Friday, June 5, 2009

The Gift of Speed

Who is the luckiest husband on earth?  It is, in fact, me.  For my fortieth birthday, my wife, Rebecca, gave me a 3 day driving school at Jim Russel Racing School.  This is not messing around in some hopped up mustings.  This one is in open wheeled, carbon fiber, full ground effects, turbocharged mitsubishi powered F3 cars.  Well, they're not really F3 cars because F3 cars are not this powerful.  Seriously!

A series of "life events" involving, among other things, serious bodily injury and death, kept me away from my gift for over a year.  But earlier this week it came to pass.  I spent 3 whole days driving this astounding beast.

I was scheduled to take the class a month ago, but the cars were getting worked on, so the school gave me and a friend a karting class, as a thank you for being patient.  Karting scared the crap out of me (and my friend!).  I think its the rear-only brakes that make the car go nuts when you lock them up.  I thought, "good lord, the formula cars are going to be undrivable."  I'm here to report, they are not undrivable.  Far from it.

Not that its easy.  First I had to fit my generously proportioned 6'2" frame into the thing.  My shoulders were squished together.  The pedals were adjusted as far out as possible, and they were close.  They took out the "seat" and threw in a 1' thick foam pad.  I was unable to buckle my own seatbelt, because there was no place for my elbows to go.  There is a safety collar that is supposed to support your helmet in a crash--but we didn't need it because my shoulders were doing that.  I was the only one who came in after each session with his helmet covered in bugs and bits of tire.  It was because I was sticking out of the car about 8 inches higher than anyone else!
Then we drove.  The clutch has about 1/2" of engagement, and first gear is about the same ratio as 3rd in a street car.  So suffice to say, there was some stalling.  Ok, a lot of stalling.  The straight cut gears in the transmission do not require the clutch, just a firm hand and excellent timing.  "CLACK!!!" And the motor is insane!  In race trim its over 300hp.  In driving school trim, its about 225hp--the same as an F3 car.  Perfect for beginners!

One of the first things you discover as you drive a car that has the power to weight ratio of a Mini with a Dodge Viper motor in it is that you can spin it with the throttle.  I don't mean you can overcook a corner with the throttle.  I mean you can just about spin it in a straight line, at most any speed, by stomping on the gas.  But even more amazing are the brakes.  This thing goes from 120+ mph in the straights, down to 45 for a hairpin in a few car lengths.  Don't forget those downshifts!

I used to think I knew something about driving cars fast.  My Dad taught me to drive fast as a teenager.  We lived in the country, so there were plenty of twisty roads to practice on.  In fact, I had learned and developed all kinds of bad habits from driving cars far from their actual limits.  You drive the Jim Russel car badly near its limits, and it lets you know in no uncertain terms!  More specifically, I use way too much steering input, because I don't focus on my braking into the corner to set up the car.  Then I manhandle it with too much gas too early in the corner.  Or should I say I USED to do those things.  The last 3 days have taught me more about vehicle dynamics than the last 25 years.  Huge thanks to Nico and Jeff, our patient, methodical instructors.  By the end of the class, I was actually pushing the car safely, with a tolerable level of fear, and deep, transcendent, indescribable feeling of joy.  Driving in a street car now feels like traveling on a barge.