Laguna Seca Part 2: Planning the Trip

There’s not much mystery in a road trip these days. Between Google Maps and weather apps, you can be pretty sure of what lies ahead.

I’m old enough to remember a different kind of roadtrip, one where you navigated from a Rand McNally atlas or a series of state maps and got your weather reports off local AM stations. The lack of predictability around what lay ahead made for some fun trips, like the non-stop run my brother Pete and I took from Salt Lake City to Detroit that got considerably longer when we found out–surprise–that a massive section of I-70 had been closed for nighttime construction and we had to do a major detour in the middle of the night. This was after we had finally eluded the crazy son-of-a-bitch who rode tight on our bumper for 30 minutes with his lights off in eastern Colorado. We could see the moonlight reflecting off his hood in our rear-view mirror, but we didn’t want to stop or hit the brakes, so we just kept going until he finally backed off into the blackness. I’ve always wondered if he had as much fun as we did.

There was a stretch of my life when it felt like I made a cross-country run just about every 15 months. There was one in the dead of winter between Pullman, WA, and Ann Arbor, MI, when budget cuts at WSU killed both our jobs and we headed back “home” to work for a landscaper and figure out our next steps. We were nearly grounded at a hotel in Missoula–where the temperature stood at -24 degrees–but a patient wrecker driver helped me get the car started and told us, don’t turn the car off again and we didn’t until we got home, for fear it wouldn’t start again. What the hell did we know?

Then there was the time we were visiting my aunt and uncle in their townhouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland, with our 16-month-old son Conrad. It got to be about 9:00 at night and Sara and I didn’t think we could take another night there so we said, “Conrad’s getting sleepy, let’s drive home,” but home is Lafayette, Indiana, maybe 10 hours away … or it should have been 10 if we hadn’t hit a snowstorm crossing the Indiana state line and then I spent the last couple hours of the drive white-knuckled and half hallucinating, the falling snow making a tunnel in space as dark gave way to morning. It scares me just to think of it! Conrad slept the whole way through, right up until we got about 5 miles from home and then he was ready to roll. We about lost our minds. We both swore never again to drive through the night.

In Google I Trust (with a Little Help from My Friends)

The road trip I’m planning today is a whole different ballgame: technically, all I do is enter my start point of Snohomish, WA, and my end point of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (near Monterey, CA), and I can let Google do the rest. 932 miles, with the vast majority a straight shot down I-5. If I left right now, it would take me 15 hours and 12 minutes. Google will offer me route changes if there are problems ahead, and I’ve given myself 2 days to get there, so it shouldn’t be a problem.

In summer, I’d just hop in the car and go. But it’s mid-November, I’m driving a rear-wheel-drive M2, and I know that Siskiyou Pass in southern Oregon could pose a serious challenge in a snow storm–a challenge that could jeopardize the pretty penny I’ve laid down for 2 days on my dream track. So Plan A is get there fast, I-5 all the way.

But I needed a Plan B, and for that I tapped the hive-mind that is the Avants community. Avants is a “premium membership program for gearheads,” says the website, but it’s also a living, breathing community of 1500 people (and growing fast) who are really into all things drivable and among the most helpful, welcoming groups I’ve ever run across. At noon on a Friday, I posted a question on the org’s Facebook group asking for route advice through southern Oregon, and by day’s end I was absolutely convinced of my Plan B: if the weather turned to hell by the time I reached Grants Pass, I would veer right and take the lower, warmer route 199 to Crescent City, California, then bust my way south on Highway 101 the rest of the way. (Hell, Todd Peach sent me a multi-page guide that spelled out every option possible—who needs GPS when you’ve got friends like this?)

If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, Plan B sounds a hell of a lot more interesting, well, you’re right. But I’m laser focused on being my freshest self when I hit Laguna Seca, and that means it’s Plan A for me if at all possible. We’ll see what the weather gods bring my way, and how I find my way back.

PS: The car guys are gonna bust my ass for not mentioning the cars I was in, but they were, surprisingly enough, not that important. In order, mid-70s VW Rabbit, 1987 Saab 900S, and 1992 Saturn SL2.

Laguna Seca, Part 1: Hell Yes I’ll Come!

I’ve driven it in games and in my mind a million times; soon, I get to drive it for real.

Prior to November 2nd, I would have told you I didn’t have a bucket list, or I would have at least scorned calling it a “bucket list.” Partly it’s the 2007 movie with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freemen, which just seemed stupid; partly I think life is just too spontaneous to have a list of things you’ll check off as you go. But I’ve kept a running list of mountains that I want to climb, places that I want to visit, and (naturally) race courses that I want to drive on. The Nürburgring; Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps; Interlagos. But one above all else: Laguna Seca.

So imagine how I felt when I got a message from Adam Cramer at 3:58 PM on Monday, November 1: “Hey Tom, should have sent this to you earlier. Since I know that you are a track junkie, thought you might be interested in the Laguna Seca trip that we have coming up. It’s Nov 21-22. Two days on track at Laguna. Hotel, food, etc. Details here: https://www.avants.com/avants-laguna-seca-driving-experience.”

I was sitting out on the back porch in the sunshine, soaking up this amazing sunny day. I had cajoled Sara to sit out there with me, telling her that this may be the last sunshine we see in a while, and we were enjoying a nice cold martini when the message came in.

This is the very martini, though I’m not sure why I took a photo.

“Sara, you’re not going to believe the message I just got,” I began, and quickly laid it out. “Tom,” she replied, “you’ve been wanting to drive on that track all your life. You’ve got to do it.” We took a big gulp about the money and I told Adam, “Hell yes I’ll come.” Let the planning begin!

Now I quickly confirmed with Adam that this wasn’t one of those deals where you showed up and drove other people’s cars, like the Porsche and BMW driving days I’ve done. Nope, this was a bunch of folks from Avants taking their own cars down. So my wheels starting spinning: I was going to have to get my car down there and it was going to have to be track ready.

Job 1 was new brake pads. My last day out at Pacific Raceways I’d really been hammering on the brakes and as the day wore on they were starting to fade, not badly, not dangerously, but enough that on my last session I had to slow down, especially at the end of the long straight, and use my engine braking more. It was good experience, but when I talked to my friends at Broadstroke, our local BMW performance shop, they said this was as good a sign as any that I needed to step up to some track pads.

I’m sure there are some people who would have dug the prospect of comparing specs on the available pads for their car, and would have had all the tools to put them on themselves. But I’m not that guy: I’m a guy who will obsessively watch track videos to try to visualize the perfect line and braking points, hoping that if I drive the track enough times in my head it will be easier when it’s real (generally true, by the way, but it’s also true that the map is not the landscape). But dammit, I’m just not into the mechanical stuff!

Luckily, I belong to some amazing car communities: Avants, first and foremost, but also the BMW CCA Puget Sound Chapter and a group of people I’ve met at track days and at AutoX at Evergreen Speedway. I started pinging my connections there and within a matter of days I had it all figured out: I was going with Hawk 5.0 brake pads all around, and I worked with our Avants partner down at Discount Tire to find what seemed like the last set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R track tires left in the whole country. Both the pads and the tires were hybrid equipment, straddling the line between road and track use, because my blue M2 is not a pure track car but also my daily driver (though that concept had been radically reshaped by the pandemic).

The plan was now in place, all I had to do was get the pads and tires put on and plan my route and it was time to go. But that’s for my next installment.

@ Ridge Motorsports Park

The Local Voter’s Pamphlet Documents Our Descent into Lunacy

Look, I know how crazy our national political scene is. Sara and I joke that the NPR News Summary we listen to every night should be renamed “Crazy shit Trump did today.” (We try prompting our Google Home with this cue once a week and it never works, but it makes us happy.)

But I think I told myself that it wasn’t so bad locally, at least over here in Western Washington. Yeah, I knew we had our share of loonies, but they generally did their thing east of the mountains. Read the recent The New Yorker piece about the sheriff of Klickitat County or check out the podcast Bundyville by Leah Sottile, which touches on Republican state representative Matt Shea’s dark appeal, if you wonder what I’m talking about.

I truly understood just how deranged it had all become, though, when I sat down to read the Snohomish County Local Voter’s Pamphlet in preparation for casting my primary vote. Now, I was used to local characters like Mike the Mover and Goodspaceguy, who ran for some office nearly every year to promote their cause. Their’s is a lighthearted kind of lunacy, akin to that of the Congressional District 1 candidate whose voter statement was a poem: “In 2016, I ran on my plan called Real Deal, We were facing so any problems it would make a nun steal. Since that time, Congress has stabbed us in our backs, Making a bonanza for dirty lawyers and their political hacks.” It goes on.

But this year, it was clear that “pandemic derangement syndrome,” coupled with the ongoing chaos coming out of the Oval Office, had inspired a different class of nutcase. There were a number of candidates who claimed “Trump Republican Party” as their affiliation, somehow different from the mainstream Republican Party. “Elect me,” promised one such candidate (I’ll pass on promoting the names of these folks, but you can find them easily), “I will drop everything, go to D.C., and support every legislative action that helps Trump succeed, so we all prosper again.” Another candidate tips his hat to a QAnon hot button with the claim that “WWG1WGA, so, I can’t lose. We will change it from the tippy top.”

But derangement was distributed well beyond the Trump Republican Party. It also infected a gubernatorial candidate who claimed the Fifth Republic Party and vows “Israel is the enemy”; a Democrat Party candidate who wants to “redefine ‘race’ based on hair color”; and–by far my favorite–the candidate from the StandupAmerica Party whose platform consists almost entirely of the repeated phrase: “Stop Seattle / King Fascism with idiotic face!”

There are some candidates who are rational and experienced, with a track record of making decisions based on what is best for their communities. I’m voting for them.

Caribunkle Is a Made-Up Word

“Caribunkle!” called Alex from down the steeply sloping snow.

“What?!” Asked Nick.

“Caribunkle!! Throw me a caribunkle,” called Alex.

“Alex, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” cried Nick. He looked at me and John and we stared back blankly.

“I need a caribunkle, I’m out of caribunkles!,” Alex’s voice rose in frustration.

And then it hit us—he wanted another carabiner. “Oh for fuck’s sake Alex, it’s a carabiner,” I yelled down. We didn’t know if he’d forgotten the word or if we’d just misinterpreted his thick Glaswegian accent, but we sent him down a carabiner.

Heading up Rainier

Ever since that day in the spring of 2007, we’ve called ourselves the Caribunkle Boys. We were training for a summit attempt on Mt. Rainier, so we hung out a lot. We were prone to call out “Caribunkle” when we had gotten spread out on the trail, or when one guy on the rope line needed a break. Sometimes we’d just call it out because something was fucking absurd. We never just spoke the word, nor did we use it in a sentence. It was always a call—“Caribunkle!”—with a faint Scottish accent. It knit us together.

I’ve known Alex for twenty years now, and for the first 15 minutes of seeing him, I don’t know what the hell he’s saying. On the phone? Forget it. It’s usually he wants to go for a hike or to get together for a beer. We figure it out. Once I’ve been around him a bit I warm up to him and know just what he’s saying.

Every now and then he gets exasperated with us, and he puts on what he considers to be a John Wayne accent and talks real slow: “Well boys, let me tell you …”

It’s good to have friends like these. We’ve raised our kids together, summited some peaks and turned back on others. We’ve enjoyed each other’s company in 2-man tents amid too-friendly goats and over beers at Fred’s, Trail’s End, Josh’s … where-ever it’s quiet enough for us to hear each other.

So what’s caribunkle mean? Well, I guess it literally means carabiner … but let’s not let that hold us back.

Suck It Up

How I learned that my kids actually were listening to my very best parenting advice.

My daughter Louisa had taken up podcasts and we found that we both liked The Moth, so when I saw them doing a live event down at the Fremont Abbey, I grabbed us a pair of tickets. I can’t find the exact date, but my dead reckoning–my triangulation puts it between the end of high school and the last years of college–puts in somewhere in the summer of 2013 or 2014. No matter.

To start the show, the hosts passed out note cards and asked everybody to write down something they remembered about parenting advice that they had been given–that would be the theme for the night. I recall that nothing struck me as very relevant. I’d put money on me thinking about the lack of parenting advice I’d ever gotten, which I often complained could be summed up in the phrase “when you pour, pour.” But I didn’t want to expose that to public scrutiny.

Not Louisa. She leaned over: “Dad, look what I wrote,” and passed me her note card. “My dad’s parenting philosophy,” she wrote, “can be expressed in three words: Suck It Up.”

This was not something we had really discussed before, not a family joke that we all made. She just came up with it on the spot … and dammit, she was dead right.

From pretty much the moment Sara and I started talking about having kids, we were in solid agreement on one thing: our goal was to raise independent adults. We wanted kids who were capable, self-sufficient, and able to figure out how to do stuff on their own. So we always tried to create the conditions that would allow the kids to solve their own problems.

I won’t get into a long, moralizing ramble about parenting–that would run counter to the “philosophy” Lou had nailed me on. But how about a few examples?

Don’t want to swallow a pill? Chew it and see if you like that better.

The hike is too long? Just do three more switchbacks and let’s see how it feels.

Your friends get to stay out later than you? So what: they have different parents and different rules.

Why do I have to get all As? Because we know you’re capable and why would you want to do less than your best work?

It comes down to this: The world doesn’t owe you anything. The only thing you control is your actions and your reactions. So suck it up.

Yup, she nailed me.