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Awesome Weekend at Circuit of the Americas

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mclaren

I have the biggest smile on my face as I’m typing this INTRO because my first guest blogger is going to be… my husband, Erick! 🙂

A little over a week ago, Erick and I visited Austin so he could cross a few things off of his bucket list – one of those things being driving a McLaren and the other driving on the Circuit of the Americas track. (Talk about killing two birds with one stone with this one!)

Erick and I have been married for a little over 6 months now, and I was so happy to get to share this experience with him! (More on our wedding here.) This actually happened right after I got my camera, so I was really happy I got to photograph this once in a lifetime opportunity.

Because I don’t know all that much about cars, and I wasn’t the one who actually drove on the track, I though it would be best for Erick to write this post. I am so thankful that he agreed to do it and puts up with all my blogging shenanigans.

Here we go! 🙂

Hey!

So if you’re reading this blog then you already know who Anna is. And you probably know she has a doofus husband. Well…. I’m that doofus. I’m no writer, and have never blogged, but not too long ago Anna asked me to guest write about my experience of at a weekend I spent driving at COTA (The Circuit of the Americas). I’m happy to give it a shot. So get ready to have your faces melted off! Or get pumped! Or… well please don’t stop reading now.

For somebody like me, driving at the track was a big deal. And for you to see why it’s a big deal, I’ll give you a bit of my background.

circuit of the americas

My 7am-4pm, Monday thru Friday job is being a Mechanical Design Engineer (please don’t stop reading here either if you hate engineers :/). I design industrial mowing equipment to be used on agriculture tractors. Not the kind of stuff that’s cutting down the rainforest, just the kind of stuff that keeps nature from eating humans. To get this job I went to school for 6 years! One more year and I could’ve got my PhD. But I decided after 6 long, long years, I decided to settle for my bachelors degree (that last bit about the PhD was sarcasm – I barely made it out alive). So why did I punish myself for 6 years?! Because I liked car stuff.

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NOW WAIT JUST A MINUTE!  Before you get any ideas “oh this dude is just another ‘car guy’” hold it right there. I like car-stuff but I am not a ‘car guy’. I hate the phrase ‘car guy’ because it paints a picture in people’s heads of someone that can’t hold a normal conversation… unless it’s about cars. Everybody knows that one guy (or gal – I don’t discriminate between crazy people) who loves to intimidate others with their ultimate knowledge of anything with wheels. I very much dislike that type of person. I respect that everybody’s got their thing and most of the time it’s not relatable to what you wanna hear about. Which is why I am a ‘car stuff liker’ and I promise not to bore you with car specs or numbers or anything like that. To me, my car stuff evokes an emotion. And with my once-in-a-life chance to post a blog via Anna, I am going to do my best to convey that emotion.

I don’t remember when I started to like car stuff but I do remember my first time playing Super Mario Kart on a Super Nintendo and thinking this thing… right here… IS… THE… SH*T!!! (or whatever is equivalent to ‘the sh*t’ for a small child). From then on it was my own go-kart, a couple of tools, small motor parts, and whatever other mechanical contraptions I could get a hold of.

INTERMISSION – Get up and go take a break if you want. I don’t know if there are ever intermissions in blogging but eh, I’m new. I’d like to take this short break to thank my amazing wife. You people get to see her pictures and hear fun stories of me, but what you don’t see is what she has to deal with. I’m still that little kid bringing tools, motors and stuff home. Except everything is jumbo-sized now. The go-kart turned into two cars, the tool count is extremely high and still counting, and the parts… well the parts are still there. Yet Anna still says she loves me! Thanks, Babe!

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This passion for car-stuff and mechanical stuff let me to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering – with no idea for what it actually meant. Along the way I gained appreciation for all forms of engineering. But instead of taking my passion away from car stuff, it only grew. Working as a valet driver (happy car stuff) I got a project car half-way through school. Tinkered with it, and blew it up (sad car stuff). Then I joined a team at the school that designs and builds a race car for two years (exciting car stuff). Those crazy people elected me as lead design my last year of school (stressful car-stuff). And after I graduated from school I got the car that I had blown up running again and I regularly race it (‘re-united and it feels so good’ car stuff).

So, yes. I enjoy and am passionate about car-stuff. Although… not a car guy.

ENOUGH ABOUT YOU, MAN! GET TO THE DRIVING EXPERIENCE!

Aight. I’ll get to the driving experience part and I’ll break it down into three categories. The track, the car, and the experience. I’m not sure how else to cover it. So please enjoy.

THE COTA TRACK

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The Circuit of the Americas (aka COTA (aka coh-duh)) is kinda a big deal in the world of racing. It’s mostly known for being on the Formula 1 circuit. Some people might not know why that’s a big deal but I’ll sum it up. Formula 1 has between 18 and 22 races a year and no two of them are in the same country. When there is a race it’s an international affair with over 100,000 people showing up. Usually a celebrity or two will show up and… Ok. I know. I got off track (pun!) again… The track itself is a beautiful place to visit. It consist of rolling hills, vibrant colors, and plenty of safe run-off room when the car just doesn’t want to stop. The first turn takes you up a 13-story climb which feels a lot more like a roller coaster than a road. On the way up your vision is limited to the sky as the track disappears the higher you get. At the top of the hill you can see down-town Austin which is almost 10 miles away. The beauty aside, most people want to know what the track is like to drive on. Simply put, the track is the most awesome piece of anything I’ve every driven on. Ever. The surface is ridiculously smooth giving you the confidence to push the car to its limit. Of course the straightaways allow you to fully push the car but on a track like that, 100mph feels like 40mph on everyday roads. I’m not sure if it’s the width of the track or the white and red markings flying by but it skews your perception of speed.

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The week leading up to the driving the experience I practiced driving 10 laps a day. On the track. On my computer. In a video game. With Anna laughing at me in the background. Did it help? Absolutely it did! But it also pointed out what I couldn’t have prepared for using a video game. Two corners of the track were hidden by the crest of the hill before them. What did this mean? It meant that the racing line (ideally the fastest path to drive on) was skewed at these corners. The track was wide enough so that your peripherals weren’t much help and there were no markers to guide the way. This makes these sections EXTREMELY hard to get perfect. Besides that, there was more than one corner with several apexes I needed to hit, which was also a very delicate line.

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To sum it up, the track was more than I hoped for. More than I have ever heard about before. And I can’t wait to drive on it again someday.

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Driving a mclaren

My car for the day was a McLaren MP4-12C. No, that’s not the SKU number on a bar-code under the seat. It’s the car’s actual name. If you want to buy a super-car you can go to the Italians for passion, the Germans for precision, or the British for… terrible names. However, naming convention aside the car was absolutely fantastic.

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At first look the outside of the car lets you know that this is something different. It’s styling is not as loud as a Ferrari or Lamborghini but you can’t necessarily miss it in a parking lot. The one I drove was a burnt orange color. Burnt orange says “Hey, I am a car that is also super. FYI.”

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The inside of the car was the perfect blend of luxury and simplicity. Too many BMWs, Audis, Mercs’, and other luxury cars are tied up with copious amounts of buttons. The McLaren? It had 4 buttons with a knob for the entertainment system and only 5 more buttons to control car settings. Everything was covered in leather, and things that weren’t in leather were showing off some carbon fiber skin (If you non-car-stuff-likers are still here, carbon fiber is the bee’s knees of the motoring world). I sat down in the car expecting the seat to do a good job of driving but a bad job a racing. A good seat to drive on provides you with enough comfort and support to allow the driver to go long distances without getting anything like cramps, bruised kidneys and livers, or broken bones. A good racing seat holds the driver upright under full braking, cornering, and acceleration leaving his or her legs and arms free to control the car. When racing, your arms can’t be holding your body in place. They’ve got more important things to do – just like your feet. Thinking that this was a semi-luxurious production car I expect my arms to get a workout when I pushed the car but to my surprise, they didn’t. The seats were excellent and held me in place, allowing me to push the car even harder.

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What’s the most amazing thing about the car?! THE TIRE STEM CAPS!!! Just kidding. I didn’t look at those. Please do not search for McLaren stem caps after this as nobody should care about that. Was it the speed?! Nope!. The instructor limited me to 125mph – I pushed it to 130mph before he started flailing his arms to signal me to slow down – but that’s OK. I’ve never been crazy about top speeds. Speed is just the bi-product of the acceleration that gets you there. Have you ever been on a plane laughing uncontrollably with excitement about flying at 500mph?! NO! But people grin all day long during take-off!

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So what was the best part of the car? Its handling. After the experience a friend of mine asked my how my daily driver and weekend racer felt after driving this car. Well, as weird as it sounds they both handled like the McLaren. No they are not supercars and the McLaren was obviously better but the McLaren handled both roles really well. It absorbed any bumps and disruptions smoother than my daily driver but it also maintained similar body roll and stiffness comparable to my weekend racer (I destroyed my weekend racer’s drivability on normal roads by stiffening it up to make it handle better). Usually handling is a give and take relationship. Tune it for everyday comfort or aggressive track driving. But the McLaren lets you have your cake, eat it, then ask for plenty more. The engineers at McLaren knocked it out of the park by making a suspension package that can handle both. Wanna know the secret of the mindset behind designing a system like this? Forget how to name things with a proper name.

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My one complaint about the car was the throttle pedal. There were 3 very distinct phases. The first phase is about 50% of the travel and it’s for cruising. It keeps you from making sharp or aggressive movements when you just want to cruise. The second phase was about 40% of the travel and that was for getting on highways and up on-ramps. It was way more brisk than the first phase but nothing too out of the ordinary. The third phase and last 20% of travel is balls-to-the-wall acceleration. The kind of acceleration that moves your stomach up into your chest so it can hang out with your throat for a little while. It was awesome… but… it was initiated by a very very distinct click of the pedal. Which I didn’t like because it took away from the driver being able to modulate the acceleration through feel. It was more like three consecutive switches which were very hard to get used to.

Overall Experience

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Every racing event I’ve been to I go through the same process. I get to the event and a butterfly starts flapping around in my stomach. Then I line my car up on the grid and I get a couple more butterflies going. Finally, at the starting line, my arms and legs are slightly twitching because of all the damn butterflies!! But after I get the green light to go and my foot presses onto the throttle it all comes to a sudden stop. It’s as if I shed off a cocoon of nervousness and anxiety leaving it right there at the start while I begin to fly away. The car’s engine is screaming and the tires are squealing but to me everything it still and silent. All my focus is on the track and finding the rhythm to match it. I don’t feel my arms or my legs or even my head. Instead, I feel the car. I feel every little bump the tires roll over, the weight transferring across the vehicle as I enter a corner and the delicate balance between the steering angle and throttle as I leave it behind. This is my racing-nirvana and nothing else I have experienced gives me this deep, focused, feeling. This is why I race.

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So did I get that with my experience? Not really. I did get the butterflies. And taking off in the car felt great. But with an instructor setting next to me semi-yelling instructions it sucked me out of my nirvana and back into the car with him. I did try to follow a rhythm and get back into it but I realized he wanted me to drive the car and not race the car. I can’t blame him. There was a line of people still needing their turn so I couldn’t push the car too hard (I think he was a tad bit scared when I pushed the braking limits).

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All in all it was an awesome experience. The track was flawless, the car was great, and the experience was good. No, I didn’t get exactly what I was looking for and I left in a daze, starving for more. But! it was an amazing opportunity that not many people get. One that I am extremely grateful to have been given the chance to experience. And one that my amazingly supportive wife let me chase down.

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If you’re still reading then you made it!!! Thanks for checking out my adventure. Maybe, just maybe, Anna will let me pop-in again sometime.

Thanks for reading,

Erick