First time at the track

Over the weekend, I worked at Putnam Park as a volunteer. Thanks to a lot of people, I got a behind-the-scenes look at how amateur motorsports events are run, and credit for a free day of track driving with NASA. (That’s the National Auto Sport Association, not the one that launches space shuttles.) It was a lot of fun, and I can’t wait until I can bring my Miata to the track.

The ball got rolling when a couple of guys on a local car forum, CICEnet, decided that they were going to participate in a track event at Putnam Park on May 17th and 18th. There were a couple of threads there about how to get started; one thread mentioned that people could volunteer at NASA events for points, which can be redeemed for track days, while another thread tried to get five people from the forum to sign up with NASA as new members, the deal being if that five people signed up, NASA would then waive the yearly membership fee. Sounds good!

David is one of the guys on the forum that I’ve known through local autocrosses. He offered me a ride to Putnam Park and the floor of his and Collin’s hotel room. Since I wasn’t doing anything that weekend, I tagged along. I figured that if the weekend went well, I would be able to pay for a day of HPDE at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet in October.

On Friday afternoon, David came by to pick me up in his Honda S2000. Pulled behind the car was a large tire trailer that carried a large, lockable tool box and two sets of tires. Only one set of the tires was David’s. The other set was Marty’s, another guy from the CICEnet forums who drives a Camaro. Marty had helped weld and modify the trailer for David, so David agreed to carry Marty’s tires in return.

After a quick dinner, David and I hit the road with my stuff crammed into the S2000’s trunk and the tire trailer in tow. We made it to the hotel in about two hours, with the track only about a ten minute drive from the hotel. Putnam Park is closer to Champaign than I originally thought.

At the hotel, I met Collin, who drives a BMW M3 in TTC, and TJ, who drives an Acura NSX in HPDE2. Marty was there in his Chevy Camaro. After some initial car prep in the parking lot that evening, everyone hit the sack in preparation for the first day of track driving the next day.

David and I got up early and brought the S2000 to Putnam Park before the gates opened. We waited in line for nearly half an hour before the gates finally opened, and then rushed into the paddock to secure a good spot for Marty and TJ’s cars as well as ours. Parked across the road from us were two other guys, one from the forums, whose names I can’t remember right now. All I remember is that the cars they drove were a Subaru Legacy GT and a BMW M3.

While the drivers got their cars ready, I went off to the NASA tent in the paddock and got my work assignment. The first day, my job was to be a runner — I collected track passes and infractions sheets from the grid workers and the timing and scoring workers, and gave them to the HPDE instructors. This was really, really easy work that had me running around the place only 20% of the day, which allowed me to spend the other 80% of my time watching the HPDE cars and the races from either the gate or up at the top of the track tower with timing and scoring.

The day was split into several 20 minute sessions for the HPDE cars, and the race cars were split into two groups, Lightning and Thunder, and given a morning warm-up session, a morning qualifying session, and finally a 35 minute sprint race in the afternoon. Off the top of my head, the Lightning group had the “slower” race cars — Spec Miata, Spec E30, 944 Cup — while the Thunder group had the “faster” race cars — most cars were American Iron and touring cars.

There were lots and lots of Spec Miata, 944 Cup, and American Iron cars there. There was a lot of close racing that makes me wish I had a race car so that I could go wheel-to-wheel. Even though they were among the slowest race cars there, the Spec Miatas were still faster than almost all of the cars in the HPDE groups save for the Corvettes and Porsches, and the fact that there were many cars in that class meant that there was always good racing between Miatas everywhere on the track. It would be fun to gut out my Miata and turn it into a race car, but I don’t have the experience or the money to go racing yet. I’ll have to stick to autocross and HPDE for the time being.

That evening, everyone went to one of the bars in Greencastle, a town not far from the track, for dinner. We talked about how all the drivers did during their HPDE sessions, about track lines, and various other things not related to cars. At the end of the night, Collin insisted on paying for my meal as a thank-you for working the event as a volunteer, which was really nice. I didn’t pay a single dime all weekend until the trip back home, when I gave David some gas money. NASA and Collin paid for all of my meals, and I didn’t have to pay anything for the hotel room.

On the second day, I was assigned to work in timing and scoring. My job was to record the infractions that racers and HPDE drivers received, as reported by the grid and corner workers. This time, though the job was not physically strenuous in any way, the job involved a lot more of my attention.

Things started off with a bang in the morning when a car during the Thunder race group warm-up went flying off the track into some trees. All of a sudden, the radios were abuzz with activity, as the safety crews were dispatched, the cars on the course were black flagged, the corner workers abandoned their stations to provide medical assistance to the driver, and eventually, a helicopter was called upon to airlift the driver to an Indianapolis hospital. I have just recently received word that the driver of the car — a 600+ hp Audi running at 36psi of boost, fueled by alcohol — is okay. I watched the flatbed truck slowly creep into the tech building with the car covered in tarps, and the top of the car was flattened from the hood to the B-pillar. Yikes!

Most of the morning was lost to rescuing the driver from his car, so one of the officials quickly shuffled the schedule around to get the event back on track. The HPDE groups were given 18 minute sessions in the morning, and the qualifying sessions for both race groups were canceled. The schedule in the afternoon was unchanged, with the race grids in the afternoon set with Saturday’s qualifying results.

For the rest of the day, us officials in timing and scoring had some fun with the new drivers in the HPDE1/2 groups. We randomly black flagged cars, ended sessions with a full course black flag, and even yellow-flagged the course and had the safety truck do a lap or two around the course while cars buzzed by.

During one such yellow flag drill, a Mazda RX-7 decided to slow way the hell down, to about 30-40 mph slow. The safety truck was on the track making a lap and the RX-7 was following behind it, and just for shits and giggles, we told the truck to pull over to the side of the track and stop just to see what the RX-7 would do. We watched the truck come creeping to a halt, and hilariously, the RX-7 almost came to a stop as well. When the truck stopped, the RX-7 crept by at walking pace and then continued on. We all had a good laugh up there in timing and scoring.

I had a hand in determining which cars we randomly black flagged as well. I had David black-flagged, which proved to be interesting because he completely missed five black flags thrown at him. He came into the pits only to re-enter the track away from packs, not because he saw the black flag. Funnily enough, the Corvette in front of him and behind him on the track saw the black flag and came in as well. The grid marshal let the two Corvettes go and had a talk with David in the S2000. I heard later from David that the reason why he never saw the black flags was because he was completely fixated on keeping up with the black Corvette in front of him.

I also had Marty black flagged. He came late to the grid and entered the track late, and as “punishment,” we had him black flagged as well. He didn’t come in until the third black flag was thrown at him, but at least he eventually saw the flag.

I wanted to black flag TJ, but the other officials had enough of flagging black cars and decided that flag something more colorful: a yellow Corvette. There were some other interesting black flags, including the black flagging of one of the HPDE instructors. Shame on him, he didn’t come in until we threw three black flags at him too!

When the day ended, everyone was tired and exhausted from the weekend. David had a couple close calls in his S2000, some of them directly related to fatigue. So it was a relief to pack up everything and head for home.

I’m very excited for the day when I’ll be able to bring my Miata and run it on the track. I was able to observe all of the mistakes that the novice drivers made in HPDE1/2, and learned how these events are run.

If there’s one thing that has me worried, it’s safety. After seeing the aftermath of the race car’s excursion into trees, as well as the close calls my friends had in their cars, I’m a lot more willing to spend money to make sure that my car is safe. I’ve already got a roll bar, and I’m doing a lot of maintenance, but I still need to put in seat belts whose webbing is not coming apart, and maybe even think about getting a good seat and a good harness.