Almanac

Cover Story - December 8, 2010

On track

Portola Valley's Michael Ramies, 19, is a lap away from racing formula cars as a pro

by Dave Boyce

It could be show time soon for Michael Ramies, a 19-year-old Portola Valley resident who recently graduated from Woodside High School and who's interested in earning a living by driving professionally.

His vehicle would have one seat, a powerful engine, and a dashing paint job that includes a number, various corporate logos and his name. A helmet will be required, and regular training in the gym will be a necessity to keep his head upright in coping with the unusual forces of gravity afflicting him at speeds of 175 to 190 mph.

PDM Racing, which participated in the Firestone Indy Lights Series of track races, is quite interested in Mr. Ramies, said his father Tom Ramies, the owner/operator of the Portola Valley Garage on Alpine Road. His son's remaining hurdles to being taken on are passing a medical exam and raising the $1.2 million in sponsorship money he will need for the coming season.

"They're pretty darn close" to that $1.2 million, his father said.

Michael has already passed driving tests on the two standard tracks: ovals, which vary in length and banking angles; and road courses, which vary in the lengths of the straight-aways and the angles of the turns.

In a Nov. 11 trial on the 1.3-mile oval at the Nashville Superspeedway in Tennessee — his first time on an oval track — Mr. Ramies maintained a speed of 165 to 175 mph for over a distance of 230 miles, his dad said.

Michael added a touch of style to that performance. About halfway through the session, he outpaced by two-tenths of a second a veteran who had tested the same car earlier that day, said his dad.

Ovals, with their simple geometry, would seem easier than road courses. Opinions vary.

Ovals take more courage, Michael's dad said. Each turn has a concrete wall and no escape path if a driver gets into trouble at very high speed, he noted.

What about that, this reporter asked Michael in a later interview. Are ovals tougher? "I really don't know," he replied. "I don't know how to answer that."

His curiosity about driving began around age 9, he said, and his dad eventually bought him a go-kart. "I basically just messed around on the track with it, but I was never really competitive," he said.

On the advice of his father, he attended a Skip Barber racing school and started racing formula cars in 2006 at the Laguna Seca road course in Monterey. He spent two seasons building his competitive abilities and won a championship in the 2008-09 season, he said.

Formula cars, unlike the more conventional looking stock cars, have open wheels, front and rear wings, and mid-engines, and have been Michael's preference all along, he said in an interview.

Michael now works for his dad as a mechanic. "I'm pretty much getting paid to go to (mechanics) school," he said. Asked whether he had considered college, Michael said he had. "I'm waiting to see where racing takes me before I go to school," he said. "I can't commit to a college."

Knowledge of auto mechanics is not a requirement for sitting behind the wheel of a formula racer, Michael said. To the extent that he has a role in the car's condition, it will be to inform mechanics during pit stops of unusual vibrations out there on the track.

"The team's really good so I'll let them do their thing," he said.

The

A slow hand

Over three years, Michael Ramies went from novice to champion at Laguna Seca. What does it take to win?

Practice. "The saying that practice makes perfect is absolutely true" about auto racing, he added. Also important: good training, natural talent without an overabundance of fear, and knowing when to back off. "You definitely have to know your limits," he said. "You don't go into a corner at full speed and see what happens. You work up to it."

The top five racers in a class tend to have lap times that are very close to each other, he said. Right behind them is the mid-field, who tend to be less than a second slower than the leaders. The rest lag by a bit more than a second. "A second sounds like nothing, but in a race, that's massive," Mr. Ramies said.

In the spectrum of athletes' reaction times, baseball and football players lead the field, he said. Motor sports racers are at the other end just above the slowest group, golfers.

"You have to have a slow hand movement so the car can have the time to react and then go around the problem," he said. "We see quickly but we react slowly. ... We don't slam on the brakes. We do what needs to be done."

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