Sunday, June 15, 2014

Circuitous reasoning

Event photos by the author and Claudia Guerra.
On certain rare occasions one gets to fulfill a lifetime's longings, finds a way to step into the manifestation of a dream and experience some fleeting but perfect moment of actualization - one single point in one day in one existence where known reality leaves off and that which has always been desired becomes whole and the conscious world shifts into something transcendent, magical, almost divine.

This is not about one of those times.

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Note (6/17/14): since this originally went up I've not only gone through my usual obsessive tweaking process but heard back from the story's other major protagonist about a few incorrect recollections. This is now more or less the definitive agreed version.

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It all started, like so many noble efforts in this day and age, with a text message back in January from a friend asking if I was up for an endurance karting event at Lime Rock.

First, the friend. I've known Lou for about seven years, since I had a temp stint at the desk of one of the NYU residence halls where he would occasionally stop in as part of his duties with the campus safety patrol. Lou is the most immersed and devoted racing fan I have ever met; he makes me look like the guy who sort of knows that something happens in Indiana at the end of May every year. He drives a Corvette Z06 with the armrest lid signed by Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell and Franck Freon (but still missing Chris Kniefel), volunteers at Lime Rock, stands in line for autographs, has built a racing-game seat setup out of PVC tubing, is as deeply informed as he is fiercely opinionated...I mean, he even named his son Sebastian after you-know-who.

Second, racing itself. Like just about every other good and proper automotive enthusiast, I regard racing as something close to a spiritual event. Racing bestows legitimacy. It separates proper drivers from wannabes and proper manufacturers from charlatans. It's also been one of those things that's always managed to be somewhere out of reach for me despite my serious, if not obsessive, enthusiasm and longings (mostly cost of racing school and car prep, etc.). How close had I come? I was the class of the field at a tiny track at some upstate New York amusement park when I was there with my cousins one day in 1987, running karts with all the competition attitude of a dump truck; I'd attended the high-performance driving school that Bertil Roos runs at Pocono back in 1990 right after I got my license; I'd done a track day at Monticello a few years ago at an event put on by Lexus [sic]; I'd...yeah, that's about it. So if I wasn't an absolute naif, close enough.

And no longer really relevant because hey! Here we go! Opportunity is making a weird noise on my iPhone and to dismiss it would be somewhere between a tragedy and a crime. Let's do this. Right?

Besides, in spite of the Corvette and his anorak tendencies, Lou was on about the same level as I was experience-wise - he'd tried some karting back about the time we met, if not earlier - so that made some kind of odd sense. Add in my creeping sense of advancing age and a concurrent sense of regret about too often missing out on [insert random hedonistic pleasure here] and the stage was pretty much set.

And there's the whole attitude that goes with karting that is so irresistible. It's such a pure form of motor racing. A kart is so childishly simple. Most of the great drivers of all time got their start in karts, so they do not lack for legitimacy, and what better way to get a sense of The Real Thing without a massive financial commitment or need to play against other priorities? It's such the perfect balance between lighthearted fun and rousing competition. So momentum gathered and a sense of commitment grew as the weather warmed. The race, a one-and-a-half-hour enduro, would be on May 17. I had two goals: Don't finish last and don't embarrass myself.

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We return to the experience issue, or - really - the lack of experience issue. If I was going to make anything approaching a good showing I needed to get a feel for the peculiar nature of a kart.

By happy coincidence Wonderful One had signed us up for some Groupon special at the Grand Prix New York indoor kart track up in Westchester some while ago; we'd never gone up for it and the package deal had expired, but the amount she'd paid was still valid. So two weeks before the race I drove up to Mt. Kisco by myself to get some seat time.

Spending some time reading my cherished copy of Piero Taruffi's "The Technique of Motor Racing" as I lay in bed for a few nights before that Saturday was appropriate. Having lunch at Burger King before I went up maybe wasn't as appropriate, but no big deal.

Showed up, got registered, the Groupon was $1.75 short of what I needed for two race sessions. Perfect. Attentively sat through the rules-and-regs video, decided I didn't need a driving suit given that I was wearing jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, took a helmet and mini-balaclava/hairnet and a support collar, and gridded with a guy and girl who had apparently decided this would be an interesting date. Good for them, but I had more serious matters on the mind.

In a more reasonable world and a more serious setting I would have taken some time to learn the track and get a feel for the kart, but in this environment the whole idea was much more like hit it/hang on/just go. Which I did.

Running on an indoor track was strange, or at least being on a track that tight and with walls coming up into your face that quickly was strange. And they did come up quickly; even with the modest outputs of the motor I was flinging myself around at a manic pace. And the steering was ridiculously quick and the handling was twitchy and the left-foot brakes were weird at first and OH MY GOD I'M RACING AND THIS IS AMAZING.

Spun once.

Finished the session. The guy had won by dint of not spinning or whatever, but I had been closing. Got up, unbuckled my helmet, took a long breath. My hands were shaking. I tapped out a message to Lou on my phone; I could barely hit the screen correctly.

Walked around a bit to cool off, then got set for my second session - running against another boy/girl couple. I essentially ignored them during the race unless I was passing them. By now I was starting to get a feel for everything; the left-foot braking came more naturally, I could catch a really sweet flow out of the first hairpin if I set it up right, I would whomp down through the tight downhill right-hander and run a wide-open drift along the back, just feeling the rear end slide oh-so-wonderfully as I traced an expanding arc. Passed both of my competitors at least a few times. Didn't spin. Felt like a demigod.

After I'd parked and handed back my helmet, I needed some time. I walked a slow lap of the parking lot, the smell of ozone from a nearby storm in the air, single random raindrops plunking against my head. I felt disconnected somehow, removed to a different plane.

My senses eventually dialed back down to reality, or at least close enough to let me drive home in relative safety. For the first few miles the Passat felt like it had a suspension made solely of rubber.

Okay, so I had done all of twenty laps of a track the size of a basketball court against nonexistent competition, but something fantastic had happened. Okay, I was well off the absolute lap record, but the timing system placed me in the top 15% of track history. For a first-time drive in a new vehicle at a new course, I was pretty happy with that result.

This had worked. This had proven something. I felt that much closer to ready.

Or so I thought.

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Race day came two weeks later, in the midst of an extraordinarily stressful month in what has been an extraordinarily stressful year. Sensibly, Lou slotted us into the last race session of the day with the other mostly less-experienced types when he did the initial setup. I filled out my online application and paid the fee that Thursday night. We were Team Via dell'Acqua, in honor of the downtown Water Street location of that old NYU residence hall. Since it was his idea in the first place, I put Lou in as team captain.

I'm sure that Fernando Alonso's personal chef advises him against having a cheeseburger and lots of beer the night before a race. (Maybe Kimi Räikkönen does that.) I'm also sure that Fernando's weekdays don't involve teaching math in Harlem to eighty shrieking seventh graders, so I'll ask for a pass here even if it didn't exactly set me up to be in prime shape the next day. Such is the amateur-racing lifestyle.

Saturday morning. Slogged through a mess of city traffic, then finally hit clear roads on the way up to Lime Rock. Stopped at Burger King for lunch again. Hey, it worked the first time....

Got to the track about halfway through the second of the three enduros, met up with Lou and his family, Claudia and Sebastian, who had driven up in their Expedition. After a solid round of "Whooooah, this is actually happening!", I turned my attention to what was happening on the track, trying to get a feel for the line and maybe braking points on the parts I could see. Obvious stuff.
Weather was just about perfect: partly cloudy, temps in the low 70s or so, perfectly dry. A familiar-looking BMW E30 M3 in the parking zone indicated that some of the Classic Car Club crew were on hand; indeed, they had multiple entries, and Harper was setting up for one of his stints when I see him.

We checked in and sensibly chose to be classified with the rest of the newbs. The admins set everything up on the laptops, making sure that all payments and releases and whatnot were in order. We then stepped on a slightly battered digital bathroom scale and weighed in.

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Please understand something: I am not fat. I am big. There is a distinct difference between these two approaches to body size. Yes, I have an irritatingly durable paunch on my midsection. (You can shut up about the beer and cheeseburger.) I am also exactly six feet tall, have a size 7 7/8 head, run a 36-inch sleeve, and my feet require either a size 14 or 15 depending on shoe type. My legs are built to haul my mass up the mountains we climb in summer and pedal a singlespeed over the Queensborough Bridge. When I try on shirts, it tends to be the chest and shoulders much more than the middle that define my size and limit my options. I am a big guy, I come from two families of big guys, and even if I pursue a radical fitness program I'll always be more linebacker than marathoner. It's who I am, and so be it.

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The scale says 253. Sigh.

I am apparently the heaviest person in the race by some margin, and that margin is apparently between Lou and me. There's one other (legitimately fat) guy walking around who probably clears 200, but the other racers are consistently somewhere between fit and willowy. Team Via dell'Acqua is the obvious Big Dude squad. So it goes. Other drivers will have to carry ballast; I look at the list of weights by driver, half-jokingly hoping to see my name with a negative number.

Back to the Passat for a drink of water and a change of footwear, going from low-top Chuck Taylors to Nike running shoes which somehow seem more appropriate. While I'm doing this, of course, everyone else is starting the track walk. I thankfully catch up without missing much. We are led around the course by a rail-thin old-timer who probably knows every square inch of Lime Rock by heart and clearly expects his audience to have at least a passable idea about what they are doing on a race track. I listen intently, but a fair bit of the guidance on braking points and corner exit geometry is lost to the brisk wind. Regardless, we thoughtfully follow the course and I try to match what I'm hearing with what I saw in the prior race. Back at the start we listen to rules about driver changes and stop procedures and flags. We all understand.
The track, via Google Maps (annotated by the author)
Time to suit up. Lou had brought some gear: helmet, gloves, driving shoes. I had opted not to bring my vintage-2000ish Shoei motorcycle helmet and bike gloves and decided that those Nike running shoes would be the most appropriate footwear choice from what I had available. (Other options: Doc Martens boots, loafers, dress lace-ups, sandals, bedroom slippers. Size fifteen racing shoes - or something like them - are not a major priority for most companies.) Happily, the folks that run the show understand that we don't all have a compelling reason to own a Nomex suit and offer a very reasonable gear-rental sideline. I am assigned a suit and helmet and support collar. The helmet isn't terribly comfortable, but it fits well enough. The suit stays together with Velcro instead of a zipper. The suit's left ankle cuff Velcro strip is long gone, so I sneak a length of tape from a roll on a table and quietly tape the cuff together. It all works.

I chose a pair of red XXL gloves that fit nicely until someone said, yeah, those look exactly like the gloves I wanted once because that's what Greg Moore wore. Observation: Racing is nothing if not a hotbed of superstitions. Maybe it doesn't really matter, but an association with a driver killed on the track is not a favorable association. I nod, wait until the guy leaves, then discreetly toss the gloves back into the box and find a pair of slightly smaller but not red gloves.

It's not melodrama to say that putting on that suit felt special. Finally, finally, even though it's only karts but finally here I am in Nomex and a helmet and I'm about to go honest-to-God racing.

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A few notes on our rides:

For someone who has grown up learning about automotive engineering, a kart is a rather peculiar beast. There is no suspension. There is one disc brake, acting on the rear and operated by the driver's left foot; there is no front brake. The driver's right foot works the throttle of (in this case) a 10-hp 270cc Honda powerplant. Said motor spins a truly solid rear axle - no differential - through a centrifugal clutch and motorcycle-style chain. Steering is about half a turn lock-to-lock. Tires are slicks and can almost be called cute.
Photo: http://uk.dino.dk/
The karts run by Endurance Karting are built by a company called Dino, based in Denmark, and are about the size of a card table. The gas tank is between the driver's knees. There are no seatbelts. There is a substantial double loop of tubing that runs the perimeter of the car. The weight of the kart is apparently a Danish state secret, but I find it hard to believe that it's more than 150 pounds - and it's possibly a good bit less. Driver weight is therefore a very significant competitive factor.

Emphasis also on that braking setup. One of the big intentions for that practice session at GPNY was to get a feel for the left-foot brake. I had adapted pretty quickly up there and felt at least reasonably confident. Same with the twitchy, borderline unstable handling. That said, driving a kart will forever be more than a bit weird just because of the controls. (And this isn't even thinking about what's required of a shifter kart.)

Actually, it's more than just a bit weird in general.

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We are assigned kart number 23. Practice time. Lou lets me go first. First impression: Dammit, is this thing too small?

It is. Or I'm too big. My back and backside do not slot neatly into the narrow plastic-shell seat. My running shoes are too big against the pedals, which are about two inches too close for my liking. The seat does not adjust. My hands aren't rubbing against my knees, but it's close. Grumble.

The marshal waves, and I scoot onto the track. Second impression: Oh dear holy God what have I gotten myself into here?

The karts looked composed and even sort of slow when I was watching them earlier. Driving one is something else entirely and verges on being terrifying. The sensation of speed is overwhelming. The brakes are clumsy and awkward and downright nasty. I very quickly drop the idea of following anything that resembles the racing line and just hold on for dear life.

I cannot get this thing to handle right. It doesn't take long to realize that all my extra body weight is a severe problem. The kart refuses to turn in past a certain limit; it's not even understeer so much as it is obstinacy. Rear grip gives up early. I am swinging at apexes with all the accuracy of a five-year-old attacking a piñata. Mix that in with the demonic brakes and the pounding I'm taking through the tires and frame and the moral imperative to go at least reasonably fast in traffic and I am absolutely lost.

I think I made it through one lap before I spun. I don't think I made it through another complete lap before doing it again at about the same place. Somehow I am getting the kart very unbalanced and unhappy exiting the 180° first turn before I hit the mini-Corkscrew, or else I'm braking too hard before that downhill twist, or else I'm just busily proving to everyone that I'm utterly inept. They send me into the pits for a quick consultation to make sure I'm aware of what I'm doing out there. Yes, I know.

After a handful of laps I pull into the driver-change zone to hand it off to Lou. I am badly shaken. I try to collect my thoughts, recall how I got everything to work at GPNY, struggle to reconsider my lines and braking and everything. I watch the other drivers go through everything with a fluidity and control that suddenly seems beyond my understanding.

Lou seems much more at home. Even if he's not running near the front he looks reasonably smooth and balanced. He posts a fair pole time; we're well back but won't start last.

Don't finish last and don't embarrass myself.

We will be required to stop and change drivers about five times. We work out some driver-change signaling and he tells me to take the start. I squeeze myself into the kart again and we grid on the short back straight before the downhill (a setup devised to help the heavier drivers, ironically). A pause, a wave, and we are underway.

I am making a complete hash of things almost from go. Despite timing the start well I am slow off the line; I am trying to find something of a line while not getting tangled up with traffic; I am sliding all over the place, killing unspeakable amounts of momentum. I don't know how long it takes me to spin again, but it's not long. And then I do it again, pulling a truly grand loop into the weeds. The kart high-centers before I can get back on track, and I humiliatingly need to get up and out while they push the kart back on track. Into the pits to check for damage. At least it counts for one of our mandatory pit stops.

I wrestle around for a while until Lou signals. Once more around and I pull in. Between the squeeze and my state of shock I can barely get up. He takes off and I go search for my water bottle.

I know he doesn't want to stay out for too long; he's been concerned about his arm muscles. Turns out he does a pretty good stint.

By the time we motion to do another change I have at least calmed down a bit. I go out for a while, still fighting against the kart's trickery and my clumsiness, but at least I'm getting a slightly better idea about how to handle certain parts of the track.

I have to enter the long left-hand Turn One fairly slow and wide to avoid spinning at the exit. I really have to slow it down before going through the mini-Corkscrew, turning in at the top at a jogging pace and riding gravity downward as I squeeze on the gas (while everyone else swoops around in a clean double-apex arc). Long sweeping left again past a tire barrier then foot hard against the tubing past the trees, another left-hand sweeper switching to a right then left again uphill to the start line. I am drifting through these three, especially the first one, yelling at myself in my helmet to keep holding the slide and hang on. It's not a very pretty drift, either. This is not Fangio in his 250F at the Nürburgring in 1957 chasing immortality; this is a bulky math teacher in a wheeled card table with a big lawn mower engine going sideways, and I can hear the revs drop and speed scrub off as the tires slide. At least by now I am starting to catch the kart before it spins (mostly). I have completely given up on being competitive and am just trying to keep my speed up and not be an obstacle for the guys who are legitimately racing.
After God knows how long I see the sign and come in. Turns out that it wasn't Lou giving the sign, though, and it takes him a minute to get his helmet on. If we were anywhere close to competitive the pit stop would have been disastrous, but it really just sort of fits in with how it's all going instead.

I rest, watch him circulate, check my dismal lap times, drink some water. By now I am deeply discouraged and frustrated.

Early in my next stint, about an hour in overall, I notice an entirely unexpected problem: my hands are really starting to ache badly. I did not - could not - anticipate the effects of gripping the wheel so tightly while thrashing around the often-patchy surface and hopping some of the curbs, especially at the bottom of the downhill. I try to flex them once in a while when I get a few seconds of straight travel, usually on the front straight, but the constant turning and hammering are taking a toll.

I feel it in my stomach, as well. I'm not sure if it's because I'm breathing the exhaust fumes of the droning motors of everyone who is passing me (repeatedly) or because of how my internal organs are getting jounced around, or some combination of the two plus my pronounced disgust at the incompetence I am so clearly displaying. By now the don't finish last/don't embarrass myself credo has been completely abandoned; right now I just basically want to make it to the end, as much for Lou's sake as anything. I keep plugging along, still fussing with my lines, still trying to get some sort of smooth BANG!!! son of a BITCH someone hit me dead center from behind. I roar in pain as number 15 and someone else come around; I think someone half-waves at me, but I'm too busy with the kart to notice and too pissed to really care. I feel it in my lower back for a while, but eventually it fades in the midst of the constant pounding and hard work.

Lou (it was really him this time) eventually signals me in again with a bit more than half an hour to go; he says he saw how I was starting to slow down through the second half between the trees and the start line. He's right. I'm finding it hard to keep the speed up. I am really getting tired; not only am I dealing with my hands and stomach and growing antipathy, but I'm physically wearing down by now.

At this point I'm basically done. I don't want to get back out there. I pull off my gloves and flex my hands, wander around a bit in a daze. Claudia and Sebastian went for a ride to calm him down and will be back later. I finish my bottle of water. I look at the race every once in a while just out of habit - almost a sort of mental muscle memory - and try to cut through the waves of frustration and disgust that are massing in my consciousness like thunderheads. There is a sort of loathing building up, a reckoning of what a terrible ambition this may have been, how this great culture of racing and speed has all of a sudden proven to be so painful and demeaning and oh Christ Lou's giving me the sign that he's coming in and here we go again. I fumble with my gloves and the support collar and strap my helmet on as he pulls in. A slow switch - we are both wearing down bad - and I go out.

I am resigned to ending this thing with as much dignity as I possibly have left. So much for not finishing last; we are laughably far behind - seventeen laps? Something like ten behind the next-to-last kart? I dutifully work my way around, trying desperately to keep my speed up at least to the point where I'm not a hazard.

Lou recovers to the point where he can take the final stint, so we do one last swap and he runs out the last few minutes. Finally the clock clicks past an hour and a half, they wave the checkered flag and after a cooldown lap he parks. We are done.

I help Lou get out of the kart and we basically collapse towards each other to keep standing up. We are both exhausted. I am also emotionally crushed.

How can something that has always been so fantastic and meaningful prove to be such a disaster?

Eventually my head clears and we talk it out a bit. I feel like I've let him down. He is just glad it's over; his extraordinary grace and generosity as a teammate has never flagged for a moment. We are both somehow repulsed by the idea of competitive driving at that point.

I slowly peel out of my suit and leave it and my helmet and collar and gloves with the rest of the used rental gear. Lou keeps his on for a bit, goes back over to the kart to get some pictures with Sebastian. I wait until he gets out, then quietly apologize to number 23 for how it had to suffer through such a day.

The overall race winner was a Central Casting version of an up-and-coming racing star: late teens or early twenties, trim, confident. The series leader at that point was a gray-haired veteran. We are actually classified third in our class and pick up our bronze medals amidst some polite and well-earned chuckling while I remember when someone said, sure, we can definitely win the race if everyone else drops out.

I slump down in the driver's seat of the Passat, slip back into my Chuck Taylors (which probably would have worked better than the running shoes) and slowly roll out of Lime Rock. I am fastidiously sticking to posted speed limits, if going even that fast. I stop across from a farm and watch the animals for a while. I turn on some quiet music.

When I get onto the highway, I do something I haven't done in probably eight years: I accelerate up to the posted speed limit, get the car stabilized, and click the cruise control on.

I wake up the next morning feeling like I spent the hour and a half in a cement mixer.

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It takes a while to come to terms with what happened. Eventually I start to make sense of it all: how being as heavy as I am was a grotesque disadvantage that ruined the kart's handling, how expecting to hop in and at least hold my own against unknown and more experienced competition was first-order hubris, how driving something as eccentric as a kart definitely requires its own skills and driving anything competitively takes serious talent and cojones.

With time the frustration fades, the pain is slowly forgotten. I can start to follow race results without a dose of regret or too much distance. I can accept what has happened without feeling like something in my life is deeply wrong.

But for now, to the side. Too much else going on, and I need to be in a better place - certainly physically, perhaps mentally - if I'm ever to even entertain the idea of racing again. For now, this is something best left to others.

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For now.

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