October 20th, 2002:
Need for Speed, Part 2

Camaro in the back straight

About 15 months ago, I wrote the first part of this article. I had just bought my Camaro and I was in heaven. I had no idea how addictive this could be. Since then, I have bought a 2002 Subaru Impreza WRX Sport Wagon, completed a number of modifications on both cars, and driven both of them at various type of race tracks. They’ve seen a little action on the street, but most has been limited to Milan Dragway and Waterford Hills road course. I’ve started attending Impreza Club meetings and install days, and I’ve become more involved with a small group of friends’ local projects. Of course, I’m still working as a crew member of Glenn Gehrke’s Spec Racer Team.

WRX on grid at Milan

The scene is about the same as I mentioned last time. However, I find fewer five-liters on the road and more sport compacts. Some of them are pretty mean, most of them are all bark and no bite. The people that don’t need to brag still don’t, and those that should not, still do. There are still many people that are happy to be a part of this whole experience. They return to their desk job the next day with dirty fingernails and head to the garage as soon as they get home at night. After a while you need to be in and around a car. Winters can lead to severe withdrawal in this state. Often, you’ll find yourself in the garage, under the hood of your car, just looking. Wanting and waiting for the weather to break.

All in all it’s a rush. Not just the driving of, but the working on cars. Tweaking a few settings just a little… 5 more hp for an hour of work. One step at a time. Recently I helped a friend install a supercharger in his car. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun. It’s more than just talking some trash and peeling out at every red light. It’s about the work that goes into your car and the friends you make while doing it. Everything contributing to this entire experience.

I’m not saying that driving isn’t a rush. Especially when you get out on an actual race track.

Helmet on

My first experience was at a dragstrip. I took my Camaro out to get a feel for it. As I wait in the queue, my heart starts to jackhammer into my throat. My body goes a little limp from the anxiety. Suddenly, my adrenaline reaches it’s redline. The official points me to my lane and I warm up my tires with a long, steady burnout. The smell of liquefied rubber fills the air as smoke billows from the car’s hindquarters. Oddly, this otherwise violent display of torque actually calms me as I lined up at the staging lights. Two pair of pale yellow bulbs greet me. Without warning, the light tree comes to life: Red, yellow, yellow, (lay on the accelerator), green. Tires spinning. Struggling for traction. My right foot lifts for a half-second and suddenly I have grip. I’m pushed deep into my seat and my neck strains against the g-forces. The Camaro pulls hard through second. Entering third, it chirps it’s tires in defiance of Newton’s laws. Just as I reach 100 mph, I shift into fourth and I’m across the finish line. 13.82 seconds at 104 mph. I realize that I’ve just started breathing again and wonder how long I was holding my breath. I pick up the timeslip and verify my time. Good thing there’s a wait before I can run again. Gotta pull myself together. Damn sweet.

Road racing is an entirely different experience. There’s a lot of strategy involved. You have to know the limitations of the track, the car, and yourself. Then, add the chaos of a dozen other cars and mother nature (road racing continues in all conditions). More often than not, you will find yourself pushed into the side of your seat, instead of the back. Lateral G’s are what this is about. Riding the razor’s edge… stay on the track, but just barely.

Spec Racer in turn 6 at Waterford Hills

My first experience with road racing was at this year’s Waterford Hills fun run. I drove my Camaro as well as a purpose built race car (Spec Racer Renault). The two cars are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The Camaro has great power out of the hole. It corners well, but you are quite aware of the car’s yaw as you shred around a hairpin turn. The Spec Racer accelerates better than I expected (4-banger, 4-speed), but nothing frightening. However it sticks to the track like velcro. It’s the most unnatural sensation I’ve yet felt in a car. I found myself in disbelief of the endless available grip. Sadly, constant stopping (due to the lap policy) and degrading track conditions hurt my best times. But, I learned a lot about different set ups. There is very little shared between a race car and road car. A difference of five degrees of camber is HUGE. Acceleration isn’t everything (even though I turned much better times in my Camaro, taking first place in my group), technique IS.

Spec Racer leaving the starting line

After all of this, my greatest realization is that talk is nothing. Get out there and do it. Work on a car, even your parent’s minivan. Get your hands dirty. Change your own oil. Learn how things work. If you break something fix it. Think about what you’re doing. If you loose traction, don’t just assume you need new tires. Think about your suspension and chassis rigidity. If you’re a few tenths slower than you would like. Think about your technique before blowing a fat “G” on performance mods. Are you launching right? Are you shifting right?

Most importantly, think. If you’re lining up with somebody at a school crossing, you’re looking for trouble. Laws are there for a reason. I know that part of the excitement of the culture is to “get away with it,” but be safe. Research your mods. A 3″ exhaust with no cats might sound cool and up your horsepower, but you will loose low-end torque (in most cases). You won’t realize any benefit until you ride it to the redline in every gear at the strip. Before you talk trash, consider who you’re talking to. Why make an enemy when you have a chance to meet somebody that could teach you something?

Learning something new and trying something new will always be more interesting than doing the same thing and pretending to know everything.

Spec Racer on false grid

Also Available: Part I

Further information and related links:
Milan Dragway
Waterford Hills Road Racing
Import Performance
Hot Rod Magazine

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