Time: May, Memorial Day weekend 1985
Place: Lime Rock Park, a road course racetrack near New Canaan, Connecticut, USA
This was my first race and my third racecar experience, two years after my first racing school and almost two months after my second racing school adventure at the Elf/Winfield racing school in Le Castellet, France. Here we were, doing the thing that I wanted to do most, racing. With me were my mom and dad, my friend, Ms. Lee Brown, John and Valerie (now) Miller, Chris and Pam (now) Meyer, and my dog Barney.
It’s the big International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) race weekend held here each Memorial Day. This is an international level racing event that brings with it all the trappings of money, pretty women, exotic street cars, hardcore race fans, and some of the world’s best race teams, cars, and superstar drivers. Well known professional drivers from across the world: Brian Redman, Hurley Haywood, Bob Tullius, Pete Halsmer, John Morton, and more are here to race and so am I. I am waiting for reality to set in, trying to be sure I’m not still fantasizing as I had for so many years. I am going to get to race, really race!
There are some fantastic cars here, the fastest prototypes (GTP), GT (GTO and GTU) cars, some capable of 240 miles per hour (mph) on very long tracks like Le Mans and an amazing 160 mph on the straight of Lime Rock’s tight short 1.5 mile set of curves, straights, and hills.
On Monday, Memorial Day, these cars will participate separately in two, two-hour long races, short races for them. Earlier in the year they raced together in two legendary endurance races; a 24-hour race on Daytona’s combined road course and oval, and a 12-hour race on Sebring, Florida’s rough, long ago converted air-force base runways and taxiways. My car, well it’s not so fast and I will run a much shorter race, 30 minutes. They don’t race on Sunday on this weekend because there is a church on the hill on the other side of the front straight.
This is a professional racing event and my first race. I would say I am at this time what you would loosely call a “semi-pro” driver, “semi-pro” because I could win money if I do well enough and because I wasn’t a hired driver driving for a team. Also, I am a “semi-pro” for other reasons. You already know that this is my first race. The next fact confirms it, my race car is a 65-some horsepower, nearly stock Renault Encore economy car. Its only modifications are shock absorbers, anti-sway bars, open exhaust system, racing seat, shaved street tires, and a bolt-in roll-cage. The engine was untouched, and except for numbers, looked much like a regular old street-going econobox. As a matter of fact, I drove it to work every day. (Pssst, a secret: we turned up the fuel pressure to help make more power with the open exhausts. Shhhhh, don’t tell anyone. Well, my competitors did it too.) It will go only about 110 mph if following closely behind three or four other Encores on a long, long straightaway. The good thing is I was racing against identical cars, all Renault Encores. This is the second race in the 1985 Renault Cup series for the eastern United States.
He said, “stay on line, don’t try and get out of their way, let them pass you, don’t race anyone yet, get acclimated,” that’s about it.
It was Saturday morning, we missed Friday practice because we travelled from Detroit that day. So, the Saturday morning practice will be my first time on the track. We set the car up following as much of the advice as we could get, adjusted tire pressures, shocks. I got some driving advice from the head of the Renault Cup, the legendary “Quick” Vic Elford who was European Rally champ, raced in Formula 1, Can-Am series and classic races like Le Mans, winning the Targa Florio open road race and at Nurburgring, The Sebring 12-Hour, and The Daytona 24-Hour races. He said, “stay on line, don’t try and get out of their way, let them pass you, don’t race anyone yet, get acclimated,” that’s about it. So, here we go, the morning practice session and later in the morning a qualifying session followed by a mandatory drivers’ meeting at the Renault/Jeep Sport truck, headquarters.
I was using a borrowed racing suit. It looked great, silky white, quilted multi-layer, somewhat professional looking. I’d ordered my own, it was going to be delivered to the track by some of the people who worked for the manufacturer, but not until Sunday. Most important, I looked pretty good in that racing suit.
Saturday Morning Practice and Qualifying
My little blue Encore, number 61, looked pretty good too. It was brand new and these would be the first race laps on it. It probably didn’t even have 200 miles on it yet. So, my dad, John, Chris and I gave the car the last check: tire pressures, windows down, belts tight, window net up. Dad reached in the window and gripped my hand wishing me luck, which would become our ritual for every race. I went down the sandy road of the paddock inside Turn 7 to the entrance for pit lane, then slowly down pit lane to the track entrance on the front straight. I hadn’t ever been to Lime Rock but, I knew which way the track went because of maps from On Track magazine, which is where I found out about the Renault Cup series in the first place.
So, down the straight to Big Bend a large radius 190 degree right-turn, I was still coming up to speed, letting the tires, the engine and my knowledge “warm up”. Stay on the left, watch the mirrors for faster cars coming from behind, turn in and get my right tires on the right edge of the road for the first apex about 30 degrees around, kind of early. Let the car drift left to about one car-width from the left edge of the track and then turn for the second apex again on the track’s right edge about three-quarter of the way around. I start giving it some throttle once I get it turned, then full throttle, let the car drift to the left edge, straighten the wheels, accelerate down a short straight about 100 yards long as I move to the right preparing for the 120 degree left-hand turn, which is followed immediately by a shallow 80 degree right turn. I slow the car a bit and turn left to the apex two-thirds of the way around so I can stay to my left at the exit to prepare for the quickly approaching right-hand turn. Not too bad, add throttle, finish the turn in about the middle of the track, move left, approach the right-hand on Turn 4, turn in and feed on throttle to the floor, upshift and head down the “No Name Straight,” for the first time up to about 100 mph.
“No Name Straight,” an interesting name for a straightaway. I guess that’s the joke, naming it without naming it. Not too many straights have names. I can only think of one other, the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, France where the oldest 24-hour car race is driven. Well, no other straight I know of has apex curbing on it either. The “No Name” really isn’t even straight, it zigs slightly right, that’s where that curbing is, then, it zigs left. It’s about a quarter of a mile long and ends at the “Uphill Turn”. The Uphill is a relatively fast 70 degree right-hand turn, yes, up a hill at probably 70 mph in my little car if my memory serves me. This was 29 years ago. So, I drive up the road’s left edge, dab the brakes slightly, downshift to third gear, squeeze the accelerator as I turn in, sweep by the right-edge apex, fly up the hill, drift to the left edge and over the brow. On race-day during the warm-up as I went up the hill I saw over the brow two upright tires attached to a car flipped over onto its roof. These guys were racing all out on the warm-up. I said to myself, “These guys are nuts!”
You fly over the crest, the car gets light and you land on the plateau. On the plateau there is a right turn called “West Bend,” it’s about 70 degrees. Again, start on the left edge, dab the brakes, turn toward the right-side apex, feed the throttle on, sweep by the apex, throttle smoothly to the floor, let the car drift to the left, upshift, and prepare for the “Diving Turn,” turn 7.
“People are looking at me and they keep looking at me, but I can’t figure out why.”
As I approach the “Diving Turn” for the first time, at about 80 mph, I notice the bridge that crosses the track on the hill before I get to the turn. I had seen the bridge from the paddock and knew it was there. The thing is, the bottom of the bridge is about head high at that point, so it looks like I’m going to crash into it, an interesting surprise. I regain my focus, the car dives under the bridge, down the hill toward the turn. I lift for a beat then feed the throttle on to full as I turn in. I was a few feet off the edge of the track at the apex point, a mistake, and drive over a nice little bump at 90 mph or so. Wow, I am really driving my own car at Lime Rock Park!! I really am! The bump jounced the car a little, not too badly though. Full speed down the front straight looking for the markers to determine where I should be putting on the brakes for my first full speed approach into Big Bend. I pick a conservative marker apply the brakes shift down one gear to third; I ease the brakes to get to the turn-in point, turn in, maintain throttle, drift out, turn in again, feed on the throttle, track out, upshift. Yes, this racing thing is exciting and pretty fun so far.
On my second lap, as I prepare for the left-hander, Turn 3, a car catches me and pulls up on my right on the outside. I should have given way but, I am feeling competitive, maybe prematurely, maybe not. As we turn in, he eases close to my right front fender, and his left front touches it with the same tiny force you would use to push a checker across a game board. I only know this through my peripheral vision. I focus ahead, looking to the apex, his fender continues to touch mine through the entire turn! We were at the exact same speed! He moved a few inches away as we finished that turn and I let him pass into the right-hand turn and followed him down the “straight”. Ah yes, that put a smile on my face and built my confidence. I ran the entire session, spun once in the downhill turning in over the bump, got some good practice, and came off the track. I wasn’t the slowest but, I was near the back. I had a chance to improve in the afternoon, was still near the back though. That fender had only a tiny crack in the paint and no dent. I quickly told the story, with a huge smile on my face. I had to go to the Renault Cup drivers’ meeting and didn’t even have time to take off the racing suit.
As I walk down the sandy road to the Renault/Jeep Sport truck, I begin to notice people walking on the other side of the road are looking at me. Yes, I am in my borrowed quilted white driver’s suit, new blue suede Adidas Monza racing boots, a decent 165 pounds, and looking the race driver part. I figure people might look because of the suit, but once they realize that I am a nobody and that they don’t know me, they will stop looking and get back to their conversations. People are looking at me and they keep looking at me, but I can’t figure out why. For goodness sakes, I have been driving a fairly slow racecar and my racing “career” is only two racing schools and 25 minutes long at this point. I start to think, “This racing game is something else, it’s crazy! They are already noticing me? You can wear a racing suit and drive the track for 25 minutes and you’re nearly a celebrity.” The farther I walk, the more people are looking and stopping their conversations. The people walking in front of me are turning around to look at me as well, turning forward and snapping their heads back around to look again. “I can’t believe this!” I can’t imagine what will happen when I finish this race, let alone what would happen if I win. I’ll be mobbed, might have to sign autographs!
Then, I start to think, maybe it’s not crazy. I am racing in this IMSA weekend like the other drivers here. I don’t have that much experience but, maybe I did something special on track and people noticed it. Then, I thought again, my ego wouldn’t let me go that far. I don’t normally get this amount of attention anywhere. As I walked it seemed some of the people could be looking past me. So, just in case they were looking at something instead of me, I turned and looked behind me.
Ten feet behind me, walking with a friend, was professional racer and world-renowned actor, Paul Newman. I began to laugh at myself as I turned back to watch where I was going. “That makes sense.” They were all looking at PauI Newman, not me. I figured the racing game can’t be that crazy. The order of the universe had been restored. I smiled, and took one more look back as I headed to the drivers’ meeting.
In a later instalment: “The Race”
by Tom Best