Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Racing's Princess Goes to NASCAR ... Discuss

TAMMY: Well, the news has been confirmed. Racing's reigning princess is headed out to play with the big boys and the big money. Danica is going to NASCAR. On one hand, you could say NASCAR is already about as overhyped as you can get, so how can she add more? But I think she and NASCAR are made for each other. And could it be any more perfect that she'll be driving for Dale Earnhardt, Junior? I don't think so. It'll be more interesting to see her running with Tony Stewart's team for a handful of Sprint Cup races ... that will undoubtedly be less about hype and more about pure racing. Now, I make that sound like I think Danica's in it for the fame and money. I don't, really, but I do think she's capitalizing on it while she's got the opportunity (can I blame her? probably not). But Tony Stewart (Mr. I Hate the Media Game, himself) taking her on? That's kind of impressive. Simon, what do you think about her switch? And what do you think will be the impact on the series she leaves behind?

SIMON: For me, I’m quite happy to see her switch to NASCAR, because I really like the IRL and I think the media machine that surrounds her has gotten in the way of the championship. I don’t say that in a mean way. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that she's capitalized on her situation and all credit to her. I don’t think any of us would do any different with the media attention if the tables were reversed. However, it did seem like that the TV coverage would focus on her and then the race, which was getting a little annoying. It’ll be interesting to see if she gets the media minutes in NASCAR, which has a lot of characters and legacy figures in its ranks already (something the IRL doesn’t possess—sorry guys). But this is all the gloss and shine. The real question is how well will she adapt to the racing. I can’t think of too many Indycar drivers who’ve adapted well to NASCAR. Dario Franchitti tried his hand a couple of seasons ago and sadly, didn’t do well. NASCAR races seem to possess a different rhythm from IRL races, so it’ll be down to how well she’ll adapt. I think she has left her mark on the IRL. She’ll be remembered as a real competitor. If she does well in NASCAR, she’ll do the same. If she doesn’t do well in NASCAR, she’ll be forgotten in a second. I hate to see anyone not do well, so I hope she gives NASCAR a run for their money as I enjoy the next IRL race.

TAMMY: Tony Stewart? He went from IndyCar to NASCAR, and he's done pretty well for himself, with two championships. And he's the one running her in the Sprint Cup series.... Should be interesting! What do the rest of you think?


Tomorrow is a big day for me as my new book, DID NOT FINISH, is officially released. Go me!

Like Tammy's book, it's the first book in a new mystery series set in the world of motorsport. The jacket blurb goes a little like this:

The first book in the Aidy Westlake mystery series set in the high-octane world of motor racing - When Derek Deacon threatens to kill Alex Fanning, his championship rival, rookie driver Aidy Westlake doesn’t put much stock in it – it’s typical of the intense competitiveness and aggression in their world. But when Fanning dies after making contact with Deacon’s car during a race, a conspiracy ensues: the TV coverage is edited and the police wind up the investigation without interviewing witnesses. Compelled to prove Deacon is the murderer, Aidy pushes for the truth and is drawn into a world of fraud, organized crime and murder.

Murder has never happened so fast.

During the month of September, I'll be sharing some of the background and history that is featured in the book (until you're sick of hearing about it). I'm very proud of the book and I hope people will check it out. I'm so looking forward to hearing what people think of it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Racing Fiction

by Tammy

I've traveled to a couple races recently to talk about and sell my new racing mystery novel, and along the way, I've had a great time talking to race fans who are also readers about other racing fiction. For the most part, those readers have been educating me about fiction from the 1960s and 1970s that I'd never heard of. So I thought it was time for a review of racing fiction and authors from all eras ... and I hope you'll tell me what I'm missing!

Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain (2009). Quite simply a beautiful novel, with the added benefit of accurate and compelling descriptions of racing.

Sharyn McCrumb, Once Around the Track (2007) and St. Dale (2006). St. Dale is one of my favorite novels about racing. It's a fascinating examination of the impact Dale Earnhardt had on on the racing world, most especially on fans.

Burt Levy, The Last Open Road (1994) and four others in the series. The story of a young man's progression from mechanic to racer in the 1950s.

Alistair MacLean, The Way to Dusty Death (1973). A bit "racecar driver as superhero," but an entertaining racing mystery anyway. (I think I remember someone telling me there was a "howling" inaccuracy in this book, but I missed it, if so. Does anyone know what it is?)

Douglas Rutherford, Clear the Fast Lane (1971), and others. A down-on-his-luck racer does some off-track speeding for this mystery.

William Campbell Gault, The Checkered Flag (1964) and others (young adult). A YA novel of young men building a business and career in regional dirt track racing.

Bob Judd, Spin, Burn, The Race (1992-4; other titles in the UK). I haven't read these yet, but they're on order.

That's what I know of. What other authors and novels am I missing?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Smart Cars

SIMON: I like technology. I love hot and cold running wifi. But I like technology to enhance what I do and not replace me. Case in point, technology in cars. I like technology to improve a car’s performance. I want computers to work out the optimum suspension design, best aerodynamics, perfect engineer configuration, but I don’t want computers running the car while I’m driving it. So many of the supercars and the not quite so super ones are driven by onboard computers. And that’s just not cricket.

The thing that brought this up was something I saw on Top Gear a few years ago. I believe they either had a Noble or a prototype from Prodrive (forgive my forgetfulness). The car flew around the test track. Then they turned off the computer control and the car handled like bucket of crap. I lost all interest in the car because the car was nothing without its computer. It wasn’t a leap forward. It was a leap back because the software was plastering over some major cracks. And that seems wrong to me.

My road car is only a few years old, but somewhat of a technological dinosaur. There's no traction control, no computers monitoring the engineer and the suspension. I even turned down the ABS option. And I like that. The car performs as well as the two of us can manage. I’m not a luddite. I just think having a computer that covers the faults is cheating. I want a great car. I don’t want great software. So what do you think, Tam-Tam?

TAMMY: Well, now, I'm going to disagree with you for the most part. I leased an Audi A4 for a couple years, and before that I drove a Volvo 960. The Volvo was top of the line for its era (1996), with tons of bells and whistles. I loved that car, and it kept me safe while I commuted a stupid long way on Los Angeles freeways. As for the Audi A4 ... that thing was amazing, especially its CVT: continuously variable transmission. Talk about a party trick! I'd get on the freeway with passengers and say, "check it out, it doesn't shift!" So I have to admit to really, really appreciating car technology. And if I'm commuting, driving a long distance, or driving in any hazardous conditions, I'll take it all, thank you very much.

That said, I'll admit to being a little bit of a hypocrite. Because I drive a 1989 BMW 325i (an e30; exactly like the one pictured! In fact, that's me on the way to work! OK, not really.). Stick shift. It's got some technology, to be sure, but it's pretty connected to the road, and I'm certainly doing all the shifting. But then, I "commute" a total of 3.2 miles every day. And I do love that car!

My husband and I are very much about purpose-specific cars. I still rent bigger, plusher cars if I'm making a long drive up the state for a family visit, for instance. If I'm going to an open track day, I'd probably take my manual-transmission Miata (did I mention we own a lot of cars?). But I digress, and I won't let you make me choose one or the other. I like technology sometimes, in its place.

SIMON: By the by, that's a picture of Matt Neal in his BMW M3 and it looks like it was taken at Brands Hatch on the GP loop.

"I like technology sometimes, in its place." I think we park our cars in the same garage on that point. I must admit that if I lived in a wetter part of the country, then I would have ABS on my car. That said, I must admit that I concentrate more on my driving because I don't have it. :-)

That's us...what about you, our Roadies. How much tech do you like in your cars?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jim Clark

From Simon

Last week, I was doing some research and I found a new BBC documentary on my racing hero, Jim Clark. It was to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his death. If Jimmy is an unknown quantity to you, please enjoy this video and see why he will always be the greatest driver ever to take to a track.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Notes From Road America

By Tammy

I'm writing and posting this from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, home of one of the greatest road courses in North America: Road America. I got myself here for two reasons. One, to attend the American Le Mans Series four-hour race and promote DEAD MAN'S SWITCH to a likely audience of readers—that being race fans. Two, to do research for the next book in the Kate Reilly Racing Mystery series, which will begin at Road America and end at Road Atlanta with the classic endurance race Petit Le Mans.

I also stayed an extra day after the race was over to look in on the Corvette World Tribute at the track on Sunday. This was the first event of its kind and happened in part to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Louis Chevrolet's birth this year. All in all, it was a busy weekend, full of Corvettes! (Here's a closeup of one of the factory racecars.)

My husband and I came up with a new truth this weekend: the business of racing happens on race weekends. Which means I can make lots of plans, but many meetings, contacts, and new ideas or approaches will come up as I meet or run into people at the race, and my plans will always change. Take watching the race, for instance. I thought we might sit in stands somewhere, or catch up with some friends in the Series who get less busy once the race begins. But we ran into the ALMS race director who said, "yeah, sure, come over anytime," and so about an hour into the race, we cautiously opened the door to the nerve center of race officials: Race Control.

And we never left. We were so fascinated with the business of running the race, not to mention astonished at the scores of inputs coming into the race director and his team of stewards and staff, that we stayed there, tucked into a corner watching the bank of monitors showing every turn on the course. This generosity on the race director's part (thanks, Beaux!) is just the latest example of the kindness of people in the motorsports world in giving me access to write about their business and a sport accurately.

I was glad that I could start to give back in a small way, by donating a hardcover edition of DEAD MAN'S SWITCH to an auction to benefit the Austin Hatcher Foundation, which aims to fight pediatric cancer, and which the ALMS supports at every opportunity. A very generous donor won the book with a $75 bid (and even donated beyond that amount—thanks, Anne!) for the book signed by both me and driver Patrick Long, who was calling the auction. I was thrilled to be able to contribute.

So it's been a busy weekend, but a great one. I can't wait to fix up my draft of book two, making the racing scenes at Road America more accurate and compelling and making the in-town social scenes (set at Siebken's Inn and Tavern, naturally) more real. And who knows, maybe I also need to add some intrigue in Race Control to the mix....

I'll leave you with a shot of Elkhart Lake from my bench as I write this. Cheers from the road!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Who Would You Like A Driving Lesson From?

TAMMY: Simon originally thought up this question, and it's an interesting one, because it makes me think both about skill and personality. I mean, Fernando Alonso and Kyle Busch are unquestionably phenomenal drivers, but I wouldn't want to spend any time with them. My real answer? Either ALMS GT Champion Patrick Long (about whom I've gone on at length in the past) or racing pioneer Lyn St. James. Of current drivers who most of you have probably heard of? Tony Stewart. I just love that Smoke will race someone in anything, up to and including a footrace.

SIMON: From a realistic point of view, I’d like to have one-on-one driving lesson from 3-time Grand Prix Champion, Jackie Stewart. I still have a book of his he wrote twenty-five years ago on driving. It’s not outside the realms of possibility as Sir Jackie still gives driving lessons. He's somewhat of the Driver Whisperer (coming to CBS this Fall). He still coaches a lot of professional drivers on technique. See this video clip he did for Top Gear a couple of years ago.

But if fantasy could play any part in this, I’d love to be coached by my all time racing hero, Jim Clark. It would be an honor and a joy to have gotten to sit alongside him to see how he tackled a track then have the chance to have him put me through my paces. If you're going to have driving lesson, you should have it from the best teacher possible.

If anyone can make either of these things happen, please let me know. :-)

TAMMY: What about the rest of you? Who do you want to learn from?

Play List

Thanks to Steve for covering for me after my brush with the tarmac. My wing is still broken, so I’m still on light duties. Part of that includes listening to a lot of music. So here’s my racecar driver’s playlist:

Drive – The Cars
Cars – Gary Newman
Car Wash – Rose Royce
Gasoline Alley Bred – The Hollies
The Race – Yello
Life In The Fast Lane – The Eagles
The Road To Hell - Chris Rea
Racecar – Suzanna Choffel
300MPH Torrential Outpour Blues – The White Stripes
The Distance – Cake
Little Red Corvette – Prince (that one is for Tammy)
Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
Burn Rubber – The Gap Band
Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen
Spinout – Elvis Presley
Drive – Incubus

Those are some of my lead foot sounds, so what are yours?


Monday, August 15, 2011

Motor Racing Today: Sport or Business?

by Tammy

It’s a topic I’m seriously pondering, and looking for other opinions on. That the question occurred to me at all was the work of Denise McCluggage, a journalist who raced cars in the 1950s. (That’s author Jill Amadio on the left, Denise, and me.)

I had the good luck to chat with Denise over dinner at a conference a few months ago, and something she said got me thinking. It started with me exclaiming at the fact that she won at Sebring, to which she demurred, “well, only in GT,” and I responded, “you still won!” She told me also that one of her co-drivers was another journalist, and further explained, “It was a sport then, not a business, like today.”

After that conversation, I learned about a team, whose owner I happen to know, that seems to be making a business out of running in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. In contrast to the sportscar world (at least the American Le Mans Series) where this owner ran a team for many years, and where I met him, participants in NASCAR are paid a share of the purse, down to last place (43rd) on the grid. And not just a token share of the purse, but enough to pay for the costs of getting the team to the race and on the grid for the weekend—and more. Enough that a team can make a profit by going to every race, qualifying, and starting to race, but sometimes parking the car after only a few laps. That earns purse money and saves the potential cost of a wrecked or damaged car.

So it seems that NASCAR, at least, is a business—and by that I mean a money-making proposition. I’m sure racing is also a business for some teams in other series—Grand-Am, ALMS, or IndyCar—but that these series also have many drivers, cars, and teams running for pure sport (i.e., not for profit, just for fun). I don’t mean to suggest that the pro drivers and profit-seeking teams aren’t sportsmen (and women) and don’t have fun. But I think there’s also a difference between drivers, crew, and teams whose full-time jobs and primary means of earning a living is racing and the man or woman with a day job who spends their discretionary income and free time to run a team or race a car on the weekends.

Perhaps what I mean is that the “sportsmen” are the non-professionals, the amateurs, the “gentlemen drivers.” If that’s the case, then the answer to “sport or business?” really depends on the series. The higher-level the series (the four mentioned above for sure), the more likely you’ve got professional teams looking to turn a profit. In the lower-levels—the Pirelli World Challenge series, the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, and Firestone Indy Lights, for example—maybe it’s more sport than business?

Certainly when Denise made the comment, “I was a journalist, and I did what I wrote about, and had a little talent for it,” I thought that could never happen today. And then I watched David and Andrea Robertson, owners of Robertson Racing (which seems to be a labor of love, not a money-maker for the married couple), take third at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and I had to admit maybe it’s not all business these days after all.

What do you think?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Does Racing Influence Your Buying?

TAMMY: Steve posed the question: what impact, if any, does racing have on brand loyalty these days? I say it depends on the series. I don't think anyone makes buying decisions based on the engine in a Grand-Am prototype (does anyone remember that Ganassi used to run Lexus and now they run BMW?). I'd also question how much "sell on Monday" Honda gets from being the single-engine sponsor of IndyCar. But I think it can make a difference in NASCAR, and maybe that's because that's where we see the big American rivalry of Ford vs. Chevrolet. And yes, Steve, I'm betting that in the case of Dale Junior, people do buy Chevys because he buys them. Of course, NASCAR is its own ball of wax anyway, when it comes to product sponsorship....

SIMON: I’m not sure if it has that big an influence in the UK and Europe per se. Obviously, Formula One is the most followed in Europe, but the teams don’t have a car most people can afford, when manufacturers include Ferrari and Mercedes. They're just out of people’s price range. Combine that with the fact teams like Williams, Red Bull, etc. don’t make a car of any kind. McLaren is the exception, but again, only millionaires could buy one. I think it influences brand loyalty, but not purchasing decisions. Touring cars are the closest thing Europe has to Nascar where you'll see production-based cars racing. I think that influences buying decisions to a certain extent.

STEVE: I think you’re right about the series, to an extent. I also think brand alliance is more subtle than many realize.

NASCAR fans are quite knowledgeable about their racing; nobody believes the Taurus they commute in has anything to do with Carl Edwards’s 750-horsepower tube-frame race car. And yet, and yet, and yet … as a brand-loyal fan, you DO want your favorite marque to win. You DO get a savage little rush of joy from it. You DO rub your Toyota-loving pal’s nose in it the following Monday at work. It’s hard to say exactly why.

You can liken this type of loyalty to that found in other sports. In today’s free-agent-driven sporting world, with players changing teams nearly at will, when you’re a fan of a given team you are – as my brother memorably puts it – rooting for laundry. And yet root you do! In NASCAR, you’re rooting for stickers that look like headlights.

One more note: For my money, the outfit that’s doing the best job pitting various carmakers against one another is Grand-Am’s Continental Tire Series. These are true production-based cars from BMW, Mazda, Kia, VW, Honda, Porsche, Ford, GM, Mini Cooper, Subaru, and others. The competition is hot and heavy, and when your favorite marque takes the checkers, your pride is legitimate. (Of course, I may be biased: my company, Flatout Motorsports, built Mazda MX-5s that are racing in this series right now!)

TAMMY: We'll forgive Steve his bias, and we'll welcome Simon back from injury! I know I've read studies done where NASCAR fans in particular say they buy the products that sponsor their drivers because they feel doing so will support the team and help them win. But I can't say I've switched to AFLAC because they sponsor Carl Edwards. Nor have I bought a Corvette or Porsche though those are my favorite teams in the American Le Mans Series, though as Simon points out, that's a matter of economics more than preference!

But we want to know what you all think: do you buy based on what or who sponsors your favorite driver? Do you drive what your favorite team drives, because they do? Do you think it's all ridiculous?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Three pedals, two feet (Part 2)

By Steve Ulfelder

In part 1 of this post, I discussed heel-toe downshifting and hinted that I found it overrated. I figured this might tick off a few people, and Simon called me a Philistine, so job done!

Hang on to your hat, Simon (and other purists), because now it’s time for me to explain why I would welcome an automatic transmission not only in my street wheels – but in my race car (gasp).

It all comes down, really, to the point of racing: finishing ahead of the other guy by passing and/or going faster (these are very different things, a point I may address in a future post). I’ll focus on going faster.

I’ll also add a caveat. When I say I’d welcome an automatic tranny, I mean that as a theoretical statement, not a real-world choice to be made right now. I don’t think Honda makes an automatic for my car (an S2000). Even if they did, and if it were legal for me to install such a transmission (it’s not, under Sports Car Club of America regulations), I wouldn’t do so tomorrow.

Why? Because for now, manual trannies perform better. They do so by letting the driver decide which gear to be in, thus keeping the car’s engine in the desirable part of its power band.

Now here’s the important thing: Manual transmissions will not always perform better. Just as anti-lock braking systems were once inferior to old-school threshold braking but are now better, so too will slushboxes evolve. Sometime in the next five, 10 or 15 years (I’m betting on the lower number), auto manufacturers will routinely turn out automatic transmissions smart enough, and robust enough, even for racing purposes.

When they do, I and most of the racers I know will use them. We consider every shift (of which I make 14 per lap at Watkins Glen!) an opportunity to make a mistake. And if there’s one thing a race driver loves, it’s a mistake unmade.

So there’s the perspective of one amateur racer. What about you? Agree? Disagree? Is the three-pedal shifting system a fundamental part of driving pleasure, or is it an anachronism we’re set to evolve past?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Forget Zero to 60. Try Zero to 117.

By Tammy (photos (c) Ben English/English Photography)

(Today I’m sharing an article I wrote a few years ago after I went to the Panoz Racing School—now a Skip Barber schoolas research for my racing mystery novel. Racing school remains one of the most exhilarating, educational, and frightening experiences of my life. Here’s more about my adventure….)

“Start ‘er up!” A hand waves in the air. It’s hot, and I’m sweating. A lot. Into my helmet. Into my firesuit. Into my socks. I’m sitting in a 250 horsepower racecar with my finger on the ignition switch. I’m trying to breathe, and as the engine rumbles to life under my seat, I realize I don’t always have the brightest ideas.

The basics are easy. I’m a writer who got involved in a racing series, where I discovered characters, egos, and drama. Throw in competition, outrageous speeds, and the danger of serious injury, and you’ve got an environment ripe for storytelling. Maybe even murder. So I created Kate Reilly, a female racecar driver and star of a first-person mystery series that would take readers inside the cockpit of a racecar. Timely, I thought.

Everyone loved the idea. I presumed on many an introduction and slight acquaintance for information about the racing world, racing teams, and the mind of a driver. I was humbled at how willing everyone was to give me the information to breathe life into Kate’s world—particularly when I’m not published yet. Until I can repay my generous sources with thanks on an acknowledgements page, I work on trying to get the details right and the story compelling.

Which brings me to the Panoz Racing School at the Road Atlanta racetrack in Georgia.

Because if I was taking so much care to get every other detail of racing life correct, I was going to have to nail down the central point: what it’s like inside a racecar during a race. The problem? I can’t drive a racecar … or maybe that should be Drive a Racecar, because we’re talking speed and threshold braking and heel-and-toe downshifting and loud noises and helmets and firesuits and the possibility of crashing … and who thought this was a good idea?

I’d always been a “Slow down! Be careful!” type, not a “Go faster!” type. I’d never even raised a squeal from my tires—that sound scared the hell out of me. That’s why it took me two years to sign up for a racing school. And when I did sign up, I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t want to think about it. I was scared silly.

I knew I needed to do it. I knew I couldn’t be published without it—and since I’d completed my first manuscript, started on the second, and secured an agent who was shopping a three-book deal, I knew the clock was ticking. I also knew I’d probably pee my pants when they tried to get me to go fast.

Back to the racecar. Sweat’s dripping down my face and pooling in my suit under my butt. I wipe my hands on my knees. I try to think of expletives dramatic enough for the abject terror I’m feeling as my racecar rumbles along in an uneven, “I like to go fast, not idle” kind of way. I’m about to go out on the track … alone, for the first time. I start breathing faster. I wonder if I’m starting to hyperventilate.

Then again, maybe it’s the seatbelts that are the problem. I’m strapped in with a five-point harness, and the straps are so tight I can’t move even a centimeter. The instructor who fastened my window net and checked my belts actually told me, “If you can’t breathe, they should be tight enough.”

While this sounds outrageous, I know that if I run my car into a wall, the more I’m strapped in, the less I’ll be hurt. Of course, I’m not going to run my car into a wall. Nosiree, Bob. Because I don’t want to hurt the car. I’ve purchased the insurance for this three-day school, but that only caps my liability at $4,000. The instructors keep reminding us not to spend that money, but some students don’t listen and spend it anyway. I’m trying not to be rattled by the fact that two cars have already crashed. The drivers were fine, so what’s the problem, right?

I’d made it through the first day without a panic attack. Barely. Sliding a car around on a wet circle, learning to control a skid. Darting around a small autocross course in first a street car, then a racecar. Finding the optimum racing line on the track. But this was the second day. I’d been fine telling myself to go at my own pace. Then we lined up in groups of three and followed an instructor around the track. Disaster. I felt pressured and over my head.

I couldn’t keep up, and I wasn’t putting together everything I’d been learning. The instructors were wonderful, calming me down, lying to me, telling me I wasn’t slowing anyone at all. I only half believed them. Going out alone, as I was about to do, was good because anyone who wanted to go faster could go around. It was bad because I wasn’t sure I’d remember where and how to brake, accelerate, and turn. Don’t even get me started on the tap dance that is the racing downshift.

I’d been swallowing my fear for a day and a half, telling myself I could do this. I only half believed myself. Sitting in the car, in my personal hell, I frantically tried to remember my notes. Where was I supposed to brake for Turn 6? At the 200 marker? Instructors would be watching my laps to give me feedback on my line, downshifting, and braking. But I wanted to do it right the first time—and doing it right was important to me in a situation where getting it wrong could mean going nose-first into a concrete wall.

Focus! Remember to turn in later to Turn 7. Is it really a good idea to set me loose in a machine that’s capable of doing 150 m.p.h. down the back straight? Of course, as the racing joke goes, the speed isn’t the problem; it’s the stopping. Now, Turn 10a, that was where they told us to square off the corner, and not move to the right until—

And then it’s my turn. I put the car in gear and pull onto the track. Here I go, regardless of what I remember. I drop the car into third, move off pit lane onto the track, and accelerate up the hill to Turn 2. By the time I reach Turn 3, I don’t feel the panic or the seatbelts. I’m thinking about what I need to do and how to fix what I just did poorly.

By the fourth lap, a miracle occurs: I start to have fun. Really, honestly, to have fun.

Until that point, I was writing about races and racecars and racecar drivers from an intellectual understanding. I could understand that some people liked getting into a 750 horsepower racecar and going 200 miles per hour. I could understand that it must be a physical and mental challenge and also quite a rush. In my own racecar, I finally got it. Sure, this was a scary thing to do—I could crash, things could catch on fire, I could (and did) hit 117 on the back straight—but it was also fun.

It was fun to push myself and see my comfort zone in my rearview mirror. Fun to accelerate just a bit longer and brake just a little harder going into Turn 6. To swing right and left through the Esses. To try to put together the perfect lap. Fun to finally get it and understand. Mostly fun to feel—just for a moment—like Kate Reilly, racecar driver.

Oh, I was still scared, and I was still terrible. But I was improving, and I was getting it in my gut, not just my head. On the third and last day of school, I was good. I wasn’t fast, but I was doing it right. Butterflies of excitement replaced the dread in the pit of my stomach. The instructors observing key corners stopped offering corrections and told me I was consistent and precise. My grin still hasn’t worn off.

The relief I felt at mastering a racecar was overwhelming. On a personal level, I had a new yardstick for measuring my capabilities: nothing has ever been as hard for me as racing school was. On a professional level, I now understand the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the feel of being in a racecar. My female racecar driver will have racing credibility. Finally, I can make Kate fly behind the wheel.

But the single best indication of what I’d learned and how far I’d come was a brief moment as I headed for the pits on the last day of school. I wrapped my car around Turn 10a and heard the tires squeal. I grinned and thought: Gee, I love squealing my tires around that turn. And then I laughed out loud right there in the car.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Our Top 5 Tracks

By Tammy Kaehler and Steve Ulfelder

TAMMY: I expect that Steve and I will have different perspectives on this, him being a real racer and all. I watch on TV, attend some races in person, and study onboard video. So I'm talking top 5 as in "fun to watch be driven." Because there's only one racetrack I've ever driven on myself ... OK, that's on my list. But Steve and I live on opposite ends of the country, maybe we'll be coastally biased? This could be interesting....
  1. Le Mans, France. Country roads, village streets, a road course with a front straight. Day, night with no streetlights. France, for Pete's sake! And a parade of drivers that takes place through the town of Le Mans, in vintage automobiles, with a backdrop of of a gothic cathedral. Le Mans has the ambiance without the crazy-might-drive-into-the-ocean of Monaco. Full disclosure: I haven't been to either one, but Le Mans is still #1.
  2. Laguna Seca, California. The corkscrew. Epic. That's really all that need be said.
  3. Lime Rock Park, Connecticut. Tight, technical road course in a verdant, wooded setting. A racetrack in a park. Lovely people, as noted previously.
  4. Long Beach, California. Temporary street course, with the best backdrop of any race in the United States: the Pacific Ocean, the harbor, and the Queen Mary (photo at right). I'm not saying it's fun to drive, but it's a great place to be!
  5. Road Atlanta, Georgia. It's got blind uphills, slow, tricky turns, a downhill that takes guts, and esses with a rhythm that feels like you should be dancing. It makes my list because I learned to drive there, and because it hosts epic finishes at the Petit Le Mans each year. (Look, that's me at Road Atlanta!)
I guess I wasn't too west coast centric ... what's your take, Steve?

STEVE: Fun topic. Tammy, I don’t see your list as West Coast-centric; it looks nicely balanced to me. I couldn’t agree more that Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, and Road Atlanta belong on the list. In fact, thanks for including them – you’ve freed up my selections! Here they are. Unlike you, though, I’m going to be difficult and name mine in no particular order:

  1. Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium. I’m not a big Formula One guy now, but Jackie Stewart was one of my favorite drivers when I was a kid (Richard Petty and Don Garlits were the other two – how’s that for diversity?), and I recall the blend of respect, adoration and terror with which Stewart discussed Spa. It was a track that put hair on your chest. And while it, like all F1 circuits, has seen many safety improvements that subtract from the fear factor, it still features some pucker-up-and-see-if-you-can-drive-it-flat sections that are, I believe, a racer’s biggest challenge.
  2. Road America, Wisconsin. Road America is this continent’s answer to Spa: elevation changes, gorgeous countryside, unpredictable weather, and fast sections that separate the men from the boys.
  3. Watkins Glen, New York. This is the only track on my list that I’ve driven, and boy do I love it. Smooth but not too smooth, wild elevation changes, a dozen turns per lap, nothing ridiculously slow. Driving up through the Esses in fourth gear, dead-nuts flat out through an Armco corridor that’s disturbingly close, makes me feel like a real race car driver every lap.
  4. Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yeah, it’s an oval (well, a squared-off oval). But history, pomp and courage count for something, and nobody beats Indy on those counts. The track’s barely banked, 90-degree corners have led some to say that driving it is like going 230 mph – then turning into your driveway. To be fast at Indianapolis, you must run flat out through these corners, which requires guts few of us can even imagine.
  5. Monaco. What, another F1 circuit? You bet. What I love here is the sheer preposterousness of the endeavor. It was one thing to race through the streets of a tiny, elderly city when tires were four inches wide and drivers paid more attention to their ascots than to their helmets. But in today’s terrifyingly fast F1 cars, such a race is silly, unimaginable … stupid! And I say that admiringly.
TAMMY: Well, Steve, you helped me out with adding Monaco and Road America (the Kink is classic). Clearly we needed a top 10! That's our take. What do the rest of you have to say?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Three Pedals, Two Feet (Part 1)

(Note from Tammy: Since Simon's laid up with a busted wing, Steve Ulfelder's going to hang around and talk racing with us for a week or two. Think of this as our own Le Mans, and the Two For The Road Team is bringing in our superlative third driver....)

You love cars. You love racing. So there’s a pretty good chance your car has a manual transmission.

Shifting for yourself makes you feel like you’re really driving, rather than just shoving the thing in D and oozing about like the rest of the zombies. You upshift when you want to, not when a computer calibrated by lawyers and the EPA tells you to. Oh, and the glorious zing-zing! of a nicely rev-matched downshift. Heaven!

Well. Maybe for you. How would you react if I told you that I and most of the racers I know are not only happy with an automatic transmission on our street cars, but look forward to the day when our race cars use slushboxes?

I know, I know: I should have my string-back driving gloves confiscated for even thinking such a thing (except that I don’t own such gloves and am not entirely sure, frankly, what they are).

Here’s a quick refresher for those who are unsure about why manual transmissions are a hot topic among performance-oriented drivers:

Upshifts are a piece of cake. When it’s time to shift, you put the clutch in; lift your foot from the throttle just a hair (unless you’re a 19-year-old boy driving a Mustang, in which case you keep the gas pedal pegged until your motor blows up, which should be about three minutes from now); pop the shift lever into the next highest gear; and simultaneously release the clutch and get back to the throttle.


But eventually, you’ll need to downshift. And if you’re racing, simply reversing the order of the procedure above isn’t good enough.


Because if you’re downshifting, you’re probably braking – hard – at the same time. And if you simply shove the shift lever from fourth gear (for example) into third, then let the clutch out all at once, you will transfer an ungodly amount of weight from your car’s rear tires to its front tires. The fronts will probably lock up and slide. That’s bad. The rears will probably lose adhesion and try to spin you out. That’s also bad.

What to do? Heel-toeing to the rescue!

Heel-and-toe rev-matching is a clever technique in which your two feet operate three pedals at once.

Let’s picture our four-three downshift again. You arrive at your braking zone and begin to brake hard. Soon (in tenths of a second, or even hundredths), it’s time to downshift. Your left foot has it easy: it need only operate the clutch. But your right foot, which is already braking for all it’s worth, gets an extra-credit assignment: it must continue to apply pressure to the brake while simultaneously rolling to its right to blip the throttle. (In spite of the technique’s name, nearly all modern racers use the ball of their right foot to heel-toe.)

Why blip the throttle?

Because this increases engine RPMs, which in turn prevents that ungodly weight transfer that wants to spin you out and flat-spot your front tires.

If you’ve watched much NASCAR road-racing, you’ve probably seen “foot-cams” that beautifully illustrate the heel-toe technique. And indeed, a well-executed rev-matched downshift is a joy to behold.

But do you know what? It’s also a pain in the ass, an opportunity to screw up. We racers have plenty of chances to screw up, believe you me, and are never sad to see one go away.

I fear I’ve run long here, so let’s do this: check out some Youtube foot-cam footage from one of my favorite racing series, Australian V8 Supercars. Note that this driver, like the heroic 19-year-old piloting our Mustang, does not lift his foot from the throttle when upshifting. That’s fine when somebody else is buying your motors.

Unless Tammy and Simon chase me off the blog for daring to mock manual transmissions, I’ll be back soon with Part 2 of this post: Why I would be perfectly happy with an automatic transmission in my race car.

Monday, August 1, 2011

What’s With All the Hype?

by Tammy Kaehler

I’m feeling brave, and I’m going to go there. The topic? Two of the most popular drivers in motorsports and why I don’t understand or agree with the reasons for their popularity. I’m talking Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Danica Patrick.

Let me be clear. they are talented drivers. They belong in the racing world and in top teams. They’re both attractive, articulate, polished, and appealing. I get all that.

But I don’t understand all the hype.

I understand more about Danica. A lot of car and racing fans are male, Danica’s hot, and she’s willing to flaunt it. About her endorsement deals and activities outside the racetrack, I mostly think, “You go girl, and work the attention while you’ve got it.” But I find it hard to argue with fans who are disgusted that some IndyCar broadcasts turn into the Danica show, when she qualifies, runs, and finishes in the lower half of the field.

I understand the hype over Dale Earnhardt, Jr.—“Junior”—less. Sure, I think he looks like a good guy and he’s a good driver. But if there’s any driver anywhere in motorsports with what could be considered a rabid fan following, it’s Junior. There’s a fever that grips the stands of a racetrack when Junior gets near the front, and there’s an audible roar generated when he’s actually in the lead. You can feel and hear all that even through the television broadcast.

In addition, Junior or his team wins nearly every fan poll or vote offered. Who do you think will win? Junior. Who’s got the best chance in the Chase for the Championship? Junior. Who’s got the fastest pit crew? Junior (to be fair, I’ve seen another driver win this approximately twice in a couple years of race watching). Junior has won the fan-voted Most Popular Driver award from the National Motorsports Press Association for eight consecutive years.


Conventional wisdom would suggest that fans like athletes who are winning. From Junior’s popularity, you’d expect him to have dozens of wins in the last few seasons and five consecutive NASCAR championship trophies—but that’s his teammate, Jimmie Johnson. Junior hasn’t won a race in three years.

Again, I just want to know why. I can’t believe his fans are there because fans of his father—Dale Sr., who died in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, blocking for Junior—transferred allegiance. I also don’t want to think his fans are fans simply because his father died in that manner. To suggest either of those scenarios is to not give credit to Junior’s own talents and personality. But you have to wonder if that didn’t contribute to the larger-than-life image Junior seems to possess … one seems to sit uncomfortably on his shoulders sometimes.

I have no real answers to the question of their popularity. But it seems to me that it’s about more than who they are as individuals. Somehow they have become mythological heroes, carrying the hopes, dreams, and emotions of legions of fans on their shoulders. Which must be a lonely place to be sometimes.

What do you all think? Are Danica and Junior your favorites? Or do you want to ask, as Janet Jackson would, “What have you done for me lately?”