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Twenty-Two Hours of Road America

This week’s post is a throwback to 1998, courtesy of my dad (originally published in the December 1998 issue of Roundel magazine). In this article he recalls my first HPDE (high performance driver education) event which took place at the beautiful, historic, and dangerous Road America. My dad also tells the story when I, riding shotgun, spun at the track’s infamous kink in a Porsche 911. The timing seems appropriate with Father’s Day around the corner.

Dad providing a last minute safety check at a 2019 track day

By Dave Farnsworth "The Navigator"

1998’s Twenty-Two Hours of Road America was a different school. Sure, there was the rain, the great equalizer, the instant granter of more horsepower than you need, the magic that gives you a taste of what it’s like to drive an Indy car, the element that makes passing under the bridge between Canada corner and fourteen an exercise in faith and abject terror, the curse of the new student, and the savior of the instructor, the ultimate teacher of smooth, and the thing that makes you huddle under the awning at St. John the Baptist’s concession stand, nationally recognized as the purveyor of the best track food in the U.S.

But this year’s school held a unique aspect for me. My son, the fruit of my loins―the automotively addicted monster I created through constant exposure to race tracks, 1/43rd-scale masterpieces from Michael Lennart, numerous Oktoberfests, too much brake dust, burned rubber, 105-octane race fuel, and the smell of sweaty Nomex―was taking part in his first driving school, as an actual driver.

This was a moment I had looked forward to for sixteen years and hopefully will experience again two years from now, when Zach hits the magic age of draft and driving school eligibility. (It strikes me that there exists in Bimmerland a whole bunch of you who associate “draft” with professional sports. Well, back in the days of points, condensers, and carburetors, the government used to run these prolonged summer camps; you became eligible for a free trip to one of these when you hit eighteen, and in fact they were rather insistent that you register for this contest. But back to the track).

So I watched, with an odd combination of a father’s pride and a mother’s trepidation, as he and his exceedingly brave instructor, Mike Silerzio, headed down the long pit straight of Road America. Instructor or not, there are so many ways to get it wrong: Certainly he’s heard me talk time and again about the most common form of driving school disaster, putting two wheels off and then frantically trying to snatch the car back onto the track, only to spin wildly to the inside. But there’s a big leap between understanding a concept intellectually and forming and instinct that will save you in the actual practice before your brain begins to sort out what’s going on. Will he have that instinct? Will he know what to do if the car runs out of brakes? Will he recognize the spongy pedal before it goes to the floor? What will he do if the threatening clouds open up? Sure, he has a great instructor, but the controls are his.

And at the end of the weekend he showed that they were in good hands. His progress was steady and controlled. He did, in fact, run out brakes one time, but simply made a calm announcement to that effect and drove straight off the access road. And he held his own, driving well in a class of novices, many showing up with much faster cars, R-compound tires, and Dinan suspensions to take on one of the highest-speed road circuits in the country.

Road America is a deceptively straightforward course, that can be intimidating nonetheless, primarily thanks to two factors: three very long straights that allow even a box-stock 2002 to hit triple digitsM3s approach or exceed 130―and of course the infamous “kink.” This year, at Indycar's request, the folks at Road America have added a whole lot of concrete wall with twelve-foot catch fencing arching over the track; Thunder Valley now looks like a long concrete tunnel. When we drove there this spring, the walls were unscathed. Happily, we didn’t inaugurate them in the fall, either―but their pristine whiteness took me back about six years, to the first time Matt actually toured the course at speed.

That was the tenth annual Twenty-Two Hours of Road America, and we had planned a few added features. But the one that most interested my son was that we allowed anyone who was a “worker bee” for the event to get a ride or two with an instructor. Matt was looking forward to this for weeks; he had been on the course numerous times, but only at track-touring speeds. That morning he rode along as we were placing the turn-in, apex, and track-out-point cones. When we came to the kink, he looked at the inside concrete wall―the outside border at that time was Armco―and asked me why the walls had all those paint swatches. Indeed, the beginning just past the apex of the kink, the concrete was covered for a good two hundred yards down toward Canada Corner with randomly placed multicolored lines or blotches of paint.

I explained to Matt what happens when a car early-apexes the kink, runs out of room at the exit, and over-corrects in an attempt to get back on the course. I believe I used the phrase “automotive pinball.” Matt was quietly impressed.

Later that day the instructors were due to go out on the track. The corner works went to lunch, so a bunch of us volunteered to work the course. Mark Huston, Gene Kulyk, and I―all racers―decided the kink would be a great place to flag, so we headed out and set up. Watching the instructors fly through that section was impressive. About ten minutes into the session, one of our long-time instructors, Tim Leicht―also an ex-Formula Ford racer―came through the kink in a Porsche 911. In the mist of its high pitched air-cooled song, we all heard the engine belch; instinctively, all three of us reached for the yellow flag, because we knew what would happen next―and it did.

That little belch was enough of an interruption of power to cause the rear to lift ever so slightly, sending the Porsche into a series of two complete 360-degree spins through the kink. In one of the most impressive displays of control I’ve seen in a while, Tim kept the car on the track while executing those pirouettes; when the tire smoke cleared, he had merely straightened the car out and continued on his way.

We had radioed the incident in when we threw the yellow. A minute or so later, after we identified the car involved, the tower radioed back to tell me that Matt was a passenger in the dancing Porsche.

I made a point of shaking Tim’s hand when we came in from the course. And then I talked with Matt. “So,” I said, “what did you think of your ride?”

You know, dad,” he answered, “all I thought about was all that paint.”

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