A Spartan’s Day On the Track at Laguna Seca Raceway

PVHS+junior+Ryan+Tomas+driving+his+father%27s+VW+R32+around+Laguna+Seca+Raceway.+

Photo by raceway staff; with permission.

PVHS junior Ryan Tomas driving his father’s VW R32 around Laguna Seca Raceway.

Ryan Tomas, Automotive Editor

I downshifted into third gear and passed a 350Z at about 80 miles an hour, then tucked my car back to the right to brake hard, the Dodge Viper in front of me getting closer and closer. I pointed the car towards the apex of Laguna Seca Raceway’s turn five, the drivers’ side tires rumbling on the inside curb. I followed the Viper out of the turn and onto a short straight section, letting the car out to the other side of the track. The 3.2-liter VR6 engine howled past seven thousand RPM before I pulled the leather-wrapped shift knob back into fourth gear, then entered the braking zone of the next corner and performed one of my favorite techniques, the heel-toe downshift. 

This all started with a simple question; “Do you want to come to a track day?” This was it, the opportunity I’d always wanted. Ever since I was a little kid rolling Hot Wheels around, I wanted to go out on a race track and use a car to its full potential. Of course, I agreed in a heartbeat. I had experience driving fast, but I couldn’t really use the car or the road to its full potential. On the street, the only ways you can experience the performance of your car are on freeway onramps and backroads, but these places aren’t safe to really open up a performance car. On the other hand, a race track is the perfect place. On the track, you don’t have to worry about cyclists, speed limits, or most importantly, oncoming traffic. This means you can use every available inch of the pavement to either side of you, letting you carry crazy amounts of momentum through corners. 

The track that was hosting the event, Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca, is about two hours away from Pinole, so we booked a hotel room a few minutes away from the track. After an adequate night’s sleep, my dad and I got in the car and headed for the race track. Once we got there, we met with our friends who brought their track car, a modified 1986 VW Golf. We all walked over to the meeting room where the leaders of the event went over the track rules and the plan for my group. 

After the drivers’ meeting, I put on my helmet and gloves and drove over to our group’s meeting spot. This group consisted of myself in my dad’s Volkswagen R32, the instructor in a white Dodge Viper T/A, and two other people in a Nissan 350Z and a brand-new Miata. Even though we were just to drive around the track a few times following the instructor, I was already excited. As we lined up before the track entrance, I thought to myself, ‘This is it, I’m finally gonna get out there and really use the car!’ A track staff member waved his arm and the instructor’s Viper grumbled forward and on to the track. I followed him down the entry lane, checked my passenger side mirror for anyone coming up, and rolled out onto the track. 

The first few laps were calm and slow, only going up to about 70 miles per hour in the fastest sections. We were just learning the layout of the track, taking in the elevation changes, braking zones, and feeling out the apexes of the corners. The smooth, well-maintained pavement was a nice change from the cracked, wavy, and off-camber California backroads. Everything was graded and cambered just right, making for a super smooth ride. It was easy to move the car from one side of the track to the other, the smooth road gave me a lot of confidence. On the straights, I could go full throttle, opening the exhaust valves and letting the engine sing. I held the throttle down, spinning it up just over six thousand RPM before shifting the smooth, mechanical transmission to the next gear to hear the engine roar again. 

After about ten laps, we came back into the pits, where my dad got into the car to go out for his session. While he was out, my group went to a driver’s meeting. There, the teachers told us that the next session would be a passing exercise, where one car would wave the car behind them by, signaling to pass. We would do this in four spots, on the straightest sections of the track. 

The group met in the pits again and in a couple of minutes, we were out on the track again. This time, I started in the back of the group because I wanted to fly by people. We rolled on to the track like ducks in a row, just like last time. After one corner, the Mazda in front of me stuck his hand out of the window and pointed to the right. I stomped the throttle to the floor, and the response was instant. The 4Motion all-wheel-drive clawed the car forward like a cat on carpet. I grabbed the next gear and the rocket-like thrust started all over again. I tucked the car back to the left behind the 350Z and hit the brakes hard, shifting down into third gear. I turned the car into the right-hand turn, the centrifugal forces pushing me hard into the thick leather bolsters of the König race seats. I brought the car in and apexed the turn late, the inside tires rumbling on the ribbed curb. I held the wheel at a steady angle, tracking the R32 back out to the left edge of the track. On the way out of the turn, the 350Z pointed me by. I flew by him, coming right up behind the instructor’s Dodge Viper. Braking hard again, I tapped the throttle with the edge of my foot to downshift to third gear. I pointed the car left towards the inside, the sticky tires and banked track making tremendous grip. I got on the gas early, using this grip to shoot the car out of the turn and up the hill towards the Corkscrew. 

The Corkscrew is the main attraction at Laguna Seca, it’s a left-right S turn with a sharp 10-foot vertical drop in between. When you enter this turn, the track just drops away and you can’t see the exit, so you have to aim the car at a tree and just trust that you end up in the right spot, which you usually do. Dropping down into this turn feels like the road just disappears from beneath you, but then the car pushes down and gives you tons of grip. 

We went around for another few laps, the group passing each other when waved by. I came back into the pits and turned the car off. It wasn’t a hot day, but the brakes and exhaust were clicking loudly, cooling off. 

This was what I’d always wanted to do since I was a little kid, it was kind of like fulfilling a prophecy or living a dream in real life. There’s nothing like being able to row through the gears at full throttle or turn into a corner without having to think about cars coming the other way. It’s even better than I thought it was going to be.