Beyond Formula 1: Real people racing around Austin
F1 weekend in suddenly racing-consumed Austin will leave even the most sedate drivers gunning to send a Porsche to 100 and swerve around a track. Happily enough — as I can now testify — there is a way for real people to do that around our fair city.
Tucked a quick 25 miles south of Austin is a curvy loop of asphalt called the Mazda Raceway at Harris Hill Road. Since 2008, owner Bo Rivers has allowed drivers to take vehicles of all kinds to insane what-is-keeping-this-car-on-the-road speeds.
Harris Hill’s 200 members own plenty of high-dollar sports cars, but a fair number race Mazda Miatas, too. And thanks to the “crapcan” racing trend, which allows only crazy $500 beasts, the entire national racing community has become more accessible and accepting.
A former radio executive from Florida, Rivers opened a Lotus dealership after he came to Austin, but there was nowhere to drive such high-performance cars fast and safely. So he made it his four-year personal quest to build a 1.8-mile, 11-turn racetrack close to the Hill Country.
Rivers didn’t let bureaucratic roadblocks, like having to build a dam and retention pond on the property, stop him. He didn’t take on any partners, either. “Who would get into this? This is crazy,” he says. “There is the potential for someone to get less than alive out there.”
But Harris Hill, with its strict no-drinking rules, has never seen a single car’s driver injured. “It’s all about risk management,” Rivers says. “I’m the safety guy from Hell.”
Which reassured this Nissan Sentra driver as I put on a big ol’ hair-flattening helmet and prepared to take spins at speeds I’d never gotten close to, even growing up in a farming town that was desperate for thrills.
Compensating for the style-reducing helmet hair was our style-boosting ride. My host, Harris Hill member Jamie Leasure, happened to keep a Porsche Cayman R at the track — in lime green. We were ready to rock!
“I firmly believe getting better out here makes you a better driver on the street,” Leasure explained as he pulled on driving gloves and wrapped his fingers around the suede steering wheel. “You look ahead more and know how to react.”
Despite Leasure’s obvious experience, the first lap felt like Satan’s roller coaster. At an amusement park, no matter how wild it feels, you’re fixed to a track. The Cayman, on the other hand, suddenly seemed like a hellspawn that could fly me into skull-crushing oblivion at any moment.
My coping strategy: repeating “Wow. Wow. Wow,” tossing in frequent holy’s, S-words and F-bombs. If were to come out “less than alive,” as Rivers put it, my last words would be the beautiful, dignified “Holy f---ing s---!”
After four laps that felt like 20, Leasure pulled off and asked if I was ready to drive. No other cars were on the track. Even so, I thought, “You can’t be serious. But well, sir, if you’ll trust me with this machine…”
I couldn’t have stayed alive without Leasure coaching me through it, telling me which way to steer, when to brake and how to embrace the fishtail. Finally, with him shouting, “All the way down, all the way down, give it everything,” bam — I hit 100! Then immediately braked hard, tires screaming and turned.
It was a hell of a high, but I didn’t see any other women looking for that same adrenaline at Harris Hill, at least on a weekday afternoon.
Yet folks like Stef Schrader assure me that there are some, and they are appreciated. Schrader has been racing for two years, since fellow “Top Gear” fan Monica Harrison brought her out to the track. At the time, Schrader was driving a Nissan Altima that ate head gaskets like candy. Things have changed since.
She learned to drive a stick shift so she could do a “24 Hours of Lemons” race in a Volkswagen dressed up to look like a giant purple bunny. She got hit into a wall during a women’s race but wasn’t injured (in fact, she took a picture outside the dented car giving the thumbs up). And she upgraded her own car to a Mitsubishi Lancer, which she says she “runs the snot out of.”
Still, Schrader isn’t limited to the 91 mph she can get the Lancer up to, as fellow racers often allow her to take their cars for a spin. “People are really friendly,” she says. “It’s kind of like they want to share sometimes. It’s a very cool community to be a part of.”
Beginners’ classes are $250, monthly Harris Hill memberships are $200, and we real folks can drive any car we want any day of the year. Who needs F1?