Speed Secrets Stories provide you with a glimpse of my past experiences that have led to much of what I know and share with you today. They’re meant to entertain, educate and inspire. Okay, those are pretty lofty goals – actually, I’ve just enjoyed writing them, and now I want to share them with you.
In my experience, there are two types of people in the world. The first type begins by trusting everyone they come in contact with and continuing that trust until the other person proves they no longer deserve it. The second type of person doesn’t trust anyone they meet until that other person gains it.
Scenery is just one factor in how much boredom a driver experiences during cross-country travel. Other factors are the number and type of passengers you have with you, what else you have on your mind, the time of day (or night), and how long it’s been since you last ate a chocolate chip cookie or drank a Pepsi.
When I talk about cross-country road trips, I’m talking about trips where the objective is to get from here to there in the shortest time, not the kind where you meander around the country looking for something to do. I know very little about this second type of trip, other than the people who do them piss me off with their speed (or lack thereof), and their seemingly carefree and clueless changes of direction.
Many people talk about how it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey. That does not apply to cross-country road trips. You can have the journey all you want—especially the part where you’re driving through Montana…
Shaking with fear—of being pitched into a wall and being killed, of not having time to qualify for the Indy 500, of not living up to the promises made to my sponsors—and frustration, I step into the cockpit once more. Doug straps me in and I head onto the track to begin half a dozen laps of practice prior to making a qualifying attempt…
Exiting Turn 3, I glance down to see “219” on the dash. Slow, smooth hands and full throttle through Turn 4, I tell myself. Releasing the car by straightening out the steering wheel as much as possible, I drift up to the wall onto the front straight at Indy and glance down again. “222.”
“If you can get your gloves and helmet on, and hold the steering wheel, I’m okay with you driving,” Tom said. “You’re going to have to keep the gauze on to ensure there’s no infection, but if you can do that, go for it.” Yes, I’m cleared to drive!
Writhing on the track surface of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am in more agony than any I’ve ever felt in my injury-laced life. My face is screaming with pain. It actually crosses my mind, “Why is this hurting so bad so soon? Shouldn’t it take some time before it hurts like this?” Little do I know that this is just the beginning of what the pain would eventually be. Finally, the safety crews and track ambulance arrive, and the medical staff begin checking me over.
I quickly glance at the small digital screen behind the Frisbee-sized steering wheel as my car drifts a couple of feet from the concrete wall outside Turn 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I mentally note that 221 is at least four miles per hour slower than what’s needed for a qualifying run on the track. This is my second lap during the last afternoon of practice before qualifying starts the following day, and I’ll need to get up to speed faster than that when I qualify this weekend.
Indy is unlike any other race in the world. It is the single biggest sporting event in the world and arguably the most famous and prestigious auto race internationally. There is a reason why racing teams talk about those weeks at Indy as “the year of May.” They are long, grueling, and filled with incredible pressure and stress. Legends are made during the month of May. Drivers have died during the month of May. And others are just disappointed beyond words.
Finally, we were on the last leg home from the Mid-Ohio Formula Atlantic race. Since we hadn’t eaten a real meal since Monday morning’s breakfast, we stocked up on Cokes, chocolate chip cookies, and potato chips at the next gas stop. Then we crossed our fingers that we’d make it through the home stretch without too many more problems. Almost 1,200 miles to go. Please?
This fear was something much different than the type that flashes through my body in the middle of a 140-mph turn on a racetrack. Fear on the track comes from an instinct of self-preservation, and it never lasts more than half a second at most. This side-of-the-highway apprehension was more insidious, coming from not knowing what to do and being out of my comfort zone.
At sixty miles per hour, with our little tent-trailer home hanging on for dear life behind us, the truck began to skid sideways. Gord, who had been sleeping, awoke with a start as the truck bounced and slid wildly across our lanes. With its nose pointing toward the cornfield on the right side of the highway, I counter-steered, got it slowed down, and somewhat safely pulled us off to the interstate shoulder.
Following the Mid-Ohio race, which improved to “slightly better than sucked,” we began the long drive back to Vancouver. I had driven the best I could in the race, given my challenged physical and mental state, but it was obvious that our hastily-home-built race car was not up to the task. The plan was to go home to Vancouver and make changes as part of the car’s development.
About an hour later, I start to pass one of those huge transport trucks with hundreds of cages full of live chickens. By this time I’m trying anything possible to stay awake, and I’m probably a little delirious as well. So I start talking to the chickens.
Typically, it takes at least six months to design and build a race car. Most race car builders take longer than that. But did I mention that I might not be all that smart, and that I’m driven?
I made the only decision that made sense to an eager twenty-six-year-old race driver: I was in. To this day, I’m not sure if I was just plain stupid, overly optimistic, maniacally stubborn, or a combination of all of them, but I was determined to race the full series, nothing less. When a young driver is at a point in his career when something’s got to happen quickly or it’s lights out, and the opportunity to make it big is slipping away, his decision-making abilities may become a little questionable.
Ask a race driver why he or she does it, and you’ll get as many answers as you have drivers. Some race for the thrill of driving fast, some for the intrinsic or extrinsic rewards, some for the technical challenge, some for the spectacle and beauty of the sport, and some to win. Me? I race to outwit my competitors. It’s a mental game. A chess game at a hundred-plus miles per hour. I don’t care about being the fastest; I care about being in the lead at the end of the race.
On the final afternoon of my three days of training with the Jim Russell Race Drivers School in 1977, I experienced something that I was familiar with from playing other sports, mostly tennis. I got into The Zone. I became one with the car. It was the most comfortable place I’d ever been, and even the seat was no longer painful. But unlike being in the zone on a tennis court, driving in the zone on the track was something so powerful that…well, I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to get back there over and over again. There’s nothing else like it.
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.