When Things Go Wrong

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Question from KC: Do you need to learn to be a mechanic when you have your own racecar? How do you find the right people to help you fix it when things go wrong?

Steph’s answer: Great question, KC! Especially because it gives me the chance to extol the virtues of fellow drivers and crew and their remarkable acts of kindness. But I am getting ahead of myself . . . 

For many of us, myself included, there is a journey to becoming self-sufficient at the track. It is challenging enough just acquiring the right racecar and honing your racecraft. But there is so much more! You think the biggest hurdles have been overcome once you get your car. Not so! The challenges are just beginning! First, you have to be able to get the car to the track. Many racecars are not street legal, so you need to find the right trailer and have the right towing vehicle to get it there. I have so many people to thank in my early days before I got a trailer – they, too, had been in my same spot when they became addicted to this sport and had many people of their own to thank for helping them get started.

And it didn’t end there. The road to self-sufficiency is paved not just by your own perseverance and hard work, it is also paved in large part by the kindness of others. When I attended my first SCDA event at Watkins Glen, my only “tool” was some window cleaner and paper towels. While these were certainly important, they didn’t help me one bit to torque my wheels or check tire pressure. It was clear there was more to this than just clean windows! But thank goodness for other participants who were quick to offer guidance and tools so I could have a good time.

At my first race, I had a damaged tire – but no spares! Until I started racing, I don’t think I ever had to buy new tires for my street vehicles. So, it never dawned on me just how fast a track tire can become useless . . . and dangerous. A fellow competitor, knowing I was new to this and under prepared – but eager! – without hesitation, insisted I borrow one of his. Just to put this in perspective, a lot can happen to a tire in a race – so chances are it will not come back to you in the same condition you received it. But that wasn’t the concern for the gentleman who loaned me his spare. And this tale was not complete until many months later at another race event I had the opportunity to return the favor and loan Gary one of my spares. It had come full circle.

I could cite so many other examples – they are plentiful! But I suppose it all boils down to a few key tenets for me:
  • Don’t be afraid of what you do not know – you cannot learn it all at once. Make sure you are safe and your car is safe. Build from here.
  • Learn from each experience and put it into practice for yourself.
  • Ask questions – even of strangers – you will be amazed by how many people are willing to give of their time and experience
  • Make a list of the essentials you’ll need and, little by little, chip away at it. Essentials include not only physical tools, but also capabilities such as being able to change your own oil, brake pads, tires, for example. Not only are these simple procedures you can do for yourself with a little practice – they’ll be key come raceday. Things happen all the time during an event and it’s never at a convenient time! The more that you can do for yourself the better positioned you will be to ensure you have a safe, good, fun experience.
  • Find a trusted mechanic for those bigger undertakings that require expert skill. Despite all I have learned for myself, I would be nowhere without my Miata Guru, Ademir.
  • Maintain your car – develop a checklist of all the standard to-dos: keep proper, clean fluid levels; inspect for wear and tear. Just as with a street car, staying on top of the standard maintenance can save you a lot of grief later on.
  • Give back – never forget what others have done for you.
And for more pointers, check out Go Ahead Take the Wheel. Dave Gran, literally wrote the book on how to get involved and stay involved, on any budget!

I have come to think that for the most part, even though competition is all about driver against driver / crew against crew, there is no sport if it is only one or a mere handful of drivers. What fun would it be if you didn’t have others to dice it up with? And so, it appears to me that many drivers choose supporting others not only to help, but also to promote the essence of the track experience – which is a collective experience.

But more important in my mind . . .  my early experiences instilled in me a determination to learn, to become self-sufficient and to be able to help others along the way.

There is magic when you are in the company of like-minded people. And you get what you give back. And for every act of kindness shown me, I have made sure I bestow my own kindness on others – whether it is loaning someone my trailer, a spare tire or a tool.

In fact, I am going to ask my dear friend and racing colleague, Dave Gran to elaborate more. Dave has been the recipient of some remarkable acts of generosity and witness to the highest displays of sportsmanship. Stay tuned!

One response to “When Things Go Wrong

  1. The biggest surprise to me about Club Racing is how much support your fiercest competitors provide you, and vice versa. I’ve literally had people swarm in after I’ve been involved in an accident after the car has gotten back to the paddock and begin working on my car. One time after showing just how amazing of a mechanic I am, they asked me politely to take a walk and grab something to eat. LOL! Last year I was ready to call it quits after a part failure and was just too tired to care much (or admit that I did). Multiple drivers who I race against told me that there was no way I wasn’t going to race the next day. We went on to get it track worthy, I raced the next day and beat the same guys who helped me. Friendships were built and strengthened that day. This is what Club Racing is really about and makes it so special.

    Your mechanical skills will improve quickly. The nice thing about a race car is it’s much more fun to work on than one of those silly street car things, and you usually have more time to resolve the issues since it’s not being relied on getting to work. I started off not knowing how to change brake fluid and continually built my mechanical ablities; if I don’t have the money to pay someone else, it’s pretty motivating to learn myself. I also know when it’s best to let a pro shop handle the task at hand. 🙂

    Best of luck and enjoy the experience!

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