We enter the rainy wet circuit at Watkins Glen International. On the first session of my first ever track driving day. Participating in my first BMW CCA High performance driving school with Delaware Valley chapter. Driving my wheezing bone-stock e46 325iT shifter-wagon. “Drive your own speed, on your own line”, comes the advice of Walter Jordan, my instructor, as we exceed an I-95 cruising speed exiting the “esses”.
How did I end up here? In the early years of the new millennium, along comes Bimmer #1, an e39 540i, and a new membership to BMW CCA. “Hmmm, look at those parts discounts at the dealer”. “Hey, really good magazine”. “Wait, Satch Carlson; I loved reading his stuff when he was at Autoweek!” I am an armchair CCA member for the first year or two.
A couple more years in, and now we’re joining the annual banquet! Even with all the cool cars these people have, and the tons of great swag they give away at every event (the BMW businesses are amazing chapter supporters), it is the people in this club who keep us coming back.
We are enjoying these events, but it is clear that these people have a bond with each other which goes beyond just meeting every month or two to drive around the country side – these people have been experiencing something transcendent together, and it appears to be centered around the
se four track events they run every year. They keep telling me my streetcar is a fine choice for these “High Performance Driving Schools”. So, while attending our first CCA O-fest, we make a point of checking out the action at HPDE Event. “Yeah, that is the same 330 sedan that was next to me at the concours coming in off of a session on the track”. Didn’t look like anything special, just a nice looking bone stock BMW. Hmmm.
As it turns out, it was a $50 charity ride in BMW’s historic #25 CSL Race Car that clinched it. It is my first exposure to an alternative 3-axis gravity state of being that exists at the level that race cars and their drivers operate. Wow! I had no idea a car could move through turns that fast and not slide off the road. It was amazing! In the paddock during the O’fest event, the camaraderie, the unconditional support and outright fun I see among the folks is giving me an idea what it might be that has bonded all those DelVal people so much more deeply than meets the eye at the events I have been doing up to now. “OK, it is time to try driving on the track”.
So, we pick Watkins Glen for our first HPDE because it is a beautiful area that we love from our time living in Ithaca, NY.
How to prepare? Get Bavarian Specialties to go over the car, refresh the brake juice and friction parts - check. New-ish PS2 tires - check. Now, what to bring? Let’s see, the chapter track newbie manual lists the proper helmet, basic torque wrench for lug nuts, a few tools. Throw in the GoPro and something to put all the stuff in and to cover it with.
I establish my ground rules before I arrive at the track: STAY within MY comfort zone. Bringing the 325 iT insures the focus is on listening, watching and learning, not on the speed. Speaking of insurance, I go ahead and buy the on-track event insurance that Lockton sells at a very fair price, to put my mind at ease in case I really am a knuckle head after all.
All that shoved into my head and into the back of the Touring and we are off to upstate New York.
Arrival at the WGI paddock in my typical early bird fashion. Turns out, there are all kinds of ways to equip yourself for these events, including bringing all your stuff within the confines of your car like I do. I had no idea what the right stuff to bring was until I had spent some hours that weekend walking around talking to all the nice folks who knew what they were doing. Looks like I don’t have to go out and buy a dually pick-up and trailer right away! I took notes and will be a whole lot better at this when I attend HPDE #2.
“Not too fast; focus on getting familiar with the track, but stay off the paint and the glassy smooth wet parts of the pavement, those are slick” advises Walter as we exit Outer Loop headed into the boot. We make our way through the no-helmets first touring session that they give us special people in the “Red” running group. Afterward, I am trying to put what I’ve just experienced into the context of the paper track diagram in my hands. That’s not working. Even at extra modest speed, the first session in the wet was like trying to drink from a fire hose – can’t process it all yet. Where am I on the track? Where am I supposed to be in this or that turn – over here normally, but not now because it’s wet. Why do I keep wanting to set up for the “heel” turn as a left instead of a right? This is going to take a while to gel. Luckily, I have about an hour before my next session and I resolve not to over think it. I will see how much sticks with me the next time out – just go with it and let the experience accumulate.
Session two is on a drying track, and now we’re putting some heat in the spinning parts down below. I finish that session feeling like I got more of what was going on, and enough laps that I can now imagine a whole lap with the turns in the right sequence in my head. Walter had counseled that I go somewhere quiet and replay the track turn-by turn in my head. This turns out to be really helpful in being prepared for the next session. After my third session, Walter gives me a ride in his e36 track car. His driving is a big step up from where I am, but watching his track position, his feet, his eyes and shift locations, I notice some things I can use next time out – learn by doing and learn by seeing.
Walter’s genius is further revealed as I discover that it takes near a quarter turn to get the lug nuts of my wheels to click under the torque wrench after run three. “You are working the brakes and the tires pretty hard, so check lug nut torque a few times over the weekend and before you drive home” – it’s the little stuff and now I am really paying attention when Walter talks. By day two, this and so many other nuggets are sticking to the inside my silver brain bucket, that I am getting to the rev limiter in a few spots on the circuit, and the PS2’s are singing in the curves. Sometimes, I am even hitting the turn in, apex and track out points a couple laps in a row for some of the turns. I’m still a long way from making friends with, much less mastering “the toe”, but I have come a pretty long way from Session one the day before. I have had a chance to do a few point-by's and I find it much more straight forward on the track than it seemed when first explained to me. I even earn a few point-bys from other drivers as my pace improved. I am reminded that this is serious business as a few fenders are rumpled late in day two on some other participant’s cars. I am glad I took the insurance, but knowing that I want to keep this car a long time, much less drive it home helps me keep my progress gradual.
My friend James rides with me for one of my last sessions of the weekend and afterward, he does a creditable job of applying some pretty sincere-sounding flattery about my first-time out progress. Truth be told, James is the reason I pulled the trigger on doing the event in the first place. I learned that these CCA people go out and do an amazing thing together and are eager to introduce and share the experience of on-track driving with others who have not experienced this type of driving.