Wilderness found in a BMW

by Daniel Brigham

Strapping on a full-face helmet has a way of focusing your attention.

I fire up my BMW's turbo inline six, switch off the traction control and line up with the other sport machines at the track's entrance. I'm waved in. I take a deep breath and steadily squeeze the gas.

I never feel more Western than when I slide through turns at High Plains Raceway outside of Byers, about 60 miles due east of Denver. Paralleling the engineer-straight, rural two-lane highway that delivers me to it, the bare-bones track is set within a 460-acre rectangle of softly undulating prairie, a sea that opens up just beyond the paddock area and crests at a long ridge two or so miles away. I often gaze at that sea.

For me, the power of wilderness lies in its what-ifs: What if I pointed more of my life in this direction? What if I ignored everything for today and hiked out to that distant ridge and … just kept on going? Like the prairie that surrounds it, the track is a place where rules are lifted, a place where I can brush up against the delicious violence that lurks at the limits.

Only on those fetterless ribbons of asphalt on the High Plains can I experience the polished ferocity of the engine as I howl down the straight, the seemingly asphalt-ripping grip of its brakes as I prepare for a sharp turn, the feral tightness of its chassis as we slide through a long corner at the limit of traction. A quality car or truck is a wild thing, cast in metal and steel. You feel its eagerness to run where it has the space to do so.

And just like the wilderness beyond, the track is humbling. No matter how crazy fast it feels like I'm going, it's only a matter of time before a better driver menacingly steals into my rearview, looking for a place to pass my slow, sorry ass. Oh, sure, out of masculine pride, I'll sometimes try to stay with him for a handful of increasingly sloppy turns – at least until it becomes clear that if I keep up this pace, I'll be spinning over the rough prairie, raising the dust cloud of shame.

It does take a certain amount of grit to be out here – to put my car at risk and run the track at blurring speed, all the while being passed by drivers with superior skill.

I get better by exploring the limits of my machine, something the broad and free space of the track allows. Will the car remain stable if I push it to 130 mph on the straight? How firmly can I squeeze the brakes in preparation for a corner and yet not lock up the front tires? How hard can I flog the engine out of the turns, knowing that after this we've got a hundred mile trip home?

In finding the answers, I forge a deeper relationship with the car – no small thing, especially if you're a Westerner who relies on a vehicle to deliver you through some pretty hairy landscapes. I learn to quickly spot and blow by distracted drivers, the most exasperating and dangerous element on the road, and to ride the challenge of turbulent weather. What Westerner doesn't in some way enjoy the drama of motoring through pounding rain or road-erasing snow? You might even say that increased skill behind the wheel allows for a more intense experience of the landscape.

But those are thoughts for later, when the BMW is back in its garage and I'm off the track. For now, all that matters is my braking point for the sharp turn ahead and that delicious spot early in the corner, where I bury the throttle and launch myself into the gauzy horizon.

A former instructor of writing and rhetoric at CU-Boulder, Daniel Brigham (daniel@danielbrigham.com) is an essayist whose work appears regularly in the Denver Post.

© High Country News