My Father’s Day trip to a new race track (CMP)

by Rob Tiller

Last weekend, I took Clara down to Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C. for some track driving. My Garmin GPS guided us down country roads and through small Baptist towns. I’ve gotten to like as a companion the Garmin’s female voice, except when she says, “Recalculating.” This can be interpreted as, “Can’t you even follow a simple instruction!” I’d like to defend myself, for example, when she didn’t describe a particular turn clearly, but we cannot have a dialog — yet. Anyhow, this was a pleasant trip of just three hours.

CMP is a road track with 14 turns, and my first objective was to learn the line for each turn. Even with this clear commitment and my experienced teacher beside me, I found it challenging to memorize the exact turning points of the track. There’s so much kinetic sensation, so much noise. After a dozen or so laps, I started to build up a body of knowledge, but even then, I had a few lapses.

In addition to learning the track, I learned more about performance driving techniques, including rev matching, dealing with understeer, the beginnings of trail breaking, and assorted other bits of car stuff. Not surprisingly, almost everyone at the event was into cars, and some were clearly crazy for cars.

Car-philia seems to be less common today than in my youth, as young people adore their smartphones more than their wheels. I remember my dad talking to relatives, acquaintances, and strangers about their cars and his, Ford versus Chevy, this year’s models versus last year’s, and on and on, and remember wondering why adults were always so boring. But the worm has turned, and now I find it all enjoyable. Even technical discussions of specific engine problems that I know absolutely nothing about, which I used to make me feel incompetent and confused, now seem intriguing, even though part of me realize we’re talking about relatively ancient technology.

At this event, organized by the Tar Heel Sports Car Club, there were some cars like Clara, pretty street cars with lots of power and a racing heritage. A Lamborghini stood out as the exotic queen of this subgroup.

But there were also a fair number of cars that at first glance looked like sad junkers, and on closer inspection turned out to be highly elaborate racing machines. I began to see how it could be fun to have an ugly car for which the only concern would be track performance. It would be nice, in a way, to not worry that Clara’s beautiful body might be seriously maimed by a poorly judged turn followed by a high-speed encounter with the tire wall.

On the other hand, this would involve a significant investment in infrastructure: a trailer, a vehicle to tow a trailer, a place to stow the trailer and vehicle, more tires, tools, etc. And a lot more time to take care of it all. There’s the rub. This would be fun, but there’s an opportunity cost — other fun foregone, other thoughts unthought.

My teacher, John, was a friendly, funny guy who turned out to know not only a ton about driving and cars, but also a lot about contemporary technology. We had a great conversation about robotics and economics.

He predicted that in the not-distant future driverless cars would end the need to buy a personal car, as groups of people subscribe to a share of a fleet of driverless cars that can appear to convey them at any time. In his view, states will eventually put strict legal limits on human driving, on the grounds that driverless cars are so much safer and more environmentally sound. The driverless cars will go much faster safely, and work together in a network to police themselves. If one should go rogue, the others will cooperate to avoid being damaged and to deal appropriately with the offender.

I told John about a story the prior week in the WSJ about the bomb-squad robots of the US Army in Afghanistan. The robots have saved plenty of human lives, which is good. But the surprising thing was that the units get attached to their particular robots and treat them as companions. When a unit’s robot gets blown up, when feasible it is shipped to the robot hospital. Its companion soldiers at times are specific that they want their robot repaired and returned to the unit, rather than a replacement.

I stayed at the Colony Inn in Camden in a ground floor room that opened onto the parking lot. It featured the three c’s: clean, comfortable, and quiet, and entirely worth $65 dollars a night, even if they didn’t throw in breakfast. I watched some of the Master’s golf tournament on non-HD TV and sipped some wine from the Piggly Wiggly. At the urging of Larisa, my personal trainer, I’d bought some TRX portable trainer cables. In the morning, since the Colony had no gym, I hooked the the TRX systen to the door and got in a workout.

It is my custom in all hotels to leave a few dollars for the housekeepers, which I figure they can use and which may create good karma. I was glad that I followed this custom at the Colony. When I checked out I left behind my phone charger. The manager gave me a call to let me know, and I was able to retrieve the charger. This was excellent karma.

There was nothing remotely like healthy vegetarian food at the snack bar at the track, but happily I found a Subway sandwich shop a few miles down the road. Oh Subway, you are the best! In the ugly wilderness of industrialized and unhealthy fast food, so many times you have nourished me well. I ordered my usual: whole grain bread, a variety of greens and vegetables, and that delightful honey-mustard dressing. It was tasty. My Subway sandwich guy made eyes at Clara.

I did not have any serious driving errors on this trip, but as I increased my speeds I also increased the stress on my brakes, and learned what happens when brakes overheat. It is more exciting than desirable to have big speed approaching a tight turn, to hit the brake pedal hard, and find that it goes all the way to the floor with half the usual braking power. I somehow stayed on the track. John counseled me to take the last few laps of that session slower and to drive a few minutes afterwards to cool the brakes down.

On the trip back, I got a call from Jocelyn, who wished me a happy Father’s Day. I regard this holiday as even more synthetic than Mother’s Day, an occasion for retailers to encourage watch and tie consumption and, except to them, of little real value. Yet it was ever so sweet to hear her voice. As I told her, she was one of my two proudest achievements as a father.

She’s currently working her first retail job in a high-end sportswear store in Telluride. It doesn’t sound like her ideal career path, but at least it’s a job. She’s been going out with a cute guy, a river rafting and fly fishing guide whom she really likes. It seemed like she was doing OK.

Later I got a Father’s Day text from Gabe, which said I was the best dad, which I am sure is not true, but I was grateful for the thought.