Trackday Diaries: Auto(Cross the) Heartland
It’s a plotline straight out of a Nicholas Sparks novel, albeit one with some help from Garth “The Art Of Racing In The Rain” Stein: A single mother in her early 30s meets a dashing, selfish, adrenaline-junkie on a blind date. A few months later, they’re in a terrible car crash that NEARLY KILLS HER, but she tirelessly rehabilitates for two long years so they can GET MARRIED IN THE DESERT right before running off to her debut in SCCA Solo II Autocross. Her husband agrees to return to autocross with her even though he was BANNED FROM ANNOUNCING IN A TRAGIC FEELINGS INJURY and hasn’t competed in FIVE YEARS. So he TAKES THE CAR COVER OFF HIS OLD PORSCHE JUST LIKE SWAYZE IN ROADHOUSE and follows her to the event.
But then there is RAIN. But she WINS HER CLASS anyway! And her husband SNEAKS INTO THE ANNOUNCER’S CHAIR! And then he WINS A THIRTY-CAR CLASS DESPITE HAVING NOT AUTOCROSSED IN A LONG, LONG TIME. And then they go home so they can OPEN THE GARAGE DOOR, HAND IN HAND, and GAZE TOGETHER at his SON’S NEW 50CC RACING KART and you JUST KNOW that EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE.
That was the plan, anyway. And it was going very well, up to the moment when my OLD PORSCHE decided to EJECT ITS HEADLIGHT FOR NO REASON.
It’s the oddest coincidence, but both Danger Girl and I spent some portion of our youth flying Cessna 172s without a pilot’s license. I was a cadet sergeant in the Civil Air Patrol as a kid and they would occasionally let me fly part of our missions even though I was 11 years old at the time. Not to worry; there’s not much to hit up there, although there was one hairy situation where, having spent the night before reading about how the Messerschmitt Me 163 “Komet” could reach the sound barrier in a steep dive, I put the squadron’s Cessna into a power dive the minute it was my turn to fly. That earned me a stern talking-to afterwards from a very sweaty-faced Civil Air Patrol captain.
Danger Girl, as well, learned how to fly in a Cessna 172, which was one of her father’s planes, before soloing for the first time at the age of 17. At some point, she’s going to get an updated medical clearance and I’m going to get around to putting my instruction hours in and we’ll both be licensed private pilots. In the meantime, however, she’s amusing herself with her new Yamaha R3 and by participating in a variety of motorsporty things.
Long-time TTAC readers know that brother Bark and I have both competed in SCCA National Solo events. He’s much better at it than I am. I haven’t autocrossed in about half a decade, however, and I haven’t competed in a regional event for almost nine years. You see, Bark and I used to announce all of our region’s Solo events. We thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Unfortunately, there were some complaints. I had a tendency to make up nicknames for people on the spot. These were not always popular. Bark had a tendency to point out when people were a little overweight. This was never popular. So we were asked to leave and not come back.
Operating under the principle that time heals all wounds, I accompanied Danger Girl to the… er, well, not “track”, really, let’s say “course”, on Saturday morning. She was going to run her Fiesta in the Street Touring Xtreme class and the Ladies PAX Class. PAX, if you’ve never heard the phrase in an autocross context, means that an adjustment factor is used to compare Fiestas to Corvettes and the like. PAX adjustment is a hugely involved and controversial process that would take a whole Nicholas Sparks novel of its own to describe, so let’s just assume for now that it permits different cars to compete on even ground.
I entered in the B Street class, but this region now forces all street-tire RWD cars below, say, a Porsche GT3 into one massive PAX class. So I was competing against 29 other drivers in everything from a brand-new Miata to a 1996 Thunderbird. After accompanying Danger Girl on a course walk, I excused myself from further course-walking and went to get a bacon-and-cheese biscuit because I value bacon over preparation in autocross.
Late last year, I managed to sweet-talk the nice people at Falken out of a set of RT615 tires for my Boxster. They’re reasonably well-regarded, so I figured that I had a chance to break into the top half of the 30-car class despite having no recent autocross seat time. I had a decent first run, not perfect by any means, but it was enough to put me into first place overall. You can imagine my surprise.
During the second run, however, I was further surprised when my Boxster ejected its fucking passenger-side headlight under braking. I crossed the line with the $1,400 Litronic unit hanging on by its power cord. I should explain how and why this happened. You see, 20 years ago Porsche spent a lot of time and effort making their cars cheaper to assemble and build. They did this so they could become massively profitable, so they could build SUVs and become even more massively profitable, and then they could attempt to take over Volkswagen — only to fail at the last minute and be helplessly absorbed into a company which is now primarily known for TDI emissions cheating. Great idea, everybody!
Part of the do-it-cheaper program, as applied to the 996-generation Porsche 911 and its identical-from-the-doors-forward 986 Boxster variant, was a single-unit headlight that is retained by a rotating bar. You slide the headlight in, turn a 5mm socket to the “lock” position, and that’s it! Super easy and simple. Compared to putting headlights and turn signals and foglights into an air-cooled Porsche, it’s the very picture of rational assembly. The problem is that sometimes the headlight retaining bar slips. When that happens, any severe braking will cause the headlight to eject.
But it’s okay! Why would you ever do any severe braking in a sports car?
I didn’t have the tool required to reinstall the headlight, so I tossed it onto the ground and continued competing without it. After the third run, I was back in first place. I was all set to collect my trophy and make a speech, but I noticed that the cars in my class were going back to grid instead of calling it day. “How many runs are we doing?” I asked the grid chief. In National Solo, you get three runs. In Regional, sometimes you get four.
“Five,” he said.
“Fuck me,” I replied. After the fourth run, I was still in first place. In the fifth run, I set the fastest time of the day so far — but I’d clipped a cone. I sat there and watched a succession of Miatas post times that were slower than mine but which after the PAX adjustment were enough to put me all the way back in 6th place of 30. Storybook comeback: denied.
But as I was busy feeling sorry for myself, I heard a voice over the PA system: “We need an announcer for the next heat.” I don’t run anymore, because my left leg is permanently screwed from my motocross crash last year, but I ran to the announcer’s chair. As I picked up the microphone and greeted the crowd, I saw one of the SCCA veterans in the spectator area start cradling his head in his hands. I’d like to think I did a good job. I only made up one nickname, which I felt showed remarkable self-restraint on my part.
Then the rain came down, thick enough to make the cones hard to see and slippery enough to send dozens of cars off-course in just the first few minutes. Naturally, Danger Girl didn’t let it bother her. Against the male veterans of the STX class, her time was only good enough for 4th of 6, but she was only two seconds away from being in second place. And in the seven-entrant Ladies PAX class, she beat the second-place driver by four and a half seconds, winning in a fashion that I can only characterize as “dominating.” They gave her a plastic SCCA cup. I got a T-shirt. If you want an actual trophy, go to Nationals.
When I got home, I put the headlight back in; used a 5mm socket to flip the lock bar into place, then gave it a tug. It seems solid. But I’ve lost faith. I might have to pull my headlights out from now on. Or tape them in. Did I mention that my Boxster just turned 50,000 miles on the odometer? If you want durability, buy a Camry.
We got home and unpacked. Then I went to pick up my son from his football game. I had all sorts of plans for him to race karts this summer, but he’s decided that football is more important to him for now. When football’s finished in five weeks, he can start running his kart in KidKart events. He’ll also be able to autocross with us; there’s a youth program for kids who are willing to kart around cones. “How’d you do?” I asked.
“Did you get any touchdowns?” He looked at me like I’d grown a third eye.
“Dad, of course I got touchdowns. I got all the touchdowns for our team. Some of the other kids aren’t very good. I want to make fun of them sometimes.”
“You,” I told him, holding him close and ruffling his hair, “are going to be a great racer.”
(And yes, the title is a Pat Metheny reference. Thanks for noticing!)
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