Laguna Seca Part 5: A Track Is a Track Is a Track … And Then There’s Laguna Seca

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A track is a track is a track, right? You’ve got your straightaways, your curves, the pit, the paddock.

It’s like football fields: they’re all 100 yards long, end zones, sidelines. The playing field is the same at the high school down the street as it is at the Orange Bowl or Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

The components are the same … and yet there are some fields, some tracks, that just seem a little bigger, a little more epic, where the game is played at a higher level. Laguna Seca is that kind of track.

You approach the track from the valley floor, turning off the Monterey Salinas Highway and winding your way up the 16% grade to the entry gates before topping out and peering over into a large bowl (a former lake bed) filled with track.

If you’re a race fan or a gamer, all the sights and signs are immediately familiar: the WeatherTech Laguna Seca banners on the bridges and the famous Corkscrew sign high up on the hill that obscures the actual corkscrew, one of the most famous turns in racing, from view.

And then you enter the paddock, first crossing over the straight that separates Turns 5 and 6, then winding down into the lake bottom and into the massive parking lot in the center of the track. As the driver of a modest BMW M2 Competition, I wasn’t expecting to be the belle of the ball, but holy shit, there are some cars here! There’s a whole row of race prepped 911s of one type or another (I’m going to disappoint my Porsche friends by failing to distinguish them all), the dominant make among a smattering of other cars: Mustangs, a Camaro, some BMWs, Audis, a Caterham. The garages—there are 24 bays—are filled with the real precious cars, with more GT2RS models than you can count, Audi R8s, and real race cars as well, a stock car (that I neglected to photograph), and an LMP2 car I believe. Outside the bays are the massive trucks used to haul them in, some of them combining full RVs alongside the car storage. Hell, many of the “support cars” that pull up put my little M car to shame.

And then there are the really special cars (and drivers): a Gunther Werks 993 piloted by none other than the nicest race car driver on earth, Randy Pobst. Pobst holds track records for most makes of cars at Laguna Seca (including the M2, at 1:40.83) and he set one in the air-cooled 993 at 1:30.99. Pobst rolled up to the track in the most modest rent-a-car you can imagine—was it a Chevy Sonic?—and walked around and said hello to everyone. We should all be so comfortable in our own skin.

The other stunner was a McLaren Senna that was trailered into the paddock late in the day Saturday and immediately caught everybody’s eye. I’ve seen the car in the mags, but to see and hear it up close—the dazzling technology, the bold aero, the rip of the engine—made all the difference.

McLaren Senna

But enough of the wide-eyed gushing. Neither I nor anyone else were here to be car fans; we were here to drive.

Track Day on Steroids

The weekend’s event was run by Exclusive Track Days, led by former pro driver Ace Robey and his excellent crew. All I can say is, these guys take the normal track day conventions and turn them up to 11. There were three run groups—Race, A, and B—and even in the B group that I ran in, people were out for speed. The ETD guys jammed 7 sessions into the day and it wasn’t a question of whether you could get your money’s worth; the question was, did you have the stamina to run all 7? Not everybody did.

Laguna Seca has 11 turns, but the one that loomed largest in my mind as I lined up for our first session was Turn 8, the famous corkscrew. So as we set out of pit lane for a yellow-flag, get-to-know-the-course lap, the early corners were a blur until we climbed the hill toward Turn 7 and then set up for the hard left and the roller-coaster ride down the corkscrew. It was every bit as steep as expected … and yet, it wasn’t really all that scary. You had to scrub speed to make the first turn, and from there it was just like falling off a log—only with a lime green GT3 glued to your ass, itching to get by. What I soon came to recognize was how much I had to learn on all the rest of the course.

Jeff Hsu in the corkscrew

The first session on a new track is always a bit of a blur for me. No matter how much I prep for the day by watching track videos and studying racing lines, there is simply no substitute for having wheels on the ground. You simply can’t prepare for the elevation change, the sight lines, the sheer texture of the surface … all the things that make reality so much more compelling than the virtual experiences. I love the preparation for track time, the videos, the games, reading track tips, but it all pales next to the visceral thrill of finding out how fast you can go and how hard you can brake in the real world.

Dropping down the corkscrew started to feel easy after a while

What surprised me then was that Turn 8 wasn’t so scary, but Turn 1, a slight turn to the left, scared the crap out of me! Coming out of Turn 11 it was full throttle down the straightaway, up a hill toward the slight Turn 1, knowing you couldn’t see what lay beyond. You knew you should keep your speed up, but dammit you just didn’t know what lay over that hill until you’d done it time and time again. It took me at least a dozen laps before I got over the pucker factor going up over that hill and finally trusted that I could keep my foot to the floor, only lifting once I completed the turns and straightened the wheel for the hard braking into Turn 2. It made me feel a lot better that even more experienced drivers like Thad “Land Baron” Berger had to get over the heebie jeebies on this one.

Mark Manson, the author of the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, says that the secret to a happy life is finding interesting problems to solve—and that’s what makes driving on a track so damned fun. A race track is a whole bunch of interesting problems, all strung together in a row. There are so many variables: placement on track, where you turn in, where you apex, where you track out. The moment you solve one problem and think you’ve got it mastered, next level problems show themselves. You’ve got visual cues that you need to learn, sound cues as your tires tag the rumble strips, and you’ve got that mysterious sensation that we call “seat of the pants” that tells you when you’ve figured out the best path through a turn. I think it must be that endless depth of interesting problems that keeps people like Randy Pobst coming back to a track again and again.

The biggest problem you’ve got to solve is the one in your head. You’ve got to be confident enough to hold your speed going over the hill in Turn 1, and then brave enough to hold off on braking too early in Turn 2. You’ve got to trust your grip going into Turn 9, which looks so simple and yet proved to be one of the most difficult turns for me to unlock. There’s a mental game to every corner on the track, and you have to match that to your technical approach. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?

All of day one, I just tried to “solve” one or two corners per session, trying different entry and exit points, different braking points, etc. Anybody who thinks guys are not talkative should hear the between session banter—we all compare notes about how we’re approaching parts of the track, and even the most experienced drivers are eager to learn and improve. Everybody talks their drive a little differently, and this makes it worthwhile to listen to as many different people as you can. Doug Steding (who is a serious student of technique) had a driving coach there named Robert Orcutt whose approach was smart, subtle, and low-key; he may have been coaching Doug, but he was so generous with his insights that all of us learned something. Other people told you how to read a curve; Robert asked questions—Where did you set up? What did you look for? Where did you track out?—and led you to unlock it for yourself.

Thad, Doug, and Robert, talking track

At some point, I don’t want any more talk; I want to get out and feel the road.

Day 2

What a treat to have a second day on the same track. I was able to sleep on all I learned on day one, and then day two felt like heaven. The nerves were gone and I was already fairly happy with how I was doing, so I felt like I could really just lean in and get into the flow of the track. The feeling I had on a number of laps on day two, when it felt like all the turns linked together seamlessly and I didn’t have to think, just drive—I’m smiling just thinking about it.

As the turns became more familiar, as I was able to see and feel more of the details, it became easier to take some of the coaching from pro driver Andrew Evans and put it right into practice. The world needs more people like Andrew—who along with beloved Avants leader Adam Cramer organized the trip. Despite being a rising star in prototype racing, Andrew was incredibly patient and gracious with all of the drivers from Avants. I wasn’t ready for the help he offered on day one, but mid-way through day two I was ready to sit down and listen to him unlock some of the corners I had been struggling to come to terms with. The feeling I got when I finally nailed Turn 6 (brake at the second marker, turn, keep your wheel just off the curb, and right back on the gas) was one of the highlights of the day.

About to take to the track
2 laps from a day 2 session.

At the end of the fifth session on day two, Jeff Hsu and I were debating whether we really had anything left. I’d put two wheels off the track between Turn 2 and 3 in the previous session and it had shaken my focus, and I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to stay focused and sharp for another session. But we bucked each other up and went out for session 6, and both of us had real strong runs. For me, it was some of my best flow of the whole day.

At the end, I was wrung out, track drunk, ready to chill. First, I had tires to change …

Back to the winter tires for the road trip home
Turn 11

Laguna Seca Part 4: A Tale of Two Road Trips

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Looking back on my planning for this trip, I can see that I may have overthought it a bit. But hey, give me a break: I was excited and maybe a little scared too, scared that after committing all this money and time I’d end up turning back in a chain-up zone before Siskiyou Pass, an early snow falling all around me. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Day 1: Snohomish to Redding

For the way down, I chose Plan A: fast and direct.

It wasn’t pretty, and for the first several hours—hell, make it six hours—it didn’t feel like a road trip at all. It felt like just another drive: rain lashed the car as I drove down 405 and while the rain let up south of Olympia, the boredom didn’t. This was all familiar territory and I quickly decided that you can’t really get that road trip sensation when you’ve been down a stretch of road too many times (there’s a lesson in that, I’m sure).

The boredom let up a little when I made a pit stop in Salem to meet up with a high school buddy, Darin Wilson, who I last saw when I was 18 years old, as best we could figure. We walked just long enough to unlock my hips and laugh at the parallel paths that had taken us from Romeo, Michigan, out to the West. He wasn’t going back either. His wife, Kristin, who I’ve never met, sent along some peanut butter cookies and not just a few, a whole damned cooling rack of them. I wish I had a picture when Darin opened his back door and there were the cookies, cooling on the rack. They lasted me until the morning of day two on the track, I swear.

And on I went south of Salem, still just a familiar drive until somewhere between Roseburg and Grants Pass, something started to change. Was it the fact that around every corner there was something new, or was the numbness in my butt and hips somehow triggering me into that quasi-hypnotic state that signaled my drive had turned into a road trip? All I know is that I found myself slipping into a kind of trance state, looking far down the road to navigate the Tetris path between semis and clueless Prius drivers, and digging the beauty of the mountains. There was Mt. Shasta, beautiful even from the rest stops where I shot these pics, and at last I rolled into Redding, where I had picked a hotel because it looked funky (and it was, but only a little, and maybe that was just funky enough).

As I closed on Redding, I wished I didn’t have to stop. I had finally hit it, that state of mind called road trip. After about mile 500, I felt like I had slipped into the zone, and that I could just keep going, floating onward into the night, the miles clicking by. It felt like I had slipped the clutches of gravity and was just floating …

It reminded of the road trip Sara and I took in my blue Chevy Malibu in the summer of 1986. Already two or three days into our trip heading west from Michigan, we had woken up in Wyoming at a campground called Crazy Woman Green Trees and had decided it was time to finish the trip. We pressed on 1100 miles in one long day, winding down through Lolo Pass in Montana, into Lewiston, Idaho, and then up the Lewiston grade for the final stretch to reach my friend’s house in Palouse, Washington, not far north of WSU, where Sara was joining me to start our lives together. By the time we got north of Lewiston it was late at night, after 11 PM, and as we turned off the highway onto the secondary road that led to Palouse we realized just how black the night had gotten. There are two qualities to the roads through the Palouse: they are curvy as hell, winding through the flowing hills, and they are as black as the basalt they are made from, the basalt that lays beneath the soil that makes the Palouse one of the richest wheat farming regions in the world.

Had I been well rested, I would have welcomed the curvy black roads. But I was nearly losing my mind with fatigue, and the only thing that kept me going was knowing we only had 30, 20, 10 more miles to go, that and Sara poking my red dot. That was as close as I’ve ever come to hallucinating while driving (save for that time in Kansas City when the shrooms kicked in too soon). But we made it, pulling in to stay the night in the upstairs bedroom of my hippie friend Lisa’s farmhouse. We went up the ladder to our room and pulled back the covers to see an old, dried-up cat shit sitting black on the white sheets. It was an omen, I see in hindsight. We brushed it aside and hopped in bed. That’s how tired we were.

Day 2: Redding to Monterey

I had knocked off two-thirds of the journey getting to Redding, so day two was always going to be a breeze. There was just one little wrinkle. Somewhere in the 300+ miles I had left I needed to figure out a spot to do a tire swap. I left Snohomish on my winter tires (Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4s, for you car guys), but I was packing a new set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71Rs in the back seat, and I knew that if those brand-new tires were going to be ready to hit the track Saturday morning, I needed to get a few miles on them first. So I pulled over into the Dunnigan Southbound Rest Area at 9:55 AM, found a flat spot, and prepared to execute my first ever tire swap.

I’ve got to give it to my friend Ben Crowell for the inspiration. Ben and I met at a BMW CCA track day out at Pacific Raceways, where we chased each other happily round and round the track, trading leads as one or the other of us were feeling faster. He was in a 2018 M3 Competition, and we got to talking between sessions about mods he had made to his car: better brake pads, better tires, etc. The more Ben described it, the more I felt like I could do that too. I’m a relatively handy guy–there’s not a thing in my house I won’t try to take apart and fix before I call somebody else–so why should I not figure out how to do the brakes and the tire swaps on my car?

What do you picture when you imagine some guy jacking up his car in a rest area? I imagined some old beater car, the back seat full of clothes and sleeping bags and trash, and some derelict dude standing there wondering how the hell he was going to move his car another inch. So that’s kind of how I thought the world must be looking at me, wondering what kind of crazy shit I was going through to be putting my Bimmer up on jack stands. I fully expected someone to say something, anything, but despite a steady stream of motorists, nobody said a damned word. Maybe it would have been different if it wasn’t COVID, I don’t know.

It was smooth sailing from that point on though, all the way down into the Bay Area and around San Jose and into Monterey. I got there in time to enjoy a quick trip out to Point Lobos before joining up with the Avants gang for In-N-Out Burger and a drink before an early bedtime. We had some driving to do, and you can catch that in my next blog post. But I had a road trip back too, and this time I was taking the scenic route.

The Return Trip

There was no reason not to take the scenic route home, now that the Laguna Seca driving was done. And so I did: up Route 1 through Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay with a brief, traffic-heavy dip into the city before hopping across the Golden Gate Bridge and then shooting north along Highway 101, through Santa Rosa (hi John and Linda) and with a brief stop at a beach in Eureka before getting in early to Crescent City … and boy was I glad I did.

You don’t think about Northern California as being remote, but wow, once you get north of Santa Rosa there’s all kinds of nothing for miles and miles, and by the time you get to Crescent City it could be the end of the world. There’s not much there … except a roadside art gallery and fine slice of beach that allowed me to watch some surfers enjoy the sunset before the sun dipped into the sea. There’s not much else to say: I drove and I dug beauty. Here’s some of it:

For the final day of my little adventure, I knew what awaited: 80 miles of curvy roads linking Crescent City to Grants Pass, Oregon, and after that the numb sameness of I-5. I figured I’d enjoy the curvy part by first light, but when I woke up at 3:55 AM I thought, “Hell, I could leave now and I’d by home before I hit the Seattle traffic.” So I loaded up the trusty BMW and drove non-stop, 8 hours, all the way home.

By 2:30 in the afternoon we were sitting in front of the fire, sipping on an Old Fashioned I had mixed up with some of that cheaper California bourbon I had picked up along the way–cheaper because it didn’t have the Washington state sales tax. We had some stories to share.

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

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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