'You're nervous, right? Don't be. Most of these guys have never driven on a race track and everyone in your group is a first-timer," I said to a wide-eyed Sam Cato, whose dry mouth and darting eyes betrayed his concern about the day ahead.
Sam is my 16-year-old kid. He's a good kid, too, though I'm biased. No surprise there. And the grades are pretty good; distinguished honour roll sort of stuff. Ninety-eight in physics, if you can believe it. Maybe he's not my kid after all. But what I know for certain is that next year he's going to have his pick of universities. I've seen his latest report card.
Today, though, we're at the race track and things could get dicey. Mission Raceway Park in Mission, B.C., is a 1.4-mile handling circuit, a very tight one dotted with plenty of concrete walls, all of them nicely marked up by paint and the grinding of sheet metal belonging to drivers who found themselves in over their heads. Yikes! Sam's nervous because he's about to be let loose for a day on this track, being coached by Tony Morris Jr.
I've known Junior since he was dreaming of driving Go Karts in the 1980s. Now he's an accomplished professional driver; the winner of all sorts of races. But his bread and butter is as a driving instructor, the owner of Morrisport Advanced Driving (morrisport.com) with his dad (Tony Sr.), and as the boss of The Inside Line driving experience - Track Time and First Time.
Tony will be showing Sam the ropes with the First Timers, doing hot laps in a brand-new 2011 Porsche 911 GTS Cabriolet. Sam will be behind the wheel of a Porsche with a price tag of $144,855. (That's what I paid for my first house in Medicine Hat, by the way.) Sam and Junior will be teamed up all day. Four long sessions, two in the morning, two at night. What fun. I think.
Junior is one of those guys with gasoline running through his veins. That is just like his dad, whom I've known for 25 years, all the way back to the days he was regularly winning races in his Heavy Chevy No. 88 Camaro and various Porsches. With Junior, Sam's in good hands. I'm sure of that. I've done track sessions with both Junior and Tony Sr.
None of this makes Sam any less nervous about the day ahead. Like most teenagers, he's fretting about looking incompetent, or out of place, over his head. I've also told him the story about my colleague here at Globe Drive, about how Peter Cheney's kid drove a Porsche 911 Turbo through the garage door at his dad's house, causing no end of angst in the Cheney household. Apparently Cheney's son, Will, didn't understand the role of a clutch in a 500-horsepower car. The story went viral and remains one of the hottest bits ever to run in Globe Drive. Visions of being the next Will Cheney are dancing in Sam's head.
Not to worry. Before my boy Sam hits the blacktop at Mission Raceway he and the other First-Timers get a one-hour chalk talk delivered by the ever-entertaining Lawrence Howlett, Morrisports chief instructor. Howlett is one of those guys you'd find at a barbeque holding court with his stories and jokes and good humour.
To a room full of First Timers who are all bringing their own cars to this track day - except Sam, of course, who's in the borrowed, $145,000 Porsche - Howlett talks about hitting the apex of a corner and how weight transfers fore and aft and side to side in a race car. Or a car on the street for that matter. Safety, he says, is the most important thing of all today. Having fun will take care of itself as long as no sheet metal gets pranged and no one gets so much as a bruise.
I sit in for most of it with Sam. What a diligent kid. Must get it from his mother, I suppose. He soaks up every morsel Howlett has to offer. All of it. Then when class is dismissed he heads out to the track to watch his dad do hot laps in a 911 Turbo.
Uh, oh. I forgot to mention this. I'm at track day, too, with a $202,655 as-tested 2011 911 Turbo S Coupe at my disposal. This is pretty much the same car Cheney's kid drove through the garage door and I can't help but think of that as I head out for my first session of hot laps - with Tony Sr. beside me in the passenger seat.
Look, let me be completely honest. Journalists generally look a bit ruffled and more than a few appear to be silly or even harmless. Don't be fooled. We're in a pretty competitive business and I'm a pretty competitive guy. Peter's a good writer with a long record of penning excellent stories and from what I've read he has a great kid in Will, too. But truth be told, in my 911 Turbo I want to be cleaner and faster around the track than any Cheney could ever be, and I want Sam, the kid, to be spotless and accomplished, too. There's my confession; I'm human and flawed, as those who know me will attest.
A little background on Inside Line track days. Morrisport has been doing them for years. When the weather is really warm in the heart of late spring and early summer, as many as 80 or so drivers bring their own rides to the track for the day, paying a couple of hundred dollars for the privilege. It is a safe, controlled environment staffed with a roster of instructors who will go on the track and coach any driver to go faster and do so without bending anything, including an ego.
I'm with the first group and apparently these are all the go-getters. They are fast and they all are driving Porsches of one sort or another. Tony Sr. quietly breathes instructions as we make our way around the circuit. He's helpful, but a little over-cautious. Later, when doing some laps with Junior, we push things closer to the edge, which means using every inch of the track, including all the curbing. I don't think anyone in my session is faster, but of course I'm biased.
Then it's time for Sam. Let me set this up. His GTS ($124,600 base for the Coupe and $136,100 base for the Cabriolet) ostensibly fills a gap between the 385-horsepower Carrera S ($109,300 base) and the 435-hp GT3 ($142,400 base). The 408-hp GTS is yet another variation on the 911 theme and it's pretty sweet, from its 3.8-litre six-cylinder which revs to a very high 7,300 rpm, to the 23-hp power pack, modified cylinder heads, special intake manifold with six vacuum-controlled tuning flaps and the sport exhaust system.
You read that correctly. A 16-year-old has his hands on a 408-hp Porsche, doing hot laps with the benefit of professional instruction. What a life, the life of a car journalist's son. Go ahead and be envious.
Me? I'm a little nervous watching, that is before my competitive juices start flowing. I figure with that car, with great coaching from Junior, by session No. 3 Sam should be passing some of the other first-timers.
I'm correct. Sam does slip past a few on the long straightaway during No. 3. Junior tells me later in the pits that Sam has come miles since the first session. "He listens," says Junior. If only that were true all the time.
Then by session No. 4 it's clear the kid is running out of gas. This is the truth about race car driving. To go fast, lap after lap, requires tremendous concentration and it's exhausting. Sam isn't racing, but he's tightly focused mentally and has been for most of the day. At the end of No. 4 he looks spent and says so.
The drive away from the track is quiet, with very little said. Before long the kid is sound asleep, exhausted, sleeping the sleep of the innocent and of a 16-year-old who managed to steer his way through four track sessions in a 408-hp Porsche - without so much as a scratch to the car.
I'm biased, of course, but what a kid.