NorCal Racing

Freewheeling on Sonoma Raceway not as easy as it looks

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Commuting daily on the freeway, you start to long for freedom. You grow tired of constantly glancing sideways to catch antsy lane-changers in your blind spot, while taking care not to plow into the car in front of you when traffic inexplicably stops, or you get trapped in the wrong lane and miss your exit.

You might begin to lust for the chance, just once, to get out a racetrack and simply roar on down the road.

More than a hundred everyday drivers did just that last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, taking their street cars around the track at the fifth annual “Laps for Charity,” to raise money for Speedway Children’s Charities.

And I was one of them, although my little blue Fiat and I did more purring than roaring, barely topping 50 on the straightaway.

Because one thing I found out on the track is that ambitious dreams of liberation on the raceway overlook one important detail: the hairpin turn. And in this, participants learned, the trick is in learning how to “drift” — or skid sideways through the turns. That was explained in some detail by participant Patrick Pauley of San Jose, a red-haired, 30-year-old tow truck driver and mechanic who grew up in Mississippi and aspires to also join in the raceway’s regularly scheduled “Sonoma Drift” events.

Having schooled himself on computer simulations, Pauley showed up in his 2013 Honda Civic at the racetrack’s charity event for his first turn around the course, just to get a taste for the track there. “I’m building a drift car, so I thought it would be a good idea to come up here, donate to charity and see the track,” he said.

For those of us who don’t know how to drive sideways, it goes something like this. While your helmet bangs against your headrest, you try to remember to just tap on the brakes ever so lightly on the way into each of a dozen curves and then accelerate coming out. Simple, right? It looks a lot easier than it is.

Sonoma Raceway did its best to make driving the course simple and safe. Professional drivers in pace cars led the civilian drivers in packs of three around the track for several laps each.

Then, just so everyone could leave the track at the end of the day with a better idea of what the racing experience is really like, the pros invited the civilian drivers to ride with them around the course. At least one passenger was clutching the hand strap on that trip. And we were only going 95. Actual race speeds go well above 100 and beyond, of course.

Pauley wasn’t the only first-timer at “Laps for Charity” on the sunny Saturday morning of Jan. 20, when drivers paid $150 each for their turns at the track, and raised $16,000 for Speedway Children’s Charities.

Part-time photographer Victor Poli, 70, of San Anselmo, had been to Sonoma Raceway many times shooting pictures for regional travel publications, but this was his first time out on the track, putting his 2001 Porsche Boxster through the paces.

“I’m just substituting for a friend who signed up and then couldn’t come,” Poli said. “I usually drive in West Marin or up the coast, but you can’t go too fast.”

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