Sunday, August 20, 2006

Road trip

Saturday, 11:00 am. My wife, daughter, and I made the trip up from Milwaukee in exactly and hour and 20 minutes. We're driving through the gates at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, site of this weekend's Generac 500 auto race, a race that I'd wanted to see ever since I'd first heard of it, roughly five seconds before we passed through the gate.

Actually, the real reason we're here is to meet up with my father-in-law, whose Mazda club is having an annual get-together at the race course. (I'm also aware that, technically speaking, it's a rotary engine club, but all the engines involved happen to be inside Mazda hoods. And since I'm ill equipped to discuss anything engine-related, except on the topic of "things that might go wrong with your '85 Subaru", we'll stick to the Mazda description.) Anyway, my father-in-law has secured a pass to drive his RX-7 on the race course, and offered me the chance to ride shotgun. And as we drive through the gates, I'm debating whether to chicken out. After my one previous experience at a race track, I'm not so worried about my father-in-law's driving as much as the other yahoos who may have turned out for the event.

Saturday, 11:05. I'm feeling better already. In contrast to the crowd that showed up for last month's Craftsman Series race in their beat-up Cutlasses and Ford Rangers, the parking lot in Elkhart Lake is full of Audis, BMWs, and Jaguars. It strikes me that the drivers of these cars are less likely to drive 6 inches off our bumper than the NASCAR crowd. If this group wanted to kill me, they'd more likely use an ice pick or a poison-tipped umbrella. Still...

Saturday, 11:15. We meet up with my father-in-law, whose RX-7 is already parked in the line of cars that are going to go out on the track. There are at least a hundred cars in the queue, including such atypical race cars as a Chevy Cavalier and a VW Golf. (Now, don't get me wrong: I used to drive a Golf for several years, and it was fun, comfortable car. I'm just saying in a race between the '87 Golf and a parking meter, you'd probably do best to feed your quarters into the meter.) With so many cars in line, it strikes me that the track is probably concerned about safety. I decide to go ahead and do it.

Saturday, 11:30. Father-in-law goes off to the "drivers' meeting" with the other hundred or so drivers. No idea what they're talking about, or what directions they're getting. Meanwhile, my wife is running a "passengers' meeting" of her own:

"DO NOT DISTRACT MY DAD," she directs me.

"Not even to change the CD?" I ask.

"DO NOT TOUCH THE STEREO," she retorts.

"I wonder if he's bringing any food along," I say.

Meanwhile, our two-year-old has settled into the passenger seat of "Grandpa's race car" and takes some convincing before she extricates herself. I consider whether any Grand Prix drivers have won a race while driving with a child safety seat in the back.

Saturday, 11:45 am. It's post time, but there's a launch delay (and a mixed metaphor, to boot). I consider that if anything goes seriously wrong, it's actually my fault. My father-in-law, who lives in Minnesota, bought the car from a guy in Maryland seven or eight years ago. At the time, my wife and I were living just across the DC line. We did the scouting report on the RX-7, which meant that the original test driver... was me. And as previously noted, my car mechanics expertise is limited to figuring out how to program the presets on the stereo.

Saturday, 11:55 am. A few minutes late, we roar out on the track, behind (by my count) 17 other cars. Okay, we don't exactly roar. It turns out the first lap is a practice lap (as opposed to the other laps, which are, apparently counted in our permanent records), which means we're cruising around the four-mile-long track at an average speed of 15 mph. This is okay, because at 15 mph, I'm not too concerned when my father-in-law checks his GPS unit.

Saturday, 12:03 pm. Somewhere up ahead, the pace car accelerates. And so do we. We are actually roaring around the track. My actual role in this affair is to take pictures. And so, top down, windows down, baseball cap on my lap, car flying around turns, I'm fiddling with my father-in-law's camera, trying to figure out how to keep all the pictures from looking washed-out on a brilliantly overcast day in August.

Saturday, 12:10 pm. Okay, I've got the washed-out issue solved. Now, the question is how to take pictures that don't just look like we're driving down the highway. Because even at 80 mph, a guy driving a car looks pretty much like a guy driving a car. I decide that, hey, the top is down - I can lift the camera over the windshield and get a shot of the hood, the track, and a little of the track ambiance. At 80 mph, this is trickier than I bargained for.

Saturday, 12:20 mph, er, pm. My father-in-law handles the RX-7 pretty impressively, and the engine does have a delightful roar as he blasts it up through 3rd and 4th gear. It's a "sports car commercial" feel, rather than a "feeling of imminent death" that I imagine would be generated by a trip in a stock car around a mile-long oval. Still, there are plenty of drivers who seem like they're taking out a year's worth of rush hour frustration on the Road America track, including a Volvo driver who barrels by us on a straightaway that's not very long (or straight).

Saturday, 12:30 pm. The VW Golf is still behind us, which is - if nothing else - a morale-builder. We tend to blow him away on the straightaways, but he manages to creep up on us at turns. My father-in-law notes he thinks we've hit 90 mph, but to his credit, he's paying more attention to the track than the spedometer. I consider turning around and taking pictures out the back of the car, but to my credit, I don't.

Saturday, 12:40 pm. There's a hill on the last straightaway that leads up to the start-finish line. It's both an exhilerating and worrisome feeling to fly up that hill at 85 mph - exhilerating because the speed really is a celebration of what an automobile can do; worrisome, because one of these laps will be our last lap, and I'm a little concerned we'll fly over the crest into a forest of red tail lights and I'll regret that the car my father-in-law asked me to test drive wasn't a Sherman Tank.

Saturday, 12:43 pm. The checkered flag goes out with plenty of warning time, and we don't end up becoming permanent parts of the track (Roadkill America?). I emerge from the car with a new appreciation for performance drivers, for the rotary engine, and for sports photographers. And as I walk to where my wife and daughter have been watching, a thought comes over me. Next year, I take the Jetta Wagon on the track. With the car seat.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the play by play. Next year I can ride shotgun for you in the Jetta!

"Grandpa Race Car Driver"

Anonymous said...


My dad has raced many times on that track. I think I even went around it with him when I was a kid.

Your writing is excellent. A real pleasure to read.

Kel and I will be near Kenosha from October 11-18, me a bit longer, We'll have to catch up.

Rob N.