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Conference Novice school

5/6 June 2003

Before I could start my first Novice race, I needed to take (and pass, duh) a Conference-approved school. Conveniently, there was one on the two days prior to an upcoming race. Not so conveniently, the school and the race were down in Portland, some 180 miles from home. And remember: I have to load up everything I need into the race car and drive it to where I want to go.

As it turns out, 3-hour road trips in that thing is pretty much my limit.

Thursday

Although the classroom portion of the class wasn't scheduled until 6pm, I decided to take the day off from work so I could take my time getting everything together, packing up the car, driving down at a speed uninteresting to law enforcement, and so on. What with my first "away" event with the car, the school, and my very first race, I wanted to make sure that I remained as well-rested as possible for as long as possible.

Of course, Thursday turned out to be the first day of a heat wave for both Seattle and Portland, so just loading the car involved a decent amount of sweating. But, hey, I said to myself, at least it won't be too bad once I get the car moving down the freeway. Well, that was mostly true (I did resort to using the undercharged air conditioning a few times; if I'm gonna pay the weight penalty of having it in, I might as well get some benefit out of it), but the car was really, really loud. Good thing I had my ear plugs, 'cause otherwise it just would've been too much for that long a drive.

As it was, arriving at my hotel in Portland (and a wonderfully cool, air-conditioned suite) couldn't come soon enough. Since my race car, having just completed a 3-hour stint as a race transporter, soon had to do duty as local transportation, I made a whole lot of trips unloading everything from the car (in low-90s temperatures), lugging it through the security door into the building, and then down the hall to my room. Bleah.

As for the driver training class itself (thankfully held that night in a pizza restaurant; I hadn't eaten in quite a while), it was more comprehensive than what I'd experienced in the ProFormance class (it was doing double duty as a licensing school, after all), covering all the items we'd gone over as well as many others. In addition to a few valuable videos from the Skip Barber series, we spent a lot more time covering flags and other racing-related issues. Unfortunately for me, it was all stuff I'd either learned in class or on the track already, had read in my rule books, or had gotten from some other source. Of course, a large measure of my impatience with that evening stemmed from the fact that I was utterly beat tired. I almost drifted off a couple of times during the 3-hour session. Still, no criticism intended for what was a really decent evening class.

Just to top off my day, though, I got mildly lost on the way back to the hotel, resulting in a U-turn through a convenience store parking lot. Between exhaustion and an unfamiliar suspension setup, I forgot all about the lack of ground clearance on the ol' Integra and gave the bottom of the car a solid thumping as I exited back onto the street.

Friday

Friday morning started off painfully early and really freaking hot. It was already in the upper-70s a little after 6am and was on the way to breaking a record high for Portland on that date (96 or so, as I recall).

Driving through the gates and into the paddock area at PIR was a great experience. Here's a track I've seen many times on television, hosting everything from World Challenge sports cars to Barber Pro formula cars to CART itself, and I was about to put my little car out on the same course. Cool beans! From the racing surface itself to the massive, comforting-to-a-rookie runoff areas, PIR is a terrific facility. (Don't get me wrong, I really like my local track [it's a real "driver's track" and quite challenging], but the racing surface is not in the greatest shape and the run-off areas are pretty minimal. Lapping there has never concerned me, but I'm more than a little nervous about racing there, especially as it'll only be my third race.)

The track portion of the class was divided into five 20-minute track sessions, which really isn't enough time in one chunk: Just as I was getting into a groove, BAM! time to exit the track for the next group's turn. (There were three run groups, which might've had something to do with the fragmenting of the day. I was in the second, which was for people with HPDE [high-performance driving event] experience, but who were unfamiliar with PIR, and/or those going for their race license.)

Because there were so many students, I had to share an instructor with someone in the third (new to HPDEs) group. Since group 3 ran right after group 2 (huh, go figure), he always had to hop out of my car as soon as we left the track to get into the other student's car. I understand the school's situation, of course, but it was pretty frustrating to have my debriefs so disconnected from my sessions.

Part of the class fee went towards a box lunch. As a rule, box lunches are nothing special, and I suppose a lot of people would say the same about this one, but I was really pleased with the freshness and sheer volume of what was in my little container. Nice big, fat turkey sandwich on a croissant, two different bags of chips, small potato salad, cookies, pickle. I dunno, maybe I was just really hungry, but that lunch was probably the highlight of the day for me at that point.

Although it was probably a small item in the overall scheme of things, one thing I was glad of was the freedom (after the first few sessions) to pass on the front straight at will. There was no passing in turns or under braking, and only on the back "straight" (it isn't) with a point-by, but the ability to get a good exit out of Turn 12 and then blast down the straight to pass someone (before the braking zone, remember!) provided me with my first, teensy taste of what it'd be like under race conditions.

The most surprising part of the day for me was that I learned the track within the first few laps. Of course, everyone says that PIR is easy to get "mostly right;" it's the rest that's the hard part. Still and all, it was pretty cool that I didn't have to spend a lot of brain power memorizing the track, leaving my overtaxed "little grey cells" free to concentrate on things like race tips from my instructor.

Speaking of my instructor, I was lucky enough to get assigned to a current racer, Dave Dunning, who was also a really nice guy. He races a VW Rabbit in GT-4 and Club Rabbit, so he was able to give me lots of good, FWD-based info on places to pass, places not to pass, lines to take through a corner when you're alone vs. when you're racing someone, and so on.

When the class finally ended around 5, I had satisfied the final requirement for getting a Novice race license and was ready to start my racing "career." The first step was to sign in and get my driver's packet and then, since I was already at the track with my car, run it through its first tech session. Of course, even though I had made sure that I had all the items I'd need for my first inspection, the actual process involved several sprints back to my paddock space for things I'd forgotten. In the heat, mind you. And all the delays meant that the line for tech was getting longer and longer....

No sequence of minor mistakes like that should go unpunished so, after a long day in the heat, and a longish wait in tech, I decided to back into my paddock area for the first time that day. Somehow, my heat-glazed brain missed the lumpy nature of the grass I was parked on and forgot about the two steel plates at the edge of the road surface, leaving the rest of me to promptly back over them, ripping off the undertray in front of the front axles and part of the front bumper assembly. Luckily, I was able to get it repaired in such a way that you'd never know it happened without looking closely at the attachments under the car, but this, coupled with traffic that delayed Anna's arrival from Seattle, meant I spent more than 3 additional hours at the track than I had expected.

Clearly, I was going to experience my first race day with a lot less rest than I had hoped for.

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