Racing Lines

What’s the point of building a track-ready car if you don’t get it on the track?

Christopher Post barks in my ear as I lap GingerMan Raceway. “Brake and downshift! There’s the apex! Now hit the gas! Upshift!” He notes my time, 2 minutes, 56 seconds — humiliating. The next lap I go 2:29 — better. “Yes! Go, go, go!” Post yells into the microphone. I hear it loud and clear, and I push harder through the apex. The rear wheels slide, and before I know it, I spin at the end of the corner and come to a screeching halt. After verifying that my pants stayed dry during the 180-degree Miata tornado, I restart the car and continue on, tail between my legs, thankful there were no other cars on the track.

Ten years ago, I never would have imagined myself driving on a track, but after two years of adding hefty modifications to an already-fun car — my 2004 Madzaspeed Miata — the urge was overwhelming, and there’s no point in building a car if you aren’t going to drive it.

GingerMan Raceway is a well-known 1.88-mile, 11-turn course in South Haven, Michigan, just three hours south of our home in Traverse City. A lap time of 1:40 is exceptional for the course, and it is considered the safest track in the region, making it the obvious choice for a slightly apprehensive novice. For guidance, I reached out to racing instructor Christopher Post, and the first things he covered were what to bring to the track and what to expect from the mandatory safety inspection upon arrival.

I was amazed that everything fit into the Miata’s tiny trunk: safety gear, glass cleaner, wax, a quart of oil, an air compressor and tire gauge, a tarp, a block of wood, jack-stands and all the tools I thought I might need.

Technical requirements are fairly common sense, and my Miata has a few extra safety features; when you modify a car to go faster, you always have to keep safety top-of-mind. Before undergoing a tech inspection, it is always best to check over the car yourself to avoid delays. Items on the checklist include wheels and tires, wheel bearings, braking system, and an engine fluid check — also making sure there are no leaks that could drip onto the track.

The Miata rumbles and my nerves vibrate as I roll into GingerMan’s paddock. I double-check the tire pressure and fluids, remove the floor mats and empty all of the unnecessary weight from the trunk. My shiny new helmet — white with pink, maroon and black pinstripes and “HURLIN” proudly painted on the visor — is finally out of its protective bag, ready to live up to its real purpose: protecting this pretty (but thick) skull.

Post takes me for a ride around the track in his own Miata to show me the ropes before setting me loose. This gives me a chance to get a feel for the layout of the course, but after a few hard laps, my stomach becomes queasy and I am thankful when it is my turn to drive.

“Throw out everything you know from driving on the streets,” Post says. “I’m about to teach you how to really drive.” Equipped with headsets, Post and I hit the track, this time with me in the driver’s seat, and my heart starts beating faster. Right off the bat, I have the urge to go as fast as I can, but I don’t want to wreck my car — or myself. There are so many other things to be aware of on a track that speed unexpectedly takes a back seat until you develop competent driving skills. You must acknowledge the cars around you, learn the different racing lines and focus on hitting every turn’s apex. The shifting, steering, braking and throttle are all done so fast that mind and machine must work in unison. At the same time, it is critical to look far ahead and set yourself up for what comes next. After my first few laps, we head in to let the car cool down and reflect on how I did.

“When coming off of the track, use the brakes lightly and don’t put the parking brake on,” Post explains. “The heat radiating from the brakes could cause the rotors to warp or the brake pads to fuse.” Not utilizing the brakes was awkward at first, but popping the car into neutral and using the block of wood to prevent rolling solved that problem. We kept the engine running for a few minutes with the hood up to allow the hot fluids to circulate.

“You’re a natural,” Post says with genuine enthusiasm, and a feeling of relief and pride comes over me. We discuss finding the driving line, braking line and apex in more detail. “When you get to a corner, it’s slow in, fast out,” he says. “If you’re going too fast, the car will be controlling you.”

When the car is cool enough for another run, with Post still riding shotgun, I follow an experienced driver in another Miata around the track, which pushes me just a bit harder to go faster in order to keep up. The racing seat hugs my hips, and the five-point harness secures me into place while I whip around corners at speeds to which I have never taken the Miata. “Go, go, go!” Post shouts, his voice animated in the ear piece after I hit each apex. As I run more laps, I become more comfortable with the track and am able to calculate my turns with more accuracy. I get down to 2:16 — not too bad for a first-timer who has no clue what she’s doing.

I also have no clue that in all my hot lapping, fighting the steering so much at speed, my core muscles will be incredibly sore the next morning.

I am building confidence quickly, perhaps too quickly, because one split-second of lost focus on a straightaway and I find myself spinning out of control toward a barrier, infield grass flying around me. “That wasn’t good,” Post says matter-of-factly. My knuckles are white and my jaw locked, until the car comes to a clumsy halt in the infield. This is my most important lesson: Never break concentration when driving a course — not even for a split-second. We are safe, but with the long grass surrounding the hot exhaust, I want to get a move on, and quickly. I turn the key to hear a loud, unmistakable bubbling noise. Oh, no. I put my foot on the clutch and turn the key again. She starts up with a cough and sputter, and I limp her back to the pit area for an inspection. It’s not the most convenient time to find out the temperature sensor isn’t placed properly, which explains why it’s been giving a normal reading. Maybe it’s a good thing I went off the track when I did.

I let the car cool down and decide to head home. By the day’s end, I bettered myself as a driver both on the track and on the streets. I left with a greater understanding of driving skills and a firm knowledge of safety precautions, and I now have a new goal for next time — to beat my best lap time of 2:07.

Not only did my first track day inspire me to make further modifications to my car, but I have new objectives to focus on with my driving. Once I master the new skills, next up is heel-and-toe downshifting.

Racing is an addiction, and now I fully understand why. It is the freedom of the track and being forced to concentrate so singularly on only one thing while you leave the rest of the world behind. It’s the adrenaline rush that comes with having total control of a powerful machine — and the possibility of losing control. And it’s the challenge of driving the car to its full potential, always chasing down your next best time.

Now, whenever I vacuum the car, I can’t help but smile. I find remnants of the grassy infield hidden in nooks and crannies. Maybe I subconsciously leave a few behind to give me another reminder for later. A reminder that I need to go back.

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