They say “You can’t go back,” and by and large, “they” are right. I visited my boyhood home a few years ago, and it was a run-down and overgrown shell of the place in my memories.
Still, that reality doesn’t stop many of us from trying to drag the past up from the depths.
Such was the case for me and my family as we continued west on highway 80 outside of Salt Lake City – dutiful nod to Tooele as we went by – and into the stark salt flats of western Utah.
For each one of us, it was our first time west of Utah on I-80 in years. For me, it was the highway that brought me to Colorado to begin my college adventure. For Mom and Dad, it carried them east into retirement to their new home in Pagosa Springs after leaving their home and business of 20 years in Napa.
Our nostalgia trip continued at a low level as we motored steadily across Nevada – small memories of many a family road trip from Napa to Pagosa cropping up as we drove onward. In Battle Mountain, Dad recalled a biblical lightning storm we drove through one night on our way out. In another, Mom pointed out where they’d unloaded and watered the horses when they made their final move to Pagosa. In Elko, I recalled my unscheduled stop with the Nevada State Patrol as an 18-year old, who explained to my friend that 105mph was not an acceptable speed to be traveling, no matter how deserted the highway may seem.
And so on.
What really left all three of us struggling to remain dry-eyed was hitting the Calfornia border near Donner Pass, catching a whiff of the Sierra mountain air, and recalling all the family ski trips. Helping the sense that we’d stepped back 20 years in time was a steady diet of 90’s country music coming from Sirius – Garth Brooks, Reba McIntrye, ah, how far you’ve come. As we continued towards Fairfield and our turn south to 680 for Monterey, the feeling that we were traveling not so much westward, but back in time, grew stronger for all three of us.
We got to within about half a mile of the turn-off to Napa, but instead, southward we went to Monterey. Enough nostalgia…let’s build some new memories, eh?
One reaches Laguna Seca by skirting the east bay area after turning south from I-80. A few bone-jarring hours on California’s crumbling highways brings you south of San Jose, into the Monterey area.
April is an almost idea time to be in Northern California – and it’s almost one of the best places to be anywhere. The rain and gloom of January and February have given way, and the heat and brown dryness of July and August have not yet taken hold. The lush grass on the hills rolls and waves in the wind, and the low smooth shapes look like big green gumdrops put down by a giant’s hand. The hills are dotted with oak trees that beg you to hop a fence, pull off your socks, and go ponder life from the crook of a branch for a while.
Around the bottom of one such green-gumpdrop is the entrance to the Laguna Seca recreational area. A small sign marks your turn, and you then proceed STRAIGHT UP to the top of the cliff that they have built the race track on. A sign on the way out tells you that you are going down a 16% grade, and it feels every bit of it! A healthy dose of throttle is required to pull your rig up to the top of the hill that affords entrance to the track.
Laguna doesn’t have the same immediately intimidating presence that Road America and Circuit of the Americas do. Part of it is that you come down into the paddock from up high, rather than from the lowest point. Plus, there’s no looming presence above you, such as the climb to T14 at Road America, or the monstrous T1 climb in Texas. Rather, you pass over the track as it heads innocently up a hill, and you can see it sidle back into view around another as you descend into the paddock. It’s only as you hit the track that you realize what a roller coaster you’ve signed up for.
We arrived a bit early and queued up in a line outside the paddock for a while. John LaBrie met me, Lucian, and a few of the others, and the weekend bench racing began in earnest. John gave us our assigned garage spots, as he had bought out the row so that all the competitors could have garages at a reduced rate. This made for a lot of fun and information exchange in the garages, as nearly all the F1000 competitors were within a few garage spots of eachother.
Eventually we were let in, and we unpacked. It was dark by the time we were done, and as I made my way from the trailer back towards the garage, a car rolled up, the window rolled down, and Luci’s Romanian accented English emanated from within:
“Get in the car.”
Not much arguing with that, is there?
I got in the car, and off we went to dinner. Tomorrow: Racing!
Practice & Qualifying
Another thing that “they” say is “boy, the video doesn’t do the elevation change justice”, and boy is that true here.
The straight at Laguna is not only not a straight, but it actually has a big crest that makes your approach to the Andretti hairpin pretty blind. The hairpin is not flat either, but comes
sharply off of the hill onto the flat of the valley floor. You shoot through the flat turns 3 and 4 before slingshotting up through the heavily cambered turn 5, then to the flat-and-blind T6.
Upward and upward you go after 6, wishing for another 50 horsepower as the car struggles to climb the grade. Brake when you see nothing but sky as you come up to the corkscrew, look for the tree with the orange marker on it, and turn left into thin air, and hope the track is where you left it. Gather up the pieces of the car at the bottom of the drop and look up – and I do mean UP – at Turn 9 as it approaches you (not the other way around it seems!). Gather your bravery and keep it planted through 9, feeling the car bump and skitter as it compresses into the fast, cambered hill.
Grab a gear and swing left for T10, again riding the curb heavily and slinging out the other side. T11 is surprisingly low grip, so it’s a bit of an early brake, put the left tire just shy of the
red curbing, and feed in the throttle for another trip down the front “straight.”
Another ride on the roller coaster please!
All that we had just a few minutes to learn in practice, and not too much longer to figure it out in our qualifying session. I managed to improve and get a relatively clean lap in the 26’s,
which was good enough to put me in second overall in our group, first in FB, and starting on outside pole. Not too shabby for my first few laps at the track!
Saturday – Race 1
Saturday’s race was for us, just a qualifier. Fastest laps in the race would set the grid for the two Sunday races, which are the ones that counted for points. Still, it would mean
valuable time to continue learning my way around the track.
Oh, and it’s awful fun to race instead of qualify, yeah?
While wandering back to my garage at one point, Kevin Mitz stopped by, sporting a conspiratorial look astride his pit bike.
“C’mere. Let me tell you something,” he said.
“When that green flag drops and you get down to the hairpin, I bet you can ride right around the outside of that Mazda and come out ahead on the way to turn 3. Just think about it.”
And with that, a wink and a twist of the throttle, he was off in a cloud of smoke, to parts unknown.
Out we went for the race. At the start, we lined up as usual, two-by-two. We approached the flag, and I started to fall behind just a bit. I burped the throttle to catch up, and the Mazda thought
we were starting the race, so he took off. I realized what had happened and hit the gas too, just behind.
Incidentally, at some point I’m sure a green flag waved, but I’m starting to realize that the green flag is mostly a formality that seems to be pretty much ignored. Yet another lesson learned.
Down to the Andretti Hairpin we went, the Pro Mazda and I very close together. Sure enough, the Mazda dove to the inside to try and protect his line. I braked late, and no doubt under the watchful eye and small smile of Mr. Mitz, around the outside I went, emerging from T2 in the lead, and off into the distance I went, making a mental note to thank Kevin next time I saw him zooming around the paddock.
Being as this was our qualifying race, it meant it was time to put some laps in, so while we had some clear track, I tried to put in the quickest laps I could, and as a few high 25’s on the dash by lap 3 and 4. I figured that would be good enough to be in the hunt, and right about then, I started getting into the lapped FM traffic.
The rest of the race was reasonably uneventful. The Pro Mazda caught up with me in traffic at one point, since I wasn’t pushing the issue at all. However, he broke a pushrod at the exit of the corkscrew shortly after, and pulled off, trailing behind him the hot smell of scorched jabrock. The two of us had checked out pretty substantially from the rest of the field, so under the checkered flag I went, happy to have run a good first race.
Sunday – Race 1
The grid for our first points race was a close one at the front, so close in fact, that Larry and I posted the exact same quickest time, down to the thousandth of a second. His second quickest lap on Saturday was faster than mine, so he would sit on pole, with me on the outside.
My only complication was that a post-race inspection showed one of my tires was not holding air. With all the tire folks packed up and gone, our only solution was to swap out a fresh tire for the RF, and hope that the tire would get scrubbed and going in time to avoid any funky balance the first few laps.
Our race start was similar to the first, with the start of the race beginning somewhat before the actual flying of the green flag. This time, I wasn’t able to beat the pole car around T1,
and Larry and I swept through turns 3,4,5,6, up the hill and into the corkscrew.
He and I continued for several laps locked together – each of us having our relative to strengths. His car seemed excellent in the slower 2-3-4 corners, and I seemed to gain some back in the run up the hill. His new Kawasaki pulled strongly out of the slow corners, and gave him a good gap down the front straight.
Still, I stayed close, and definitely through the traffic, I managed to stay close. Late in the race, I used some traffic at the T3 to do some blocking, and briefly led, before getting blocked
just as badly on the run to T6, and Larry jumped back into the lead.
We ran like this up until the last lap, just a few car lengths apart at most. On the last lap, coming out of the corkscrew, Larry slowed slightly, having had a balky downshift.
I jumped to the inside, and we hurtled through Turn 9 – the most intimidating turn on the track – side-by-side. True to his nature, Larry raced clean and gave me room, but ultimately I
had to back out of the throttle to hold the turn, and I followed him through 10 and up to 11.
On the entrance to 11, I realized my only hope was that he had another downshift issue, so I went all the way to 1st gear instead of 2nd for the corner exit, hoping I might be able to get a
good run by. Luck was with me, and the same problem struck Larry again on the exit of 11. Only inches from his rear wing, I couldn’t dodge to the inside, so I opened the steering,
channeled a little bit of Alex Zanardi vs Brian Herta, and went across the curbing, over the astroturf, through the dirt and into the overrun concrete, full throttle the whole way.
I bounced across the rough stuff and back onto the track, and we drag raced to the finish, with me taking the checkered flag by a few feet.
My first pro race win ever…what a feeling! I yelled into my helmet and pumped my fists like any triumphant racing driver. YES!!
Sunday – Race 2
To further illustrate just how close Larry and I raced during the first points race, we were separated by just a tenth of a second on our quickest laps. He got me yet again, so for the third time, I’d be on outside pole. This time, Lucian Pancea was just behind us in third place, having gotten in a good lap during the race. Turns out with two straight rear control arms, his car was a lot faster!
My education of how race starts *really* go was completed at the beginning of the third race, with me being a bit slow on the uptake yet again. Larry and Lucian headed for the hills a bit before I did, and I could do nothing but watch as they headed down the front straight. Larry’s big Kawi gave him strong legs on the top end, and Luci’s special ‘low drag’ diffuser gave him some impressive top end speed. He waited VERY late on the brakes for lap 1, and led Larry around the Andretti hairpin, and into the lead.
The two of them raced as closely as Larry and I did in the first race, with me steadily a few tenths behind. Certainly I was making no headway, but it didn’t seem like I was losing much ground either.
I gained in my strong spots up the hill and through 9-10-11, but lost out on the straight each time as they used their advantages to pull away.
Unfortunately, the interesting race didn’t get a chance to develop much further. Shortly in, John LaBrie was the unfortunate recipient of a failed engine, and the resulting mess took many laps to clean up. On the restart, predictably enough, there was another big accident, in the form of a FM yardsale at the exit of T4, and the starter stand waved an exasperated checkered flag.
So, it was a 3rd place finish for me, having been suckered pretty badly at the start for the third straight race, but a lesson well learned.
But, two wins and a third place with a deep field of F1000’s, at one of the most intimidating tracks I’ve been to…job well done!
Best of all, I have a new flag to put on my wall…first pro racing win. What a happy milestone.
Next the guys travel to Seattle for the next round. I won’t be there to join everybody due to budgetary limits, a topic which generated much good natured ribbing in my direction. Luci threatened to bring in the Romanian Mafia (“they come in the night, nobody knows you are gone”), Dennis claimed he’d call in the Moldovan mafia (“We’ll take your stereo”), and Jose, straight from Juarez, said that La eMe would do any cleanup that the first guys left behind. Who knew I was part of such an international group of good natured mobsters?
Be that as it may, it’ll be a few months of development, and then time to come loaded for bear at Sears Point Raceway…just as long as I don’t disappear in the night and appear in Kent, Washington around the end of May.
They say you can’t go back, but going forward sure looks good – I can’t wait!
Sunday – Race 2
In-Car from following Pro-Mazda