As a fan, how close can you get to true racing? If you don't have a $100,000 and a bunch of time to spend, it can be difficult. Take a driving school? That still can be pricey. Most racing series offer rides in their cars or bikes. Formula One has their two-seaters, MOTOGP has the Randy Mamola-driven twin-seater Ducati GP bike and NASCAR has their "driving experience". The latter of which you can either ride or drive the "racecar" yourself.
That better day came at Laguna Seca. The weekend of the ALMS final season race was as pristine as I have ever seen. Not a cloud in the sky, 70 degrees, with a light breeze. We saw the notice on the Media Room door that Petersen was at it again, giving media rides to as many as they could get in before 1:15pm. I ran down to the pit lane at 12:30pm in hopes this was my chance once again for the ride of my life. It appeared that I had some advantage this time since a lot of the American Le Mans series and Petersen personnel remembered I was the one that did not get my chance at Portland. They assured me they would do their best to get me in this time. I waited patiently and finally got the wave from Bob Dickinson to come suit up. I donned the fire suit, found a helmet that somewhat fit and waited for the car to return. I was shaking with anticipation but eagerly looking forward to my ride.
The Porsche driven by team owner, Mike Petersen, roared into the pits and the previous passenger climbed out of the car. The Petersen team manager, Dale White, helped secure the HANS device to my helmet. I then climbed into the passenger seat and they tightened down the five-point seatbelt harness. There is a foot rest on the floor in front of you and metal tube bracings surrounding your seat. It's all fairly comfortable but secure. I immediately put my right hand on the tube along the door and we took off to begin our first lap.
As we came down to the Start/Finish line, I realized that Mike was not going to hold back. I could not see the tachometer, but he was running the rpms up as high as I have ever heard in any vehicle.
Turn 1 at Laguna Seca is a slightly banked left hander just past the Start/Finish line that you just barely notice because when you reach its apex, you are more concerned about where you are headed than where you are. I could not see how fast we were going but I thought to myself as we reached Turn Two, "we are going too fast to make this turn!" About that time, Mike jumped on the brakes with a vengeance and slapped the gear shift with the palm of his hand to down shift. Even though you're are securely strapped in and the HANS device is holding your head in place, you feel the force of the braking and the sharp turn. To the degree that you wonder, how can these drivers take this for a 4, 10, 12, and god forbid, a 24 hour race? I began to understand why the drivers have to be in such good condition to endure this type of physical stress for an entire race.
The term that comes to mind is "violent". One lap around a track is a violent experience. The undulating lateral g-forces and the last second jab at braking make for a better lap time.
Turn 2 is a "going on forever left-hander". The car is unbalanced under braking due to a number of bumps leading into the turn. The car settles in initially and then the rest of the turn is a battle between the accelerator and the lateral G-forces. The end of which the driver lets the accelerator win and the rear of the car comes around so as to, as Mike says, "point the car to the next turn". It felt good how Mike was handling the car and I began to relax and enjoy the feeling of incredible speed and exhilaration. As with Turn 2, we ran up on Turn 3 until the last second and again I was thrown to the front of my harness and then slammed to the left side of my seat as we powered through the turn.
As soon as I recovered, we were accelerating under the Yokohama Bridge and again we repeated another severe braking period and right hander through Turn 4. It's a wider turn so the faster speed carried us on to a longer straightaway where we reached incredible speed. We approached Turn 5 with me thinking that this time we were just not going to make it. Again the braking saved our lives and my helmet was thrust against my HANS device and the passenger side window.
Turn 6 is Mike's favorite. "It's banked and really fast" he says. I can attest to that, as from this point to the bottom of the "Cork Screw" (Turn 8, 8A) all I saw was sky and some catch fences here and there.
Braking for the "Cork Screw" raises the car up as it reaches the crest of the hill and the highest part of the track and then down as the car turns in. For a moment, the car reaches zero gravity and then, the drop off to the bottom. At the bottom, you return to Earth. The windshield is filled with trees, corner workers, spectators and the sand, pebbles and rubber clag on the track.
The car bottoms out in the right-hander leading out of the "Cork Screw" and accelerates under another foot bridge (again to fast to read) into blinding sunlight and a very fast Turn 9. Most of what I saw of Turn 9 was the spectrums of sunlight through the windshield. From Turn 9 to Turn 10 is directly into the sun and all I remember is seeing some braking markers and the burst of power as we leapt on to the short straight to Turn 10.
Turn 10 is everyone's least favorite corner. It is a slow, low gear left hander leading on to the front straight. It is the only time the driver is waiting for the car to catch up. There are several seconds when the driver has a moment to relax. The accelerator is pressed to the floor and the driver waits for the speed and rush to return.
This was just my first lap.
My second lap was ethereal. I use that word carefully because afterwards when you are trying to recall the experience, it takes on a dreamy aspect. I focused on Mike's driving, his style and his posture. I studied his reactions to the gyrations of the car. He was both reactive and preemptive in his movements. I look the landscape in. I noticed the boundaries of the track. The corner workers, the runoffs, the bridges and the rubble strips.
We again made the wild ride through the "Cork Screw". Mike says he used to aim for a tree to make the turn, "but that tree isn't there any more". "Ok, Mike how do you set up for it now"? "After you have been around this track so many times, you just know where to go" he replied. Kind of like Turn 2 or Turn 11 at Road Atlanta, Eau Rouge at Spa or Casino at Monaco?
I tried to look beyond the windshield coming out of Turn 9 into the sunlight but only could make out the fast approaching braking markers and only saw the apex after we had past it. The visual demand on race drivers is amazing. Battling other drivers while trying to seeing where you are going has given me a whole new respect for racers.
This time we pulled in just short of Turn 10 and as we approached the pits, I caught the smiles of the Dale White, Team Manager and Tom Moore, Team PR Director. They had "been there and done that" in this car before and I felt like I had joined a club. The club of "Can't wipe the smile off my face"!
I definitely had the ride of my life, thanks to Mike Petersen and Petersen Motorsports. Petersen Motorsports does the media rides, with support from Michelin and Porsche, to promote their products, their team and the ALMS racing series.
You can watch cars race for twenty years and love every minute of it, but you don't really know what it's like, even a little bit, until you experience a ride just once. I have had NASCAR rides, which any fan can have for a price, but the American Le Mans Series offers club and fan laps (you can drive the circuit in your own car!) at just about every race. If you want to do it you have to just sign up early or come early. I recommend this for every real fan.
Thanks to Mike, Tom, Porsche and Michelin for the ride of my life at Laguna Seca!