When I was sixteen, I inherited my uncle's old Mazda 626. Its 1.8 litre engine put down some 140-ish horsepower to the front wheels. Oh yeah. Naturally, the first thing I did with my new car was race it. At the time I was living in the hills of central Pennsylvania, in a town that didn't have its own police station. The back-roads were glorious. One of these back-roads was a little strip of tarmac about a mile south of my house that didn't really lead anywhere. It was called Campbells Run.
Campbells Run was my favorite. 1.4 miles of fast straights, tight hairpins and quick zig zags that was pretty much abandoned as far as the county was concerned. A friend and I would skip school and take turns doing timed runs along the length of this road. Needless to say, I wrecked.
It all happened very fast. My goal for the day was to try to beat 1 minute and 30 seconds. This required an average speed of about 60 miles per hour. The posted speed limit was 35 miles per hour. For a bone-stock Mazda 626, this would be quite an accomplishment. I don't remember the first part of the run, but I do remember the corner I wrecked on. It was a tricky decreasing radius bend that required me to brake twice and apex twice. I braked hard enough the first time, but not the second time. The back end flew out of line and my arms couldn't move fast enough to correct the 70 mph drift. Before I knew it I was upside down, in the air, weightless. My heart pounded in my ears as the world slowed and I felt the rush of adrenaline that only comes when you're inches from death. The pavement came closer and closer, until...BAM! I could literally see the glass of the windshield shatter before the car rolled back over onto its wheels. The car was totaled and I had a mild concussion. The loss of the car didn't bother me though, the loss of youth did. It was a baptism by fire, an awakening, God punishing me for thinking I was invincible. That day changed my life. That crash was my first real life lesson in consequences, and since that day I have never raced on a public road. For the next few months I couldn't even look down Campbells Run, let alone drive on it. Even if I had to drive past it, I would stare straight ahead and turn the music up. I hated that road.
As some of you may know, I'm back in Pennsylvania right now, at my parents' house. I have a new car, a Nissan 350Z, and several more years of driving experience. I decided to go back to Campbells Run today. I drove slowly at first, tracing the route that I had learned so well so many years ago. As I drove I couldn't help but smile; I must've been crazy to go around these corners so fast, I thought to myself. Even as I thought this though, it started to make sense again. I saw the beauty, the perfection of wrestling a car through the completely blind, banked corners that came up one after the other on this amazing road. I understood the appeal of taunting death through these serpentine corners, the appeal of man and vehicle and road melded together into a living, breathing, speed machine. I remembered what it felt like to be afraid, to feel your Suprarenal glands dump massive quantities of epinephrine into your bloodstream as thousands of pounds of metal and rubber and plastic leave your control and hurl you onto a path guided by physics alone. This road, this collection of breakneck twists and blistering straights, had defeated me, forced me to stop thinking and acting like a child and grow into the man I always was. It had carried me, kicking and screaming, through the fires of pointless rebellion into the land of the mature. Now I was back, and I had something to prove.
I reset the timer and lined up next to the speed limit sign that we had always used as a start line. I took a deep breath, dipped in the clutch, and engaged first gear. I took a second to think about the potential consequences of my actions: mainly, wrecking an $18,000 car. I laughed at this very real possibility, opened the windows, and revved up. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand...the engine sang and I felt the rotation of the driveshaft through the hydraulic clutch pedal. At 3500 rpm's, I started the timer and dumped the clutch. The rear wheels span as 306 raging Japanese horses struggled to break free of their iron reigns and get to the road. I let off the gas until I felt the traction kick in, and floored it. The revs rose rapidly as I flew down the first straight; I grabbed second gear, then third, then fourth. The first corner came and I didn't let off. The weight of the car shifted slightly and my heart skipped a beat, but she didn't let go. I tapped the brakes for the second corner, heel-toed down to third, and apexed quite smoothly.
The next section was almost completely blind. It started with a slight climb, followed by a sharp downward left-right-left. The Z hugged the apex of all three corners with only a little slide on the way out of the last one as a result of my enthusiasm with the gas pedal. I mashed the accelerator into the floor for the next section, which was a straightaway. By the end of the straightaway I was nearly at the redline in 3rd gear (approximately 85 mph) and the little red "it's time for a gear change light" was flickering, showing the car's annoyance at being pushed. I didn't bother changing up, but did start braking hard for the next corner. The back end squirmed in the skittish dance of a drift as the weight of the car was pushed forward. A little slide into the left hander was corrected easily as I powered into the right hander that followed. This was it, the infamous corner I had wrecked on. This time I was ready for it. Hard on the brakes for a second, turn in, balance the rear end on the limits of grip, then back on the brakes for the second apex. No drama. The last bit of the run was a straightaway followed by a long, slippery, knife-edge sweeper. To be fast around this part, you have to be reckless - you have to really chuck the car into the sweeper to hit the right line. The Z slid, perhaps a bit more than I would have liked, but a smidge of opposite lock brought the back end back into line. I stopped the timer before braking for the stop sign, and took a moment to appreciate the rush before reading the time.
1:17:96. It had felt like a lifetime.