Driving Schools – Fall 2017: Freude am Fahren – mit Freunden
by NJ BMW CCA
By Jeff White
For those of you who read this column you know that it generally recounts our just transpired track events and looks to the next round. I’ll do that briefly but then there is something else I want to discuss. So, our return as a support race to the NASCAR K&N series at Thunderbolt on Sep. 16-17 was a tremendous success – actual paying fans to watch us race – followed by a Sunday session with racing and a special driver school for Advanced Solo students. Look for Ross Karlin’s report in this issue. Our seasonending weekend driver school on the Shenandoah circuit at Summit Point Motorsports Park on Oct. 7-8 reinforced the fun and value of learning to drive this track. A day in the sun and, matching the rest of the season, a day in the wet. This is always the perfect track on which to end the year – plenty of interaction among the attendees and great times. If you haven’t experienced this track, you owe it to yourself to try next season.
Now, to the title above. Freude am Fahren is a phrase that BMW has used in its marketing materials for many years. While the translation is imperfect, let me use “Joy of Driving” for what I want to discuss. It is this joy that prompted each of us to take the plunge and join the Club. Whether it is the joy of feeling connected to a machine, the joy of driving up a rural winding road while the sunlight streams through the bright yellow and orange leaves of fall like a soft-focus Hallmark Channel movie, the joy of putting the top down on the convertible on a summer’s night and enjoying the warm air and the stars or the very basic joy of driving your family in a vehicle that you know will keep you safe and give you the capabilities to help avoid an accident. We all share and celebrate this joy.
There is no shortage of written words in which driving is nominally involved – think of Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon and countless others. However, these works are generally solitary journeys in which the driving is merely a means to an end. In some, the author is searching for America, as if it had somehow become lost (perhaps in Middle Earth with the Entwives), rather than admitting it is the author who is lost. Others are an existential journey to find one’s self by slowing down and actually talking with and listening to people met along the way (a worthy goal but not really about driving). Ross Bentley, Carl Lopez and Mark Donohue have each written (and, in some cases, continue to write) about how to become a better race driver but these works focus on the mechanics, physics, physiology and psychology of driving. In racing, the joy comes with winning not the driving per se. However, we are a club. We belong to a club because we enjoy doing things and conversing with other enthusiasts – this is a shared activity and the pleasure of these activities is enhanced by sharing with others (the “Hermit Club” never really caught on). What makes social media powerful is sharing your experience with others, sometimes over great distances, but what makes our club meaningful is that we share experiences together, in person, side by side. As Jeff Caldwell and JT Burkard wrote in the last issue, we join for the cars but we stay for the people.
This brings me to the full title above – Freude am Fahren mit Freunden: Joy of Driving with Friends. This is what we as a club are all about. Much of what I have written about over the years has been about driver schools. I attended my first driver school event as a spectator in June of 1999 at Lime Rock Park– the annual club race and driver school. I watched Ross Karlin, Gary Bossert and Don Salama battle on the race track and then walked around the paddock where Vic Lucariello saw me and said “Hey, let’s get you a helmet and go for a ride with an instructor.” Before I knew it, I was belted in next to Wade “Cold Trail” Wilson, taking corners at speeds I did not believe to be possible. Wade kept asking me if I was ok, because I wasn’t talking, and the truth was I was having so much fun and trying to absorb what was going on, I wasn’t able to speak. I got out of the car and had a grin that didn’t go away the rest of the day. Deb Kolar convinced me to stay for the BBQ; I won a shirt as a door prize. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to do more of and these were the people I wanted to do it with. By August I was enrolled in the Summit Point school and then in September back at Lime Rock. I was hooked.
There is no doubt that there is joy in driving your car at the track as you challenge yourself and begin to fully appreciate how truly capable your BMW is. It is both rewarding and exhilarating as you improve the smoothness of your braking, master heel and toe down-shifting, trail brake as you hit the apex perfectly and get on the power as you unwind the wheel. Doing it turn after turn and lap after lap is not boring because there is always something to improve and something more to enjoy. Importantly however, this joy is magnified when you share it with others. Maybe it is when our dear friend Geoff Atkinson is sitting in the right seat at Shenandoah and says “there’s something I want you to try on this next turn” and then when you do it, you magically execute the turn better and in your E30 you pull away from the E36 M3 behind you to a chorus of “Yeah baby!”. Maybe it is when you’re at Lime Rock and Vic Sr. is in the right seat and guides you through taking the turn onto the main straight off the downhill without touching your brakes (that was a “pucker” moment!) and then whooping it up down the main straight. Maybe it is when Barry Stevens is taking some laps with you on Shenandoah in the Mini and you’re both laughing as the car goes exactly where it is pointed, and catches M4s in the turns. Maybe it is when you’re sitting in the paddock with your friends talking about a particular turn and you mention a little something that you do and then after the next run group that friend comes back equally thrilled that your suggestion worked. And maybe it is when you’re not driving at all but are sitting in the right seat helping a new student discover a whole new world and seeing that same grin that you had at your first school.
The joy that comes with driver schools comes in the quiet moments too. It’s when you leave the hotel with Mark Derienzo in a mini-caravan for the track and pass the manicured lawns and picture postcard New England colonial homes in northern Connecticut, pass through the wooden gates and over the bridge at Lime Rock where driver schools started in 1974 and then roll down the hill into the paddock and see the clouds still in the tops of the hills surrounding the track. You look around and everyone agrees this is going to be a great day. It’s when you drive the local roads in Watkins Glen then up to the track and get out of your car looking over Seneca Lake and think about all the great races and drivers who have been here before. So, in your momentary fantasy, you happen to be at a track or at the bar in the Seneca Lodge and meet Mario Andretti or Jackie Stewart, and you talk to them about driving the Glen and what F1 was really like back in the day. It’s when you get the chance at NJMP to sit in the paddock and talk to a first-time student who just happens to be a combat pilot, test pilot, and two-time pilot of the space shuttle and wanted to give driver schools a try now that he’s retired. It’s when you and Warren Brown leave the hotel in West Virginia, drive past the old hewn log homes in Middleway, through the rolling countryside where George Washington’s brother was a surveyor, past the small farms with sleeping cows and apple orchards and into the paddock at Summit Point remembering that Paul Newman raced SCCA here. Then, at the end of the day, after the barbeque (you shouldn’t have had that second helping of brisket), you walk back into the woods and enter the modern version of a Civil War encampment, pull up a chair under a tent with the campers and tell stories.
The joy of driving with friends (and family) comes off the track as well. If you ever have the chance to take delivery of your BMW in Munich, then do so. It is pure joy to climb into your car at the delivery center and start out on the roads across Germany. Whether you drive through medieval cities like Regensburg, past castles in the countryside, take laps on “the Ring” or find your way on the winding back roads of the Black Forest, you get the chance to understand the heritage behind your car and understand the passion of the engineers to build a machine that connects you to the full experience of driving. The joy also comes from climbing into your good friend Larry Engel’s M235ic on a cold, early morning in January, turning the car south and heading down I-95 past Baltimore harbor, around the beltway of Washington DC (while hoping that dysfunction is not contagious), through the grand old city of Richmond with its complicated role in US history, down through North Carolina and into the low country of swamps and palmetto palms of South Carolina. After a stop for dinner at an odd seafood restaurant (and a memorable waiter) across from the hotel, the morning brings sunshine and open road down through the pine trees of Georgia, past the new economy and glistening towers of Jacksonville then finally turning onto International Speedway Boulevard where the top comes down and we both feel alive with sunshine on our faces and the wind through our receding hair. We turn into Daytona, pass through the tunnel, marvel at the banking (how do cars not fall off?) and then greet Sharon and Jeff Caldwell (among others) in the paddock and find it to be completely normal to once again be among fellow club members a thousand miles from home together watching a 24-hour race. Sometimes the road is anything but joyous but when you are headed to an afternoon game Yankee Stadium with Ross Karlin, it’s the company and the occasion that matters and you count the little victory of avoiding traffic by clever use of streets in Manhattan. Similarly, the joy of the drive can be packing the dogs in the car with Trisha, the person who has shared and humored my automotive obsession with more support than I deserve, and heading north up the NY Thruway through the gentle mountains of Adirondack Park, realizing that sometimes a road trip includes water passage via ferry and then a drive into the White Mountains ending at a summer cabin of a friend overlooking Lake Champlain. Yes, joy can be either exhilarating or quiet and equally satisfying.
I am sure that each of you has your own magical memories of drives shared with friends and family. I am equally sure that the memory is all the more vivid because of who it was shared with. The point is that we don’t need existential journeys to find ourselves; we are blessed with a group of like-minded friends and family who are on the journey with us. We don’t care about political, religious, occupational or any other affiliation, we are here to share the Joy of Driving with each other.
This is my final article as the Driver School Chair – Jamie Kavalieros is taking over the reins next year and will provide much needed fresh vision to our programs. You will still see me at the track and I will stay involved with our instructor training program. If our editor needs some content and I have something worth writing about, then perhaps another submission is in the future. Let me close with words I used at the end of each driver’s meeting: be smooth, be safe, have fun and embrace Freude am Fahren mit Freunden.
See you at the track,