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Riding Shotgun

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

I admit that as a kid who grew up playing or participating in many sports — basketball, baseball, football, tennis, golf, biking, snow- and water-skiing, skin diving, etc. — I never respected the athleticism of racecar drivers. In fact, I thought that the brain-dead adrenaline-junky kids who jumped off roofs and believed they were made of rubber, the semi-hooligans who couldn’t conjugate the verb “to strive” but could disassemble a carburetor while in handcuffs were the kids who — if they somehow managed to avoid paralysis or hard time — ended up behind the wheels of racecars. I’m not saying I was right in this belief; I’m simply saying that as the country became obsessed with cars taking left turns at high speeds, with NASCAR drivers such as Jeff Gordon being all but deified and merchandise displaying a car’s number and colors jumping off the shelves, I scratched my head and said, “Huh?”

Then I was invited to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, where I quickly found out how big an idiot I’d been. On my way to and from Mansfield, only 7 miles from the course, I had enjoyed the vibrant Arena District in Columbia, had thought the Franklin Park Conservatory well worth visiting and found Loudonville’s Mohican State Park to be green and beautiful. In Mansfield, I got my heart-rate up on the well-maintained 18.3-mile Richland B & O Bike Trail, ate a delicious meal at Skyway East and thought the Kingwood Center, with its 47 acres of elegant gardens and its historic mansion, would interest most every RVer. But I was feeling the need for speed, as the saying goes, and I would soon get more than I could handle. As I was introduced to the former professional drivers who would soon humiliate — I mean, educate — those of us who had been driving for decades and yet would soon learn we knew nothing about the activity, I wondered if I could beat the other yokels on the track and earn the fastest time.

Then, in the open, paved area where we would participate in various driving drills, I sat in a Honda Civic EX Coupe and immediately learned I didn’t even know how to hold a steering wheel. Now, for a guy who has negotiated the Los Angeles freeways more-or-less successfully for 25 years, and for a guy competitive enough to determine that the day would be a bust without me universally being acknowledged as the best non-professional present — and capturing the theoretical checkered flag, so to speak — I was disheartened to find that I had my seat too far back and that my hands should be at nine and three, not 10 and two, as I’d been taught. “Maybe this won’t be as simple as it seems,” I thought. I didn’t let the fact that I hadn’t driven a stick in years bother me. I was determined to excel, now that I knew where my butt and hands were supposed to be. The first drill required each of us to go from zero to as fast as we could in a straight line, then, when one of the lights in front of us turned green, to swerve into that lane without touching the brake.

Then we were to slam on the brake as though trying to punch our foot through the floorboard. It took me two humiliating tries to get this drill even half right. I felt frustration brewing. Then I noted — with some satisfaction — that no one else nailed the drill perfectly. Next came the braking test. We were again supposed to punch the accelerator as though being chased by the IRS then, when we hit the wet pavement, brake with everything we had while turning the car right between the orange pylons. The other drill seemed simple, yet we couldn’t master it. This drill seemed difficult. So when I shifted smoothly, got up to speed, hit the slick blacktop, slammed on the brake, skidded right and only took out one cone — earning a shouted “Nice braking” from an instructor — I felt as though I’d actually accomplished something. Alas, I earned no such shout on my second run. With my learning curve practically flatlining, I suddenly felt relief, instead of the dismay l’d initially felt when I’d learned that we wouldn’t be driving ourselves around the 15-turn, 2.4-mile road course.

We would only be passengers in the Acura RSX Type S sport coupes — passengers whose ability to breathe was to be constricted by the five-point harness cinching us in and whose noggins were cocooned in what we hoped were entirely unnecessary helmets. Tony Kester settled in behind the wheel, securing his harness and snugging his helmet. Those were the last actions of his that I understood, because his performance after that was as far from the driving I’d known as cosmology is from cosmetology. Tony’s list of racing credits is stunning, including finishing second in the GT class in the 2002 24 Hours of Daytona and setting a world speed record in an Oldsmobile Aerotech. He hit the gas, and his right hand was a blur shifting. We shot from the starting area to the track within a few seconds. For me, acceleration such as that had always involved a control tower.

We hit the first left turn, and I made the mistake of looking at the speedometer. I think it said 85 mph, but I can’t be sure, since I was busy reacquainting myself with my higher power. Left, right, left, as though Sonny Liston were delivering body blows, we screeched around the track. Up and over rises, down through banked turns, hitting 120 mph on straightaways, mocking the laws of physics — Tony corrected my thinking with every flick of his wrist. My knuckles were white, my thoughts scrambled and my stomach about to revolt. As I mentally demoted my sports heroes and prayed that the road gods didn’t smite me for my ignorance, Tony chatted away, talking to me as though we were riding on a city bus.

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