A lot of guys tell you they don’t get nervous. Well, I think a lot of guys are full of it.
I was feeling much more like a veteran than the rookie I had been four opening nights ago, when we first started racing sportsman cars after eight years of go kart and other smaller racing classes.
We get there, and the pits are so full they’re parking haulers in the general parking lot, and I’d never seen that happen before at Albany-Saratoga Speedway. It’s a busy place today.
Our parking spot was the last one open, carefully guarded by our pit neighbors and the people we get along with. We unloaded the car and practiced, and then prepared for the qualifying race.
The nerves of the past 24 hours had subsided, but I didn’t get a good start, even from second position. The lead starter took off away from me and the third place starter followed him. I settled down into the third spot, content to be in a qualified position, until I saw the red and chrome front end hustling up on my right side in the middle of the corners. He didn’t have enough speed to get by me, I thought.
Two laps later I was fourth. When the checkered flag flew on the heat, I was fifth. We were headed to the last-chance race.
Staying positive is something I have worked hard on doing in the past year or so. I try to remember that a lot of people will never heave the means to pursue their dreams, especially in the highly competitive and expensive world of auto racing. Discouraged with the heat race result, my Dad and I chatted about adjustments to make for the last chance race. He has been at every single race I have entered since I was 8 years old, which, if you are keeping score, is all of them.
We made some adjustments and headed out for that last-chance race, which is exactly what it sounds like: the last chance to make the main event. They would only take the top five finishers to advance, out of nearly 20 in the race.
These races are tricky in the daylight. The track dries out from the sun and takes most of the grip away in the surface. It becomes hard to pass. I got hung up in the outside lane for most of the race, considerably slower than the inside. I slid back to third, then fourth, and eventually back to sixth, outside of a transfer spot.
It looked like the day would end early, until a wreck in front of me with a handful of laps to go. Every wreck in front of you is a chance to gain positions. It is also a chance to make a long week and empty your wallet. Two cars had been fighting for a spot and they made contact. I slowed the car down and darted to the outside of the wreck, missing it entirely. When the race resumed, I was fourth, playing defense down on the inside lane to qualify for the main event.
And I did.
At least we had made it into the race.
Starting 28th in a main event is almost a comfort zone for me, because the expectations are lower, the drive is more fun, and you get to watch 27 cars in front of you, which helps me figure out which lanes are working and which ones aren’t. I’ve made some decent drives before at Albany-Saratoga, but this clay surface was drier and harder than usual.
The outside lane seems so far away and it offers no advantage. The start is calm. I just drove and tried to keep the car as far to the inside in the corners as I could and get off the corner with some speed. Other than that, there wasn’t much to do. Cars were all over in front of me, I wasn’t gaining, but I wasn’t losing either.
And then, a mess started to brew.
It was a three car accident, that hadn’t happened yet, but I could see it was going to.
Two laps later, it did. One got away, but two cars sat still in turn three stuck together, waiting on the tow trucks. When that got sorted out, I resumed the race from 25th position. The car’s handling improved as the race went on, and from that lap 11 restart to the 25th and final lap, we climbed up to 19th.
There is nothing glamorous about 19th, and 19th doesn’t pay the bills, but 19th from 28th without any damage is a good enough night to be content with. We can take the car home and do routine maintenance, no lengthy repairs.
We rolled the car onto the trailer in minutes and could leave right away to start working on things for next weekend, which is all you can do.
Keep working for next weekend.
In racing, if you’re lucky, 90% of your races will be plain, uneventful, mediocre, finishing further back than you wished or thought you could. Five percent will be great, with wins, spectacular moves and passes, and jubilant crowds cheering. Five percent will be really bad, with wrecks, rolls, scares, fights, and sometimes bans of various lengths.
It is up to you to make the most of that 90% so you have more than just 5% of your time to remember.