[V8] Re: Fw: SPOILER: F-1 results. Complaints, anyone?

Fisher, Scott Scott_Fisher at intuit.com
Mon May 13 17:35:14 EDT 2002

Michael Riebs writes:

> Can someone explain to me please, how there can possibly be
> an enormous amount of skill involved in simply keeping your
> foot in it all day, and going around in a circle? (OK, "oval"!).

I'll try -- and not as a fan; the only oval-track race I ever watch on TV is
the Indianapolis 500.  But I've crewed for my friend Jeff Zurschmeide, who
drives a cheap stock-class enduro Camaro in oval-track racing when he's not
racing with the SCCA or acting as steward at National events (which he did
all this past weekend).  Jeff and I went through road-racing driver's school
11 years ago, he's put in his time in production category sports car racing
on tracks with right and left turns.  He also races the Camaro for a very
different reason than he races vintage (what he's done for the past four or
five years).

First, have you ever driven in competition?  And no, I don't mean trying to
outdrag the SUV next to you when the light changes, or trying to shut
somebody down on the freeway before their lane goes away.  I mean on a
racetrack, with a course worker waving a green flag at you, trying to stay
ahead somebody who is flat-out doing everything possible to make sure YOU
stay behind HIM or HER while simultaneously trying not to slide off into the
concrete barriers at the edge of the track.  If you haven't... then I humbly
suggest that you don't really have a sense of what it takes to do that.  You
can guess, and you can imagine, and you can extrapolate, but you don't know
what it really takes, in your soul and in the pit of your stomach, to do
this.  So there's a starting point.  It'll go a lot easier if you accept
that you genuinely don't know -- no more than I know what it takes to go
into Tamburello at 175 mph or turn 1 at the Brickyard at 240.

Speed changes everything -- if you're talking about an Indy car, the air
buffeting your head is literally staggering.  I know from experience that
driving an open cockpit car at 100-110 mph for an hour or so makes you feel
like you've been used as a punching bag by a welterweight boxer; the wind
whips your head back and forth, little gusts tapping you FAST and HARD
dozens of times a minute.  When you're in traffic, it's worse; the
disruption caused by the car in front of you punching a hole in the air is
something you really have to feel to believe.  Now, based on this experience
and the knowledge that wind resistance (and the energy it imparts when it
hits you) increases with the cube of the velocity, I can try to imagine what
it feels like.  But I have no idea what it's like just trying to keep your
eyes focused on the pavement at 240 mph, much less put the wheels at exactly
the right place to keep from smacking the wall at the exit.

Now let's talk about the other guys and gals on track with you.  Ever see
what happens to an open-wheel car when the tires touch the car next to you?
Again, I have no idea what this feels like for a CART or IRL driver; my only
experience with touching wheels with another driver is from racing karts.  I
had been holding off a much younger and (ahem) lighter driver who was really
quick in the straights, but who didn't have the lines that I did in the
twisties.  I'd kept him behind me for a few laps by driving as defensively
as possible, making the kart as wide as I could but knowing that, with his
power-to-weight advantage, he was bound to catch me in the long straightway
of the track we were driving on.  Suddenly, in the middle of a left-right S
turn, I felt an impact from my right rear and I was instantly snapped around
backwards, just in time to see the other guy's kart coming down, upside
down, right on his helmet, and I thought, Oh my God, I've just killed a kid.
I hadn't; red flags flew everywhere, my own hand went up to warn the other
drivers coming through the esses behind us, and as the course workers ran
out as fast as possible, I saw the other guy scramble out from under his
kart and turn it right-side up and gesture for a push.  They required a
medical inspection, though I wouldn't have been surprised if it had included
a psych evaluation as well.

Of course, that little heart-stopper doesn't begin to describe what I've
watched from the pits while Jeff is out trying to keep the Camaro more or
less in one piece for three hundred laps at South Sound speedway.  Do you
know what I'm talking about if I say "the line"?  Well, the line is almost
meaningless in a crowded short-track oval race.  You can start your
turn-down at the outside and shoot for the apex, except there are probably
three other cars there, two of them trying to pass you on the inside because
you left them three lanes of clear track, and the other one probably heading
up towards the wall backwards from trying not to be passed by the rest of
you.  So your sense of "the line" suddenly becomes a matter of not hitting
the cars that are now squirreling around trying not to hit each OTHER.  It's
not a matter of reaction time -- if you have to react, it's probably too

And then there's Jeff's favorite: coming off the corner, heading down the
straight at 75-80 mph in the middle of a pack of cars, passing some and
trying to stay ahead of the fast guys, and suddenly it's a brown-out because
someone in front of you went off in the dirt and kicked up a cloud of dust
in which you can't see three feet in any direction.  If you slow down too
much, the cars behind you will collect you and smash you up into the wall;
if you don't slow down enough, you'll get to the end of the straight and
punch into the wall on your own.  Unless the car that went off is now
sideways in front of you, and you won't know it till you hit it.

So having sat in the seat of road-race cars and stood in the pits of an
oval-track racer, I'd have to say that the enormous amount of skill is
devoted to keeping the car on the pavement and going the right direction, in
the face of 20 or 30 other people trying to do it faster than you, and at a
speed at which you have really no basis of comparison, no matter how fast
you think you've taken your Audi on the freeway.  Oh, sure, on TV it looks
like they're just taxi drivers.  Try it sometime.  Jeff rents his Camaro out
to people who want to get a feel for it.  If you're ever in the Portland,
Oregon area, drop me a line, we'll arrange a ride for you.  It's... intense.
Even at the comparatively low speeds that this spec-class racing series
achieves.  But that'll give you a little bit of respect for what it takes to
do this.  I've stood in the infield at the Indy 500 and been struck
nerveless by the sheer size of the place. I can't imagine what it takes to
go around it at 240 mph for three hours.

In short -- I'm not going to say you have to LIKE watching oval track racing
on television.  Hell, *I* don't particularly LIKE watching oval track racing
on television.  But I believe you can have no real grounds for questioning
the talent or skill of the drivers out there doing things you cannot begin
to get a taste of unless you've done it, or something enough like it, for
yourself.  And if you'd done it yourself, even at a lower speed or in a
less-expensive series, you'd know what it takes, and you wouldn't ask.

--Scott Fisher
  Tualatin, Oregon

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