Lap Counter: 166.5
Before I write about my experience at the 24 Hour race I wanted to write about the path and lessons I learned that got me to this point. Its been a long journey and at times very frustrating, but like anything in life worth doing, it takes hard work!
My 24Hr race story began in 2002 with a then brand new E46 M3. As soon as I got the car broken in, I was headed to the nearest racetrack. At the time that was Road Atlanta with the BMW Car Club of America (CCA) Peachtree Chapter.
Being a typical young driver with a hot European sports car, I thought I would be setting a course record in it. Boy was I wrong! I learned that I had a lot to learn about this sport and it would be something that would challenge me both physically and mentally all my life. Honestly all it took was that first lap with my instructor and I knew I was hooked.
Lesson 1: Always look to learn something new even if it is the 1000th lap on your home track in your favorite car.
I advanced through the ranks of BMW CCA's excellent driver education program and quickly settled into the upper intermediate group where I was quite happy driving at what I thought “fast enough” speed. I stayed away from the Advanced folks because I was frankly scared at how fast they drove their cars. I knew I would get ran right off the track if I threw my lot in with those crazy drivers! Then a very wise driving instructor placed me in Advanced. I immediately complained that I wasn't ready and he told me that I must be uncomfortable to grow. You learn from adversity and challenge.
Lesson 2: Always look to challenge yourself. When you are comfortable you stop growing.
(Caveat Emptor: Please don't just drive as fast as you can because you will go right off the track, this is not what I mean!)
After getting adjusted to Advanced, I also started instructing for various clubs in exchange for more track time. The E46 M3 was my "gateway drug". It was my first new sports car and I grew with it changing the car to better meet the rigors of tracking. By 2005 I would be going to the track 2 to 3 times a month. I made many friends from many different backgrounds and I think this is also such a huge factor in where I'm at now.
Always keep your eyes and ears open. Ask your friends what they feel about the track and their cars. You will find that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses in driving and the driving line could be different from yours. Try them all out and take what works best for you and your car.
Lesson 3: Make a habit of collecting new peers and mentors. Ask for feedback. Try it their way and adopt it as your own if it works.
Along with driving big tracks I routinely went to autocross/slalom's. Through the years I have found that many of the "track rats" looked down on autocross yet many of the students I instructed with this attitude could clearly benefit from learning car control. Once things got out of line on a big track, they were at a loss on what to do and I would have to counter steer for them from the passenger seat. Car control or rather bringing a car back under control is an absolutely critical skill-set to have, especially at the Nürburgring where there is no room for errors. Years of autocross has made this dance something I can do without thinking about and anything that you can make easier for yourself in a race, you should do. Autocross is also very fun as its a way to compete in your car safely and at lower cost.
Lesson 4: Autocross and Car Control Clinics are mandatory. Its the only way you can safely practice saving a car.
In 2006, the racing bug bit so I bought an E36 M3 with a friend and prepared it for club racing. I took the car in the rain (on slicks and no side windows) to Driving Concepts Racing School at Buttonwillow Raceway Park. With a full cage, that car felt every bit as fast as my E46 in the corners and racing other drivers was invigorating and scary at the same time. Again, I was out of my comfort zone and very happy for it! Unfortunately after the school, every time I took it out on track there was a problem. Being an amateur with little to no trackside support, the car ended up spending more time on the paddock than actually moving. In racing I learned that the equipment is only half the equation.
Lesson 5: Races are never won if the driver can't finish. A dependable team is absolutely critical!
At the same time I was dealing with my new race car issues, I was also planning my first pilgrimage to Car Geek Nirvana. Otherwise known as "Grüne Hölle / Green Hell". I told my wife out of the 2 weeks we spent in Milano, Nice, Monaco, Pisa, Florence, Paris I just needed 2 days in this tiny town in western Germany. Looking back I got the bargain of a lifetime.
On August 18, 2006 I began two love affairs. For my first trip to the Nürburgring I wanted to drive an M3 naturally, however I couldn't find one. I did find that I could rent a 911 C2S for quite a good deal. I never drove a Porsche before but I had many rides in them on tracks back in the USA. I expected a very nervous driving car, but I was pleasantly surprised by a vehicle that seemed to be an extension of my arms and legs. The car knew exactly what I wanted to do. Just the tool to drive on the worlds longest and most dangerous racetrack for the first time!
I met a Scotsman online who was a regular at the ring so I arranged to meet him trackside with his CSL. (My dream car!) I first took a ride with him (brought my helmet with me of course) and I was instantly addicted to the track. My new goal would be to master her 73 turns one day!
I asked my new friend to ride with me and guide me as I crawled around the track and its many blind turns. The lap seemed to be over in an instant afterwards but I still remember driving that entire lap. I remember the smell of the hot tires and the sound of the engine. I also remember thinking "God where is the end of this track, it just keeps going!" There was a long section where we were all alone with the Nürburgring and it made me feel like the track was all mine. Then all of a sudden I'm driving in a corner with 3 cars going right by me like I was stopped. There was one turn in particular, a right hander; after clearing it I felt like I was driving straight up and around a mountain top! Did I go the wrong way? No, that was just Berdwerk and part of that 1000 foot elevation change this track has. On a lap you get to practice flying, you get sideways G's, negative G's, and lots of shifting. After completing my first 8 laps over two days, it was time to return the car and head on to Paris for our flight home.
The first visit to the Nürburgring is very special. You can feel electricity in the air. Your senses are completely overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of this beautiful and historical track. You can tell you are surrounded by thousands of people cut from the same cloth. You are home!
Flying back to LA I decided two things. 1) I needed a Porsche. 2) I had to get back to the Nürburgring. I figured out a way to kill two birds with one stone and found an open build allocation for a 2007 GT3 with european delivery. After spending a painful 11 months selling my beloved M3's and waiting, I returned to the Nürburgring with a shiny new GT3. I spent the following 2 weeks on the Nordschleife and the GP track. For more pictures from that trip, please check out my site at http://www.jimchambers.com/gt3.
During this time I didn't have any instruction so I knew I wouldn't improve much however I managed to keep a level head and bring the car home safely.
Lesson 6: Practice doesn't make perfect. Only Perfect Practice makes Perfect. Seek to have instruction if you want to improve.
Flying back to LA again after a total of 16 laps on the ring, I knew I needed to make driving the Nürburgring a regular occurance so I immediately started making plans for a return trip the following summer. Throughout the rest of the Fall/Winter of 2007 and Spring of 2008 I made it to the track in my GT3 usually 4 days per month. I drove the car at every track in California except Thunderhill. I still enjoyed my home tracks very much and I was occupied with learning a new car, racecraft, threshold braking, and trail braking. Still, I knew it would never be the same as the thrill from driving on the Nürburgring. I spent many nights watching laps of the ring preparing for my return trip.
In August 2008 I returned with my family in tow this time. I rented a 1 series hatchback with a manual transmission. The plan was to land in Paris and drive straight to the ring in time for some evening laps. When we landed at CDG instead I ended up getting a Peugot diesel coupe. No matter, as long as it has 4 wheels!
On this third trip I was getting very comfortable with the area and knew my way around. I even took my family on a lap where my son promptly fell asleep. I guess I wasn't going fast enough, but it was a very very slow car. At 21 laps on this track over 3 years, I barely knew 5% of it.
It turns out the return flights back to LA from europe always end up costing me a lot of money and alters my life. Our flight home on this trip was no different. I had an epiphany. Why not just move to germany? My wife and I were both at a place in our careers that we could actually work there. We both love europe and Germany would be an excellent place to raise kids. So the following summer, July 2009 we emigrated to Germany. Depending on how much right pedal I give the car, I'm only about 3 to 4 hours from the track. Since then I have felt right at home. Its just like I always belonged here. I'm so glad I followed my instincts and made the move.
Lesson 7: Racing is a sport of human spirit. Follow your gut instinct, its always right!
After arriving in Germany to stay in the summer of 2009, I started making monthly trips to the ring. Sometimes I would even drive up Sunday morning, drive 2 or 3 laps, and then head home. Usually though I would stay overnight at one of the guest houses. My favorite quickly became the Hotel am Tiergarten since it was very close to the track, they have excellent food, and its a staple of the old Nürburgring. It also happens to be Sabine Schmitz's family business and where she grew up.
As it turns out Germany can have a very brutal winter and I found this out in November. After only going to the track 3 times, the snow started. The Nurburgring is closed as long as there is snow on the track and they don't plow so they wait it out. I wouldn't see the track until May 2010! The only upside to the long winter was I got to snowboard some and work out my arms/back shoveling snow 2 or 3 times daily from my driveway for 4 months straight!
During the winter, an opportunity presented itself for me to order a GT3 RS. I had been following the news of the Mk 2 997 RS and was very fortunate to be in a position to get my hands on one. The GT3 had been a very good track car and right at home in Germany however it was time to part ways and I found a very worthy owner for her.
The new car was delivered like the last one right in the factory at Zuffenhausen, Stuttgart on 31 May 2010. My plan was to drive her directly from the factory floor to the Nürburgring but a torrential downpour meant it wouldn't be a very good idea. The GT3 comes equipped with Michelin PIlot Sport Cup tires which are horrendous in the rain. The GT3 RS is also much more neutral than the GT3 was and more powerful so I wasn't used to the new car's characteristics. Instead we crawled home slowly in the rain and I ended up breaking her in on a trip to Italy and back via the mountain passes in Austria.
Interestingly enough, right before I picked my GT3 RS up from the factory, Chris Harris and 3 other drivers actually raced the very same street car in the 2010 24hr race. They managed to do quite well despite the 911 GT3 Cup car having a tremendous advantage over its street based cousin. The news just made me want the car even more!
Before tackling the Nürburgring, I decided I should get some professional coaching from Porsche on how to drive the new car. I signed up with Porsche's excellent Sport Driving School at their test track facility in Leipzig, Germany. The track is essentially a collection of the worlds most famous circuit corners. I was happy to drive Laguna Seca's corkscrew again without having to ship the car back to California. The 997.2 GT3 RS is probably the easiest GT Porsche to drive. As long as you maintain throttle in turns as with an 911, its an absolute monster on the track. I'll probably go into detail on the school in another blog post so I'll leave it at that.
Lesson 8: Know yourself and know your equipment. Never blame the car; in racing its up to the driver to get to the finish line.
I'll stop for now on my background and write several other shorter posts about my experience in germany. I hope it inspires someone out there. I would like to leave with a thank you to my family and friends for supporting me. I really couldn't have done anything without you.