Links: Go Speed Racer!

by January 31, 2011

by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

I’ve been trying to update this column once a week, but even that schedule has proved, at times, ambitious. Like last week, for instance. So to make it up, I’m going to try and update every day this week. (Cross your fingers.) And we’ll talk about basketball tomorrow. But today? Race car driving, what else?

Two weeks ago, we finished the next issue of SLAM—which you guys will see later this week, I believe. I took the weekend off and hung with Wifey, and then last Monday, I hopped a flight for California so I could learn how to drive a race car. Seriously, I did.

Last week, Toyota brought a couple of writers and bloggers out to California to show off the Toyota Yaris by letting us race is at top speeds. I flew out from NYC on Monday morning, and after landing at LAX, I took a cab to the nearby Toyota offices, picked up a brand new Yaris and drove up into the mountains about ninety minutes north of Los Angeles. We had dinner together that evening, then the next morning drove up to the Willow Springs Raceway. Once there we met the instructors and received a briefing about basic driving rules and about the “streets” track, where we did our driving. We then each picked out a Celica race car. (I ended up with the number 4 car.) We started at the skid pad, learning how to control skids without losing control, and then we were basically turned loose on the track.

Most of the writers at this event were from car magazines or websites, so they’d been to things like this and had experience on tracks. I was there representing our sister magazine Antenna (for which I’ll be writing much more about this experience in the summer issue). Conversely, I haven’t owned a car since 1999. But I do love to drive, and I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles in my life. Also, my favorite show on television is probably Top Gear.

So I was secretly hoping all of these shared experiences would somehow culminate in my having surprising skill at driving a race car. I thought of the scene from Days of Thunder when Tom Cruise (Cole Trickle) first shows up and meets Robert Duvall (Harry Hogge)…

Harry Hogge: What do you know about stock car racing?
Cole Trickle: Well… watched it on television, of course.
Harry Hogge: You’ve seen it on television?
Cole Trickle: ESPN. The coverage is excellent. You’d be surprised at how much you can pick up.
Harry Hogge: I’m sure I would.

As it turned out, this was not true, at least not in my case. I did not wreck, though on my first lap I did slide off the track on the third turn. I went back to the start/finish area and one of the instructors hopped in my car with me, and I ran a few laps with a pro sitting next me. This was invaluable, and by the time I dropped my main man Raul off, I was able to at least keep up with everyone else. And I even passed a few people (although I think they were the people who’d never driven a manual transmission before).

We broke up the laps with time practicing on Gran Turismo 5 (more on that in a second), lunch, and some time on the skid pad learning stunt driving tricks. They told us that this was important so we could learn how to control skids, and I learned how to not only do a 180, but also learned how to drive in reverse and spin a 180 so I was facing forward and then drive away, like you see people doing in movies. So if either of those situations ever occur in my life, I’m good.

We did a ton of laps on day one and got a lot of track time. That evening a couple of Toyota drivers (like NASCAR star Joey Logano) and a car owner (former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who let me try on his blingtastic Super Bowl ring) arrived. We had dinner with them that evening, and then they joined us for day two. 

The second day we traded in our Celicas for a few race-equipped Yaris. They told us that all the cars were all equal, that driver skill was the main thing that mattered.

This was never more evident than when Joey Logano went out to run laps with us. Joey, who is all of 20 years old and who drives the Home Depot Toyota #20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing in NASCAR, jumped in one of the Toyota Celicas that we’d been running the day before, got out on the track with all of us, and suddenly it looked as though all the other cars were parked. Logano passed everyone out there at least once, reminding us that it was about technique more than it is about equipment. And while I’m sure Joey was able to squeeze more MPH out of his car than I could, going on such a curvy course meant we were forced to slow almost to a crawl at a few spots, which served as something of an equalizer. 

But I’m pretty sure Joey could have driven the entire track in second gear and beat me, because he obviously understood the geometry of driving around a track. Our instructors drilled into us the importance of finding and hitting the apex of every turn, and I did my best to come in slow and then accelerate through each turn, but watching Joey, it was like he was competing in a different sport than the rest of us. You might not picture race car drivers as mathematicians or physicists, but in some way they absolutely are. Because unless you can read the lines out there on the track, you don’t stand a chance.

Sony was also involved with this event, with their game Gran Turismo 5. We writers did timed runs, and then we did timed runs on an original track made especially for us in Gran Turismo, and our combined times were posted against each other. As it turned out, one of the writers was ranked among the world’s best in Gran Turismo, and he ended up winning the event.

Going in, I tried to be realisitic: I was wildly inexperienced, and I just didn’t want to finish last. And I didn’t — two writers didn’t participate on the last day, and one writer who did race legitimately finished behind me, even after I received a two-second penalty for dropping a wheel off the track on my times runs. (At least, it was alleged that I did this. I don’t remember doing it, but when they revealed our final lap times, I had been assessed a two second penalty for going off the track. If this had been some sort of legally binding decision, I would have lodged a protest and demanded video evidence, because I was actually trying really hard NOT to go off the track.) Without the penalty, I think I would have jumped a spot higher.

But whatever. I had so much fun. The cars were amazing, and they were so much fun to drive, specifically the #20 Yaris that I drove, which gripped the track like crazy and took so many G’s on the corners that I was pinned to my seat. 

Everyone I’ve told about this experience has asked me the same question, and the answer is, I’m not sure how fast I drove. Because when you’re approaching what’s basically a 90-degree turn with the gas pedal on the floor and your car just barely in third gear (which means you’re probably around 65 mph), there’s not a lot of time to even look at the dash, much less check out the speedometer. (By the way, how ridiculous were these cars? I used to drive a stick-shift Jeep Wrangler when I lived in Atlanta, and in that car, second gear usually meant I was driving somewhere between 10 and 20 MPH. In the Celica and the Yaris, when I shifted out of second and into third, it meant I was going from the 60s into the 70s.)

I think I hit 75 or a bit higher on the straightaways, but most of the time, you’re looking just in front of your car while also stealing glimpses up ahead forty or fifty feet so you can prepare for whatever crazy curves are waiting for you. Meanwhile, you are constantly, constantly, constantly weighing speed versus caution. You want to go at all times as fast you can physically go without crashing, and I was also generally travelling fast enough that I never felt comfortable. Still, you push it to the edge because you know you’re being judged by the time you post on the stopwatch. 

Also, with every turn and every skid, you get an adrenaline rush like nothing I’ve ever felt before. And that has to be worth something.

What I never anticipated was just how taxing driving is, both mentally and physically. Pretty much immediately I realized why drivers need to be in shape, as it was hard to just climb into the car, where you have to step over iron bars and strap yourself in with a five-point seatbelt. After two days, my knees were sore, my back aching. And mentally, there’s nothing more important than staying completely engaged at all times. The second you let your mind wander, you find yourself skidding around a corner at 60 miles an hour and on the verge of flying out of control. More than once I found my mind drifting to work or family and had to force myself to concentrate on the road in front of me.

After Joey ran a few laps in the Yaris, I asked him for some advice, and he said one thing he’d picked up was that when you felt the Yaris was on the verge of losing it on a corner, if you gave it more gas you could hold the corner and make it out of there. This went directly against what your reflexes told you to do when in trouble — HIT THE BRAKES!! — but on one of my laps I started skidding, and before I hit the brakes I remembered what Joey had said, so I mashed the gas and, lo and behold, I made it out intact.

I learned so much in two days, and I had an amazing time. If I am one of the Top Gear presenters, I had hoped I could be Jeremy Clarkson or maybe even Richard Hammond, but it appears that I probably most closely resemble James May, who is often referred to on the show as Captain Slow. I did not set any land speed records, though I drove respectably and I like to think I can be both thoughtful and introspective and perhaps even funny from time to time, like May.

Anyway, thanks so much to Toyota and Sony for having me out and letting me wear out the clutches and brakes on their cars. I hope I get the chance to do it again some day.

As it turns out, driving a race car isn’t easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. But let me tell you, it is incredibly fun.

Oh, and in case you’d like to mock me, here’s a video of me in the Yaris doing one warm-up lap and my first timed lap…