Guest Op/Ed: The Racers Myth
By by: VWvortex Contributor TechEd
Jul 12, 2004, 10:38
To say that the sound of a modern Formula One engine is “special” would be an understatement. The sound of one being tuned by repetitively cracking the throttle from 8,000 to 16,000 rpm in rapid succession reminds us that FI technology can seemingly alter the laws of physics and simultaneously send a tingle down our spine. Truly bent F1 cultists liken the sound of a F1 engine being exercised to the sound of silk being ripped during an orgy. On one particularly humid June day way back in 1994, that sound would prove to be less exotic and more of a nuisance.
The occasion would be the Sport Class qualifying session for the Canadian Michelin Enduroseries, appearing as a supporting race to the Canadian Grand Prix. The place would be Le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Montreal’s Ille Notre Dame. As crew chief for Schmidt Racing, orchestrating the team and driver’s efforts from behind the pit wall was not unfamiliar territory for me, but that damn F1 engineer in the garage behind us who was performing an engine warm-up protocol was becoming bothersome. Our rental radio headsets provided only a slight muffling effect as the cacophony of the Benneton F1 V8 ripped through the air in body-slam pulses. The only redeeming thing was that Gunter’s or Alistair’s usual whining about understeer was rendered incomprehensible on the radio. I strolled across the pit lane road over to the white line, which event organizers warned supporting race flunkies not to cross. The other side was to be the exclusive domain of F1 team members, drivers and other immortals worthy of credentials issued only by God himself. The Benneton engineer initially ignored the waving, throat slicing and pointing at my headset gesticulations, but eventually did switch off. Thumbs up!
As Gunter’s Jetta GLX VR6 flashed by in front of us, I clicked the stopwatch to reveal a fine first row qualifying effort that made any minor understeer concerns a moot point. After all, understeer is what the car did. It was the car’s accepted personality, especially with an empty tank. Unexpectedly, I hear an unfamiliar voice over my shoulder.
“Whatsup, mate?” It was the Benneton engineer who crossed the sacred white line to see what our group of endurance racing misfits was up to.
“Well, it was hard to hear my driver over the radio with you…’’ Anticipating the answer, he interrupts and apologizes as eloquently as only a Brit, worthy of his afternoon tea and quiet desperation, knows how. Scanning through our tools and stuff piled up behind the pit wall, he motions to one of our spare/emergency tires and asks,
“Whots this, then?”
“What, ….you mean our tires?” I ask.
“Yeah, you race on these with… tread?" The explanation that Enduroseries rules mandate shaved, spec Michelin street tires mortifies our newfound friend.
“You kahnt be serious” he utters, as our Jetta scorches through the timing beam at 210 km/h for the last time in the session.
“No joke, really… it makes for a character building experience behind the wheel, but it's as safe as houses”. Scratching his chin, he extends a firm hand and expresses admiration for competing, as we did, all 45 of us at the same time at serious-ass speeds, without slicks on fat and ugly production cars, no less. This albeit brief and seemingly insignificant moment would make all the years of our team struggling with various sundry vehicles of dubious racing lineage truly worth it somehow. No stack of trophies, offers to join factory teams or amount of Mumm sprayed liberally over crew and crowd could equal the simple esteem from an F1 immortal that considered himself our equal on that sticky afternoon. It didn’t matter that we were just amateurs with day jobs.
While superstition never found fruitful grounds among team members up to that point (except Gunter’s insistence that any of the team cars not be photographed before a race), the next day we used a brakes-and-tire-saving strategy to earn the Enduroseries Sport Class victory. Everyone else would cook rotors and brake pads like a Texas barbeque, while ours were just nice, toasty and more importantly, working. The thousands of adoring F1 fanatics and Volkswagen fans, of which Montreal has an abundance, made their feelings known by chanting, “Jetta, Jetta, Jetta!!!” during the cool down lap. We had won before in other series over a longer duration and under much tougher circumstances, but could this time be serendipity?
It’s a complex constant for anyone lucky enough, talented enough or committed enough to have participated at all. The manner and scale of participation is immaterial. From within, the success and failures of the team are shared equally among driver, crewmember and gofer, despite the public’s tainted view of the driver as the hero. Regardless of role, from innocent beginnings in karting, rallying or autocross all the way to the various pinnacles of the sport, if racing finds purchase in our blood, it remains there forever. Strangely, this is easy to admit, as any shared common bond might be, but much harder to explain is that we have all suffered for it in ways that remain unique to us. In this sense, what it really means to be a racer has always been equally misunderstood and mythical. There were days when I wouldn’t wish being a racer on my worst enemy, and days when the normally long and tedious tow home on a Sunday night or Monday morning was magical and ethereal.
Where do these perceptions start? Well, where it starts in today’s information age is infinitely more complicated, what with the propensity for instant gratification, fast food mentality and fast friends all wrapped up in the phenomenon of the Internet. Snotty-nosed teenagers in 1972 were not affected by the remoteness of today’s info overload and mechanisms of misinformation. For most of us at the time, it simply boiled down to having a big brother unceremoniously drag our lazy behinds out of a comfy Sunday morning sleep-in to go to Mosport Park. Experiencing the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of speed first-hand is an assault on adolescent innocence that no magazine or computer screen can duplicate. A much different world to that of model airplanes for sure, and in the case of early 70’s Can Am cars, perhaps even a different planet. Sure, teenagers have a rudimentary understanding of the physical forces that keep us upright, make things fall down and make things keep going when they really ought to stop. But why is it that George Follmer’s Porsche 917/10 could, time after time, briefly lift both front wheels off the ground while exiting Mosport’s infamous corner 5b (Moss Corner), and disappear up the hill out of sight just as brutally and viscerally as it had appeared? When big brother says it has something to do with, quote: “1,000 horsepower, turbo charging” …and the stereotypical reference to one part of the male anatomy, a kid has no choice but to wonder. In this, Mosport Park and Circuit Mont Tremblant would become many a snotty-nosed 70’s Canadian teenager’s back yard.
Wonder has a funny way of changing into desire, and then into something very serious indeed. Joining a car club at 17 years young with a freshly minted driver’s license in hand was not unheard of in those days, because the old-timers dictated this as so. It was “what was done” in order to forge relationships needed in case it got, well, …serious. It took a while to get used to club meetings where the old-timer's “war stories” and posturing (often aided by many bottles of St. Pauli Girl) took up most of the time. In the beginning it is really just a simple process of engagement and learning. However, for most that endure, it defines life in ways never expected or anticipated. For many, it becomes their life. For some, it becomes an obsession.
Several years go by with the itch left painfully unscratched. Just hanging out and helping wherever possible seemed unfulfilling to me at first, but like any other apprenticeship, it sows the seeds of learning, life-long friendships and camaraderie that lasts to this day. Unexpectedly, Rallying would surface as the best way to become initiated at the time. This was logical because it meant driving something with a roof that was easily prepared to a spec close to stock for every day driving. And besides, I already owned it anyway. The roads would also be familiar, the budget seemed do-able and there was no shortage of mentors and volunteers in the club. Over time, those tangibles became totally irrelevant because the first key to success when starting out in Rallying (or any form of driven motorsport, for that matter) involves something quite dynamic, very intangible, and not easily grasped by many. The key is and remains - car control.
Learning car control at a fundamental level appears easy at first because the physics involved seem predictable and repeatable. The problem is, humans always take figurative and literal beatings when they take anything for granted. Accepting the blatant paradox that car control in rally driving is best learned by having the driver actively force the car out of control is the first step. Unlike road racing, one uses a “lack of grip” to his/her advantage. The second step is to embrace a whole new attitude towards trees that places less emphasis on their beauty, and more on their unyielding immobility. Younger club members whose fathers could afford shiny new Formula Vees or Formula Fords for road racing did not have to worry much about trees. Spinning-out on a forest stage in the dead of a cold winter's night and abruptly encountering a topic of James Joyce’s affection was of little concern to them. To rallyists however, learning and using various “out-of-control” control techniques, like the “Scandinavian flick” and squaring off corners, effectively meant a tree’s role in preventing a movable object’s forward or sideways motion would be minimized. Well, most of the time.
Aside from the odd time when half-digested KFC remnants found their way out the co-drivers’ window and down the side of the car at speed, it actually worked out pretty good. In the last year it worked well enough to make some long-timers and stalwarts sit up and take notice of the shy kid with a weak-stomached co-driver in an ugly, orange Datsun 510. Then, in the gathering gloom of a late Fall evening, just west of Lindsay, Ontario, Mother Nature and a momentary lapse in talent would intervene. Damn tree. To add insult to injury, it wasn’t even a complete tree at that, having been chain sawed to waist height by a crew surveying power lines. Despite the shoulder harness burns and rearranged but repairable 510, I learned something that thousands of others like me would learn at some time, in some form or another, and it would be the most important thing of all to learn. That night, I learned about fear.
The universally accepted and oft-quoted platitude, “the best time to start is when they are kids...” takes full advantage of one thing - their total lack of fear. Just as much as one learns car control, controlled aggression and the technical aspects of racing, the process of maturing as a race driver mirrors that of the normal maturing human development of being fearful. In racing, here is often where the myth begins.
To be continued….
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