James' NASA School at Sear's Point Raceway

NOTE: This article has been published in the January 1998 issue of NASA's SpeedNews newsletter.

So I originally had decided not to drive in the NASA school- too hard on the car, I thought. Besides, I had told myself the SCCA Solo II event in May 97 (Summit 2.5) would get the racing bug out of my system. Well, of course it didn't work that way and I found myself sending in my $179 for the NASA school on 25 October 97 at Sear's Point Raceway, then shelling out a hundred and some for my very own helmet.

We also had to get a tech inspection for our cars before going to the track.

I ended up running my street pressures in the tires (which tend to be higher than recommended anyway), close to 38 front, 33 rear.

There were four sessions, each 20 minutes long.

First Session

Sure enough the first time out it was pretty slow- I was just getting to know the track and get an idea of how to set up the line for each of the 11 main turns. Mistakes were merely frustrating because there was plenty of time to correct. My instructor (Griff), by the way, was excellent. He really paid attention to the details of what I was doing, instantly correcting me and giving me feedback.

The first lap out was under the yellow flag, no passing, and I started to learn the track. Griff would keep shouting out directions and I'd do my best to comply- "Hit the apex", "Use all the track" (a favorite of his), "turn NOW". Then several laps of practice, then a checkered flag signalling the final run. On this last lap the idea was to cool down- the car and you, drive a smooth and perfect line, and wave back to the course workers when they wave to you. This seemed like a great idea to me because it lets them know if you are paying attention!

In between my sessions we went out in my instructor's car- a modest looking 1977 Mazda RX-3. But with race tires and a lowered, stiff suspension, plus an expert driver, it was pretty impressive.

Second Session

For the second session my instructor suggest we line up in the pit early to get at the head of the pack because he said I'd be going a lot faster than most people in my group. I had more open track and started speeding up. But I wasn't hitting the line right. Sometimes (read: often) the car would suddenly start drifting inexorably off the course. "Don't get all happy on me now" said my instructor. It seems that I had the bad habit of lifting off the throttle suddenly when I got scared- which was ok at slower speeds, but just upset the car and made matters worse now. So I would get wide, then have to turn the wheel a lot and power around the rest of the turn, often smoking the inside front tire and making a lot of noise, but no speed.

The Esses were giving me a lot of trouble as I could see the line, but was fighting the car and spent too much time sliding. I couldn't feel the car. But the speed was picking up and I'd just run out of third gear on the long straight.

Third Session

The third session I had even more open track, and more confidence. However, on my very first lap, I was late on the cut for turn 3A, and ended up heading off the track; I had to turn in a bit more than was reasonable and lifted the throttle, and the car started to get sideways, I countered and got even more sideways the other way by this time I had scrubbed off enough speed to get control back. My instructor was quite restrained and only said "Don't do that again". Whew! I started to heel-toe for the downshifts to second. "Shift to second, get it done" he would say. The speed picked up and I'd get into fourth in two or three places. I started to fight the car less, starting my turn in more slowly, lifting and putting throttle more gently, and started to feel the car. The last run through the Esses my intructor said I took a perfect line! Finally!

Fourth Session

I was getting more nervous as the day went on, as there had been many more close calls as the speed increased. But Griff said for the last run he wanted me to go away feeling good, even if it wasn't the fastest. But just as the racing proverb says "slow is faster", I found myself hitting the apexes, using all the road, and getting really deep into fourth gear in all three faster parts, which meant over 100mph, where before I'd be barely out of third. I was a lot braver with the throttle, as Griff would say "gradual power, stay in it, stay in it". When I stopped lifting it abruptly and fed it on gradually I started to trust the car and could get up the full throttle sooner in the curve and hold it longer. To smooth my initial cut, and because I knew where to start turning now, Griff started to say "Gradual turn" instead of "Turn NOW!", which helped my smoothness.  Then when we were accelerating through the apex, "Unwind the wheel slowly- Release the car".  Every little thing I learned added up to more speed.  Now Griff started to get really excited when I hit a turn just right, shouting in congratulations. Passed cars disappeared in the mirror faster and faster.  I was following a RX-7 Twin Turbo through the turns 2 to 5, and when we got to the Carousel (a long sweeping down hill curve), I stayed wide, got on the throttle gently and very early, hit the apex, my vision looking blurry from the G forces and ran right up on the RX-7's tail! I would have passed him if I had had more nerve.  Next time.

Whew, I made it through!

I was truly amazing to me how a course like that equalizes cars with skill. On the longer straights the RX-7 and Corvettes would pull away of course, but not as fast as I expected. But when you hit the line right, are gentle with the steering, and brave with the throttle, the car sticks so much better and goes much, much faster. Not a little bit faster, A LOT faster.

Here are some of the bad habits I worked on:

I got a strange sensation of letting the car drive itself by the fourth session- the less you upset it with meaningless throttle changes, double turn-ins, etc., the faster it goes.

Overall I was very impressed at how the Probe GT could drive in off the street, and then change demeanor completely to be willing and eager to zoom around near redline for 80 minutes, then drive home with narely a budge of the temp gauge. I chewed up my left front tire pretty good- most of the hard turns were right-handers.

But it was a lot scarier than I had anticipated- you are driving close to your limits almost continually for 20 minutes at a time, and each curve you know that a small mistake will send you off the track. There are other cars around, passing you and you are passing slower cars. Griff said it was good I had that sense of fear.  Apparently some people don't have it.  Some of them flew off the track.  But the experience was well worth it and all of us from the Probe Group drove out without any significant problems.

Only this once, I said. Well, we'll see about that.

Copyright 1997 James This original material may not copied or reproduced without permission of author.

October 1997