June 11, 2012

How I became a race car driver


Ever since I was little I've wanted to be a race car driver. Not in the same way most kids want to be firemen and grow up to be accountants having long forgotten their childhood dreams. Rather in a more obsessive, delusional way, filled with excessive racing memorabilia, and building racing simulators in my living room.

 
There has been nothing more in life that I’ve wanted other than to drive race cars! Last week, at the AMG Driving Academy at Lausitzring, Germany, I was given the incredible opportunity to become a real race car driver piloting the SLS GT3! Like any good race car driver, I’d like to first and foremost thank my sponsor, the immensely generous, one and only, AMGenie, my dear friend David, who made this all possible for me! I also would like to thank the entire team at AMG Driving Academy Team for their hospitality.

This incredible experience began earlier in the week in the most appropriate way with a visit to the AMG Factory in Affalterbach where the high performance AMG engines are built and assembled.



Hendrik, of the AMG Driving Academy staff was more than happy to chauffeur me to Lausitzring immediately after the factory tour by giving me a five and a half hour tour of the Autobahn at 200Km/h ...in a van! He was quite apologetic about not having a faster car on hand. The apology was accepted.
 

After a scenic and fast paced road trip through most of Germany, we arrived at the Seehotel in a small town near Lausitzring where we were going to be staying for the next couple of days. I met some old friends there and made some new ones.

   

Day 1 - Physical Fitness and School

For anyone to qualify as a race car driver they must first, of course, be physically fit. Before hopping into the car, the AMG Driving Academy offered each participating driver a full on physical fitness test performed by none other than Dr. Klaus Weiss, a highly accredited sports scientist from the University of Heidelberg. No kidding! This guy was one serious dude about fitness. My physical fitness test involved wires attached to my chest and having to pedal a bike until I could no longer go on. High tech instruments recorded more data from me than Facebook’s tracking cookies. My results? Certified couch potato. - "Iz normal for e person who sit in front of ze computer all day long...", explained Dr. Weiss. Well, it was good enough to drive, and that’s all that mattered.



The day proceeded with a trip to the track where we were introduced to the SLS GT3 race cars and given a thorough overview of our equipment. Reinhold "Reini" Renger, Chief AMG Driving Academy Instructor was very clear on us being familiar with the two bright red buttons in the car’s cockpit, and that we must NEVER press them! Apparently if pressed, one would fill the car with fire retardant, and the other would blow the doors off. To be perfectly honest, for the next couple of days I had to fight a developing urge to press them.



  

We were introduced to the FIA racing rules, equipment, and track rules. There was even a written test for German citizens who wished to obtain their DMSB racing licence. Of course we were also introduced to our instructors. Six of them had just returned from finishing in the 24H of the Nurburgring. We were going to be taught not just by any driving instructors, but by race car drivers who were currently active in racing. Not only that, they all competed in the SLS-GT3s we were about to drive!



We were assigned helmets, gloves, shoes, race suits, nomex undershirts, underwear (yep), and socks. We were expected to be fully dressed and ready to drive at 9:00AM sharp the next morning. 

Day 2 - 7:00AM Active Wake-up with Dr. Klaus Weiss


I make sure to comply with German timeliness and at 6:59:59AM, half asleep, I stumble outside of the hotel to join in the group activity. I look around and can only see Dr. Weiss in the hazy morning light, smiling, - "Ah, you two are ze only ones!" I turn my head, and there is Mr. Tommy Kendall, the racing legend and AMG Brand Ambassador, stretching on the side. Apparently everyone else participating in the program was still sleeping, and only Tommy and I were taking this seriously. 

While I was expecting a jog around the hotel, Dr. Weiss had slightly different exercises in mind.
- "I have zeveloped unt exercize zat combines ze eight parts of ze brain!" began Dr. Weiss. He continued by explaining the various exercises that involved throwing various juggling balls at us and expecting us to catch them in mid air in particular ways. For example, he would throw four different colored balls and call out a number. Depending if the number was odd or even, we were supposed to catch a particular colored ball with either our left or right hand and perform a step with the opposite foot. All at the same time. Yeah, sounds confusing, and believe me, it wasn’t easy. By 7:30AM all eight parts of my brain were supposedly in full sync, but I actually had more trouble telling right from left. 

Driving Warm-up

   

At 8:45AM our little Viano convoy decorated in AMG livery transported us to the track. An array of road going SLS cars were lined up. I greeted my instructor for the day, Roland Rehfeld, of Team ROWE Racing, and Top 10 finisher of the 24H of the Nurburgring! Without any time to waste I hopped into one of the SLS' and followed him at a brisk pace to the "dynamic plate", or better known as "skidpad" in the U.S. By 9:15AM I had performed five lock to lock drifts, two 360’s, and toppled more cones than a truck driver at a winter autocross. The event was off to a great start!

 

We drove back to the garage and without so much as slowing down proceeded straight through the the pit-lane and out onto the track for a 45 minute line learning session. Roland led, while I and another car followed. The track was very technical. A tri-oval with an intricate infield course that required interesting lines and quick left right combinations.

   



The pace was quick. In fact, at one point the car in front of me just took off following Roland leaving me to trail behind. I don’t exactly consider myself a slowpoke, and I’m usually the one to say at a track day "Get out of my way", but these guys just left me in the dust. I started pushing of course, understeering, oversteering... - "Don’t zry to keep up, hold your line," came Roland on the radio. So I fell back, humbled by the level of skill from the instructors and participants. We made it back to the pits, as it was now time to put on our helmets and HANZZZ devices.

   

 An SLS GT3 with my name on the door was waiting... 

Driving the SLS GT3 for the first time


 

I was first to be a passenger. After I got strapped in, Roland jumped in the driver's seat. He was going to show me how its done. The crew closed our doors and Roland pressed the power supply button, flicked the ignition, and after a brief whizzing sound and a "Check, check" over the helmet intercom, depressed the starter button. "BRRR-AAAAAAAAAM" an engine sound erupted with such magnitude, I couldn’t help my first reaction of yelling "HOLY SCHNITZEL!" right into the intercom! Let me tell you, the thunderous start of that race car was unlike anything I had experienced.  It is so overpowering to the senses and filled with such intensity, it was pure ecstasy.



Paddle shift in 1st, "clunk", and with a bit of "VROOOM-VRM-RM-RM", Roland eased off the clutch, and the car lurched forward. With a high pitched whine meshing its gears less gracefully than two pitbulls in a Mexican alleyway, the car accelerated almost too quickly. Immediately slamming into the pit limiter to a steadily vibrating "RAMP-AMP-AMP-AMP" we made our way out of the pits. To the tune of the epic transmission whining crescendo, he grabbed 3rd gear, and we made a sharp turn off the track, through a gate, down a narrow road, winding, twisting, and eventually onto a what looked like a massive runway. We arrived at a test track.



Without pause, Roland accelerated hard onto the straight, grabbing higher gears, and explained the exercise I was about to perform real soon. - "Shift up, ja? When you see the cones, brake hard..." WHAM, my head was almost ripped off my shoulders at the massive braking force as the car squiggled to a crawl from 240Kph down to 30. - "..and shift down." We did a lap and we came into the designated pit area. It was time for Roland to hand over the driving seat. I was excited. I was finally going to sit in the driver’s seat... but again, even before that, I still had to wait until the crew put my seat cushions in.

 

After a few minutes that seemed like eternity, I was finally ready to drive for the first time! I was slightly nervous, a bit overwhelmed, but I thought to myself ...relax, it’s just like the video games.

I toggled the battery switch, ignition, and the car started buzzing.  I depressed the clutch, extending my foot as far as I could while pinned into the seat. I depressed the starter, and "BR-R-RAAAM!" The vibration through the steering wheel, the seat, the pedals, the moment of truth! I clunked it into 1st gear, gave it a little gas, eased off the clutch, and the harmony of awesomeness instantly ended! I stalled. Ok, it was a brief run, so I pressed the neutral button and flipped the ignition off.
- "Give it more gas!", Roland explained on the radio as I proceeded to try again. Ignition, "buzzzzzz", clutch in, right paddle shift up, and "BR-R-RAAAM"!  Without sparing any urgency on the go pedal, I popped the clutch and propelled that speedmachine like a bat out of hell! The car accelerated like a barbaric beast with a war cry that would make even the Greek Gods tremble in fear!

Banging through the gears in brutal acceleration I immediately noticed how sharp and responsive the transmission was. There was absolutely no delay. The shifts were immediate and without mercy. The shift light indicators light up, green, yellow, red, BAM, 2nd gear. Green, yellow, red, BAM, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and cones!! With my left foot, I whacked the massive brake pedal with all of my might! My internals tried to escape my body as the car wiggled left and right trying to find grip in the rain tires decelerating at an unreal pace. Left paddle shift, click, click, click... I try to downshift, but nothing happened!
 - "Downshift...", Roland came quickly on the radio.
 - "It’s not downshifting!" Again, I accelerated up to speed, cones, hard brake, click, click, click, on the downshift paddle...
- "DOWNSHIFT!", Roland exclaimed on the radio.
- "It’s NOT DOWNSHIFTING!"
- "Ok, we go in ze pits, tranzmission problem."

I broke the car already? I thought to myself when suddenly WHACK, the car downshifted by itself.
- "Oh, I know za problem," said Roland, "are you lifting off ze gas completely?"
- "Huh? Oh, right, sorry!" Apparently in my excitement I did not lift off the accelerator completely while left foot braking, whoopsie. We tried it again, this time paying attention to my feet, and the car downshifted flawlessly. 

We did couple of laps until I got used to acceleration, braking, and shifting. While going through the high banked turns on the test track at a relatively slow 140KPH Roland pointed out of the windshield,
- "Ah, wave to Uli..." and we gave Uli, our AMG photographer who was perched up on a tree, a big thumbs up. 



We parked it back at the designated pit area.
- "How are you feeling?"
- "Good. The car feels excellent, and seems easier to drive than the regular SLS."
- "Ok, goot, zen drive it back to the track."

Alright, this was a slightly more challenging task. Now I had to drive this beast on the narrow twisty sideroads back to the main track. May I remind you that the car did not like to go slow at all. Anything under 60KPH was rougher than a back scrubbing at a Turkish bath house. Not only that, with a 17 degree steering radius, it didn’t like to turn either. Just to get out of the test track, we had to do a 3 point turn with the pit crew pushing us in reverse until we cleared the exit gate. With a quick pace, and praying that I didn't have to stop or even slow along the way, we made it back to the pits.

 

Now it was time to drive the track. 

Driving the SLS GT3 on track

The GT3 Warm-Up event was divided into several 5 lap stints from noon to about 4:00pm. After each stint, there was a brief debrief, and we either continued immediately into the next session without stepping out of the car, or a slightly longer break with video and data analysis.

 

My first stint was at a slower pace until I got comfortable with the forces of the car, braking points, and shift points.
- "I want you to establish a rhythm", explained Roland as we made our way around. "Stay more konsequent to ze kornerz."
- "Mmmm... huh?"


Roland showed me very precisely and very patiently how to drive the racing line. Pointing out subtleties in the track surface, how close to stay to the curbs, which ones to use, and which ones to avoid. While I thought I was driving identical laps, he was spotting differences in centimeters.
- "Repeat that", he would say, "A bit more left! More right! Faster steering! Less brake! Brake deeper! Let it roll..." all equated into faster and faster lap times. He was pushing me every corner and every lap. With every incremental step in speed the car changed behavior, which required me to adjust my driving style. The faster the speed got, the quicker my inputs had to be.



Back in the pits we did some data analysis. In my very first stint I drove lap times of around 1:48s. My second, 1:44s, my third 1:40s. Roland’s instruction was paying off quickly.

All of a sudden, while we were examining the telemetry, we heard a loud screech in the distance. Reini, the Academy Chief Instructor, picked up the radio and after a brief muffled German dialog hopped into a golf cart and sped away to a cloud of dust at the far end of the track. Someone had spun it into the kitty litter.



After some time, the car arrived into the garage. It really made me appreciate the effort of the mechanics who spent over an hour cleaning rocks, pebbles, and mud from under the car. Wheels were off, brake disks were dismantled, air ducts were cleaned, floors were swept, and I just kept taking pictures. In real life there is no reset button. Luckily there was no harm done.



I did a few more sessions until the end of the day and continued to improve my driving line and dropping my times. In my last session I was running 1:37s.

The car was remarkably easy to drive. It went exactly where I pointed it, accelerated exactly when I told it, and shifted exactly when I expected it. It was as if it was an extension of my body. With rain tires it was quite forgiving. Sliding here and there communicating loud and clear. However the brutal forces in the cockpit were draining. At the end of the day I was completely spent. My left leg was numb from repeatedly having to attack the brake pedal. My shoulders, my neck, my butt, were all sore. It was an incredible experience, everything that I had imagined and far more.



- "Bedo, Roland says you did well", tells me my friend David, who I am now indebted to for the rest of my life. "You’re driving tomorrow again."
- "What? I’m leaving tomorrow, my flight is at 10AM."
- "Yeah, we’re changing it."
- "Are you serious?"
- "Hey, I’m like the hot girl that wants to go home with you. You don’t say no to me. Tomorrow you’ll drive on slicks!"

 

David wasn’t kidding around. He really wanted me to experience the car on slicks, so "against" my will, he changed my flight and booked me into two more hours of training for the following day.

Day 3 - Slicks

Rain. 


Cloudy, wet, and lots of puddles. 

We were at the track at 8:30AM. I was scheduled to drive again with Roland for my first hour of training at 9:00AM. The weather was not cooperating. No chance for slicks it seemed.
- "Would you like to wait until ze afternoon, or would you like to drive in ze rain? I can show you ze rain line." offered Roland.
- "Let’s do it!" I agreed on an impulse.

The most difficult task for a race car driver is being able to drive in the wet. There I was, barely familiar with this million dollar race car, and was about to learn how to drive it in the rain, and fast! 

No pressure.

 

Roland showed me the first couple of laps.
- "Half ze car on ze rubber, za other on the outside." he pointed out how to drive the fastest line that also had the most grip. "Stay away from ze painted lines. Zey are very slippery!"

We switched and I began driving in the rain. Immediately the lack of grip was noticeable. The car was squirming, sliding, and pushing under braking. Roland was pointing out the subtleties in grip feel as the tires were rapidly slipping and catching, producing a chattering effect under braking. The rain eventually stopped and the driving conditions started improving.



The racing line was starting to dry up. My confidence was growing, and my delusions of skill began to kick in. I started pushing it. Faster, and faster, and faster, and then, through the flat long right hander a tad too early on the throttle was all it took. "SCREEEEEEEEEEEAAAAACH" I counter steered quickly but to no avail, the back end whipped around, and my heart sank into a sheer moment of terrifying helplessness.



It happened in a split second, but it seemed like an eternity. A full 180 and then some, the car finally came to a halt. A little dazed, looking at an endless line of skidmarks and chunks of rubber, pointing backward on the track, all of a sudden I felt lucky. The car didn’t even go on the grass! I couldn't believe I was spared! I would have hated to make those mechanics spend hours cleaning up mud, or even worse, have to pay for it! I was almost THAT guy.
- "Don’t worry about it, ja?" said Roland, "If you didn’t hit anyssing, just put it behind you. It’s part of ze game!"

The lesson was learned. Respect the car, but more importantly remember to unwind the steering wheel sooner when pushing it. We went for couple of more rounds, pushing even harder. At the end of the session I had further improved my times from the previous day, dropping to 1:36s.

  

Around noon, luck. The sun came out. The track dried instantly, and I was finally going to be able to drive on slicks! After waiting for Roland to come back from couple of laps of warming-up the slicks, it was my turn to drive again.


The difference was vast. All of a sudden, the car seemed to have unreal amount of grip. It was as if it was glued to the road.
- "You feel it? Now let it roll at higher speed, a little faster." Roland said. So I went faster, and faster, and I kept asking myself, will the car let go again? The grip was simply insane. So we kept going even faster, pushing it a little bit with every lap. The funny thing about the slicks was that I just lost the communication. There was just grip, and grip, and grip! I learned that once you got used to it, you developed a feel for it. Something along the lines of intuition and having a very fine perception of what the car was about to do.
- "You must feel ze car. Don’t push it, let it come to you." Roland said to me over and over. "You see?" The car came to me alright, and again my confidence grew once more.

 

Now it was time to see what I had learned. Back in the pits 1:31! A five second improvement over my fastest time in the rain tires. There was still a lot more to gain though. Unfortunately for me, Roland was done for the day. Roland was an amazing instructor. He was able to communicate exactly what I needed to hear to make the car go as I wanted it. He was also one very cool dude. I had to let him know how much I appreciated his instruction by paying him a compliment in German of ‘You’re one cool dude’, which I learned to say earlier in the week at a beerfest in Berlin,
- "Du bist eine geile sau!"
- "Hahaha..who taught you that!?" Laughed Roland at my impeccable grasp of German slang.

   

Respect from Maro

I had two more stints left. Roland was out, and Maro Engel, former DTM driver, and the Academy’s most recent addition stepped in as my instructor.
- "Would you like me to show you my line?"
- "Sure." I agreed.


It was amazing to watch the difference in driving between both instructors. Both Roland and Maro were very fast, but also very different. After running my first session with Maro, he quickly pointed out my weak areas in the slower tricky combination corners,
- "Overall you’re ok, but there are some things you can fix." We went back and did some data analysis and some detailed examination of my trouble spots. - "Make this a bit straighter. When you come in through here, you’re doing this, but do it like this." he showed me.



It was the final session of the day. Taking in all that I had learned and the last tips from Maro I had one last chance to string it all together.


It felt fast, it felt smooth, and at 1.8Gs my neck was about to snap.
- "I can bet we’re running 1:28s." Maro said as we started pulling into the pits.
- "Really?"
- "Yeah, we’ll take a look at the data."

Back in the garage, we loaded the data for my final stint, and these were the results of my final laps:

1:30:10
1:29.78
1:29.39
1:28.61
1:28.41

   
Analysis of my last session with two of Roland’s reference lap times, 1:27.98 (-0.61s) and 1:26.33 (-1.92s) 

Maro smiled,
- "First time in a race car? 1:28s? Respect!"

High fives all around as I had driven within 110% of the instructors reference lap times, fell within the 2 second gap for 5 laps, and achieved consistent shifting and over 60 bar brake pedal pressure. All enough to make me eligible for competing in the Master Series. I was quite pleased with my result. Not that I would be actually able to compete, but just knowing that I could. Though Maro was quite quick to add,
- "A three second difference from your run with Roland? Of course, my instruction was better!" 

This was truly an incredible experience, and a real dream come true!


Through my friend Dave’s incredible generosity and the AMG Driving Academy I lived out my dream.
I became a race car driver!


...

Impressions

I never thought when I first started attending autocross and track events that couple of years later my picture would be plastered on AMG's web page driving one of their finest race cars with my name printed on the side of the door. I never even thought my name would fit on a race car! What I have come to realize is that I entered a world of amazing individuals. At the end of the day, when I watched all of the guys working hard to put the cars back on the trucks, dismantle the hospitality suite, and run around doing heavy lifting only to pause for good bye hugs, it all made sense to me. This is not a company. This is a family. I felt incredibly fortunate to have been part of it, even if just for couple of days.

 


Q&A

Like any kid just returning from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, I could hardly contain my excitement and tell everyone what an incredible experience I had. The first thing all of my friends asked me was, "How fast did you go? Was it hard to drive that car? How did it compare to driving a street car?" Which I’m sure many of you also want to know. 

It's hard to say how fast I went (well, not really, because it's visible in the video), but reaching a specific speed is not really as big of a deal in a race car, as is lap time.  Miles per hour figures are meaningless. Asking about longitudinal acceleration probably makes more sense. 

I experienced both the street going SLS (Euro Spec GT version) and the GT3 race car version on the same track in similar conditions. I can tell you that difference between the two is bigger than between a bunny and a jet fighter. There really is no comparison between them. The SLS GT3 is a purpose built race car. No frills, carbon fiber, raw, loud, and bone shattering awesomeness. It’s not really a car, but a purpose built machine. In the SLS GT3 you’re not a driver, but a pilot! To drive it, you must also wear a spacesuit! The road car stuggles with grip and while it is theoretically faster in a straight line as it comes with more horse power, it pales in comparison with its capabilities on the race track.  It's no race car, that's for sure!

Virtual to reality 

Prior to this experience the simracing world has been my only outlet to pursue my racing dreams. It’s only natural to ask how it compared. I may or may not surprise you and tell you it was eerily similar. The controls, the sounds, and even the way the car was reacting was all very much as the software had taught me. Obviously G-Forces and the magnitude of the feedback was far greater than what I had ever experienced in my living room, but the overall theoretical formula was not much different. As a driver, the thought process of actually driving the car was very much the same. I must say that I was prepared. Here is what I believe can be learned from the comfort of your home before hopping into the race car. 

  • A racer’s office space. Ignition switches, rev LEDs, pit limiters, and roll cages, are not something you’re going to find in your everyday car. It’s an entirely different environment, so being familiar with the controls ahead of time leaves you more time to focus on the important things, like driving.
  • Left foot braking is another one you can learn. Already having your brain wired up to operate your left foot against the brake pedal is a big plus. Granted, your regular pedal set will not require 80 bar of pressure for you to train your leg muscles with, but there ARE hardware solutions out there that that will.
  • Racing theory and terminology. It’s theory and you don’t need to be in the real thing to learn about corner entry, apexing, corner exit, understeer, oversteer, trail braking, trailing throttle oversteer, power oversteer, countersteer, tight and wide lines, weight transfer, and data analysis. You don’t even need a simulator for this. A $7 book can offer quite a bit. Racing also involves a lot of hand-eye coordination and you can easily learn that staring at a monitor without shelling out the big bucks for seat time.
  • Vehicle dynamics. This one depends on the simulator you’re using. Some replicate physics much better than others (iRacing being by far the best consumer solution.) Want to know how slicks will behave? Ok, you may not be able to feel them, but at least you’ll learn what might happen.
     
  • Learning to learn. Driving a race car quires you to process a lot of information. So much information, that you need to be able to do most of it subconsciously. This is a function of your brain, not the race car. This is also one of the most important and overlooked development areas for any driver. The cost of exercising this is only your own will. 
My personal opinion is that not using a simulator prior to driving a racecar is like not taking up jogging prior to running a marathon. Though real race car driving also requires jogging. Why waste valuable time learning basics at the track when you can learn them at home for less than the cost of the sandwich you're going to eat in the garage? I know some of you may not agree with this, but for me to pull a lap time within couple of seconds of the instructor by the end of my first experience, either simulators really work, or  my mother had an affair with Mario Andretti 30 years ago, and I'm just finding out.

Finally, please enjoy some bloopers: