2011-04-18

A license to race

It's been a weekend to remember: got my provisional competition license and completed my first race. In three more successful races, I get to have a full racing license, and can go play not just with my own club, but with the SCCA folks as well.

The two weeks before, I have been busy arranging for a license test. I have originally committed to instruct that weekend, and instructor coordinators want to make sure that your other activities aren't going to get in the way of your helping the novice. After a few emails back and forth, I had the coveted approval to have the competition license evaluation done that weekend.

The evaluation session was scheduled for Saturday, and I found Donny first thing in the morning to make sure he had me on the schedule. We agreed on the second HPDE4 session, and Donny said he will find me on grid and ride with me.

I went out with my student once, and also had an opportunity to go out and practice in one session before my eval, and got to grid early. I waited and waited, but Donny did not get into my car, and I did not see his red and yellow BMW race car on grid either. The grid marshals began waving us onto track, and I thought, "Hell, I'm already strapped in and gridded up, might as well run."

Funny how this works: I was fairly nervous about the comp eval the entire time waiting, but as soon as we were rolling, I was in my usual place of Zen, driving around the track, not thinking much about anything, almost like in a meditation.

I got stuck behind a fairly confused and unaware driver once for almost a full lap, waited till I had a good opening and went around on the inside of turn Two. I passed a couple cars, and a couple cars passed me. No trace of the red and yellow Bimmer. Then the checker fell and I went in to pit. Just as I was passing by the grid area on the way back, a dark silver Evo honked at me. I looked up, and saw Donny at the wheel. Not sure what to expect, I saw him get out of the car, and walk over to me.

"Good driving out there," he said and handed me a folded piece of paper. "Here's the written test, I'll catch up with you later."

Donny drove off, and I got back into the car and drove to where I was pitting with Barry and Dave. I spent the following hour answering the questions on the test. Some were quite commonsense, and some were about rules that were specific to racing, and we did not use in HPDE and Time Trials. I got my answers, and went to instruct my student in another session. Then I looked for Donny up and down the paddock. When I found him, he looked over my answers, said I did good, and we walked over to his pit so he could give me my rookie license.

With that treasure in my hands, I now had to figure out a way to race the next day. Instructing and racing on the same day aren't allowed, but I was assigned the same student for both days and he was making good progress, so I felt confident I could sign him off to run solo the next day.

Everyone was encouraging me to run, and seeing my enthusiasm and sheer silly happiness over having passed the test, Darsie, who assigns students, said that if there was no shortage of instructors, I could run. "You'll be assigned a student last."

I was so wired when I ran back to our pit to share the news. Barry asked me if I had Nomex socks.

"Yes, I do. I got Nomex socks, long-sleeve shirt, longjohns, and..." I stopped mid-sentence. I did have all these things, but they were at home, back in Mountain View. "I'm an idiot," I replied to Barry's quizzical glance. "I left my racing suit at home. I can't run tomorrow."

"Just borrow a suit," said Barry.

I never thought of that. "Will anyone let me use theirs?"

"Sure they will. People have spares, too." Then, as I stood frozen, he added: "Grab the bike and go ask around the paddock before they all leave for the night."

I rode up to the club house where folks were having some barbecue and beers. I was so embarrassed to admit my silly mistake, but faced with the choice to run or not run a race, I swallowed my pride. Every person I knew sort of well, who was my size or bigger (hey, air gap did not hurt no one!) I asked if there was a chance I could use their suit. I stated with ladies, but ran out real soon. Dangit, there aren't enough women racing!

Just as I was about to give up, in a last-ditch effort I asked Alex, who frequently volunteers on grid, if he knew anyone who I could bum a suit off of. To my surprise he offered his own. Turns out he was running in the Spec Miata race the next day. This meant that I could not run that race, but my car also qualifies for the PTE class, which ran later that day, so I would run a race after all.

Provided that I did not get a new student.

The next morning I sat on pins and needles all through the HPDE1+2 meeting where everyone who needs an instructor gets one assigned. Even though I am sure the meeting took the usual time, it felt like twice the normal duration. My warmup, and qualifying sessions were over before I even knew if I get to run at all.

That's alright, I'd start from the back. A race is a race is a race. As a rookie, I need four clean ones to get full license, and finishing position doesn't matter. You just have to start and finish.

All students were spoken for, and with two instructors still available before me came the obligatory question: Is anyone here who does not have an instructor but wants one? Three hands went up. Three. I was toast.

Two instructors got assigned, but the third hand went down in the meantime and never came up again. Going once, going twice. I was free!

I flew out of the room and rushed to drop off the change slip from Time Trials to race in PTE with Timing and Scoring and then to my car and to grid. I wanted at least one session out in HPDE4 before my race.

The track felt faster, but I had no idea whether I actually did any better than the day before, because they don't time laps in HPDE. I got off track, went to look for Alex and the suit, and did not find either. Then my student from the other day asked me for a lead-follow, and we went out in his HPDE session.

Looking for Alex again, but also switching to finding a backup suit. I went to watch Barry and Dave start their enduro, and hoping to see Alex and his car. Finally, after the enduro was over, and with 40 minutes left before I had to grid for the race, I bumped into Alex. Whew.

I grabbed the suit, changed, got my car, and drove up to the grid area, where I asked Don to let me grid at the back. He said he had a few spots reserved for the rookies, and I walked off.

Time flew, and soon the grid began to fill with race cars. There was some confusion about where I had to grid, but we got it resolved soon enough. I almost forgot to put up my window net, with less than 30 seconds before we rolled on track, and a kind crew member of another racer helped me out. I totally forgot to turn on my video camera.

We went around the track slowly on our formation lap and lined up in two rows just before turn Fourteen. In formation, we rolled towards the start-finish. I could not see the flag from where I was, and I did not want to jump the start, so I waited to get on the gas until I was absolutely sure we had green. The field spread out fairly soon, and I was not too far behind a few cars who were closest to me on grid. They steadily pulled away from me though, and I tried my best not to let myself chase them.

"Drive the line. Drive the line," went my mantra as I got engulfed by Formula Mazda cars who were passing me on both sides as I tried my best to maintain predictability.

You see, when you are a rookie, you aren't allowed to be involved in any incidents: spins, offs, and god forbid contact. You get in trouble, and even if it's not your fault, you get to start from scratch. So you'll understand that I was in no hurry to lose the license I just got less than 24 hours ago.

Then going into turn Eight, double-yellow came up, meaning full-course caution and no passing. Four cars, or maybe more, one Formula and two Miatas, and another PT car got into some sort of a melee in turn Eight, with Formula and the PT cars ending up in the dirt on the outside, a Miata was just limping back on track, and I caught up with another one cresting over Nine. He had his arm out the window, meaning he was going to pit, and so we could all go around him. Just at the end of the front straight, the pace car pulled out onto the track in front of me, then waved me by a couple corners later, so that I could catch up to the field from the back. Even though we weren't allowed to pass, everyone still went at a pretty good clip, but we soon began bunching up in trains. After a number of laps under double-yellow, we got another green with four or so laps left in the race. Just as I was approaching the start-finish line, a blue and white Miata blew past me. I thought this was lapping traffic. Dang, I was hoping the yellow will spare me from being lapped. I guess no such luck.

After dropping the car off at our pit, I went to pick up my rookie book from race control. Before every race, they collect if from you, and you get it back with a signature for every clean race you complete. By the time I got it and walked down, the results were posted.

Imagine my surprise to see that I have finished 11th out of 14. From starting dead last.

I assumed that the cars that went off did not resume the race, and that would make me last, but I guess they must have stopped by the pits and gotten back on the track to complete the race, two or three laps behind. Also, I discovered that I did not get lapped by the front-runners.

I was happy as a clam all the way back home, and even hours later. This was a result I did not expect at all, but there I was, having started my first race all the way from the back and finishing it in an improved position.

One down, three more to go.