A DAY OF MIXED EMOTIONS

Luca Walk

The backdrop of the desert mountains with the bad weather rolling in, the seasoned racer sharing his line with the new kid who’s just happy to be there, the dynamic between the four competitors as they walk the track, of friendships in the making, the intense focus on Luca’s face as he searches his racing line – I just love how this photo fits it all together to tell the story of the racing to come.

The weekend forecast called for a cooler couple of days but no rain over the race weekend. It turned out to be a miserable weekend – overcast, damp and blustery cold – not the best of conditions either for racing or photography. The light was horrible. It sort of put a damper on the entire weekend and Luca’s subdued performance on Sunday seemed to reflect that sentiment. The kart had been prepped by Doug Creesy of CZ Racing during the week, doing a superb job making it ready for the race weekend.

Luca started Saturday practice where he left off from his first race 2 weeks previously. He was again quick on the slippery track and his lap times improved over the course of the day. He was very smooth and pushed hard to improve his times. In fact, he seems to be pushing too hard. Sounds strange but As Doug Creesy said so eloquently – “You can go faster by being slower!” It seems contradictory to instinct but it actually makes sense as the kart performs better by not being so much on the edge. It’s something that Luca has to learn from the feel of the kart’s performance which only comes with significant seat time.

With that said, Luca was setting the pace with the other drivers tucking in behind, benchmarking their race configurations against his performances. It’s the ultimate compliment I suppose but I realized that we were giving away too much to our competition. We will alter our practice strategy to reflect our desire not to divulge our race strategy prematurely. It was an insight of which I was not previously aware and reflects on the competitive nature of the sport, even at this young level. Quite fascinating really.

As the day matures, the conditions worsen and a slight drizzle starts to fall on the track. Racing on concrete is slippery at the best. When wet, it’s like racing on ice. With over an hour of practice still to go, Luca comes into the pits. His mechanics huddle over the kart and young racer asking what’s wrong. Luca says that he calling it a day – the kart is perfectly set up and he doesn’t want to risk it. Doug Creesy looks at me, smiles and says “Smart.”  We head home to recover and prepare for tomorrow.

Race day on Sunday starts with a couple of practices before the qualifying session. Luca usually gets progressively faster over the 2 days, keeping his best lap times for the actual races. In the Drivers meeting, with a lot of emphasis spent on safety and driver conduct, it is announced that the tech inspection will be on the compliance of the helmets. There is some discussion on whether Luca’s new helmet meets race requirements. He seems genuinely upset at the possibility it does not. I tell him not too worry about it and to concentrate on his first practice.

His performance is below par, albeit still capturing the 2nd fastest lap. As he takes off his helmet, I can see that he really is upset. When I ask about it, he expresses his concern that his helmet will not pass tech – he really likes his new helmet! I told him to focus on his racing and the rest will fall into place. He is obviously distracted and it showed in his performance.

Times Practice

For qualifying, I tell him that he must have an open track in front of him to be able to post a hot lap. With only 4 laps to register his fastest lap, there is not much room for error. He either gets out first on track or last, making sure to leave a good half lap gap for his hot lap. He positions himself to get out on track first. The track director drops the green flag to signal the start of qualifying and Luca’s kart won’t start!  It’s the first time we encounter this problem on the new kart which was to challenge us all race day.

The pit crew jump in, while all the other racers get on track. They get the kart started quickly but I can see that Luca is upset. He is so competitive that he lets the emotion of the moment get to his head. He forgets to leave the necessary gap for a clean qualifying lap and within a very short distance, he catches the back markers who proceed to hold him up. He can’t get a clean racing line to register his hot lap and he qualifies second on the grid, slower than his practice times – a first.

Time Qualifying

It’s still an impressive performance considering, yet it feels like a missed opportunity. He is unhappy as I try to encourage him to focus on making a clean, aggressive start for Race 1. He is learning the hard way that he must leave as little as possible to chance – qualifying and race strategy will need to be carefully planned and executed from now on.

Race 1: Luca gets a good start, taking the 1st turn in second place right behind the race leader. He is pushing him hard just inches behind him. He is making his presence known. The two racers begin to easily pull away from the chasing pack. Luca is uncompromising in his pursuit, pushing him to make a mistake. At the same time, he shows tremendous discipline in not touching or bumping him. It’s impressive driving from Luca. I am white knuckled. I want him to do well of course but I also want him to temper his aggression into a calculated drive so as to avoid the controversy of taking the race leader out with an ill advised move.

It becomes quickly obvious that he is being held up.  Luca can’t pass without taking unnecessary risks. He is all over the back of the kart, searching for his chance to take him. He certainly makes his presence felt as the race leader is constantly looking behind him to see where Luca is. I must say that Kart 55Y is driving a superb race, keeping his racing line and not making any mistakes. It’s up to Luca to make the move.

As they reach the first back marker, Luca waits for his opportunity but none presents itself. Next lap, Luca tries an audacious pass on the last turn, taking the outside racing line with the back marker sandwiched between the 2 faster drivers – but he can’t pull the maneuver off. Brave from Luca, certainly unconventional and a tad on the risky side if you ask me. Both racers effortless pass the back marker on the straight, Luca still very close behind the race leader.

About 1/2 of a lap ahead of them, 3 back markers are battling it out between themselves unaware of what’s coming up behind them. Luca knows that this may offer him a better opportunity but he runs out of time. The race runs itself out, with the race leader taking the checkered flag ahead of Luca. less than 1/100th of a second separates them. The boys high 5 each other knowing that they both raced well.

It was a very exciting race with Luca showing both his speed and maturity. I am happy with his performance. I still take the opportunity to remind him that if he had qualified on pole position, the outcome may have been very different. It looks like if Luca can get out in front early in the race, it will be very difficult for the other drivers to catch him.

Times Race 1

Luca desperately wants to win his first race in this class and he knows that he can. Yet, he is at a critical juncture in his development. A good racer learns how to win, controlling the race even when he is at the back or unforeseen circumstance forces a change in race strategy. Luca dominated in the Comer 80 series last year and his wins came easily. The start of the 2017 season is proving to be more challenging – necessarily so for both his personal and racing development.

Ciambra 30

Race 2: Just as the racers prepare to get on track for the warm up lap, his engine won’t start! All the karts pass him as he is stranded in the pits, hands in the air in frustration. The pit crew jump in, feverishly working on the kart. They get it started and he slams the accelerator. It all seems too rushed. His driving is too rushed without the usual smoothness and I feel uncomfortable. He’s pushing too hard to catch up and I can tell that he is driving with too much emotion. He needs to be more relaxed and he is not. The curve ball with the starter really messed up his race strategy.

Catching up with the pack, Luca is unable to get back to his 2nd place on the grid and he is forced to start at the back. The race director drops the green flag and the race gets underway. Luca is just turning onto the straight flooring the accelerator while the race leaders are taking the first turn. I can only guess what is going through Luca’s mind and I will wager that it’s not pretty. His driving style is unrecognizable. He is trying too hard, pushing too close to the edge to make up for the lost time. He knows that he needs to get behind Kart #55Y quickly to challenge him before he builds an unassailable lead.

And then it happens. On the last turn into the straight, Luca takes the unconventional outside line to overtake 2 slower racers. It’s a bad decision. He’s going too fast into the turn. As he exits, he starts to lose the back, hits the curb, breaking his chain. He coasts to a stop at the bottom of the straight, pounding his steering wheel in frustration. I run over to push the kart off the racing line and onto the dirt. His race is run! He is forced to retire on lap 1. The race leader goes on to win the race easily to take the points and currently leads the championship after 2 races.

Times Race 2

Luca, as to be expected, is bitterly disappointed. He knows that he made a silly mistake on that last turn. It’s ok. The season is young and his learning curve is steep. However, he so wants to win that this desire is forcing his mistakes. He needs to be more objective in his racing decisions. He will learn. You cannot win every race. Sometimes it is better to take second place and the points than not to finish. I feel for him. Deep down I know that this is a good experience for him as he works out where he went wrong.

In the aftermath of his retirement and while the race was being run, I push his kart back to the pits.  Paul consoles Luca as best he could and begins to pack the kart away. Luca is walking around like a forlorn figure, inconsolable. Suddenly Doug asks me where Luca and the kart are with panic in his voice. I say that Paul was preparing to pack it away on the trailer and Luca is around somewhere. He grabs the Kart and tells me to get Luca for tech inspection otherwise we will loose all the points. The kart passes tech and so does Luca’s helmet. At least some good came out of today.

The defective starter was problematic as it set the tone for the second race. Luca should also have been given the opportunity to take up his position on the grid as he qualified. It would have required an additional set up lap but he wasn’t given the opportunity. I would have preferred he dismiss the starter mishap to drive for the points and not crash out. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and today proved to be another tough lesson. He allowed his frustration to dictate his race instead of his equanimity – it’s a valuable life lesson. I know that he will digest this experience and file it where it counts in the races to come.

We both feel despondent on the ride home at the end a weekend full of promise. It certainly was a day of mixed emotions. It’s only a fleeting sensation though because I know that Luca is fast. Once again he has made a very strong statement and I was very impressed with what he showed us today. Race 2 is done, in our rear view mirror – keep moving forward. Now onto the next race weekend on February 25th.

GO LUCA!