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A day at the track with Trackskill

Well, this wannabe car racer has always been stopped by one thing - MONEY!, well, that and a very healthy respect for other drivers but other life priorities always take precedence - maybe one day I'll get a CAMS licence but at the moment I'm happy enough on the media side of thinge - spectating, photography, media, etc.

So why get behind the wheel now ? My boss (Lance) is a revhead as well, more F1 than tintops, but still that's enough. He recently turned 30 and a large group of people chipped in purchased a racing day with Trackskill. Now my boss is a good guy (no, I'm not sucking, he'll probably never read this), but he also invited everyone else to come along as well. I was busting to join in, but everyone else wimped out - not surprising when people comment like "I have my own car to drive" .. some people just don't get it ;). So the date was set, and obviously the verbal slanging at work was getting better and better. I thought I was a half decent chance, the day was at Oran Park and I've driven ONE lap there and spectated every corner hundreds of times over the last 10 years of going there. Lance last went down there about 3-4 yrs ago, so didn't really know the layout at all.

OK, so an early morning drive down to Oran Park. It's almost deserted except for a few road cars and 3 ROH Commodore Cup cars parked neatly at the back of the pits. We quickly found out there were 8 attendees, which meant 2 teams of 4 drivers and the third car was for backup. Now these were obviously the real deal, with names like Baxter, Zurkanovic and Fulver on the cars (and a couple of others in the shed). The guys went off to setup for the morning session (training), and we went up to the corp suites - really to see what they were doing and get a feel for the day. I thought we were using the short circuit (the one that bypasses the bridge), but the guys are going down to the gokart track to setup (not happy Jan!), but I'll see how it goes. We also realise that there are 9 trophies on the table - 1st team, 2nd team and fastest qualifier, so everyone gets a trophy and one lucky bugger gets two. The verbal abuse is even worse now, who will get the two trophies ?

Another guy turns up, steps out of the car and introduces himself, the one and only - Gary Baxter - OMG!, a real-life driver as well!. He won't he instructing today, but before I can say anything he starts to give us a run-down of the day and in a very polished fashion says something like : Some people get upset we aren't using the big track. Really the big track is a few corners and a bloody long straight. Some of the corners are quite scary (like the dogleg), but we use a nice little track down there, more corners, and a lot more challenging. If you want to drive fast in a straight line, go down the Hume Hwy and take your chances, but if you want to learn something you'll be impressed by what our track offers.

Still not impressed, I decide it give him the benefit of the doubt .... for now

Now I know the cars will be up to it, but my experience in driving a rear wheel drive car amounts to a single trip : Darwin-Kakadu-Darwin, and not really much more. The only impressive thing I did was a flick-turn on a dirt road (you know the trick, wheel on full lock, pedal to the metal, car swings around in it's own length). I've got a lot more experience in front wheel drive and all wheel drive, but really only road driving. The last time I really stressed a car was my old front wheel drive on an Advanced Driver Training course, but that was 1996. Manual transmission - NO SWEAT, knowing understeer and oversteer - ditto. Correcting these problems in a rear wheel drive car ? I THINK I MIGHT know how to do it, but I've NEVER even attempted it. These cars are proper ROH Commodore Cup cars meaning they are early model Commodores, all with 253 motors (V8's) and a 4-speed manual box. No speedo, just a tacho, with the change light set to 5000 rpm (it's a proper racing tacho - you can set the change light to anything .... 1000 rpm if you wanted to). Proper kill switch, no ignition (just a press button on the dash) - yes I know all race cars are like this, but I'm including this for the benefit of those that don't know.

Back to the course ... the day formally starts with a lecture covering the basics of locked diffs, braking, gear changes, cornering (braking, entry, apex, exit) and just generally the differences between a road car and a race car. Lance asks about their "bumping" policy, which seems to draw some not so happy looks, but I think they realise he is kidding as well (- South Africans have a good sense of humour don't they ?). OK, so it's now down to the track to learn the car and the track. We've already been told that we'll only use 3rd and 4th gear, the engine is torquey enough to handle the low speed corners in 3rd. We get down to our "pit area", suit up, helmets on, and in the car. Volunteer for first driver ? I don't hold back, the others do, and I'm the first one out on the track. Peter Hennessy our instructor (GTP driver) jumps in the passengers seat (and stays there for the whole day basically), explains the internals, and we're off.

Out on the track. Now if you're like me and know Oran Park like the back of your hand you MIGHT know this track layout - although I doubt you've seen it raced on before. Think of where the V8Supercars go. Start/Finish, turn 1 is a kink, turn 2 is a hard left, under the bridge, Turn 3 is a right, then right (T4) , right (T5), on the bridge, right(T6), etc.... We don't go that way, but use parts of what I've explained so far. For a start our pits are the straight between T3 and T4. You come out of the pits, hard right, thru a little right-left-right kink and onto the bridge, straight after the bridge turn left, then a double-apex left (second apex being Turn 2 as we usually know it down our main straight hard right, turning onto the gokart track and running a nice little curve back to our Turn 1 (usual Turn 4). It's actually quite a challenging little track with usual laps in the high-40 second bracket I guess, less than a minute even when you get it wrong. The guys have marked out the proper racing line by using the following : two cones indicates the braking marker for the corner; one cone marks the racing line in three different places - entry, apex and exit. This helps the people who don't really know how to apex a corner properly can still get around at a proper speed. OK, so you know the track, now for a driver's view of it starting from the pits seeing I never started on the track :

Start off in 1st, quickly into 2nd and exit the pits without exceeding the pit lane speed (penalties in the race for that). Into 3rd and place the car mid-track before immediately turning right. The track does a flip-flop, but I just drive it straight, just touching the right apex on the right side, left apex on the left side, and right apex on the right side, pulling 4th as I go past the last apex marker. Mid-track over the bridge and setting up for the blind left after the bridge. Start turning left whilst on the bridge, but aiming to miss the end of it. Get as close to the left apex as possible then drift out to the far right without dropping a right-side tyre. Brake for the left and change back to 3rd (don't do it too early or you'll pressure lock the diff). It's the double-apex, so touch the apex on the left, drift out to the right, then back in for the second apex on the left (NOT thinking about all the footage I've seen of the late brakers smacking in on the left side). Power out of the turn while drifting across the track, ride up the ripple strip with the right rear on exit, pull 4th as the change light comes on, under the bridge and away. Again, there's no speedo in these things but it feels fast enough as you get over to the left to setup for the right turn. The braking marker feels WAY to close to the corner but am I going to brake before it ? NO WAY!. The change light is on but there's no point, there is no 5th and I'm almost at the braking marker. Brakes, 3rd, tight turn right and aim for the start/finish line. This must be the best bit (well, the instructor kept telling me I like this bit the most), a slight left curve taken in 3rd, high revs, rears just about to loose grip but somehow not quite, same on the front. Tighten up the steering to the left to make sure you are right over on the side then as the track opens up into the pit exit blend area, you're suddenly mid-track and off you go again.

Now the day continues with each of the 4 drivers in our team (Lance, me and two other guys that we hit it off with well) rotating in & out of the car, each taking a few laps each to learn different aspects then give the next guy a turn. The weather forecast wasn't good for the late afternoon so we hurry things through a bit to make sure we get 3 races in before the forecasted heavy rain sets in. The other team are doing the same, they originally had 4 drivers as well, but one of the guys had a broken toe years ago and he found the clutch pressure just too hard so he left early. As far as we can tell, we are faster than them but we know the races are handicapped - with the faster car starting last. It's really hard to judge though because in the car you know you're going as fast as possible without completely loosing it, but as a spectator you can't figure out why everyone is slow so.

Qualifying time comes around - This is a mini-race, and the ONLY timed laps of the day, this should be good. No chance of a warmup, each driver gets an out-lap, one flyer, and in in-lap, driver change, then go again. Lance is first, bolting out of the pits so we don't get caught behind the other car. The out-lap looks good, the flyer looks good but just too much gas on the exit of Turn 1 and the rear comes around and he's parked nicely in reverse on the track (OH NO!, he must be pretty upset) - recovers well and takes off for 2 more laps before heading into the pits. No time to waste having a go at him as I help him from the car, jump in, grab 1st, latch the racing harness, and away. I probably don't feel any faster than before, but I'm also pushing as hard as possible without going over the traction threshold. Again I pressure-lock the diff on one turn (I just can't seem to get it right), but the flyer is great. Into 4th earlier on the long straight and hopefully a great time. The other guys went well, the only slip-up on either team was Lance's spin. Now, our qualifying times remain a secret until the end of the day ... hmmm !

Back to the corporate suites for lunch, and a good feed too. Also a chance to socialise with the others and get to know each other for maybe the first time today. I get the comment from Garry that Lance won't be happy with his time, but we all knew that.

Onto the races. As I said, fastest car at the rear and a time handicap start. Time penalties will be handed down for wheel spinning in pitlane, speeding in pitlane, and just about anything else the marshall (Garry) cares to think about at the time. Our pit strategy is very slick, we know how to exit the car, Peter will yell "clutch, clutch, clutch" and control the switch from gear to neutral and back with the new driver, etc.... First race, the other team gets a 10 second start (so we were faster in qualifying). Lance catches them well, but not close enough to pass. They lead us into the pits, and drive straight into their pitbay, Lance passes them; stops; we change over and I exit even before their second driver is in. Around the first corner I look back and they are just starting to exit the pits, so I have a good lead but 2 more driver changes to go. Peter's persona has now changed completely - before lunch a mild-mannered instructor showing us right from wrong; after lunch a man possessed, the red mist has truly descended and all he yells is GO! GO! GO! ... HARDER! ... FASTER! .... etc.. (I really am going as fast as possible I think). I pulled out a good gap, handed over to Mark and we win by miles. The funniest thing was the number of penalties we accumulate, there must have been 30-40 seconds worth. I got busted for speeding in pit lane, others got pinged for spinning tyres on exit, etc... what Garry was really doing was just slowing us down. He admitted that no team has lapped another team in 12 laps and we are biting at their heels at every pit stop and the last 2 laps of the track.

OK, Race 2, same basic strategy. This time the other team got a larger handicap (abot 20 seconds), but we still passed them during the pit stops, almost the same penalties, and we didn't quite catch them at the end of the race. OK, so we've won 2 out of 3, so we've won the day and time for a bit of fun. In trying to figure out a race format where the other team had a chance I offerred the option of 2 driver changes, and a 10 second handicap. Up until now they have been changing between their 3 drivers, where obviously one driver goes twice to keep it fair with our needed stops. So now rather than 4 drivers doing 3 laps, they will get 3 drivers doing 4 laps and obviously more track time. This makes it interesting on our side, because we have to pit earlier than them (on the first stop) and also pit more often.

Anyway, Race 3 starts we pit on Lap 3, they pit on Lap 4, etc... we still seem to be catching them but VERY hard to tell now, it will all hinge on the last stop - we have to get out in front of them. The car comes in for the last stop and Mark is so violently on the brakes at pit entry that he locks the fronts for a second, but quickly regains control and pits .. another penalty, but we still exit the pits on front - wow, we have this one won as well!. 3 laps to go, 2 to go ... he loops it in Turn 1 with a real savage tankslapper. He regains control but has lost the lead and there's just not enough laps left to catch up & pass. So we loose the last race, and the day ends. Well, not quite - after the car gets back to the pits the tyres are inspected and the car had been pitched so violently onto the grass that there is grass wedged between the wheel rim and the tyre itself - it would have been a bit messy if that had also defalted the tyre, so we're lucky.

Anyway, that's the end of the racing and back to the suites for the trophies and wind-down. The winning team is a given but the individual qualifying times are still not known. The certificates seem to be also drawn at random with times in the early-mid 50's and some edging towards 60 seconds. Lance gets 56-point-something, there's a few 54's and two people tie for second with a 51.3 but my name isn't called yet. Then there's only one certificate left, so I know it's mine "and the fastest driver for today, is Chris with a 47.6". WOW! almost 4 seconds faster than everyone else, and a 9 second gap on Lance (but yes, he did spin). So I get the 2 trophies, ultimate bragging rights for the day, and a promise that next time I will be taught a lesson.

And I'm sure there will be a next time, we're already joking about it because Lance was very fast and seemed to improve as the day went on.

If anyone is contemplating this sort of thing - GO FOR IT, and if you're in Sydney, let me know ;)