknesses.  This car is cleaner, faster, more powerful, and basically does everything the old car did, just better.  It’s really a logic and physics defying machine, and given what I know about the courses this year, I would have won, hands down.  The only competition I’d have is fast, and gorgeous, and over $300,000 worth of development – but the huge glaring weakness for that person/car is the one in which my car excels.

Unfortunately, due to both some seen, and unforeseen circumstances, I am sitting at my computer at work.  I’m not in Nebraska, I’m not racing with 1200 of my friends from all over the country.  I actually think nearly every state in the union is represented, Alaska and Hawaii included.  I’m not celebrating today, I’m not even really going to enjoy Labor Day weekend, since it’s the first time in years I’m not at big kid summer camp.  Yes it was a long drive, yes it was expensive, and yes people gave me funny looks when I was excited about going to Lincoln for two weeks.  I didn’t care.  And yes, I’ve had my fair share of issues while out there.  But no matter how bad things got, the racing part, the actual driving and skill, made it better.

I suppose there’s always next year, but this year, I’ve got a broken heart and no race car to fix it.