Sitting in pit lane, waiting to start session three, my hands are shaking so badly it takes three tries to drop the handbrake. The rational part of my brain, the bit that’s been ceaselessly berating me for signing up for a night track session since the sun went down, is reduced to white noise and static. The Fear has taken over. Watching Brad and Gavin, ordinarily impossible to faze, come in at the end of their session wide-eyed and speechless, and seeing the maelstrom of lights and dust as cars fought it out in the darkness, The Fear had built slowly. Now, with the yawning black gulf of the track entrance ahead, it peaked in a crescendo of pure terror.
When Brad first told me Xtreme Speed was putting on a night event, it seemed like a great idea. When I found out it was at Streets, I was initially thrilled (it’s one of my favorite tracks). Then I started to realize that Streets is bumpy, oddly cambered, and hard to read during the day; it would be almost impossible at night. The sight of portable floodlights lining the track when I arrived diminished the anxiety somewhat, but as the light faded, my hands grew clammy, my chest tightened little by little, until there I sat, in pitch blackness and complete terror, with the thousand-yard stare of a man who’s in over his head, dimly aware the marshal had pointed me on.
Muscle memory alone found first gear, and then I was rolling and everything was calm again. The lights demarcating apices stretched away up the hill, and the car flitted between them like a bellowing, VTEC-powered mixed metaphor.
That first night session was shamefully slow. Ten seconds or more off the pace I’d set earlier. Cars I’d eaten alive in daylight passed me constantly. The problem was track-out; with the far edge of every corner masked in shadow, each exit was a guessing game, and my guesses were far too conservative. The braking zone for the bowl was problematic as well- lacking the conventional references of sand and sky, gravity itself seemed to tilt hard left on entry, transforming the long corner into a vertical loop. Anticipating the disorientation, I’d brake too early, and then watch in dismay as once-distant headlights glued themselves to my bumper.
Between sessions, we drove up to the terrace at the top of the track, and watched the novice group run. They were shockingly composed, at least from afar- apparently Xtreme Speed’s instructors had done their job in the daylight sessions. Watching their lines through the tumbling, off-camber section after the bowl, I realized that I’d been further off-line than I thought, the well-lit track near the apex luring me in like a large, noisy moth.
With the fear gone, I could spend my second session focusing on rectifying the errors I’d made earlier. Every exit was still blind, but with a little autocross-trained forethought I found myself driving from memory, silently cheering every time the edge of the track appeared alongside. The rhythm came back, then the speed, and suddenly I was back on the hunt, blitzing car after car, until the flag fell, far too soon.
It was nearly midnight when I rolled back into the pits, the moon looming swollen, orange and alien beyond the end of the front straight. I’d never felt more alive; the rollercoaster of terror and total concentration and predatory joy left me wrung out and euphoric. The whole atmosphere had become intoxicating and vaguely surreal; the glowing brakes and spitting flames of the cars on track hypnotizing flickers in the darkness. I knew I should head home; three hours of freeway driving is monotonous when you’re well-rested, borderline lethal when fatigued, but all I wanted was to be back on track; to keep charging between pools of light like an astronaut leaving orbit, free from everything ordinary.
It’s taken me a few days to sit down and write about my first night track event. Maybe it was just exhaustion, but somehow everything about it seems more than a normal trackday. I’m left in absolute awe of the people who race at night; 200mph on the Mulsanne straight looks peaceful on television, but now seems utterly incomprehensible. The mental hurdles those drivers have overcome beggar belief.
Every racer knows The Fear; the lucky ones can conquer it and continue. So far, I’m lucky; it always vanishes as soon as there’s someone to chase down or a time to beat. I’m hooked on the night-track experience, too; autocross and the S2K Challenge sate my competitive side, but they just can’t match the adrenaline rush. Xtreme Speed plans to have more night events, first at Streets of Willow and then elsewhere; I’m going to attend as many as I can.
Image Credit: Driftclub