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Story and photographs by Mark Baruth
In perhaps the most disturbing episode of nepotism since Ferdinand Porsche let his do-nothing kid “Butzi” style the 911, we have my brother, Mark, misusing the Speed:Sport:Life bully pulpit to rant about the SCCA Solo Nationals. Enjoy! – jb
Not exactly the subject of many “Where I spent my summer vacation” essays. And yet, for many reasons (which have nothing at all to do with the fact that you can hit the SCCA offices with a rock from Heartland Park, the site of the event), that’s where the 2008 Solo National Championships are going to take place.
This year is to be my second attempt at competing against the best silly hat wearers the nation has to offer. My 2004 Mazda RX-8 was purchased before I even knew what autocross was, so I, of course, picked the coolest looking car on the lot-air dam, fog lights, ground effects, spoiler, traction control, stability control, even a spare tire kit! The same spare tire kit was the subject of nearly 5 pages of vitriolic discussion at RX8club (the brace makes the rear end stiffer! No it doesn’t! Yes it does!). I’m also reluctant to chop my exhaust on the car, since it is also my daily driver. Unfortunately, all of that stuff adds weight, and as ski jumpers say, Fat Doesn’t Fly.
However, none of that will matter this year. I feel great about my chances in Topeka- I trophied at a National Tour event, and have consistently placed among the top drivers in my region in PAX. On the negative side, I blew a motor earlier in the car earlier in the year (thanks for the new Renesis, Mazda!), plus I’m a new dad, so Topeka will only be my 6th event of the year. Never mind-a trophy is in reach-nay, it is inevitable.
Now, you may have heard from no less an authority than the SCCA website that autocross is a “low-cost, entry-level motorsport.” Tee. Freaking. Hee. Upon pulling into the paddock at Heartland Park on Monday afternoon, I am reminded why many people simply don’t go to Nationals. The preparation level of the cars is better than anything we’ve ever seen from Super Aguri. Not to mention the motorhomes, trailers, tow vehicles, and the d-bag who will stack up his Hoosier Wets in grid a few cars down from me on Tuesday morning, despite the fact that you could have driven 30 miles in any direction before seeing a cloud. One quickly realizes that in a competition measured by thousandths, your average Local Region Superstar who dominates F Stock in his ’93 Camaro is not on the same planet as these guys. When there are people writing articles in Grassroots Motorsports about how to build a $15,000 motor for a 1991 Miata (take a moment to appreciate the irony of that), something just ain’t right.
My co-driver and I find our paddock spot with the rest of the homies from our region. Oh, yeah, here’s a tip for Nats newbies-if you don’t have a capable co-driver, don’t bother going. Your tires can’t get warm enough at 8:30 in the morning on their own-they need help. We have a choice spot behind the garages, down by the road course-but most importantly, it’s on the asphalt. Jacking up your car on the grass is less than fun. Priority #1: Get the car through tech. Priority #2: Walk the Tuesday course. B Stock-that’s where the RX-8 is classed-would be running the West course in run group #1.
My co-driver had been able to arrange a ridealong on a fellow competitor’s trailer for my O.Z., Ultraleggera wheels, so I didn’t have to haul them myself in the back seat from Kentucky. I grab them, throw them in the car, and head off to tech, hoping that nobody would make me put them ON the car to be teched. Tech at Nationals is an interesting process-it’s more to make sure that you are running the SCCA-mandated set of stickers on your car than it is to ensure any sort of safety. By the time you put on all the required stickers, plus the stickers that tire companies and car manufacturers require for contingency money, you too can look like you have a real race car! Ugh-can’t we all admit that we’re driving around a parking lot? I would have put my name on the car, too, but then I remembered that I wasn’t driving at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (Well, Kyle, I was real pleased with the Tire Rack/Koni/Kumho/Hawk Mazda today…).
I’m greeted in the tech shed by some fellow B Stock competitors from down south, where they all play the game of “my car’s too slow to win.”
“My shocks are gone.”
“My tires are done.”
“My car’s too fat…” Okay, that’s me. As Yogi Berra once said, “Autocross is about 90% mental. The other half is physical.” That might not have been an exact quote, but you get the gist. The fastest driver/car does not always win-the driver who can keep it together mentally while looking ahead, maximizing his shift points, finding his reference cones, left-foot braking, heel-toe downshifting…THAT’S your winner. Unlike your local event, where the guy who was the first one in the class to buy some used R-Comps generally wins, everybody here is FAST. Mario Mendoza was a tiger on the local ballfields, too (last baseball reference, I promise).
Having rolled through tech on my “rain tires” (hey, I read that Kumho SPTs are great in the rain, so shut up), I proceed to get a few coursewalks in on the West course. About 1/3 of the way through my first walk, I begin to realize just how mentally unprepared I am for this course. Imagine that you’ve been tearing up your local 9 hole, Par 3 course…and then you go to Augusta-and it’s the week of the Masters. Oh, and then you realize that you have to play St. Andrews tomorrow. Yeah, that’s kind of what it’s like. With regions losing lots on a seemingly daily basis across the country, it’s getting more and more difficult to duplicate the speed and size of elements that one sees on a national level course. The West course has at least two spots where I predict I will hit the rev limiter in 2nd gear (on the RX-8, that’s about 67 MPH). Plus, everything you’ve heard about the Heartland Park surface is true-it’s a sandbox. They attempted to sweep the course several times, but if you go offline, you’ll end up backwards, or in a fence (like one poor H Stock competitor will find out).
Reminding myself to look ahead, I keep my eyes up during my course walk. I notice, while trying to pick out reference cones, learning my apex points, that there’s a couple walking about 30 feet ahead of me with a baby OHMYGODTHAT’SJASONISLEY! That’s right, I had been walking the course, trying to use my whole two years of autocross experience to figure out what I should be trying to do, when I could have been just stalking the three-time defending class champion and stealing his lines. Dag Snappit! This man has been a class champion longer than I’ve known what autocross was, and here I am trying to reinvent the wheel. Hopefully, he’ll take another walk…nope. Oh, well, Back to guesswork.
After gathering all the information I could, my co-driver and I head to Bob’s Car Wash down the street from HPT, where rumor has it that the water pressure is so high, the hoses have kickback. Just what the 8 needs after 600 miles of bugs! Bob, if you’re reading this, I’ll gladly run your stickers at next year’s nationals-that’s if there’s any space between the Hawk, Pace, Mazda, Kumho, Tire Rack, SCCA Solo, SCCA National Solo, SCCA wire wheel…you get the idea.
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After some fine dining at Red Robin, we retire to the host hotel, the Topeka Capitol Plaza. Have you ever been to Taco Bell, only to find that it got turned into a “Casa Taco,” but they left all the food and decorations the same? If the Topeka Capitol Plaza wasn’t an Embassy Suites at one point, Embassy needs to sue them for some sort of copyright infringement. I had tried to stay there last year, but they overbooked and I was booted to the “Holidome.” This year, I was fortunate enough that they actually honored my reservation. We discuss the course, review our maps, and hit the sack-we have to be at HPT no later than 6:30 or so to make sure we change tires, get one final look at the course, and get into grid by 8:00.
The paddock at HPT at 6:30 AM the next morning is a very different place from the hustle and bustle of Monday afternoon. The fog has not yet lifted, leaving a very “Sylvester Stallone Training to Kick Ivan Drago’s Ass” vibe over the course. Working in near silence, so as not to disturb the folks sleeping in the motorhomes, we change tires, check pressures, and move the car into grid. At that point, the pressure of the event starts to sink in-had I torqued my wheels sufficiently? Did I forget my helmet (yes, I did that last year)? Did I remember anything at all about the course?
Fortunately, I have the catastrophe that is Junior Karts to wait for before I can run. Why, why, why do we need to have Junior Karts at Nationals? If you are training your son to be a karting autocross champion, why not train him to be, oh, I don’t know, a champion shuffleboard player? It’s about as relevant. Autocross is what you do when you DIDN’T have the chance to learn how to race as a kid. There’s plenty of karting courses in America-take your kid there. Next thing you know we’ll have 14 year olds racing Spec Miata…wait, that’s already happening. Well, we’ll have something else stupid.
Grid at nationals resembles a car show as much as anything else. My fellow competitors and I are walking up and down the grid, checking out each other’s cars, making polite conversation-trying to do anything but think about the absolute perfection that would be required to even place in the trophies, much less win. In my high school football playing days, I would always peek across the midfield stripe during warm-ups at the other team, just to see what kind of athletes I’d be up against. It was always very easy to pick out the team’s superstar-he was the one with the cleanest uniform, the sharpest tape job, the most swagger. Unfortunately, most autocrossers don’t really exude athleticism-in this game, it’s the cars that have the attitude. Tire warmers, spray bottles, and yes, the aforementioned d-bag with the stacked up Hoosier Wets-the autocross equivalent of helmet stickers. It quickly becomes evident who the players are, and who the trophy fodder are, before a single car takes the course.
I give my co-driver some words of encouragement, check the tire pressures, and run over to watch his lap. As he leaves the line, I notice the calipers grab his spinning wheels. Looks like I forgot to remind him to turn off the traction control. Oops. Nevertheless, he turns in a pretty respectable lap. I catch a golf cart ride back to the grid and start getting mentally prepared for my run. Right when I get to the car, the grid worker looks at me and said, “5 cars.” Wha-hold on-huh? 5 cars until I go on course? My co-driver JUST got back into his grid space! We quickly check pressures with the help of some folks from my region, and I hop into the car. Traction control off. Air conditioning off. Seat adjusted. Time to go!
As I pull up to the starting line, I perform my mental checklist-look ahead, be aggressive, set up for each corner, slow, precise hands. The starter waves me on course, and I launch at 5k RPM. Look up, Mark, look up! Long straightaway-ding! There’s the rev limiter. Engage ABS, hard right hander, get back left, lane change, lane change, set up for the big right hander. Tight, tight, damnit, I’m drifting out too far. Maintain speed through this slow section-nope, I got too deep, Brake. Where’s the sweeper? I can’t find the inside cone…there it is! Turned too early. Gas, Gas, Gas, Finish! Hit the radio button to hear the FM simulcast of the announcer- what did he say? 4th place? Nice!
After the first run, I’m in 7th out of 35, safely inside the trophy spots. Alas, I will not finish the day that way. At nationals, most people go out hard on their first runs, and as a result, many of the top drivers have cones added to their times. After the top drivers clean things up, I end up 21st out of 35, but only .4 seconds out of the trophies, and about 1.7 out of first.
Nevertheless, I feel like I’m in the hunt, and as I do my work assignment in 4th heat, I am already plotting my day 2 attack. Several guys from my region are running A Stock on the East course in 5th heat, and I am curious to see how the S2000 drivers attack the cone-laden course. As it turns out, not well-several of the top drivers cone themselves right out of contention, not even putting in one clean run. The East course has a couple of spots on course that are extremely high risk/high reward. If you can get through the back section at high speed without hitting the last cone, you win. If you hit the cone, you lose. Simple as that. So, my game plan for the East course is simple-go out and put down a clean run, climb the charts, and then attack, attack, attack on runs 2 and 3. Will it really be that simple?
Day two, 8:30 AM. The previous night’s Texas Roadhouse meal is not sitting well with my nerves. My co-driver, who is in 34th out of 35, isn’t in a great mood, either. However, my plan is in full effect. After the first run, I move up to tenth thanks to my 8/10 clean run. On run 2, I kill an early cone, so I decide to be extremely aggressive in the back section to see how fast I can take it, and I hit another cone with the Mazda logo.
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So, it has all come down to run #3. It is not to be for me on this day, however, as my run that would have improved my time by 1.7 seconds is also dirty (although, for some reason, it shows up on the results sheet as coneless, but 2 seconds slower). 22nd out of 35-midpack, but not the trophy spot I had been hoping for. Still, for my 3rd year of autocrossing and my 2nd Nationals appearance, I feel pretty good about it.
So, a couple of weeks later, what’s the moral of this story? I frequently hear my fellow autocrossers say, “I wish I were fast enough to go to Nationals.” Here’s the secret-you ARE fast enough. Realistically, most of us don’t have a chance to win-I sure didn’t. And you absolutely will be overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of 1100 of the best autocrossers in the country all descending on the sleepiest town in America. But, you WILL get a chance to see how close to the best you really are. Don’t settle for being a regional superstar.
Go to your closest National Tour event and see how you do-but even if you finish dead last, go to Nationals. If you’re lucky, it won’t be held in Topeka next year.