Laguna Seca Raceway, California – September 5, 1997 – 6:44 pm
Jack Wright flashed by the pits at just over 140 mph, moving his eyes momentarily to glance at the numbers on the pit board.
19.63. + .02
One minute, nineteen point six-three seconds. Two-tenths of a second off pole.
Rocketing over the start-finish line, Wright’s RT-41 crested the shallow hill at the top of the pit straightaway and descended toward the tight 180-degree hairpin at the bottom of the track.
“Nineteen point five-five three.” The numbers for his just completed lap were transmitted to the small earpiece inside his flameproof balaclava. The sound was distorted but he could detect the excitement in Chuck’s voice. He was only a tenth of a second away from grabbing pole position.
There was one minute remaining in the qualifying session. Originally scheduled for 4:45, a number of delays in the CART time trials had pushed the Atlantic start time back to 6:15 and the early evening California sun cast long shadows on the track as the final group of the day completed their half-hour run.
As he neared the braking zone for the approaching corner, Wright clicked the transmit button on his steering wheel to acknowledge the transmission. Carrying his speed a full car length deeper than on any previous lap, he leapt off the throttle and depressed the car’s small drilled aluminum brake pedal with firm but even pressure.
His body slammed into the six-point harness as over three negative g’s tripled his body weight and transmitted the equivalent of five-hundred pounds of forward pressure into the nylon belts. The car danced on the bare edge of adhesion as he modulating the pressure of his right foot on the brake pedal to prevent any extended wheel lockups. Deep into the braking area, he rolled the outside part of his right foot onto the throttle pedal and blipped the engine revs while maintaining pressure on the brakes with the ball of the same foot.
Working down through the gearbox, Wright carved the Ralt into the hairpin faster than he had all day. The sticky Yokohama slicks protested the extra speed asked of them and broke traction with the asphalt surface momentarily as the lightweight machine arced toward the apex of the corner. Wright anticipated the slide and applied a small amount of opposite-lock steering – briefly increasing pressure on the throttle pedal – while braking with his left foot. He adjusted the vehicle’s grip by alternately applying and releasing pressure on the gas and brake with both feet, maximizing his speed through the entry phase of the corner and shaving valuable hundredths of a second from his lap time.
Driving a race car at its limits is a craft that, surprisingly, has evolved little from the days of Tazio Nuvolari and Juan Manuel Fangio. Despite a quantum leap in aerodynamic and mechanical technology in that fifty-year period, the technique of race driving remains largely unchanged. In fact, one of the few significant developments in the process was the incorporation of left-foot braking by later pioneers like Mark Donahue in the late sixties and early seventies.
Eschewing the long-standing – and mostly European – tradition of braking in a straight line prior to a corner, feathering the throttle to the apex and then accelerating to the limit of the car’s adhesion on the exit, Donahue found he could carry his speed deeper into a corner by braking with his left foot during the turn-in phase while feathering the gas pedal with his right as he approached the apex. The method that Donahue championed ultimately came to be known as ‘riding the traction circle’.
Despite the success that road racing pioneers like Donahue and Mario Andretti enjoyed with this technique, many current-era drivers insist that the traditional straight-line braking approach is faster, including several recent Formula One World Champions.
Wright had little interest in the debate. His driving style was instinctual and left-foot braking had been a part of his repertoire since he’d first strapped himself into a 110-horsepower Formula Ford.
His Ralt RT-41 knifed through the corner a full three mph faster than it was theoretically capable and Wright snicked up a gear as his left wheels touched the exit curbing, accelerating hard toward the 90-degree right-hander that lay ahead. A plume of dust kicked up in his wake as the fat Yokohamas came perilously close to the edge of the track but the Canadian was already in third gear with the throttle pedal well and truly buried.
After slicing through the turn four right-hander with equal precision, he began the gentle climb up toward the turn five and six sweepers. Well into the groove now, Wright appreciated why Laguna Seca was so revered by every driver who competed here. The track possessed an exceptional balance of high and low-speed corners, highlighted with thrilling elevation changes and wide, challenging passing areas. He’d only turned twenty-five laps so far, but he was completely in love with the place.
The Ralt powered out of the ultra-fast turn six sweeper at the southeast corner of the circuit, its right-rear tire kicking up a second plume of dust over the exit curbing. The speed piled up dramatically on the ensuing climb to the track’s summit and the lengthy acceleration run gave Wright a few moments to scan the digital display on his dashboard’s LCD screen. No warning lights flashed back so he kept the gas pedal buried as the crest of the hill rushed toward him at over 140 mph through the hazy early evening heat. Not that he would have lifted anyway. This was the final lap and he was on-pace to snatch the pole away from the Lynx team if he could keep his current speed up for four more corners.
The approach to the Corkscrew at the top of the Laguna Seca circuit is one of the most daunting sections of asphalt in all of motorsports. As Wright drew nearer to this sharp second-gear turn, his speed had already peaked at over 150 mph. The curving braking zone for the corner rushed up to greet him before his body had a chance to settle back down into his seat and he was now committed to downshifting through three gears and bleeding off more than 70 mph of forward momentum in less than sixty feet. Despite a brief lockup from the front tires in protest of this sudden and highly inconvenient deceleration, Wright hauled his speed down just in time to make the turn-in for the blind downhill corner. Carving the wheel decisively to the left before he could even see it, the Canadian prepared himself for the track’s most famous corner.
In the space of a heartbeat, the Ralt launched itself into space as the road fell away from under the front wheels and the Corkscrew was revealed in all its Disneyesque glory. Wright even experienced a brief sensation of weightlessness as the car ‘freefalled’ into the sharp S-turn at just over 75 mph.
Dropping seven stories onto the ensuing downhill chute, the RT-41 kicked up more dust as Wright skated his wheels dangerously over the outside curbing and accelerated hard toward the fourth-gear Rainey Curve ahead. The Canadian flew through this left-hander without lifting and his efforts were rewarded by an extra 200 rpm of engine speed on the exit. Quickly back up to 120 mph, the car piled on even more speed on the shallow downhill run toward turn ten.
Wright stabbed the brakes and downshifted into third, carrying as much speed as the car would give him through the fast right-hander as the Ralt traversed smoothly from one side of the track to the other in a complex and kinetic ballet of aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip. With only one corner to go – the 90-degree turn eleven left-hander that led back onto the pit straightaway – he was almost home.
He held off his braking until the last possible moment and pushed the car a full ten feet deeper into the turn than he had on any previous lap. Gripping the wheel firmly to fight the inevitable lockup-induced slide as he rowed the small shift lever down two gears, Wright practically willed the machine underneath him to stay on the track as he sailed into the tight corner. When his left-front tire kissed the inner curb, he squeezed the throttle firmly and let his momentum carry him to the far side of the track, dangerously close to a cement barrier that waited patiently for its opportunity to remove the right side suspension from a straying car.
Wright corrected a small wiggle from the Ralt before it could grow into a full-blown tank-slapper, powered out on to the main straightaway, and accelerated up the hill to the waiting checkered flag.
He acknowledged the starter’s flag with a wave as he crossed the line before jumping off the throttle and allowing the race car to drop down to cruising speed for the first time that afternoon. Edwards’s elated voice crackled in his earpiece five seconds later.
“One eighteen point eight five five! That is pole position my friend!”
The Canadian smiled under his helmet as he pressed the transmit button. “It better be! Ain’t no way this piece-of-shit race car is ever gonna go any faster than that.”
“Stick it in your ear buddy-boy, that car’s a fuckin’ piece of art! Hell, my grandma could get pole with it!” Despite the banter, the pride in the Californian’s voice was evident – both in the car and Wright.
“I thought your grandma was dead.” Wright was waving his thanks to the volunteer turn marshals at the side of the track as he continued his two-way radio conversation with Edwards.
“So what? Her fucking corpse could still turn a 1:18 in that car.”
The Canadian decided to change conversational gears before a fan listening in on a portable scanner reported them to the FCC for using obscenities over the public airwaves. “This is only the first run. We’re gonna have to do it all over again tomorrow morning.” There were two qualifying sessions for the Atlantic cars, the one they’d just completed and a second at 8:00 am tomorrow. The 28-lap race would run at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon.
“We’ll be ready.”
The static increased as Wright moved away from the VHF repeater in the pits so he clicked his mike once to acknowledge his friend’s last transmission before turning to wave at the crowd in the Franco hospitality tent. At his reduced speed he could even make out the slim figure of Julie Sorenson waving enthusiastically while standing precariously on a plastic chair. She’d obviously seen the qualifying times on the large Jumbotron screen across the track.
It had been a good day so far and the evening ahead was looking just as promising.