Running my RX7 at Road Atlanta has been a goal of mine for a number of years and I finally had the opportunity to do so on the weekend of December 3rd and 4th.
I trailered the car to the track and if you don’t believe Google Maps, believe me–it is a long ways to Road Atlanta from Aydlett. The Avalanche towed the car easily for 575 miles at highway speeds. Towing a 5000 pound trailer takes a toll on fuel economy as my fuel bill for the trip nearly equaled my entry fees. That being said, I love my Chevy truck.
I arrived at the track in time to set up my pit area and get tech inspected. I met my great friends Tom and Richard at the track. I first met up with Tom and Richard at Charlotte when we happened to pull in together to set up our pit space. They are great guys and excellent drivers. Tom lives near the track and was nice enough to host us at his beautiful home for the weekend.
Saturday morning we woke up to freezing temperatures and arrived at the track to find the windows on the cars all frosted over. The cars fired right up and after scraping windshields, we were ready for a day on track. Tom and Richard had both run at Road Atlanta before, but the track was new to me. They gave me some pointers before I went out, but it wasn’t until I was on track that I could see what they were talking about.
The first session was really crowded and traffic caused the pace to be slow. That was fine with me as I was still getting acclimated to the layout of the track. Road Atlanta is absolutely incredible. I am calling it my favorite track. It is challenging and sometimes unforgiving. Though it has some technical sections, it also has probably the longest straight of any track that I have driven. The braking zone going into turn 10a is one of the most intense that I have driven. The Hawk Blacks never failed me all weekend long.
A section that I had been warned about was the downhill section after turn 10b/11 and heading into turn 12. A bridge runs over the track right at the crest of the hill leading down to turn 12. As you approach the bridge, you can see nothing but blue sky. The track was nice enough to paint some squares on the bridge so that you can choose an entry point indexed off of one of the squares. Once you crest the hill and start down, it feels like you have been shot out of the end of a cannon. The world falls away and you are really hauling towards an unforgiving turn 12. Your mind is overwhelmed by the fact that on either side of the track are the entrances to the outer pit road and the inner pit road. The first few times that you come through there at speed, it really gets your attention. Turn 12 leads onto the front straight and getting it right will allow you to carry all of that speed headed down to turn 1. I found a line that worked well for me and if you had the guts, you could catch cars in that section very easily.
Another part of the track that me and the RX7 loved was a section called “the esses” between turns 4 and 5. If you worked this section correctly and weren’t afraid to use the “gators” you could make this section nearly straight. It was also partially downhill which allowed you to pick up a lot of speed. Coming into turn 5, you start slightly uphill which gives you some good grip for braking. Again, the little RX7 could make up some time in this section and it became my favorite part of the track.
As the day progressed, I got more acclimated to the track and my lap times got progressively better. I really had to work at turn 6 and 7 to develop a line that would help me take momentum into the long straight. My biggest challenge came when I caught high horsepower cars in this tight section, some of which would nearly stop at turn 7 and use their horsepower to pull away on the straight.
The temperature warmed up throughout the day and Saturday afternoon was beautiful. Tom’s VW Golf suffered from some fuel delivery trouble that he eventually sorted out and Richard’s Spec E30 ran well throughout the day. We had a great pit setup with a tent, coffee percolator, chairs, and a heater. Pitting with Richard has its advantages.
After a great evening at Tom’s house and a delicious chicken dinner, we headed back to the track for Sunday morning. Sunday morning was cold and it never warmed up. On track action was fast and busy.
Unfortunately, Road Atlanta yielded more than its fair share of bent sheet metal. A number of incidents of car to car contact and two really scary accidents involving cars hitting retaining walls kept the rescue and recovery crews busy. One of the car vs wall accidents occured behind me during a session on Sunday and resulted in a lengthy red flag. Thankfully, nobody was hurt in any of the accidents. The lack of injuries can be credited to the safety equipment that each driver was using.
My weekend at Road Atlanta opened my eyes to the dangers of the sport that I love so much. Sunday afternoon, I had the closest call of my driving career. After running through the esses at full speed, I misjudged my entry to turn 5. I was still on the outer “gator” when my braking point arrived. I hit the brakes at a time when the right front suspension was fully loaded and the right front wheel was on a painted surface. This immediately sent the car into a slide like I had never experienced. I have driven this RX7 for the past 15 years on a number of different tracks and in autocross. I always brag that the car never does anything that surprises me. I cannot say that anymore as I entered a slide at turn 5 that I wasn’t able to control. My initial reaction was that I could keep the car on track and make the next turn. I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to stay on track as I was sliding sideways, looking out the passenger side window, at nearly 90 MPH. I was headed towards a “sandtrap” that was filled with pea gravel. Not wanting to enter the sandtrap sideways and take a chance of rolling the car, my goal was no longer to stay on track, but to enter the sandtrap as straight as possible. I immediately turned the wheel full opposite lock and nailed the throttle. This whipped the car back the opposite direction and got me almost straight as I jumped the gator and hit the sandtrap. Hitting the deep pea gravel slowed the car instantly. It felt as though someone had thrown an anchor out the back of the car and I was being held in place by my seatbelt and my torso strap. Having regained control, I drove the car through the trap and back onto the track–careful to stay offline as I was now spewing gravel out from underneath the car. At the point that I was entering the sandtrap, I was sure that I was going to break the front valence and damage the exhaust system. Inspection in the pits surprisingly found no damage to the car.
Upon reflection, I realize that the level of safety that I have built in to my car is insufficient for the level at which I am now driving. In fact, the forces of hitting the sand trap, broke the back off of my driver’s seat–actually shearing off a metal post–as my body pulled forward against the torso strap.
Road Atlanta was my last event until next season. I have already decided to spend some money on the following:
New Helmet with HANS anchors
Aluminum Racing Seat
5 point harness
I love driving on the track and hope that I have a good 30-40 years ahead of me to continue doing so. During the course of that 30-40 years, there is a good chance that I will wreck a car and I need to be ready.
Despite my excitement on Sunday, the most dangerous part of any track weekend is still the drive to and from the track. I will update the blog through the offseason as I continue work on the car for next year.
See you on track!