By on May 16, 2011

“Far! Far!” The man in the corner station was screaming at me. Yes, I thought, as I steered out towards the grass, smoke billowing behind me from the twin tailpipes and blanketing the track like the thick fog of a dream, I’m getting it far off the line. Far. We came to a halt in the damp grass but the man is still screaming.

“Far! FAR! FAR!

Understanding clicks down over me like the visor of a full-face helmet. He isn’t saying ‘far’. He’s saying ‘fire’.

* * *

Born under a bad sign
Been down since I learned to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck
I wouldn’t have no luck at all

Albert King played a Gibson Flying V, made by the old fellows in Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory. It’s possible that Marv Lamb, who now runs Heritage Guitars in that same factory, built Albert’s V, since he was already a veteran shop hand by 1959. It’s hard to say. Marv doesn’t think about the past, doesn’t talk about it. He looks at the future, even though he is in his seventies.

This year, Lamb built two guitars by hand, start to finish. One of them was sold to me, and I agreed that I would pick it up the weekend of May 13th. Unfortunately, that plan conflicted with a chance to test at Summit Point’s Shenandoah circuit, so I asked my son to pick up the guitar instead. To be accurate, I asked my son’s mother to drive the nine hours to Kalamazoo and back, and I asked the nice folks at Heritage to formally “hand over” the guitar to my son, and everyone agreed.

Maybe that was a bad idea. Maybe I’d somehow angered that formless force known as “the blues”. Normally I don’t worry about that stuff. I don’t believe in bad luck. When I arrived Saturday morning at Shenandoah and saw them pulling a Z06 out of the concrete wall, it didn’t bother me at all. No such thing as bad luck. No such thing as the blues.

My students for Saturday looked good. Two thoughtful-looking men in their fifties, both driving Mustangs. One was stock, one was a monstrous Fox notchback stripped to the metal and shod with massive Hoosier R6 tires. Both of them were solid listeners, and both were dealing with the same issues — failure to look ahead, bad hand motion, questionable seating position. I can fix that stuff easily and by the third session each of them were running perhaps ten seconds a lap ahead of their initial results.

We were hammering the notchback Fox through Summit Point’s concrete “Carousel” feature when I heard

*ting*
BANG!
SLAM!

Just like that, we were ejected from the Carousel, over the asphalt with our rear wheels off the ground, and into the grass nose-first. My shoulders and neck stung from the landing. My student began talking to himself…

“I gotta get on course, it’s fine, let’s get it on course.” Everybody does this, by the way. It’s some sort of mental programming. We’re conditioned to stay on the track, so when we are “off”, there is some sort of deep-seated urge which screams at us to get back “on”. Listening to that urge can kill you, and it can kill the fellow unlucky enough to hit you when you do pull back on. I raised my voice to drown out my student’s inner voices and commanded him to pull off behind the concrete wall. The Mustang’s front wheels were pointing in completely different directions. A few minutes under the car while we waited for the rollback revealed the issue:

We’d come up ten feet short of hitting the wall to begin with, so I counted that as good luck, if such a thing exists. Little did I know that I’d just used up my supply of that good luck, right there in the grass, ten feet from the concrete wall.

The next morning was rainy and cold but I was confident as usual. My new student, replacing the Mustang driver from the day before, was a TTAC reader and quite the hotshoe, really. With very minor adjustments to steering position and corner approach we were sucking up the other students at a closing velocity that was occasionally troubling. Still, I thought there were a few places we could improve the line so I took him out in my car for a few recon laps.

Full-throttle up the back straight at Shenandoah, my student said,

“What’s that noise?”

I was offering my opinion — that it probably didn’t mean anything — as we cleared the “ski jump”, the front wheels went light, and the engine committed suicide. By the time we were settled down and ready to brake for the Carousel, the rear view mirror was entirely obscured by smoke. I pulled the car off and brought it to a halt about five feet from where my student from yesterday had stopped his Mustang. And no, I don’t think there was much fire. Maybe one brief flare-up.

We rode the tow truck back in silence as I furiously tapped away at my phone, trying to arrange a rental car or flight out of West Virginia. Nothing doing. I made a series of calls to pals and heard a series of excuses. Finally, a lady friend of mine in Washington, DC agreed to drive down, collect me, and drop me off at BWI so I could catch a Southwest 737 for Ohio. I started going through my luggage and pulling out items that weren’t flight-compatible. My second helmet. A bunch of compact disks. A Boker ceramic knife, tucked away in a pocket of my laptop bag. Good thing I found it before TSA did.

And the rains came, drowning the track, canceling the sessions, blowing the EZ-ups out into the woods. Rain so thick it obscured the eyes, so loud it drowned out conversation. Muddy rivers welled around the tires of pampered Ferrari Challenge cars. The cover of a hibachi grille blew off and skipped merrily towards an uncovered Radical. I departed the scene as a passenger, soaked and cowering in an old Jeep Grand Cherokee.

At the airport three hours later, the flight was delayed. A furious storm, which perhaps had followed me up the coast, rattled the massive windows of Baltimore’s “A” terminal and blinked the power out in staccato sympathy. I talked to my son on the phone. He doesn’t talk much. He can say “guitar”, although he really pronounces it “ti-garr”. He’d been to the tulip festival earlier in the day up near Kalamazoo and had seen a parade.

“I’m counting on you, John,” I said, “to be nice and respectful of the other guitars tomorrow.”

“Ti-garr,” he responded.

“I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain,” I told his mother.

“Try seeing your son,” she replied. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe that was my inner voice, the one that tells us to get back on track when we have spun off into the weeds.

Down the runway, the mostly empty 737 struggled to bounce up and away. Our nose lifted and the wind blew us sideways, squealing, flung up into the sky like a Mustang without the power to steer, up and away, into a night and weather that gave the wing lights the dignity and distance of Pharos. I closed my eyes. How ironic, to kill two cars and then die in a plane. Sweet dreams, I thought, and flying machines / In pieces on the ground.

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26 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain....”


  • avatar
    Ethan Gaines

    Wow, and I was beginning to think I was the only one with terrible (You push me, I’ll push back ten times harder) karma. Thanks for a very human story Jack.

  • avatar
    H Man

    THIS is why I come to TTAC.

    Same storm about drowned my band manager while we camped near Pontiac, Michigan last Friday night. We can use some good luck about now… (We’re being dicked by a flaky booking agent in Brooklyn.) Touring is tough.

  • avatar

    Great read, thank you!

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Glad to hear that you and your student were physically no worse for the incident. That said, I would think that it takes a big set of brass ones to get in a car of unknown lineage (i.e. a “modified” whatever) and unknown maintenance and blast around a track at speeds that meet or exceed that machine’s design limits, not to mention the limits of the pilot (which, at least, you have the opportunity to explore before and during the drive).

    Not that I know anything about it, but would it be reasonable to assume that the “massive Hoosier R6 tires” bolted on to the Fox imposed loads on the front suspension that it was not designed or equipped to handle?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      I will admit that I always feel a little less stressed when my student shows up with a dead-stock car. Modifications lead to trouble.

      In this case, he had repositioned the steering a bit, changed up the suspension to American Iron-style race stuff, and I think there may have been a few components experiencing load from the wrong angle.

      • 0 avatar
        LTDScott

        That looks suspiciously like the adjustable tie rod end (bumpsteer kit) that I just installed in my own Fox Body Ford just this past weekend. That doesn’t make me feel good.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    What? No strippers and booze? I am dissapoint.

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    Another great story… with words of wisdom at the end. Take it from me, listen to that inner voice. Your son will grow up faster than you can ever imagine, dont find yourself looking back and thinking you should have spent more time with him when you had the chance. No amount of cool cars, track days, or strippers will make up for that feeling…

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @mnm4ever: +100.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      +1

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      +as-much-as-possible.

      Screw the rest of it, Jack. Screw the cars, screw the writing, screw the whatever. Yeah – you have to do those things. But only do them to the extent that they make you the man you need to be for him.

      I’m not religious, but there’s some quote somewhere in some place that has a bunch of religious quotes that goes something like, “The life I am living is not my own”. That’s presumably referring to Jesus, but it applies to me, and to any parents (or it should). The moment your son popped into the atmosphere, your life stopped being your own.

      As I wrote above – it would be absurd to stop doing everything you do just to spend time with your son. I still write music and do code and (most time-suckingly) own a business – but I do those things and miss that time with my guy because I know that doing those things, even at the expense of time or money, will be more positive for him than being safe and comfortable and never being away. I wouldn’t be a good example to him if I didn’t teach him to do what he’s passionate about come hell or high water. It would have been nice if my dad had been around more, or had more money to spend on our family – but the time and money he spent running his business and going racing (by which I mean racing, not just doing barely fast iterations in street cars) made me who I am and made me really freakin’ proud of my old man.

      But where you can, and where it doesn’t prevent you from setting an example – your son should have the priority. He will be inspired by your racing and writing, but he ain’t gonna be inspired by pointless nights out or one-night-stands. Use that time for him; frivolous time away will rest heavily on your shoulders in the future.

  • avatar
    Jellodyne

    You keep giving us stuff like this and you’ll never have to wear Jorts because of your writing.

  • avatar

    I guess it all depends how you look at it; considering the whole realm of possibility.

    You’re not dead yet; right?

    OR, you could still be alive, but have accidentally had your nuts chewed off in a freak wombat interspecies love experiment.

    .
    And you’re still getting a pretty sweet guitar.

    .
    btw, Steve Martin had the best Flying-V ever. -And the best guitar solo ever.

  • avatar
    NormSV650

    I much prefer Jefferson Circuit or the main for student days. And more friendly lateral loads will have track junkies going home with the engine they came with.Shenandoah will chew you up and spit you out leaving no choice in run off except for Jersey barriers. Especially in the wet as my student found out in his CTS-V with me in the right seat. A second time student at a track in a heavy car in the wet had one move barrier about a foot, a call from Onstar, and his car went to the insurance company.

    • 0 avatar
      Byron Hurd

      This was the first weekend I spent at Shenandoah in a RWD car, and I honestly expected it to be a lot more intimidating than it actually was. It’s certainly not a track to be taken lightly, but I think the risks are blown a bit out of proportion.

      This was in a 3800lb Lexus IS F, and I wanted to stay out even when visibility dropped to less than 150′ in some places.

  • avatar
    Philosophil

    You don’t get second chances at many vital things. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. I would occasionally feel ‘set upon’ like this in a very similar tone. Rather than wallow in it, however, I always tried to force myself to learn from it. You never stop learning. Now I just try and appreciate the positives and keep plugging through the negatives.

    Good read.

  • avatar
    TomHend

    Jack,

    What do you know about the retail auto parts industry?

    And, wehre can I learn more about auto parts?

    Tom

  • avatar

    Great read. We’re going to learn the specifics of the issues with the second car in a later piece?

  • avatar

    That looks suspiciously like the adjustable tie rod end (bumpsteer kit) that I just installed in my own Fox Body Ford just this past weekend. That doesn’t make me feel good.

  • avatar

    This ought to put an end to attempts to make a private pilot out of you, Jack. The East Coast weather calls for a fully equipped jet that can handle 20 knots cross-wind, fly into ice, and be reliable like nails.

  • avatar
    EyeMWing

    My very first time doing any sort of real performance driving was wheel-to-wheel on Shenendoah. That place is terrifying in the best possible way.

  • avatar
    Bimmer

    Great read!

    And I thought I was the only one who had miserable last week.


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