My brother in law, Scott, organized a day racing the Grand Prix course at Talladega Raceway for me in my Mini-Cooper S. It was one of those, “I’m not sure this is a good idea, because I know I am going to like it a lot” things. I arrived after driving 4 hours from Rock Island, TN to Talladega, Alabama. Nick Troutman was my buddy on the trip until we met up with Scott and stayed at the budget something motel to prepare for the next day. Talk of Talladega Nights was the prevalent discussion. Nick had his video camera and was prepared to ride shotgun to get good footage.
We arrived at 9am like planned and the track had about 11 Porsche’s, 1 Lexus, 2 Minis (EJ and Scott), and one random race car that I can’t identify. Guys were pulling up with extra wheels and slicks and trailers, while Scott and I pulled into the lineup with our cars and a welcoming crowd. Scott had his helmet and a motorcycle helmet. I didn’t bring any as I didn’t think about that.
We had a pre-race meeting that broke us up into 5 heats of 3 cars. Scott and I were in the last heat. In the first heat was a 2007 Porsche Carrera, among two racing Boxters. I was sitting there jealous that they got to do a 20 minute heat of racing while I had to wait for 4 heats before mine. The guy in the front of the heat said, “Hey Eric, do you want to ride with me?” I thought, “cool!” I get to see the track and learn it from one of the guys who has experience on the track (500+ laps). I didn’t have a helmet and was about to bag the ride when he pointed to his chrome trailer and offered me one of his extra full face deals.
I jumped in the convertible with him and we did the normal fish tail, warm the tires and brakes up routine you see on TV before jumping out on the track in the lead with the Carrera behind him with Scott in the passenger seat. We did two laps barely breaking 100 MPH on the short straights, but my inexperienced neck was still getting the full whiplash with the sudden brakes before the hairpin turns, only to hit the gas and come out squealing tires and jumping back up to speed before the next turn.
On our third lap, my new driver friend turned off the PSM or DCS; I can’t remember. The braking and traction control system that, as he explained it, “keeps you from crashing”.
It was clear that it was “game on” as we suddenly started hitting turns at speeds I didn’t think a car could hold the road at. We slide sideways into S-Turns coming out on the “rumble strips” with dirt flying off to the side as we left no extra margin. I was impressed as this was the fastest I had ever gone in a car around turns, the fastest I have come to a sharp turn and then just slammed the breaks to get down from 110 to 75mph so we don’t go flying off the end, etc. Wow, we were racing!
The car wasn’t that loud so we were talking and I figured my “First Ever Porsche Experience” story would be appropriate. I told it like this (and this is just how it went).
Back in about 2000 I was at my brother-in-laws house (not Scott, but Tom, from New York) and he was showing me his new addition to the car fleet; a 1976 Porsche 911 Turbo. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride, which I did. We warmed it up in the driveway and did some tuning, and then off we went. It was a couple of blocks to the Long Island Expressway (495) and we were up to 60 MPH looking straight at the on-ramp that says “20 MPH” and it was clear that Tom was going to show me what that car could do. As we hit the on ramp I was thinking that there was no way a car could hold the road that well and before I could finish my thought we spun out across the grass and then across two lanes of highway traffic into the median. There we sat with tire marks from the on ramp, across the grass, across the highway and into the median and we were unhurt with a stalled Porsche. Tom was shaken, but didn’t say a word as it must have been a shock and embarrassment to start the first 2 minutes of the ride with what could have been a disaster had we not made it through the traffic in our whirlwind spin. We got the car running and made it back on the road to the next exit where Tom took the off ramp like a mom on her way home from soccer practice. At the bottom of the ramp, Tom asked me if I wanted to drive and I quickly jumped on that opportunity. He explained how the turbo doesn’t really kick until the super high RPMs and that I should stay in 3rd until we hit 100mph, for example. I stared down the ¼ mile stretch of road and could see it disappear over a rolling hill. We jumped out of the start and I had no problem getting up to 100 in 3rd gear and with our heads still being firmly held into the back of the seats we were accelerating like crazy when Tom said, “OK, slow down, we are at the end of the road..” I took my foot off the pedal but it stuck to the floor and we were shooting towards the end of the road! Tom was yelling at me to slow down but after stomping on the gas to try to free it with no luck I just hit the brakes hard and luckily the pedal popped back out! We went from 110+ to zero in a very short stop. Tom was not impressed and apparently didn’t believe me that the pedal had stuck. I drove the 2 minutes back to the house where we had started no more than 5 minutes earlier, with 2 potentially deadly situations, and parked in the garage. I turned off the key and hit the gas. It stuck. When I got out I just showed Tom and his face went white. “Wow, that could be dangerous.”
I finished my story about my first Porsche experience on lap three of my second Porsche ride ever. We went into lap 4 and were clearly pushing the limits, even by my track racing virgin eyes. Coming out of the high speed turn of lap 4 we drifted from one side of the track to the other, losing the rear end for a second throwing dirt but just making it and it was impressive. Scott was behind me riding in David’s new Porsche Carrera that generates over 500 horse power. He had passed us in the previous lap, but now we were driving much harder and we passed them on the back stretch before the s-turn. I was halfway scared the whole time, feeling like we were on the edge of disaster but those feelings were balanced by the fact that we were in a very expensive car with an experienced driver who doesn’t want to crash it. I was having a great time, but was really wishing I was driving. Coming around lap 4 our braking got later, and top speeds got greater as we came down the straight away with the car really humming and Scott and David just behind us. Each lap is about 1:10 giving me about 4 minutes of track time but we had already left more rubber on the track than a year in my truck. This time I was staring into the turn as we passed the flag guys, holding the green flag up, and had the sick feeling that we were going too fast. Going much faster than the last time we hit that turn and barely made it, my better sense was “what the hell are we doing” as he jerked the brakes hard from 110 mph down to 90 or so and jerked hard left into the turn starting an early drift and being on the inside of the turn way early.
We had no chance as we slide straight to the outside of the turn and he attempted to accelerate out of the slide to make it around the turn. I had my eyes on the outside of the track and it came in a second and then it was the feeling of flying as the pavement disappeared and we floated just over the grass hill down the slope into the short grassy field. At 90 miles per hour it felt as if we were in a hovercraft just floating in a slow spin towards the …. Trees! My eyes fixated on the forest we were less than two seconds from entering at high speed in a convertible. I kept my eyes on the trees, but the bush was too thick to see the trunks. It was clear that we would be backwards by the time we hit them and I hunkered down deep into my seat and forced my head against the seat, held onto the armrest, and stamped my feet hard into the floor. As I write this the entire scene is burned so clearly into my memory that I could write a book about every moment, every angle of the car, how my head spotted the trees and I kept turning it until I couldn’t turn it any further and then closed my eyes and BAM! We entered the trees backwards and there was a huge impact and trees were hitting us inside the car and then a falling sensation and WHAM! We were stopped. I am not hurt, he is not hurt! We are under trees that have been taken out by us and on top of the car and… we are in a RIVER! Damn, I want out of the car and unbuckle and push as many trees off of me as I can to stand up. We are 2 feet from shore and about 15 feet down from the top of the bank. There was a perfect hole where we went through two trees, careening off of the big one. The hole was from the car taking out two other trees about the size of my thigh. I calmly asked the driver, “Do you mind if I walk across your hood?” The water was up to the door handles and I was relatively dry and ready to get out of that car. He didn’t answer, so I took that as a no. There I was standing up on top of the windshield and then walking across his hood and jumping to the bank, getting just far enough to make it and grabbing a small downed tree to keep me from slipping down the almost vertical bank. The driver took a little while to engage himself in the situation, likely in shock about what happened, as well as the state of his high dollar car. I turned around and you almost couldn’t see the car under all of the trees. Suddenly it occurred to me just how lucky we were. Had we landed upside down there we would have been head down in the water, car in 4 feet of water on the mud and no way out. My door was smashed shut and no way to open it. OK, so that was close.
I am the eternal optimist and standing there on top of the bank with all of the other racers running across the field to see what happened my brain decided that that was the coolest thing ever. My adrenaline was pumping, my feet were sweaty in my boots, and I wasn’t hurt at all. How awesome! Scott was there first since he and David were behind us going into the turn. Nobody knew how to act and people were pretty quiet about the whole thing. I was initially quiet, then the majority of the talk was about the car and how lucky we were, what to do next, etc.
Nick and I were so fired up to be going to Talladega just from the movie Talladega Nights. He had his video camera ready and was videoing the damage when the urge to do some “Ricky Bobby” came over me. Suddenly I was “on fire! It burns, stop drop and roll…” and was stripping down to my underwear as Nick filmed the scene with me. There were some surprised faces as I rolled around the ground begging for help to put the fire out. While it may have seemed a little inappropriate at the time, I figured that I had earned the right to make light of the situation being that I was a passenger in a car that flew off the track into the woods and off into the river in the first 4 minutes of my “track day” experience. I wasn’t upset about that, just wasn’t going to worry about offending the driver by turning these lemons into lemonade. Nick is off in Mexico now and didn’t have time to put the track day experience into a finished product yet, but he will when he returns. Watch for that video, it has the potential to be quite entertaining.
Well, we still had 6 hours of racing left and after 1.5 hours of tow truck work, they got it out of the river and up on a flat bed and off to the auto graveyard somewhere. I still had to wait until heat 5 to race and heat 1 only had 5 minutes out of their 20 minute race before the “incident of the flying, tree smashing, swimming car”.
We got back to the pits and heat 2, 3, and 4 went. Nick road with me in heat 5 with his video camera. This is my first track experience and I am coming off of the “this is what happens if” ride. My lap times were around 121, 11 seconds behind the fastest as I attempted to learn the lines, remember the turns, and figure out how the Mini handles in a slide. I didn’t take the computer controls off until the last few laps and started to get a feel but wasn’t really pushing it. It is fun running past the white flag and then the checkered flag at 100 miles per hour and then hitting the first big turn. Signaling into the pits, etc. are all part of the fun.
On my second round, David, the guy with the fastest laps so far, rode with me and gave me pointers. I was cutting in too fast on most corners, and leaving some track unused on the higher speed ones, meaning I was going too slow into them. By the end of the 20 minutes my lap times were down to 1:16.
Lots of people were leaving and not wanting to race the third round and I got into heat 3. This time I had the feeling down and Scott was riding with me. He was giving me the speed I was exiting each turn at and that really helped me get it right. My times were down to 1:15 with him in the car and I was pushing the Mini much harder through the turns and was enjoying controlled slides, last second braking from 100+ to 70 or 60 depending on the turn and incredibly hard cornering. This was fun!
There was time for one last heat and my mini was getting low on gas. I had only been averaging 7.6 miles/gallon compared to the 34.7 on the way to the track. I hadn’t thought about that and didn’t fill all of the way up before racing. Nick decided to ride with me on this one and it was our last time out. I got the feel for that track and the Mini and hit 1:13s, just 3 seconds behind the Porsche’s. It was the idea of actually getting to drive the Mini for what it was designed for and seeing what it can do, and finding that it can do a lot that was so fun. On my fifth lap I ran out of gas. I was hoping that was what happened as the engine light went on and then it quit. Oops? No, just out of gas. One gallon from the track guys and we were up and running.
OK, so back to Rock Island. I called Kristine and told her the story and it was a reminder of how perfect she is for me. She said, “You loved it and you know it, you wouldn’t have it any other way.” Yea, she’s right. What a banner day at the track.