Rest in Peace

Story by Byron Hurd. Photos by the author, Dave Everest, and an uncredited S:S:L team member.

Ayrton Senna once said he had no idols. He admired only the three things mentioned in the title of this piece. As human beings, we prove time and again that adversity can more quickly extract them from us than any other condition. If you ask me though, adversity, at least as an abstract, is incredibly played-out. Go watch a college football game this weekend and you’ll see what I mean. A freshman quarterback has to prove his merit in the face of adversity. Every third athlete has come from a background of adversity. The 24-year-old, super-super-senior wide receiver is more mature than his teammates because he’s encountered ‘adversity.’ Here’s a hint: He’s more mature because he’s 24, and not passing his Chem 200 final because he was out banging cheerleaders until 4:00 a.m. is not evidence of overcoming adversity. Now that I think about it, aspiring sports journos: Please stop using that damned word. Either buy a thesaurus or bite the bullet on that sports management degree. We all know it’s your backup, anyway.

The point? **** happens. And when it happens, you either step up or piss off. That’s the standard by which the real world measures character, and the real world came a-knocking many times this year for Green Baron Motor Sports. This season wasn’t glamorous — Hell, at times, it was barely dignified — but it was a test of personality and commitment.

My first exposure to the #187 Neon was on March 3rd, 2008, at the TrackDaze event at Virginia International Raceway. As you can see above, it was not the most picturesque of performance machines, but the moment I first saw it, I was won over by this little tin can that could. If the soul of the average car is its ability to resonate with our own character and experiences, the soul of a race car is the reflection of the collective character of its team. From the owners to the drivers, from the builders to the pit crew, everybody leaves a little behind in the collective effort of birthing these four-wheeled foals.

That same day, long before I helped with preparations for what would be the Neon’s final on-track excursion, I left a little sweat of my own in the passenger seat of #187.  After my final on-track session of the first day, Jack asked me to ride shotgun and hold the video recorder in place while he and one of the good fellows of Pakistan Express Racing Team engaged in a little friendly lead-follow. I happily strapped myself in and kicked back for some mental cool-down laps after a day of learning the intricacies of VIR.

This wasn’t my first lap riding shotgun with this particular fellow, so I was unconcerned as I set about studying the track from a passenger’s perspective, taking advantage of a sensory session without the burden of having to drive. Far from my consciousness was any thought of the squirrelly nature of the FWD race car to which I had entrusted my life (and my manhood, thanks to a well-placed 5-point harness). “If my knee gets too close to the shifter,” I said to Jack, “just hit me.” With that, we were on our way.

Our first lap went by in a flash. The neon displayed relentless grip that belied tail-wagging tendencies and further diminished any concern I had about our outing. Perhaps it was for the best. As we neared the end of the main straight and prepared to brake for turn one, something funny happened. The invisible hand of some angry race car god reached in and turned the attitude dial of our humble chariot up to 11. The car went from composed to WTF, and suddenly there were two passengers in the GBM Neon instead of one. It was an odd moment. As the rear end came around and dug into the dry sod at a notch or two above 100mph, it occurred to me that my senses were still fully attuned to the car. It was as if my brain was so perfectly focused that it didn’t occur to me that this little excursion had the potential to end quite badly. That reflex that normally takes charge, the one that would tell me to get control of the situation (or panic if I couldn’t) was suppressed. My thoughts were impregnable. I might as well have been sitting at home, watching some other chump go ass-first into the dry Virginia sod.

And as quickly as it began, we were back on the track. I resisted the urge to spit into my full-face helmet as I reached under my right leg to dig out the recorder (which had naturally failed on us before we’d even left the pits, thus negating my purpose for being in the car in the first place, not to mention robbing us of one seriously bitchin’ YouTube opportunity). I gave my  “I’m cool” thumbs up to Cap’n Jack and then shook a half a pound of dirt out of the equipment.

An evening spent pulling apart the front suspension yielded no further insights into our off-tarmac excursion (they later traced the problem to a failed wheel bearing), and hours of self-reflection failed to reveal the source of my stoicism. As any instructor worth a $375 HPDE admission fee will tell you, you can’t win a track day; you can only lose, and we had just narrowly avoided a pretty spectacular loss. The car wasn’t in top shape and we had dirt in places that aren’t to be discussed in polite conversation, but we were unscathed. We lived to drive another day.

#187's Final Lap

And being party to what was the Neon’s first big four-wheels-off moment under its new ownership (heavy emphasis on the latter part of that statement) further solidified my attachment to the little bugger. It wasn’t a pretty car, and it wasn’t a drag race winner, but it was charming and engaging nonetheless. Other Neons might say “Hi,” but the #187 was a little more, I dunno, brash? Maybe something along the lines of, “Sup baby; you diggin’ my tape job?” Sure, maybe you snickered at first, but it deserved respect. And it had enough fight in it that, despite a determined effort to snuff it out, the little killer that could managed to return to the pits under its own power after a two-tapper with the wall in Thunder Valley during July’s NASA Mid-Ohio race. Sadly, while it won that particular fight, it simultaneously lost the war.

#187 done got broke, and broke pretty bad. The front driver’s side crumple zone was heavy on the crumple, light on the zone. The firewall had been compromised and the roof had buckled ever so slightly. It was quickly decided: The spare chassis would be used, parts would be swapped, GBMS would have a #187 in the August Mid-Ohio PTE grid, and the team would absolutely make the 2008 NASA National Championships grid no matter what it took.

And so began the real magic. Over the course of seven weeks, the Baron was born again. Team members logged hundreds of hours, drove thousands of miles and uttered countless obscenities. Seven hour end-of-the-work-week drives to Columbus were not unheard of. It helped that we all felt we had something to prove, but in the end, the collective purpose mattered nearly as much. Other Speed:Sport:Life Racing articles have touched on the urgency and the emotion, but the immense satisfaction of bringing it all together is beyond words. I did so little, but I’m damned proud that I did it.

And if this were a fanciful work of fiction, this would be the part where I’d tell you how that brutish little car battled back from being a lap down, nosed out some PTE ringer and came home with everything. But **** happens. In the end, everybody (the Neon included) came out in one piece. The sacrifices? Money, time and egos. The end result? Well, maybe it wasn’t quite what everybody had hoped for, but I suspect it’ll do.

It may not have been a season worthy of one of the greatest Grand Prix racers of all time, but it wasn’t for lack of work, dedication or competence.

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Byron Hurd

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