Thunderhill '99

Iím just back from a weekend of racing, and I want to tell you this is a fabulously good time if you like cars. Racing is really too strong a wordówe ran our cars on a racetrack, but it was in whatís called an ďOpen TrackĒ event. It wasnít a race because technically, we were just having fun going around a track and not competing. Yeah, right!

Each year, a friend of mine organizes a track event for his buddies. He rents the track for a day, divides up the costs, and organizes the thing. I've been invited for a couple years running, but this is the first time I actually made it. I made it to a second one in 2000, but haven't been back--something always comes up to create a conflict. Doh!

The obligatory driver's briefing, given by race organizer John Klusendorf

My own little group consisted of three drivers who would be running my Audi TT and Porsche 993 Twin Turbo. We were appropriately decked out with helmets, and my own bright red Momo nomex driving suit. It was a beautiful clear day, and the only weather downside was that it is somewhat hot at the track. We were running at Thunderhill, which is a private track near Willows, California, which is located northwest of Sacramento about 1 hour.

Uh, can someone zip me up? Bob is ready to race!

Here's Song with the Audi TT and Porsche Twin Turbo: Our racing team's stable!

David is the third member of the Bob-Song-David Racing Team. He looks so calm. Must not have been on the track yet.

This is the second time Iíve been on a racetrack, but by far the most fun. We got lots of track time, basically running the cars continuously from about 8:30am to 5pm that evening. That is an amazing amount of time to be running around the track, and rest assured we werenít doing so continuously. Most mortals just would not have the energy. We ran in 20 minute segments, with a 20 minute rest in between. I was basically alternating between driving and getting rides with the talented drivers at the event.

Several things were surprising to the uninitiated. First and foremost, it is absolutely impossible to imagine how fast cars can be driven until you ride in one being driven on a racetrack by someone who knows what to do. Cars of very modest raw performance potential (i.e. doesnít have to be a Ferrari or Porsche) can go insanely fast on a routine basis. The sensation of speed is not felt in the straight-aways where the speedometer indicates the biggest numbers. For me, it was at the end of the straight, when we were preparing to enter a corner, and as far as I could see, there was no possibility the car could stay on the track. Once in the corner, relative calm ensues, although the car is doing a 4-wheel drift (kind of a controlled slide) through the whole thing. Thereís some tire squealing, and the car isnít exactly traveling in the direction the nose is pointed, but you get through it in one piece.

The Turbo makes a high speed pass on the long straight. Is he alone because he is in first or last place?

Can you see the smoke from the brakes? Now you know what the term "hot laps" means! This was after my first really scary ride of the day. Who knew a car could go this fast! Thanks to Keith Davis.

The second most surprising thing is how suddenly things can go wrong. I was with one aggressive driver when we spun and left the track. While itís true that I was certain weíd never make the corner because we were going too fast, I had been equally as certain on all prior corners and been wrong. There was no damage done, save for ego, white hairs, and adrenalin over production. This brings us to the third surprising thing. This all actually appears to be relatively safe. Out of nearly 40 attendees, there was no sheet metal exchanged, no fiery explosions, nor even any broken fingernails so far as I could determine. The biggest risk was sunburn and heat exhaustion. There were many interesting cars represented in the event, including:

   Porsches: Every style of normally aspirated, plus my turbo.

   Ferraris: 308, Testarossa, and 355.

   BMW: M3, 528, M6, and M-Roadster

   Japanese: NSX, 300ZX, and RX-7

   Rent car: One guy had rented a Dodge Intrepid, which he thrashed the heck out of. I saw it traveling backwards through more than one turn, and had to leave the track a bit to get out of his way. He certainly didnít want for enthusiasm. BTW, he said he did pay for the extra insurance when it was offered.

   Pure race cars. These were made up of small Japanese cars, such as the Mazda RX-3. They were incredibly fast, although cosmetically you would have discounted them entirely.

The cars to beat were the Porsches and the BMW M3ís. A certain little red M-Roadster (thanks John Santee!) also gave a good accounting.

A fierce competitor. It was driven gently, but on race rubber and was fast. It also made the event sound like a real race!

The Rat-mobile. It's actually very fast and was turning in times similar to the Ferrari. Of course, it can be driven to its limits where the Ferrari can't. This was a fun ride I got to take, courtesy of the Rational Racing Team.

A friend's beautiful M-Roadster. He was able to demonstrate that it goes as fast backwards as forwards--even off-track!

Some of our esteemed competition. Oh mamma!

Of course not every racing team is as well funded as BSD!

Driving these cars quickly is hard, and is not something that comes naturally. You have to do things that you are basically not trained to imagine doing. Being smooth is about all you can hope to achieve at first. This game is like golf, where if you try to hit the ball too hard, youíll wind up doing worse than if you just perfect your form. I wonít mention my lap times, but someone driving my Twin Turbo turned in a 2 minute and 13 second lap their third time around the track in a completely unfamiliar car on street tires. That was the fastest time I heard that day. Second fastest was a 2:17 lap set by a Dinan-modified M3.

Bob, Dave, and Evan Harding (awesome driver) talking trash after a run. Note the full Lazy-Boy recliner lawn furniture. We need some cool tires and engines to stack around our pit area.

If you want to try this kind of thing, join a car club. There are a number of them that offer open track events. Most do not require you to own a car of their marque in order to play, although you may take some hazing. For example, at Thunder Hillís web site (www.thunderhill.com), they list the following club events through the end of the year:

Jul 24-25: Porsche Club

Aug 8: Ferrari Club

Oct 30-31: Shelby/Mustang Club

Bay Area residents will recognize that we also have Laguna Seca and Sears Point raceways to contend with. We can factor in these additional events as a result:

Aug 14-15, Laguna: Porsche Club

Aug 30, Laguna: Audi Club

Sep 4-5, Sears: Shelby Club

Oct 16-17, Sears: BMW Club

Nov 6-7, Sears: Porsche Club

Nov 20-21, Laguna: BMW Club

Nov 26, Laguna: Miata Club

Dec 21, Laguna: Miata Club

Our Thunderhill event cost $175 per driver. Some of the events are more and some are less. The bottom line is that it isnít hard to get track time. Also consider one of the driving schools. Thereís one at every track, and Iíve also seen ads for personalized one-on-one coaches. This is really the thing to do if you plan to drive on tracks very much. Thereís too much to learn without a little assistance. Finally, if you want to become a real amateur racer, that is possible too. I know two different groups of guys who do it. Visit www.nsxfiles.com to read all about one groupís exploits.

I gotta get back to the track soon!

 
All material © 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.