It all started when I was sixteen and first heard about the Skip Barber Racing School based right here in my hometown of Sebring, FL. Almost nine years to the day after my first inquiry into Skip Barber race series I finished my first race weekend. It was a long road, but well worth the wait.
Dateline- March 2nd 2005, Roebling Road Savannah, GA.
After arriving to the track for my first lapping day ever, excitement was building as I signed my name to the track waiver. I was greeted by instructor Jim Pace in the classroom, who went over the standard lapping day rules and protocol. Spins, four-offs, and contact of any kind would require a pit for a “free safety inspection”, no passing except in designated areas and finally the Crash Damage liability talk. I had never been on track so J.P. set me up with a van around with fellow instructor Gerardo Bonilla. We headed out to talk line and reference markers on track. After two laps I was dropped off in pit lane to hop in the car and get prepared to hit the track.
First lap out I reminded myself to warm up the car. Cold tires on a slick track can be a bad thing. By turn three, with adrenaline flowing, I forgot about being on the warm up lap and got a bit sideways in turn five. Correct, pause, recover and back to the job at hand, warming the car. I soon fell in love with the track. Two miles of sweeping, fast turns and should I need it, great run-off with nothing to hit. It reminded me a lot of Lime Rock, less the elevation changes…and did I mention lots of run-off with nothing to hit? I was draft passing like you read about. Nah nanny, boo boo I’m Faster than you. Childish I know but, What a high!!! Unknown to me at that time, very soon I would begin to see that blue flag out for me.
I was so jazzed about how the car felt I did an extra session that day and signed up for lapping the next day.
Thursday lapping went great. More drivers than the day before so they split us up by our Sportsman/Championship groups. I continued to challenge the car, track and myself, and asked for the go ahead to enter the race weekend. Even though I knew I was driving at F1 level I wondered if the Skippy instructors had noticed my talent. Sure enough they did because they put me in the weekend.
Practice day was a real eye opener. My transponder must have been off because I just knew my times had to be quicker than the sheets said. Heck, I was driving the tires off the car, no way was I pulling 1.26’s when everyone else was doing 1.22’s. Must have been a computer glitch, but no worries, I was having a blast. I had been running turn 1 in third, but the guys pushed me to start running it in fourth with a downshift to third before the turn in to turn 2. It added two seconds to my fast lap in the third practice session because I was over slowing the car for the gear change. Too much time lost in 1 and 2 with the added distraction of a downshift in a turn. Of course the other drivers were nailing it every time and I was still fumbling through the gears. A touch frustrated, I allowed the car to drive off once and spin twice that last session, darn it all to hell! A bit disheartening, but I was still high as a kite at days end.
Race day here, and I hadn’t been asked to go home…yet. I changed into my suit and walked out of the hospitality trailer. My times were slower than most all of the Sportsman in my group, not to mention I had a bad last session with those OCE’s(off course excursions). I was scared to death they wouldn’t let me qualify. Steve DeBrect, saw me and excused himself from the conversation he was in to take me aside. I just knew what was going down, he was going to tell me …. (I’m thinking he was going to say that after my last session with a couple of spins, I couldn’t race)… he looked me in the eye and said “I know you have seen a lot of races and are very aware of how it goes, but I still have to ask….Do you have any questions about the start?”. Whew! I’m still a go. I’m racing. I’m actually racing! I’m really going to get to race!!!! Yippee!!!!
Qualy one went great. One second off my last session and a clean drive. Three guys were actually behind me on the grid due to spins.
On and on my mind worked through the track until I was brought back to reality when I heard pit lane call for drivers to get in cars. I pulled on my arm restraints, affectionately known as the “Gary Manheimer Special”, grabbed my seat, helmet and gloves and walked to car #84. (I wonder how many of you remember your first car assignment, I know I’ll never forget white eighty-four.) One 7/8 warm-up lap and stop to grid on the front strait. The real deal, this it, RB Stiewing in the pace car and away we go. Nothing new, I had done practice starts in my 3Day and ADV2, piece of cake. Oh my Gosh, the pace car just turned off the lights, I’m not ready…how are we all going to get through turn one? All wanting that same piece of real estate, charging in at 100mph. Rounding turn seven onto the front strait, the green flag drops and we have a start. I don’t remember much of what happened as we passed the pits and on into that first turn, but apparently (it was recounted to me later by one of the observers) I gained a point at that first turn only to loose the spot when one of the fast guys that spun in qualifying passed me before the track out of turn two. That’s okay, I’M RACING!!! Watching the cars ahead turn into turn four, I got a bit excited and carried more speed into the corner than I had in practice. The car got loose and slid sideways. Late, or not enough correction, or both I put white eighty-four into a spin.
“Shoot! I’ll have to pit”-( sideways on track)
“What a rookie mistake”- (now backwards on track)
“both feet in” – (Counter race)
“Checked my mirrors in the brake zone of four, and that other guy was five car lengths back, Good he’ll be clear of the mayhem”- (dust everywhere)
“ShooT! I’ve got to pit on my first lap!” – (Dust finally settling, I see I’m ten feet off track and pointed to the apex like a bird dog to game)
“Is that a nose cone coming at me through the dust?” -(completely stopped off track)
“oh my gosh he’s gonna’ hit me” -(Crunch)
“this sucks, spinning sucks, contact sucks, Damn it all to Hell!!!”
Returning to the pits, not knowing the total for the crash damage, I pulled myself from the race. Jay Altingsinger fortunately was allowed to continue and finished the race. I had what traders call a “stop loss” and my stop loss was one crash. I had hoped to at least get in race one before it happened to me, but unfortunately that wouldn’t be the case. So close I could taste the checker (okay I know it was only the first lap, but it’s all relative). By nights end I had resided myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be driving on Sunday. Live to race another day.
Sunday morning, with no thought of getting in a car, I met with J.P. and Jay to go over the incident. Jay was a sport and consoled me with the old standard “It’s just Racing”. Drivers meeting, and into Championship qualifying, the morning was well underway. Midway through the first session I got a call on my cell phone. One of my dear friends was calling from across track. They wish to remain nameless, but the point of me telling you all this is, What they said was exactly what I needed to get me back out to take that checkered flag. I hadn’t come this far just to walk away before finishing my first race.
Sportsman qualifying went great. They had given my car away already, so I was in a new one that hadn’t been on track that morning. I gave myself four full warm-up laps, rather than the normal two. No van around that morning and no mental time to think about a plan. Just in the car and drive. New driver, cold tires & brakes, no van around and just coming off a crash. What a combo. I drove steady and solid all session just taking it easy. The lap times showed the same qualifying as the day before- and I was taking it easy! Nice going Ash. To my horror Three of the front runners and my crash buddy Jay had spun, I was now starting P6. What am I going to do in the middle of the pack. Hell I was gridded next to Rhonda Hill. Like that was going to look good if I ran her over in the first turn. Breath, It will all work out. And sure enough it did. The fast guys squeezed past me that first lap. Mrs. Hill stayed clear, and Jay and I battled it out for three laps. That was until HE spun in front of me in turn Five and I sailed by staying on track. I drove by myself most of the race…well that is until I started getting lapped…by everyone. Thank goodness the race didn’t go on any longer, or I may have been looking at being a moving chicane for everyone one more time that afternoon.
I hate to admit I never saw the white flag come out, but their was no missing the checker. It was out and it was out for me. Ya Hoo! Dream realized.