Track Impressions: Oregon Raceway Park (ORP)

It’s a good thing that ORP is out in the middle of the boonies, because it means that a group of 20 solo drivers like us can descend on the track on a Monday/Tuesday in April and have the place to ourselves. What a playground for a whole bunch of Porsches, my M2C, a Honda S2000, and an Audi R8 race car. 

If this place was any closer to a big city, it’d be a whole different scene: every day would be busy, and the best you’d get is a day with a high-performance driving organization, with timed sessions and just a hell of a lot more structure. As it was, we had the whole day to ourselves: Want to run 40 minutes? Do it. Need a break after 8 laps because you put two wheels off exiting turn 3? Take 5 minutes and get back on. Organizer John Kleven (co-owner of Metropolitan Detail) said it and I know now it’s true: once you’ve had an open track day, you’ll never want to do it any other way. Sounds like pretty much everything else in performance driving: get a taste of that next level, and you never want to go back. It’s a good thing I didn’t take a ride in one of the many Porsches in our group: I would have had a hankering for a faster car.

I hope my impressions of the experience at ORP are useful; they’re just my perspective, nothing comprehensive. I wish I had taken more pictures (you can see the whole album here if you can tolerate it) and I wish my one lap video didn’t have so much vibration, so I’ll mostly use my words. Take it for what it’s worth.

If you’re at all like me, you use the days before a track day—especially a track day at a new track, as this was for me—to gather intel. I look at track maps (it’s amazing how different they can be, depending on the style and whether they show you the driving line or not), read “track notes” from other drivers (Paul Blake did one in a recent AVANTS magazine that was super helpful), and watch as many track videos as I can. My favorite from ORP was this guy running 1:54 laps in his damned Alfa Stelvio SUV! I didn’t realize how fast that really was until I got down to the track and say that many of us never did break the 2:00 barrier (with some notable exceptions, of course).

It’s silly that I cram my head so full of this stuff before getting on the track, because the longer I do this the more I realize I just need to get on the track! I love a track walk when I can get it (I did this time, as you can see), but mostly I just need the seat time to feel the track inside and out.

Only on the track can I really start to understand the turning and braking points; before that, they’re just so much clutter in my mind. Following faster drivers is super helpful, and I got to do this a lot at ORP, since there were a combination of monster cars and monster drivers making it interesting. Even if I only kept up for a turn or two, I learned something. It’s going to be great when this COVID thing passes and we can start getting instructors and even fellow drivers back in the cars with us, as there’s nothing like having someone in the passenger seat note the things you can’t figure out.

Another thing that made this track trip so cool—hell, it’s the second best part of track driving—was the brotherhood of car guys. If you are under the misguided impression that the kind of guys who can take their expensive cars off to the track on weekdays must be a bunch of arrogant assholes, you couldn’t be more wrong. Think of it this way: this is a group of people (it’s mostly guys, true, but not solely) who found something they love to do and are doing it with as joy and enthusiasm, happily sharing it with the like-minded, regardless of the price tag on the window sticker. Most of us got hooked into this group because of someone we’d met at another event (thanks Doug, Adam). There’s no arrogance, just humility, as we dissect our laps between sessions: we all know we could go faster.

Back to the track itself: ORP is a technical track, with 16 turns across 2.3 miles. I don’t think there’s a true flat spot on the track—you’re always rising or falling, which creates blind hills and blind corners all over the course. This technical quality made day one on the track a real challenge for me as we started lapping: I’d come into a corner and not know where the hell I was! For the better part of the first morning, I couldn’t tell turn 11 from turn 14. So I learned it bit by bit, all morning long: I’d figured out how to string three turns together, then add another two, then be lost again. Eventually, just before lunch, I started to feel the flow, to feel like I could drive continuously and confidently around the entire track. It’s then that I start to experience the deep joy of driving.

Day two felt so different. In theory, it should have felt like a new track again: after all, we were going in the opposite direction, counter-clockwise, so the line was very different even if the asphalt was the same. But I found day two much more enjoyable. Perhaps I had cleared the “new track jitters,” perhaps I had internalized the track map just a bit, but I got into the flow state much earlier and just found that I enjoyed CCW a hell of a lot more. 

I don’t think you can fully appreciate how special ORP is without mentioning the people there and the location. Bill Murray, the general manager, leads the morning track talk, gives the “track tour,” and hangs out to cook and offer advice all day long. He knows this track like the back of his hand; hell, he helped design it. You can tell from his track stories that he’s told them a few times, but put him in the car with you and it’s all thoughtful attention, tailored to your experience. Bill serves the lunch and then he comes around and clears your plate and it might be that my delight in being there clouds my vision, but I suspect this guy just really loves his job, loves being out at this track, with the wind blowing and his faithful dog at his side. I should have asked him.

The whole crew at the track is on the vibe: Brenda’s just as cool as can be, coming out to fill your tank from the big white gas tank that sits off on a trailer, noting down your name so you can settle up later. I listened in to the turn workers when I took a radio out to the tower at turn 8 to take photos: they delighted in the roar of these fast Porsches coming through, noting all the different types of wings. They seemed to be having as much fun as we were. And why not? They’re out in this beautiful countryside, with 100-mile views in every direction, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood peaking out to the northwest and west, the vastness of eastern Oregon stretching the other way. ORP’s a pretty damned special place.

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