Here in the Rocky Mountains, there is a particular time each year – early September, most years – where the summer heat suddenly breaks, breathes its last, and fall arrives quietly
but unequivocally. It is felt before it is seen; long before the leaves start to yellow and fall, a chill arrives in the air. The chill brings a thrill to one’s senses after the wan, pallid days of late summer, but that excitement is tempered by the foreknowledge that soon will follow the dark, melancholy days of winter.
Each year, that time closely corresponds with the autumn swan song of our SCCA racing reason – the Runoffs. Into our trailers we pile our cars, tools, clothing, and belongings. Like Okies from the dust bowl, we set out from familiar homesteads to parts unknown, looking not for work in the fields, but the visceral thrill of driving a race car on the limit against the best of the best.
It’s for this race that just an extra bit of care is taken to prepare the car – is every nut and bolt really checked? Is the oil level perfect? How about the brakes? Rotors? Blinker fluid? All must be in readiness for the Big Show.
So it was that we set out from Northern Colorado, Pace trailer in tow, race car nestled inside, shielded from the season’s first morning dew, which streamed down the side of the truck as we turned north and gathered speed. Up and across the rolling, windswept plains of Wyoming we traveled, continuing to the flat, fertile Nebraska fields, and from there, into Iowa, where a viscous fog hung low enough to hide the tops of the wind turbines, their disembodied blades sweeping eerily down out of the gloom like a deity’s giant finger. From Iowa, we turn north to Wisconsin, where cornfields are gradually replaced with farms of indiscernible types, each with the iconic red-barn-with-white-doors and adjacent silo nestled amidst the crops.
And so we continue, until somewhere north of Milwaukee, off a small side road in the Kettle Moraine forest, and just over a gentle hill that curves to the left, we rearch our destination, the Mecca to which we are all coming. But carry not the analogy too far, for this Mecca is not a large black holy cube in the Middle East, but a curiously shaped ribbon of black asphalt in the Middle West, and those of us that gather are not pilgrims, but competitors. Our plan and purpose is not to supplicate or humble ourselves, but conversely, to climb up onto a podium, stand proudly thereupon, pump a triumphant fist, grin a silly grin for our family and friends, and know that on this day, you were among the best to ever ply their hand at driving a race car.
But as we all know, having arrived in Elkhart Lake, your journey has just begun.
Sunday held absolutely nothing for us. We arrived to our grid spot, hemmed, hawed, figured, gesticulated, and finally pulled in exactly the same direction we’d planned all along, hoping we’d be able to leave on Saturday afternoon in case our paddock neighbor arrived. Amusingly, he never did. We put up the canopy in time to avoid a light drizzle, which scuttled the second practice session for the wings-and-things guys, and after the usual round of hellos to the usual suspects , we gathered a group of willings and ables for dinner. This time it was a fun jaunt down to “The Depot” at Giancarlo DiCoopola’s recommendation, though it turned out to be a newly reconfigured German schnitzel haus instead of a steakhouse, as we had been led to believe. George, Chris, Coop, Anna and I stayed despite this , and raised ein steins in toast of, we fervently hoped, a successful week to come.
Monday – Déjà vu
Heads remained high as Monday dawned, cool, though slightly moist. We spent the day collectively hoping that the track would dry for our late afternoon session which, thankfully, it did. I more or less completed my tours of the grid, including heading down to the north 40 where Dick Colburn was paddocked, and spent some time swapping stories about Fort Collins with him.
Time to run. We headed out from the grid into the late afternoon sun, which greeted us head on from low over the T6 bridge, and again as we hurried down to Turn 8. Best of all, back at sea level, feeling the car come to life with horsepower and downforce is marvelous fun. George’s new engine was feeling clean and strong, and I immediately started to refamiliarize myself with the details, keeping the revs down a bit on the shifts. Part way through the session I drove by Chris on the way down to Canada corner, seeing a few wisps of smoke trailing behind. I offered a sympathetic wave as I went by, feeling a lot of empathy for his continuing run of scarcely believable bad luck that began at the June Sprints a few months back.
A few laps later I came up behind Dave Knaack, and spent a few laps getting by cleanly, not wanting to do much racing in Q1. Eventually I was able to draft by on the front straight and carried on, slightly miffed at Dave ignoring the blue flags.
Clear of Dave, I put my head down to run a few hard laps, saw a 2:04.7 on the dash and came in, thinking that was a pretty stout lap to start with.
Session complete, we came in and did the usual checks. Nothing big needed doing, so we buttoned up, and I went down to Chris’s to see what happened. He was already at work changing his engine, so I dove in to lend a hand, and we finished up about 10:00. Victor took pity on us and brought some extra pizza, and we collapsed in Chris’s motor home and shared Tecate and stories.
Tuesday: All Systems Normal
Tuesday we went early morning, somewhat odd after our late afternoon Monday run. We dutifully got up, warmed everything up, and headed out. The session was relatively uneventful, and I came in after a few laps, having seen another 2:04.7 on my dash, about which I was again, quite happy. Reviewing the video, I could tell it was a pretty sloppy lap, complete with a lurid slide on the exit of T6, so I thought there might be more time out there still. I found myself just a tenth ahead of Garret Kletjian, and quite happy to be there.
Oddly, post session, tech called all of us in CSR and DSR in for a chat. It would seem, that after 10-odd years of competing, they decided the Stohr firewall was not in compliance, and required that we all make some closeoff panels of various shapes/sizes to get rid of the resulting spaces. This was naturally met with skepticism and resistance, and plenty of grumbling and hostility. Amusingly, Lawrence raised the point “C’mon…how many of us have been on fire in a Stohr,” to which nearly all of us raised our hands, after which he argued, “See? None of us have ever been hurt – it’s fine!”. Tech was unmoved, and despite the unrest among the peasantry (i.e. us), we collectively resisted the urge to get our pitchforks and torches and tear down the tech shed, but instead meekly returned to build our new firewalls.
We checked over the car and all looked good, though we added ~3 pounds of fuel pressure to get the O2’s right exactly in the 13.0 range as prescribed by Dr. George. We spent the next few hours making the templates and aluminum closeoff panels as dictated by the tech folks, using some borrowed metal from Colburn – who had the popular alternate idea of using metal from the tech shed itself! — and high-tech template cardboard courtesy of Dave Knaack’s crew that were only too happy to empty another 12-pack.
After this, with naught to do but stand around and bother Critter, Garrett and Marsha, I proceeded to do exactly that, wandering over to their tent and proceeding to make jokes and ruffle the fur of their dog Bo. After some time I ran out of material and/or welcome, so I returned to our RV, whereupon we got ready to meet Pepper Bowe and his buddies at O’Malley’s Irish Pizza. This place is an Irish restaurant, which serves Italian food followed by post-dinner Chinese fortune cookies, and has a section of Mexican food on the menu. Truly a dining establishment in search of an identity!
Wednesday – Monkey See, Monkey Do!
In the fall, the leaves turn red and fall off of the trees. We can see them waft to and fro on their trip from heaven to earth as we go streaking down the straightaways at Road America.
So it was with wings this year. Wednesday we made our only real setup change of the whole week, and that was to pull the top element off of the bi-plane Stohr wing. Wayne of Stohr Cars had brought a new wing for Chris to try, which was essentially a slightly longer chord flap, and in response, the rest of us tree-swinging met-too-ers were pulling our top flap and seeing if it in fact helped us, too. I pulled the element off, added two holes of flap, and went out. The car definitely picked up grip overall, but also an understeer bias, so I came in after just a few laps, and we lowered the flap 1 hole, exactly to the middle of its adjustment. Perfect. However, on my out lap, they black-flagged us all for David Watson in the carousel, who had experienced a blowout and spun. He and his car escaped harm, fortunately.
They brought us all in, and I found myself in the hot pits behind Lawrence and Garrett. As we were released, Lawrence checked out, but I attached myself to Garrett’s rear wing, hoping that’d be a good shot for a tow. We passed two cars on the run down to 5, and two more down into Canada corner (eek!), and then did one doozy of a hotlap together, him gapping me on the straights, and me pulling up again in the corners. Net result, I lowered my best to
a 2:03.7, and he to a 2:03.8. Tremendous!
Everything looking great on data and video, I headed into Milwaukee to pick up Amy, her welcome hug another high point of my weekend.
Thursday – Better today than tomorrow!
With Amy to show around, we hopped on the golf cart and we zoomed around the track, obeying the unwritten rule that you must go everywhere in a golf cart at full throttle at all times, even garnering the odd bonus point by doing sliding stops with the parking brake. Eventually we found our way to the T5 stands where we ran into Kelly from Hypercoil, and chatted for a bit.
Up until then, Thursday went about the way we thought. Having set what I thought was about as good a time as I could do, my plan was merely to bed in my new brake pads, scrub the new R25’s, and come in after a few laps, so I’d have one good set of tires to use depending on what the weather did, and all would be good. That all lasted until I found myself right behind Lee Alexander for the outlaps, and found that we were doing very similar times for the first lap or two. I thought to myself “Hey, I bet I can catch a tow from him even moreso than Garrett! Thus began an incredibly fun lap and a half, as I chased Lee around as closely as I could. I noticed that he pulled away from me on the straights just as Garrett could, especially through the Carousel, where I noticed the R25’s had added a bit of push to the car. But, I closed up very well in the corners – I even saw a blue flag or two from the corners, which was worth a chuckle, especially in retrospect given that he set the fastest lap ever by a club racer!
However, disaster. Coming down into T5 after setting a 2:03.1 (In my head: Let’s do a 2!!!), somewhere after getting sixth gear, the engine started making horrible noises, the #3 rod shredding its way through the front and rear cases. Game over.
I rolled to a stop and hopped out as quickly as possible, and seeing a bit of smoke rising from the bodywork, pulled the fire handle and set about removing the rear bodywork with my emergency bodywork tool, which is always taped to the cockpit sides. (You DO have one of those, RIGHT?)
I watched from inside T5 with the workers – after giving them prodigious thanks – and watched the guys go around. I will say, nothing engenders confidence in our hardy cornerworkers like seeing them at work up close and personal. Driver-wise, Chris was braking later than everybody into 5, and looked very smooth on the way out. Garrett looked to be fighting his car pretty valiantly, but lost the handle a few laps in and spun into the runoff area. Greg’s car looked slow up the hill, and subsequent tests down at the dyno did prove that his engine was soft. Lawrence quit circulating after a while, and Brian Lindstrand continued to struggle with shifting, so I could see that it was certainly a mixed bag for those of us in DSR.
For me, it meant a long few days ahead of us, especially since we didn’t have a spare motor. We got the car back to pits and pulled the motor, discovering a few problems along the way. During the tow in, we’d hooked a power cord, and pulled the access panel off the bottom of the floor, ripping the holes out. The left-hand engine mount cracked when we removed it, and since I’d pulled the fire bottle, I now needed to find a new one so that I could go race. At least we wouldn’t be bored on Friday!
That evening was the long-awaited Sports Racer/F1000 party, where forum smack-talk had it that a very special nail was waiting for me from Dave Knaack and his crew. Fortunately, I had come prepared with a very special hammer, in the form of an approximately 25 year old 5-pound sledgehammer. It turned out to be an apt tool, as the attentive and vocal Hammerschlagen fans were treated to an eight inch long engine valve from who-knows-what being judiciously pounded down by yours truly doing his very best John Henry impression.
The other major happenstance, about which I find myself again amazed, was Dick Colburn, the 2010 DSR Sportsman of the Year, awarding me with the 2011 Sportsman of the Year award. I’m very grateful for that honor, especially for a trophy that has such a long history in DSR. I’ll do my best to properly uphold the mantle.
Friday – Better today than tomorrow! (Part “Deux”)
As it turns out, there was one other major happenstance at the party, which was me finding some sort of bug on some of the food. About 2:00 AM I woke up with horrible stomach pain, which was the opening salvo in about 24 hours of discomfort and woe, which scarcely need be repeated or emphasized to somebody who’s also had food poisoning.
This need to remain, ah, shall we say, “attentive to my distance from the facilities,” left me in position of being unable to complete swapping an engine (which we didn’t have) into the car, or repairing the various small maladies that the car had suffered during the tow in. In my stead, Mom and Dad ran around constantly during the day with George, who was able to get Colburn’s proffered engine ready for installation in my car. It seemed a very poetic symmetry that last year’s sportsman of the year was able to help the newly assigned bearer of the same title with such a generous gesture. And, in yet another display of friendship and sportsmanship, Critter and his mechanic Scott helped sink the engine in the car under the sage tutelage of my old man.
Saturday: Last Men Standing
Saturday, much like Monday, we spent most of the day with our eyes skyward, checking the heavens like so many frightened field mice, hoping against hope that the weather would hold and that we would get a good, clean, and above all, dry race. I set about my usual habit of making sure the car was good to go, finishing up a last few details of the engine installation, and then resumed my standard program of zooming around paddock at WOT in the golf cart to pester my friends, this policy serving the double purpose of keeping my mind of the lingering nausea from Friday’s food poisoning episode. Before we knew it, it was time for the race, and so, nervous-pre-race pee completed, I hopped in the car and we headed to grid. The only real decision to make was “which tires”, and since the weather was cool-ish and cloudy-ish, we opted for the R25’s to prevent the opening slow laps from 2010 as the R35’s came up to temperature.
The race start certainly counts as one of my worst. Outside second row, and at the Green, I got a good jump along with everybody else, but damn if they just didn’t all just start driving away down the straightaway, despite my foot being buried well and truly into the floorboards. Lawrence appeared on my right side before even T1, and Bootz jumped ahead of both Tom and Lee almost as early. Let it be said that Lawrence and Bootz are packing some serious horsepower!
The four began to pull away immediately, and being caught somewhat on the outside from Lawrence making his way through, I could do nothing but watch helplessly as Henry Botkin came through, followed by Greg Bell and Michael Crowe. We went three wide down into T3, and again I came out the loser on the outside. On the run down to 5, I again found everybody disappearing in the distance. All that hard work, and I’m 4th to 8th in 2 corners. Great.
So, based on how quickly folks departed from me down the straight, and my shift points moving fairly far down the track from where they’d been, it would appear that Colburn’s motor was not as strong as the one that came out of the car, but it did have the very key feature of lasting the whole race, aside from the fact that Colburn was so WILDLY generous as to allow me to use it in the first place! And, as it turns out, that was indeed a very, very important feature.
I was able to catch back up to the second pack halfway through the first lap, and drafted up next to Crowe in Canada corner, but we thumped slightly midway through as I don’t think Michael expected to find me at the apex of the corner. I backed off just in case, this being Lap 1 after all. I followed Crowe and Henry through lap 2. Crowe snuck by Henry into T8 with an excellent late brake, and in turn, I drafted right up behind him down to Canada corner, and snuck inside T14 as we went onto the straight. I immediately went defensive, knowing Henry would have the power to get by me, but waited late enough on the brakes that I was able to stay ahead on the inside of turn 1. I set my sights on trying to run down Michael Crowe, who had gapped us a bit in the half lap that we spent dithering on our positions.
After running some fairly ragged early laps, my nausea eventually subsided and I began to see his car closer and closer as the laps went on, catching up especially in the 5-6-7-8 complex. Before long we passed Chris Farrell motoring off the end of T5 with a problem. A few laps later, we passed Greg Bell who had spun into the sand at Canada Corner. Dad radioed word that Lawrence had pulled into the pits, putting Michael and I third and fourth around lap 7 or 8.
Eventually I was close enough to start catching a bit of a tow from Michael, and on around lap 7 or 8, went by on the start/finish straight, again going very defensive. However,
as I looked back between T1 and T3, the orange car was not in my mirrors, and indeed, did not appear again. Low oil or low oil pressure led to an engine failure for Michael, and he
parked on the inside of T3.
I continued to race as quickly as I could for the remainder of the race, until the finish of lap 11, where I had a hee-yooooge slide coming through T14, which was the first,
clamorous announcement from my R25’s that they were starting to get very tired indeed of this treatment, thank you very much, and were going to start getting greasy. After that, I
took things slightly easy, listened to Dad relaying my gap back to Henry in 4th, and brought it home to the checkered flag, and my first Runoffs podium.
I’d like to thank the Academy…
Similarly to the Sprints, the post-race experience was somewhat surreal. I’ll always remember getting to climb up on that podium and look out at everybody, so many of them friends, and a good deal of them directly responsible for helping me get there in the first place. I said so in the interview, but none of us get to the podium or even the Runoffs by ourselves, and for that, I have to thank Mom, Dad, and all of you in DSR that have helped me do a lot with a little: George for the engines, Wayne for the car, Chris Farrell for help of all kinds, Dick Colburn for one very particular, special engine, Critter and Marsha for all their selfless help, and along the way, everybody else that I’ve pestered with e-mails and phone calls over the years. I’m deeply grateful for all of you and your help. Thank you all.
So, thusly with a bang, rather than a soft whimper, ends the swan song of summer, and ends the 2011 racing season for the family Latham. Now begins the silly season, where it’s time to
evaluate what’s next, and how to try to top what is in many respects nearly the most superlative season we could ever have.
See you all next year on track, and until then, see you on the slopes. Let the bench racing begin!
Q4 Fast Lap – 2:03.1