Friday morning started much like Thursday. I woke up in a pool of sweat again. My body was obviously working overtime while I slept trying to fight the cold I’d been suffering from for the better part of a week. I showered, dressed, packed my suitcase, went downstairs, and tried to get a better grasp on the East Course by watching some in-car video while eating breakfast. I was having a bit more difficulty than I’d had with the West Course. The East side was just a little more complicated, and I’d had less time to study it. I tried to mentally envision each of the focus points in succession, but was struggling to consistently remember the whole thing. I certainly wasn’t feeling as confident as I’d felt the day before.
The video I watched at breakfast in preparation for Friday’s competition.
Emanuel and I checked out of the hotel, loaded the car, and headed over to the Lincoln Air Park. We got there shortly after the course was open for walking. A lot of things were going through my mind as I meandered through the cones; the day before, the day ahead, the pain in my feet, and the congestion in my chest. After two walks-through, I looked at my watch. There was time for a third, but I was feeling a little drained. A day of driving across country followed by two days of being blown by wind and burnt by sun, not to mention umpteen miles of walking and a respiratory infection that just wouldn’t go completely away, had left me worn down physically. The previous day’s competition had left me mentally and emotionally fatigued. I figured one more walk through stood to do me as much harm as good; I either knew the course at this point or I didn’t. I couldn’t fall any farther down the standings anyway.
I headed over to the grid spot and started getting the car ready. We had swapped the tires front to back earlier that morning. Now it was time to adjust the air pressures. I suggested we run a little more pressure in the rears than we had the day before to try to get a little more rotation out of the car. Emanuel agreed. We took them up to 43 psi, 3 more than we’d run on Thursday. At 7:50 we were standing at attention for the Anthem and shortly after 8:00 the first car was off. By 8:05 it was time for me to get my helmet on and get settled in the seat. As I rolled to the start line, I drove the course in my head, key-cone by key-cone. I stumbled only momentarily at the exit of corner three and got to the end with no further issues. Next thing I knew the yellow Corvette in front of me was gone and it was my turn to stage.
I launched the car carefully into “Freak Out” and spotted the key cone that would bring me into “Shoot the Chutes.” I gave a little brush of the brakes and turned left to negotiate the off-camber kink before the “Scrambler.” As I transitioned back to get around the first cone of the slalom, the rear stepped out a little bit on me. It wasn’t too difficult to catch, but the tail wag had changed my trajectory enough that I brushed the cone. As the slalom opened up, the tail settled and I gave the little bursts of throttle each time I unwound the steering from the point of maximum deflection. The exit of “Scrambler” was the fastest point of the course. “Tilt-A-Whirl” was a fairly tight left-hander. The braking zone between the two would be critical. I knew the pavement was a little rough, I knew the brakes were cold, I knew the tires weren’t quite up to temp, and therefore knew I’d have to brake early. But I still didn’t brake early enough. I got hard on the binders and the car kept going for the better part of a second before the pads final decided to work and the speed began to arrest. I was able to get the car turned before I shot through the back wall of the corner, but I was buried deep at the entry and had to use a lot of steering angle to get around. That in turn kept me from getting on the power as early as I’d planned. To make matters worse, in a moment of panic I had lost site of the key cone of the exit and was having trouble reacquiring it. When I finally had site of the proper path and was in position to get back on the throttle I was rewarded with a momentary sputter before power came back on. Apparently the fuel was still sloshing around in the tank from all the drama at the corner entry.
I proceeded through the rest of the course with few other issues, although the car felt just a little unsettled in the remaining slaloms. As I rounded the turn-around back towards the grid I looked up at the scoreboard. It was blank. I drove on to the person who’s job it was to write your time on a post-it note and hand it to the driver. She handed me a slip that said “81.124.” Huh? I was the first to finish in our class so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect but 81 sounded slow. I knew I had screwed up “Tilt-A-Whirl,” but didn’t think it was that bad. As I drove back to the grid I heard the announcement for the car behind me: 73-point-something. Holy crap, was I really 8 seconds behind on scratch time today? I quickly put it out of my head and got back to our grid spot to start the driver change process. Later I’d learn the 81 second time included the cone penalty and should have been written as “79.124 +1.” I was assuming that I had an 81.141 + 1.
Emanuel was soon up and I stood alongside my buddy Dan and watched his run. The tail appeared slightly loose in the slaloms, but otherwise Emanuel looked pretty good. He crossed the finish with a time of 75.339 with no cones. A solid run given that many of the the fat-tired newer WRXs were also coming in with 75’s.
As I got ready for my 2nd run Dan asked if I wanted to adjust the rear air pressure down for a little more grip. I declined, having seen Emanuel throw down a very good time in the car as it was. I mentally reviewed the course as I drove to the start, this time getting to the end with no hiccups. The green flag waived and I was off. The rear felt a little loose again on me going in to “the Scrambler” but I was ready for it and avoided the cone. I braked earlier for “Tilt-a-Whirl,” a little too early actually as the brakes were now up to temperature and fully functional. Having exited “Tilt-a-Whirl” with much more speed than on my first run, I drove just a little too deep into “Fast Eddie’s Fun Center.” The tail gave a little wag in the “Silly Wave,” stayed settled through the wickedly fast “Kamikaze” right hander, then wagged gently again in the “Water Slide.” I got the car slowed down for the “Cliff Hanger,” through “the Wipeout” fine, and settled in for the “Ring of Fire.” As the finish came into site I started unwinding the steering wheel and adding throttle. I tried to balance throttle and steering to take the car to, but not over, the edge of the course. I got it wrong, taking out the last 2 cones of a 4-cone wall that defined the outer limit. I crossed the line, got to the turn around, and looked up at the scoreboard for a time. The board was at an angle that I could not see so I drove to the post-it person who was waiting for the announcer. He never announced my time so I rolled on back to the grid without knowing what my scratch time had been. I knew I’d hit at least one cone and wasn’t all that concerned with what time I’d done. I just knew I needed to get a clean run in.
As I pulled into the grid Dan said “looks a little sketchy, sure you don’t wanna drop the rear pressure?” I agreed that we’d gone a little too far and needed to bring them back down a bit. Emanuel wasn’t so sure. I told him we’d leave it for his run, drop a pound and a half for mine, and then, if he wanted, bump them back up for his final run. Emanuel took his second run and slowed down a few tenths. He appeared to still be fighting a bit transitional oversteer. When he got back to the grid we started the driver swap routine and Dan took the air pressure gauge and bled the rear tires. I didn’t want to finish Nationals with 3 dirty runs in a row; getting a clean run was paramount. But I didn’t want to finish with a weak effort either. I thought about what I could improve on from the previous run. Avoiding the cone at the exit of “Ring of Fire” was only a matter of waiting a fraction of a second longer before rolling the throttle in. Other than that, I thought I just needed to tighten up a few of the sweepers.
I rolled to the start thinking “clean and tight, clean and tight.” The flag dropped and I was off. The first test would be the entry to the “Scrambler” slalom. I got a good vision of the exit cone of the preceding turn and put the car cleanly behind it. The transition back to the right for the first cone of the slalom was drama-free; the rear felt well planted. That allowed me to drive a little closer to the cones and get a little more throttle between each one. I got the braking just right on the entry to “Tilt-a-Whirl,” not too early and not too late. I lifted a little earlier for Fast Eddies Fun Center and was able to drive a much tighter line. The car was more stable through the “Crazy Wave” and I drove up to, but not over, the edge of understeer through the appropriately named “Kamikaze” sweeper. The car was well positioned coming out of the fast right-hander for the entry to the “Water Slide.” I carried good speed through the down hill 3-cone slalom and came into “Cliffhanger” on full boil. I got on the binders and turned the steering wheel hard right right. The front pushed for a moment, then caught and turned the car. I’d gone in a little deeper than I wanted, but not so far as to the kill the run. I accelerated up the hill and around the left hander leading to “Wipeout.” A little lift-and-flick got me around the first cone and then the second. A quick stab of the brakes and and a little more deliberate turn to the right got me around the last slalom cone and pointed in the right direction to enter the “Ring of Fire.” Now it was time for patience.
The “Ring” looked like a constant radius, 225 degree left hand turn. In actuality, it drove like a decreasing radius turn because of the slope of the hill. The first 90 degrees of the turn had the most grip because the slope was on camber. From about 145 degrees on, the slope started working against the car. The exit was perpendicular to the slope and the most off-camber portion of the turn. Recalling the cones I’d hit on the previous run, I waited a moment longer to get on the throttle for the strait shot to the finish. I crossed the line and exhaled. It felt like a good run, and I was pretty sure I’d not hit any cones. I quickly turned up the radio, which I’d previously set to the announcer’s frequency, to catch my time. When he said “Gary comes in with a 76.574, a 4.5 second improvement that moves him up two places!” I was ecstatic. No, it wasn’t a trophy-caliber performance, but it was my best run of the event by far. I drove to the grid with a glow of satisfaction. I’ve blown my last run at Nationals more than once in the past and it makes for a long off season thinking of all the “woulda’s” and “coulda’s.” At least this year I would be finishing on a high note.
I parked the car in the grid and got a congratulations from Dan and an “atta boy” from my Evo instructor Andy Hohl. I then listened for the time of one of the cars I’d moved ahead of. He did not improve on his last run which meant I’d locked in something above the dreaded DFL (Dead F’ing Last) position! Then the driver after me, Andrew Barrette, pulled into the spot next to me. Andrew had been leading after the first day but had fallen back to second after the second runs. He had come in with a time which would have moved him up to 1st, but had hit a cone. He leapt from the car and let out a thunderous “ARRGH!!!!” A year’s worth of ” wouda, coulda, shoulda’s ” surely awaits him.
Emanuel still had one run to go. He opted to keep the lower pressures in the rear tires. I showed him my time slip and did a quick mental calculation of how much faster I thought he could be. “I’ve been a little over 103% of your times all year. You should be able to get in the 74’s,” I told him. Intercooler and front tires sprayed with water, and magnetic numbers changed, Emanuel was ready for his last run. He drove sharp and clean, crossing the line with a time of 75.110 which was a 2/10ths improvement. He seemed neither disappointed nor particularly satisfied. In the end, it was enough for him to move up one position. Then the other driver who had fallen behind me crossed the finish. His time wasn’t as good a mine, but combined with his time from the day before it was enough to move ahead of me. My finish place, pending final audits, appeared to be 12th. Emanuel was in 9th. Andy Smedegard of Stevens Point, Wisconsin had won. We socialized with the other competitors while we waited to be released from impound. Andrew, the driver next to me who had lost on a coned final run, was quite good-natured about the whole situation. I’m sure he’ll be back next year to avenge his loss.
When we were released from impound, Emanuel took the car back to the paddock to pack while I went to the other grid to crew for Dan and Kia who would be driving in the second heat. On my advice, Dan adjusted his rear swaybar of his STF class MINI Cooper to a softer setting. He laid down a blistering first run that vaulted him from fourth to second place. He never got any faster, but the trailing drivers never quite caught him either and he managed to hold on to that position by a mere 0.063 seconds! Kia had a good day too, putting in the 3rd best STF performance on the East Course. Meahwhile our friend Adam arrived from the West Course beaming with pride because he’d manage to finish in the 7th and final trophy position in RTF.
While Dan celebrated with Kia and Adam, I biked back to the paddock area to help Emanuel finish packing the car. We went from there back to the course for our fourth-heat work assignments, then started for home immediately afterwards. Thanks to the miracles of Red Bull and Audio Books, we made it all the way to the Illinois border before stopping. After fuel and dinner, it was an easy 2 and a half hour sprint home. We arrived at my driveway just after 11:00 pm, almost exactly 8 hours after we’d left Lincoln Air Park.
I spent the better part of the weekend on the couch or at the computer, recovering from the week and recording my experiences in this blog. I also had some time to evaluate my performance a little more deeply. I was still a little disappointed to have finished second to last in class. My time on Friday, however, was 10th best. And when I compared my performance against the other Road Tire classes, I felt a lot better. My index time was better than 20 of the RTF and RTR competitors. On the East Course, I had actually finished in the top half of all the Road Tire drivers. In the end RTA, the class I competed in, just had a much more competitive field top-to-bottom than the other two RT classes. When the final results were published online, one driver in our class had been disqualified for missing his work assignment; I was officially scored as having finished in 11th place while Emanuel finished 8th.
I’m certain that Emanuel has the talent to trophy at this event. I’m just sorry I didn’t put a car under him that was capable. I figure we were spotting the new WRX’s at least a second per day and Emanuel finished just over 2 seconds out of the trophies. His index time would have been one spot out of the trophies in RTF and well into the trophies in RTR. He recently bought a late model Mazda RX-8 which ought to be competitive in RTR. I hope he has the time to campaign it regularly next year and brings it to Nationals with a fresh set of tires. If he does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come home with some hardware, and maybe even challenge for the class win.
As for me, when I started this quest I had hopes of finishing in the trophies at all three events. That was foolishly optimistic on my part. The closest I had ever come in the past at Solo Nationals was a little less than 102% of, and several positions away from, the last trophy spot. At that time I was focused solely on autocross and driving a car that was both the best car in the class and prepared much more closely to the limits of the rules. Until recently, I’d all but given up Solo for a number of years. I got back into it this year but still split my focus with rallycross and road rally. My car is neither the best car for the class, nor is it prepared anywhere near the limits of the rules since I’m trying to fit it in the intersection of the autocross and rallycross preparation allowances. I was a little over 104% of the last trophy position this time. But on Friday’s East Course alone, I was only a bit over 102%. When I consider all the factors, the second day at this year’s Nationals may very well be my best single day Nationals performance ever. In the end, I feel pretty gratified. I think its fair to say I came a long way in a single season, even if I didn’t get quite as far as I wanted.
Up next is the SCCA Rallycross National Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma over the first weekend of October. Given my lack of experience with Rallycross, I only hope I do as well there as I did this past week.