My last post was from the hotel room in Tulsa on the night before the first day of competition. I had hoped to get this recap up sooner, but I had a very hectic schedule all week once I got home. I was also accumulating photos from various sources to be able to include them. With apologies for the delay, I now offer you my recap of my experience driving at the SCCA Rallycross National Championship.
Friday evening I headed off to Walmart to buy some long underwear and a stocking cap. The afternoon had been unseasonably cold with temps in the 40’s, overcast skies, a slight breeze, and damp air that amplified the chill. Saturday promised more of the same. Knowing I would be spending the entire day outside, it was clear I was going to need more layers to keep warm. I got back to the hotel room and crashed. After a difficult drive through Missouri, where it rained pretty much non-stop for 300 miles, and several hours out in the cold at the site, I was beat. The moment my head hit the pillow I was out like a light.
I awoke early Saturday morning, had breakfast, loaded the car, and made the short drive up to Tulsa Raceway Park. My class would be driving in the first heat so I had to mentally and physically get ready for competition as soon as I got there. I dropped a few items at my spot in the paddock then proceeded on to my assigned grid spot to set up. Out of the trunk came a clear plastic tub with locking lid (to keep my helmet, jacket, and other miscellaneous stuff in), a full size spare wheel and tire (contingency for a puncture or de-bead), a plastic tool box, a spider-type lug wrench, a small cooler with drinks, a floor jack, and a board to put under the jack so it wouldn’t sink into the ground if I had to use it. I lined those items up neatly along side the car and headed to the start of the course for one last walk through.
The course was long and fairly complicated with something like 22 turns. There was one very unique section where we drove a small loop similar to a cursive “e.” It was the only place where the course crossed over itself. I was confident I could find my way without getting lost, but wasn’t sure what to do to drive it fast. After the walk through we had a brief driver’s meeting followed by a superb live saxophone rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Then it was back to the grid and into the car for the parade lap. The parade lap is a chance for competitors to get one slow speed reconnaissance pass over the course just before competition. I didn’t get much out of it other than to confirm that I knew the way. As we filed back into the grid to await the beginning of the competition runs, a very light drizzle set in.
I awaited my turn and considered the situation. I was inexperienced and the course was green, both figuratively and literally. Since we were in the first heat, no “trail” had been cut yet through the grass. For my first run, at least, I thought I would be driving mostly on the grass; grass that was getting wet as the precipitation continued to fall. I felt I had to drive with a lot of restraint. I couldn’t completely putt along, but I knew it would be easy to collect a bunch of cones or miss a gate altogether. When the starter gave the command “go” I eased into the throttle and off the clutch, then proceeded cautiously towards the first turn. I was very tentative through the first third of the course, trying to get a handle on how much grip was or wasn’t available. Surprisingly, there were already some dirt tracks through the faster turns. As I went farther along I progressively pushed a little harder. There was more grip than I initially expected, and I managed to accomplish my primary goal of getting to the finish without hitting any cones. My time of 99.9 was several seconds off the times of some of the quicker drivers that had finished before me, but I wasn’t sure how it would stack up overall. I listened for times as more drivers came through the finish. The first two cars to come in behind me were also in the 99s. I immediately felt a little more at ease. I was well off the pace of the leaders, but at least I had some company in my time bracket. The rest of the times on the first and early second runs were all over the 90’s.
By the time I rolled to the start for my second run, the sky was pretty dark and the precipitation had increased slightly. I launched a little harder, but was still a little judicious on the course. I wasn’t sure if the corners would start to turn to mud from the rain, and I didn’t want to find myself sliding wide on a turn and taking out cones. Each car was turning up fresh, dry, soil, however, and there was no mud on the driving line. I got to the end of the course without any cone penalties again and crossed the lights with a time of 97.9. I had dropped a couple seconds, but felt I could have done more. The two cars following me that had 99’s on their first runs both made larger improvements, one turning a 94 and the other 96. Most of the other cars seemed to be running times in the mid to low 90’s. And when the defending class champion came across the line with an 87.9 I knew I was going to have to press harder to avoid falling to the bottom of the standings.
By the third run, I was more comfortable with the layout of the course, the grip available, and the way the car was responding to the left foot braking. The rain seemed to be letting up, too. I launched sharply and attacked the course with more vigor than before. By entering the corners with more speed, I was able to pitch the car a little sideways and keep the engine from falling so far out of the power band. That made for better acceleration on corner exit. I was putting together what I thought was a really good run when, two turns from the finish, I came into a turn a little too hot and drifted wide. The outside of the turn was covered in several inches of silt and dead grass that had been deposited there by the all the cars coming through the corner before. It felt like I had driven into quick sand. I had no choice but to lift off the throttle and wait the front tires to find some traction. Once they did the car finally started to turn in the intended direction. Luckily the course designer had left the outside free of pylons so I escaped any cone penalty. I had lost valuable time, though, perhaps as much as a second. I proceeded through the finish lights and looked up at the scoreboard for my time. I was fairly pleased to see a 94.6, yet disappointed at the same time as I believe I could have been well into the 93s without the one blown corner. I listened for the times of the cars behind me. Mostly low to mid 90s, with a couple in the 88’s.
Gratuitous Action Sequence
I got my car back to paddock, then wandered by the results board for a peak at the provisional standings before checking in for my work assignment. I was in 17th out of 18, a little over a second ahead of the last position, but also within a couple seconds of the next 3 positions above. I felt like I had to push a little harder if I wanted to move up, but I still needed to be cautious; one cone penalty in the previous session would have put me in last place after first runs!
My work assignment was to be a corner captain. A few changes were made to the course before the Prepared category cars were to run to avoid ruts and some of the nastier bumps. Additional adjustments would be made between every run. Changing the course between runs would cause an uproar in Solo, but is an accepted part of the sport of Rallycross. After my work assignment, I wandered back to the grid to help crew for Brian Ballinger, one of my acquaintances from the Indianapolis region rallycross events. Brian had the class lead in Modified, All Wheel drive, after his first run, fell to second on his second run, and remained there after his third run. At this point the proceedings stopped for a lunch break. I grabbed a bite to eat at the concession stand, then cruised the 3 miles back to my hotel for a few warm minutes off my feet.
When I returned to the site, I went strait to grid and prepared the area for afternoon runs. Then there was time for one walk through the afternoon course. I though it was going to be just the reverse of the morning course but I was wrong. At least 50% of the course was different. The run order had been reversed from the morning session, meaning I would be just the 5th car on course. I paid a little more attention on the parade lap, looking for focal points that would help guide me through the course on my competition runs.
As I rolled to the start line, I thought about how I had been too conservative on my first run in the morning session. I needed to put down a better first run this session, then work on making small improvements. The precipitation had abated and I was more confident in the available traction. I drove assertively the whole way. My Evolution school training paid dividends, as I had no trouble identifying the course despite having only one walk through and the parade lap. I was able to devote more of my mental capacity to driving technique than course following. Because the crossover loop from the morning course was bypassed, the afternoon course was shorter. I crossed the finish with a time of 84.6. I hadn’t heard any times from any of the earlier drivers so I listened intently for times as the following cars finished. The were mostly clustered in the 81-86 range, with one driver braking into the 79’s. I felt pretty good about that run and was looking forward to improving on my second and third runs.
After everyone from the three classes had gotten their first runs in, there was a delay. The safety crew apparently did not like one section towards the back of the course area. We all watched intently from the grid area, trying to see what changes they were making. It wasn’t clear what they were doing. The delay was fairly lengthy. At one point I looked at my watch I realized that, with two more heats to go and only a few hours before dark, we were probably only going to get one more run for the day. That assumption was soon confirmed by the grid workers. When the event resumed it was still unclear exactly what had changed. That’s just part of the game. I was pumped up from my previous run and charged out of the starting gate on my second run with the expectation of going faster. Things started falling apart almost right away. As I drove into the second turn, a layer of silt that hadn’t been there on my first run caught me off guard. The car was pulled right towards a 5-cone wall and I damn near had to come to a complete stop to avoid hitting any. Once I got past that corner, I found myself driving headlong towards another wall of cones, one that hadn’t been there on the first run. The drama at the previous corner had grabbed my attention away from looking ahead and I didn’t recognize the new element until I was nearly on top of it. Again I had to slow way down to negotiate the turn, losing valuable time. The wall had been put there to slow us down on the back sweeper. My poor approach line made it far more effective than the safety steward had probably intended it to be. As I accelerated through that sweeper I was thinking to myself “Worst. Rallycross. Run. EVER!” Except it was actually fairly decent from that point forward. I finished with a time of 87.6, 3 seconds slower than the first run. In the end, most drivers were slower on their second runs. The average time gain was about 1.5 seconds. So while I was afraid at first I’d thrown away my Nationals with a bad run, it was rather inconsequential. After the second set of runs I’d actually moved a couple places in the standings to 15th.
My afternoon work assignment was colder than the morning session becuase the wind had picked up a bit. When it was done I went back to paddock instead of to grid to help Brian. I had experienced an intermittent headlight issue the previous night while driving back from Walmart and I wanted to try to get it fixed before driving home. It didn’t appear there was going to be much daylight left after the last heat ran. I never found a cause, but haven’t had any problems with the lights since. Weird. Shortly after the last heat we had a catered barbecue dinner under a tent, followed by a town hall meeting to discuss issues in the rallycross community. I sat with some new friends from the New England Region; “Rally Dan” Petrillo, James Caswell, and Cliff Kangus. About half way through the meeting I hit my limit of exposure. I’d been outside for all but 15 minutes of the last 13 hours and was ready to get back to my room and warm up. I said goodbye to the guys and retired for the evening.
Sunday morning was brisk but bright. I ate, checked out of the hotel, and drove up to the track. I got the car set up in grid, then went over to walk the new course. Wow, it was a long one; longer than even Saturday morning’s. And with what seemed to be a lot more cones. There were more cones defining the outside limit of turns and several narrow “bridges” where there was a short, strait wall of cones on either side. Because of the length and the earlier start time, I only had the chance to walk the course once. I concentrated on looking ahead the best I could on the parade lap and felt good when I got back to grid that I could find my way. I was a little worried about cones, however. This course seemed to be more difficult than the others. In the end, my worry turned out to be well founded.
While I started the day in 15th place, things were rather tight near the bottom. I wasn’t going to be able to consolidate my position by driving conservatively. The other drivers were going to be pushing to move ahead and I was going to need to do the same to keep from falling back. On my first run, things didn’t go well. I cut an apex too close and nicked a cone, then got into some soft silt at a later offset and took out another cone. On top of that, my scratch time of 123.6 wasn’t spectacular. The run order for the day was the same as the standings order after 5 runs so the driver to finish right after me, Claude “Trio” Marty from Texas, me was also the driver who was just behind me in the standings. Trio came in with a time of 120.6. In one run, I had gone from a 1 second advantage to a 6 second deficit. Things were a little better with the next two cars which came in with a 124 and a 128. I had managed to stay ahead of them. For comparison’s sake, the fast cars at the top of the field were running in the 116-119 range.
On my second run I improved to a 118.1 scratch time, but collected another cone. I wasn’t even sure where I’d hit it. Trio came in behind me with a 116 clean, all but putting himself out of my reach. Behind him Peter Jansen came in with a 120.0 clean in his Audi. I knew my lead over him going in to final runs was slight. The last car in the standings had picked up a gate penalty on his previous run and was well behind. Jim Caswell, who I’d started the day 5 seconds behind, had stretched his lead over me to somewhere around 8 seconds. At that point, I was essentially in a two-man fight with Jansen for 16th place.
I knew I needed to push on the last run to lock in my position, but I couldn’t afford a missed gate, a spin, or multiple cone penalties. I was patient through the tight starting section, then pressed the car a little harder than I had before. The run was going very well until, on one of the fastest sections of the course, a sharp bump knocked the car out of gear. I heard the motor rev without feeling any forward thrust and quickly realized what had happened. I got the car back in gear promptly, but not before collecting a cone. I figured I needed to be clean the rest of the way home and gave up a little speed at a couple of the more risky elements. When I saw my time of 117.1 on the scoreboard I was pretty pleased. I figured the gear issue had cost me several tenths at least, not including the cone penalty. If everything had gone perfect on that run, I believed I would have been in the low 116’s. Unfortunately it wasn’t a clean run and I was vulnerable to being overtaken. As I slowly drove back to grid, I listened intently for the announcer to read Peter Jansen’s time. When the words “One twenty one point oh seven five” came across the speakers I breathed a small sigh of relief, knowing that I’d managed to stay ahead of him.
New friends: Claude “Trio” Martin and “Rally Dan” Petrillo.
After I fulfilled my work assignment in the second heat I quickly packed my car and headed for home. I was a little sorry to miss the final heat and awards ceremony, but was facing a drive of 550 miles with a headlight that had been on the fritz. I wanted to get as far as possible before sunset. After topping the car off with gas, I set out eastbound with a sense of determination at about 12:20. The sailing was smooth, with clear skies and minimal traffic. I made it almost to the St. Louis outskirts before having to make a quick stop to re-fuel. I crossed the river into Illinois before the sun went down and only had to drive the last hundred or so miles with the headlights on. I made it home in just under 8 hours.
James Caswell and Kevin & April Yap. Jim finished one place ahead of me, Kevin drove in the Stock Front Wheel Drive class.
As I drove home I reflected on the weekend. I had performed more or less as I expected, if not quite as well as I had hoped. I was a little disappointed to have fallen back a position on the last day, but took some satisfaction in the fact that I had moved up two spots after the first morning. I wasn’t close to being in contention for a trophy, but I didn’t look completely out of place. Not bad for only having done this 4 times in my life! I came away with a greater respect for the skill of the top Rallycross drivers. While there may not be the depth of talent as there is in Solo, the sport seems to be maturing. It takes consistent, strong performance to finish in the trophies, at least in the more fully subscribed classes.
I really enjoyed the weekend. The small size of the event compared to Solo Nationals made it a more friendly affair. I was able to socialize a little more and made some friends that I hope to see again some day like Rally Dan and Trio. If I had to make a choice today whether to go to Solo Nationals or Rallycross Nationals next year it would be very difficult to decide. I think I had more fun at Rallycross Nationals, but I’d really like to drive a different car if I were to do it again. While the WRX seems to have great maximum potential, the turbo lag and tall gearing make it difficult to drive. The winning driver was behind the wheel of a WRX, but the second and third place drivers were in older Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS’s. While the RS lacks the peak power of the WRX, the shorter gearing and more linear throttle response would seem to be easier for an inexperienced driver like myself to work with.
We’re down to the last leg of the Challenge, the United States RoadRally Challenge in Detroit, Michigan. In just 6 days my wife and I will be competing in the Limited class at the “CAST in Stone” Tour rally. As is customary for us, she will drive and I will navigate. There are a couple strong teams in our class that we have never faced before. That said, we’ve proven to be competitive in other National Tour Rallies and expect to contend for the win. A victory there would be a nice way to finish this odyssey. Check back soon to see how it all ends.