Dateline: October 11, 1998

The 1998 Valvoline RunOffsâ

(with awesome photos courtesy of Keith Averill, Gordon Jolley, Roz Rosintoski, and my mom)

Time to completely use up the color printer cartridge, since this will be the final scR newsletter for 1998!   Pull up a chair, sit back, and read along.

After watching the mailbox for weeks after our last regular-season outing at Mosport, the invitation to the Runoffs finally arrived.  Of the 32 cars in our division we had qualified 9th!  Not too bad for our first year.  Immediately, the entry form was completed, the envelope addressed, and the hotel reservations finalized.

Runoffs lesson #1 – do NOT wait until September to book your Mid-Ohio hotel reservations.  You will be a) gouged for price and b) forced to stay 30 miles south of town.

Very little was done to prep the car for the event since Mosport went so well.  We changed the oil, Hoosier built some fantastic rain tires (read on!), and SPS prepared our victory speech – let’s pack up the van and go!

Sunday, October 4 – Travel

The driver, crew, and car converged on Mansfield, Ohio without preconceived notions or expectations.  The only objective for 1998 was simply to get the invited to the Runoffs.  We had decided earlier in the year that if indeed we were invited, we would not raise the bar mid-stream.  This was to be a learning year – next year we would go for the gold!

John T. and Pat W. selflessly dedicated their entire week to the care, feeding, and maintenance of the race car and driver.  As those of you who have spent a race weekend with team scR this year already know, they were indispensable.  Thanks, guys, for making it all come together.  Keep your calendars open next year…

Monday, October 5 – Practice

Monday was a dedicated practice day – 20 minutes per group.  Our plan was to scuff in the 8 sticker tires the Hoosier guys had brought with them for the week.  The biggest challenge was that, hard as they tried, the crew could not mount all 8 tires on the car at once.  We decided that the next best method would be to send the car out on 4 tires, come in after 3 laps, do a 4-tire change, and run the rest of the session on the second set of rubber.  Looked good on paper, but – unlike NASCAR – John and Pat did not have access to air tools and 6 pit slaves.  Instead, they had to make do with a 70lb. Craftsman floor jack and a pair of 4-way tire wrenches.

After 3 laps, the car came in screaming hot – John and Pat were waiting.  Using the crude tools at their disposal they executed a flawless 4 tire change in a blazing 3:15.  Not quite Formula I, but hey, they work for beer.

Since we were just scuffing tires, our lap times were not stellar.  Our best lap – a 1:54 – had us placed 29th on the grid of 38 cars…but the 1:52’s we knew we would be running on seasoned tires would have been top-15 material.  We were more than pleased with our performance.

Tuesday, October 6 – Qualifying I

On Tuesday morning, the Weather Channel called for sunshine and clear skies – until Wednesday, that was.  The talk of the paddock was that Tuesday would be the only good day for qualifying, so everyone was in top form.  We checked the fluids, mounted our freshly scuffed Hoosier tires, and headed to the grid.

Qualifying for the Runoffs is a most enjoyable experience.  Unlike most National events where the faster SSB, T1, and T2 cars force the SSC drivers to pay close attention to their mirrors, the Runoffs grid is so evenly matched that there is little – if any – traffic from behind to contend with.  We settled in, found our groove, and began to tick off the laps.

We were ecstatic to find that out of the 38 cars qualifying in SSC, we had placed 12th on the grid.  Our fast lap was a 1:52.6…not bad, but we had run a 1:52.3 two months earlier at the Buckeye National.  Qualifying so well was a treat unto itself, but we knew we could go even faster yet.

Wednesday, October 7 – Qualifying II

The Weather Channel was right on the money.  Rain, rain, rain.  Watching the other groups running in the inclement weather gave us hope that we could learn a lot from running in the rain.  After all, Hoosier had brought along 4 of their ‘Dirt Stocker’ tires for us to use in just such conditions.  Perfect!

One hour before our session, we decided to adjust the rear sway bar to account for the rain.  Since Pat and John were hard at work doing other important things, I volunteered to turn a wrench.  After adjusting the left side without issue, I began to work on the right-side linkage.  As I pulled on the wrench to loosen the fastener my hand came off the wrench and whacked the underbody pinch weld (translation: sharp thingy).

Runoffs lesson #2 – never let the driver work on the car.  Drivers are clumsy on race day.

We quickly realized that this was no small wound, so John drove me down to race medical.  The conversation with the race doctor went something like this:

Doc:    “Well, you’re going to need a local anesthetic and a few stitches.”

J:         “Ok, how long will that take?”

Doc:    “When is your qualifying session?”

J:         “In 40 minutes!”

Doc:    “Here’s a Band-Aid.  See you in an hour.”

60 minutes later, I didn’t need any anesthetic for the stitches – we had just turned in the 5th fastest qualifying time of the field in the rain.  Yahoo!  Those Dirt Stockers really ran well in the wet stuff.  Both team scR and Bruce F. from Hoosier were hoping for rain on Saturday.  The only damper put on the situation was delivered by the race medical staff:

Doc:    “So, just why did you lift and let that Honda by in turn 1?  I was watching, you wimp!”

Thursday, October 8 – Qualifying III

The Weather Channel was dead nuts right on the money again on Thursday – 50% chance of rain. Every 30 minutes the sky would change, prompting crew members to go scurrying across the paddock for rain tires or dry tires, depending on the way the winds were blowing.

At 9:00 we took to the grid with an intermediate set-up.  We had chosen to run full race rubber, but had the chassis set up soft.  Because the racing line was dry, it seemed like the best compromise, but everyone who tried passing off-line earlier in the day was found sliding wildly across the grass.  As it turned out, the track got fast as long as you were on the racing line.  We were at a slight disadvantage since our chassis set-up was not optimized for the dry, but hindsight is always 20/20.  We drove the best session we could and mustered up a bunch of 1:53’s, but could come nowhere close to our 1:52.6 from Tuesday.

In the paddock area after the session, we were a little disappointed to find out that the #06 Neon had run a 1:52.67, compared to our best 1:52.68 from Tuesday.  We had fallen to 13th on the grid, but were still quite satisfied with our efforts.  After all, to grid on the 6th row in SSC in our first year was well beyond our expectations!

Friday, October 9 – Hurry up and wait

Wake up.  Strategize.  Shower.  Strategize.  Eat.  Strategize.  Wash car.  Eat.  Strategize.  Sleep.

Saturday, October 10 – Race Day

The butterflies started early on Saturday.  Friends, family, and sponsors came from Michigan, New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and even Florida (!) to watch and share in the fun.  Although we did not set expectations for the race outcome, we could not help but feel anxious as we watched the early morning races.

As the grid formed and we ran through the pace lap it was a welcome surprise to see so many spectators in the stands.  SCCA officially stated that attendance topped 20,000, but from the driver’s seat that afternoon, it seemed more like 200,000 – and of course knowing that the race was being televised live on Speedvision only served to raise the butterfly count.

Throughout the week we had discussed Turn 1.  It was decided that Turn 1 would be the single most important turn of the entire race, and hence, the single most important turn of the entire year.  Not that we intended to pick up positions in Turn 1, but we just wanted to get through it CLEAN.  With 38 SSC cars diving into Turn 1 simultaneously, the chances for mishap were greater than we had ever experienced.  Clean.  Clean.  Clean.

We were on the gas coming out of the Keyhole and were racing well before the green flag fell.  Not by chance, we had a good enough jump that there was no significant traffic from behind as we raced in to Turn 1.  As we braked for Turn 1, deep on the inside of the corner, a few cars in front touched, a few cars behind went wide, and we drove right through the middle.  By the second turn we had advanced from 13th to 11th without a scratch.

Running 2 and 3 wide around most of the track (bump, nudge), we quickly found that, in traffic, horsepower was the fast way around the course.  Unfortunately, the magnificent Saturn SC2 is not known for its low-end torque.  We were driving with everything we had just to maintain position.  At one point we had moved up to 10th only to get passed immediately on the next straight.

By lap 4, the pack had taken on a bit of definition.  The #0 Mazda (who would eventually walk away with the race) had passed the #00 Nissan in second and was pulling away.  We were running in 13th, right behind the #75 Neon and the # 22 Honda, trying to figure out how to get by them both.  It did not take long, for on lap 6 they came together in the Esses and started a chain reaction of events that would scramble the pack and send 3 cars home early.

Being the first car ‘on the scene’ we were forced to take to the high road (grass) to avoid pushing the #75 Neon even farther off the track.  The race coverage showed that there was at least 10 feet between the SC2 and the spinning Neon, but it felt like a lot less.  Although we successfully avoided all contact, the trip through the grass slowed down the car considerably.  We had moved into 11th, but our 4 second sightseeing trip had allowed several cars to catch up from behind – including Mike Kramer in the #91 Texaco/Havoline SC2.

For 2 laps the #91 car followed closely behind looking for a way by.  On lap 9, he got a good run in the carousel and ran by on the front straight.  By turn 1 we were back on his bumper, determined not to let him get away – after all, 2 cars working together are faster than 1.  With half the race already over, we began to work with the #91 car to catch the cars in front.  The leaders were too far in front to catch, but we could see the cars in 9th and 10th.  Giving Mike a friendly tap (or 2 or 3) from behind, we hurried after them.

For the next 8 laps, we chased the #91 car, never more than a few feet from his rear fascia.  The cars were so evenly matched it was scary, but they were fast in different ways.  Our car was clearly faster through the corners and was better under braking, but Mike’s fresh engine definitely had a horsepower advantage.  Twice we managed to pull alongside between Turns 1 and 2, only to have Mike turn up the wick and close the door upon entering the Keyhole.  This was usually followed by a friendly nudge from behind:  Hi!  We’re still here!  By the end of the back straight we had again fallen to 10 car lengths behind, only to be in his mirrors again by Turn 7.  Back and forth and back and forth.  What a rush!

On the final lap, Mike’s tires were clearly going away.  As we entered the Keyhole he must have been on the brakes a little early – and we were not expecting it.  We walloped him pretty good from behind entering the turn, pushing both cars a little out of shape.  Not that this was a bad thing, but the #49 Neon who had been following us intently had an opportunity to pass, and did.

The Neon easily passed us under power down the back straight but could not get by the #91 car.  As they battled through the Esses, we stayed just behind, looking for an open door.  As if on cue, both the #91 car and the #49 car went wide in Turn 15, one turn from the checkered flag.  With 100 feet to go, we pounced.

Well, we tried to pounce.  We managed to pull up to the door handle of the #49 car as we crossed the stripe, but his motor pulled him across the finish line first – but only by 6 feet.  The final race report might indeed state that we finished in 13th, but it really was 12½ th.   And, even though #91 did finish in front, we ran a faster single lap time…and set a new scR best for Mid-Ohio – 1:52.1!

Of course, we have to thank everyone who has given their time, energies, and abilities to making team scR so successful this year (translation: thanks for feeding the speed addiction):

  • Hoosier Racing Tire for providing the best racing rubber on the planet
  • The guys at SPS for their never-ending product and technical support
  • Recaro North America for making my job so comfortable
  • NEWFOAM for having the guts to stick with team scR since day 1 (before we were so famous)
  • The gang at AUM-WEB for making us look so good in public
  • Saturn of Ann Arbor for getting the parts I need – yesterday!
  • Crew dudes John and Curtis T, Pat W, Tom M, Chris B, Bill D, Lane S, Dan G, Steve S, Eric P, Kevin L, and John C

and, finally…

  • Dana for letting me spend all of our disposable income on a race car.

See you next year!