• Adam Tilton

Signed Off to Solo and Lessons from the Racetrack: Pt 1

I caught the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix by chance and I haven’t missed a race since. As a spectator, it’s the perfect sport—no commercials, 90 minutes from start to finish, high-tech gear, interesting locations around the world. After watching it for years, I’ve finally taken up the hobby of high-performance driving, which satisfies the part of my brain that craves adrenaline and concentration.

My goal for this summer is to be “signed off to solo,” which means to be approved to drive on the track without an instructor. The expectation is that this will take three days on track with Hooked on Driving at the Portland International Raceway (PIR). Since this is my first time out I’ll need to learn the track rules, how to interpret flaggers at the flag stations, etc. I’ll also participate in a “skills session” on a motocross circuit (a track formed by cones in the parking lot). The purpose of that is to intentionally spin the car in a low-risk environment. Since I have chosen a rear-engine car—also called a pendulum car—this shouldn’t be a problem. For science!

Eventually, I’ll be on the circuit. PIR is said to be a great track to learn on—as the saying goes, “easy to learn, hard to master.” You can see through all the turns, meaning there are no blind corners where you have to commit before you can see where you are going. There are also no elevation changes, so nothing should be too frightening. Speed is achieved by skill, and inches matter. I’ve heard and read there are very few other sports that require this absolute level of concentration. For me, that’s what this is about. Finding the limit of mental concentration and awareness, and hanging out there for a while.

The Car I recently acquired a 2012 Porsche 911 GTS (the 997.2, as it is known) to bring to the track. It’s an interesting choice because it is the very last version before modern technology evolved the platform. It’s one of the finest rear-wheel-drive manual transmission cars with naturally aspirated engines ever made. For about the same amount of money, I could have bought a Tesla Model S Plaid, which is no doubt the fastest production car on the planet. But being one of the first, it’s also likely one of the worst electric cars that will ever be made. Consider what the electric car will be like 40 years from now when Tesla has had as much time to evolve it as Porsche had to evolve the 2012 911. Consider also the all-electric 911 that is probably coming.

I also could have bought a more ridiculous track monster. Modern 911s have Porsche’s double-clutch transmission, the Porsche Doppel Kupplungs getriebe (or PDK), which is so smooth you can’t even feel the gear changes. Modern 911s also have turbocharged engines that are insanely powerful, stability control that works, etc. They’re so advanced it feels like they’re on rails, and driving you. I want to feel like I could end up in the wall if I’m not careful.

But the 997 is more refined than its predecessor the 996, known as the widowmaker. In fact, the 997.2 GTS is a very practical daily driver and a perfectly suitable family car. I have two car seats that fit snug in the rear for the boys, and I’ve put many more miles on it between home and the office, and on weekend trips with my wife and two boys than I have at the track.

It’s also elegant. Its all-black exterior is unassuming, and the entire interior is wrapped in luxurious black leather. There are no buttons on the steering wheel and no touch screen computer or flat panel displays. I love technology, but I don’t need it everywhere, and in this car, there’s nothing else I need to be doing besides driving. It doesn’t need doors that flap around and play music to be cool. The car is cool just sitting still. It’s also very cool screaming around a corner. It’s the coolest when my wife is driving it though, which is something I’m still coming to terms with. I’m grateful to the previous owner. For a decade they put less than 2,000 miles per year on it, and never drove it in any inclement weather. It’s in pristine factory condition—the only unoriginal parts are the tires and brake pads. And now I plan to drive the fucking wheels off of it.

The Gear In addition to the 2012 Porsche 911 GTS, I purchased the:

  • Stilo Composite racing helmet,

  • Alpinestars SP v2 racing shoes, and

  • a Simpson Hybrid S head restraint.

I decided on these after chatting with some very friendly and knowledgeable members of the Oregon Chapter of the Porsche Club of America. I’ll give a full review of the gear after I’ve spent more time in it.

Post Session #1

Sign me up for more of that! Pitch me a tent in the parking lot and feed me used brake pads and petrol. Over two days I logged 220 minutes of seat time in 11, twenty-minute sessions. Between sessions, we reviewed track rules, vehicle dynamics, and weight management in the classroom. The weather was perfect for learning—constantly changing between dry, mixed (some parts wet and others dry), and full-on rain. Here’s a link to my track log in Notion.

Just as I hoped, everything on the race track happens fast. Flying into turn one hard on the brakes then carefully easing off while checking the turn one flag station for any indication of trouble ahead and heel-toe downshifting into third all happen in less than one second. From there it’s back on the accelerator to settle the car into the chicane. I can’t yet, but entering turn two the instructors would use their left foot to tap the brake while staying on the gas with their right foot so that the car rotates around more quickly (braking throws the weight of the car forward onto the front tires, increasing traction). And that’s just the first two turns out of twelve. Every detail, from where you position the car when you enter the braking zones and turns, to when you brake, accelerate, shift, and check-in with the flag stations is choreographed. I did many more laps in my imagination while drifting off to sleep than I did on the track that day, which is my new favorite form of meditation.

What I found most interesting was learning the rules of the flag stations. There’s an entire team of people, all of whom are there voluntarily, helping you get around the racetrack safely. Each of the flags waved carries a specific meaning, and how they are waved means something too. A yellow flag waving means caution up ahead, but if they’re waving it at you like a maniac it means to watch out imminently. A black flag rolled up and pointed at you means naughty-naughty, and if they then unroll it and show you the whole square it means you need to enter the hot pits for some stern instructions. Driving a car fast on a track is intense, but there are a lot of intense moments in life. Not all of them have a team of “flaggers” helping you get around as safely as possible, and that’s a pity.

All in all, the first lesson of the racetrack seemed to be: Focus on the road, not the wall, and occasionally the flaggers. Seems like an apt metaphor for business-building, too.

By the end of Day Two I was spent, both mentally and physically. So much so that I had to skip the last track session for lack of concentration. But I’m back at the track in a few weeks and look forward to sharing more of what I learn.