Bark's Bites: Everybody's a Winner at SCCA Time Trials Nationals (But Not Everybody Gets a Trophy)

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth

Somewhere along the way, somehow, the Sports Car Club of America lost the focus on fun. I know this, because a few years ago, after a particularly tedious conversation with some officials on the SCCA Solo Events Board about whether or not I had put the proper roll hoops on my car, I said, “Enough.” After about six years of national-level autocross, everything about dealing with the SCCA or participating in their events had become tedious, and nothing was fun.

The only way I ever had any fun at all was if I won, and since I had chosen to participate in the toughest and most highly subscribed class in autocross, the chances of that happening were becoming slimmer and slimmer all the time, and the costs were escalating to the point where road racing became a cheaper option. Think how crazy that is. So, I quit.

But three years ago, the SCCA began its Track Night program. Two years ago, Targa became a thing. And just like that, thanks primarily to the efforts of Heyward Wagner and his experiential team, the SCCA became fun again. It wasn’t all about spring rates and spoiler heights and tire width and thousandths of seconds — it was about having fun with cars.

So imagine how bummed I was when I started to hear rumors that Targa was dead, the victim of high costs and low ROI. Sure enough, the rumors were followed by an email that confirmed its untimely murder, but there was hope — Targa was being replaced by a new program called “ Time Trials Nationals.” The idea was to have an event that Track Night participants could evolve into — maybe wheel-to-wheel racing is too intimidating or costly, but they’d still like to be able to compete against the clock on a track, not in a parking lot.

After running a couple of regional events as warm-ups, the SCCA held their first Time Trials Nationals event this past weekend at NCM Motorsports Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky. There was no way I was going to miss it. So I didn’t. I packed up my Focus RS with all the tools and driving gear I could fit in the hatch, pulled my son out of school on a Friday, and headed west to find out what this new program was all about. And what I found out was that running a bone stock car against the clock is a hell of a lot of fun.

The format provided more track time per dollar than any motorsports event in the history of mankind, bar none. Friday’s schedule consisted of three 20-minute practice sessions, and in a bit of an interesting carryover from the Track Night program, drivers were not grouped by car class, but rather by experience level (Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced). The largest group of drivers was the “Advanced” group, so we were split into two groups based on predicted lap times (A and B — the FoRS and I were in B, the slower of the two).

As is the danger when you allow people to self-select into groups, there were a few “Advanced” drivers who weren’t so advanced. There was an unfortunate trip to the wall for one driver, thanks to another driver cutting directly across the track. The offending driver was busted down to the novice group and placed on probation. During my B session, I watched the same hot hatch driver go four wheels off three laps in a row in turn 12, appropriately named “Deception.” The third time, he re-entered the track surface directly in front of me. As you might imagine, we had a few words after the session.

But the SCCA’s staff was on it. Each session was followed by a debrief with a “coach.” My group’s coach was the mustachioed Justin Barbry, who demonstrated a neighborhood policeman’s stern yet friendly demeanor when dealing with on track incidents — including my own when I missed a waving black flag in turn 17. “You know what you did,” he said to me with a wink. “Don’t do it again.”

Drivers were moved between groups as needed, and as a result, the sessions got better and better over the weekend. Friday was capped off by the first timed event of the weekend, a “TrackSprint” that would take place over a small section of the East course, including the infamous Sinkhole turn. The sprint was much like an autocross on the track, with a standing start and timing lights at the start and finish. Much to my own surprise, I managed to pedal my Focus RS into the lead of Sport 2 class, winning the first event by about half a second.

The reason for my surprise was simpl — my Focus RS was classed against some pretty serious metal, including a Corvette C5 z06, a Corvette C5 FRC, a Boss 302 Mustang, an E90 M3, and a pair of Honda Civic Type Rs. I was also running on 300 treadwear Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, which are wonderful for everyday sporting driving, but are considered to be a fair bit off of the 200 treadwear tires (Bridgestone RE-71R, BFG Rivals, etc.) that were permitted by the rules.

And then there was the matter of my brakes. Yeah, I was still on my stock pads, rotors, and fluid from when I bought the car two years and 19k miles ago, and the pedal sinking to the floor at the end of each long straightaway was beginning to make navigating the course slightly difficult. My big brother, who was there supporting Danger Girl in her efforts in her NC Miata Club in Sport 5, recommended to me that I source some new front pads for the Saturday time trial sessions. Unfortunately, the best I could come up with on short notice in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was a set of CarQuest Platinum. I sprung for the Platinum because “they’re the same price as the Gold,” at least according to the man who answered the phone at Advance Auto Parts. They wouldn’t be in until the morning, so I had the luxury of hanging out with my son at the Fairfield Inn pool and relaxing a bit.

On Saturday morning, I got up bright and early to head to Advance and get my shiny new brake pads. Oops — turns out there are three different Advance locations in Bowling Green, and I had driven to one of the two where my brake pads were not. No matter. We quickly drove to the correct location, picked up the pads, and made our way back to the track for the first officially timed track session.

Saturday’s schedule was a bit bonkers — three 20-minute hot lapping sessions, any one of which could count for your best timed lap of the day. My brother quickly worked to install the CarQuest pads on the front of the Focus, discarding my worn stock pads. We had bled the brakes before the previous day’s final TrackSprint session, so I figured there was no need to do so again.

Yeah, I was totally wrong about that.

I did my best in the paddock to bed the brakes and re-engage the ABS system, and then I headed out for the first timed session. I was doing roughly 114 mph into Turn 15 when I tapped the brakes and…nothing. Foot to the floor. Oh, shit.

I quickly pumped the pressure on the brakes as much as I could as I headed up the hill into turn 16, knowing that if I didn’t scrub off at least 10-15 mph I would be in a wall. I still had no pressure in the brakes, so I pitched the car sideways, shoved it into third gear, and grabbed the emergency brake. Luckily, this slowed the Focus just enough to slide through the grass on the inside of the corner and back onto the track surface, where the PS4S tires grabbed enough to put me back in the right direction. With my heart rate a bit quickened and my hands a bit shaky, I made my way back to the pits.

Luckily, I hadn’t damaged myself or the car, so Jack and I went to work trying to figure out what had happened. According to the Focus RS forums, changing brake pads can introduce quite a bit of air into the braking system, thanks to the low quality of the screws. We bled the brakes again, and the fluid coming from the right side was pretty much boiling.

There was also the matter of a certain C5 FRC that was finding its track legs rather quickly. My lead from the prior day had evaporated, thanks to Doug Francis and his Vette improving his track time by almost five seconds from practice the day before. My fears about being outgunned were starting to come true.

The funny thing was, however, that I really didn’t mind. I knew that I was getting a total of almost three hours of track time on one of my favorite circuits, and that I was getting to share a motorsports weekend with my son. It was the first time he had ever been to a track with me, and he was genuinely enjoying seeing all of the cars make their way around the loop. There was the normal assortment of Miatas and BRZs, but there was also some heavy metal in attendance, including Andy Hollis’ McLaren MP4-12C and Chris Ingle’s Viper GTS-R. There was even an honest-to-god former NASCAR Busch series car, piloted by Jim Szilagyi. My old (young) pal, Tom O’Gorman came with his RealTime Honda TCA champion Civic Si.

My strategy for the second track session of the day was to baby the brake pads and try to get at least one good lap out of them during the 15-minute time trial. Unhappily, I never got a good, clean lap with no traffic, and my best time of the day ended up nearly two seconds behind Francis’ best, putting me in second place going into the West Course TrackSprint. The CarQuest Platinum pads were wasted by this point, and I managed to limp the Focus around the course in reasonably quick fashion, but not fast enough to retake the lead or even keep within shouting distance of it. Still, I was happy with a comfortable second position, a few seconds clear of Mike Grumbles and his Gray Fox Realtors E90 BMW M3.

Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be an SCCA event unless somebody was grumbling about a rule or a classing decision, and that somebody was me. I asked Jon Krolewicz, who was in charge of the classing for Time Trials, about the dubious decision to place a hopped-up economy car in the same class as a flippin’ Corvette that weighs 400 lbs less and has 55 more horsepower. He politely told me that classing decisions were largely based upon the volume of cars that had been participating in the Track Night events, and that Corvette drivers show up en masse while Focus RS drivers…don’t.

“We don’t want to have a low-volume model that isn’t well represented at the events come in and dominate a class,” Jon explained. And while the Focus RS should be in Sport 4 class, based on engine and turbo size, it probably would dominate that class (and I would have, too — my overall time would have had me beating the BMWs, Porsches, S2000s, and Zs in that class by several seconds), and that’s not good for business. So off to Sport 2 it went as an “exclusion” to play with C5 Z06s.

But if you think that Time Trials Nationals is all about winning, you’re missing the point. As I began the event’s final day on Sunday knowing that I couldn’t possibly win, I was still having a ball. My son had discovered the go-karts at the neighboring karting track, and perhaps he was inspired by his old man’s efforts. For the first time ever, he was brave enough to try the junior karts, and he actually turned out to be pretty good — they said he would have been the fastest time in their junior league that month.

“I think I’d like to try go-karting competitively, Dad,” he told me after taking off his helmet. “And I challenge you to a race later!”

We swapped the front pads again that morning, and we discovered that the ones we’d installed the previous day had been worn to the metal by Saturday’s driving. Oh, well. They’re only 40 bucks, right? Even more careful brakes management became the plan for Sunday’s sessions, and while I dropped my time by about a second, it wasn’t enough to do anything other than keep me in second place in class.

I thought, however, as we prepared for the trophy ceremony, that my second place finish would probably be the most pleased I’ve ever been with any SCCA award. I was quickly proven wrong.

Since there were only two drivers in the Unlimited 2 class, the staff took advantage of a rule which specifically states that unawarded trophies should go to any children who are in attendance. And since my son had been there the whole weekend…

He was beyond thrilled. Everybody in attendance clapped harder than they had clapped all weekend. It was an absolutely unforgettable moment for both of us.

And when I think about it, that moment was really what the spirit of Time Trials Nationals is all about. It’s not a cutthroat competition. Nobody was inspecting anybody else’s car to see if they were to specification. Nobody put $6,500 shocks on a $2,000 car. The winning margins weren’t down to thousandths of seconds. And remarkably, we all had fun. Best of all, when everything was all done for the weekend, I just got in my car and drove home. No trailer rigs or even tire changing. Amazing.

So if you’ve been turned off by autocross and it’s million-page rulebook and annoying, jorts-and-Tilley-hat-wearing competitors who take it way, way too seriously, might I suggest Time Trials to you? You’ll get hours of track time, a safe environment, friendly competition, and the chance to earn a trophy. But not everybody gets one. In fact, fewer trophies are handed out per class than in autocross — you gotta get on the podium to get a piece of plastic hardware at TT Nats, which means that, in a way, I’m prouder of my second place TT Nats finish than I am of my fourth place National Tour and Pro Solo trophies.

For me, Time Trials Nationals is the perfect, happy medium between SRS BZNS autocross and crazy-expensive-and-possibly-dangerous club racing. I’m 100 percent sure that I’ll be back next year, maybe even with an ECU tune and 200 TW tires. You should come with me, too.

[Photos: ABI Photo (top and bottom image), Mark Baruth/TTAC (middle images)]

Disclaimer: The SCCA waived my entry fee for this event.

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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  • Cimarron typeR Cimarron typeR on Oct 05, 2018

    Great story. I think Graham Rahal is 6'2'', so there's hope

  • Threeer Threeer on Oct 05, 2018

    Just a man, a boy and their car! Good stuff and great read! Makes me wish my (now 27-year old son) had been more interested in cars as a kid.

    • PrincipalDan PrincipalDan on Oct 05, 2018

      I've got hope for my 4 year old daughter and my 2 month old son. When something like "Counting Cars" is on and an engine fires up or my wife is working her way through her "Fast and Furious" BluRays it is like their heads are on swivels and are drawn to the mechanical soundtrack. (Although she reports that he did not enjoy Tokyo Drift as much as the the first 2 movies in the series.)

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
  • Milton Rented one for about a month. Very solid EV. Not as fun as my Polestar, but for a go to family car, solid. Practical EV ownership is only made possible with a home charger.
  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.