ROAD COURSE

words DARREN SETLOW

I sort of figured it would happen. I could feel it. The pressure mounting. The milestone looming. The time-lapse movie of everything I’ve done so far. And not done.

When I was a kid, I climbed around in all the old junked cars on my grandfather’s property. Hudsons, DeSotos, Chevys, Fords, Chryslers, Buicks, Pontiacs; ’30s-, ’40s- and ’50s-era cars. Even though rusting into the earth, they still held the tension of their mechanical potential. I could feel it. I swear I could feel that Chevy short-block rumble to life, the glide of the power steering. I wanted to drive those cars so badly. I was 7.

It wasn’t until much later in life, in an aha moment, that the dots aligned and I realized cars and driving are in my DNA. My grandfather was a master mechanic; Dad built and street-raced cars, including a ’48 Hudson he rebuilt and gave dual exhaust.

I always wanted to help fix and maintain our family cars even if only to hold the flashlight. For the latter-day, self-employed person, modern cars are probably best left to the pros. They are highly computerized and have vexing wiring and electronics for DIY-ers. The wiring harness in some cars can weigh nearly as much as the engine. But I’ve missed wrenching so much. When you’ve changed a timing belt, changed CV joints, replaced brakes, fixed a rust spot, it’s very unsatisfying to go years without going under the hood. Being mechanically minded, for me getting underneath a car and remembering and re-learning how things work has been a dear passion for years. It also comes nowhere close to how much I love to drive.

Maybe I don’t drive a car as much as I feel I inhabit the vehicle, knowing where all four corners are, how the engine sounds, matching ground speed with the double clutch downshift, sensing the weight distribution.

Driving is fun, first and foremost. It’s also a skill, a mastery of machine with precision and presence of mind. Highway driving and errand-running fall short, though, leaving a pretty big gap between the act of driving for conveyance and fulfilling a lifelong passion to drive a car at its limits, to feel the dense air of concentration and mindful application of skill and awareness.

For my 50th, my wife and friends got me a day at the Porsche Sport Driving School. They all knew. The milestone is arbitrary, maybe, but it is there. I don’t see it so much as a threshold as an inflection point. A time to stop the train and climb to the observation deck and take a look around. The year, months, weeks of the imagined and real pressure only kept reaffirming what I was already feeling and making me look at it: I really had no good reason not to pursue high-performance driving. Enough deferment and denying. Time for Yes: Yes to cars, yes to driving. Thankfully my wife and friends were willing to support me.

Funny how the universe works. Not long after I said yes to cars and driving—saying yes to an essential truth about myself—I happened to be able to join Brunswick-based racing team Hammerheads Racing. Almost as if by design, an opportunity literally fell on me to work on, build and drive a real race car.

It’s surprising how tightly a five-point harness system fits the body. Alarming even. Properly fitted, you are securely fixed to the seat and not moving your upper body. But you quickly learn to love this thing, snugging it tighter in the relative calm and deep-breath moments on the straightaways. Not out of fear, but for knowing that’s how it does its job. And also a little bit for not having one in the SUV on the drive home. In fact, I was surprised how dramatically less safe I felt driving on the highway than driving a race car. It was instantly clear how vulnerable I was in an open vehicle: no cage, no helmet, no five-point harness, no HANS head restraint. Seemingly defying a stereotype, most race car drivers will say they are better, more careful and attentive drivers on the highway and around town expressly because of that vulnerability.

On the back straight, approaching the bus stop at Watkins Glen, at all came together. In that third of a mile, at more than 100mph, I realized how calm I felt. Slow, even breathing. Hands at nine and three, firm but not gripping. Aware of all corners of the car. Peripheral scans of all mirrors. Tires on the track. Wind noise through the net. Back against the seat. Brake zone markers. Downshift. Weight transfer.

It was a peak experience of concentration, of managing this machine at speed and feeling at last a connection with this deep passion I’ve harbored for years: the alignment—even for a moment—of awareness, intention, purpose, skill and mastery. When it’s right, and it all comes together, that car feels like it’s on rails. And there is truly nothing like it.

darrensetlow.com

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