Lady of Spain: Sara Jane Kaminski

What I did on my summer vacation

by Sara Jane Kaminski
I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A RACE CAR DRIVER.

It all started with my Dad. He used to pop his head out of the trap door to the basement, pull off the white mask that protected him from the fiberglass and resin fumes and say, “She’s coming together! Good night, sleep tight.” Every night I went to bed dreaming about the car he was building and wondering just how the heck he was going to get it out of there. I was about four at the time, and as far as I knew, that hatch was the only way out.

Sara Jane KaminskiMy brother Harper and I both inherited my Dad’s passion for cars—the curves, the cockpits, the roar of the engines. If our parents had any idea about the speeds we clocked or the off road junkets we took when we were growing up, they would be amazed that we’re both still alive and that the car we shared made it through all those years in one piece.

Back in 2001, I finally bought my first “new” car—a silver Audi A4 1.8T with the winter sport package. I was in love.

Sara Jane KaminskiAt 50,000 miles, my brother decided it was time to chip her and put on a fun suspension. And a mean custom exhaust. And rims. And sticky summer tires. My friends thought I was nuts, but nothing made me happier than blowing the doors off a Porsche 911 on an early Sunday drive to Newport, RI doing 127mph. Thankfully the cops were lingering at the donut shop that morning.

The same rush hit me late last February when the North America Audi Club invite to drive the stunning new R8 in Barcelona showed up in my email. The brilliant Godfather-esque Superbowl ad was still fresh in my mind and the thought of getting behind the wheel of those sexy Bi-Xenon LED lights made my heart race on that cold crummy morning. The email trail went something like, “Dude, I’m driving the R8 in Barcelona. You in?--your favorite sister” “Dude, WHAT??!--bro”

Sara Jane KaminskiStrangely enough, when the reality of the trip set in, I was gripped with fear. Despite the many runs over the huge looping curve at Exit 3 off 128 in Burlington and flying though the gears on my favorite back roads on the way to beach, the prospect of looking like a complete idiot driving the ferocious R8 on a European F1 track with other presumably experienced drivers was daunting. I’m a 35 year old art director. I have never actually raced anything. Years of reading my Dad’s Road & Track and 11th grade driver’s ed was pretty much the extent of my formal training.

Sara Jane KaminskiAs luck would have it, there was a free A4 track day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Louden, NH scheduled just days before the big trip. Harper and I listened intently as the Audi team explained their “Luxury & Performance” philosophy and its’ practical applications in the totally reengineered A4 suspension. When the time came, we giddily ran to our choice of vehicle in the line up of silver cars with the same enthusiasm usually reserved for picking out the best possible bumper car at the state fair. With my brother as co-pilot, the instructor’s scratchy voice on the walkie talkie and both of us grinning ear to ear, we ripped down the straight at a whopping 120kmph wooping like mad. “Dude, this is awesome!” It was just like the old days, but this time in the gorgeous new 2009 A4— and with helmets! After several confidence-building laps, it was clear that not only was I not the slowest driver, I was definitely not the scariest driver either—so I packed up and headed to Barcelona.

Ah, Spain. In August. Hot, sultry and utterly alluring. The trip began with a ride in a sleek A6 navigating the hairpin turns uphill to the luxurious AC Miramar hotel nestled in Montjuic which overlooks bustling Port Vell and the blue calm of the Mediterranean Sea. An S5 greeted guests in the courtyard and a poster indicating cocktail hour on the deck overlooking the water was planned for the evening. Clearly this was going to be quite a weekend.

Sara Jane KaminskiThe overnight flight through Paris had wiped me out that first day, but thankfully the pool had the most exquisite Janice et Cie leafy lounge chairs, so between those and the glasses of rosé, it should have been no surprise that a bit of confusion set in that evening at dinner. In my jet-lagged exhaustion, I inadvertently showed up for another group’s festivities. The lovely Audi hostess Doris came to my rescue and the very generous maitre d’ declared, “Confusion calls for Cava.” Moments later out came a bottle and ice bucket! It might be of some interest to note at this point that I was travelling solo. Luckily, delicious prawns with basil mint pesto pasta arrived shortly there after along with several elegant surprise tastings from the chef. I went upstairs and fell into bed very happy and I hadn’t even seen an R8 yet.

After drinking the best two cups of coffee ever on my private deck overlooking the city, I ventured out the next morning: strolling La Rambla to the Mercat de la Boqueria with it’s bountiful piles everything edible, on through the Barri Gòtic and over to El Raval and fan filled antique shops, up the Passeig de Gràcia past all the wild Gaudí facades and designer labels and on to the Avigunda Diagonal, across the Traverssera de Gràcia with it’s tiny neighborhood side streets to the towering La Sagrada Família and it’s massive spires and even more uncanny trusses and cranes, and finally, all the way down to the rowboats in the Parc de la Ciutadella. Eventually I even found the giraffes at the zoo! What a spectacular city.

Sara Jane KaminskiThe correct cocktail party was the perfect ending to a day of roaming. A necessary nap made for a fashionably late entrance, just in time for introductions to fellow drivers before heading into dinner with the instructors. Our table included an enthusiastic couple from Norway, several incredibly stylish gentlemen from the Netherlands and an American couple from Colorado, Satya and John—who, when they aren’t fiercely competing on the kart track, roll around Denver in his R8! Driving advice, tire preferences and our favorite car adventures kept everyone laughing until the wee hours of the morning when one of the instructors mentioned we would all be driving in less than 7 hours...

Despite the late night, everyone was wide awake (the coffee is magic) and ready to hop on the bus promptly at 8:30AM. After a short ride to the Circuit de Catalunya we were escorted into the Audi Sports Car Experience Lounge, complete with yet more coffee and instructors who were ready to get the show on the road. Without much ado beyond signing our lives away and a brief safety speech, out we trotted to the 16 R8’s lined up in the pit.

A German gentleman who I had met two days before, boldly agreed to be my partner—I was thrilled to have an experienced Autobahn driver as my companion and eagerly gave him the driver’s seat so I could see what the track looked like before I had to drive it. My heart was in my throat I was so excited— and oddly terrified at the same time. When we hit the first set of turns off the straightaway, I wasn’t so sure I was cut out to be a passenger, and this was supposed to be a slow lap! And where were the helmets?

Sara Jane Kaminski

By the third time around, my white knuckles and stiff legs had softened up somewhat and I was no longer holding on for dear life, but actually started to relax and pay attention to details of the track. If you’ve never driven with a complete stranger going 120kmph and then some, it takes nerves of steel. I’m equally certain he felt the same way when it was finally my turn to take the wheel! Both of us had episodes of under and over steering, a tense second or two on the skirt and our awkward moments adapting to the paddles. But once I felt the real stick and hold on the corners and the glorious sweet spots in the 6 speed manual clutch it was pure pleasure! (Paddle shifting is not my forte, my German friend was exceptional at it though, so I’ll be back for more practice.)

The initial laps were followed by four breakout training sessions with the fantastic Audi instructors. Each focused on the specific challenge of certain parts of the track: how to approach the big serious banking turn, how to efficiently navigate the apex/ breaking points in the curves, and of course a crash course in steering and breaking on the straightaway. With every run, the instructors’ observations and suggestions made a phenomenal difference in the next pass. The smallest adjustments made for remarkable performance improvements—like when I finally hit each apex point correctly on the first set of curves uphill from the straight, I got a “Fantastic, Sara. Perfect.” over the walkie talkie from Sepp Haider. Seriously, I felt like a million bucks. Sign me up to drive in a car chase scene in another Ronin movie!

Despite the excellent coaching and encouragement, I just could not get a good start on the steering course and took out, oh, five or maybe six (seven?) of the many curve cones. After we all laughed ourselves silly and Frank Schmickler got in a fabulous driving-like-a-grandma joke at my expense, I refocused and nailed it (well, maybe I took out one or two) but it was a dramatic improvement. Most importantly, after nearly 20 years of driving, it was exhilarating learning something new and doing it a gorgeous car, on vacation, in Spain no less!

Sara Jane KaminskiBetween the mental concentration it takes to drive a clean line even at these “slower” speeds and sitting tight in the passenger seat taking it all in—in remarkable Audi luxury and comfort, of course—I had expended some serious energy. Which was immediately replenished at the sight of the cabinets filled with our custom helmets awaiting the hot laps after lunch. That was all the encouragement I needed. The three-foot-wide steaming hot pans of paella helped too, along with, you guessed it, more coffee.

And then, it was the moment of truth, I climbed solo into a Jet Blue Metallic R8 with a dreamy Luxor Beige interior and a 6 speed manual. The runs with paddles hadn’t been as successful or smooth as I wanted them to be, particularly when downshifting, and I wanted the most familiar (safe!) rig for the much anticipated fast part of the day. As I sat in the driver’s seat, helmet fastened, with my hands at nine and three and my foot on the clutch, waiting for our group’s signal to pull out for the first fast lap, the magnitude of the opportunity really hit me: I was strapped to a 420 horsepower engine that was just begging to be thrown into high gear on a world class track. My heart was already racing. Then the lead car leapt out onto the track. And I was on his ass.

Quite honestly, the rest of the afternoon is a complete blur. The only clear memory I have of it is the sensation of being firmly embedded in the seat as soon as I was in second gear and the visceral thrill of going so fast that thinking about anything other than the road ahead was impossible. The practice and instruction paid off, the fear slipped away after the first turn. My arms relaxed as the wheel carried me through the curves and my feet stayed on the pedals as if they had been attached in the factory. When it was my turn to drop in and follow my fearless leader up close again, the charming Markus Fiechtl-Kerschner crackled mischievously through the radio, “This is not just any Sunday afternoon drive. Let’s go Sara.” And we went. Fast. The roar of the engine in third gear at the top of the track and a momentary glimpse of the tach at 8000RPM was a experience beyond my wildest imagination. I hit 220kmph on the straight. Race. Car. Driver.

My Dad and my brother are so proud of me—and jealous as hell.

Sara Jane Kaminski is an independent art director living and working in Boston, MA. When she’s not designing or writing, she’s pulling through the gears on a windy road with the windows down and the radio on in her beloved Audi A4. She can be reached at sarakcreative@gmail.com

© 2008 Sara Jane Kaminski