Generally, when you're in West Virginia and the hills echo with the sounds of screeching tires and sustained semiautomatic rifle fire, it's a good time to go home. Those are pretty solid signs that you're in for some unpleasant banjo music, cannibalistic mole people, or some terrifying combination thereof and whatever you were planning simply isn't worth it. Sometimes, though, you've got to face the banjomolemen because your hunger, nay, your need is even greater than their cravings for human flesh and Earl Scruggs music. That day I was feeling one of those needs. Which need? The need for speed, and there was no way I was leaving Summit Point Raceway until I'd done some turnin' and burnin'.
Summit Point Raceway is a veritable wonderland of velocity nestled into the forests of Jefferson County, about 90 minutes from Baltimore. There are three main tracks where big cars and big motorcycles hit really, really big speeds. Rolling in, we saw rows of armored Crown Vics for special forces troops, and federal agents go there to train in pursuit and avoidance driving and, apparently, to unleash hails of gunfire to set the West Virginia mood. Further in, we passed the Shenandoah Circuit, one of three of Summit Point's massive tracks where would-be racers were hooning the hell out of their souped-up Hondas, classic BMWs, and rat-racer fords. But I wasn't there for any of that big-car nonsense; I was there to scratch an itch and right a wrong.
When I got married, I wanted to live my Mario Andretti fantasy and spend my bachelor party karting. I tracked down a joint in Crofton that seemed perfect: Their website showed helmeted madmen in full Nomex race suits blasting down a glassy smooth track at highway speeds in European race karts. I dragged out all of my buddies at 8 a.m. for a day of high-speed adventure, but it turned out the website was a little off. These weren't karts, these were go-karts, the shitty lawnmower-powered rolling lawn chairs that seemed so cool when I was 12 but were such a massive buzzkill for a bachelor party. With 260 pounds of intrepid columnist at the wheel of one of those wheezing beasties, the hunk of rust topped out at a brisk seven miles per hour. At one point, I was passed by a kid from the '70s riding a Green Machine. I went so slow I somehow was traveling backwards in time. Around the second lap we realized we could run into each other and by the fifth we started punching to pass and it got pretty fun, but it wasn't racing.
It's $25 a session to run the karts at Summit Point. "People tell me, 'I can go to Jolly Rogers for half as much,'" says Jens Scott, the president of Summit Point Kart. "I say, 'Get the hell out of here, go the fuck to Jolly Rogers.'"
He's got a good point. The track at Summit Point is .52 miles of twisting and undulating glassy smooth tarmac. And the karts, oh the karts! The intermediate karts I'd be racing are sexy little French Sodi RX7s. The sleek track weapons pack about nine horsepower, enough to catapult man and machine down the straights at 50 miles per hour. That might not sound like much, but when your ass is half an inch off the road and you're two inches from the guard rail and two inches from some squid trying to cannonball past you on the outside, it feels like a million. Master those and you can graduate to a Sodi shifter kart packing a 250cc Honda motor good for 30 horses and close to 70 mph on Summit's Washington Circuit. This is where real racers are born. Regulars in head-to-toe Nomex fire suits weave through packs of noobs on the hunt for a career behind the wheel. Alumni of SPK have gone on to teams in bruising Legends cars, Formula Continentals, and blazing fast open-wheeled F2000 racers.
I was not one of those aspirants, but I should mention at this point that I have been blessed and/or cursed with a Y chromosome, which comes with some advantages, chiefly the ability to pee standing up, and some disadvantages, like a misguided certainty that I am just an opportunity away from outrunning both Smokey and the Bandit. I buried my foot to the floor and wrestled my ride through the 20 turns of SPK. By turn eight my arms were already aching. On the hairpins, I had to brace a foot against the frame of the kart and manhandle the wheel with more strength than I'd have ever imagined, but on the first lap I passed four karts and felt like Niki Lauda's better-looking American cousin; on the second I passed another and battled one of the track regulars for six turns until he blasted past me and I set my jaw to catching him. On the third lap I entered turn two way too hot; the back end of my kart broke loose and when they caught I rocketed forward into the tire-backed rail of turn three at about 30. I was waved into the pits for a quick talking-to, but got back on it and was feeling pretty good.
But before I gave my racer name, Captain UnderFrance, to the track announcer, strapped on my helmet and gloves, and wedged myself into the tiny machine, Jens gave me some advice that quickly blew through both my earholes. Jens drives a Toyota Yaris not much bigger than the Sodis and parks it next to the Ferraris of the weekend warriors who descend on Summit Point every weekend. He does it to tweak them. "Once you've driven a formula car, everything else is just a car," he said. With his cowboy hat and massive biceps built bending racecars to his will, he looked the part of Track Yoda. Through his gold aviators he eyed the printout of my times. I was fast for a first timer, but my times were up, down, all over the place. He pointed to a time graph that looked like the EKG of the captain of the chess team losing his virginity to Scarlett Johansson while riding the Tilt-O-Whirl, looked me right in the eyes, and said, "Captain UnderFrance is in the red mist. You are driving like a gorilla." He paused and added, "Drive like a jedi."
As the day went on, Jens' advice penetrated not only my helmet, but my brainhole as well. At first he talked about apexes and radii and sounded like my high school geometry teacher. When that sunk in, he broke down the physics of the course like an asphalt Einstein. As my track graphs flattened, he finally talked about racing. It's funny: People who have mastered something, when they talk about it, no matter what it is, when they get down to its essence, they all start to say the same things. As the thing becomes a part of you, the thing falls away. The car disappears with your water bill and your ego; it all fades, leaving only the moment. Jens remembered the fastest laps he'd ever driven. It was in the middle of the night, maybe 3 a.m., in some endurance race he barely remembers. "I was singing a song. 'I'm Henry the Eighth I am. I'm Henry the Eighth brake shift, shift brake.' I was just grooving to my own thing," he remembered, staring over the track like a sensei of speed. "You make all of your movements 'cause it's been encoded and re-encoded in your lizard brain so it just happens. So when racing becomes automatic, unconscious, instinctive, then the rest of your brain is free."
I never quite found that freedom, but by the end of the day I was no longer a gorilla in the red mist-more of a monkey in a gray fog.