I just came back from an endurance race at Watkins Glen International, which represents one of my bucket list tracks. Why is WGI a bucket-lister? Partly because of its historical significance, partly because I grew up about 25 miles away, and partly because I’ve spent quite a bit of time there in the virtual world in iRacing. So what else is on my bucket list? Hmm, let’s rephrase that as “what are my 10 favorite tracks?” and we’ll see how many remain on the bucket list.
- Thunderhill. I feel blessed that this gem is just 80 miles away. Thunderhill is really two completely different tracks that can be glued together to make a 5 mile track. The original East side has great flow, especially from T1-T6. The West side is highly technical with lots of compromises and off-camber turns. I think of the West track as my home track, and I would drive it above any other track.
- Brands Hatch. Whenever I try out a new car or track on a simulator, I always load up Brands Hatch Indy first. It has a a great mixture of challenging corners in a compact layout. This is #1 on the bucket list.
- Mid-Ohio. The rollercoaster ride from 4 to start-finish is the perfect mixture of corners and elevation changes. Recently, a couple endurance racing organizations have started to race there, so I hope I’ll be able to check off #2 on the bucket list soon.
- Sonoma Raceway. I’m new enough to car racing that I don’t feel allegiance to the Sears Point name, but I know many people who feel otherwise. This track is only 50 miles from my house and I get goosebumps every time I approach it on Route 37. The climb from T1 to T3a is my favorite stretch of 4 corners anywhere.
- Mosport. What an amazing mixture of technical and gut-wrenching corners. It just flows through the hills like chocolate on ice cream (ok, so I don’t like either one of those things, but most people do, so I make that analogy for your benefit). It’s close enough to my brother’s home that I hope to get there soon. That’s #3 on the bucket list.
- Barber Motorsports Park. There is no part of this track that isn’t fun. You get just enough time to catch your breath before another combination of corners has you grinning and sweating again. Bucket list #4.
- Road Atlanta. This place has a lot of history and some amazing corners. I love everything before the back straight and everything after it. Bucket list #5.
- Virginia International Raceway. I can’t decide what configuration I would want to run first. The North side has Hog Pen but the South side has a great run through the interior. I’m not a fan of long straights, so the main track has less appeal, but of course I want to drive that too! Bucket list #6.
- Laguna Seca. Even though it’s just 2.5 hours from my house, I rarely drive this track because Sonoma and Thunderhill are closer and more fun. Although the Corkscrew is the most famous part of this track, it’s not as challenging as what comes after. The weather in Monterey is beautiful most of the time, and a great place to visit even if you’re not racing.
- Watkins Glen International. Located in a quaint and hilly part of upstate NY, Watkins Glen is steeped in history from the original races through the village streets to the annual NASCAR race. In a slow car, like a Miata, the corners are unfortunately isolated from each other. Driving fast requires optimizing each corner, of course, but messing up one corner doesn’t really impact how you drive the next one. My favorite part is the run through the Inner and Outer Loops. I also like the exits of T8 and T10 because it’s exciting sliding up to the walls.
So let me tell you about my WGI experience! My twin brother Mario had recently purchased a showroom stock Spec Miata. These aren’t as fast as a typical SM, and this particular one did not have a race motor (or a motor in tune as we found out). Its first race was about 1 month prior and it suffered an accident that required the frame to be straightened. He got it back from the shop just days before our race. So when we got to the track, there were several things that needed fixing (e.g. water leak at the heater core) in addition to the usual maintenance. We had a busy day getting the car ready, and each driver got only a couple laps on the practice day.
On race day 1, we were still running behind schedule and arrived to the grid stylishly late (after the pack had taken off). Mario drove first followed by Jim, then Derek, then me. Mario noted that the car was running a lot slower than it had last race. He used to pick up 5th gear right out of the esses, but it didn’t go fast enough to get into 5th now. My guess is the timing got knocked out of whack in the accident. We decided the car was running well enough so we left the investigation and fix for later.
During my stint, I was concerned about fuel usage, so I found another car driving a similar pace and drafted it whenever I could. Even so, as the race was getting closer to the checkered flag, I was worried about running out of fuel because the needle was hovering around E and would go below sometimes. I decided I had better pit because I didn’t want to get towed in. Each time the trucks go out, it costs the renters a lot of money. I wasn’t going to do that to ChumpCar, so I pitted with about 5 minutes to go. Given the 5 min refueling rule, there was no point going back on track. It was a good day and everyone got to drive. We ended up 51 out of 102 cars (6 cars never made it to grid). Seeing as two of our drivers haven’t been on track in about 2 years and we had a car out of tune, that’s quite good.
On race day 2, we inverted the driving order. I decided I wanted to get some entertaining video with my new TomTom Bandit camera, and purposefully started at the back so I could record some passes. Towards the end of my session, I ran some pretty consistent laps.
My stint ended when I got punted by one of the very fast cars in the Exhibition Class. Why someone who can pass me on any straight decided to try to go inside of me when I was going inside of another car is beyond me. I pitted at the end of the lap to check for damage. Thankfully the damage was minimal. And while I was a little miffed at both the other driver for driving beyond his ability and at the organization for not throwing a black flag, they were small annoyances in what was otherwise one of the best weekends ever. It’s hard to get too upset when you’re sharing an amazing track with lifelong friends. We ended the day 42 out of 92 (16 registered cars did not grid).
Video or it didn’t happen…