It’s funny how quickly time passes when you’re completely fixated on one goal. After the formula car foray at Sebring a month prior, I racked my brain to try and prepare for the shootout. Some over-the-phone coaching from Cameron Tedder and Jonathan Scarallo—two racers with years of experience in these cars—bolstered my confidence and taught me more about manipulating these machines. A few nights spent running laps on a friend’s iRacing rig, some left-foot braking in a rented Grand Caravan, and a couple outings in a shifter kart bolstered it some more. Considering the challenge ahead, I needed all the bolstering I could get.
A Sobering Introduction
Touching down for the second time at Orlando International Airport, I felt none of the apprehension I’d felt a month earlier. Considering I’d be running against the youngsters who’d lived exclusively for racing, never once attended a kegger, and hadn’t yet fully developed a sense of mortality, I was surprisingly relaxed. Maybe too relaxed.
The first day started with all twenty-nine of us sitting large tent, where Brian Till of IndyCar fame gave a sobering speech. The harsh realities of sport, including funding and limited seats, were made clear by a man who’d been in both the cockpit and the commentary box. In fact, he corrected himself, and made it clear that racing is not so much a sport, but a business. Sage advice for the starry-eyed. We were in for a top-notch racing education, without a doubt.
Getting a sense of his outlook helped, since I then went into a one-on-one interview with the man himself. Sat in front of a camera, we chatted about my background, my aims, and some of my interests in racing, all while sharing a laugh about getting into racing relatively late in life. After all, you need to be affable—read: marketable—to make it. Even with a camera aimed at me, it was the easiest part of the day.
Moving away from the marketing side of things, our driving ability started to be evaluated—albeit in a virtual setting. Once we strapped into our simulator rigs, our instructors dimmed the lights and gave us twenty-five minutes to show our speed, consistency, and patience on a virtual Silverstone in a Formula Ford. I grew frustrated with the behavior of the car; overdriving more and more with every mistake, and spent as much time sideways as I did going straight. Not an auspicious start. So, when our simulator session ended, I hurried over to the real cars to try and redeem myself.
Strapping Back In
Before reacquainting myself with the Ray GR-RSC, I donned my new duds. MOMO graciously supported the effort by providing me with a new Corsa Evo race suit, as well as their GT Pro shoes and Corsa R gloves—all of which fit me perfectly. A month prior, in my old budget gear, I felt as if I’d been shoehorned into the car, but the new gear helped me slip into the cockpit comfortably. The cramped confines of a formula car aren’t cushy at the best of times, but without any awkward tugging or pressure on sensitive areas distracting me from the task at hand, I could focus completely on autocrossing.
The idea was to re-familiarize us with the cars on a low-grip surface at reasonable speeds. After strapping back into the car, I was immediately reminded of how discerning it is; how bleeding off the brakes at fractionally different rates made the difference between understeer and oversteer.
For that reason, consistently rotating the car as desired was tough. With the adrenaline flowing and some advice from the coaches between sessions, I stopped stabbing at the brakes and rolled into the corners with a moderate amount of brake pressure. By trail-braking into the corner, the car could be loaded laterally for a longer period of time, which kept rolling speed up through the slow-speed bends. Once that sensation came back to me, and releasing the pressure slowly, the car would edge into big moments of oversteer (1:48). After a few ragged slides, I continued to refine the brake release until the car drifted cleanly into the apex with minimal opposite lock (2:36).
Filled with enthusiasm and a sense of redemption for my lackluster performance in the sim, I spent the next few hours trying to poach every piece of wisdom from the coaches there. Between sessions, I’d ask them every conceivable question on fitness, career moves, technical details, and whatever else. Even if I ended up walking away without any hardware, I wanted to take full advantage of the decades of experience shared between the knowledgeable and approachable instructors, all of whom shared the same fervor for motorsport.
We finished the first day with a lesson in driver fitness from Jim Leo from PitFit, and then returned downstairs for an motivating speech from the instructors. After an uncertain first day, the tension in the air could be cut with a knife. That was only compounded by the realization that we’d be running a new configuration of Sebring in the morning—one with which I was unfamiliar. So much for all the virtual practice laps.
Grazing the Walls, Running the Clock
A few hours’ sleep and a long shower later, I was back for the real test. Over the course of three twenty-minute sessions, we’d run another configuration of Sebring—this time with the daunting Turns 1 and 17. Fortunately for the first-timers, Turn 17 had been modified to minimize the bumping and hopping. With the prizes on the line and the walls so close, the organizers felt it’d be wiser to avoid what is arguably the most treacherous corner on the circuit.
To keep the drivers adapting, and to prevent one lucky driver from enjoying an advantage in equipment, we were assigned new cars for each session. Since these cars all handled somewhat differently, our ability to improvise would be assessed along with our raw pace. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, were were informed only the fastest fourteen drivers would continue after the end of the day.
This format presented me with a new challenge. I was expected to drive quickly and consistently on a track I was unfamiliar with from the get-go, which isn’t natural to me. My approach is usually a little conservative, so I try not to push too hard early on. So, I used the first session for reconnaissance; trying to establish a foundation to build upon later in the day.
With a vague sense of the line and a lot of lockup on cold tires, the first session was a wash. So, I hurried around before the second session, grabbing some critiques from the coaches. That foundation, as well as a much better car, made the second session fruitful. The #20 machine was slightly pushy, which made charging through Turn 1 almost comfortable—well, less nerve wracking. The brush of the brake, quick downshift, and maintenance throttle before the apex of Turn 1 (0:19) was usually fun, but took some faith in the car—especially when it went sideways.
Before you hit the apex, you’re expected to go flat, even though you can’t see the exit and the car is dancing on the bumps. To commit to such a challenging corner in a relatively short span of time was something a few drivers managed to do, but unfortunately, the fear of brushing a barrier kept me from going as quickly as some of the younger, fear-free drivers. One kid spun through Turn 1 at 100 mph, and just avoided the barriers. When there’s a potential $6,000 deductible on the other side of those walls, you think twice about taking liberties.
Through the back section, it was all about rolling speed in these slow and medium-speed corners, except for Turn 16, which leads onto course’s longest straight. Running down the back straight, you get enough time to check your mirrors and brush the rev limiter in fifth before braking hard into the modified Turn 17 at around 125 miles an hour. When the rear wheels locked and hopped after smashing the middle pedal (1:16) it was a challenge just focus on the upcoming Turn 17, and not the wall far beyond it. However, that corner also leads onto a long straight, so getting the car rotated cleanly and putting the power down early was a must. When it worked out, and the car was dancing around ever so slightly, I felt the time spent working on weight transfer and studying my footage from my foray at Sebring was worthwhile.
While I wasn’t passing people left and right, a series of tidy laps kept me in contention with one of the finalists who was a good seventy pounds lighter. That was a feather in my cap, but was it enough to carry me forward into the final day? Truth be told, my inner critic was not impressed, but I was too tired to feel strongly about much at that point.
The upside to exhaustion is it makes you a little indifferent, which helped me bear the bad news. At the end of the second day, the coaches confirmed my doubt; the fastest fourteen had been selected, and I hadn’t made the cut. As parents of the less successful consoled their long-faced children, I took a deep breath and watched the proceedings alone with a sense of detachment.
Taking a Different Perspective
While frustrated that I wasn’t able to continue onto the last day, I was, on some level, relieved. The pressure had lifted from my shoulders, and, feeling reflective, I tried to take a philosophical perspective on my situation. Getting to this point was an accomplishment in itself, and realistically, the odds were never in my favor.
While my approach had served me well in club racing, it occurred on me that advancing further in motorsport required a series of fundamental changes. However, that could wait. After dedicating the last three months of my life to this shootout, I simply wanted to tune out. So, I languidly strolled back to the hotel bar, where I slumped and enjoyed a few well-deserved libations. After a month without so much as a drop, those beers tasted good.
The next morning, I rose to the sound of roaring engines. With a good night’s rest, a coffee in my hand, and a smile on my face, I joked around with the other drivers who hadn’t made the grade. While we chatted away under the tent, the fastest fourteen—now armed with semi-slicks—were out running laps three seconds faster than yesterday’s. After the second session commenced, they joined us back at the tent, where we all waited eagerly for the judges to decide the future of these young hotshoes.
After an agonizingly long time, the judges walked down the to main stage as silence fell over the crowd. The finalists sprinted over to the stage with the speed that 4% body fat allows for and the promise of a paid season (worth $75,000) warrants. The winners were:
Me? Well, I left with a stellar education and a smile on my face. I’d prepared myself for disappointment, but surprisingly, I didn’t feel any. Instead, I felt the urge to improve. I’d experienced first-hand the standard of talent among drivers of this caliber, some of whom will undoubtedly go on to professional careers. While I felt like I’d done a reasonable job, there were some areas that clearly needed improvement. In order to ascend a few more rungs on the golden racing ladder, I’d have to master a few esoteric skills: how to get up to speed sooner, how to quickly commit to the corners with real pucker-factor, and how to whittle myself down to a waif-like physique.
On that note, it’s time to consult the calorie counter.
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