My career as a race car driver began with a drive. As usual, my friend Chris was responsible. He's always instigating. He helped get me into my house, appropriately named "Re-Biltmore". He got me back into racing as well, by dragging to the race track to spectate. He was all hot on us becoming flaggers. So on one rainy Saturday Chris and his son Joel pulled his '66 mustang into my driveway. 'You drive,' he said, promising that he would navigate. I took stock of the mustang. It had vague steering, minimal seat belts and Fred Flintstone's feet for brakes. But it's a real sixties muscle car with real muscle car torque and the appropriate rumble. About 30 nanoseconds later I was in the driver's seat. I drove, and Chris directed me past the golden dome and directly to Roland Hahn.
Roland had a problem in those days. He had a garage with a compressor that wouldn't run due to a lack of electric. He had lights dangling from the ceiling that shocked you every time you moved. He also had a surplus of race cars, if such a thing is possible I have a truck full of electrical tools and a certificate or two that says I know how to use them. Chris is also an electrician, and promised to pitch in. A lot of time, a fair amount of money and a few hundred feet of conduit later both of Roland's problems were solved. Roland is the proud owner of a garage that could double as a tanning booth. And I was the proud owner of a radioactive green ITB Corolla in Jungle trim with a meltdown yellow arrow on the hood. Fast or slow, everyone would see me coming. If I had to be be slow, I could at least be seen doing it. From orbit.
But what use is a race car, if you don't race it? One of the nice things about working on someone's garage, is that it offers opportunities for bench racing. I became friends with Roland and his crew chief, Dale Dilhoff in the course of re-creating his garage. The first thing they taught me was that racing starts at home, with careful car preparation. We rebuilt the entire front end of the car, new wheel bearings, disks, calipers, hubs. We worked over the engine, and when a leak-down test showed valve problems, we dropped on a new head. I was shown the fine art of reading tires, of record keeping. The entire car was bolt checked, I bought totes, and spares were prepared. Fluids were changed until both Roland and Dale were satisfied that the car was ready. And then they put me into the car, first to adjust the seat to me. Then they simulated a car fire, and timed my escape. Roland told me that if you can't get out of any car in under a minute, you need to change something. Fortunately, I was fifteen seconds faster than he getting out. Unfortunately, speed getting out of the car doesn't necessarily translate to speed in the car.
The SCCA requires that a novice driver acquire a novice permit, which first requires a passport photo and a physical. Essentially, they don't want people to have a heart attack on track, which can be bad for more than the stricken driver. After that you are required to complete two driver's schools, one of which can be a a pro school like Bob Bondurant runs. You have to successfully complete your school, which means your instructor has to sign off on your logbook. Everyone has to do this. One of my instructors tells a story about Michael Andretti at his first school. He showed up with a truckfull of formula fords and a team of mechanics. The first words out of his mouth were: "What's the lap record?" By Sunday he'd wrecked all but one of the fords, and his instructor warned him that if he wrecked that one he wouldn't pass, no matter how fast he was. And make no mistake about it, he was fast!.
The original plan was for me to do the one day SCCA drivers school at Indianapolis Raceway Park in April. I liked the idea for two reasons, first of all, I might have Ted Vedrinsky as my instructor, who is both a friend and former Mitsubishi factory driver. Ted has driven and won in everything. Second, Ted had convinced me that IRP offered more variety than Nelson, and would thus be a better learning experience. Roland didn't like that plan a bit. He liked the idea of Ted as my instructor, but he hates IRP. Part of that is because he dislikes the course layout. IRP is mostly a drag strip but also has an oval track and as well as the road racing course which uses pieces of the other two. This cobbled together layout is less than ideal both from a course and a safety layout. But the real reason for Roland's dislike is that his first weekend at IRP included a fatality. That caught my attention. But we were going, until I couldn't get rain tires in time, it what seemed sure to be a cold, wet weekend. In fact, we heard that the weekend hadn't turned out bad.
But the extra week left us a lot better prepared. In fact, we only loaded the car on the trailer Thursday night. Roland has a rule, that if the car isn't on the trailer Wednesday night, we don't go. The car was ready Wednesday, but I found out the reason for his rule. It takes so much packing and preparation to leave that a day of rest is a real boon. We didn't get that, and arrived at Nelson short on sleep. Because I had forgotten the key, we had to break into my trailer. Naturally, I didn't sleep well at all Friday night, only slightly abetted by Roland sawing wood. His wife must be a saint.
Saturday we woke up early to lay out camp and get my car to tech inspection. Because I'd already had annual tech, all I had to do was show off my gear and get a 2000 sticker attached to my then pristine helmet. We headed back and went to the driver"s meeting. There head instructor (and GT-4 driver) John Lawrence introduced us to the stewards and department heads. Each offered their own little schpiel, that could be summed up as "don"t screw up!" Former Lake Erie Communications director Dale Strimple lectured us on the meaning of the racing flags, a topic I already had a passing familiarity with. We were paired up with our instructors for our course rides.
Here I got really lucky. I was assigned S2000 driver Paul Laurenzi, a veteran of twenty-two years behind the wheel. Paul was a very focussed and precise individual. He takes an analytical approach to driving and that showed right way around Nelson during the course rides. Sometims he pulled off and slowed up to get some driving room, so he could actually show us how to drive Nelson at speed. An old Mazda can go quite fast, in the right hands. I paid careful attention, as is my habit when my wallet is at stake.
After the course rides I raced back and got into my suit. I was a bundle of nerves. I couldn't strap on my belts, couldnt fasten my helmet, couldn't remember the switches. I'm sure my hair would have been standing straight up without my helmet. Roland had to tell me to put my arms by my side and take a deep breath. I had to have a grid worker refasten my window net because I couldn't do it. I didnt have butterflies, I had bats. And I hadn't even made it on track yet! Here I was entering a race track in a car I had never driven before, trying to go fast. I pulled out and accelerated onto the line and set up for two. I tried to drive as Paul had taught me and quickly discovered that my jungle green Toyota liked to turn. I had no trouble at all catching the car ahead, but as the whole session was a double yellow, felt no reason to press him. I just tried to drive the racing line, and when I pulled into the pits neither brakes or tires were warm.
But the ITA RX-7 pitted next to me had problems. His car had died on the grid and refused to start. Paul and Roland worked hard to get his car running between sessions, and quickly discovered a stuck carburetor float. It was fixed but his misfortune showed how not to break into racing. My neighbor had inadequate tools, a poorly prepared car and no one to help him. It wasn't his fault, he had simply bought a car and gone racing. No one ever showed him how to prepare. He started out behind the eight ball, and never really caught up throughout the weekend. I thanked my lucky stars that I began with some experienced guidance.
The next session was also short and we had some brake issues, namely new rotors and pads. I was supposed to go out and warm up everything than coast. But the event overtook me and what racer's call the "red mist" fell over me. I started going racing! I got passed by an ITA GTI, but started passing a number of people, including my neighbor, I discovered that I didn't need to brake anywhere but oak tree and twelve. I had fun, everywhere except in twelve, where I was braking too late, and missing the apex. But I was grinning like an idiot all the way into the pits.
There I met Sergeant Roland of the Motorsport Marines. Had I followed specified break-in procedures? No! Had I placed my new brake rotors at risk? Yes! Was this going to cost me oodles of money? Almost certainly! Fortunately for me, Murphy slept on my watch that day. The worst did not come true, and I had driven well enough to please him. The next session after lunch I carefully followed my brake pad break in proceedure, to the letter, including five minutes shut off in the pits for cooling.
But something strange happened in those early sessions. I started taking two and three pretty near flat out and by breaking earlier for turn twelve, started doing it and thirteen a little better. I ran ten 1:32's in a row, all within .3 seconds of each other. I Nowhere near the lap record, but a pretty good start for someone who had never even drag raced on the street. Roland gave me a different set of tire pressures and guessed wrong, but I was still quicker than most the people out there. And I discovered traffic really isn't much different than on the street. Just take your problems one at a time and keep going. I lapped a couple people, and got into a real battle with the Kryder racing SSB Nissan, finally passing her in the carousel. They threw a red flag at us, and everyone caught it. But I stopped at a bad spot, and couldn't see the any corner station clearly, and so had to wait for a corner worker to come release me.
In fact, I never had any trouble picking up the corner stations. Perhaps flagging sensitized me. I can't prove that, thought it would be a good idea to require all novice driver's to spend a weekend flagging before getting their license. But I found the flags quite useful, particularly the blue flag. Though it would have helped if the person ahead of me had paid closer attention.
I must have been doing well. Paul started talking race tactics. My neighbor's instructor dropped by to ask how much experience I had. His jaw visibly dropped when I told him none. Apparantly my driving showed some aggressiveness, not in those words though it hardly seemed that way from inside the car. The last session of the day I got a 1:29.00. I was passing people pretty regularly except for a couple ITA's and this Pinto with a monster motor. I even lapped a couple people. But the best part was pulling into the pits and having Roland tell me that the brakes and tires were perfect. I was whupped, but grinning as I ate my sloppy joe, then took a refreshing shower at the track. Still, not even the joys of bench racing could keep me awake, and I called it an early night.
I must have slept too long, because it took me a few laps into the first morning session to get up to speed. In fact, I yelled at myself between twelve and thirteen, and promptly found a bunch more speed. Then i found a Volvo from Hell, without its normal Driver From Hell. I followed him for a time looking for a safe pass, because I could not predict his line. Frustration eventually led me to pass him on the outside of the carousel, which I'd been warned was only slightly smarter than piloting a kamikaze.
But the instructors weren't happy. Many students were only a couple sessions from real racing, and hardly anyone was passing, particularly going into twelve, a prime passing zone. And then Roland pointed out that I had missed a number of prime passing opportunities in the same location, which he could easily see from our paddock location. In truth, I'd had a run on the Volvo there, but hadn't trusted him enough to take it. But I vowed that if opportunity came again, I'd sieze it.
It came the next session, again tailing the black Kryder Racing Nissan. I'd hounded her for a couple laps and finally decided to go for it . I took the kink flatfooted, braked at the last instant and took the line from her going into twelve. Scared myself a bit too, but I got someone else there the next lap with less drama.
When I returned to the pits Roland gave me his death stare. Apparently he'd tried a similar pass there and crashed. He pointed at my right front tire. "That", he rasped, "is no longer a tire. It's a black square thing" I'd locked up my right front tire outbraking that Nissan. Hadn't even noticed the tire smoke. Next I headed to the driver's meeting, awaiting another chewing out. But Paul smiled and began twenty questions.
"Did you go off?"
"Did you hit anyone?"
"Did you make the pass?"
"Good job!'" Oh, the instructor in that corner did mention the brake smoke from the "green Toyota thing", but having demanded passing in twelve, they couldn"t complain too much when someone actually passed.
And then came the race. I was gridded twelve, one of the faster ITB's. In order to give us experience in starting in different positions, we would rotate order after each of the practice starts. I really didn't try any bold moves. Can't win a practice start. My only goal was to keep four fenders on the car. But if you aren't mainlining on adrenaline during a start, you're dead. Floor it and try to set up to take a good line through two, keeping in mind the car on your right, the car on your left, the one on your ass and they guy who just spun ahead of you. I discovered that I didn't exactly come with a monster under the hood. Drag racing was not my car's forte, despite drifting a hair past redline on the second start, when I was on the front row. At the final restart I ended up in the back, and pushed hard going into two.
But I'd been fast between two and three all day, and carried a lot of speed into Oak Tree. Unfortunately, it was like rush hour there and I had to get on the binders hard. It felt like driving the split just before rush hour as I entered the carousel. I looked for openings, none came and I could feel the pressure behind me. But I caught someone in twelve, and dove inside another car in three, and slowly started working my way up. An ITC tried taking me in two the next lap and ended up parallelling the course when he couldn't make the turn. I dove inside the Volvo but had to back off hard when four went waiving for a honda that had spun driver's left into the tires. So I had to wait for the carousel before blowing by.
And I was finally starting to relax, and ran my fastest laps of the weekend. One car at a time, I began to move up. I hounded an SSC honda civic until she spun driver's left at the exit of thirteen while I was trying to get inside her. As she wasn't in my way, I mashed the gas. Ahead lay a friend's GTI. It took me a lap to reel in a rabbit, and I was headed into the kink in his draft, and I knew he always lifted going into the kink. I grinned to myself, sensing fresh rabbit stew.
And then the revs just dropped. I spent a second flabbergasted, then downshifted and managed to get her going again. The same thing happened going into twelve. I got the one as I passed the starters stand, but I was one unhappy camper, remembering my earlier overrev. It acted like fuel starvation, but poor racers fear the worst. It died again between three and four and once again at ten, so the next time around I pulled into the pits. Roland was livid, reminding me that I hadn"t yet passed the starter's stand. I was terrified that I needed a new engine. And so I finished eleventh, worried sick.
Later it turned out that some foam from the fuel cell had come loose and worked its way into the fuel pump screen. Time for new foam. Lots cheaper than a new engine. And I hadn't done badly, the brakes were in good shape after four hours of racing, and while I'd corded the right front tire, otherwise the car was in good shape. I'd never put a wheel of track, never made contact and passed a lot more people than passed me. Another racer's wife thanked me for taking ten seconds off her husband's times, while he struggled to follow me. My neighbor's instructor told me that "It was a pleasure to watch you drive. You have a great career ahead of you." I'd run my fastest laps during the race, and while they weren't times to strike fear into the hearts of Volvo's everywhere, they were fast enough that I'd have found someone to race with. Paul shook my hand and wrote that I was a good driver in my log book. The best part of all was getting the smiles and respect. from my fellow Lake Erie Communications members, who have seen some driving in their day.
All I need is cash. So remember this: Sponsorship opportunities will always be available here at Team Transitional! I'm ready to sell out for speed. If the Heaven's Gate cult survivors want to rebuild, I'll get a bowl haircut. I'll paint Gansta Arms' new fingerprint-proof assault weapon on the side of the car. I'll hand out passes to your casino. No cause is too bizarre, or product too destructive. I stand ready to advertise brothels, pawn shops, bail bonds, even the IRL.
I can drive. Okay, Bobby Rahal isn't about to start returning my phone calls. But maybe he should. Given the graying and fattening of the American population, they need a driver shaped like me. I'm already to drive the Ultra-Slim Fast/Attends/Geritol Reynard Ford. They could take my "before" driver's seat to malls and health stores everywhere. I can talk the talk and wear the logo hat! And I will, to race!
this story was adapted from one by me originally published in The Observer's Stand which is a publication of the SCCA. And the Volvo 142//242 with the "rallye sport motor" is one of the dominant cars in ITB, which is why they are called the 'Volvos from Hell'.