Over The Top

Why Do You Want To Race?

by Scott Fisher

Most of the time, when people would ask me this question, they emphasized the "why" part. You've probably heard -- maybe even asked yourself -- the questions behind that: isn't it dangerous, isn't it just an ego trip, isn't it socially irresponsible, aren't there better things you can do with the money, what about your family, and the rest of the hogwash. If you have to ask, you don't understand it.

So that's not what this month's column is about. This month -- racing being the world's most selfish sport -- the emphasis is on you. Not why do you want to race, but why do you want to race? What is it that turns you on the most about the sport? And unlike the partygoer's question, where they basically want to feel superior to someone who spends so much time, energy, money, and blood making a car go faster than somebody else's car, this question has a specific purpose: to help you get more out of racing.

I'll also dispense with the larger answer to "why race?", for which I still like the answer that Steve McQueen gave in Le Mans: "Everything else is waiting." I think we can just take that as a given.

Instead, I want to focus on some specific questions, designed to put you in touch with exactly what it is that has you do everything it takes to be there. If this were Cosmo, they'd probably ask me to do it in a quiz format, but instead, imagine that we're at the worker beer after the last checkered flag, we've finished telling each other how fast we think we were today and making up excuses for when we weren't, we're done griping about how the rules won't let us run in a class where nobody else is allowed to beat us, and we're starting to wax a little philosophical.

Think back to the day you first told yourself, "One day I am GOING to do that!" Can you remember? Where was it? How old were you? What was the weather like? What kind of cars were they? Don't analyze it for now, just put yourself back there. For example, I can remember that day clearly. It was at Vaca Valley Raceway, a now-defunct track about halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco, just off highway 80 near Vacaville, California. I was probably nine or ten years old, sitting on the bleachers getting the first of many race-day sunburns, and the cars that went by were the most splendid thing a boy could ever imagine. The colors, sounds, variety, and speed were overwhelming. There were Mustangs like my dad's '65 2+2, the first car I ever rode in at over 100 miles per hour, but the ones on track were white with blue stripes and they went a lot faster than most of the other cars, at least down the straights. There were Morgans, which they told me were new but which looked like something from the Thirties. There were Porsches, looking like upside-down bathtubs but going around corners in an amazing way. And there were Alfa Romeos, glorious little red cars with the barest of fender bulges and a grille like the shield of a medieval knight, making a sound to stiffen the sinew, summon up the blood, as Shakespeare would say. There were also open-wheeled races, little cars that looked like smaller versions of the Formula 1 cars that people like Jim Clark and Graham Hill were driving in Europe, but somehow I felt distant from them. And there were sedan races -- people driving funny little four-door cars, including one particular Renault Dauphine which looked like something Dr. Seuss would draw. Our favorite in many ways was one race group in which nine or ten Morris and Austin Minis would swarm together, scrambling through the hairpin leading onto the start-finish straight like a scrimmage of angry, drunken bumblebees, inside wheels waving madly in the air as the drivers struggled to outdo each other.

What got me -- what stuck the ramrod up my shirtback and bent my psyche to this day -- was the sight of people in open sports cars like M.G.s, Alfas, Austin Healeys, Jaguars, Fiats, Triumphs, being driven flat-out on the track, numbers on the side and headlights taped up. My heart went out to them, and has never come back to me. So what was it for you that caused this state-change in your being, this opening up to the possibility of being, yourself, out on track, no matter the cost?

Next question: What is it that you love best about actually being on track? If you haven't yet taken the plunge, you may have to imagine this part, so think about what it is about however you participate, as spectator or course worker or just an ESPN viewer. But look at what it is that has you say, "THIS is what makes it worthwhile, THIS is why I got up at 3 AM to tow the car here and cut my knuckles 6 nights a week."

For me, it's varied over the years. My first time on track, it was the sheer exhilaration of being able to go into a corner flat-out -- or what I thought was flat-out -- and not worry about police, kids on bikes, dogs, oncoming traffic, or all the other concerns that go with driving too fast on the street. In my very first open-track session -- a local club had rented Laguna Seca for the day and about a hundred people broken into five or six run groups took turns scaring ourselves for the day -- I missed the checkered flag to end the session and spent a lap wondering where everybody else was and why they were all pointing at me. It was all too much fun to stop.

Later, in my practice race at the end of SCCA driver's school, I had another breakthrough. It had been raining all weekend long, and I was -- no surprises here considering what hooked me on racing -- I was in an open MGB, with a very trick Lexan windscreen of the sort that extends all of 2" up from the bodywork with a little lip over the steering wheel. Rainwater had been flowing into my helmet since Saturday morning, my Nomex was soaked through (from the *outside*, thankyouverymuch), and I finally understood the joke about sailing, which is sometimes described as standing fully dressed in an icewater shower while tearing up hundred-dollar bills. Only on a sailboat, there isn't a maniac with an axe standing just outside the shower stall, waiting to maim or kill you if you make the slightest error in judgment.

When the end of Sunday came around, we were scheduled to have practice races so we could have experience following the pace car, watching the polesitter, and not get completely stupid when the green flag drops. I was gridded mid-pack (which is to say, we had drawn a lottery) and my mantra on the pace lap had been "I won't screw up, I won't screw up." My goal was to survive the start, to keep the car pointing the direction I intended it to go, stay on the asphalt, and drive under the checker in 10 laps.

The pace car pulled off at the pit entrance, which is just outside the entrance to turn 11 at Sears Point. We bunched up, all of us doing our best to look good, be nice and get our logbooks signed so we could do this for real in a few more weekends. One of the GT-1 cars up front was leading us, he was going really slowly at the exit of 11 which leads through an un-turn called 12, really just the end of the pit wall shortly before the bridge where the flagger stood.

I heard a roar through the helmet and noticed that the cars ahead of me were smoking, speeding up, and starting to disappear, so I too punched it. At that exact moment, as though Steven Spielberg were flying overhead in the helicopter, the clouds broke and the sun poured down onto the still-slick track. A few cars got well and truly sideways as we sped down course, but I was beginning to feel the excitement of open competition.

About then, another E Production car -- and therefore one of my only real competitors, running in my class -- came up behind me on my left attempting to pass. Before the race I'd sworn to myself that I'd let anyone by, my goal was just to survive the day unscathed and get my logbook signed.

And then something happened. You know that speech in Patton, where George C. Scott says, "When you stick your hand into a pile of goo that used to be your best friend's face... you'll know what to do"? It's really like that. There was no power on earth that would let me permit the 914 to get by.

Early in the day they'd told us that the right side of the track on the start-finish straight was dry, which I'd learned really meant that it was shallow; the puddles there were only about 2 inches deep, compared to maybe 5 inches on the left. And the Porsche had come up on my left corner.

So I idly, almost nonchalantly -- as nonchalantly as one can be at a hundred miles an hour in 2 inches of standing water -- eased my car over to the center of the track, forcing the 914 to move left. He did, and the deep water did what I knew it would: slowed him up. Simple physics, really; the resistance of trying to push his car through that much water ate up his usable horsepower, and I was able to move a couple carlengths ahead before the next turn.

That day, I learned that it's cool to go fast -- but life begins when you go faster than someone else.

That's enough for this month. Think about what it is that has you put yourself, your car, your ego at risk four, six, ten times a year. And remember, the idea here isn't to "cure" you -- it's to help you wring out every last drop of ecstasy from those moments on course. We'll talk again in 30 days or so, and till then, wave to the corner workers for me.

This article copyright 1997 by Scott Fisher. All Rights Reserved.

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