Day at the Races

Two 16-year-old boys wait patiently in their sport cars as they prepare to race on a closed circuit at Willow Springs International Raceway. Rory Handel ’09 presses his flame resistant gloves firmly onto the steering wheel of his open cockpit formula car, depresses the clutch, revs the engine and prepares to race. His body is weighted down with pounds of protective gear, and sweat dribbles down the side of his face as he tackles the desert heat.

With the weight of his helmet sitting on top of his head, he looks straight ahead through the tinted lens and keeps his eyes focused on the three-mile track. He looks to the left to take a final glance at Sun Ho Lee ’09, who races beside him, in a similar open wheel formula car. The pit crew announces through the intercom, “It’s time to race.”

The cars are off with an echoing boom. The heady scent of burning rubber fills the air. Handel and Lee accelerate to 100 mph in less than five seconds.

“This is our sport,” Handel ’09 said. “Some kids play basketball or football, but we prefer something on the more extreme side.”

These sophomores race cars up to 160 mph.  For the past two years, they have been building their skills and experience in this sport in hopes of entering the Sports Car Club of America.

“The SCCA is national race league for all levels of cars,” Handel said. “An official from this club will come monitor us this summer to make sure we are eligible to join this club. If we earn a license, we will be racing our formula cars competitively at tracks across the country.”

Lee and Handel own all of the cars that they use to practice racing, which include formula cars and tuned up race-ready street cars. They practice racing against each other to gain a mastery of the sport. They go to tracks across southern California about every other weekend.

Over spring break, Handel and Lee flew to Germany to practice racing at a very challenging circuit.

“We rented a car and spent three days in Germany making laps on a 13 mile track at the Nurburgring Nordschleife,” Lee said. “It was really scary because there was no run-off on the side of the road. If we spun out, we would’ve crashed.”

Their racing coach Matt Traglia advises them on their technique, racing lines and strategy.

“Before we race a new track, Matt coaches us when we cruise to tackle the corners,”’ Lee said. “He always gives us new advice on how to lower our times,” including a video camera in the inside of his car to learn from his runs.

“When my dad first started, I thought it was way too dangerous,” Lee said. “Then I went out a few times starting out in the go-karts, and I slowly got into it more and started racing real cars every weekend.”

The interior of many of the cars is supported with thick metal roll cage bars. A lot of the race vehicles sacrifice the passenger seat to gain a lighter car with more structure support. Handel and Lee always wear thick leather jump suits and custom anodized helmets. They strap in their bucket seats with belt straps over the shoulders and across the waist. Their helmets have an ear piece and microphone to communicate with the pit crew to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“We spin out occasionally, but we don’t get into accidents,” Lee said. “One time the transmission caught on fire and the engine blew up in flames on my formula car. I pulled off and bailed. The fire extinguisher didn’t work.”

Their advanced car handling skills and quick reflexes have allowed them to achieve great success in the sport of go-karting as well.

“It’s much more raw than driving a car,” Lee said. “You learn much more from it because you need to have really fast reactions when you’re so close to the pavement. It is also much harder on the body than driving a normal car.”

These are not your normal theme park go-karts; their 125 cc motorcycle engines are loaded with 56 horsepower. Weighing only 190 pounds excluding a driver, these karts have a top speed of 120 mph. Lee and Handel both have their own collection of trophies and awards from their karting competitions.

“We’ve only raced competitively in karting. Our most recent event was the Ferrari Challenge Karting Event,” Lee said.

Back at the track, Handel and Lee shift through the gears with almost two G’s crushing down on their body. The tires squeal as the cars zoom in and out of the sharp turns and corners. Lap after lap, the engine roars. They can’t stop. They don’t want to. The final straightaway comes ahead, and the cars fly at a bone crushing 130 mph. Lee tries to keep his head pointed downwards as an enormous force of wind rushes against his carbon fiber helmet.

“If you are traveling at 160 mph, your mind has to be traveling at 10 mph,” Handel said. “You have to be able to relax, and slow everything down.”