After getting to know the technical details of the Opak/Spoon DC5, I took it for a little drive around the parking lot at Opak Racing's HQ to get a feel for the right hand drive setup, and shifting with my left hand. At that point, in a relatively stress free environment, it didn't feel too unusual. Thus, I really didn't worry about the change in configuration when planning my attack on Infineon Raceway at Sears Point. www.infineonraceway.com Upon actually driving the car on the racetrack, however, I got a real wake up call.
Infineon Raceway, historically known as Sears Point before the onslaught of corporate branding, is a complex, fast racetrack. And there are enough walls and berms to make it more than a little scary in places - especially when driving someone else's car. Even more so when it's right hand drive (I've never driven one on the racetrack), front wheel drive (I've been campaigning my S2000 at track days for some time) and you're out there with a bunch of experienced racers. I had spent some time the night before studying the racetrack from photos and track notes, but in all honesty, the only way I can get any really useful advanced knowledge of a track is to play it on a good video game simulator, and I have none for Sears Point (the invitation was last minute, so I didn't have a chance to go buy one either). I learned Laguna Seca this way and it was a big help in getting assimilated on the track. So, in the end, Sears Point was a mixed bag for me. Its the only road course in California I haven't driven, so I was itching to try it, but I was also being thrown to the wolves my first time out. It was truly, as Opak Racing's Edmun Laurea put it, "sink or swim".
The track event I would be driving at was a High Performance Driving Event (HPDE) organized by the increasingly present NASA. There would be no racing or timing this day (save what the individual drivers and teams organized - timing, not racing), just learning the track. While I don't often run with NASA due to some better bargains in terms of track time per dollar in SoCal, I have to say that the level of professionalism at a NASA event is top notch. First of all, the run groups go off like clockwork. Very few organizations can say that. Furthermore, there are mandatory downloads for every group after each session. I was in Group 3, which is one step down from the fastest group, and was probably appropriate considering I didn't know the track. Our group leader was Steve Romine, who is a former Formula Atlantic champion, so there are some top notch people to learn from at NASA events. Going through the downloads, even for an experienced HPDE'r like me (I think I'm closing in on 30 track days now), was a valuable experience.
Unfortunately for me, I had to miss the first session of the day due to some issues with Opak's transporter (IOW, the race car wasn't there yet). This was a problem as the first session is usually quite slow and relaxed and would be very helpful for learning the track. Instead, my first track time came in session two, where people were picking up the pace and passing zones expanded. Ali Arsham, the man behind USTCC and Opak's driver evaluator, rode along with me to make sure there were no major issues. And there weren't, but I was very far out of my depth. Sears is a very technical track with lots of blind corners and high speeds. And shifting with my left hand turned out to be far more difficult on the racetrack than I had imagined. Even more difficult (surprisingly), was retraining myself to look left for the rearview mirror rather than right. And I need the mirror as my unfamiliarity with track and car made me slow and I had point by many cars.
After 3 or 4 laps I pulled the car in. There was only one butt-clenching moment (even Ali tensed up) when I entered the esses all wrong at a pretty good clip, but I wasn't pushing the car so there was enough reserve to take a wrong line. Ali asked "what's wrong?". I told him, "This is overwhelming, I need a chance to decompress and assimilate." Back in the pits Ali asked me if this was my first time at Sears. When I answered yes, he told me that either they should have had someone give me a ride along, or maybe put me in a slower group. Given my track experience, a slower group probably would have gotten frustrating as I learned the track, but the ride along was definitely a good idea. So Edmun from Opak introduced me to Niki Tam, a local racer who campaigns a JDM ITR in endurace racing. Niki is a likeable guy who owns his own automotive business and loves racing. After about 10 laps of studying his lines from the passenger seat, I felt much better about taking the Opak/Spoon DC5R closer to its limits.