Booties, Bobbles and Burnouts…..

Friday, October 21, 2005 This weekend was the season finale for the Skip Barber Eastern Regional race series. It was an important weekend for me as I went into the weekend in 2nd place in the overall championship. I had also clinched the Master’s championship (for old timers, 40 and over). I had not, however, won a race yet…. EVER!

Four of us had a shot at the overall prize. For me, it meant likely having to win a race, though much depended on the leader.

Part 1- Booties

On Thursday, the weekend got off to bang… literally. We had a lot of rain, and more scheduled through Saturday. Ultimately, we endured over 8 inches of the wet stuff!

Lime Rock Park is an interesting little track. 7 corners over a mile and a half. In the dry, lap times are under a minute. Where would they be this weekend? We guessed they would be just under 1:20. As we suited up for the first practice session, I noticed another driver, Jimmy Locke, wearing booties. Hmmm… interesting. Me: Do you wear those in the car while you drive? JL: Yes, I do. Me: They don’t interfere with the pedals? JL: No!

The prospect of dry feet sent me running for the store with borrowed money. In record time, I bought the booties and raced back to the car just in time to strap in. On lap one, the booties got caught behind the brake pedal very briefly (why are you not surprised?!). I thought about pitting, but then decided I could solve the problem by being more careful with the transition from gas to brake. (you see where this is going, don’t you?). On lap three, I headed down a short straight toward West Bend – a fast 90 degree right hander at close to 90mph (in the rain, remember?!). As I went for the brakes, the bootie reared its ugly head again. I couldn’t get off the gas! Oh shit! This is bad! In less than a second, I was at the turn in point with far to much speed to make the turn… I yanked my foot out just as I ran off the road. Quick to brakes!!… too late… no grip on the grass… tire barrier ahead and unavoidable! Hands off the wheel… grab the belts (so I don’t break fingers)… close my eyes and hit the tires… HARD. 80+ mph. Ouch! Quick check of body parts… they all seem in tact… except I can’t feel the big toe on my right foot. Holy crap… I hobble to the corner worker’s stand and take my shoe off… (actually, I took the booty off first and tossed it in the garbage!) I wondered if my toe was still attached… fortunately, it was still in my sock! And, no blood! I took my sock off, and found all the blood. It was trapped under my toe nail! Trust me, you don’t want a more graphic description!

I owned the booties for about 7 minutes. The crash damage was $7000. That works out to $1000 a minute. This sounded bad until I compared it to my boating costs this summer… but that is another story!

I got myself a free ride to the on-track Medical building and got the once over. The diagnosis? “That’s gonna hurt for a while”. Gee thanks… I coulda told ya that! Hobbling out of medical, I find that my competitors are still parked in the pits waiting for the track workers to rearrange the tire barrier I hit. Apparently, they didn’t like my decorating ideas. Good news for me though, as I could now commandeer a new car and try again!

After a few laps, I found myself back up to speed. In fact, I finished the session with the second fastest lap (1:18.8). Behind only the Championship points leader, Charles Anti. Excellent! I needed to set a tone… and my escapade in West Bend was not what I had in mind.

Part 2- Bobble

Friday morning, and it is time to qualify for grid position. Considering the race is likely to be wet, qualifying position is crucial. Only the leader will have a clear view. Everyone else will drive through spray and will find it damn near impossible to pass. To complicate issues, the track is drying for our qualifying session. This means that it will be different on every lap. Each turn then, will become a hunt for the ever increasing grip. This will also be a mental game as the driver needs to observe and stay aware of minor changes in track condition as he navigates the circuit.

We started out with lap times in the 1:14 – 1:15 range and gradually improved on nearly every lap. By the end, I was able to slip just below a 1:09 with a 1:08.959 lap. This was over 7/10’s of a second better than the next fastest driver! My first ever pole lap! Yee ha! Now that is setting the tone I was hoping for!

In the afternoon… the rain has returned, and with a vengeance. It is pouring, and getting worse by the minute. As we come around the final turn on the pace lap, I slow the field and look for grip. When I find it, I take off. I lead the field through turn one as well as the next few corners. Ok, now settle in. Don’t get excited. Be consistent. Be a machine. I decide to be conservative in the brake zones and set up for quick exits from the corners. The strategy works. For several laps, I’m not threatened. I find a groove I like and stick to it. After a while, Charles catches me. As David Hobbs says though “catching him is one thing, getting around him is going to be something else entirely!” Charles leaves less on the table in the brake zone for Turn 1, the best overtaking option on the track. But, as I have the inside and preferred line, it means he’ll have to pass me on the outside. I won’t allow that. Five or six times Charles shows me his nose in Turn 1, but I simply drive him out to the edge of the track where he runs out of room. Eventually, he literally runs out of room and winds up off track. This is a huge break for me. With more than half the race distance complete, I am in front and my opposition is in the back of the pack!

The hardest thing to do now is to keep your heart rate down. Don’t get excited. Don’t plan your victory speech. Stay focused.

Heading down what is called No Name Straight and toward the Uphill turn, a huge puddle has formed which spans a good portion of the track. For 18 laps I brake just before the puddle, downshift from 4th to 3rd gear, come off the brake just before entering the puddle, hydroplane through the puddle, come out the other side, find grip, turn in, and add power through the hill. It works flawlessly. For 18 laps. I lead the race for 18 laps! Did I mention this is a 20 lap race? On the 19th lap I brake just before the puddle, downshift from 4th to 3rd gear, come off the brake just before entering the puddle, hydroplane through the puddle, come out the other side, find NO grip, turn in, SLIDE, and HIT THE WALL JUST BEFORE the hill.

Just like that. My lead is gone. My race is over. I lose my car. I lose my grid position for the next race (determined by race finish). And, likely lose my shot at the championship. Just like that.

I drove back to the pits with a damaged car and a sense of disappointment you can’t describe. I sat in the car and fought tears and frustration. I felt like I let not only myself, but my family and friends and coaches down. When I walked back to the paddock, it was clear I wasn’t alone. Many people were visibly upset for me. If you don’t think the Skip Barber community is a family, try facing disappointment alone in this crowd. You would expect them to share your highs, but on this day they shared my lows as well.

Soon I found out that because of the way the rules work (too long to explain) I hadn’t lost any ground in the points battle. I was still in contention, albeit with a longshot. This tidbit, plus the fact that I had run a clean, smart race made me feel better. I hadn’t thrown it away… I had bad luck. Racing is like that. If winning championships was easy, anyone could do it!

Saturday morning’s race was an affair of desperation. Win the race- win the championship. Not easy since I would start last- in a car I’d never driven. In the end, it wasn’t to be. I ran a good race , but not good enough.

Part 3- Burnouts

Ok, so the overall championship was over, but there was still one more race to run. I mentioned earlier, I had clinched the Master’s championship which is a sub-class for drivers over 40 years old. Typically, you score points as part of your regular races. But, on season finale weekend, they run a separate race for the ‘old folks’. Qualifying is based on points, so I would be able to start on pole. And, interestingly, this race would be run in dry conditions. None of us had any practice in the dry yet this weekend, so again, it would be a question of who could find the grip the quickest.

Considering the weekend I’d already had, and the fact that I really had nothing to gain, I considered starting from the back of the field rather than the front. This would eliminate any pressure, and allow me to have fun as I (hopefully) ran through the slower cars in the back. I asked 10 people, whose opinions I respected, what they thought. They were unanimous – start in front and try to win the race! I saved Gerardo for last. Gerardo has been my coach and confidant all season long. He has helped me tremendously in finding speed and confidence behind the wheel. Surely he would know what to do. After laying out the options for him, Gerardo said “I agree, start from the back and just have fun”. I looked him in the eye and said…”F-you, I’m gonna go win it!”

What changed my mind? I have no idea. But now I was determined.

I took the green flag and stormed off to a lead. I don’t think I looked in my mirrors for 5 laps, and when I did, there was no one back there. I had opened a huge lead! Naturally, that scared the shit out of me! Now what? I’m all alone out here! No one to race against. I can only screw this up now!

I put my head down, decided not to look in the mirrors, and not to look at the lap board on the starter’s stand which would tell me how many laps remained. Soon I started lapping slower cars. I drove like a machine again. Very consistant… no variations… hit your marks… no errors. After an eternity, I couldn’t take it any more. We must be close to the end! I finally checked the lap board and learned there were 4 (of 25) laps to go. I look back, and there is still no one threatening me.

Later in the lap, I catch two lapped cars. They are going fairly slowly, but I play it cool and cautious. I’m not going to get tangled in traffic and throw this away. I bide my time and wait for an oppportunity. It comes by the end of the lap. Then, I make the near fatal mistake of not checking my mirrors! Pulling onto the front straight, with two laps to go, I AM PASSED! NOT BY ONE CAR… BY TWO! I am truly shocked… the words “what the #$%” escape my mouth and reverberate in my helmet. Apparantly, the field had closed in as I fooled around with lapped traffic! Two laps to go and I am 3rd!

For the first time in the race… for the first time in the weekend… in fact, for the first time all season, I am convinced I will win. I will not be denied. I will not let these two drivers take away my win.

We enter Turn 1 three wide… 2 wider than is appropriate! I come out 2nd! Into Turn three, I come within a breath of hitting the leader as I out-brake him into the corner. Through the next several corners I hound him. I show myself in his mirrors and stay glued to his tail. He must be nervous! I am pissed… I am thrilled! Coming through the last corner onto the front straight again, I try too hard and get my car sideways… NOT GOOD! But, I hold on, correct the error and keep going. Now the third place driver has caught me again… DAMN IT! 3 wide into Turn 1 again…. final lap… I come out 2nd again… I glue myself to the back of the leader… I’ll have one more shot at this. We approach West Bend… I brake less than I ever have, and am back to power sooner than I’ve ever been… it works… I am only feet behind… 90mph… 1 turn to go… foot to the floor… “come on RJ don’t screw this up!”… if RJ screws up, I’ll hit him… if I screw up, I lose… we are both perfect, but I have the run on him… I draft… I move to his right to start the pass… he moves right to block me… I turn toward him to thwart him… we cross the line together… we both pump our hand in the air…

One spectator said “you both had your hand in the air, and I didn’t know who was right”. Neither did the timing and scoring workers. But the computer did. The 65 car crossed the line .037 seconds ahead. I had won my first race!

The tradition at Skip Barber is to dump a cooler of ice water on first time winners. It felt great. So did seeing the dozens of people crowded into the pits to congratulate me. What a high. Unbelieveable. Next, they hand you the checkered flag for a victory lap. It’s called the ‘Greatest Ride in Motorsports’, and it certainly is. It is said I could be heard the whole way around the track….I don’t doubt it. Before returning to the pits, I stopped on the front straight and treated the crowd to some NASCAR style donuts! I had been waiting for that opportunity for a long time!

Michael Auriemma

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