With the 2005 racing season on the horizon, I can’t help but reflect back on my one year of racing experiences on one of the fastest and most demanding race tracks that I have ever driven. Despite the fact that when I was a young man, I had the pleasure of racing on historic European venues like Germany’s old Nurburgring and Hockenheim, Spa in Belgium, and Monza in Italy, I still would have to rate Road Atlanta as one of the fastest and most unforgiving tracks in the world.
Sir Sterling Moss once said, “To race a car through a turn at maximum speed, is difficult, but to race a car at maximum speed through that same turn when there is a brick wall on one side and a precipice on the other…Ah, that’s an achievement.”
Close Racing at Road AtlantaThough the precipice is not part of the racing equation at Road Atlanta, there are numerous places throughout the track where a mistake can lead to disaster on either side of the road. In fact, during the nearly twenty races I drove last year on a half dozen tracks, Road Atlanta was the only place where drivers in my class (Spec Miata) were life-flighted out by helicopter. These incidents occurred in Turn 1, Turn 5, and the Esses, but even though no one was injured, the worst appearing accident I observed was coming out of Turn 12 during the ARRC in November.
Actually, the first time that I ever saw Road Atlanta was more than two years ago. I had taken Panoz executive, Joey McBride, on several fishing trips to Lake Lanier, so he invited me to see the track and maybe take a ride in one of their GTS race cars. Instead of being driven around the track, however, I was given the opportunity to drive and I accepted.
Since I didn’t have my own helmet, I was given one that didn’t fit too well, and I was unable to wear my glasses in it. Also, the seat had been adjusted for someone much taller, so I could barely see over the hood. Nevertheless, I picked my way around this strange race course half blind and quite uncomfortable, but it was extremely exciting.
The next time I ventured out on Road Atlanta was in the rain last March to practice for the SARRC race just after completing the SCCA Driver’s School at Roebling Road. Needless to say, I was extremely slow in comparison to the other cars in my class, but it was great to be in a race car again in such a beautiful place.
It took me nearly half of the racing season and some great teaching from Rob Ebersol to become competitive at Road Atlanta, but I made it a year without crashing, now have my National License, and have become an SCCA Instructor myself. Therefore, I believe that I am qualified to give new race drivers or track day participants some sound advice about driving at Road Atlanta.
While learning this wonderful race track, never try anything until it feels comfortable, which is a way of saying, “stay within yourself and your abilities.” Accept the fact that more experienced drivers are going to pass and lap you at Road Atlanta, so don’t become caught up in the moment. Always be aware of your surroundings and respect the higher speeds and dangers in certain sections of the track.
In my opinion, Turn 1 is the most dangerous and difficult curve on the entire track, and a fine line exists between going too slow and going too fast. Also, this first turn is the key to one’s speed all the way to Turn 7. Turn 3 is very technical, but much faster than most drivers realize. The Esses are actually quite easy in lower powered cars, but leave a driver no where to go if a mistake is made. Being a left turn and noticeably technical, Turn 5 is much harder to learn than most realize, and having the attitude of the car right before going into the turn is extremely critical. Turns 6 and 7 are the keys to maintaining great speed down the back straight, and Turns 10A and 10B at the end of the straight are far less difficult than they appear. In a very fast car, Turn 12 can be extremely dangerous, and is rarely a great place to pass.
Though not as technical as Barber, Roebling, or CMP, Road Atlanta incorporates, in a shorter venue, all of the qualities and dangers that made European racing so exciting during that magical, golden age of road racing from 1950 to 1970. Therefore, despite any negative qualities, those of us who race at Road Atlanta have learned to love it and highly respect the driving and mental skills necessary to go fast there.
Rob Ebersol, who is one of the smoothest drivers I have ever seen at this beautiful race track summed his times there up with this statement: “Road Atlanta has been my home track for over ten years, and I’ve yet to experience a single lap where my ability as a driver was not challenged!”