Bimmer Lite - August 2009
It finally happened: Vini and I had an off-track adventure.
by Marc Biunno (aka Bimmer Lite)
Reprinted courtesy of Marc Biunno and Roundel Magazine
It takes a lot to spin a Mini. Even on a skid pad, which is not much fun in a Mini, I had to use the e-brake just to get a decent slide, only to have it die in a lame whimper of piggish understeer.
I could blame that on the handling characteristics of a front-wheel-drive car with most of its weight in the front, or I could admit that I'm no wizard of car control. As I pirouetted off of the track at Lime Rock, it was pretty clear to me that the problem was not the car at all – it was me.
Luckily, nobody was hurt, I kept Vini's “shiny side up,” and the only injury I suffered was to my seemingly invincible ego. All told, I left the track that day with a renewed respect for the limit, a better perspective of my limited ability, and a good reminder of what driving school is all about.
The setting was Lime Rock Park for the New Jersey Chapter's 2nd Annual Last Chance to Drive Lime Rock Driving School. On a gorgeous day, the NJ Chapter lapped Lime Rock alone. That is to say, without the presence of Lime Rock's hundred-thousand-dollar-per-person “club.” As fun as it is to share the track with “the club,” it's more fun to have it to yourself instead of watching them out there, all four cars in total, while their companions sip bubbly in the paddock. Cheerio! Good Lap, good lap! You tore the tarmac off that one, Chap! No offense to anyone who ponied up the cash to be part of this club – my glib appraisal of your affairs comes from jealousy alone, for if a hundred grand were easy to come by for me, I'd be in the club, too. I'd be driving my Mini, and chances are that you wouldn't want me in your club, but I'd be there.
Anyway, it's quite the feat that the NJ Chapter is able to procure Lime Rock for a whole day of uninterrupted driving school glee.
Going into this event, I expected nothing but more of the same jubilation I'd always experienced at Lime Rock, especially when the Chapter officials announced that we'd be running the “classic” layout for the day. Nothing spoils the fun of a Cooper S (or Cooper, or E30, for that matter) than a tight chicane, which the new design has in the place of West Bend.
Sounds as though it was all going my way, right? Well, not so much. This would be my debut in the “advanced” group, which is a whole new playground with different rules. It's where people have highly capable cars and actual driving ability. To this point I'd benefitted from the Cooper's forgiving qualities, whereas my groupmates had learned on cars that are probably more difficult to drive quickly.
Enter the “red mist” of track days. It's the stuff that enters your brain, muddles your decisions, and makes you feel like a racer when you're not. It makes you mash the gas when you should feather it; it makes you push harder than you have any right to push; it makes you stop learning and start quasi-racing. It's a bad thing for a driving school environment, but it's oh-so-prevalent.
Needless to say, I wanted to prove I belonged in this new group. Sadly, the red mist in my brain equated that affirmation with driving quickly instead of safely. Scott Reiman, a former instructor, said in Spring of 2008 that I'd go off track before my 30th track day. The man either knows what he's talking about or just has a knack at predicting stuff. He broke down the logic of going off track very well: some drivers with about this much time behind the wheel start to push the limits of themselves and their cars in an effort to improve. It happens that this effort only takes them backwards on the learning curve and off the track. Less is more; smooth is fast. I lived his words one year later.
During the last session of the day, everyone was quicker than before. I found myself pointing by a lot of people, which is okay, but it also made me want to push harder to keep up. Red mist.
Coming down the straight on the fifth or sixth lap of the session, I pointed by an E46 M3. We entered Big Bend (right turn, two apexes) together with him on the inside, so I altered my line wide to stay out of his way so he could have the corner and be on his merry way. Taking the “high” line around Big Bend is fine as long as you account for how much less grip there is.
That part of the track feels off-camber and gets filled with rubbery marbles from spent r-compound tires. I made it to the turn-in zone and headed towards the second apex. This is when the car started sliding (oversteering) and all hell broke loose. Before I could correct the slide, my left rear tire hit the grass, speeding up the rear of the car while my steering input was still to the right. The lack of grip in the rear and the preponderance of grip in the front, coupled with me keeping the steering wheel pointed towards the apex, meant that physics needed to take over and send Vini and me into a spin worthy of Maverick and Goose. The rest is, of course, a complete blur.
When the world stopped spinning, we came to rest just in front of the tire wall facing down track – all intact, no physical damage done except to Lime Rock's lawn.
The event was, in a word, terrifying. I thought about wrecking my car, hurting my instructor, slamming into another car, and catching some soft grass and flipping over, all in that split second. It took me 20 minutes of sitting in a quagmire (waiting for the tow truck) to figure out exactly what I did wrong. But during that 20 minutes of introspection and reflection, I knew that logically, it made sense that I went off in that situation, and emotionally, it also made sense, because I'd been pushing too hard all day.
While I feel “initiated,” the “off” club is not one I wanted to join. Next time out, I know I'm not invincible, and I'll remember the best part of driving school is not keeping up with faster drivers; it's driving my car home in one piece.