Seduced by Speed
Realizing a dream at Spa and the 'Ring
Hanging out with 25 of my closest relatives at my mother’s 80th birthday party this last weekend, I found myself struggling to explain why my recent trip to drive at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps (Spa) and the Nürburgring Nordschleife (the ‘Ring) was such a deeply satisfying experience. Most of them didn’t quite get the appeal of driving a car around a circuit, again and again (my son: he got it). It was, after all, just driving, something most people do every day; just a car, something most people own and use in the most utilitarian ways; just a road, a stretch of asphalt that leads you from one place to another.
And yet for me, driving on these tracks was so much more. It was the ultimate “out over my skis” experience, the culmination of a lifetime love affair with sports cars and probably the best I’ve ever driven.
I’ve been into cars, especially European sports cars, since I was a kid (I’ll spare you the details here, but I’ve written about it in My Wife Sold My First Sports Car), but I didn’t experience “high performance” driving until I hit my 50th birthday. That’s when my wife, Sara, sent me to a 2-day Porsche Sport Driving School at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama (now known as Porsche Track Experience).
Driving a performance car on a purpose-built race track was everything I’d hoped it would be. The acceleration, the handling, the braking, and the grip of those Porsches, all experienced on the flowing, meticulously maintained track at Barber, convinced me that this was something I wanted to do more. Soon, I signed up for other “high performance driving” schools, at Pacific Raceways and at the BMW track in Thermal, California. As soon as I could possibly afford it—which is to say, as soon as we paid our kids’ way through college—I bought my own track car, a 2020 BMW M2 Competition.
At first, I drove on the closest tracks—Pacific Raceways and the Ridge Motorsports Park. As I became a better driver, I modified the car based on what I felt it needed: KW 3-Way Clubsports coilovers, front and rear sway bars, better brakes. I also discovered what I needed: variety and new challenges. So I ventured further, to Oregon Raceway Park, Vancouver Island Motorsports Circuit, Qlispe Raceway (Spokane), Area 27 (Oliver, British Columbia), and even Laguna Seca (Monterey, CA). For four years, I perfected my skills in this car, getting ever more proficient and chasing ever better lap times. I bonded with my car and with some great folks in the car community, especially the BMW Puget Sound club and the ever-growing gang of car nuts who belong to Avants.
And then, in the fall of 2022, while driving back across the Cascades after two spectacular days driving at Area 27, I found myself wondering if perhaps I had plumbed the depths of this expensive and somewhat pointless hobby. After all, I had driven every nearby track I’d wanted to drive and I’d proven to myself that I was a pretty competent driver. What more was there, besides shaving a few more tenths off my lap time here and there, all the while dropping thousands and thousands of dollars into this hole called thrill-seeking?
The answer, it turned out, came in a January email from Hooked On Driving (HOD), the largest and (I’d argue) best performance driving program in the United States. HOD’s head, David Ray, was organizing a chance for 25 lucky souls to drive on two of Europe’s most legendary tracks, with vehicles and instruction provided by one of the most reputable track schools in Europe, RSRNürburg. It didn’t take long for me to decide that I would take what was left of my track budget1 and push it all in for this once-in-a-lifetime thrill.
I reflected on my other passions: climbing mountains and trail running. With both pursuits, I reached a point where I could see that I could go bigger, further, higher, longer ... but I really didn’t want to. I loved climbing our big mountains—Baker, Adams, Glacier Peak, and Rainier (mostly)—but I honestly had no taste for Denali or K2 or Everest. Same with trail running: I’ve run in some cool mountain races and thoroughly enjoyed the Ragnar Trail relays we ran with our team, Type 2 Fun ... but I’ve got no taste for ultras, the Leadville 100, or the UTMB races. With these sports, I was content with where I was.
But the HOD trip promised me a chance to test myself as a driver on the very best tracks in the world. The highest levels of sport driving are practiced at Spa and the Nürburgring, and here I was getting a chance to go drive there. And not merely to drive there, because in truth anyone can do that: the Nürburgring has frequent “touristenfahrten” days, when anyone can drive up in any car and pay for a lap around the track. What we were getting was a custom-designed event for experienced track drivers, with one full day of open lapping at Spa and two days of focused instruction and driving at the ‘Ring. I would get to take all the skills I had been building and apply them to driving on the greatest tracks in the world, the same tracks driven by the most legendary drivers in motorsports history. It promised to be the driving trip of a lifetime ... and I was determined to make the most of it.
“Make the most of it,” I say. But what the hell does that mean? It means that no sooner did I sign up than I began to focus on what I would do differently to ensure that my track time in Europe lived up to my high expectations ... to ensure that I would not only drive on the greatest race tracks in the world but also that I would be a better driver.
You see, my biggest failing as a “sports car” driver is also my biggest failing as a human being. I am, well, heavy handed. When something is stuck, I push harder; when someone gets loud, I get louder. My daughter described my philosophy of parenting as “suck it up.” When I played soccer, I responded to pressure by lowering my shoulder. You’ve heard the expression, to a hammer, everything is a nail? Too often, I’m a hammer. (Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll be happy to give you more examples.)
I’m this way driving on the track too. To go faster, I push harder. Harder on the gas, harder on the brakes, harder into the corners.
This approach works ... right up until it doesn’t. At some point, when you push too hard into a corner, you go off the track. When you get on the gas too early, you spin in a cloud of smoking tires. I’ve always been able to pull back shy of disaster, but let me tell you, I’ve gone through a lot of tires and brake pads.
I didn’t want to go to these two great tracks and just be the same old driver. I wanted to be more subtle, more tuned in to the dynamics of the car and the track. And so, from the moment I signed up, I prepared myself to be a different kind of driver for a different kind of track experience.
I’ve always done some prep before driving on a new track: I’d watch some track videos and get familiar with the layout of the track, just so nothing would take me by surprise. But for Spa and the Ring, I made a plan that would force me to address my weaknesses. I watched hours of video, studied track maps and the driving line, and spent lots of time in a race simulator. I reserved a car, the BMW M2 RSR Edition, that closely matched my own car, so that I’d know the car and could focus on the other variables. (It’s the one you see in the photos.)
I spent nearly 20 hours at our local racing sim center, Gripwerx, driving around and around both tracks in a sim car that closely approximated the one I’d drive in Europe.
Driving on a simulator is great, but it pales in comparison to driving in a real car. Despite all the attempts at realism—the race seat, the weighted wheel, the sound effects, the wide surround screen—there is just no way to truly simulate ripping a 3600-pound vehicle around a race track. What the simulator provides, though, is a great way to “feel” yourself moving through the space that represents a track: you come into the corners at realistic speeds, you can place yourself in the turns at realistic angles, and you can prepare yourself for the sightlines of the track opening up before you. Especially at a track like the ‘Ring, where there are dozens or hundreds of corners (depending on how you count them), of all different shapes and sizes, simply having the experience of linking those corners together again and again, so that you’re not surprised by what lies ahead, is just crucial practice.
The folks at RSR also did a great job of prepping us in the weeks before we came to the track. Ron Simons—he’s the “RS” in RSR—regularly sent us tips and videos to watch about the racetracks but, most helpfully, he and David Ray from HOD arranged a two-hour “track prep” meeting with seasoned driving instructor and racer. Ross spent a full hour talking us through how to approach driving on the ‘Ring, a track known to chew up and spit out drivers who didn’t approach the course with respect.
The last bits of preparation were all in my head, as I arranged my mind for a different kind of driving experience. “You will not worry about lap times or speeds,” I told myself. “You are not there to prove anything, only to commune with the sensations of driving on these wonderful tracks.”
All this prep ensured that I went to Europe with fairly high-resolution mental models of these tracks in my head. And when I finally arrived, I was chomping at the bit! I wanted to get out on the track and drive ... but Ron was having none of that. He structured the time at both tracks to begin with a serious lead-follow session, where an instructor led a small group of drivers around the track, his crackly voice over the walkie-talkies narrating us turn-in, apex, and track-out points at every curve. Slowly, we built speed and confidence.
At both tracks, we were also assigned personal coaches who rode along with us. It had been years since I’d had an instructor in the car, and I’d forgotten how much it could help iron out the kinks in my driving. Both coaches helped me place my car correctly in the corners, gauging where to start and stop my braking, and helping me use all the track. Constantinos, my instructor at the ‘Ring, finally and decisively cured me of my bad habit of braking in corners and, judging from the video below, another coach may have encouraged his driver to apply the brakes more frequently.
The prep, the study, the coaching ... all helped improve my driving, but I must also give credit to the tracks themselves. The facilities at Spa are a masterpiece of track construction: the surface is impeccable, and the corners flow into each other in ways that encourage confidence and, with that confidence, speed. All my memories of watching legendary drivers charge through Eau Rouge came to life as we walked and then drove this most famous corner in the world. Spa is certainly the most beautiful track in the world, and it romanced me into driving in a way worthy of that beauty. Lap after lap, I sought the perfect line. As I improved the track whispered to me, beckoning to me to find my limits, assuring me I could do more. I’ve never felt happier or more seduced by speed on a race track than I did at Spa.
And then there’s the Nürburgring, 13 miles of constant, shifting corners, rising and falling and snaking their way across the wooded German landscape. Jackie Stewart called it “The Green Hell” after a rainy, foggy Grand Prix race in 1968, and you can see why: it’s like a series of sinuous mountain roads, all with slightly different surfaces, all tied together to test the skill and the focus of the driver. Google “Nürburgring highlights” and you’re likely to be awash in videos of drivers crashing on one of the many diabolical corners. Early in our first morning there, we came out of the “Kleines Karussel" ("Little Carousel”) and saw an expensive Ferrari mashed up against the fence, its vivid red body panels strewn across the grass (check out this video for an idea of how it might have happened). Seeing this crash put the truth to what Ron had told us that very morning, when he opened our prep session by telling us he was “very excited and very scared” for us, for the ‘Ring is always dangerous, but never more so than when it’s wet (thankfully it dried out quickly for us).
[The video above was taken by my fellow driver, Ryan Papera, with me in front of him. The video starts just before I catch a little air, but you can see the whole lap by going back to the beginning.]
The ‘Ring insists on your respect, and we gave it that respect, with our instructors slowly increasing the pace as the day wore on. By the end of the day we were all going well faster than we could have without such great instruction. The ‘Ring is so complicated and so demanding, and thus it feels all the better when you successfully string together a series of corners or even a whole lap. It would take a lifetime to master. (And the video of me from the first day shows I’m nowhere close.)
On our last day, I took Sara out on a three-lap run around the Nürburgring. At the end, after I had turned an especially strong lap, she remarked that this was the smoothest and fastest she had ever seen me drive. I knew that was true. I had conquered my bad habits on these beautiful tracks, the fantastic preparation and instruction and the tracks themselves inviting me to be the kind of driver I’d always wanted to be. It felt ... fantastic.
I hope this gives you some sense of what it meant to me to drive on these tracks, and to pursue the ultimate expression of this hobby. And I hope you’ll consider how you might lean out over your skis as you pursue your own interests. By all means, share your stories!
I don’t want to bore you with a discussion about the finances of driving a car on the race track. Let me just say that there are substantial costs involved and that a big part of me deciding to retire “early” was deciding that I would put a cap on my track budget.