The first time I’d ever been on a track in a car going very fast, I rode along for a hot lap of Lime Rock Park in a Mazdaspeed 3. My friend had won some sort of contest for rides before an American Le Mans Series race in 2012; I was 19. The Mazda was the slowest car of the four or five there that day, but I still remember being blown away by the theater of it all, totally dumbfounded as to how the tires could hang on in that corner at that speed. I remember comparing the chicane after Turn 3 to one of those spinning teacup rides at an amusement park. It was a revelatory experience, that I got to relive last week — only on a much more profound scale.
I recently paid a visit to The Thermal Club in California to drive some BMWs and Minis (on the automaker’s dime, full disclosure). Thermal is also where BMW’s West Coast Performance Center happens to be situated, and the company brought a smattering of classic race cars to commemorate the day’s activities. Most noteworthy of the group were three GT-class M3s — an E36, E46 and E92 — all of which had contested North American sports car racing in their prime. It was the last of those M3s — the fastest one — that I was to get a ride in today.
My driver was a guy named Tom Plucinsky. I wondered if Tom was a current or former BMW RLL driver in IMSA or some other series. I found it strange I’d never heard of him, because I’ve been to enough IMSA races for most competitors’ names to ring a bell. I only learned after the fact that Tom is actually head of BMW’s North American public relations department; he just does this on the side. And here I thought I was multitalented.
I happened to queue up for my ride right as Tom was entering the pits and letting his first passenger out. A journalist in a race suit and helmet rolled out of the car and slumped onto the tarmac with his hands and knees. He was fine — he was just being dramatic. But that visual made for a compelling first impression of the sensations I’d soon be awash in all the same.
I donned the overalls, which were probably two sizes too large. I put on the helmet. I took a selfie, because that’s what you do before an experience like this, immediately hating the result because I looked like a preteen in an adult suit jacket on debate day. Whatever; I knew I wouldn’t care how I looked 10 minutes from that moment, or how hot it was under the desert sun.
Getting in the car was laborious — not so much for me, but for the poor crew member who had to buckle me in. I couldn’t see the numerous straps and buckles for my harness because the helmet negates all peripheral vision above and below you. I estimate there were at least 14 of them. As difficult as I understand driving a race car to be, the belting process might just be the most arduous process of the job. I’m exaggerating, of course. Sort of.
Once I was finally fastened, the man belting me in told me that, should I need to get out, all I’d have to do was twist the knob at the center of the harness to instantly unbuckle all the straps at once. Simple enough, I agreed, but the way he put it — “if I need to get out” — momentarily caused me to consider all the scenarios that could arise and might necessitate unplanned exit from the vehicle. None of them were particularly pleasant, so I quickly buried the thought.
Tom started the car; it was very loud. The man helping me closed my door. At this point verbal communication suddenly became quite difficult, so Tom raised his right hand to give a thumbs up. I gave one back, and we made our approach toward pit exit.
What happened over the course of the next five or so minutes was a blur — a collection of unorganized sensations and fleeting thoughts that multiplied in number and filled my head until they became indistinguishable from one and another. I remember laughing and howling, and my ears ringing and wishing I had earplugs, even though I was loving the sound. I remember bracing myself at all times with my left foot pushed hard against the firewall, because I was paradoxically both glued to my seat and also had some freedom to fidget around, which didn’t feel right. At one point entering a chicane, Tom nailed the curb at the first apex and my helmeted head smacked against the roll bar to the right of my seat. I heard the muffled “clack” and instinctively yelped “ouch” until I realized I didn’t feel anything, because I was wearing a helmet.
On the back straight I glanced over at the LCD instrument display; it peaked at something like 230 km/h, or 143 mph. As we approached one of the tightest corners on Thermal’s south course, an instructor and two journalists, each in their own 2 Series, were trundling through the turn in front of us. We should probably brake now, I remember thinking, noting our rapid closing rate. That thought swirled in my head for what felt like an eternity until we mercifully did.
They say it’s not the speed or acceleration of a race car that blows you away the first time out; it’s the stopping. I don’t disagree. I’ve never considered myself a capable driver, but watching Tom wrestle the M3's wheel amid this whirlwind of existential threats — the G forces pulling your fleshy core this way and that, the judder of the curb liquifying your bones, the ear-piercing, relentless noise and the stifling heat — I realized that what truly makes drivers superhuman is their ability to maintain concentration, composure and precision in spite of those myriad distractions.
Midway through the ride I went silent. I think Tom might’ve thought I wasn’t doing well, because he checked in with another thumbs up when he had a free hand. I gave him one back. It’s not that I was scared — I trusted him and the car completely. I didn’t feel ill either. But after the second or third lap, I didn’t have words left or noises to make. Here I was, riding at speed in a car I’d watch race years earlier at Lime Rock, that I made a point to always choose in Forza Motorsport 4, and I was being progressively deafened by its V8 from the inside. I considered that a privilege.
It’s a tricky thing to explain because no part of the ride was necessarily different than what I’d expected; rather, it was all just so much more intense. When I watch motorsport I can’t help but fall into the cycle of contextualizing the spectacle in numerical terms, comparing lap times and gaps between cars. I rarely, if ever, consider the mental and physical energy required to endure everything drivers do for, say, 90 minutes. And I was just the observational ballast in this equation; I wasn’t actually doing anything.
I thanked Tom profusely when we pulled into the pits. Vague declarations like “that was amazing” were all I could muster; words failed me in conveying whatever out-of-body-experience I’d just been through. I know how stupid this will sound and how easy it is for me to say it, that I’m fortunate to be in the industry I’m in and have the opportunities I do — but I wish every racing fan could have their brain scrambled like this down on the track at least once.