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 school—as 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.