By JOHN HOWELL From a GoPro camera mounted on the roll bar behind the driver's seat, the side of Jeff Gooding's white helmet is clearly visible. The clear plastic visor is up. He's focused on road that flits by on either side. Straightaways become
From a GoPro camera mounted on the roll bar behind the driver’s seat, the side of Jeff Gooding’s white helmet is clearly visible.
The clear plastic visor is up. He’s focused on road that flits by on either side. Straightaways become curves. There are protective barriers in the turns; there are hills and, every so often, what resembles a sentry house, although there are no guards. In fact, there are no spectators.
Jeff’s gloved hands grip the small steering wheel of the 1999 Miata, only to be released when shifting gears. But Jeff is not alone. There are others on Lime Rock Park. They’re driving street cars, too. Corvettes, Mustangs, BMWs, Porsches and Subarus are on the track. They don’t come into view frequently, but when they do, Jeff extends his arm out the window signaling for them to pass to his left or right. He keeps his “line of drive” – that’s the etiquette of the track – and concentrates on driving. Similarly, as he’s gaining on a black Porsche, he looks for the sign to pass. He gets it. For a split second the car is beside him and then gone.
Except for the sound of wind, it’s eerily quiet. While the scene rushes by with every couple of minutes arriving at the same series of straightaways and curves, the ride is hardly monotonous. It is smooth and transformative as if gliding, at the same time exhilarating and pushing things to the limit. Jeff is regularly hitting speeds of 100 mph and, on occasion, topping 120.
On Saturday, Jeff was figuratively and literally a long way from Whiskey Hill, as the Palmer Motorsports Park and the nearest track is known. The car hood is leaned against the garage wall on protective pads; the radiator was to another side, with shiny new engine components waiting to be affixed in the engine compartment along with connecting pipes and cables. To the rear of the car that is elevated on stands sits a transmission. It would have cost $1,300 to rebuild, but as Jeff explains, Mazda promotes track driving and he was able to get a new one at $1,400.
Jeff opens the driver’s door and suggests the reporter climb in.
“Don’t touch the clutch,” he advises. “I haven’t put it in yet.”
The seat is hard. You’re certain to feel every bump of Warwick roads. But what it lacks in comfort it makes up in security. It’s enveloping, and even without the seatbelt harness, you can’t move from side to side. The seat is low, mounted to the floor pan, and there’s no chance of seeing what’s directly in front of the car.
“You always want the big picture,” Jeff says.
The GoPro video makes that evident. At speeds of 100 mph and more, you can’t be looking for potholes 20 feet in front of you. You’ve got to spot the potholes from 200 feet.
Of course, there aren’t any potholes on the six or seven tracks Jeff will drive over the course of a season. He estimates he’ll make more than 20 sorties, driving the Miata he bought for $4,500 from his home in Warwick Neck anywhere from an hour to three hours to reach a track. He doesn’t trailer the car, as some track buffs do, and he goes alone.
He’s hardly alone when he gets to the track. There’s plenty of car talk and looking under hoods and comparing notes about the track.
Jeff has had a long love affair with cars. He can’t name all those he’s owned, but well recalls the first he rebuilt, a 1931 Buick 18 years ago. He wasn’t looking to race it, rather restore it. It became a regular at the Warwick Neck Fourth of July parade. More recently, he established a bond with a TR6.
“I took that all over the country,” says Jeff.
On one trip returning from the south, he heard about “The Tail of the Dragon,” an 11-mile stretch of two-lane asphalt with 318 turns, Deal’s Gap in North Carolina/Tennessee. He had to try it. Whether he was bitten by the dragon or not, Jeff knew he wanted to hone his driving skills and hence he developed a passion that started with a 2002 BMW 500I and his introduction to the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Track Night in America.
About four years ago, he drove the BMW to Thompson, Connecticut, and paid $150 for an hour of track time.
What prompted him to do it?
“I always wanted to do something like it…I didn’t know any better.”
As a novice, he was grouped with other beginners and provided instruction. The hour is divided into three 20-minute segments where one’s driving is critiqued. Drivers are closely watched and reckless or careless behavior is not tolerated. Those drivers get “flagged.” Twice flagged and they’re off the track.
After that first track night, Jeff opened the hood of the BMW and started making “improvements.” By the end of the summer, he confides, “it wasn’t the same car.”
It was then that he decided he wanted a “track car,” and he settled on the Miata. It is light, fast and comparatively inexpensive. It was a car he could manage.
He’s learned a lot, graduating from a novice driver to the upper level of intermediate. The next step is “advanced.”
Jeff is also finding more time to work on the Miata and get on the track. He still works as a manufacturing sales representative for his brother’s company, David Gooding Inc., but only three days a week. He is 69 and has no intention of slowing down…on the track, that is.
Nor is he alone, even though his wife, Ann, is quite happy to leave him to his car and the track. That’s a different story with his 4-year-old grandson, Connor Gill. He has taken to the Gooding garage and is there as Jeff makes adjustments, readily handing him tools – he can name them – when requested. His big disappointment was missing the re-mounting of the engine. Jeff promised him there is a lot more to be done and he’ll have a part of it.
As for Jeff, the thrill has been pushing the car and himself and knowing the limits.
“I’m getting faster and I’m also getting to be a better driver,” he said.
Drivers are not meant to take their lap times, but everybody does. A memorable day at the track is passing a lot of cars and, Jeff says with a smile, “you feel good.”
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