The first turn loomed. On that warm spring day, the track was a flat oval of pavement on the grassy edge of an empty fairground. My hands steered for the track's outside edge, my right foot jumping from the throttle to the brake, my left stomping the clutch even as my right hand let go of the wheel just long enough to grab the shifter. To race a car is to dance with it.
I shoved the transmission down into second gear. That helped slow the Corvette and me just enough to half-drive, half-slide us smoothly into the first part of the turn while my right foot hopped back onto the throttle to unleash the torque. In this particular Vette all the torque lurks down in second, crouched and ready to spring. Torque is the power to dig in deep and haul ass, which is what you want to be doing by the time you roar out of a turn, gunning for the next turn at the far end of the next straightaway, making up as much time as possible on that brief, straight stretch of track. Near the end of the turn, I hit the top end of second gear. To clear the way for more speed, I reached for the shifter again to move up to third, stomped the clutch, lifted my foot from the throttle -- and felt the back end shimmy, side-to-side, side-to-side. Then the tires let go of the track and the back end came whipping around.
Strangers often mistakenly assume that the Vette is my husband's. I discovered Chevrolet Corvettes when I was 16, finally bought a used one 20 years later. It was built in 1978, a ZZ Top-kind of car with swoopy fenders and, more importantly, a four-speed manual transmission and rear axle ratio of 3.70:1, which in plain English means it's geared to peel away from stoplights. Under its long, sloping hood is an old-school, carbureted 350 V8 engine, an L82, which on paper sounds very vroom -- but by the mid-'70s, new safety and emissions requirements had reined in its factory-rated horsepower to a mere 220. So it wasn't the fastest or baddest of the old Vettes. But it was cheap. And it was all mine.
Three years after I bought it, I discovered autocross.
I am no expert at autocross. In this sport, though, you don't have to be good at it to enjoy the heck out of it. Autocrossers, also known as soloists, blast their cars through race courses of sharp turns and short straightaways. They slalom through gates that may consist of nothing more than an upright traffic cone and a tipped one next to it indicating which side to pass on. Pass a cone on the wrong side, miss a gate and you've scratched, blown the entire run.
Since most autocross courses are temporary, the drivers are almost always facing a course they've never seen before. And they get a limited number of chances to tackle it. So autocrossing tests not only your ability to maneuver your car fast -- it tests your ability to learn fast. You get a walk-through beforehand, but if you're like me, a complex course of orange traffic cones just looks like a Day-Glo forest until you actually drive it. I'd be roaring through a twisty course for the first time, and all of a sudden I'd get that squirrel-before-the-semi feeling, not knowing which way to go before you go splat, indecisively twitching the wheel right, no left, no right, right, right, and whoosh, the cone would pass a couple inches from my door -- yeah, baby! And the Vette would fly on toward what looked like the next gate.
Autocrossers do this one at a time, against the clock. Most runs last less than two minutes, some only 30 seconds. The crowd-pleasing spinout, fun as it is, adds a couple seconds to that time, so drivers try to avoid it. Women are especially good at avoiding it, because we tend to drive more precisely -- some would say less aggressively -- than men.
Other than the effect on your time, though, spinning out is no big deal, not in low-speed autocross. Events are held at empty fairgrounds like the one where I spun out that spring day, and at out-of-the-way parking lots and unused airstrips, all of them flat, open expanses of asphalt surrounded by grass. You may have to watch out for the occasional nearby tree line or chain-link fence, but usually there are no walls or crowds to plow into. Just a few patient family members napping in distant lawn chairs and your fellow autocrossers, lined up back at the start and waiting their turn. You cheer for one another. The cam-araderie is as addictive as the adrenaline high. You share tools and horror stories and sunscreen. You analyze spinouts:
"A Corvette's center of gravity is so ground-hugging that when it spins, it spins like a bottle."
"As long as it stays on a flat surface, a Corvette is impossible to roll."
But it doesn't matter what car you drive. Low-speed autocross, designed so the speedometer never tops 80 mph, is low-risk and low-cost, no fancy safety harnesses or roll bars required. All you need is a helmet.
I like my helmet. I look like a sweaty cartoon Adam Ant in it. At some point during my first autocross, I noticed a distant donk-donk sensation -- my helmet whacking against the side wall of the Vette's interior. That was when I realized how much my own car was throwing me around as I swerved gleefully through the course. For the few minutes that my helmet was strapped to my head, my hands guiding the wheel, for those few minutes I could believe with the faith of a child that I was bulletproof, mistress of my fate. Surely I could steer my life wherever I wanted it to go.
When I was a kid, I loved to gallop horses bareback. I didn't actually have a horse, so I didn't get to gallop one much. Instead, I'd coast my bike down a steep, poorly paved stretch of road with a big grin on my face, my hands fisted around the handlebars, my feet off the pedals and dangling like a bareback rider's as the bi-cycle clattered faster and faster down the hill, bucking over the potholes, my joyfully galloping steed. The fact that I could have pitched off headfirst and snapped my neck like a twig never crossed my mind.
But one icy night 15 years later, as our Ford Bronco spun off an interstate with my husband and me inside, I was not smiling. I was white-knuckled, hanging onto the door handle, gasping to my husband, "I love you!" because I was about to die and that was the only thing crossing my mind. By then I had long since lost faith in my ability to control my own destiny. My parents had divorced. My own marriage was rocky. After working hard to launch myself in a satisfying career, I was stuck slogging through workdays that bored me. It seemed like the universe could throw whatever it wanted at me and the only thing I controlled was how I responded.
The night the Bronco shot off the road, I was terrified. When it finally came to a stop, there was no one dead, just some damage to an axle. But until it stopped, there was nothing I could do to save myself. I wasn't in the driver's seat.
On the spring day when I spun out on a nice, safe track at the empty fairground, my first two runs were precise and clean and within two-tenths of a second of each other. I was going to have to push harder if I was going to beat the competition: me.
As usual, my car and I were in a class by ourselves. Cars are grouped according to age, modifications and tires. There were other old Vettes racing that day, but they were all tricked out under the hood to boost their power, and they all wore racing slicks, treadless tires that are extra sticky on smooth, dry pavement. My car was in pretty much the same state as when it rolled off the assembly line. It was also running on ordinary street tires with grooved tread designed to channel away water. They traded off dry-weather stickability for the ability to hang onto a road in the rain.
I liked being in a class by myself. I had discovered I was a take-no-prisoners competitor trapped in the body of a nice girl. Beating people made the nice girl in me feel guilty; losing made the bad girl sullen. It was a no-win situation. But in my own private class, I could race against myself like a bitch on wheels for two minutes, then drive off the track and park back in Niceville till it was my turn again.
On my next run, I was determined to attack the first turn, make it as straight as possible in order to take it as fast as possible. You do this by entering the turn at the outside edge, aiming for the inside at the apex, swinging back to the outside as the track begins to straighten, all the while pushing for more and more speed. You do this automatically, by instinct and muscle memory, all your senses focused on this moment, not on yesterday's screw-up at work or tomorrow's bills. There is no yesterday or tomorrow. Nothing exists beyond the bass vibe of this engine, and the jolts of this track and the sight of the next turn.
I came out of that first turn too hot. The tires were just barely hanging onto the pavement, and thus the Vette was obliged to give me a lesson in physics. When I stomped the clutch and disengaged the gears to shift up, the car lost a little bit of its forward momentum. In that moment of hesitation, inertia shifted the car's weight forward. My Vette's a rear-wheel-drive car. When the weight came off those power-driving rear tires, they lifted just enough to lose whatever bit of traction they had and galloped on ahead of the front tires, swinging the back end around with them.
The asphalt and the grass and the people and cars beyond suddenly softened into a blur of gray and green as the world spun away into silence and time untethered itself -- I felt weightless. Timeless. Mindless. Carried along by forces I could not control. I was smiling.
The Corvette and I pirouetted a full 1 1/2 revolutions before sliding to a stop in a cloud of dust, facing the wrong way, the engine dead, the air sweet with the scent of sloshed antifreeze. I heard myself shout, "Woo hoo!" into the gritty dust floating through the open windows.
Don't skinny, bearded guys in loincloths spend entire lifetimes on mountaintops hoping to experience this?
With every race over the course of that spring and summer, my tires burned off a little more rubber, grew a little slicker. I liked how those tires got so they could take a turn. I forgot they could no longer take much water.
When I arrived home from a road trip one rainy summer evening, my husband looked at the Corvette and asked, "Why is there mud and grass all over your car?" He didn't notice the lump on my head, but then I hadn't noticed it, either, until after I had slithered the Vette out of the mud and back up onto the interstate, and I still couldn't figure out at what point my head had hit the interior side wall.
I told him everything was fine, but I was buying new tires in the morning, and from now on when it rained I would be driving like a granny. "The good news is," I said, "if I ever die in a car wreck or a plane crash, you don't have to torment yourself imagining that I spent my last moments suffering in terror."
A few hours earlier on Interstate 95, the heavens had suddenly opened. I was driving 70 mph in heavy traffic. I felt the back end shimmy. With so much instant water between the rubber and the road, the balding tires were once again just barely hanging on. Speeding up might have helped by shifting more weight onto the rear tires, but only for a moment before the increased speed reduced their traction even more. Instinctively, my foot rose off the throttle. And the car's weight shifted forward. The rear tires lifted. They let go, the back end coming around so fast there was no way to steer out of it.
Time stretched and groaned and faded into silence. I was in the left lane, dim red taillights in front, headlights behind and to the right. To the left, across the steep, grassy, uneven median, through the heavy gray curtain of rain, more headlights rushed the other way.
This wasn't my nice, safe fairground spinout. The Vette could hit at least one of the cars around me. Or it could leave the pavement and roll. Or it could hit those cars and roll, and there was nothing I would be able to do about any of it. The back end came flying around. I could do nothing to save myself, and all at once I knew: I was free -- free to do nothing, free to give myself over to huge, centrifugal forces larger than my puny self. I was free to be unafraid. Here came the back end, another full revolution and a half. "Here we go," I said out loud. And let go of the useless wheel.
Kristin Henderson is the author of Driving by Moonlight.