by David Ray
A TRIP TO EUROPE TO DRIVE: THE “RING” AND SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS
I’d intended to compose a compelling story about our experience in hosting 25 HOD drivers and their special people in Belgium and Germany… at iconic tracks named Spa-Francorchamps, and the Nurburgring Nordschliefe. But if that is what you’d like, this may disappoint.
Instead, this turned out to be a story about a lifetime trip and experience of a 69 year-old guy who’s had a lot of laps over the years. Highs and lows… wins and losses… but ever-present has been a silly love of cars, driving… and then, racing. All of that took me to a dream of sharing a passion for these things while making a living with HOD. OK, I hadn’t actually envisioned selling legal drugs, per se, but that’s what HOD became. It’s an addiction, a bad habit, a good habit, a motivator, a source of challenge and excitement, and disappointment too. Like any drug, it can be abused or misused. But drugs have more upsides than downsides. Taken properly, they can cure diseases, infections, clear the head, and numb pain.
So…. with those thoughts, I’ll share my adventure of bringing around 40 good friends and acquaintances to the ultimate HOD drug, Spa-Francorchamps, and the all mighty Nurburgring Nordschleife.
If you’re not familiar with these places (they are world famous race tracks in Europe), I’ll ask that you spend some time Googling them to get you prepped for this story. With the Nurburgring Nordschleife, you’ll read about a race track like no other in the world. This course is 14 miles long, with 70 turns, mostly blind… only one real straight, and elevation changes throughout the course… oh – and very little runoff anywhere. Spa-Francorchamps is THE COOLEST track in Europe, if not in the world. A current F1 track, at 3.5 miles and the most famous turn in the world, Eau Rouge, this track is one of a kind as you’ll learn. Suffice it to say that Spa-Francorchamps and the Nurburgring are REALLY big deals. Really.
With a humble thank you and respect for the 25 drivers who joined us, I’ll share my take on the odyssey…
Picture an older fella who has a few pelts in his pouch from racing over the years, but never bagged the big Grizzly… that’s me. An amateur racer who has been a front runner and occasional winner while earning only plastic trophies and ego boosts. No one ever offered to pay me to drive a car for them. So what does this guy do, as things slow down just a tad and his friends are all retiring and having hip replacements? It’s a conundrum of a lifetime… do we start focusing on arthritis, neuropathy and indigestion, or what tire compounds to order for the new track day car?
Then sometimes fate touches us, and it’s up to us to decide how to respond… Arthritis? Take ibuprofen. Schlep 25 HOD drivers and their special people to Spa-Francorchamps and the Ring?… Of course you idiot! Put the word out and OMG – the program was sold out in 45 minutes.
Everyone was on their own to get to Nurburg, Germany… as the format for our trip was to begin by meeting our host/partner Ron Simons, Founder of RSR/Nurburg, at the working HQ for RSR rentals and programs on the Nordschleife. Here we were given a thorough driver orientation and assigned our cars for the four days… talk about Christmas in July! Everything from track prepped VW Type R’s, and Renault Megannes, to track-dialed BMW M2-3-4’s, and Porsches from Cayman GTS all the way up to a brand new 992 GT3 RS. This first full day included a special opportunity to really get to know Ron Simons. Ron is an amazing man who has built a substantial operation that would impress Roger Penske. He and I hit it off, as we’ve both been around a few blocks, and are still kids at heart. But when it comes to expertise on these tracks, Ron is THE MAN.
Our first day was warm up-welcome day to overcome the time change, get our bearings, and see the amazing Spa-Francorchamps Circuit. Our program introduction drive was a gorgeous and sporty tour through the Moselle Valley (YES, with the track cars that all were licensed) from Nurburg to Stavelot. Here, we were introduced to the amazing RSR/Spa facility that houses many cars, a shop, a car collection and client entertainment areas… This facility is literally adjacent to the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, so in to the pits we went, followed by an orientation and without delay, group lead and follow sessions, guided by the RSR instructor team. Let’s just say that everyone who drove these mellow/sessions on Spa-Francorchamps was captivated and captured… and intimidated… Mercy sakes this is a Big Boy/Big Girl track like none of us had seen.
ON TRACK: SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS
While I had been concerned about splitting my focus between shepherding our group and wanting to drive, I saw over the first couple of sessions that, while this is a VERY fast group of drivers on a fast track, things were very well managed. And first impressions started coming in as the HOD drivers put their first hot laps in… all with pro instructors or leads. It was like little children who had just gotten their new puppy… the energy was electric and our team was moving up the scale of improvement with every session. Spa-Francorchamps, it was a consensus, became everyone’s new favorite track. Big, long, fast, variety, elevation… it has it all. With this great start to the day, I finally switched gears from HOD leader to driver and strapped in my sweet RSR/M2 Competition with partial cage, racing suspension, seats, brakes and paddle shifter to set sail at Spa-Francorchamps.
I was treated to some lead and follow laps right out of the box, but they weren’t slow… Ron himself showed me the way, and we were traveling at a respectable pace in a short time. Spa-Francorchamps is amazing, but do-able, challenging, but fair, fast but one does not feel out of control. And with the track’s modern improvements there is good runoff in most places. It is FASTER and BIGGER in scale compared to any tracks in the U.S. except Road America, Watkins Glen, and COTA. There is no way to explain Eau Rouge, a turn I’ve been amazed watching on TV for years… It is unique in the racing world. This turn, approached near maximum velocity, is in the midst of a very steep, LONG hill, where in the middle of the rise, you must flick right just as the hill takes hold of the car, maintain that line for maybe a second or less, and then smoothly bring the wheel back to center as you virtually fly over the top of the rise, and hopefully you end up on apex and the track. Truth be told, I was TOO ambitious my first time, entering too hot, turned correctly, but did NOT hold the turn long enough, unwinding too soon, which brought me up and over the hill 30 feet to the left of the track. Thank goodness my instincts said “CHILL!” and I just drove over the domed, paved inside runoff area and fed right down to the exit and continued without drama… Yikes. The circuit is a fantastic mix of different radius and directional turns with LOTS of elevation changes affecting the camber of the track. And, did I mention this track is LONG and FAST!!! It demands total concentration, good judgment while acquiring the track, advanced skills at braking and trail braking, soft hands, great forward vision, total awareness, and a dash of bravery.
As the day progressed, the joy and excitement of the group went up exponentially. There were vociferous high fives after every session. And – like a Dad proud of the kids… the HOD drivers stood out as safe, skilled drivers who were handling very fast traffic well… and pace was very respectable. The RSR instructors became a huge asset in guiding the team… some stayed with the less experienced, and like an HOD event, the more experienced evolved to solo driving and fitting right in with this group of Spa-Francorchamps regulars. Too cool. While Spa-Francorchamps is fast enough to be intimidating, it also has space for a mistaken early turn in or missed apex. The day was pretty clean, considering the pace and volume of traffic. The RSR team had us staged in the perfect location, using Formula One garages on the main pit lane… with hydration, food and track maps to create the perfect atmosphere of fun and support.
In the end, the group was over the moon about the track and event… a wonderful release of some built up angst… all of us reassured that our skills were good on other parts of this big earth.
With amazing social events interspersed, and our significant other/plus ones well cared for with side tours and trips, we transitioned back to our home in Nurburg… home of the world-famous Nordschleife.
AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY: MY EXPERIENCE AT THE NURBURGRING NORDSCHLEIFE, A TRACK LIKE NONE OTHER:
This is really where the personal part of this story starts. I’m responsible for this amazing group of very cool people, and we’re going to take on the most intimidating race track in the world. While we’d gained great confidence in the RSR team to support us, this track is just scary… and there is no comparison to any other. Is the HOD driver group good enough? Can we remember the reference points and blind hills and turns from
our time on the SIM or going bleary-eyed watching the video of Ron Simon’s recon lap? At the track, we see many, many cars readying for the day… seemingly all of them are GT3 RS’s… seriously… Ron and I had spoken about my role for the day… and I was truly conflicted. How do I learn the track so I can help, if I’m doing logistics, answering questions from drivers, and helping folks get ready? I told Ron I just wasn’t ready to hop in a car and forget our customers’ possible needs. Who would be around if I’m on track and something happens? So my M2 sat. It was a weird time, where everyone was readying for battle and I felt like I was just handing out ammunition…very unsettling. Then the green flag flew and Ron grabs me and says “Get your helmet, you’re going with me.” Yikes… the Master of the Ring has summoned me. Since I had no other plan, I complied with Ron’s request. He is the group lead/follow car for the HOD advanced group… and we’re off. Immediately I feel that he’s going too fast too soon, needing to slow for the group to pack up occasionally. But I settle in, noting that Ron is working the car but not tossing it, so I have a chance of not getting motion sickness… Overcoming that and seeing my third lap from the passenger seat, I began to really see the track and consciously move in to a mode where I’m virtually driving the car from the passenger seat. I started moving my feet for throttle and brake, turning my hands as Ron is, noting some key reference points. Certainly, I’m not confident that I’m really memorizing all 14 miles, but the place is starting to get familiar. I know where half way is, I know where the slowest turn is, the Karussells, large and small, the screaming downhill esses that can be taken flat out and straight (my favorite), and segments start to become familiar.
I think that learning segments, and then learning how to connect them was getting programmed in my brain during this wild time. But the stress was gone and I was, in my mind, driving the Nordschleife. After 6-8 laps, getting quicker each lap, I must admit that I was starting to have a major urge to actually drive this massive and intimidating track.
About this time, Ron says… ”OK last lap… we’ll take a break and get you behind the wheel.”
DAVID BEHIND THE WHEEL:
Gulp. This is the scenario I feared. All of our HOD drivers have just had a great introductory session driving the Ring. And I had been a passenger….yikes…what does Ron want me to do? Ron answers my question: “OK, I lead you, and you lead your group.”
Just stay with me and it will be fine. Oops… forgot a detail here… he “stuck” me in a brand new 992, GT3RS instead of my fun little M2. OMG!!!!! And I’ll have our advanced group following me!!!!!! And I’m not sure if I’m insured!!!! Sidebar: this drive was made possible by the HOD driver and good sport Richard Jackson “loaning” me his RSR track rental… double yikes!!!! After some chit chat and hydration, Ron says to “Saddle up.”
What comes next was one of the most intimidating, exciting, satisfying, pressure relieving, amazing experiences of my 69 years. As we took off, with the confidence of a fast but trustworthy driver ahead me, I relaxed and started doing what I know I can do… drive. The concentration I’d applied to my passenger laps kicked in… I knew many of the turns now, but still had the instinct to hesitate but decided to just “do it.” With total confidence in my leader, and the “best car I’ve ever driven” GT3RS, we started boogying and I glued myself to Ron, began getting out of turns quicker and quicker (we’d forgotten to have the Porsche in S mode), and I’m going flat out down the esses I described MY FIRST TIME BEHIND THE WHEEL! Oh, and when you bottom out, compressing your spine, you go back up a steep hill, STILL FLAT OUT!!! Ron sets up right of center approaching the crest, gives it a 10 degree touch of the wheel, and we flow over this top-of-hill bend at what scared me as a passenger, but now feels natural and the thing to do. This session was a religious experience and epiphany all in one, as all of my training and experience became instinct. Habits like controlled entry and early throttle on exit, late apexes, smooth brake application, eyes up, looking ahead (thanks Ross B!) to see berms and knowing why they are there. I started noticing the black tire marks on berms showing me the way… it was magical. With me behind Ron, driving my fi rst laps, we picked up the group’s pace for the quickest session of their day, and as we parked the cars, I was proud to receive high-fives from the drivers who followed and knew that it was my maiden voyage, but a very fast maiden voyage. To say that this was a relief and a bit of validation is a massive understatement. In a short session I’d both driven quickly on the Ring, but did it in front of our customers… and it went well. I was beside myself, feeling what all of the other drivers had already felt… the sense of relief and accomplishment… that “I did it!”
So… in reflection, I’m still finding the Nordschleife to be that draw that comes with hesitation…the high dive at the pool, the shipwreck that you want to dive, the peak you want to climb. There is danger that is real. This is not for a beginner’s skill level. But with some track days under one’s belt, reasonable acumen, and an excellent Coach, this can be done. For the ex-racer, track day junkie, hard-core addict, this is the Holy Grail. There is no track like it today and it’s certain that another won’t be built. There are risks in driving the course any time, by anyone. But the excitement and sense of accomplishment is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. As a driver of the “Ring” you are part of a community of soulmates that have shared a truly exceptional and one-of-a-kind experience.
As our trip to Europe drew to a close, it was with some sadness to not be able to stay for more. But then again, it’s wise for a gambler to pick up chips off of the table when the time is right. We’d had enough fun for a lifetime, and yes…I’d like to do it again sometime soon.
Thanks to the 25 drivers and their supportive guests, and a special thanks to my special person, my wife Brynne, who was so patient with my nerves, and saw to guests needs. Thanks also to our customers for their trust in the HOD name in choosing this trip, partnering with Ron Simons and his amazing RSR organization. There is already an electronic community of these drivers that is still buzzing… and I doubt if anyone would say they are the same person after driving Spa-Francorchamps and The Ring.
For those of us drivers who are in the latter part of the race, there is NO question in my mind that, if one can afford it, The Ring is much, much better than Ibuprofen and the easy chair. And the sense of accomplishment is certain to give us a golden memory to treasure when the time comes for us to hang up the helmet.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you at the track….