by JD Marsh
I've known about the legendary Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for as long as I can remember. I've seen everything from NASCAR to Indy Car, IMSA GT, Grand-Am Rolex, and IRC race at this historic track. There was always some form of televised coverage taking place at this venue, and despite watching from the safety of my living room, I felt like I knew the courses curves, it's long downhill back straight, and its off-camber sweepers on a semi-intimate level.
So when AutoInterests, LLC offered me the opportunity to drive at their HPDE (High Performance Driver Education) with my own car for Carfest 2017 at Mid-Ohio, I knew I had to go. I couldn't pass up the chance to drive my track-duty car, a 2001 Porsche Boxster S, at this legendary racing course. I would get to spend a weekend on track experiencing first hand what it feels like to lay down grippy rubber to asphalt, and Drive Fast without the risk of getting handcuffed.
Mid-Ohio's twisted black ribbon circuit is draped into the scenic countryside hills of Lexington, Ohio, which is located halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. That's roughly 700 miles away from my home in North Carolina, but I was determined not to let distance deter my quest to drive this top-tier bucket-list dream track. Fortunately, I was not alone. I would be joined by my business partner responsible for making this trip happen, and his track-prepped 2001 Mazda Miata. Another good friend, who happens to own a Supercharged NB Miata, also shared our ambition and joined up. So like true HPDE junkies in need of a fix, we loaded up and set off on a journey to drive fast at a Legend.
Hurricane Harvey had just finished ravaging Texas, and was tracking North-NorthEast on the morning we made our escape from the shores of North Carolina. We were each pulling a trailer containing our track vehicle securely strapped down. At 5 am, under complete darkness, our caravan slipped out onto the silent highway and headed West.
The incessant weather pattern continued to batter us for hours as we precariously carved up curvy, inclined roads that crested and twisted steeply back down the other side, then roll through a valley where the road would turn skyward, and the cycle was reborn. Full acceleration, downshift, wind out the engine, now hard on the brakes, harder, back to full acceleration. The circumstances for this particular drive demanded us to keep both-hands-on-the-wheel and maintain supreme concentration. Stay sharp, stay focused, eyes up. Fundamentally, it was the same kind of concentration used for High Performance Driving. By the time we pulled into the gates of Mid-Oho we were spent, but exalted. Hallelujah!
In was in the low 50's at the drivers’ meeting Saturday morning and we sat shrouded in a cold, gray, damp climate with just a hint of sprinkling rain to make conditions full-miserable. For the first time ever, I heard an instructor advise us, “Stay off the track when it's wet.” Stay off the track when wet?! This was counter-intuitive to what I'd been taught. I am by no means a seasoned veteran of HPDE, but at all the other Track Days I've been to over the years, you're encouraged to drive in the rain to learn about limited grip. If you can drive fast in the rain, and control your car, you'll be rewarded next time you drive in the dry.
Turns out Mid-Ohio has a fatal flaw that crushes that theory. The unofficial story floating around the event is that recent patch work performed on the track's deteriorating asphalt is unable to absorb water, causing its surface to become super slick. One instructor tried to describe driving the track wet, but ended up shrugging his shoulders as he made an indiscernible grunt. But we understood...it was ill-advised. I heard someone say, “It's like driving on ice.”
The track was certainly wet, but I'd come this far, so it's only natural that I wanted to find out for myself. I decided to take a couple of warm up laps. Nothing crazy. Turns out the description, “like ice,” is no exaggeration. After three laps at a moderately slow speed, and a couple scary moments with zero grip, I pulled into the pits. My partner was already there. "It's pretty slick", I said. He described a situation in which he turned his steering wheel to the right while all four tires continue to slide left. "It's Like driving on ice" he said. We concluded that the best bet was to heed the warning of the experienced driving instructors and put off any hard driving until the sun came out. Wise choice.
I had a look around while I waited for the weather to clear. CarFest 2017, which is the name of the event put on by AutoInterests, LLC at Mid-Ohio, was in full swing and I was experiencing sensory overload. Aside from the High Performance Drivers Education that we were participating in, there were numerous other car-related activities. For example, an Autocross was occurring in the parking lot at the end of the paddock. You could hear the howl of tires being pushed to their limit as drivers battled orange traffic cones not more than 100 yards away. On the grassy knoll above us there was a complete car show taking place. I could see Muscle cars, Exotics, JDM, German, European, Old cars, New cars, and a little bit of everything else.
Vendors peppered the paddock with specialty car parts, racing supplies, car related merchandise, and food. Carfest covered the event with music by including a DJ during the day and live bands after the track went cold. They even had a Dynamometer on site so true horsepower enthusiasts could find out their engine output. Hell, why not? And then it hit me - this was Car Nirvana. We were in a Holy Land designed for the car culture crowd that seeks the highest state of pure happiness.
It's satisfying when an event this size, or any size, is able to run smoothly, and it's apparent that AutoInterests runs a tight ship. Staying on schedule helps avoid the confusion, chaos, and frustration a driver can feel when events are poorly run. AutoInterests utilize a smart phone app that automatically keeps you updated so you won't miss a session. I found this helpful after one of the cars dropped oil on track changing the run times slightly. No need to wonder when you're back on track, your phone just told you.
Overall the HPDE at Carfest ran like clockwork. All the elements of the event: Tech Inspection, Driver Meetings, Classroom Instruction, and Run Group Meetings were carried out with an emphasis on safety and having fun. In that order. It's paramount to remember HPDE is NOT racing. Have fun, drive fast, be safe, and take your car home as your trophy. Jason and Sarah, the owners of AutoInterests, along with their entire staff and crew, executed a well organized event which allowed me to worry less and have more confidence on track, and I applaud their efforts.
The next day the clouds parted, and the temperature rose 25 degrees into the mid 70's. The sun dried out the track, and added some much needed heat. This was the recipe for some serious grip. Finally! With each session I pushed the Boxster a little harder than before. Four tenths driving on the first session. Hmmm...she's staying planted in the corners, and the patches of icy doom are gone. Lets try five tenths.
No amount of watching racing videos on Youtube can fully prepare you for when it's actually time to drive that new track yourself. Case and point: I was learning that Turn One is more of a controlled slide driven as fast as you can without breaking the wheels loose. That's not how I imagined it while watching videos. Good to know. Six tenths. Also, the blind left turn over the hill at Turn Five aptly called 'Madness' is harder to read than I thought. Maybe its name should have been the giveaway? Stay tight to the inside and only track out midway after reaching the top before roaring down the hill at China Beach. Then turn right and slide into the Esses. At least, it feels like a slide. Now seven tenths. Whatever you do, don't get on throttle too early on your approach to Turn Eleven before Thunder Valley. Wait until you've gone over the top of the hill before you bury the throttle. Evidently its off-camber nature can send you off track. We only learned this after hearing about it happening to another driver. This track is complex and nothing like what I had envisioned.
My confidence improved progressively with each lap. I pushed the Porsche to the best of my driving capabilities before the end of the second day. More track time would've allowed me to get closer to the limit, yielding faster track times, but Rome wasn't built in a day. I didn't set any lap records, but I was grateful just to drive this course. It would take a long time to learn all its secrets.
I heard what I found to be an accurate description of Mid-Ohio from a driving coach who frequents this track, "The first half of the track is very fast and straight, the second half is technical and slower, with more turns." During each lap your brain has to shift from fast to technical, and then back to fast. Without a doubt this is the most challenging track I've ever driven. I have a whole new appreciation for the racers who come here.
Fair weather the following day allowed for a swift, mostly uneventful return trip. We departed at 4:30 am and cruised quiet, empty roads for the first four hours. We did encounter heavy fog that morning and visibility dropped down to about three feet. We slowed our roll and rode out of Ohio and into West Virginia before most of the world was awake. Traffic remained relatively light through Virginia and North Carolina, and after two total stops for fuel we arrived home by 3:30 pm. 1,397 miles on the truck's trip odometer. I have to give major credit to our caravan leader, and my business partner, Dave, who fearlessly led us up through the storm and back down through the fog. He lined up this trip with AutoInterests and so he also has my gratitude.
Reflecting back on our pilgrimage, I believe that despite the difficulties of the challenges we faced; it was important for me to break out of my comfort zone and learn a new track. It's not instinctive to go somewhere you've never been before, but by embarking on this adventure I was rewarded by becoming a better driver. I can't explain it, but each time I drive a new track, my overall driving confidence grows. I'm hopeful I'll drive more new tracks in the future.
If you consider yourself a car nut, you owe it to yourself to experience Carfest at Mid-Ohio, where you can get your car fix in spades.
Verdict: Highly Recommended