Unless they have some experience with club or sports car racing, many people’s mental image of what I do is typically oval (NASCAR-style) racing, drag racing, or maybe even illegal street racing. Club racing is definitely a niche hobby, and not the most accessible to the casual or even interested spectator, so I can’t really blame them for that. What I can do, though, is describe what it is I do and answer any questions folks might have about it.
- The results charts on the Logbook are confusing
- Huh? What’s a run group? What’s a class?
- What kind of speeds are we talking about? What’s your car’s top speed? What’s your best 1/4-mile time?
- How safe is it?
- Do you get scared?
- What do you get when you win?
- How much does it cost?
- Where are you going with this? Will I see you on TV someday?
- What organization do you race with?
- Where do you race?
- “The Fast and the Furious” was cool! How can I get into street racing?
- What’s a chicane?
- What’s red mist?
- What’s DFL?
- What’s DNF?
- What does turn in/apex/track out mean?
- What’s trail-braking?
- What’s an enduro?
- What’s oversteer? What’s understeer?
- What’s drafting?
- What do the different flags mean?
- What’s breathing the throttle?
- What’s a stint?
- What’s an early apex? Late apex?
- What are marbles?
The results charts on the Logbook are confusing
Race results in sports car racing usually come in pairs: overall and class. Overall results and lap times are for all the cars that were on the track during the race. Class results and lap times are just for those cars that are considered to be roughly similar in performance potential and that are prepared under a specific set of rules. (Although cars in the faster classes in a run group can legitimately compete for an overall victory, most of us are just competing against the other cars in our class.)
Huh? What’s a run group? What’s a class?
A “run group” is a way for the organizers to maximize the available track time for as many cars as is practical. They do their best to get classes of roughly comparable speed in the same run group, but sometimes (as in Conference‘s Group 1, which I run along with Group 4) you get purpose-built, tube-frame race cars with fiberglass body shells (a lot like the cars & trucks in NASCAR) on track with Miatas, Nissan Sentras, and Integras that have been prepared for racing. The qualifying results for a recent Group 1 race, for example, had the polesitter running 150% of the speed of the last car on the grid. That is a huge speed differential!
As mentioned above, a “class” consists of cars that are considered to be roughly similar in performance potential and that are prepared under a specific set of rules. Conference’s A-B-C-D Production classes, for example, are purely based on a stock horsepower-to-stock weight ratio. They’re also subject to a slightly stricter list of allowable performance modifications than, say, SCCA’s Improved Touring classes. IT allows more modification than the SCCA’s Showroom Stock classes (which are basically street cars with safety equipment) with Conference’s Production classes somewhere between. Unlike Conference’s HP-to-weight system for Production, IT’s subclasses (ITA, ITB, ITC, ITS, and the catch-all ITE) are supposed to be based on complex calculations that class cars according to their “relative performance capabilities.” Believe me, there’s a lot of debate about the placement of various cars in the assorted IT classes.
What kind of speeds are we talking about? What’s your car’s top speed? What’s your best 1/4-mile time?
From what I can tell of all the other classes, my Integra was a middling-fast car, even when compared to purpose-built cars. The fastest I’ve gone in the Integra is a little over 130MPH at the end of Pacific Raceway’s long front straight (and only a bit over 140 in the M3 with its 3.73 rear diff), where the fastest cars do probably 170 and the slowest around 95 or so. But when you consider that my stock-engined, 4-cylinder Integra race car beat the snot out of my Dinan-modified, 6-cylinder BMW 330Ci street car [ed.: both of which I’ve since sold] over the course of a lap, you’ll understand that top speed is far less important than speed through the corners. (Remember, this is road racing, not drag racing!) So, while the Integra was probably capable of something north of 145MPH (given enough room) with its current gear ratios, it’s far more important to be quick into the corner, quick through the corner, and quick on exit. You want a light, nimble car with good brakes and decent acceleration that is capable of going through every corner with as little time off full throttle as possible. That’s what makes a road race car fast.
(As a little illustration of why I think a fast lap around a road circuit is more challenging and ultimately more fun than drag or oval racing, allow me to relate a story from when I took my wife on a few laps around Pacific Raceways in my modified BMW 330Ci street car. When we were done, I asked what she thought of the whole thing. Her response was that she now had a lot more respect for what I did during a race. As flattering as that was, I pressed for details about why she would say something like that. While I know for a fact that she’s driven at least 115MPH in a straight line, and despite the relatively sedate laps we took [and without 40 other cars racing around us], she said she was really startled by the speeds at which we approached the corners and how fast we went through them. Her favorite and least favorite parts of the lap? The same really fast section of left-right-left turns, which we approached at about 100MPH.)
How safe is it?
Organized road racing is every bit as safe as sitting in your house watching TV. (Hi Mom.)
Seriously, it’s less dangerous than you might expect. We are all required to wear helmets and fireproof suits/gloves/shoes. Our cars (and I’m talking about former street cars) must have full internal safety cages, fire systems, and typically have all the interiors stripped out to minimize what could burn. And, while we’re all going pretty damn fast, our speeds relative to each other are usually only 5-35MPH. Of course, while there is sometimes contact between cars, the biggest safety risk is going off track and hitting something as the result of contact between cars, mechanical failure, slippery track surfaces, or just plain ol’ driving mistakes. Still, only in the most extreme instances will there be anything other than wounded cars and shaken-up drivers.
Do you get scared?
Well, “scared” might be overstating it a bit, but you bet I get nervous or apprehensive. Typically, it happens during one of three occasions: Sitting on pre-grid before the race starts, during the last few laps of a race (when I’m worried about losing a position or having a mechanical problem), or right after I’ve done something I didn’t think I was going to pull off. 🙂
What do you get when you win?
Not a lot. 🙂 The vast majority of the time you get a plaque or small trophy, bragging rights, and a sense of accomplishment. Sometimes, there’s a small contingency fund available, but you’re still talking a couple hundred dollars at most, which is not even enough to cover your entry fees. So it’s pretty much about bragging rights.
How much does it cost?
Short answer? As much as you can spend. The longer answer is more complicated, in that it depends on what kind of car you want to race (old Honda Civic or new Porsche GT3 Cup) in what class (Showroom Stock C or GT-1), how much you’re willing to spend to go faster ($4500 out the door or the sky’s the limit), and at what level of competition (local club, national amateur, or pro) you wish to compete. Of course, at every level are costs like fuel, tires, brake pads, general maintenance costs, entry fees, hotel, food, travel expenses, and so on.
Where are you going with this? Will I see you on TV someday?
It’s really hard to say where I’m going with this. As my wife is fond of reminding me, this is supposed to be a hobby, i.e., something that gives me relaxation and enjoyment. Problem for me is, I don’t like to engage in any serious activity unless I’m willing to put forth the effort required to make some kind of progress.
Having said that, the biggest limiting factor in an aspiring racer’s career (and I’m including drivers with way more skill than I) is simply the lack of sufficient funds. So, while I expect to do better over the years and (possibly) move to faster and/or more competitive cars, you’re unlikely to see me drive unless you come to the track. (Of course, if you’ve got a few hundred grand burning a hole in your pocket, there are several professional racing series I’d dearly love to compete in.)
What organization do you race with?
I race with the International Conference of Sports Car Clubs (ICSCC), commonly known as “Conference.” Well, “commonly known” among a very small group of people, as most other folks (if they know about club-level road racing at all) assume I race with the SCCA. While Conference is not as well-known or large as the SCCA, it has a long history (going back to 1957) and long ago worked out a deal with the SCCA that allows drivers holding a license in one organization to race with the other. Furthermore, not only can you run any of the SCCA National or Regional classes in Conference, you can run former (such as D Production) and region-specific SCCA classes (like the Oregon Region’s Radial Sedan), as well as Conference-specific classes like Pro-3 (for BMW 3-series cars with the “E30” body style). For these and other other reasons, and for as long as I race in the Pacific Northwest, I intend to do so with a Conference license.
Where do you race?
Conference primarily races at Mission Raceway Park in Mission BC, Canada (about 2.5 hours north of Seattle), Pacific Raceways in Kent WA (about 50 minutes south of Seattle), The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton WA (about 1.75 hours south of Seattle), and Portland International Raceway in Portland OR (about 3 hours south of Seattle). We also race sometimes at Spokane Raceway Park in Spokane WA (about 5 hours east of Seattle).
“The Fast and the Furious” was cool! How can I get into street racing?
No offense, but only idiots with no concern for the safety of others engage in street racing. True, the “responsible” ones make an effort to do their thing in relatively deserted areas, but there are no safety considerations made for either the competitors or the spectators, and people from both groups are killed or injured every year. And don’t even get me started about the mindless twits who think racing each other through traffic on the freeway is cool.
What’s a chicane?
A chicane is a section of sharp turns designed to slow cars down in the middle of a long straight. Chicanes are typically a left-right-left or right-left-right combination, but sometimes consist of only two corners (also known as a “dogleg”). The “Festival Turns” (turns 1-3) at Portland International Raceway is an example of a chicane.
What’s red mist?
This is a racer’s expression that describes being just a little too “head-down” in your quest for speed, position, etc., to the exclusion of good judgment and most of your higher brain functions. Also known as “blinders.”
This is a racer’s expression standing for Dead (ahem) “Flipping” Last. As in: “I was DFL after that spin but had a good run through the field to finish in the points.”
DNF stands for Did Not Finish. DNS is Did Not Start, while DSQ (or simply “DQ”) is Disqualified.
What does turn in/apex/track out mean?
These terms are used to describe the three segments of a turn:
- Turn in is the point where you start to angle the car from a straight line toward the apex of the corner.
- The apex of a corner is the middle of the turn (NOT necessarily the middle of the curve in the track surface) and the point where you come closest to the inside edge of the track in relation to the curve.
- Track out is the point where you start straightening the car out of the turn, usually out toward the very edge of the track surface.
First, a quick (and very high-level) note about vehicle dynamics: A car driving in a straight line at cruising speed essentially has an even amount of weight on all four tires. When you brake, some of the weight on the rear tires shifts to the front tires. (And, conversely, accelerating shifts some weight from the front to the rear.) Ordinarily, you want to get all your braking for a corner done while driving in a straight line in order to minimize the effects this weight transfer can have.
Trail-braking involves purposely braking while turning the car, which means that the weight shifts not only from the rear tires to the front, but more towards the tire on the outside of the turn than the one on the inside. While this increases the odds that too much weight will transfer in this uneven fashion and cause the car to spin (or “oversteer”), it also greatly assists in getting the car to rotate around the apex of the corner. When driving a front-wheel drive car that is naturally inclined to “understeer” (or go straight instead of turning), trail-braking can help the car to turn the corner.
What’s an enduro?
The term “enduro” is short for “endurance race” and is a totally different style of racing from sprints, which is what almost all club-level sports car racing is all about. Enduros differ from sprints in the following main ways:
- Length: The most obvious difference is that enduros run anywhere from 4 to 25 hours in duration. The most famous is probably the eponymous race at Le Mans in France, which runs for 24 hours every June.
- More than one driver: Because the races are so long, several drivers are necessary to remain competitive and, in probably every case, are actually required by the rules.
- Pit stops: Again, because the races are so long, stops for fuel, tires, fresh brake pads, and to top up other fluids are vital. At the top levels of endurance racing, pit stops might even be required to change transmissions, differentials, and the like.
- Equipment: Because time in the pits is time lost on the track, many endurance cars will have special systems to refuel faster, quick-change wheels, and even onboard air jacks to raise the cars up for tire changes.
What’s oversteer? What’s understeer?
These terms are used to describe some of the problems in how a car steers through a corner:
- Oversteer (also referred to as “being loose”) describes a situation where the back end of the car wants to swap ends with the front. In a front-wheel drive car, where it’s also pretty rare, you deal with oversteer by getting on the gas and letting the front wheels pull you out of it. In a rear-drive car, the key (generally speaking) is to use the steering wheel to steer in the opposite direction (“counter-steer”) and let the additional torque now going to the inside wheel (the one closer to the apex) counteract the incipient spin.
- Understeer (also referred to as “being tight” or “push”) describes a situation where the car doesn’t want to turn a corner, almost as if you’re being “pushed” away from the apex. Aside from a setup problem that can cause understeer, turning for the apex of a corner too early (“early apexing“) can result in what is effectively an understeer condition when the car reaches track out and is unable to turn sharply enough to make the corner. There are lots of other things that can cause understeer, including a slippery road surface, front tire pressures that are too high (or too low), and so on, but because understeer is considered a safer condition for most people driving their road car (the natural inclination is to brake and, in any event, the vast majority of drivers aren’t taught how to deal with oversteer), cars are typically built to understeer when pushed too hard in a corner. Front-wheel drive cars have inherently more understeer than rear-drive cars.
As a car moves, it has to push aside the air its driving through. The air, previously in a relative uniform state, is sent into chaos, much like the water in a boiling pot. The farther back from the car you go, the closer the air is to being back in its original state. If a second car is within that area of disturbed air, though, it doesn’t have to work as hard to move the air out of the way: The air “wants” to move around the car. This second car can now use some of the horsepower it would otherwise use to push air to gain ground on the car in front. It is “drafting” the leading car.
What do the different flags mean?
These are the flags used by ICSCC and what they mean:
- Green: Shown at the start of a race (or any other track session), a restart after a full-course caution, or to mark where it’s allowed to pass again after an area of “local yellow.”
- Yellow: A single yellow flag indicates a “local yellow,” a specific area on the track where caution is necessary and no passing is allowed. A waving yellow is shown at the flag station directly before the area, with a non-waving yellow displayed the corner before that. A full-course caution (slow WAY down, no passing allowed anywhere) is indicated with two yellow flags displaying at every flag station.
- Red: The session is stopped for an emergency. Cars are to immediately pull over to the side of the road and stop, near to or at least in sight of a flag station. Red flags are typical the sign of something really bad, like a multi-car accident and/or an injured driver. (Sometimes, at Pacific Raceways, it’s because a deer or some local dogs have gotten onto the track!)
- Blue: This is really more of a courtesy flag, letting you know that a faster vehicle is approaching. It typically means that one of the leaders is coming by to lap you, but it can also simply mean that someone behind you is approaching you with greater pace. Two common mistakes novices make are A) assuming that it automatically means a lead car is lapping them, and/or B) that they should get out of the way of the approaching car. In the first instance, it might simply mean that the car you’ve been racing with for a couple laps backed off to get a run at you and is now making that run. All the flagger at a corner station sees is a car approaching you with a head of steam; they might not be aware that it’s a car you’re racing against. In the second instance, it is official policy as well as good sense for the lapped car (when that’s the case) to simply drive their normal line while being aware of the faster car. For the faster car, getting a predictable idea of where the car you’re passing is going to be headed next is terrific peace of mind. The “blue flag” is actually blue with a diagonal yellow stripe in some series.
- Red-and-yellow striped: The surface conditions flag, usually shown to indicate fluid on the track. Typically referred to as “the oil flag,” it can also indicate the presence of dirt or damaged parts on the track, or even that recently-started rain has dampened the track enough to change grip levels.
- White: Slow-moving vehicle ahead. It can be either a safety vehicle responding to a stopped car or a competitor driving well off the pace. Passing is allowed with caution. (Many other series, of course, use a white flag to indicate the start of the final lap. Some that do use a white flag with red cross to warn of slow vehicles.)
- Black: Indicates a rules infraction or, when shown rolled up, a warning about a rules infraction or unsafe maneuver, such as passing near a waving yellow. Shown with a number board indicating the offending car. A waved black flag shown at an individual car is a signal to immediately proceed to the pits to have a conversation with a marshal, either with or without an additional penalty. A black flag shown to the field is a message for all cars to slow down and proceed to the hot pits. In this latter instance, there are usually also yellow flags for a full-course caution.
- Black with orange circle: Also known as the “meatball,” because of the orange circle, this is the mechanical flag. It could mean anything from a message that your transponder isn’t working to a sign that a piece of equipment is in danger of falling off your car, or even that you’re on fire. Proceed immediately to the “meatball station” to talk to a marshal and find out what’s wrong.
- Black & white checkered: The session is over. Slow down, wave to the corner workers, and head back to the pits/paddock.
What’s breathing the throttle?
Sometimes also known as “maintenance throttle” (but in a different context), breathing the throttle is simply the act of holding the throttle steady: not pushing it the remaining distance to floor, but not letting up on it, either. As with so many other aspects of driving a race car, it’s all about keeping the car’s balance even and/or predictable.
What’s a stint?
Stint has a dictionary definition meaning any stretch of time. In endurance racing, it’s used to mean the time spent driving the car between pit stops. (Every scheduled pit stop involves adding fuel, and may also result in a tire or driver change.)
What’s an early apex? Late apex?
These terms describe both the location of the functional apex in relation to the true apex (see “What does turn in/apex/track out mean?” for additional information) and the act of turning for the functional apex (i.e., too late or too early). For example, nearly all corners in racing are late apex corners, while an inexperienced driver on a race track will typically “early apex” most corners by turning in far too early.
What are marbles?
“Marbles” is a term for all the small bits of rubber that get scrubbed off tires in corners of racetracks. Enough of them together makes driving over them like driving over marbles (or ice), and so that’s where they get their name. Also used to describe any of the gravel, grass, and other junk that tends to collect on the outside of corners.