The appeal of racing

 asked this in a comment, and my reply got to a point where I had to turn it into a post:

…what I don’t understand is the appeal.

This isn’t mindless driving around in circles (oval track racing, which in open-wheel cars has a certain art to it that is lost in taxicab racing, aka NASCAR or NAPCAR as it’s known around Casa del Crider). This isn’t harnessing brute force in a short, straight line (drag racing). This is dancing behind the steering wheel. Two hands, two feet, one brain. The car tells you what it’s doing, feedback through wheel, pedals, seat, sound. Quick — no straights to speak of, really, just a connected series of turns of various types. You have to learn quickly when to give it up in one spot in order to maximize the next bit — or the bit two turns down — because getting the first one perfect totally messes you up for the next sequence and you’ll lose more than you gain.

An intellectual exercise as a lightning round — your course walk better register, better point out the quirks of the course to you quickly, because you don’t get practice. All runs are scored (quickest one counts).

When you get it right, you get to the end, and the adrenalin is pumping, your whole body is working at the same frequency as the car, and you know you did it right. Nothing was left in you: the car may have more in it, but you couldn’t get more out of it that day if you tried. Your hands have this little quiver. Your legs don’t work.

I’ve gotten to that point. It is a TOTAL rush. And it is totally elusive. That is a big part of my mental exercising this year — to get to a point where I can do this consistently, every event.

You’ve heard of the “athlete’s high” from endorphins? This is what we’re talking about here, but with extra g-force. My car will pull well more than 1g of lateral acceleration, even on a relatively slick surface like we have at DTE. This means that there’s a sideways push on the car, on me in the car, greater than its weight, than my weight, when I’m in a turn like that. I’ve recorded more than 1.5g on data acquisition.

Try that on foot. Or on a bicycle.

There’s this relatively new form of motorsport getting a lot of press among the young, hip kids. It’s called “drifting” and originated in Japan. Basically, think of endless fishtailing around a corner, boiling the rear tires the whole time. Now string a whole series of those turns together, maybe with another car also running at the same time. Now have a panel of judges score the run. It’s not racing. It’s figure skating with cars. It’s synchronized swimming with cars. It’s rhythmic gymnastics with cars.

One tiremaker, Kumho, has made tires that emit colored smoke — red, blue, or yellow — for drifting “competition”. How silly is that?

I don’t drift.

A really fast lap on a track or autocross course looks slow and unexciting to the uninitiated. Why? Because of the near-total absence of drama. No lurid slides, barely any squeal of tires. It’s neat, tidy, and looks totally smooth on the outside (inside may be another story as the driver keeps the car on that knife-edge of balance between “not enough” and “too much”). But when you look at the clock at the end… it’s one of the quickest of the day.

Those who are familiar — particularly if they are competitors themselves — will recognize such a run for what it is even before the clock display registers. There are certain drivers that I love to watch because they seemingly warp time and space — looks like a leisurely Sunday drive, but the clock says it’s considerably faster than anyone else in that class. It’s not the car. It’s the driver.

So, what is the appeal? To a spectator, particularly a casual one, not a lot. To the participant, however, the mental exercise, when you get it right, is the reward. “I was the quickest of the day” means more to me than any engraved piece of wood or plastic might be. I’ve pared down my “I Love Me” wall at home to just a few key wins — big ones that really meant something, like the CenDiv championship I won in 1996, or my first (and so far only) National Tour trophy, or my first (and so far only) ProSolo event trophy, along with some season-long trophies from the CenDiv (now GASS) Series and Detroit Region SCCA regional series.

I’ve been to 10 National Championships (missed 2002 due to no employment, missed 2005 due to brother’s wedding) since 1996, and my goal is a trophy finish at Nationals. 1996, my first year, was the closest I’ve been, two or three spots out, if memory serves. That was my Elvis Year so far. Just as I’m trying to get my head back to the level of focus I had in ’96, I’m also trying to better the results. I know what happened to me then. I had trouble getting “up” for the second day and didn’t move up in the standings. Come September in Topeka, I intend to be able to put two solid days together. Two days, two different courses, 3 runs each. I have to be able to get into the groove from the instant I drop the go-pedal on the first run of the first day, and stay there until I exit the course after my 3rd run. Then do it again the next day, all 3 runs.

What is the appeal? This is my ballroom dancing. This is my martial art. I can’t dance a lick on my feet — well, maybe I can, but I almost never do where anyone can see me, too self-conscious. I have never achieved any kind of belt status in any martial art — my hand-to-hand combat training back in the day mixed disciplines and included a whole lot of ol’ fashioned brawling (and, as my instructor pointed out, every dirty trick he knew) because it was intended to save your life when crap hit fan. But I have done things in a car most people wouldn’t think possible. On my feet, I’m a stumblebum. Behind the wheel, I’m Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Gregory Hines. There is a grace to my movements almost entirely lacking from my non-driving life.

THAT’S why I race.

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4 thoughts on “The appeal of racing

  1. neutronjockey

    The appeal? Man vs the machine vs man. The appeal for me in my brief foray into ‘suping up the Saleen was tweaking for max output. Meshing the art and science and pushing the engineering…

    Reply
    1. autojim Post author

      Oh, don’t get me wrong… Engineerbrain is pleased when tweaks are being made to optimize the suspension, etc. Engineerbrain also really likes it when the tweaks work as Engineerbrain intended and calculated. But the appeal of the competition as a whole? Much more visceral-level, when you come down to it.

      Reply
  2. fakefrenchie

    That was a very interesting explanation. It makes it much easier to understand the appeal. I was imaginining you doing a modified form of Formula 1 racing. Apparently, it’s totally different. I hope you do good at Nationals.

    Reply
    1. autojim Post author

      Well, it’s sort of road racing at a reduced scale. Instead of wheel-to-wheel, it’s a time trial (think along the lines of F1 qualifying in that regard). Of course, I don’t have an F1 budget, either. I’m doing everything this year for about US$6K. Fuel for the tow vehicle is becoming my biggest expense, which is unfortunate but a fact of life.

      Reply

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