10 years ago today, I started my high performance driving journey with a track day at Thunderhill Raceway Park. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got up at 0-dark-thirty so I get to the track when it opened. Just before I entered the property, I stopped to take a picture of the moon looming large against the horizon. My brother Mario was driving up from San Carlos, and arrived at nearly the same. I think he thought there might be something wrong with my car. I explained that I was just taking a picture.
The track day was run by Northern California Racing Club (NCRC). There was no right-seat instructor for me. Instead, they had us doing lead-follow most of the day. At the end of the day I got a check-out ride for solo. Shortly after, I spun in Turn 3, ended up going backwards up the hill, and stalled the car.
Speaking of the car, it was a 1986 BMW 325es with “summer” tires. My lap times were somewhere around 2:40. I don’t recall exactly, but I do remember hypermiling my way to 36 mpg on the way back from the track. I think this says a lot about my driving personality.
Whenever I look back at something, I have a tendency to think “what would I have done differently if I did it again?” Sadly, I think I made several pretty good decisions. The bad decisions tend to make better stories.
10 years of “track” cars
The first race car I bought into predated my first track event. We bought a first-gen MR2 for Lemons racing and turned it into a boat. It won an Organizer’s Choice award for its fishing boat theme, even though the original Noah’s Ark was better. Somehow we placed top 10 in the Lamborarri version. MR2s are really cool cars, but not cut out for the rigors of racing. After several mechanical disasters, we gave it to a team that could take better care of it. Sadly, it hasn’t raced since.
While Miata is always the answer, BMW 3-series is a pretty close second. These days, E30s are getting expensive and parts are getting harder to find. E36 and E46 make more sense today. In the picture below you can see Mario’s Miata in the background.
This car was originally purchased as a joint effort between Mario and Derek as their HPDE car (pictured above). It went through a lot of adventures in its life, eventually racing in Lemons, ChumpCar, Lucky Dog, and SCCA events. We ended up giving it to Deaf Power Racing, who continue to race it to this day. The picture below shows the Miata in Royal Mail livery with the E30 and Lamborarri MR2 in the background.
I bought this originally for my son but ended up turning into an HPDE car. Later, I caged it for BSPEC, but only did one race. It has done events in Lemons, Lucky Dog, ChumpCar, SCCA, and VARA. The picture below shows what it looked like near the start of its career.
Although I never intended for Ranger to be a track car, I did have it on the track and skid pad a couple times. Maybe more than a couple times, as I wore out the rear tires drifting. It was actually a lot of fun to drive in a spirited manner, and makes me want to race one.
I owned a 1994 Miata for about a year, and I set it up for track driving with a roll bar that I installed and even helped build. However, I never got a chance to track it. It wasn’t a very clean example of the breed, and the idea of dumping money into suspension and such just didn’t appeal to me. Had it been a really nice Miata, I may have kept it. I hope the current owner is driving the shit out of it.
I purchased a 318ti under some weird circumstances from a sketchy-as-fuck Russian dude. I couldn’t get it to run right, so I ended up selling it before I even registered it. When I imagine my ideal vehicles, one is a RWD hatchback that seats 4 and weighs under 2800 lbs. Maybe I need to find one.
2002 Elantra GT
The GT, as I used to call it, was actually a great all-purpose vehicle. I did some minor upgrades to suspension and ARB, and it handled absolutely great on the skid pad and on track. The automatic transmission killed the lap times, but as a Meals on Wheels delivery vehicle, it was perfect. This may sound crazy, but an Elantra GT with the Tiburon V6 and a manual transmission would be my other perfect car (I need two, RWD and FWD).
I’ve always liked roadsters. Although I love NA/NB Miatas, I wanted to try something a little different. I was considering Boxster, NC Miata, SLK230, Z3, and Z4. Not many people would choose the Z3, and the 1.9L at that, but it makes the most sense to me. It handles like a dream and gets 35 mpg on the highway. Every time I drive it I think, “this is what an under-powered convertible is supposed to be”. Perfection.
2011 C30 R-Design
The Volvo was supposed to be my New York car. I love the unusual design, and the performance potential of a 227 hp car weighing 3200 lbs sounded good. I installed a hidden switch to disable traction control but sadly, it didn’t disable stability control. This meant that it would add brakes to prevent you from yawing. With no grip and no yaw, the car was both slow and no fun. I did enter an autocross as a rookie and picked up a win. That’s the best thing I did with it. The worst was blowing up the motor after about 5 laps on its first track day.
The new New York car is a Mini. This is a joint effort between my brother and I. Or as I like to think of it, it’s his way of acquiring yet another track car and claim it’s not his. I drove it around on the streets, and I really like it. I have a low threshold for cars I like though. Let’s see how it performs on track (also a low bar as it turns out).
10 years of support vehicles
I bought a 1995 Ranger for $1350. It was a base model with a 2.3L engine and didn’t even have power steering. It was dead-on reliable. I used it to haul stuff to the races and even used it to flat-tow the MR2 a couple times. I’m pretty sure it’s still running today. I can’t find a picture of it.
Eventually I replaced the 1995 ranger with the more powerful 3.0L V6. By more powerful, I mean less than 10 hp. Still, I did use it to tow the Miata all over the place. That’s the 2004 below.
For a while I had the world’s shittiest trailer. It was barely large enough to hold the Miata. I helped a friend move an E46 at one point and I could see the whole thing bending. I had some near tragic accidents with it and I’m glad I no longer own it. About the best thing I can say about it is that I didn’t lose any money on it. That’s the trailer above.
1991 Ford E350 RV
I had these great designs of traveling all over California in an RV with my Yaris B-SPEC in tow. Then I ran afoul of some back problems that haven’t 100% gone away. I never got a chance to do anything fun with the RV. I sold it to someone who was going to do a full solar build. Hopefully he has the fun I didn’t get to have.
While the 2004 Ranger was a pretty good vehicle in most respects, I wanted something a little more powerful and something with 4 wheel drive. I looked at a bunch of stuff and ended up with Ranger #4 (I also had one 25 years ago). Why do I like Rangers? I guess because they are reliable and familiar. Would I rather have a Tacoma? Yes, but they cost twice as much.
When I had the 1994 Miata, I decided I wanted to have a tire trailer so I could transport tires, tools, chairs, etc. to the track. So I bought a trailer and got it registered. Later, I thought I would tow a trailer behind the Z3. It fits 4 tires and has a storage bin attached. It turns out I don’t really want to tow anything on a track day. Anyone want to buy it?
10 years of racing
I’m too lazy to dig up photos of all of my racing adventures, so I’m not going to try. This is getting long, so I’ll summarize.
- Lemons: I’ve been to 25 Lemons races. 19 as driver, 1 as crew, 4 as safety staff, and 1 as Judge. I’ll have to do a 10 year recap of that when I get to the actual 10 year anniversary in September.
- Lucky Dog: 7 races. Best finish was 3rd overall in a full 24 hour race. It was an epic and unforgettable experience.
- ChumpCar: 7 races. Best finish was 3rd overall, which happened twice.
- SCCA: 1 race. I was the only BSPEC, so I came in first (and last). It wasn’t very fun.
- Rally: 1 rally school. It was fun, but I never competed.
3 things I love
- Analysis – Examining data is a lot of fun if you like solving puzzles. Racing is rich with unknowns, myths, and outright lies. As a scientist by profession and passion, there is a lot to explore here. Every time I step into a car, real or virtual, I can’t help but experiment, analyze, and ponder.
- Driving – I absolutely love sliding a car around a race track: the balance between precision and danger, the interface between driver and machine, the optimizations vs. the trade-offs… To me, the only thing better than driving the limit is a brief trespass and safe return from well beyond.
- Lemons – The folks at 24 Hours of Lemons created budget endurance racing. By making fun of an industry that takes itself way too seriously, they somehow spawned an entirely new industry that also takes itself too seriously. You know what’s better than Lemons racing? The Lemons community.
6 things I like
- Coaching – I started coaching in mid-2015. It’s rewarding being part of someone else’s driving journey. We usually have a great time, and sometimes I can actually help them. I’ve met a lot of nice people and have had the chance to sit in some pretty cool cars. But I recently decided I’m retired as a right-seat coach. I’ve also been teaching a class on High Performance Driving at UC Davis since 2019.
- Racing – Driving wheel-to-wheel with other drivers is pretty good fun. I especially like racing in the rain. But if I was offered a choice between racing and testing, I would choose testing.
- Readers – Having an audience to write for, even a small one, is really great. Thanks for reading.
- Sim Racing – I started sim racing with rFactor sometime in 2013. I didn’t really get serious about it until I started iRacing at the end of 2013. In 2015 I discovered DiRT Rally, which probably did more to change my perspective on driving than anything prior or since. For me, sim racing is about 90% as good as the real thing. In the 10 years I’ve been in this hobby, I have less than 100 hours driving on track. However, in the virtual world, I have 10 times that. Pretty much everything I know about driving comes from sim racing. And by sim racing, I don’t mean racing other cars. I spend most of my time just testing one thing or another.
- Teammates – I’m very fortunate that the people I’ve driven with have all been really great people. Thank you for being you.
- YSAR – I like writing about driving. The constant introspection improves my learning. Years from now, I think it will be fun to look back at this and have it kick-start some memories.
A partial list of annoyances
My high performance driving hobby isn’t all joy. There are lots of things that annoy me about cars, driving, and car culture.
- Anger – Whether it’s the street or track, people get unreasonably angry when they’re behind the wheel. Sometimes that’s me.
- Autocross – On a typical autocross day, there’s less than 5 minutes of driving and more than 5 hours of standing around. If you’re into autocross, that’s great, because it’s a shit-ton less expensive than circuit racing. Personally, I don’t have the patience. But give me an open parking lot, some cones, and no waiting, and I’m all in! But that wouldn’t be autocross, would it?
- Car Guys – Most car guys aren’t actually interested in driving. They just want a car that looks the part. If car guys were musicians, 95% would be playing air guitar (badly).
- Dark Side – Most of the time I try to be a good person who sacrifices his time for the benefit of others. But there is a dark side to my personality, and racing feeds it.
- D-K effect– Not only is it the case that nobody knows how to drive, nobody knows that they don’t know how to drive. Nowhere is the Dunning-Kruger effect more evident than in the world of (fake) high performance driving.
- Drag racing – Drag racing isn’t high performance driving, and I have no interest in it. Why are people drag racing outside my house on a constant basis? I would gladly do it for test purposes though.
- Experts – There are a lot of driving experts that don’t actually know shit about driving. This includes most YouTube hosts, your HPDE coach, and me.
- Licensed racers – It’s surprisingly easy to get SCCA, NASA, or other real racing licenses. Just because you went to a 3 day basketball camp doesn’t mean you’re ready for the NBA, a college team, a high school team, or even a pickup game at the local gym. Let’s stop pretending a racing license means something it doesn’t.
- Lifted 4x4s – Tires that stick out 1 foot beyond the fenders are really dangerous. If you touch tires with someone on the highway, bad shit will happen. Ever notice that such vehicles never have dirt on them? It’s because the drivers are fucking poseurs.
- Maintenance – Keeping a race/track car in competition condition is a lot of work. There is some small satisfaction in doing a good job or saving money, but there’s a lot more work than satisfaction.
- Marital strife – My wife doesn’t approve and isn’t afraid to say so.
- Nannies – I don’t think race cars should have ABS, traction control, or stability control. The driver should control the car, not some computers. It’s almost the point where we’re saying “Hey Siri/Cortana/Alexa, turn the car for me”. Am I against fuel injection? No. Does that make me a hypocrite? Sort of.
- O-dark-thirty– Getting up at 5:00 in the morning to drive to the track is never fun. Can’t we have artist’s hours and start at noon?
- Real amateur racers – Whether it’s Lemons, Lucky Dog, ChampCar, WRL, AER, etc, there are lots of amateur endurance racers who take themselves way too seriously. Budget racing isn’t the path to a racing career. It’s people having fun together. Chill.
- Sim racing haters – I’ve met lots of people who think sim racing is fake racing. Usually those people suck at it and what they really hate is that they suck at it. But the principles of real driving and sim driving are the same. If you can’t figure out how to make the sim world work, then you probably don’t understand the real world either.
- Sports cars – I don’t think high performance cars belong on the street. What is the point of driving a 911 to work? It’s like buttering your bread with a Samurai sword. Butter knives work better for butter. Also, track cars are better on track. Wouldn’t it be better to drive a Prius to the track where you have a Spec Racer Ford (or whatever) waiting for you?
- Street driving – I would happily give up driving on the street forever starting right now. Self-driving cars can’t come quickly enough.
- Supercars – The only reason to drive a Ferrari to the gym is to show off how much more money you have than the next guy. That’s a form of socioeconomic bullying. Fuck off elitist jerk.
- Street racing – People who race on public streets are irresponsible dumbasses. It’s not that hard to go to a track or autocross event.
- Waste – It doesn’t sit well with me that motorsports is a way of having fun at the expense of the environment.
- Winning is everything – In order to succeed in racing competitions, be they F1, NASCAR, SCCA or whatever, you need every edge you can get. That leads to lots of dishonestly in the form of rule bending/breaking. Also, there are lots of people who think that being really fast excuses them from being a miserable human being. Cheating assholes who win are still cheating assholes.