By on January 7, 2010

I fought the media and the media won

[Ed: part one of this piece can be found here]

Six hours of completely sober sleep! As I arrived at Laguna Seca for a double race day in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Challenge, I felt like a new man. It’s customary for most club race days to start with practice sessions, but Skip Barber chooses instead to put the drivers in their trusty Econolines for a morning ride-and-coach session. My rather humbling lack of pace on Saturday — two full seconds a lap behind the leaders — led me to take this one seriously.

A sixth-place qualifying position meant that I wasn’t likely to set the world on fire for Race 1, but seventh-qualified Brian Makse and I decided that we would push as far forward as we could. Unlike the other drivers on the grid, we knew each other well enough to attempt Spec-Miata-style drafting, running bumper-to-bumper at one hundred and twenty miles per hour. At well over two hundred pounds each, Makse and I had a significant weight disadvantage to most of the drivers, so we agreed on two points. The first was that we would draft and run together if at all possible until the final lap. The second was that he would support me in Race 1 and I would, in turn, support him in Race 2. This support would come in the form of blocking other racers and/or not attempting passes during the middle of the race.

As previously discussed, I’m no one-lap driver, and I’m no Jarno Trulli in the qualifying department. But I can see things on the track than many racers cannot. I’m good at predicting what other people are going to do, and I have a vivid imagination. More importantly, I spend pretty much every moment of every race I run in a teeth-grinding, one-eighty-pulse-rate frenzy of frothing hatred for every other individual at the track, up to and including the guy who makes you sign the waiver form.

As the green flag flew for Race 1, I opened my eyes, began swearing incoherently into my helmet’s chinbar, and promptly made up four places in Turn Two by forcing myself to stay off the brakes until everyone around me had disappeared backwards. I bounced sideways along the “chiclet” curb before wiggle-wagging my MX-5 into a perpendicular re-entry onto the track surface, scattering the competition and capturing second place. Alas, I couldn’t hold Coulter Mulligan off for long, and I cheerfully backed off to take third place over a rather boring eighteen-lap drive. I blocked long enough for Brian to come up and take fourth, meaning we would start in those places for Race 2. Tyler Drake Wolfson took a comfy win, his handsome parents shaking the hands of Coulter’s equally handsome parents in a true example of wealthy Californian cheer.

D3S_1265 (Large)

On the podium, I looked old, ragged, and slightly deranged next to the two youngsters, but I couldn’t help but smile. I’d watched the kids run from my third-place spot. Coulter was wickedly fast but susceptible to pressure. Tyler was aggressive on corner entry, but only by Skip Barber standards. Having just raced in the Koni Challenge a month previous, I knew a little more about rough driving than they did.

At the start of Race 2, I immediately pressured Coulter by “hanging him out” on the entrance to Turn Two. He fell back, leaving me with the race leader, Tyler. Confidently and quickly, Tyler closed the door and I passed him in the dirt, flicking the MX-5’s tail at him and scattering rocks across his windshield. I suspected that Tyler, being young, talented, and free from manic depression, would respond to my taunt like a bull to a flag, and he did. For a nerve-fraying lap he tried every hero-maneuver pass possible, relying on his lighter weight and track knowledge to haul himself back into position, and each time I cheerfully put MX-5 metal right in his face. As we drifted sideways down the long Turn Nine, each of us with a full turn of opposite lock in the steering, I let my silver 01 car fall towards his door in a manner designed to simulate an incipiently murderous loss of control. Tyler didn’t flinch. My man.

As we began the second lap I saw Brian finally catch up to us — dicing back and forth costs time and makes you vulnerable to the traffic behind you — so I checked Tyler up and let Brian slip by. Unfortunately, although I ran him nose-and-tail down every straight, Brian didn’t quite have the pace to drive away from Tyler, so I was forced to protect Brian’s position and my own for a dozen long, hot laps. Finally, with just two laps left to go, Brian lost control, slid sideways, and fell back. I was back in the lead and did not plan to give it up.

Let’s talk about fury and courage. Some drivers have neither, some have one, some have both. Tyler and I were cut from the same mold, though I was nearly twice his age. We fought hard. He made a move everywhere it was possible, and I chopped him hard every time. Finally, I went sideways from a bumper-tap in Turn Eleven and Tyler steamed by. Now it was my turn to make him sweat.

Banging the wheels

In the movies, passing is done by flooring the throttle and shifting dramatically. In a real race between identical cars, it comes from holding fractions of a mile per hour more than the other guy, dancing on the limit of the tire, eating up the safety margin between looking fast and going home in a box. I relaxed, stretched my perception, and ate up the hundred-foot gap to Tyler six inches at a time, finally driving the car up to its potential, finally making the lap time I needed to shine.

With one turn left between us and the checkered flag, I was two feet behind him and needed to make a move. I dove hard to the inside. Tyler chopped me. I hit him. Not for the first time — we’d hit each other half a dozen times in the previous laps. He went sideways but held the position. I crossed the line within arm’s reach of his winning car. We waved and swore into our chinbars. He’d run a great race and deserved to win.

But this is Skip Barber, and they don’t play the NASCAR bump-and-tag game here. As we entered the pitlane, we were held for a disciplinary conference. Brian Makse was waved around us. I’d inadvertently kept my promise to Brian, pushing him to his maiden victory at Laguna Seca. Tyler and I got out of the car. He looked at me and stormed away. I knew he hated my guts. I hated his, too. But in a world full of video-game pansies and Internet heroes, Tyler Drake Wolfson had the guts to risk his life for the sake of a plastic trophy. That made him my brother and my friend, and I was sorry that neither one of us would stand on the podium that afternoon.

Later on, as Brian drove us up the access road away from the track, he looked over at me and said, “This is a beautiful place. Too bad we never took the time to look around.” He’s right. We were too focused on winning. So we stopped for a moment to see the California sand and sky for a moment. This is a great program, and I’ll be back.

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