Smithology: Always a bit on the table

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Smithology-Met-Race-Car-Lead
Kyle Van Hoften

“Write,” the voice said, “about meeting a race car.”

Responding seemed pointless. I did anyway.

“They say people don’t care about that stuff anymore? Unless it’s on Netflix, I guess?”

“And yet … you care?”

“Racing—fighting odds, chasing the better? Means a lot to me. Don’t always know why, if I’m honest.”

“Do you need to?”

“No. I just like how it all comes down to a … conversation.”

“Meeting a race car is like talking?”

“You have to keep driving and listening. Motion is the only way to learn anything.”

“Sounds like life.”

“Maybe that’s it, then.”

“You’ve tested race cars, right? A lot of conversations.”

“Not that many, really?”

A pause.

ferrari race car front three-quarter
Sam Smith

“McLaren F1 GTR, BMW Z4 GTLM, two Formula Vees, a few Formula Fords, an ex-Alonso McLaren F1 car, a Porsche 962, a couple of NASCAR stockers, a Jaguar D-Type, a Mazda 787, a Porsche 934 and 935, enough club-level BMW sedans to fill a parking lot, one GTP prototype, an SCCA Dodge Neon with a minivan engine swap, and that’s not half the list.”

“The Neon was a Plymouth. The owner insisted.”

“That’s enough.”

“Sorry. I’ll see myself out.”

“Enough cars. To know how the conversation works.”

“Maybe? I still have so many questions. Just feel lucky to even get to ask some of them.”

“Questions?”

“For the car, the research, the people who made the history? You get to see how some rare piece of the world works, or worked, or will work, then share it.”

“You’re right, boring stuff.”

“Hey.”

“Yes?”

“Why are you always so good at convincing me to do things?”

“Eh,” the voice said. “I know you pretty well.”

 

***

 

A closed track. The sun is shining. THE AUTHOR sits at the wheel of UNNAMED RACE CAR as the engine warms. He has not met this car before. When new, it was run by a professional team, a manufacturer.

ferrari race car pedals
Sam Smith

 

AUTHOR: How do these belts work? Are my legs in the wrong place? Where’s the fire-bottle pull? What’s the label on that switch—DFF BZRF?

UNNAMED RACE CAR: I see you are an important big boy with real talent.

 

AUTHOR: Hush. Not a pro. Gimme a sec to get my bearings.

URC: Take your time. Belts are hard.

 

AUTHOR: Water temp okay? Oil? You alright?

URC: Fine for now, chief. So long as we get moving.

 

AUTHOR: Where does this heavy clutch take up OH THERE hey we’re moving and not stalled. Neat. God, first gear is tall.

URC: I went to war once. You remind me of a child.

 

AUTHOR: I set a lap record once. This club track in California.

URC: Cute. Did they give you a small plastic trophy?

 

AUTHOR: My mom said it was pretty.

URC: My mother went to Le Mans.

ferrari open wheel race car front three-quarter
Sam Smith

 

AUTHOR: Don’t change the subject. I know your chassis number. You went, too.

URC: Just wanted to get your attention. We just left pit lane. On a hot track. Start warming tires or you will find the wall.

 

AUTHOR: You are worth more than my house. And insured, but don’t make me think about walls.

URC: Thrilling. Forgive me if I don’t—hey, nice little slide. Rears are hot now. Maybe you know a few things?

 

AUTHOR: Some? Tell me about your gearbox. The dog rings ever slick up?

URC: It takes intent. Try more effort on the lever.

 

AUTHOR: Most of a lap down. Front tires still too cold.

URC: They’ll come. Lean on the nose more. Brakes almost at temp, though.

 

AUTHOR: Really? They feel like they’re basically up?

URC: Notice how they’re a little grabby near lock, as you’re rolling off the pedal?

interior race car action
Sam Smith

 

AUTHOR: No? Wait. Yes. Took another corner to see it.

URC: We won a championship. You really think our team guys wouldn’t fix something like that?

 

AUTHOR: Good point. Seems hard to keep much heat in the rear brakes, eh?

URC: It wasn’t, on the tires we ran in period. Experimental Michelins. Not made any more. Tires are now off the shelf, a new Avon. Less happy with these pads, I think.

 

AUTHOR: Rear visibility is garbage. The mirrors are cigarette packs. The engine lid blocks everything. How the hell did they see traffic?

URC: The drivers were mostly just … better than you. More aware. Don’t sweat it.

 

AUTHOR: The engine is insane. Even through earplugs. Like a war drum. And seamless.

URC: Always been proud of it.

 

AUTHOR: You should be. Took a few straights to wrap my head around it. Even then, holy hell, the pull above 150 …

URC: Front tires warm now. See how the nose is sharper?

cockpit racing helm action
Sam Smith

 

AUTHOR: Where are we, two laps in? I still can’t get over the engine. You ran Le Mans? How did they deal at night, in the rain, on dead tires?

URC: You know how. Don’t sweat it. Rest of the field had more power anyway. Play with throttle in the midcorner. See how smoothly the diff locks up? They spent a lot of time on it. I was always proud of exits.

 

AUTHOR: Lord, when you get a lap half-right. That was incredible. Like being ten feet tall.

URC: So much more to discuss. Gimme an earlier, quicker roll off brakes into Turn 1.

 

AUTHOR: Really? I was trailing them long into the corner, running a long apex, it seemed to help front grip?

URC: More trail feels better—more stable—but is slower. Always been my handicap. Front geometry ain’t great. Didn’t you read that in the books? The engineers didn’t have the funding to fix it, and …

 

AUTHOR: Sorry, kinda busy. Fast part of the track, buck-twenty, buckets of grip but the rear was moving a bit. On a straight now, more time to think. What were you saying?

URC: I forgot, you’re not paid to wheel. Take your time, think.

 

AUTHOR: The people who were paid to sit in this seat. That last few tenths of a second must have been work.

URC: There’s a bit of pace left in the lap. Do you see it?

mazda race car cornering action
Sam Smith

 

AUTHOR: Coming into view, I think. Slowly. Like a ship on the horizon.

URC: You could probably find it, if you want?

 

AUTHOR: Not why I’m here. Ten minutes until they throw the checker. Your owner is on the pit wall. I get just one session, we agreed.

URC: Really? Why are you here, again?

 

AUTHOR: Hard to explain. Journalist. Making a feature story for a magazine. Your owner donated seat time. To share this with people.

URC: So … you don’t drive race cars absolutely as fast as you can go?

 

AUTHOR: Only as a hobby. At the day job, things are different.

URC: Hold on. See that?

 

AUTHOR: What?

URC: The shocks on that exit curb under power. Team guys were proud of that, back in the day.

 

AUTHOR: I tried one of your rivals, once. From back then. Just as fast, but way more work to put a lap together. Peakier engine, heavy steering, sprung stiffer, more physically abusive.

URC: We had strengths. Wondered if you’d see it.

Sam Smith BMW racing interior
Sam Smith

 

AUTHOR: Magazine tests, you always leave a bit on the table. For safety and sympathy, but also … It would be disrespectful to not. Nothing to prove here, no new history to make.

URC: Shame. I was built for the other thing, you know.

 

AUTHOR: I do. It’s your whole story.

URC: Still, today’s been alright. Stretched legs.

 

AUTHOR: Gonna remember it for the rest of my life. You good to go back to the paddock?

URC: Temps fine, tires alright—I am.

 

AUTHOR: Need to talk to your owner, take some notes. This was a hell of a thing, you know?

URC: The kill switch is on the right.

 

AUTHOR: I still can’t believe I’m here. I don’t want to hit it.

URC: They never do.

sam smith cockpit racing action
Sam Smith

 

***

Confession: The voice was me. I stood at the mirror while brushing my teeth this morning and talked to myself like a crazy person. (It was the bathroom; no one is ever listening. At least, not if you are lucky.)

There’s a vintage race in Northern California, at Laguna Seca. It’s called Velocity Invitational. October 14 to 16. We’ve discussed it before. An old friend named Cory is working PR for the thing, called to ask if I would come drive. A new event, he said, we’re trying to let people know it’s special, we have a seat for you in a Mini? And so another version of that conversation tees up.

It’s surreal every time. You hang up the phone, your inner voice squeaks away: How did I get here? Shouldn’t they be asking me to sweep the floor or something?

If you are near the west coast, consider a visit. Velocity specializes in cars of such history and value that they rarely appear in public. Even before Cory called, I was going to buy a ticket, just wander the paddock and drink a beer, feeling lucky to be there. There will be prewar Alfas and Ferrari 250 GTOs, blue-chippers by the dozen, all run in anger. And Mario Andretti, Mika Häkkinen, the McLaren F1 demo team, one of Ayrton Senna’s title-winning Formula 1 cars, John Morton, Peter Brock, more.

Plus, finally, that Mini. A little race-prepped thing owned by a friendly NorCal guy named Andrew, who I recently met over Zoom. We are sharing the car in an enduro called Mustangs versus Minis. This race will run at dusk, with headlights. A neat pastiche of a gone era.

The story will hit these pages in the weeks after. You might find the comments section. If you do, I’ll be there. We can talk about it.

You know, a conversation. I’m looking forward to it.

 

***

 

The third installment of the Velocity Invitational vintage-race weekend will be at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca from October 14th to 16th, 2022.

Tickets can be purchased at this link.

 

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Comments

    @Tinge_of_Ginge: Oh, man. Depends on what you’re looking for.

    I’ve been lucky enough to race in the Rolex a few times; it’s a neat event and undeniably special. Unfortunately, it’s also grown locked into something like a groove, a lot of the same bits and pieces year after year. The paddock is still stacked and wonderful, but many of the cars with big history have simply stopped showing up. For a myriad of reasons, none of which are simple enough to be properly explained in an internet comment.

    I love new approaches to old ideas. The VI approach is intriguing. I’m looking forward to learning more, either way!

    Give me an events like the Rolex, Goodwood Revival, SVRA, or VARAC racing any day of the week. While it is nice to see and hear the really rare stuff occasionally parade around, there is nothing better than true wheel to wheel vintage racing. They manage to make it work with multimillion dollar cars at lots of events.

    Ah, Mr. Sam, may I be a “car guy” without being a “track car guy”? I’m too old to become a track car guy. It’s like a friend back in the day who was around 20 when he read “The Sun Also Rises.” He became utterly depressed when he found out that if you are not a torero by the age of 16, you’ll never be a torero. No lie–he stripped off his clothes, lay down on the floor with a bottle of bourbon, and assumed the fetal position. His roommate found him passed out.

    @Dan_Hise: Of course! That said, cars are cars; engineering is engineering. I tend to love all of it. The stories at the core are what matter anyway. It’s not so much about purpose behind the machine as the Why behind the choices that make up those stories, I think.

    Short version: I suspect you’d be a race-car/track-car guy with the right exposure to the right noises and ideas, you know? I’ll do my best to help!

    Hey Sam, Fun read! You may have made this conversation up in front of the mirror but we both know that all these fantastic cars talk to you…not so much in words but certainly in sound, smell and feel. They tell you when you are doing well and they also are not shy about telling you off when you’re out of your depth. Some are sweethearts and other are crotchety old bastards but all of them love to be driven hard but respectfully. Enjoy the Mini at Velocity!

    Dear Dr. Carlittle can you speak to the cars as well? Hope you are well Sam.

    PS My sons Miata will be painted by next week and then we are headed to the Tail of the Dragon. Ill send pics.

    My few days on tracks, with cars capable of much more than I could deliver, felt much like your description, Sam:

    “The drivers were mostly just … better than you.”

    My brain: “Find the line, find the line…brake later!”)

    @Thomas_L_Saxe: One of the great and humbling joys of this job has been learning, in great detail, my strengths and weaknesses behind the wheel. I’ve lined up my data traces against the traces of pros in the same car on the same day, ridden with F1 drivers, tried to do nothing but learn and assume I don’t know anything.

    You’d think that learning just where you sit—and what you can’t do—would be demoralizing. It’s completely the opposite. And more than that, it gives you a hell of an appreciation for the people who do this at the top level.

    There’s no shame, if you like/love cars, in never driving on track in a race or HPDE. Many levels of love, with varying levels of interaction with the car. Cars and Coffee, applying the ultimate shine in your garage, glueing fake Buick air holes on the front fenders. All legit.

    The shame, if one can call it that, is not knowing how and why the car came to be, what its purpose was beyond profit, who fathered the thing, who competed in it, what came before and after it, why it mattered. The richness of all that is worth a lot of time invested. I don’t do nearly as much of it as I wish I did.

    But when a writer goes deep into the act of driving, the importance of history, the emotions and feelings car provide for the user, things come alive for readers. We won’t ever have enough of those guys, just glad you’re nowhere near retirement. :0)

    Sam, don’t listen to Vic, he’s obviously deaf and can’t hear cars talking to him. Keep up the good work! YOU are the only automotive author I enjoy reading.

    Another amazing story Mr Smith. I’ve often talked to cars on track, but maybe the ones I’m driving aren’t special enough to talk back. Or maybe I’m not good enough a driver for them to see me as worth their time.

    Interesting point about that Neon with the minivan engine. Where is Baruth these days?

    Sam, like many of your articles, this one really resonates with me. I drive several different types of race cars every year between my formula vee and our endurance Miata and 944. Each time out there is something new or different on the car and those first few laps are just as you describe, a conversation with the car. I have never been able to express that experience with words…now I can. Thanks for your insight and words. They help some of us put a frame around what we love. Cheers!

    My life and body is marked by a lifetime of racing things and my co-driver has remarked on how I will burst out into laughter at random times during a race, I think it’s maybe in response to my vehicle egging me on or some conversation like you’ve captured here so well.
    Your writing makes the car world extend into those times I’m not behind the wheel.

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