The Illusion of Speed

By Jon Gilson

THE FIRST TIME I CRASHED, I WASN'T GOING VERY FAST. Ten miles an hour at the most, the brakes locked up, going straight despite the downhill left. The headlights illuminated the void past the guardrail, and then nothing but white. The road was called Snow Hill, and it was snowy.

I knew it was coming, the hard stop. When the front end of my mother’s Caravan hit the bank, it created a wave, a tsunami over the hood, over the windshield, burying the vehicle.

That day, I learned the slow-motion nature of fucking up.

I hiked two miles home, grabbed a shovel, and through barely controlled tears, hiked back. It kept snowing, and I kept crying, eventually excavating the minivan to find a damaged panel and a stripped piece of trim. That trim never went back on.

Five years later, at 21, I bought a Civic. I was hot on the idea of driving. My brother, my twin, was too. He had a Porsche, a cheap one, always in the shop, but turbocharged and legitimately scary. We bolted on parts, headers and rims, he chipped his ECU, I put in a short shifter.

We’d hot lap the Lake. It always took place at midnight or two or three, when the speed limit had been in bed for hours, when the only casualties would be us. The bolted-in speed bumps were always being reinstalled; we’d take them out. It was three or four miles, off-camber, uphill, downhill, twists and turns, one straight where you could get up to 65 or 70, but mostly 40 miles an hour. A perfect circuit, repaved in fresh asphalt every three years.

We thought we were good and we thought we were fast, and I never crashed. Time never slowed, and turns came and went in smooth sequence.

I moved away and stopped hot lapping. I stopped knowing every curve. I forgot the names of the roads, and after awhile, Tristan would have to point out the directions when I’d come to visit.

When we turned thirty, we went to Lime Rock, a place where there are no traffic laws to violate. We drove Porsches and Lotuses and BMWs on the track and we skidded RX-8s around the pad. It was joyous, crazy, heaven. Each lap, carefully controlled and never at limit, bolstered my confidence. I learned the racing line, track in, apex, and track out, braking and accelerating.

I thought I was good, and I thought I was fast, and I never crashed.

The unrestricted speed, the idea of operating at the limit, skipping over it and back, continued to press against my psyche. I bought a car to practice in, once again hot lapping in places where it wasn’t strictly legal. I read the books on speed, I watched F1. I practiced over and over, upping my velocity, recruiting my girlfriend to give me pace notes, sharing the thrill of physics made tangible, sharing adrenaline. Still, I knew I’d only get so far without professional instruction. In the name of progress, I signed up.

In September, I drove to Lime Rock for a second dose of Skip Barber Racing School. This time, the passenger cars and coupes were left dormant, traded for open-wheeled Formula Fords, the entry-level car for aspiring racers.

In helmets and Nomex, we were introduced to our cars in short order. Tightly bundled around a cockpit that decried obesity, the cars were little more than a 132-horsepower motor, a transmission, and a chassis, inches off the track. It was intimidating as hell. No airbag, no antilock brakes, no traction control, the conveniences of modern transport left aside for a 0-60 in the four-second range and 1.3gs of cornering force.

This was a real car. Everything done well was rewarded with speed, everything done poorly punished with a prolonged screech and a spin. The Formula Ford was a thoroughbred.

All of a sudden, I knew nothing about driving. My showroom knowledge of the racing line, of race strategy, of timing inputs, nothing was worth a damn once we thumbed the master switch and pressed the ignition. I oscillated between control and cluelessness, once again a 16-year-old at the wheel.

For two days, we climbed in and out of the driver’s seat, slamming eight ounce bottles of water, peeling in and out of our racing suits, getting chalk talks and honing our skills against drills of ever-increasing difficulty. We learned the line, downshifting and maximal braking, counter-steering and race starts. The gorgeous Berkshires disappeared, replaced with tunnel vision. Left mirror, right mirror, eyes as far down the track as possible, quick shifts, apex, trying like hell to keep it on the track.

The first turn at Lime Rock is a sweeping right off the front straight, led with a 5-4-3 downshift. I can still see it if I close my eyes. I can feel the oh hell inhale from one hundred and ten miles an hour to sixty, the g-forces pushing on my chest, the doubt screaming the speed isn’t right. I remember the track-in cone just before the a-frame “4” on the left, gone as soon as it arrives, the signal to get hard on the brakes. I hear the engine rev to 7000 on the downshifts. I see the sign with the Hemingway quote, the concrete curbing of the first turn, sucking the suspension into full compression. I remember making that turn.

Except when I didn’t.

It was just like heading at that snow bank. The same helpless feeling, time slowing, weeks to think about the current second, time to register dismay and anticipate impact. I was going sixty miles an hour, the slick rubber useless on wet grass, an object in motion staying in motion, my path preordained by whatever fuckup I’d made back on the track.

I looked at the oncoming barrier, a tire wall, and I knew it was going to hurt. I braced. The car hit and then my head hit, the percussive crack only delivered when a man is doing something nature never intended.

Everything stopped, quiet, the engine ticking as it cooled. I was still alive, no real pain, just numb from the high-speed body slam. Then I heard the screeching tires, and I thought I was going to die. My adrenaline peaked for the second time, but nothing happened. Just another driver spinning, correcting, and driving off, and me pinned against a wall in the Connecticut hills. I waited for the emergency crew, but no one came.

I reached down and unlatched my harness and stood. No one in sight. Slowly, inventorying my body, I pushed myself out of the cockpit and walked behind the barrier. Still, no one came, and I decided to leave the scene.

Walking back, mired in shame and the revelation of extreme incompetence, I saw the pace car come out of pit lane and make its way over. The blue Mazda stopped, and I got in. Two men in the front, and just two words:

“You okay?”

We drove back to the pits in silence. When we got there, there was no debrief. No medical attention. Just a single crew guy in a black polo, another Formula Ford, and the quiet instruction to get in the car.

I flicked the master switch and pressed the ignition. I was racing again. It seemed like hours had passed, the experience soaked in the time-altering soup of impact. In the cockpit, I was all residual fear, the caution of a post-crash driver.

Angry at my performance, I managed to drive poorly, my thoughts on the wreck rather than the task at hand. I watched the crumpled car go by on a tow truck, looking like a crushed bug. I took heat from the lead instructor, filled out an accident report, and squashed the tears that threatened to roll. My illusion of competence was thoroughly broken.

For four days after racing school, I couldn’t sleep. Not because of fear or regret, but because the track was burned into my memory, running on loop. Daydreaming, I hit the righthander. I drove the uphill, tracking into West Bend. I took the high-speed exit on to the front straight, and I dreamed of the lefthander, of the time I managed it at speed, the time I didn’t slow or spin. Over and over, I re-lived the joy of velocity, my recall insisting that the memory would not be one of failure.

I never again saw the crash, never saw the wall coming, never felt the helplessness of incompetence, never heard the death-shriek of oncoming tires. I’d left that at the track, and brought the good parts home.

When I was 16, I learned that crashes happen in slow motion, but I also learned that a long hike and a bit of shoveling will undo mistakes. I learned that it’s never as bad as you think.

Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster and former member of CrossFit’s Level I Seminar staff. Photos courtesy of the author.