The staff hotshoes who drive for lap times at our annual Lightning Lap speed fest had plenty to tell me when they found out I'd be joining them this year for the first time. K.C. Colwell assured me I'd enjoy it. "It's fun—and stressful," said the guy who had driven at the 11 previous Lightning Laps and holds the outright production-car lap record for the 4.1-mile, 24-turn Grand Course that we use.
Stressful? I have thousands of miles of competition experience; how stressful could it be?
"It's not like racing," Dave Beard cautioned. "It's like qualifying." Since it was my first year there, I'd, um, graciously offered to drive the slowest cars. "There are no slow cars anymore," advised Tony Quiroga, "just less-fast ones. And those can actually be harder to drive." He laughed. Dave Vanderwerp added, "You drive multiple cars, so you have to re-learn the track in each one." And all of them uttered a version of "It's your first time; you'll figure it out."
It almost sounded like a warning, so I studied up. I took pro racer David Murry's VIR webinar hoping to learn the circuit's secrets. I watched countless videos of our guys scorching the track at previous Lightning Laps, and I reviewed YouTube footage of GM development engineer Bill Wise setting a blistering VIR lap time in the Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing. I drew a track map with six pages of detailed notes and diagrams. I was ready. Or so I thought.
But I learned the hard way that Lightning Lap is as much about time management as managing your lap times—and that our editor-drivers make it all look much easier than it is. Once the event kicks off, you're on your own little high-stress island. There are multiple tasks to handle besides the track driving, from shepherding the VBox timing gear from car to car to dealing with unexpected vehicle-maintenance issues. For instance: One of my cars needed new front brakes flown in from company HQ, and three of my Lightning Lap steeds required fresh tires mounted at the last minute. You're constantly consulting with the manufacturer engineers who accompany the cars and coordinating their efforts and those of the C/D road warriors and videographers who are lending their support.
You learn the track and the handling nuances of your assigned cars in frustratingly small, time-consuming bites. I was advised to follow every fast practice lap with a slow cool-down lap to ensure that the brakes didn't boil themselves into oblivion—so I completed only a handful of quick laps each hour. Just as Beard had told me, it was the opposite of the endurance racing I was used to, where I have the luxury of fine-tuning my driving in small increments during two-hour stints of continuous lapping. Lightning Lap's different cadence threw me.
As did the Climbing Esses. That four-corner sequence wriggles like a frightened garden snake trying to slither up a wall. If it were a two-lane mountain road, it'd be posted at 35 mph. It goes by in a heartbeat at triple-digit speeds, even in the "less fast" cars I was driving—the Subaru BRZ, Toyota GR86, and Volkswagen GTI and Golf R. I struggled to find the right line and rhythm through the Esses even after Quiroga took me out and showed me how it's done. It was obvious to me that I was losing multiple seconds in the Esses and through the fast, diving Turn 10 that followed them.
It was enough to keep me up half the night on the second evening, tossing, turning, and pondering why the Esses were so vexing. I concluded that my visual tracking was off; I needed to look much farther ahead as I approached the Esses to place the car properly. But there'd be no time to try out this idea the next day; practice was over. When the sun came up it was time for the official hot laps. I'd just have to wing it.
Luckily, my late-night epiphany was mostly right, and my speed through the Climbing Esses improved, but that morning my newbie status caught up with me in another way. I spent too much time trying to extract a satisfactory lap from the BRZ—hey, the engineers were great guys and had been very helpful, so I felt that I owed them. But making several extra attempts was a time-eating mistake. By the time I started on my third car, the GTI, the clock was winding down toward our noon cutoff.
I rushed to get the timing gear on the GTI, set the tire pressures, and get on track. The timing readout reported that I'd turned a decent lap, but in my frenzy to get going I'd forgotten to slide an SD card into the VBox. My best lap went unrecorded. In desperation—I still had the Golf R to run with only moments remaining—I went out in the GTI one more time and, pressing too hard, slipped off the track on the final corner of my final lap, killing the lap and even dinging up the left front suspension on a curb.
Thoroughly embarrassed, I took a few deep breaths and got out in the Golf R with just enough time left before the track went cold to turn a reasonably representative lap. I was finally beginning to understand how to attack the Climbing Esses, if a bit on the late side.
So, yes, everything I was told about Lightning Lap proved true. It was my first time, I made a lot of mistakes on and off the track, it wasn't anything like racing, it was both fun and stressful—and I think in the end I did figure it out. I guess the only way to know for sure is to come back and do it again next year. Guys, what do you say?