Allen Schwartz will be writing a regular humor column for our blog, which he calls, “The Long and Whining Road.” For his first article, he describes his experience at last August’s Zone 1 Autocross. He bought his first Porsche in July 2014 and has been an avid club member ever since.
So I went up to Chris Klapper and told him, with both excitement and deep dread, that I wanted to be one of his HCP team members for the upcoming Zone 1 “super” Autocross. It was to take place August 22-23, 2015, at Moore Airfield, Fort Devens, in Ayer MA (about 35 miles northwest of Boston). As always Chris, our Autocross chair, gave me an enthusiastic pat and a big smile. Funny, I could not detect any sarcasm. I knew he’d been trying to round up ten members to qualify as a team, and he seemed genuinely happy that I had volunteered. As I walked away I began to wonder; was he really happy to have me? But then … why wouldn’t he be happy to have a 67-year-old novice driver, somewhat out of shape, with little experience and only a few AX and DE days under his belt, join the team? And yet, I might in some way prove useful. After all, I am a warm body, I do own a Porsche, and best of all, I’m pretty sure I was his number 10! Now that’s how to put together a top-notch team!
I call the Zone 1 a super Autocross because, unlike our club events that take place in a parking lot, this one is set up on an abandoned airfield! Also, it is seriously competitive, with teams from all the clubs in the northeast competing for actual points on a gigantic high-speed course. The run is so big you can actually get out of second gear and reach speeds of 60 mph or more! But because this was an Autocross on steroids, as the weekend of the Zone 1 approached, I got increasingly nervous about how well I’d perform (and also about my odds for an epic fail!). After all, I was just six months post-surgery and I wasn’t nearly back to normal. But making it to this race represented a significant milestone in my recovery. I had been thinking about it ever since, after my surgery, they told me it was likely I would in fact, probably, go on living! I went to the gym to prepare myself to be able to drive. I bought driving shoes. Most of all, I wanted to join the team and support our own Autocross program, even if I was going to sit at the end of the bench.
On the weekend of the event, my amazing wife followed me in her SUV as I made my way to Ayers. She wanted to bring her car in case she had to make a quick getaway in disguise after I screwed up. I had a long time to think about everything that could go wrong, including having a breakdown on the Mass Pike (I mean, of my car!). Somehow, we made it to Ayers. We met up with the team members at the Springhill Suites and got to know them more personally, which is certainly the best part of all these events. That night I slept fitfully. I dreamed of knocking over Cohens (not orange rubber cones, but my uncle Irving Cohen and his family).
On Saturday morning, we followed a lead car to Moore Airfield, and unfortunately, I got there safely. Even worse, my car was running superbly. I was running out of excuses. Our team members were already setting up tents and chairs, registering, and getting their cars checked out. I always feel like I’m 15 minutes behind at every one at these events, but I hurried up and got registered, picked up the wrong size t-shirt I had once again ordered, and went through the tech line. Scanning the landscape, I was totally intimidated by the gigantic size of the course (it’s laid out on a triangle of concrete made up of two runways and a taxi lane), and also by the huge number of high-performance cars that had shown up (about 90). There were a lot of serious drivers. Zone 1 encompasses several regional clubs, like our Hudson-Champlain affiliate, that are in the northeast. Now, I didn’t do a lot of research for this article, so I’m not sure exactly how many clubs are in Zone 1. Look it up yourself. There’s a map. I’m busy writing the rest of the article.
Everyone set off to walk the course at about 8 o’clock in the morning. I wasn’t sure I had the energy, so they offered me a ride to preview the course. It turned out my ride was in the cramped back seat of an old pickup truck that I shared with a gentleman who was celebrating his 94th birthday, and needed a lift more than I did. The problem with the “drive through” was that the truck did not actually drive through the cones because the course was covered with people already walking through the cones! The truck went through some cones and around other cones. All of it was quite confusing. Memo to self: this is not a good way to learn a course!
We were divided into classes and groups, in a way that I will never comprehend. It seems to me there are more Porsche models with three numbers then there are area codes in the United States – 356, 911, 912, 914, 918, 924, 944, 959, 958, 991, need I go on? And those are just the consumer models, not the racing models! And then, within a single area code, they’re grouped by whether they’re stock or modified, by horsepower, by the number of children you have, the number of times you’ve been divorced, and so forth. In any case, my class was S2 (my last name is Schwartz, I have 2 kids, and am still married – see, you didn’t believe me!). S2 is basically for stock cars with low power. I have a 2005 base Boxster with about 240 hp. I’m not complaining, but on the track, when we get to the straightaway, guys blow by me like I’m riding a Briggs and Stratton. But in Autocross, power means very little. It’s about being smooth and finding the best line that wins this kind of race.
My group finally was called and I got in line. Chris gave me my last minute instructions. “Don’t mess up!” he said. (No, he actually said to take the first run slowly and study each element of the course, as he always does.) I did take my first run very slowly, and after I was finished, the powers that be told me I was off course. But I knew that I had missed one cone at the very beginning, and was pretty happy with the rest of my run. Sure enough, my second pass at the course was clean! I had posted an official time, and amazingly it was even 10 seconds faster than my first off course run. Just so you don’t get the wrong impression, my time was still 30 seconds slower than the more experienced drivers. But at least it would count!
Feeling confident for no good reason, I cranked up the speed on my third run. I got called off course again. Now, this is where you start to question your sanity, because my second run was clean and now I wasn’t sure where I had made my mistake on run 3. See, the thing about Zone 1 is that it is highly competitive, and therefore no one tells you where you went to off course or which cone you missed! So it’s totally up to you to figure it out and fix it. On run 4, I was off course again, and was told it was at the same place, but not where that place was! With my anxiety soaring, in a fog of confusion and regret, my final four runs were all off course. Exasperating! Chris and Aaron Ambrosino graciously tried to console me and help me decipher where I had gone wrong, but the course is so long (over 1.2 miles) that you cannot see most of it from the pit area. I had found out something that experienced Autocrossers know: Try as I might, it’s nearly impossible to correct a mistake once you’ve learned it! Needless to say, one clean run out of eight was not the performance I was looking for!
Several of my teammates shared with me similar experiences they’d previously had, but it helped little. I was so disappointed! My charming wife was not upset in the least. “You screwed up. Get over it,” she said. “You’ll do better tomorrow, probably,” she added, and like always, I tried to believe her. After enough hand wringing, I steeled myself! I would meet the challenge, rise to the occasion. Finally, I put my energy into developing a strategy for Sunday.
A big part of autocross is being able to learn a course quickly, remember all its elements, and drive it over and over again, faster with each run. I woke up Sunday in a cold sweat. What if I simply couldn’t learn a long AX course quickly enough to be competitive? What if I continued to go off course? What if that 94-year-old guy kept beating me? My plan for Sunday was to begin differently, by walking the course. Even though it was over a mile long, the walk was surprisingly easy, and Chris walked it with me, pointing out various cues to attend to and the best line to take. Autocross demands intense concentration for 60 seconds, and that requires you to get into that Zen-like “zone” of relaxed focus. I meditated in my car. I breathed deeply. I sought perspective! As my lovely wife had told me Saturday night, “You can always sell the car and never see these people again!” She is so smart!
On Sunday, I took my first run slowly, so I could be sure to learn all the gates and slaloms and visualize them clearly. My time was slow, but I stayed on course! Chris raised a single finger – thumbs up, not the other one. On my second run, I tried to add speed, but went off course. I panicked. Was this going to be a repeat of Saturday’s horror show? Chris came over and encouraged me not to over drive or over think the course — that I had done it already and could do it again if I merely stayed confident. Easy for him to say. Yet my third run felt like my best yet! As I pulled off the course and found out my result, I began to wave my arms wildly. Chris and several of our team members came over and high-fived me, which is typical of the camaraderie shared by our club members. Finally I was staying on course, and my times were getting better! On my fourth and fifth runs, I remained clean and improved by about five seconds each time. We only did five runs on Sunday because of a coolant spill that had to be cleaned up, but of my five runs, I was on course four times, and continued to lower my times with each run. That is what Chris preaches, and he was truly happy for me. I had overcome my self-doubt, and most important, was able to contribute one point to our team by posting an official time for each day! I felt like a 10-year-old who scores a goal for his soccer team, except I’m 67 and can’t run. It felt good, which is what this is all about!
To summarize my experience: I literally went from despair to redemption in 24-hours. I had challenged myself and succeeded. I had fun! Other than winning your argument with the IRS, where else can you feel such exhilaration? Now the 2016 Zone 1 Autocross cannot come soon enough!