By Richard Johnson
I am 65 years old and have been obsessed with sports cars and racing since I was a kid. My paper route money plus the tips I earned carrying clubs at the local golf course was spent at the go-cart track. (After giving my mother fifty per cent for my college fund, of course.) I spent so much time and money at the cart track I felt like a VIP. I knew which carts had the best clutches, best brakes, tightest steering. All was fine until I was banging tires with a fellow carter and I ended upside down in a garbage can. The owner came over, pulled me out all covered in gas and oil and promptly banned me for a week for aggressive driving. Bummer! But it did give me some go-cart cred with my buddies.
In the early 60s I listened to the Indy 500 on my transistor radio from our town in Oklahoma—no doubt the only kid in town doing that on Memorial Day weekend. Anybody remember the John Zinc Trackburner out of Tulsa OK? I bought my first car before I even had a driver’s license. It was not a sports car. My dad would not even think about letting that happen. It was a 53 Chevy four door, six cylinder, three on the tree, in turd brown. I cleaned and cleaned and it still looked like it had been in the dust bowl, but it was mine! I learned how to clean and gap spark plugs, file points, and set the dwell and timing. I bought my first gauge instrument—an electronic dwell meter by Heathkit I had to assemble myself. I had it running pretty good and looking as good as a turd brown Chevy 4 door could look. My parents were away for the day, so I called my buddy to come over to look at the car. So here we are, a couple of 15 year old boys—what would you do?? Of course, let’s start ‘er up! Next thing I know we are driving around the field in back of the house having a ball…until I clip the telephone pole. Luckily nobody was hurt (no seat belts in those days), but I can’t say the same for the Chevy. This is not going to go over very well. My car owning days were over for awhile, but I finally did get my first sports car, a powder blue TR-2 during my second year in college. My first taste of British electronics. I had to sell it when winter came along but my love for sports cars and driving lived on in my dreams.
In 1980, after a stint in the army and college graduation, I got a job in a small town a couple of hours up the Columbia Gorge from Portland, Oregon. I talked my wife into going to a SCCA race at Portland International Raceway by hyping up the fact that Paul Newman would be racing. We bought a pit pass to get up close and personal with the cars (and hopefully Paul Newman, but he laid pretty low). The sounds and smells from that day made me giddy like a 10 year old boy. Shortly after that I saw an ad offering a 2 day race car driving school at PIR…classes in the morning and a personal instructor in the car—a lot of track time for $50. What a deal! We had just bought a new 1980 MGB so I installed a roll bar and put it (and me) to the test at PIR. It was exhilarating, thrilling, and something I badly wanted to continue to do. But reality being what it is…we were just starting careers, building a house and trying to put a couple of dollars together in savings.
Maybe some day.
Fast forward 30 plus years. A race track is being built in a small farming town 40 miles from my home. It is a 2.3 mile road course with 18 turns and 140 feet of elevation differential. And they are offering limited membership for private track days! I could not get my application in fast enough. All I needed was a car.
I still owned that 1980 MGB that I drove at PIR 30 years before. I had put it in storage after 24 thousand miles and it still looks great. I will turn that into a track car.
I called up Moss Motors to tell them I am back and please send a new catalog. I was amazed at all the new parts that are out there: superchargers, 5-speed gear boxes, roller rockers and more. I start out somewhat small, stage 2 brake upgrade, lower the suspension, shock conversion, and adjustable sway bar. I had barely unloaded the boxes in my shop when I happened to see a track car on the internet for sale. A 1959 Austin-Healey, cute as a bug, which it was! A Bug-eyed Sprite with all the right stuff. Slick tires, side exhaust, oil accumulator, beefed up rear end and suspension, and only one seat. The best part was, it was only three hours from my house and it was on a trailer. Hand me the phone! Within a week it was home. But what about all the new parts in the shop? Thank goodness for the return policy at Moss. I mailed them back—no problem. I played with the Healey all winter in preparation for my first day. Thank goodness Moss Motors also stocks Austin-Healey parts. I changed the gear ratio, all the fluids, set the tow and cleaned and polished.
The moment of truth: my first track day is here. I am nervous, excited, and can’t wait to get out there.
We pull into the paddock, gorgeous day, corner workers at their stations, ambulance and two paramedics on hand, water truck ready in case of grass fire—and I am the only driver there. I was sure they would cancel but all the players were there so it’s a go.
All that attention on me. Yikes.
OK, let’s do this.
My first lap was a warm up, getting to know the car. It’s not street legal so I have never been able to even test drive it. Second lap the throttle sticks wide open. I get it shut off, but now I am dead on the track. At least the tow truck driver will have something to do. I have never been towed before so I just wrap the rope once around the roll bar and hold on. Word of caution: that is an excellent way to get a dandy rope burn. I get towed back to the pits. A bit embarrassing but a quick fix with some zip ties and I am back out. (Now it is required to have two throttle return springs installed. Good idea.) The car does not feel quite right, but it is time for lunch. After lunch I attempt to torque the wheels. First tire, all loose, second tire, one missing lug nut, all loose, someone (guess who?) forgot to torque the lug nuts. Since I was the only car there that day they let me walk the track to try and find my missing lug nut. “And then I saw it!” (like the old Sea Hunt days), there it was beside the track. Back to the pits. With all four wheels tight on the car it sure handled a lot better. Lap times were getting better and I think the corner workers had stopped laughing. I was having a blast and feeling confident until the engine started to sputter and then died. What now??? Note to self: since you don’t have a gas gauge be sure you have enough fuel. OK…get to say thanks to the tow crew again and I remember to take the tow strap around the roll bar twice so I wouldn’t burn my one good hand. I quit early to let everyone that had been so nice and understanding with a rookie a chance to go home early. I felt lucky to be going home in one piece. Even with everything that happened I had a great day.
Second Track day: I torque the wheels and I even use lock tite! I fixed the throttle, go over the track in my mind, I am ready to go. I pull into the paddocks and I see everybody going in the opposite direction! I am back to square one with the track. But all the wheels stayed on, I had another great day, and have had many more since then. I won’t tell you about the day I overfilled the car with oil (forgot about the accumulator), lost the filler cap, saw it leave in my rear view mirror, then oiled down part of the track. I got the “meatball” from the track workers: black flag with an orange ball in the center. I could smell hot oil so I was heading for the pits anyway. I went home soon after. Or the time I was just exiting turn two when something up in the air and to the right catches my eye. I lift a little, what is that, a turkey? It’s a drone! Later I went to the photographer’s web site and sure enough there is a short video of me. I can tell I lifted and made a short lazy shift up the hill, but it was still cool to watch myself in action.
Or…in turn 2 again…cold day, cold tires, and a driver with ants in his pants. The car spins so fast I had no chance to correct it. You would think I would stop making rookie mistakes. But the corner worker enjoyed my almost 360 degree spin. And with all the faster, high end cars that show up for track day, my little British Bugeye is a staff favorite.
The moral to the story is…if you have the urge to channel your inner race car driver, go for it! And if you can make it to Grass Valley, Oregon, check out Oregon Raceway Park for that experience. It’s a great track with great people. You won’t be disappointed. Check out their You Tube videos.
A little update on the 1980 MG: since it was in the shop and looking so good, I thought maybe a little performance upgrade would be nice. So now it has a rebuilt Rover V8 resting in the engine bay. Hey, at least it is British. Problem now, with more horsepower and less weight, it sits even higher off the ground. Once again Moss Motors to the rescue. So if you are reading this, my MGB will be sporting a new Coil Over front suspension from Moss Motors, and sitting nice and low. Maybe it will get to track day after all. Who knows?