As I pulled up behind a silver Porsche Cayman at the end of pit lane, "Can you hear me?" blasted into my ear from a com that moments before I had squeezed between my cheek and the helmet I was wearing. Judging by the flinch I made and the expression on my face, he didn't have to ask me again.
"Is it too loud?"
"Yeah, I'll just move it away from my ear a little."
"That'll work!", said my instructor as he tightened the strap on his own helmet. He continued to verbally prep me as the rest of the cars in our novice group pull up behind us. The late morning sun beat into the cabin while the track marshal poked his head in to do a visual check of our equipment. "I'm going to need you to tighten that up a bit." he said and pointed at my helmet strap.
"Got it! Thanks."
He continued down the line of cars behind us making sure everyone was ready to go. This was my fourth session, and while I anxiously awaited the green light at the end of pit lane to light up, I tried to recall everything I had learned in the previous three sessions. Let the car go a little wider right in the Carousel... Make sure you're done braking before you turn toward the apex in turn 6... As you approach turn 10, turn in a little earlier... Make sure you're lined up to enter 11 as you're coming out of 10... Let the car do what it wants as you come out of turn 14 and enter 15... Hit the apex in 16 a little earlier. Just then my train of thought was derailed as the Porsche in front of me started to pull away. This was it, time to let it all hang out.
The first lap of each session is considered a pace lap, which requires everyone to run at a slower pace. However the Porsche in front of me didn't seem to get the memo. He took off, and I tried to keep up. As the Porsche pulled away it left a nice gap between him and I, giving me the opportunity to have a traffic free run. By the time I clipped the apex in 16 and glided out onto the front straight, I was going full speed. Turn one is one of the hardest turns on the track. It's a tight, downhill, almost 180 degree turn at the end of the front straight. There are five numbered signs on the right side of the front straight leading into turn 1. These signs indicate braking points, with 5 being the earliest. I stood on the brakes as I passed the '4' sign, almost coming to a complete stop. As I lifted off the brakes, I swung the car wide from right to left, clipping the late apex on exit. Since the exit of turn 1 is still downhill, the car felt fast as I came out of the turn and mashed the gas pedal. I kept my foot firmly planted on the floor until I was half way through 2 and diving into the short, left to right turn 3. I tried to use as little brake as possible to maintain momentum as I coasted into the entrance of turn 4, which is up hill. Turn 4, also known as The Carousel, is an important turn because it is a long, sweeping, double-apex turn where, if driven properly, you can shave a significant amount of time off your lap. As I let the car run wide, ever so slightly between the apexes, I made sure my foot was still in the gas. The tires began to protest as I clipped the 2nd apex and quickly turned the car to the right, shifting the suspension load from right to left. Turn 5 passes quickly if you carry enough speed through 4, and I was flying down the hill into 6. At least it felt fast to me as I pointed the nose of the car at the far left side of the track where turn 6 begins its sharp turn right. My brain kept shouting 'Brake brake brake!', but I knew I could wait just a couple feet more. Proper braking is critical in this corner. If you brake too early, your timing will be off as you try to negotiate a good angle on the late apex. Brake too late, and you'll end up going wide on exit, forcing you to get off the throttle and lose all your momentum. You need as much momentum as you can get out of 6 because it is uphill through the gradual left-hander that is turn 7. This area was also a passing zone for the novice group that I was in. Thankfully no one was nearby on this lap, so I could really focus on my turning point going into 10, one of the harder turns on the track. If you carry enough speed through 9 (a slight kink in the approach to 10) and turn early enough, you can carry a lot of speed through 10. I went full tilt through 8, just clipping the rumble strips, and pointed the car at the turning point for 10. "Now!" the voice in my head shouted as I cranked the wheel to the left and clipped 10's apex with my left front wheel. "There we go!" I verbalized to which my instructor responded, "That was good!" It was the first time I had gone through 9 and 10 correctly, and I really felt the speed difference. It was a great feeling.
But, there was no time to celebrate because 11, a sharp, down-hill, right hander, comes up quickly, especially with all the added speed you've just gained through 10. As with 10, I managed to hit my braking points and continue my good line. Carrying speed through 11 is critical for lower power cars, because the approach to 12 is a steep up-hill section. Once you reach 12, your view is sea of blue sky, with barely enough visible track to see where you're going. As you roll through 12 (which in my mind was the safest approach, considering I couldn't see where I was going) and start to crest the top of the hill, you suddenly realize that you're already into 13. Similar to 12, 13 starts out as a blind corner, but as you gradually turn left and down the other side of the hill, the track comes back into view.
I feel like I say every corner is important, but 13 is important in a different way. Turns 13, 14 and 15 make up one very long, high speed, left hand turn. Since the down hill 13 is at the beginning, if done correctly, it will drastically effect your speed through 14 and 15, and ultimately, your entrance to the front straight. I wish I could say that every turn on this lap was done correctly, but I would be lying if I did. Admittedly, 13 could have gone better, but I was able to make up some of the time through 14 as I kept my foot on the floor all the way through to the entrance of 15. The need to lift prior to entering 15 depends largely on the car your driving. Since my light, little CRX, with it's whopping 100hp, was only hitting 70 at that point, I probably could've kept my foot in it through 15. Something I will correct on my next outing to AMP. Anyway, as I careened through 15, trying to hug the left side of the track near the last flag station, I took a deep breath.
Turn 16 is a turn to test your metal, and the size of your plums. It's a blind, off-camber, crested, high speed, right hander that has caused many an impromptu structural integrity test against both walls of the front stretch. Don't believe me? Hop on YouTube and do a search for Atlanta MotorSports Park Crash, and note which turn causes the most issues. Yes, there were shudders and mumblings when the turn was mentioned in the drivers meeting, but I had an advantage. I was in a light-weight, low-power, front-engined car. When I turned right into 16, and the weight was quickly transferred from the right to left, the car wasn't unsettled at all. My stiff suspension setup was largely to credit for this feat, but having so little weight to transfer pre-turn, allows the car to settle down before hitting the crest. Since the majority of the cars weight is in the front and over the drive wheels, after the car hits the crest, the front comes down first allowing the drive wheels to regain control quicker. These advantages that the CRX provided allowed me to hit turn 16 flat out, never taking my foot off the gas pedal. The felling was electrifying. I even hit 96 mph as I crossed the finish line, putting in a lap time of 1:51.
I was very satisfied with what I had accomplished during my first track event. It wasn't the 1:51 lap time, it was the progress that I made in a short period of time. Over four 20 minutes sessions on the track with my instructor, I was able to shave 15 seconds off my laps times. Not only did I improve my driving (or 'racing') line, braking, cornering, and general driving technique, I made it over 'The Hump'.
I've never heard anyone refer to this 'Hump' before, so don't be surprised if you haven't heard of it before. After the first two sessions, I didn't really know what to think. I had been dreaming of driving a car on a race track my entire life, so naturally my expectations were high. However, my mind was so inundated with emotions, physical inputs, and masses of information given to me at a high rate of speed, that I had not had even a moment to realize what was going on, or what I was actually doing.
The info dump started in the first drivers meeting. You are asked to absorb track procedures (during multiple scenarios), passing procedures, track etiquette, and general safety instructions in a short amount of time. You are then dismissed to your car with all the info whirring around your head in a tornado of anxiety, excitement, and anticipation. In no time you find yourself on the track with your instructor barking orders at you, cars all around you, track marshals waving flags at you, all while your are trying to drive your car to its limits. After your first session, you step out of your car in a daze trying to get your head around what just happened, when you realize your next drivers meeting is in 5 minutes... and so on and so on. Prior to that fourth session that I described in such detail before, I was struggling to find the enjoyment in it all. I was focusing so hard on trying to remember all the information I had been given, on and off the track, that I had not been able to really enjoy myself. This is the 'Hump' I mentioned earlier. Its the hill you have to climb as a first time 'tracker'. Once you've absorbed the mountain information and have put it into practice on the track enough times, you stop thinking about it as much and begin to really experience the thrills of driving fast. At that point, you've gotten over the Hump.
As I sat in the chair next to my car, waiting for my last session to begin, I began to reflect on all that had happen thus far. Aside from the sheer ecstasy that comes from driving on a track, what really stood out to me was the car. This 31 year old, daily driven, economy car, that I had received for free only a couple years before, hit 96 mph on the front straight at Atlanta Motorsports Park. I typically baby my cars in comparison to how others drive, but this time, I thrashed it. I was amazed at how well it handled the abuse, and how reliable it was, especially considering it has over 210,000 miles on it. There was a stock Ford Fiesta ST that had to come off the track mid-session, in a cloud of smoke, because it had cooked it's brakes. You could barely smell mine after my sessions. Honda built a true gem in the first generation CRX, something I was only able to truly understand, after driving it on a track. Don't pass up on these torsion bar Hondas, they are really something special.
Huge shout-out to my instructor, Eric Olsen, who spent the day giving me excellent and patient instruction. He even took me out in his personal track/daily driver, a k20 swapped MR2 Spyder, with which he competes in HDPE, Time Attack and Drift competitions. Much respect!
Track Day Organization: Jzilla Track Days
Photos by: Stephen Dettman, Devin Hultgren (on track photos)