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Highs, lows, and unknowns

This weekend I skirted death. Maybe that's a little dramatic. But one of the lessons that car racing teaches you is that life is full of high highs, low lows, and unknowns; and often, these are all happening at once.

I had a fabulous weekend at VIR because I beat my personal best by more than two seconds on Saturday, hitting a 2:15. (That's an average speed of 87 m.p.h. around the 3.3 mile track.) My plan on Sunday was to try to get into the 2:14s. In the afternoon, I was hauling-you-know-what in my M5. For various reasons that won't be interesting to you unless you're a complete car nerd, I've been fiddling with downshifting into second going into famous turn 12 called Oak Tree. What this means is that as I'm coming out of the turn, I have to upshift to third gear while I'm still turning or I'll hit my rev limiter that keeps me from redlining the engine.

I believe what I did instead of shift to third is, while I was at about 7,500 rpms in second gear, I mis-shifted into first gear, a mistake called a money shift because if you do it, you're going to be spending money on your car. In the next few seconds, I took my feet off all the pedals and then pushed the clutch in and tried to put the car in 3rd gear, but it was locked up. I tried second, then third again, then fourth, but they were all locked. I then realized the car was off and I was just coasting, so I hit the start button. The navigation screen lit up with "The engine will not start. Call BMW Roadside Assistance."

Throughout all of this, which felt like minutes but was actually only a few seconds, I was completely calm. I looked ahead and saw the uphill flagger waving his white flag, indicating a slow-moving vehicle (me). All the cars that began coming around Oak Tree avoided me and safely made it past me on the left. I steered towards the right side of the track to get out of traffic's way, tried again to start it with no luck, and realized I was still coasting in neutral with the engine off at about 30 m.p.h. I signaled out my window that I was pitting in. I noticed the white Miata that had been behind me in the turn still there, keeping a point-by signal for all other cars to go around us. (He is a saint.) Miraculously, I made it all the way into the pits without any engine power, simply continuing to coast. (I don't know how that's possible, especially with the uphill part of the back straight; I am certain God carried my car into the pits.)

Once in, I began eliciting the help I needed. The pit out boss, Matt, called for a tow. Quantum Speed Works mechanic Jason came right over to the paddock to check the M5's computer with an OBD reader. A Spec E46 racer that has been kind to me every time he sees me at the track, Dave, drove me around the paddock in his 40-foot RV to look for Dean, an instructor who I know lives near me in the event I needed to hitch a ride. Chris Cobetto, NASA Mid-Atlantic regional director, started asking around for others who might be able to transport me the four hours it takes to get back to D.C. if I had to abandon my car. In the end, Matt, the pit out boss, gave me a ride, not just to the D.C. area, but inconveniently for him, all the way to my house. All the while, my college roommate, Melissa, who had come to spend the weekend cheering me on, was busily checking up on me constantly, asking if she could do anything more.

I'm humbled by all the help I constantly receive in both life and at the track. I'm in a season of needing lots of help through all I have on my plate. It seems these days I'm bombarded by the certainty of imperfection. As I write this, I haven't watched my in-car video to gain more insight into what happened. That will come. But for now, I recognize that fear is holding me back: the fear of proving that I made the mistake that it appears I did and is so darned costly. I will face the fear tomorrow. I promise.

The E46 racing friend who got me into the sport, Mike, texted me the following after I told him about my engine trouble: "There are only two types of race car drivers. Those who have money shifted and those who will." And yet, it feels awful. I couldn't sleep Sunday night, trying to replay the turn in my mind and remember what I did and how the car felt.

As I sit here so grateful for my 2:15 victory, for all the fun I had, for all those who came to my aid, for the opportunity to participate in this sport, and the fact that nothing bad happened to me or any other drivers when I locked up my engine, there's also a bit of self-flagellation. This is life. There are great moments, and big wins, and elation, but while those are happening, there can also be terribly sad, hard, painful, shame-inducing or difficult things going on. When the proverbial doo doo hits the fan, or we make costly mistakes, we learn how much we need each other and will continue to do so, up until our final breaths.

P.S.> UPDATE a/o October 27th: My in-car video shows no obvious evidence of a money shift, at least not to me. A friend of a friend is towing the car from Quantum to RRT in Sterling, VA today for a diagnosis. More to come.


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