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 2: Planning the Trip

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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!

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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