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Less than a week after the season finale at the California Speedway at Fontana, we step into a Champ Car at CART Driving 101 to experience "What It's Like Out There"
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Others by Mark
FONTANA, CA - My head is being buffeted around so badly it's banging against the sides of the cockpit, the sand is blasting my windscreen and blowing up inside my helmet, and my helmet is trying to tear itself from my head. The environment is hostile...almost violent, and I'm asking myself - what the heck is going on? Something is not right...get me out of this thing! I'm happy to say, I survived just fine thank you, and once I figured out what the problem was, the experience turned out to be better than I had hoped.
It's November 6th, exactly six days since Greg Moore met his untimely death at Fontana in the CART FedEx series season finale. The track is quiet now. It's 7:00 AM and the sun is having a hard time peeking through the thick haze that hovers over the track on this Saturday morning. As I drive through the tunnel and into the infield I pause for a moment, reflecting on the enormity of what transpired the previous Sunday. A CART Champ CAR race that had it all -- near packed grandstands, a beautiful sunny day, a points race that went down to the wire and ended in a tie-breaker, and a hard fought, very competitive race from start to finish. Unfortunately, it also had the bad side of racing--the horrific crash that took Greg Moore's life. For those of us who were a part of it, it was a day that left us emotionally drained, and we left the track not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.
But that is a part of racing, always has been, and unfortunately, probably always will be. All week I wondered how I would feel as I drove through turn 2 where Greg had his incident. Would I lift off the accelerator unknowingly through turn 2, afraid to lose control like Greg did? Would I see his skid marks, was the track rough through there, were there cross winds that caused Greg to lose control?
Now the day had finally arrived. The day I had been dreaming of for five months. The chance to once again drive a Champ Car. But from the time I pulled up to the garage area and parked until the time I was leaving about 4 hours later, the previous Sunday was just a forgotten memory. Driving a race car is a 100% commitment of all your senses and its easy for me to now understand how a driver can, and must, put tragedy behind them.
Registration and Lecture
After the 5 minute lecture on the rules for the day, we were taken outside for an instructional van ride around the track where we learned:
A Lap Around California
I was happy to learn that the clutches in these cars were now conventional ones - lift to engage, depress to disengage. In Las Vegas, when this school first started, the clutches were just the opposite and very confusing to most students.
We were told that our first segment would start out slow and the speeds would increase on each successive lap of each segment if you could keep up with the instructor and maintain the required following distance. As I sat waiting I went over all the instructions in my head once again. Finally it was time to crank up my engine. The transmission in these cars is only two speeds and therefore was quite easy.
We carried 1st (low gear) down pit lane and accelerated until we were midway between turns 1 and 2 where we shifted into 2nd (high gear). From there, the engine had plenty of torque to pull us up to racing speed as we entered the racing line midway down the backstraight. Owing to its larger size than Las Vegas ( 2.0 miles vs. 1.5 miles), Fontana is a faster track. I immediately noticed that the turns did not seem as tight, the banking was at a shallower angle and the backstraight was much longer.
The first lap was pretty much a cruising lap just to get acclimated....thank God! As I alluded to at the beginning of this story, my helmet was too big for my head and I was sitting way to high up in the car causing my head to buffet violently while my helmet was trying to climb off my head. On top of that, the week of dry windy weather had blown a lot of sand onto the track which somehow managed to make its way up inside my helmet.
Watch your speed! Hit your
marks! (SC Photo)
Bill Howard adjusts neck
brace (SC Photo)
were instrumented (SC Photo)
Top speed on the warm-up lap was just 60 mph, but on the second lap our speed jumped to 155.9 mph, nearly equal to our fastest speed of the first segment. The 3rd lap was 161.1, then 163.6, down to 163.5 followed by a slow one of just 94.0 mph due to another group getting up to speed in front of us. Once clear of them we ripped off a 172.21 mph speed on the last lap. Considering the car had a terrible miss in the engine, and was bucking like a wild bronco throughout the run, that's about as fast as I cared to go in that segment.
Throughout the second segment the wind buffeting was hardly a problem, but the miss in the engine did tend to blur my vision somewhat. Steering in the turns was heavier than I expected and I found the need to flex my hands on the straights to relieve my forearms, probably the result of holding the steering wheel too tight.
Take the time to get
buckled in properly (Steven Cipolloni photos)
Segment Three My third car fit
the best (S. Cipolloni Photo)
Out on the track we again started with a slow warm-up lap and already I could feel this car was smooth and the wind was not going to be a problem. On our second lap the speed increased to 156.8 mph followed by 162.2, 162.8, 166.4, 169.0, 166.6, and 172.1.
This time we did not run into any slower traffic, and with a smoother, more comfortable car I was able to concentrate more on what I was doing and experiencing. Whereas on the two previous segments I never really got a rhythm going, this time I did. It was a lot easier reaching 172 mph in this car than the previous car.
Given that this program is a driving 'experience' where safety is of utmost importance, we were never on the edge. I would have liked to have gone faster in my third segment, but that's for a more advanced class. There was a lot more speed left in these cars on the straights and we entered the turns far slower than I would have liked. However, from the middle of the turn out we did accelerate pretty hard on each lap, pulling some pretty respectable g's. That was the most exhilarating part of each lap.
Unfortunately, all good things must end, and so too did our three wonderful sessions at CART Driving 101. The reactions from everyone afterwards were similar to what I heard after the 100 level class at Las Vegas -- wonderful, exhilarating, spectacular..... you get the picture.
Afterwards, I had the opportunity to interview some of the other drivers and instructors (you will need Real Player to listen. Audio from when I was with 7th Gear).
Bill Howard - Indianapolis, Indiana
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Founded by Robert (Bob) Lutz, who also founded the Richard Petty Driving Experience), CART Driving 101 offers a full menu of driving experiences at both Las Vegas Motor Speedway and California Motor Speedway in Fontana. Like everything in racing - how fast you want to go depends on how much you are willing to spend. At CART Driving 101, you attain higher speeds with each successive course.
CART Driving 101 may not be the real thing, but it's the closest thing to it going. Recently NASCAR's Randy LaJoie, CART's Robby Gordon, World of Outlaw regulars Donnie Schatz, Sammy Swindell, Danny Lasoski, Greg Hodnett, and Johnny Herarra tried their hand at this school. Even though he is a professional driver already, Schatz said, "there's nothing like it, it's the greatest thing I've done in my life." To that we say, amen!
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