Amateurs drive Infineon Raceway

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, March 15, 2005

Someday, anthropologists will be able to explain the human fascination with speed.

Until then, we’ll just keep driving fast, faster and faster still. It’s how some of us are wired.

“It’s the thrill, the all-out speed, going as fast as you want,” says Ray Wong, 39, of Elk Grove. “It’s exciting.”

Exciting, yes, but also illegal (above a certain limit) and potentially dangerous. The good news is, there are places to pursue the thrill where it can be done legally and safely. With some organization and a chunk of money, one can buy the right to speed.

That’s what Wong and other members of the Checkered Flag Racing Association do on a near-monthly basis. Pooling their funds and talents, they have created an opportunity for those with a passion for cars and high speeds to push their speedometers well into the triple digits without any fear of a red flashing light swooping down on them.

They do that by renting various raceways around the state, which are often available when professional racing events are not going on.

Last week, several dozen NorCal members of the Rocklin-based CFRA, including Wong and others from the Sacramento area, brought their search for thrills to Infineon Raceway (formerly Sears Point Raceway), just off Highway 37 in Sonoma.

It is one of the most challenging racetracks in the world, but it’s not the only one they use; they started 2005 with a visit to Laguna Seca near Monterey, and in the course of the year they plan to visit other racetracks in the West.

“It’s like borrowing (SBC) Park for the day,” says Ed Kornegay, a commodities manager for Hewlett Packard in Roseville and founder and president of the CFRA, which organized in 1993. “We get access to all the facilities – we just don’t hit the balls as hard.”

Variety of cars, one goal

As the whine of revved engines fills the fresh morning air at Infineon Raceway and other cars idle in tense anticipation – aficionados call the sound “the exhaust note” – a number of drivers aim to hit the ball as hard as they can.

They’ve brought a wide variety of vehicles – 80 percent of them street-legal, says Kornegay – and they will race this afternoon on the 2.52-mile course.

There are a couple of Ferarris, an Aston Martin DB9, Porsche GT3s and Boxsters, and even a $200,000 Lamborghini. But there also are less-impressive but still powerful cars. Miatas, Corvettes, RX7s and even a Ford Focus all line up, awaiting their drivers’ commands.

As a way of evening out the competition, the CFRA organizes the competing cars by their Kelley Blue Book value. But Kornegay is quick to note that a $5,000 1995 Mazda Miata and a brand-new, $200,000 “Lambo” are not necessarily mismatched (though their owners’ wallets may be).

He said “big money doesn’t always mean big speed.”

In fact, he says, “sometimes, the bigger the money, the slower the car, because people don’t want to hurt that pretty $200,000 car.”

But no matter how expensive, well-built or beautiful, car performance is intimately linked with driver ability. And the drivers this day at Infineon run the gamut from accomplished amateurs to relatively new racers.

“About a third of the club members have racing licenses,” says Kornegay. “You have to qualify, to prove that you have the skills necessary to go wheel-to-wheel racing. You need about 15 days of track time before we’ll even look at you.

“Other groups have three-day racing schools, and then you get a license,” he adds. “Since this is a private club, we want to watch someone for quite a while before we bring them in.”

Racing at Infineon is one way to check out a new prospect’s skills, for it is one of the most physically and mentally challenging tracks in the world, says Dave Smith, a teacher, racer and former pit crew chief who is coaching one of today’s drivers.

“There are elevation changes, blind spots, decreasing and increasing-radius turns … it has everything for a driver to hone his skills on,” says Smith. “I’ve been driving this track a long time, and I still don’t have enough time on it. If you can get comfortable with this track, you can go anywhere.”

A revelation in speed

Wong, the driver from Elk Grove, is comfortable on this track, driving a customized Volkswagen Golf. Though that’s nobody’s idea of a race car, he says it can hit 140 mph on a straightaway (but not at Infineon, where straightaways aren’t quite long enough to get the Golf into top racing gear). He lovingly details the work he’s had done on the car, then agrees to take a guest for a ride.

Strapped into the passenger seat, helmet on, hitting the track at Infineon is a revelation for a newcomer to racing. The course is unpredictable and varied, but the CFRA has made sure to staff it with people who wave a variety of signal flags: yellow advises caution; blue with diagonal yellow stripe means faster driver approaching; and green means, of course, go for it.

The trick is to find a good line across the curves, minimizing the distance traveled while similarly minimizing the chance that you’re going to overshoot, spin out or worse.

Laurn Langhofer, 60, is a software engineer from Auburn and he’s in his seventh season of racing. As he says, “You have to focus, find the fastest line through the turn, and go really hard. That’s the fun part, the science part of the sport, finding the right line. And it’s intense. I’m drenched in sweat right now, just from a half-hour practice session.

“That isn’t all that long,” he adds. “There are guys who do 24 hours at Le Mans, sometimes split between two or three drivers – that’s spectacular.”

Langhofer says driving isn’t just mental; it’s physical, too. Being in shape can make the difference.

Cotati resident Tammy Lackey, 37, knows this well.

“I’m an endurance athlete. I compete in a handful of triathlons a year,” she says. “When I started this about seven years ago, I thought that you were just driving. I had no appreciation for how hard it is. Twenty, thirty minutes will leave you physically drained.”

Lackey, who shares a Mitsubishi with her husband, Bill, says her training has helped her deal with the rigors of racing.

“It’s different in that it’s not the same physical stress on your legs as running is, but bracing yourself through the corners, hanging on to the wheel, there’s certainly some crossover from the other training. I’m grateful that I have that physical stamina to draw on.”

And, she adds, “I certainly don’t think there are any limitations on what a woman can do with a race car, versus a man.”

It can get scary

Both sexes are vulnerable to the dangers of high-speed driving. On this day, some drivers take their rides up to 120, 130 mph. On the highway, that’ll get you a ticket – or worse. Here, drivers only have to worry about the “or worse.”

“I’ve had some scary moments,” says Lackey. “If you take it out on the track and push the car to its limits, you’ll find them.

“I’ve had a few spinouts,” she adds. “I’ve never actually taken it into a wall, though I’ve come pretty close. Whenever you lose control of the car, it can be a bit scary until you know where you’re going to end up.”

Part of the approximately $200 each club member has spent to be here today goes to pay for a firetruck, emergency medical personnel and an ambulance, just in case. Although this particular group has been fortunate, amateurs driving on professional courses have been seriously injured. In October, two amateurs were killed at Thunderhill Raceway near Willows.

“This is not without risk,” says Kornegay. “Amateur racers, guys with roll protection, fire suits, et cetera, have been killed in Northern California.

“But they were pushing the envelope,” he adds. “People being killed doing what we’re doing is very rare. In the 10 years I’ve been with this group, we’ve seen cars rolled, cars totalled. But in those 10 years, no one in our group has gone to the hospital.”

Strength in numbers

Today, one driver in a Mazda RX-7 spins out at one point, raising black warning flags around the track. He goes off the track, into the mud, which clogs his tailpipe and shuts down the car. But he isn’t hurt, and once he gets the car back to the staging area, he cleans it up and gets back into the action.

San Franciscan Roger Arlen, 40, has been amateur racing at pro tracks for five years. He and a couple of friends together own the Aston Martin DB9, the Lamborghini and a Ferarri.

He says that, while the physical element is important, even more important is the mental element. There is little room for mistakes.

“The consequences of making a mistake are pretty significant,” says Arlen. “You’re going 150 feet a second, which means that you need to be mentally in tune.”

For this reason, racing with people in the club gives an added sense of security, says Auburn’s Langhofer.

“One good part of the club is that we know each other personally, we get together socially outside of race days,” he says. “That helps out a lot when you know the person driving next to you. You know their psyche, you know what they might do.”

And because these drivers have the opportunity to get their freak on at a track such as Infineon, they tend not to do that on the highway.

“I’m a slow driver on the freeway,” says Langhofer. “I don’t get behind people and pressure them. I just slow down.”

On the other hand, Wong’s wife, Robyn, seems to be pretty jazzed about the high-speed maneuvering. Asked if she worries about her husband’s dangerous sport, she looks perplexed.

“No, no, I don’t worry,” she says. “I like it. He’s a good driver.”

She pauses. “But when he drives on the freeway, he drives normal, and I ask him, ‘Why are you driving so slow?’ “