Trackday Diaries: I've Seen Fire, and I've Seen Rain.
“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
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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