In February of 1977, I drove my orange Fiat 124 Spider 1,224 miles from Surrey, British Columbia, to Willow Springs, California. Top down the whole way. I was going from where I lived to what would feel like home.
From the time I began to dream of being a professional race driver as a five-year-old boy, I hoped that I’d have the ability to become one. I intensely hoped that I wouldn’t suck at it. And I hoped even more that I’d feel at home in a race car.
And the first time I ever stepped into the Formula Ford waiting for me at the Jim Russell Race Drivers School at Willow Springs Raceway, I knew I was just where I belonged. I can only imagine what Freud would have thought about me and race cars if he’d seen me sitting in that one, like a baby cuddled by its mother.
I slip on the beige, school-supplied, fire-retardant driving suit and stand in the building heat of the day in the middle of the Mojave Desert; sweat is already dripping down the backs of my ears. I soak it up by pulling a white Bell helmet down over my head, then wiggle my fingers into the blue racing gloves, left hand first. It’s time to step into the seat of this tiny Sunkist-orange-colored Formula Ford. Supporting my body’s weight by holding onto the sides of the cockpit, I lower myself into the seat and my legs slide down into the front of the chassis, straight and tucked closely together to fit into the tube-like compartment.
Race car seats are made with two purposes: to support and hold your body in as tightly as possible, and to communicate what the car is doing to the driver’s body. In more simple terms, they have little to no padding. In a Formula Ford, the seat is usually a fiberglass shell shaped roughly like the average human body. But after sitting in this seat for a few minutes, you realize that there isn’t an average human body shape, because the seat does not fit—in fact, it’s not at all comfortable.
Ah, but driving a race car is supposed to be a manly, tough-guy kinda thing, right? The driver is supposed to feel pain, right? Well, that’s what I thought back then. Since then, I’ve learned from experience that if I’m in pain in a race car cockpit, I don’t drive as well. So now I—and any other driver who knows what’s going on—spends hours making the seat comfortable. It’s just as crucial as meeting the first two criteria.
My instructor helps buckle me into the car, as it’s nearly impossible to reach for and plug in the six-point harness without assistance. Strapped in like a fighter pilot at the nearby Andrews Air Force base, I cannot help but feel like I’m truly part of the car. But this is nothing like I’ll feel three days later.
I fire the engine up, and the entire car shakes and vibrates. There is not an ounce of rubber to isolate the movement of the engine from the chassis (not to mention my seat), and I feel like I’m in a massage chair gone wild. It’s metal bolted to metal, bolted to fiberglass, bolted to me. And that engine is sitting only six inches behind my head. It tickles my body, but in a way that makes it feel like it’s from the inside-out. The vibration’s frequency is unnatural, penetrating my internal organs; it’s somewhere between funny and painful, and my rib cage feels like a series of tuning forks in an earthquake.
The gear shifter is stubby, about three inches tall. As I push it forward into first gear, the transmission crunches—it doesn’t like to be used while the car is sitting still. I rev the engine, let the clutch out, and accelerate onto the racetrack. The car is so rough and my head is shaking around so much that my vision is blurred. But after a couple of laps, my eyes learn to counteract this by “floating” in their sockets—now my fuzzy vision goes away, only to be replaced by super-focused eyesight. Now I can see way ahead like a hawk; with only the thin curved plexiglass shield of my helmet separating my eyes from the wind and road ahead, I’ve become part of the track.
Over the next three days of training, my pace increases and the g-forces build as I power through the turns. At the end of the straightaways, I brake hard, the resulting force at least twice what I’ve ever felt while driving my sports car on the highway. When I brake, I downshift the transmission from fourth gear to third to second, using a technique called heel-and-toe. It’s a dance on the pedals: I depress the brake with my right foot while my left is depressing the clutch; then I twist my right foot and quickly stab and release the gas pedal to rev the engine before releasing the clutch. It’s a case of simultaneously using three pedals with two feet, resulting in a gear change that is as smooth as a limo ride. If I could do anything close to that—and maintain even a semblance of musical rhythm—on a dance floor, I’d be a superstar of reality TV.
While my feet are dancing with the clutch, brake, and gas pedals, my right hand is moving the shifter into the appropriate gear for the upcoming corner. Done correctly, the car’s transmission clicks into gear as snugly as an Apple iPhone fits the box it came in, without causing the car to lurch, even during hard braking and the clutch release. It’s seamless, a term that I would later learn to describe the proper use of race car controls.
My instructor reminds me to enter the corners slowly, then accelerate through them so I can exit the turns much faster and build speed all the way down the next straightway. Of course, entering a corner “slowly” on a racetrack is a relative term. One is never actually slow on a track. But the goal is to maximize speed down the straights; the earlier in the turn I can begin accelerating, the faster I’ll be.
As my speed increases and my comfort level builds, so do the g-forces. By the end of the day, I’m having a hard time literally keeping my head upright—the forces have pushed the weight of my helmeted head sideways for so long that I’ve worn out my neck muscles. Through the long and ultra-fast Turn 9 at Willow Springs Raceway, my head has flopped over and my helmet is leaning on the left side of the cockpit bodywork. It’s the only way I can hold my head somewhat still. I could stop and rest, but that’s for quitters.
Tune in next week for a continuation of the learning experience in a Formula Ford at Willow Springs.
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