The Rough Draft

If you can't go through it. Go around it.

I really need to get a better handle on the whole time change thing. It always catches me out and it doesn’t matter if I’m in a plane, on a bike or in a car. It happened to me in New Brunswick when I failed to account for two hours of time change on that particular leg and I did it again when I went to Spain for my cousin Lucy’s wedding, and eight hour flight, a six hour time change followed by a five hour motorcycle ride through a country where I don’t speak the language on an unfamiliar bike. It only sounds mental because it is.

I knew I’d be leaving in the late afternoon of the second of March and after a brief layover in Dublin, I’d be arriving at Schipol International Airport in Amsterdam the morning of the 3rd. I mean, you can conceptualize it but doing it is something very different. I also have a real problem sleeping on aircraft. Mostly because I’m 6’2″ and somewhere in the layout of commercial aircraft, they decided the perfect human was at least a size smaller than I am. I’d arranged to rent a car and I was going to drive to Bergen and while my initial plan was to get to my hotel and rack out till the following morning, I was informed in no uncertain terms that I would not be getting my room before 3pm. My flight was arriving at 9am. Even with the time it takes to get through customs and if I drove like a tourist. I’d still have many hours to kill.

The flight was pretty uneventful and the inflight meal was actually edible. At Dublin, those of us who were going on to the Continent were whisked through customs to our departure gate. I grabbed a double Cappuccino to fuel me up for the next bit. I was wearing my G-Shock which has a handy world time function where you just punch in a city code and it advances the watch to the right time zone. After an hour on the ground, we were loaded into out connecting flight and off to Amsterdam we went. As luck would have it, I had my whole row of seats to myself.

Schipol International Airport is probably the biggest airport I’ve ever been in. I thought O’Hare was big but it literally feels like you’re walking for miles in Schipol. It combines a rail hub and a bus loop and for want of a better description a massive shopping mall. So after a two mile hike to Passport Control to get my entry stamp it was a short jog over to baggage. Okay, it was another half mile walk but on the plus side, my luggage was waiting.

One thing Schipol doesn’t lack is decent signage, so finding the car rental desk was no issue. Funny thing, everybody always talks about need the international driving permit but I’ve yet to have to produce it and when you offer to, you tend to get weird looks or a shake of the head. I’ll keep getting them when I need to travel overseas because you know the minute I decide it’s bullshit will be the when I’ll need to produce one.

After another one mile walk from the rental desk to pick up my car I was sitting inside some kind of Kia three cylinder box with wheels and while there was a no smoking sticker firmly affixed to the dash, the car reeked of stale smoke and irritated my throat almost instantly. Had I been more awake, I’d have made them switch cars for me. Still, I was mobile for the most part in a car that was vastly underpowered compared to my JCW Mini. You really had to stomp on the gas to get the Kia moving. The on board GPS was in Dutch, so no luck there. I used Google maps on my iPhone to at least get me on my way towards Bergen and the first sign of a rest stop with a fast food joint, I pulled off the highway. It was a Burger King and it was about to teach me two things. First off, you want to use the washroom, it’s going to cost you fifty cents and secondly, they don’t / won’t substitute fries for onion rings in The Netherlands. Oh and a third thing, you buy your rings by number, not size of container. So a few minutes later I sat down with my Whopper combo, medium fries and nine onion rings. At least my bladder was now empty.

I messed around with the GPS until I got it switched over to English. It took a bit longer to get it programmed for the Bergen General Cemetery, where my Grandfather’s grave was. I’d decided that seeing as I was going to be in Bergen and sleep wasn’t going to be an option for many more hours, I should visit his grave first, the head to Bergen aan Zee to the rough location of where his body was recovered. After that I’d try my luck at the Hotel.

Driving through The Netherlands is much the same as driving anywhere in North America, except people actually stay to the right except to pass. It reminded me a lot of the Fraser Valley just without the mountains. It’s very flat farmland with the odd ancient windmill and the much more common modern windmills dotting the landscape. Industrial buildings for the most part look industrial but with more modern edges than get here if that makes any sense. The drive to Bergen and the Cemetary took me just over an hour.

The Cemetery sits at the end of a long narrow drive behind a sort of housing complex. It’s close to a local airport as the drone of small aircraft were fairly constant overhead. The War Graves Section sits sort of off to one side in the back center of the graveyard per se. and there are a number of memorials dotted around the military graves proper. The site is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. My Grandfather’s Grave was located in Plot 2. Row C. Grave 13.

I sank the rocks from Trap Cove I’d brought with me into the ground at the center of his headstone.

My Grandfather’s squadron 214 was part of a massive offensive on the Ruhr Valley that had started back in May of 1943. Bomber Command’s plan was to reduce the industrial capability of Germany by targeting their most industrial area. None of the targets selected were a walk over and while Bomber Command was very canny about the number of routes taken getting the various bomber streams onto their targets, they only allotted three main return routes for the bombers homeward legs. The Sterling Bomber was also limited because of its poor design in its maximum achievable altitude. So while other aircraft could claw for altitude, the Sterlings were stuck down amongst the flack and the bulk of the German night fighter units. According to the German records, my Grandfather’s aircraft was shot down by a Ju88 off the coast of Noordwijk aan Zee at an altitude of 2600m or roughly 8,500ft above sea level. The pilot’s body was recovered at Noordwijk where he in interred and my Grandfather’s body was found almost 70km up the coast at Bergen aan Zee.

In one corner of the cemetery is the marker to the Jewish members of the community who were exterminated by the Nazis.

Overall I spent about an hour at the cemetery paying my respects. It’s a nice space and is well tended.

I wanted to see the area his body was recovered or at the very least, the geographical area. Local records regarding any of the recovered dead in the war graves section were apparently lost around the end of the war. Leaving the cemetery and heading towards Bergen aan Zee I was about to get a better idea of the standard layout of the smaller towns of the Netherlands. It’s hard to discern what’s a road and what’s a lane and you’ve always got to be aware of bicycles and scooters all of which are ridden at a fair rate of speed sans helmet. You do not have the right of way if you’re on foot or in a car.

After winding my way through the very narrow streets of Bergen, I finally got myself on the road down towards the coast and Bergen aan Zee. I will say the weather was pretty unsettled. Sort of that blustery sun with clouds condition that’s not sure if it was going to rain or not. Uncommitted to the point that it feels like near harassment.

I parked in front of the closed Bergen aan Zee Aquarium and walked down the causeway past shuttered restaurants and coffee shops towards the beach. It was pretty apparent that I was on the edge of the North Sea. The wind coming off the waves towards shore was more than a little bitter.

The tide was coming in and as you can see it’s a strong and active current off the coast.
Just trying to capture the how much the wind is affecting the sand and beach detritus.
Getting a bit artsy with some beach grass.
I just liked the interaction between the sand and the grass.
A flight crew with a Sterling Bomber Circa 1943

It is said it’s the journey, not the destination that matters but that’s a bit of a dodge isn’t it? All journeys of any length or breadth consist of many separate destinations, all tied together into a long circuitous strand that can double back on or tangle itself into knots. It goes down weird rabbit holes, reveals secrets you didn’t know existed and creates new questions while not really giving any answers to what you asked originally. In fact by the end of it, you’re not so sure yourself what you were asking in the first place or what you were trying to find out.

This journey of mine, this particular journey, started so many years ago with a small, so small black and white photo of a simple white cross with a rank, a name and a number on it. There was another photo of a young man in uniform, hand on his hip, smiling for the camera. This was Solomon Seward my grandfather, my mother’s father, a tail gunner in a Sterling III bomber. An ill fated aircraft designed by a committee to a specification no aviation engineer would ever have signed off on. It was a bomber that sustained such great losses in combat that it was withdrawn from bombing missions in November of 1943. Unfortunately for my Grandfather Solomon Seward he was shot down and killed months earlier in late July of 43. 

A telegram sent out far too many times to families of missing air crew.

My mother like so many other children of the 1940’s grew up without a father and my Grandmother’s silence on the matter made him a bit of an enigma. Unfortunately for everyone, I like history and a bit of a mystery. I also know how to do research and because I’m somebody who doesn’t mind a bit of motorcycle riding on less than great terrain, I could go to the places that needed visiting.

You see, my Grandfather was from a place called Trap Cove, Labrador. He met my Grandmother when he was at the aerial gunnery school in Dumfries, Scotland. I always have a laugh when people go on about how people were a lot more conservative earlier in the century. How sex wasn’t often on the table and all about fallen women. It’s all bullshit of course. We’re designed to pass on our genes and war has a terrible way of sharpening that drive into an inevitability. I’ve still got to get my hands on my grandfather’s service record to find out how many missions he flew but more than likely, my mother was conceived before he transferred from Dumfries to operations with 214 Squadron No.3 Bomber Group, Chedburgh, England. (You can still see the base outline on Google maps).

The remains of the Chedburgh Air base today. As you can see the base lines are still prevalent.

But back to my journey. When my wife, children and I moved to Ontario from BC, I was for a brief period without a motorcycle. I’d figured my old XT600 wasn’t going to be able to cut it on Greater Toronto Area roads as the average speed was 120kmh and I’d have to lie on the tank and wring its neck to do that. So I sold the bike in BC and moved on. Those of you who do two wheels know what that feels like. It leaves a bike sized hole in your soul and it’s just a matter of time. Well, my job became a shit show and I baled (don’t worry, I’m getting to the destination, right now we’re on the journey) and ended up working on the electrical circuit for a 200KW generator for film. One of the guys there had a mint condition 1979 Yamaha DT175. My first bike had been a 1980 DT175 and to this day I regret selling that bike. Pretty soon I was looking at used bikes and ended up with an 82 Seca 550. A blown motor, a replaced motor, which also blew up on its maiden run my wife had had enough of the older bike scene. She told me to find a bike I could ride and just have to change the oil and service but no more old bikes.

Which is how I ended up with my 2004 Suzuki DL650 V-Strom. It was classified as a dual sport tourer. Which meant it could sort of do off road but it was really more comfortable on tarmac. Well, I’ve been doing stupid shit on less than optimal equipment for most of my life and ugly as she was (I mean she’s beautiful to me) this was going to be my weapon of choice for a good long time.

just after I got the bike my generator building job fell through. I’d seen it coming so I’d reached out to my previous employer. What I do is a bit specialized and I’m one of the few who do it who get the process side of things as well. With a bit of grumbling, they took me back and things settled into a groove for a bit while I built things back up for myself. Or at least that was the plan as I was also pursuing a screen writing career and getting some traction there. In the end that was just a lot of rope being played out and if you want to go back some ways in this blog you can read all about that period of my life for yourself. Anyway about three or four years in to being back with my original employers. The owner of the company in BC sold it to my boss in Ontario. He might as well have just flown out here and thrown a Molotov cocktail through the front door. We were out of business in two years and I was to put it mildly, pissed. Apparently I have a hard time sometimes processing my emotions and it comes out in ways that aren’t too cool. So my wife told me to get on my bike and go for as long a ride as I needed and get my shit straightened out. I of course heard, “Go for a long ride,” and like a shot, I was off. 

That first trip was to and around the Maritimes. It was my first long trip on a motorcycle and yes, there was a certain amount of off road to it but not too much after New Brunswick as the slash gravel there sliced my front tire to ribbons and the shitty bias ply I’d thrown on in Miramachi didn’t really have what it took for any serious dirt.

That trip gave me a taste for the long distance stuff and let’s be honest, North America is a really big place with lots of cool shit to see but like I said, there was this family enigma of my Grandfather from Labrador always hovering around the edges of my brain and just in case you’ve never really looked at a map of Labrador, it’s still a pretty remote place to travel.

With my new found passion, I discovered the Trans Labrador Highway or Translab for short and I saw that I could ride from my front door to a place called Mary’s Harbour and there was a boat there that could take me right to Battle Harbour in the Battle Islands just off the coast and Trap Cove was just a short ride in a skiff around the Tickle. A plan began to form in my head. I’d ride to Mary’s Harbour and take that ship out to the Battle Islands, collect rocks from the beach and then I’d take those rocks to Bergen General Cemetery in The Netherlands and dig them into the dirt at my Grandfather’s grave to put a bit of where he came from, where he now lay.

Of course, the moment you put a plan in motion, the universe pushes back, hard. My initial plan had been to tackle the Translab in the second year after my Maritimes trip. However I ended up postponing for a few years because one of my best friends had Colon cancer and spending time with him seemed a more important thing to do. You can also hunt through the blog for that as well (yeah, no secrets here). Still, Michael’s death galvanized me to finally get my ass in gear and tackle what I’d set out to do.

Battle Harbour, Labrador / Newfoundland
Trap Cove, Labrador / Newfoundland

So there’s the context. I did indeed ride the Translab and ended up spending two days in Battle Harbour. I picked up rocks from the beach from Trap Cove and the die was cast. I just didn’t realize how long it would take for me to make it to Bergen, The Netherlands and my Grandfather’s grave.

I have not given up on this blog.

It’s just sometimes, it’s a bit hard to write about what’s going on and who wants to hear about that sort of stuff anyway. It’s not like I didn’t try to keep up on things. There are a number of unfinished drafts sitting in the story folder, unposted and to be honest, it’s most likely that they’re going to stay that way.

I won’t lie, 2019 was a tough one and it stayed tough right to the bitter end. December is always a tough month for me and my usual response has been to hunker down and create a low profile. Just weather it out but 2019 wasn’t going to give me that chance and between my wife having to be in BC for the first half of the month and my day job going pretty nuts as we finished up some projects I found it harder than normal to deal with everything. Add to that a real paucity of Mental Health support in Ontario and the GTA in particular and it all got a bit dark as I descended down the mine shaft of my brain.

One of the reasons for the depression is due to medical reasons, I’ll be giving up my motorcycle riding. The Arthritis in my shoulder is causing my right hand to lose all sensation after about 20 minutes of getting on my motorcycle. This is a real issue as that hand controls my throttle and front brake. I’d noticed the issue starting around my Utah trip and getting worse during our attempt at circumnavigating Vancouver Island. I’ve got an appointment with a specialist to run some tests in April but I’m a pretty specific rider in regards to what I want to achieve on a motorcycle. If long distance and decent off road are off the table, it’s time to hang up my spurs. This of course put me into a bit of a tail spin in regards to personal identity as well as me needing a certain amount of higher risk activity in my life to feel complete. As previous readers know, I’ve taken to tracking my car and that’s filled the risk side of the equation for the most part but the riding bit will still need some seeing to. I’ve got a really good mountain / road hybrid I enjoy riding and I might look into an off road E-Moto at some point. Small and light enough to chuck in the back of the Mitsubishi Outlander and fun enough to run some single track on. We’ll just have to see.

At least these days when the blackness creeps in from the edges I’ve got coping mechanisms to recognize what’s going on but that only allows you to build the first bulwark which seems to provide a focus point for the rest of the world to attack. Or at least that was how it felt. I’m sure now that was not the case but that’s the benefit of a mental illness, it warps your perception of reality. In the end, in an effort to help myself I decided to only interact with the world at large in a positive way. Something, which if you’ve ever tried, is really, really hard. A smile and an open face have always worked for me during my travels. I reasoned that it would transfer well to surviving in the real world too.

On that score for the most part, so far so good.

In just over a week from now I’ll be flying out to The Netherlands to finally fulfill my promise of putting rocks taken from the place my Grandfather was born and placing them by his grave. You can check out my trip diary starting here about that Trans Labrador Trip. Hard to believe at first it’s been six years but then I pause for a moment and realize it’s not hard at all.

That 2014 trip and the things it turned up answered a bunch of questions about my Grandfather’s life and opened up a few more in regards to my family history. Trap Cove remains one of the most remote places I’ve ever been to and that trip was one of my most memorable.

You can expect a more detailed telling of the whole upcoming experience mid March any of you who are still here that is. It’ll also provide the last chapter of my next travel book, The Big Backyard.

And there you have it, that’s where I’m at. Still banging away at it in world seemed gone mad.

Yesterday was the last lapping day of the year for me and my car. It’s exactly one year in and I’ve come a long way from when I started and I feel I’ve got the skill set well established to take myself and my son Colin out on the track next year.

Your last day on the track is always bittersweet. You look forward to the day but you also know that after this, there’s going to be nothing for the next six months. Which also means you’re not going to see your trackside friends for that long either because much like other things, we all run in different circles when we’re not trying to go faster and while Infinite Motorsports is definitely a business (this shit ain’t free) it does feel like more of a club (with fees and all) and it would be cool to hang out with your friends every now and then to shoot the shit and tell war stories, hell, just tell stories.

The goal this season was always to learn how to drive my car better and to learn its foibles at speed, under braking and also under acceleration. It was never to turn the car into some sort of track beast that would be all but undrivable on regular roads and it was also never to make it, “Look the business,” but never see a track day. Other than upgrading my rotors and brake pads, I kept that promise. I’ve always been a big fan of doing more with less. Mostly because of the the looks of, “How is this happening?” on the faces of other drivers in much more expensive cars as I get past them. That being said, I got lapped yesterday by a McClarren 600LT but then he could buy nine of my car for the cost of his, so I took it in stride. Plus he was a super nice guy when we had a chat trackside. But in full disclosure, I will be tuning my car for next season, so I can challenge some of the more obstinate drivers who don’t like to give me the pass on the back straight.

As far as incidents on the track, I’ve been lucky this last year to only witness or be near a few. CTMP can be a difficult track to get round sometimes and it does get the better of amateurs and professionals alike. On any given track day, the ultimate goal is everybody goes home in the vehicle they arrive in. Nobody wants to see a black or red flag. Yesterday, I got to see both. A few times. The good news is for the drivers involved, their car’s safety systems worked. The bad news was it’s never a fun way to find out. The first incident was on the second lap of the Advanced group’s morning session and it shut down the track for the remainder of their session and a good chunk of our first Intermediate session. Which meant we were going out blind of the track conditions as my instructor (there to sign me off for the day) hadn’t seen the track either. Then there was a mechanical incident in the Novice Class but that was minor (stripped transmission). The final incident though happened a few hundred feet in front of me coming out of turn 5C in the last session of the afternoon.

I had just pointed (indicated) a few cars to pass me prior to turn 4 so there was quite a gaggle ahead of me moving through all of turn 5, one of whom was my buddy Bob in his AMG GTR-S. It all looked very busy. I wasn’t too worried because I knew they’d all be pulling away from me. Coming out of 5C I was concentrating on getting back on the gas and lining up for a proper exit when my passenger goes, “Whoa, whoa!”

One of the cars to our front slewed off the track and hit the right side guard rail. The sight picture in front of me changed from a gaggle of cars to one of dust and debris. Lucky for me, 5C is a turn where I’m really slowed down by the mechanics of the corner so I was maybe coming up on 100kmh when it all kicked off in front of me. I do remember seeing the front grille of the car spinning in the dirt though. Everybody rolled off on the throttle. By the time I hit the flag station at the bridge on the back straight the Black Flag was out and into the pits we all went.

Now I can’t speak to definitive cause for either crash but I can pose an educated speculation. The Sterling Moss Straightaway isn’t actually straight. It’s more of a gentle curve to the right and then to the left. It’s also uphill by probably two hundred feet of elevation. It’s long and it’s the reason CTMP is the fastest track (for achieved top speed) in North America. The best I’ve ever managed on it is 205kmh at the crest, my usual speed there is a few kmh shy of 200kmh. I couldn’t tell you what an IMSA Prototype car does there but I’d wager a guess it’s north of 280kmh.

The section where the off in front of me occured has a rising camber to the outside from left to right. I never really clocked it because I’m usually moving to the middle of the track at that point in the track. My suspicion is the driver had turned off his assists in a bid for more speed. This is one of the things you are asked not to do in the morning driver’s meeting for what you would assume are obvious reasons and if you are a driver in the advanced group, I would expect you to have enough experience under your belt that maybe you can make that call or at the very least make the assessment to make that call. I mean some of the cars out there, especially the vintage racers are completely without any type of aid. I would also expect their owners know their cars intimately and don’t try to push their envelope too hard because it’s not like there’s an unlimited supply of parts. Ultimately, (at least in Sport or like modes) most driver’s aids like traction control are there to maintain the grip of your tires under acceleration. Coming into turn 8 I can sometimes feel my ABS kick in if I’m a little too hot in speed and a bit too heavy on the brake and then as I move through the corner I can sense the car’s traction control as it pulses my brakes individually trying to keep me trim. All with a fair bit of understeer, which is the somewhat bane of front wheel drive cars.

But like I said, that’s straight out speculation on my part. Nobody wants to see any kind of incident on the track on a lapping day but at the same time, when it does happen, it reminds you what the stakes can be and that does add some spice to the whole thing.

Now, if you’ve made it this far and you’re one of the original subscribers who locked onto this because I occasionally talked about writing and probably wonder why I spend less and less time on those kind of posts anymore, I’m going to fill you in a bit. To be fair, the last couple of years have been rough. Lots of family drama and a fair bit of personal life crap dropped on top of that. Plus, to be totally honest my books sales took a nose dive and I’m not the kind of writer who can zorch out a book a month. Maybe in my twenties but those days are long behind me. However, a few months ago I got a call from an old associate and he wanted me to look at a project we’d worked on in the film world a while back and would I be interested in resurrecting it in a new form. He has a fairly successful documentary TV production company. I pitched him a series. He’s interested. So I’m going to give that a go over the next six months to get it up on its feet.

Time will tell.

Sorry for the late post up. I got the link for the pictures the weekend I was heading down to Franklin, TN for the Story Grid Conference. Speaking of which, if anybody wants to ask me about it, I’ll be happy to talk about it personally off the blog as I will not be putting up a post about it.

Speed Therapy Sessions are put on by JRP a local speed shop and pretty much the best place in town to buy your, “Go fast,” products. The September 9th session was sponsored by KW Suspension Systems and they gave a very interesting presentation over lunch and yes, better suspension is something I’ll be looking into for the, “Red Menace.”

The, “Red Menace,” with Bob in tow coming around Turn 3. His AMG GT-S is three times the car mine is but Bob is working on his, “Line,” and I’m not a bad reference to follow as I’m fast enough to be fun and slow enough for him to stick to.

Everybody runs their show a little differently. I’m used to Infinite Motorsports and their briefing up at the main offices at the track. Speed Therapy stages their day down at trackside in the middle offices on pit row. Still, it’s the same types of people who show up regardless of who’s throwing the party and there were more than a few familiar faces and cars in the briefing and down in the pit area.

Like any track day, there are different classes and because I hadn’t been out with these guys before I was in their beginner class. I thought they were going to check me out with an instructor before signing me off for going solo round the track but the reality was if you wanted an instructor, you asked for one, which was fine by me at this stage in the game.

The one thing we all missed was the loudspeaker system being off. Infinite works with a three call system over the speakers so you know when to assemble in staging. There was a lot more clock watching and a lot less track watching without this handy reference. Twenty minute sessions also make for faster turn around as you’re up and ready to go every forty minutes.

Post session debrief. I’m on the far left, Bob is on the far right.

Having a bit of a chinwag in the pits post session is one of the best parts of any track day. You get to see some amazing cars and talking to their drivers is always a plus. The thing that always makes me laugh though is how many people comment on how fast the, “Red Menace,” is. I mean it’s fast enough but where I make up most of my time is my corner entry and exit speeds. I’m carrying a lot less weight and the front wheel drive is very forgiving (IMHO) as long as I don’t come in too hot.

One of the best if not confusing moments was blasting by a Lotus Exige on the back straight. Which I thought was odd until I looked up the specs on their car and realized they were running with a full 60HP less than my JCW Mini. Still, they looked the business.

Putting a bit more air in my tires to bring them up to 36psi. It was still early in the day and they hadn’t warmed up as much as I’d liked for the pressure I was running. Typically they’ll gain up to 6psi in a fast session on a hot track.

Below is what happened to me the previous lap day. I’d had a rim cut that went undetected until after my first session and I rolled into the pits. I had to buy a whole new set of tires and missed the next two morning sessions waiting for them to be delivered and installed. That being said, the new rubber has better grip and ride and I was back on pace within one session.

Sidewall failure. This could have been really bad if I’d been heading into one of the faster turns.

There was a father and daughter there in a Ford Focus GT and they were quick. A good couple of seconds on me a lap even though the Ford was a lot heavier than the Mini. However, they do have the benefit of all wheel drive, something available in the Clubman and Countryman models of Mini but not the F-56 two door hatch.

Coming into the heart of Turn 5, heading for the second apex.

I think the real fun of any lapping day is trying to beat yourself each circuit of the track and sometimes everything lines up and you find yourself in a pocket where you don’t need to pass anybody and there’s nobody behind you waiting to pass you. Though the other side of the coin is passing other cars worth much more than your car or boasting more horsepower. But as has been said in the past, “It not the size of it, it’s what you do with it that counts.”

A better entry and line through Turn 3
Coming up hard on a Porsche Cayman S in Turn 5. I’d get past them at 5C.

Which brings me to the only smudges on a damn good day at the track. When we do the morning briefing during the days I go out with Infinite Motorsports, it’s heavily stressed to let faster drivers by regardless of what car they’re driving. A lot of having a good lap day comes down to understanding your surroundings. That means you check your mirrors who who is coming up behind you and you check the flag stations to make sure you know what track conditions are and what you need to maybe worry about but checking your mirrors is critical to keep the flow of traffic going by you if they’re faster. It’s pretty easy, you get off the line and point them past you. In Intermediate class (my class) you’re expected to have this dialed in. In Advanced class, there’s a lot more give and take and opportunities to pass but there’s a lot more skill there as well and most of the cars are very quick around the course.

In the Novice or Beginner classes, people are still learning and getting the hang of being aware on the track and to be honest, I have no issue with them. You can pretty much tell when a driver is new and finding their way. My issue is more with the experienced drivers who let their ego get in the way of everybody having a good time. But like I said, most everybody was well behaved except for two exceptions. One was a gentleman in a white Jaguar F-Type and as usual, with these types of driver, your issue starts on the straights. Simply put, my 2L four cylinder twin turbo at 240HP can’t compete with a 3L six cylinder putting out 380HP. I mean that’s just physics. But when you brake a full six seconds before I do and enter Turn 8 on a wide line, I’m going to catch you up and if you continue to be slow through Turn 9 and 10 I expect you to call it and let me by. Because here’s the thing, even with all of that going for you, I caught up to you and the only thing stopping me from passing you is a wave by, otherwise I’m bound by the rules to watch you arse it around the track and make a hash of it in the corners. But hey, you’re in a Jag and I’m in a Mini and I’m sure me passing you would be too much to take.

Which brings us to the second guy in a 5.0L Mustang GT, who as it turned out I’ve tracked with before and who was guilty of all of the above sins. The worst part was he’d been a speed bump all day to the point I’d had to launch my friend Bob in his AMG GT-S at on the back straight because he’d held us up for two laps. I was pissed enough I couldn’t let it slide and had to go have a chat with him. Which I hate because usually when you’re talking to other drivers on a track day it’s about how much fun you’re having. Still, there I was explaining to a driver I’ve driven with before about letting me by.

“But I’m faster on the straights,” he replied.

“Yeah, except you’re not.” I pulled out my phone, called up my lap timer and showed him my lap times prior to getting behind him vs. being behind him. On my own, I was a full twelve seconds faster. In the end he conceded that maybe his ego got in the way.

In reality, it got in my way.

Still, it was a decent discussion and we left emotion out of it and hopefully next time we come across each other on the track he’ll give me the wave.

When I talk about my track day experiences there seems to be a general consensus of me being an adrenaline junkie. I don’t see it that way. Have a done some crazy things? To others I suppose the answer is a firm, “Yes.” And from the outside looking in it probably does look like I’m hanging my ass way out there for nothing other than the rush it gives me.

Flip the view and I’m going to tell you the only time I feel any zip of adrenaline entering my system is when I’ve pushed things just past the point of control and the laws of physics give me a nudge to back off.

What I’m really getting off on is that control, the point where your acquired skills, the machine you’re on or in, your interface with it and how it all works within the laws of physics… Well that’s where the real magic happens.

It’s how you can have a moment of total Zen like peace up on the pegs of your motorcycle on the Translab going 110kmh and everything underneath you feels like a crash is about to happen but your heartbeat is steady and it feels like you’re flying instead.

First you trust in yourself, then you trust in the machine and finally you trust what you know to see you through. It doesn’t happen overnight and to be fair you may trust yourself in some situations and not in others. I know what to do off road but I’m lost on a track on a motorcycle and weirdly enough, I’ve never even been curious to give it a try even though I’ve had ample opportunity and I’m a huge fan of WSBK and MotoGP.

Taking my car to the track however? Yes please!

I’m coming up on the one year anniversary of my first real track day. Now that day was full of adrenaline because I simply new nothing and what I thought I knew was wrong. I had to learn to think in a completely different way. When to brake, how hard to brake and when not to brake at all and of course the same for acceleration. Your throttle is not an on / off switch. How to settle your car and how badly wrong it can all go when you unsettle your car. Most important of all, being smooth is faster than going as fast as your car will take you.

This was a counterintuitive lesson to learn but I can back it up with data. Now I’m not saying that increasing my horsepower wouldn’t allow me to shave time off of my lap times as I rocket up the back straight. They totally would But they’d be easy seconds. The only real benefit would be I could take on some of the more powerful cars in that section (I’ll get to more on that in a minute) but the simple fact is at the beginning of the year I hit a top speed of 205kmh on the back straight at Mosport. I think my lap time was a 01:48.89 which I thought was a pretty good lap time for my car. This last Monday I did a 1:44.67 and my top speed for the day was 197kmh and interestingly my top speed for that lap was 195kmh. Obviously, the back straight was not where I was making hay. I was quicker around the rest of the course. My skill set had grown and with that my trust of what I could do with my car (well that and new rubber).

Which brings me to a bit of a dilemma. I can for a reasonable investment put a chip in my car that will increase its horsepower from 240bhp to 300bhp but the bottom line is, I can still only enter a corner so fast and I can still only go so fast in the confines of the corners based on track geometry. Now that bit between the corners? Yeah, I can give it a lot more welly there. The cost of course will be to my brakes and rotors. It does however make me think that perhaps I should start with stickier tires and better suspension.

See? It’s about control not about adrenaline.

It’s always nice to have decent pictures taken of you doing cool stuff. I was lucky that there was a photographer at the NEQ event who was offering picture packages for those of us on the track. He got some good ones of me and my car going through some of the great sections of WGI.

All photos by Alec Connors Photography

Coming through turn 3. 4th Gear foot to the floor. The JCW’s exhaust sounds pretty badass through here.
The first day of tackling the Bus Stop on the back straight. It took me until midway through day 2 before I could make this bit work well for me.
Heading for turn 10 and the front straight. You can see I’ve learned how to set my front end suspension properly for the approach to 10. This was a section where I could catch out faster cars who weren’t as confident in their entry.
At this point, I’ve started to put what I’ve learned together and my entry and exit from the Bus Stop allows me to be plenty fast into turn 5.
Coming out of the Esses was one of my favourite parts of the track. If I’d had a few more horses under the hood I could have been doing 190kmh at the top of Turn 4.
I love this car so much…

I’m on the third or fourth lap of my afternoon session on the second of my two track days. It been a steady progression learning the track both in classroom sessions and in practical instructed twenty minute on track sessions. I’m in fifth gear heading down the front straight of Watkins Glen International with my braking section rapidly approaching, when I glance at my digital speedometer in the center of my wheel. It reads 100mph. I’m coming into a ninety degree corner that falls away from you at one hundred miles per hour! Lesson learned, do not look at the speedometer. Worry about what the car is doing. WGI has large signs on the left side of turn one as you enter the braking zone, 500, 400, 300 – Hard but smooth on the brakes, 200, at 100 I release the brake pedal and turn in to the apex of the corner. Physics and my throttle carry me out to the left side of the track. I’ve all ready had two wheels totally over the curb on that side of the track earlier today when I muffed my braking and carried far too much corner speed into the turn. Your instinct in fact every fiber of your being wants you to turn in to the slide but that’ll make you spin. Des my instructor has beat it into my head over and over, “Open up the wheel, keep your hands straight and the car will come out of it.” But this is my fifth session on this track and I’m finally getting the hang of dropping through turn one. I nail my braking and drift out just enough under throttle to the track out point of the turn where my left side wheels just kiss the paint of the curb.

Watkins Glen is labelled as the favorite track of NASCAR and I can see why. As with any new experience it was scary at first as I was taught how to tackle its twists and turns and changes of elevation. It’s a much more technical track than Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsport Park). You reach the same top speeds on WGI even though it is a longer track but regardless of that, it feels faster. You shift more, you brake more and if you muff it, there’s a good chance you’re going into a wall. That’s not hyperbole, turn 9 terrified me at first because it’s a diminishing radius to the apex and the track out point is a very solid looking bit of concrete. Still, at this point, I’m deep into it and confident of my ability to string the corners together. Confident enough I’ve held off the advances of the ZX-1 Corvette in my rear view for the last three laps. Obviously my 2016 JCW Mini doesn’t have it in the horsepower department against such a beast on the straight sections but lap after lap has shown he can’t touch me in the bits that twist and turn. I also suspect his suspension isn’t as dialed in as mine feels and lastly, my instructor Des races Minis and tests at this track. I listen to what he has to say and try to apply it to the best of my ability.

The map above gives you a pretty good idea of the turns and elevation changes of WGI but it’s one thing to look at a picture, it’s something else to drive it. Which is why track days are always best with a sponsored group who look after tech inspections and make sure skilled corner workers are manning the flag stations and the different skill levels of drivers each have their dedicated track times. I was down at WGI with Infinite Motorsports who were working with the NEQ Audi Owners group. And I can’t say enough good stuff about both groups. NEQ hosted a great track event and Infinite really looked after those of us who put the money out to be down there and while yes, it can be a bit pricey, it’s good value for the money and if you have a performance vehicle, you owe it to yourself to see what your car can do in a place where you can legally and safely do it. Everybody I saw or talked to was very happy to be there and I didn’t see a single incident of anybody getting bent out of shape from anything that went on on the track. It hard to be stroppy when you’ve literally just gone 120mph. The guys and girls in the really high end cars going even faster had even bigger smiles.

The map above shows the turn numbering, for clarity.

In the interest of safety there’s a standing yellow flag (no passing under yellow) for the warm up lap. Once the first car hits Turn 11 everybody is good to accelerate to speed and the passing zones are open. There’s a strict protocol for initiating a pass. The car in front indicates with their turn signals which side they want you to pass on. This can get pretty exciting as our Novice group can really only pass on the straight bits. So coming out of turn 11 on the front straight you’ve got to give it everything to get past whoever you’re passing and then get back on the racing line prior to hitting the braking zone. I always found it easier on my nerves to pass past Turn 4 and Turn 7. This being an Audi Club event the majority of cars were european. Lots of Audis, BMW M class and Porsche was also well represented with Bob one of our group members being the only Mercedes on the field with his tuned AMG GT S (600+hp under his hood). Anytime I saw him in my rear view I just got over on the next straight section and let him by. What American iron that was there was four Corvettes from a car club in New York and a lone Dodge Charger, though to be honest I only saw him for a second. The Corvette guys were interesting. They actually had driven up on race slicks and like I said, they were formidable on the straights (providing they’d managed their corner getting to the straight section). Any Porsche was a monster with the exception of the single red Cayman S in our class who I was able to hang with through a whole session, even though he tried mightily to shake me. No, it’s not a race and yes, it is just for fun but I’ve got to say when somebody in a car worth over twice the cost of yours and with 325hp under the hood compared to your 240hp can’t break away, it’s a deeply satisfying feeling but then the whole experience was deeply satisfying in the end. Each lap is just over two and a half minutes long but it always seems a lot quicker.

There was one casualty of this experience, well four actually. My brake pads were at about half thickness which the tech inspection prior to getting on the track confirmed. After the very end of my last session on the track as I rolled back into the Pits, I got dual warnings front and rear on my brake pads and my car informed me I had 400km left on my rear pads and about 1200km left on my front. Enough to get me home and drive around for a bit while we wait for the new performance rotors and pads to arrive. It’ll be the first real money I’ve sunk into my car to improve performance.

“And so it begins…”

In seven days I’ll be in Watkins Glen, NY. The following morning after an early breakfast and a driver’s briefing at 08:30 I’ll be on one of the most storied and beloved tracks in North America. Infinite Motorsports has us booked in for two days on the track.

It’s funny but I’ve always been big on mental preparation. Forewarned is forearmed. I studied video of guys on the Translab for months before I hit the surface of the road for myself. Lucky for me, there’s plenty of onboard video of laps at Watkins Glen and one of the most helpful is of somebody in their Mini GP. Even so, there’s always nerves before you actually tackle the thing for yourself and find your rhythm. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done a thing either, there’s always a brief moment of uncertainty before I pull the trigger and commit.

Everything about this new pastime has been a learning curve. Driving a car around and around a track might seem kind of nuts to some people but then the same kind of sights and smells that get me going probably don’t do too much for them.

There were a couple of things that needed doing to drive on this track. For one, I had to purchase a SA2015 rated helmet, which is essentially a helmet designed for auto racing. I went full face because as much as I like open face helmets, I like the security of full coverage. I also bought a TOW hook as per instructions though it turns out my JCW comes with one stock. So if anybody wants to buy a TOW hook, I’ve got a brand new one for sale. I’ve also purchased Track Day insurance. It’s not cheap but for the peace of mind, it’s worth it.

All of this also raised the question of lap times. It’s not easy to be consistent on a lapping day as you’re working with and around other drivers on the track and a slower driver in front of you can hold you up until you hit a passing zone or conversely if you need to get over to let a faster driver and car by you don’t do it under acceleration. It’s one of the reasons I try to be first in the chute to get on the track when your session comes up.

So by my calculations I should be able to get within range of a 2:35 lap at The Glen. A full minute slower than the real race pace but I’m in a JCW Mini, not a Ferrari 488. I’m also sure it’ll still be pretty damn exciting.

It was in looking at ways to log my lap times that I started looking at a technological way to make it happen. Garmin Vibe cameras have the ability to log speed, position and G-Force but they’re also around $600. Garmin also has a dedicated smart watch with hundreds of race tracks logged into its memory but at $1600, pretty much a non starter. Plus I haven’t worn a watch in over a decade, so there’s that. Still, it got me to thinking, I bet there’s an app for that and there are a couple. One of which you can couple with an OBD2 reader and put live telemetry right on your video. That one’s logged for later but I did get an app that has the same functionality of the Garmin Watch but only cost me $20.

I’ve also invested in some camera mounts for in the cockpit of the car. So the next post should have some better video than what’s been provided so far.

Not the fastest section on the track but you get the idea.

It’s no secret I enjoy pushing my own limits. Whether it’s with the V-Strom up on the pegs blasting down the Translab or trying to use a dirt track to cross a mountain pass better left alone, and now it’s trying to go as fast as I possibly can around a track in my JCW Mini. Some would say it’s a bit mad and who’s to say they’re wong? But I’m willing to bet, if you were measuring my heartbeat and blood pressure at those moments (with the exception of that mountain pass episode which got stupidly out of hand) you’d see a pretty steady set of measurements.

I can’t explain why I like this sort of thing but ever since I was given the gift of wheels as a small boy, I’ve wanted to go faster, further to the limits of where they’ll take me.

So here’s me trying to explain the feeling inside.

I don’t know much about Zen Buddhism but I’m pretty sure I’ve had a few Zen moments. Back when I was a teenager I was big into slalom waterskiing (a single ski). The best time to do it was early in the morning when the lake was like glass, before the wind had picked up and the waves gained strength. You could just carve away back and forth behind the boat. It was like flying but the Zen part of it was when you’d pull your body through the turn to cut back across the wake of the boat. There was a moment where everything was in perfect alignment, your arms, your body, the boat, the water, even it felt, the universe and it was like somebody was strumming a universal chord and you were the string and then you’d shoot back across the wake.

The other time was on the Translab. I was up on the pegs, leaning forward on the bike and doing just over 1oo kmh. The bike moved underneath me in very unnatural ways but there was a trust there between me and it, that this was the way it was supposed to be and it was as if my head was in it’s own bubble of calm. Everything fell away and my world became that rushing tunnel of three hundred feet in front of me and just the light tough of my hands on the bars and the nudges of my knees on the tank to keep me in line and once again, there was the feeling of that universal chord.

Last year was a tough one, physically and emotionally and to be honest, the final verdict on my riding days is still not in but when a big part of what defines you is wrapped up in something, it’s damned hard to let go of it and the feelings inside it generates. However, the JCW does pull me back towards my mental happy place. The second I drove it for the first time, I knew I’d be buying it and I knew I’d be getting it on a track. There is no greater sin in my eyes than having a thing built to do something and then never doing the very thing it was made for. John Cooper was always about the track. His entire focus was making things that went very fast and handled really well. What he did to the very first Mini’s to make them competitive is the stuff of motorsports legend and the JCW marque on the new Minis does him proud. So when I had the opportunity to learn how to lap my car properly and safely last October, I took it and it was an eye opener to say the least. Though I’ll admit, not very Zen. More of the other creature that also lives inside my head. The one that goes, “Yes, this thing is for us.” You start out a bit timid and unsure of how far you can push things but once you get the hang of the limits you can go to, you push up against them as hard as you can.

October to May is a bit of a stretch time wise or at least it feels as if winter is never going to end. For what was going to be my second track day with Infinite Motorsports I found myself back in Novice class. Which is fine. You need to show what you learned the previous session has stuck and to be fair, my first few laps were rusty and skittish until I managed to settle myself down. I’ll be honest, I was nervous. After the second session, my instructor cut me loose solo on the track. I was consistent enough to satisfy him.

Smooth is fast

Ross Bentley – Ultimate Speed Secrets

I’m on the back straightaway which is a bit of a misnomer as it’s actually more of a shallow curve to the right from turn 5C all the way up to the entry to turn 8. I’m closing on the Canadian Tire Bridge at the top of turn 7 with my accelerator to the floor in 5th gear. It’s taken two half hour sessions in the morning with an instructor to get me to this point. When I pass under the bridge I’m covering just over one hundred and eighty feet every second my braking point is about two seconds past the bridge. In three heartbeats, I’ll cover roughly the length of a football field before hitting my brakes hard enough to load my front end suspension and drop my entry speed into the corner to 150kmh. My tires howl in protest as a push the car tight into the turn aiming the front right tire for the white line at the inside edge of the track.

“Let her drift out, find your grip.” The voice of my instructor plays in my head. I ease off the turn a little and the car drifts to the strip of asphalt about three feet to the inside of the edge of the track. Once the front wheels are on it, I turn in to the right of the car, hold the curve and give her throttle. My tires sound like wounded dogs as I cross the apex of the turn and head into turn 9’s left hander.

Hard on the brakes, down into fourth. None of this Triptronic stuff for me, I’m in a manual, so it’s the ballet of left foot, right hand, accelerator. Turn 10 is another quick flick down to third and let the wheel wind out as I head onto the front straight at 120kmh which feels a lot slower now than it did this morning. I’ll shift into fourth as I cross the start finish line and trail brake into turn 1 so I can enter it at about 125kmh.

First Solo Lap minus my instructor – Shit just got real.

Canadian Tire Motorsport Park is a technical track with many blind corners, which are also off camber. There are also a lot of elevation changes. Each one has its challenges obviously but there are sections I really enjoy like the drop from Turn 2 around 3. Turn 4 is a bit unnerving because you have to brake quite late before you turn in to go down the hill then brake hard as you can and downshift to 3rd as you charge up the hill to the apex of 5b with its tight 34 foot radius. I’m still working on tackling all the sections of Turn 5 properly. Which brings us back to the top of this section.

The thing about Track Days is it brings out a wide selection of people and cars. Everything from a Nissan Micra (one of my favorite racing classes to watch at the track) to McLarens and a good smattering of Porsches and other fastness. All are enthusiasts and everybody likes to talk about their car or their time on the track, compare notes on corners etc. The funny thing at least for me is, I like the social aspect but it really is just the down time between my times on the track.

Next month I’ll be at Watkins Glen for a couple of days, I’m really looking forward to it. There’s a good chance it’s going to be all the time off I can manage this year. At least I’ll be taking it at speed.

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