Speed thrills

Hot August Nights are coming to Reno, and it seemed like a good time to learn to drive a car. Really fast.

Photo By David Robert

“He might not come in until he runs out of gas.” The speaker is my father, and he’s referring to Tony Settember, who is easily the most experienced of the handful of drivers at the Reno-Fernley Raceway today. Settember came here with his friend, Bill Janowski, to do test on Janowski’s Genie MK 10B, but right now, we’re watching him do laps in my father’s Mustang.

Settember has a race resume going back more than 50 years. It’s only a small exaggeration to say that he’s driven nearly everything. In the early 1960s, he even spent a few years in Europe racing Formula 1. Now in his late 70s, he’s still eager to take the wheel of any car offered to him. And he still drives shockingly fast.

He finally pulls in.

“It’s running out of gas,” he says, smiling.

Why can’t these people act their age?

Race driving is in my blood. I’m the son of an automobile enthusiast who, in his turn, is the nephew of a professional race driver. But, though race driving may be in my blood, I’ve always been pretty ambivalent about cars. I like some of them, but I don’t really understand how they work, I hate freeways, and I usually drive like someone’s grandmother (though not my own grandmother—she was kind of a lead-foot).

Clearly, I have not been living up to my heritage.

To help rectify this situation (and for purposes of having a RN&R car story for Hot August Nights), Eileen Thomas (a.k.a. “ET") generously agreed to let me attend, free of charge, a high-performance-driving class at The Next Level Driving School.

With her co-founder, former NASCAR driver Dave Brown, ET started the school after leaving behind a high-pressure corporate job at an international accounting firm in San Francisco. She had already been racing and instructing on weekends and, deciding to turn her passion into a career, she approached Reno-Fernley Raceway owner Rich Cable. He approved the idea for the school, which now offers a range of one- and two-day classes from Teen Driving and Driver Safety up through five levels of high-performance driving. (I will be taking high performance Level 1, a two-day course.)

The only requirements for the class are a helmet, which I could borrow from my dad, closed-toe shoes, long pants and a car with good brakes. All the arrangements were made before I realized an obvious problem: I don’t own a car. Since my Toyota truck was destroyed a year ago (Spaghetti Bowl, motor home), I’ve been borrowing my fiancée’s 1990 Saab 900. Though the owner’s manual rates this model’s horsepower at 140, years of neglect have taken their toll. It now feels like the horsepower is probably closer to 14. Each day, another piece of trim falls off, coolant leaks, and the brakes seem ever less trustworthy. Since this car seemed like a bad choice, I did what any dashing and dangerous soon-to-be race driver would do: I borrowed my mom’s car.

High-performance-driving teacher Eileen Thomas, who goes by ET, checks RN&R speed-reporter Tim Prentiss’ seatbelt and doles out pre-flight instruction before he makes his first few laps around the Reno-Fernley Raceway as a beginning auto racer.

Photo By David Robert

•  •  •

“The night before a driving event, try to get a lot of rest, and minimize the use of alcohol, which can remain in your system and affect your reaction time for up to 8 hours. … And on track day, it’s a good idea to stay away from caffeine, which means coffee and sodas.
from TNL’s Guide to Open Tracking

So, driving my mother’s 1998 Ford Contour SVT, I arrive at 9 a.m. on Monday at the Reno-Fernley Raceway. I had gotten less than five hours sleep and was suffering the natural consequences of my overindulgence in tequila the previous night. Cursing the already blistering hot (and ridiculously bright) sun, I tried to counteract my bleary state by drinking liberally from a 20-ounce travel mug of coffee I had brought with me. Later, I would feebly lie that I had read all the instructional documents ET had e-mailed me.

The Reno-Fernley Raceway, or as the sign declares, “Racing’s Field of Dreams,” is a 500-acre complex south of Fernley. Besides the road course, the complex is home to a three-eighths-mile dirt oval (which hosts events such as stock car and midget racing every weekend during the race season), a dragstrip (where this year’s Hot August Nights drag events will take place), a Motocross track, and a derelict half pipe for skaters. When the road course opened in 2003, it was a mere 1.2 miles long. Since then, its length has been doubled. Construction is underway to add an additional two miles to the course. When completed, the track will be one of the longest in the United States.

The road course is still without improvements such as grandstands and plumbing. Currently, the only amenities are the tiny prefab buildings that house the raceway office and racing school, a few wooden picnic tables and about a dozen porta-potties. Situated as it is among the sagebrush outside Fernley, the track is also almost completely without shade.

ET shows up a few minutes after I do, driving a full-sized truck, one of her race-modified Mazda Miatas on the trailer behind. She’s small and is wearing a Next Level Driving School baseball cap over her blond hair. She apologizes for being a few minutes late—her truck got a flat tire. In light of this nuisance, she seems surprisingly good-natured.

Later, instructor (and semi-retired special-effects photographer) Bob Forrest, 62, arrives in his Dodge Stealth, the slower of two he owns. The other is his “real” racecar, a ridiculously fast, twin turbo, 600-and-something horsepower monster that he explains “goes 170 in fourth. I don’t know how fast it can go in fifth. I’ll never know how fast it goes in fifth.”

I tell him it’s wise of him to remain ignorant.

I’m apparently the only student registered for this week’s class. And, though I normally would appreciate the two-teachers-to-one-student ratio, in this case I feel a little guilty since I’m not paying for the class.

We start out slow. Using orange cones, ET sets up a short slalom course on a skid pad: a left, a right, a left and a 180-degree right. The instructions are simple: as three distinct moves, brake, turn the wheel, and accelerate out of each turn. Additionally, I am instructed to pretend there is a glass of water sitting on the dashboard of the car and to spill as little imaginary water as possible. ET stands in the middle of the skid pad and critiques my performance after each run. My problem is, since it was such a short course, braking, turning and accelerating seem like way too much to do. I complain that I feel uncoordinated.

“You’re not any less coordinated than anyone else,” ET tells me.

Photo By David Robert

I choose to take this as a compliment and, drenched in imaginary water, we move on to another exercise.

Nothing makes you feel like you’re 17 again quite like doing doughnuts in your mother’s car. And that’s what we did next. ET instructed me to put the wheel of the car at a full lock and to floor the throttle. Once the car briskly is moving in a counter-clockwise circle, ET instructs me to hit the brakes. The car slides; the tires smoke. This is repeated until nausea begins to set in. The nausea, I conclude, is to condition me against wanting to brake while turning the wheel.

“Are you ready to go the other way?” ET asks after we momentarily stop to confer with Bob.

“No. I’m still dizzy,” I say. They’re right about the lasting effects of alcohol.

After a few minutes of clockwise doughnuts, I’m instructed to drive around the perimeter of the pad as if it were a rectangular course, braking before and then accelerating out of each corner.

Bob stands next to his Stealth at one corner of the skid pad snapping pictures of us.

“Brake. Turn. Throttle.” ET chants as we make laps around the pad.

I’m reluctant to accelerate very hard into the corner where Bob is standing since, at this point, the car is aimed directly at him. ET notices this and starts throwing an additional “throttle” into her mantra.

“Brake. Turn. Throttle. Throttle!” becomes the revised version for this corner.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to kill Bob,” I explain.

“He has legs,” she says.

Does </i>your<i> dad let you borrow the keys to his 1965 Mustang?

Photo By David Robert

I sense the two have a complicated history.

The point of the next exercise is to teach me the exact location of the tires on the car I’m driving. ET places two fist-sized stones painted Day-Glo orange on the pavement, about 15 feet apart. Starting about three car lengths from the first stone, I am to drive over both stones with each front tire. Once I have run over both stones with the driver-side tire in three consecutive runs, the task is to be repeated with the passenger-side tire. We won’t move on to another lesson until this task is successfully completed. ET promises the exercise is more difficult than it sounds. It sounds difficult.

For my first run, I sit up as high as possible and approach the stones at about five mph. I hit the first one. Slight relief. Hit the second. Success. After hitting both rocks on my second run, I start to suspect luck is involved. The third and possibly final run: I hit the first stone, hold my breath, hit the second stone. I didn’t miss once. Forget luck. Clearly, I’m a natural.

Then we switch to the passenger side. I try to keep track of the number of attempts this requires, but lose count somewhere around 15. Several times, I hit the first rock and miss the second. At least once, I hit both stones in two consecutive runs and miss one on the third.

When I finally do three consecutive, successful runs, I barely clip the second rock on my third run.

ET didn’t see it.

“You missed. Go again,” she says cheerfully.

“No, I got both of them,” I say, my voice filling with desperation. I’m starting to fear I will do nothing but drive over rocks for the remainder of the two-day course.

To settle the controversy, she has me do one more run. I hit both rocks somehow.

And so I am declared ready for the track.

First, I follow Bob in his Stealth around the course at low speeds (between 30 and 50) to learn the proper line. ET rides in my car narrating—brake here, stay to the outside, use the whole road, etc.

Tim and his dad, Alan, inspect the gleaming engine of Alan’s 1965 Mustang, restored to Shelby GT 350 specifications. Alan let Tim learn how to race in this baby. But he had to use Mom’s car for lesson 1.

Photo By David Robert

After a few low-speed laps, we pull in, and ET and I switch spots, so she can show me what a real lap should resemble.

The exit from the pits is about three-quarters of the way up the front straight. ET accelerates and has the car in fourth gear before we get to the first turn. She barely slows down for a wide left, then there’s a slightly sharp right, and she’s back on the throttle for the esses, driving them as if they were a straight, more than kissing the berms in the apexes. I glance at the speedometer. It registers close to 90 mph through the esses. This, I learn, is what ET refers to as “taking it easy” (Bob later tells me she goes through this spot in her Miatas at over 110). Then she brakes hard, downshifts and turns left into turn 5, which, with turn 6, forms a wide curve. Then a hard right, with an uphill exit, and she’s mostly on the throttle for the next four “turns,” the last two of which are, like the esses, gentle enough that she’s able to drive though them as if they were a straight. Going about 100 now down the back straight, she brakes hard and downshifts for a 90-degree right. Next is a steeply banked hairpin. She puts the car high up on the outside until just past the apex, then she’s back on the throttle, diving down and to the inside for the exit. It feels like a roller coaster. She stays on the throttle until the final turn, a 90-degree left. After this turn, the track widens for the exit to the pits. Pit road is separated from the straightaway by a long cement wall that begins about a quarter of the way down the straight and runs parallel with it. Practicing what she preaches, ET uses all the available track as she exits the final turn. This means that by the time she has to straighten the car out, we’re accelerating directly toward one end of the pit wall—not the face of the wall, which would be disconcerting enough, but the end of the wall. The huge block of Styrofoam that has been fastened there is little comfort for me. She puts the car back on the track side of the wall, with less urgency than I had hoped for, and we’re going over 100 before she again slightly slows down for turn 1.

I will be expected to do this after lunch. At least my hangover has worn off.

•  •  •

To complicate matters, on the second day of the class, I will be switching from my mother’s to my father’s car, a 1965 Mustang restored to Shelby GT 350 specifications. It’s the more manageable of the two cars my father uses for vintage racing. (The other is a very rare 1965 Genie MK10B. How rare? The short answer is Bill Janowski owns one; my father owns the other one.) Of course, “manageable” is a relative term.

I was a little surprised when my father proposed that I use his Mustang, since my first attempt to drive that car couldn’t have inspired confidence. The car is street legal, and one day I accepted his offer to let me drive it around his neighborhood.

I’m used to driving cars that require a light foot on the clutch. The Mustang was a new experience.

“Smoooth. You gotta be smooth,” he would say, as I made the car lurch from one gear to the next, consistently shifting way too early.

“I know. I just can’t work the clutch. I have skinny little girl legs!”

I hadn’t yet had any reason to steer the car until we arrived at the far-too-small roundabout just outside my parents’ neighborhood. Unprepared for how heavily the Mustang steers at low speeds, I very nearly drove off the road. A roundabout is apparently a bad place to learn how a car handles.

Due to its tires, the Mustang hunted all over the road. This can be disturbing when there’s oncoming traffic. I eventually decided to let the car drive itself, as it clearly wasn’t appreciating my interference.

Photo By David Robert

We pulled over on a short, unpopulated side-road to switch.

He hopped in on the driver side and took the car through three gears, gracefully shifting at the appropriate screamingly high RPMs. I felt like I was in Bullitt.

“See. Smooth,” he said when we stopped at an intersection.

Then we were off again. Taking a fast downhill right, the car got slightly sideways.

“Yeah. These tires suck,” he said nonchalantly as I clawed at the upholstery.

Tomorrow I will redeem myself. Or embarrass myself further.

After lunch at The Wigwam Restaurant, Casino, and Indian Museum—"heap good food,” the menus proclaim—we return to the track for my first real laps. We start slowly, working up speed as I become familiar with the course. Except for a few problems—braking too soon, consistently blowing turn 7—things go smoothly. ET and Bob tell me I’m following the correct line. After several 20-minute track sessions I’m given a brief homework assignment and sent home.

The surprising thing about road course driving is that it’s strangely meditative, at least when you’re driving the only car on the track. I don’t remember feeling adrenaline at all (it’s actually much scarier to be a passenger). Since the aim is for consistency, the act of driving boils down to a long series of repeated physical movements. Learning a track is an act of motor memory (no pun intended): Here I move my foot; here I turn the wheel. When all your movements are just right, when your brake-turn-throttle ritual is correctly timed, the results can be thrilling, but not in a way that necessarily has anything to do with speed. It’s thrilling because of the rightness of it. Once you execute your series of movements correctly, it’s as if the car is finally doing what it wanted to do all along. And, you may suddenly realize, as if by accident, you happen to be going really fast.

•  •  •

On my second day of track driving, after a few warm-up laps to refresh my memory, I happened to glance at the speedometer as I drove through the esses. It registered 80—nearly ET’s taking-it-easy-in-a-complete-stranger’s-car speed. My lines were mostly right, and my speeds were becoming consistent, a little more than 100 on the front straight, around 90 on the back straight. I was still unhappy with my early braking, but I was beginning to get comfortable.

So it was time to switch to the Mustang.

Driving this car is a vastly different experience from the eminently polite Contour. The Mustang is louder, less precise and has more horsepower, estimated at somewhere around 375. In other words, it’s powerful enough that it’s possible to do several laps without noticing that the parking brake is on.

There wasn’t the embarrassing lurching like the first time I drove the car. Luckily, once you’re up to speed, the track only requires third and fourth gears. I felt I was driving quite well, and I still don’t understand why ET, riding shotgun, spent most of my first few laps laughing hysterically.

I only went slightly faster in the Mustang (even with the parking brake off) than I had in the Contour. (ET and Bob had repeatedly claimed that on a road course, technique is more important than horsepower, and I apparently verified this point.) I started to get turn 7, and even the pit wall wasn’t bothering me anymore. Each time I made an improvement in my handling of a certain spot on the track, I would look forward to that spot and to re-experiencing the new feeling of rightness. By the time everyone else was ready to escape the triple-digit Fernley heat, I understood why people get addicted to this sport.

I’ll be in the Saab if anyone wants to race.