Wheel-to-Wheel Racing for the First Time at Watkins Glen Changed My Life
I’ve never felt anything like going racing. And now it’s all I can think about.
It was an hour into my last race stint at Watkins Glen. I could reach out and touch the Miata that decided to battle me through turn 11. That’s when it hit me--not the Miata, but the flood of emotion. It’s a feeling beyond comprehension. Racing is the sort of thing that makes a heroin addiction look like the vague need for something salty.
I flew all the way from California to New York, then drove five hours upstate to drive in two seven-hour endurance races held by amateur endurance series Champ Car. Of the field made up of old Porsche Boxsters, BMW E36 and E46 3 Series’, and Honda Civics of various vintages, my 1993 Mazda Miata was the most common type of race car by far.
I’m no stranger to spirited driving or track days. But when it comes to actual competition, real racing against the cars right next to me, the Sahlen’s Champyard Dog at the Glen on May 27 and 28 was my first experience. All of the sim racing I’ve done on my simulator at home prepared me for what to expect, but none of the sim racing in the world could’ve prepared me for the adrenaline, the intensity of the emotions, and how overwhelmingly strong the instinct to pass that fucking car at all costs feels.
But it didn’t start all too well. My weekend at Watkins Glen was something of a challenge, something that only finally clicked when I tightened my harness, popped my Miata race car into first, and dived into the pool of sharks headfirst on Sunday. Yet when Friday practice came around, I knew there was a steep curve that had nothing to do with the hours of preparation I did.
Preparing for Race Day
By the time I landed at my team’s Airbnb, I’d have done all of the track preparation I could’ve done in the simulator. The feeling that now met me was anticipation, but not anxiety. All I wanted to know was the car, the team running the car, the real-life track conditions at Watkins Glen, and making sure I can be as comfortable as possible for my 120-minute stints in both Saturday’s and Sunday’s races.
A lot of that comfort came with help from Alpinestars. I’ve used its gear for my escapades on motorcycles for years, and the company offered a huge assist in my search for mandatory race gear. For my race, Astars provided me with its entry-level FIA-grade Atom firesuit, Tech-1 Race V3 FIA gloves, Supermono V2 racing shoes, while I purchased the ZX V3 socks and ZX Evo V2 headsock for the required base layer. With the multilayer FIA suit, I didn’t need a full fireproof base layer for Champ Car, though I’ll still need a base layer for most other series. Completing the package was my personal Arai GP-6S that I liveried up in red for 2023 and added an IMSA-spec communications package with wired ear plugs.
Alpinestars is a major player in motorsport safety; you’ll see their emblems and attire at everything from MotoGP to Formula 1, and more amateur events like Champ Car. I knew them from my experience with motorcycle gear, and found my race suit, shoes, and gloves to be some of the more comfortable, breathable, and well-made driver gear I’ve sampled. Even with 80-degree Fahrenheit race stints, I forgot that the suit was even on without a cool shirt.
Shop the Look
Once I was outfitted, there was the business of getting to grips with the team. I was on an “arrive and drive” program, which is exactly what it sounds like—pay your money, show up, and race. That can often be dicey, as cars are made to fit everyone and come in various states of preparation for race day. But since my recommendation for Open Throttle Racing came through my friend, teammate, pro driver coach, and International GT race winner Michael Ryan Johnson (MJ), I knew the team would be set. Driving with me would be MJ, and Spec Boxster racing ace Chris Bason. Then there was me, 40-time iRacing random race winner with a 3000 iRating.
Lastly, getting the car comfortable for all of us, with me being the shortest by a head, was the primary challenge of the weekend. At first, it didn’t fit any of us and we all struggled to leverage the manual steering of the Miata without bruising ourselves. But with some auto parts store ingenuity from myself and late nights from Open Throttle, we got the car comfortable for race day. I sound like a Typical Racing Driver when I say this, but Open Throttle really made the dream possible and I’m giving them full kudos.
I set myself some objectives for the weekend. I’ll be honest, it might have been unwise to think about anything beyond “bring the car home” but I just couldn’t help the competitor in me. Of course, I assured my teammates that I would indeed make sure I kept the car in a single piece and I believed that. But deep down inside I set myself two goals:
- Get within 1 second of MJ’s best lap time.
- Beat the other cars within our team.
For a first-time racer, I may as well have been planning to invent nuclear fusion from tablespoon with those goals. But I set them for myself as my absolute best-case scenario. And a tiny but loud voice within me thought I could achieve them if I could just activate the mind space I get into when I’m sim racing. All of that started with a short Friday practice session. This was our chance to get to know the car and have an afternoon to set it up to our liking.
Our 1993 Mazda MX-5 (called Reddy because of its red color, I think) was hooked up. It drove beautifully and communicatively, with heavy manual steering that offered unbelievable amounts of feedback about the track surface and how much grip was left. While it had all of 95 horsepower, it had no wing to slow us down and felt like an eager racecar. All we had to do was solve the seating position, which the team figured out for us throughout the weekend. But frankly, I just wanted to get amongst our first race on Saturday and finally feel real traffic. Under orders from MJ, I went to bed early to get maximum rest in my strangely massive basement room in our backwoods rental.
Waking up early on my first race day, I felt an incredibly strange calm. I also slept better than I usually do. It was the same sort of feeling I used to get before taking a big test, more or less a feeling of surrender. However today goes, was the way it was meant to go. It was never a question of “Could I do this?” I fell asleep with my brain buzzing over plans of “How do I do this the best way I possibly can?”
And it all happened so quickly. It’s like I went from stuffing my face with a cream cheese bagel in our Airbnb to being pinned to an unyielding bucket seat within the same moment. That calm still remained even after I pulled out of pit exit and dived headfirst into race traffic for the first time in my life.
There was no epiphany, at least not yet. But I hadn’t quite found my zone. I spent a lot of time dodging traffic from behind and just surviving, not doing much overtaking of my own and still getting comfortable in the car. If anything, my feeling was of disappointment. Not with the car or the experience, but with myself. I felt like I wasn’t performing. My lap times were OK, and I piloted the car to the end of the stint with about a 2.5-second best lap time gap to MJ, but I knew I hadn’t found the pocket. MJ was running 2:27s all race while the best I could do was mid-2:29s.
At the risk of sounding down on it, I want to say the experience was amazing. Watkins Glen is the single best track I’ve ever driven and any normal person would have been stunned by a race stint. And at my very first race, we managed to finish P10 in class. But the feeling wasn’t just mine. MJ and Bason also thought there was plenty more to find. From the moment I was out of the car, I sat down and had a long think. I told myself the corniest possible racing driver line: “I’m not leaving Watkins Glen with regrets. I’m putting everything down tomorrow.”
And wouldn’t you guess it, I internalized this as my mantra and faced Sunday with a different attitude. Sunday is when I found the truth of why I hauled myself across the country and spent thousands of my hard-earned to do this.
One last adjustment from the team brought the seat another 1.5 inches closer to the steering wheel. That inch and a half made all of the difference in the world. When I strapped myself into Reddy on Sunday, felt the bucket seat touch my shoulders for the first time all weekend, and had the wheel exactly where I wanted it, it was on. The music was blaring. The sunflowers were blooming.
There was also the freedom of having an early race issue that put us out of contention. A dead wheel bearing cost us 30 minutes, so our only objectives were to get as much seat time as possible, drive the car like we didn’t need it the next day, and experience racing for the sake of racing. As soon as I completed my first lap, I felt myself come to life. Those muscles, physical and mental, that I exercised over a decade of sim racing shook themselves loose and took over for my conscious mind.
Then it was just flow. Weaving and dodging through cars, some faster than ours, and taking advantage of our superior cornering speed. The middle of my two-hour stint was clear of traffic, and that’s where I really entered a special, normally inaccessible place. It was utterly, completely, and antisocially absorbing. The closest thing I can describe it as is flight. I’ve verbalized it as “running free” before. But it's a state of mind that is boundless and creative, but determinedly competitive to a fault.
MJ’s voice cracked through my earpiece and started calling out lap times. And as I got deeper into my stint, they kept falling. Every lap was another two-tenths of a second, slowly chipping away at MJ’s previous day's personal best until I got past it. Then I was in the 2:26s. Until finally:
“Chris, that last lap was a 2:25.5. Mega lap.” I could’ve cried right then. It made everything worthwhile. And it lifted a weight that I didn’t even realize was there. From there I could enjoy the experience, having set the fastest lap of our team in the race up until that point. And the pace I could finally carry through the lap meant I had serious closing speed on some of the cars in our class and above, and figured out an overtaking method through the turns our Miata could take flat-out relative to heavier cars–I would set up wide and force the other car inside. Normally counterintuitive, but Watkins Glen is wide and fast enough to maintain great minimum speed on the outside, forcing the inside car to compromise more than I would.
For the final stint, MJ got in the car and had serious traffic issues. But I knew he could take my time on a clear lap, it was just a matter of how much. I manned the radio and watched his lap times, until finally: 2:24.5. The best of his weekend. When the checkered flag dropped and that time stood as the fastest, we had hit both of my ambitious goals. We were the fastest Miata in our team, and I was within a second of MJ’s professional hands. It was the best 17th-place finish I’ve ever experienced.
Nothing Will Ever Be The Same
It was two hours of the most blissful existence I’ve ever felt. It was like I was 13 again and I worked up the courage to ask my crush out, better than any other impossible thing I’ve been so fortunate to have experienced. Things made sense in that car in a way that almost never make sense in my normal life, and this is the true magic of what racing is. It’s why it's so addictive. It’s the complete control over your own fortune (at least, when it’s going right), and the flood of mind-altering chemicals that only comes from competition. And it’s a completely different level to the simulator.
Okay, that much is obvious. But for people who have sim raced as long as I have: competition is competition. Getting side-by-side virtually still gives me a real uptick in heart rate and anxiousness. Sim racing is still racing. However, in the real car, it was less about the pure rush of passing than it was more about calmly anticipating what your opponent will do and executing a smart pass rather than a brash one.
Compared to the sim, everything is the same but everything is different. Setting up passes, knowing where you’re strong compared to other cars, learning how to drive consistently and smoothly, and track-specific driving techniques are essentially identical. Where real racing is different are track conditions that affect grip levels, looking after the car to make sure it gets home, and the sheer nerve you can access to really drive hard.
What’s most amazing about practicing on the sim isn’t just the muscle memory you build for these sorts of things, it’s the mental memory you build of knowing what it feels like to drive for two hours. Not just learning how to find your reference points around the track but also doing the mental work to learn what your flow state feels like, and how to stay in the pocket. Over anything else, that is the most valuable thing I took away from my sim racing experience.
Compared to a track day, it makes driving around a track without other cars to pass feel pointless. I’m not sure I can ever do just a track day again, but time attack or other timed competitions will still do it for me. But if I’m being honest with myself, I think racing might have reset my entire life. At least judging by the amount of thousand-yard stares I’ve maintained at walls for the two weeks since I drove away from Watkins Glen for the last time.
At the end of the day, with lodging, renting the car, and the set of Bridgestone RE-71RS tires we bought specifically for the weekend, my one-time cost was $2,500. Of course, there’s the investment of fireproof gear and helmet, easily $2,000, which I amortized over a few years, and help from Alpinestars.
Racing for the first time as an almost lifelong sim racer was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I could still weep when I think about it. It’s all I’ve really ever wanted to do and never had the money or opportunity to do so until the last year.
If there’s ever time and money to do it, I think any driving enthusiast should go racing at least once. Beware, though. It won’t be the only time. It sure as hell won’t be my last.
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