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Track day

April 29th, 2016

For the first two laps on my first day ever at a race track, my instructor Dan took the wheel. He had gone around High Plains Raceway times beyond count, and his customized helmet and calm command of the Porsche inspired nothing but confidence.

Confidence in his driving, anyway. As for the prospect of my own turn in the driver’s seat, I was trembling — literally shaking — with a mixture of fear and excitement. The purpose of Dan piloting the first couple of laps was for me to get a feel for the particulars of this specific track, but any mental notes I might have wanted to take were displaced by other concerns. Everything was happening so quickly, and there were so many cars, and there was so much to think about, and, and, and…

Suddenly, we were entering the hot pits. It was time for me to drive.

Map of High Plains Raceway

My first attempts at new skills of all sorts have been invariably awkward. I might have researched them, talked about them, and watched them be done, but a chasm exists between book knowledge and first-person experience.

The trepidation about the track was not without cause. We would be traveling at triple-digit speeds and through tight curves. Mechanical problems usually sideline a few vehicles per day.  Car-to-car contact is very rare at these Porsche Club of America “high performance driver education” (HPDE) events but does happen occasionally. Every once in a great while, people are injured.

Still, the risk was low enough to be manageable, and safety was emphasized by everybody. It was not a race; the organizers were very, very clear about that. I used the event as an excuse to acquire an SA2010 rated helmet and FIA 8856-2000 rated gloves.

In the hot pits, Dan and I got out of my Boxster S, walked to the sides opposite where we’d been, and sat back down. Mirrors were adjusted, seat belts were fastened, and the intercom was hooked back up.

I checked for traffic, pulled out, reached the end of the pits, and joined the track-proper.

Those first few laps were a foggy blur. There was so much going on that I pretty much forgot to shift. Fortunately, the track was laid out such that it’s possible to do laps (albeit slow ones) in nothing but third gear. What I do remember was Dan providing useful pointers and encouragement throughout the 25-minute session and my ear-to-ear grin when time was up. I couldn’t wait to get back on the track for the next session.

My 986 Boxster S in the paddock wearing #22

That opportunity came a couple hours later after the other run groups had taken their turns. Another 25 minutes for me; roughly 10 laps, each a bit better than the previous. Thanks to Dan’s coaching, I gradually became more aggressive about maintaining speed and getting close to the edge of the track. I learned not to cheat the turns by starting them too early. I learned to appreciate the off-camber, decreasing-radius Turn 6.I learned that the brakes were capable of slowing the car from 108+ mph in an incredibly short distance at the end of the long straight.

The jitters subsided, but the smile was still there.

Soon, it was time for lunch. I chatted with my fellow drivers and discussed turns with Dan.

In the mid afternoon, there was more track time and more improvement. In between sessions, I watched the drivers in the faster run groups pilot their steeds around the tarmac. Though I had started driving only earlier that day, I was already able to pick up on things they were doing well and things they were doing sub-optimally. Some were taking inefficient lines. Some were delaying application of the throttle until well beyond the turns. Some would have been very slow had they not been driving very fast cars. Some were slow despite their very fast cars.

Me with my car in the paddock

As the sun approached the horizon, my final track session of the day began. The Boxster screamed its sonorous flat-six howl as the tach passed 4000, 5000, then 6000 RPM. The turns came up more quickly than they had in the morning, and I went through them with far greater confidence. Apexes were hit; downshifts were made.

The track, too, had evolved. In the run group just prior to my final session, a late-model Mustang had dumped a large amount of oil near Turn 7. The track crew did a good job of cleaning it up, but a substantial amount of oil absorbent was still on the asphalt when we got out there. It was a teachable moment: what to do when the ideal line is not an option for some reason. Dan’s wisdom proved accurate, and we got through the hazard with no issues.

Impossibly soon, time was up. I stuck my gloved hand out of the window in an upright fist to signal my exit from the track, drove back to the paddock, and gathered my things for the journey home.

My Boxster came through the day with no apparent damage. The tires had slightly less tread, and the wheels were sporting a thick layer of brake dust, but mechanically everything seemed to look, sound, and feel as it had in the morning.

I had a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to the next time I’m on the track.

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