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.

2020: The Year of Paying Attention

This post is akin to my “Christmas letter” and it’s primarily intended for friends and family.

The year began normally enough, with business travel. Two trips to San Francisco for work conferences and then four days of product management training in Salt Lake City. I felt like I was off to a roaring start, but Sara traveled more, back and forth to Atlanta and other cities for her consulting business. Work was an endless hurtle forward.

And then, at the tail end of February, we had a brief joyful jaunt to Sedona, Arizona, where the only cloud on the horizon was the specter of this odd virus that seemed to be spreading around the world, starting in the U.S. at a nursing home not far from my work. I recall the slight pall of paranoia that clouded the plane as we returned home from Phoenix: lots of empty seats; I coughed and drew an accusatory stare from the couple across the aisle.

But in a matter of days, it got all too real: Back at work on March 4, we (the executive team) advised employees who felt nervous about coming to work to feel free to work from home, then just two days later, on March 6, we followed the lead of the big tech companies nearby (Amazon, Microsoft, others) and “strongly encouraged” all employees to start working from home. And with that, 2020 really began. 

I think of March 6 as the day that divides my old life from my new life, because I’ve not been back to the office since. The old life looked like this: chase work all week, don’t slow down, regroup on Friday night, and have fun until it all starts again on Monday. 

Ah, but this new life! No more commute, comfy clothes constantly, and there’s my lovely wife every day and we can go for walks to Vetucchio and make meals and sit by the fire at night. Time seemed to slow right down, and suddenly I began paying attention to things that had rushed by before: birds singing in the trees, bread to bake, a lawn to mow, music to listen to. In the 2020 that started in March, someone turned down the volume and turned up all the colors.

I first recognized that 2020 was rewiring my brain as I mowed my lawn with my new battery-powered mower. Without the noise and exhaust fumes, lawn mowing became a banquet of sensory delights: the smell of the grass, the sound of birds singing, the patterns of straight lines I drew across our newly-seeded lawn, the smell of the lavender. I mowed in a goofy meditative trance, pausing to wave to neighbors walking by, moving slowly, slowly, because I wanted straight lines and because mowing had become a way of expressing love for this home where I was now spending so much time. Why rush through something that brings so much pleasure?

It wasn’t the logic of slowing down that caused our remodel to linger so long into 2020. We started this remodel* on June 14 of 2019 but a hiccup here and there–earth to be moved, walls to be painted–pushed the last steps so late into the year that they just had to wait till spring, but then spring came and the ‘rona kept all contractors from finishing their work, so completion dragged on into the middle of the summer and it wasn’t until September that we finally put the finishing touches on with the front porch mosaic project. (In truth, we may have intimidated ourselves a little bit with the complexity we had designed in–there are 503 pieces of slate tile involved, and I had to cut every one of them–but it truly is the crowning touch on the project.) In the midst of this long project, I (finally) realized that when it comes to matters of aesthetics and design, I should just shut the hell up and let Sara call the shots, because her eye for design just knocks my socks off. When I mow the lawn and trim the lavender, it’s just me doing my part to celebrate Sara’s wonderful vision for this place. 

*Note the term “this remodel,” because this was the third major remodel we have undertaken on this house since we bought it in 1998 and it’s intended to be the last, not counting minor stuff that we’ll never stop doing. We determined that with this remodel, we’d have completed the house in a form that we could then live in forever. Forever! Ha!

Three months into the pandemic, it felt a bit like the walls were closing in, so we planned an escape down to an AirBnB on the Washington side of the river in the Columbia Gorge. What an escape it was: this big airy house had a wall of windows that looked south to Mt. Hood, and it sat alone on the edge of an orchard. The kids came down too and we relished the new sights and the chance to pretend for just a little while that we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

A couple months later, Sara and I escaped on our own, celebrating 30 years of marriage at an AirBNB out near Sequim, where we spent four days biking, hiking, eating–but mostly just digging each other’s company. It feels like we’ve got this whole loving each other thing pretty well dialed in.

It’s not like I discovered my need for speed this year, but I sure as hell indulged it. I got my new car—my first real sports car—in mid 2019, but other than a few autocross days I didn’t really lean in on what it could do until this summer. The moment the BMW CCA offered a track day at Pacific Raceways, I jumped at the chance to get my M2 out on the track. I had flogged other people’s cars on a track before but never my own, so I eased into it slowly, adding speed here, more brakes there, slowly, incrementally finding the limits–and finding them well beyond my own capacity. It was up to me to build the skill and the courage to go faster, and this became the immensely rewarding mental challenge of the summer and early fall. I did several more track days, burning through a set of tires and pushing my OEM brake pads well past their limits. I started making plans for some 2021 modifications–R-rated tires and track pads–that would allow me to go even faster … but then this opportunity came up. For a guy who had been reading about tracks all his life, the chance to drive my car at Laguna Seca was simply too good to pass up, so I accelerated my planned modifications and hauled my ass down I5 to Monterey to see what I could do. I wrote about this quite a bit, so if you’re a car nut, check out those links above.

After a couple years of pretty avid running, I hit a bit of a snag in 2019 when I ripped the muscles in my lower abdomen. After trying multiple courses of PT and steroid injection, I hit the summer of 2020 resigned to the fact that I’d likely need surgery to fix the issue—but I said to my doc, let me just get through the summer hiking season (as hiking didn’t seem to exacerbate the tear very much) and then maybe we could address the issue in the fall or winter. Well holy shit, it’s like I opened the door on the best hiking season ever! For a bunch of reasons—the injury, craving variety, wanting to hike where we wouldn’t run into a bunch of people so we wouldn’t have to play this stupid pandemic theater mime-show of “oh yeah, I’m wearing a mask even though I’m out in the wilderness”—I summited a bunch of new mountains and that was just a blast. Among the highlights: Alta Mountain with Jeff Morgenroth; turning around just short of the summit Hibox Mountain with Louisa, and then nearly getting lost in the woods, great learning experiences both; Silver Mountain with Julien Duplant; White Chuck with Louisa, Sam, and John Tucker, which was by far the most scenic hike of the year; and an anniversary vacation hike to Mt. Baldy with Sara where we never saw another soul the entire time (this never happens, never). On Baldy, realizing that we had the place to ourselves, I stripped bare-ass naked just to feel the air on my skin. I’ll spare you the pictures.

Conrad and Abbie moved in together on July 18 to a terrific spot overlooking the city, and they are already remaking the place in their tasteful image. It sure is nice to see him so happy with his delightful girlfriend. And he also got a new job at AWS. Good job son.

Sam and Lou got a puppy: Grover P. Underfoot. In their characteristic way, they carefully planned how they would train him and it worked: our grand-puppy is a delight. Lou is mid-way through her PhD, tending her kidney cells in the lab, and she also got a new part-time gig working as an analyst for a biotech VC firm in Seattle. And Sam is living his dream as a firefighter for the City of Tacoma. 

Late in the year, Sara took the pedal off the gas on her consulting work and started painting more. Her paintings dry on a rail in my office, which is awesome for me, her biggest fan.

That’s what this year felt like to me. How was it for you?

I Ordered a Golf R; I Ended Up in an M2

When Volkswagen announced it’s Spektrum color program for the Golf R for deliveries in 2019, I was pumped. I had always lusted after the hottest of the hot hatches, but I didn’t like the standard VW blue offered for the R—it was too purple for my tastes. I wanted one of the older blues, and when I saw I could order the Deep Blue Pearl (which I remembered from the 2004 R32), I happily put down my $1000 deposit with my local dealer and started to anticipate the day it would arrive. I thought I was waiting for my dream car.

2004 R32 in Deep Blue Pearl

Anticipating the delivery of a car is kind of fun. You get on these car forums and listen to the rumors and then real stories, with pictures, about people taking delivery. By early spring 2019, people were regularly reporting on getting their cars … but none in Deep Blue Pearl. I called Justin at Pignataro—okay, I may have called him every several weeks—to see if he could give me any timeline on when my car would arrive. And he couldn’t. He seemed to have no more visibility into it than I did. By early June, I was chomping at the bit. 

And then, on June 14, a call from Justin. I figured the car had arrived. But when he said, “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news,” I kind of knew which news it was going to be for me. Sure enough: “The good news is I can have you in a Golf R next week.” And then: “The bad news is, VW decided not to make all the Spektrum colors it had originally anticipated, but I can get you in one in Welch’s Grape Soda [note: my name, not the official VW name] or X [some other color I didn’t give a shit about].” 

Well fuck.

All this trouble to put in the special order, all this anticipation for a car that I’d been kind of longing for ever since I owned my first VW, a 1977 Rabbit, that I just adored. I told him I’d need a day to think about it.

1977 Rabbit, not mine, but looks just like it. I loved that car!

And then I drove straight down to the BMW dealership. You see, I was in a lease on a 428ix Gran Coupe, and my lease was up in several weeks. It was a pleasant enough car, but underpowered, maybe a tad too big, and just a little sedate. I had planned to turn the car in but now … I might as well see what was available.

The salesman heard what I was after and correctly pointed me to the M235i (I think, or was it the 240 by this point?). I was sold and we sat down to start the paperwork when the salesman said—and here’s where the clouds part and the ray of light shoots across the landscape and the angels start to sing—“Oh, before we do this, I just realized that we got an M2 in today and the guy decided not to take it, so that’s also available.” 

At this point my memory gets a little funky. I’m pretty sure I tried to play it cool. I’m pretty sure I didn’t say, “The M2! The M2! The car I drove down at the M Driving School last year and swore that if it ever came available I had to have it,” only to be told that the waiting list for the car was two years long and the best I could hope for is that it might be my lucky day to walk into the dealership on the day someone who ordered one decided not to take delivery. That M2? Yeah, okay, I suppose I could take a look.

It was fresh off the truck, the protective padding all over the car, only a few sections of the body even visible. It was in Long Beach Blue, 6 speed manual, my dream configuration on my dream car. Honestly, it had a bunch of options I wouldn’t have chosen: the sun roof or the executive package that lifted the speed limiter and threw in a day at the M School. But I didn’t get to choose this car. It chose me.

I could bore you with more details: how my wife, who was there with me, simply said: “It’s your dream car, you’ve got to do it”; how we had to register it in her name because I’d forgotten my driver’s license; how we stopped down at the local Bank of America to grab a $10,000 cash down payment. 

All I know is that a little while later, we were leaving the lot, me grinning ear to ear, driving my dream car. And I’ve been digging it ever since.

Day 1 in my new car

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

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

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!

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 Carbotech XP 10 and 8 brake pads , 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