My day started off at the ungodly time of 6:15 a.m., before even the sun was up. I’m more likely to catch a sunrise because I haven’t gone to bed yet, so this was quite out of character for me. However, I learned from autocross that when it’s late in the afternoon and you realize you’ve been racing for eight hours, the early hours are worth it. Because Brainerd International Raceway is 150 miles from my own home, and M, my 2006 BMW Z4 M Coupe I spent the night at my aunt’s house, near the track.
When I arrived at the track, I checked in and was immediately whisked away to a waiting Ford Explorer. In autocross, you walk the course, but on road tracks, you Ford Explorer the track! My escort was lead instructor Gary Curtis, a former American LeMans racer. He reminded me of a “Roadhouse” era Sam Elliot with his old-guy badass vibe, or it could have been the hair. He drove the Explorer just like a race car, at 100 miles per hour (literally, 100 mph! There will be no speed-related hyperbole in this story!), bumper-to-bumper with the Explorer in front of him. I was seated in the middle of the rear passenger seat because I’m a girl (no man-touching) with nothing to hold on to. As we zoomed along, Gary explained lots of stuff about the turns of the track, but since I was too busy sliding across the back seat or worrying that we were going to roll over or careen into another Ford Explorer, I felt like I absorbed nothing.
Next up was the classroom, where we were served donuts and coffee, both critical to brain function at this early hour. Gary gave a presentation on driving that can be summed up thusly:
- Pull the steering wheel through the turns, and then let it unwind itself.
- Always be on either the brake or the gas. No coasting.
- Don’t hold in the clutch. Treat it like an on/off device.
- Apexes, YAY!
- DON’T FREAKING LIFT!!!!! EVER!!!!1111!!!!
Gary then drove the last point home by saying that they had never had any injuries at track day events, until this year. All three injuries were because of lifting, so don’t do it! Let’s look at diagrams that show the tiny contact points of your rear tires when you lift! Let’s talk about the horrible things that happen to dumbs#!ts who lift! Lifting is bad, mmmkay!
After the classroom instruction, everyone was assigned an instructor, with two students per instructor. I was assigned to Nick, a college student who started racing karts in preschool. Like literally, preschool. Now he races spec Miatas nationally and is trying to leverage that into a chance in the American LeMans series. He wants to be a Formula One driver and is also studying mechanical engineering so he can design/work on F1 cars as a back-up plan.
The other student assigned to Nick is a machinist and self-described “redneck racer” from rural Minnesota named Darryl, I think it was. If it’s not, my apologies, Not-Darryl. He dirt track races a Dodge Neon and ice races a Plymouth Acclaim. I tell him that sounds pretty rad. He tells me about the redneck races and how they don’t have any rules and people go to the hospital a lot. Now this whole thing is starting to sound a lot less rad. Today, he’s driving his mid-2000’s Chevy Impala. He wonders if he should have brought the Neon. I tell him I thought he should have brought the Neon if it would hold together.
It’s finally time to go on the track. For the first three runs, we’ll be on the shorter, curvier Competition Road Course. Between the ride in the Explorer and the little talk about “OMG! NEVER LIFT!” I am terrified! Since Darryl has raced before, Nick takes me out first. Everyone drives pretty slow the first time out, but I am so tempted to lift! DAMMIT, FOOT! STAY ON THE GAS! Nick tells me when to brake and when to accelerate, assisting me with finding the apexes and my line. He grabs the wheel to show me I can get super close to apexes and walls without dying. I go a little faster. Nick rides with Darryl for the second half of the run and I follow them, focusing on getting a feel for the course and my line, rather than just going fast.
The second run, I get a little better and start going faster. I am with Nick for the first half of the run again, and focus on braking earlier so I don’t lift through the turns. Between runs two and three, Nick admires my car. He’s into BMW’s too and I remember from autocross that instructors are not allowed to ask to drive your car, but it’s totally fine for you to ask them to drive it. Everyone should do this because it’s super helpful to learn the limits of your own car. I ask Nick if he’d like to drive and he says he would love to, agreeing to take M on four laps at the beginning of the next run. He explains that he will take two laps at the speeds I’ve been going, explaining what he’s doing and then another two laps at 10/10ths, or as close as he can get to it on the track with novices, so I can see what M is truly capable of. In turn, I warn Nick that I scream sometimes when I’m riding with instructors.
During the first two laps, I learn so much! Like what it’s like to nail apexes much faster than I would dare on freeway cloverleafs. Like the secret to avoiding lift is to set up the car correctly before the turn, then once you actually hit the turn, you’re all set to accelerate out of it. Slow in and fast out, braking sooner and turning later. I begin to feel how the car wants to stick to your line and you can let it just unwind from the turn if you set it up properly. It’s like magic and I’m absolutely fascinated by this new phenomenon. It’s like my brain is developing new little neural pathway thingys and I LOVE IT! I love that I get to think and drive fast.
Then Nick gets in the zone and really shows me what M can do. I keep telling myself I’m not going to do my scream/laugh thing that the autocross people got such a kick out of, but I only make it to turn three of the first lap before I can’t help but scream. This time is different, though, as I pay attention and learn during the screams. When M is going faster, I’m picking up that the momentum is stronger. Nick sets up the turns and M just dances. I learn that squealing tires do not mean you are losing control like on the street. M goes fast, her tires squeal, and it’s all good. I learn that brakes smell when you brake hard, and while M’s brakes smell as they heat up, they’re awesome and we still stop perfectly. Nick shifts more than I do and revs M higher. She sounds glorious and I am amazed by her at the limit. I love that car so much!
After a few more laps with Nick, it’s time for him to rejoin Darryl and his Impala. Now it is just M and I on the track. I’m nervous since everyone is going faster now, but excited to try out what I have learned and for the chance to see if I can actually apply it.
All of a sudden, I’m finding apexes. I’m not turning into corners too early. And then, on one of the last laps of the run, IT CLICKS. I set M up for turns five and six perfectly, and she rewards me by speeding through the turns with complete control. It feels amazing! I scream. We have a moment and my heart swells with love for M.
After the third run, we break for lunch. I eat cheeseburgers with Nick, Darryl, and Darryl’s dad. Darryl entertains us with stories about racing cars on a motocross track where someone caught 12 feet of air in a Ford F150, and then landed and received a major spinal injury. He shows us pictures of his 8,000 pound 1978 Cadillac DeVille that he and his friend built and ice race. He’s totally entertaining and now I’m suddenly thinking it’s a good thing he only has the Impala here today.
After lunch, we switch to the longer Donnybrooke track, which has a long straightaway and the infamous Turn One, which is the fastest turn on a track in the whole universe or something. On my first run, I do pretty well on the turns I am already familiar with, but the new turns take some feeling out.
Before the second run, I roam around, taking pictures of Lamborghinis and stuff. Nick finds me and lets me know that this will be Darryl’s last run because the rotors are getting warped on his Impala. Nick is going to ride with him the entire time, and then I’ll have him back for the last two runs of the day. This seemed like a good trade-off to me, and I quickly agreed. Nick tells me to focus on getting my line down, setting up my turns correctly and not worry so much about speed. He tells me that I may feel like I’m going slower, but that’s how I’ll get faster. Slow in, fast out, he reminds me.
For the second run, it is just M, the track, and me again. I focus on everything I’m supposed to. I can feel the line. I start downshifting more, brushing off worries about shifting and steering at the same time since I’m getting more comfortable with the track and it’s becoming obvious that there are spots where I could use the extra power from the downshifts.
Towards the end of the run, everything starts to fall into place. I find myself actually racing, ironically enough since I also own a 1972 Dodge Charger, two SRT Mopars, a Magnum and a Challenger. They pass me before a turn at a speed that’s faster than I’m comfortable going, but I repeat my mantra of “slow in and fast out.” I brake when I know I should brake and shift when I know I should shift, following my line. The Magnum and Challenger plow into the turn and brake much later than me. And then something fascinating happens. I have the pedal mashed to the floor when I nail the apex and I blow past them coming out of the turn! IT’S MAGICAL!!! I scream and laugh really loud. Everyone’s windows are down, and I’m sure the other drivers heard.
Darryl and his Impala went home, and I got Nick back. I tell him about passing the Magnum and the Challenger, and he seems skeptical, but it doesn’t dampen my excitement. “Come on, I’ll show you!” I exclaim. We come out of the pit right before turn one, but I set turn two up perfectly and M glides happily through the corner.
“That was perfect!” Nick tells me. I downshift as I approach turn three. “Nice downshift!” he remarks as I nail the apex. “Perfect again!” he assures us both. Turns four, five, and six come in quick succession, and now I have M dancing gracefully through them. Nick looks around in shock, telling me that was perfect and that I was on his exact line. I nail the rest of the lap and Nick gives me pointers on where to downshift and where to go faster. I ace the turns on the second lap and I can tell Nick is astounded that my first lap was not a fluke when he says “You did a second time!”
As the run continues, I begin to formulate a plan, like in “Rush” when James Hunt is laying on the ground, going through the track in his head, like he was told to do. Approach turn 10, brake. Downshift to third, and floor it by the time I hit the apex. Bounce the tach off the rev limiter and shift to fourth. Rev again and shift to fifth. Hit 140 mph on the straightaway. Brake, but not too much. Take turn one at 110 mph. Scream in exhilaration.
Seriously, there is no feeling in the world like revving M up, nailing the apex when taking turn one at 110 mph. It’s spiritual as M and I become one. The sun was shining, the windows were open and I know people could hear me screaming. I didn’t care. I was in control of a car going un-freaking-believably fast. I am doing this because I planned and thought about it and opened up the throttle and I followed through. I am not afraid. I can do anything. I had been saved by the gods of racing!
By the end of the day, the Magnum and the Challenger can’t catch me. They get close to my tail between turns nine and ten, but when I lay on the throttle coming out of turn 10, they are long gone. I’m not the slowest any more!
On one of the last laps of the run, my inexperience with downshifting gets the better of me. I’m downshifting into turn three, and realize I’m in fifth when I want to be in third. I brake like I know I need to and think I shift over to third, but it’s not third, it’s first. M’s wheels lock up and she spins. I don’t know exactly how fast I was going, but it was at least 60 mph. Freeway speeds. I let her spin and then recover and get her off the track as quickly as possible. I sit in the gravel for a second. Nick asks me if I am okay. I actually am okay. I freaking spun my car out at freeway speeds and I am fine! I’m so glad I spun out. All this time, at the track and autocross, I had been afraid to go fast because I was afraid of losing control. But now I had lost control and I was fine. I can take a turn at 110 mph! I can spin out at 60 mph! Rest of the world, you’re not so scary anymore, are you?
Nick convinces me this is my last lap. I’m tired and making mistakes. The day is almost done, and we should check M out to make sure she is okay and besides, I’m out of gas. We slowly (50 mph now feels like I could get out and walk) make our way back to the paddock. I’m sad the day is over. Nick tells me I’m good at racing. I ask him if he’s just being nice, but he tells me no, he swears to God, I have some natural driving abilities. He says I need to work on my confidence and go faster, and then the shifting and braking will follow. He tells me that once I’m good 10/10ths in M is taking turn one at 165 mph and to stick with autocross and do as many track days as I can.
We talk with Sam, a young woman who races Miatas with Nick and is an instructor too, and she tells me the same thing. She advises me to always tell my instructors that I want to learn to race competitively so they will push me harder. Sam hates power steering and is super awesome. Her and Nick convince me I could race something competitively. “It’s good to be a girl,” Sam says. “It makes it easier to get sponsors.” I am floored. I could get sponsors!
On the drive back home to Minneapolis, my head is spinning. I’m sad that there are no more autocross or track days for the remainder of the year. There is still so much to do! I need to learn heel-to-toe. I need a helmet. I need to get snow tires for my Accord so I can race it on frozen lakes. I need to join a LeMons team. I NEED TO RACE.
I’m not afraid of the speed any more. I’m addicted. I’m addicted to not being afraid. Between hitting 140 mph, turn one, and spinning out, I have changed at some fundamental, molecular level. It’s like when people have a religious awakening. I have seen God and I am a convert. I need to buy a bunch of t-shirts that say things like “Life begins at 100 mph.”