It’s loud, this Nissan 350Z coupe.
That’s to be expected. Every unnecessary item has been stripped from its interior: instrument panel, door trim, side windows, insulation. The heat and noise of the engine reverberate into the barren metal interior, and, in concert with wind noise, make for a deafening, visceral experience. It cuts through the earplugs and helmet.
The car is running at Virginia International Raceway in Alton, blitzing through the portion of the track known as the Climbing Esses, a series of uphill S-turns. The pace of the 350Z quickens as it climbs this section of track: 80 mph, then 90, 100, 110. The S-turns are merely a fun prelude to the Oak Tree, VIR’s most challenging corner. Anchored by an enormous, solitary tree, it’s a bucolic counterpoint to the extreme blind turn that wraps around it, leading into the back straight and even higher speed.
Behind the wheel is not a professional driver but Crawford Anderson, a Virginia Beach pathologist who spends at least one weekend a month navigating this raceway, one of the top racetracks in the country. He even teaches. And he knows the Oak Tree. He slows significantly as he circumvents it before nailing the throttle and twisting the race-style steering wheel. The back end of the 350Z obediently comes around as the track unfurls. The car reaches 137 mph.
Still, Crawford says, “I don’t have more ability than anyone else. I’ve just done it more often.”
This is the sort of modesty you’d expect from someone who isn’t a car guy. And by his own admission, he isn’t. So how did he end up here?
“It’s the usual thing, you know. You’re middle-age, the kids have grown up, so it’s time to buy a sports car,” says Crawford, who ended up buying a 2003 Track Edition of the 350Z. The car, whose name tells of its added capability, started at $34,619 for its 287-horsepower V6, six-speed manual transmission, high-performance Brembo brakes and aluminum rims.
Once he had the car, his son-in-law suggested he sign up for some track time at Alton. Crawford wasn’t so sure: “I’ve been driving for 35 years,” he says, “and I thought I was an awesome driver.”
Surprise: He’s learned a few things in these four years.
|On this sunny weekend, Crawford Anderson isn’t the only non-professional driver spending time lapping the track. There’s an event on, and several have signed up to run it. It’s held by TrackDaze, a for-profit organization that sponsors high-performance driving events and driving schools at tracks across the country. Local car clubs sponsor track days at VIR for its members, including the First Settlers Region chapter of the Porsche Club of America.|
Although most participants at TrackDaze show up in sports cars, such as a Mazda Miata, Chevrolet Corvette or a 350Z, or sports sedans, such as a BMW M3, it’s not unusual to see more offbeat cars at TrackDaze, such as the Volkswagen Passat wagon that drove the track on this weekend.
Being a novice holds its share of challenges for any driver, including Crawford. “I just showed up here with no clue,” he says. “At first, the car was completely stock and you have to go through this tech inspection to see if it’s roadworthy.”
Which he did, driving his 350Z into the tech inspection area, where TrackDaze officials asked him to pop the hood. Trouble already. “I said, ‘Give me a second, I know I can find it.’ The whole thing was totally embarrassing. I was totally clueless.”
His initial laps on the track proved just as eventful. “The first thing I remember was being passed by a Subaru Outback,” he says. “It was kind of scary. Going around the corners I would hit the brakes because I felt I was going too fast.”
Being new to the track, Crawford drove with an instructor riding shotgun. After the initial laps, they had a chat about the dynamics of taking a corner in a rear-wheel-drive car.
“So my instructor pulls me aside and he says, ‘Why are you hitting the brakes in the corners?’ I’m like, ‘Because I’m going to spin off.’ So he says, ‘OK. When you hit the brakes, what happens? The weight all moves forward. So if the weight all moves forwards, what happens to the weight on the back wheels? There’s less. So what’s going to happen? Those back wheels are going to skid. So now you are going to spin off.’ I have this sports car and I am telling everybody how fast it is and that it goes through corners like it’s on rails, and then I discover that, oh my God, I don’t know anything.”
Crawford had a lot to learn, especially when it came to driving the track in the rain.
It’s something he no longer does, having once lost control under damp conditions at the raceway. His car bounced off a tire wall multiple times, damaging every body panel in the car. Even the roof was creased. “The frame was OK. I was OK. But that was a $10,000 day right there,” he recalls.
His wife, Karen, a retired nurse, recalls when he called home with news that he had wrecked the car. “I was concerned about him physically, not the car,” she says. “I wasn’t concerned about the cost of the car.”
Such stories aren’t unusual; every driver was once a beginner.
“You always kind of think when you’re driving on the street, ‘You know, if it wasn’t for this speed limit, I’d drive really fast.’ When there’s no speed limit, and you can drive as fast as you want, all of a sudden, you’re not quite as brave as you thought you were. That is something absolutely everyone goes through.”
Four years after his first lap, Crawford has become more involved with the sport. Tidewater Z of Poquoson rebuilt his car after the accident, taking it further from its street car roots. He’s taken two Skip Barber Racing School courses; driven at Road Atlanta, Lime Rock and Carolina MotorSports Park; and become a certified instructor at TrackDaze.
“I always tell people, we all think we’re awesome drivers. Keep an open mind and you’ll learn so much. If you’re a really good driver, you get paid to drive these cars. If you’re like the rest of us, you pay to drive these cars.”
|Beyond driving, what makes a weekend at Virginia International Raceway enjoyable is its amenities. Think of VIR as the automotive equivalent of a golf club; instead of playing golf during the day, you drive your car.|
At day’s end, drivers head to the Oak Tree Tavern, a grand old Southern home near the VIR lodge, which has overnight accommodations overlooking the track. Sitting on the tavern’s porch, having a drink and talking with fellow ersatz Earnhardts as the sun sets and the crickets start their evening song is the perfect nightcap to a day at the track.
“The camaraderie is awesome,” Crawford says. “You hang out together, help each other out, give each other advice.”
So it’s little surprise that talk turns to driving, which would bore all but the most ardent enthusiast. Certainly it has kept Karen from accompanying him on his weekends at Alton. “I don’t have anything to contribute,” she says. “I don’t want to hold Crawford back from the camaraderie and hanging out with the guys because he felt that he needs to be attentive to me.”
This may explain why there are few women around. Still, Karen did come along when he first started. “It’s good to support your spouse in trying new things,” she says. “It’s not healthy, choking that off. It helps them grow.”
“She was OK in the early days,” Crawford says. “But as I got faster and faster, and things started to happen more quickly, she said, ‘OK. I think I am done with
this.’ She gets nauseous in the passenger’s seat.”
But as his circle of friends grew, she felt less of a need to be there. Occasionally, she still makes the trip. She brings chairs, the dogs and a good novel or two, and reads beneath the awning on their trailer.
She’s used to this; he used to race Catamarans. “I remember going to Tampa for the weekend several times. Drive down Friday, race the boat Saturday and Sunday, come back Monday. It was exhausting.”
Once the driving has wrapped up, Crawford’s 350Z goes back into its trailer. The biggest challenge of the event lies ahead: leaving.
After traversing VIR at triple-digit speed, it’s tough driving home along Route 58 and observing the speed limit. It’s a heavy dose of reality. Even if you’re not a car guy but just happen to own a fast car, you’ll be yearning for your next lap.
“I think everyone should give it a try. The worst that’s going to happen is that you’re going to become a better driver. You’re going to be safer on the street,” Crawford says.
“What’s more likely to happen is that … you’re liable to fall in love with this sport and turn from someone who really saw the car as a way to get around to something that can really become a passion. It’s something that’s just so much fun.”
For Karen, that isn’t about to happen.
“It’s really not anything I wanted to do,” she says. “Besides, I need my testosterone for other things, I’m not going to spend it out there on the track.”