Helmet: check. Green flag: check. Flame-resistant underwear: no.
I swing my race car onto the track at The Ridge Motorsports Park outside Shelton and floor it.
Soon, I’m reaching a blistering 60 mph, maybe 70.
And then a Smart car passes me.
OK, so I’m driving a Subaru Outback, not a Formula 1 car.
I’m at Track Night in America, put on by the Sports Car Club of America. The monthly event at the Shelton race course, and others around the country, brings the thrills of racing to the Everyman. And Everywoman.
Just pay $150 and bring your car. Yes, even a Smart car. In fact, no actual race cars are permitted at Track Night. And no on-track experience is required.
Drivers are divided into three categories: novice, intermediate and advanced. Each group gets three 20-minute sessions on the track during the evening.
“There’s no racing, no competition. The only trophy you take home is your car in one piece,” says Eric Clement, a national driving coach with the car club.
It’s a message we hear over and over that night. Either in words or in actions.
But that isn’t to say there isn’t some soft competition. Catching and passing other drivers on the course seems to be the theme of the night.
Cars like mine and Steve Bell’s — the owner of the Smart car — don’t present much competition. Bell, who works for a Seattle car dealer, was drawn to the track event by curiosity. Both about the event and his newly purchased car.
“I kind of want to see how it handles,” he says.
But we were in the minority.
Among the 36 registered cars were Ford Mustangs, a Volkswagen Jetta, BMWs, a Chevrolet Camaro, a couple of high-performance Subarus and two yellow Chevy Corvettes.
The owner/driver of one of those Corvettes, James Shepherd of Hillsboro, Oregon, was one of six in the advanced class. I was one of 17 in the novice group.
Shepherd is about as close to being a professional racer as an amateur can get. He agreed to be my passenger and coach me through the first run of the novice group.
Normally, Shepherd wouldn’t be caught dead in a station wagon. Retired for just a week, Shepherd brought his 2003 405-horsepower manual transmission Corvette Z06 to the track. He’s been an autocross racer for 10 years and track racing for four years. He frequently wears flame-resistant underwear.
“It’s the only thing I’ve found where you think of nothing else while you’re racing,” Shepherd says of track racing. “It’s fairly intense. You’re focused on that entirely.”
Before the evening started, the mostly male crowd of novice drivers were given a briefing.
“This is the one opportunity we all get to go out and exercise ourselves and the vehicles without having to worry about police or speed limits,” Tom Kotzian of the car club tells us.
First up will be a pace lap so we can become familiar with the track. I’m relieved to hear we’ll only be going about 40 mph, but I try to look disappointed.
“This is a potentially dangerous sport,” Kotzian says. “We all want to go home with a solid car and solid body.”
Kotzian tells us some of the drivers will be slow. “You just need to be patient and work with those people,” Kotzian says. I know it’s my imagination, but I can feel eyes on me.
Towers along the course will have workers, some waving flags. They are not celebrating, it turns out, but passing along information with those flags.
Yellow means caution. Blue: look in your mirror. Black: Something serious has happened, return to the pit. And the one none of us want to see: an open or closed black flag pointed right at us.
“What that means is that you’ve done something wrong. You need to come in and talk to the marshal,” Kotzian says.
Things to provoke a black flag: two wheels off the course, a complete 360-degree spin or a mechanical issue.
Shepherd and I put on our helmets and get in my Subaru. I do not let on that I am wearing off-the-rack Fruit of the Looms. He helps me adjust my seat and steering wheel. And then a worker waves us on the track.
Shepherd guides me through the winding and hilly course.
“Stay to the right, brake a little here, go to the apron, brake a little, go to the left … to the grass … wait, wait. Now turn …” he calmly coaches.
I learn a few things. When approaching a turn, brake while the car is still headed straight with all four wheels on the ground.
But before I know it I get the black flag. Shepherd is excited by this development. I picture a lecture from the marshal.
But, it turns out there was a spin out in the grass, and all the drivers are being black flagged.
During another session, a car goes by the pit at well over 100 mph only to disappear in a cloud of smoke when its engine blows up. An on-hand firetruck takes off after it. (A paramedic crew and tow truck are also at the ready.)
After my amateur run, Shepherd and I climb into his Corvette.
The roar of a high-performance sports car is a beautiful thing. Soon we’re going over 135 mph.
As we go around the course, Shepherd drives on to the apron. We come perilously close to the grass.
“I’ve got to put my knee against the door or I get thrown around,” he says as we go into a turn.
There’s a high-pitched scraping sound as the car’s undercarriage hits the pavement. Shepherd takes it in stride.
“My car just got a little lighter,” he says.
On the straightaway at somewhere north of 120 mph, we’re passed by the other yellow Corvette driven by Shepherd’s friend Steve Barnes, also of Hillsboro.
Back in the pit, and after Barnes had spun out on the course, Shepherd explains why he held back and let Barnes pass us.
“I didn’t want him to throw up,” Shepherd says, pointing at me.
We all laugh.
And then I excuse myself and lie down in my Outback for a new minutes.