By Dan Vielhaber
I attended the Fast Track Racing, 2-day Basic Oval course at the Kentucky Speedway on September 21-22, 2001. This school is ran by Andy Hillenburg, who has raced in WOO Sprints, ARCA, Busch, IRL, and NASCAR Winston Cup. He's won the ARCA championship as well as racing in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500! He told me he hopes to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday soon.
Instead of driving down on Friday, I decided to drive down early on Saturday. I was excited and couldn't fall to sleep untill midnight. I had to get up at 3 a.m. to get ready and drive to Kentucky. They are an hour ahead of our timezone. The traffic was nil and I was able to go 85mph the whole way. I got there just in time.
There were about a dozen guys there to take the class - ranging in age from 30's - 50's. Andy also had other trainers and mechanics there to help him. Unlike the Bondurant Formula Ford class, we didn't sit around listening to racing theory, such as correcting over/under steer or heel/toe driving. The first thing we did was walk the entire track while Andy pointed out things about the course and the groove. He had an assistant doing laps the whole time we walked along the apron and as he would touch on a certain subject, we would watch the guy zipping around to see what Andy meant. VERY well organized.
I concentrated on listening to everything he said. I didn't want to miss something that would cause me to screw up. I'd feel pretty bad if I wrecked a car. As it happens, Andy explains things beautifully and is a GREAT teacher! It was good that I was paying attention, because everything he said, I needed to know. There is so much information that must be transmitted to the student that he isn't going over this stuff twice, but I liked the pace. He also throws in some humor and some anecdotes.
Besides learning the best line on the track, we examined the cars - how to enter, exit, buckle up, what guages to pay attention to, etc. There is this red light pointed right at you that comes on if you are overheating which means you have to shutdown immediately. There is a white light that comes on when you are in first gear. We guage our speed with Tachs, not with a speedometer. We also had to learn how to enter and exit the pits, how to signal on the track and what the flags mean. When we get in the cars by ourselves, we don't have radios and their only way of communicating with us is via the flagman who is up in the flag stand by the start/finish line.
After the walk around, we then got in our own vehicles, with a trainer in our passenger seat, and we got to drive around the track about 70 mph. He would help us work on learning the groove. After that, we did the same thing, except in a 2-seat race car and kept our cars around 3,300 RPM in 4th gear (which is faster than 70). The main focus of day one was learning to drive SMOOTH and drive the LARGEST ARC possible in the SMALLEST AMOUNT OF SPACE.
They strap you into these cars VERY tight using a 5-point harness. The visibility is not nearly as good as my car and you don't have side mirrors of course. You sit down lower and can't see down the front of the race car. Also, these stock cars do not have the tight responsive steering and brakes as my sports car. This make driving them more of a challenge. However, once you get up to a high speed, the great ground effects sucks the car down and that inspires confidence. The racer's sitcky slicks are better tires. They have more power and torque than my street car. The fastest I've been before in my car was 130 mph, and that was in a straight line. I was to go faster than that in a turn this weekend.
The rest of the afternoon was spent driving the cars by ourselves. They kept us spaced out, with about 3 cars on the track at a time. We students rotated - we'd go out and do about 8 laps and then come in and take a break while someone else took over the car. After a few laps at a specific RPM, we would bump up the speed by 2-300 RPM.
When we'd come back in to the pits, the teachers would tell us what we were doing wrong. I kept getting faster, and I started getting pushed out of the groove between turns 1 and 2. I was the only person to get yellow flagged to slow down I think. At first they were telling me I was cutting into turn 1 too soon, but what ended up being my main problem was that I was driving too fast into the turn. When I was driving at slower RPM's, I was lapping at a constant speed. As I increased my speed, I needed to begin rolling out of the throttle before turns. Alas, I was concentrating on the groove and had my right foot on autopilot. KY is pretty flat, so the corners were not much help in keeping me low. I wanted to hit the apex of the turn low against the bottom of the track, but I was drifting several lanes higher. The cars have understeer dialed in and I just couldn't wrestle the thing down. Some guy timed me and I was going 145 mph. I feel I was one of the fastest guys there. Several of the drivers had taken the class multiple times. One BMW driver was real slow and he probably never got over 100. He didn't return the next day.
I wanted to experience 160 mph, but that would have required slowing down for the corners and speeding up in the exits and I obviously wasn't doing that. Hopefully next time. I could use some more practice for sure, but I am happy with how I did. One student mentioned it was much easier to go fast at Charlotte because of the banking, but he said the banking looked pretty imposing when you first tried it.
This was very cool as I would never have thought about driving that fast through turns, but I just put my faith in Andy's cars. Also, the Winston Cup cars are SO safe, with all the roll bar cage all around you. I actually felt unsafe once I was back in my street car, with its airbags and wimpy seatbelt.
I consider myself a very good driver, and most of the other guys in the class were very good too. All the students who didn't show up in trucks, showed up in performance automobiles. I would not recommend the two day course for a below average driver. However they have a variety of other classes you can take. In fact while I was there, some people would show up just to take a fast lap with Andy.
At one point, I had to pull into the pits and then they went to work on it, jacking it way up on one side to give me new rubber. This class is so cool. I don't see how you could get a closer feel for what the racers go through. One instructor, Larry, told us that he can tell when he is running side by side with someone because he can hear a hum or harmonic sound which is produced as their engine noises get into sync.
We got finished about 4:30. I had brought a tent and my camping gear. The area was beautiful and the weather excellent. I drove around for 2 hours looking for a campground, but one was full and one not good enough, and another closed. I ended up at the nearby Speedway Motel where Andy and the crew were staying. It is only a year old and the rooms included a full kitchen and was $59/night. This track is out in the middle of nowhere and this hotel had a gas station and a restaurant.
After I ate dinner, I got a room and took a shower. The parking lot around the hotel had started filling up. As I looked out my window, here is the sign I saw. This place also had a strip club! A strip club?! Out here in the boondocks?! The entire northside of Indianapolis doesn't have one! I eventually ventured over to check it out. I was expecting to find a couple of homely girls. They charge a $10 cover! But let me in free since I stayed at the hotel. I was surprised upon entering as there were dozens of nubile young women running around that place. I sure didn't expect that! It was a pretty wild place. Later, I played some pinball in the restaurant and then went to bed. I was exhausted.
One mistake and it would have been costly! At first, we practiced running in a straight line and passing. From there, we progressed to running side by side. We'd go out and one instructor would be racing with us, driving the lead left car. We tried to stay 3 feet away from the car next to us and one car length behind the car in front of us. The instructor would slowly increase speed after each successful lap. I think they had us broken up by ability. Andy would assign each person a specific car every time throughout the weekend. The guys with experience and who were driving the fastest would be grouped together when we were practicing driving in packs. You feel closer than you really are, we found from video tape. But everyone was scared at one point as I and this other guy named Dan, were running side by side through turn one about 6 inches apart at about 135 mph. While also right behind two cars. WHOA! And, while being the inside guy, when we'd hit the back straight, I had to push this guy right up just a couple feet from the wall while not looking at where he was! The cars are kind of shifting around and it is intense!! When you're running up near the wall, you need a couple feet for the air you're pushing to get by you. Boy, I was sitting up straight and my senses were on red alert. At the same time, you have to be confident and relaxed. I had to have absolute faith in the guys around me. Luckily, nobody wrecked the whole weekend.
Most people had their friends and family with them both days who enjoyed watching and filming the experience. I was there alone, but I got one lady to use my camera to take some pictures while I was on track.
We also break for lunch each day. The only thing at the track is a jug of water. There is a BP gas station across the street from the track that has good cheap food. I talked to Andy during lunch. I got to talk to him about what it was like to start in the Indy 500. I asked him about what Tony George is really like. I found out that every driver who qualifies for the Indy 500 gets a big gold ring that has a large rectangular green gem in the center (green flag!). It had Andy's name and qualifying speed engraved on it too. He let me try it on. I would sure love to earn one of those! I guess no matter how old I get, I'll always secretly wish I'll get an emergency call one day from the Speedway offering me a chance to race in the 500. One thing I noticed, was that Andy LOVES the green flag. I would have thought a racer loves to see the checkered flag, but I guess that means the racing is over!
The Fast Track Racing School staff were scattered about and on the radio with each other. Andy would pace up and down out in the middle of the front straight like a general conductiong a battle. Here I am in the 21 car crossing the finish line as Andy watches us. You can't see them, but there are two guys up in the flag stand. We finished up about 4 pm and we got certificates for attending the class.
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