James' Second NASA School at Sear's Point Raceway

(I'll be working on this over the next few weeks, so look for additions and changes!)

(Skip down to the Fourth Session if you are only interested in my heroics in Turn 10.)

Less than a month after my first NASA school, and after being pretty sure I wasn't going to do it again, I found myself back at Sear's Point International Raceway for my second NASA school on 22 November 1997.

I almost took a pass on the day because of the threat of rain. I had remembered Tammy telling me she hadn't seen any cars flipped- except in the rain. It rained the night before, and a big storm was forecast for later that Saturday afternoon.

The track was quite wet and cold when we arrived. There was a water sweeping machine out on the track between Turn 12 and Turn 1. We kept hearing about how slick the track was on the right side near the grandstand wall from the rubber and oil from the dragsters. I was able to get the same instructor from my first school, Griff, and I arrived early enough to go out on the "drive-around" with his friend Ken driving a Subaru station wagon. It was supposed to be a slow trip, but Ken, being the Formula Ford lap record holder at both Sear's Point and Laguna Seca treated us to an exciting ride. The track was slippery and Ken had no reservations about sliding around the corners. "Feel the slide" he would say. He emphasized the importance of getting the car straight, if just for an instant, between successive left and right turns. He demonstrated this between turns 3 and 3A by putting both his hands behind his head. Briefly. We got to spend over 20 minutes getting used to the track again, mentally marking the slippery spots and the change in the track at turn 7 due to construction.

First Session

We got the green flag on the first lap out. I was able to remember the track well from last month, so I felt comfortable right away. It was pretty slippery and the first timers were taking it pretty easy so I was able to practice a lot of passing.

Over the month since the first school, I had thought a lot about not only the track, but certain techniques Griff had taught me last time. My turn in was smooth, and I avoided the bad habit of turning in too much, then having to unwind, then turn in again. I was smooth on and off the gas for the most part, and started to work on squeezing the brakes firmly and smoothly. Not plowing into the corners too fast was also a lot easier on my tires.

Finally I was able to take a decent line through turn 11, the hairpin, consistently. Griff had me using third gear here, presumably to avoid wheelspin and hitting the wall on the way out of the turn.

I felt in control enough to watch the course workers regularly.

Second and Third Sessions

My speed picked up, and Griff worked on fine tuning where I was hitting the apex, carrying more speed into the (abbreviated) Esses, Turn 1 and Turn 6 (The Carousel). Just as I started to get more confident with judging the amount of turn-in needed to compensate for the amount of slide the car will make before the apex, it changed again with greater speed. I'm still not sure what exactly the difference was, but I started having trouble hitting the apexes cleanly. Although I had been consistent and confident about my nemesis from the last school, Turn 3A, I took a bad line once and got a little dirt on my left tires.

We worked on braking a little before and a little after the crest on before Turn 6 (The Carousel). Don't want the brakes on over the crest as the car becomes very light. My brakes are good enough that I started just lifting the throttle a little over the crest and getting on the brakes only on the down side.

The Carousel is an interesting turn: medium tight equal radius down and to the left, you can get going faster than it looks like will work because as the track levels out at the end of the curve, the car gets heavy and there is a lot of stick.

I had passed a Nissan 300ZX earlier and he chased me all the way around to Turn 3A; Griff was watching in the mirror and said "oh no, there he goes". I really wanted to look at the spinout but was busy not running into the cars braking hard into Turn 4.

After Kevin passed me out of Turn 11, Griff decided I should go back to 2nd gear- there's a lot less umph in the engine below 3K RPM.

In fact, a lot of the shifting was different- for example getting into 4th between Turn 4 and the Carousel, shifting back to third just before the starting Turn 6. It was a bit slower, but a lot easier on the car. The idea was also to feel and maintain the momentum of the car- carry more speed into certain corners.

Short Shifting: We also practiced "short shifting" in the abbreviated Esses, shifting in second to take the detour before Turn 7, then shifting to third for Turn 8, then into fourth right after Turn 8 to get speed into the long straight. Even though I would have been a little faster staying in third longer, it was good practice preparing me for faster speeds.

Clutch-less downshifting/left foot braking: As the day wore on, the track dried off nicely and we were able to go out in his car for one session. Griff introduced me to clutch-less downshifting while left foot braking. I had been practicing left foot braking, but even though I used to do clutchless shifting on my old Celica, I'll pass on risking my Probe's expensive gear box.

Fourth Session

Griff said for the last session he wanted to really nail the entrance to Turn 10- one of the fastest turns. We worked on also not braking into turn 9 "feather the throttle", he would say, and doing a little braking right before the turn in to Turn 10. As the speed picked up, I was starting to slide away from the apex on Turn 10, in an attempt to compensate, I turned in too soon and took an early apex. Very early.

Griff knew it before it did. I forget exactly what he said, but it indicated we where going off the track. The rain last night had made the runoffs very slick; the runoff from Turn 10 is low and was wet and muddy with puddles of standing water. Other times I had taken the wrong line I was going slow enough to force the car, perhaps a bit sideways, back onto the track, but this time, I accepted I was going off big time and started trying to save myself (and my collision deductable!). Ten years of driving in Upstate New York on snow and ice kicked in and I knew I'd better not exit the pavement with any lateral g-forces, so I basically drove straight off. If I hadn't the car would have gone sideways or spun and gone straight into the wall. Then I thought "I want to keep the car facing forward so I can steer" and just barely nudged the wheel to the right. If I had cranked the wheel the car would have spun and crashed. I was able to change my trajectory just enough to get me going parallel to the wall, for although the runoff is narrow from the track to the wall, it is fairly long along the short straightaway from Turn 10 to Turn 11. I got the car slowed down just enough to get back on the track before the runoff ended at the pit entrance. Griff was pretty shook up. "Take a deep breath" he said at Turn - was that for me or him? I wasn't sure. Then "You must be religious" at Turn 4, "No not at all", I replied, "Well, there sure is someone looking over you".

I was black flagged the next lap and had to pit and explain my off roading. "Um, I took an early apex on Turn 10", the offical looked in and with surprise said to Griff "You are instructing him?!". But the official seemed satisfied and I finished the session.

I wasn't particularly upset by my off-track, since I felt I wasn't in over my head in that turn, just trying to follow Griff's excellent instruction and misunderstanding a little. But I think also I was ready to spend some time in the car by myself, where I could look ahead more and judge my level better rather than scrambling to follow instructions while driving so much faster.

Griff wasn't sure if I was lucky, skillful, or just dense. "9 out of 10 guys wouldn't have come out of that smiling", he said. He rated it as the second most scary trip in the passenger seat; the other was at Laguna Seca and the student crossed the track in a slide three times. "I think that was a Probe, too" he mused. Coincidence?

But he said I was "way ready" for Group 3 next time, and I feel ready, too. See you at the track!!!!

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

November 1997