Saturday, New Jersey Motorsports Park, 40 miles from Atlantic City. I’d spent Friday testing the new race car I’ve been posting about. I was also learning the track (dubbed Thunderbolt) and getting back in the swing of things after a 10-month layoff.
The testing had gone fine (thanks in large measure to my new Cool Shirt, which deserves and will receive a post of its own), as had morning qualifying; I’d run the fourth-quickest time out of 21 cars. I was now starting a qualifying race – a 10-lap sprint that would set the starting grid for Sunday’s main event.
The start of sprint races is vital; because the cars are jammed so closely together as they creep toward the green flag, this is your best shot to steal a position or two.
My start was weak. Wish I could say otherwise, but it was. I was rusty, and because the Honda S2000 was new to me I was overly cautious when shifting from second to third gear (it’s easy to screw up and shift from second to fifth, after which you watch the entire field stream past).
Two cars passed me in the first two turns, and that wasn’t the worst news: I was on the outside of the track. Way outside. In fact, I ran hard through the rumble strips lining the outside of Turn Two.
A word about rumble strips. Racers, being an incorrigible and shifty lot, will and do drive on any paved surface that affords even a hundredth-of-a-second advantage. Those who design and build race tracks respond to this sneakiness by lining turns with rumble strips, sometimes called alligator teeth, that are rough and extremely unpleasant to traverse, especially in a car that’s already more or less out of control. The idea is to remind drivers that when they feel that rumble, they’re this close to being off the track entirely. Which is bad. (Unless you’re a super-duper pro racer being paid a king’s ransom to set track records, in which case you’ll happily run over grass, dirt or your mom’s foot to gain a thousandth of a second.)
Rumble strips occasionally have another effect on race cars: they rattle the brake pads slightly, shoving those pads a few millimeters farther away from the brake rotor than is optimal. After encountering rumble strips, wise racers use their left foot to pump the brakes a few times (leaving their right foot firmly on the throttle, of course) before they reach the next corner, settling those little pads back where they belong.
I forgot to pump my brakes.
Half a mile later, running about 90mph in fourth gear, I hit the brakes to slow for a right-hand turn.
My foot oozed to the floorboard.
I slowed not at all.
In the next half-second or so, all that dry info about rumble strips and brake pads and hydraulic pressure flashed through my brain.
I went straight off the track and into the rocky dirt that lines NJMP.
The worst part was that on my way into the dirt, I rammed a fellow competitor who was just racing along, minding his own business. Took his bumper cover right off.
After the race, he was ticked. And that’s putting it mildly.
The good news is that the damage wasn’t weekend-ending to my competitor or me; we both finished out our full complement of racing. Sports Car Club of America, the sanctioning body, takes a dim view of racers ramming one another (as well it should), so I was sent to the principal’s office and penalized a couple of positions. And it’s safe to say there’s at least one fellow driver who’ll be in no hurry to sign up for the Facebook “fan” page I need to set up soon.
Me, I’ll pump my brakes next time.