Editor’s note: This article first appeared as Track Day with Wings & Slicks by Associate Editor Adam Tate. With the U.S. Grand Prix coming up this weekend we thought it was a perfect time to share this again and give our readers an idea of just what it’s like to drive an open wheel race car. Enjoy.
Last week I experienced the power, immediacy and thrill of an open wheel race car for the first time in my life. A fan of open wheel racing since child hood, the anticipation and excitement I felt as I drove out to Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie was fever pitch. It is there where I met up with Hans Wolter and his top-notch crew from Wings&Slicks. I arrived early for the 3:30 event and watched as they finished unloading their transporter, proudly wearing sponsor decals and a championship banner from 2006.
In the parking lot were three beautiful little F2000 cars in various states of preparedness. A beautiful red, yellow and green machine that sat crouched on the pavement like a puma, a Blue Angel-esque machine with its engine cover removed and a slightly larger white and green car, also sans engine cover. The cars are looked after by Canadian team Brian Stewart Racing. They have competed in F2000 and Indy Lights for decades and have worked with the likes of Paul Tracy, Christiano Da Matta, Bryan Herta and Wade Cunningham. While waiting for the show to hit the road I snapped a few pictures and took some respite from the Texas heat under a shade tree. Once the crew was ready and all the participants had arrived the program began.
We started with a basic briefing on safety, flags and track procedure, followed by a track walk. Then everyone got a chance to sit in the cars in order to familiarize ourselves with the tight confines and unusual driving position required by such uncompromising machines. Soon after, the real fun began: three 10 minute sessions behind the wheel on a temporary autocross circuit the crew laid out on the huge parking lot. I was driver number 4, which gave me just enough time to watch the first laps of the day and get myself mentally prepared for a car with downforce and a zero to sixty time of under three seconds.
Soon I was on deck, I donned my helmet and carefully slid on my sunglasses before closing the visor. I climbed into the red and yellow car, gently lowering myself into the cockpit like I had watched so many professionals do on television. I checked the pedal box: tiny, I checked the clutch: heavy, the brake pedal: stiff, the throttle: right next to the brake. A crew member tightened up my belts, popped on the wheel and gave me the go ahead to start the car.
My nerves were surprisingly calm, until I reached out and pressed the red starter button with my thumb. The car erupted into life, an instantly vibrating cacophony wailing right behind my back. After a gentle push start, I slid the minuscule gear lever into first and was on my way.
They advised us to take it easy in the first session and begin with an installation lap or two as the engines, brakes and tires would not yet be up to temperature, so I dawdled around the first long right hander and right-left chicane before reaching the short back straightaway. Once on the straight, curiosity and joy tossed caution aside and commanded my right foot to the floor in search of the rev limiter and…Goodgollymissmolly! No amount of on board footage I had watched, go karts or fast road cars I had driven had prepared me for the sheer and abrasive acceleration the car so willingly offered.
I let out a scream of delight as the revs rose and the power punched me back in the seat. I slowed it down for the long right hander at the end of the straight but from that moment on, I knew I’d want to push myself and the car as far as we could go. I tried building up my speed progressively, remembering everything Hans said, and everything I’d ever read about race cars rewarding calm, smooth inputs.
Lap by lap I built up my confidence, braking later, getting on the throttle sooner, carrying more speed through each corner. I began consciously seeking out later braking points and scanning the track to see I how compared to the other drivers. All too soon my first session was over, but the red and yellow 72 had proven to be a sweetheart. Smooth, fast, incredibly well composed over the bumpy parking lot and ridiculously responsive. I jumped out with a huge grin on my face, removed my helmet and grabbed a water. Then I began the long wait while the other participants got their chance behind the wheel.
For my second session, I got the blue and yellow car. From outside observation it seemed remarkably similar to the red, but as Hans wisely pointed out, each car had its own character. If the red car was an angel, I was now in the Blue Devil. I took it round the first curve, the right-left chicane and onto the back straight, I unwound the steering and put my foot flat to the floor like I had done in Red 72. Before I could blink the back end began to come around, I tried to save it with a dab of opposite lock, but my reflexes were far too slow and I spun. The first spin of the day left me with an equal sense of pride and shame. Pride in that I was the first to push hard enough to spin, shame in that I killed the engine when I did. The crew came out on a golf cart and got me fired up again, but on the very next lap I spun it again! Sitting in the cockpit, I realized I had to slow down all my inputs, and by being a little more patient with the car, she began to perform. The Blue Devil was less composed over the bumps than Red 72, and a bit less comfortable as well, but after my first few laps she proved to be just as fun to drive.
By the time of my third and final session, some of the participants had already finished and a glorious Texas sunset left us to race on under the flood lights, it was a beautiful sight. The cars were very warm and everyone felt confident enough to truly push. There were several spins, many a cone knocked out of place, some good lock ups and even a flat spot on the right front of the green and white car that resulted in the only tire change of the day. I started counting the white board and the cars on track to see what I would be in for my final 10 minute glory run, my pulse quickened, I would be back in my beloved Red 72.
The driver before me hopped out and I was ready, helmet already on I ran over and slid down in the cockpit. A push start and I was away. One of the quicker drivers was in the Blue Devil during my stint and I began watching him, measuring my progress on track by what point of the circuit he was on when I reached the back straight. I began to push immediately, knowing it would be my last time in a race car for the foreseeable future I wanted to make the most of each and every lap. The undulations and tight turns of the parking lot had the feel of a classic street circuit and I imagined myself pounding round Monaco, chasing the likes of Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso.
Every lap I braked later and later, some turns all I had to do was feather the throttle and I could avoid the brakes all together. I got on the power earlier and earlier, trying to find the ideal line through the chicane before the back straight away. I hit the rev limiter and slammed on the brakes at the last possible moment, I carried as much speed into the final bend as I could, barely lifting even for the rather large mid-corner bump in the pavement. It knocked the tiny wheel about it my sweaty hands, but I wasn’t slowing down, not now.
The Marshall waved the flag indicating my final lap, knowing I’d never forget the moment I pushed like I never had before, the car was so hot it felt like sitting in a fireplace, my arms were sore, visibility diminishing as the sun sank below the horizon when on the final corner of the final lap I spun it. A glorious finish to the most intensely wonderful moments I’ve ever had behind the wheel.
My day was done, but I didn’t care. A smile stretched across my whole face as I climbed out of the car for the last time that night.
I stayed until the event was over, talking with other participants and with the crew. Hans and I talked about racing, and he shared stories of his days racing touring cars in Canada. I thanked him and all of the guys for a wonderful experience, got in my Miata and headed home. The sensation of going from a full on race car to a road car was fascinating. Suddenly everything about my Mazda; the clutch, the steering, the gear shift felt so light, so easy. I was so keenly aware of everything around me.
The next day while driving on a slick road the back end came around on me, I over-corrected and it came around again, ordinarily a moment like that would have left my heart racing, but I calmly reigned it back in and carried on my way. Just 30 minutes in a racing car and I was already a better driver for it. I can’t say enough good things about Hans and his boys for such a great experience.
If you’re a fan of racing and want to get a small glimpse of what it’s like, if you’re just a fan of cars and want to drive quickly in a safe environment, if you want to be a better driver, you should give a track day like this a try. You owe it to yourself and everyone else out on the road. There’s no better or more enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.